I want to begin with a translation from a Bengali humorous story. I would be glad to receive comments.
Final Account of Atal Babu
– Parshuram (Rajshekhar Bashu)
(Translation: Miah Rashiduzzaman)
Atal Choudhury in his sickbed said, “Look doctor, I’m far older than your grandfather. Do not beguile me. Open up your mouth about what Major Haldar told you. How long will I last?” Doctor replied, “Don’t say that, sir. Is the rein of life and death in man’s hand? How much do we know? If the Almighty blesses, you have years ahead to enjoy.”
– Only keeping somebody alive is to bless? You’re done, doctor, and now vex me no more. Leave your medical euphemism and tell the truth. I want to make a final calculation in the heart before my exit.
-Very well, do it now, a few years earlier. Who hinders you in that?
– You’ve learned only medicine and not commerce. Look, you can not check your final account before the year-end. Before I perish I want to verify the loss-profit account of my life, provided that I do not lose sense.
The conversation was on when Haripad Vattchuj came with a proposal of Prayoshchitto (expiation). He was sure that his master would find mental composure by that.
– Why man, have I strangled anybody to death or abducted another’s wife, or committed forgery-fraud-stealing-robbery, or sold maduli either?
Haripad bit his tongue and answered, “Fie, few would stand rivals to your integrity. Even then everyone begets an amount of sin unintentionally. Prayoshchitto targets that.”
– Look Vattchaj, I’m no Dharmaputra Yudhisthir. I’ve done the much crime that makes a gentleman, and I’m not sorry for that nor am I scared of hell. Still, if Prayoshchitto pleases you, you may observe it but not here – in the prayer house downstairs. See that the jingle of bells doesn’t reach me.
Haripad left saying ‘what you will’, but thought himself, “O’ how awfully heretical! Death beckons him but still he won’t be religious. No compassion for religion!”
The granddaughter of Atal Babu, Radharani informed, “Grandpa, Brindabon Babaji is here along with his Kirtania band, Mother inquired whether you would attend to holy names.”
– Beware, I want to rest here peaceably. I won’t have any hue and cry. Let the day of my obituary come and then enjoy to your hearts’ content as much Kirtan as you would like –
The north wind does not cool, O’ dear
My heart like shirt this grief does tear.
– All foolery!
Radharani left with a frown on her brow. The doctor now said “Sir, you’re talking too much. Night has deepened. Be silent and try to sleep please.”
– Not me! You, rather, are talking much. Come on doctor. Don’t dally any more, and answer me straightaway.
Squeezing the pipe of the stethoscope, doctor said, “Two to four hours or may be two to four days, it’s impossible to be sure. Let me push the injection in, and you begin to inhale oxygen, you’ll feel better – the pain will lessen.”
Doctor finished his righteous duty and told the widow of Atal Babu’s son, “Keep alert, I’m afraid this night will not dawn for him. Tell the nurse to be in his room. I’m here in the adjacent one.”
Atal Babu is a very calculating man. He tried a hand at many types of businesses lifelong. He has crossed his eighty, his body is ailing by the attack of diseases, but his sense is quite sound. When he found death at the threshold, he began to frame up a balance sheet of this life and a prospectus of that following.
He remembered, long ago while he was in college, he liked a stanza of Mritchakatik:
Sukhang hi dukkhanyonuvuyo shovate
Sukhattu yo yati naro daridratang
Dhrita sharirena mrita sa jivati.
-Happiness is worthwhile only after the bearing of sorrow, same as the experience of light in the deepest darkness. The man, who comes across poverty after enjoying a sheer affluence, lives like a dead man occupying the body only.
Wrong, thought Atal Babu, all wrong. He bathed in the shower of happiness in the early and middle phases of his life, but had to combat a great deal of sorrow later. His kinsmen including his wife and sons died, his business faced great loss and after all these he became poorer, though not bankrupt. Man ages, time shortens. At this fag it seemed that his total life was but a mere moment and he underwent all sorrows and joys at once all of which reappeared crystal-clear in his memory. Penury followed plenty – this must not be the only argument for holding grief greater than bliss. The ledger of his life showed the loss-profit account written in fast ink and his credit amounted higher. In all, he stands no loser. Forget what others say, he could consider himself a lucky chap.
