Since last October I had started writing something. I had a vague thing in my mind, a lost love and the pain it brings in. Poromesh Acherjee kept poking me to write it down. It was difficult not to oblige him, after all no one had ever praised my stories like him. So I got into it. Now it runs about 72000 words. I am surprised to be able to key in so many words. Looking for a publisher now. I don’t know if it looks silly, with lots of mistakes. About spellings – MS Word takes care of it, but what about other mistakes? Do I need an editor to look into? I have a feeling I need some body to read it and correct those mistakes that elude me.
The evening was silent and dark. The darkness complimented the silence around the lonely cottage which was perched on a slanting hill top. The balcony overlooked the valley down which appeared misty and indistinct during the day, but nothing was visible now except a black void, which felt amorphous and dizzy. A purposeful empty space, as the land suddenly met its last point, a sharp edge, after which it was a nonexistent oblivion. The leaves of the huge eucalyptus tree in the backyard rustled at the sudden gust of wind, the bright yellow flame of the candle bent for a second as if her heart missed a beat, in anticipation of an unexpected revelation.
She didn’t say a word, she wasn’t expected either. It was he who changed his posture, crossed his legs and poured a drink.
What was he going to speak about? She didn’t know. Why in first place they needed to come here? An unknown tiny hamlet in the sleepy hills of Sikkim, far away from the known tourist circle, Jaya didn’t know. She accompanied him without asking a question. Not that Rajib would have explained it even if she wanted to know. He was fond of travelling to lesser known, remote places, specially the hills, and made it a point to know beforehand that it was not frequently visited by the tourists. He hated the crowd and the din. ‘It`s an out of the world place, my kind of tourist spot. Besides we needed a break; we deserved it rather after the drudgery. You have to tell me finally if you are coming or not. I am going to book it today.’ He had said.
They lived in one of those chaotic neighborhoods of Kolkata, whose narrow dingy lanes and by lanes were always crowded. The railway station being near, it almost felt like an extension of the platform where people walked down in groups, pairs, rarely alone. The whole purpose being to reach another point which was the bus stop and from where they would travel to their work places. They needlessly spoke loudly, holler without purpose and at the weekends the hawkers took possession of the narrow road. They sat around the edges to sell their fares, everything from cheap aluminum utensils to rat poisons. Bicycles and rickshaws added to the chaos jostling with pedestrians; and Rajib would threaten to leave the house almost every other day.
It was an arrangement mutually agreed upon that they would share the rent, and if anyone left without a proper reason, he or she would have to arrange for a replacement. They lived in the same house, but the world knew they were married. It wasn’t possible to get a rented accommodation otherwise. The middle class sentiments loomed over as an unseen chaperone to the kind of people here; they would hurl scandalous remarks if they knew about the truth, outrageous and immoral as they would brand it. It`s almost three years now that they had shared the common house successfully hiding the secret.
Rajib slogged as a journalist in a Bengali newspaper and Jaya worked as a front office executive in a business house which dealt with complicated financial solutions to the well-heeled. It was a common friend who introduced them to each other on some forgettable occasion three years ago. The common factor was a house; both of them were frustrated staying as paying guests with obscure people, tolerating their fancies and whims. David, the common friend had suggested the way out, dropping the strange idea out of blue. Rajib was hesitant initially, but agreed to it as it offered him a pleasant liberty of staying in a house without being pried upon by the owner of the house. But again sharing a house with a woman, who was just a friend, that too recently introduced, was an undeniably courageous decision.
Jaya was a wonderful cook, and she loved to cook too. On one rainy evening when he returned home late, drenched by a sudden spell of rain, he smelled a familiar fish was being fried and to his surprise she presented her fare of fried Hilsa accompanied by hot khichri with élan of a veteran cook.
That night, as rain build up, punctuated by lightning thunders and the flickering of electric bulb, Rajib felt that he was perhaps in love with the woman with whom he had shared the house. Though it was a sudden realization, but it didn’t amount to a discovery. It wasn’t a revelation either. Like a prisoner who had been awarded a life sentence, would make a friendship with a squirrel which scurried in front of his desolate cell, because this was the only free creature who would peer at him curiously. He thought about it, like the cursor of his key board which flickered non-stop at one spot as he tried his best to find the appropriate word to begin the next sentence.
More he thought about it, more difficult it became and one day he asked her desperately, ‘I think we have to sort this out.’
‘I didn’t get it, what you are talking about? ’ She was confused.
‘The whole thing, about us, that we live in the same house. People think we are married but we are not, it can’t go like this for ever. We need to settle it some time.’ His hint was still unclear to her.
‘You want to leave, you got fade up?’
‘I want to marry you Jaya, if you are ready, if you think I am eligible. I have been trying to speak my mind, but couldn’t. We know each other for three years now, and if this is not enough to suggest that we are compatible, nothing else would be.’
Her face suddenly turned pale, as if all blood has been sucked out of her. She looked at him with utter disbelief and frustration and remained silent for few seconds. Her cheerful face turned remote and pensive, she gathered herself slowly and said faintly ‘I can’t marry you Rajib.’
He wanted to ask her, why? Why they couldn’t marry? What was stopping her? Wasn’t it cruel to deny what could have been a happy end of a strange togetherness? But she didn’t offer any explanation; neither had she showed any guilt. She said contemptuously that she would be leaving the house soon, and relieve him of the burden.
And she left within a week, and before she had left she wrote a letter to him.
When he came back home, he found the house was locked, the ominous lock was hanging in the bolt painfully. Jaya had left; the naked mattress and the coverless pillow lay on her bed desultorily thrown away. He unknowing searched for anything she had missed and there were many. Her flip-flop was hidden below the bed, her wet dress hung in the clothesline in their small balcony which faced east. He stood in the dark balcony alone; the priest`s evening prayers from the nearby temple appeared sad and forlorn. Her smell still lingered in the bathroom in her still wet towel. Though she had left, each nook and corner of the house reminded her presence. He moved around the house aimlessly, lighted a cigarette and then opened the bottle of whiskey which was saved for an occasion. He poured few pegs for himself and drank alone all by himself. His mobile rang, he didn’t take the call, he felt exhausted from a battle which he fought against himself, the existence he thought granted. And when the stupor overpowered him, he slept on the sofa.
Next morning when he got up groggy eyed with a sharp headache, an after effect of indiscriminate drinking, he found the letter on the table. He read it as fast as he could and before he read the last paragraph he was flabbergasted by her revelation. She said she was engaged to someone, and in fact had secretly married him recently. It was a court marriage, and nobody except one of her close friends knew about it. They had bought a house of their own in the upcoming New Town and planned to shift there soon. She said, they had plans to announce their marriage to the world after they had shifted there, because the people here knew that she was already married to him, and she didn’t like not to complicate matters by avoiding any misinterpretation of a secret but strange togetherness. She thanked him for being generous and respectful to her and she said she would look forward to his visits in her new house.
Rajib didn’t allow a second person to the house, he paid the full rent himself; his mother visited him on few occasions when she pestered him about marriage. He wasn’t ready for it now; he needed some more time to settle, to get back to himself. He didn’t tell anybody about it, and when Jaya invited him for the double celebration of her marriage and housewarming, he avoided it by making an excuse of an out-station trip to cover some political rally which never happened. David, the common friend often visited his house and one day following a binge of alcohol, the emotions got better of him and he found himself letting out his entire secret in a manner which made David nervous and guilty.
