“My Position Regarding Death is Absolutely Clear”

a short story by Shahaduz Zaman,
translated from the Bangla by V Ramaswamy

My position regarding death is absolutely clear, I am fiercely opposed to it. This man here, lying unconscious, tangled in a web of tubes on a bed in the Intensive Care Unit, is my father. He’s the one who once had his pockets picked twice the same day. I kept gazing at my father’s face among the array of instruments and devices.

Last week, when my father was conscious, he had said to me, ‘Palash, see how the skin of my arm has become like that of a burnt aubergine as I’ve grown old.’ I had stroked the burnt aubergine-like skin of my father’s arm.

I bent down to his ear and asked, ‘Baba, I’m Palash, can you hear me?’

There were complicated instruments of various kinds going through Baba’s nose and mouth, and his eyes were shut. Yet Baba nodded his head gently. Yes, Baba could hear my voice.

I returned to the doctor’s chamber.

‘That means Baba is in his senses?’ I asked the doctor.

Doctor: ‘Yes, his brain is working. But we are keeping all his other vital organs going with the help of a machine. He can hear you.’

Over a few months, I had observed Baba sitting together with my five-year-old son, Shayan, and continuously watching various kinds of cartoon films. As they watched the cartoons, both Baba and Shayan were in splits and they rolled in uproarious laughter.

Baba had told me the story of how bales of jute were fastened tight by hydraulic machines in the Raleigh Brothers warehouse, and then went from Sarishabari all the way to the city of Dundee in Britain. Bengal’s golden fibre had travelled to far-flung corners of the world in those days. From Baba’s descriptions, I could see bamboo frames to dry jute, and rows of bundles of upstanding jute stalks knotted together in every house in Sarishabari. Baba belonged to the char region, that is, the sandy strips of land rising out of the riverbed. Plains folk referred to these people as ‘chaira’. And that was a matter of pride for Baba, because owing to abundant and unrestricted access to water, the jute from the char regions was of the most excellent quality. Baba described how as the rooster crowed at the crack of dawn, the day labourers attached to the household house hurriedly gulped down the fermented leftover rice laced with diced green chillies and onions and then descended into the water to wash the jute stalks, and they emerged from the water only after the azaan for the Magrib prayer sounded at sunset. Baba used to enact for me the deft means and movements with which the labourers washed the jute stalks. He described the miscellaneous ways in which a jute plant was used. The tender leaves of the jute plant were eaten, it was known as nailya spinach; the dry leaves of jute were medication for ailments; the base of the jute stalks was used for fuel; the upper part of the stalks were used to make fences; and the golden fibre used to travel from Sarishabari to a city in faraway Scotland. Baba described it all as if he were describing the golden-haired princess in a fairy tale. The beauty of Sarishabari’s jute had captivated Baba all his life.

***

Baba had once been pickpocketed while getting into the ferry at the jetty at Jagannathghat, near that same Sarishabari, and then he was pickpocketed again while getting off.

I asked the doctor, ‘Is my father’s condition reversible?’

Doctor: ‘His cancer is now in the fourth stage and given his age, the chances of recovering from this condition are very slim.’

