Mohsin fell sick in a night that appeared strange, if not ominous. A blinding darkness had enveloped the area that night: As if an endless pall of pitch-black smoke had been pumped in until everything on earth was invisible. The four-storey dorm where he lived in bordered a village. It could be seen from a long distance and would look at night like a palace lit with a thousand bulbs and chandeliers. Its grandeur doubled on monsoon nights, the luminous reflection on the vast lake facing its front. When the lake came to life overflowing its banks, from the far end of it, the dorm would seem like an eight-storey palace -- the lower half of which floated on water, swinging lightly on tender ripples. That majesty was now gone, lost as it was into the gaping jaws of a carnivorous night!
It was not as bleak in the evening, when the feast had started. A convivial mood had prevailed then as was the norm on the feast night, everyone excited with the thought of binge eating, and crashing wherever post-dinner gatherings would take them to. It was one of many feasts held round the year, one that students had hoped for rounding off with a distended belly. So they did and retired to their rooms soon after. Computers were turned on as a rule; some began to work sluggishly on an assignment, some to watch movies, some to download porn.
The electricity went off right after an uproar in the sky. A sharp, askew line -- forked like a cobra’s tongue -- flicked across the horizon into an exploding white. With it came the dark, engulfing them from every side, swallowing every last chink of light. They noticed even the crickets in the bushes withdrew from their tireless, deafening shrilling. A dreaded silence fell. Only shadows of a handful of starving village kids were on the prowl in the undergrowth surrounding the dorm.
Such unpredictable are storms in Bengal during summer ... When all four strike together, the otherwise green Bengal looks badly ravaged as if a masterly nature painting showered in luscious water colour has been tampered with insanely by some lunatic, its surface smudged and its textures crushed shockingly, its different hues blurred in one saddening gloom.
In the meantime, Mohsin, our self-effacing hero, who usually needed more than a meal to shore up his spirits, slid himself silently onto the balcony overlooking the Krishnachura trees (now unseen), soaring out of the bushes. He hadn’t changed into his lungi and T-shirt yet. Having been stunned into silence by the overdramatic triumph of darkness over light, rest of the students felt trapped and prepared to sleep. Some lit candles to put up mosquito nets while some hurried to the toilet before going to bed.
On his small, half moon-shaped balcony, Mohsin stood resting his back against the railing. He held his biriyani packet in his left hand and groped in it with his right for whatever was left over while still masticating a big gulp. His mouth jiggled around, side to side, up and down; his eyes dilated excessively while he was struggling to send a round piece of coarse mutton down his throat, so intently as if the whole point of his living depended on gobbling up this meal, every last morsel of it, down to crushing the fish, chicken and mutton bones.
* * * * *
A little before midnight the kids almost finished amassing the leftovers from scraps of mutton biriyani packets scattered all over the dust-coated bushes or on the filthy ground. Students had tossed them out from their balconies. Every packet had something left in it: A big bone of chicken perhaps, or a yet-to-be-explored bone, or at least one or two fistfuls of rice. They had done this before and counted rightly on this night’s bounty. But that the weather would turn on them so adversely was far beyond their prediction.
Such unpredictable are storms in Bengal during summer. First comes the blustery wind, then vast expanse of slowly approaching cloud sets the scene threatening to eclipse the world, and finally, frequent lightning joins hand with heavy rain. When all four strike together, the otherwise green Bengal looks badly ravaged as if a masterly nature painting showered in luscious water colour has been tampered with insanely by some lunatic, its surface smudged and its textures crushed shockingly, its different hues blurred in one saddening gloom.
The impending storm had sent even the insects into their holes and tunnels. But the kids held their ground, although they too were a little apprehensive about it.
Two groups of kids were in action along the dorm’s western edge where Mohsin’s room was located on the second floor. If it was not for the dark, he could have easily spotted them from his balcony.
One group was waiting where the ground was cleared of bushes. They stood comparatively relaxed, guarding whatever was retrieved in different phases, heaping them in a pyramid on a thick polythene sheet, scaring the dogs away so that the other group wouldn’t have to scramble up with their canine enemies.
Reptiles they feared but the game they feared more, and its rules -- the first and foremost of which was to ensure that not a single morsel of food was put to waste.
The other group, however, was very circumspect, slinking with calculated steps into the bushes straggling over this side. They stood poised between two bushes where the soil was soggy, even muddy in places, as if a group of tiger cubs were lurking in wait for their prey. They were actually waiting for another round of lightning.
