Indigo

By Satyajit Ray

 

My name is Aniruddha Bose. I am twenty-nine years old and a bachelor. For the last eight years I’ve been working in an advertising agency in Calcutta.  With the salary I get I live in reasonable comfort in a flat in Sardar Shankar Road. The flat has two south-facing rooms and is on the ground floor. Two years ago I bought an Ambassador car which I drive myself. I do a bit of writing in my spare time. Three of my stories have been published in magazines and have been well-appreciated by my acquaintances, but I know I cannot make a living by writing alone.

 

For the last few months I haven’t been writing at all. Instead, I have read a lot about indigo plantations in Bengal and Bihar in the nineteenth century. I am something of an authority on the subject now: how the British exploited the poor peasants; how the peasants rose in revolt; and how, finally, with the invention of synthetic indigo in Germany, the cultivation of indigo was wiped out from our country – all this I know by heart.  It is to describe the terrible experience which instilled in me this interest in indigo that I have taken up my pen today.

 

At this point I must tell you something about my past.

 

My father was a well-known physician in Monghyr, a town in Bihar. That is where I was born and that is where I did my schooling in a missionary school. I have a brother five years older than me. He studied medicine in England and is now attached to a hospital in a suburb of London called Golders Green. He has no plans to return to India.

 

My father died when I was seventeen. Soon after his death, my mother and I left Monghyr and came to Calcutta where we stayed with my maternal uncle. I went to St. Xavier’s College and took my bachelor’s degree. Soon after that I got my job with the advertising agency.  My uncle’s influence helped, but I wasn’t an unworthy candidate myself. I had been a good student, I spoke English fluently, and most of all, I had the ability to carry myself well in an interview.

 

My early years in Monghyr had instilled certain habits in me which I have not been able to give up. One of these was an overpowering desire to go far away from the hectic life of Calcutta from time to time.  I had done so several times ever since I bought my car.  On weekends I made trips to Diamond Harbour, Port Canning, and Hassanabad along the Dum Dum Road.  Each time I had done alone because, to be quite honest, I didn’t really have a close friend in Calcutta. That is why Promode’s letter made me so happy. Promode had been my classmate in Monghyr. After I came away to Calcutta, we continued to keep in touch for three or four years.  Then, perhaps it was I who stopped writing. Suddenly the other day when I came back from work, I found a letter from Promode waiting for me on my desk.  He had written from Dumka – ‘I have a job in the Forest Department here.  I have my own quarters.  Why don’t you take a week’s leave and come over …?’

 

Some leave was due to me, so I spoke to my boss, and on the twenty-seventh of April – I shall remember the date as long as I live – I packed my bags and set off for Dumka.

 

Promode hadn’t suggested that I go by car; it was my idea. Dumka was 200 miles away, so it would take about five or six hours at the most.  I decided to have a big breakfast, set off by ten and reach there before dusk.

 

At least that was the plan, but there was a snag right at the start.  I had my meal and was about to put a paan into my mouth, when my father’s old friend Uncle Mohit suddenly turned up.  He is a grave old man whom I was meeting after ten years.  So there was no question of giving him short shrift. I had to offer him tea and listen to him chat for over an hour.

 

I saw Uncle Mohit off and shoved my suitcase and bedding into the back seat of my car.  Just then, my ground-floor neighbour Bhola Babu walked up with his four-year-old son Pintu in tow.

 

‘Where are you off to all by yourself?’  Bhola Babu asked.

 

When I told him, he said with some concern, ‘But that’s a long way.  Shouldn’t you have arranged for a driver?’

 

I said I was a very cautious driver myself, and that I had taken such care of my car that it was still as good as new – ‘So there’s nothing to worry about.’

 

Bhola Babu wished me luck and went into the house.  I glanced at my wristwatch before turning the ignition key.  It was ten minutes past eleven.

 

Although I avoided Howrah and took the Bally Bridge road, it took me an hour and a half to reach Chandernagore. Driving through dingy towns, these first thirty miles were so dreary that the fun of a car journey was quite lost. But from there on, as the car emerged into open country, the effect was magical. Where in the city did one get to see such a clear blue sky free from chimney smoke, and breathe air so pure and so redolent of the smell of earth?

 

At about half-past twelve, as I was nearing Burdwan, I began to feel the consequence of having eaten so early. Hungry, I pulled up by the station which fell on the way, went into a restaurant and had a light meal of toast, omelette and coffee. Then I resumed my journey.  I still had 135 miles to go.

 

Twenty miles from Burdwan, there was a small town call Panagarh.  There I had to leave the Grand Trunk Road and take the road to Ilambazar.  From Ilambazar the road went via Suri and Massanjore to Dumka.

 

The military camp at Panagarh had just come into view when there was a bang from the rear of my car.  I had a flat tyre.

 

I got down.  I had a spare tyre and could easily fit it. The thought that other cars would go whizzing by, their occupants laughing at my predicament, was not a pleasant one.  Nevertheless I brought out the jack from the boot and set to work.

 

By the time I finished putting the new tyre on, I was dripping with sweat.  My watch showed half past two.  It had turned muggy in the meantime. The cool breeze which was blowing even an hour ago, and was making the bamboo trees sway, had stopped. Now everything was still. As I got back into the car I noticed a blue-black patch in the west above the treetops.  Clouds.  Was a storm brewing up?  A norwester? It was useless to speculate. I must drive faster. I helped myself to some hot tea from the flask and resumed my journey.

 

But before I could cross Ilambazar, I was caught in the storm. I had enjoyed such norwesters in the past, sitting in my room, and had even recited Tagore poems to myself to blend with the mood. I had no idea that driving though open country, such a norwester could strike terror into the heart. Claps of thunder always make me uncomfortable. They seem to show a nasty side of nature; a vicious assault on helpless humanity. It seemed as if the shafts of lightning were all aimed at my poor Ambassador, and one of them was sure to find its mark sooner or later.

