‘Herbert’ by Nabarun Bhattacharya: An Excerpt
May 1992. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin is showing millions of communists the spectre of capitalism. Yugoslavia is disintegrating. United Germany is uncertain about their next move, and communism is collapsing all around. And in a corner of old Calcutta, Herbert Sarkar, sole proprietor of a company that delivers messages from the dead, decides to give up the ghost. Decides to give up his aunt and uncle, his friends and foes, his fondness for kites, his aching heart that broke for Buki, his top terrace from where he stared up at the sky, his Ulster overcoat with buttons like big black medals, his notebook full of poems, his Park Street every evening when the sun goes down, his memory of a Russian girl running across the great black earth as the soldiers lift their guns and get ready to fire, his fairy who beat her wings against his window and filled his room with blue light . . .
Translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee
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Herbert’s friend Khororobi committed suicide. Herbert was 19. The boy had a khor-kutter, a straw-cutting machine, at home, so his friends had stuck ‘khor’ before his name, the name his parents had chosen for their son, Sun. Robi. Hence, Khororobi. Straw Sun. Khororobi was a good boy. Who had fallen deeply in love with the short Jaya from the neighbourhood behind theirs. Every evening, Jaya and a gaggle of girl- friends would step out for a walk, come over and chat with the girls on this side. That Khororobi would begin to act honey-funny whenever he saw Jaya, that everyone knew. Everyone also knew that he didn’t have the balls—he’d never dare to venture out of their gang. But that fateful Ashtami day, what madness filled his head, that only he knew. Elbowing his way through the crazy crowds, he strode into Jaya’s neighbourhood Durga Puja and handed her a slip of paper and one of those teeny-tiny fountain pens that had then flooded the market. On the paper was scrawled in a crow-leg-and-stork-leg script: ‘Jaya, an offering at your devi-divine feet from a humble devotee. Yours, Robi.’
The local boys grab-nabbed him red- handed. Jaya sped-fled back home. Khororobi somehow struggled free. The scuffle had ripped apart his new shirt. That night, Jaya’s uncle came to have a word at Khororobi’s house. The two neighbourhoods grew dense with hostility. Nabami, Dashami—Khororobi was AWOL. Then, the strains of the idol immersions not yet past, when, in the late afternoon of the day after, a hue and cry and why-why-why. Khororobi had been found. Floating in the wall-encircled Corporation pond. Dead.
Khororobi’s corpse floated face down near the water’s western edge, floated in water two-men deep, floated and bobbed and swayed and rocked. On the shore stood all the neighbourhood boys, stood Herbert. The sunlight shone on the water, made it a little transparent, one could see beneath the surface a waggle of water- weeds and then the deep green of the moss thickening into darkness. On the shore, a bicycle. Someone holds out a shaft of bamboo. Two boys from the swimming club get into the water. A prod from the bamboo upturns Khororobi and sets him floating away from the diving board and into murky waters. The sun is swiftly sliding. The police have arrived. Striding to the pond, the sergeant asks, ‘Corpse come up?’ No one answers. The swimmers have reached Khororobi. But as soon as they touch him, he floats away, bobs away on the backs of many little waves. Then each boy swims to one side and grabs a fistful of shoulder shirt. Khororobi is finally caught. Then they kick and kick their way to shore, and the water stretches taut and tight Khororobi’s full head of hair.
Herbert looks at him by the dying afternoon light and thinks that Khororobi is coming back as a dutiful and duly obedient school of fish.
That scene, it could have been a photograph.
Although by now it would have yellowed, corner-nibbled and slur-blurred with time. Yet, for a hundred years hence, and a hundred years more, by the light of the moon, in the mists of a winter morning, Khororobi and his love will remain afloat on those still waters of death. Around him will twist and tumble mermaids, the ones who cry but whose tears you cannot see.