What do you do when someone makes a mockery of your loss, someone who caused it in the first place? Caused it out of callousness, a sense of superiority and privilege. When justice is denied, is revenge the answer? The Price asks these loaded questions in an entertaining, twists-in-the-tale way.
When the antagonists are first introduced, I wondered whether they were alien beings because of their ‘harmonized’, predictable ways. Is this going to be sci-fi? Later in the story, the antagonists want the narrator to root for their boss because he provides employment to a lot of people – a trope I have come across in many Bangla serials. As for the way it ends – I’ll wait for you to find out.
— Priyanka Sarkar
The Bombay Literary Magazine
They said they would come at 8 o’clock sharp.
Chaitali rang me up at the college to tell me. Again! I told Chaitali, ‘Why didn’t you tell them I’ll be late.’ Chaitali was silent. I added, ‘Ten or eleven at night, you could have suggested some other time!’
Chaitali answered, ‘What difference would that make? If not today then tomorrow, if not tomorrow then the day after. Do you think you can avoid them until the whole matter is settled?
It is 8 o’clock now.
Chaitali’s eyes have been ﬁxed on the clock since 7 in the evening. She must have doubled the sugar in my tea. So sickeningly sweet! Chaitali also drank the same tea, didn’t she think it was too sweet? Or am I mistaken—everything is actually all right and I am the only one who’s confused.
They said they would come at 8 o’clock.
I knew they would arrive at 8 o’clock sharp. They were extremely punctual. Never have they turned up even ﬁve or ten minutes late or early. Didn’t their watches ever run too fast…or too slow? Take the clock in our bedroom, it’s ﬁve minutes faster than the one in our drawing room. These people followed the time on our drawing room clock. Sometimes I feel they synchronized their watches with it the very ﬁrst day they came with the proposition. How could the clock and their watches move in such complete harmony otherwise?
I was in the bedroom—my eyes were on the newspaper. I wasn’t reading it. In fact, I wasn’t even looking at it. The newspaper was simply open in front of me. Chaitali was staring at the clock intently. I knew she would alert me as soon as the hands of the clock in the bedroom indicated it was ﬁve minutes to 8.
Chaitali said, ‘It’s 8 o’clock. They will be here soon. Go to the drawing room.’
Predictably, the calling bell rang only once.
Even if I don’t open the door right away, I know they would be waiting for me patiently. The bell would not ring a second time. They wouldn’t urge me to hurry by ringing the bell once more. With their heads bowed, they would wait outside my door for as long as they could. And only after that—with a slight touch of their hands—would they ring the bell a second time. I had looked at them through the peephole the last two days. I did it today too. The same four familiar ﬁgures. Oh, how respectable they looked standing there!
I opened the door.
One of them looked at me with a sad smile. Another asked me gently, ‘May we come in’?
This was exactly what happened the other day. One person smiled ruefully; another asked if they could come in. And today—an action replay.
They came in and sat down. I knew what would happen next. The elderly man would ask if I could please bring him a glass of water.
‘May I please have a glass of water?’ It was the elderly man.
Chaitali had kept a bottle of water and a glass ready just outside the drawing room. She would hand over a glass of water to me.
She thrust a glass of water into my hand as soon as I stepped out of the drawing room. She was clutching a bottle in the other hand. Not the entire bottle, not now. The bottle comes next. Why bring the bottle without being asked? The elderly man would drink the water with great contentment—as if after a very long time. A strange sound of pleasure would escape his throat after he drained the ﬁnal drop from the glass. I gave him water to drink.
Now the fair, handsome man would say, ‘I want some water too. Why don’t you bring a bottle, you won’t have to bother over and over again.’
The man said exactly what I knew he would.
The bottle was waiting for me. Chaitali had kept it ready in anticipation. The man would drink and then say what he had to say.
‘I am Pinak. Lalit Das. Lalu-da is my sister’s husband. My brother-in-law. You understand what I am saying, don’t you?’ The man said.
This was how the young man had been starting the conversation the last three days. ‘Have you spoken to Manish-babu?’, he asked.
I silently nodded my yes. ‘What did he say?’
I cleared my throat noisily. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t seem to speak to them till I had cleared my throat. After the exercise, I said, ‘These things can’t be said directly. I’ve spoken to him though. I’ve told him as much as I could.’
