The Whisper of Yellow Roses

15 Nov

I had nearly forgotten him but one day, when I saw him after two years, my doubts about him were confirmed. I had repeatedly told my friend, Mustafa Kemal, that the bird called true love did not exist. But he, the son of a donkey, was not the one to heed me. His head flew in the air all the time, and his feet were never on the ground. If he became the butt of jokes, one is not to be faulted for having such a friend.

But why would he value the nonsense from a florist like me? Not his fault entirely. After all, my job is not about the brain. And where does advice come from? The brain itself, doesn’t it? I am not a teacher or an intellectual, people who are said to have some good stuff inside their skulls. I’m a poor florist. My job involves the heart, not the brain. When people have something in their hearts and they want to express it, they come riding their scooters or driving their cars to me and buy my ware. The family-minded people or those who want to express their platonic affection buy the mixed bunches or the bouquets. I mean these are people who are going to see a patient or going to wish a friend’s wife or sister. They don’t care much about the quality of flowers or their arrangement. They just fancy a bouquet, and if it suits their pre-determined budget, they buy it in a hurry as if there is no time. It is only the romantically inclined who have all the time in the world to choose what they buy. They would keep looking into the contents of the vase and would finally pick up the healthiest flowers, robust enough to carry their message of love.

My friend Mustafa Kemal was one such customer. I don’t know why we became friends. I generally have nothing but sympathy for people who believe that giving a rose to a girl would ensure lifelong happiness. In fact, I laugh at the silly notions of city folks. Their idiocies are beyond my comprehension. If flowers and happiness were actually related, people all over the world would grow nothing but flowers. Don’t we all crave for happiness? So, says my florist brain, why care about flowers, which are anyway going to end up into the garbage bin? They might remain fresh for a few hours or a few days. But after that they start losing their charm. Exactly like love. They wilt and die and disintegrate. Like certain emotions, like some memories. No, no. One does not mean to say that flowers are totally useless. They provide bread and butter to the empty stomachs of poor folks like us. That is why I am in this business.

Mustafa had been coming to me for a long time now. Maybe it is this long-standing interaction that opened up windows of friendship between us. In fact, it is very difficult to put it down to a point of exactitude. Can we all honestly explain why we became friends with such and such person? I think we can’t.  It is like love. You feel it, you know its warmth, but you are hard put to explain it.

The moment I saw this yellow-cheeked Mustafa I knew he had fallen in love. His hesitation in inquiring about the roses made it clear to me that he was going to express his emotion for the first time. He first surveyed all the flowers and bouquets on display. I watched him from behind my stall where I was putting together a bouquet on order. His eyes hopped from color to color, now delectably watching the roses, and now soaking in the soothing whiteness of the rajnigandhas. Finally he kept on staring at the bucket of rose buds.

“How much are those rose buds?” he asked with a wavering voice.

“Rupees five each,” I said, looking up at him while my fingers gave final touches to the bouquet.

He kept on staring at the roses.

“How many of them do you want, Sir?” I asked him.

He was taken aback by my sudden intrusion into his private inspection. He deliberated for a while, then muttered out of his indulgence, “Err, two…in fact, ahem, one is enough.”

“As you wish, Sir,” I said.

He ran his fingers over the flowers, checking the texture and health of the petals. He finally picked up one.

“Can you pack it up for me?”

“Yes, sure, sir!” I said.

I took the rose from him. I pruned its stem to the right size, plucked out the thorns and wrapped it up with transparent cellophane. He paid and took the packaged rose from me. He looked at his purchase with a whiff of pride. Holding it in his hand like a prized possession, he started his rickety Bajaj scooter and vamoosed away.

After a couple of his visits, the wall of strangeness was gone between us. Riding his wobbly scooter, he visited my shop every evening, at the same time, to buy his rose from me. Our relationship progressed beyond that of a seller and a buyer. So much so that on occasions he would forget to pay me for the roses and I wouldn’t mind his slip. I began to know him better. He was a student at the university. He gave tuitions to support himself like many young men in this city who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds. His love was one of his disciples, the teenage daughter of a rich industrialist.

“She is very beautiful and tender. The only problem is she is too young to…” Mustafa confessed to me one day with a broad grin. He was a shy young man. He wore glasses and had the air of being a learned person.

