From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,

The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.

But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.

Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.

There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.

Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.

Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.

The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.

Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.

This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?

How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places.  Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.

‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.

Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.

Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.

Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.

The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.

The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?

Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.

Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.

This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.

My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman  in this area.

Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.


Every Sunday: Binod Ghoshal

Oooh, how scared I was at first, god! Don’t blame me, OK? Isn’t everyone a little scared on their first plane ride? When the plane suddenly left the ground and zoomed into the sky, I shrank back in fear and grabbed his hand tightly. I had taken the window seat so that I could look down. I was reassured when he put his hand on mine lightly. He… who?

My husband, who else? This wasn’t his first time on a plane though. He has to fly to Bombay or Delhi on office work every two or three months. He’s been to America too, twice. As soon as I heard I decided to ask him to take me along next time. He would have no choice. I’ve been dying to see America ever since I was a child. He’s a ‘handsome Brahmin, senior post MNC, 29/5’9″‘ I’ve seen very few men as fair-skinned as him. A full head of thick black hair. His cheeks turn a light green when he shaves. How handsome he looks then. I wish I could… no, but his body always gives off a lovely fragrance. I start smelling of it too after he’s been by my side for a while. What IS this fragrance? I wear perfume too, but the scent is never as good. We’re going to Bombay now. We’ll spend two days there and then go to Goa for our honeymoon. Hee hee. We only just got married. We completed the eight-day rituals a couple of days ago and left today. He won’t get leave later. I’m going so far away for the first time in my life. I feel funny – both joy and anxiety. Restless. I must remember to call Ma as soon as we land in Mumbai – I must, I must. She worries for me so much. She’s worried for me all her life. The plane is so nice. A very lovely air-hostess served us coffee a little while ago. She smiles constantly. She seemed to bend over a little too much when serving my husband. No, it’s just my weird ideas. I look down through the window. Oh my god. Everything is so small. How high up are we?

The roads, the land, the people, the rivers, the hills, the seas… everything’s tiny. I am ‘below 23, exquisitely beautiful, convent-educated’. My heart trembles at the thought. I lower my eyes.

My husband has a huge jewellery shop on B.B. Ganguly Street. Everyone knows the shop. They advertise so much. White and yellow lights glitter on the glass walls all day. He’s ’43/5’1″, a little shorter than me. Never mind. His complexion too… but forget all that. He’s rather… er… fat – but you can’t have everything. He spends all day in front of the fan in the shop (very thrifty, no air-conditioner yet), beads of perspiration on his face. The back of his kurta, his underarms, the creases in his neck are all sopping wet with sweat. He has flowing locks like on the idols of the gods, and greying sideburns. A gold chain dangles around his neck, going down all the way to his navel. Four gold rings with thick stones inset on his right hand, and two on the left. I am encased in ornaments too. They have their ‘own house in N. Calcutta’. As old as it is large. There’s a sleepy, lazy, dank smell as soon as you step in. A dark staircase leads to the first floor. A pile of dirty dishes beneath the tap on one side of the square yard – such an enormous house, but perpetually quiet, like a summer afternoon. Only when the maid comes does it wake up to the sound of the dishes being washed. This house has many owners, many families, but these people are the only ones who live here. All the other doors are locked. Their family is extremely conservative. The women are not allowed to go out on their own. Here I am barely thirty. I’m a ‘W.B. Swarnabanik, genuine fair beauty’. Although they had ‘no demands’, my father had to give them a lot of things. This husband of mine has become a dullard, measuring out gold and counting notes all day. No interest in anything. At night… never mind. I was introduced via ‘photo and correspondence’. I had sent the same one that I send everywhere, the postcard-sized photograph in a green sari. They were happy with it. The negotiations and wedding took place quickly. They don’t know I’m a divorcee. They weren’t told before the wedding, and they’ll never come to know either. I was married off from my maternal uncle’s house in Uttarpara. None of my neighbours in Diyara know of this marriage. So how will these people come to know? They think I’m first-hand. You know, hiding the facts scares me. But I keep it under wraps…. But my daughter? My six-year-old daughter?… I look at the floor again.