‘Really! And what did you say?’ the elderly man piped up.
The fair-skinned Pinak replied, ‘This is Gobindo-da. Gobindo Ghoshal—an important member of our regional party. I assume you know Gobindo-da?’
Just like the previous times, this time too, Pinak introduced me to Gobindo Ghoshal in his usual manner.
Gobindo Ghoshal said again, ‘And what did you say?’
I answered, ‘This time I said a lot more. As much as I could, that is. Today too I told them that you are hurt, that you are grieved, that you are sympathetic to him.’
‘This was the initial conversation. You have said all this before,’ said a bald, dark-skinned man.
‘This is Bireshwar Saha’, Pinak introduced the man. ‘A high court lawyer. Let him know if you need anything, he’s very helpful.’
Bireshwar Saha prodded me, ‘And then? Tell us something new.’
I continued, ‘I’ve tried to reason with Manish—whatever happened has happened. Titin will not come back. They want to compensate you. Pay for your loss. Though there’s no way to compensate…yet a compensation.’
‘This is what you said in the second episode’, Bireshwar Saha told me. ‘And what after that? You were granted four days for this phase. How much of what I told you on day three did you manage to convince him about?’ His voice was muﬄed.
‘I had asked you to visit your friend at his house every day. Did you?’
‘Stop, Raj-da!’ Pinak protested in a hushed tone against the pot-bellied man decked in gold jewellery. Now he would turn to me and introduce us as he did every time.
Pinak said, ‘You already know who Raj-da is. What more can I say about him? Raj-da is like a rajah…a king. The big boss.’
‘Tell us what happened in this episode after the third time we were here,’ said Bireshwar Saha.
‘I told him that you will compensate him for his son. Three lakh rupees.’
‘Really! There’s been quite some progress,’ Gobindo Ghoshal said. ‘What did he say when he heard about the money?’ asked Raja. ‘Oh, Manish didn’t say anything. He stared at me blankly.’
‘Oh please, that was when he heard about it the ﬁrst time. I believe you must have visited him at least four times in the last four days. So, he stared at you blankly that one time—but what about the second, third, and fourth time?’ Bireshwar Saha asked breathlessly.
‘I have been trying to reason with him for the past few days. It was an accident. Just an accident. The roads were deserted early in the morning—that is when people learn to drive so they can control the steering wheel better,’ I said.
Gobindo Ghoshal said, ‘Schoolchildren are very restless. They run around on the streets and refuse to walk on the footpaths. They don’t care about the traﬃc. Surely you don’t expect the cars to drive in the sky?’
‘No no’, I protested hotly. ‘Manish was holding his son’s hand. And which road here has a pavement?’
‘Who brought this up? Was it Manish-babu?’ Bireshwar Saha asked. ‘Manish says so. So do I.’
‘Why do you have to state your opinion? Do you think every place you go to is your classroom?’ This was Raja.
‘Let him speak.’ Pinak intervened.
Bireshwar Saha asked, ‘What else did you say?’
Pinak added, ‘You teach at a college. They say you are a good teacher. When you explain things, they’re clear as daylight.’
I replied, ‘I reasoned with him to the best of my abilities over the last four days. I told him that an accident is an accident. You were holding his hand that morning when it happened. It could have happened anywhere. A skilled driver could have done it too.
‘Skilled or amateur, if the driver had a licence would I be here boiling the kettle forever? I would have told him, Get the fucking father too!’ Raja said.
I was stunned into silence.
Pinak said, ‘Make him understand. You can do it. You must. Three lakh rupees is not a small sum.’
Raja spoke up. ‘If his son had been killed by a state transport bus or train you think he’d get so much money? Just that Lalit Das doesn’t have a licence. That’s why he’s willing to oﬀer three lakh in cash.’
‘You teach at a college. Surely you don’t need us to explain these things?’ Pinak said.
It was Raja’s turn to speak again. ‘Not a single rupee will be deducted as tax. No pesky middleman. Three lakh…in full. Can anyone extract a payment without a commission anywhere in India? It’s happening here. If only he had a bloody learner’s licence—wouldn’t have had to part with three lakh.’
Pinak added, ‘Make your friend understand. We are oﬀering three lakh rupees. We could have used the money to free Lalu-da. But it was he who said your friend gets the ﬁrst chance. If he doesn’t agree, there are other ways.’
