BOOK EXCERPT

This short story answers the question: ‘What will you do if you know when you will die?’

Kolkata is the quiet central character in Amit Dasgupta’s new collection of short stories about belonging and death.

Sarala had finished the cooking and left. A large bunch of flowers adorned the table which Karuna had specially ordered from Berlin and which had been delivered earlier that morning.

He got himself another coffee, settled comfortably in his chair and then, opened the little red book. There were some folded pieces of paper. The first, which was torn at the folds, was on a letterhead, which said: “Destiny – Everything Astrology”. There was no address or telephone number and the writing was in Bangla. His name was written on top and he knew that it was his astrological chart. It said very little, apart from a recommendation that he should wear black or blue clothes, a ring with a moonstone to ward off evil, and that his predicted occupation would be in business. He thought about it and said to himself that he preferred wearing shirts that were blue in colour and never owned a black shirt. He did not wear moonstone and no, he was not a businessman. He had worked as a civil servant all his life. Most certainly a seriously erroneous prediction, he decided.

He could not make much sense of the next piece of paper in which a series of numbers were written in pencil. He put these aside. The first page of the book had a prayer written in a beautifully stylised script that was almost calligraphic. The next page had the astrological chart with a hand-drawn and remarkably ornate and complex design. Whoever had prepared it had not been in any hurry.

He read the details with regard to his father: born March 7, 1920; Calcutta; Sunday; at 8.43 in the morning. More drawings and charts followed and then, he found a loose piece of paper. It was again on the letterhead that read “Destiny – Everything Astrology”. There was a chart and a number of mathematical calculations in green ink; his father’s name and birth details were written on top.

He was stunned with what he read next, as he turned the paper over. “On the 73rd birthday, there would be a serious accident. No physical injury would be suffered but it will trigger depression and melancholia. Within three weeks, death will occur.”

He remembered how on March 7, 1993, on his father’s birthday, his parents had dropped in to see him and the family. After breakfast, they had decided to leave and though he insisted that they stay for lunch, his father was insistent on leaving right away.

On the way home, the bus they were travelling in met with an accident. None of the passengers were injured, other than his mother, who suffered head injuries and was bleeding profusely. They were taken to a nearby nursing home on Harrington Street. He remembered receiving a phone call from his father urging him to come immediately. He had rushed across to the nursing home. Doctors were attending to his mother. His father looked shaken by the incident but mercifully, he had not suffered any physical injuries. All attention was, consequently, focused on his mother.

The doctors had to put a number of stitches on his mother’s head and after a week, she was discharged and came home to convalesce. His father went into a state of deep depression on having seen his wife bleeding and injured and blamed himself for not having stayed for lunch, as his son had requested him to. Perhaps if he had, this accident might never have happened.

On April 2, 1993, not even a month after his 73rd birthday, his father died of a heart attack. Did his father remember the astrological prediction, he wondered. And if he did, why did he insist on leaving instead of staying in the house? Could it be that, like him, he did not believe in astrology? Was he testing fate?

He read the prediction again. There were some more mathematical calculations and drawings and then, he clearly read his own name and other details related to his date, time and place of birth that had been written by his father. As he held the piece of paper, he found that his hands were trembling. The ink was not clear in places and much of the writing had faded. He adjusted his spectacles. With a struggle and with the help of a magnifying glass, he finally made out the words: “Your son will die at the age of 73 and within two weeks of his date of birth; death will be peaceful but he will be alone at the time of death, just as it would be in the case of his wife.”

He was shocked. The year in which it was written was 1941, several years before he was even born! He sat back and sipped his coffee slowly. Today, he was 72 years old. If the prediction was right – it just had to be, since it was so accurate with regard to his father and more unusually, as he had just read, also with regard to Kamala. He reached out for the Bangla-English dictionary and went through the prediction again, just so that he could be sure that he had translated every word correctly.

He closed his eyes and thought about it: Death within a fortnight of his 73rd birthday, peaceful, alone. It would be the atonement for his not having woken up on the night that Kamala died. He would die next year!

The thought of death did not unduly worry him. There was nothing that made him want to remain alive. He had lived a full life and death was an inevitable ending. With Kamala’s death, a big part of him had also died. Karuna was well settled. Bernd loved her and Kaushik, and they were financially comfortable. Who the heir would be was not going to be an issue with regard to the flat and whatever other savings he had would be put into a fixed deposit for Kaushik’s education.

But what he particularly liked was having a clear knowledge, well in advance, as to precisely when he would die: 365 plus a few days here and there. It allowed him to plan for his dying.

He was excited and happy. Clearing his table of all other papers, he took out a scribbling pad and decided to list out all the various things he needed to get done, so that there were no regrets and no loose ends 365 days later.

The scribbling pad appeared inadequate, as there were, he told himself, many things to prepare for. He decided that a diary would be the best thing to get. Actually, two diaries, one for the remaining months of this year and another till his 73rd birthday next year. “To give it finality,” he said, “and to organise things for myself.”

Would the stationery shop across the road still have this year’s diary. Why not check? He called them up and sure enough, they said he could have this year’s page-a-day diary “at a throwaway price” and next year’s diary had just arrived. He asked them to have both delivered to his house.

He was filled with a sense of excitement and purpose. Finally, after so many years, he felt he had something to do, something to look forward to and plan for. It would become his single-minded preoccupation for the next twelve months, of that he was certain.

The phone rang and it was Ram Lal informing him that someone from the stationery shop was coming up to deliver the two diaries. He smiled. The pieces were set, the game was about to begin and he was playing with white pieces.

Excerpted with permission from The House and other Stories, Amit Dasgupta, Yoda Press.

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