On entering the gate, I heard a muffled cry. No, it was not emanating from the bushes around. It seemed to be coming from the depths of the past, from times that now belong to history.
The first time I went to Agra was to see the Taj Mahal. I still vividly remember the grand view that the Taj presented even before I reached Agra. The train was getting closer to the town when a fellow passenger shouted out loudly, “Look there, you can see the Taj Mahal!” I obeyed that order instantly.
The view of the Taj, in broad daylight, from a distance, was anything but inspiring. It seemed a pretty ordinary monument. Is this Taj Mahal?
Yet, I kept on staring. After all, it’s the Taj Mahal! Shahjahan’s Taj Mahal!… late evenings found captive Shahjahan sitting on the verandah of Agra fort and looking wistfully at the Taj… Taj was the memorial to his beloved Mumtaz… Besides Mumtaz another man lies buried… possibly still his body is there… by the side of the Taj. Dara Sheikh. Soon, this ordinary looking monument went out of view.
It was the day after full moon. The moon was not visible as yet. That day, towards late evening I went to see the Taj for the second time. I can still remember that experience. On entering the gate, I heard a muffled cry. No, it was not emanating from the bushes around. It seemed to be coming from the depths of the past, from times that now belong to history.
Slowly, I inched forward. Soon the minar, minaret, the tomb became visible.
The moon appeared. It now seemed as if Shahjahan and Mumtaz’s dream was beckoning me. I was spellbound! I kept on looking in amazement.
A few days had elapsed since that date with the Taj. Which contractor had earned how much from the Taj, which hotelier turned into a millionaire because of the Taj, which rickshawpuller extracted exorbitantly from innocent tourists — all that has become stale news for me now.
I have seen the Taj several times, watched the monument touched by the different shades cast by moonlight, as much as by the light, during the seasons, morning, noon and dusk. I have even watched it on new moon nights. at dusk and dawn, that it no longer appears extraordinary to me now.
I am working as a physician in a clinic at Agra. Taj Mahal attracts me no longer. But one day — okay, let me start from the beginning.
That day after my duty at the OPD, I was coming down the steps taking off from the verandah, when an old mussalman came in through the gate. He was carrying a huge sack on his shoulder. He was barely able to carry the massive load. I thought he was a fruit seller. When he lowered the sack, I found he wasn’t. What he held was a burkha clad woman.
The man approached me, gave me a salaam and in chaste Urdu said that he had carried his begum on his shoulder for medical check up by me. He was poor. He couldn’t have paid my fees had he called me to his house. That’s why he brought her there. If only I would attend on her! His eyes begged.
I went near and smelt the stench. After taking her inside my clinic I removed her burkha (she protested a lot. Then I knew the source of the foul smell). Half her visage has become festered. Her right face was badly disfigured. Her protruding teeth added to the ugliness. It was extremely difficult to bear such horrid smell. This patient carried through great distances on shoulders by her husband, couldn’t be treated effectively unless she was admitted.
But there was no room to take her in. So, I arranged a makeshift bed on the verandah of the hospital, temporarily. But I couldn’t keep them in the verandah for long. The stink became more intense and intolerable. Other patients voiced their protest. Even the compounder, dresser and the sweeper refused to go near her.
The old mussalman remained unruffled. He was all along looking after his wife with outmost care. When everyone protested, I had to remove them from the verandah. There was a huge tree near my clinic. I asked them to stay under its shade. And they stayed there. Everyday the man came and took the prescribed medicine from the hospital. At times, I went to administer her injections. Days sped.
One day, it was raining heavily. I was returning from a ‘call’. I saw the old mussalman standing there in the rain. He had tied a shawl to the end of a tree and was holding the other end in his hands. Beneath the shawl, sat his begum. Unhesitatingly the man stood there trying to shield his wife in this manner.
I turned my car. Just a shawl could hardly protest his begum from this downpour. I found her completely wet, and she was shivering. She smiled in a diabolical manner. I checked and noted that she was running a high fever. I said “Bring her to the verandah of the hospital.” The old man asked “Does she have any chance to survive, huzoor?”
I had to tell him the truth – “No.”
The old man stood there silently. I came away. The next day, I found the old mussalman and his wife had disappeared from there.
A few days later, I was returning again after attending a ‘call’. While coming through a field I sighted the old mussalman. He was engrossed in something, so deeply engrossed that he seemed immune to the scorching heat of the sun. What was he doing? Was it in any way meant to help his dying wife? I inched forward. He was making something with bricks and mud.
“What’re you doing, miya sahib?”
The old man got up and respectfully gave me a salaam.
“I’m burying my begum, huzoor”
I stood there silently for a while. Then I asked him, “Where do you stay?”
“I move in and around Agra. I beg for my survival, huzoor”
I said, “Strange, I didn’t see you before in Agra. What’s your name?”
I was stunned. I found no words to react.
About the writer: Banophool (1899-1979) was educated at Patna Medical college. His real name was Balaichand Mukhopadhyay. He was a qualified pathologist. But perhaps, he was more gifted in writing remarkable stories. His noteworthy novels includes ‘Jokhom,’ ‘Soptorshi,’ ‘Dana’ (all in Bengali) and many others. Winner of several prestigious awards, he was conferred the Padma Bhusan by the Indian Govt. in 1975. Several of his novels have been made into films, noteworthy being Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Tapan Sinha’s Hatey Bazare and Arohi, and his real-life brother Arabindo Mukhopadhyay’s directorial ventures like Agniswar and Kichukhon.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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