During the jute season, the day before the weekly market gathered, the jute fibres were bundled together until late at night in the houses of big and small landowners, as well as the cultivating peasants. The next morning, there was a mad rush to excavate the boats from the canals and rivers. Those who didn’t have boats excavated the boats of the boat owners, they rigged the boom, oars, mast, halyard and sail on the boats and helped to set them afloat. The leftover rice was warmed in the morning by placing it next to the stove, and it was kneaded with dried chillies till it turned red, and after eating that bloody, fiery hot rice, the boats of a few village bigwigs departed together, heading for the weekly market. The boats crossed creeks, canals and marshes and arrived at the Jamuna river. The moment they arrived at the river, everyone in the boats chanted in unison, ‘Allah Allah Rasul Bolo, Allah Allah Rasul! Take the names of Allah and his Messenger, take their names.’ An undeclared contest ensued in that convoy of boats with unfurled sails. Landowners used to load jute on their merchant boats and deliver it directly to the warehouse. That jute was measured. It was measured by the koyals. As if chanting a mantra, they called out as they measured, ‘And here’s one, here’s two, here’s three, here’s four.’ Each variety of jute had its own price, such as tosha, bottom, cross bottom. Once the jute sale was over, the regular weekly market began. There was frenetic activity. Together with items of daily use, there were toys made of bamboo for children, vests and lungis for men, and saris, dupattas, bangles and alta, or lac dye, for womenfolk. And a compulsory item in everyone’s basket of purchases was salted hilsa, that is, hilsa that had been smeared with salt and then sundried. The boats left the jetty together once everyone had finished their purchases. It was late night by the time they returned home. The womenfolk and children waited eagerly at home. However late it was returning from the market, the salted hilsa was cooked with ripe pumpkin to make a fiery hot curry. After that, in the light of the lantern, everyone at home ate the fiery hot salted hilsa curry with rice, at that late hour, raising a clamour as they did so. Baba described all this as if he was describing some theatre performance.

I asked the doctor: “Is my father in pain?”

The white apron clad doctor replied indifferently, ‘Yes, he is.’

I: ‘This ventilator, all these tubes – do they cause him suffering?’

The grave doctor: “Yes, they do.’

I: ‘Then what’s the use of all these devices?’

Doctor: ‘All these devices have kept him alive. If the machines are withdrawn, he might die.’

I said: ‘When I say my name, my father nods his head. Will he go on nodding his head every time he hears me saying my name?’

Removing his stethoscope from his neck, the doctor replied, ‘Yes, he will.’

When we visited the village house once during my childhood, Baba had flung me into the Jamuna river in order to teach me to swim. I gasped for breath after falling into the water. And Baba was standing on the bank and laughing. I thought he was terribly cruel. Just as I was about to drown, Baba dived into the river and took me into his arms. Was he now gasping for breath in the same way I had been gasping in the waters of the Jamuna? Could I dive in and bring Baba to the bank?

When we were conversing last week, Baba had also told me, ‘It’s good that your Ma died earlier, or else the skin on her arms would have become like the skin of a burnt aubergine, like mine has.’

Baba had told me the story of the Greek goddess Eos. She was the goddess of dawn, and her fingers were rosy. Eos fell in love with a man called Tithonus. But Eos was a goddess, and therefore immortal, while Tithonus, a mere man, would die one day. Eos was simply unable to accept the truth that her lover would die one day. The goddess of dawn, Eos, pleaded to Zeus, the king of the gods, to bestow immortality, like her’s, on Tithonus. Zeus fulfilled Eos’ wish. He granted Tithonus the boon of immortality. Eos and Tithonus spent their days in the joy and delight of love, and years went by. After a time, Eos observed that Tithonus was growing old, from a middle-aged man he was becoming an old man, although Eos continued to possess eternal youth. She realised she had made a terrible mistake. Although she had requested Zeus to grant Tithonus the boon of immortality, she had not asked for the boon of eternal youth. And It wasn’t possible to ask Zeus for more than a single boon. So, right in front of the eternally young Eos’ eyes, Tithonus became more and more stooped in dotage. He didn’t die, but he became a doddering old man. After a point, he didn’t have the strength to speak, he was too weak to even move. Tithonus lay still in bed and wished he was dead. But he didn’t die. Eos gazed at Tithonus with great sadness and shed tears. Immortality seemed a curse to her then.

Baba said, ‘Your Ma too fell in love with me. Your Ma’s fingers were rosy, just like Eos’. It’s good that she died earlier. She was always like Eos, and didn’t ever have to see this Tithonus form of mine.’

I asked the doctor again: ‘Will my father return home?’

The doctor replied indifferently, ‘The chances are slim.’

I: ‘Then what’s the use of all these devices?’