‘Why didn’t you tell me before? I could have tried to persuade her!’ David wanted to know.
‘Come on David! How can you do that? How can one persuade somebody in such a matter? And now I am okay with it, I don’t blame her anymore. It was my fault, I didn’t understand her. I didn’t try to know her mind. May be she found me suitable as a friend and nothing beyond. And that is absolutely right. She is a wonderful woman otherwise and I often remember the sumptuous food she sometimes cooked for us.’
David sighed mournfully and said, ‘did you see her again after she left this house?’
‘No, I didn’t. I couldn’t gather enough courage to face her.’
‘You didn’t attend her party also, I noticed. When I inquired Jaya about it she said you were out of town. Now I understand why you avoided it!’
David poured another drink for himself and lighted a cigarette.
‘It`s almost three months now. Time flies so fast, just as you blink everything disappears from front of your eyes and when reopen your eyes they are not the same anymore. We have to change ourselves too, my friend, the world is a terrible place. Don’t worry everything will be alright.’ David stared at Rajib after his inebriated soliloquy for a long time before leaving.
After six months of Jaya`s marriage, Rajib heard her voice again. Her voice was pleading unlike of her, and he went to meet her in her office. She didn’t utter a word except that she wanted to come back again in the house which she had left. Rajib didn’t ask her the reason, as if it didn’t matter now. She appeared a pitiful shadow of herself as if last six months she had been to hell suffering for her penance. Her face appeared gaunt; her bright cheerful eyes became sunken, gloomy. She held herself from breaking down in the public place till she came back to their old house again.
She said she was harassed and physically abused, repeatedly, even hit mercilessly on many occasions by her husband, who was an inveterate liar and a malicious debauchee as well. He had a first wife about whom nobody knew, but he hid everything from the world, and secretly married her. She cried, pleaded and one day decided not to go back there again. She had informed the Commission for atrocities against women and her case had been taken up. She had been living with Sohini, her colleague, since last week and it was Sohini who goaded her to call him.
‘Why didn’t you call me before?’ Rajib found himself tongue-tied at the sudden deluge of emotional turmoil, and that was the only sentence he could utter.
That evening, in the candle lit room of the cottage he went on his knees to propose her, ‘Will you marry me? ’ Jaya couldn’t be happier and when the wind grew wilder to welcome a rain she couldn’t help but cry as if this was the moment which she had cherished ever and which she denied herself only few months ago. She sobbed for long as if she tried to wash herself away like a wild flower which drenched itself under the rain, sullied by dust and grim. She couldn’t utter a word but submit herself to his arms. The candle flickered for the last time before it extinguished, but she wasn’t afraid anymore.
One such night
She got the call in the evening. She glanced at the mobile, the number wasn’t known to her, and it wasn’t saved in her mobile. She would have dismissed it right away, but she became little curious because it seemed to her that she had received calls from this number before. Who this could be? None of her friends of course, as she had saved most of their numbers which were tagged to their Facebook accounts as well, their preferred virtual place of passing time. Nevertheless, she took the call.
‘Hi Riya! It`s Vishal here. How are you?’ She tried to place the voice under scrutiny but it didn’t match with anybody she knew closely. The voice was rich, confident and carefully indulgent. She waited if he spoke further, for any clue, which could help her identify the man behind the voice, but he didn’t. Instead he waited for her reply. This was little intriguing. She faintly replied ‘Hi, Vishal. I am good.’ Her voice restrained but curious.
‘I have a feeling that you couldn’t place me!’ Vishal said slowly, as if it wasn’t her fault, perhaps his, or of neither.
‘Sorry, really I can’t place you. But since you have my number and know my name as well, we might have met some where!’ She said in voice which didn’t hide her awkward confession. But Vishal surprised her, ‘no, we haven’t met before.’ This was outrageous and embarrassing and she felt to disconnect the call immediately, but there was a kind of warm and earnest gentleness, in the way he spoke, and the pause between the words he had contrived, which exuded his sincerity to admit the truth, which bewildered her and made her more curious than before.
‘Then how do you know me?’ She asked as if this wasn’t a question, but a remark made to a person who could neither be ignored nor welcomed.
‘We met in Facebook, virtually, though you didn’t accept my friend request. Rahul is a friend.’ He gave the first clue. Rahul was her cousin, few years older to her, who now lived in Bangalore. He was a software engineer and worked for a MNC.
‘Are you calling from Bangalore?’ Riya thought it was preposterous to call an unknown woman from that far, and she couldn’t hide her surprise just considering it once before she understood her mistake. He must have come to Kolkata.
‘No, I have just landed in Kolkata and I am on my way to my hotel.’ He said. She could hear the gentle hum of the car at the background as it went past the busy VIP road which led to the main city from the airport, occasionally interrupted by annoying horns of buses and taxis which added to the disorderly chaos. She got her second clue; the man had just disembarked from the flight, which meant she wasn’t absolutely wrong. But why did he call her? She almost decided to disconnect the call as the usual pleasantries had been exchanged already, and there were nothing left to carry this conversation forward, but Vishal spoke again, ‘ I will be here for tonight only. Tomorrow morning I will fly to Nagpur.’ She considered the statement absolutely irrelevant, no way of her concern, and said nothing. She thought he would disconnect the call now as she had conveyed the necessary hint through her nonchalant silence. But he didn’t.
‘Are you busy?’ The question made no sense to her again as she couldn’t see her meeting the unknown man for just being a friend of her cousin and who was not even a virtual friend in facebook.
‘How does it matter to you?’ She said annoyingly.
‘Am I bothering you? I will disconnect if you are busy. I can call later.’ Vishal said in an earnest and sincere voice.
‘But why do you want to know if I am busy? ’ She retorted, ‘and if I am not busy what do you want to tell me?’
‘I would like to invite you to be my guest this evening. I am staying in Sterling Towers, off the EM Bypass, I am sure you know where it is.’
Riya was flabbergasted; she hadn’t expected such an outrageous invitation before. She was a grown up woman of twenty-five and worked as a front office executive in an import-export firm. She was aware of her voluptuous curves which were reasons enough to have many of her colleagues to do her favors without asking. She had her share of emotional crisis, having dumped two lovers herself and being dumped by another. She had a fairly libertine attitude towards sex, though no man could say she was a slut. She had her dignity intact in her carnal quests and it was never in exchange of money. It had to be a mutually accepted proposition, and she had an eye to single out a man from a crowd of grown up boys. Vishal`s proposal, though apparently innocuous had an amorous tinge, and nothing else was needed for her to understand the subterfuge. She looked at her watch, it was half past seven. She had enough time in hand. But she hadn’t seen Vishal, neither did she know anything about him. Was he really a friend of Rahul? In any case, she thought, she was in game, for it had been months she had lead a celibate existence, since last break-up with her boyfriend.
‘Could you give me some time to think about it?’ She said.
‘Oh yes, definitely. Take your time, I will send my car; you have to tell me from where you like to be picked up.’
‘Okay.’ She disconnected the phone.
