When Sara woke up that rainy morning, she felt her suffocating memory limp across her frail frame with the mountainous weight of forty-three years. Forty-three years, five months, and two days to be exact. While rays of the muffled dawn peeped through the windows, she felt an odd sense of discomfort pervading her wakefulness.
The slanting rains knocked on the windowpanes, sheet after sheet, and she felt thick and scattered drops of coagulated memories ooze out, soaking her inside. From Dacca (Dhaka), where she was born, to Patna, where she now lived, she had traversed an arduous arch. This included her childhood that was perfect like a fairy tale, her youth that was sensuous and beautiful like a spring and now her widowhood that was unhurried, tepid, dull and disintegrating like a river’s delta.
She wallowed on the bed for a little while, from pillow to pillow in the ocean of the bedsheet’s crumples—each crumple, once a shoreline of ardent passion, a morning kiss or a shared scuffle, now sunk in an obscure past. She felt an unbearable itch somewhere in her body. Of course, she had felt the same a few times before, but that was nothing as compared to the tickle and the urge she felt today. She had another troubled night. Once again the double bed seemed too large to her. Ever since her husband Moti had expired succumbing to a stroke, leaving her a widow with two kids, the extra space on the bed irritated her in its futile emptiness. She knew she never would share it with another man. Fate had driven off her moments of pleasure into the azure void, locked inside a coffin of infinite oblivion, the coffin nailed forever.
Stretching her limbs in a yawn, she rolled out of the bed. Collecting her flowing jet-black hair in a fist, she rounded them in a bun. She straightened her sari at places where it had got crumpled. She tottered into the bathroom and growled dozily at her sons. They had forgotten to turn off the dripping faucet tightly. While brushing her teeth, she scanned her face in the bathroom mirror illuminated by a sleepy yellow light. Her facial skin had mellowed. She tried to run her slender fingers over the imaginary wrinkles that would crease her face. She thought that it would not be long before they would blotch her face making the edges of the epidermis appear to hang loose. The oval shape of her face was intact. She marveled her wisdom of using peels of orange, multani sand cakes and domestic butter that she had been applying on her face for years. Her hair was long and strong thanks to the use of henna, beaten chicken-eggs and yogurt over the years. Recently, she had started to dye them. It helped dab the flecks of white strands that had mischievously started appearing in her mane.
Ever since she had become a widow, her life became pointless, like an abandoned spaceship in the vastness of the outer space. There was hardly anything exciting happening in her life. Her two sons had grown up and were now in college. They were so busy in their own lives that they hardly cared about her. Monu, her elder son, was always stuck to the video screen in his room watching God-knows-what-kind-of-videos. Sonu was busy with his computers and girlfriends. She lived like a stranger in her own house, resigned to her widowhood, letting the days and nights pass her by unobtrusively. She was like a top, spinning, without a master to pick it up when it stopped its dance and fell askance on the ground.
Her loneliness had given her ample time to turn her attention to cooking and herbal cosmetics. After all, a woman needed an occupation if she had no other worries in life. Moreover, she was not much of a socialite given to the evils of socializing with other housewives who indulged themselves in useless gossip. Her life revolved around her two sons and her sister, Tara, in Kushtia, Bangladesh who visited her once every year. She loved cooking for them and for herself. She tried out different recipes that she learnt through magazines or TV cookery shows.
Her life had been materially comfortable even after the death of her husband. Moti was a rich businessman who traded in hemp and jute. He had left her a small fortune in the bank in addition to a big house to live in and a multistory building in downtown Patna. The interest from the money in the bank was enough to meet the household expenses. The rent from the multistory building was much more than she could spend every month. That took care of her sons’ whimsical demands and expensive habits.