Still doubt lingers. His nearest and dearest ones, who perished after suffering vehemently, were ill fated, as fortunate as he himself might be. Atal Babu counts their woes as his own and that add to his debit, only to far lessen the profit.
Atal Choudhury could not decide which he enjoyed more in his life—happiness or sorrow. If he were a devotee, he might take pleasure in singing—
“Everywhere your glory rests, O’ Hari,
Whether in the King’s court or mortuary.”
He could not believe in the Christian soothe-saying, ‘what God does is for the welfare of mankind’. Atal Babu learned from somewhere that a Paramhans always takes others’ grief and happiness on his own. One obliterates the other, so he remains not happy or unhappy in the end. But Atal Babu was no Praramhans and further, he saw grief more than happiness. If he could turn his back to sorrow, he could utter, after Tagore:
Sweet is the world, sweet its humble dust-
This great idea has captured my soul
A revelation of worthy life;
The days on this earth gave benediction of truth
That never loses its sweetness
Thus this message is voiced at the entry to Death-
All losses end and happiness is all that remains. *
I am a poet ignorant of arguments,
See only a panorama of the world
Heavenly bodies-millions of them-in the sky
Carry with them a great harmony,
None disturbs its rhythm; nothing breaks its motion,
No affection spoils it… *
It’s his misfortune that Atal Babu is no devotee, or poet, or thinker, or sophist, nor is he a plain believer. He has nibbled at many things but hasn’t mastered any, passed his whole life in the doubt and kept faith in nothing. He does not know what his deposit is, how could he find out his loss and profit? He can as much say, he is more fortunate than many, and at the same time, more unfortunate than many. He will work his brain no more on this useless subject, he’ll rather, try to assume his future. He does not long to live. Nobody will be subject to substantial loss or mental grief at his death, the little income will not cease to be, rather, a healthy amount of money will come by way of insurance. He is a pitiable burden to his relatives. They, perhaps, wish his demise.
Will Atal Babu come to the world again? He can not remember any event of his previous life. Sometimes newspapers write about zatismar men but that is not believable. When Malabioji was under Kaikalpo treatment, the reporter of some famous daily sent news that the grey hair of Malabioji had all blackened, a set of new teeth had appeared. They are neither afraid nor ashamed of breeding pure lies. If you can not remember anything of your previous life then you can not prove that the Rambabu of this life has been the Shyambabu of that, by way of rebirth.
Then comes the question of heaven and hell. He heard from a Christian priest, believers in Christ would reap eternal heaven and non-believers would be cursed with eternal hell. Atal Babu is not such a blockhead to be lulled by these childish kidding. Our Purana says that the lesser sinner is first sent to hell for a short period, then to heaven to enjoy heavenly pleasantries for long. After all that, when his virtue diminishes to nullity, he is again sent to the world. At the same time the greater sinner undergoes a long-term hellish torture after a stopover at heaven, and comes back to the world after the purgation of sin. This theory is far more attractive than the Christian one, but how could we measure our sin and virtue? The idea of sin and virtue is a very flexible one – prone to changes through ages. Only half a century ago, devouring a fowl was a severe sin, now the same is almost a virtue. The ancient forefathers enjoyed other ‘banned’ meat-dishes and a happy sign is there that the later generations will again do that. Murder of a man is a great sin – but not long ago, offspring of very meek and mild gentlemen even killed people incited by their grey-hair elders. They said this was the requisition of the time. To kill a snake is no sin—you need not know whether it’s a cobra or a boa constrictor. While sin and virtue have no concrete identity, the idea of heaven and hell is unacceptable.
