Category Archives: Fiction

Pure stories, part fictions based on personal memoirs, translations of Bengali and Japanese fiction.

Sankari vs. Mathematics: A Moonlit Night’s Tale (Revised)


On an evening parked far away in the mists of time, I had gone out for a stroll with a young and adorably pretty woman. Slim, charming and lively, she was my newly acquired wife, Sankari. I was around twenty nine I think and she must have been about twenty four. And, as I said, we were out for a walk on a balmy evening in spring.

Had I been Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, I would probably have told her:

“The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
Where Cressid lay that night.”

But I wasn’t Lorenzo. Nor was Sankari Jessica. Or else, she too might have replied:

“In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.”

We didn’t exchange words even remotely similar. Yet, the sky was clear and a million stars glittered above us as they watched us in inquisitive silence. We went and sat on a bench in the nearby park.

“How beautiful the sky is, isn’t it?” said Sankari. This is the closest she came to Jessica.

“Yes, isn’t it? And have you noticed how endlessly the stars are spread?” said I. I couldn’t have been farther away from Lorenzo.

Sankari misunderstood my train of thought I think.

“Oh yes. Endless indeed,” she said, “fascinating little lights under the dark canopy of the sky. Lovely, aren’t they?”

“Right,” said I. “But how many stars do you think there are in the sky?”

“Oh, I don’t know … how should I know how many? Infinitely many may be. Like grains of sand on the sea shore.” Sankari stared at the sky in wonder. A mortal beauty, tucked away in an inconsequential corner of the solar system, looking up towards the immortal beauty of the universe.

“Yet,” said I, “each one has a name, hasn’t it?”

Her face turned sharply from the sky towards me. There was bit of a frown on her puzzled countenance. “Of course they have names. How does that matter?”

“Doesn’t it surprise you that there are infinitely many objects up there and each one can be distinguished from the other by name?”

She stared at me in silence for a while. The frown slowly melted away into an awfully cute smile of indulgence. “You are crazy,” she said lovingly and then went back to stare at the sky again.

“But you can’t name each particle that makes up the sky, can you?” I asked.

Once again the questioning look returned to her face. “What on earth are you talking about? Pulling my leg, are you?”

“Oh no,” I quickly intercepted. “I was merely thinking that the sky too is probably made up of little particles of some sort of matter, gases may be. And it is not possible to give each particle in the sky a name, is it?” I looked askance at her to study her reaction.

She didn’t appear to be too interested. The expression on her face had a stamp of incredulity. “Is this guy really crazy?” it appeared to ask.

But I carried on. “The particles that form the sky are infinitely many and the stars too probably infinitely many. But in one case you can find distinct names for each particle and in the other you can’t. Isn’t that strange, Sankari?”

She giggled in reply, revealing her sparkling teeth in the light that shone down from a nearby lamppost. “You know what’s strange?” she asked.

“What’s strange?” I asked back.

“You!!” she said emphatically. And then she moved the conversation closer to Lorenzo and Jessica. “The moon’s so beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”

I had to admit this was the case. It must have been full moon or very nearly so. “Yes the moon’s lovely,” I responded casually.

“Don’t you want to tell me something, now that you have noticed we are sitting under a perfect moonlit sky?”

It was my turn to be puzzled. “About the moon?” I asked doubtfully.

“No, about me,” she said and looked away, disappointment writ clearly on her face.

I couldn’t follow her. She appeared to be upset. But why, I had no idea.

So I went back to where I was. “Do you see that there are at least two kinds of infinity? In one case you can name each object in the infinity you behold and in the other, you can’t.”

Her face was still turned away and I had no idea if she was listening. I failed miserably to perceive that I could reach out for the moon so easily on that evening and I was wasting that wondrous opportunity!

The moon above kept smiling of course. But the moon next to me wasn’t.

“You know, mathematicians have names for these different kinds of infinity. The infinity of stars is called countable and the infinity of the sky is uncountable.”

I was greeted by deathlike silence. Nonetheless, I went on.
“And you know why the very basis of mathematics is illogical? It is illogical because classical mathematics assumes that the uncountable infinity can also be named particle by particle. It’s called the Axiom of Choice. Without this axiom, which no one can prove, mathematics cannot progress a single step. Logic is just a convenient house mathematics chooses to reside in. In fact, it’s hopelessly illogical!”

Sankari could have been a mummy resting under a pyramid. I sighed, seeing that her interest had still not been aroused. And then I shrugged.