That morning, her two sons were still asleep. The doors of their rooms were shut from inside. Usually they went to bed late in the night after they were tired of their electronic indulgences. She fluttered into the kitchen with her flip-flops on. She put water and milk in a saucepan on the gas stove to boil. She fixed the stove’s regulator at the minimum and looked out the window. She was amused to see the papaya and banana leaves dancing with the rains in her kitchen garden. They looked cleanest in their greenery and pure and ecstatic in their movements. The rains washed the blossoms of the papaya tree as if caressing the newborns in their nest and welcoming them on their arrival into the world. The rose shrubs and the ten o’clocks took the big fat drops like a newly wed bride, stiff and blushing. She felt like joining them in the rain. Rains fascinated Sara in an unusual way. When it rained, her memories came bubbling forth, like tea in a saucepan…
…It had been raining for the last two days, incessantly in Liliguri. It was one of those Bengal’s jhatkis, when it rained with a western or eastern slant for days or weeks together without a break. On such days, markets hardly operated. People had enough vegetables and rice in store. Even if they ran out of the supplies, they could scurry under an umbrella to the local baniya for rice and salt or the green grocer for fresh vegetables. The menfolk would shun work and business till the rains stopped. The children would not go to schools. Either they would catch fish in the streets or this would be story time for them when they could pester their fathers and uncles and grandpas for more and more tales. The womenfolk would be happy to have their sons and husbands at home for whole days. The moist wood would sulk before igniting into flames in the chulhas (earthen stoves), irritating mothers and wives. Finally kerosene would help and cauldrons would go on the chulhas and tasty yellow broth would be prepared for the whole family. Women would serve the steaming broth to their sons and husbands with clinking bangles and suppressed smiles. The men would go gaga over the food for their mothers and wives, stuffing large quantities of broth into their tummies with the help of papad and pickles and sometimes shikma, the delicious meat dish made of goat’s tripe.
…So, it had been raining for the last two days, incessantly. A huge upsurge of water unpealed from the Brahamputra, brushing aside everything that fell in its way. The radio reports and the gossip revealed that there had been a sudden natural event that caused a mudslide or landslide, blocking the Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known, somewhere in Tibet. A massive burst of millions of tons of water was burying valleys and settlements, and destroying roads and bridges. In Assam and other northeastern regions, water rose not less than the height of a five-story building.
In Liliguri, the streets were full of water, somewhere ankle-deep and somewhere knee-deep. The Teesta, an offshoot of the Brahamputra, flew like a monster nearby, its belly bulging with gushing muddy water. Every hour or so the news came of its increasing bulge, about to cross its dangerous mark. The sky was full of crackling lightning that shook the air with fury. A trembling Sara sat in her room waiting for her groom. How unfortunate it was that her wedding day had fallen victim to the unannounced rains! Was it due to the curse of the milkpot with the burnt layers of cream that she used to scrape off with a spoon and eat despite being warned by her grandma? Her grandma used to tell her that eating burnt layers of cream from the milkpot would ensure rains on her wedding day. A scared Sara cried silently on her bed, her body embalmed with turmeric, and worried about her groom who must be on his way with the baraat. Sara had given up hope on the romantic side of her wedding, which looked more like a funeral than a marriage.
Her brooding excitement culminated in final disappointment when she heard the news of the groom’s arrival. To make the wedding most lacklustre, the groom’s party was of just two persons: the groom himself and his elder brother. The explanation soon followed. The beautiful, swaying bamboo bridges built over the Teesta with traditional skill by the locals had been washed out by the flood. The groom’s party could not cross the river and therefore all of them backtracked. When the marriage ceremony was conducted amid the thunderclaps, Sara could hardly hear the holy words from the qazi’s mouth. She uttered the necessary “nodding” words only when her aunts or her cousins nudged her by their elbows.
Moti, the groom, remained lodged at Sara’s house till the rains stopped. And when the showers ended, almost a week had passed. Both Moti and Sara tick-tocked at their fate for such an unromantic wedding. Later, Moti compensated their pallid wedding with a month-long honeymoon in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Shellong and Sikkim…
A sparrow hopped on the kitchen’s ventilation, bringing her nostalgia to an end. She noticed that the water in the saucepan was boiling with a hiss. She added the fat grains of Assam tea into the heaving mixture of milk and water. The liquid came frothing at the top. Sara stirred the froths with a teaspoon, and when the raging bubbles subsided, she added heaps of sugar into the liquid.
Mamoon finished sipping tea from an earthen cup. He threw it out the train’s window. He could not hear the sound of the cup’s thrashing fall on the earth as rains suppressed all sounds. A few drops of rain flew in as he closed the windowpane. Patna railway station was just minutes away, as he could guess from the wide-eyed excitement of his fellow passengers. The train hurried through rows of poorly built buildings and sackcloth shacks, the rows fractured by trees and flanked by monstrous heaps of rubbish and open sewers. Mamoon was a little nervous, as this was his first visit to Patna, the capital of Bihar. Cursing the weather, he collected his luggage and moved towards the door to avoid being crushed by the flood of enthusiastic alighters. While the train neared the station plodding through the drizzle, his heart fluttered with excitement.
