(Translated by Zubaer Mahboob)
Thank you so much for your feedback on some of my short stories! You are a perceptive and empathetic reader; no wonder that nothing has escaped your eye.
You are absolutely right; I have written several stories that centre around the same themes, the same characters, the same incidents. I know you won’t make the claim that I didn’t have enough material to write about, because I worked on these pieces while writing other stories at the same time.
It's hard to explain why exactly I returned again and again to themes previously explored. Every time I finished a story, I couldn’t help feeling that I had failed to say what I had wanted to. I had failed to even come close to the truth that I had tried to capture. So I kept changing the setting of the story, played with the characters’ names, but I failed to do more than that—I still couldn’t get to the heart of the matter.
I once read a confession by a foreign writer who had rewritten and published the same story in eight different versions. Even then he felt that he might have to repeat the process a few more times. Because that feeling of incompleteness, of having written an inadequate piece used to torture him each time he finished a new variant.
Why does this happen? Why does a particular thought or emotion, a certain character or event chase you around like inexorable fate? He never explained it; if he had, I might have been able to compare notes with him. As such, I can only explain it in my own terms—the way I saw it.
But before that, I really should tell you once more, and quite clearly, about these stories. It would have been best if I could have quoted certain excerpts here. Alas, I don’t have the copies of those newspapers with me.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the protagonist of all my stories is a bachelor approaching middle age. Living in indigence, he did not have the means to get married and to raise a family when the time was right. He’d suffered a great deal of sacrifices and hardship in order to raise his orphaned younger brother; ignoring his own needs, he’d made sure that the brother had become properly established in life.
In brief, that is the nub of the story. Perhaps there is nothing extraordinary in this material. But try as I might, I could not see the story in an ordinary light. Over and over, the question returned to me—how do you account for this man’s behaviour? Was it sacrifice, or was it a negation of the self? Did it cause him sorrow or regret? Or did he remain indifferent?
In the first story, I had tried to express his perceptions and his conflicts through the medium of his thoughts. There was no other character, and plot there was none. In the following story, some narrative elements were added to clarify the inner workings of his mind. He thought his was an exalted life but the very next moment he felt that his character lacked all nobility. All he had wanted was to live a simple life. So how could he possibly become great? Why would he thus lie and pretend to himself?
In the third story, I brought forth from behind the curtain his younger brother, now married, and the bride. Their presence naturally worsened his pain, made his inner turmoil more acute. In the end, I left the great, fake, big-hearted, narrow-minded, prudent, emotional, happy, pained, determined and disbelieving person in a nearly distraught state before I stopped writing.
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Evidently, I had failed to write a fitting ending to the story, the character, the perception. A short story doesn’t always need this though. I searched for an ending nonetheless, perhaps more for myself, for my own satisfaction—so that ultimately all I was doing was to pile layer upon layer of paint on the selfsame picture. And now this addiction to applying layers of paint, the burning desire to arrive at a conclusion has turned into a fatal obsession, so much so that I constantly seek out someone similar in my own surroundings. Would he, I wonder, confide to me his final thoughts?
I’ve been shadowing him for some time now. Well that’s not true, it’s been a long time, I’ve been on his tail for many years though he has no inkling of it. I take care not to let him know, lest he become cautious.
By the time he takes the last train home, the paan-cigarette vendor on the platform has already closed his stall and gone home. The signalman rings the bell and goes off to change the lights. He keeps standing there even after the train has left the platform, until its chug-chug can no longer be heard. Then he starts off, the crunch of the gravel underfoot drowned out by the noise of a dog barking down the village path.
Distant rail tracks and open fields—beyond them a few cars still ply the highway. He doesn’t always like to stare in that direction; instead, some days he feels like sitting at the paved ghat of the pond beyond the station. Occasionally, the voice of Shonabhaan, a singer from the Tongi town, drifts through the closed shutters of the roadside shops. A few blue lights glimmer in the houses. He keeps walking, silently.
I am most disconcerted by the yellow lights that hang from the necks of the sparsely placed lampposts. It is far easier to follow him in the darkness. But as soon as he nears the circle of light, I have to conceal myself, moving backwards, forwards, or sideways, so that he won’t be able to see me.
He unlocks his door and steps into his room; there are no other sounds nearby. A lonely wind knocks at the open window from time to time, then turns away. He doesn’t make a sound lest the others be disturbed in their sleep.
As he turns on the light upon entering his room, footsteps sound on the stairs. He is embarrassed when they come and stand at the open door. “What, didn’t you guys sleep? I’m sorry I woke you up!”
“We’ve told you so many times not to get home so late. You need to look after yourself better.” The sincerity is evident in his younger brother’s voice; he nonetheless suspects that they may be annoyed. As if guilty, he says, “Go on, you guys get back to bed. I won’t have dinner tonight.”
They stand in silence awhile, then slowly make their way back upstairs. Their last words float in the room—“Who knows where exactly you roam around?”
Once the lights are out, the words fade away. He sits in the chair by the window. Through it, a few stars in the sky look down at him.
He gets up and closes the door to his room. He’d feel ashamed if they caught him sleeping in a chair by the open window.
At one point, he thinks, maybe I should turn on the light again and sit down with a book. But he can’t decide which book, and so the room remains as it is, in the dark.
Another time, I remember I was following him down the road. He stopped at the narrow corner where men gather at dusk. A couple of passers-by paused to look at him, whether at him or at his ever-greying hair was difficult to discern. So I spoke up from behind in a strangled voice. “Hey, what’s going on here?”
He stared, looked around, saw no one. He stepped up his pace and walked on.
Then I said, “Character is all.”
He barked out – “That’s rubbish!” And yet he didn’t have the guts to turn back.
Though I spent all my waking hours hovering near him, still I couldn’t figure out what to do with this character. He was not what he seemed to be—a hardworking man constantly busy in the office, yet a model of affability. It was equally hard to recognise him amidst the happy laughter of friendly living rooms where he was a guest.
He never had any faith in voluntary clubs. So the humanitarian societies and the welfare associations could not swallow him up. His involvement in politics in his youth, on the one hand, had made him loathe politics in the end and on the other, had turned him away from religious faith. Walled in by this narrow, claustrophobic land, he could not picture the outside world either. The question of leaving everything behind and walking out into the wide world was therefore moot.
So what to do with a man like this?
Because I have no objection to be the narrator of this tired, broken, lonely soul, I keep trying, I make these repeated attempts. But you have to stop somewhere, right? So what final words can I say about him? Moreover, how long should I wait to make these concluding declarations? I no longer think it is enough to keep watching with eagle eyes the ructions of his tortured spirit.
I know what you are going to say. As soon as I step away from the writing desk, this character will become a part of my memories. But what if he is no mere character, what if I can touch him, what if I am in tune with his deepest emotions, what then? How can I walk away?
And if that character is the fruit of my own experiences, if he has wrapped himself in coils around my own existence, what should I do with him then? What, in the end, should I do with myself?
Jyotiprokash Dutta is an award-winning Bangladeshi novelist and short story writer. He was awarded Ekushey Padak in 2016. His books include Exile of the Rose and other Stories, Plaban Bhumi, Shomoy Bhole Na kichu.
Zubaer Mahboob is a translator based in London.