This husband of mine has an income of ‘six lakh annually’. His ‘first wife died in an accident’. They have ‘two two-storied houses in Calcutta’. One of them has long been given out on rent, however. He’s a ‘computer engineer 30/5’6″‘. His first wife died within two years of their marriage. I still don’t now how – and I have no wish to know either. Let sleeping dogs lie. I’m fine as I am. They had said ‘widow or divorcee preferred’. ‘Homeloving slim minimum qualification graduate genuine fair beautiful girl wanted contact on phone 7-9 AM.’ I got my father to call at once. They liked everything about me – my height, figure, complexion, hair, nails, teeth, gums. This time I did not hide the fact that I was divorced. Why should I? That was what they wanted. And it wasn’t my fault. Who doesn’t fall in love and get married these days? The boy was from our neighbourhood. My friends tried to convince me that he was a bad sort, a scoundrel, don’t fall into his clutches, you’ll be ruined. Let him go. I couldn’t. Within a year and half of our getting married, it was he who left me, our daughter still in my arms. I used to live the way ‘genuine homeloving’ girls from middle-class families are forced to live when they slink back to their father’s house after being kicked out by their husbands. At least my daughter was going to school, getting decent food. I don’t blame my parents at all. They had tried to persuade me, but I hadn’t bothered. Love is not just blind, it’s deaf too. My father’s old-fashioned stationery shop opposite our house limps along, panting like a tuberculosis patient. My brother is in his second year of college. So many stomachs to fill. How long could the shop and the paltry interest from the post-office savings have sustained us? I didn’t hide a thing – I told my husband everything. They had said they had ‘no demands’. Indeed they didn’t. Just the shankha and sindoor and a sari and, on my father’s insistence, a ring for my husband. He had bought a car just a few days before the wedding. A silver Santro. A real eye-catcher. I didn’t allow the plastic seat covers to be removed – it would only mean dust gathering on the seats. How dusty it is in Calcutta, my god. The two of us went for a drive the night after the wedding reception. When the car was racing past Victoria Memorial down Red Road, oh god! I can’t explain how it felt. He was driving. A saxophone (I learnt the name from him afterwards) on the car stereo and driving at high speed – I had goosebumps. But I realised in a couple of days he isn’t particularly interested in me physically. I wonder why. Maybe he has another girlfriend. Maybe he’s been pressured into marrying me instead of her. Or is it something else – because of which his first wife had died or something? To hell with it. I don’t worry, frankly. He hasn’t even touched me all these nights. I haven’t asked either. I don’t have those needs anymore. They vanished long ago. It’s enough not to be a burden on my father. I don’t fret about whether he likes me or not. They had wanted a divorcee, but ‘childless and unencumbered’. Is my daughter not my encumbrance? I have to leave him too.

I never thought I’d be able to leave this pathetic West Bengal and go to the USA. True, I still don’t know the name of the place in the US where we live. But how long will it take to find out? ‘Same or different caste, divorcee with child’ – they had ‘no objection’ to anything. I am ‘willing to live abroad’ and ‘smart and below thirty-five’ – so getting in touch was soon followed by the registered marriage. And then straight to this place by plane. My husband is a little on the old side, that’s all. Thoroughbred American. His grandmother was apparently Bengali. Although I talk to him in broken English now, I’ll teach him Bengali soon. He is an ‘established businessman’. He was also married earlier. The marriage broke up barely a year later. His son from his first wife is twenty-eight. He doesn’t stay with his father though. I had already realised that the old man was not looking for a wife but for a trustworthy maid to do the household work. I have no problems. I’ve had my daughter admitted to a good school. Such lovely books, and what a fine school uniform. They have computer studies even at this age. It’s so different in this country. She goes to school in a shiny bus every day. Their school bus. Cakes, biscuits and chocolate at recess…. she’s sooooo happy. She even has her own room at home. Such a little girl and a room of her own… hee hee. Of course, she hasn’t accepted the man as her father yet. All in good time. But I don’t even know these people well enough. I’ve heard people here change wives as often as they yawn. The old man still wants it, though. Even though I hate it I don’t have a choice… But what if he throws me out with my daughter when I’m no longer new? If he leaves me suddenly what will I do in this foreign country with my daughter? No, there’s no need to be so greedy. Better to live in one’s own country.