She went to the bathroom and took a brief shower. She lived in a studio apartment in the nineteenth floor of the Condo in the Christopher road. She lived alone; her mother came once in a while from Jamshedpur where she lived in their family home. Her father died two years ago and her only brother immigrated to Canada last year. Marriage, to her, wasn’t an unnecessary evil or a nagging cumbersome institution either, but she didn’t see it as a righteous hegemony of male over female. The shocking attitude, notwithstanding, portended ominous conclusions towards her, but she took it in her stride, unperturbed, unfazed. Her male colleagues always looked up in awe but most female colleagues thought she was worse than a bitch.
She stood in front of the mirror stark naked after the shower and examined her own body in front of mirror. She didn’t have excess of fat anywhere, and regular exercise and swimming kept her fit and fresh. She took out a pair of black Capri’s from her wardrobe and paired it with a yellow top with a deep neck. She wasn’t fond of accessory except the wrist watch and the handbag, and before she finally came down, she didn’t forget to spray her favorite perfume .She called the number, and it was predictably Vishal on the other side, who was talking to someone.
‘I am reaching the bus stop opposite the Merc showroom in the connector, tell the driver to call me when he reaches the spot.’ She said emphatically. Vishal crisply answered, Oh, yes. Don’t worry. He will be there on time.’
It was a fairly busy evening like any weekday. The never ending stream of cars, buses, motorcycles and taxis went past the potholed road towards the busier EM Bypass. They bellowed grotesque horns, the headlights swapped bright arcs of yellow light against the pillars of the overhead metro rail track where posters of movies, old and new were pasted, some peeling off and some gaudily fresh, as though no space could be left blank and the city had no right to keep herself from being defiled. Like her, she thought, at the age of twenty five, she had used up herself to satisfy the embers of desire which were not entirely her, not always, but she hadn’t objected regardless of the consequences, which might one day confront her in a way that she would find hard to defend. Not that she didn’t hate herself; she did and it was more a self- deprecatory contempt, not about the coquettish sojourns but about the bitter after effects which often made her feel about what she awfully lacked. She secretly envied her colleagues who were happily married and who never discussed their domestic trivialities to her.
The driver pulled up the car and dialed a number. She knew that he was looking for her only, and when she approached near, he ushered her in silently as if he wasn’t a human but a robot, programmed for mechanical movements only.
Till she reached his room past the entrance lobby and the glassy capsule elevator, the driver followed her like a shadow and left her when she pushed the doorbell. Vishal courteously welcomed her.
It was a spacious room, tastefully done and the air smelled subtly aromatic. A giant French window opened to the balcony and she could see the vast dark emptiness just behind through the immaculate see-through barrier. Vishal was a tall, handsome and leanly muscular man in his early thirties. She noticed two black luggage bags embossed with insignia of the Jet Airlines in the corner. The low center table was empty except a tall glass half full of golden yellow liquid, a chunk of ice bobbed at the top. He took his seat, a brown cozy cushioned sofa and gestured her to sit down. She sat awkwardly, her back uncomfortably taut.
‘Would you care for a drink? ’ He softly enquired. She nodded silently.
‘What would you like to have? A glass of wine or something else? ’ He had a keen appreciation for the nuances of the feminity and it was apparent from his careful and non- interfering gester.
‘White wine would be fine.’ She said at last. Vishal took the cordless in-house phone and spoke into it. Then he took a sip from the glass and said, ‘You didn’t tell me why you didn’t accept my friend request?’ She had no answer to it, because she had ignored it like many other friend requests of obscure people. The virtual space was full of nameless perverts and sex maniacs, and she had made it points not accept friend requests until she knew about the person. Her mellifluous smile and lithe curves drew attention of lustful male gazes and everyday she would find unsolicited friend requests, which she snubbed without looking at them.
‘Not for any particular reason. Just because I didn’t know you.’ She felt tongue-tied.
‘But you don’t know anything about me even now?’ She faintly smiled. ‘Tell me now about yourself.’
‘You know by now, most of it, at least what matters!’ Before she could think about the reply, somebody pushed the calling bell. A young waiter came in with bottle of white wine with a plate of collation.
Vishal poured the wine in a glass for her and they raised a toast to the city and the evening, which brought them together in a strange way and Vishal knew this wasn’t going to be any different from his usual quests and he would forget her before the sunrise. When they lay naked in the dark room exhausted for a while, Riya felt his strong muscular arm was still supporting her neck, though he was sleeping already. His chest heaved slowly and touched her skin, and with every touch of him she was reminded about the unreal possibilities of a life which seemed too remote. Wasn’t she eligible to have a faithful man as her own? She thought where did all go wrong? Was it her own luscious body which distracted men from looking beyond primal pleasures, or she had messed it up herself. There wasn’t any reason why she shouldn’t get married to a decent boy! She had reasonable education, she was financially independent and she belonged to a good family. But she erred every time, she trusted wrong people only to discover later that she was too naïve and credulous.
She knew tomorrow morning he would hurriedly leave as most men did and wouldn’t see her again. And that`s all about it. It was only about instant gratification, a soulless fornication of two human bodies for the sake of it, nothing more nothing less. She didn’t know if he was married, though it mattered little to either of them. But why these thoughts occurred to her now, didn’t she know about it? What made her to think beyond it now? She didn’t know.
When she got up groggy eyed in the morning, she found she was alone in the bed. Her naked body lying under a blue sheet, felt cold, as cold as a snake skin, and the coldness grew from inside which froze her soul. Vishal was gone and a small envelope was kept on the table. She put on her dress, washed her face in cold water and took envelope in her hand. It contained a small letter written by him. He thanked her very much for being his guest for the evening and also said that he had to take the early morning flight not because he had to reach Nagpur, but to take two hundred people along with as he was a pilot with the Jet Airlines. All bills have been paid, and she had the liberty of leaving the room by twelve, midday. Before she considered throwing it into the dustbin, it seemed that the envelope contained one more piece of paper. She put her fingers inside, brought it out. It was a cheque of ten thousand rupees, duly signed by him, blank at the top so that she could write her name.
She cried, and cried her heart out because she had sold her soul for the first time, unknowingly.
31st August 2013.
The flight for Jaipur was scheduled at nine am, but it got delayed. The airlines announced it at eight thirty. Sushant was making some last minute correction of the power point slides which he was about to present in front of the gathering, a group of businessmen, who had shown some interest in the products of the company he worked for. A petite, attractive young woman in her sky blue work suit was manning the enquiry cum announcement point since sometime but after this depressing announcement she slipped away because aggrieved travelers collectively sighed at it and she knew she would face lots questions to answer.
Now nobody knew anything for some time, then an unseen male voice announced the flight number 342 of Indigo Airlines would leave at eleven am instead of nine. The airlines regretted for their unintentional delay and requested the travelers to bear with it. Sushant heard it, and went back to his laptop. The necessary security check was already done, his luggage was deposited; he had only his hand baggage for his laptop and two books he carried. He worked for some more time to put the final touch and then closed the laptop. He brought an espresso coffee from the Barista counter and sipped it slowly.
He calculated the time when he would reach Jaipur and then the hotel where his meeting was scheduled. He called up the Jaipur branch head and informed about the change of the schedule. All done and reset; now he had almost two hours in his hand. He sipped the coffee slowly, and swept his gaze around the crowd. The irksome faces of the weary travelers turned more bleak and he noticed while few watched the mute TV animatedly, some other felt it was better to doze off. He called up home. The phone rang but nobody took the call. He glanced at his watch, it was nine only.
