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SOUMYA SEN SARMA

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 5/15/2015 |




I saw the ghost in the old post office building. Since then I have narrated this to many, some believe it, some do not. The river engulfed a large part north of the town through successive erosion of one bank. When the river was only twenty yards away from the old post office, the government woke up and shifted the office to the centre of the town. Condemned to the depths of the river, the old building stood alone like a haunted house; yet again the river ate away a part of the bank. And then some. And then some more. At last the water touched the foundation of the building. Washed away the soil from beneath. The water receded after monsoon, and the old post office building was saved for the time being. Its foundation weakened, the building canted slightly to one side. A portion of the roof caved in and covered two pillars in the balcony as they broke. To anyone sailing down the river it looked as if a newly wed bride was shyly covering her face with a veil, as newly wed brides are wont to do when they come across strangers.

Thus remained the building, and none took possession. Only the doors and the windows were removed by the poor and the needy, and some loose bricks by others. But the wind from the river continuously sighed through the gaping holes of the lopsided house, now leaning like the tower of Pisa; and there were bats, rats, snakes and wild plants. The strength of plants are enormous, they break through the floor, their sturdy roots tunnel through the walls. These were here, no one else.

I was only a child then, maybe seven or eight years old. Characteristic of that age, I stared at everything through wide eyes, absorbed all that could be heard. I was a little naïve also. Going to places without adult company was prohibited; not that I had the courage to, either.

Every evening, Grandpa went for a walk, a stick in one hand, my small hand clutched in the other. Not that we went to the same place every evening. But almost always, we ended up by the river. It had moved bang inside the town, so there was no need to walk far. A short trek took us to the river. Efforts to save the town by building dykes were on way. Big boulders were being strewn, covered by earthwork. It was winter then, and the river has receded far north, leaving behind a vast tract of silt. The silt was soft as sandalwood paste and enormously fertile too. In this fertile tract of no ownership sagacious people had planted crops. The crop belonged to him who tills. Lovely deep verdancy of healthy crops overshadowed the cruel lethal river, which now watered the crop and flowed in a few shallow strands.

Grandpa and I used to go and stand by the river; Grandpa pointed to the horizon which his stick. There used to be an aged fig tree where you now see the black earthen pitcher head of the scarecrow – he would say. The primary school of Ram Pandit used to be there only fifty years ago. And there used to be a straw hut in that patch growing pulses……..that was the temple of Kali frequented by the dacoits. Who would say now that a murrum road used to span the river then and lead to the manor of the landlord?

A large part of the town had been lost to the river. The now vanished portion had schools, temples, roads, human habitation. Lost too were many old trees, roads, rocks, pebbles, strands, and numerous memories and memorials of the many a childhood and youth.

As he stood by the river, Grandpa tried to identify and mark those old memories and the places associated; my presence was only an excuse. Then he would stand still for a long time. A new quay had been erected, with a boat tied to a post. At times Grandpa would sit quietly by the new quay, his stick on one side, me on the other.

The mysterious canted building of the post office could be seen far on the left. The gaping holes of doors and windows stared at the living world with bereaved eyes. It was pitch dark inside. The tenure of the building would be over if the river breaches the embankment next monsoon. Even otherwise, people would definitely not leave a building thus, but would tear it down. The moribund building must have sensed this truth. It thus used to semaphore to strangers the news of its imminent death through its dark vacant eyes. We would return silently once the evening moved towards the night. Grandpa was thus seated one day, as if meditating. The dying winter day had cast an ethereal misty light on the river. Crop bearing fields were silent. A spire of mist was rising from the river surface. The quay was empty, the boat tied forlornly to its post. No current in the stream, no sound.

Characteristic of my age, I rose. Walked a few paces for a time. The river bank is full of crab holes, littered with human and animal excreta, covered with nettles and dense undergrowth. A fetid smell rising from the water burdened the winter breeze. I was jogging along, kicking a small red ball as I jogged. At times I would stop jogging and stand. I saw Grandpa sitting still like before. The white stick he carried could be seen even from this distance.

There must have been some signal. There must have been an intrigue fraught with portents. A chill runs through me as I go down the river bank and touch the slowly flowing water. The ball is soiled. Returning after washing the ball with water, I could suddenly see the house hanging on top of me as I raise my head. Its foundation long washed away by currents, the whole building was crouching down, looking at me.

I have never seen the building like this. Grandpa could still be seen in the fading light, the gloom of the dusk yet to engulf him. His white stick was still shining from the distance.

I raise my head and look at the crooked building again. A pale moon shimmers on the top of the
house.
The Envelope
It was then that I saw the ghost.

Putting it in this manner may be wrong. Did I really see the ghost? Perhaps not. I did not actually see, but perceived the presence of the ghost then.

Strong breeze blows from the river now and then. Gusty winds. Sighs once, and then calms down. A film of mist shadows the pale gleam of the moon. It was as if the building removed its veil and looked all round.

I crept up the steep slope. There was no reason, but I thought that I would go inside and look at the house once.

There was nothing to see, though, save the dense undergrowth, wild plants growing in abundance, prickly leaves of nettles stretching to touch me. Crossing a couple of big neem trees and approaching the dark holes of doors and windows I could see the deep darkness, the dustiness of the abandoned house, and hear the shrill twittering of resident bats. A bat suddenly unfurls its wings and sails through. Gradually my eyes get conditioned and the darkness inside lightens. All at once I see an envelope lying on the floor of the big room. Just an envelope bearing a letter. Nothing else.

A stream of bats glide through the doors and the window holes, sensing the dusk deepening to the night, casting strange black shadows in the pale moonlight in the empty space suspended over the river. They call shrilly to each other. The putrid smell of excreta assails the nose. But I stand still. An envelope is lying in the empty room.

Whose letter was that? Written to whom? Who left it behind?

A barrage of sound emerges. The wind whispers in the leafy neem boughs. A chattering snake lets out a ticking chatter. The current beneath the foundation softly breaks against the shore.

I continue to stand. The envelope is lying on a bed of dust. White and rectangular in shape.

The dusk deepens. The misty ethereal light lifts itself bodily from the water. The far bank vanishes in dark shadows. Time flows on.

Murmurings begin. Who knows whose murmurings these are! Still I know, the whole world is talking to each other. Words flow from the trees, from the water, from the gushing wind, from the insects. They feverishly exchange news. And the answer forms and begins to shape itself from the surrounding ambience.

And all of a sudden, it reaches me: Take it, it is yours!

The envelope is lying in the floor of the enormous room. White, rectangular in shape. Pick it up. It is lying in wait for you.

The whole world waits, looking at what I would do. Whether I would pick up the envelope.
The Envelope
I choose not to.

Grandpa calls from afar: where are you, my grandson?

I turn away. Shake my head and say, No, I won’t take it.

Someone answers back: wherever you might be, at whatever corner of the world, this envelope would surely track you, will reach you. You will receive the letter, you will.

I saw the ghost for the first and last time in the old post office building. In the strict sense, I did not see it. I felt it. An enormous gaping room, a floor thickly carpeted with dust, a white, rectangular envelop lying on the floor.

I am not afraid. But at times, tears fill my eyes. I am aging. I have left that town far behind in time and space. So far behind. But I know for certain that the envelop would reach me one day. I would get the letter some day. I will. I will. I will.

(A transcreation of ‘Chithi’, a short story by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay)


[SOUMYA SEN SARMA]
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