Kanka had checked the clock a while ago. Two-thirty in the morning.
Rising quietly from her position near Biman’s head, she opened the window looking out on the lane. It was a ground floor room, the window was covered by a mesh, but still Biman wouldn’t allow it to be opened. He claimed that the fumes rising from the uncovered drain beneath the window drained his life-force.
From the window, Kanka turned her eyes towards Biman.
He was covered from head to neck with a sheet, which Kanka had herself drawn over him a few minutes ago. After which, standing near his head, she had watched the precise spot in the thin sheet covering Biman’s heart, checking for the slightest movement. Whether the sheet was rising and falling rhythmically.
No, it was not.
It was unbelievably still.
Life-force, she mused once more.
And turned again towards the lane.
Why was Kanka’s life-force so plentiful! All her life she had sat facing the uncovered drain, breathing in the slime, but still her life-force hadn’t abated. Still Kanka could work like a dog all day and then wander around awake all night.
Two-thirty in the morning.
It peeped out from the corner of the Sahas’ terrace. With a faint, discoloured, dying smile on his consumptive pallid face, it beckoned to Kankabati.
Kanka saw the discoloured smile on its pallid face spread like the sigh of a lifeless spectre from the Sahas’ roof to the Mullicks’ dilapidated wall and then to the corner of the stoop of Bimala’s house. It descended further, disappearing in the open drain outside the window of Kanaka’s room.
At two-thirty in the morning today.
Not at the same time every day. At two, or two-thirty, or three, according to its convenience, it signalled Kanka in this way from the corner of the roof.
Kanka tip-toed up to the terrace.
It said, I see you prefer my sickly face, you don’t even look at me the days I’m well, the days I can smile abundantly. Is this what you’ve become used to from seeing Biman’s sick, ugly face with its collapsed cheeks and sunken eyes all the time? You cannot bear anything bright and luminous.
Kanka didn’t reply.
She only stared like one in a dream. No, sometimes Kanka imagined things too. Wandering around the terrace above their ground-floor room surrounded by a decrepit, uneven parapet as though she were in a dream, she imagined a figure descending silently from the corner of the Sahas’ roof, his face invisible, cloaked in black from tip to toe. He descended, halting at the window with the wire mesh, saw that Kanka wasn’t inside, that Biman lay on the bed, asleep after his sleeping pills. His heart fluttered inside his cage of bones, which was covered by a thin layer of skin stretched taut like a sheet of plastic.
The figure in black had come because he had seen that Kanka wasn’t there. He had already seen her walking about on the terrace, which had made him bolder.
Employing remarkable skill, he entered the room through the window. The figure stood near Biman’s head, but Biman didn’t know. Extending his arm, as light as a shadow, without giving Biman an inkling of what he was doing, he closed his fingers around the fluttering heart, squeezed it, crushed it, yanked it out, tore it from its moorings. Then he left as he had entered, holding the heart in his hand.
Biman sensed nothing.
Kanka came downstairs much later. She entered the room, paused by Biman’s head for a few moments, then shrieked suddenly, ‘Oh my god, when did this happen, I didn’t even get to know.’
Everyone at home woke up at her shrieks. Many people rushed in from nearby houses. Everyone said, ‘Ah, like a thief in the night he stole away with our priceless jewel.’
Kanka imagined all this as she paced up and down the terrace. It wasn’t a wide expanse, just the roof over two rooms. In one corner of this small space lay sorted heaps of coal-dust, coconut husks, palm seeds and sugarcane shells from Tarangini’s orderly household.
After skirting the pile, there were only a few yards of space to walk around in.
But then, she needed no extra room for her thoughts to run. Kanka sent her thoughts further out. She decided that one night she too would cloak herself in black and open the door leading into the lane, slip out like a shadow and run away across the sleeping streets.
Run, she would just run.
She didn’t know where she would stop. She could not think anymore. The hint of the light of a new day appeared in the dead glow in the sky. Somewhere the cacophony of crows was heard. The sounds of the streets being watered became audible. The wheels of the garbage carts began their noise.
Kanka went downstairs.
She entered Biman’s room.
Where else could she go, there was nowhere else. Tarangini and Bijoy were sleeping in the other room with three or four children. Their door wouldn’t be opened till much later in the day.
Well yes, it was true there was another room, the kitchen. It lay there with the ugly and hideous signs of last night’s cooking and dinner. The part-time maid would arrive a little later to lower the dirty utensils and crockery to the floor with a clatter, sweep the floor loudly with a broom and then mop it, and call out loudly, ‘O chhotoboudi, the stove’s warm, aren’t you going to cook?’
‘Coming,’ Kanka would respond, poking her head out, and then hand the towel to Biman and rush to the bathroom with the spittoon he had used to brush his teeth and rinse his mouth with.
‘What’s the hurry to start cooking,’ Biman would rasp horribly behind her. ‘Who eats this mess?’
But then no one could hear him.
Tarangini would still not be awake.
Why should she? Wasn’t she the empress of this one-storied house by the uncovered drain, the bricks on its wall exposed under the peeling plaster? Wasn’t every expense in this household met through Bijoy’s earnings?
But it was different today.