Not that they were scared of foraging in the dark, or of touching or being bitten by some noxious insects while doing it. They knew full well this part wet, part scummy soil could any time turn out to be a den of insects and slimy reptiles, giant toads, leeches, and snakes for which this area had already earned a name. Snakes swallowing toads in a leisurely way -- settling themselves comfortably on the slopes of ponds -- were not a rare sight in these villages. Rabbi, their twelve-year-old leader, touched and crushed a long, sloughed-off snake skin under a bush. Rafiqul, a ten-year-old, caught a leech in his upper elbow and was unaware of it until it grew plump, travelling up to his shoulder blade. He felt something was drilling a hole in his back. Reaching out, his hand touched an oily but sturdy strip of flesh. That cold touch sent a chill through his fingers down to his spine. He flicked his fingers away like they caught fire. Rabbi had a blunt-edged knife tucked in his waist, tailored to get rid of leeches and loathsome worms in the dark. He put his left hand on Rafiqul’s shoulder, located the leech with his forefinger, took the knife out with his right hand and scooped the leech away so routinely as if he were doing his most regular prank. He put his knife back and they resumed their wait. That was the end of it.
Reptiles they feared but the game they feared more, and its rules -- the first and foremost of which was to ensure that not a single morsel of food was put to waste.
Everything was going well until this blackout overwhelmed them. The light on the outside was dim, yet it was enough for them to pick out the packs. Now beset by this blackout, they were totally at the mercy of the lightning. In spite of the other team’s vigil, one or two bone-sniffing dogs had appeared and desecrated a few packs with their dirty muzzle. Pitted thus against nature on one hand and dogs on the other, they had decided against waiting for the lightning and started crawling around in the dark. It was then Moni and Rafiqul wasted some rice.
“Fumbling in the total dark had incurred us some loss,” Moni blurted, being a little evasive, shaking slightly, indicating she slipped some rice through her fingers while hastening to collect it. Rabbi made no concession to her; he threw an angry look in her direction which none could see in the dark but felt through his crass snub:
“Enough already,” he threatened in a smouldered voice and a tone of finality. “If you thick-headed pigs and bitches want your shares, then be careful with the food for Allah’s sake!”
Rafiqul and Moni listened silently; they did not say a word in protest.
* * * * *
By then Mohsin’s jawbone had begun to hurt from over-chewing. Every packet, meant for only one student, bulged inordinately with mutton biriyani with which were also glutted a boiled egg, a round tikia, a succulent slice of rui fish fry, a vegetable curry, and a spicy piece of roasted chicken -- all squeezed in a fat, square paper pack. He got really tired but found out there still were several fistfuls of rice and two pieces of flabby mutton left.
With one more bite, he felt, everything hurtled so far down his gullet would come violently back into running jets. Yet he did not relent. He bit a small portion off a mutton; even before swallowing it, his whole body convulsed violently. He turned around with his right hand clamped over his mouth. Resting his arms on the railing, his body still shaking, he removed his hand and released the sour jets into the dark air.
In the morning when he had woken up to his overly enthused roommates who were salivating over this feast, talking garrulously about it, predicting the special items on the menu, he had felt pity for them. He disliked people given to overeating. A dainty eater himself, he preferred eating his meals alone when everyone else had finished theirs, when the food was cold and only dregs of vegetables curry and splintered fish or chicken pieces were left. Wearing a lungi, he’d always pick a seat in the deserted corner of the canteen.
He was born and brought up in a village near the Sundarbans where his family lived on a few decimals of land. He was light-skinned, had deep-set eyes and a medium height, and frizzy hair. Never during his dorm life had he complained to the canteen manager about the staleness of a curry, or the lack of salt in a fish fry, or about the dead mosquitoes floating fearlessly on the surface of thin lentil soup. He never touched any meat. No one had seen him to, except on feast nights.
He was majoring in Agricultural Science, and his grades were always good, one of the reasons why he was held in high esteem by his peers. Everything was going more or less well in his life until this night came swathed in darkness.
Another cobra flick tore the western sky into two when Mohsin was gasping for breath, jerked by another retch. He bent double and managed to pick up the RC can from the floor. He opened it and took a sip to push back a second spate of jets. The bubbly drink only opened the floodgates: He let out a chilling groan as agonisingly as a dying man, and another gush came forth up his mouth. His legs buckled. A teetering Mohsin flopped onto the floor, sat hunched for a while and slowly lay himself down with his head almost touching his knees. He writhed in pain like the battered coils of a snake. By then the RC can had slipped off his right hand. Yet his left hand did not loosen its steely grip over the biriyani packet and despite all the convulsions and changes of posture from standing to lying pathetically on his own puke, he made sure not a single grain of it spilled over the edge.
* * * * *
The kids, all ready to swoop, budged a little. Knowing nothing about Mohsin’s pathetic presence on his balcony some twenty yards away, they saw in that momentary flash what they had been waiting for.
“Rafiqul, what have you got?” asked Rabbi.
“Saw two packs on top of a bush,” Rafi responded.
“There were two or three. The nearest one is in the bush behind me,” Moni answered.