No, really, this time I actually am veeeery happy. My husband is a straightforward man. Detached from most things. Spends all his time with his books and students. ‘Permanently employed’ schoolteacher. Earns about twelve thousand. Not too bad. Apparently he had made up his mind not to marry, but eventually, thanks to the efforts of his friends, mister agreed to marry at forty-two. Tremendously ‘religious and idealistic’. On my part I’m a ‘Brahmin, good family, religious-minded, vegetarian, broadminded, below thirty-four, B.A.’ Though I haven’t actually passed. I failed in one paper and didn’t take my exams again. But then he wasn’t going to ask for my results, after all. I am ‘Thakur So-and-So’s (foremost added) disciple, reasonably beautiful.’ I was about to feel very happy because he was ‘5’7″ permanently employed, divorcee with child acceptable’… but there was a box number, and I didn’t write to box numbers anymore. A good deal of money and several ‘suitable postcard-size colour photographs’ later, I had never received a single reply. A ‘phone number’ was the best option. The rejection came quickly. You didn’t have to wither away, waiting. When I saw a residential address I did write sometimes. I take tuition classes for three children in the lower classes. I have to pay for my daughter’s school fees, transport, books and notebooks, pencils, water-bottle, shoes, and my own things out of the five hundred and fifty I earn. How many letters can I write to heaven in expectation of a reply from god? I’m embarrassed to ask my father for money for these things.

I spend all of Sunday afternoon in the ‘Bride Wanted’ columns. My eyes lap up each and every word – ticked, unticked, highlighted. My mother asks wanly now and then, ‘Any luck?’ I respond as lightly as I can, ‘Nothing worthwhile.’
The afternoon rolls on. I get tired of it all. My eyes ache. The ballpoint pen lies glumly on the mat next to me. It cannot underline any of the ads. I am same/different caste, genuinely homeloving/working, below twenty-three/below thirty-five, extremely fair/wheatish, exquisitely beautiful/pleasant appearance, East Bengal/West Bengal, Brahmin/Sunni Muslim/Gandhabanik/Namahshudra, rational/devotional, convent-educated/minimum high school, first-hand/widow/divorcee, contact on phone 8-10 AM, no communication necessary without photograph… all, I am each and every one of these. Only, I’m not unencumbered. My six-year-old daughter. So what, says everyone. Put her in a boarding school. Happens all the time these days. I can’t. I’m the only one she has. Doesn’t let me out of her sight for a moment. The first thing she does when back from the government school, perspiring in her thick terrycot uniform, is to look for me. She’s terrified if I’m not there. I don’t know why. The more she grows up, the more afraid she seems to be getting. I cannot live without her…

Afternoon slides into evening. Waking up from her nap, my daughter says, ‘I’m going out to play, Ma.’ I fold the newspaper and rise to my feet. I’ll try again Next Sunday.

In Diamond Harbour with Ruby: Sandipan Chatterjee

For four years now Ruby has been asking to go to Diamond Harbour. And I’ve resisted. The woman Ruby calls Bashona-di goes there. I’ve never been to Diamond Harbour. I’ve heard that the mouth of the river is not far away. I’ve heard that if you stand on the roof of any of the houses, stand alone on the roof, stand alone on the roof in the dead of night, you can hear the roar of the ocean in the distance. No matter whether the roof is on the first floor, second, or fifth. Apparently there are no dogs on the streets of Diamond Harbour. Or so people say.