 

In this precarious state I passed Suri and was well on my way to Massanjore when there was yet another bang which no one could mistake for a thunderclap. I realized that another of my tyres had decided to call it a day.

 

I gave up hope.  It was now pouring with rain.  My watch said half past five. For the last twenty miles I had had to keep the speedometer down to fifteen, or I would have been well past Massanjore by now. Where was I?  Up ahead nothing was visible through the rain swept windscreen. The wiper was on but its efforts were more frolicsome than effective.  It being April, the sun should still be up, but it seemed more like late evening.

 

I opened the door on my right slightly and looked out. What I saw didn’t suggest the presence of a town, though I could make out a couple of buildings through the trees. There was no question of getting out of the car and exploring, but one thing was clear enough; there were no shops along the road as far as the eye could see.

 

And I had no more spare tyres.

 

After waiting in the car for a quarter of an hour, it struck me that no other vehicle had passed by in all this time. Was I on the right road?  There had been no mistake up to Suri, but suppose I had taken a wrong turning after that?  It was not impossible in the blinding rain.

 

But even if I had made a mistake, it was not as if I had strayed into the jungles of Africa or South America. Wherever I was, there was no doubt that I was still in the district of Birbhum, within fifty miles of Santiniketan, and as soon as the rain stopped my troubles would be over – I might even find a repair shop within a mile or so

 

I pulled out a packet of Wills from my pocket and lit a cigarette.  I recalled Bhola babu’s warning.  He must have gone through the same trying experience, or how could he have given me such sound advice?  In future – Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

I turned round and saw a truck standing behind. Why was it blowing its horn?  Was I standing right in the middle of the road?

 

The rain had let up a little.  I opened the door, got out and found that it was no fault of the truck. When my tyre burst the car had swerved at an angle and was now blocking most of the road.  There was no room for the truck to pass.

 

 ‘Take the car to one side, sir.’

 

The Sikh driver had by now come out of the truck.

 

 ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.  ‘A puncture?’

 

I shrugged to convey my state of helplessness. ‘If you could lend a hand,’ I said, ‘we could move the car to one side and let you pass.’

 

The Sikh driver’s helper came out too. The three of us pushed the car to one side of the road. Then I found out from the two men that I was indeed on the wrong road for Dumka.  I had take a wrong turning and would have to drive back three miles to get back on the right track.  I also learnt that there were no repair shops nearby.

 

The truck went on its way. As its noise faded away, the truth struck me like a hammer blow.

 

I had reached a dead end.

 

There was no way I could reach Dumka that night, and I had no idea how and where I would spend the night.

 

The roadside puddles were alive with the chorus of frogs. The rain had now been reduced to a light drizzle.

 

I got back into the car and was about to light a second cigarette when I spotted a light through the window on my side.  I opened the door again. Through the branches of a tree I saw a rectangle of orange light. A window. Just as smoke meant the presence of fire, a kerosene lamp meant the presence of a human being. There was a house nearby and there were occupants in it.

 

I got out of the car with my torch. The window wasn’t too far away. I had to go and investigate. There was a narrow footpath branching off from the main road which seemed to go in the direction of the house with the window.

 

I locked the car and set off.

 

I made my way avoiding puddles as far as possible. As I passed a tamarind tree, the house came into view. Well, hardly a house.  It was a small cottage with a corrugated tin roof. Through an open door I could see a hurricane lantern and the leg of a bed.

 

 ‘Is anybody there?’ I called out.

 

A stocky, middle-aged man with a thick moustache came out of the room and squinted at my torch. I turned the spot away from his face.

 

 ‘Where are you from, sir?’ the man asked.

 

In a few words I described my predicament. ‘Is there a place here where I can spend the night?’ I asked. ‘I shall pay for it, of course.’

 

 ‘In the dak bungalow, you mean?’

 

Dak bungalow?  I didn’t see any dak bungalow.

 

But immediately I realized my mistake. I had followed the light of the lantern, and had therefore failed to look around. Now I turned the torch to my left and immediately a large bungalow came into view. ‘You mean that one?’ I asked.

 

 ‘Yes sir, but there is no bedding.  And you can’t have meals there.’

 

 ‘I’m carrying my own bedding,’ I said.  ‘I hope there’s a bed there?’

 

 ‘Yes sir.  A charpoy.’

 

 ‘And I see there’s a stove lit in your room.  You must be cooking your own meal?’

 

The man broke into a smile and asked if I would care for coarse chapattis prepared by him and urad-ka-dal cooked by his wife. I said it would do very nicely.  I liked all kinds of chapattis, and urad was my favourite dal.

 

I don’t know what the bungalow must have been like in its heyday, but now it was hardly what one understood by a dak bungalow. Constructed during the time of the Raj, the bedroom was large and the ceiling was high. The furniture consisted of a charpoy, a table set against the wall on one side, and a chair with a broken arm.

 

The chowkidar, or the caretaker, had in the meantime lit a lantern for me.  He now put it on the table. ‘What is your name?’ I asked.

 

 ‘Sukhanram, sir.’

 

 ‘Has anybody ever lived in this bungalow or am I the first one?’

 

 ‘Oh, no sir, others have come too. There was a gentleman who stayed here for two nights last winter.’

 

 ‘I hope there are no ghosts here,’ I said in a jocular tone.

 

 ‘God forbid!’ he said. ‘No one has ever complained of ghosts.’

 

I must say I found his words reassuring. If a place is spooky, and old dak bungalows have a reputation for being so, it will be so at all times. ‘When was this bungalow built?’ I asked.

