By Indrasish Banerjee
When we reached the crematorium, we saw Avishesk’s lifeless body lying supine on a concrete platform. It was tightly wrapped with a white cloth from neck to toe, so that the body was straining against the cloth as if to break free from the grip of death. Avishek was just 28 years old. He was full of life – which no one knew would escape him so suddenly.
A small crowd of Avishek’s relatives were milling around the body. Among the present were Avishek’s mama (maternal uncle), kaka (paternal uncle), a cousin sister and an aunt. Unsure of whether she would be able to bear the trauma of having to bid the last goodbye, Avishek’s wife, Tani, hadn’t come to the burning ghat.
The pundit started chanting mantras and tossing petals on Avishek’s body. The petals, a mish mash of various colors, were in stark contrast against the white chaddar.
Our manager slowly walked to Avishek’s mama for a small talk and we quickly circled around them to catch up on details, if we had missed out on any. It was a sudden death, which had left everyone shocked. Avishek’s mama confirmed that it was a natural death. Then he averted his large and expressive eyes, with his lower lips curling back a little, and said, “It reminds me of Gogol’s (Avishek’s) rice-giving ceremony, which I had presided over, when Gogol was just a few days old.”
“The name is Avishek Bosu,” Avishek had said when I had first seen him at the company, emphasizing the surname, to confirm that he, like me, was a Bengali.
He looked worried about something, and after his brief introduction, he turned to Girish. As I along with others who had - like me - joined the company a day earlier stepped aside, Avishek started explaining to Girish in graphic details how he had been struggling with on-boarding formalities and how they were completely unnecessary. Enthralled by Avishek’s eloquent narration supported by equally expressive animations, we continued our stoic silence.
Although after a while Avishek finished his discharge with a loud “bullshit”, his bent knees, stretched hands and taut fingers pointing upward - took sometime to return to normal. The verbal onslaught revealed two aspects of Avishek’s personality that we would always associate with him: excitement and high energy.
Four pallbearers ascended the concrete platform and lifted the body. Then they laid the body on a bamboo stretcher. We followed them inside a large hall. We farther trailed them into a big rectangular hall adjoining the previous one. As they laid Avishek on the floor at the centre of the hall, the small crowd retreated to the walls; the walls were very cold to touch.
The pundit squatted on the floor and drew a small bottle of ghee (concentrated oil). He asked Avishek’s kaka to unwrap Avishek’s feet and smear the ghee under the feet. After that, Avishek’s kaka touched a fingertip of ghee to Avishek’s earlobes. Then he coated Avishek’s face generously with the liquid; the ghee coating would ensure a smooth mukhe agoon (burning of the mouth) by causing an immediate conflagration. I am not sure whether Avishek would have approved of so much religiosity; although we never talked about religion, I always felt he was a cynical person.
When we were barely familiar with our work, Avishek had already earned some appreciation for his efforts. Although, because of his nontechnical background, Avishek was weak in some areas, ours being an IT company, he was equally strong in certain others. Our department had variety of works, and our team leader, who had grown very fond of Avishek, started assigning such works to Avishek as suited his aptitude. And Avishek started gaining prominence as a worker.
Avishek’s nervous streak also made him a talk of the team. Each time he stumbled upon a technical difficulty, he would set up an alarm, running from one person to another for help. And regardless of whether people, occupied in their own works as they were, wanted to help or not, Avishek coaxed them into solving his problems.
Avishek and I got along very well. We started venturing out together for beverage breaks. Avishek would call me Dada (elder brother) as I was a few years older than him. During our breaks, Avishek did most of the talking. He would repeatedly return to his favorite topics: advertising and music. He liked retro musical stars and groups, like Bob Dylan, Beatles, Eagles, etc. He used to swear by Bob Dylan.
Diplomacy wasn’t Avishek’s strongest point. He would freely express is opinions about team members before others.
As days dissolved into weeks and weeks into months, we started knowing each other more and more. We came to know of each other’s past. Avishek told me how his father had met with a sudden death and how his mother insisted that the invitee list that had been used for his father’s Sardh (which marks the cessation of the mourning period) be used for Avishek’s marriage. His mother wanted to make sure that the last wish of his father – that Avishek should marry the girl, Tani, he had met at college who his father knew and believed to have a good influence on Avishek – was met in a way that ensured a palpable assurance for his departed soul. Tani, Avishek said, was a very understanding wife.
Avishek had a tendency to lie. I sometimes felt he was a compulsive liar because his kind of lies neither helped nor harmed anyone. However, he was not good at lie-management; he used to lose track of his past lies.
