Subha Prasad Sanyal’s translation of ‘After Half-Time’ by Shamik Ghosh is the winner of Harvill Secker’s Young Translators’ Prize 2018.
The alley was dark. The little light there was came from a hoarding round the corner. In the distance, the traffic signal glowed ominously red. The man seemed to have emerged straight out of darkness. Tall and dark. Deep blue shirt. A baseball bat clutched in his left hand. The right arm looked curled up. Maybe it was crippled. His face was hidden under his hood, but I could see his dark, flat chin and large eyes.
Lebu was my friend. We used to play cricket together. He was a great off-spinner: could even do the, what do we call it now? Right. The doosra. We used to play with a rubber ball, though.
His right arm was crippled.
He used to run up with the ball, which would be launched from his right hand as soon as his arm rose. Sometimes it’d bounce high off the asphalt, and sometimes it’d come at you dangerously low. But his bowling lacked speed. If you kept swinging hard and randomly, you could score more than a few sixes off it. A six meant hitting the lamppost in front of the Dutta residence.
Lebu’s crippled right arm would tremble uncontrollably if he conceded too many runs. You could see he was getting agitated. He used to swear a lot then, and there was a sort of flame in his eyes.
The first time I bumped into Lebu was when I was trying to ride a bicycle. His father sold fish in the market. I could ride, but the main road made me jittery. Used to crash into people a lot. Fell off the bike a lot, too. And, one fine day, I bumped into Lebu, literally. And promptly fell off the bike.
He helped me up.
‘You’re new to this, aren’t you?’
‘Um . . . I didn’t hurt you, did I?’
‘Don’t worry, it happens. Here, I’ll teach you.’
He did teach me some. But mostly, I’d sit behind him on the bike while he took me places. That’s how we became friends. And then, from friends to teammates in the same cricket team.
Sometimes we’d escape to the railway tracks. We’d leave our bike leaning against the boundary wall of some nearby building and climb up on the wall. One evening, sitting next to me, he asked:
‘Oi, Bablu, you called everyone for your birthday. Why didn’t you call me?’
‘Um, dad gives me hell just for being friends with you. If I invite you over . . . He’s going to chop me into pieces.’
‘Am I . . . bad?’ He didn’t sound angry or hurt. Just . . . incredulous.
I couldn’t answer him. I picked up a stone chip lying on the wall and threw it as hard as I could. A train rushed past, and the wind ruffled Lebu’s longish hair. He was telling me something, but the sound of the train drowned his voice.
Lebu went to prison and I, to an Indian Institute of Technology. The story of how he ended up in jail is actually kind of funny. So, Lebu had a brother named Fotik. People called him One-Eyed Fotik, though he wasn’t really blind in one eye. He’d given himself the moniker. Goons, like pirates, needed a moniker like that. Children hereabouts had ambitions of becoming doctors or engineers, but Fotik wanted to be a goon.
But to be a goon you needed not just courage but also a gun, or physical strength. Fotik had neither. He did know how to make nail bombs, called petos, though. Lebu was quite certain his elder brother would rapidly ascend the social ladder of the underworld. He told me one day ‘You see, like you chaps have those . . . what do you call it . . . the joint? These chaps have bombs. First, you got to learn to make the bomb, then you got to learn how to chuck it. Then, when the elections come, you’re a goon overnight.’ He was speaking of the Joint Entrance Exams, the things you must pass to get into an IIT.
They lived close to the railway crossing. It wasn’t exactly a slum, but the building was dilapidated. And the slums started just after you crossed their house.
Fotik had made a bomb that night. He was supposed to put all of them in a sack, and bury them on the edge of a marshy patch between the main rail track and the side track a few hundred metres away.
Most days, someone would come along, but Fotik was alone that day. There’d been some trouble with some of the boys from Atabagan. Apparently someone had beaten someone up with a cycle chain. The elections were coming, and the party had told the goons that they were not to create trouble. The opposition could make life problematic if they were caught. Not to mention that winning here this time could mean becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the state.
So, everyone else went to settle the argument, but Fotik remained with his bombs.