Meeting Ruby is all I’ve done for the past four years. Movies, restaurants, kisses in a cabin, exploring her flesh – especially her breasts – and so on. There’s been no sex. It’s quite difficult for this thing to happen with your girlfriend in Calcutta. It’s impossible in the home of married friends, for they have mothers and sisters and children. But when those who are pure contrarians – that is to say, those who have occupied their flats with nobody but their wives, and have no children yet, or have infertile wives – shut their front doors, they may at first sight seem to be slamming it on the face of not just their parents or brothers or relatives, of not just their nation and race, but of the entire world. But that’s not the case. Harbouring hopes of using their flats is futile. For the wife herself is installed there. The goddess incarnate.

The Calcutta hotels ask you to disclose your identity. What is the relationship between you? If I were to say, she feels the pain when I’m hurt, the other day I stubbed my toe on a brick on the road, it wasn’t I but, here, she, who exclaimed, ‘ooh,’ so that’s our relationship – that won’t do. But no questions are asked if I were to take my wife, whom I haven’t remembered to kiss in the past four years, anywhere. Besides, to check into a hotel with someone not your wife you need, at the very least, a suitcase. An entire set of luggage would be even better. And yet no luggage is required if you go with your wife. Who knows why.

But go to Diamond Harbour, there’s no need for a suitcase of luggage. No licit or illicit. No questions.

There are a few standard hostels in Calcutta, of course, on Kyd Street or Sudder Street or Royd Stereet for instance, with no obstacles. But there you need the one, infallible, relationship. Between whore and client, that is. The receptionist will inevitably think Ruby’s a prostitute. Otherwise why should the rickshaw-wallah, who had already been paid three rupees for a ride of just two furlongs from the Geological Society, still get a commission of ten rupees from the hotel? I cannot accept anyone mistaking Ruby for a whore. So we can’t go there.

But, Diamond Harbour. Just Diamond Harbour. Where you need to take nothing but the traditional tumbler and blanket of the migrant.

There’s probably no restaurant in Calcutta where we haven’t been. About four months ago we found Calcutta’s last such undiscovered restaurant, with a cabin (‘an oyster with a pearl’). It was April, the cruellest month, there were sparks on the tram wheels and the stones were hot, when, suddenly on the left while walking towards Park Street from Royd Street – Ing Ping! What! Had this been here all along? Never seen it. When did it from the heavens? Ah, just the way we like it. A narrow, dimly lit corridor as soon as you enter. Four or five tiny cabins on the left. After a sharp turn, two rows of cabins, this time in both sides. A deluge of cabins, as though you’re in the blue belly of the dragon. In which, as far as we could see through the flying curtains, were seated ings and pings in pairs. Or, loving couples. Lit by shaded firefly lamps inside, the darkness much stronger than the light. Ah, a slice of heaven!

Taking our seats in the first empty cabin we found, sharing a plate of ‘Ing Ping special chow mien’, I put my fork down to sink my hands into Ruby’s breasts, telling her with great affection, ‘All other females have flesh here, Ruby. They’re just females. But you alone are a woman. Only in your breasts do I smell perfume.’

No, not perfume. Perfume isn’t the correct word. Quite wrong, in fact. Actually, I get the unmistakable scent of sandalwood from her breasts. But smell of sandalwood reminds me of rotting corpses. So I call it perfume.

But I cannot usually say such things. Let me explain how I could tell her that her I smelt perfume in her breasts. The fact is, yesterday in the Students’ Hall – or was it the day before? – some poet or the other was being honoured, or some such idiocy. It was evening. I was walking past Goldighi, I heard a young gap-toothed poet recite these lines from a veteran poet. he had definitely said perfume.

I memorised the lines at once, so as to not forget them, and decided to let them loose on Ruby the very next time we met. The original lines were in rhythm, though without end rhymes. But even as prose shorn of emotion, they didn’t sound bad. At least, Ruby became quite vulnerable on hearing them.

So, we went on for about four months on the scent of the perfume. But how much longer could it go on? August arrived in no time. The Bengali month of Bhaadro. The month of dogs. of dogs on heat, as they say. The sincere lovemaking of canines on Calcutta’s streets. ‘Have you seen a couple yet this year?’ I can’t keep myself from asking Ruby.