He lived in Hyderabad alone. His wife and son lived in Kolkata. This wasn’t an arrangement he liked, but he had to accept it because of his work necessitated it. He headed a consumer feedback division of a Hyderabad based company and he didn’t fit in Kolkata branch because it was too small compared to the main office. His family couldn’t afford to relocate as his wife worked in a Kolkata Hospital and his son studied in a reputed school. Every Friday he would take late evening flight to come home, stayed back the weekend and flied back on Monday morning. Though he didn’t enjoy the flights at all, but they offered him a unique opportunity to read the books he loved. Amitav Ghosh was one his favorite authors, besides he loved to read travelogues and history. Though he specialized in Computer applications following his electrical engineering, but once he finished the day`s job, he wouldn’t talk about it. His facebook motto was to keep his professional and personal fronts separated, and he kept it like that.
He brought out a book, “Solo” by Rana Dasgupta. He hasn’t read his books before, but first few pages made him to sit back and take note. He didn’t remember next forty minutes when he was lost in the book and sudden announcement by the invisible male voice about the flight he was to take reminded him that he was still in New Delhi airport and waiting for his flight to Jaipur. He glanced at his watch, it was ten forty five; there was already a queue in front of gate number eight and now a young man was manning the podium checking the boarding passes of the passengers. He sprang back from the languorous repose and closed his bag in a hurry to join the queue.
He had a corner seat, and not before long he found himself back to the book. The middle seat remained unoccupied, and a hoary old frail man sat in the next seat and quickly dozed off. Only when the aircraft accelerated before takeoff, he looked outside. In a few seconds they were airborne, and he kept looking down at the dwindling sizes of the buildings, fields, maze of roads and the filthy Jamuna, all of which disappeared from his arc of vision in a minute. He suddenly remembered he didn’t call his wife before boarding. Where would she be now? Must be in the hospital, in the echo room, looking at the hearts of people, through the probe, healthy and diseased. She was a cardiologist and headed the Non-interventional Cardiology at Ramkrishna International Hospital.
He thought he would call her after reaching Jaipur. The first thing to be done. The flight would take about an hour, the stewardess had announced. He ordered a diet coke and went back to his book. He wasn’t able to concentrate in the book, glimpses of images, became visible in his mind, one after another. A river appeared in the horizon, so wide that the other bank seemed non-existent; an incessant flow of a vast expanse of water, so mighty to cloud one`s senses, and demanding an awe from the onlooker. He closed the book, and shut his eyes forcefully as if by doing so he welcomed the river, the mighty Brahmaputra in full bloom, swaggering away in menacing mudra`s in the mid June. And in the lonely bank stood two people, a young man and a woman, both in their late teens gazing at the mystifying eddy with full hearts because in a month they would get drifted away. They had to, because both would be joining their colleges far away from the little town of their own.
The hour seemed longer than it was, and when the aircraft touched Sawai Man Singh Airport, he switched on his mobile. He called Baishali before the towers were visible in the phone, before the set could be aroused from its electronic slumber. The phone retorted; contacts were not yet ready. Sushant laughed at himself, at his own desperate urgency and waited till the phone, now on an automatic roaming mode, welcomed him on behalf of Reliance telecom in the city of Jaipur. He dialed her number and the reply came in the voice of a precocious teen that the person called was busy. The travelers already late by two hours jostled their way through the narrow aisle and he soon reached the exit of the airport. Few people stood with placards in their hands to welcome their guests, and Sushant found a young man in driver`s white was holding the placard which bore his name. He waved at him and was ushered in a car which waited nearby. A fifteen minute`s brief ride brought him to the hotel, The Rajputana Sheraton, at the precinct of the capital of the erstwhile Rajputana.
He checked in, finished the formalities and when he was about to be escorted to his suit, he was stunned to see a woman who was smiling at him. He was flabbergasted, and couldn’t believe his eyes! It was Baishali!
But how come she was here? Did she design it to meet him? But then she didn’t tell him about it. Myriads of questions flooded his mind, but he thought this was a surprise, an unexpected event, about which he had a premonition, though he dismissed it because it seemed too preposterous to imagine it even. But now, he felt, the presage wasn’t vacuous; it really forestalled him about it. The sudden reminding of the river, it`s desolate banks with two people beholding each other into their eyes had actually betokened it.
Baishali had already checked in, she came to Jaipur to attend a conference. In the foyer of the immaculately designed hotel, a bronze stand directed the cardiologists of the country towards the hall where the conference was held. Baishali promised to meet him in the evening after the conference and hurried away. He stared at her till she disappeared inside the hall.
They had married soon after Sushant landed in a job in the city of Kolkata. Baishali had finished her MD and she joined a cardiac center as a registrar. They rented a modest accommodation in Jadavpur and one day Sushant decided to leave his job and pursue M Tech. He joined Jadavpur University and those eighteen months he went back to his student days, studying, writing dissertations, while Baishali glued her eyes to the screens of the Echocardiograph machine which would become her special skill one day. Sushant remembered how he would burn the midnight oil with numerous coffee and cigarette breaks till the rooster crowed at the dawn from one corner of the neighborhood. Life had been a struggle, and they deferred welcoming a child till they were settled in regular job. And those days, which now seemed nightmarish, laid the foundation of their future carrier which at that point appeared a distant dream. Both of them knew it was their love and faith on each other which pulled them along and now after twenty one years, looking at her he realized the life had been kind enough to him because it didn’t disappoint them in their quest of discovering what a true companionship was all about.
He quickly ate his lunch and went to the meeting. Mr Joshi, the Jaipur branch head, was waiting. Next one hour he spoke at length about the products and at the end signed two contracts which left Joshi grinning. He was invited to a special dinner at his behest, but Sushant had to decline the invitation because this evening was so special, and he didn’t want to spoil it with business talks and trite official conversations.
They went to a place called “ Mera gaon,” which was about half an hour drive from the hotel. It was a huge complex where a typical rajasthani village was built. The mud house, the cowshed and churner at the courtyard were all laid in such a way which didn’t appear to be simulated, but exuded an earthy hue which enthralled the visitors. The ambled around, peering at the exhibition of the bucolic simplicities of lives of the rural folks and when they became hungry, joined the dinning crowd. The huge courtyard like structure, open on all sides had long rustic benches and food was served in plates made of dried banyan leaves and earthen glasses. The soft yellow luminescence of the bulbs hanging from top covered by filigreed shed gave an ethereal air to the place, and while they sat in one corner facing each other, the light and the shade played their usual hide and seek nudged by the gentle wind which carried a familiar fragrance to both of them. They sat while the waiters in colorful rajasthani attire hustled around to their guests, and it seemed to him, this was the meeting, which brought him here. This was the meeting he had longed for, and would cherish ever in their long journey of togetherness.
10th Sept 2013.
For my dear friends, Sakti and Debika
This story is published in Muse India magazine in Sept-Oct 2013 issue
This is a newer version, with minor corrections.
AN OFFICIAL ASSASSINATIOM
The sound of violent retching disrupted the tranquility early in the morning. Nilanjan got up from sleep with a sudden jolt, bleary eyed. Sohini was inside the toilet, trying to throw up. The awful screams filtered through the closed door and reached him as a remote softer note till he was asleep but once his daze cleared he heard it unmistakably. She was perfectly alright till yesterday, and he did not have a clue about her illness, nor did she herself spoke about it. He tapped the door gently. Sohini opened the door, exhausted and drained. She washed her face with cold tap water few times, cleaned her mouth of the bitter bile which regurgitated before turning her face towards him.