The area around the rail tracks was deathly silent. It wasn’t particularly late, though: just around 10 p.m. Fotik crossed the tracks cautiously, a crowbar in one hand, and a bag full of his bombs in the other.
Crickets chirped, and a chilly wind was blowing. Fotik felt himself shudder once or twice. Three or four days ago, the body of a girl had floated to the surface in that marsh. Being submerged for days had made her skin pale . . . she looked almost piscine. Who knows who’d raped her. Pancha had told him he’d heard someone sobbing around here. Said the dead girl haunted the marsh, crying.
Fotik put his crowbar down, took a beedi out of his pocket and lit it. He . . . he could hear something. Someone was sobbing.
No, no, no. It was nothing. No one was sobbing. It was all in his head. But wait, there was a sound by the marsh. Fotik craned his neck.
What was that floating in the water? Was it a saree! Fotik felt a chill run down his spine and goosepimples on his arms. The noise again. Like something rustling through the grass. And maybe a faint jingling of bangles.
‘You son of a bitch ghost!’ Fotik screamed. He bent to take a bomb from his stash and hurled it at the marsh. Maybe he’d forgotten bombs really don’t do much to ghosts. They can’t. But chucking a bomb does inflate your courage. The bomb arced through the air, struck the branches of a tree, and rebounded towards Fotik like a football.
I don’t know if he tried to head it back, but I do know that his face was completely obliterated.
‘I’ll get those fuckers.’ Lebu told me at the crematorium.
‘Whom? Your brother died because of himself.’
‘Because of himself my arse. Fuckers killed him and now they say his own bomb killed him. I’ll teach those party bigwigs.’
His right arm was trembling. His eyes were bloodshot. Must’ve been drinking a lot. I couldn’t bear to look at him and averted my eyes. I’d just got into the IIT, grown a bit of a stubble, wrote poetry when no one was looking. I was going to IIT Kharagpur in a few days. I’d already bought a textbook to prepare for the TOEFL exams. Nellie, the girl next door, smiled coyly whenever our eyes met.
I realised then that Lebu and I had grown light years apart. While I tried to console Lebu, my hand touching his crippled right arm, I made up my mind. I’d run. I wouldn’t go home, I’d go straight to my uncle’s.
Lebu did bomb the party office the next day. I mean, he tried to. The bomb rolled out of his hand and landed in front of the desk. Didn’t bounce. Came through low, just like a slowly spinning delivery. Everyone retreated. The secretary, Bablu, drew his legs up on the chair and stared at the bomb, terrified, covering his ears with his hands.
It was going to explode any second now. Any second . . .
It didn’t explode after all. Just lay there.
When they realised that the bomb wasn’t going to burst, they rushed at Lebu. He’d been standing there, very still, except for his right arm, which was trembling like crazy. Bablu landed the first blow: a resounding slap. Then a barrage of kicks while Lebu writhed on the ground. And then metal rods.
The police arrested Lebu that day.
I was sitting in the classroom and the Bengali teacher was gesticulating wildly. He looked at me and smiled.
‘You, tell me, what’s the name of Saratchandra’s father?’
‘Sarat’s father? Uh, who was it? Bankimchandra?’
‘Excellent! Very good, boy, very good. You can sit down now.’
I obeyed. It was weirdly quiet in the classroom. The students around me were wearing orange shirts and steel-coloured pants. The boy beside me was hunched over his desk, concentrating on something. His book lay open. I looked closer. He was sketching something. Someone sprawling face-down. Headless. A red ball hovered over him. Who was the artist? I looked at him.
How’d he get here? He didn’t study with us! Must’ve sneaked in. He’d be caned if the teacher noticed him.
‘Hey! Hey! Lebu! What are you doing here? Quick, jump out of the window!’ I whispered.
Lebu looked at me. ‘You fouled me, didn’t you?’
I couldn’t breathe. What if the teacher saw him? I tried sniffling. Then I noticed the arm of the man in the sketch. His right arm. It was trembling. And the red ball was descending at great speed. I heard a whistle being blown. It was the teacher, blowing a whistle and screaming, ‘Half-time! Half-time!’
