Thursday, December 16, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Bimal Babu weaved his way through the drowsy morning traffic while North Calcutta struggled to shake off its torpor, a hydra-headed monster, lazily swaying to and fro. Cradling his trusty black umbrella under his arm, he hurried towards the doctor’s chamber. The street shone like a lemon and the morning felt blue after ages, but Bimal Babu oblivious to it all, moved at a speed that belied his age. At last, he stopped outside the clinic to catch his breath. Running nervous fingers through his graying hair, scratching his neck and chin, touching his throat and forehead feverishly, he stepped inside to greet his old friend, the doctor.
“Why, hello, Bimal Babu! Is it already time for your monthly check-up?” The gentle doctor smiled. He was a portly middle-aged man, his round face forever red and genial. He was both accustomed to these visits and Bimal Babu’s customary (and half hearted) complaints of knee pain and a persisting cold. He was one of the doctor’s prized patients, duly handing him a fee of three hundred rupees fortnightly. It was just an elaborate charade, and the doctor liked to play along. He knew that Bimal Babu, like most elderly men was sorely in need of some company, a kindred soul with whom he could discuss the nitty-gritty’s of politics, football and fascinating ailments. Unlike most septuagenarians, up until now Bimal Babu had enjoyed perfect health and despite his regular grievances, he secretly believed that he was infallible.
However, this morning, the flustered Bimal Babu waved aside all greetings with an impatient sweep of his wrinkled hand. “I think” and he paused for theatrical effect, “Nay, I am sure that I am being poisoned.” The doctor’s broad smile turned into one of incredulity as he looked into his patient’s saucer-like eyes. “Poisoned, you say?”
“Yes! That too in my own house! You of all people realize how cautious I have been regarding my health. I ask you to single out one other man who could boast of perfect eyesight and a faultless liver.”
“You are absolutely right”, the good doctor humoured him. Clearly something had agitated the old man recently. Perhaps he had quarreled with his wife, or his son, or the ayah who dogged his steps throughout the day without any apparent reason. “Look, how I sweat today,” Bimal Babu whined, “Look, how my knuckles turn white!”
The doctor patted his thin bony shoulders and murmured words of comfort. Bimal Babu ranted on in his own inimitable manner, “It is the lead paint, I tell you. Flakes flying everywhere, and I can’t even begin to tell you about the dust. Oh, it chokes me, it does.”
“Are you repairing your house?”
“Not me, never! I believe my house is still in its prime condition, yes. Have you seen the old, grand arched entrance? My son, dear man, is a fool. He is redecorating, he tells me, redoing the place, and preserving its character. Liar!”
He spat out the last word with considerable venom, banged his fist on the table and winced. “They are digging up the old paint, and then applying a fresh coat. What’s the use of it all, I ask you? You have seen my house; it is a fine architectural piece. It needs no paint; it needs no colour to spruce it up like a harlot.” His voice softened and his eyes misted over; it was the bitter complaint of a man who could no longer manipulate or influence his present circumstances.
The doctor sat across the table and grinned to himself. Bimal Babu’s paranoia concerning his advancing old age was widely known in the neighbourhood. An erstwhile athlete, he refused to take matters of health lightly. One could even say that the man was terrified of growing old, senile and insignificant. Post his retirement he had opened an unassuming curio shop, tucked away into a nameless corner of his locality. There he spent his long mornings, reading books and solving puzzles. It was a room of his own, not meant for pecuniary dealings.
When he perceived that the doctor had become inattentive he growled impatiently, and mumbled something about his morning tea, and how the world suddenly turns its back on an aged man. The more the doctor reflected on the situation, the more absurd the conversation seemed. At last he intended to put a stop to Bimal Babu’s harangue. “My dear man,” he drawled, “Tell me your symptoms.” Bimal Babu looked puzzled for a while and said, “Why! There’s this congestion in my chest- right here”, he poked himself hard in the ribs with his thin fingers. “Stomach cramps, headaches.” He narrowed his eyes in deep thought and gravely said, “Oh and this tooth, it hurts.”
“Tooth?” The doctor repeated, genuinely puzzled. The rest of Bimal Babu’s hypochondriacal complaints were made-up, fabrications of an old man’s restless mind devoted solely to the study of books on medicines and physiology, but he had never heard of a phony toothache. “Why, let me take a look.”
Sure enough, he found one of Bimal Babu’s molars rotting away. “This, my friend, is not because of lead poisoning. You need to see a dentist straightaway.” Before the irate old man could interrupt him, he hastily continued, “As for lead poisoning, when was the last time you painted your house?”
“Sometime in the eighties, I don’t quite remember- late eighties, maybe?”
“Then you need not worry. I can assure you that the paint currently being peeled off your walls is lead-free.”
Bimal Babu glared at the doctor, unconvinced at the diagnosis, clearly hoping that the doctor would relent and administer a thorough check-up. Instead he was sent off to a nearby dentist to have his tooth extracted without further delay.
Unlike the doctor, the dentist was a silent, severe character. He asked a few direct questions, demanded straightforward answers and as soon as he had studied the panoramic X-ray, he started operating on his patient. Before Bimal Babu could moan out in protest, he grasped the tooth with forceps, twisted and turned it, and wrenched it out. Whimpering in pain, Bimal Babu realized the folly of complaining falsely. His bland life flashed before his eyes, and being a god fearing man, he murmured a prayer to the beings above, while he spat out blood in the cracked white basin. “Never, never again will I visit a doctor without reason. That tooth-” he stared at his molar that lay orphaned in a steel bowl, “That tooth was a perfectly fine specimen.” The dentist pretending not to hear his feeble protests, remarked, “A cut in the mouth tends to bleed more than a cut on the skin because the incision cannot dry out and form a scab. Bite on this piece of gauze for half an hour, and allow the blood to clot. Under no circumstance should you disturb this clot, or else, the bleeding might not get staunched.” His steely voice droned on monotonously, barking out instructions. Stealthily, Bimal Babu reached out for his abandoned tooth and slipped it into his pocket. Still whimpering in pain, and forcibly rendered mute, he walked out of the dentist’s cabin- a broken man.
Instead of returning to his house, he chose to spend the rest of the day at his small curio shop. The shop was indeed an old man’s fancy, a whim to while away the hours of the day. It was stocked with old, worm eaten books, jewelry that had long ago lost their sheen, antique watches, yellowed porcelain dolls and other such worthless possessions. To him, stepping into the shop was like slipping on an overused, frayed at the edges, comfortable coat. He let its old world charm, its soft velvety darkness envelop him for a while. For a moment reassurance burst afresh in his parched heart. He looked into the grainy mirror that hung lopsided beside the counter. His face was a stranger’s, with its ruffled hair and swollen cheeks. Bimal Babu dragged out his rickety chair and let the familiarity of the shop lull him into sleep. It had been a rather peculiar morning. He woke up to a lukewarm cup of tea, whose contents had been rendered inedible. A great flake of paint had peeled off his roof and landed right into his cup. The doctor had laughed off his anxieties, and the dentist had caused him unimaginable suffering. The whole world was conspiring against him, and at the helm of it all was his own son, with his insistence that the house be transformed into a modern monstrosity.
He fished out the tooth from his pocket and laid it on the counter, staring at it fixedly. For a while he was oblivious to everything else; he had found a metaphor for his life in that extracted tooth. I am old, he breathed out, I feel old and useless. His tongue prodded his injured gum gingerly. His mouth felt wet, and tasted metallic. Perhaps, I need to let go, let go of it all. Misery wormed its way into his heart.
A chink of sunshine poured into the shop unexpectedly. The painkillers had rendered Bimal Babu drowsy, and he scrunched up his eyes to look at the blurred figure that had entered his shop. He opened his mouth to speak when the pain shot through his nerves, renewed. His vision cleared and he saw a grizzled, old foreigner with sallow, sickly skin stretched right across his bones pottering about the shop. With his gangly, spotted hands, he picked up various artifacts and inspected them curiously. Bimal Babu’s eyes narrowed in suspicion- he was not used to customers disturbing his hour of meditation and siesta, in fact, he was not used to customers at all! As the cotton gauze, rendered heavy with blood, threatened to slip out of his mouth, he beckoned to the stranger and mumbled incoherently in English. The yellowish man craned his neck, and walked towards the shop-owner, when his sunken eyes fell on the tooth. With a manic grin on his face, he picked it up and turned it over on his palm. Bimal Babu gestured wildly to indicate that it was his tooth and not an article of curiosity, repeatedly pointing towards his mouth. “Toof! My toof!”
