As he was about to leave his room, sleep still clinging to his eyes, Robi gingerly parted the curtains leading to the next room and saw his father. Smoke rose from behind The Statesman, while a pair of feet were visible on a small stool, a steaming cup of coffee next to them. That Statesman, those feet and the coffee-cup—that was his father. Robi pulled out his toy-revolver from the pockets of his shorts. Raising it, he squinted, aimed and pulled the trigger.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Three bullets were fired in the twinkling of an eye. The Statesman was the first to drop to the ground, after which his father slumped to the luxurious soft foam sofa with expensive springs, his body rolling. He emitted a convincing death rattle—Aaaaaaah aah aah aah . . .
Robi smiled. Putting the revolver back in his pocket, he advanced a couple of steps. Without getting up, his father Debashish looked at him and said, Shot! Shot!
A suppressed but enigmatic smile played on Robi’s young, sleepy face. Nice of you to say that, he said.
Debashish sat up, putting his glowing cigarette back to his lips. Proceed towards the bathroom, he said, before hiding behind The Statesmanagain.
Yeah, yawned Robi. Didi, he called.
Parting the curtains on the door to the other room, Champa, the maid who was halfway to being an old woman, answered instantly with a smile, Sweetheart!
Stretching his arms, Robi said sleepily, Ride.
Champa picked him up. Robi hated this first visit of the morning to the toilet. He spent a few minutes in Champa’s arms every morning, yawning with his head on her shoulders.
It’s Sunday, Champa whispered.
Where’s my darling going with Baba today?
An exquisite smile lit up Robi’s soft young face. Champa drew the curtains of the wide window with its huge windowpanes. The view from the sixth floor, of a sprawling Calcutta, came to life like a painting. There was a large park directly below them, a lake in the middle. People were walking on the paved path around it.
The phone rang in the next room, followed by the click of the receiver being taken off the cradle. Hello, came Debashish’s voice.
Phone, said Robi.
Hmm, said Champa.
Can you tell me who’s calling?
Some friend of your father’s.
No, it’s Monima.
Champa’s face lost its smile. Come along, brush your teeth now, she said.
You didn’t finish last night’s story, Robi yawned.
I will, smiled Champa, while you brush your teeth.
Debashish could be heard laughing. Today? he said. Hmm . . . Hmm . . . No, Sunday is for Robi alone. I spend the entire day with him. Okay . . .
Agog, Robi listened. Definitely Monima, he said.
Come along now.
Robi yawned as he urinated in the toilet. Champa was about to squeeze the toothpaste out on to his tiny toothbrush when he said angrily, No paste!
What’ll you brush your teeth with, then?
Your black toothpowder.
That’s spicy. The paste is sweet.
No, the paste’s horrible. The foam makes me puke.
Your father will be very angry if he gets to know you used my toothpowder.
How will he know? Brush my teeth quietly now. With your fingers. The toothbrush is horrible.
An affectionate smile appeared on Champa’s aged face.
Fetching her cheap black toothpowder from the kitchen, she
cleaned Robi’s teeth with it.
What about the story? Robi frowned.
Oh yes. Then the . . . where were we, sweetheart?
You can never remember. Shibucharan had gone fishing alone in his boat at night. In his net he found a cobra along with the fish.
That’s right. As soon as he unfurled the net by the light of a lantern a cobra appeared along with the fish. His boat was small, no more than four feet or so in length. Shibucharan stood at one end, his mouth fallen open; the lantern glowed in the middle; and the cobra raised its hood at the other end. And the fish, still alive, were thrashing about in the hull. There was inky black darkness everywhere, and not a sound to be heard. What a pickle Shibucharan was in, there in the middle of the river. He just couldn’t move, paralysed both in his brain and in his limbs by fear.
Rinsing his mouth out, Robi asked, Why didn’t he jump into the river?
Champa paused in mid-flow, taken aback. Wide-eyed, she said, You’re right, sweetheart! So small, but how clever! Oh my god!
Wiping his face with a towel, Champa cradled him in her arms again. Holding his head to her shoulder, she said, My sweetheart is so sharp. I’ve never seen anyone so clever.
Smiling proudly, Robi hid his face in her shoulder. Then? What happened after that?
Yes, so Shibucharan was rooted to the spot. He was trembling. I’m about to die, he thought. I’ll never see my family and children again. The snake will get me. Help, someone! But there was no one close by. There wasn’t a soul in mid-river in the middle of the winter night. Shibucharan realised it was no use crying out for help. No one could hear him. In sheer fright he started reeling off the names of the gods, but the snake didn’t budge. Shibu realized he was getting it wrong, so he focused on the snake goddess alone. But that seemed to excite the cobra further. It struck with its fangs a couple of times. The lantern would save him, but for how long? Shibu realised the snake goddess wasn’t happy with him for some reason. No use asking her for help, it was making things worse. Then Shibucharan remembered that the village priest did say that the spirits of your ancestors . . . Sit down now, sweetheart.
Carrying Robi into the dining room, Champa made him sit down at the table. Annoyed, Robi clung to her, saying, Sit on the chair, I’m going to sit in your lap.
Looking around, Champa said, How can I sit on the chair? Your father will be angry if he sees me.
He won’t be angry at all. Oh, sit down now. Why don’t you listen to me?
All right, all right. Champa sat down, pulling him onto her lap. Pritam, the servant, brought a plate of buttered toast and a glass of milk. Robi-babu, he asked grimly, when I was asleep last evening, may I know who poured water into my ear and ran away?
And why do you sleep evenings? Don’t you know Baba gets angry?
I wasn’t sleeping, just thinking up a story for you with my eyes shut when you poured the water in and ran away. It’s still sloshing round in my earhole. I’m going to tell your father today, see if I don’t.
Pulling his toy-revolver out of his pocket solemnly, Robi pressed the trigger.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Aaaaaaah aah aah, said Pritam and left the room, stumbling like someone who has been shot.
And then? said Robi, sipping his milk.
Where was I? asked Champa helplessly.
You never remember.
I’m getting old, you see.
Does getting old mean you have to forget everything?
Putting her cheek against his for an instant, Champa drew back. The priest always said, The spirits of our ancestors keep an eye on you constantly. They can’t do anything by themselves, but if you call on them with all your heart, they come and rescue you from danger. So Shibucharan started calling on them—Forefathers mine, wherever you are, come quick, see what your favourite Shibu has landed himself in. Who’s going to even realize in the dead of night that Shibu’s been bitten by a venomous creature? Who’s going to call the doctor? Shibu’s a goner—he was muttering things like this when the snake suddenly spoke in a human voice, Hey Shibucharan—
Parting the curtains, Debashish appeared from the next room. Hurry up, hurry up! he said in a slightly deep voice.
Gee, Robi grinned, turning his face. Champa rose awkwardly, still holding Robi.
Debashish smiled at the scene, and drew the curtains closed again. His voice could be heard from the next room, Get dressed, get dressed quickly.
Yeah, answered Robi. After two bites of his toast, he said, Quick, Didi.
You’ve hardly eaten, sweetheart!
I don’t feel like.
Just two sips of the milk, please!
How you trouble me!
Robi gulped down his milk. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he ran into his room, saying, Quick, Didi.
Debashish shut the door carefully. Robi was getting dressed in the other room. It was 8 a.m. Trina must have woken up by now. She wasn’t an early riser. Debashish pictured the scene at her house right now. Sachin, Trina’s husband, was in the garden. You rarely saw a person so obsessed with flowers, so besotted with his garden. He wouldn’t sell their 5000 square feet of prime land on Hazra Road, despite marvellous offers, just because of that garden. They didn’t need those 5000 square feet at all, for their house already stood on huge grounds. Across the road from the house was Sachin’s garden where, by this time of the morning, he was completely absorbed. Trina had one son and one daughter—Manu and Reba. Manu went for tennis classes on Sunday, while Reba had dancing and singing lessons. Between eight and quarter•past-eight, there wasn’t anyone around Trina except for the servants. Not that it mattered. Everyone knew of the plus sign between Debashish and Trina. In fact, the cloud of suspicion over whether Debashish’s wife Chandana had committed suicide or been murdered had not yet lifted. The police did bring the case to court, and tried to implicate Debashish as a murderer, though the case was too weak to be sustained. Nonetheless, in the court of public opinion Debashish was probably still tainted.
The ringing began precisely after he dialled the number, and Debashish missed two heartbeats. He had difficulty breathing.
Hello, said Trina.
Can you talk?
Someone in the room?
I’ll telephone you back in ten minutes, then.
Trina laughed. No, she said, who would be around at this hour? It’s Sunday, for one thing, and then you have the autumn sunshine with the rains gone. I’m all by myself. There’s no one here.
What were you doing?
I have Jibanananda’s poems in my hand, the telephone by my side. But I haven’t read a single poem yet.
Debashish cleared his throat. What’re you planning to do today?
What do you suppose? Nothing. You?
Robi doesn’t want to spend Sundays with Champa these days.
He’s getting older, after all, blood will tell. You’re his father, remember?
Not going out?
Trina sighed. You know how it is, there’s this barbed wire of disapproval all around me. If I go out by myself Sachin looks at me very strangely. The older he’s getting, the more suspicious he’s becoming. The children don’t like it either. So I keep to my room.
Nonsense. What kind of life is that?
Then what kind of life would sir prefer?
What I’d suggest is: go out. So will I.
We’ll meet somewhere.
After a pause, Trina said, Deb, Robi’s growing up.
Be careful. Don’t let your child be a witness.
Tinu, you never used to be so conservative. What’s happening to you?
I’m getting older.
I don’t know all that. I haven’t seen you in a week.
What do you mean?
I’m saying you’re a liar, Trina laughed.
Just two days ago you were parked at a spot on the road from where you could see my bedroom window.
Debashish clutched his chest with his left hand. Trouble breathing. Missed heartbeats . . . One . . . Two. He breathed again. Inhaled a huge lungful of air.
How did you know it was me? he asked, speaking slowly.
Because I can always tell it’s you.
You must have seen the number-plate.
No. I could barely see the car. All I could see was a glowing cigarette and two burning eyes.
I know Deb, it was nobody but you.
Debashish clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, drowning in his own embarrassment. His voice seemed to be someone else’s as he said, No one else but you got to know, right?
How can anyone else? Trina laughed. How can someone who doesn’t know you even imagine whose car it is that’s parked on the road? Who’s sitting alone in the driver’s seat like a ghost? Who else but me is even bothered?
You stood at the large window for a long time. The light was behind you, so I couldn’t make out your face. If only I’d known you could see me.
What would you have done?
I’d have danced a jig on the road.
Deb, you’re growing older, not younger.
And madder, not saner.
I can see that. But why? Why do you need to park yourself like a beggar next to my house. We’re not new.
Debashish couldn’t find an answer. His blood roared in his chest. An unstoppable force seemed to hammer against his ribcage. I’m very greedy, Tinu, he said.
Greedy or not, you’re definitely groping. In the dark.
Meaning stupid. Got it?
Where’s Robi? Can he hear all this madness?
What if he can? He’s too young to understand.
Smiling, Trina said, You know nothing about children. They’re very precocious these days. Besides, children understand everything.
Listen, there’s no need to worry about Robi, said Debashish a bit hopelessly. There’s no point, either. If he does find out,
let him. Tell me first whether we’re meeting or not.
Where? asked Trina softly.
Wherever you want.
I’m embarrassed. Your son will be with you.
It’s not as if he doesn’t know you. When did you start developing these new inhibitions?
I worry because Robi’s growing up. He’s learning things.
Don’t worry. I’m taking the car. We’ll spend an hour or so at the zoo and the restaurant. My sister has invited us to lunch. Actually only Robi is invited, I’m not very popular at her place, as you know. I’m free once I’ve dropped Robi there.
That means eleven or twelve o’ clock. Do you suppose I’m as independent as you are, Deb? What will people say if I’m out when it’s time for everyone to have their lunch?
Then come to the zoo or the restaurant.
Then Robi will definitely see me.
Oh, you raise too many objections.
All right, let’s stick to the programme for the afternoon, laughed Trina. Where?
How about the bus stop at Ballygunge?
Out of the corner of his eye, Debashish saw Robi at the threshold of the room, the curtains parted. He was dressed in light blue shorts and a milk-white T-shirt, with the first letter of his name monogrammed near his left breast. His hair was curly and clumped. The slight smile on his face was
now fading gradually.
Well then? said Debashish into the phone.
He put the phone down.
The smile had been wiped off Robi’s face—he was looking at his father. He turned his face away as soon as their eyes met.
Debashish looked at his son. The storm in his breast had abated, the waves had subsided. There was only tiredness now. This was how it was after the tension had ended. It was difficult to put on an easy smile, the tug-of-war hadn’t quite finished yet. He would meet Trina in the afternoon, at the bus-stop at Ballygunge. His nerves still felt parched with longing—anxious. They would meet, their thirst would deepen, but there would still be an ocean between Trina and him all their lives.
When Robi looked up, Debashish gave him a tortured smile. Did Robi know everything? A sudden fear gripped his heart.
Debashish smartly took a step forward, holding out his hand and saying, I’m Debashish Dasgupta.
Shaking the hand he held out, Robi said, I’m Navin Dasgupta, pleased to meet you.
Champa stood behind Robi. She was dressed in a clean sari, her hair neatly combed. As soon as Debashish looked at her she said, Should I come along?
Where? asked Debashish in surprise.
He’s refusing to listen, insisting I come along, said Champa shyly.
Can Didi come, Baba? wheedled Robi.
She can if you want her to, said Debashish with a slight smile. But where will she have lunch? She hasn’t been invited.
Champa’s face lit up with a smile. I won’t eat anything, I had some rice in the morning. If I can stay with my darling, that’s enough for me.
Nodding distractedly, Debashish twirled the car keys round his fingers as he headed towards the lift.
By Sirshendu Mukherjee (translated from the Bengali)