Doctor: ‘His life is prolonged a bit.’

I: ‘Will he be able to return home?’

Doctor: ‘That can’t be said for certain. But he’ll stay alive.’

I asked him again: ‘If I say into his ear, “I’m Palash”, will he be able to nod his head?’

The doctor once again said: ‘Yes, he will.’

I: ‘But he’ll never be able to stand again.’

As he signed the papers in front of him, the doctor replied: ‘The chances are very slim.’

I: ‘Then what’s the use of all this equipment?’

Without losing his patience, the doctor reiterated: ‘He survives for a few more days.’

I: ‘In that bed, with all those machines?’

Doctor: ‘Yes.’

I: ‘With all these instruments connected through his nose and mouth, does he suffer?’

‘Doctor: ‘Yes, he does.’

I kept asking questions like a spiralling staircase: ‘But yet he’ll live?’

Doctor: ‘Yes, he will.’

I: ‘What’s the point of that?’

Without displaying any sign of annoyance, the doctor replied: ‘The point is that medical science provides you an option to prolong his life. You can choose that option if you want, or choose not to. If you choose not to, we’ll remove the life support systems.’

I: ‘Will he die then?’

Doctor: ‘Yes, that’s what’s most likely. But he might survive too.’

Baba had recited the bratachari exercise song to me:

Let’s dig with the spade Forget the evil that pride made Shake up the lazy disposition! Your body shall be remade The proud diseases’ brigade ‘Let’s flee! Let’s flee’, they’ll bade And when hunger our bellies pervade We’ll eat the sweetmeats arrayed.

Baba had recited to me,

It’s door on the north, a house With a long veil, a spouse And cold water at pond depth All three are harmful for you.

Baba remembered the Bengali textbooks for children by Madan Mohan Taralankar right till his old age. He used to recite to me strings of similar sounding words which were spelt differently, as he did maxims, like,

“Hold your tongue, achieve something, and never ever call lame folk lame They’ll be sad, and when clouds cast ear-splitting thunder, you’re the one to blame.”

I asked the doctor: ‘So saying that medical science provides the option to prolong life is another way of saying that death is delayed, but that doesn’t mean a return to life, does it?’

Doctor: ‘A few people do return, but in your father’s case, the chances are slim.’

I: ‘How long can he carry on like this?’

Doctor: ‘That’s difficult to say. His condition could deteriorate today, or he could survive for a month.’

This was Baba’s third day.

Baba had told me that Hariprasad Agarwala’s jute godown in the marketplace in Sarishabari had been cleaned up and a talkie movie was screened there. Baba had seen the film Hunterwali there. The heroine’s name was Nadia Begum. People from nearby villages had flocked to watch the talkie. The doors of the godown were ajar, it was packed with people inside and outside, and everyone was amazed to see the electric lights when they came on to the bhot bhot sound of the dynamo, and as soon as a picture floated into the screen, all the lights went off. It was something incredible. Baba saw a girl jumping onto a horse’s back and riding as she twirled a whip. After she went a short distance – the reel suddenly snapped. The dynamo came to a stop. Darkness all around, but there was pindrop silence in the hall. Everyone waited eagerly for the lights to come on again and the picture to return to the screen. The projector man, Braja babu, shouted out and began trying to splice the snapped film. The audience watched every move of his with wonder. As if Braja babu was a messenger of god.

I said to the doctor: ‘The I.C.U. charges are forty-thousand taka a day.’

Doctor: ‘Yes.’

I: ‘We simply can’t afford that.’

Doctor: ‘You have to decide about that. If you instruct us, we can remove the life support systems.

I: ‘But hasn’t medical science provided an option to prolong his life?’

Doctor: ‘Yes.’

I: ‘It’s my moral duty as his son to accept this option, isn’t it?’

Doctor: ‘That’s entirely up to you.’

I: ‘Even if making that expense ruins me?’

Doctor: ‘You have to decide about that.’