The stranger’s face clouded over and he clenched the tooth within his fist. He took out his wallet and fished out some notes. Bimal Babu shook his head vigorously to point out that the tooth was not for sale. He snatched at the other’s closed fist. The man stood still, bemused at the antics of the shop-owner. Exasperated, Bimal Babu signaled him to wait. He turned around to take the gauze out of his mouth, and by the time he turned back towards the counter, shop was empty. The foreigner had disappeared, along with Bimal Babu’s molar tooth. He was astonished, and wondered what else this strange morning would hold in store, when his eyes fell on some crisp currency notes that the shoplifter had left behind. Cautiously he counted the notes; he had been given five thousand rupees in lieu of his tooth. Clearly, allegedly valueless goods could magically acquire unexpected value.
Years later, Bimal Babu would fondly refer to this incident, as the Tooth-Fairy episode- the day when an old and graying fairy, had walked into his shop, and without speaking a word transformed his mundane, bleak worldview with a touch of pure, untainted optimism. Bimal Babu’s dulled memory had wrought fabrications of its own during various retellings of this event; sometimes, he swore that the tooth fairy had looked just like him, and had vanished into a puff of smoke before his own eyes, sometimes he said that the stranger looked unmistakably like one of his great grandfathers. However, the kernel of truth remained untarnished: his chipped soul had been wholly restored. The day he lost his wisdom tooth, Bimal Babu became a wise man.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
“Are ye done in there, ye little tramp?” came with the incessant banging on the bathroom door. In a flash Mimpsy gathered all her cleaning things, prayed silently for her and the loo and with a click of the door opening came face to face with her. She was enormous. Mimpsy was only five feet and having been treated like Quasimodo all her life also had a virtual hump making her even shorter. But Tiara was always the tallest, in any room. Even when her hair looked like it had gone through a mini nuclear explosion, when her eyes looked bloodier than the numerous Bloody Marys she had downed and when she looked puffed and bloated like a corn in hot oil, she still managed to look better than Mimpsy. And Tiara was very aware of it.
“Hogging’ the loo like it belongs to ye, are ye?” her breath smelled of the same stench Mimpsy was trying to get rid of for the past hour and a half. “You were always inconsiderate”, she said as she kneeled in front of the toilet bowl, “just like yer mum was. She was always...” but that was drowned by the sound of her throwing up the rest of last night’s party. Mimpsy’s day had just begun.
The rest of the day was spent in bed with the occasional calls for food and sometimes to remind Mimpsy that it was a pain and a burden to have a baboon in the household. It was only at 9.30 at night did they finally leave allowing Mimpsy a few hours of rest before it all began again. Yes, life was beautiful.
That Sunday seemed like every other Sunday in Mimpsy’s life. It began with Mr. D dropping the familiar cleaning kit on the floor where she had been vacuuming. “Clean,” he said and handed her the big brown mahogany box. Mr. D was never the kind to use many words. He was a lot more physical. He kicked the vacuum and left. Something was wrong. Tiara came two minutes later and confirmed what Mimpsy feared.
“A knife’s missing! Did ye sell it, you greedy rat?” Tiara pointed at the box, the box that once contained seven different kinds of knives, now had just the six. It was a family heirloom. Every Sunday it was Mimpsy’s job to clean, polish and at times to sharpen them. Apparently Mr. D’s ancestors were either butchers or were a part of some circus act. She never dared to clarify.
“Well, where is it?” and without waiting for an explanation picked Mimpsy up by her ragged shirt collar and banged her against the front door. This went on for a while, sometimes with her being pulled and dragged and finally being tossed at a corner of the living room. “Ye get no food tonight till ye tell us where it is ye sold it off to. Do you understand?” Mimpsy kept looking at the floor; she did not have much strength to look up and answer and hoped her silence would be understood as an affirmation. “Try not stealing another one. Now, get back to work!” with that the giant left leaving Jack to tend to his bean stalk.
At 3 a.m. Mimpsy did not wake up to her usual alarm clock ringing. It was a loud scream coming from the bedroom. She scrambled out of bed and ran into the room. There was something unusual about this scream, having been screamed at all her life she knew something was wrong. And then she saw it. Tiara was standing on the large bed with blood all over her and the purple bedcover. Those blood stains were the toughest spots to remove. Her hair was dishevelled and she looked like she had just woken up from a nightmare. But Mr. D looked peaceful lying on the bed, in spite of all that blood covering him like a thick blanket. They had found the missing knife; it was with Mr. D after all, lodged into his chest.
For a while Tiara and Mimpsy stared at each other. This kind of a mess never could fit into Mimpsy’s household chores. No, this required a bigger garbage bag and something much stronger than ‘Mr. John Clean’, the bathroom cleaner. So, she set of to work. Tiara stood silently as she watched Mimpsy as she put on her gardening gloves, take out the big needle and the thick thread and sow the garbage bags together. For the first time she realised how invaluable Mimpsy had been to their home. The trickiest past was separating the huge knife from its owner. Tiara with all her strength grabbed the knife with her bloody hands and pulled it out and Mimpsy held out a plastic bag for it. Mr. D, wrapped in the purple bedcover, was put into the garbage bag. All they had to do now is somehow dispose the body off somewhere, where no one would notice.
“I know what we can do,” Tiara looked like she had an epiphany. “There’s that lake, an hour’s drive from here. The uhm, it’s called..the uhm.. Windsor? Yeah, Lake Windsor!” So it was decided and at 5 a.m. Tiara dragged the bag out of her car and as she was about to dump it into the lake..
“Stop right there.” The voice from the microphone, the sound of the siren and that strange sound that almost sounded like a bark made Tiara drop the bag and put her hands in the air.
The Police Station was buzzing with activity. Fresh donuts had just been delivered and it was the survival of the fittest or possibly the fattest. Amidst all this, Inspector Terran had been examining the newest case. “It’s pretty simple. They partied a lot and she was wasted at the time. She was a bit drunk when we caught her with the body near the lake. ”
“We have a witness who saw how the murder happened?” asked Roy, Terran’s partner of four years.
Terran flipped through the case file. “It’s her step sister, Mimpsy Jones. She saw the whole thing. She’ll be coming down here any minute now.”
Roy placed a plastic bag on the table, “This was under the victim’s bed. It’s got the wife’s finger prints all over the knife in the bag. And the blood matched the victim.”
Terran smiled at Roy’s bored expression. “It’s okay buddy, we’ll get a better case soon.”
There was a knock and both looked up to find Mimpsy standing, small and insignificant like always. Sitting down she looked up at Terran as he asked, “Are you ready to testify against Mrs Tiara Jones D for the murder of her husband Mr. D?” Mimpsy already felt like she was in court.
“Don’t be afraid. I know she is your sister but you are doing the right thing”, Terran gave her an encouraging smile.
Roy read through the file, “You said you saw them leave for a party at 9.30 pm and then at 3 a.m. you woke up to find Mrs D take her husband’s antique knife and stab him in the chest. And then she sowed garbage bags together and stuffed the body in there and kept the knife in another plastic bag. She threatened to kill you if you told the police about this.” Roy looked up at Mimpsy, “But you did the right thing. No one will harm you anymore.”
Terran and Roy led Mimpsy towards the exit. “I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t!” Tiara was being dragged to her new home, prison. She suddenly saw Mimpsy, “She did it! She stole the knife and stabbed my husband! She did it! Not me! Let me go!” Tiara struggled and screamed but in vain.
“I know it must be hard for you, especially after she took you in after your mother died.” Terran added as he watched Mimpsy get into the cab.
Mimpsy smiled for the first time in a long while and said, “Oh no, sir, you are mistaken. She didn’t take me after my mother’s death. She had taken me in after she had killed my mother.” And with that the cab sped off.
Monday, November 15, 2010
On the auspicious morning of Kali Pujo, Biswambhar babu decided to die.
The news spread like wildfire through the back alleys of Bat-tala, crisp as the clattering of type in the print shops, spicy as the perfume of a Chitpur whore, sizzling and scandalous as The Amours of Elokeshi still warm from the press, fifty copies of which Biswambhar babu’s assistant, Haripada, had finished binding only the day before. Presses clanked to a halt as phalanxes of printers rushed down the street, shedding stray pages of the Panchatantra, Battrish Singhashan, Gol-e-hormuj Ketab, Lokhhi’r Panchali, The Paramour of Parameswari, Lustful Dreams of Lonely Wives, Shib-Parbati Parba, Kama-Rahasya, Hemlata-Ratikanta and Shepherd’s Atlas. Their assistants raced after them, dripping ink, glue and perspiration – artists and binders, harlots and pimps, vendors, beggars, urchins and stray dogs clustered at street-corners clamouring for details. Rampant in her little shrine, Ma Kali winced as handfuls of hibiscus were hurled at her like cricket-balls; stared open-mouthed as her devotees abandoned her altar, scuttling off to join their friends at Biswambhar babu’s deathbed.