‘Did I wake you up?’ She asked apologetically.
‘You should have called me. What`s the matter?’ Nilanjan`s voice was apprehensive.
‘It`s as simple as that. Gogol`s brother is on his way.’ Gogol, the one year old boy was sleeping, in the middle of the double bed, curled up on his polythene protected rectangle between them, wrapped in a blue blanket.
‘How do you know? Did you get the urine test done?’ Nilanjan asked.
‘Yes, I got it done yesterday after I missed the period last week; I forgot to tell you.’
Nilanjan let out a deep sigh. This was not expected at this moment. Nilanjan looked at his one year old son sleeping peacefully. The chubby hand held the tail of the brown stuffed dog, his favorite. The boy loves animals, the dog the most. But he is still so small, needs his mother all the time. Though he has been recently graduated to rice, dal and mashed potato, but the boy still sucked at the breast, especially before going to sleep. Sohini jokes, ‘his sleeping pill’. Besides, Sohini was yet to recover from her caesarean section. Dr Sen had warned, ‘No baby for two years, she is too delicate Mr. Roy. Take good care of her. She must take adequate rest and eat properly.’
Nilanjan did his best. He arranged a maid to share her burden of household chores, made his mother to overstay three more months while she came for her annual visit. What else could he do? Half the month he remained outstation; he oversaw the operations of the entire eastern region of a pharmaceutical company. The household burden was shared by Sohini when he was out and he knew what a hard time she had when something went wrong. Just as Gogol suffered a bout of nasty diarrhea which didn’t stop despite ORS and Domstal, the usual medicines Dr Rudra , the pediatrician prescribed. He had to make frantic calls from Ranchi, where he went for supervision, requesting Dr Rudra for arranging admission to AMRI Hospital and when everything failed, cancelled his work and rushed back home same evening. He found Sohini too nervous and puzzled; she was almost at the verge of breakdown. But Gogol recovered fast and was brought back home.
‘Have you thought anything?’ Nilanjan asked.
‘I don’t know, I can’t think anymore.’ Sohini sat in the corner of the bed; her deep black eyes appeared sad and mourning. She looked tired and vulnerable. She glanced at his wary eyes trying to fathom his reactions. Would he approve the close second pregnancy? If she was asked, she would like to carry on despite all odds, all troubles. She knew, just as a mother could only know, this would be boy again. A boy, a brother to Gogol, and would be similar in all respects. It would be nice to watch two boys growing together, as friends rather than brothers. She could almost see for herself the boys in school uniforms, satchels in their back and water bottles dangling by the side. Gogol a little taller than the younger one, held him by his hand protectively. She, standing at the staircase waving her hand as they disappeared in the elevator down to the main gate. The yellow school bus would come in a moment.
‘But a decision has to be taken.’ Nilanjan said in a worried voice.
‘It’s up to you to decide.’ Sohini said in a fairly judgmental voice as if Nilanjan would never agree to her proposals though she hadn’t yet made up her mind herself.
‘Before we discuss anything let me know what do you want to do? Like if you are to take the call all yourself?’ Nilanjan said. Sohini knew he wanted to assess her mind, subtly without her knowing, because he would never want to hurt her sentiment. He loved her and respected her decisions. Would she be able to speak her mind without hesitation? So many things were to be taken into account and wellbeing of Gogol being the most important. Her grandmother had always said it was better to have children early, because lot of stress and strain were involved in raising the children, and it was easier to handle them in quick succession before you had forgotten the hardship, before you got accustomed to the carefree days. But now she was confused, half of her want to take the plunge and the half cowering at the challenge.
‘What do you suggest? ’ Sohini tried to be proactive.
‘I would love to have a baby again because in all probability it would be a girl. I always thought about a daughter, you know! But time is not appropriate, I guess. It will be very difficult and stressful for you to carry on. Besides Gogol still needs lot of your care.’ Nilanjan said in a reasonable and pragmatic voice.
‘No, it won`t be a girl. It will be a boy again.’ Sohini objected. Nilanjan smiled wearily. He had read her mind by now and he knew Sohini wanted to carry on. But circumstances are not right and neither they are ready to look forward to welcome the newcomer, not now at least.
‘Let`s see Dr Sen this evening, she will be able to give us right advise.’ Nilanjan announced. Though the announcement bore only part of his opinion but it would definitely make her case weak, Sohini thought, because Dr Sen would be the last person to allow her the second pregnancy now.
Dr Gitashree Sen, as expected didn’t encourage her much, but again she did not absolutely reject the idea of the second baby. She enquired her about recent medicine use if any, and other gynecological queries pertinent to her last child birth. Sohini was elated though she didn’t know why? Dr Sen hadn’t said her last word yet. Before leaving her clinic, she looked at both of them in a sharp gaze and said, ‘my opinion is only gynecological, but you know better about other factors which influence the decision. I would suggest you discuss it between yourselves and come to a conclusion. But one point I would stress, do it fast, because abortions are safer and legalized in only early pregnancy.’
The word knocked her head with unconceivable fury as to split her into two. She felt that though Dr Sen didn’t ask her directly to get an abortion, but she believed that would be a wise decision, at least gynecologically. Nilanjan didn’t utter a single word, he maintained a stoic stance throughout, and just before they left, smiled dryly and thanked her.
On their way back nobody said a word, an eerie silence abounded which was intensified by the faint groan of the air conditioner. The dark sky appeared unkind, insensitive. Sohini felt betrayed and humiliated and suddenly she felt as if the cool air inside became sullen and stuffy and she couldn’t breathe anymore. She closed her eyes and was surprised to find them moist and lost.
Next week they went to Dr Sen`s clinic. Dr Sen was informed about their decision before and Sohini was admitted after official trivialities were done with.
It was a small room painted blue which appeared agonizing to her. A nurse came in; her eyes appeared cold and insensitive. She made her to change to a drab green gown and jabbed an intravenous line in her left hand. Before she was about to be wheeled inside, she looked at her husband. Nilanjan was seated in a wooden chair as inert as him. He didn’t look at her eyes and when she called him, he evaded her gaze as if he was not a party to the planned assassination. Untrue, she wanted to cry, she wanted to revolt, but wasn’t it she who finally agreed to it? Half of her agreed the rest half didn’t, but end result would be the same.
The procedure didn’t take much time according to the doctor, but Sohini felt when she came back to her senses in the sick white operation theatre, that she had drifted beyond the clouds for a time which had come to standstill. She had stepped in a garden green and lively, the flowers in full bloom and the little fairies in colored dresses were playing hide and seek. The fairies gave her a choice to remain there forever, play with them, but then she remembered Gogol and hurried back to home.
By evening she recovered, and Dr Sen declared that she could go home if she wanted, but she would prefer to discharge her next day in the morning.
Nilanjan came to the clinic in the evening with Gogol and Ishita, her best friend. Gogol was surprised to see his mother lying down awfully in a bed in such an unfriendly room. He took slow apprehensive steps closer to his mother and held her pale cold hand. Sohini looked drawn and exhausted, but she managed to smile. Ishita sat beside, caressing her forehead with gentle strokes which conveyed her deep compassion. Both friends looked at each other but didn’t talk, as if this wasn’t not an ideal place to grieve, or to shed tear between them, which both of them now desperately wanted. Ishita held back her emotions with dignity, though she felt a big lump down her throat. She stared at her friend for some time, watched her lying helpless and wrecked and then spoke softly, how are you feeling now?’
