Prasanta Das is Professor of English at Tezpur University in the northeast Indian state of Assam. He was born in Shillong, Meghalaya where his mother still lives. He is a two time Fulbrighter (Cornell and Harvard) and his poems and short stories have appeared in Kunapipi, Indian PEN, New Quest, and Out of Print.
Mr Deb’s Shop
“You must go to the cremation,” my mother said. But I had already made up my mind to go. Mr Deb had been my father’s friend and our neighbour for years. For as long as I could remember he had owned a small shop in Police Bazaar in a lane that was a couple of minutes walk from where the newsagents had their stalls. My father had always gone to Mr Deb’s shop when my brother or I needed a new pen or my mother wanted her brand of hair oil. As a small boy, I often accompanied my father on these trips. Sometimes our whole family would go to Police Bazaar. My father and mother would sit on little stools in Mr Deb’s shop, talking and laughing. Mr Deb would order tea and, when the boy brought it, he would emerge from behind the counter to courteously serve it himself. Later when I became older I was sometimes sent to do the shopping but I never went to Mr Deb’s shop. I preferred the bigger ones.
I was in Hyderabad when my father had died suddenly one afternoon at our home in Shillong. Mr Deb had got myHyderabadaddress from someone. He had broken the news to me gently, speaking with genuine feeling. I managed to reach Kolkata in the evening. But there wasn’t a flight to Guwahati until the next afternoon. The cremation was over by the time I reached home. Now, less than a year later, Mr Deb himself was dead. Attending his funeral would be a little like attending my father’s funeral.
Mr Deb became our neighbour when he bought a house near ours. This was after the hill state movement when Meghalaya was created and most Assamese families were selling their houses in Shillong to move to Guwahati. It was a difficult time for my parents since so many of their friends were leaving. In the end, they decided to stay. This was a great relief to my brother and me. We boys loved Shillong and could not imagine a life elsewhere.
There was the usual bickering over a boundary wall and for a couple of years relations between Mr Deb’s family and ours became quite strained. But after my father’s death I began to seek out Mr Deb’s company. It was then that I noticed how frequently he was away from Shillong. When I asked him about his absences, he told me he was building a second house in Silchar. Mr Deb had gone one more time to supervise the building of the house. But this time he had had a heart attack in the bus itself.
They had brought Mr Deb’s body home a little beforenoon. The driver and the conductor of the bus had stood around for a while and then quietly disappeared. In the cramped drawing room, Mr Vaswani, a couple of his tenants, and a Bengali gentleman who worked in the Account General’s Office sat on the cane chairs. I sat on the bed that was pushed up against the wall. Babu, Mr Deb’s son, was much younger than me. He had graduated recently from college. I often saw him in the evenings in Police Bazaar with a group of young men who idled away their time near Mr Deb’s shop. He was a rather quiet young man and now the shock of losing his father had further subdued him.
Mrs Deb entered. A fragrant smell of incense seemed to come from her. Her thin gray hair was loose and hung on her shoulder. She was the kind of woman who rarely left her home. I had expected her to scream and wail but she was almost composed as she received our condolences. “I told Babu’s father not to go”, she said to us. “I told him you are an old man now. But he would not listen.” We did not say anything. But all of us knew why Mr Deb had been building a second house in Silchar. The recent communal troubles in Shillong, the resentment against “outsiders” like us had made him nervous. A former refugee fromEast Pakistan, he wanted Babu to have a secure home. Though Mr Deb had never actually said so to anyone, it was clear that he was planning to sell off his house and shop in Shillong and move to Silchar. Mr Deb did not want Babu to go through the uncertainties he himself had faced when he had come to Shillong as a young man soon afterIndependenceand Partition.
From my place on the bed, I got a glimpse of the next room. I could see a broken harmonium placed on top of a wooden almirah. I wondered if the broken harmonium had belonged to Mr Deb and when he had played it. The house was now beginning to fill up with relatives, friends and other neighbors. Assured that my absence would not be noticed, I left.
I sat on the verandah of our house watching the mourners walk down the sloping road to Mr Deb’s shop. Aged men, some in tweed coats, others in home-knitted sweaters, and their wives were coming from Laban, Rilbong,Jail Roadand other places. As they went past, I heard them talking about Mr Deb in the Bengali they had brought with them forty years ago from their towns and villages in Sylhet. The tin-roofed, wooden-floored houses of my father’s generation needed looking after but Mr Deb’s house had not been painted in years. The roof was dark with rust. The house usually wore a dull, enclosed look because you rarely saw it with its doors and windows open. Today its owner’s death had given it a kind of life.
I sat on the verandah for several hours. When I heard the sound of bamboo being cut I knew they were making the bier and that it would not be long before they carried the body past our house.
I joined the procession when it reached our house. There were nearly fifty men, both young and elderly, in the procession. I recognized a few shopkeepers from Police Bazaar, Polo Ground and theJail Roadarea. The young men were mostly Babu’s friends.