By noon, a steady procession of would-be mourners could be seen marching along to the little house at the end of the lane. The dying man lay in state in the front room, on the enormous brass bedstead that had been part of Padmabati’s dowry. Plump and comely Padmabati, Biswambhar babu’s widow-to-be, stood weeping copiously at his head; from time to time, she dried her tears and plumped up the six enormous pillows that supported her husband’s languishing form. One by one, Biswambhar babu’s neighbours, his fellow-printers and friends tiptoed up to the bed and tried to persuade him not to die. Was he feeling ill? they asked anxiously. Had he, perhaps, quarreled with his wife or mortgaged his press or been diddled out of a deal? Had that idiot Haripada mixed up the pages while binding those fifty freshly-printed copies of the Amours of Elokeshi? No, said Biswambhar babu shortly and turned his face to the wall.
It was suggested that his favourite food might win him back to life. His middle son was immediately dispatched to the market to buy lobsters, ilish, the best gobindabhog rice and two seers of ghee. Padmabati sat on the kitchen floor shedding tears and grinding shorshe. Biswambhar babu’s brass plate was piled high with delicacies and offered to him by loving hands, the oily fragrance of sweets cooked in ghee was wafted under his nose, plump pods of cardamom were held to his unyielding lips: Biswambhar babu only opened them long enough to utter in ringing tones, 'No!'
The stomach having proved recalcitrant, the next appeal was to the sentiments. Biswambhar babu’s two year- old grandson trailed sticky fingers over his grandsire’s chest, his sons and daughters wept, Padmabati (suffering the combined effects of emotion and mustard-paste) wept even more bitterly. Krishnadas babu, Biswambhar babu’s oldest friend, bent over his bed with a fan of cards in his hand and begged him in broken tones for one last game. Haripada, who had been hovering helplessly in the background, had the brilliant idea of waving The Amours of Elokeshi before his master’s face, but Biswambhar babu proved dead even to the scent of new paper and fresh ink. Motilal, his eldest son, boxed poor Haripada’s ears for bringing dirty pictures to his father’s deathbed.
By evening, the crowd outside had swelled to alarming proportions. Biswambhar babu seemed to feel the excitement: he turned away from the wall, motioned to Padmabati to bring him a paan and muttered indistinctly through it, to his three sons, ‘I have no money’, ‘You’ll get nothing from me,’ and ‘Look after the shop.’
Late at night, Kali Pujo commenced in the mandir. Little by little, all through the afternoon, the dhakis had edged closer to the house. Their manic drumming pounded in Biswambhar babu’s head as fireworks hissed and blazed outside. Chorkis whirled, tubris flowered, kalipatkas exploded deafeningly in a brilliant show of pyrotechnic persuasion. But Biswambhar babu turned his face to the wall again, said (in grave and gravelly tones this time), ‘No.’
Clustered on the balconies of Roshanara Bai’s celebrated brothel, the women looked down at the squat little house. From a particular angle, it was possible to see right through Biswambhar babu’s bedroom window; buxom young Mohsina Bai thought she could make out the dim form of Biswambhar babu himself, lying in bed. She sighed, as did many of Roshanara Bai’s plumper ladies: Biswambhar babu had been particularly partial to their company. Not one of your tight-fisted customers, either, she reflected, rolling a handsome string of pearls between her thumb and forefinger, and so well-versed in all thirty-six poses described (with illustrations) in Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar! A true rasik, and a true gentleman. Not like the goose-pimpled, pigeon-chested, English-speaking, whore-fearing urchins of today. ‘Why do you want to die?’ she demanded of the gunpowdery, burnt-smelling air.
At three o’clock in the morning, the audience outside Biswambhar babu’s window finally dispersed and Padmabati found herself alone with her husband. Impossible to go to sleep beside that inert form. Besides, he and his six massive pillows had left no room for her on the bed. Padmabati stared at Biswambhar babu’s plump, cosseted body, his face which, even in sleep, wore the expression of a peevish child. He had married her when she was ten, sown the seeds of five lusty children in her belly, and done absolutely nothing else for her in the last thirty years. She could not think of a single important reason why she should mourn his passing, yet it seemed immeasurably important that he should not die. Padmabati found herself hurrying out of the house, down the now deserted road, past the shrouded row of printing-presses to the temple at the end of the street. She threw herself at the feet of the goddess. ‘Save him Ma, save him. He is my parameswar, my supreme lord. My life and his are one, his death is my death.’
The goddess snorted. Her divine snort descended upon Padmabati’s ears like a mighty clap of thunder. She sat bolt upright and looked around the empty temple. Ma Kali seemed to be grinning down at her rather sardonically. Padmabati’s eyes were on a level with the goddess’s alta-painted feet, and with Shib-thakur, who was lying beneath them, a supremely fatuous expression on his face.
'That lord of yours is best kept under your feet, child,' a matter-of-fact voice informed Padmabati. ‘Though from what I’ve seen of him, you’ll have trouble balancing on his belly. Then again, you’re no fairy yourself' – the goddess seemed to be gazing approvingly at Padmabati’s plump and shapely arms, ' – you should be able to keep him down.'
'But Ma –' protested Padmabati weakly.
'Much better for him,' said Ma Kali, a little defensively. 'And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll have to lump it, won’t he? Look at my lord, he’s perfectly happy down there and as good as gold. Of course, yours is a different matter. Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar indeed! Amours of Elokeshi! Pinch his nose, and it’ll run printing ink. He even takes his rasabhandar – his thirty-six poses with their matching diagrams – to Mohsina Bai’s bed! Let him die if he likes, Padmabati – he’ll have to answer to me here.'
'Mohsina bai’s bed?' demanded Padmabati, heaving herself to her feet.
'Yes, and a good little whoreling she is too. I won’t have you quarrelling with her, Padmabati, you just leave her alone. Deal with that lord of yours. Sit in his printing-shop, it’s that rascal Ganesha’s new engine. Take a trip on it. See the world!' For a second, Ma Kali’s face was transfigured with pure mischief as she stuck her tongue out at Padmabati and waved two of her four arms as though clanking up the press.
'Thank you Ma.' Touching her head briefly to the altar, Padmabati hurried home.
Over the next few days, Biswambhar babu remained fixed in his resolve. He lay on the huge brass bed, his face a picture of weary resignation, refusing to talk or eat. Every evening he chewed morosely on a single paan that Padmabati prepared for him. The Bat-tala presses began to clank again, but Biswambhar babu’s little print-shop stood silent and forlorn. The very press seemed less black and shiny than before; Haripada moped around the shop with nothing to do, having finished sewing the quires together for a hundred and twenty copies of Kula Kalankini ba Kalikatar Guptakatha.
Biswambhar babu’s neighbours continued to gather in anxious knots around his bed: Padmabati fried them cauliflower singaras and brewed endless cups of sweet, cardamom-scented tea. Biswambhar babu was offered his share of the treats, but he turned his face to the wall and said, in low, resonant tones, ‘No.’ Padmabati did not shed tears as before; she popped a singara into her own mouth and bustled away to discuss the arrangements for Biswambhar babu’s funeral. Regiments of stiff white rajanigandha stood at attention, sandalwood and camphor for the pyre piled up in the courtyard. Padmabati and her daughters-in-law were forever running down to the shops; on haat days they returned with loaded with the finest jasmine-scented incense, yards of white cotton for winding around the corpse, gold rings for the dom to steal, pewter-handled razors for his sons to shave their heads with, gamchhas, dhotis, shawls and umbrellas for the priest, white saris for the widow, red-bordered ones for the other women, ghee and spices, sweets and savouries, enough to feed fifty Brahmins. Biswambhar babu lay with his face turned to the wall; with a piece of chalk pinched from the pocket of his youngest son, he engaged in complex calculations to determine exactly how much they were spending. Even by the most modest estimates, the figures were so staggering that for a second he wondered if they were really the disordered imaginings of his dying brain. Padmabati appeared, flushed and triumphant: she drew fifty crisp new rupees from the lokhhi’r jhaanpi by Biswambhar babu’s head. It was all true.