‘Okay, just a little tired. Did Gogol bother you?
‘No, not at all. He is such a nice boy. He even allowed me to feed him, but he kept on asking about you.’
‘Poor boy! Can`t stay a day without his mother.’ She patted his chubby cheek. The boy didn’t react. In other time he would bury his head in her bosom and wait for his mother to hug him tight, but he behaved surprisingly restrained now. The weird surrounding, the intravenous line and the hostile air had caught him off guard.
‘Want some tea?’ Ishita whispered.
‘I had already, but what a tea without milk and almost no sugar, pathetic!’ Sohini scoffed.
‘I have brought tea for you, the one you like, with lot of milk, sugar and ginger.’ Ishita took out a small thermos from her bag as if she was digging out something precious. Both grinned almost silently as Nilanjan watched the friends coming back to their own. He felt a little relieved to see her wife adjusting to the trauma slowly and vulnerably. After they all had tea, Nilanjan went outside for a smoke.
Next morning she was officially discharged after the customary visit of Dr. Sen. Dr. Sen cheered her up.
‘Hi Sohini, hope you are fine?’
‘Yes, thank you doctor.’ She could mutter a weak reply with her eyes soft and indifferent, an unusual demeanor for vivacious Sohini which didn’t escape notice of Dr Sen. She knew Sohini didn’t want to abort the baby though she couldn’t gather enough courage to say no. She came near and gave her a tight hug. Sohini held her tight and tear ran down her cheek, silently. Everything will return to normal from tomorrow, Nilanjan will join his work; Gogol will start playing again, but what about the unborn? The tiny life, still a slimy glob of blood and flesh which has been dumped in the black bag marked as ‘Organic waste’? Only Sohini would know, only she could listen to his unspoken words, feel his unheard heartbeats and she would miss him ever till her last day.
9th July 2013.
The sun rolled towards the western sky, hidden behind the nimbus cloud, which had crept surreptitiously since the midday to change its mood of the sky from cheerful to gloomy. Sudden thunder booms followed a bright silvery flash as though the clouds showed their dazzling ivory teeth to the scorched earth, and immediately thick hard raindrops started hitting the earth, the green foliage and the dusty road. The large raindrops coalesced to smear the windscreen watery and translucent and blurred the view of the outside. The car had to be halted and parked towards the edge of the road. They sat inside the car silently watching the rain.
The raindrops fell upon the roof with great vigor and they listened to the sounds of rain. The sounds of rain, rapid and forceful didn`t follow any rhythm; a continuous sharp percussion the depth varied with the speed of the wind which flew the raindrops away.
They sat, both of them watching the silvery riot on their way back from the old age home.
The Manager of the Old age home said, ‘your father seems to be very happy here. He takes part in all games, activities and even writes poem.’ His eyes brightened as he described. Nilanjan thought what he would answer. Sohini smiled, ‘it`s very encouraging indeed, especially after the accident. ’
The old man had a heart attack in last December. He was rushed to Diamond Heart center. The cardiologist said, it was not a very grave one, because though his main coronary artery was blocked but collaterals from the right artery saved the heart and reduced the damage to minimum. But he was surprised by something else. He said the old man had no predisposing factors; neither high pressure nor diabetes. His lipid profile was absolutely normal. He didn’t smoke or drink and was a regular morning walker. Why on earth he should have a heart attack
‘Reports do not always speak the truth.’ His father had said. Besides one cannot assume that the reports are always correct, after all it is prepared by human.’ He argued.
One day he proposed something which stunned Nilanjan. He wanted to live in an old age home. He had contributed his part long ago when he was earning. An NGO called “The Twilight” had erected an old age home in a calm idyllic neighborhood about forty kilometers from the main city. It would be just one hour drive away from the house. They could visit him anytime they wanted and he could easily come whenever he got bored. The only concern was four year old Bubun, his grandson.
But even Bubun agreed to the arrangement provided he could see his dadu whenever he wanted, especially during his birthday. Nilanjan tried to reason, put the plea about his weak heart but the old man was not amused. He didn’t change his decision. Nilanjan knew the old man would never disclose the real reason which might jeopardize the peace at home. So he agreed.
‘Father seems to be very happy indeed. I think I should also book something like this. You never know’ Nilanjan said looking at outside through the frosted window. Sohini didn’t know what to say.
Let`s get lost
She said ‘Did you ever get lost?’ He was almost breathless after walking uphill along the meandering cobbled track lined by exuberant tall green grass and the purple rhododendrons. The wind was chilly and smelled crisp and fresh. At a distance the iced peaks of the Himalayas were visible through a veil of mist, silent and as if in a trance. He paused to catch his breath back and smiled. Nilanjan and Sukanya were two among the group of trekkers who had started the four day trek yesterday. The trek started from Leh and it would take four days to come back via Yangthang, Khaltse and Lamayuru to Leh again.
Sukanya brought out a bottle of water from her backpack, opened it and took a mouthful before handing over to Nilanjan. She lived in Delhi and worked for a media house. She married and divorced and had a four year old son who lived with his grandparents. Nilanjan had a thriving family of a seven years old daughter and a doting wife who taught Chemistry in South Kolkata College. The trip was arranged by the group of people who called themselves “the green custodian”, a no-profit group, concerned about the ecology of the Himalayan terrain.
‘Once I got lost, I remember the day. I was about five years old.’ Sukanya said looking at the azure blue sky with few wisps of milky white clouds appearing cheerful as a young girl. ‘I was so frightened.’ Suddenly she remembered the afternoon. A five years old girl was walking past the alleys following the hawker who sold colored balloons and bamboo flutes in the neighborhood. She trailed the hawker for a long time through the spiraling alleys silently because she loved the balloons which made a cracking sound produced by the tiny pebbles put inside their bellies. Once on the busy cross roads, where the buses and taxis zoomed dangerously, she realized the mistake. But she didn’t know the way to go back. The scared girl started to sob, until a kind neighbor spotted the waling girl and brought her back.
But that was long ago and it was scary, far from enjoyable. But this trek was different; walking through an unknown valley, savoring the stunning landscape and talking to unknown people was something she always wanted to do and now there she was enjoying her dream vacation. It appeared so unreal, so idyllic.
Nilanjan took a mouthful of water. The midday sun was up and bright; the trek would halt in an hour for the lunch break. To the right a narrow nameless stream was meandering past them almost silently. A gentle breeze blew carrying a soft fragrance of some unknown flowers. He looked at Sukanya. She was staring at him, her vacillating gaze was faltering to whisper something. Nilanjan closed his eyes; was this the moment to get lost!
Who knocked the door?
He had this habit of going out keeping the door ajar, without telling anybody. Suddenly Sudha would find the drawing room empty, the ceiling fan standstill; the newspaper neatly folded and kept on the center table. Sudha had complained to her husband, ‘why don’t you tell me that you are leaving? At least the door has to be closed!’ But Narayan didn’t change this habit of sneaking out unseen. Despite knowing it irritated her.
