An Indian citizen arrived in our town. This wasn’t really news. The Indian border is very close to our town and many people cross over every day. They are ours; they belong to this land. Most of them are smugglers. Although bona fide businessmen and people visiting relatives aren’t small in number either. This coming and going happens every day. Although not too many people from that country come to ours, we don’t have the same interest in them as we have in people from other countries. And because West Bengalis do not have white skin or a different language, they don’t seem like foreigners to us like Europeans do. Therefore, nothing about an Indian citizen visiting our town should have given rise to curiosity or surprise. Until we found out that the gentleman had come here to die. Never in our lives had we heard of such a thing.

When our friend Tapan Kumar Kha informed us of this astonishing fact, we exclaimed, “Wonderful!” We were excited, because not much that is unusual, or fun, happens in this humdrum township. The people here were quite humourless. If anyone made jokes, they were deemed frivolous. A person with a sense of humour was neither prized nor respected. This was probably why boys and girls practised seriousness from primary school onwards. Those who lacked seriousness, whose innate temperaments tended towards jokes and laughter, were not valued in this town. Their parents cursed their own fates more than they decried the frivolous nature of their offspring.

In such a humourless town then, the few of us who had been overtaken by laughter turned gleeful when we heard of the madness of Tapan Kha’s seventy-three-year-old uncle, and we thought to ourselves, finally, a man of humour emerges. We couldn’t keep still when we heard that the man had declared the day and hour of his death, that he would make his death an event worth attending. We rushed to meet him. Our curiosity was: what’s the story, why this strange oath? But we were unable to see him. He would leave the house while it was barely dawn and return late. And because by then he got weary and listless, Tapan’s mother allowed no visitors. We heard from the gentleman’s young travel companion, his grandson Avijit, that the old man had become mentally unbalanced. His constant harping of Bangladesh-Bangladesh-Bangladesh had driven his children and grandchildren to distraction. Finally, one afternoon, he had dreamt of his dear departed mother and decided he was coming to Bangladesh. He took leave of his family and friends and informed them that he would not be returning to India. The ancient cremation ghat on the shores of the Tulshiganga in Bangladesh was where his mother had been cremated; his funeral pyre would burn at the same place.

Avijit informed us that every morning since his arrival, his Dadu had been gulping down some flattened or puffed rice, shoving a handful of coconut naru in his pocket, and leaving Tapan’s house. He walked around looking at fields, ponds, lakes, trees, and searched the villages for this person or that. Those he sought were no longer there; they had all died. But this didn’t dampen his spirits; he had to find at least one of his old friends. How could it be that everyone had already died, leaving him behind?

We heard of his doings from Avijit and Tapan, and our desire to see him grew. Such a man, who joked this way about death to have him here in our town and not meet him, we couldn’t allow that. No matter how, we were going to capture him, even if it were 11 p.m., even if Tapan’s mother scolded us. But that very afternoon the gentleman appeared of his own accord at our hangout. Our adda usually gathers in the field beside the Shaheed Minar, the memorial to the martyrs. The spot is a little bit away from the main road, where the light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach. We couldn’t see his face clearly in the semi-darkness. We only noticed his glinting eyes. He was tall, but his body had not bent with age, and his spine was surprisingly straight. We stood up from the grass to greet him. We touched our foreheads and said, “Adaab.” One of us, a bit of a clown, said, “Salamaleikum.” (The poet Nirmalendu Goon once visited here and this clown said Salamaleikum to him, too. His explanation for this, which isn’t really relevant here, was: people’s speech should be in accordance with who they are. For instance, Hindus never said Salamaleikum to Muslims, they greeted us with Adaab. But we greeted Hindus with Adaab, we didn’t say Salamaleikum to them either. Why? He thought this was because Muslims felt inferior, etc.)

The gentleman nodded in response to our Adaab and Salaam and sat down on the grass. Tapan introduced us. His uncle told us his name was Nabin Chandra Chowdhury, and he announced, as if making a proclamation, that he had returned. We asked him precisely what he meant by saying he had returned. He told us that he had returned to the land of his birth and that he was never going back to India. Displaying no interest in our response, he said that after spending fifty years in a foreign land (it seemed to us that he placed an undue emphasis on the phrase ‘foreign land’), he had finally returned to his homeland at seventy-three, and this was his final return.

One of us jokingly told Tapan’s uncle that “homeland” and “land of birth” were not the same things. No one would deny that Bangladesh was his land of birth, but he could no longer claim Bangladesh as his homeland.

We scolded our friend into silence, advising him to give up intellectual pretensions. Another friend asked how many days the government of Bangladesh had allowed him on his visa. He said, fifteen. We noticed that the uncle’s garrulity from minutes ago had disappeared. Perhaps he was hurt by our friend’s words. But what could be done?

We asked him the next question. How was he going to remain in this country once his visa expired? He said that by then his lifespan would also have expired.

We found it truly funny. But we concealed that and, instead, expressed surprise, asking him how he knew. He said that he had acquired divine knowledge on this topic. Someone at the back of our group made a sudden exclamation, one that was clearly in mockery. Even in that mix of light and darkness, Tapan’s uncle could probably see our disbelieving smiles. Perhaps he wanted to intensify that disbelief. He said, “I can see the beginning and the end of my life now.”

Excerpted with permission from ‘An Indian Citizen Came to Our Town’ in The Meat Market: Ten Stories and a Novella, Mashiul Alam, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, Eka/Westland.