 

Sukhan began to unroll my bedding and said, ‘This used to be a sahib’s bungalow, sir.’

 

 ‘A sahib?’

 

 ‘Yes sir. An indigo planter. There used to be an indigo factory close by. Now only the chimney is standing.’

 

I knew indigo was cultivated in these parts at one time. I had seen ruins of indigo factories in Monghyr too in my childhood.

 

It was ten-thirty when I went to bed after dining on Sukhan’s coarse chapattis and urad-ka-dal. I had sent a telegram to Promode from Calcutta saying that I would arrive this afternoon.

 

He would naturally wonder what had happened.  But it was useless to think of that now.  All I could do now was congratulate myself on having found a shelter, and that too without much trouble.  In future I would do as Bhola Babu had advised.  I had learnt a lesson, and lessons learnt the hard way are not forgotten easily.

 

I put the lantern in the adjoining bathroom. The little light that seeped through the door which I had kept slightly ajar was enough. Usually I find it difficult to sleep with a light on, and yet I did not extinguish the light even though what I badly needed now was sleep.  I was worried about my car which I had left standing on the road, but it was certainly safer to do so in a village than in the city.

 

The sound of drizzle had stopped. The air was now filled with the croaking of frogs and the shrill chirping of crickets. From my bed in that ancient bungalow in this remote village, the city seemed to belong to another planet. Indigo … I thought of the play by Dinabandhu Mitra, Nildarpan (The Mirror of Indigo). As a college student I had watched a performance of it in a theatre on Cornwallis Street.

 

I didn’t know how long I had slept, when a sound suddenly awakened me. Something was scratching at the door. The door was bolted. Must be a dog or a jackal, I thought, and in a minute or so the noise stopped.

 

I shut my eyes in an effort to sleep, but the barking of a dog put an end to my efforts.  This was not the bark of a stray village dog, but the unmistakable bay of a hound.  I was familiar with it. Two houses away from us in Monghyr lived Mr. Martin. He had a hound which bayed just like this. Who on earth kept a pet hound here?  I thought of opening the door to find out as the sound seemed quite near. But then I thought, why bother?  It was better to get some more sleep. What time was it now?

 

A faint moonlight came in through the window. I raised my left hand to glance at the wristwatch, and gave a start. My wristwatch was gone.

 

And yet, because it was an automatic watch, I always wore it to bed.  Where did it disappear?  And how?  Were there thieves around?  What would happen to my car then?

 

I felt beside my pillow for my torch and found it gone too.

 

I jumped out of bed, knelt on the floor and looked underneath it. My suitcase too had disappeared.

 

My head started spinning. Something had to be done about it. I called out: ‘Chowkidar!’

 

There was no answer.

 

I went to the door and found that it was still bolted. The window had bars. So how did the thief enter?

 

As I was about to unfasten the bolt, I glanced at my hand and experience an odd feeling.

 

Had whitewash from the wall got on to my hand? Or was it white powder? Why did it look so pale?

 

I had gone to bed wearing a vest; why then was I now wearing a long-sleeved silk shirt?  I felt a throbbing in my head.  I opened the door and went out into the veranda.

 

 ‘Chowkidar!’

 

The word that came out was spoken with the unmistakable accent of an Englishman.  And where was the chowkidar, and where was his little cottage?  There was now a wide open field in front of the bungalow. In the distance was a building with a high chimney.  The surroundings were unusually quiet.

 

They had changed.

 

And so had I.

 

I came back into the bedroom in a sweat. My eyes had got used to the darkness. I could now clearly make out the details.

 

The bed was there, but it was covered with a mosquito net. I hadn’t been using one.  The pillow too was unlike the one I had brought with me. This one had a border with frills; mine didn’t.  The table and the chair stood where they did, but they had lost their aged look. The varnished wood shone even in the soft light. On the table stood not a lantern but a kerosene lamp with an ornate shade.

 

There were other objects in the room which gradually came into view: a pair of steel trunks in a corner, a folding bracket on the wall from which hung a coat, an unfamiliar type of headgear and a hunting crop. Below the bracket, standing against the wall, was a pair of galoshes.

 

I turned away from the objects and took another look at myself. Till now I had only noticed the silk shirt; now I saw the narrow trousers and the socks. I didn’t have shoes on, but saw a pair of black boots on the floor by the bed.

 

I passed my right hand over my face and realized that not only my complexion but my features too had changed. I didn’t possess such a sharp nose, nor such thin lips or narrow chin.  I felt the hair on my head and found that it was wavy and that there were sideburns which reached below my ears.

 

In spite of my surprise and terror, I suddenly felt a great urge to find out what I looked like.  But where to find a mirror?

 

I strode towards the bathroom, opened the door with a sharp push and went in.

 

There had been nothing there but a bucket.  Now I saw a metal bath tub and a mug kept on a stool beside it.  The thing I was looking for was right in front of me: an oval mirror fixed to a dressing-table. I looked into it, but the person reflected in it was not me.  By some devilish trick I had turned into a nineteenth-century Englishman with a sallow complexion, blond hair and light eyes from which shone a strange mixture of hardness and suffering. How old would the Englishman be? Not more than thirty, but it looked as if either illness or hard work, or both, had aged him prematurely.

 

I went closer and had a good look at ‘my’ face.  As I looked, a deep sigh rose from the depths of my heart.

 

The voice was not mine.  The sigh, too, expressed not my feelings but those of the Englishman.

 

What followed made it clear that all my limbs were acting of their own volition.  And yet it was surprising that I – Aniruddha Bose – was perfectly aware of the change in identity.  But I didn’t know if the change was permanent, or if there was any way to regain my lost self.

 

I came back to the bedroom.