So it was a case of tender love, I thought. Tantrum-laden teenage girl of a rich father. Poor young tuition master with dreams of falling in love with a rich girl. I knew where it was headed. Selling flowers, I had seen enough life in the city. Maybe I did not have brains. But I had experience on my side. I did warn my friend Mustafa to watch his steps time and again. For me it did not matter if I lost a customer. But who could bear to see disappointment in a friend’s eyes? Yet he was not to listen to me. He thought I was a fool, a peddler. He didn’t reckon he too was a fool, a peddler. I sold flowers. He sold knowledge. The only difference between him and me was that of experience. My experience had taught me something that he was still to learn.

One day when I was downing the shutters of my shop, I realized that Mustafa had not come to my shop to buy his rose bud. Taking hard puffs on my bidi I wondered why. Maybe he was not well. I shut down my shop and left for my little room in old Delhi.

Mustafa did not come the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I did not see him for weeks. Had he gone to his village in Uttar Pradesh? Maybe his father was not well. Maybe his mother had died. I was making up excuses for my friend’s absence. But what could I do? I could only guess about the reasons and remember him. Weeks became months, and months became years. He began to fade away from my memory amid the colorful magnolias and roses and carnations. I did not see him for another two years until today.

He had come riding his same old rattletrap Bajaj. He looked a little thin and wearied. He had a stubble too which I had never seen on his face before. He used to be meticulously clean-shaven all the time. His eyes looked red, almost bloodshot. Perhaps he was not sleeping well, or crying, or drinking, or a combination of all three things affected him.

“So glad to see you prince,” I said shaking hands with him. His hand was cold, slightly limp.

He wore a thin smile on his lips. He looked down on the ground for a while, perhaps searching for a sentence.

“Where have you been boss? All well?” I asked him. I had to ask him.

“I was here only,” he said, meaning he was in Delhi. His voice was tremulous.

“Have you changed your florist or you are angry with your friend?” I asked him a little teasingly.

“No, no. It is not so,” he said with a deadpan expression. He was still a shy man. Perhaps he was bashful about sharing the details of his life’s recent developments with me. I pretty much guessed there was something amiss. It must be that damned love thing, I thought.

“So, want your usual rose?” I asked him.

“Yes, but can I have the yellow ones?”

“The yellow roses?”

“Yes, you heard rightly.”

I looked at him in surprise.

“She has come back to India after two years. For a little while only. This is what I know. She studies in Europe now,” he said. He looked away from me, at the swelling evening traffic. Shadows of pain passed over his face.

I knew all along this was how it would come to an end. Mustafa knew my advice was not wrong. But more than his, it was the fault of youth’s optimism.

“Give me a bunch of three yellow roses,” he demanded.

He did not even care to pick up the roses today. I took out three healthy yellow roses from a bundle and began to dress them for him.

“You were right Rajkumar Bhai,” he said, bending forward towards me. “In the initial few months, she was so passionate about me. She would not even have dinner without me. We would sit for hours together in her room, all by ourselves. She would just listen to whatever I had to say. She would even drink from my cup of coffee…then…” Mustafa almost broke down.

I could well imagine him sitting along with her, in a brightly lit room, decorated with all kinds of stuff, as they show in films. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, her name is Pretty (I don’t know her real name). So Mustafa and Pretty sit side by side on a comfortable bed. Or maybe he sits on an easy chair, his legs eased over the bed. Pretty sits facing him on the corner of the bed. Or may be she sits on his lap. Who knows? He gives her a lesson in history or India’s constitution, and she gives him all her attention, like an enchanted princess. Then…

“It’s all right Mustafa Bhai, life me aisa tragedy kabhi kabhi ho jata hai,” I said, trying to console him. “But please take care of yourself, you don’t look very well.” I was feeling emotional about his helplessness.

“Her parents sent her to Europe for studies. They did not like our relationship. But then, she too forgot me once she went there. You won’t believe Rajkumar Bhai, she used to call me up every week for the first few months. Then she stopped calling. She even stopped writing to me. She forgot me. She completely forgot me. You were very right Rajkumar Bhai. I was a fool,” he said. His eyes shone with moisture.

The image suddenly changes in my mind. No longer Pretty is sitting along with Mustafa. He sits alone in his university room. He has a glass of rum in his hands. Tears flow down his fat cheeks. Maybe he has even caught cold and so he snuffles and sneezes now and then. His nose tip has turned red. His heart misses a heartbeat every time the telephone rings downstairs at the hostel guard’s table. Then he waits for the phone boy to call him out to attend an ISD call. It does not happen. He takes another swig from his glass. The bitter swill in his mouth reminds him of a happy Pretty in Europe. More tears flow down his cheeks. Another sip, another fragment of memory, another crease of tears on his face. Each time he hears an airplane fly over his hostel, he imagines Pretty has come back to India, to walk into his barren life, to embrace him.