He was eighteen, and fresh out of higher secondary school. He was going to Patna to stay with his aunt Sara where he intended to undertake further studies and also prepare for the medical entrance examination. He knew that he was not a brilliant student but he was confident about himself. After all, he had to win the hearts of Heena’s parents. Heena was his cousin with whom he was in love. Though he had not declared it to her, it had become his heart’s resolve. He knew that the best way to impress her parents was to get an MBBS degree. In Harishchandpur, his hometown, becoming a doctor or an engineer was the passport to material and marital success. He knew that nobody would refuse in marriage the hand of his daughter to a doctor.
When he got down at the Patna Railway Station, it was quite late in the night. Morning was still a few hours away. His father had advised him not to leave the railway station before dawn. Patna was notorious for its motley gang of criminals–gun-wielding murderers, knife-holding money-snatchers, kidnappers, thugs, luggage-lifters, and pimps. Respecting his father’s wisdom, he decided to stay overnight at the station.
It was not a very crowded place at this hour, but platforms were full of sleeping human bodies: bodies of men, women and children, some covered with bedsheets, lying on spreads of newspapers or torn bedspreads. Their luggage was heaped here and there, haphazardly, like small mounds of refuse. When he looked inside the second class waiting room, the sight repelled him. The hall with dilapidated furniture overspilled with human bodies. Some of them were asleep on chairs and benches. The rest had captured the floor with as much avarice as can only be seen on India’s railway platforms.
Feeling a little cold, he went over to a tea-stall. He had a cup of tea and some cheap biscuits. The warmth of the tea calmed down his anxiety. The showers had clamped an eerie stillness over the station, which in daytime must be bustling with life and exploding with walking human bodies. At this unearthly hour, only a few tired travelers, sleepy coolies and harassed hawkers moved around on the platforms, making the scene slightly livelier. The occasional arrival and departure of trains and their mammoth weight clinking against the railway tracks filled the place with a feral sobriety.
To fight boredom and the attacking bouts of sleep, he bought a cigarette from a depressed looking hawker. Though he was not a smoker by habit, he smoked to celebrate his freedom–freedom from the shackles of parental restrictions. The stick tasted damp because of the rains and its freshness was gone. It could well have been a fake ‘branded’ cigarette. Mamoon did not mind this. He was too glad about his new status of being free to bother about a damp cigarette.
He picked up a slim tourist guidebook from the newspaper vendor’s trolley. Its cover was red, and Patna was printed in yellow capital letters in bold face at the centre of the cover. The inside pages were cheap newsprint. The booklet provided all the information about Patna, from the description of area and districts to the history of the city and its monuments. Even a map of the city was attached to the booklet laid inside the covers folded in four parts. It was priced for twenty-five rupees. Not much, he thought. He bought the booklet and went over to a corner of the platform which was well lit. He started reading the first page of the booklet:
Patna: Ancient Pataliputra, capital of Bihar state, northern India. It lies about 290 miles (470 km) northwest of Calcutta. Pataliputra was founded in the 5th century BC by Ajatasatru, king of Magadha (South Bihar). His son Udaya (Udayin) made it the capital of Magadha, which it remained until the 1st century BC. The second Magadha dynasty, the Maurya, ruled in the 3rd and early 2nd centuries BC until the city was sacked in 185 by Indo-Greeks. The Sunga dynasty then began, ruling until about 73 BC. Pataliputra remained a centre of learning and in the 4th century AD became the Gupta capital. It declined and was deserted by the 7th century. The city was refounded as Patna by an Afghan ruler in 1541 and again rose to prosperity under the Mughal Empire. It passed to the British in 1765. Extensive archaeological excavations have been made in the vicinity.
Patna is a riverside city that extends along the south bank of the Ganges River for about 12 miles (19 km). West of the old city lies the section called Bankipur, and farther southwest is a spacious new capital area with wide roads, shady avenues, and new buildings. Prominent among Patna’s modern structures are the Government House, the Assembly Chambers, the Oriental Library, a medical college, and an engineering college. Patna’s historic monuments include the mosque of Husayn Shah of Bengal (1499); the Sikh Temple associated with the 10th Guru, Govinda Singh; and the granary at Bankipur (1786), popularly called the Golghar. The city also has the University of Patna (1917) and the Patna Museum….
It had stopped raining when Mamoon reached his aunt’s place. He had taken an autorickshaw from the station. As the roads were less crowded in the early hours of the day, it took him a little over half an hour to reach his destination. On the way he tried to figure out the monuments his eyes fell on, but he could not recognize any. It would take time to visit all the important monuments of Patna, he thought. His attention was largely claimed by the noise of the vehicle that seemed to compete with the noise created by other vehicles. The rickshaw crept on through a succession of ordinary looking shops and buildings till it reached “Moti Mahal,” his destination.