What then! Where to get to after death? Will Atal Babu trip to the after-world of spiritualists, which is neither hell nor heaven? These days, details of afterlife are coming out as the description of tourist-spots. Weaklings read those for mental tranquillity as they wear amulets to keep diseases off, or go to gurus and astrologers when they are in danger. In a quick flash the reminiscence of a dream that Atal Babu experienced many years ago became alive. He once visited a friend’s house. After supper and before going to bed he noticed that the adjacent room to his was locked. Before sleep he heard the sound of unlocking the door and locking it again. Then he dipped into sleep. Soon his sleep broke due to some undesirable noise; it seemed to him that a brawl was going on in the next room. This continued till deep into night and it kept Atal Babu away from sleep. In the morning he learned that one of the sons of the landlord had died at a very immature age. The bereaved mother leaves a dish of food for him every night in that room. But the son can not enjoy it. His forefathers of many early generations also come and fight for share.
The remembrance of this dream brought about a nightmare before Atal Babu. He seemed to see his father in front grumbling: Hey Atla! Salute. This is your grand father; this, great grand father; this, ancient great great-grandfather, this, very ancient great great great—and so went the train, as though an unending queue of the ancestors was awaiting Atal Babu’s pranam. There was his fifth ancestor – the mighty zeminder, with the holy tuft on the head-back, a drop of blood-red sandal mark on his forehead, a chain of sacred rudraksh round his neck, in poyta, dhuti and slippers on- he’d got a devilish look. He almost looked like the commander of a robber-gang used to the ritual of human sacrifice. Another there, the very old grand grand-mother who possessed dark brown teeth, through the pores of whose nose and ears ran metal ornaments, whose legs were made heavy by the rings she wore and whose middle was made heavy by the attack of gout, must have been a witch. Beside the vile ones there were many saintly figures too. But Atal Chaudhury could not salute by selecting the good fellows only. What more, at this fag end he was not quite used to this type of courtesy, for he had no elders still living. Years ago, when he was young, he usually hid the hukka at the sight of his father, but now it was very much impossible to entertain this seemingly limitless band of his forefathers. There were people whom he liked, people whom he did not like; some had a grin on their face, some had a tear or two in their eyes and some had a frown on their brow. Yet, not human shapes only. At a great distance there were a large group of animals also. They ranged from beasts to bacteria. They were also his relatives; he had blood connection with all. How terrible! Would he have to leave a small circle of living people and live in the endless vegetation of spirits? Who would he greet as friend, avoid whom? Atal Babu faintly uttered, “Away! Hence!”
Nurse approached to him, asked, “Are you calling me, sir?” Atal Babu once more said, “Away! Hence!” The annoyed nurse got back to her chair and resumed nodding.
After the trance was over, Atal Babu began to think, “No rebirth, not to heaven or hell, nor even to spiritualists’ nether world—where will I go? After death the material corpse is imbibed into physical elements. Is the sense of the dead assimilated into the vaster universal sensibility? Will the perception that I am Atal Choudhury survive?’ —Atal Babu could not think any more. A chaotic turmoil arose in his head.
Late in the night doctor felt the pulse of Atal Babu, examined his chest, and declared, “Deceased about an hour. Queer fellow! No Lord Hari’s name, the hymn of Lord Rama, nor did he need the name of Lord Tarak Brahma. The old man has died while checking loss-profit account of his life. Probably he could not balance the two. See still he’s got his brows knit.”
The daughter-in-law said, “Well that he’s gone. He neither suffered nor made us suffer. Medical expenses are not little these days.”
Atal Babu’s grand son examined the papers and screamed, “Eh! The old hag has cheated. He has left almost nothing.
Intimate friends observed, “A great soul demised. A pure man like him is rarely found. He’ll certainly go to heaven. What’s your opinion Mr. Dutt?”
Haradhan Dutt was an eschatologist, in spite of the fact that he was not fortunate enough to visit the other world. He thought for a while before replying, “It won’t be that easy. He will find the doors shut, for he didn’t believe in anything. He will be loitering in the astral plane, like Trishanku.”
Haripad Vattchuj said in an aside, “My foot! The savage has already reached hell.”
Atal Babu himself knows where he has gone. Or, may be, even he does not know.
* translator’s translation
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