I came out of my little stall and put my hand on his shoulder. The little bunch of flowers was ready in my hands, its transparent cellophane crackling with the whisper of yellow roses.

Published at www.sulekha.com

Thank You, Friends

15 Nov

One July afternoon, I find myself steeling my nerves to write a letter to all my friends who are in town. I no longer am in a position to suffer negligence at their hands. Initially, I was not sure about it but now my position is very clear. I have to end my suffering and I have to do it today. It can’t wait any longer.

Naturally, I am in a miserable mood. Before settling down to write, I stride about in my room and look out the window. The weather outside is charming; the sky is overcast with thunderous clouds. It might begin to rain any time. For a moment I feel I should go out and enjoy the moist breeze, and allow myself to hang out till the gentle raindrops begin to drench me. I defy my feelings, and by the strength of my will, I walk into my reading room, which is sort of sealed, without any ventilation, and is full of mugginess. I have to write the letter. I have to write it. I cannot but surrender to this urge today before it escapes through the window of cowardice.

This urge is not new. It has been there for a couple of years now. But I have been delaying its implementation, sometimes under the cover of laziness, and often to save myself from losing the dignity of being able to maintain friendships.

Ironically, I am reminded of a famous Urdu short story: Mujhe Mere Doston Se Bachao (“Save me from my friends”). This is a humorous story written almost half a century ago. In the story, the protagonist, a writer by vocation, is so much sick and tired of his affectionate but suffocating friends that he barely gets time to do any writing. The moment he sits down to write a piece, one of his doting friends would barge into his writing room, and his reluctant muse would take his leave. My story is quite the opposite.

I have many friends or so I thought until recently. Most of them live in my neighbourhood, and if you will, at a stone’s throw from my house. Most of them are my childhood friends, people I went to school with, and even to the university. There are other friends who live a few miles away from my house, in far-flung neighbourhoods. These are people who I befriended in the university or at the work place. There are some friends who live abroad, thousands of kilometers away. And yet all these distances, short or long, seem meaningless to me. They have all forgotten me.

How do you feel when your friends forget you? One, you feel left out. Being common friends, you imagine that they are meeting and eating together. For them nothing has changed but you. You are like a napkin that has been used for dirty purposes, and now, after having outlived its utility, it must be consigned to the garbage bin. That may not be entirely true and is a matter subject to verification. But then, whatever the truth, you feel left out. I feel left out. Two, you feel inert, lifeless, like being part of a graveyard. Your feelings seem stunted and nothing grows on you.

All this does not happen in a day.

The process of forgetting starts long ago. Like a benign tumour, it begins as a mass of innocuous accidents. Gradually, the accidents turn into serious lapses, first followed by excuses, and then without them. There is no compunction left. All that remains of friendship are selective memories and shameless forgetfulness. The tumour then becomes full-blown cancer. And so it must be taken out of the body. And hence my decision to write the letter.

After the college years and the rush of the first job, everything seemed fine. My friends had their dates, but there was time for me too. We would often go on walks, eat our dinners together, and watch movies. There was booze, jokes and laughter. Then with change of jobs, as the calendar moved on, the friendly meetings diminished. My friends shifted from area to area depending on their jobs. Still they would find time, now with more difficulty, to meet me. If they could not meet, they would at least phone me or email me. They would let me know where they were and what they were doing. We would at least meet on each others’ birthdays and if we could not we would feel sorry. We would meet on festivals, and old times would come alive again.

Things, however, got worse with time. Some friends got married. Others crossed the seas in search of a better life. The phone calls became infrequent; the emails became shorter, stiffer, and finally inconsequential. Some merely kept forwarding group messages, jokes, and pornographic images. A forwarded message became the metaphor of friendship, replacing the blood and flesh interaction. When I think of my current level of relationship with my friends, especially my childhood friends, I am reminded of what Amy Taubin wrote somewhere: “…ambivalent feelings of boyhood friends who, as adults, have little in common except a reciprocal sense of loyalty mixed with guilt.” My case is worse than that.

Two years ago, when a college-friend, at another friend’s wedding, asked me if I had read all the jokes he had been forwarding me. If replied in negative. He was so furious that he immediately broke all ties with me. I could never understand his behaviour but I was certainly shocked. We never met or talked after that day.

