Jogodish Babu was returning from Mitro Moshai’s adda the evening the Zombie Apocalypse struck Bunglistan.
Jogodish Babu’s full and complete name was Jogodish Chondro Bondopadhyay, and if his friends from his schooldays had once called him Jogai, nobody cared to remember it now. Jogodish Babu was sensitive about that. If they didn’t call him Jogodish Shaheb, the least they could do was call him Jogodish Babu. As he said, many times, “I am an ofisaar now. Ebhryone should treat me weeth respect.” And – at least to his face – everyone did, except his wife. But then Jogodish Babu’s wife had never respected him anyway. And she addressed him, of course, by no name at all.
She wasn’t a wife fit to live with anyone, Jogodish Babu had often thought. For one thing, she outweighed him by a good twenty kilos and had a voice like a broken cement mixer on steroids. For another, she had opinions on everything and wasn’t shy to express them, at the top of her considerable lung-power, at all hours of the day and night. For a third, she resented everything about him, starting with his salary and going on to the fact that he never went with her to her mother’s for a holiday during the Durga Puja. Jogodish Babu could never explain that he needed a holiday from her, and the two weeks she was gone to Callcutter represented the only free time of his life. He was terrified that the old woman would die and then his wife wouldn’t go away at all.
It wouldn’t matter so much, Jogodish Babu had often thought, if she’d at least let him alone to live his life the way he saw fit. No, she had to run not just her life but his, and if they’d had a child she’d have run the kid’s life as well. She even ran the neighbours’ lives, and though they laughed at her behind her back, when she gave “advice” that sounded like orders, they nodded weakly and did as they were told.
Still and all, Jogodish Babu had had a good evening till that moment when the Zombocalypse struck. The work at the office had gone as usual, which is to say that he had blown the dust off a couple of folders and poked around their contents before putting them back on the shelf and calling for tea. He’d come home by five in the afternoon, changed, and gone to the market down the street. There he’d bought a nice three-quarter kilogram hilsa, redolent of the fishmonger’s slab, come back home and handed it over to his wife. She had yelled at him because he hadn’t had the fishmonger scale and chop up the fish, but not too much, because she adored hilsa and would eat almost all of it herself anyway.
So Jogodish Babu had some more tea, and, picking up his long umbrella in case it rained, went along to Mitro Moshai’s house for the adda. His wife screeched at him for going out again, but this was the one point on which he never budged. If it wasn’t for the adda, he’d go barking crazy.
Mitro Moshai lived in the next lane from Jogodish Babu, and was the only one around who still held adda sessions, during which he kept mourning the passing of the entire adda tradition. “Eet eej thees telebheeshon,” he would say waggling his shiny bald head. “Eet eej ruining awar kalchaar. That eej why we habh nobody like Kobigooroo Robi Thakur nowadayj.”
Actually, Jogodish Babu rather liked television, when he could get to watch any in between his wife’s staple diet of Bunglee soaps and reality shows where pudgy contestants in brightly coloured saris threw rings at bottles while vacuous faced studio audiences dutifully clapped. But he would never, ever, dare to say any such thing to Mitro Moshai.
One day, Haru the Boor had had the colossal effrontery to mention television in favourable terms at the adda, and compounded the crime by saying he’d watched a Bunglee pop group which had set one of Tagore’s songs – “Robindro Shongeet” – to a catchy modern tune. Mitro Moshai had gone ballistic. But Haru was a boor, so he didn’t back down, and there was a moment when it seemed the two of them would come to blows.
It hadn’t stopped far short of physical violence though. “Old fool,” Haru the Boor had muttered, deliberately pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard.
“What was that?” Motro Moshai had yelled. “Rascal!” he’d shouted, pointing with a trembling finger. “Look, he eej showing me red red eyes.”
“You are,” Haru the Boor had groped for an adequate term of abuse and finally found one, “...an eccentric. You should be in a lunatic asylum.”
“You...” Mitro Moshai had paused dramatically and then delivered the Ultimate Insult. “You nonsense!”
“Ar shala parchchi na,” Haru the Boor had declared. “I’m fed up with this.” He’d stormed out, and had never come to Mitro Moshai’s adda again, even though his leaving meant there were only five of them left and without Haru the Boor’s colourful tales there was little enough to talk about anyway.