Sara welcomed him like a son, with hugging and all, and gave him hot coffee to drink along with bread and omelet. Since he was very tired and reeling with sleepiness after the journey and the wait at the station, he went to bed immediately. By the time Sara woke him up, it was noon and Sonu and Monu had gone out.
The house was spacious. The room that had been given to Mamoon to stay was attached to the drawing room. An old cot already filled a corner of the room. The cupboard was empty, ready to welcome Mamoon’s stuff. He guessed that his aunt had got the room cleaned for his stay. He smiled at the preparedness of the room. He unpacked his suitcase and took his towel out. He went into the bathroom. He liked it a lot since it was different from the one in his own house. It had beautiful tiles on the floor and the wall. There was a shower-head which sent jets of water down like rainfall. This was something new for him. A clean and sparkling white washbasin stood on one side. The mirror on the wall was broad like the big ones he had seen in hair-cutting saloons. He peered into the mirror. He saw happiness in his eyes and a smile shimmered on his lips. Seeing himself smiling, his smile deepened. He could see his dimpled handsomeness. He put his dresses on the aluminum bar, and naked he stood under the shower. His body shivered when jets of water attacked his skin all at once with full thrust…
…A little Mamoon is running after a little Heena, who like a deer, is sprinting in front of him, splashing water and mud in the rains in the streets of his village. Their run is unhindered by the occasional thunderclaps, and the only sound he can hear is the squelching of their plastic sandals. There are other kids playing around them but he does not notice them. The distance between him and her closes step by step till he catches her by her ponytail and they both fall down in the muddy water…a big splash in the street…they both laugh at the game…other children around them also laugh with them, clapping and kicking at the flowing water, accompanied with the rain’s pitter patter…
He came out of the bathroom fresh and clean. He smelled of lime as he had used the Liril soap bar. He wore a fresh pair of trousers and a T-shirt. While he was combing his hair, a maidservant came to call him for lunch.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Boomba,” she said with downcast eyes. She was wearing a red terry-cot dress that had shrunken frills.
“Well, Boomba, tell Aunty that I am coming in a minute.”
The girl disappeared from the door. Boomba was a thin figure of twelve or thirteen, who used her dark Bengali eyes rather than her tongue for communication.
This was the first time he was to have lunch on a dining table. At his home, it was on a cot or a mat that the entire family would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chairs and tables were used for study at school. At home, he would sit in the verandah on a mat and do his homework.
“You must be very hungry Mamoon,” his aunt said.
Was that a question? He did not know if he should give an answer but he was damn hungry.
“Yes, a little,” he said shyly, pulling the china plate towards himself that was heaped with steaming rice, lentils and vegetables. He could not wait to put the first morsel in his mouth, but he was conscious of his aunt’s peering eyes.
“Eat as much as you desire,” she said with a smile. “You don’t have to be shy here.”
And while he ate his food, his aunt told her very comforting things: “Don’t think that you are not in your own house; feel at home; if you need anything, just let me know, you will get it; don’t worry about anything…”
While she spoke, Mamoon heard her words with an attention that he had so far reserved for his teachers. His eyes were focused on her aunt and his ears were taking in all the words she spoke. It was at this moment that he realized something. He realized that his aunt, despite her age and despite being a widow, was beautiful. His eyes narrowed down on different parts of her face while her voice seemed to become more and more inaudible till it seemed to come through a well, weak and faint, with an echo effect. Her eyebrows were thin and tout. Her eyes were large, big and bright like the eyes of the Durga idol that he had seen in Durga Puja pandals. Her eyelids were slightly droopy, giving her face a patrician look. She had a short, straight nose, which balanced her little protruding chin on an oval face. Her lips were pinkish and they still possessed the stoutness of youth. Her mane was profuse and shining. The sari with light prints draped around her body gave away the fact that she was slim like a girl in her twenties.
Something stirred inside him. What was it? Was it a sense of admiration that he felt for his aunt who had maintained her physical beauty? Or was it something else? Tauba, tauba, he silently said to himself, trying to restrain his inappropriate thoughts.
The freshness she exuded was that of an oasis despite the barrenness in her life. He felt the need to express his admiration for her, but apprehending miscommunication he deferred it till his acquaintance grew up to a level of mature understanding. After all she was his aunt. There could only be a relationship of respect between him and his aunt.
A few months passed by. Patna was no more a strange city for Mamoon. He had taken admission in a college and had also joined medical coaching classes. He had seen many monuments of Patna. He loved the view of the city from atop the Golghar. While he climbed the stairs of the great granary, he felt a very strong sensation in his feet due to his bathmophobia and acrophobia. But once he reached the roof of the monument, he felt a surge of joy sweeping his heart. He also loved at times loitering around the sprawling Gandhi Maidan.