Apart from Bob Dylan and advertising, Avishek also loved pizzas. He liked them with cheese and partnered them with Pepsi or Coke. In fact, he so liked pizzas that he would often sponsor pizza feasts for others to ensure company for himself and also get others to agree to pizza ignoring other options.
Six months after joining the company, Avishek suffered a neural attack. While working at his computer at home, he suddenly collapsed from his chair. His body had turned cold and he was frothing at mouth. They immediately rushed him to hospital. Some blamed his anxiety about work; some his food habits; pizza became the favorite whipping horse for many looking for a convincing reason for the attack.
Even when at the hospital Avishek surprised many by refusing to part with his work. When I visited him at the hospital, I found a stack of DVDs on one side and his office laptop on the other. His mother said he was up since morning and working on an incomplete task. I knew the task could be easily done by someone else of the team. Was he trying to impress a good-looking nurse? Or was he trying to build a reputation for himself? I don’t know. Avishek’s wife was also present there. She looked as I had pictured her: friendly and unassuming.
Avishek had a way of running into troubles. One day, while I was giving my work-related updates on a conference call, Avishek suddenly burst on the call stunning everyone into silence. He was calling from a hospital where he was undergoing treatment. He had been to a place which had witnessed couple of bomb blasts, and he found himself within the impact distance from one of the blast spots. He had sustained injuries in legs and arms. He was prescribed bed rest for sometime.
By now the team had got inured to bad news about Avishek. Beyond the customary whimpers of sympathy and surprise, there wasn’t much in the way of reaction.
One evening, while I was working at office, my cell rang – Avishek was calling from his hometown, Calcutta, where he was vacationing. “Dada, everything is over,” Avishek blurted out on my cell. “What happened?” I asked. He said his mother passed away in sleep and the doctors said it was a serious heart attack. I was in another city, and there was nothing much I could do to help Avishek other than helplessly hear him repeatedly fall into howls of bawling punctuated with ‘I have lost everything’.
I tried consoling him, but my voice sank in the loud gusts of Avishhek’s shrieks. Then something occurred to me – Bev, our team leader. Only Bev could calm Avishek – she had done it many times in the past. Bev worked out of our New York office and we the Bangalore office. I called Bev on her cell. It took her a while to recover from the shock the news administered; she said she wanted to talk to Avishek. Later Bev told me she had managed to calm him down considerably.
It took Avishek a long to reconcile with his mother’s demise; more so because the doctors said she had been nursing a weak heart for a long time, and that proper checkups and medication could have prevented the sudden attack. Avishek would often break into sobs, blaming himself. He would say they never suspected his mother could harbor such a life-claiming ailment because she looked so hale and hearty. Avishek started drinking with a vengeance. The steady deterioration of his mental and physical health started becoming evident in his appearance– shrunk and pallid.
Sometimes he would burst into his jovial self only to lapse into spasms of depression again. I felt he was looking for an answer which was eluding him. He once told me that he had joined therapeutic classes. But I didn’t hear him talk about his classes since.
Gradually, although Avishek stopped talking about his mother and his emotional turmoil, the tragedy left a strong imprint on Avishek’s personality. He became very sensitive towards criticism. Even a mild rebuff would send him into depths of self-pity. He thought he was a warehouse of flaws that would have to be set right before the world would start understanding him.
Around the same time we started hearing the rumblings of recession. Among the most affected sectors was IT. The news papers were full of stories about lay offs. Each day a team member had a story about someone he or she knew had been laid off. Our US headquarters repeatedly assured us that our jobs were secure, but it only gave us the feeling of being marooned on an island around which the world was in a state of constant turmoil and that the turmoil would grip the island sooner or later. We are still waiting for the bad times to get over.
One day following my bath, when I was getting ready to venture out for lunch, my cell phone rang. It was Avishek’s wife. “Indrasish, everything is over for us: Avishek is no more,” she said in one breath. She had got up in the morning and found Avishek’s body stiff. When the body continued to be stiff even after half an hour or so, she called their family physician. The doctor said Avishek be admitted in hospital. The hospital declared him dead a few minutes after admission. It was a massive heart attack, they informed.
As they laid the body on an iron trolley that led into the burner, everybody joined their hands in obeisance. As Avishek’s mama started performing mookhe agoon and the flames started catching up, one of the pallbearers erected the trolley and pushed it into the burner.
The whole of 2008 was littered with problems and tragedies for Avishek. He used to often say, “Hopefully the next year will bring some respite for me.”
Avishek passed away in April 2009.
READ MORE from Indrasish at his blog Indrasishblog, where you'll find film reviews, literary criticism and other less emotionally charged stories from his life. I quite like the opening to his March 12 post, The Iron Lady: "Usually, I am not my own man when it comes to choosing the movie I want to watch."