No, Jogodish Babu couldn’t mention TV. Hell, as far as Mitro Moshai was concerned, it was bad enough that he wore trousers instead of a dhoti. But this evening, the old man had been in an excellent mood for some reason, and had even fetched out his ancient harmonium for Jogodish Babu to play. The harmonium was old and dusty and the accordion flap was cracked and leaking air, but it was still a harmonium, and Jogodish Babu’s wife had long since forbidden the house to one. So Jogodish Babu had happily flapped the accordion with one hand while pressing the keys with another and yelling out Robindro Shongeets as the top of his voice, until he could no more and the time had come to go on home.
“I’ll see you on Saturday,” he’d said, polishing his spectacles on his kurta hem.
“Bee careful,” Mitro Moshai had told him. “Saambody waas saying saamthing about riots aarlier. Today eej market day, and these bhillage people like to cause trouble.”
Jogodish Babu nodded. “I also haard this talk,” he lied, in case anyone might think he wasn’t in the know. Picking up his umbrella, he nodded at Mitro Moshai and began walking home. The evening was fairly advanced and the lane totally dark because there were no street lights, and Jogodish Babu, conscious of the open ditch along the opposite side, kept to the centre of the street, and stepped carefully over the potholes. He was very happy at the thought of the oily, mustard-laden hilsa curry his wife would have ready by now. Nobody cooked hilsa oilier or with more eye-watering amounts of mustard than she did. He licked his lips in anticipation.
As he was negotiating a particularly broken patch of street, he saw a figure up ahead, lurching from one side to another and waving its hands distractedly around. “Drunkaard,” Jogodish Babu diagnosed, and having no desire to get too close to the alcohol-addled one, he stepped behind the tall palm tree which grew outside Old Uncle Horshobordhon’s house. The silhouette, still lurching from side to side, passed, muttering to itself in a language Jogodish Babu didn’t know – and he was an intellectual, amazingly multi-lingual. After all, he could speak not just Bunglee but also English, and even a smattering of Hindi. Why, just last month a Bihari cobbler had been amazed at his Hindi. The man had even said he was amazed. Jogodish Babu had proudly told everyone the story for days.
Strange, Jogodish Babu thought. But it was probably a foreigner from South India or Punjab or somewhere like that, where people were shameless enough to drink – not like nice Bunglee boys who would never touch a drop. Jogodish Babu shuddered at the thought of what his wife would do to him if wine – all alcohol was “wine” to him – ever touched his lips.
Be that as it may, the foreign drunkard had moved on, so Jogodish Babu came out from behind the tree and turned into the stretch of main road which lay between Mitro Moshai’s lane and his, wondering if there might be other drunkards around. But everything seemed as usual. The shop where he usually bought groceries was about to close, but the owner’s son was in charge for the week, and the boy was lazy. Well, Jogodish Babu thought, he was only a baby. He would learn in time.
He was somewhat surprised when he entered his own lane. At this hour, it was normally dark and lonely, but a knot of people were gathered not far from the entrance to his house, craning to look at something. Jogodish Babu was far from immune to the lure of curiosity, so he joined the group and went up on his toes to try and see over the nearest shoulder.
A man was sprawled in the centre of the circle of onlookers, arms and legs flung randomly around. Dead, or fainted, or just another drunkard?
“Maardar,” people in the crowd were saying. “Call the pulish.”
“We called the pulish,” someone else said. “They said they weel caam.”
“Who is he?” The light was so poor that it wasn’t easy to make anything out, but Jogodish Babu could see that he was wearing a plaid lungi and a yellow kurta, with a skull cap on his head. A Muslim, then, and from his clothing, one of the working class. He was probably from the slum down near the big mosque on the other side of the railway station.
“Saambody said heej name eej Ghofoor Miyan,” Haldar from two doors down replied. “Baat another paarson said eet cannot be Ghofoor Miyan because Ghofoor Miyan eej bhery seeck.”
“Ghofoor Miyan the barber?” Jogodish Babu said, surprised. “I didn’t know he was ill.” But now that he thought of it, the plaid lungi and yellow kurta were exactly what Ghofoor Miyan wore, day in and day out. “I know him,” he said, pushing his way forward. “Let me see.”
“Don’t go,” Haldar grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back. “He may habh died obh a deejeej and geebh it to you.”
“The pulish,” people exclaimed, and moved aside. “The pulish are here.”