Lebu slammed his notebook shut and stood up. His head retracted into his shirt and he started peeling it off his body. Others started doing the same. There was nothing beneath the clothes. Thin air. As the shirts rose, the bodies disappeared. Gradually, all the boys around me peeled their shirts off and vanished. Only our teacher and I remained in the room, clothed. He smiled at me again.
I woke up, sweating like a pig. Throwing the sheet off my body, I looked at the digital alarm clock. 01:47 a.m.
Jennifer was sleeping soundly beside me. She was my colleague, and my lover too. Jennifer was . . . blindingly blonde. Her ancestors were German. I gazed at her for a while. Her pale, peaceful face glowed in the blue light of the night lamp. She looked ethereal. There was a gentle smile on her face, and dimples on her cheek.
I remembered Lebu . . . had I really fouled him? Would it all have turned out differently if I’d held him back by force that day? No chance. He’d have ended up the same way. That’s what always happens to the Lebus of the world. Or so I tried to force myself into believing.
Feeling a bit queasy, I went to the bathroom and held my head under the tap. I thought I’d throw up.
Maybe I’d just had too much to drink. Europeans can swig their drinks by the gallon. Shouldn’t have tried competing. But we’d bagged a huge project, I had to celebrate! I’d been boozing mindlessly out of excitement, wondering what Thomas’s reaction would be back in New York. He was my boss. Pure-bred American. Cognac. The cognac was escaping my system now. I rinsed my mouth thoroughly.
Parting the curtains, I peered outside through the window. London by night. Many of the buildings were still awake behind the window pane. Countless buildings, of different sizes, all bunched together so close. Tall buildings, squat buildings, all of them trying to rise above one another.
As a student, when burning the midnight oil got boring, I’d escape to the terrace. The rail tracks used to be shrouded in impenetrable darkness, and in the distance, from the slums, streaks of light would sneak out through the gaps in the roofs of asbestos sheets. Sometimes there would be flashes of light illuminating the rail tracks, and distant booms.
Nail bombs. Railway wagon thieves fighting for control of territory.
What a long way I’d come. I turned back and looked at Jennifer and felt relieved. I wanted to touch her. Make sure all of this was real.
I wanted to laugh at myself. No one had handed me a place at the IIT. I’d got it for myself.
Even the air-conditioned room felt stuffy. I wanted to be under the open sky. And suddenly, after all these years, I yearned again for my old terrace.
I put on some clothes. Let Jennifer sleep, I’d take the key to the yale lock on the door. She didn’t look like she should wake up any time soon.
The lobby downstairs was crowded. People were partying even at this hour. I crept out of the hotel.
The desolate street stretched out before me in the cold. I was reminded of the dream. Why had Lebu appeared after such a long time? Whatever. I tried to distract myself. What a huge project we’d bagged, and in Europe, at that. I decided to go back home for a visit. It had been too long since I’d been where I grew up . . .
Lost in thought, I didn’t realise when I’d entered the alleyway. It was one of those places where you were likely to get mugged. Shouldn’t have risked it. The traffic signal was glowing red. The hoarding was at a distance but I could read the tagline, written in large, bold letters.
‘Hey, mate. Give me some dough.’
Snapping out of my reverie, I saw him, as if he’d emerged out of the darkness. Tall and dark. Deep blue shirt. A baseball bat in his left hand. His right arm curled up. Maybe it was crippled. Face hidden by his cap. Dark, flat chin. Large eyes.
I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I could make out its general form in the dim light. And, as I stared at him, he seemed to grow thinner and shorter. I looked at him in astonishment. He seemed to be morphing slowly into Lebu.
Lebu? How could Lebu be here?
‘Hey Paki, give me whatever you have.’
‘Lebu? You’re Lebu, aren’t you? Don’t you remember me?’
‘Paki bastard . . .’
The main raised his bat. My skull would crack if he hit me with it. His right arm was trembling. Just like Lebu’s. The light from the streetlamp in the distance drifted towards. I considered pushing my left leg back, to play on the backfoot. What if a cricket ball came flying out of his right hand now? Would it bounce off the asphalt, or would it come at me low?
Photograph © enki22