All was still not lost. My neighbourhood friends were still around. I trusted them and hoped they would not forget me at least as long as they were in the same locality. I occasionally invited them over for lunch or dinner. I often met them at their lodgings and took them out on long walks. But I did not get much in way of reciprocation. When I thought about it, I was frozen with horror and dismay. And what my wife told me about them further surprised me. She said that there was an envious competition between my friends and me. I, on my part, to make matters clear, never prided over my little achievements, and yet I was a source of envy for my friends. That was unbelievable. My only crime was, I reckoned, that I started early with a job and hence had more material accumulations than many of my friends. But I failed to understand how my accumulations could become a source of envy for my friends. My wife told me how my friends’ wives would come to talk about every little purchase they made. Even buying a new sari would become a news item to break, let alone a new washing machine or a new music system. Now I understood why on the way, my neighbourhood friends ducked their gazes and walked past me as if I did not exist. I recalled V S Naipual’s phrase—“the competition of existence.” In the U.S., Naipaul wrote with a sense of surprise, Indians neglected each other when they came across on the road or in a shopping complex because they were threatened by the competition of each other’s existence.

This year was the worst. None of my friends turned up to meet me on the festivals. This was quite unusual. What was most unusual was that none of my friends remembered my birthday. The closest of my friends, who had never given it a miss, completely forgot about it. I don’t think he will ever remember my birthday. A neighbourhood friend remembered to message me a birthday wish but it came two days late. Later, on my way back from office I came across him. He asked me if I had got his message. I said yes and added it was a belated message. He said that it had become fashionable to send belated messages. What gumption! I felt insulted and did not reply at all. I expected regret, not an in-your-face-don’t-care-justification from a friend. My wife became angry when she heard this. “Why didn’t you tell him that we are still old fashioned people?” she said. I could only smile at her suggestion.

Recently I wrote to one of my closest friends: “Where are you? Seems I have been chasing you for a long time now! I am sure your work and your wife (the 2 W’s in life-not mentioning the third one-wine!) keep you busy. Let’s meet when you have time on your hands. Come for lunch/dinner on a weekend to my place, or we can meet somewhere else. Will not disturb you on phone any more. Regards.”

His reply put a stab through my heart: “I have lost one W only to add two more Ws. It is true that the most sought after W (wealth) is still far away. Now I am searching for an inverted W (meaning). Anyway, things are like this only, and I do not think that situation will change in near future. After one thing, something or other crops up. C U Soon. Regards.”

Recently, one of my friends moved out of the neighbourhood. He did not even inform me about his change of address. I felt sad and insulted. Why shouldn’t I give up on them?

And hence the letter of parting our ways. As I mentioned earlier, I no longer am in a position to suffer negligence at their hands. I must make my breast clean. I hope this letter will free me from the bondage of friendship that I still feel towards my friends. I know I have done nobody any harm. Once the letter is gone, my life would be easier, and in the evenings, I would not suffer the anxiety of looking up a friend to know how he is getting on in life.

I sit on a chair, facing my reading desk. I look at my address book, in which the names, addresses, and phone numbers of my friends are enlisted. Looking at the index, I feel as if I am looking at a graveyard. Their names and addresses look like sad and lifeless epitaphs. Now my eyes brim over with tears, and unintentionally, a fat drop falls on the address book, like a lilac on a grave stone. “Thank you, my friends, for everything.” A silent prayer escapes my lips. I take a handkerchief, all crushed, from my trousers’ pocket, and wipe my wet eyes, readying myself to write the letter.

This story was first published in Crimson Feet Magazine (Vol. 2), India.

Should I Kill My Wife?

15 Nov

“Oh yes, come friend, come. You may sit here and have my company. You too are troubled like me, aren’t you? Who would walk into a bar like this at this quiet hour of midnight when most have retired to the cozy comfort of a home? Either you don’t have a home or you are running away from a familiar reality. Isn’t it so? I can see it in your bristly face, disheveled hair and dark-circled eyes. You are my mirror image, aren’t you? Or I’m yours. It does not matter, does it? Maybe we have different problems, but their rancid shadows run deep in our veins, don’t they?

“Yes, yes, you can order the same arrack as the one I’m having. It’s bitter and it goes well with pain. And before they serve you, here it is. Take my bottle. Take a gulp from it. Why wait for them when you have a friend? One shot down the entrails and your distress will shine through, polished. You are getting me all right, aren’t you, friend?