“Zahir, Shimul-- what about you?” Rabbi called out two names whose answer came floating slowly like an echo from a far-off place: “Beshi naa. Ashtichii.” Not much. Coming.
“Those scared haramis. Anyway, I’ve seen only one pack. Guess we’ve had the most of it,” Rabbi said.
No sooner had three quick thunderbolts cracked the sky than three pairs of tiny arms swooped instantly in different directions, as if in perfect synchrony with the lightning. Their dexterous hands moved fiercely. It seemed not a bunch of kids but a group of chameleons sensed their prey and, as the time came, shot out their long, ravenous tongues, caught the hunted to tips of their tongues, and then slid them back as swiftly into their jaws.
Their catch was altogether impeccable. Zahir and Shimul, one a boy and the other a girl, were younger than the rest. Elbowing their way through the dark, they came holding two packs with some dirt-smeared rice and a lot of mutton and chicken bones.
“Rabbi, we’ve been starving,” they announced in what sounded like a chorused, well-rehearsed performance. Before the leader could open his mouth, Moni echoed them, “I’ve found some rice too. Can I gulp it down? There’s so much more.”
“Stop it!” Rabbi croaked. “We’re almost done. Let’s collect the remaining packs first. Then we’ll get back to my place, and eat. Clear?”
By “place” he meant a small hut a little way behind the dorm where he lived with his grandmother from his father’s side. After his father who was a bus conductor had died in a road crash, his mother married a small businessman in another village who refused to take him in. So here he was, living a nocturnal life, with a part-time waiter’s job at a dorm-side restaurant where students ate snacks, drank tea or juice in the early hours, and tipped him occasionally. His hut was a ten-minute walk from here.
“How could you forget the guarding team? They are also starving but may be waiting for us to finish!” Rabbi snapped again.
“How could you be so sure they’re just guarding, not stealing a bite now and then?” Moni retorted, under her breath.
Rabbi heard her clearly and found his own stance untenable against theirs. He nonetheless said, “I know they’re not stealing. I just know. OK? Plus the sky is dark; the storm may hit any time. You want to waste time now? Ha?”
He paused before commanding, “No more bitching about this.”
Rabbi had a round face with close-cropped hair and skin like copper. He was sturdy and short. It was under his instruction all the boys were bare-bodied except for short pants covering their groins. It was easier this way to get rid of leeches and other insects at night, he had said without explaining. The girls wore knee-length frocks.
Tasking them with storing all their food in a fat plastic bag in case there was rain, he took it upon himself to collect the remaining packs depending on his memory, without waiting for the lightning. He hunkered down and kept moving on all fours. The starved plea of Moni, Zahir and Shimul had shaken him deeply. He felt a heavy pressure weighing on him and almost reflexively, he pulled out his blunt-edged knife, hell-bent on piercing anything that might stand in his way. The packs behind Moni he collected without trouble and handed over. Then he crawled on towards what he thought was the last pack, constantly cursing and slashing at an unseen enemy as if he were to fight his way through a path crowded by spirits.
* * * * *
Mohsin heard a faint voice moving towards him from somewhere near the bushes. He was still overcome with nausea, his senses half numbed. He rolled back and tried to find his head a puke-free spot on the floor. He had decided to call it quits but then this faint voice came closer and the curses and shouts became clearly audible. He lifted his weight on his elbow and half-lying, craned his neck from under the railing to see but all he could make out was a deep black sheet. So he cocked up his ears.
Several young voices were shouting.
“Come closer you bitch, come face me!”
“What are you, ha? You want a fight? You want it?”
“Khankir bachcha! Your mother is a whore! Come face me. I know your mother well, she is a street whore!”
“Your mother is a homeless whore!”
A pause followed and a deep groan of some animal gradually turned into a bristling snarl.
“I’m going to cut you open, you khankir bachcha,” another voice threatened.
It was then under another lingering series of thunderbolts Mohsin could somewhat see: A small group of boys and girls were confronting a mangy but fierce-looking dog scowling over a biriyani packet.
The hollering and scowling went on for some time but he could not see it to the end as the reign of the black sheet returned.
Mohsin was stunned; he found himself possessed. In spite of himself, he sat up cross-legged. Clutching at one of those muttons, he tore it fiercely apart with his molars.
His stomach rebelled and the running jets shot out from his mouth. He fainted when it had started to rain and the kids had left.
* * * * *
In the cloudless morning when Mohsin opened his eyes in the emergency unit of a hospital, it was only to vomit ceaselessly. If he ever stopped, he did so to mumble words that none could make any sense of.
Raihan, with whom Mohsin spent most of his time, came forward. “What?” he asked.
“Kashem! Where is Kashem?”
