Excerpts: One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator by Manoj Kumar Panda

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refrigerator

Sentenced to a Honeymoon

Nachiketa was an odd sort of a fellow, an eccentric. Sleeping inside a mosquito-net made him uneasy. A dip in water suffocated him. The smell of incense made him feel as if he was trapped in fragrant mist. He felt claustrophobic in a closed bathroom. He would get upset if the doors of his study were left open. His wife’s company for more than a certain number of hours agitated him. Writing letters to loved ones puzzled him. One night, Nachiketa disappeared. When his wife Deepa woke in the morning she found his bed empty. The door was wide open, as were the windows. Perhaps he has gone for his morning walk, she thought, and did not pay his absence more heed. When he did not return at his usual time she thought he must be with a friend, but felt a slight uneasiness, and a few more hours passed.

Nachiketa did not show up.

As the hours went by, the futile waiting dissolved into a chaos of hope, doubt, debate, solace, solicitousness, assurance and panic. By evening there was frantic despair, fear, tears, hunger and thirst, and the blaring of at least a hundred cellphones.

Nachiketa had left his cellphone behind and his ringtone was that of a mewing kitten. The kitten mewed, remained silent for a while, and began mewing again. This went on for five days until the cellphone battery discharged.

Nachiketa’s disappearance remained shrouded in mystery. Somebody said that Nachiketa had bought thirty envelopes from the post office the previous day. All the thirty envelopes will be posted to one address, one on each day, he had said. They kept guessing and looking for the possible address Nachiketa intended to send the letters to, but without any success.

It took two days for Nachiketa’s wife to find Tooty’s phone number. (Tooty was one of Nachiketa’s former flames.) Deepa and Tooty had fought bitterly over Nachiketa years earlier. But Deepa was now compelled to call Tooty and inquire about Nachiketa’s whereabouts. However, Tooty was genuinely surprised to learn that Nachiketa was missing. She sounded extremely humble and shy yet reasonably convincing when she told Deepa that she had no idea where Nachiketa was. Deepa was, however, not completely convinced. Some of her friends and relatives wanted to know who this Tooty was, but tight-lipped taciturnity was the only reply they received from Deepa.

Days after Nachiketa’s disappearance Deepa received a summons from the district court where she was asked to personally appear on a scheduled date. The identity of the mysterious addressee of the thirty envelopes was finally revealed. All of the letters had been addressed to the district judge who, more out of curiosity than exasperation, had decided to look into the matter.

Both Deepa and Nachiketa reached the court on the appointed date and stood in the two witness docks facing each other. Deepa wore her shampooed hair in a topknot. Clad in a polka-dotted, coffee-coloured sari with a slim border, its plaits held in place in neat folds, she looked presentable and fresh. Nachiketa looked grubby; his beard was unkempt, his fingernails unclipped and his clothes shabby. He smiled a small smile at Deepa.

The judge was ushered into the courtroom.

‘Let your wife know about your complaints,’ said the judge to Nachiketa without preamble.

‘I have already mentioned everything in my letters to you, my lord,’ Nachiketa replied.

‘Your wife knows nothing of those matters. I myself have noted a few points but, first, I want you to precisely explain your position to the Court. And before anything, tell the Court why your wife thinks of you as a person who does not live a disciplined life.’

Nachiketa began, ‘Your honour, my wife never stops reminding me how disciplined our neighbour Mr Vishwavasu is. He lives by a strict routine, and all his activities are set to it. He gets up exactly at nine in the morning, begins drinking tea at nine-five and, at nine-fifteen, goes out to get vegetables. He takes a bath at nine-thirty, puts on his underwear at nine-forty and the rest of his clothes five minutes after. He eats breakfast at nine-fifty, wheels his scooter out at nine fifty-five. At nine fifty-seven he wipes the dust off the seat and starts for the bank exactly a minute later. One can set time on one’s watch by Mr Vishwavasu’s routine. Day in and day out, my wife accuses me of my inability to emulate the regularity and disciplined lifestyle of this neighbour of ours.’

The judge looked at Deepa. ‘Do you have anything to say?’

‘Let him first respond,’ Deepa said.

Nachiketa began again, a derisive smile on his lips. ‘So Mr Vishwavasu—an epitome of discipline! But I ask… Does this epitome of discipline adjust his coughing and sneezing to clock time? At what clock time does he yawn and for how many seconds does he keep his mouth open? At what clock time does a moonlit night exalt him? At what clock time does he enjoy the sight of a sparrow dipping in a pool of water, or a bird weaving its nest? For how many exact minutes or hours does he gaze at stars in a clear night sky? At what time of the day does he watch a pheasant pick at a snail? Does he keep a record of the exact time the flowerbud on his plant opens its petals? How can time be measured with such exactitude? The truth is that Time and the clock are not the one and same thing. A clock cannot define Time.’

***

Excerpted from ‘One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator’ written by Manoj Kumar Panda and translated by Snehaprava Das, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.

***

It took nearly five minutes for her ashes to cool down. Afterwards, someone held out a handful. “Here she is, your Lara. Take her.” The agony stuck within me like an iceberg for one thousand days shattered without warning and drowned me in a flood of tears.

A man sits before his wife lying comatose in a refrigerated chamber and tells her the thoughts he had never dared express when she was conscious; ‘When the Gods Left’ follows Rajula Dip, a carrion-picker, as he goes about his business and himself becomes carrion; in ‘Fragments’, a woman takes a bus to her rapist’s house to speak to him and to his family; God himself appears in court to give testimony in a case where justice has been miscarried; and in ‘The Hunt’, after a tiger kills a shepherd, the entire village turns on the victim’s family in revenge.

One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator includes fourteen stories of great power and beauty, startling in their variety and ambition. It showcases a writer at the very peak of his considerable abilities.

About the Author:

manojManoj Kumar Panda writes stories and translates between English and Odia. He has three short-story collections to his credit—Hada Bagicha (Bone Garden), Varna Bagicha (Alphabet Garden) and Maya Bagicha (Garden of Illusions). He received the prestigious Sarala Award in 2015 for Maya Bagicha.

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