‘I’m not here because of Lalu’, Gobindo Ghoshal declared. ‘But he’s responsible for the livelihoods of at least a hundred people. Four of his projects have shut down. This means sixty to seventy families have nowhere to go. We have to think about others too. How many people must suffer because of one person?’
The next day I visited Manish at his home. The maid opened the door and moved aside to let me in. She would always greet me with a smile but these days she seemed to have forgotten how to smile.
I stepped into their drawing room. Manish was seated on the divan with his back against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. His eyes were closed. I knew he was not asleep—just sitting there with his eyes shut. He spent hours upon hours seated just like this. All day. It has been seventeen days since he returned to work.
Manish had stopped going to the office after Titin’s accident. He had spent twenty-one or twenty-two days just like this. It was then that I asked him to get up. To go to work. But he didn’t seem to hear. As though he had turned to stone. It wasn’t unexpected. Seeing him in this state terrified me. It seemed grief for his child would make him spend his entire life this way—sitting on the divan with his back against the wall, his eyes closed. What had happened had happened. But if Manish continued to cling to the past, it would kill him too. No matter what it took, he had to return to regular life.
I told Gauri, who was lying with her face down on the bed, ‘You must tell Manish he will fall sick if he sits at home all day.’
‘What good will it do for us to be healthy?’ Gauri countered.
I said in a hushed voice, ‘We have lost Titin. We can’t lose Manish and you too.’
Whenever I visited their home, I got the feeling that Gauri too would never leave her bed.
They were the ones who got us to this neighbourhood. Locating the land, supervising the construction—my house would not have come up without them. Manish had found me the plot at just the right time. All the empty plots disappeared soon afterwards to be replaced by multi-storeyed buildings. The neighbourhood changed completely.
I took Manish’s hands in mine. ‘I cannot bear to see the two of you like this. Please come back to normal life. I will sell my house and leave otherwise.’
Manish’s lips quivered.
My wife Chaitali added, ‘God has snatched Titin from us. But what about Gauri-di? We’re losing her. She’s always in bed—slumped there all day. If we don’t help her, Gauri-di will never leave her bed, Manish-da.’
Manish contorted his face in agony.
‘Don’t make it worse’, Chaitali murmured. ‘We don’t want to lose either of you. You are men—even the illiterate know that it is the men who must stand strong even in the face of adversity. How will Gauri-di recover if you aren’t strong?’
Chaitali went to their house every day. She got the maid to cook whatever she could. She coaxed and cajoled them to eat. After one or two mouthfuls, one would retire to the divan while the other retreated to the bedroom.
Chaitali would cry when she returned home.
The days went by. Chaitali and I would go over and stand in turns beside Manish and Gauri, by the divan and by the bed.
Finally, Manish called out for Gauri. Gauri got up. Maybe Gauri had called out for Manish too. Which was why Manish had woken up. Manish began to leave for work. They came to terms slowly with losing their 11-year-old son—their only child. Just as they were gingerly setting foot in regular life, they turned up at our doorstep. They meaning Lalit Das’s brother-in-law Pinak, Gobindo Ghoshal, Bireshwar Saha, and Raj. They reminded me again that I had to make Manish understand.
I tried to convince Manish. He listened to me with his eyes closed.
They had expressed regret at ﬁrst. They had insisted that it was an accident—an accident, really. They had said they were sorry, truly remorseful.
I informed Manish about their visit. I told him they wanted to apologize. Gobindo Ghoshal had instructed me to mention that Lalu had a young son and daughter. I told Manish, ‘Lalit Das has a young son and daughter.’ I continued, ‘The children are refusing to eat ever since their father has been arrested. They do not sleep, they do not go to school. All they do is cry and cry some more.’
Manish’s eyes welled up on hearing this.
Bireshwar Saha also had a set of instructions for me. ‘Tell him Lalu-babu has been enquiring about you even though he is in jail.’
I told Manish what I was asked to say. Manish contorted his face in disgust.