‘Meaning?” Ruby hasn’t understood yet. The evening rain has just stopped. We’re walking along a Lindsay Street in painted in watercolour hues towards that very same Ing Ping. On our way we spot a rock pigeon drinking the dirty water flowing out of the drainpipe of the UP Handloom store, Gangotri, under the impression that it’s a mountain stream. Each sip is followed by a dozen swivels of the neck, with a puffing of feathers and throwing of defensive glances all round. It’s drinking poisonous water, but it’s guarding itself against hawks. Although there isn’t a single predatory bird in Calcutta’s skies. Gene-coding, after all.

I ask in English as we walk, ‘Meaning, have you seen a dog and a bitch mating as yet this season?’

‘Oh yes,’ Ruby answers in English too, a little shy, but quite animated, even interested. ‘I have. And in broad daylight too.’


‘Just the other day,’ she says, the hair swaying across her back. ‘The day before yesterday.’

Ruby never allows me to part the hair cascading her shoulder. ‘I’m very ticklish,’ she says.

A long silence. Then I ask, ‘Where?’

‘Just outside our office, right beneath the big Jenson & Nicholson ad that says whenever you think of colour think of us.’

They don’t need a hotel, I reflect with a sigh. What do we get in broad daylight? The funeral pyre. All lit up. Flames. Only love needs an intimate, darkened room.

I say, with a touch of pique, ‘Why must you be the only one who sees all the interesting things.’ Ruby smiles, her eyes lowered. Her chin on her breast, as usual. It’s true that we, the lovers of Calcutta, say such unprintable things to each other. Or, we cannot keep ourselves from saying them. Who else is listening, anyway?

We cannot speak like that young poet. These are all metropolitan beams of sunlight, admittedly somewhat dusty, but these are what we dry our clothes by, not to mention brighten our lives with. In this way we travel from the flesh on the breasts to sandalwood or perfume and then from perfumed sandalwood to the flesh on the breasts.

The last time I saw a dog and bitch copulating was beneath a broken-down lorry loaded with wood for the pyres at Nimtala crematorium, next to its tyres. Even that was about three years ago. The thing was that my sister-in-law’s husband had died that morning A doctor. I heard that he has groping amongst the medicines piled on the rexine-covered table in the bedroom – piled with all kinds of ampoules and capsules and tablets and strips – with the words ‘Pregnisolon, Pregnisolon’ on his lips when he collapsed to the floor. End of story.

We were informed at once on the telephone, but it was Sunday, and Ruby and I were supposed to watch a film at noon. So I told Ranu, ‘Mr Basak is coming from Siliguri, if I don’t have lunch with him today I won’t get the contract for lining the Teesta with boulders.’ She knew it was worth three and a half lakh. So she said, ‘Come directly to the crematorium then. They’re not taking the dead body out till late afternoon.’ Dressed in a white sari with a blue border, Ranu got ready with our daughter. A perfect embodiment of mourning.

‘Drop us near Banchharam Akrur. Ring to find out what time they’ll leave.’ She added in a quiet, grief-stricken voice, ‘Don’t have beer today, please.’

I went straight to the crematorium from the cinema hall. No one was there yet. I checked all the corpses laid out by the electric furnaces to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. Dhurjoti wasn’t among them.

There was an empty cot outside. The corpse had just been taken in. Pulling the heap of flowers and bouquets down to the ground and kicking away the copy of Jagadish-babu’s Gita and the burning joss sticks, a billy goat the size of a calf was munching on the abundant rajanigandha stalks. The vial of sandalwood scent had broken under its hoof. I noticed scent dripping down the mashed, leftover stalks.

So I left the crematorium and went back a long way towards Ahiritola. I would be able to accompany the funeral procession for a while. This was where the animals mating by the tyres beneath the lorry stopped me in my tracks. The corpse arrived in no time. ‘Ah Arun, here you are, oho, so hot…’ Ranu’s brother, s sales manager with the Steel Authority of India, drew me into the procession, and as soon as he said, ‘bawlo’, and before he could utter the ‘ri’ of ‘bawlo hari’, I shouted ‘haribol’ without restraint and joined in.