Once the house bustled with cheer and frolics of two children who suddenly grew up and left the nest in a hurry. This was most natural and in fact proud moments for the Chakraborty`s to see their wards flourish in an alien land. They reconciled themselves like others in the neighbourhood because success came with both good and bad rewards. Bad because the children were far away, though they could be seen and talked to through Skype, but Sudha couldn’t hug her son, couldn’t kiss her grandson. Her life changed and it changed for good. She hardly cooked, because Narayan didn’t come home for his lunch; he ate in the canteen of the company where he worked as a consultant.
Children often called from their respective homes, mostly early in the morning. Sudha would get up hurriedly bleary eyed to take the call. They would ask for their father, but most days Narayan, by then, had been out for his morning walks. They would remind Sudha to get her eyes checked, enquire about blood sugar level of their father and if he still ate rasgullas secretly?
How those small children grew up so fast? Sudha sometimes thought. How the thin scrawny boy metamorphosed into a six foot handsome young man seemed so amazing. Even the fat girl, who had this perennial running nose, now manages home and office effortlessly. Everybody adapted to the new settings, they all did. She also had adopted the new way of living, a rather austere, colorless life, like an old calm lake with placid waters which rarely rippled unless wind blew. Wind gusted carrying the sweet fragrance of her son and daughter once in a year, when they visit their parents.
They became two again, and this time the house seemed like a silent monster waiting to swallow her. She wanted Narayan to be at home, after all what`s point of toiling now? Weren’t the savings adequate? But Narayan had his own arguments. ‘People age faster you know if they sit idle at home! And if I can work, why not?’
One day he didn’t come back from work. He died from a massive heart attack, and as she stared at his ashen face, it seemed he had no pain at all. The doctor said, diabetics had silent heart attacks. Like as if he had gone out keeping the door ajar. And will knock the door when he comes back.
Debashis Deb, Kolkata.19th June 2013
The Baseball cap
The morning was bright and sunny; exactly the kind father was looking for after a weeklong rain. And on those days he became restless to go for his morning walks along the narrow boulevards and the concrete sidewalks along the canals early in the morning. He would sit in the park sometimes, look at the people vaguely, read his newspaper which he kept folded in his knapsack and come home back later. This was his routine, more or less, when he came to live with us, every June, once in a year. He sometimes carried his small notebook, a miniscule black machine, much smaller than the usual laptop, which now became tediously slow because he didn’t allow anybody to touch or format it lest his writing got moped up. Arjun would tease his grandfather ‘why can’t you throw it dadu? It’s awfully slow.’ But father would laugh it off. He liked his notebook and the long association between the two was too strong.
I remember the first time he visited our house at Oslo, the capital of Norway, where I started teaching at the University, a year after earning my PhD. It was about seven years ago. We lived in a rented house across the road. The house had a bright red roof and a nice small garden in front. Father would go to the market, buy some vegetables whatever caught his fancy, and some fish, mostly salmon and tuna, before coming home from his morning walk. Like his early morning visit to Lake market in Kolkata, and I knew this was just his routine, and it didn’t matter where he was.
Sohini took him to the mall and bought him some woolens. Oslo was near the Arctic Circle and the woolen he carried back from Kolkata wasn’t enough. A knee length thick overcoat and a deep brown baseball cap for his bald head were kept in my cupboard hung on a hanger in one corner beside mine. When he went back Kolkata, he didn’t take the woolens with him. Sohini tried to argue, but the old man reasoned, ‘what`s the point carrying it to Kolkata where I will never use them? Let it be here, because I will need those here only.’ That was obviously true, so the pair remained there till he visited us next year when it was brought out and sent for dry cleaning.
Suddenly I remembered today was June 14th, but father was not here, not with us. He had left us three months ago. The baseball cap and the overcoat were still hung there in the corner, dusty and faded, reminding us about him.
Chhou dance is a kind of dance of eastern India which is performed wearing a mask. Purulia, in West Bengal, Mayurbhanj, in Odisha and Seraikela in Jharkhand are three sub divisions of this great warrior dance form. Though ‘Vir ras’ is the predominant one in all the dance recitals, but with time Chhou now portray other ‘ ras’ as well. This dance needs great agility and fitness. Initially it was performed only by men, but now women are also allowed to take part in it. I suddenly took interest in it following a newspaper report and followed it up with Indrani Dutta Satpathy`s book called “Chhou”. This is a small story about an aspiring chhou dancer.
The Masked Dancer.
The boy was sad as nobody bothered to take him along. The group was to take the early morning train to the city and while waiting for the train they huddled around the tea-man and his stove in the platform. Cold wind blew from the west; the dry, yellow leaves screeched on the red earth haphazardly, then started flying like a pack of pigeons gyrating in red dust storm which gathered sudden speed and the wiped the faces of the people waiting for the train red. The chill tickled the ribs, then burrowed deeper into the marrow and set them quivering. Everybody wanted hot tea to warm them and gulped some more till the warmth dissipated and cleared the cloud from their head. The sky was grey; the morning mist made the earth soggy and turned the cool air into a diaphanous curtain which loomed like a veil over the foliage. It was second week of December, the yellow dry paddy fields had almost frozen, the toads had stopped croaking and the chilled serpents went deep down the cold earth, hibernating.
The boy stood beneath the mango tree at the chouraha, his eyes swollen, a steady stream of warm snot slithering down his nostrils touched his upper lip. The sharp white arrows of the winter pierced his ribs and face as he tried to shield himself in his old tattered woollen. His house was not far from the chouraha, in fact he could see the old frayed saffron flag tied at the bamboo pole in their yard fluttering in cold wind. The group consisted of five men and two women. They were chhou dancers. They were to perform in a folk-festival in the city. The boy was a mediocre dancer, and neither good at the Dhamsa, the kettle drum, nor at Muhuri, the wind instrument. In his village in Purulia, the boys learn to play the Dhamsa before they learn to speak. But he didn’t have the natural talent. You need to know everything from dancing to playing the instruments because depending on situation everybody has to do everything. So, Phanibhusan, the leader ignored him and selected Tarani, a twelve year old girl who could twirl like a dry leave caught in a winter whirlwind and jump like a reindeer in perfect cadence with whistling raindrops. The boy followed them, ambling aimlessly, expecting the sardar, the leader, to change his mind to take him in the last minute, while they loaded their boxes and baskets on the roof of the jeep which was to carry them to the rail station.
But they didn`t take him. The jeep left a cloud of red dust in the air which blocked it`s view for some time. The winding dirt track past the barren land and dry hillocks joined the highway and till then the jeep kept raising red gust as it meandered along. Once in the highway, the jeep accelerated and the old hinges and bearings cracked with sudden change of its habitual slow demeanour. Cold wind blew in through the window because the squinted glass didn`t go up entirely and they all shivered. Phanibhusan sat in the front seat, beside the driver and smoked beedi. It would take one hour to reach the rail station.
The old man yelled at the boy,’ why can`t you learn to play the dhamsa properly? How can you expect to be included in the group unless you are worth something?’ The old man was his grandfather. He was a gifted chhou dancer in his youth and had an able hand with the dhamsa too. The boy wiped his face with back of his hand, the running glob of phlegm shinned in his forearm. His mother said,’ forget about the chhou now. Go and milk the cow. What`s the point of wasting time in the morning?’ He didn`t want to answer them, he was angry, upset. He didn`t like Phanibhusan, the sardar of the chhou dancer group, because he had a foul mouth. Besides, Tarani had complained to him, Phanibhusan touched her breast deliberately while teaching her some moves, so he wanted to be around to keep an eye, but he could not utter all these to grandfather.
