by Avishek Parui
Batuk Batbyal’s life was as inglorious as his name, for which he was often derided, all the way from his schooldays right down to his office where he worked as head clerk. A below-average student who always messed up memorized lessons at exams, Batuk was less than an also-ran in every aspect of life, luckily getting a clerk’s job right after his graduation through his father’s connections.
His father had been a contractor who supplied sand and stone chips for building constructions. He wanted Batuk to become a college lecturer, bringing glory to the family in a pedagogic profession. Batuk failed his father, like he failed almost everyone else at different points in life, rounded up by the disrespect dished out to him by his children and office juniors on a daily basis. Having lost his mother at the age of nine, Batuk never knew any other woman before the arranged marriage with someone who became his wife, who saw through him quickly and started despising his weakness and anxiety attacks. They had two sons, both cleverer than Batuk and looking nothing like him, who soon learned that their father isn’t anyone worth respecting or even paying attention to.
Growing up in an old and decrepit neighborhood in North Kolkata marred by mosquitoes, long power cuts, and waterlogged lanes, Batuk had not seen much of the world outside except for occasional trips to the sea-towns Digha and Puri. He had seven more years to go before retirement, having been promoted to the second-highest position available in his wing in office to someone with his educational qualification.
His sons – one year apart from each other – were both studying computer engineering in private colleges for which Batuk had to take massive loans. He went to the office taking a tram every single day, number 23, always sitting in the second-class compartment, which cost him two rupees lesser.
He had tea twice a day. Paid all his bills on time.
Never smoked or drank. Had mostly rice and potato gravy for lunch in the office.
Batuk Batbyal had one out-of-the-ordinary habit.
He bought lottery tickets every week, trying his luck at getting rich, and making money that he could only dream of. He did this secretly, fearing resentment and wrath from his wife. He always bought his tickets from the same shop, two corners away from his tram stop, where nobody from his family would ever visit. He changed lottery companies frequently, running various complex combinations in his mind, praying to his family gods each time. He always bought tickets worth 50 rupees, always paying in cash, not wanting to make any visible change in his monthly budget which was given to him. The highest he had ever won was 500 rupees, an amount which had seemed astonishingly big that time when he first saw the result in the newspaper. He hadn’t known what to do with that money first, till realizing he could use that to pay for new lottery tickets subsequently.
They never knew each other by name.
This happened one evening when Batuk was returning from the office in tram number 23.
He had a not-so-normal afternoon in the workplace. A colleague whose son had won a scholarship to do Ph.D. in biochemistry in the USA had brought a pot of rosogollas, something Batuk was forbidden from eating at home, due to his diabetes, indigestion, and much else. Not sure if he actually shared his colleague’s happiness, Batuk had eaten two pieces of sweets, followed by an extra cup of sweet tea from the office canteen.
As he left office, he thought of his own sons, wondering whether they too will make it just as big, much better than what he had been able to achieve. He walked to his tram stop and waited for number 23 to come, boarding the second-class compartment at 6:35 PM. He had stared at his watch then.
The wooden bench he sat on in the tram was mostly stained with tea and betel juice and Batuk did his best to avoid touching anything with his hands or bag. Then he spotted a newspaper someone had left there and thought of using that as a shield from the stains. It had a strange color, the newspaper, and Batuk had this sudden urge to open it fully and check what was inside. As per habit, he went straight to the page where lottery prizes were announced and checked his familiar names, Lakshmi, Minerva, Mahadeb, Durga, the licensed lottery companies which issued tickets and gave prizes. Noting the numbers casually, Batuk realized none belonged to the ticket he had bought recently, before putting the paper down, and folding it back to the front page. He looked back at it again, noticing the strange yellow color, before spotting the date.
The paper had a printed date of 17 June.
That of the next day.
Batuk could not process this for a few seconds, before rushing back to pick the paper so hard that it crumbled inside his palm. He looked at it more closely this time, realizing it had only the front page which was filled with advertisements and the lottery result page, with no news stories anywhere else. He checked the date again on both pages, it was 17 June.
The date of the next day.
After handing in all the notes he had in his wallet, Batuk started walking back to his home like a paper boat in a puddle, wobbling without agency despite his straight gait and motor movements.
He was about to make it.
About to become very rich.
About to get respect from his wife, sons, and colleagues.
On reaching home, he called for a cup of tea, outside of his routine, much to the surprise of everybody. But there was something in his voice then, which sounded different, commanding something like reverence. He was listened to. Obeyed.
He sat down to have dinner and asked for an extra chapati, something he never did or was allowed to do. Again, he was obeyed. Batuk felt bigger, stronger. More muscled.
Before going to sleep, he thought of the only memory of triumph from his childhood, the winning goal he scored for his North Kolkata neighborhood team in a football match where he came in as a substitute, from a perfect volley with his right foot. He remembered the touch and sound of his foot kicking the ball, the swish with which it swung and cut into the air before crashing into the net from what must have been at least fifteen yards, the celebration afterward where he was carried on the shoulders of his team-mates, who poured Coca-Cola on him. He felt like a hero then and his father smiled at him from their window, proud of him perhaps for the only time in his life. As he dozed off, Batuk Batbyal dreamt of the life that was to unfold ahead. For he would have a garden full of flowers of all kinds, whose smells would remind him of his mother who used to wear flowers on her hair sometimes, especially when she sang. Batuk loved listening to his mother sing although he had difficulty remembering her voice. He remembered his mother best through those flower smells. Now he could grow all those, feel his mother close again.
On waking up the next morning, Batuk experienced a warm wave throbbing inside his head, even as he still lay on the bed. Something strong and shrill, something electric passed between his ears, again and again. It was 7 AM. He tiptoed down and opened the main gate to pick up the newspaper. 17 June. Not yellow but fresh from the press. He walked past the kitchen and asked for his cup of tea, rustling up the voice from the previous evening, still sounding like someone respectable.
He then sat and opened the paper, the corners crackling at his finger’s touch. The front page had the news of a major share collapse, some big company was suddenly shutting down, crashing, and liquidating all assets. He turned to the lottery page inside to look at the results. He had memorized the three numbers by then.
None were there on the winning list, or in any list.
Batuk looked again. And again. The winning numbers were different, distant, alien.
Breathing heavily, he put the newspaper back and went up to his bedroom, brought out the crumbled yellow paper from his trouser pocket, and tiptoed down again. Then spread it on the table and saw that it had turned into an advertisement for a memory clinic, someplace which claimed to improve memory through alternate medicines and experimental therapy. There was no lottery, no winning numbers, no date, just a brochure for a memory-enhancing place. Batuk crumbled the paper back again.
A cold cup of tea was rudely and roughly kept beside him, so hard that it spilled over to the newspaper open in front, the right one, with the news of a major share crash. His wife was reminding him that the electricity bill had not been paid and that he was given the money to do that the previous day. Batuk’s mind meanwhile was meandering away, across the slipping smells from a flower garden he would never have, like the mother he had lost, failing again, across the fading faces of friends who carried him with Coca-Cola bottles after he scored that goal. After his only winning shot in life. That may have been 16 June too. Yesterday’s date.
The yellow paper in the tram had lied.
Something cold crawled up his spine slowly.
Some big company had also died.
About the Author:
Avishek Parui is an Associate Professor in English at IIT Madras and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy, publishing and researching on memory studies. He is a faculty coordinator of the Centre for Memory Studies at IIT Madras and founding chairperson of the Indian Network for Memory Studies (INMS). He is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan, 2018) and Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor, Memory (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).