That evening, Biswambhar babu did not ask for his usual paan. Padmabati came in and sat by his bed. The little window framed a square of flaming sunset sky, huge wings of shadow flitted over the walls, the brass bedposts, the teakwood chest, the tarnished silver of Padmabati’s immense sindoor-box were no more than faint gleams in the room’s dimness. The presses were closing for the day, their last mournful clanks lingered on Biswambhar babu’s ears like the lowing of cows returning at twilight to the fold. The peace of the mellow hour stole into his heart, he forgot his funeral bill of nearly five thousand rupees and felt almost tender towards Padmabati. Poor, ignorant woman – what would she do without him? Was it right to die, on a whim almost, because his tea had not been hot enough one morning, his neemtwig toothbrush had prodded agonizingly at the sore spot on his gum, because the smell of wet ink drifting in from the street had brought on a sudden nausea, as if it were wafting to his nostrils the acrid draught of the world’s indifference, the bitterness of domestic monotony? Perhaps, after all, life was worth living; after all, he was supremely important to this wretched woman by his side. Across the street, lamps glowed in Roshanara Bai’s whorehouse; Padmabati turned to her husband and asked accusingly, 'Aren’t you going to die soon?'
Biswambhar babu shrank into his pillows and said in weak, languishing accents, 'No'.
'Then you won’t mind if I buy myself a new pair of earrings? So many people come to the house these days, this old pair really isn’t fit to be seen. And I might as well go down to the shop one of these days, see how Haripada’s looking after things. No sense in ushering Lokhhi in by the door, then letting her fly out of the window!'
'No,’ said Biswambhar babu in broken tones.
Two days later, Haripada, waggling his feet to the rhythm of his neighbour’s press and thumbing through an unsold copy of Swachitra Ratishastra looked up and froze in horror as he saw Padmabati bearing down upon him like a Benarasi-draped battleship. Cuffing his head with one shapely hand, she snatched the book from him with the other and bellowed, 'Reading, are you, my young lug-headed loon? D’you want to ruin us? Why, you gormless gibbon, your master’s press will crumble into rusty dust before those dirty books can put hair on your skinny chest! Now fetch me the accounts and go to your work. And don’t let me see you sneaking off to chat up that young whore at Roshanara Bai’s, leave her for your master and I’ll buy you a better one.'
The rubies in Padmabati’s ears flashed an angry scarlet, the light streaming through a gap in the wall seemed to strike off her face in a shower of sparks. A dazzled Haripada gasped and scuttled off to start up the press, while Padmabati, clicking her tongue, flicked through the red-bound notebook that was their catalogue of publications. 'Gopon Gopi-katha!' she bellowed. 'Brinda Sangbaad! Rati-rahasya! Sankhhipta Kama-sutra! Kalankini Kankabati with illustrations! Forty lithographs of fornication in full colour! Haripada, ekhane aye…'
Calling upon his ancestors to save him, an ink-stained Haripada scuttled out from behind the press. Padmabati dumped bundles of Biswambhar babu’s more colourful publications in his arms. 'Take these away,' she said sternly. 'You can sell them cut-price in front of Roshanara Bai’s in the evenings. Now start setting the type for a nice illustrated set of Lokhhi’r Panchalis. I want fifty copies bound in scarlet by the day after tomorrow.'
Biswambhar babu’s press shuddered into life again. Padmabati tucked her alta-painted feet under her and flipped fascinatedly through the pages of Pass-Kora Magi: Samajik Prahasan (Bluestocking Bitch: Satirical Sketches of Contemporary Society). In the days that followed, as Haripada clanked out copies of Lokhhi’r Panchali, Annadamangal, Manasamangal, Chandimangal, Sri Krishnakirtankabya and Satibrati Sita-pati, she made her way through Ratibilas, Kama-kahini, Swachitra Ratishastra and (snorting) Rasikpriya’r Rasabhandar. Her education considerably advanced, she then refreshed herself with Yousuf-Zuleikha, The Tales of Amir Hamza, One Thousand and One Nights and Hutom Pyancha’r Naksha. As Biswambhar babu stared through the bars of his window at the lights on Roshanara Bai’s balcony, Padmabati, the jewels in her ears flashing bewitchingly, flirted by the hour with the neighbourhood printers, Kalicharan Ghosh, Bihari Das and Ramkari Mitra, whose consequent neglect of their own print-shops greatly increased the prosperity of hers. She acquired a new layer of sleek golden flesh and a larger set of crocodile-headed bangles to fit her dimpled wrists.
All the talk of that garrulous street now revolved around Padmabati’s astonishing emancipation. No one asked about Biswambhar babu any more, though they remained vaguely conscious of him dying slowly, stubbornly and silently in the background.
And then, one morning, almost in protest, as if he were saying a final, futile, despairing ‘No’ to his complete obliteration from public memory, Biswambhar babu did die. Padmabati, dressed in a new and dashing sari of fine organza cotton and about to float off to the press with billowing turquoise sails, noticed him lying with his face turned up to the ceiling and not towards the wall. She laid her glossy black head on his chest and listened to the silence where there had once been the beat of his heart. Her eyes brimmed over with tears, she thought of the length of white cotton laid away in her teakwood chest, of the sandalwood and camphor waiting silently in the yard. He was gone, just when she had begun to believe he would be lying there forever. Sunlight streamed through the little window, the smell of jasmine drifted across the street from Roshanara’s Bai’s, the little back lane seemed poised in a moment of uncertain silence as Padmabati wondered what she would do now. Then suddenly, an indefinable change came over her features, a slow, subtle, wonderful smile spread over her face, she got to her feet calling briskly for Rakhal-er ma and told her to lay out the body. Then she hurried out of that death-hushed house into the sunshine of the waiting street. It was calling her. She could hear it as she walked quickly along the row of print-shops, the clank of Biswambhar babu’s – no, her – little black printing press.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
I am stranger, a ghost, a drifting shadow. Nameless I float through the crowd, the throng in every shopping mall, village bazaar or seedy bar; I haunt the empty dancing hall, and night-deserted playing ground; hear all and never make a sound, unwatched I watch the world. Indeed I am a mendicant, a vagabond, a bum; indeed I am an only child, indeed I’m on the run. Four years I’ve roved both far and wide, through city and through countryside, unheard, invisible, absurd, four years I have not said a word, have perfected my surreptitious stare, four years I have not had a care.
I have sought oblivion, chased it into the sunset, into the night, chased it over the horizon, over mountains and oceans and deserts of sand and ice. Stripped of identity, shorn from home, I seek my anonymous divinity, seek my right to roam naked through the streets of life an alien, or expatriate at least.
Why do I wish to leave off life, and why have I left home?
Why do I seek to seek alone, and how should I presume?
The truth – I’m on a noble quest, to find a damsel in distress, and find a corner with a view, record, re-order and review the facts and add some jingle jangle, a fight scene or a love triangle, perhaps an ancient gypsy curse, perhaps I’ll write it all in verse.
I am the after-showtime stage, the back of messy notebook page, stalker, stranger, shadow, ghost, the unstamped, misdelivered post; I’m blank as I must need to be, show only half of what I see, indeed I am a raconteur, a poet and a thief.
I’ll steal your face to put in words, I’ll trap your soul to make it heard, I’ll read your stories through your eyes, then mix them up, then throw in lies, then shape and structure and then honour the story with a worthy genre.
I catch a train upon a whim; I do this quite a lot. People in transit are people standing still, existing temporarily in limbo, between worlds, their daily lives suspended or their holiday not begun. For a while they are a bit like me, at least not who they used to be. For a while they can be strange, or still, or stranger still be friends. I like to watch the people waiting for the train to start to stop, at stations like to watch them drop back into the sea of life, of lost humanity.
In the compartment with me are two middle income families, which may as well be one. Father works his government job, sleeps and files, collects his pay, and takes his two week holiday once a year with wife and kids to the same spot as the year before, the year before and the year before. Mother stays at home and cooks, cribs and quarrels and cares, takes an active interest in the personal affairs of neighbours and celebrities, and ancient family recipes. Chintu goes to school but likes to play cricket in corridors and passageways, his sister Sita gets good grades, and wears red ribbons on oily braids.
And then an army of maidservants and migrant labour whirlpooling into the anus big city, sucked in and spat out periodically, sometimes just sucked in.
In that crowd I spot an interesting face. It bears the creases and wrinkles of a lifetime’s hard work, two oddly twinkling eyes and a luxuriant white handlebar moustache that twitched over a somewhat impish half-smile. The man wearing it stands out as one not bearing the mark of any trade. Dressed in a clean but slightly worn dhoti and a faded blue and white checked shirt, he would fit into any one of a hundred different roles.
I begin to ascribe him a background story. He is a farmer. Or perhaps the owner of a small grocery shop. He is travelling from his home in the village (small town?) to arrange the particulars of his daughter’s marriage. Or to procure a job for his eldest son. Or to beg a loan or pay a bribe, mortgage land or ask for a waiver of interest. Perhaps he is a proud, independent patriarch paying a visit to one of many children, or on his way to resolve a family dispute.
