Satabdi Saha

Bio coming soon

RED

Arnab stared outside the window. Not far away the clock struck two. Keenly observing a strange face on the pock- marked wall of a nearby house, Arnab was oblivious to everything around him. Darkness seeped inside his ribcage. The night was quiet like every other night. After the screaming daylight chaos, evenings settled down with blissful relief. Or so felt Arnab. He could then leaf through his books or stand in front of his easel and paint. Night was specially inviting, stretching to infinite realms of which he was an inhabitant, often puzzled, by things which flashed before
his eyes.

Every night when the world lay pillowed, he sat near the window watching intently, a form with grey and white colours on the brick-toothed wall, over which the streetlights played randomly. Sometimes when headlights of passing cars suddenly gleamed, his frightened eyes saw multiple faces popping in and out of it .They appeared to be familiar yet he couldn’t locate them, like unpinned pictures shoved beneath forgotten stacks of time.

At night the grotesque figure projected on the hole – riddled wall captured his imagination.Arnab wondered why daylight rubbed off even the faintest trace of its existence, so prominently etched with dark shades at sundown and slashed to dotted bits with sharp – edged streetlights. Strange that it was only he who noticed it. An inexplicable magnetism drew Arnab towards it. The eyes were ghoulish, like red pools running outside from the sockets, the flailing hammer like close- fisted hands, claws that curved like sickles, bluish-black lips that spoke to him in secret, or green strands of bent hair drooping like young  rice – stalks, thrashed long before  harvest. Arnab surmised that the crimson on the green hair was dried black by the sun, making the strands half bent as if in obeisance to a ruthless adversary.  Obsessed, he often fell asleep staring at the gruesome wall-pasted image.

In the early seventies Arnab left his doctoral research in the renowned Presidency College and joined the Naxalite movement, a far left Maoist revolution which first erupted as a peasants’ revolt in 1969 at a place called Naxalbari in West Bengal . In 1967 there was already a split in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the militant Communist Party (Maoist, Leninist), better known as Naxal Party.  Born in West Bengal, it later spread to many other places in the country. Naxalite movement comprised mainly the  brilliant and talented youths, the prospective stars of West Bengal who dreamt of a new country based on Marxist ideology. To oust the imperialist Congress they embraced Maoist policies of insurgency and mob marshalling.    The movement was spearheaded by Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and others.There  were armed encounters with state government’s police forces in which many lives were lost. 

When Arnab found out that many of his friends who were meant to be freed by the government were shot at the back by the police when out of captivity, he couldn’t stand it any longer. Worse still, he suddenly lost touch with his bosom friend Neel, his whereabouts untraced. Hearing that the police was after his best friend, he fled from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and secretly took refuge in a hut of a peasant in Gopiballavpur, a remote village in West Bengal, where the forces had yet to extend their influence. After staying in that friendly family for two months and holding covert meetings with party members, he snuck away to his Beliaghata house under the pall of night .

Arnab kept absolutely quiet, staying indoors in a remote room farthest from the street, after returning home. His father Kamal Sengupta had hardly a word or two out of his son’s mouth.

Eventually, news reached that the police were out on the hunt for him. Finally they arrived in force getting the wind out of somewhere. There was a furore as the house was surrounded and interrogation of his father began. Fearing his arrest, Arnab hadn’t any option but to surrender. In prison he was subjected to unspeakable torture, like hanging him head down, thrashing, till his whole body bled, inserting steel rods inside his rectum, dotting his skin with cigarette burns, yet they couldn’t get any information out of him .

After months of relentless queries and torture for months, they freed him for lack of incriminating evidence . It was also the fag end of 1972 and the revolution was almost quelled.

Getting his motherless son back alive was nothing short of a miracle to Kamal Sengupta, even though looking at the putrefying wounds all over his son’s body made him bleed inwardly. He didn’t have the nerve to give him the news of Neel’s death in an encounter with armed forces. Kamal himself was devastated to hear about the death of the boy who was almost like a son to him. Neel was  motherless too and both the friends gravitated towards each other like siblings. Neel was a brilliant student, a third year postgraduate of Presidency College who left studies to join the movement. Kamal couldn’t figure out why Arnab didn’t ask him the news of his friend. Perhaps, he knew already or guessed it, thought Kamal.

Soon after his return, Arnab acquired the habit of sitting on the balcony and looking at the street for hours. Well meaning relatives were cut off by his reticence or insulted by his brusqueness.
– Well, Arnab will you resume your research, now that you are back home?
– I am not entitled to answer this question .
– Arnab this rudeness is unlike you. Kamal would tell his son later.
– I felt extremely embarrassed by your behaviour.
– Father where were these people when I was in jail? Did you ever see them in this house? They were scared of being police-tracked right through to their own houses and children. Now that I’ve had an unconditional government release, they have creeped in like insects to relish the agonies I suffered and sneer at me behind my back for joining the party! Hard-core sadists celebrating my torture !