 

Now I glanced at the table. Below the lamp was a notebook bound in leather.  It was open at a blank page. Beside it was an inkwell with a quill pen dipped in it.

 

I walked over to the table. Some unseen force made me sit in the chair and pick up the pen with my right hand. The hand now moved towards the left-hand page of the notebook, and the silent room was filled with the noise of a quill scratching the blank page.  This is what I wrote:

 

27 April 1968

 

Those fiendish mosquitoes are singing in my ears again. So that’s how the son of a mighty empire has to meet his end – at the hands of a tiny insect. What strange will of God is this? Eric has made his escape. Percy and Tony too left earlier. Perhaps I was greedier than them. So in spite of repeated attacks of malaria I couldn’t resist the lure of indigo. No, not only that. One mustn’t lie in one’s diary. My countrymen know me only too well.  I didn’t lead a blameless life at home either; and they surely have not forgotten that. So I do not dare go back home. I know I will have to stay here and lay down my life on this alien soil.  My place will be beside the graves of my wife Mary and dear little son Toby. I have treated the natives here so badly that there is no one to shed a tear at my passing away.  Perhaps Mirjan would miss me – my faithful trusted bearer Mirjan.

 

And Rex? My real worry is about Rex. Alas, faithful Rex!  When I die, these people will not spare you. They will either stone you or club you to death. If only I could do something about you.

 

I could write no more. The hands were shaking. Not mine, the diarist’s.

 

I put down the pen.

 

Then my right hand dropped and moved to the right and made for the handle of the drawer.

 

I opened it.

 

Inside there was a pin cushion, a brass paperweight, a pipe and some papers.

 

The drawer opened a little more.  A metal object glinted in the half-light.

 

It was a pistol, its butt inlaid with ivory.

 

The hand pulled out the pistol.  It had stopped shaking.

 

A group of jackals cried out. It was as if in answer to the jackals’ cry that the hound bayed again.

 

I left the chair and advanced towards the door.  I went out into the veranda.

 

The field in front was bathed in moonlight.

 

About ten yards from the veranda stood a large greyhound.  He wagged his tail as he saw me.

 

 ‘Rex!’

 

It was the same deep English voice. The echo of the call came floating back from the faraway factory and bamboo grove – Rex! Rex!

 

Rex came up towards the veranda.

 

As he stepped from the grass onto the cement, my right hand rose to my waist, the pistol pointing towards the hound. Rex stopped in his tracks, his eye on the pistol.  He gave a low growl.

 

My right forefinger pressed the trigger.

 

As the gun throbbed with a blinding flash, smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air.

 

Rex’s lifeless, blood-spattered body lay partly on the veranda and partly on the grass.

 

The sound of the pistol had wakened the crows in the nearby trees.  A hubbub now rose from the direction of the factory.

 

I came back into the bedroom bolted the door and sat on the bed. The shouting drew near.

 

I placed the still hot muzzle of the pistol by my right ear.

 

That is all I remember.

 

 

Translated from Bengali by the author

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ashamanja Babu’s Dog

By Satyajit Ray

 

On a visit to a friend in Hashimara, Ashamanja Babu was able to fulfil one of his long-cherished desires. Ashamanja Babu lived in a small flat on Mohini Mohan Road in Bhowanipore. A clerk in the registry department of Lajpat Rai Post Office, Ashamanja Babu was fortunate as he could walk to his office in seven minutes flat without having to fight his way into the buses and trains of Calcutta. He lived a rather carefree life as he was not the kind of person to sit and brood about what might have been, had fate been kinder to him. On the whole, he was quite content with his lot. Two Hindi films and a dozen packets of cigarettes a month, and fish twice a week—these were enough to keep him happy. The only thing that perturbed him at times was the lack of companionship. A bachelor with few friends and relatives, he often wished he had a dog to keep him company... it need not be a huge Alsatian like the one owned by the Talukdars, who lived two houses down the lane, it could be any ordinary little dog which would follow him around morning and evening, wag his tail when he came home from work and obey his orders with alacrity. Ashamanja Babu’s secret desires were that he would speak to his dog in English. ’Stand up!’, ‘Shake hands!’—how nice it would be if his dog obeyed such commands! Ashamanja Babu liked to believe that dogs belonged to the English race. Yes, an English dog and he would be its master. That would make him really happy.

 

On a cloudy day marked by a steady drizzle, Ashamanja Babu went to the market in Hashimara to buy some oranges. At one end of the market, beside a stunted kul tree, sat a Bhutanese holding a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. As their eyes met, the man smiled. Was he a beggar? His clothes made him look like one. Ashamanja Babu noticed at least five sewn-on patches on his trousers and jacket. But the man didn’t have  begging bowl. Instead, by his side was a shoe-box with a little pup sticking its head out of it.

 

 ‘Good morning!’ said the man in English, his eyes reduced to slits as he smiled. Ashamanja Babu was obliged to return the greeting.

 

 ‘Buy dog? Dog buy? Very good dog’. The man had taken the pup out of the box and had put it down on the ground.’ Very cheap. Very good. Happy dog.’

 

The pup shook the raindrops off its coat, looked at Ashamanja Babu and wagged its miniscule two-inch tail. Ashamanja Babu moved closer to the pup, crouched on the ground and stretched out his hand. The pup gave his ring finger a lick with its pink tongue. Nice, friendly dog.

 

 ‘How much? What price?’

 

 ‘Ten rupees.’

 

A little haggling, and the price came down to seven-fifty. Ashamanja Babu paid the money and put the pup back in the shoe-box, closed the lid to save it from the drizzle, and turned homewards, forgetting all about the oranges.