Mohsin had to put in extra efforts to say these words. He then vomited for about two minutes with short intervals of retching. When there was nothing left to disgorge, he retched every two minutes or so and each time spewed a yellowish bile. When that too stopped, he fell asleep.
One of his roommates had found him unconscious in their balcony when he staggered there to urinate as he usually did on stormy nights. Before he went into action, he bumped into Mohsin. He gave a scream thinking it was a ghost. He staggered back into the room and after lighting the flash on his mobile phone, he saw Mohsin sitting cross-legged, his eyes closed, hands placed on the knees, back rested against the railing; only his puke-smeared head bent down a little to the right with two thin streams of saliva dribbling down from the mouth.
“A fainted Buddha!” his roommate had described. No one could tell whether it was a sneer or a good-hearted interpretation of Mohsin’s hapless image.
He woke up in the early afternoon. After staring blankly at the ceiling for some time, he started mumbling again. As his slurring continued, Raihan came closer to his bed and could somewhat decipher that he was addressing someone named Kashem.
The room was full of visitors now: His roommates, and friends and batchmates from other disciplines. Dorm life had this collective effect on everything from watching movies or porn to playing carrom or table tennis to listening music to fighting to smoking to drinking alcohol.
As Raihan said “Who?” Mohsin’s slurs began to fall into patterns of sorts, forming long sentences that never ended, derailing and then coming back to the track again.
“Mohsin! Mohsin! Have you gone out of your mind?” Raihan charged in shock.
“Where the fuck is Kashem? Where the fuck is he?”
Kashem was Mohsin's younger brother; Raihan had met him once two-three years ago.
“Kashem! You have to trust me on this, Kashem! You have to trust me! It’s an addiction, isn’t it?”
Mohsin’s face brightened as he spoke in a trance and his weariness entirely dissipated.
“And imagine how foolish they are, but then if they weren’t a bunch of fools, there wouldn’t be this game for us in the first place, huh?”
Mohsin did not answer. He heaved a long sigh and continued speaking.
“The funny part is they think we are the fools -- that’s the funny part, Kashem, don’t you think? But let me tell you this, Kashem, you are not an animal; you are not an animal."
A crippling fit of coughs cut Mohsin short at this point.
He started spewing up again and this time his mouth spouted fresh blood instead of any paste or liquid.
He fainted again. The doctors declared him dead in about an hour.
* * * * *
By then all of Mohsin’s friends and classmates had arrived. None had a clue as to what had exactly happened. A few circled around Raihan who told them whatever he could gather from Mohsin’s loose monologue. They wracked their brains but could not make head or tail of it. The doctors attributed his death to over-eating which most of his friends explained away. Everyone in his class knew he was not a glutton; he was rather the intellectual sort who ate only to survive. They concluded that it was one more case of doctors’ neglect, especially when such cases were so rife in the country. Raihan ran towards two on-duty doctors and shouted at them on top of his voice. He was Mohsin’s best friend after all. Some held him back, some stoked his wrath. When the news spread, he began to receive phone calls one after another asking him if students should march towards the hospital and turn it into a full-fledged students’ movement against the quacks. Without so much as saying a word to them in reply, he left the hospital, wearing a ghost-visited expression on his face.
After a lot of angry exchanges of invectives with the doctors, rest of the students left too. Some of them came back towards the evening when they heard Mohsin’s father had arrived at the hospital with Kashem.
“What happened, baba?” the old man appealed to know. “Just tell me what happened?”
Mosharraf Mia, in his late seventies now, refused to be stooped by age. His shoulders did not bend forward and his receding forehead was dotted with white strands of hair, standing not in locks but separately from each other like sparsely sown saplings in a small patch of land sloping upward. Only his eyes wore a sad, helpless look. He was wearing a lungi and a white kurta while Kashem was in a plain pair of trousers and a faded polo shirt.
Looking at that helpless look in Mohsin’s father’s eyes and an angry, accusing look in his brother’s, they explained carefully, sounding exactly like the doctors whom they had blamed and called names just a couple of hours ago.
“Overeating?” Mosharraf Mia stammered.
“I don’t believe a word of it, Abba, I don’t,” Kashem shouted in his southern dialect.
“Let’s talk to the doctor. I don’t believe a word they are saying,” Kashem told his father firmly. “I want to talk to the doctor.”
Raihan led them into the hospital and took them to the doctor who was on duty during Mohsin’s last hours.
After leaving the doctor’s room, Kashem, who was in tears now, went to where Mohsin’s body lay. But Mosharraf Mia refused to accompany him; he seated himself on a bench in the far corner and kept staring at the floor in front of him, for about two hours at a stretch, not talking, or sobbing, or moving, only shifting a few times on the bench, until a pick-up van drove up to the hospital gate to take Mohsin home.
Ranjan Banerjee is an art critic and fiction writer.