It was the first time I was seeing the Mawlai cremation ground. Babu’s friends had lost their evening indolence and were full of energy. Some of them went off to the cottages nearby to buy firewood while the men gathered in small groups. I chose a spot at the edge of the ground and sat down to watch the preparations for the cremation. Mr Vaswani, noticing me sitting alone, came over and began to make conversation. He was a tall man of great bulk, a little stooped now because of his age. “Philosopher!” he jokingly chided me. Then he lit a cigarette and became serious. “That boy was here a few days back,” he said, pointing to one of Babu’s friends who was arranging the funeral pyre. “An uncle of his died. He knows what to do.”
It was a shock to see Mr Deb lying naked on the pyre. I remembered how, before he became our neighbor, my brother and I were so used to seeing Mr Deb behind the counter that he looked a little strange to us whenever we saw him whole – as on those occasions when he served tea to our parents.
“At Police Bazaar point,” Mr Deb had replied when I asked him where he had first met my father. My father was living alone in Shillong then. It was the period in his life when he was still sending his salary home to his brother. He had married recently but my mother was at her parents’ house in the village. My father had got into the habit of walking over to Police Bazaar in the evenings after his work at the State Secretariat was over. He would buy a copy of the Assam Tribune and stand reading it near Police Bazaar point. He and Mr Deb had met each other then. After this my father’s evening routine had varied a little. He would go to Mr Deb’s shop to read his paper and chat for a while before going back to his rented house. I could easily picture my father at this time in his life because at home there were a few photographs of him from his early days in Shillong. They revealed a dapper man, handsome despite a receding hairline. When as boys my brother and I had first come across these photographs, it was something of a wonder to us that our father had dressed in nice-looking suits and worn well-chosen ties in the past. But we also thought this was a thing a man usually did when he was young, just as a young man usually had more hair.
In the shop, Mr Deb and my father often talked of owning their own houses. Owning a house was a priority for them as for those of their generation who had left their homes to settle in Shillong. During the early years of his employment my father saved all he could to buy a suitable plot of land. His parents had died when he was small. He had brothers and sisters but how many I do not know because my brother and I never saw them. We did not visit them nor did they ever visit us. When we were children we were taken once a year to visit our maternal grandparents. But we never went to our father’s village. Later on, I came to know that my father had some land of his own. This was his share of the family property. My mother often complained that his brothers had sold off my father’s land. But I sometimes wondered who had taken the responsibility of educating my father. After all, it was this education that had made it possible for him to leave home and find employment in Shillong.
I decided that it must have been my father’s eldest brother who educated him since on the eldest son would fall such parental obligations. After he had graduated, my father was able to get a job as a government clerk in Shillong. And at some point after he had come to Shillong, my father had stopped sending money home. When my father stopped parting with his salary, his eldest brother would have felt justified in selling off my father’s share of the family land. I think my father accepted this as right and fair because I never heard him express any regret or bitterness.
My father did not like to talk of his earlier life because he had started life anew in Shillong and wanted to forget the past. But Mr Deb enjoyed talking of his past. He had arrived in Shillong as an almost penniless refugee and he had many dramatic stories to tell. As a boy, I envied him his connection with history. He was a small man, an ordinary man. Yet he a connection with history. My father had no such stories to tell. So I clung to something that my mother once told us brothers – that my father’s graduation had been delayed by a year or two because of his participation in the Quit India movement. There was another story my mother used to tell us: when my father graduated, he had become an object of curiosity in his village. This story used to me smile. It was only after he died that I realized that my father too had broken with the past. He too had taken his life in his own hands.
There was a breeze blowing and Mr Deb’s son was shivering a little in his dhoti. Sorrow had given him a chastened look. But he had composed himself and now, like a sincere schoolboy, he was following the directions of the priest. I wondered what he would do with the shop. In his own way, Mr Deb had made something of his life. Babu had received an ordinary education because unlike my father, who had sent my brother and me to the best school in Shillong, Mr Deb did not have much faith in education. He admired our school uniforms but entirely without envy. “Kalita Babu,” I heard him say to my father once, “quite a bit of your income must be going in paying the children’s fees”. My father had laughed, pleased.
The young men were prodding Mr Deb’s body with bamboo poles to make it burn well. They were arguing about wind direction and the placement of wood. Mr Deb’s body had lost its human softness and had become a charred object. Soon it would turn into ashes.
Two weeks after I had attended Mr Deb’s funeral, I took a taxi to Police Bazaar. It dropped me near the tourist taxi stand, where the touts accosted me shouting, “Guwahati! Guwahati!” I walked past Police Bazaar point, past the spot where the newsstands used to be, past the pharmacies, past Bijou cinema till I came to the lane where Mr Deb had his shop. It was open. Babu was standing behind the counter, talking to one of his friends, who was busy installing a photocopier. “It’s second hand,” Babu said to me. “But it’s in good condition.”
He invited me to sit. We talked. “Mr Vaswani came,” Babu said quietly. “He asked me if I wanted to sell the shop. I said no.” I nodded. “My father, my father…” Babu began. Then tears welled up in his eyes and his voice choked. I looked away. When he recovered we talked of other things.
On the way back home, instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk. As I crossed the road at Police Bazaar point, near the place where my father had met Mr Deb all those years ago, I thought about Babu’s decision to drop his father’s plan of shifting to Silchar. It seemed like an act of disobedience. But I knew it wasn’t. Babu was staying on because he did not think his father’s life had been a mistake.