But never mind all these things from three or four years ago, let me go on with what I was saying about the things from three or four months ago. It’s the month of Bhaadro now. From the scents of sandalwood and perfume, Ruby wants to take me to the flesh of her breasts.

‘Let’s go to Diamond Harbour.’


‘Uh-huh. Diamond Harbour. You’re behaving as though I’m asking you to take me to Long Beach or Miami. As though you’re hearing the name for the first time, as though I haven’t been asking you to take me there for four years. An hour and a half by bus. I’ve got all the information. We’ll take the six o’ clock bus back. Home by eight.’ Saying all this without pausing for breath, Ruby stopped, her chest swelling as she drew in air. ‘Plenty of hotels there?’

‘They don’t want to know the relationship?’

‘Not at all. At least, not at Hotel Apsari.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Basana-di said. She goes alternate Saturdays with Sukanta-da, our chief accountant.’

‘Second and fourth?’

‘They come back on Sunday.’

‘Didn’t you say Basana-di’s husband knows everything?’

‘What do you think. She’s not scared of her husband like you are of your wife.’

Ruby and I are in our fifth year together, but I’ve not been able to tell Ranu yet. Ruby has said many times, ‘I don’t want to break your home. Especially Binti, I have no intention of takng her father away. Just tell your wife I exist. That you’ve met me.’

‘I give you all you want. Is there anything you don’t get from me? You want to take your wife and daughter to Kalimpong? Go, then. Your daughter’s finished school, you want to give her a colour TV, go ahead. That project in Ahmedpur, you ran short of ten thousand, you broke into my fixed deposit to give you the money. The only thing I’ve been asking for these four years is, let’s go to Diamond Harbour for a day. We’ll come back the same say, you can sleep next to your wife at night. Can’t you give me even a single day?’

Saying all this in the restaurant, Ruby pouted and shook her hair over her back. Clasping my hands, she brought her face closer, inviting a kiss. I move her hair away and try to kiss her shoulder.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She moves away as though struck by lightning, then offers her neck instead. I bury my lips in it for a kiss. Under a tiger’s kiss this turns into the throat. I sink my teeth in. This is the first taste of Ruby’s blood on my tongue.

‘Ruby,’ I say, licking her blood with my tongue. ‘We’ll go. It’s Tuesday. We’ll go on Saturday morning. Tell Basana-di to book a room for us at Apsari. It can be done on the phone, can’t it?’

In the light and darkness of the cabin the scent of sandalwood drifts into my senses, pushing away the mashed rajanigandha stalks.

The roar of the ocean wafts in from Diamond Harbour…

Ruby loves me and Ranu does not. I married Ranu a long time ago, after ten years of being in love with her, from the time I was in college. I did not realise before getting married that there’s one thing which married life doesn’t need at all. And that’s love.

‘Ruby loves me,’ I inform Ranu on returning home on Friday evening. ‘Can I go to Diamond Harbour with Ruby tomorrow?’



‘Who’s Ruby?’

I give Ranu a summary of the past four years, even before I’ve finished smoking my cigarette. After which I stub out its glowing head in the ashtray.

There’s no time to read the newspapers during the day. Ranu reads them all at night. After I have told her everything she folds the newspaper lying on her lap. A second fold. She keeps folding it, making it as small as a book, a diary, a packet of cigarettes. Her face appears as pale as a seashell. Her expression is frozen.

‘Go if you want to. But no one returns from Diamond Harbour.’ Pulling a sodden piece of wood out of the burning pyre, she tosses it away.

A single-storied hotel, beyond the town, by the river. Strangely, there are indeed no dogs on the road. Although it’s Bhaadro. The river isn’t visible from the hotel. The roar of the ocean isn’t audible.

Apsara? It was more like a beggar than a nymph. A dirty green sheet on the bed, bought cheap from a village fair, a tiny, bare and bedside table made with wood used for packing boxes, with a dented tin ashtray. A small handloom towel on it. A bucket of water by an attached drain. A mug and and a used bar of soap on a mossy brick. There’s a fan, but also a power-cut.