There were actually two separate teams of police, coming from different directions. One was from the Nondipur police station, and comprised a fat constable with a thin moustache, whom Jogodish Babu knew by sight. The other was from the Goshaigonj police station, and was represented by a thin constable with a fat moustache. They saw each other and stopped.
“You are here?” the fat constable asked. “Good, eet eej your case, your pulish station’s jurisdiction.” Wiping his forehead with relief, he turned to go.
“Not so fast,” the Goshaigonj constable yelled. “Tha bordaar of jurisdiction between Nondipur and Goshaigonj eej halfway down this street. Eef dead body eej more than halfway eet eej Nondipur jurisdiction.”
“How do we know whether eet eej halfway or not?” the fat Nondipur constable demanded.
“We measure eet, of course. Then we know whose jurisdiction eet eej.” The Goshaigonj policeman began hunting in his pockets. “I weel go and fetch a measuring tape,” he said finally.
“Good idea,” the Nondipur representative announced. “I weel get one too. Jaast in case yours eej not accurate.” Turning, he waddled away.
Jogodish Babu turned back to the corpse. The more he looked, the more familiar it seemed to be. He felt consumed with an overwhelming need to discover whether it was actually Ghofoor Miyan or not. Shaking off Haldar’s arm, he pushed forward.
“What are you doing?” The familiar voice sent a chill down his spine. Jogodish Babu turned to see his wife bearing down on him like a bulldozer. “You are not to get mixed up een these theengs. Caam eenside at once. You heeyar me?”
“I...” Jogodish Babu was about to say something more but at that moment he felt a tugging at the calf of his right trouser leg. Glancing down, he saw the presumed corpse struggling up on its knees. It was glaring up at his face and pulling at him with one free hand.
“Ghofoor Miyan!” Jogodish Babu exclaimed, recognising the face. “I’m glad to see you aren’t dead. But isn’t eet shameful for you to be drunk on the street like this? Whaat would your mullah shaheb theenk eef he saw you?”
Ghofoor Miyan didn’t seem to care what would happen if the mullah saw him. With a groan like someone with a terrible hangover, he lurched forward and snapped at Jogodish Babu’s leg. If he had had teeth he might have done some damage. His toothless gums, though, slipped off, leaving only a smear of saliva.
“Chchi chchi,” Jogodish Babu exclaimed. “Ees thees what happens when you dreenk too maach?” He tried to pull away, but Ghofoor Miyan began to pull himself upright, using Jogodish Babu as a post. He stank horribly, like a dead fish.
“Get off me!” Jogodish Babu had had enough. Raising his umbrella, he poked Ghofoor Miyan hard in the chest with the ferrule. Ghofoor Miyan stumbled back and fell over with a crash, and did not move.
“You keeled heem!” Haldar exclaimed.
“Hindu man keeled Muslim,” people began to say. “Bhery bhery bad. There weel be communal riot obhar thees.”
“I didn’t mean to –“ Jogodish Babu began to protest, when his wife’s hand closed on his collar. “I told you to caam inside,” she said. “Baat you nebhar listen, and see what happens.”
Just then the Nondipur constable arrived on the scene, holding a large tape measure in a can. “What eej going on here?”
“Arrest heem,” a dozen voices answered. “Thees man, he jaast keeled the dead body.”
“I nebhar deed.” Jogodish Babu was half-strangled by the grip his wife had on his collar, so his voice was the merest squeak. “I just poked heem with the umbrella...”
“Look,” someone said. “The dead body eej alive.” Indeed. Ghofoor Miyan was showing signs of getting up again. He moaned, grimaced and yowled as he clumsily got on his hands and knees.
“Be careful,” Jogodish Babu told the constable. “He eej trying to bite.” But the constable, ignoring him, pushed forward.
“Get up and caam weeth me,” he said, grabbing Ghofoor Miyan by the shoulder. “You are causing trouble for ebhryone.”
Ghofoor Miyan rather seemed to welcome being grabbed by the shoulder. He turned his head and kissed the constable’s wrist. It took a moment for everyone to realise he was trying to gnaw the constable’s wrist, and only his lack of teeth preventing him.
“Oh, you bokachoda,” the constable cursed, and cracked Ghofoor Miyan over the skullcap with his baton, hard. Ghofoor Miyan lay down and did not move. The policeman hefted his baton and hit him again. A little blood began to leak on to the street.