I: ‘I wouldn’t be faced with this question if this option didn’t exist. Although this option won’t restore him to good health.’

Doctor: ‘The chances are slim. But still, one can’t be sure.’

I: ‘Maybe my father will live for two or three more days, or two weeks with the help of the machine.’

Doctor: ‘It may be even more than that, or less.’

I: ‘Will my father keep dangling in uncertainty, at the edge of life and death?’

Doctor: ‘You could say that.’

I: ‘And yet, if I keep him like that, I’ll know that my father is alive, isn’t it?’

Doctor: ‘Yes, exactly.’

I: ‘Although one could say that there’s no possibility of my father returning to us.’

Doctor: ‘Yes, that’s right.’

I: ‘But still, it’s our moral duty to keep him alive by paying forty-thousand taka a day, isn’t it?’

Doctor: ‘That’s for you to decide.’

I: ‘Medical science isn’t really able to provide a solution to this life-and-death question, but it pushes us into an ethical dilemma – is that right?’

Doctor: ‘You’re taking up a lot of my time. I’m busy. Please go and sit outside.’

***

The skin on Baba’s arms had become like that of a burnt aubergine. Ma’s skin had been burnt too, but we didn’t get the chance to see whether it resembled an aubergine, Ma’s whole body was swathed in bandages. The sight of the incident never left me. Its florescence never ceases. We were watching television, it was the era of black-and-white television then. Baba, Ma and I were sitting in front of the television. My sister Parul was concentrating on her studies in the adjacent room. Parul’s scholarship exams for Class Five were going on. On television, Mahmudunnabi was singing, ‘After all I’m no artist, but still, the song I’ve come to this gathering to sing …’

Baba burst out: ‘If you’re not an artist, then why have you come to sing, my dear?’ And saying so, he began guffawing, ho ho, in laughter.

Ma said: ‘Palash, your Baba has to make fun of everything.’

We went back to hearing the song, ‘Forgive me if I can’t sing to your heart’s delight …’

Ma then suddenly said: ‘Poor Parul’s been studying right since evening. Let me go and warm a glass of milk for her.’

Baba said: ‘Yes, do that, the poor girl must be terribly tired after studying so hard.’

I kept my eyes on the television and began listening to the song. Winding her anchal tight around her in that most familiar manner, Ma walked towards the kitchen. Baba and I were listening to the song on the TV. And just then we heard the terrible screams from the kitchen. Baba and I ran there. As soon as Ma had turned the lighter on to light the gas cooker, there was a burst of flame and Ma’s sari caught fire. Her sari was ablaze. Baba doused the flames with water and by wrapping her with a sheet, but by then Ma’s whole body had got burnt, she was lifeless. Ma was taken to the hospital. She had suffered almost eighty percent burns. She never spoke after that. Ma died after ten days. She met her death while performing as insignificant a task as warming milk while watching television, listening to a song and cracking a joke.

Baba had told me that there were huge bakul and casuarina trees in the compound of their house in Sarishabari. The rustling, shon shon sound of the casuarina trees could be heard from far away. Seeing the bakul flowers strewn in the morning over the grass that was wet with dew, one imagined someone had laid a white sheet over the grass. There was competition to see who could wake up the earliest and collect the bakul flowers to string into garlands. Baba’s playmates, Geeta, Meera, Beena and Jannat Ara used to arrive at the bakul canopy in the darkness of pre-dawn and begin gathering the flowers. And Baba, Sakhawat, Moti and Tuku joined them later. They used to string the garlands together using the long stems of weeds and vines. And as they were stringing the garlands, bakul flowers, like inverted open umbrellas, used to shower down on the heads of Baba and his friends from the tall tree. As if it was snowing.

Last week, as I was sitting on Baba’s bed and stroking the burnt aubergine-like skin of his arm, Baba had said, ‘Do you know what I’d like to do? If I could only stand at the roadside and beg everyone, “Give me five minutes of your life.” If someone gives five minutes of his life, it’s nothing to him, but if many people give me five minutes in this way, I might get another year of life. After all, being alive means being able to love people, and perhaps to receive people’s love too. Even with all the love your Ma’s heart was full of, she didn’t get that chance.’