 

Biren Babu, who worked in the Hashimara State Bank, had no idea about his friend’s wish to own a dog. He was naturally surprised and a bit alarmed to see what the shoe-box contained. But when he heard the price he heaved a sigh of relief. He said in a tone of mild reprimand, ‘Why come all the way to Hashimara to buy a mongrel? You could easily have bought one in Bhowanipore?’

 

That was not true; Ashamanja Babu knew it. He had often seen mongrel pups in the streets in his neighbourhood. None of them had ever wagged its tail at him or licked his fingers. Whatever, Biren might say, this dog was something special. But the fact that  the pup was a mongrel was something  of a disappointment to Ashamanja Babu too, and he said so. Biren Babu’s retort came sharp and quick,’ but do you know what it means to keep a pedigree dog as a pet? The vet’s fees alone would cost you half a month’s salary. With this dog you have no worries. You don’t even need to give it a special diet. He’ll eat what you eat. But don’t give him fish. Fish is for cats; dogs have trouble with fish-bones.’

 

Back in Calcutta, it occurred to Ashamanja Babu that he had to think of a name for the pup. He wanted to give it an English name, but the only one he could think of was Tom. Then, looking at the pup one day, it struck him that since it was brown in colour, Brownie would be a good name for it. A cousin of his had a camera of an English make called Brownie, so the name must be an English one. The moment he decided on the name and tried it on the pup, it jumped off a wicker stool, and padded up to him wagging its tail. Ashamanja Babu said, ’Sit down,’ immediately the dog sat on its haunches and opened its mouth in a tiny yawn. Ashamanja Babu had a fleeting vision of Brownie winning the first prize for cleverness in a dog show.

 

It was lucky that his servant Bipin had also taken a fancy to the dog. While Ashamanja Babu was away at work, Bipin gladly took it upon himself to look after Brownie. Ashamanja Babu had warned Bipin against feeding the dog rubbish. ‘And see that he doesn’t go out into the street. Car drivers these days seem to wear blinkers.’ But however much he may instruct his servant, his worry would linger until he returned from work, and Brownie greeted him ecstatically, his tail wagging fast.

 

The incident took place three months after returning from Hashimara. It was a Saturday, and the date was November the twenty-third. Ashamanja Babu had just got back from work and sat down on the old wooden chair, the only piece of furniture in the room apart from the bed and the wicker stool; when it suddenly collapsed under him and sent him sprawling on the floor. Naturally, he was hurt, and in fact was wondering if, like the rickety leg of the chair, his right elbow was out of commission, when an unexpected sound made him forget his pain.

 

It had come from the bed. It was the sound of laughter or, more, accurately, a giggle, the source of which undoubtedly was Brownie, who sat on the bed his lips still curled up.

 

If Ashamanja Babu’s general knowledge had been wider, he would surely have known that dogs never laughed. And if he had any modicum of imagination, the incident would have robbed him of his sleep. In the absence of either, what Ashamanja Babu did was to sit down with the book All About Dogs which he had bought for two rupees from a second-hand book shop in Free School Street. He searched for an hour but found no mention in the book of laughing dogs.

 

And yet there wasn’t the slightest doubt that Brownie had laughed. Not only that, he had laughed because there had been cause for laughter. Ashamanja Babu could clearly recall a similar incident from his own childhood. A doctor had come on a visit to their house in Chandernagore and had sat on a chair which had collapsed under him. Ashamanja Babu had burst out in a fit of laughter, and as a result had his ears twisted by his father.

 

He shut the book and looked at Brownie. As their eyes met, Brownie put his front paws on the pillow and wagged its tail, which had grown an inch and a half longer in three months. There was no trace of smile on his face now. Why should there be? To laugh without a reason was a sign of madness. Ashamanja Babu felt relieved that Brownie was not a mad dog.

 

On two more occasions within a week of this incident, Brownie had reason to laugh. The first took place at night, at around nine-thirty. Ashamanja Babu had just spread a white sheet on the floor for Brownie to sleep on when a cockroach came fluttering into the room and settled on the wall. Ashamanja Babu picked up a slipper and flung it at the insect. The slipper missed its target, landed on the mirror hanging on the wall, and sent it crashing to the floor. This time Brownie’s laughter more than compensated for the loss of his mirror.

 

The second time it was not laughter, but  a brief snicker. Ashamanja Babu was puzzled, nothing had happened. So why the snicker? His servant Bipin provided the answer when he came into the room. He glanced at his master and said smiling, ‘There’s shaving soap right by your ears, sir.’ With his mirror broken, Ashamanja Babu had to use one of the window panes for shaving. He now felt with his fingers and found that Bipin was right.

 

That Brownie should laugh even when the reason was so trifling surprised Ashamanja Babu a great deal. Sitting at his desk in the post office, he found his thoughts turning again and again to the smile on Brownie’s face and the sound of the snicker. All About Dogs may say nothing about a dog’s laughter, but if he could get hold of something like an encyclopedia of dogs, there was sure to be a mention of laughter in it.

 

When four book shops in Bhowanipore—and all the ones in new market—failed to produce such an encyclopedia, Ashamanja Babu wondered whether he should call on Mr. Rajani Chatterji. The retired professor lived not far from his house on the same street. Ashamanja Babu didn’t know what subject Rajani Babu had taught, but he had seen through the window of his house many fat books in a book case in what appeared to be the professor’s study.

 

So, on a Sunday morning, Ashamanja Babu offered up a silent prayer to goddess Durga for help in this adventure, and made his way to Professor Chatterji’s house. He had seen him several times from a distance, and had no idea that he had such thick eyebrows and a voice so grating. But since the professor didn’t turn him away from the door, Ashamanja Babu took courage and sat himself down on a sofa opposite the professor. Then he gave a short cough and waited. Professor Chatterji put aside the newspaper he was reading and turned his attention to the visitor.