I notice that he carries nothing with himself, not even a small bag, and guess that his journey is perhaps not a significant one, but rather one that he undertakes regularly, perhaps every day, probably to work.
Or maybe nothing’s all he owns, or maybe he’s like me, itinerant and gypsy soul, a noble sanyasi. Or maybe even something more, or maybe he’s like me.
He sits by the open door, lights a biri and watches the countryside stream past. He puffs leisurely, stretching out and savouring each drag, blowing majestic jets of smoke through his nostrils. He seems lost in the moment, seems to be living it out of context, moulding it into its perfect place in his own mind.
The train moves fast on sea legs, wobbling but rattling out a steady rhythm over the tracks. The tracks seem to grow out of each other and melt into each other, seem to dance in frenzied grace beneath us. He stares, appears to contemplate them deeply.
He stubs his biri butt end and throws it out the door. Then he stands up, looks directly at me, winks, and jumps out after it.
Note: Any and all grammatical, syntactical or other miscellaneous errors were made on purpose and may be written off to artistic license.
As when a little Girl.” -- Emily Dickinson.
In the corner of her treehouse, Emily thought about the colour of hunger. It was noon, and she had been up at the crack of dawn. She had not eaten breakfast, and she could see the bilious yellow vapour thickening around her. Her tummy rumbled, and she patted it twice to quieten it. It would not do to be heard.
A fat cicada fluttered past her like it was on a mission. Emily was tempted to whisper to it: “Family: Cicadidae, suborder: Homoptera, many genera.” She said it in her head.
Theo had had yet another spell. He was raving in his room. Mummy was running all over the house fetching things while Daddy stayed in Theo's room, looking at him with a supremely silly expression on his face. Emily had slipped out unnoticed. She had on her favourite powder blue jumper that day, and a red ribbon in her hair. She grew restless and climbed down the tree. Her trainers squelched in the mud as she ran the length of the farm, so she had to take them off until she reached the gate that led outside of the farm. Emily loved running. She ran like the wind -- her mother said it was a delight to watch her, she made it look so effortless. She had run in the 500 m Young Survivors Marathon and had beaten everyone else by a huge margin. All the families that lived on the Kwai Delta had come to watch, and those few families that still had children had enthusiastically participated.
Theo had said she made him imagine those airplanes that Daddy always talked about, the ones Daddy had flown before petrol had run out. Theo had flown in some of the very last airplane flights still open to the public before they shut them down completely.
She thought of Theo as she ran. And as she thought of him, she ran faster and farther from the farm. She didn't notice the people looking at her. She didn't even notice the gradual darkening of the sky, the gentle raindrops that began to fall. Emily could see Theo when they were both younger – Emily only five, and Theo twelve. Theo never raved then, he played football and laughed and had scabs on his knees. This one time, on his birthday, he had woken Emily up first thing in the morning, put her on his shoulders and taken her for a run around their old house. Emily was slowly feeling the pain in her legs, and she realized with a jolt how dark it was, how worried they all must be. They must be looking for her. A knot began to rise up in her stomach. She turned around and began to run back twice as hard, ignoring the pain in her legs, ignoring the rain falling steadily on her head.
You might say it was the stopping that changed everything. As Emily hurried home, her marvelous toes barely touching the ground, she began to slow down to stop for a second. Her six long braids were unraveling, and she paused to tighten the ribbon that tied them together. Pema and Rudy, who were there while it happened, described it as a quick flash of light that disappeared in a second, having hit Emily squarely on the head. Emily had then flown in the air and immediately crashed down with a dull thud. All Emily remembered was feeling like she had been hit by something big, and strong, and being sore all over after she regained consciousness.
She woke up in her own bed, surrounded by her anxious looking parents and about fifteen other people, including Pema and Rudy, who had helped to bring her home. Mummy had been peering at her with the special expression that was usually reserved for Theo when he had one of his “spells”.
Healer Rubart said that it was nothing to worry about, no bones had been broken, but the people who kept milling about her kicked up such a fuss that you'd think she was on the brink of death. Pema's mother had had an anxiety attack right there, in the living room, while several of the other adults had crying spells. Emily overheard a great deal of muttering while she pretended to be fast asleep.
“Only about twenty seven of them left...” “You know we can't have a baby, we've tried so many times, but the Healers say that the radioactive damage is too great...” “This is a risk we simply cannot take again, Fael. Why was Emily running around outside?”
Emily felt that familiar knot in her stomach again, so she opened her eyes and looked out of her window. The azalea bushes fluttered in the breeze. “Genus Rhododendron, family Ericaceae: many cultivars,” she said to them, and drifted off to sleep.
When Emily woke up again, she was conscious of another kind of muttering. “Little girl, one of the last...I heard the squealing inside her head.” The voice sounded like someone rubbing two pieces of gravel together. She was puzzled by this. Was this Rudy's father, with a cold perhaps? She peeked but could only see Theo quickly leaving her room.
The mutterings followed her wherever she went. The adults were all concerned for her, and Mummy and Daddy were at their wit's end making sure she was always within eyesight. She was never scolded; she was never ignored either. Emily began to tire of the constant attention. She couldn't shut the door to her room because she'd worry them. She couldn't go for a walk because she'd worry them. Theo didn't even rave anymore, attention was never diverted from both of them for a minute. Theo just threw himself into history books and his maps and diaries of the Old World. The knot in Emily's stomach grew tighter every time she walked into a room and her parents abruptly stopped talking. Emily missed running. She wanted to feel the wind in her braids.
Not wanting to send her off again, Mummy allowed her to have short walks within the boundaries of the farm. She was always to stay within the fences and must be accompanied by someone if she wished to go out.
She had gone out that day. It had been a glorious looking day. Her brown skin had paled to a light biscuit colour, but as soon as she sprinted in the sun she glowed. That's when she heard the mutterings again. She was so fast she couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Whoever they were, they'd leave in a while.
She ran the length of the farm and back again, and still she heard them. This was really annoying. Couldn't she be left alone even for a moment? She had worked herself up to a proper eleven year old girl's rage tantrum now, and was ready to scream at whoever would listen. She stopped. It was that gravely voice again, and it seemed to be coming from the woods. Really, it was one of the strangest voices she'd ever heard. “Eagle girl...hear our story. Tell your kind to leave the Kwai...” “Leave peacefully, and seek other islands in the archipelago, and you will not be harmed...”
Emily stiffened. Who could it be? Rudy and Theo playing a trick on her? “Theo? Rudy?”, she called, not moving from her spot. “Stop it, you're creeping me out.” “Little girl...eagle girl...you are the last of your kind...tell them you will be the first to go.” Emily dashed into the trees without warning. She would catch Theo and give him a piece of her mind. She sprinted straight into the woods and ran around in them looking everywhere for a sign of him.
She found no one. The mutterings rang in her ears as she sprinted out of the woods and back into her clearing.
“Who is it? Speak up!”
“It is us, eagle girl, we are the spirits that make up all the life of the Kwai.” Emily thought about the colour of fear, and saw its dirty green hissing motions in the air towards her, for she realized that it was no human voice she was hearing. She turned and bolted in the direction of the farmhouse.
It was Emily who didn't want to leave the house now. It puzzled her parents, but nobody complained. Yet she couldn't get rid of the voice. It seemed to be everywhere she went. She was petrified of it. Where Theo would have ranted, she whimpered. Her alarmed family did all they could to comfort her. The voice persisted in trying to talk to her, and most of its intimations were dire warnings. Emily never answered.
It was only when it started making active threats that Emily considered telling. It was a Saturday, and the voice had been silent for the night. In the morning, as Emily made her way back into her bedroom after breakfast though, the voice told her Pema was in trouble. “The foolish girl plucked azaleas yesterday...tell them, eagle girl, their old ways are not welcome here...she will see...”
In the evening, Rudy and Amir came running to the farmhouse, and told them that a lichen-laden branch had fallen over Pema's head an hour ago as she played in the garden. Healer Rumbart was already at their house, trying to revive her. They all rushed to Pema's cottage, where her family was distraught. Watching Pema lying on the bed with a big bandage wrapped around her head hit Emily like that cursed branch of lightning had hit her three weeks ago.
That night, she spoke to the voice. “What is it that you want from us? Answer me!”
“We told you, eagle girl, we want you to take your kind and leave the Kwai Delta...take your big ships and find another island..there is no place for you here...”
There was a full yellow moon in the plum coloured sky that night, and Emily didn't get a wink of sleep. She negotiated with the voice all night. It was cryptic and implacable, and merely repeated itself over and over again. Emily tired of trying to coax it to change its decision or reveal more information, and shed tears at the break of dawn.
