Road to Gede
12 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Dear Mr. S.K. Das,
You don’t know me. I want to make sure you’ll get this letter in time. It will cost me over five hundred rupees to send you this letter through speed post. I write this letter because I believe that you must know a girl. Maybe you’re even related to her. Her name was Kaberi Das. I don’t know how old she was, but I guess she was in her twenties. She is dead. I don’t know when she died, but she is dead. I know that for sure. It is urgent that you get to the provincial town of Barrackpore. Her body is in the district morgue. It will be there for fourteen days. If no one claims her body, it will be cremated without proper funeral rites. Those bodies are burnt in the district incinerators without priests reciting the final hymns over the dead. No one deserves that. Not even prostitutes. Yes, I know that she used to work in Natihati’s red light quarters. Even prostitutes deserve proper cremation when they die. So please claim her body and see to it that she gets proper cremation.
A good wisher
15 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Dear Mr. S.K. Das,
I heard that you haven’t claimed the body yet. I sent you the letter three days ago, and I spent good money on that postage. Do you really want her body to stay in that awful morgue? I’ve heard that no matter how many disinfectants you use, you can’t get rid of the smell of the rotting corpses. The dead bodies there are either bruised, or burned, or bloated, or stitched up. No one deserves to rot in a morgue like that. Don’t you know a stranger can’t cremate her? Her soul would keep wandering and won’t find peace, if a relative does not cremate her. I’m sure you must know this. If you don’t claim her body, you’ll regret that for the rest of your life. Trust me, I know it.
If you are wondering who I am, it won’t do you any good to know my identity. Just so that you know, I think it was 5 am in the morning on January 11. Maybe it was 4 am. I’m not sure about the time. The time doesn’t matter anyways. I was out on my morning walk by the river Ganges. I like watching the sun rise behind the high–rises of town Chinsurah. That’s on the side of the river Ganges. I like to walk before the din and bustle of the town picks up. Before hawkers start to peddle their wares in the streets and commuters rush to take a ferry, a train or a bus to get to their office. Before laborers curse at those who get in their way while they heave and huff with heavy loads on their back. I love to just walk by the river and breathe the air before I start my day. My day is full, listening to nagging customers at my grocery store who keep asking for more credit.
It’s weird at home too. You see, my wife and I don’t talk much. Are you married, Mr. Das? If you are, you know how painful it is when a couple is married but don’t love each other. My wife and I just tolerate each other. The happiest times are when I go out for a walk in the morning.
There are hardly any people on the street, very few solitary souls like me walk by the river that early in the morning. I hear sparrows chirp, doves coo, and maybe crows caw on my walk.
But I heard no such thing on the morning of January 11.
It was a foggy morning, and even the early birds were silent that day. I could barely see what lay two yards ahead of me. You see, there is this soccer field where I used to play as a kid. I used to be quite popular in school and college as a football player. I was so good that I had a shot at becoming a professional football player for a club in the Indian super league. I tore a ligament during a college match, and that was the end of my dreams. That football field reminds me of my good times as a football player in high school. So, I was walking on the morning of January 11. I was wearing a monkey cap and a gray sweater.
My wife hates that sweater, so I wear it whenever I get a chance. You know, just to make her mad.
As I walked on the football field by the riverbank, I thought I saw someone lying down. It was odd because the drunks in the town usually sleep on the main street. It gets cold by the river at night. When I bent down, I could see that it was the body of a girl and she was dead. Her eyes bulged out of her sockets. Her hair was unkempt, and her red saree was disheveled. I almost screamed out loud, but I couldn’t. I found my throat dry, and my stomach churned. I had seen her last week. She was waiting for customers on the street in the red–light area. Now she had a gold chain with a locket on it. There was a jute sack lying close to her body. I don’t know what got into me, but I searched the sack. I found a sealed transparent plastic packet that contained a bunch of unopened letters.