Kamal  knew that these accusations were not entirely true. But he didn’t prolong the argument. His son had drastically changed. From dawn he sat on the balcony and way into the night. Even at four in the morning the lights of his bedroom would be on. Often he would hear him pacing up and down inside. Months elapsed without his going back to his research or looking for a job. 

These changes in his son made Kamal uncomfortable . Arnab’s behaviour was turning into a worrisome decline. Raging at the domestic helps for trivial reasons, throwing things around, arguing loudly with people, were gestures Arnab himself hated the most. Kamal put them down as repercussions of police brutality in prison. Yet his son’s remoteness nagged at him. He couldn’t fathom what was wrong.

What rattled Kamal was that he heard his son talking to people. Who were they? It was unnerving. His smartly attired, brilliantly witty and handsome boy was now reduced to a shadow. Arnab hardly ate and that too, perfunctorily. His favourite dishes were left untouched. What did they do to him in jail? Skeletal, long bearded, shabbily dressed, with a shocking head of hair, half greyed already, plundered the father’s heart.

After returning home from jail Arnab began to get scared of darkness. Kamal was unaware that his son was terrified to go to bed at night. Something weird and weighty sat on his chest pinning him down. Then a ear splitting blast knocked him down and wind driven waves rushed at him flailing leafless branches, skeletal, dry and rough- edged, choking his throat with a vice like grip. Relentless, they entered in droves throttling him every night. The entity on his chest laughed a spine chilling laugh, pushing him down the pillow, making a hollow on the mattress, down the hard frame of the bed, to the ground, and even lower and lower, beneath the floor to a hellish quagmire. Downwards and even more, Arnab being pulled endlessly,  anticipated with dread that he would be confronting again and again, the same head, smashed, and a face so familiar that he would involuntarily call out, ‘Neel, Neel !’  Neel’s colourless eyes won’t respond but on his head he’d see sprouts green hair like raw stalks of rice, each strand holding up a battered face.

Arnab knew he  could cry out for help, but nothing would change. Blood  spewing out from Neel’s head covered with wounds, hands burnt to ashes, yet flailing, not blowing away, trying to convey something Arnab won’t be able to decipher, a horrific living nightmare haunting  him until he fell asleep, in the wee hours of the morning. And again the next night. And again, always same.

Arnab starts painting again. He sees her coming out of the house opposite his own, wearing a white saree. He can’t see her face but notices her going out and returning at specific hours. He is fascinated. Seeing her, he inhales a long, deep breath. His lifeline.  He doesn’t know her, nor even seen her face. Arnab’s not at all keen on seeing faces, not anymore. She becomes the woman of his dreams.

He names her Manasi. Born out of the mind. Why does Manasi always wear white? He decides painting her. Eyes ink blue, green hair, rice yellow skin. All colours except red. Not satisfied, he rubs the colours off and starts painting again. It goes on and on. Arnab wonders why Manasi doesn’t wear red clothes. His favourite colour. Red in the walls, flags, papers, cloths. The whirring that he loves as they rustle in the breeze…..Yet Neel spurts red every night!  No, no, he doesn’t like it, not on Neel! The face on the wall dotted with bullet holes, did it have splashes of red? He tries remembering. Everything gets muddled now.

It’s three years since Arnab returned from jail. He looks at the canvas. Faces change. Sometimes it’s Neel, sometimes the weird wall- face, sometimes heads with fresh green rice stalks. He can’t find Manasi there. Where is she? Once he tried painting her in crimson. But the colour doesn’t stay on her. Vanishes somewhere. He hasn’t seen Manasi for ages. His heart longs for her, and the red paint that’s gone. He can’t draw now. Arnab craves for red.

One day the dustman came wearing a shabby red shirt.
– Ramu, let me wear your shirt, Arnab pleaded.
– I’ll give you all my shirts for this one. Please Ramu!
– Hee, hee, sir, this is a poor man’s ragged shirt, full of holes. How can I give you this? You can buy plenty of these in the market. Ramu laughed.

Then Arnab sees gushes of crimson  falling, creating pools on the floor. He drops to his  knees and smears his hands and face with it .
– Ah! red, red. Red!  Arnab sighs contentedly.

Somewhere the clock strikes two in the morning. Arnab doesn’t hear it. Lost in his own thoughts he stares outside the window of the Pavlov Mental Hospital.

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