“Now that you are here, I’ll tell you my story. And I’ll tell you without a preface. Why waste time? I’ll also soak in your tale of woe. That’ll be a little later. After all, people say for good reason that pain shared is halved. What do you say to that? Fine! All right, so I go ahead.

“Ah, did you ask me my name? Is that important to know? I don’t think so. Didn’t somebody say what’s in a name? Take his example, the guy who’s sitting up there, far, far up there, who’s always spinning the web of life, who’s made us run blind in this labyrinth of sorrow and maze of joy: Him! People call Him all sorts of names. Allah, Ishwar, God! Does His reality change with the name assigned to Him? No. Right? So, what of us lesser mortals? For a sensible person like you that’s a useless business, a futile premise. A fish is a fish, whether you call it a koi or a rohu. I think the reality is important. The rest is immaterial.

“Or take the example of my wife. Had her name been Lata instead of Neeta, would she still come out of her 16-months long coma? Look at her fate. At 25, she is no more than a vegetable, the mother of my five-year-old child. Life has come to a grinding halt for her. Neither alive nor dead, she lies on a soiled bed, the bedsheet torn and tattered, under the thatched roof of our house. And she can’t move or talk or eat or even recognize anybody. Not even her son. Our son asks me when will his mother speak to him, when will she love him again, make him sit in her lap and feed him. And I tell him: son, I don’t know. I really don’t know, my friend.

“Do you think I’ve not done anything for her? That is unfair to say. I’ve done whatever I could. There’s nothing I’ve not done to bring her back to life. From doctors to courts to papers to what have you. Shall I tell you when it all started? Excuse me, can I have a puff? Give me the one you’re smoking. That’ll do. Oh, thanks! One long drag and I feel much better.

“So to begin at the beginning. One night, a lupine, dark night 16-months ago, I returned home from work. Neeta was pregnant for the second time. We were happy expecting another child. We thought this time it would be a girl. But my friend, that night proved to be demonic. When Neeta complained of labor pain, I rushed her to the nursing home. The lady doctor suggested an immediate caesarian. She demanded Rs. 8000 for the operation. It was a big sum for a poor man like me. I had four thousands rupees with me. I deposited that amount with the doctor and went out to arrange for the rest. Four hours later when I came back, I was told she had fallen unconscious even before she could be operated upon.

“There began my woeful journey, my friend. They say very rightly that trouble always comes unannounced. The evil face of trouble had forced itself into my house. The anus-the-see-ya (anesthesia) overdose had made my wife unconscious. When I pointed this out to the doctors, they refused to admit their mistake. Would you believe it that they got us thrown out of the hospital with the help of some goons? You sure know that rich people like doctors, politicians, contractors, and bureaucrats work hand in glove with the goons in this country, don’t you?

“Outside, it was raining by buckets. There was scarcely a rickshaw in sight. I had no choice but to put a cataleptic Neeta on an unclaimed cart and run to the government hospital. Within two hours, she gave birth to a baby girl. I was happy for the child. I hoped Neeta would come out of her unconscious state. Twenty-four hours later, the baby died and Neeta was still comatose. My world was shattered.

“Let’s have one more round. I told you you’d like its bitterness, didn’t I? Here we go. Yes, where were we? Oh yes, the baby had died and Neeta was still comatose. My world had fallen apart. But then I could not run away from it. I had to face the reality. I had to look into its ugly face. Neeta was transferred to the emergency ward. Another six days passed and she did not come out of her stupor.

“I was absolutely clueless about whatever was happening to my wife. You see I’m not much educated. So, I don’t understand much of these complicated medical conditions. And what do you expect from a person who earns a salary of Rs. 2,200-a-month as supervisor in a private electronic company? But all this was happening to my family, to me. I had to do some thing. From the apathy of a government-run hospital, I took my wife to another nursing home. The doctor promised me that he’d completely cure her. He demanded Rs. 9,000 for this job. Now I had no money in my account. There was some dough in my wife’s account though. But she was in coma. So when I told this to the doctor, he showed me an innovative way. He took the thumb impression of an unconscious Neeta on the check and withdrew the amount. Doctors are so intelligent, aren’t they? The problem was solved.