Sonu and Monu had become friendly with him. They had given him a day’s ride in their Maruti 800 showing him around. He liked the shine and the smoothness of the Bailey Road, which was a contrast to other potholed roads in the city. He liked the structure of the Biskoman Bhavan and admired the entrance of the St. Xavier’s School. He loved taking a stroll in the Sanjay Gandhi Park and wondered at the splendour of the displayed items at the Patna Museum.
But he was the happiest when his aunt asked him to accompany her to the market. This would be at least twice a week. They would both sit in the back seat of the car and the driver would take them to various markets. She would ask him about his studies. He would tell her how he was enjoying his coaching classes. He would regale her with little jokes about his friends in college or in the coaching institute. He would notice that his aunt overflowed with happiness while shopping with him and bargaining for different products. Then she would not be as demure as she used to be at home. Sometimes she would buy fruits based on Mamoon’s choice. Sometimes she would insist on buying a shirt or a pair of trousers for him. She seldom bought vegetables, as that was the duty of Boomba. Vegetable sellers would often come to the house with baskets full of fresh vegetables.
He would see Sonu and Monu on the dining table at breakfast and dinner. Both of them looked lost and sleepy most of the time. They did not converse much with their mother who pampered them silly with different kinds of dishes. All the time they looked sluggish and haggard as if they were under some exertion. He never saw them saying a good word to their mother for the delicious puddings or the palatable kheer or the fingerlicking pulav and chicken curry that she prepared for them. He freaked on the moori ghonto that his aunt prepared sometimes. Unlike his cousins, he always praised his aunt for her culinary expertise. When he would see his aunt bent over the stove for hours, he would help her like an assistant and ask Boomba to do something else. She would shove spoonfuls of the dish in his mouth and ask him to taste and tell her how it was. Delightfully he would try each morsel and give out a favourable verdict. Sonu and Monu hardly interacted with Mamoon on a regular basis except when Monu needed his help to fetch him the porn videos from the local video rental shop.
It was usually Sara who would talk to him. She would often come into his room. She liked his room, which was not disheveled like the room of her sons. If she found things out of place, she fixed them. She would pull the bedcover from the four corners and make it smooth and wrinklefree. She would beat the pillows into crisp rectangles. She would examine the walls for cobwebs. If she noticed any cobwebs, she would order Boomba to clear them right away.
He had put up a poster of human anatomy and physiology on the wall, and Sara used to laugh at the poster.
“Why do you laugh at the poster? It is the inside figure of the human body.”
“Isn’t it comical?” Sara would say and giggle like a girl.
Mamoon would find her room’s door ajar when he came back from his classes. He would peep through the crack to see her sitting before the dressing table, clean and dressed up. He would walk in and the sweet smell of sandal talc would meet his nostrils. She would see his image in the mirror, and without turning towards him, would smile at him.
“Have you ever felt the quiet of being lonely?” she would ask him sometimes, with that philosopher’s vacuity in her eyes.
He would nod negatively, dismayed. He had not seen much of life yet, so how would he know?
“It is like a mountain crashing down on you, with a deafening stillness,” she would say with the calm look of a wise person.
To him, she looked the saddest when she said that.
He would sit on the bedstead, near the dressing table, with legs apart. He would look at the various framed photographs on the wall: midshots of his uncle and aunt, standing close by; the couple with the background of Kanchenjunga; many family photographs with studio scenarios in the backdrop, Monu and Sonu in their mother’s lap or standing by their side. All black and white images. Happy images. But now they had started to fade like all old photographs do. Each day he found them looking more and more ancient. Sometimes, he would pick up the thick album from the side table and leaf through it. If a photo caught his fancy, he would ask his aunt about it. She would let him know the details of the photo like how and when it was taken.
“You know one thing I like about you?” she asked him once with her raised eyebrows.
“What’s that?” he said, anticipating a huge compliment.
“It is the way you sit on the bed. Just like your uncle,” she said admiringly.
“And what else?” he prodded her further. “What else do you like about me?”
“The way you smile—your uncle too had dimples on his cheeks when he smiled.” Her eyes were twinkling.
He smiled shyly, his dimples going deeper and deeper with a roseate hue. Sara laughed and pinched his cheeks. The mirror his aunt sat before glowed blindingly.
