The clock was about to strike half past three. Malloban saw that all the while he was lying on his back in bed and thinking incessantly, and all that thought had only withered his heart – there was no shore to be found, not a blink look of sleep in his eyes. He sat up slowly. There are bugs in the bed – but it’s not the bugs that keep him awake, he’s had so many long nights of unchallenged, crafty sleep in the stinking dens of cockroaches, rats, mosquitoes.
The light from a gaslight in the street filtered a little into the room; the slippers were sought and found; he put them on his feet, wrapped the red and blue checkered blanket around his whole body and slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor – approaching without a sound, he watched in fascination at the way Monu and Pala slept without worry inside the mosquito net – how peaceful, pleasant their breathing is.
He sucked heavily into her heart like a lavish kiss and began to slowly let it out, making her whole body deliciously tender – it felt good. It felt good to stare at those who slept – for on this winter night Malloban sees the main goal of bourgeois life fulfilled – to keep his wife and child in relative prosperity, to provide them with a minimum of comfort, calm, and convenience in their lives.
He couldn’t sleep himself – what are those two doing in this cold – Sleeping? Eve? That’s what he came to see, and he saw it. Malloban savored the moment – how tender and tangible this night seemed to him, this backwater of the night. Now is the time to descend.
However, he is not there yet. He wants to lift the edge of the mosquito net and slip inside to sit beside their bed in loving silence, like a bird with silent wings on a country night in the winter month of Poush – wake them up? Or maybe he won’t even sit down – he stroked Monu’s forehead lightly; the blanket has slipped from his wife’s chest, he is going to pull it up and tuck it in, slightly. After that, he will return to his room.
But as soon as he lifted the net, everything went wrong. Utpala woke up scared; then she sat down on the bed, and in the upheaval of her whole beautiful face – cutting off that expression in an instant, she said more curtly than the sand of a dead river: “You!
“I just came.”
“Who told you to come at this time?”
“I came to see what you two were doing.”
“Go, take your daughter with you, from tomorrow she won’t sleep with me anymore…against the girl’s butt, baap re, like a witch.”
” Who me ? said Malloban, standing up. He didn’t sit on the bed, he sat on a couch, he said, “No, I didn’t just come to see the girl, I -”
“Ah, right! You sat down! The singer came to perform at two in the morning. Look at him sitting there, bound hand and foot in the blanket, fashioned like some sort of sacrificial pumpkin. Oh my. Oh my – Oh my, get out, get out, I tell you!
“You were sleeping – I did not come to disturb your sleep -”
“I tell you, sacrificial pumpkin, do you want to be cut in half or do you stay here?”
“You were sleeping, sleep.”
“You were sleeping! So, the guru’s pet pumpkin – ”
“Why are you going pumpkin-pumpkin, Utpala -”
“It won’t be enough for you to sit here any longer.”
“I’m just sitting here for a while. I will not prevent you from sleeping. I’m sitting on this sofa, Monu is sleeping, go to sleep.
Utpala cleared his throat – having slept for six straight hours, his body is deliciously invigorated – and said in a harsh voice, dripping with sarcasm: “I killed all the rats in my room with a leveler, and just in case there were one or two still lurking, I kept the German traps in place. All that intelligence won’t fly. God forbid anything disturb my sleep. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll come down.
Malloban sat quietly. Not looking and, in any case, unable to see in the dark whether he is gone or still sitting on the couch, Utpala says, “Oh! I wake up and see this rascal standing by the bed, wrapped in his blanket. All the blood rushes to my chest and makes me dizzy.
“But you saw me standing here.”
“If you ever come to scare me like that again -“
“I didn’t come to scare you, Ut -“
“No, you have kindly come to show me your beauty. You came back to my room at this ungodly hour –” Utpala said, gritting his teeth in a strange sense of all-consuming harassment.
Malloban had appreciated all the voices of the silence and the length of the winter night, this silence of the length, this silence which could have been tenderness (so many times, in the countryside, it had been). To tone down the moist atmosphere Utpala had created, he said with a chuckle, twirling his thin mustache, “If I go upstairs at an ungodly hour, you’ll chop me into locust skewers, Pala!”
Malloban laughed at his own joke; the laughter stopped short, feeling that it had fallen flat; after a little silence, he finally said, “I came tonight – somehow tonight my sleep got spoiled – my sleep got spoiled – I couldn’t sleep this evening – ”
“Just because you can’t sleep yourself, do you have to come and stop others from sleeping?”