 

 ‘Your face seems familiar.’

 

 ‘I live close by.’

 

 ‘I see. Well?’

 

I have seen a dog in your house: that is why...’

 

 ‘So what? We have two dogs not one.’

 

 ‘ I see, I have one too.’

 

 ‘Are you employed to count the number of dogs in the city?’

 

Ashamanja Babu missed the sarcasm in the question. He said,’  I have come to ask if you have something I’ve been looking for.’

 

 ‘What is it?’

 

 ‘I wonder if you have a dog encyclopedia?’

 

 ‘No, I don’t. Why do you need one?’

 

 ‘You see my dog laughs. So I wanted to find out if it was natural for dogs to laugh. Do your dogs laugh?’

 

Throughout the time it took the wall clock in the room to strike eight, Professor Chatterji looked steadily at Ashamanja Babu. Then he asked ‘does your dog laugh at night?’

 

 ‘Well yes—even at night.’

 

 ‘And what are your preferences in drugs?  Only ganja can’t produce such symptoms. Perhaps you take charas and hashish as well?’

 

Ashamanja Babu meekly answered that his only vice was smoking—and even that he had had to reduce from three packets a week to two ever since the arrival of his dog.

 

 ‘And yet you say your dog laughs?’

 

 ‘I have seen and heard him laugh with my own eyes and ears.’

 

 ‘Listen’. Professor Chatterji took off his spectacles, cleaned them with his handkerchief, put them on again and fixed Ashamanja Babu with a hard stare. Then he declaimed in the tone of a classroom lecture:

 

 ‘I am amazed at your ignorance concerning a fundamental fact of nature. Of all creatures created by God, only the human species is capable of laughter. This is one of the prime differences between Homo sapiens and other creatures. Don’t ask me why it should be so, because I do not know. I have heard that a marine species called the dolphin has a sense of humour. Dolphins maybe the single exception. Apart from them there are none. It is not clearly understood why human beings should laugh. Great philosophers have racked their brains to find out why; but have not succeeded. Do you understand?’

 

Ashamanja Babu understood; he also understood that it was time for him to take his leave because the professor had once again picked up his newspaper and disappeared behind it.

 

Doctor Sukhomoy Bhowmick—some called him doctor bow-wow-mick—was a well-known vet. Hoping that a vet might listen to him even if other people didn’t, Ashamanja Babu made an appointment on the phone and took Brownie to the vet’s residence on Gokhale Road. Brownie had laughed seventeen times in the last four months. One thing Ashamanja Babu noticed that Brownie didn’t laugh at funny remarks; only at funny incidents

 

Ashamanja Babu had recited the nonsense-rhyme King Of Bombardia to Brownie, and it had produced no effect on him. And yet when a potato from a curry slipped from Ashamanja Babu’s fingers and landed in a plate of curd, Brownie had almost choked with laughter. Professor Chatterji had lectured him about God’s creatures but here was living proof that the learned gentleman was wrong.

 

So Ashamanja Babu went to the vet, though he knew that he would be charged twenty rupees for the visit. But even before the vet heard of the dog’s unique trait, his eyebrows had shot up at the dog’s appearance. ‘I’ve seen mongrels, but never one like this one.’

 

He lifted the dog and placed him on the table. Brownie sniffed at the brass paperweight at his feet.

 

 ‘What do you feed him?’

 

 ‘He eats what I eat sir, he has no pedigree you see...’

 

Doctor Bhowmick frowned. He was observing the dog with great interest. ‘We can tell a pedigree dog when we see one. But sometimes we are not sure. This one, for instance. I would hesitate to call him a mongrel. I suggest that you stop feeding him rice and daal. I’ll make a diet chart for him.’

 

Ashamanja Babu now made an attempt to come out with the real reason for his visit.’ I –er, my dog has a speciality—which is why I have brought him to you.’

 

 ‘Speciality?’

 

 ‘The dog laughs.’

 

 ‘Laughs—?’

 

 ‘Yes laughs, like you and me.’

 

 ‘You don’t say! Well can you make him laugh now, so I can see?’

 

Now Ashamanja Babu was stumped. By nature a shy person, he was quite unable to make faces at Brownie to make him laugh, nor was it likely that something funny should happen here at this very moment. So he had to tell the doctor that Brownie didn’t laugh when asked to, but only when he saw something funny happening.

 

After this doctor Bhowmick didn’t have much time left for Ashamanja Babu. He said, ‘Your dog looks distinctive enough; don’t try to make him more so by claiming that he laughs. I can tell you from my twenty-two years’ experience that dogs cry, dogs feel afraid, dogs show anger, hatred, distrust and jealousy. Dogs even dream but dogs don’t laugh.

 

After this encounter, Ashamanja Babu decided that he would never tell anyone about Brownie’s laughter again. Why court embarrassment when he could not prove his story? What did it matter if others never knew? He himself knew. Brownie was his dog, his own property. Why drag outsiders into their private world?

 

But things don’t  always go according to plans. One day Brownie’s laughter was revealed to an outsider.

 

For some time, Ashamanja Babu had developed the habit of taking Brownie for a walk in the afternoon near the Victoria Memorial. One April day, in the middle of their walk, a big storm came up suddenly. Ashamanja Babu glanced at the sky and decided that it wasn’t safe to try to get back home as the rain would start pelting down any minute. So he ran with Brownie and took shelter below the marble arch with a black equestrian statue on it.

 

Meanwhile, huge drops of rain had started to fall and people were looking for a shelter. A stout man in a white bush shirt and trousers, twenty paces away from the arch, opened his umbrella and held it over his head when a  sudden strong gust of wind turned the umbrella inside out with a snap.