People began to drift away, quickly and unobtrusively. Nobody wanted to be around when the cop decided to arrest someone for the murder he’d apparently just committed.
“Now you come home,” Jogodish Babu’s wife ordered, pulling, and he went.
On the way he passed the Goshaigonj constable coming with another tape measure.
“Let’s start measuring,” he said. “I want to go back to the station and sleep.”
The next morning the news was all over. The dead were rising.
“Jombies,” Haldar said, meeting Jogodish Babu in the street as they both left for work. “That eej what they are called, jombies.”
“Eet eej happening all obhar the waarld,” Foni from the television repair shop said. But nobody paid any attention to him because he was a “baby boy”, only eighteen years old.
“We are laacky,” Jogodish Babu pronounced. “Een thees caantry only Muslims and Christians bury their dead. We Hindus baarn them. So naan obh awar dead bodies caam back to life.” He didn’t speak very happily. Last night his wife had kept nagging till midnight, condemning him for going to see the dead body.
“You are supposed to be a bhodrolok, a gentleman,” she had said. “Baat you go and act like street rabble, a chhotolok. You nebhar care for what people say.”
“What do people say?” Jogodish Babu had countered, most unwisely. “I saw many of them on the street too. That means they are all chhotoloks as well, right?”
That had set off his wife like a firecracker. “You don’t care a thing about me,” she had stormed. “I slave my fingers to the bone –“ she had waggled her plump fingers in his face to demonstrate. “And ebhryone says I could habh married maach better men, baat I settled for you. And thees eej the way you treat me. Also-“
And so it had gone, on and on. Jogodish Babu had not even managed to enjoy the hilsa curry. It had tasted of his wife’s rancour. He wished he could kill her, but then with his luck she’d probably kill him instead. And then he’d become a zombie.
Talking about zombies...
“Yes, thees proves awar Hindu kalchaar eej best,” Haldar said now, happily. “Awar ancient scientists eenbhented ebhrything, so they also knew about jombies and that we should baarn bodies. We are not like America and Raashia and athar caantries wheech habh jombies walking ebhrywhere.”
“The telebheeshon said,” Foni put in, desperate to be noticed, “that eef a jombie bites you, you weel becaam one too.”
“The gorment,” Haldar said, “has poot the army and pulish on gaard outside these cemeteries, to shoot these jombies eef they rise. Eef you break the head, they die paarmanently.” He snorted. “The gorment should ban these Muslims and Christians from burying their dead. Eet eej a Hindu caantry, so Hindu laws should be followed, no?”
Jogodish Babu didn’t reply. He was watching a small party of young men walking down the lane. He recognised a couple of them – local toughs who acted as the strong arm of the ruling Trinobhoji Congress political party. The one in the lead looked at him and grinned broadly with stained, worn teeth.
“Arey,” he said. “Jogodish Babu, no? We were jaast caaming to see you.”
“What for?” Jogodish Babu found himself suddenly alone. Foni and Haldar had both evaporated like the morning mist. “What did you want?”
“You know about thees jombie problem?” The goon smiled again, looking at Jogodish Babu like a long-lost friend. “What am I saying, you are big ofisaar, of course you know. Well, awar claab –“ He indicated the rest of his companions with a sweep of his arm. “We are going to haant down and keel all the jombies. For thees, you understand, we need saam chanda, donation. You know, for transport, and food. So we need a leetle maany from you. Not too maach. Say, fifty thousand.”
“Fifty thou-“ Jogodish Babu’s voice cut off with a squeak, as though his wife was back yanking at his collar. “I don’t have –“
“Look, Uncle,” the goon said impatiently, “we habh no time. These jombies habh to be keeled. So eef you don’t pay, you are being enemy of tha people because you are stopping aas from keeling them.”
“So we weel habh to take action against you,” another young hoodlum said, rippling his biceps. “Eef fifty thousand ees too maach, how about forty?”
“Or even thaarty,” the first criminal said. “Baat thaarty, that ees the lowest we can go.”
“Get lost,” Haru the Boor snapped, appearing at Jogodish Babu’s shoulder. He hefted a crowbar at the end of one heavily muscled arm. “Or you’ll have trouble with me, and you know who I am.”