“Well illogical or not, it works. So I guess we shouldn’t grumble,” I concluded.

“Who’s grumbling?” Sankari had finally found her voice. She was facing me now. Her beautiful eyes smiled at me. A smile charged with sadness.

Have I offended her somehow, I asked myself stupidly. She stood up.

“Let’s go back home, shall we?” she asked.

“Why? Do you have work at home?”

“Yes, I have work at home. Someone needs to work you know, to keep a family running,” she said. I didn’t fail to note the sarcasm in her tone. Gloomily I got up too.

“Well, what are you so upset about?” I asked. “Have I offended you? I said nothing at all to hurt you!”

“No, you didn’t say anything to hurt me at all. But I wish you did. I would have something to complain about.”

I was nonplussed. But I was reassured at the same time. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself. “I didn’t hurt my lovely wife.”

We had started walking back homewards. She maintained her silence. To help matters, I tried to start up the conversation again, or monologue if you will.

“How paradoxical language is really!” I said dramatically.

“What paradox?” she retorted. “I didn’t say anything at all!”

“Oh no, I wasn’t talking about you. Actually, I was talking about Bertrand Russell.”

She stopped dead in the middle of the road and stared at me, mouth half open. There was a distinctly scared look in her eyes.

“I am married to a loony,” they appeared to say.

I tried to make amends. “Actually, Russell pointed out how strange `logical’ language can get.”

She still didn’t resume her walk. Instead, she quickly checked to see if the road was empty or not. If necessary, help should be around to protect her from her husband.

“Well,” continued I, “suppose you were to say that the barber on our street shaved all those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“Why should I say something like that?” she challenged. “I don’t even know the barber.”

“Well, just suppose you did say so.”

She was petrified now.

“If you said that, then you would be committing yourself to resolving a very difficult paradox.”

She shook her head slowly, clearly lamenting her fate. But we had now begun to walk again. She had probably decided that, though mad, I wasn’t violently so. But her attitude suggested that she believed a visit to a head shrink was in order.

I had the field to myself now.

“You know what the paradox is? The paradox is that you don’t know who shaves the barber.”

For the first time she showed sign of anger. “Why the hell should I want to know who shaves the barber? I don’t even want to know any barber at all, whether he shaves or not. You go tomorrow morning and find out who shaves the barber. If no one else does, you do him the favour yourself.”

But I was desperate. “Please,” I pleaded, “just let me finish.”

She stopped again and faced me with stony indifference.

“You see, if the barber shaves himself, then he must be a person who doesn’t shave himself. Because we agreed, didn’t we, that he shaved all those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“No I didn’t agree to anything of the sort. But even if I did, so what?”

“Well, if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he is a person whom he has to shave,” I concluded with a note of satisfaction. “After all, the barber we said shaved all people who didn’t shave themselves.”

We had reached home by now and Sankari was unlocking the front door. She entered the dark apartment and I followed her in, turning on the light switch. The room was flooded with light. She looked so fascinatingly beautiful. And she had her engaging eyes turned straight at my face. There was a strange light that they reflected.

She sat down on the sofa and kept staring at me and suddenly blurted out.

“Do you know where Mathurapur is?”

She had caught me totally unprepared.

“Somewhere near Mathura?” I mumbled.

“No! Mathura is a small town in UP. Mathurapur is much smaller. It’s a village in the district of Malda. Have you heard of Malda, by the way? That’s in West Bengal. You don’t need to count stars to reach Malda.” She was boundlessly sarcastic.

“Yes, I know Malda.”

“Great!” she replied beamingly. “I am proud of my husband. He is almost educated. How about the Manikchowk Ferry Ghat though? Do you know where that is?”

I scratched my head. Stupidly. But she pushed me harder, mercilessly.

“It’s in Mathurapur. How about the steamer ride from Manikchowk to Rajmahal? Any idea how vast the Ganges looks there under the clear blue sky in early autumn?”

It was my turn to lose speech. I stared at the wall, avoiding her eyes. I didn’t know how to disentangle myself from the trap I had unwittingly created for myself.

“You do eat onions and potatoes, don’t you?” She appeared to have made a sudden change in her battle strategy, leaving me as dumfounded as Aurangzeb’s army might have been left by Shivaji’s guerrilla attacks.

“Yes …,” I replied somewhat pathetically.

“What was the price of potatoes today?” she was pretty close to growling now.