 

To tell the truth, Ashamanja Babu was about to burst out laughing, when Brownie beat him to it with a loud canine guffaw the sound of which  rose above the cacophony of the storm and reached the ear of the hapless gentleman. The man stopped trying to bring the umbrella back to its original shape and stared at Brownie in utter amazement. Brownie was now quite helpless with laughter. Ashamanja Babu had tried frantically to suppress it by clapping his hands over the dog’s mouth, but had given up.

 

The dumbfounded gentleman walked over to Ashamanja Babu as if he had seen a ghost. Brownie’s paroxysm was now subsiding, but it was still enough to make the gentleman’s eyes pop out of his head.

 

 ‘A laughing dog!’

 

 ‘Yes, a laughing dog’, said Ashamanja Babu.

 

 ‘But how extraordinary!’

 

Ashamanja Babu could make out that the man was not a Bengali. Perhaps he was a Guajarati or a Parsi. Ashamanja Babu braced himself to answer in English the questions he knew he would soon be bombarded with.

 

The rain had turned into a heavy shower. The gentleman took shelter alongside Ashamanja Babu, and in ten minutes had found out all there was to know about Brownie. He also took down Ashamanja Babu’s address. He said that his name was Piloo Pochkanwalla, that he knew a lot about dogs and wrote  about them occasionally, and that his experience today had surpassed anything that had ever happened to him, or was likely to happen in the future. He felt something had to be done  about it, Ashamanja  Babu himself was obviously unaware of what a priceless treasure he owned.

 

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Brownie was responsible for Mr. Pochkanwalla being knocked down by a minibus while crossing Chowringhee Road soon after the rain had stopped—it was the thought of the laughing dog running through his head  which made him a little unmindful of the traffic. After spending two and a  half months in the hospital, Pochkanwalla went to Nainital to recuperate. He came back to Calcutta after a month in the hills, and the same evening he made his way to the Bengal Club and described the incident of the laughing dog to his friends

 

Mr. Balaporia and Mr.Biswas. Within half an hour the story had reached the ears of twenty-seven other members and three bearers of the club. By next morning the incident was known to at least a thousand citizens of Calcutta.

 

Brownie hadn't laughed once during these three and half months. One good reason was that no funny incidents had occurred in his presence. Ashamanja Babu didn't see it as a cause of alarm; the thought had never crossed his mind to cash in on Brownie's unique gift. He was happy in the way Brownie had filled a yawning gap in his life. To tell the truth, he had never felt so drawn to any human being.

 

Among those who got the news of the laughing dog was an executive in the office of The Statesman. He sent for the reporter Rajat Chowdhury and suggested that he should interview Ashamanja Babu. That Ashamanja Babu was a clerk in the Lajpat Rai post office had been mentioned by Pochkanwalla.

 

Ashamanja Babu was greatly surprised that a reporter should think of calling on him. It was when Rajat Chowdhury mentioned Pochkanwalla that the reason for the visit became clear. Ashamanja Babu asked the reporter into the bedroom. The wooden chair had been fitted with a new leg, and Ashamanaja Babu offered it to the reporter while he himself sat on the bed. Brownie had been observing a line of ants crawling up the wall; he now jumped up on the bed and sat beside Ashamanja Babu.

 

Rajat Chowdhury was about to press the switch of his recorder when it suddenly occurred to Ashamanja Babu that a word of warning is needed. "By the way, sir, my dog used to laugh quite frequently, but in the last few months he hasn't laughed at all. So you may be disappointed if you are expecting to see him laughing."

 

Like many young energetic reporters, Rajat Chowdhury exuded a cheerful confidence in the presence of a good story. Although the information caused a slight disappointment, he was careful not to show it. He said, "That's all right, I just want to get some details from you. To start with, his name. What do you call your dog?"

 

Ashamanja Babu craned his neck to reach closer to the mike. "Brownie." "Brownie….." The watchful eye of the reporter had noted that the dog wagged his tail at the mention of his name. "How old is he?"

 

"Thirteen months."

 

"Where did you f-find the dog?"

 

This had happened before. Rajat Chowdhury’s greatest handicap often showed itself in the middle of interviews, causing him no end of embarrassment. Here too the same thing might have happened but for the fact that the stammer was unexpectedly helpful in drawing out Brownie's unique trait. Thus Rajat Chowdhury was second outsider after Pochkanwalla to see with his own eyes a dog laughing like human being.

 

The morning of the following Sunday, sitting in the air-conditioned room in the Grand Hotel. Mr. William. P. Moody of Cincinnati, USA, read in the newspapers about the laughing dog and at once asked the hotel operator to put him through to Mr. Nandy of the Indian Tourist Bureau. That Mr. Nandy knew his way about the city had been made abundantly clear in the last couple of days when Mr. Moody had occasion to use his services. The Statesman had printed the name and address of the owner of the laughing dog. Mr. Moody was very anxious to meet this character.

 

Ashamanja Babu didn't read The Statesman. Besides, Rajat Chowdhury hadn't told him when the interview would come out, or he might have bought a copy. It was in the fish market that his neighbour Kalikrishna Dutt told him about it.

 

"You are a fine man," said Mr. Dutt. "You have been guarding such a treasure in your house for over a year, and you haven't breathed a word to anybody about it? I must drop into your place sometime this evening and say hello to your dog." Ashamanja Babu's heart sank. He could see there was trouble ahead. There were many more like Mr. Dutt in and around his neighbourhood who read The Statesman and who would want to drop in and say hello to his dog. A most unnerving prospect.

