Arka Chattopadhyay‘s short story: The Fixator and the Ants

Monday. It’s evening and not yet evening. It’s taking a turn toward the evening, let us say. Three friends are sitting in a circle with drinks. In a long time, they have got something going there. After a sudden and helpless rain for two minutes, the last light of the day is glowing in the late afternoon sky. Sumitava has come back to his Kolkata shelter after spending some time in his ancestral house in the suburbs. It’s party time after a hiatus. His phone starts ringing just as they are about to pour in the first round of Old Monk. Sumitava’s phone has this uncanny knack of ringing at the wrong time. 

It’s evening and not yet evening in his mother’s body. It’s taking a turn toward the evening; let us say that at least. There is a fixator attached to her leg. It’s a metal structure to heal the bad femur fracture she had. There are joints that can be fixed but how does the body feel? What fixes the feeling in the body? There are three holes in her leg. The fixator is trying to enter in there and fix the joint. In the mean time the grim ant infestation happens. Thousands of red ants go into the head from the three holes in the leg. Shall we get to see them inside the leg or is it in the head? If we open them up, will the ants be visible? 

When she complains about the ants, I ask her to give the phone to her attendant who promptly says, “No dada, there are no ants. I have checked. But aunty is not convinced.” There are ants crawling inside his mother’s cry-like voice. She is not really crying. It is just that with all these years of one suffering after another, the very timbre of her voice feels like a cry. The ants crawl into their glasses, swimming nonchalantly in the avalanche of Old Monk. There are ants all over, in the body, in this country. 

There is some connection problem. Noise in the line. The ants are dragging themselves along the way. It’s evening and not yet evening. It’s taking a turn toward the evening, let us say.

On white paper, there is a procession of black ants. Black ants, not white, are slithering there, flowing like a river. The white page is showered with stories. Stories of mom. Stories of red ants on black ants. These are stories Girindrashekhar Bose could not write about black and red ants. He wanted to write his Lal Kalo for the kids. Sumitava is not a kid anymore. These are stories that sneak into mom’s head or disappear into the three holes, drilled in her legs. Stories of tears. Stories of his mother calling Sumitava back home. Stories of ants floating on rum. 

Sumitava is no storyteller. And yet he finds himself writing a story. Sumitava is not a storyteller and that is why he is writing a story. He has been called in tomorrow to offer a proof of his identity. The country is taking stalk of its citizens. When did he come to this land? When did his families arrive? His country wants to know about his roots. What if he is an infiltrator, a ghuspetiya—a word everyone seems to use these days! Is Sumitava a valid citizen? It is for the state to decide that. Did he just cross borders on the sly like those wicked ants? Was he here before the partition happened? What about the Bangladesh war? What will this soil unravel about his roots? His father? His mother? Their father and mother?

A rootless Sumitava is writing his story with sips of Old Monk. Black ants on white paper. Tomorrow he will submit this story to the state. He has no other kagaz to show! This story is the only proof of his existence. There is nothing else. The evening has already disappeared into the night. The enormous maternal body is buried in that dark horizon. There will be no more phone calls. The ants have entered through the holes in the leg and fixed the urges of the ghostly body. Before the partition? Before Bengal got divided by barbed wires into a this and that side? When did this happen? The fixator does not answer in the dark. Where is his mother? Where is his father? Where is their country? Are they there? Were they there at all? Does he not remember anything or is there nothing to remember? Sumitava wonders. What is the fixator fixing in the night? This story is his only refuge. He does not exist outside this black on white—the story of red ants in black ant’s alphabets. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. None but him. No friends. No party. No home. No Old Monk. 

Sumitava’s gaze is fixed on the sheet. The black antsy letters are building a new map of India on the night’s darkling atlas. Sumitava tries to count the exact number of ants on the nocturnal paper. A deep sleep of numbers descends on his heavy eyelids. 

Arka Chattopadhyay teaches literature and philosophy in the department of humanities and social sciences at IIT Gandhinagar. His stories in Bengali have come out in magazines like KalimatiAparjan and Kaurab. His stories in English have appeared in magazines such as IndiareeMuse India and Ongshumali. He has a Bengali novel Uponyosto (2018) and a recently published collection of fifty stories, Atoshbaji Chhayapothe Phire Jao(2021) to his credit. 

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