I know how the police work in this town. I have to pay them “protection” money every month. They extort from all common businessfolk and are in cahoots with the politicians. I knew they wouldn’t care about a whore and would dump her body in the morgue. Someone should take care of her body. I noticed those letters. I thought if I informed someone perhaps her body would be taken care of. I looked around. No one was in sight. I took the chain from her neck and the packet of letters with me and hurried home. I kept looking back to make sure no one spotted me. The fog helped, and I didn’t hear anyone raise the alarm.
My wife and our maid servant were still sleeping when I got back. I turned on the light and slumped down in a chair. I noticed your name and address on the first letter in the packet and wrote you my letter. I haven’t read any of those letters. I will mail you the gold chain and the packet after you claim her body. Her body was found later that day by a fisherman. I heard she was strangled, and the police have written off her death as a random act of violence.
Please, you have got to claim her body from the morgue before they dispose of her without proper funeral rites. You cannot let her soul wander in the afterlife without finding peace.
A good wisher
P.S. I wonder why you didn’t open her letters. For Kaberi’s sake, I hope you open my letter. Her soul needs to find some peace. In this town, life as a prostitute is very hard.
18 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Mr. Sucharan K. Das,
Kaberi’s body is still in the district morgue. If you are wondering about me, then I’ll have you know that I am a resident of Natihati. Some of our town whores buy their supplies from me. Some of my other customers have objected and complained that I shouldn’t have them as customers. But business is business. Besides, even prostitutes are human. We can’t just treat them like dirt. Some of the prostitutes who visit my grocery store knew Kaberi. I have been able to gather bits and pieces of information. They say that Kaberi was from a village near the border town of Bongaon, and she was tricked into this business. She didn’t become a prostitute by choice. Well, none of them come to this line of work out of choice. They are either tricked or forced into whoring.
I was close with a prostitute once. Her name was Sneha. She was eight years older than me and was in this business for about ten years. From what I hear Kaberi was nothing like Sneha. Sneha was wise. Kaberi was impetuous. Sneha never tried to escape from the red–light quarters. She knew better. She knew they would find her. She knew that the pimps and madams pay “protection money” to the cops, so it is was no use to go to them. Kaberi used to fight with her madam, who used to beat her, but Kaberi never gave up resisting. Kaberi tried to escape twice but never got beyond our town limits. She was brought back. She was starved for four days, was locked with shackles in some storeroom and beaten black and blue. Her friends had asked her to accept that there was no escape. From what I hear, Kaberi used to say that she was getting out somehow.
Perhaps on the night before she died, Kaberi managed to flee again. The other two times she was caught by her madam’s enforcers before she even got to the railway station. Perhaps this time she thought that she would hide by the river side and try to sneak across the River Ganges early in the morning in some fisherman’s boat. Perhaps she planned to take a bus and keep changing buses till she got to her village. That would have been a roundabout road, but she must have thought she had a chance. But there is no escape. They only let you go when you are too old for any customer to be interested in you or when you have some incurable disease. That’s how Sneha got out. Sneha never got a proper funeral cremation. Sneha’s soul must be wandering now. She can find no peace.
So please claim Kaberi’s body from the morgue.
A good wisher
P.S. I visited the officer in charge of our police outpost and told him what I did. He was angry that I messed with a dead body. I asked how much I needed to pay to keep those items. We settled on a price. I am sure that he was happy to take that money as he couldn’t care less about Kaberi.
21 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Mr. Sucharan Kamal Das,
This is my last letter to you. One of the girls was at my store today. She said, her madam told her that Kaberi’s body hadn’t been claimed by anyone. Aren’t you getting my letters? Aren’t you reading my letters? You may not have cared about Kaberi when she was alive, but she is dead now. I am spending my hard-earned money on all these speed posts. Don’t you care about Kaberi at all? How could you let her body rot at the morgue? If I had an option, I would have never done that to Sneha.
You see, I never paid attention to my studies in college. I always wanted to be a football player After I had torn my ligament in that college football game, I had no hope of playing for a league team. I was never interested in studies. I flunked in my first year, and I dropped out of college. My father forced me to work for him at his grocery store. He had plans of starting another business. He wanted to get into the business of supplying potatoes. He didn’t have enough capital to start his business. So, he decided to marry me off and use the dowry to start his business.