“But, you see friend, Neeta was not cured. She continued to be asleep. Not only I was running out of funds, I was also getting short on patience. A new hope arose in the form of another doctor. This time at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences. There the doctor did a See-Tee scan (CT scan) of my wife. He found her having some new-ro-logical (neurological) problems. So turn for another doctor. I knocked at another clinic’s door. For eight days, the doctor examined her. On the eighth day, the doctor asked me to take Neeta home because the treatment was expensive and slow. He also handed me a bill of Rs. 10,000, which I had to settle.

“While all this was happening, I had lost my job, had emptied the family savings, sold my ancestral home for Rs. 65,000, Neeta’s jewellery, our television set and household utensils. Despite all this, nothing brought her back to life. Friend, at last I had no option but to move the courts and seek mercy killing for my wife. You know mercy killing, don’t you?

“Do you have another smoke? Give me one. Even a bidi would do. So, you thought that’s the end of the story. No dear, no. There is more. Only if you’d listen. So, where was I? Yes, I moved the courts and petitioned for mercy killing. You know what happened then? I became a small celebrity. People in the court, and even the journalists, came to me to tell that I had started a debate on the issue of U-tha-nasia (euthanasia). That’s another term for mercy killing. Tough word but interesting, isn’t it, like the word anustheseeya? But for all the publicity, I did not gain much. The court rejected my plea for mercy killing my wife saying that all “artificial death” whether desired or undesired, was illegal. It simply meant that only natural death was legal. Some learned folks also informed me that last year, a 72-year-old retired headmaster, a 60-year-old cycle repair shop owner and an octogenarian in Kerala were refused the right to die by the high court. I don’t understand why these people think so. Isn’t a graceful death better than a disgraceful life? What do you say friend, eh?

“But there was a little ray of hope. The court heeded my other request. It ordered that the state should bear all medical expenses in the wake of curing my wife. But that was more of a joke than a succor. When I took her to the government hospital, a paltry Rs. 3.50 a day was given for her treatment under the government rules. Now, wasn’t that a sad joke? When I raised my voice against this, a local leader threatened to kill me. He wanted me to withdraw the case.

“Now that forms my quandary, my friend. It’s been more than a year since Neeta went unconscious. All my money is gone and I’m nowhere today. I’ve no answers to my son’s questions. All the means of hope are blocked and sealed now. I see my wife’s body, full of sores, laid on the tattered bed, like a dead body. The law refuses to give her a dignified death, a mercy killing. We too are fed up with this daily hell. What’s hell after all? A place with no comfort and no hopes, isn’t it? I don’t even get any sleep at night. Neeta is at least sleeping. I don’t even get that. That’s why I’m here, every night, telling my story to a friend like you, trying to make up my mind. Now, you tell me what should I do? Tell me, should I kill my wife? Tell me what you would do if you were in my place?”

This story was first published by www.sulekha.com (USA).

An Unspeakable Betrayal

15 Nov


When Sam tried to press the doorbell of his house, his finger trembled. His heart throbbed out of his throat as if he had come running a hundred miles. It was the moment, the crucial moment, he thought. It was the moment he had dreaded for many years. A moment, he had guessed, that would be stunningly solid, and inexplicably maddening. If he handled it properly, he’d succeed. He would ring the bell. Tam would open the door. She would look into his eyes. And bingo, she’d spot it! Women are supposed to have the sixth sense. If she didn’t, well and good. But if she did, it’d be fucking tough to handle. That was what mattered. That could change his life, and hers too! Waves of anxiety stirred each cell in his body. Though it was not a warm morning, beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He looked at his hand. It was dripping muck. He was gobsmacked. His other hand held a brown leather briefcase, its handle swathed in moisture. He felt his legs going limp and wobbly, ready to crash down.

He put the suitcase down. He took out the handkerchief from the right hand pocket of his suit pant and dabbed off the sweat from his hands and face. He took a deep breath. A draught of freshness spurted from his lungs and swamped his body. Yet the freshness failed to throw out the gob of anxiety that seemed to muffle his breath.

Will Tam see it in my eyes? Will she find out?

And suddenly the dread of being naked engulfed him. No, he was not afraid of his wife. He had become naked before her innumerable times. Who doesn’t become naked while making love? He had been making love to her, in fact only to her, for more than five years now. No, he was not afraid of the physical nudity. What Sam feared was the nakedness of his inner self, his soul, the immaterial himself within him. Will she see through his mask of innocence? Will she find out that the purity of his soul has been tarnished? Will she just smell it out?

On his way home, he was thinking about this only. And now, standing before the door, he was about to face that dreadful moment. It was not a particularly happy or a sad moment. It was a moment that could blow up his soul with just one glance of Tam. It was an unusual moment like that critical one run or one goal that could make a team win or lose a match.

