The clock was about to strike three-thirty. Malloban saw that for all this time he’s been lying on his back in bed and thinking incessantly, and all that thinking has merely desiccated his heart – there’s no shore to be found, not a wink of sleep in his eyes. He sat up slowly. There are bugs in the bed – but it’s not the bugs that are keeping him awake, he’s spent so many nights of long, uncontested, cunning sleep in the reeking haunts of cockroaches, rats, mosquitoes.

The light of a gas lamp in the street was filtering into the room a little; the slippers were sought and found; he slipped them onto his feet, wrapped the red and blue checkered blanket around his whole body, and slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor – edging closer without a sound, he stared fascinated at how unperturbedly Monu and Pala were sleeping inside the mosquito net – how peaceful, how pleased their breathing is.

He drew a heavy breath into his core like a lavish kiss and began to let it out slowly, making his whole body delightfully tender – it felt good. It felt good to stare at the sleeping ones – because, on this winter night, Malloban sees fulfilled the main goal of middle- class life – to keep his wife and child in relative prosperity, to provide them with a modicum of comfort, calm, and convenience in their lives.

He couldn’t sleep himself – what are these two doing in this cold – Sleeping? Waking? That’s what he came to see, and he has seen it. Malloban savoured the moment – how tender and tangible this night seemed to him, this backwater of the night. Now it’s time to go downstairs.

Still, he doesn’t go just yet. He wants to lift the edge of the mosquito net and duck inside to sit by their bed in affectionate soundlessness, like a quiet-winged bird on a country night in the winter month of Poush – waking them? Or perhaps he won’t even sit – he will stroke Monu’s brow lightly; the blanket has slipped off his wife’s chest, he’ll draw it up and tuck it in, lightly. After that he’ll go back to his room.

But as soon as he lifted the net, the whole thing went wrong. Utpala woke up in a fright; then she sat up on the bed, and in the upheaval of her whole beautiful face – cutting through that expression in an instant, she said more dryly than the sand of a dead river, “You!”

“I just came.”

“Who told you to come at this hour?”

“I came to see what you two were doing.”

“Go, take your daughter with you, from tomorrow on she won’t sleep with me...up against the girl’s butt, baap re, like a witch.”

“Who, me?” said Malloban, standing there. He didn’t sit on the bed, sitting down on a couch, he said, “No, I didn’t just come to see the girl, I – ”

“Ah, that’s it! You sat down! The singer’s come to perform at two in the morning. Look at him sitting there, bound hand and foot in the blanket, done up like some kind of sacrificial pumpkin. O ma. O ma – O ma! Get out! Get out, I’m telling you!”

“You were sleeping – I didn’t come to disturb your sleep – ”

“I’m telling you, sacrificial pumpkin, do you want to be split in two or are you staying here?”

“You were sleeping, sleep.”

“You were sleeping sleep! So, guru’s pet pumpkin – ”

“Why are you going pumpkin-pumpkin, Utpala – ”

“It won’t do for you to sit here any longer.”

“I’m just sitting here for a bit. I won’t keep you from sleeping. I’m sitting on this couch, Monu’s sleeping, go to sleep.”

Utpala cleared her throat – after sleeping six hours at a stretch, her body is deliciously invigorated – and said in a hard voice, dripping with sarcasm, “I’ve killed all the rats in my room with a leveller, and just in case there’s one or two still lurking about I’ve kept the German traps set out. All that cleverness won’t fly. God forbid anything trouble my sleep. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll go downstairs.”

Malloban had been sitting quietly. Not looking and, in any case, not able to see in the dark whether he’s gone or still sitting on the couch, Utpala said, “Oh! I wake up and see that rascal standing there by the bed, bundled up in his blanket. All the blood is rushing to my chest and making me dizzy.”

“But you saw me standing here.”

“If you ever come and scare me like that again – ”

“I didn’t come to scare you, Ut – ”

“No, you’ve kindly come to show me your beauty. You’ve come into my room again at this ungodly hour – ” Utpala said, gritting her teeth in a strangely all-consuming sense of harassment.

Malloban had been appreciating all the voices of the winter night’s soundlessness and lengthiness, that soundless lengthiness, that soundlessness that could have been tenderness (so many times, in the country, it had been so). To alleviate the muggy atmosphere Utpala had created, he said with a short laugh, giving his thin mustache a twist, “If I do come upstairs at an ungodly hour, will you mince me into grasshopper kababs, Pala!”

Malloban laughed at his own joke; the laugh stopped short, sensing it had fallen flat; after a little silence, he said finally, “I came tonight – somehow tonight my sleep got spoiled – my sleep got spoiled – I couldn’t sleep tonight – ”

“Just because you can’t sleep yourself, do you have to come and keep other people from sleeping?”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it.”

“I came – ” Malloban bent his head and calculated for a moment, but failed to come up with anything to say and ended up not saying anything.

Utpala said, “Here you’ve gone and spoiled my sleep and I’ll have to suffer the consequences – I’m not going to be able to get up before eight or nine o’clock.”

“That’s fine. When you’ve slept enough, then you’ll get up. What more is there to say?”

“My head will be in a vice all day tomorrow.”

“When you get up in the morning, drink a cup of hot tea.”

“Can you cure a headache just by drinking tea? Idiot!”

“You’ve got smelling salts and menthol, after all – ”

“Can you cure a headache just like that! Huh! Joynath’s bullock opened his mouth as he was going around the grinding tree and imparted this wisdom to you, I presume?” The interior of the mosquito net is nice and warm from Utpala’s body – as if they were sleeping inside the warmth of hay, Monu and Pala; if they were not humans but cranes, Malloban was thinking, then he would not still be sitting on the couch but would have snuggled into that nest of theirs ages ago.

“Take a couple of aspirin. But those things aren’t so good for you, better not to take them.”

“Look, I’ve caught a chill starting up like that in the middle of the night. I’ll have my work cut out for me tomorrow, tearing up rags and twisting them into little wicks and sticking them up my nose and sneezing – it makes me shudder just thinking of it, ugh!”

Malloban got up from the couch, came close to the bed, drew up a lightweight broken-armed chair, and sat down in it quietly.

“We’ve run out of aspirin, if there was a pill left – ”

“You’ll have to go buy me a bottle tomorrow.”

“I’ll do that.”

“I’m going to need three or four cups of tea.”

“Hot tea does wonders for colds and headaches.”

“Yes, it’s the cold that brings on this headache.”

“Did it just come on?”

“No, it hasn’t really come on yet, but it will in the morning, as if Jhagru’s wife is beating a hammer on top of the cobbles – that tall dark full-grown woman. Baba re!” Giving herself a backbreaking stretch and letting out a few fitful cries, Utpala said, feeling marvellously rested, “She’ll bang that hammer inside my head, that’s what. I won’t be able to get out of bed. You bring the tea and leave it by my bed, eh, bapu!”

“Is Monu asleep?”

“She’s sleeping in her Thakur’s shrine.”


“She’s lying there in the Lord’s abode, in a trance.”

“She’s awake?” said Malloban. “Should I call her and see?” But without making any attempt to call Monu, Malloban said, “Tonight I was wide awake all night, didn’t get even a wink of sleep. Somehow that’s just how it went, not a drop of sleep.”

“What time do you have to go to the office tomorrow?”

“Ten thirty.”

“I’m going to get up plenty late, maybe eight or nine. Will you be able to make me tea then?”

“Thakur will do it. Or maybe I’ll do it.”

Wrapping the quilt around her whole body and settling her head on the pillow, Utpala said, “Here, tuck in the mosquito net by Monu’s feet, will you.”

“There aren’t any mosquitoes, it’s just a mania of yours to hang the net.”

“There aren’t any mosquitoes, but there are rats, if I don’t tuck in the net, they’ll just nibble up our feet.”

Fixing the mosquito net, Malloban got up from the chair and went to sit on a dirty, oily sofa. Utpala thrust her head into the pillow, drew up her hands and feet, let out a lazy yawn, rubbed her thumb and finger together, and wrapped the quilt snugly all around her. Then, casting an uncertain glance in Malloban’s direction, she said, “You sat down? You sat down, did you?”

“What should I do?”

“Go, go on downstairs.”

“What am I going to do there?”

“How long are you going to sit here like this, tell me – ”

“I’ll just talk with you for a bit – ”

“Your tongue will get stuck in your teeth, if you talk too much. You’ll get lockjaw. You’ll have to prize open your teeth with a spoon – you won’t be able to get them open even with a dhenki – go on, scoot – ” Utpala turned over.

Malloban stayed sitting there, shivering in the damp and cold, like a wet mop. Nothing to do, nothing to say, he didn’t blink, he didn’t budge, it seemed unlikely he was even thinking anything.

“What kind of person are you?”

“I’m just sitting here.”

“That’s what’s making me so uncomfortable.”

“What am I supposed to do then?”

“Go away.”

“Are you going to sleep now?”

“I’ll stuff a firebrand in those shameless corpses’ faces! Are you going to sleep? Are you going to sleep! At three o’clock in the morning – ” Utpala might have burst into tears. But then again, she’s no child bride – she’s over thirty. Malloban said, letting out a suppressed sigh, “I’m go – ing.”

After a little while, Utpala turned to look at him. As if she’d been slapped, she struck back in a taut voice, “You’re still sitting there!”

“Look, there’s not a wink of sleep in your eyes either anymore.”

“It’s trapped in your tongue. Get downstairs straightaway. Get – down – ”

“I’m going – but the night is almost over anyway.”


Excerpted with permission from Malloban, Jibanananda Das, translated from the Bengali by Rebecca Whittington, Penguin Modern Classics.