Talking to the voice had made it disappear. Having communicated its demands, it no longer muttered to Emily all the time. She ran the conversation in circles around her head, and the only conclusion she reached was that the voice and its power were both real, and that it did not want them on the Kwai. As the days went by, Emily began to relax. Maybe it had listened to her plea for compromise and peaceful co-existence after all.
It was not until Pema was found dead the following weekend that Emily thought seriously about the voice again. She had been out in the garden alone, waiting for Rudy, so they could both walk to Emily's farmhouse and take history lessons from Theo. She was found lying on the ground with an azalea blossom clasped in her right hand, and a heavy branch that seemed to have hit her head and rolled off her lifeless body.
The funeral had a quality of desperation about it. There were only twenty six children in the New World now – this was unlike the sensation of reading of a child's death in the newspaper that would have characterized the Old World; people knew each other, and a large family deeply mourned Pema.
The next few weeks took on a nightmarish quality for all the citizens of the New World. No children played outside, all the adults were supremely vigilant. Emily was seized by the kind of dilemma her eleven year old mind was not equipped to handle. And then Adam's body was found floating down the Ayumba stream. Some ivy was wrapped around his neck, which bore strangulation marks. This was the sort of hysteria that had seized people while the Old World was in the process of ending.
When Rudy passed away, Emily could wait no longer. She gathered her family in the living room and told them everything about the voice. Theo and Mummy looked very alarmed, and Mummy began to hesitantly talk to Emily, “Emily darling, you haven't been quite right since the accident...”
“This has happened before,” Emily's father quietly interjected. “This happened to me in the Old World, when I was a field biologist in Polynesia. It was very close to the end, and this voice was haunting me, telling me I needed to do something.”
Red panic and purple relief weaved in the air around Emily.
It was a good thing that Emily's father was one of the foremost explorers in the Kwai archipelago expedition. The dead children and the peculiar circumstances under which they had been found strengthened Emily's case. The people were desperate for any solution, if it meant that no more children would die.
The whole community went into the forests of the Kwai Delta the following morning. It was wrapped in a menacing silence and punctuated by streaming sunlight which permeated the darkness of the forest. Determination hung thick and brown around Emily's person.
All that was left of the human race settled itself on the forest floor. If any had doubted Emily before this, the strange song humming in their heads as they sat in silence converted them irrevocably. They knew not how long they sat there, with that strange and beautiful humming buzzing in their ears. Each seemed to be conversing silently with the spirits of the Kwai. The ivy slithered around them, and the lichen glistened with dew. Emily sat in the center, and the song that grew into a crescendo in their heads burst forth from her lips at a counterpoint. It was a colour none of them had ever seen before. They could not have named it had they tried. It engulfed her completely, until she was only a deep gravely voice singing that strange song. The very trees seemed to be singing to the sky. As the song and the colour began to engulf them all, the diminuendo of the strange music lulled them into the depths of peace. Perhaps the unnamed colour was that of the most beautiful silence never to be heard again.
Note: The Emily Dickinson quote was just a prompt for the story. The story has nothing to do with it as such.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
|6||Shamim Akhtar Molla||8||5||13|
|49||Debopama Das Gupta||6.5||7||13.5|
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
WRITING IN PRACTICE
END OF TERM STORYTELLING
The following people will present their final stories
from 3pm in the PG2 classroom on these days
Monday 8 November 2010
Samim Akhtar Molla
Tuesday 9 November 2010
Wednesday 10 November 2010
Debopama Das Gupta
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
You need to give two stories for internals.
For end sem you write and present a story at the end of term, and you also give an exam in the usual way. get 10 for the story, 10 for presentation and 10 for the final exam, making a total of 30. The final story should not be longer than 2000 words.
|14||Shreya Sanghani||8||.5 |
|6||Shamim Akhtar Molla||8||5|
|49||Debopama Das Gupta||6.5||7|
Another piece I can't place, unhelpfully left unsigned by author. Why can't you people type your names? The is called "Sweet Dreams are Made of These, but as you can see the author hasn't bothered to put the title in the piece. The file properties are deliciously blank. I'm suspecting Rajdeep Pal. Good people, if you find it embarrassing to have your pieces put up, then you should be considerate and sign them.
His bedroom is always where it begins. He is scared to turn the lights off at night because he has always been ridiculously afraid of the dark. So a bright red bulb was fitted last night in his room because his parents are pretty sick of his complaints of insomnia. If there is anything more terrifying than darkness, it is red lights. The waves in which the frequencies wash over him. It reminds him of the slaughter houses that he so carefully tries to avoid each time he has to go out on the roads. It sends him into a trance and he feels disgusted with himself when he wonders what goes on inside an abattoir. It is always red. The colour never wears off, because it cannot. He always ends up peeping out of the auto, to look at the faces of random butchers, who are now familiar to him because, well, he cannot forget their faces. Their blank, rigid faces. At times, he has even seen them laugh. He has been told they are not monsters. They are only doing there job. They have families to feed. But the puzzle he can never solve, is how they sleep at night. He is reminded of Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate and their subtle sensibilities which wreaked havock with their conscience at the murder of one individual. He is reminded of how man is created in god's image, of his sublime aesthetic attributes, his higher capabilities, and he again returns to his unsolved puzzle about how these people lead a stable, normal existence. How they sleep at night. They surely sleep at night. He is sure they somehow drown out the horrible, horrible, cries that they so carelessly ignore, and sleep. He is sure they do not ever look into the terrified eyes of those who helplessly struggle and make feeble attempts at survival. He guesses they do not think twice about it. They can only sit hunched outside the meat shops. Sharpening the blades. Sharpening them relentlessly. Concentrating only on the blade. The severed heads. The dull dead eyes in the severed heads. The blade on the head. The carcasses hanging. The blood that drips down on the pavement. The people who pass by the pavements without even noticing it. The children who wait patiently outside the meat shops with their mothers or fathers on busy weekend mornings. The goats that remain tied, one after the other outside the meat shops, awaiting their fate patiently, much like the queue that lines up beside them. And he screams because he can hear their scream. And he is wide awake. He is wide awake and he wishes it was a dream, but it's not. The dull red waves that come crashing down on him feel real when he feels the sweat that drenches him on most nights. He knows that they do not have nightmares. But neither does he.
Please tell me who wrote this story, titled informatively "The Desk", unsigned either in the text or in the file properties, and, if the file properties are to be believed, created by the University of Buffalo. If you continue to be coy about your identity, you will not get marks.
“That is so cliched,” said Noori. “That's your idea of a mystery story?”
“You have anything better to offer?” asked Javed. He was clearly irritated. She was so presumptuous sometimes. Like her ideas were all path-breaking. And like his were all crap. If that was so, why wasn't she the one writing to pay their bills?
“I can't blame you. Our life is such a cliché. Everything we say is a cliché. There's nothing new about any of it. So typical we are.”
There she goes again, he thought. Launching forth on her sea of complaints. Boring life, typical life. Nya nya.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don't you do something about it? Why don't you write down your lines beforehand, improvise, think of clever new things to say and do, and then rehearse them, before spilling in front of me or anyone else?”
“That wouldn't stop my thoughts from being typical, would it?”
“Do the same with them.”
“But I can't control all my thoughts. Some may be, but not all. At least the initial ones would automatically be conventional. And the ones that come after, the 'refined' ones… well see, the entire process of trying to perfect my thoughts and words and preserve them from conventionality itself is so conventional.”
“Honey, you're mental, you know that?”
“You're the one who's suggesting I do twisted things with my thoughts.”
“I did it to stop you from complaining about silly things.”
“You don't understand my need to break away from conformity. And you're supposed to be a writer!”
Javed decided not to argue and went to get himself a cup of coffee. She's so confused. Her thoughts flit backwards and forwards without following any discernible pattern. And she thinks in such ridiculous illogical ways.
Javed and Noori Azim had been married for four years, and led an ordinary sort of life in an ordinary flat in Mumbai. Javed was a freelance journalist and occasional writer of short stories, which got published in various selections for a small price. They survived off this, because Noori did nothing of any assistance to their finances. Like any other ordinary couple, they had their ups and downs, but mostly downs as time and their relationship progressed.
Javed and Noori began dating as college students, and married soon after they had earned their respective masters degrees. Post-graduation, Noori worked for a year as an air hostess, but gave it up in favour of a more sedentary life after marriage. She had dreamed of being a commercial pilot with a big name in the aviation industry, but her parents didn't have the sort of money needed to put a child through flying school. Nevertheless, her millionaire uncle, who could fly his own little helicopter, had given her a few basic lessons in flying the craft. In the end, though, she settled for the other job. In spite of quitting “apropos of nothing”, as Javed put it, she still dreamt of airplanes. Sitting at home, she had developed certain unhealthy obsessions and psychoses, one of the most important being that her life - their life - was a cliché. She feared that she would die a clichéd death.