He had every right to be disgusted. After all, on that day Lalit Das had insisted that he be allowed to sit behind the steering wheel. It was a challenge—no matter what, he would drive that day. He hit a rickshaw-puller early in the morning—that was his ﬁrst chance to become alert. But he paid no heed to the accident. Instead, the rickshaw-driver was rewarded with a resounding slap from Lalit. Then he was back at the wheel. Next, he crashed into an auto-rickshaw. The driver had jumped out of the vehicle but was deﬂated into silence after seeing Lalu Das in the driver’s seat. Lalu had said he would pay for the vehicle to be repaired. Send me the bill afterwards, he had said. This was his second warning. Yet he did not become cautious. Instead, he told the driver seated next to him, at least two or three such cases are inevitable when learning how to drive. Then, instead of hitting the brakes, he had put his foot on the accelerator and taken the life of Manish’s ﬁfth-grader son.
The revulsion that had coloured Manish’s face had spilled all over my body. For shame! I chastised myself. Why should I speak on their behalf?
Day two. Raja had said, ‘Yes, you will speak on our behalf.’
Pinak had explained, ‘You are untainted. Unblemished. You are not speaking for your own selﬁsh gains. You are speaking for us. Imagine the professor of Bengali is absent and you, a professor of Math, are substituting for him.’
‘And what if I don’t want to?’
Pinak replied, ‘No problem whatsoever. We will inform Lalu Da and settle the case another way. Lalu Da is giving you a chance to settle. There are options—which one are you choosing?’
‘Pick the wrong option and so many things can go wrong,’ Raja interrupted. ‘Who knows what might happen unexpectedly, sir? There could be pandemonium in no time on charges of touching a female student inappropriately. You are always surrounded by these young girls. We can easily manage one of them. Sexual harassment!’
These days I get distracted in class. I mess up the equations. I run the chalk across the board but cannot produce a letter. I gape at the class. The faces of the students ﬁlling the class blur. I am always in the grip of terror—am I staring at one of the female students?
I cannot help but shiver with fear whenever one of them approaches me. I am suspicious of them. For shame, can this one actually accuse me of touching her inappropriately? Is she the one who has been ‘managed’?
Pinak spoke of managing a student. Gobindo Ghoshal said dispassionately, ‘This is for everyone’s well-being—Manish-babu’s as well as ours.’
Raja added, ‘And yours too.’
Pinak insisted, ‘You have to do this. You must.’ Chaitali asked, ‘What will happen if you can’t?’ I replied gravely, ‘Nothing will happen.’
‘I don’t like the sound of what they’re saying. Sometimes it feels like they are trying to intimidate us.’
I hardened my jaws. I had not told Chaitali about their threats. She didn’t know they had threatened to manipulate a female student to press false charges against me. ‘You trust me, don’t you?’ I muttered.
‘We’ll sell the house and leave if it comes to that,’ Chaitali suggested.
I closed my eyes. And what about the college? Would it be so easy to leave? What about respect? Dignity? Could I forsake my dignity?
I visited Manish once more. In the course of the conversation, I tried to make him understand. After a little while, I steered him back to the topic of Lalit Das’s children. His son is of Titin’s age.
This time he did not react with disgust on hearing Lalit Das’s name. The other day, he even reeled oﬀ details of Lalit Das’s projects. He also said not all of these projects were Lalit Das’s alone. They worked as a group. It was a partnership. Every project had a team of four, ﬁve, or six people. Lalit Das was part of many such groups.
I turned to Manish with surprise writ large on my face. How did he know so much about Lalit Das?
Another day, Manish told me, ‘Lalit Das has invested a huge amount in a project near Rath’tala. It’s turned out to be a ripe opportunity for his partners—they’re robbing him left, right, and centre.’
I ﬁxed a steady gaze on Manish. Was he getting all this information from the partners?
When I ﬁrst told Manish about the money, he shut his eyes and his jaws became rigid as though lined with steel. My voice trembled. ‘Three lakh rupees. This is the amount they want to pay as compensation. They admit no amount can compensate for a lost life but still…’
My voice trailed into silence.
The next day, Manish said to me, ‘They’re pestering you, aren’t they?’ ‘No, why should they pester me?’
‘It is Lalit Das’s goddamned brother-in-law who’s calling all the shots. The other three are his foot soldiers.’
‘Yes, this is Pinak’s way of putting pressure on you.’
‘What pressure? They’re using me as a messenger because they can’t speak directly with you.’