I shook my head in ignorance and let her proceed undisturbed. But the expression on her face had changed now, indicating signs of peaceful coexistence.

“What is it that you get paid for in your office?” she asked somewhat innocently.

I was confused. “How do you mean?”

“I mean what do you do in your office? Spread rubbish amongst students? I thought you taught classes. So I was asking if it is gibberish that you you teach. Russel’s paradox indeed! It’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Anyway, forget about that. But let’s get one thing straight. I am not your student, understand? I am your wife!” Her voice rose once again and I beat a hasty retreat to wait quietly for my dinner.

And I have waited quietly for dinner every night since then. I have waited for her delicious lunches too during the forty five odd years that have rolled by following that fateful evening. Sankari is still very pretty I think. But I have realised too late in life I guess that she will never ask me again what a golden full moon on a clear spring sky should remind me of.

God Almighty — Flash Fiction #17


The tiger has turned into a great nuisance. Humans are worried to no end. It started with cattle and then human beings too began to fall prey to the tigers. People brought out their sticks, their spears and their guns and killed the tiger. But then yet another tiger arrived. Finally, the humans approached God Almighty with an appeal.

“God Almighty! Do please save us from the tigers.”

God Almighty replied — “Okay.”

Soon after, the tigers showed up in the court of God Almighty with a complaint — “The humans have made our lives unbearable. We are running away from forest to forest. But the hunters are not leaving us in peace. Hey God Almighty, can’t you please find a remedy for this perilous situation?”

God Almighty replied – “Of course.”

Just then young Nerha’s mother appeared before God Almighty and prayed —“Baba, please make sure that my Nerha is blessed with a lovely young bride. Please, please dear God Almighty. I am offering you five paisa in obeisance.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Harihar Bhattacharyya addressed God Almighty on his way to court where his case was pending. “I have worshipped you all my life. My body has thinned on account of the fasts I kept. I want to give a proper lesson to my rascal of a nephew. Please do be my ally.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Sushil is preparing for an exam. He tells God Almighty everyday, “Dear God Almighty, do make sure that I pass.” Today he added — “God Almighty, if you can arrange for a scholarship for me, I will spend five rupees to distribute sweets I offer in your glory.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Haren Purakayastha desires to be the Chairman of the District Board. He approached God Almighty through an intermediary, a priest called Kali. “I need only eleven votes to win.” The priest, in lieu of a fat fee, chanted prayers in incorrect Sanskrit making God Almighty nearly lose his mind – “Votam dehi, votam dehi —”

God Almighty replied desperately – “Oh, okeigh, ohkeigh.”

The farmer raised his hands towards the sky and said — “God Almighty, give me water.”

God Almighty replied –”Okay.”

The mother of a sick child prayed to God Almighty–”Oh Lord, I have but a single child. Please don’t snatch it away.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Khenti pishi, the next door neighbour of the mother, said –”God Almighty, the slut is far too vain. She shows off new jewelry every other day and looks down on us all. You have shown endless mercy by catching hold of the child by his throat. Give the broad a proper lesson.”

God Almighty moaned – “Okay.”

The grim philosopher said – “God Almighty I wish to understand you.”

God Almighty warily responded – “Okay.”

China came up with a piercing cry – “Please save us from Japan Oh Lord.”

God Almighty replied – “Sure.”

A young man from Bengal caught hold of God Almighty– “No editor is accepting my submissions. I want to publish in ‘Prabasi’. Please tell Ramananda-babu to be kind to me.”

God Almighty replied – “I will.”

During a short break, God Almighty asked Brahma, who was sitting right next to him – “Do you have pure mustard oil at your home?”

Brahma said – “Yes, I do. But what’s the problem?”

God Almighty said – “I am in dire need of it. Can you spare some for me?”

Brahma. (Speaking hastily out of all five mouths) “I definitely can.”

Pure mustard oil arrived from Brahma’s home. Immediately, God Almighty put drops of mustard oil into his nostrils and fell into a deep slumber.

Till this day, we has not woken up from that slumber.

Translation-cum-transcreation of a classic Bengali flash fiction বিধাতা (bidhata) by Banaphool. The original version of The Neem Tree was also his creation.

 
 
 
 
 

[This a transcreation of an original story written by Banaphool. He is the same writer who had penned The Neem Tree. The present story in its original version was published by Gurudas Chattopaddhay and Sons in 1936 in a collection entitled Banaphhol-er Galpo (Banaphool’s Stories).]