She would often ask Boomba to bring tea to them in his room. Alternatively, for a change, sometimes, she would take him to the balcony for the evening tea. With a dainty touch of intimacy, she would pour the tea into his cup. She would ask him about his friends. To satisfy her, he would give her detailed accounts of the antics of his friends in the class. She would be amused hearing all these and would laugh gently, with an infusion of romanticism. On some evenings when she would be in a somber mood, she would tell him about her childhood in Dacca and the fun she had with her cousins there. He would see the glint in her eyes when she talked about her past. Once she told him about her marriage and the rains and she broke into tears. That evening he felt that her aunt was leading a life of emotional emptiness. That day he realized that beneath her cheerfulness lurked a sad soul that yearned for human bonding. Her sons had denied her that bonding, that intimate care. He felt that probably he could offer himself as a prop to her and she could hold on to him as long as he was around. At least that much he could do in lieu of her love and hospitality, he thought.
He felt a strong fascination for his aunt especially after she cured him of a malarial attack. For more than a week, he was in bed under quilts, shivering, fighting off the fever. It was such a severe attack that he had no memories of anything but of Sara whose face he always found near his own whenever he came to his senses. He could feel her touch on his body, which he found both comforting and sensual. After this episode, he found himself in the middle of a curious affair. They shared close intimacies, but not quite like a married couple. Now he knew almost everything about her. For example, he knew what clothes she owned and she would seek his help in selecting a dress before going out. He knew that her underwear dried on a line in her bedroom. He knew what brands of cosmetics she used and where she hid her sanitary pads.
The day he got well, she came to him in a special dress. It was a red Chinese dress, a body hugging cheongsam, that Moti had bought her when they had gone to Darjeeling on their honeymoon. It was high-necked and had short sleeves. It fitted smoothly on her lithe figure. He could hear the silk rustle when she made little movements like a delicate oriental woman.
She looked very charming in this red dress like a young rose bud. That day she had applied kohl in her eyes and her cheeks glistened with redness.
“How do I look in this dress, Mamoon?” She was in a mood to tease.
“Like a young girl in her teens,” he answered with a shameless grin.
“Huh, you liar,” she said coyly, disheveling his combed hairs.
But Mamoon’s compliment had an effect. Sara blushed for a moment as if not knowing what to do or say next. The confusion made her put her cherry-like lips on Mammon’s forehead, making him delirious with joy. His cheeks grew hot feverishly.
“Aunty, I am in love,” Mamoon confessed to Sara one evening over tea.
“I knew it, shaitan,” she asked him twisting his ears, “You had told me about Heena, hadn’t you?”
“No. Not her. I think I just liked her.”
“Then what? Somebody new? What’s this new wickedness!”
“I’ll tell you but first you promise that you won’t thrash me,” Mamoon asked her in turn. Sara laughed clapping and throwing her head back.
“C’mon! Tell me my little man, I won’t harm you,” she assured him.
“A pretty girl in my coaching class.”
For a moment Sara’s face turned serious. But soon she gained composure, and laughed like a mad woman, clapping. Nervously, he too laughed with her like an idiot, without knowing why.
“But why are you telling me this?” Sara said amid peals of laughter. “Go and tell it to that girl. Express yourself. Express your love to Khushi.”
“That’s where I need your help my dear aunt,” he said with a pleading face.
Sara drew a deep breath and said a contemplative, “Hmm…”
With that little confession, the relationship between the two took a new turn. Now Sara became the teacher and he, her disciple. She taught him ways to win Khushi’s heart. And according to her world of knowledge, this was to be a slow process. One little step everyday. That was the formula. Every evening he brought back some information about Khushi which he shared with Sara and they both analyzed it over a cup of tea. He blindly followed Sara’s advice and day by day he found some progress in his journey of securing the heart of his happiness—Khushi.
One day when he returned from his coaching classes, he found his aunt trying out a new recipe in the kitchen. She was humming a tune to herself. When she saw him, she wiped the sweat from her brows by the hem of her sari and quite excitedly showed him an aerogram. It had come from Kushtia, Bangladesh. It said that her sister, Tara, was coming over to Patna in the summers. He saw waves of euphoria frothing in her eyes while she read out the news to him.
With the onset of the summers the Kushtia family came. Sara’s wait was finally over. Tara was a little plump and was in the middle of her life, just past her prime. Her husband was a professor of management at Kushtia Islamic University. He had not accompanied his wife and daughter to Patna as he had some research work to undertake back at home. For Mamoon, the most interesting thing in the whole package was Tara’s daughter, Laila.