A few days later Pinak and his men turned up at my doorstep again—the predictable mannerisms and chain of events made me want to laugh. I wanted to tell him, Pinak, it’s time to change the script. How long can a person watch the same thing on repeat? Instead, I made do with clearing my throat loudly.
Their placid faces prevented me from saying anything. Manish was not making a mistake, was he? Was he getting it all wrong? Maybe someone was misleading him.
Pinak informed me the other day that the driver has been managed. He would admit to being the one driving. Lalit Das was in the passenger seat. The driver was responsible for the accident. Manish just had to say he hadn’t seen anything—especially who was at the wheel.
How could I ask Manish to admit he had not witnessed anything? No, I couldn’t ask this of him.
Pinak left with a warning. ‘There’s no time to lose. We want to keep at least one scenario ready. The driver has agreed. If your friend does not, we’ll say yes to the other option.’
I stared wordlessly at Pinak. What did he mean by yes? Would the three lakh be used elsewhere? Or would he use a female student to malign me?
But how could I tell Manish he had seen nothing?
I needn’t have worried. Manish told me, ‘They’re making the driver admit to a crime he did not commit. They have taken care of other things too. I’m the only one remaining.’
Manish was sitting on the divan with his eyes closed. His lips were trembling. I couldn’t hear him but I know his lips concealed the many things he wanted to say.
Manish said, ‘Nothing will happen to Lalit Das. The police have already withdrawn the charges against him. The driver will admit his guilt. Lalit Das will slip through the loopholes.’
Manish continued to speak. I stayed silent. I could not bring myself to say anything.
‘Three lakh rupees—I should take the money.’ Manish said.
My heart jumped into my mouth. ‘You will take the money, Manish? Do you realize what you’ll have to do in exchange? You know what you’ll have to say?’
Manish replied, ‘Who was in the driver’s seat? Who was holding the steering wheel? I didn’t see anything. Isn’t that all?’
‘Will you really say it?’
‘It’s true I didn’t see anything. When your son is being dragged along by the wheels of a car, how will you know who’s driving? Or what the colour of his shirt is? Or whether he was wearing sunglasses? Will you be looking at the driver instead of your child covered in blood?’
I said ﬂatly, ‘So the price of Titin’s life has been decided at three lakh rupees.’
‘The price of Titin’s life is not three lakh rupees. It’s the price of my statement,’ Manish replied calmly.
‘So, you’re taking the money?’
‘What other choice do I have? If I refuse the money and pretend blindness, Lalit Das will not be released from jail. If Lalit Das is not released from jail, his children will refuse to go to school. Lalit Das’s wife will not be able to go shopping. And Lalit Das…he will never drive again. There won’t be another accident either.’
‘Shame on you, all this reasoning for three lakh?’
‘We have become a part of their game—we must play it like them. If they are playing the game with a car, then we must play with a car too.’ Manish’s eyes were open and his jaws, taut.
I had heard enough. I shot out of his room, straight out of the front door.
Gauri was standing in the compound. I stopped still. What was going on? The garage door, always closed, had suddenly been ﬂung wide open.
They didn’t own a car but they had a garage. When my own house was being built Manish had insisted that I too get a garage. What was Gauri doing here?
‘There was a heap of old furniture here. I got rid of them to clear the garage.’ Gauri explained.
I looked at her in complete bewilderment. Before I could ask why, Gauri said, ‘He hasn’t told you, we’re buying a car with that three lakh…’’
‘Yes. A second-hand car—big, black, sturdy.’
My heart stopped for a moment. ‘Manish mentioned Lalit Das’s children—they’re longing to go back to school…’
‘For shame, is that what you think of us—that we’ll buy a car for those two children? We aren’t so spiteful.’
I hung my head in shame as I stood in front of her.
In a voice betraying no emotion, Gauri continued, ‘Manish will learn how to drive. So will I. Will Lalit Das not be in yet another accident? If one isn’t enough, there’ll have to be two. There are two of us. Two lives. Two licences. Don’t you think we can do it?’
Jayanta Dey (author)
Jayanta Dey was born on February 29, 1964. He is a journalist by profession and is currently the editor of a Bengali weekly magazine.
Sayari Debnath (translator)
Sayari Debnath is a culture journalist at an Indian digital news publication where she writes about art, books, and literary trends. She translates from Hindi and Bengali.