This is an excerpt from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Blood translated by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard published by Juggernaut in 2020. Sunil Gangopadhyay is one of Bengal’s best-loved and most acclaimed writers. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. He died in 2012. The translator Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is Professor of English and World Literature at James Madison University. She is the author of Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition (Routledge, 2017).
Tapan returned to the hotel room and shut the door. He felt quite all right now; in fact, he had been feeling refreshed since he puked; there was no pain in his belly. Nevertheless, he took two sleeping pills. Loosening his tie, he felt a release. One by one he took off all his clothes, then increasing the heat in the room he climbed under the blanket. Just as he was about to switch off the light, the phone by his bedside rang.
Tapan picked up the receiver unhurriedly. Hello— Alice’s anxious voice: Tapan, are you all right? Has the pain lessened? Tell me the truth …
Alice didn’t have a phone in her room. There was one telephone in the entire house, on the first-floor balcony. Alice had mentioned to Tapan that her landlady disapproved of calls after 10 p.m. The landlady believed that people make late-night calls when faced with danger or some terrible mishap— so calls after 10 p.m. caused her heart palpitations.
Nevertheless, Alice had slipped out to call, and was whispering into the phone.
Tapan said, Yes, darling, I’ve mostly recovered. I’m sleepy. Feeling very sleepy.
—Tapan, tell me truly if the pain has lessened. I’ve been so nervous since you left.
—Nothing to worry. Go to bed—be a good girl and get some sleep. You didn’t get much last night. Hope you have a deep, dreamless sleep.
—No. I want to see you in my dreams.
—No. Dreaming isn’t good for health. I’ll see you tomorrow. Au revoir—
Tapan put down the receiver and switched off the light. He pulled the blanket over his head.
Total darkness. The kind of darkness which makes things visible.
Plaintively he uttered, No, Alice, that’s not the story—it was different. Not an accident, not momentary insanity. My father had made up his mind since the time he was fifteen about getting his revenge by murdering an Englishman. The story didn’t begin in 1938; instead, it started in 1919— Tapan hadn’t been born. But whenever he shut his eyes, it appeared to him in vivid detail. He had heard about that era so many times before, from his mother, from his uncle, from his gran’ma. There were no proper photographs of his father in the house. All Tapan had seen of him was in a group shot, a face in a crowd of eighteen, and there was the impression of his dead father’s feet covered in sandalwood paste.
Nevertheless, in his imagination Tapan could clearly visualize his father as a young man. That’s why he had recognized him in that photograph, instantly……. The horrifying slaughter in Jallianwala Bagh occurred on April 13, 1919. India had come to a halt the following day; Dhaka was on strike. It was the first time that East Bengali women were participating in a public procession. People came out on the streets—strident ‘Bande Mataram’ chants soaked in tears, and the songs ‘Mother India’s children will give up their lives but never their dignity’ and ‘Th e time to break the restraints is near’ were everywhere. In the vanguard of this march, among its leaders, was Priyonath—Tapan’s jyethamoshai, his father’s older brother. He was twenty-seven, a disciple of Ashwini Kumar Datta; profoundly courageous, rolling thunder in his voice, he held the tricolor flag.
There was at least a photograph of Tapan’s father, Debnath; there were none of Priyonath. Proceeding through Nawabganj, the demonstration confronted Lieutenant Colonel North brook even before the police arrived on the scene. He was returning from his morning horse ride. Every morning he exercised by riding for twenty to twenty-five miles. The colonel was almost recklessly bold. Seeing the procession, he bit his lip and smirked crookedly.
Sombrely, he commanded, Move. Get out of the way. It had been decided that the crowd wouldn’t take recourse to violence. There was no point in clashing with the police and losing precious lives to their rifles. The leaders came forward and with palms held together pleaded, Sahib, the procession can’t be dispersed, please take another route.
The sahib said, Nonsense. My horse is tired. Get off the road or else I’ll be compelled to ride over you.
—Sahib, these tens of thousands of marchers can’t be disbanded. We aren’t doing anything illegal, we are expressing our grief.
—This march is unlawful—disperse immediately.
The leaders of the march were at a loss. Priyonath approached the sahib, flag in hand. Sitting astride the horse, the burly colonel roared, Stop waving that stinking ugly banner near me! The road is for people to travel, not for your gangs to riot. Clear out! And you, with that banner—get the hell out of here!