Strong gusts of wind rattled the windows of the two – storey house of Dr. Subroto Sen . Lightening rent the sky in two . Torrential rains beat on the rooftop relentlessly.
Dr. Sen , dragged his weary feet up the stairs as Mrs . Pratibha Sen waited patiently for her husband to come up for dinner . Like all ladies of that era ,( early 20th century ) she waited and ate only after all the males of the house had had their food . The grandfather clock struck the half hour -11.30 p.m. It was very late . Mrs . Sen gave an enquiring look . It had been a heavy day for Dr.Sen – MD , MRCP – one of the very few Indian doctors of the IMA ,then , dominated by the British physicians!
In and around Bhagalpur and its neighborhood, he was hailed as a Messiah ,a Savior of God . He was loved by the people for his soft – spoken , kind and caring nature . The burden of living up to his image and the expectations of his patients ,stooped his shoulders and exhausted him. Despite his tall and sturdy frame, tonight, he looked pulled down and vulnerable . He nodded absent – mindedly to his wife’s enquiring gaze –
“ Too many casualties this month , due to malnutrition , malaria , cholera and dysentery ! When will my Motherland be free ? When will people be more trusting and less superstitious? If only they bring cases on time ….”
Mrs . Sen fanned her husband dutifully and fussed about his not eating enough , as he sat down to have his dinner of rice , moong dal , fish curry, fried brinjal and mango chutney. He just had a spoon of ‘ Misti Doi ‘ but declined the traditional Bengali dessert of Sandesh ! His wife’s face fell as he politely declined the sweet ,
After his dinner, while his wife sat to have hers, he sat on his recliner, musing on the day‘s happenings and stretching a bit before finally retiring for the night .
The wind howled and rattled outside . Branches crashed . The delayed monsoon now came with a vengeance as if trying to wash away all the dirt , aridity and woes of the farmers and other people tired of the scorching heat from the last few months .
Just then , there was a loud knocking at the door . Dr. Sen called out to his ‘ durwaan ‘ to see who it was calling at that ungodly hour . Raghu , the durwaan called out that it was Gokul , the potter from the next village . He had come to call ‘ dagdarbabu ‘ for a visit to see his wife , critically ill and nearly dying due to ‘ haija ‘ ( cholera ) .
Mrs . Sen looked a little upset . Despite being a member of the enlightened Brahmo Samaj ,she still harboured casteist ideas and disapproved of her husband going out so late at night to a god – forsaken , remote village and in such inclement weather . She wasn’t at all happy about this call .
But , Dr. Sen’s motto of life was “ service before self “ ! He took it upon himself to alleviate the sufferings of the poor as much as he could . Though exhausted , he picked up his bag and umbrella, rolled up his starched dhoti and asked his durwaan to take out the tonga to go to Gokul ‘s village . He couldn’t deny the voice of his conscience and despite his wife’s displeasure , placated her worries and stepped out to honor the call .
The lantern flickered in the breeze . Even the horses seemed unwilling . They neighed and reared as if aware of some intangible presence , invisible to the human eye . Gokul , bowed respectfully and proffered to show the way . Madon , the coachman urged the reluctant horses on . The squelchy mud made eerie sounds as they proceeded amidst rain , thunder and lightning . The way seemed interminable and more troubling was Gokul ‘s strange gait – sometimes , he was right in front with his flickering lantern , at others flying at the speed of wind , almost twenty meters ahead ! Dr. Sen wondered if his tired eyes were playing a trick on him ! He rubbed them often to see clearly . Visibility was poor not only due to the rains but more so , as it was a new moon night .His tired body prompted him to doze off but mind urged him to be alert and awake .
After travelling for hours , they reached a deserted , woe – begone village , which Gokul claimed to be his .He explained apologetically that most villagers were very poor and a large majority had succumbed to cholera or malaria epidemics .The notorious Bengal Famine of 1943 had taken its toll too .
Dr. Sen ,unconsciously glanced at his wrist watch ( his wedding gift ) – Swiss ,FaverLeuba , Chronometer and saw the fluorescent dial showing the date as – 21st June 1944 .
By then , Gokul was assisting the doctor down . He hustled around and guided him to his Hut . It wrenched the doctor ‘s heart to see the dilapidated condition . It didn’t look lived in for years ! The thatch had blown off , dust and cobwebs were seen everywhere . A tiny bat , fluttered and screeched away .
Dr. Sen had to bend to enter as the door was low for his height of above six feet . Just then the flickering lantern fizzled out casting the room into an ominous darkness . Dr.Sen , flashed his torch to see an emaciated, fully covered figure lying on the bed . Gokul pointed out that it was his wife and she needed help . The ‘ Ojhas’ and pundits had given up hope he said . ‘Dagdarbabu ‘ was their last resort ! Even the battery of his torch failed at the critical moment . Gokul rushed out to get some candles he said . But, seeing the condition of the house , Doctor Subroto doubted if he would get any . Those in his pocket too failed to light due to the darkness .
After , what seemed hours , Gokul returned – fully drenched and shivering with a small lantern ,quivering in the wind and casting strange shadows . Dr . Sen proceeded to examine the patient . He requested the lady to extend her hand so that he could check her pulse . To his horror , a skeletal hand was extended . The ‘ sankha pola ‘ and bronze bangle jingled on the bony frame . Dr. Subroto Sen stepped back in amazement as the lantern burnt low and the stench of decayed flesh and rigor mortis assailed his nostrils !
Though a man of strong nerves , Subroto felt faint . Even Gokul was not visible any more .
But , Dr. Sen still took heart and removed the tattered cover to look at the patient . What he saw made him swoon . A decomposed ,female body lay on the bed . Some parts had been gnawed off by rats or nibbled away by ants . His trained eyes could make out that death had happened months ago !
When he revived from his swoon , he found himself rattling back home in his tonga . His coachman had covered him with a blanket and was grumbling that they had come on a wild goose chase . The entire population of the village had succumbed to cholera the previous year !
On reaching home . Subroto ‘s mind was in a daze ! Had he really experienced all this or his tired mind had projected his fears and worries ?!! Too many unanswered questions plagued him …
His wife offered him water and handed him a note , saying that Gokul had come and given it before their Tonga had arrived !
Dr. Sen’s jaw dropped is surprise ! How could he ! Not possible- considering his age and frail body …, faster than a tonga ?? His mind in a whirl , he took the note and opened the damp paper to read as the first rays of the sun touched the eastern horizon !
“Dagdarbabu , main pani lene gaya tha . Tab tak aap nikal gaye the .
Yeh raha apka fees – bees rupiye! Meri patni ki aakhri iccha thi ki aapse dikhayein . Maine unski woh iccha puri ki “-
May , 1943 …
Written by : Mitali Mukhopadhyay