The doctor said: ‘We’d like to make an attempt with your father and observe him. We’d like to withdraw the ventilator for some time on a trial basis and see the results. Let us know your decision in this regard by tomorrow.’

I: ‘What’ll happen if you withdraw it?’

Doctor: ‘He might survive, we’ll observe how long he is able to breathe by himself. But again, very often patients may also die as soon as the ventilator is withdrawn. There’s also that risk. If we have your consent, we can give it a try.’

Climbing up a well-known staircase, a familiar door is arrived at. That familiar door is opened with a key. And then it’s discovered that there’s no room on the other side of the door, no stairs, there’s nothing. Only an immense pit. A single step would throw one into the pit. Was Baba standing at the edge of a pit like that after having opened a door with his key?

I took permission, and wearing a mask and gown, entered the I.C.U. one last time to see Baba. I whispered to him, ‘I’m Palash, can you hear me?’

Baba nodded his head to say, yes, he could.

I returned home. There was a cloudburst of rain just after I got in. I went and stood at the window. The streets, people and vehicles were all inundated in the fierce rain. It seemed that the sky would repay all its debts to the earth this very day.

Baba at the edge of the stairs and the pit, amidst the web of tubes and the ventilator. I could go to Baba again tomorrow and say, ‘Baba, I’m Palash, can you hear me?’ Baba would nod his head again and tell me, yes, I can hear you. I would know that Baba was alive. I could carry out the routine of this scene by rote day after day, month after month. I would say my name, Baba would nod his head, and so I would know he was alive. Although being alive meant just that nod of his head. The price of that nod of Baba’s head was forty-thousand taka. We would be ruined obtaining that money. But this counting of money in the face of Baba’s survival was grievous, inhuman and selfish. Yet could these complicated machines grant immortality, like Tithonus, to Baba? And even if they could, would Baba want to accept that? I could tell the doctor tomorrow, ‘Yes, remove the ventilator, let’s see whether Baba can breathe on his own or not.’ Once the ventilator was withdrawn, Baba could breathe with his entire lungs, but again he could fall into the bosom of death as soon as the ventilator was removed. I had to convey my decision in this regard tomorrow.

One day I saw Baba and my five-year-old son, Shayan, watching a Walt Disney cartoon film. A duckling had been blown away in a storm and thrown into a pit, and it wasn’t able to rise. In the stormy rain, the mother duck was looking fervently for her chick in the forest. She couldn’t find it. I saw tears flowing down my son Shayan’s eyes. And I saw tears flowing down my father’s eyes too. Grandfather and grandson were sitting in front of a television screen and weeping copiously for a lost duckling.

I want to assert once again that my position regarding death is absolutely clear, I’m fiercely opposed to it.

Shahaduz Zaman  is a reputed writer in Bengali literature. He is a medical anthropologist and a trained physician. He published over 30 books in different genres such as short stories, novels, travelogues, columns, and essays on contemporary issues. He won the Bangla Academy Literary Award in 2016 in the fiction category, the highest national award for literature in Bangladesh. Shahaduz Zaman was born in 1960 in Dhaka, Bangladesh and moved to UK in 2009. He currently lives in UK and works as a Professor in Medical Anthropology and Global Health at University of Sussex.

 
V. Ramaswamy is a Kolkata-based Bengali to English literary & non-fiction translator of voices from the margins. His translations include the two short story collections, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited, and This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels, all by Subimal MIsra, the novel, The Runaway Boy, by Manoranjan Byapari, Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas, by Shahidul Zahir, and Memories of Arrival, by Adhir Biswas. Ramaswamy was awarded the inaugural Literature Across Frontiers – Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing & Translation at Aberystwyth University in 2016, and the inaugural Translation Fellowship of the New India Foundation.
 

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