Of Crows and Men — Flash Fiction #16

I am either a schizophrenic or a downright hypocrite when it comes to my attitude towards animals. At the same time that I cajole my dog-hating wife to allow me a puppy in the house, I will definitely be sorry to see Kentucky Fried Chicken pack up and leave the country.

I have nothing against birds though. The koel drives me to distraction on many a moonlit night. The kingfisher’s perfect somersault leaves me speechless. I have tarried patiently by peacocks for an opportunity to watch them dance. The magnificent curve of a flamingo’s neck fascinates me and, quite unpardonably, I adore the sight of little chicks scampering about.

Yet there are boundaries I will not cross. I do not enjoy the company of rodents, of spiders, of cockroaches, and, among birds, of crows. I detest crows. I am repulsed by their looks, their raucous caws and their untidy nests. Besides, dirty fish-bones on my balcony, along with other filth, are daily reminders of their slovenly habits.

I was more than a little surprised, therefore, by the agony I felt the other morning, to discover a group of little boys shriek with delight as they pulled at a string fastened firmly to the claws of a baby crow. It had not yet learnt to fly properly and must have crashed on the pavement during one of its training sessions. The miserable thing believed that the way to freedom lay in flapping its wings, which it did with all its might, much to the merriment of its captors. As it was dragged along the rough surface of the pavement, it parted its beak and cawed in a hoarse whisper, revealing the raw redness of a mouth unaccustomed to anything other than the infinite tenderness of a feeding mother.

It took me all the powers of persuasion to put a stop to this horror and make the boys untie the string.

Later on in the afternoon, I searched for the crow on my way out for a stroll. The local presswallah pointed it out to me as it perched precariously on a heap of rubble close to the edge of the pavement. I went near to have a closer look and check if the string was truly detached. The bird recoiled in panic and, losing its foothold, tumbled down the slope right into the middle of the street.

Just then a Maruti van whizzed past, far too close to the spot where the hapless crow had landed. I winced in fear and closed my eyes. When I opened them at last, prepared mentally to absorb a gory spectacle, I could hardly believe what I saw. The creature was wobbling back towards the pavement on a return trip to life!

I gazed at the scene and found myself wondering how soon it might pay a visit to my balcony.

And then I winced again, this time in disgust.

 

Love and Hugs — Flash Fiction #15

Out of sheer disgust that his scientifically retarded old mother did not know how to be loved and hugged over a smart phone, a gentleman employed a human to help his mother find out that she had been hugged and loved over and over again by her invisible son from across a distance of eight thousand miles. The human in charge was invisible too, living forty miles away from the old woman, and had to deliver the love and the hugs over a phone, which, fortunately, the old woman knew how to answer, except when it stopped working. On such difficult occasions, other humans were needed to deal with the phone’s non-cooperation.

The human employed to convey love and hugs pointed out that the service contract was drawn up for love and hugs alone. A more pricey contract was called for to include the extra responsibility of finding humans to fix the old woman’s phone. The son was endlessly irritated by this inhuman demand from a human, but complied for a few months. He saw that the expenses were mounting, yet he was desperate to love and hug the old woman.

He suspected finally that he was being cheated by unscrupulous humans who had found out how frantic he was to love and hug his mother. Fortunately, he was scientifically inclined, unlike his mother. So, he was able to solve the expense problem. He sent his mother a cake on line and to make sure that the old woman knew that her invisible son truly loved and hugged her, he ordered a little girl’s picture as the topping for the cake. This was meant to make his mother feel young and smile as she tore up the picture while cutting the cake.

Unknown to herself, the woman was riding a time machine. The machine, like the phone, suddenly malfunctioned. It accelerated violently till the woman vanished two days before the day the cake with the little girl’s picture arrived. The human in charge of delivering love and hugs alone offered a special discount to inform the son about the incident. The son was annoyed to no end to learn about the mother unknowingly boarding a time machine without engaging a pilot, though he knew at the same time that pilots were expensive and paying their bills would have seriously compromised his love and hugs budget.

This being an emergency of course, he rushed to his computer to search on line for humans who repaired malfunctioning time machines, however highly priced the service might be. But google informed him that all such humans lived in the future.

Of Roots and Rootless — Flash Fiction #14

I have seen the tree since it was a baby sapling planted by the municipal corporation. We have grown old together.

On the tree bloomed beautiful multi-coloured flowers. Red and yellow. The flowers smiled, surrounded by shiny green leaves.