His fear was more pronounced than required, he guessed. Don’t all men do it? He rebuked himself for his insistence on chastity. He was not the first man on earth who had violated the vow. For five years, he had been pure and devoted. His world had not moved beyond Tam; and it was not some involuntary submission or slavery; rather, the force that bound them together was nothing but love.

It was not that there weren’t any temptations. Since Sam’s marketing job entailed some traveling every month, he could have easily slept around. He did sometimes feel the libidinal stirrings in his loins while on one of those trips. But he had successfully resisted all such enticements. He had a happy marital life with Tam: his Tam, his sweetheart and his soul mate. He thought of her photograph in his wallet. He had especially liked that picture because he found her pretty in one-third profiles. She was smiling in that photo. Her beautiful dark eyes also seemed to grin. She had long black hair and he loved to play with them. In her, he had nothing to complaint about.

In fact, he never had done. It was not that they did not quarrel. Like all couples, they had their share of petty squabbles. That was quite normal. Tam would sulk for a few hours but later she would make up with him. She was sentimental about him as she was sentimental about her parents and sisters. But that never bothered him. He found that acceptable in a woman, as he believed that every woman had her own idiosyncrasies. He was sure about the purity of his love for Tam until he met D’Souza.

D’Souza was one of his classmates in school. While in school, they were not particularly friends; however, they knew each other well. He had forgotten about him, so had D’Souza.  They did not even know they lived in the same city. One day Sam bumped into him in a shopping mall. That chance meeting changed much in Sam’s life later.

D’Souza had become a painter. Though he was yet to become a big name in the art marquee, he sold good enough number of works to afford a nice lifestyle. Sam did not think it was an eerie profession for his friend as he had been different even in the school days. He broke all the rules in school and was sort of an anti-hero—undisciplined, uncouth, and moody, always wearing a devilish smile. He had long hair now and the careless stubble gave his face a philosopher’s look. He still had that devilish smile which made Sam recognize his schoolmate.

“How does it feel to sell pharmaceuticals?” D’Souza had asked him on their first meeting.

“How does it feel to sell paintings?” he had asked him in return.

They both then had laughed. Despite such a long gap of time, they could still communicate. Sam was very happy about this. Friends being a rarity in cities, Sam began to cultivate him. He invited him over for lunch and dinner. He often visited him at his single’s pad in Hauz Khas village whenever he was in town. He liked his house, which was almost a mansion in comparison to Sam’s modest flat in Patparganj. He liked talking to D’Souza because he said those things which none of his colleagues or other friends could think of saying. He found his company very soothing. He looked at his paintings and wondered what meaning they conveyed with multicolored lines and figures. He always failed to understand the essence of his friend’s work, yet he felt proud of him.

“This is something you don’t need to understand,” D’Souza had said gifting him and Tam a painting on their fourth wedding anniversary. It was a landscape, oil on canvas. “Specially done for you and bhabhiji,” he had said. They had put the painting on a wall in the drawing room. When the sunrays fell on the painting, the golden paint (of the river) shimmered magically.

He gifted them another painting on their fifth anniversary. It was much different from the last one. It was done in half-tone sepia color, one fourth of it in black and gray. The sepia part showed a woman’s bare back, a pearl necklace on her nape, and a man’s big hand, just a hand, on it with clawed fingers dug into the woman’s skin. The other part, the longitudinal quarter, showed half a hand, a woman’s, with unfurled fingers, in the pose of granting a blessing. A part of the moon formed the backdrop of this feminine hand, the moon’s whiteness jaundiced and soiled. The painting was signed by him. “An Unspeakable Betrayal” by Alvin D’Souza, 1999, Oil on canvas, 76 by 60 cms.

“A special wedding gift,” D’Souza said, winking at the couple. Tam had really liked the artwork and she said that it was a splendid job. Sam could barely comprehend it but he believed it was an excellent creation. Tam put it on a wall in the bedroom, just in front of their bed. Whenever Sam looked at it, lying naked on his back, after making love to Tam, he tried to unravel its meaning. He never succeeded. All he could see there, before dozing off absent-mindedly, was D’Souza’s smiling face.

The friendship between Sam and D’Souza was flowering now. They would often take a walk in the MCD parks or in Village Bistro and discuss about life and times. Sometimes they would go out of the Delhi, park the car on a side of the Delhi-Jaipur highway, and drink beer facing the green farms.