Laila, a high school student, was in her late teens and was the epitome of the breathtaking Bengali beauty. Her skin was sallow enough to cause tremors in the nervous system of the beholder. Her long hair, big eyes, perfectly tipped nose and rosy lips—neither thick nor slender—created a delicious sight. Her tall figure gave her the looks of a Bengali model. She hardly understood Hindi and spoke Bengali with a fluency that made it difficult for Mamoon to follow most of her sentences. But he gaped at her like an enchanted langoor when she spoke.
It didn’t take much time before Mamoon befriended the Kushtia family. Tara had a decent knowledge of spoken Hindi and had a good sense of humour. She paired off well with Mamoon. They played cards and carom together. On their outings, he was a preferred guide instead of Sonu and Monu, who were showing a lot of interest in their cousin, Laila. Inversely, Laila rebuffed their intimacies and advances. Snubbed, the two angry young men went out of the house on a trekking expedition—to cool their heels.
One night when the power was cut off, all four of them—Mamoon, Sara, Tara and Laila—decided to sleep on the rooftop. Mamoon felt a unique sensation just thinking of the idea of sleeping on the roof with three ladies. Mattresses were laid on the roof at a certain distance of each other. The moon was in full bloom and its milky whiteness drenched the whole atmosphere in an eerie, impossible romanticism.
On the roof, a gentle breeze was blowing as if attempting to dry off the sweat of their bodies. A tube of Odomas was shared to ward off the dreadful mosquitoes of Patna. These mosquitoes were notorious for their thick bodies and sharp proboscis. Mamoon noticed that Laila was constantly looking into his direction while she rubbed the ointment on her slim hands and dainty feet. He could feel the piercing heat in her glance. Sara and Tara were singing a Bengali song whose rhythm sounded sadder than the situation demanded.
He laid himself down on the mattress. His vest was moist with sweat and he could smell the odour of his own body. He stared at the moon and he felt Khushi was looking down at him from there. Her face covered the moon and she seemed to wave at him. He flew a kiss in her direction. As his thoughts drifted aimlessly, he looked around the moon and wondered at the disorderly scattering of the stars. Turning philosophical, he thought: was there some hidden meaning in this disorder? Was Allah trying to give us some message through this? From the corner of an eye, he caught a glimpse of a shooting star, and prayed for his love, Khushi.
As the musty summer night kept on slithering like the sluggish body of an anaconda, the four of them tried hard to fall asleep. The two sisters were still humming a Bengali strain, in their attempt to entice sleep. Somewhere in the neighbourhood, a Hindi film song was playing on the radio:
Man kyon behka re behka aadhi raat ko
Bela mehka re mehka aadhi raat ko
[Why does the heart stray in the middle of the night?
The Bela (a flower) parts with its smell in the middle of the night]
After a while, the humming stopped, paving the way for snores. Mamoon closed his eyes and tried to sleep. The whine of the mosquitoes was too audible. He peeped into the vacuum of his mind. It seemed empty, so empty that it was mildly hurting. His eyelids were shut and he could feel their weight on his face. He could hear the rumbles in his stomach, the guttural music of his intestines. Now and then the breeze brought the faint barks of dogs. Like a natural cliche, the night was filled with the chirps of the crickets.
The image of Khushi appeared again. Her face nestled in soft curls, scattered here and wadded together there. She was smiling at him with those fissures on her full, parched lips. When Mamoon had first seen her in the classroom…their eyes had met smilingly near the water cooler…more smiles were exchanged during the classes…they competed with each other to answer the questions of the teacher…in the recess they shared their numerical problems and much more…all those images reeled before his eyes while his eyelids were shut putting their weight on his face.
“Mamoon, are you asleep?” a whisper broke his laboured contemplation.
He woke up with a start. It was Laila. She was sitting on her haunches near his head.
“What’s the matter, Laila?”
“I’m not able to sleep,” she said with a groan. Her hair was falling over her face and the breeze seemed to caress them. A few strands of her hair brushed against the tip of his nose, teasing his nerves.
She looked like a goddess beseeching him to help her out. Her husky voice flushed his ennui away.
“In that case,”he whispered jokingly, “take a walk on this roof or sit on the banister awhile or try to count the stars. That should cure your sleeplessness”.
“Ekdum pagol achhe,” she said and laughed softly. Her dusky skin glistened with exoticness in the starlit night.
“I have got another idea,” she said with a kiss and a wink. The wink was so clear that he could not confuse it with an illusion of dream-laden eyes.