Their relationship was as typical as the rest of it. They had started out deeply in love, infinitely compatible, and completely understanding of each other. With the years, their understanding was gradually unwinding, and god knows where their compatibility had gone, or if they had ever had it at all. The strangers in them were growing fast. Javed was irritated by her new mental issues, and wondered where their relationship was heading. No more the days of listening on the phone for hours on end to the miseries besetting her life. The fact that she did nothing to make ends meet did not help matters. He could feel their communication breaking down bit by bit.
“Why? For god's sake, Anne! I know your name's not Anne, but I just felt like saying it. Anne, why?”
“Move! You stink of booze! Filth,” and she pushed him aside, her hand covering his mouth.
Javed fell back on his pillow with a sigh. He could feel the high begin to recede. This was just not working. “Why are you doing this?”
Oh god, Noori groaned internally. He's so typical, I could write a self-help book for ten million other women.
She must be obsessing about something again, thought Javed. “Will it be okay if I gargle with Listerine?”
“I don't want a minty lover.”
“Then what the f*** do you want?”
“I need a holiday.”
“From what? From being on holiday?”
Noori's nostrils flared. “Why do you always have to pack an insult into everything you say?”
“You know what? I think I'll go out for a walk. I can't take this shit.”
“By all means, go!”
Javed pulled on his shirt and picked up his wallet and phone. As the door closed behind him, Noori began to cry.
Their bedroom consisted of a simple wrought-iron bedstead, gifted by Noori's mother to the couple on the occasion of their wedding, a stand-alone wooden almirah that contained Javed's clothes and the couple's important documents and possessions, a wardrobe built into the wall containing Noori's clothes, a small dressing table, a single standing lamp on her side of the bed, a TV and an old desk with a folding chair in front of it. There was a door leading into the living room, and another leading to a balcony that resembled a cage, overlooking a by-lane leading away from Chowpatty Beach. Too bad they couldn't afford an apartment overlooking the beach itself, said Javed. He was mad about the sea. Even the filth on the beach couldn't deter him from running across it and wading in when other men would be watching sport at home or taking their wives and girlfriends out to lunch.
The most interesting piece of furniture in the room, and indeed, in the flat, was undoubtedly the desk. It was an antique made of solid oak, and had been handed down from generation to generation in the Azim family, beginning with Javed's great grandfather, who had been in the service of the Peshwa. After migrating to Maharashtra from Gujarat, he had earned the Peshwa's trust through his dedication and unwavering loyalty, and the desk had been a gift from the great man himself. It had been the Azims' most important piece of movable property for a century, excepting a narrow gold ring with a great Belgian diamond set in it that the Peshwa had gifted to the Begum. This ring had been gifted to Noori on her wedding day by her mother-in-law. She rarely wore it – only on special occasions. It stayed in the locker in Javed's almirah most of the year. But she had no other wedding ring.
Alone in the flat, Noori could hear the thudding from the living room of the flat above. That fat Verma woman must be flopping around again in her old nightdress. She would come down sometimes for a cup of tea with Mrs. Azim. The discussion would always come round to the question of working. And Mrs. Verma would make her usual unsubtle dig at Noori. “Ye bewakoofi thi. Touch wood, agar unhone kabhi kuch kar diya, toh...?” Then she would go back upstairs to be shouted at and occasionally beaten by her ugly, cynical husband. She couldn't help but harbour the strong conviction that if she had had a job, she would have had the guts to walk out. And that Mrs. Azim, having had one and..!
The truth was, Noori herself did not quite know why she had quit her job. May be it was the vague notion that the jetting back and forth from city to city constantly would hamper her marriage, that made her do it. In reality, Javed had no such complexes, but Noori did, and she knew she did. Then there had been the idea that being married to Javed would mean everything would be alright, that he would magically take care of everything, himself and her. I've killed my career deliberately, she would think to herself sometimes, I can't blame him for it. And yet, as the days passed, she couldn't help blaming him more and more, not just for her situation, but for everything else as well. Is this what our marriage is coming to, she would think at other times. What they call a blame game? One day he would beat her like Mr. Verma beat his wife, and then what would she do? She had parents left to go back to, but she wouldn't go back to them – she was too proud. She could look for another job, but all the stress was ageing her fast. They would be on the lookout for fresh faces, just out of one or the other of the airhostess academies. And how would she explain the break in her career? And all of this was... no, she checked herself. I will not use that word again. I must have developed OCD. I need to see a shrink.
They were having another fight. Their fights were getting more frequent and bitter. These were interspersed by periods of calm and love, with nothing worse than a few caustic words and subtle allegations thrown in here and there. Still, tolerable for the most part. Noori was sinking in her own personal pit of psychosis, boredom and blame, bit by bit.
“What do you want from me???”
“I want a normal wife!”
“Oh and you think you're the ideal husband, do you? Who are you to go calling me a…a....” her full lips were trembling.
“What did I say wrong?? Huh?? HUH??” Javed's eyes were starting out of their sockets, and spit was flying with every word. The last was a scream.
“You f*****g have gone frigid! You shouldn't be saying anything!! You're always going on about utter bullshit, and you're telling me, you b****!!”
“Stop calling me filthy names, you jerk!!”
“Oh yeah?? Stop me if you can!!”
“You're such a bully!! You're screaming like a f******g kid!!”
Javed made a grab at her across the bed, but she ducked in time. She reached for the ashtray on the desk and threw it at him. It missed his head by an inch, and shattered against the empty wall space between the wardrobe and the dressing table. Howling by now, she ran around the edge of the bed and out of the bedroom. She shot into the bathroom and locked herself in.
Javed sat down on the bed. He was breathing heavily, panting, almost. Calm yourself, he thought. She's pulling you into her melodrama. Her clichéd melodrama. Oh crap! What am I doing using that word?? She's making me as crazy as herself!
Noori bent over the sink in the bathroom, gasping for breath through her sobs. She needed to do something. It was time to do something. She knew. Turning on the tap, she splashed water all over her pretty swollen face. Then she unlocked the door.
“I'm leaving, Javed.”
Lying across the bed, he grunted in reply.
She stood still looking at him for a second, then rushed to her wardrobe and began to throw some clothes higgledy-piggledy into a large bag. After about fifteen minutes, Javed appeared to register this fact.
“Where are you going to go, may I ask?” he said with a sneer that he didn't feel.
She didn't reply, but continued.
“Going to carry on this drama, are you?”
She said nothing.
“You know how typical this is, then? Every third woman does this. Every third couple end like this. You going to live a cliché, baby?”
He was jabbing where it hurt most. She ceased for a split-second, then continued.
“I can see someone writing our story down. Another story like a hundred others.”
He was sitting up now, watching her with hawk-like eyes. She could feel his keen gaze noting every little movement about her person. She had felt it before, innumerable times, but then it had been a look of love. If a solitary hair had been moved out of place on her head by the gust from the ceiling fan, he would have noticed. Now, it made her feel intensely uncomfortable.
She turned on her heel, and walked out of the room, hoisting the bag on her shoulder as she went.
Javed was sitting in the living room, working at a story on his laptop. Eighteen weeks had passed since Noori’s dramatic exit. Over those weeks, he had missed her immensely; he had wanted her back. And she was back.
It had been a tough decision for Noori – returning to Javed. During the months of her absence, she had not spoken to him on the phone even a single time. After the first few weeks of shock and intense feelings of betrayal were over, they had been in touch over email. Noori had not told him where she was. It was a grand act of self-control on her part: she had never refrained from telling him anything. But she had known this was something she had to do.
For her, the days had been long and the nights, longer. Her cousin had sub-let a little flat in Chembur to her, and she had found work as a primary school teacher nearby. The money had been small, but enough for a frugal life. Thank heavens for those old degrees, what would she have done without them? In the evenings, she would read alone, or take an auto down to Juhu beach. She would sit there by herself, eating chaat, or walk in the sea with her feet submerged till the ankles. It was a lonely life, but she thought she rather liked it.
But something was festering in her head, and when Javed finally started pleading with her to come back, he didn’t know it. She, who had always been short of self-control, didn’t take long to be convinced. Besides, she missed him intensely. So one fine day, four and a half months after her departure from their apartment, she returned to it.
Noori came in with a slice of cake on a plate and handed it to Javed.
“Did you make this?”
“If I had made a cake, wouldn’t you have been aware of it? It’s not that big a flat.”
“What’s that you’re writing?” She peered over his shoulder at the laptop screen.
“Oh, nothing, just a story on this old Anglo couple who committed suicide in Bandra last week.” Javed snapped his laptop shut and proceeded to eat his cake. “You know, this thing’s got me intrigued, I think I’ll write a little something on those lines… I need to research their lives.”