“It’s not that.”
“So what is it.”
“I have come -” Malloban tilted his head and calculated for a moment, but found nothing to say and ended up saying nothing.
Utpala said, “There you go and you’ve ruined my sleep and I’m going to have to suffer the consequences – I won’t be able to get up until eight or nine o’clock.”
“That’s fine. When you’ve had enough sleep, then you’ll get up. What more can I say?”
“My head will be in a vise 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? You idiot!”
“You smell like salt and menthol, after all -”
“Can you cure a headache just like that!” Eh! Joynath’s ox opened its mouth as it circled around the creaking tree and imparted this wisdom to you, I presume? The inside of the mosquito net is nice and warm from Utpala’s body – as if they were sleeping in the warmth of the hay, Monu and Pala; if they weren’t humans but cranes, thought Malloban, then he wouldn’t be sitting on the sofa yet but would have been snuggled up in their nest for ages.
“Take some aspirins. But these things are not so good for you, better not take them.
“Look, I got a chill starting like this in the middle of the night. I’ll have my work cut out tomorrow, tearing rags and twisting them into little strands and sticking them up my nose and sneezing – it makes me shiver just thinking about it, ugh!
Malloban got up from the couch, approached the bed, pulled out a light chair with broken arms and sat down quietly.
“We’re out of aspirin, if there was one pill left -”
“You’ll have to go buy me a bottle tomorrow.”
“I will 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’s causing this headache.”
“Did this just happen?”
“No, it hasn’t really happened yet, but it will tomorrow morning, as if Jhagru’s wife was pounding the cobblestones with a hammer – that tall, dark, adult woman. Baba re!” Giving herself a grueling stretch and letting out a few jerky cries, Utpala said, feeling wonderfully rested, “She’s going to hit that hammer in my head, that’s what. I won’t be able to get out of bed. -near my bed, huh, bapu!
“Is Monu sleeping?
“She sleeps in the shrine of her Thakur.”
“She’s laying there in the abode of the Lord, in a trance.”
“She’s awake?” Malloban said. “Should I call him and see?” But without trying to call Monu, Malloban said: “Tonight I was wide awake all night, I didn’t even sleep. In a way, that’s how it happened, not a drop of sleep.
“What time do you have to go to the office tomorrow?” »
“I’m going to get up very late, maybe eight or nine o’clock. Can you make me some tea then?
“Thakur will. Or maybe I will.
Wrapping the quilt around her whole body and laying her head on the pillow, Utpala said, “Here, put the mosquito net at Monu’s feet, you want.
“There are no mosquitoes, it’s just a trick on your part to hang the net.”
“There are no mosquitoes, but there are rats, if I don’t tuck in the net they will just nibble our feet.”
Fixing the mosquito net, Malloban got up from his chair and went to sit on a dirty and oily couch. Utpala buried her head in the pillow, folded her hands and feet, let out a lazy yawn, rubbed her thumb and finger together and wrapped the duvet around herself. Then, glancing uncertainly in Malloban’s direction, she said, “Did you sit down?” You sat down, didn’t you?
“What should I do?”
“Come on, get off.”
“What am I going to do there?”
“How long are you going to sit here like this, tell me -”
“I’m just going to talk a little with you -“
“Your tongue will get stuck in your teeth if you talk too much. You will get tetanus. You’ll have to open your teeth with a spoon – you can’t open them even with a dhenki – go ahead, spin –” Utpala turned around.
Malloban sat there, shivering in the damp and cold, like a wet mop. Nothing to do, nothing to say, he didn’t blink, he didn’t move, it seemed unlikely he was thinking of anything.
“What type of person are you?”
“I’m just sitting here.”
“That’s what makes me so uncomfortable.”
“What am I supposed to do then?”
“Are you going to sleep now?”
“I’ll stick a brand in the face of those shameless corpses!” Are you going to bed? Go to bed! At three in the morning – “Utpala could have burst into tears. But again, she’s not a child bride – she’s over thirty. Malloban said, letting out a suppressed sigh, “I’ll – ing.”
After a while, Utpala turned to look at him. As if she’d been slapped, she replied in a strained voice, “You’re still sitting there!”
“Look, there’s not a twinkle of sleep in your eyes anymore either.”
“It’s trapped in your language. Come down immediately. Come down-”
“I’m going – but the night is almost over anyway.”
Excerpted with permission from mallobanJibanananda Das, translated from Bengali by Rebecca Whittington, Penguin Modern Classics.