Yesterday, while coming back from training session Tarani told him that next day they were to leave early morning for the city. Phanibhusan watched them dancing throughout the day, but didn`t tell him to join the group. The boy knew it; to him it was a calculated attempt by Phanibhusan to keep him at a distance from Tarani. He tried to persuade Mani and Shankar, other two dancers, to suggest his name, but they came out to be a useless pair of obsequious morons, devoid of guts. Tarani, though excited to perform her first chhou in public, was worried about lecherous advances of Phanibhusan, and she didn`t hide it from him.
*** ****** ***** ***** ****** ******* ******* *****
His name was Sanatan, Sanatan Mahato. His father died when he was only a toddler and since then his maternal grandfather stayed with them. The old man helped running the household, blocked the hideous characters from stooping around the house because it was never easy for the widow, Sanatan`s young mother, to escape the amorous winks. During the day, the old man and the house dog always guarded the courtyard, the man on the charpai, the four legged coir bed, and the dog beneath, eyes drooping. Any unfamiliar face would make the dog bark and the old man yell. Sanatan went to village school though he didn`t like it much. He wanted to be a chhou dancer like his grandfather and dance with Tarani. His specially liked the Rashleela, a ballad of love of Lord Krishna and Radha, his beau. His mother made beautiful masks which his father used to wear during his chhou performances. His mother often said how good a dancer he was, her eyes sparkled in awe and veneration as if his father was performing a nataraj dance in front of them.
While the group was arranging their luggage, Sanatan peeped through the window. Tarani was sitting in the corner of the rear seat, shivering in her worn out cardigan like a wet sparrow. Her braided hair was tied in scarlet ribbons and appeared like two bright roses on her tender bosom. She looked unsettled, distressed when she came to know that Sanatan was not coming with them. She pleaded Shankar to let her go. Shankar fobbed her off; it was not possible to get a replacement at the eleventh hour. The other woman in the group was Rashmoni, Phanibhusan`s second wife, who was not a dancer. She actually managed non dancing activities and occasionally played the dhamsa. Rashmoni came closer, wrapped her with the long end of her chador, the woollen cloth, and hugged her affectionately. ‘Don`t worry, we are all with you. Tell me if you have any problem.’
They had to wait two hours more as the train was late. They seeped hot tea to kill time and warm them up. They boarded the unreserved compartment and stacked their luggage at one corner of the corridor near the toilet. The compartment was already overcrowded, no vacant seats was to be seen; so they had to sit on their luggage. The train chugged out in a minute and soon they crossed the familiar landmarks of the village, the rail gate, and the red brick signal cabin and lastly the dusty patch of land where the weekly haat, market, was held. Tarani watched everything in admiration; this was her first rail ride.
She dreamt about their recital sometimes, her and Sanatan dancing together, in one of the episodes of war between Ram and Meghnad. Sanatan loved this one because he enacted the role of Ram, brandished the bow and arrow and tormented Meghnad, the great demon warrior. Tarani played the role of Meghnad and disappeared behind clouds only to reappear somewhere else and frequently altered her appearance to confuse the King of Ayodhya. She could make out his joy by looking at his eyes which glimmered through the holes dig in the huge mask which otherwise restrained all emotions. Now it was going to happen; the thought itself made her heart pulsating faster. But Sanatan wasn`t there. She `d have been so happy if the scrawny lad was around. She loved his admiring eyes, his energetic claps and applauses mimicking the Ravan.
In the evening, before the show was about to start, Phanibhusan came into the room where Tarani was getting ready. Rashmoni helped her to wear the dress, tie the long ropes of the huge mask. Shankar played the role of Ram and he stood in the corner wearing a silk loin cloth which was dyed black and yellow to look like a tiger skin. Cheap talcum powder sprinkled ad lib on his bare chest transformed dark skinned Shankar into a divine Ram. He too had his mask fitted and was shivering in the cold dank class room which was their night shelter as well as green room. A pandal was erected with tarpaulin on few bamboo poles and a narrow corridor connected the arena with the green room. Phanibhusan smelled alcohol when he came near and his mellowed eyes had wolfish cruelty which was hidden behind his pan smeared mouth frothy with red stains. He stroked Tarani`s chin and whispered something into her ears but Tarani shirked him. Rashmoni laughed at her, her laughter sounded vacillating and scandalous in the same time. The girl became startled and worried because something told her she needed to remain careful.
The show continued for three hours and when it finished, Tarani was drenched, exhausted, but pleased too. She danced almost nonstop as possessed and every time she took an exit after a recital, people clapped vigorously. She danced like the gorgeous deer; her feet almost not touching the floor, and people were awestruck by the grace and poise of her movements. They had never seen such a performance for a long time. Back in the green room, Rashmoni eased her by untying the mask and other trinkets and accessories and gave her a glass of water. She drank the full glass like a drought dry peacock and sat in a corner panting. Phanibhusan came back with few plastic packets and two old coco cola bottles filled with water. They sat together and ate their dinner of roti, vegetables and chicken curry. Few young men, probably the officials of the local club came with few blankets and grinned at them. One of them said, ‘it was a wonderful show. People were very happy. Hope your company will get invitation next year also.’ Phanibhusan folded his hands, brought his most innocuous smile and bowed. One of the men tried to eye Tarani, but she kept looking down at her feet which ached from three hours non-stop dance.
They slept on the floor of the classroom; five men in one and two women in another. Rashmoni slept fast covering her face in quilt and soon started snoring. Tarani couldn`t sleep, her body was tired but the mind was not. She thought about Sanatan, their village, their practice recitals and the deafening sounds of claps of the people who watched her performance. Sanatan would have been very delighted but he wasn`t there. Tarani thought if she could have talked to him now, tell him how people liked her first performance. How she danced her heart out without any mistake, and how good she felt. How thrilling it would be to celebrate with him somewhere with no people prying on them. But she was all alone in the dark room, and the eerie, silent, darkness made her sad. Few fireflies had entered inside the room and they swam piercing the obscurity in the cold gloomy air from one side to the other. They banged themselves against the window, reverberated, ricocheted as if they wanted to get out of this stuffy space but wasn`t able to find their way. She followed the fireflies for sometimes until her eyes grew tired and suddenly the door opened.
A spectral outline came inside and closed the door behind. Tarani knew it was none other than Phanibhusan. Rashmoni was sleeping like a log; she pinched her repeatedly but Rashmoni didn`t show any sign of wakening. The ghostly silhouette came closer and closer and Tarani shut her eyes when she smelled pan and alcohol together. Phanibhusan came near and sat beside the bed. He appeared like a wolf about to pound upon its prey. Tarani searched her tied hair bun in the dark and found the only weapon for self-defence, the hairpin. She held the hairpin in her fist, the open end free and ready to hit anybody who would try to get closer. She kept her eyes shut as she resolved to fight back. She called her God to give her strength and stand by her. As if she was enacting a battle scene in chhou and waiting for an opportune moment to attack the enemy like a masked chhou dancer dangling a glinting sword in hand, she gnashed her teeth but didn’t move an inch and neither made any sound. Though her soul was tormented, her blood was fuming; she lay expressionless in the dark like a chhou dancer wearing a mask.
24th January 2013.