Lalu causes a scare!
(This is a poor translation of a story by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay. The objective is merely to acquaint readers with Sharatchandra's stories, and to exhort them to read the original or better translations)
Our city was swept by a cold wave; suddenly there was a spurt in cholera cases. In those days, cholera was a dreaded illness, and people used to leave their homes and migrate to other places out of fear if a neighbour contracted cholera. In case a patient died, there would be no one to assist the family with the funeral.
But even in those dismal days, there was one person in our neighbourhood who showed no fear. His name was Gopal; we called him Gopal uncle. His mission in life was to ensure that the deceased received a decent funeral. If anyone fell very ill, Gopal uncle would personally inquire with the doctors about the patient's chances of recovery. In case the doctors relinquished hopes, he would cover his shoulders with a towel and walking barefoot make himself available near the patient. There were a few of us who were his disciples. Gopal uncle, wearing a glum expression, would tell us to be prepared. "Boys, stay alert this evening; you must come out at my first call. Do you remember the scripture verses?" he would ask.
"Oh yes, of course we remember," we would assure him, "we will come out with towels over our shoulders at you first call".
"Fine, that's fine. This is a blessed work; there can be no greater work than this in life."
Lalu belonged to our team. He was a contractor and if his work did not require him to be away, he was ever willing to assist Gopal uncle in the latter's humanitarian efforts.
One evening, Gopal uncle came to us looking very sad and said, "Bishtu master's wife is not likely to make it."
We were shocked. As children we had learned our alphabet at school from Bishtu Bhattacharya who lived in abject poverty. He, himself, was forever ill, and was dependent on his wife. He had no other relative. I had never seen a more miserable man than Bishtu master in my life!
It was around 8pm when we lifted the body. Bishtu master watched the proceedings with tearful eyes. I can never forget the expression on his face; helplessness and misery were imprinted on that face.
"Who will light the funeral pyre if I don't accompany you?" he asked haltingly.
Even before any of us could think of anything to say, Lalu reassured him, "Don't worry 'pondit-moshai' I will see to that. You are our guru and in that sense she was our mother."
Bishtu master was so weak that we knew it would be impossible for him to walk with us to the burning ghat. The school where he taught was only five minute's walk from his home; but walking even that small distance was an uphill task for him, and he would take over half-an-hour to reach the school, and out of breath.
"Lalu, please apply a little vermilion on the parting of her hair," Pondit-moshai said after a brief silence.
"Certainly, Pondit-moshai," Lalu said, and immediately fetched a tiny "sindoor" box from the house; he emptied all the contents on the head of the deceased person.