Like a pretty girl I often saw on my way to office. With her mother, she used to sell roasted peanuts  in a street corner, wearing threadbare clothes. Which indicated a hand to mouth existence.

The tree grew large and its branches threatened to penetrate my first floor window. I informed the municipality and had it cut down to size. But its trunk managed to keep standing where it had been planted. Soon it grew new branches and began to flower again. It had drowned its roots way down deep under the pavement.

The pretty little girl who used to sell roasted peanuts on the streets must have grown up too. Beyond her threadbare clothes.

Most probably, parts of her were chopped off as well. But, being rootless, she stands there no more.

Waiting — Flash Fiction # 13

They had been waiting for weeks when a few of them pointed out that they had waited for months, and soon enough the months changed to years, till, finally, those who were still alive forgot what they were waiting for, even though they felt vaguely that they had been waiting. 






Granny — Flash Fiction # 12

Granny too was excited to hear the patter of feet coming up the staircase on that silent afternoon, but they passed by the closed door of her empty home, climbing further up and finally moving out of her hearing range. As always.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sequence — Flash Fiction #11

The man knew he was old, and so were all his possessions, dog included, and that, put together, the collectivity was beyond repair, but he didn’t know in what sequence they needed to be disposed of.







 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Girls — Flash Fiction #10

Hanoi. Inside a tourist bus hired by the university. I sat next to a student volunteer. Dressed in a pristine white uniform. Young and radiating health. She told me about her family. Her father was a doctor. Wasn’t he? Not sure. Could have been an engineer or an accountant. But certainly not a pilot or a restaurant owner. We were silent for a while, watching through the window roadside shops, simple folks walking their way back home. We passed by an aged woman with a shoulder yoke. She could have reminded her of her grandparents. The girl suddenly turned towards me and asked, “Do you have grandchildren?” I must have been pretty old then. But I have grown even older with time. How old is she today? Don’t know her name. That nameless Vietnamese girl may still be in Hanoi. If you see an attractive girl there with a lovely smile, that’s she. 

***

Hong Kong. I was walking down a long, steep stairway leading down the hill from my home to my office in the university. To my left stood the colossal shopping mall, Festival Walk. It began to rain and I prepared to get soaked. When a smallish Chinese girl emerged out of the huge mall. She briskly approached me and offered shelter under her open umbrella. We chatted as we went towards our common destination. She was an undergraduate student and spoke about the courses she was taking. Once inside the university building, she took leave and went her way. I never saw her again. Did I ask her name? Can’t recall anymore. Probably not. She should not be more than thirty five now. If you come across her do tell her that I can’t get her out of my mind even though I don’t remember her face. I wonder where she lives now. Her kindness has remained stuck to me like the empty smile of eternity. 

***

New York city. Afternoon, fifty years ago. Avenue of the Americas. Pavement in front of Radio City Music Hall. I was walking aimlessly, when a girl in a green dress rushed up and confronted me. To my total surprise, she said, “I love you.” Her intonation was strange. I thought I heard her saying, “Love you?” I didn’t know her at all and stared at her dumbfounded for a moment. Then I tried to smile. I said, “You do?” “Yes,” she said and stood blocking my way, as though she was waiting for a response. Her eyes looked sad as she stared at me and her face wore an expression that I couldn’t decipher. The sadness in her eyes was too deep for her age and the manner of her voice was vaguely painful. I managed to skirt around her and briskly walk away. I had probably assumed her to be a drug addict, even though, on hindsight, she didn’t resemble one.

Like the other two, I never saw this girl again, but those sad eyes and the puzzling countenance continue to live and the enigmatic words she had uttered keep ringing in my ears. Was she asserting or interrogating me about herself? I wish I had bought her coffee and spent a few minutes with her. Instead, and as always, I didn’t even ask her name. Somewhere, now, she is a very old woman. She will not recognize me. It’s best to leave her alone.

***

Girls vanish.

 

House — Flash Fiction # 9

He bought the house in a prime locality of the city, not to live there, but because he wished to sell off the property for a decent profit.

He sold it, as he had planned to. The man who bought it, did not intend to live in it. Instead, like the previous owner, he sold off the property for a decent profit. The next person who purchased the house did not plan to live there either, and sold it off for a profit as the previous buyers did. And so on.

None of the owners ever lived in that house. Liverlessly though, the house went on living where it was built to live. Till it was too old to live any longer.