One of our relatives told her about a girl from some far away town. She was involved in a scandal, and no one was willing to marry her. Her father was loaded and was willing to pay a hefty dowry. You see, she had eloped with a guy to a resort and spent a week there. The guy had promised to marry her, but he just dumped her after sleeping with her. She was a college graduate, and her family wanted to marry her off. My father wanted to use that dowry to start his new business so he told me that I must marry this girl. Her name is Juhi. I objected. I didn’t want to marry a stranger. My father laughed. He said that that Juhi’s father was paying enough money to start a new business. He was also paying enough money to buy a new house in our town where I could live with her. You see, I had been staying with my parents after I dropped out of college. My father said I had no choice but to marry her. But I didn’t want to marry her. So, I ran away from home, and slept on the streets of Kolkata for two nights. I was hungry, and I soon ran out of money. I was picked up by the cops, and they beat me up because they thought I was a vagrant. They kept asking me about my address and beat me with a heavy stick. I could take it no more, so I told them my address and they called my father. My father told them to let me rot in the police lockup for a few more days. I was in police custody for five days. No charges were filed.
Mr. Sucharan Kamal Das, have you ever been locked up by the police? There were eight of us in a 20 feet X 30 feet cell. The inmates smelled, and there were cockroaches on the floor. Inmates had peed on the wall of the cell, and it stank. I lived in hell for five days. I prayed to goddess Kali to let me out of this cell. After five days, my father bribed those police officers to let me go. After spending my time in a police cell, I knew I didn’t want to run away again.
But I didn’t want to marry Juhi. I hadn’t seen her in my life ever. I was supposed to meet her for the first time on my wedding night. I thought my time in the police cell would ruin this wedding. But her father was desperate to wed her off. To ruin my chances of marrying Juhi, I started visiting this brothel in our town. Sneha was the first prostitute with whom I slept. She wasn’t good looking. But Sneha used to listen to my troubles. I could talk to her about anything, and she would never judge me. My friends stopped talking to me after I started visiting Sneha. You see, Natihati is a small town and there are no secrets. I had asked her many times if she wanted to get out of that business and she used to tell me that there was no way out. Then I started visiting her just because she would listen, and for nothing else. I just wanted someone to talk to. I told her that I was to get married to a girl in three months, and Sneha kept asking me not to visit her.
I moved to our new house with Juhi after our wedding. I told Juhi about Sneha on my first night with her. You see, a relationship should not start with a lie. I was sure that her father must have known that I visited Sneha and that he must have told his daughter. But Juhi didn’t know, and she burst out crying. She thought she was tricked into marrying me and wanted to leave for her home the very next day. I told my wife she could leave whenever she wanted. Juhi left, but her father sent her back. He told her, now that she was married, she had to deal with her new life. I don’t know why my wife never divorced me. I never asked her why. We slept in separate rooms. She was a graduate in Maths and found a job as a clerk in a local office. She could have moved out, but she didn’t. She told me that house was bought with her father’s money, so she was going to stay there.
My father started his new business and asked me to take over the grocery store. With my added responsibility of looking after the store, it was hard for me to make time to visit Sneha. I would visit her once a week. I noticed that she had dark circles around her eyes and she was losing weight. She coughed a lot and used to get chills. I asked her what was up with her, and she told me that she was sick. It had been over eight months since I took over the grocery store when Sneha told me that her pimp was letting her go. She told me she was dying. Mr. Das, you don’t need to know how Sneha died. You see, I wasn’t around when she died. She died alone. I didn’t even get to see her body. You still have that chance to claim Kaberi’s body. Please don’t let her rot in the morgue.
A good wisher
P.S. I haven’t read the other letters. They are still sealed in that packet. I looked at the locket that was attached to the chain that I took from Kaberi’s neck. There’s a picture of her and a baby in that locket. I think it is her son. Are you her husband, Sucharan Kamal Das?
