Tuesday, November 17, 2009

FINAL Story: Lily House

Lily House

Even after three weeks, Shalini was still getting used to her new home. They had finally taken a loan from the bank and bought a cozy two-bedroom flat near the Behala Chowrasta. Although the building was called “Lily House” there were no lilies to be had. It was instead a pile of bricks and cement, in a rather noisy locality, and the power failed for an hour or two everyday; but Shalini found the markets cheap and the neighbours friendly. Besides, it was a blessed relief from their old home in Survey Park, a cramped and stifling affair they had shared with her in-laws. Here, she and Ajay, her husband, could live as they pleased, and little Anurag, their six-year old bundle of joy had his own room.

“Lily, ami berolam. I’ll be back at the usual time,” said Ajay, briefcase in hand. Lily was the nickname her husband always used for her, ever since they had dated back in college. “Lily shall stay in Lily House,” her husband often said before bursting into giggles, and the joke was getting pretty old. “Alright, take care,” Shalini, or Lily, replied as she came out of the kitchen, gave him a little smile and closed the door after he had waved her goodbye from the bottom of the staircase. As she was about to shut the door however, she felt, rather saw, a flash of movement, something small and black between the gap of the door and its frame. Startled, Shalini flung open the door and looked around until she spotted it: it was just a cat. A jet-black cat with a black tail and black paws and vivid yellow eyes was sitting near the banister, gazing directly into her soul, or so it seemed to her. “Shoo, shoo, you stupid cat!” she said agitatedly, jerking her hand in its direction. The cat remained immobile and stared back. Shalini made a face and shut the door with a thud. She didn’t believe in omens, but a black cat was definitely not a lucky thing!

Shalini, or Lily, did not give it any thought for the rest of the day. She was far too busy for that. After she had put Anurag on the school bus, she had done the day’s shopping, washed the dishes, swept the floor and finished her laundry. It was only at noon that she could take a little break, before it was time to fix her lunch. Shalini didn’t know it when she fell asleep on the couch. She imagined that black cat’s impassive face, its piercing yellow slits of eyes. She drew her anchal over her face and turned on her side, but the face followed her, growing into a monstrous size, opening its maw with its small white teeth to swallow her face…Shalini was jolted out of her sleep by the sound of scratching, a faint and ugly sound that seemed to be coming from the door. She got up and walked hurriedly to the door. As she approached, the scratching stopped. There was nothing in the peephole, but when Shalini opened the door, there it was: the black cat with the yellow eyes, which was now standing on the steps leading upstairs, it’s back arched away from Shalini. Intrigued, she watched the cat’s movements. The cat was bobbing its head up and down, climbing a few steps, and then retracing its steps back, all the time looking at her, as though begging her to follow. Shalini had once read a romance novel where a man’s dog once led him to the grave of his fiancĂ©e. That passage had brought tears to Shalini’s eyes, so was eager to forgive the cat. She began following it upstairs. They had climbed three flights, and just when Shalini, now less than eager, thought the cat was climbing to the roof, it stopped in front of a large door and looked back toward Shalini. It was Mr Majumdar’s flat. Although he was the original owner of the plot on which the apartment building was built, Lily had seen very little of him. He was a retired gentleman in his seventies, very dour and reserved. She had only seen him twice or thrice these past few weeks, and every time they met, Mr Majumdar would stare at her a while, as if willing himself to say something, and then turn away wordlessly. Shalini was wondering whether she should knock when the door opened by itself. The cat shot in and disappeared, and was replaced by Mr Majumdar’s worn and wrinkled face. Lily was about to make some excuse for disturbing him, when he gave her a wan smile and spoke to her for the first time. He had a rather hoarse voice, but still quite strong. “Ah, Lily, what a surprise. I thought I heard something scratching. Please do come in.”

‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to trouble you, Majumdar-babu—

“Oh, that’s quite alright. I’ll make us some tea. I’m opening a fresh packet today.”

Despite herself, Lily stepped over the threshold to find herself in a very neatly kept room, beautifully appointed with old wooden furniture. The walls were simply plastered with old photos, some in colour and some black-and-white. There were several pictures of Mr Majumdar, younger, less wrinkled, and happier, with a young woman with a very sweet smile. Suddenly, she saw it: the black cat, gazing at her from one of the photos. It was a portrait of the woman, and she was cradling the cat in the crook of her arm!

Mr Majumdar came back with the tea. A little flustered, Lily asked, “If I may, who is the young woman in that picture?”

“That is a picture of my late wife. She passed away thirty years ago. In fact...how very surprising!—today would be her thirty death anniversary. What a coincidence!” he replied with the preoccupied expression people sometimes get when thinking fondly of the past.

“I’m so sorry. But, why is it a coincidence?”

Mr Majumdar replied with a sad laugh, “It’s a coincidence, my dear, because here you are, sitting in the very armchair my wife used to sit in, and she was called Lily too!”

Shalini almost spat out her tea. “What? I mean, how…really…?”

Mr Majumdar was genuinely smiling now. “Yes, he relied, “she too was called Lily. Her real name was Lilavati, so Lily for short. That’s why I named this building Lily House, you know.”

Shalini was looking at the portrait again. Another Lily, just like her. “I see. She really loved that cat, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did. When our neighbour’s pussycat had kittens, no-one wanted the black one. So she felt sorry for it and took it in. They were together till the day she died.”

“That’s such a sweet story. May I know how she died?”

Here Mr Majumdar made a pained expression and said, “I don’t really like talking about it, but I’d rather you heard it from me than someone else. You see, when she died here thirty years ago this building wasn’t yet quite finished. The roof was completely open, without any railing or anything. So she… fell.” Shalini could see tears welling up in the old man’s eyes. “Some people might tell you she committed suicide, under her black cat’s influence, but that’s just something people have cooked up. I can tell you, you can take it from me, Lily would never do something like that. She was a wonderful woman, full of love and joy…” Here, the old man gave up and began sobbing, his frame shaking gently.

“Oh, Mr Majumdar, I’m so sorry to have upset. Please, lets not talk about it anymore!” exclaimed Shalini as she got up to pat his shoulders comfortingly.

“It’s alright, my dear. I’m getting old, and old people sometimes have no self-control…” Mr Majumdar was back to his composed self, wiping away his tears with his handkerchief.

When Lily thought it safe to sit down again, she said:

Well, at least you have the cat to keep her memory alive. It must be quite old now.”

“That just the strangest thing! You know the day she died, from that day the cat couldn’t be found anywhere! It had simply vanished! That’s another reason why some people say the cat bewitched her, I suppose. But it’s alright, no need to look so pale, its all superstition, you know. Here, drink up your tea. Would you like a cream cracker with that?’


That night Lily started up from her sleep. She wiped her forehead and her palm came back moist with sweat. The fan wasn’t running: it was a load-shedding. Lily swung her feet onto the floor and was feeling for her slippers in the darkness when she saw it again. It was looking into the room from the window ledge, its sleek feline body bathed in moonlight. It gave a low purr and melted away into the silvery light. Its brilliant gem-like eyes seemed to linger for a second and then they too were gone. Something told her that she would be seeing it again.

No comments: