Chapter 1: Illicit

Afterwards, Jeena became herself again when Ashim left around five in the evening. Since yesterday, until now, she had a feeling that he might not go, although he had said he would, in which case nothing would happen according to her plan. What was even more vexing was that, assuming Ashim would go, she had already sent someone ahead of her. If Ashim’s tour was called off now, Partha might think Jeena wasn’t serious about him; that she had troubled him unnecessarily on a whim or as a sport. The resultant tension involving both of them, hadn’t allowed her to relax.

Of course, she hadn’t expected the stress over Ashim’s departure that she had bottled up all day would dissipate quite so easily, leaving her so comfortable and relaxed. She had been preoccupied with just one event all this while. Now that it had occurred, just as she was about to consider how the rest of the plan would fall into place, standing at the door of their first-floor flat that Ashim had exited moments ago, she suddenly saw, just as one does in a daze, a few indistinct spots suspended in mid-air before her eyes. Not even for an entire minute, possibly only for a few seconds. This was definitely a sign of nervousness, she concluded, and as she composed herself she realized that whenever Ashim left for one of his frequent tours they said their customary goodbyes, and although today had not been an exception, there had been a certain stiffness in her demeanour.

A little while earlier, after the driver of the office car had rung the bell and Ashim had sent Chandranath down with his suitcase, and then said ‘I’d better go . . .’ before embracing her and kissing her on the lips, Jeena had realized that her body wasn’t responding as before, that the thick lips, smelling faintly of cigarettes, that had claimed hers felt unexpected and unlawful. Why had that happened, was it possible that a woman could emotionally, and therefore, physically too, accept only one man at a time. But even these thoughts had not assuaged her concern.

However, she had not forgotten that Ashim was her husband. Despite her unease, she gave herself up to the moment. Then, saying ‘Take care,’ Ashim left. Instead of replying to her husband, she was busy wiping her lips on the back of her left hand. Thus she trailed behind Ashim to the front door. She had no particular thought, happy or depressing. But when Ashim had looked back as he went down the stairs, she had, without too much thought, almost as though fulfilling a responsibility, smiled half-heartedly at him. Caught up in the momentum of his descent, Ashim hadn’t returned the smile.

As soon as she remembered these events, Jeena hurried to the balcony. Not so much out of a sense of responsibility as out of a lack of assurance. She wasn’t sure, nor could she make out, whether Ashim had suspected anything from her behaviour. When Ashim had telephoned that morning from the office to tell her that someone important in their company had been admitted to the hospital after a heart-attack and would not be able to participate in the conference, which meant that his tour had become uncertain, Jeena had said, without pausing to think about her words, ‘What did I pack your bags for then!’

‘I see,’ Ashim replied a trifle coldly. ‘So I have to go, whether I need to or not.’

‘Of course not.’

Pretending to be busy, Ashim said, ‘I’ll know in an hour or so whether it’s on or off.’

He would now disconnect the phone. To soften him, Jeena had said hesitantly, ‘Let me know . . .’

‘Okay.’

Jeena normally did things swiftly, her body always like a spring ready for action. But now, convinced that she had made another mistake, she ran to the balcony only to find that Ashim’s office car, the white Ambassador, was already some way from their house. After a few more yards, it would turn right and go on towards the airport.

The sight of the receding car depressed her a little. There was a sales conference in Pune—Ashim had said he wasn’t travelling alone, three more people from the Calcutta office would be going with him, one of whom was possibly with him in the car. The other man was bald, which made it easy to distinguish Ashim, his maroon shirt made the task even simpler. After the car had disappeared from sight, Jeena recollected that she had come out on the balcony to wave to Ashim. He may even have waited for her after getting into the car, like he normally did, leaving only when he saw she was late. Like her, perhaps Ashim was thinking about the same thing. Or was he?

The five o’ clock sunshine made it look like late afternoon. The shadow of the tall building across the pavement made the sunshine irrelevant to this west-facing balcony, only a glow could be seen. A slight warmth was touching her forehead too. The road that ran from left to right was also in the shade. A little absent-mindedly, Jeena watched the people and the cars moving on the road below. A middle-aged man in a kurta and pajama looked up at her as he got off a taxi in front of the house; two young women ran across the road to get the taxi he had just let go. They didn’t look like Bengali girls. A lout brushed past them on his cycle, making a show of his riding skills. Suddenly she noticed a funeral procession moving on foot from her right to the left, the corpse borne aloft on the shoulders of the marchers. A few more people walked behind the pall-bearers, one of them scattering grains of rice on the road. When they came near the house Jeena saw the corpse—she had sindoor in her hair and had been dressed in a new off-white sari with a red border, which meant her husband was still alive. A pair of lean, bony feet, outlined with alta, swung as she was carried past. Jeena followed those feet with her eyes for as long as she could. She couldn’t look away even after they had disappeared from sight.

A tired, somewhat unfamiliar stench rose to her nostrils. Trying to ignore it at first, she felt her own impatience—and helplessness—in her very breathing. She could not quite make out whether it was the funeral procession or Ashim’s departure that was depressing her more. She thought of Partha, of all the things she still had to do according to their plan, but she could not free herself from the tangle she had created for herself at the moment. As she entered her room, she reflected that given the clear skies and the bright sunlight there was no possibility of Ashim’s flight being cancelled. Even if it was delayed, as it had been a few times in the past, he would wait at the airport. Besides, he wasn’t travelling alone, which meant he would have no reason to feel lonely. Over the last eight or nine years, Jeena had sized up Ashim well enough. Although his apparent sternness and gravity annoyed her sometimes, those were the very characteristics that underlined him as a responsible and confident man. But did Ashim know that the wife whom he had kissed goodbye, whom he had told to take care, was not in the least concerned with him now?

Chandranath was back in the flat after having put the suitcase in the boot of the car. At the moment he was busy cleaning the living room. These were routine tasks. He normally followed this up by preparing for dinner. Unless Ashim was going to the club or a party after work, dinner was usually an elaborate affair. Ashim loved food. He could hardly be blamed for that, Jeena thought, for he left after breakfast, ate his lunch at office and didn’t eat dinner at home more than three or four times a week. There was nothing unusual about wanting a change of palate with different kinds of food at home. If he hadn’t gone today, after all, something special would have been cooked for him.

Of course, this line of thought had taken hold of her only now. Her thoughts had been flowing in a different direction since morning. With all her heart she had been praying, god, please don’t let Ashim’s tour be cancelled. She prayed out of habit. Although she did light joss-sticks before the images of Lakshmi and Kali every evening, she didn’t particularly believe in god. Rather, she preferred to think her willpower had enabled her to overcome the hurdle this time. Wouldn’t she be able to do the rest too?

A yawn rose to her throat, prompted by a curious admixture of excitement and laziness. Glancing at the wall-clock to check the time, Jeena reflected that even if Ashim took the Eastern Bypass, he would take at least thirty-five or forty minutes to reach the airport. Which meant he was still on the road, though he would be arriving there shortly. And then fly off in another hour or so. At this time of the year, towards the end of winter, the weather was quite good, neither cold nor hot. No, there was no possibility whatsoever of Ashim’s coming back.

Partha returned to her thoughts, even what he had said during the morning’s trunk-call. Especially the parts about definitely leaving home by seven, not taking a taxi if the driver had a companion, noting down the number of the vehicle, and so on. As though these were really things to worry about. It would even better if she could change taxis midway. Travel light and cautiously. She had the two tickets, would she check them straightaway and put them in her bag? He asked in a way that suggested he would stay on the line while Jeena went to her room, put the tickets in her bag, and came back. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be there even if I don’t have a ticket,’ Jeena had told him, laughing. Partha said he wouldn’t be able to sleep all night. Then, just as Jeena was drowning herself emotionally in the depth of Partha’s feelings for her, he suddenly asked, ‘Will you check on Gayatri and the kids? See if they’re all right?’

After all they’d said these questions stopped Jeena in her tracks. All this while she had been thinking that there was no one else in their relationship, that Partha was already hers. Was it possible that this trunk-call was planned, that Partha had decided beforehand to ask after Gayatri at the end of their conversation! It was possible. But it wouldn’t be right to express her misgivings, her hurt, over a trunk-call. ‘Everything’s fine,’ she answered deliberately. ‘I saw Gayatri taking them to the school-bus this morning . . .’

‘Fine. See you soon then. I’ll be there.’ Partha disconnected.

I’ll be there, I’ll be there, I’ll be there. As the words resonated and she thought of what would happen afterwards, a certain frisson made her tremble—she trailed her left hand from the exposed part of her breasts, above the blouse, up to her neck and stroked her chin and cheeks, biting her lip as the sensations deepened. She wondered how she would feel when she got off the train and saw Partha in flesh and blood. She had never been in such a situation before.

By Dibyendu Palit (translated from the Bengali)

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