She ran downstairs and he followed her, his heart choking his throat like a fist. Despite the semi-darkness, he knew the house too well. He knew exactly where the stairs started, where they curved around, where the banisters stood and where it tapered off into the stairwell. He knew the breadth of the doorways and the stretch of the walls and the corridor. When her hands finally engulfed him, for the first time in his life, he touched a female body so closely, skin to skin, heartbeat to heartbeat, and got to know how graceful and beautiful it could be. Her passion, the different aromas and tastes of her mouth and body, mixed with the odour of Odomas, the hungry sounds she made, demolished the boundaries of right and wrong for him. He felt every pore of her skin, touched every part and every curve of her body in the darkness spread over them as a coverlet. He was an intrepid explorer, as he knew it had to end. It was better that way because it had to end. It was a matter of only a few days and they would part ways. In his heart and soul, Khushi was still his destiny.
The sun had gone into hiding as the monsoon clouds covered the sky of Patna like heavy and puffed swabs of cotton, dripped in a well of violet-black ink. It seemed they would burst forth any moment and their fat drops would beat drums on the tin roofs of the poor.
The birds were singing in the kitchen garden as if to felicitate Sara. This was a very special day for her. Today was her birthday and Mamoon was to give her a surprise gift in the evening. In fact, only he had remembered this day and had wished her first thing in the morning. She was not able to contain her joy, which manifested itself in everything she was doing today. She had a spring in her walk. Her eyes had a gleam in them.
Preparations for the evening had started in the morning itself. She hennaed her hairs. The effect was marvelous—her coiffured hair shone with a red tinge, matching the crimson lines in her eyes. She put on a natural face pack and after she washed it off, she discovered a pleasing fresh face. She bathed for long with a sandal soap. When she dabbed her body dry, the perfume lingered in her nostrils. Finally, when she looked into the bathroom mirror under the yellow light, it coquettishly told her that she looked charming like a young woman with ruddy cheeks and a fire raging in the veins.
Sara gave a detailed glance at her wardrobe. She wanted to put on a special dress today. Her hands rustled past a number of dresses until it reached a particular hanger. Unhesitatingly, she picked up the red cheongsam. She took it out of the wardrobe and spread it on the bed. She admired its texture and the beauteous shine that still emanated from it. When she slipped into it, it fitted on her svelte frame as perfectly as it did when she had donned it the first time. She opened her jewelry box and selected a mother of pearl necklace and a pair of pearl tops. While her fingers tucked the tops in her earlobes, she felt a light sensation murmuring through her nerves. Was it the perturbation of happiness that was giving her goosepimples? She didn’t know. And for her, that didn’t even matter. After a long long time she even sprayed perfume on herself which she had picked up from an upmarket perfumery.
The clouds had now parted their wombs and raindrops kissed the earth’s face with a passionate urgency. The air got laden with the smell of the soil. Sara was waiting for the knock on her door. For many times she had walked past the dressing mirror all atingle, admiring her posture from different angles. An uncanny restlessness subsumed her being.
She heard a knock on the door.
She rushed to open it—the door to her happiness–with the speed of a slippery polished moon through the frictionless wispy clouds.
With trembling hands, she undid the latch, drew a deep breath and yanked open the wooden doors.
Arms behind his back, Mamoon was standing in front of her with a grin. He was drenched completely. Water was dripping from his clothes. His face was washed and glistening.
“Happy Birthday once again aunt Sara,” he said, dramatically producing a bouquet. His lips twitched with fervour.
“Oh, thank you dear!” Sara said, accepting the bouquet, happiness dancing on her face. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“Come on in, stupid, you will catch cold,” she added promptly, slightly moving away from the door.
He did not budge one inch from where he stood.
“You don’t want to see your surprise gift?”
Sara broadened her smile a few millimeters more, and raised her eyebrows interrogatively. “What?”
What she saw next made her heart sink: It was a smiling Khushi who emerged from somewhere in the background’s misty drizzle.
A big eyed, rosy lipped girl was standing next to Mamoon in an obedient pose. She too was drenched from head to toe and seemed to tremble like a lissome deer. Her lips quivered about to unravel a beautiful smile.
“How sweet!” Sara exclaimed with all the power of surprise she could muster at that moment. She stood off by herself, blinking and trying to focus her languishing gaze on her surprise gift.
For a split second, all the muscles in her body tensed up. Her breath got stuck in the darkness of her lungs. Her eyes struggled to locate the patches of light that laid frozen at the moment. Mercifully, a brash flash of lightning woke her up. Then she straightened herself, shaking off the mist of wooziness with a diminishing smile and took half a step aside to let them enter. “Come on in,” she said, extending her hand to Khushi.
While the two young lovers crossed the threshold, none of them could see the clouds burst in Sara’s eyes. The redness in her dress turned deeper at places as though blood had oozed out there.
This story was first published by www.chowk.com (USA).