Such a miserable set-up, and yet nothing catches my eyes except Ruby. With one, perfectly-timed shot, she has eclipsed everything else. Having seen her even once, who can take his eyes away from her?

I am astonished on seeing her at the Esplanade bus-stand. I stare at her with what-have-you-done eyes.

‘Not looking good?’

‘But all that hair… it used to cover your entire back…’

‘Ever since Ma died I’ve been going to a parlour once a month for a shampoo. Can’t do it myself. This one time I found there was a new girl there, Kim. She showed me a framed photograph, saying, this cut will suit the shape of your face. And how much longer do you intend to stare,’ says Ruby, with an edge to her voice, tilting her head like a bird. ‘Stop gaping.’

‘They call it a bob cut, up to the shoulders only.’ She smiles, her eyes lowered.

This is Ruby’s chin-on-breast smile. In all these four years, she has never smiled without her chin touching her breast. I’ve seen this smile of Ruby’s, exactly the same one, somewhere before. Every time I see Ruby smile, I wonder where I’ve seen it. I’ve never managed to remember. This time too, I don’t.


The fan begins to run suddenly without notice in the middle of the afternoon, and at top speed. Sand flakes off the walls.

The only window has no curtain. Shutting it, Ruby switches the light on. Lying down beside me, she says, ‘Just like being in a tomb, isn’t it?’

‘The fish was delicious, wasn’t it? Such big pieces.’ Suddenly Ruby jumps up. ‘What’s this on your waist?’

‘How would I know what’s on my waist. What is it?’

‘See, just like this one.’ For the first time Ruby lifts the mane off her shoulder to show me.

There’s a deep red patch covering about nine inches of the skin on Ruby’s shoulders. No, it’s wrong to call it red. Quite wrong. Violently angry is closer to the mark.

I see. So that’s what it is. This is the reason she’s never allowed me to lift her hair and kiss her shoulder. A beauty complex.

‘Is that where you’re ticklish?’ I say, about to sweep her hair aside and kiss her. There. Ruby turns her face away. ‘I have absolutely no sensation there,’ she says, pursing her lips.

‘But you used to say all this time…’

‘I just used to. I didn’t let you kiss me there because I feel nothing. I wouldn’t even know.’ With her chin-to-breast smile and a sharp look in her eyes, she says, ’Look, even you don’t have any hair her.’ She leans over her discovery on my waist with the curiosity of a scientist. ‘Well, am I tickling you?’

’Tickling? How?’

‘What do you mean, I’m rubbing a matchstick across your skin, you should be tickled. I’m not either, you know.’

Running her tongue over my right cheek, Ruby lowered her eyes and smiled. Suddenly, crossing the ocean, a photograph floated up in my head. What was her name now… aaah… yes, Pauline Parker. Her name came back to me accurately across the ages. At the age of 18, she killed her mother in the town of Canterbury in Australia. A group photograph in school uniform with her classmates, four years before that, with a tie round her neck. Everything else was perfect, only, she was smiling with her chin on her breasts. Her hair also ran as far as her shoulders, a bob. The disguise achieved by the hair cascading on Ruby’s back had prevented me from recognising her earlier.

I read about Pauline, along with her photograph, in Colin Wilson’s ‘The Encyclopaedia of Murder’. That was in the early 70s, not exactly the other day. Early on October 2, 1913, she murdered her widowed mother with a hammer used to break coal. ‘Why did you pound her head this way?’ The judge asked her. Holding her head high, she stood in the pen and said, ‘That’s personal, I shan’t answer.’ Judge: Had you already decided to kill your mother? Pauline: yes. Judge: How long ago? Pauline: Four years ago. On January 3, 1914, she was sentenced unanimously to be hanged till she was dead in Canterbury Central Prison.