“Why did you divorce your wife?” Sam asked him one day while walking on the lush green carpet of Australian grass in the Lodhi Gardens. He wanted to know this for a long time now. He wondered how a woman could leave a handsome and artistic man like D’Souza. He wanted to know this but he feared it would hurt his friend.

“Because she was not as good as Tam,” he said, winking and smiling at him. Then he stopped walking, put a hand around Sam’s neck, and said, “Sam, I’m not as lucky as you are, friend!” His voice had a ring of melancholy. Sam became sad too and he rebuked himself for picking up such a stupid topic. The evening was ruined.

On another occasion, after he had returned from a slightly lengthy tour, he found himself discussing his sex life with his friend.

“Don’t you ever feel tempted to sleep with a woman other than your wife?” D’Souza said, taking a puff on his cigarette, and looking at him with his lips curved in a naughty smile.

“I do but isn’t that morally wrong?”

D’Souza laughed at this for a long time. He laughed convulsively and seemed to choke on the cigarette smoke he had inhaled. Sam looked at him sheepishly and he found his friend as incomprehensible as his paintings.

“Why are you laughing like this?” Sam asked him.

“Because, man, twenty-first century is here and you still talk like a mullah,” he said and got drowned in another bout of laughter. After a few minutes, he calmed down. He became a little serious.

“Honestly speaking, tell me, don’t you get bored?” D’Souza asked him.

“Get bored of what?”

“Of eating the same homemade daal-chawal day after day,” D’Souza said. His tone was almost mocking but laughter seemed to lurk in his eyes. Was he teasing him? He found his figurative language a bit crude, especially coming from an artist like him.

Sam did not know what to say. One moment he found the issue too private to be discussed even with a friend. The very next moment he felt an inner wish to be honest, to come out in the open and admit that he needed change, he needed to break free of the chimera of morality. Yet the next moment he thought of his sweet Tam. How could he betray her? He felt a sting in his heart.

“Sam, you tell me, why do you think people go out to restaurants, for lunch or dinner?”

“To change taste, for breaking the monotony.”

“Exactly! This is what I’m trying to tell you,” D’Souza said, looking into his friend’s eyes. “And no one sees any harm in that.”

He looked at D’Souza as though he was looking at the devil.

Later Sam wished that discussion never had taken place. On his way home, he thought about it. If it did anything to him, it confused him. That night he did not feel like making love to Tam. While she slept on innocently, like a baby, he kept on staring at his friend’s painting. It seemed to throw questions at him, and the whole conversation of the evening came back to him, swaddling his other thoughts.

The next morning, he inadvertently lied to Tam, for the first time that he would go out on an official tour. He would come back the next day, he said. The truth was that he going to D’Souza’s party, to be held in a farmhouse in Noida. To spend the night there, he lied to Tam.

And now, the next morning, Sam stood in front of his flat’s entrance: gobsmacked, hands dripping muck, sweating. The night was gone in a trice. He did not remember much now. All he remembered was a couple of drinks, dim and mysterious lights, high-voltage music, and men and women in semi-naked dresses. Then more drinks, some mad dancing, and the dark chambers. He was whisked into one by someone. The darkness made a dinner of his purity. He could not believe he still had that much passion locked inside him. He was reminded of the early months of his marriage.

Now, standing before the door in morning sunlight, he felt naked. His clothes seemed transparent to him. He felt shifty. He wished none of his neighbors saw him in this state.

He put the handkerchief back in the right hand pocket of his trousers. It got tucked inside like a moist ball, making a swell in the pocket. He picked up the briefcase in his left hand. He took a deep breath and with a trembling finger pressed the doorbell. His heart pounded like a canon firing salvos. His body was swaddled, from head to toe, in sweat.

Here comes the moment, the crucial moment, he thought.

Tam opened the door and gave her the usual smiling welcome. “Welcome home dear,” she said and took the briefcase from his hand, pulled him in and gently shut the door. She bolted it up and turned to him.

His back turned on Tam, he tried to move towards the bathroom. He felt as if his legs were nailed to the ground.

“I love you Sam,” she said, throwing herself on Sam from behind.

“I love you too,” he said in a drunken voice. He felt a knife slice open his heart.

The story was first published at www.indiawrites.com, Bombay.

The Red Dress

20 Oct


1

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.

2

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….

3

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.

4

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.

5

“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.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“It’s Khushi.”

“Who’s she?”

“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.

6

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).