“Anyway, what’s up baby?”
“Nothing, was just thinking a bit.”
Javed gave her a steady look. “And?”
“No, nothing too serious, don’t look so worried.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Are you planning to leave again, Noori?”
“No… oh no… it’s just… oh f***.” Noori held her head in her hands as if it were a football, and gave the floor a look full of angst.
“What is it, love?” Javed put his plate down and put his arm around her shoulder.
“It’s just that I’ve created this void in my head, and I can’t fill it up.”
Javed looked puzzled.
“You know, what I’ve told you a hundred times. Our lives, they’re so bloody clichéd.”
“Oh no, not again, Noori.”
“No I mean it... ”
“No, not that old line again, please, love.”
“But I can’t… it’s killing me…”
“Now you’re being a teenager or less.”
“Okay listen. I have a plan. We’ll do away with this forever.”
“How?” Noori, who was gradually working herself into a fit, looked sceptical.
“We’ll have someone write a story on us. May be not on paper, but in their heads. In fact, with what I’ve got in mind, several people will be writing stories on us in their heads. May be they’ll do it together, discuss it, work in collaboration. By any means, they will try to reconstruct our lives, because our lives, to them, will be a great mystery.”
“What are you going on about?”
“We’ll do something that’ll make people think. Think about what happened, think about who did it, and why.”
“And the stories people come up with cannot be quite as clichéd as the lives we live, can they? There. We’ll have interesting lives, unusual lives, if only in the heads of strangers. But you used to say yourself, back in college, that the lives we live in the imaginations of others are more real than our actual ones, remember?”
Noori was silent.
“So here’s my plan. We’ll take our memories – our closest, most precious memories, and put them in.. say…” – he looked around the room – “that old desk. I know it’s Abba’s precious old desk, but it’ll have to go to serve our purpose. We’ll put them in it, lock it up, and send it off to an auction house. We won’t leave a return address; they won’t be able to trace it back to us. And then they can find our memories for themselves and wonder where they came from and what they mean. Nice, no?” Javed glowed.
“But that’s stupid. Why Abba jaan’s good old desk?”
“Because it’s precious. And it’s a life memory. It’ll carry more weight in their minds. And it’s a goddamn auction house. You need something substantial to send. What else can we send?”
“It’ll be a big loss, that desk will.”
“Can’t help it. We need to fix our lives first, love.”
He knew she was pleased that it was the desk that was going. She had nothing against it, or his Abba, but in her mind, the desk was a treasure. A treasure for him, a treasure for his family. And the fact that he was sacrificing it for her would heal her troubled mind somewhat. It would reassure her of his love. Javed felt pleased with himself. He could see the end of their problems in sight. The desk as a carrier of their troubles, taking them away from Noori and himself… Good gracious! I’m a real genius, he thought.
He got to work as Noori sat and watched.
“Where’s the ring? The Belgian one.”
“It’s in the locker, of course.”
“Give it to me.”
Noori gasped. “You’re sending off the ring? Are you crazy? That thing costs lakhs! And it’s my only wedding ring!”
“Our memories, hon. Our dearest memories go.” This was another stroke of pure genius on his part, he thought to himself. Taking what he knew was precious to her, not just what she knew was precious to him. Simplifying their lives. Javed gloated in the rationality of his idea. They needed to do something drastic to bring about a drastic change in their lives. In her head.
“Here. What next?”
“Umm…something from our holidays. What about the feather?”
“The one from Jaipur?”
They had gone to Rajasthan on their honeymoon, and that was when he had given her a lovely long gleaming feather from a peacock’s tail. She found it for him, and it joined the ring in the old desk’s stiff drawer. This was followed by a seashell Javed had found on Chowpatty Beach, and had had made into a key-ring, with the key to the first flat they had ever rented together attached to it.
“Now, darling, a lock of your lovely hair.”
Noori obliged. She was feeling decidedly flattered by now. She got out a pair of scissors and snipped. A long gleaming black curl fell into the drawer as she bent over it.
To top it all off, Javed threw in a little wad of Singaporean money, coming to roughly fifty dollars, which had been left over from a trip they had made after a particularly lucrative month. It had been a fine two weeks in the island nation for them, something they had known they would cherish for years to come. They hated to admit it, but it had been the last time they’d been truly happy together.
Under the name of Harish Manjrekar, Javed called an auction house he had located at the other end of town, and told them that he was shifting from his old bungalow on Malabar Hill to a new flat in Bandra, and wanted to clear away some old ancestral furniture before the move. He wanted to send an ornate old oak desk, which had been in his family for over a hundred years, to them. The man at the other end did not ask too many questions, and readily agreed. He could do with a solid old oak desk. Javed sighed with quiet relief. The conversation was short and quick.
The next day, Javed paid the owner of a matador who lived in the vicinity as handsomely as he could, and packed off the Peshwa’s desk to the auction house he had called. When the matador was out of sight, Javed went upstairs and told Noori triumphantly that the thing was done.
They were on holiday. Javed had decided - as he had begun deciding things of late – that time away together from life in the city would be good for Noori and their ailing relationship. So they had chosen a little town in the Western Himalayas, with a nice little valley on one side of it and a couple of decent hotels overlooking the valley. It wasn’t much, but it would do. And it was all they could afford that month.
Noori looked out the window of their room. A gold-laced, iced range of mountain peaks met her gaze.
“I must say, the view’s damn good at this place.”
“Yeah, we’ve got our money’s worth alright.”
“Uff, it always comes down to the money for you.”
Javed smiled. He was the more monetary-minded of the two. But could he help it? She was never one for looking after their finances. He earned, he kept track. It was alright. That’s how things worked out between people anyway. Javed felt benevolent as he joined her at the window.
“So what are we going to do today, hmm?”
“What about a helicopter ride?”
“A helicopter ride?”
“Yeah, there’s a little helicopter pad somewhere on one of the nearby hills... I was thinking, we could take a jeep there and take a short ride. It’s a grand and a half per hour. What about it, huh?”
“An hour should do it.”
“Great.” Javed rubbed his hands together.
What an organizer he was! Noori thought. He saw to everything.
After breakfast, they hired a jeep down to the pad, and engaged a helicopter. The pilot was a robust young man glowing with health and happiness, and the lilting mountain accent with which he spoke English was charming to hear. He made polite conversation, and Javed and Noori felt themselves a part of his contentment – the general contentment that seemed to pervade the mountain people and their lives. It was all good, Javed thought to himself.
The blades began to whirr, and the helicopter took off. The buzzing was loud, so Noori covered her ears with her hands as she had been wont to do even in the days of her uncle’s ‘copter. The air itself seemed to pulsate with the craft’s vibrations. For the first few minutes, Javed felt a little disconcerted. But as they rose steadily upwards and then soared over the valley towards the mountains, a strange feeling of what could only be described as glee overcame him. This was worth living for. Life had its dirty ways, but what of it?
“Look down, look down, Javed!” Noori cried excitedly.
Javed gasped. They were high up, and the valley lay directly below them. A long deep gash in the side of the mountain range, which truly seemed one body now. Shades of green and brown merged in shadow below. It was like a strange clay model that you would find at the office of the geological survey. Far down, thousands of feet beneath them, a slate river wound snake-like along the bottom of the valley.
“Sir, madam, look ahead,” said the pilot in his pleasant voice.
Directly ahead was the first, and lowest, of the mountain peaks. As the crow flies, it must have been no more than a dozen kilometres from where they hovered.
It was breathtaking. “Can’t we go any further?” Javed asked.
“Just a little further ahead, sir.”
They flew for another ten minutes, swerving this way and that, but generally moving ahead. The closer the icy peaks got, the faster Javed’s heart beat.
“This is as far as we can go. Now we must turn back,” the pilot told them.
Javed sighed. It was beginning to be over already.
The helicopter swerved right, and began to make a wide u-turn over the valley. Javed leaned against the window, looking out.
Suddenly, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that made him turn sharply towards his right. What he saw amazed him.
Noori was leaning over the back of the pilot’s seat towards the cockpit area, and appeared to be trying to wrest the controls from the pilot. “Madamji, what are you doing!” the man cried. “Sir, control her!”
In the brief blur of seconds that followed, Javed flung himself on Noori and tried to hoist her off the man. She put up a violent struggle, and the pilot, in his attempt to free himself of the crazy woman, let go of the controls.
“What are you doing, Noori?” Javed screamed in the middle of the chaos.
“Making sure the desk can’t be traced back. Let’s just live in their heads now.”
In the tumult, none of them noticed as the helicopter slowly began to catapult downwards.