 

Ashamanja Babu quickly made up his mind. He decided to spend the day away from home. So with Brownie under his arms, he took a taxi for the first time, went straight to Ballygunge station and boarded a train to Port Canning. Half way through, the train pulled up at a station called Palsit. Ashamanja Babu liked the look of the place and got off. He spent the whole day in quite bamboo groves and mango orchards and felt greatly refreshed. Brownie, too, seemed to enjoy himself. The gentle smile that played around his lips was something Ashamanja Babu had never noticed before. This was benign smile, a smile of peace and contentment, a smile of inner happiness. He had read somewhere that a year in life of a dog equaled seven years in life of a human being. And yet he could scarcely imagine such tranquil behaviour in such sylvan surroundings from a seven year old human child.

 

It was past seven in the evening when Ashamanja Babu got back home. He asked Bipin if anyone had called. Bipin said he had to open the door to callers at least forty times. Ashamanja Babu couldn't help congratulating himself on his foresight. He had just taken off his shoes and asked Bipin for a cup of tea when there was a knock on the front door. "Oh, hell!" swore Ashamanja Babu. He went to the door and opened it, and found himself facing a foreigner. "Wrong number." He was at the point of saying, when he caught sight of a Bengali standing behind the foreigner. "Whom do you want?"

 

"You," said Shyamol Nandy of the Indian Tourist Bureau, "That is to say if the dog standing behind you is yours, he certainly looks like the one described in the papers today. May we come in?"

 

Ashamanja Babu was obliged to ask them into his bedroom. The foreigner sat in the chair, Mr. Nandy on a wicker stool, and Ashamanja Babu on his bed. Brownie, who seemed a bit ill at ease, chose to stay outside the threshold; probably because he had never seen two strangers in the room before.

 

"Brownie! Brownie! Brownie! Brownie!" The foreigner had leaned forward towards the dog and called him repeatedly by name to entice him into the room. Brownie, who didn't move, had his eyes fixed on the stranger.

 

Who are these people? The question had naturally occurred to Ashamanja Babu when Mr. Nandy provided the answer. The foreigner was a wealthy and distinguished citizen of the United States whose main purpose in coming to India was to look for old Rolls Royce cars.

 

The American had now got off the chair and, sitting on his haunches, was making faces at the dog.

 

After three minutes of abortive clowning, the man gave up, turned to Ashamanja Babu and said, "Is he sick?"

 

Ashamanja Babu shook his head.

 

"Does he really laugh?" asked the American.

 

In case Ashamanja Babu was unable to follow the American's speech, Mr. Nandy translated it for him.

 

"Brownie laughs," said Ashamanja Babu, "but only when he feels amused."

 

A tinge of red spread over the American's face when Nandy translated Ashamanja Babu's answer to him. In no uncertain terms he let it be known that he wasn't willing to squander any money on the dog unless he had proof that the dog really laughed. He refused to be saddled with something which might later cause embarrassment. He further let it be known that in his house he had precious objects from China to Peru, and had parrot which spoke only Latin. "I had brought my cheque book with me to pay for the laughing dog but only if I have proof that it actually does so."

 

He then proceeded to pull out a blue cheque book from his pocket to prove his statement. Ashamanja Babu glanced at it from the corner of his eyes. City Bank of New York, it said on the cover.

 

"You would be walking on air," said Mr. Nandy temptingly. "If you know a way to make the dog laugh then out with it. This gentleman is ready to pay up to 20,000 dollars. That's two lakhs of rupees. "

 

The Bible says that the God created the universe in seven days. A human being, using his imagination, can do the same in seven seconds. The image that Mr. Nandy's word conjured up in Ashamanja Babu's mind was himself in a spacious air conditioned room, sitting in a swivel chair with his legs up on the table, the heady smell of hasu-no-hana wafting in through the window. But the image vanished like a pricked balloon at a sudden sound. Brownie was laughing.

 

This was like no laugh he had ever laughed before. "But he is laughing."

 

Mr. Moody had gone down on his knees, tense with excitement, watching the extraordinary spectacle. The cheque book came out again and, along with that, his gold Parker pen.

 

Brownie was still laughing. Ashamanja Babu was puzzled because he couldn't make out the reason for the laughter, nobody had stammered, nobody had stumbled, nobody's umbrella had turned inside out, no mirror on the wall had been hit with a slipper. Why then was Brownie laughing?

 

"You are very lucky," commented Mr. Nandy. "I think I ought to get a percentage on the sale – wouldn't you say so?"

 

Mr. Moody had now risen from the floor and had sat down on the chair. He said, "Ask him how he spells his name."

 

Although Mr. Nandy had relayed the question in Bengali, Ashamanja Babu didn't answer, because he had just seen the light and the light filled his heart with great sense of wonder. Instead of spelling his name, he said, "Please tell the foreign gentleman that if he only knew why the dog was laughing, he wouldn't have opened his cheque book."

 

"Why don't you tell me?" Mr. Nandy snapped in a dry voice. He certainly didn't like the way events were shaping. If the mission failed, he knew the American's wrath will fall on him. Brownie had at last stopped laughing. Ashamanja Babu lifted him up in his lap, wiped his tears and said,

 

"My dog is laughing because the gentleman thinks money can buy everything."

 

"I see," said Mr. Nandy. "So your dog's a philosopher, is he?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"That means you won't sell him?" Nandy's face sat tightly.

 

"No sir."

 

To Mr. Moody Shyamol Nandy only said that the owner had no intention of selling the dog.

 

Mr. Moody put the cheque book back in his pocket, slapped the dust of his knees and, on his way out of the room, said with the shake of his head, "This guy must be crazy."

 

When the sound of the American car faded away, Ashamanja Babu looked into Brownie's eyes and said, "I was right about why you laughed, wasn't I?" Brownie chuckled in assent.

 

 

Translated from Bengali by the author.

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