The Trinobhoji Congress goons glared in baffled fury. “We weel see you,” the leader said, pointing at Jogodish Babu. “Don’t theenk we habh forgotten thees.”
“Don’t you have jombies to keel?” Haru the Boor inquired. “Or shall I make you all jombies so you can keel yourselves?”
Muttering furiously, the goons stalked off. Haru the Boor looked at them and at Jogodish Babu. He shrugged. “If they geev you a haard time,” he said, “jaast call me. Are you all right?”
“I’m all right,” Jogodish Babu said. But he wasn’t all right. He was terrified. When those crooks came back –
“Well,” Haru the Boor said, cheerfully, “watch out you don’t have a haart attack and die, or I weel habh to keel you aaftar you become a jombee.”
Waving with his crowbar, he stalked off down the lane.
By evening, the zombie apocalypse had been almost completely licked.
It had never been any kind of threat to worry about, of course. Cremated ashes didn’t come back to life, and cordons of police around cemeteries effectively destroyed most of the few corpses intact enough to dig their way out of graves without falling to pieces in the process. One or two zombies did manage to walk on to the streets, but they were speedily dispatched by trucks whose drivers enjoyed the opportunity to crush people under their wheels without fear of the consequences.
The only ones not happy were some Muslim and Christian organisations, who said that the rights of their dead were being contravened. In one case, a terrorist cell decided to put the protest in more concrete terms by constructing a bomb. It, however, went off prematurely, blowing the cell members into pieces too small to be effective zombies, so that was all right too. Otherwise, things went along swimmingly, and by nightfall the threat was generally past.
There was one piece of political fallout. The Trinobhoji Congress government in Bunglistan had refused to allow the police to surround graveyards and eliminate zombies, on the grounds that people’s religious rights were more important. The government in Delhi had taken a dim view of the situation and sacked the Trinobhoji chief minister, imposing direct rule on the state. The goons who had threatened Jogodish Babu in the morning had suddenly lost their political protectors. There would be, at least for now, no danger from them.
Jogodish Babu walked along the street from the bus station, with no great desire to go home. The prospect of another evening with his wife filled him with depression. He wished he could go to Mitro Moshai’s, but he had no desire to risk another contact with a zombie in the old man’s unlit lane. Besides, Mitro Moshai held no adda on Thursday, holding it to be unlucky.
Passing the market, he stopped at a fish stall. By now, his wife would have finished the hilsa he’d bought yesterday. If, he thought, he bought another hilsa as a peace offering, and stayed in all evening, she might actually be happy for a change. Without wasting time on more thought, he fished for his wallet, and bought a two-kilo fish. The cost was exorbitant – the fish had been hunted to near-extinction in Bunglistan – but worth it, if he could have some peace and quiet, not to speak of hilsa curry.
His wife was in a foul mood when he entered the house. “I saw you talking to that boor, Haru,” she proclaimed. “I told you many times not to associate weeth that chhotolok. But weel you leesten?” She looked at the fish he was holding before him like a shield. “Again you didn’t have it scaled and cut up? What do you theenk I am, a feeshmonger woman?”
Jogodish Babu sighed. It seemed there was nothing he could do that wasn’t the wrong thing. As his wife snatched the hilsa from his hand and went into the kitchen, still yelling, he eased himself into his chair and bent down to unlace his shoes.
The scream was so sudden and loud that he banged his head on the table, straightening up. Through the open door of the kitchen he could see his wife dancing around. The hilsa dangled from her hand, its teeth buried in her fingers.
“What –“ Jogodish Babu said, blinking and still rubbing his head. “What on earth –“
“Do saamtheeng,” his wife screamed. “Eet eej biting me!”
“How can it bite you?” Jogodish Babu asked. “It’s dead.”
“You useless fool,” his wife shouted. “You can’t do anything at all.” Still dancing, she swung her arm. The hilsa lost its grip and came flying through the air, plonking down on the table in front of Jogodish Babu.
Jogodish Babu looked at the fish. The fish looked at Jogodish Babu. “How does it feel like to be eaten?” it seemed to be asking. Its dead mouth opened, displaying its little dead teeth. “Don’t you wish you’d turned vegetarian when you could?”
And then, crawling on its fins, it lunged across the table at him. There was some more screaming.
The Zombie Apocalypse was over. The Jombie Apocalypse had only just begun.
And this time there was no way Bunglistan would win.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013