Fear is rising from my frozen feet like steam. Ruby keep talking, ‘Tell me, have you had it from birth? I noticed mine when I was 16. The Lutheran Mission was advertising in the papers, if it isn’t congenital… I asked my mother, have I had this from birth, Ma? I don’t know, she said. I poked it with a needle, there was no response. I didn’t check after that. Who knows how far it has spread. To hell with it…’

Ruby put her arms around me.

‘My father was even more broad-chested than you,’ she told me, rubbing her face on my chest. What was running through her head?

So there were no dogs in Diamond Harbour? A bitch yelped outside the window. Must be the beginning of lovemaking. How could dogs not be on the street in Bhaadro?

‘The Lutherans’ ad said this thing doesn’t happen without prolonged and perpetual sexual or membrane contact. My mother’s breasts dried up immediately after my birth at her father’s house in Bankura. What was I to do? A Santhal woman was hired. Her breasts were full of milk. I was a plump and chubby baby, you know. She developed leprosy afterwards. Is the nipple a membrane, do you know? But then you’ve sucked me too, endlessly. There. You’ve got it from me, I’m sure.’

It’s full moon tonight.

‘Listen, do you know a skin-specialist?’

There will be a high tide tonight.

‘Both of us will see a doctor as soon as we get back to Calcutta, all right? Leprosy is curable, isn’t it?’

Cannons will have to be fired tonight to break the wall of advancing water tonight.

‘I woke up last night, you know. Didn’t go back to sleep. The maid sleeps in the same room. I didn’t switch the light on, in case it woke her up. Sitting up in bed I began to think of Diamond Harbour. I’ve never been here before either, just like you. As soon as the church clock struck three, alarms began to go off in the rooms of the National Medical college hostel. So many of them. Ground floor, first floor, second floor, it was like a fire of sounds. The five-storied building was burning furiously. And on ever floor, the ground and the first, the second and the third and the fourth, all these boys were running about in their lungis and pyjamas and underpants – all bare-bodied. I realised that their final exams are in September, which is why. I wanted to go back to my college days too…’

Lying on her stomach, Ruby keeps talking. The frill at the edge of her petticoat has ridden up her fair, powerful thighs. Like curtains going up. In the dark her body looks like the silhouette of a hill on the horizon. The moon is rising. It’s evening outside.

There, on the skin of her shoulder, is the reflection of my unseen waist, like red turning to black, a livid patch of nine inches. There is no longer any sensation on these two spots on her body and on mine. Ruby keeps talking. She doesn’t know any more what she’s saying. She doesn’t know when she’ll stop. She has no interest in finding out whether anyone’s listening.

Are we going back tonight? Possibly not. It’s full moon. There will be a high tide. A cannon will have to be fired to break the wall of water. Even if the roof is only on the first floor, if I go up alone tonight, I’m certain I will hear the ocean roar.

Stone: Mandakranta Sen

Your breast is like stone, you’re a man
Let me lie on it, I want to lie on it
I’ve rubbed my mouth on stone, such a terrible wound
On my lips

How shameless the wound is, it refuses to heal
It doesn’t want to hide its face
It’s an ugly sight, but still it doesn’t seem

Stone is cold, stone is so bare my love
I have rinsed stone with my tears
On this stone I’ll just smear a fistful
Of soil

Your face is smeared with earth, you’re a man
Let me wash it off, I want to wash it off
The wound is old, and yet a touch still
Makes it bleed

Words: Premendra Mitra

Even afterwards there are things to say
After it has rained
Like the soil-smeared smell of a wet cool wind,
Blurred, like clouds
Who knows whether they’re words
Or a trembling vibrant silence

I shall not say these things to her
In pauses between the determination and effort to survive
My astonished heart
Tells itself in solitude
All these mist-like words
I have whispered many strange things
How much of what the heart means
Can these words hold anyway

Like snow all these words melt
On a lofty peak
Of passion
I touch a hand with my hand
Grope within my heart with words
Do we have each other still?

And so when all my words
Have been defeated, a sigh
Flows, and perhaps indifferent time
Shivers by mistake, once

And then in every crack of existence
The fog settles, and words
Like the fog, roll towards the horizon