24 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
I read those letters yesterday. I wanted to find out what kind of person would not claim a body after repeated appeals. Now I understand why you never claimed her body. You are her father, and you sold her into prostitution. She wrote those letters, but you returned them unopened. How could you do that to your own daughter? She returned to you when her husband kept her baby and dumped her. You had eight other children, and you didn’t have a steady income. So you sold her into prostitution. How could a father do that? You told her that she would be working as a maid in the city and sent her with a man to Kolkata. But you had already sold her to a pimp. That man brought her to the red-light quarters of Natihati.
In her letters, she pleaded with you to rescue her. But you never read them. Can you imagine how she felt when she learned that you had sold her into prostitution? In her last letter, she wrote that she understood why you sold her, and she forgave you. Now Kaberi is dead. You are no better than Sneha’s husband who sold her to a pimp. Sneha told me that her husband used to beat her. She often used to say that she was better off living in a brothel rather than sharing a roof with that abusive husband. I never knew if she meant it. Sneha’s room was damp, and her walls had mold. Her pimp never fixed her room. He was only interested in taking his cut from what Sneha made. She contracted a malignant disease, and her doctor gave her about two months to live. Her pimp thought her a liability and wanted to cut loose. I wanted to take her to a specialist, but she told me that she had already been to three physicians. They all said there was no hope for her.
Sneha asked me if I could take her to the border town of Gede. She had saved up some money over the years and she would find a way to sneak into Bangladesh. Her village was in Bangladesh and close to the border. I said that it’s dangerous and she may get shot at by the border patrol. But she was dying and she had nothing to lose. She just wanted to get to her village and die there. I closed my grocery store that day and rented a car. I drove her to the town of Gede. On the road to Gede, she kept looking at the paddy fields, green trees and the cattle grazing on empty fields. .She had never left town after she was smuggled into India. She said to me that I need to find happiness. I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. My friends don’t talk to me, my father doesn’t care about me, and I don’t get along with my wife. Where am I to find happiness?
In our drive there, she would shiver and break into fits of coughing, and I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to save her life. I dropped her at the Gede bus terminus. She said she would find someone who could take her across the border. Before she got out of the car, she kissed my hand. She looked into my eyes, asked me to drive safe, and again asked me to find happiness. I lost her when she merged with the passengers in the bus terminus. I hoped she would get to her village, but I didn’t know how she would manage that.
Two weeks after I dropped her off at Gede, an officer from the District Intelligence Bureau showed up at my store. He showed me a picture of Sneha and asked me if I knew her. When I said I knew her, he told me she was shot last week by Bangladeshi border guards as she tried to cross into that country. The officer kept on talking, but I didn’t care. All I could think of was Sneha’s lifeless body riddled with bullets lying in some ditch. She didn’t deserve to die like that. The officer wanted to know if I had helped her to cross over. I told him that I dropped her off in that town. It is wise not to lie to officers. They find out things anyway. The officer wanted to take me to his headquarters to interrogate me. I promised to pay him a large sum if he let me go and he agreed. It took me two days to gather that sum, but I did pay him off. I had asked the officer what had happened to the bodies of those who were shot. He told me he didn’t know for sure, but he thinks they were buried in some unmarked grave in Bangladesh.
Sneha didn’t get a proper cremation. Your daughter has that option of proper funeral rites. As you haven’t claimed her body, I don’t think you ever will. I’ll find a way to claim her body and cremate her. I’ll introduce her as my relative to the crematorium. I’ll pay off everyone I must to get Kaberi a proper burial. I know her soul will still wander around and won’t find any peace. But that’s the best I can do for her.
I wanted to meet you in person to express my condolence. I don’t want to do that anymore. I am keeping the chain to compensate for her funeral expenses. I am going to burn her letters because you don’t deserve them. I don’t know if you can ever find a way to forgive yourself, but I honestly hope that you rot in hell.
Satyaki Kanjilal has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Nevada-Reno. When he is not complaining about his writer’s block, Satyaki or Nemo, as his friends call him, likes to watch television shows and study how their plots work. He is often sad to hear people talk about the fish from Disney’s movie “Finding Nemo,” and not Jules Verne’s character “Captain Nemo,” when they hear his nickname. His works have been published in Boston Accent Lit and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. His review of Tom Abram’s historical novel Yonder Where the Road Bends is forthcoming in The Florida Book Review.