Today Kanka had drawn the sheet all the way to Biman’s neck a short while ago, standing near his head she had observed for a long time how the spot under the sheet where Biman’s heart used to flutter had become unusually quiet.
But Kanka had not shrieked, ‘Oh my god, how did this happen.’ Nor would she anytime soon. Kanka would slowly savour the silent, threatening, thrilling hours from two-thirty in the morning all the way to dawn.
Kanka climbed to the terrace.
The corner of the Sahas’ roof came closer. The thing that had been beckoning to Kanka stared at her without blinking.
Was this a mocking look, wondered Kanka. Or merely one of compassionate tenderness?
Was the look telling her, ‘Run away while you can, Kanka.’ Was it saying, ‘The world is a hard place to live in, Kanka, maybe you will never get another chance to escape.’
But no, Kanka wouldn’t be frightened anymore.
She could sense that in the future she could open the door leading into the lane whenever she liked. No one in the room would be looking at her.
Once the bedclothes on Biman’s narrow cot had been discarded, nothing else would be laid out on it.
Keeping the door open, Kanka would sit down on the cot, telling herself, ‘I tried, I tried very hard.’
After this, everything would be hers to do with as she pleased. Then why should Kanka not draw out the pleasure of savouring these wonderful thrilling hours to the utmost?
She rested her face on the parapet towards the Sahas’ house. She noticed that the consumptive pallid face had gone off somewhere. Behind the room on their roof or somewhere else.
She saw a blue night lamp shining in the second Saha brother’s bedroom. She saw the ceiling-fan spinning at top speed. The net curtain at the window billowed in its breeze.
The bed that the second Saha brother had received as dowry from his wife’s family lay next to the window, its posts thick, its sides heavy, the mahogany polished to a blackish red. A milk-white imported mosquito net was strung over it. It swayed and shook in the breeze, but still it did not yield the mysteries within. A heavy fringe of spun lace hung on all sides.
Even when her eyes would smart from staring, Kanka couldn’t see anything. Now she didn’t even try, though she used to earlier, standing here for hours on end.
Biman had not been ill then.
Kanka did not have to sit by his side all night then. Biman wouldn’t even return home half the time.
The middle Saha brother’s wife would open their back door and cross the putrid lane to their house from time to time. Heaving her overweight body clad in saris with oversized borders, she would say, ‘I’ve come for a visit, my dear. To see what a woman with not one but two college degrees looks like.’
Coming to see her was a pretext, however, for the neighbour came over to show off. Her jewellery, her clothes, her husband’s love for her. She would exhibit these, and freeze with wonder every moment. ‘Oh my god, no bed?’ she would exclaim. ‘Why my dear, didn’t you get one at your wedding? Didn’t your father give you one? How strange. What kind of a wedding is it without a trousseau of furniture and clothes and ornaments?’
‘Where did Biman-babu come back from so late the other night, my dear?’ she’d continue. ‘Was it a party somewhere? We were astonished. Past two in the morning, and there was Biman-babu pushing at the door.’
Kanka would say, ‘How strange, all of you were awake till two in the morning too? Why have you bothered to hire a durwan then?’
The visitor would leave in a huff.
But she couldn’t maintain her outrage very long. As soon as she had got herself a new piece of jewellery she was compelled to forsake her anger and come over. With what other ammunition could she upstage a woman with two college degrees?
Taking a seat, she would say, ‘Since you won’t visit me, my dear, I have to lose face and come over.’
The middle Saha brother’s wife no longer visited Kanka.
This was the only benefit from Biman’s illness. No one in the neighbourhood came over any more.
For Biman’s illness was dirty and ugly and vulgar. Wrinkling her nose, Tarangini – genteel, civilised, spotless – had informed all the neighbours of the disease.
But Kanka knew they would all visit tomorrow. They would visit as soon as they came to know that the sheet covering Biman up to his neck had been drawn over his head.
The middle Saha brother’s wife would say, ‘Oh my god, was it so serious? We never got to know. Never even saw the doctor’s car arrive. Which doctors did you consult, my dear?’
And Bimala would turn up to say, ‘Oh but even those two sets of bangles looked so lovely on you. Don’t give it all up boudi, your arm looks so bare.’
Mrs Mullick would not tell her anything, she would tell Tarangini. She was Tarangini’s friend.
Tarangini would say, ‘It’s all over and done with chhotobou, but you can’t starve all your life, can you? You have to be back on your feet, you have to eat too. What use is it to mope in your room? Up now, if you’re busy you’ll feel better.’
No one had ever said such things to Kanka, but still she knew that they would, tomorrow onwards.
But Kanka would no longer be standing here by this window next to the uncovered drain. She would open the door leading into the lane and leave. Leave, and run, just run. She would do whatever she wanted with her life.
Everything was now within reach for Kanka, the Kanka who had abundant life-force, whose power had not diminished despite breathing in the slime all her life.
Kanka moved away from the Sahas’ house. She sat down, her back against the wall of the room on the roof.
She decided not to think about the room downstairs in any circumstances, but somehow her thoughts kept going back to it.
It was two-thirty in the morning now, or maybe three, who knew. Maybe even later. Perhaps the sound of the streets being watered would be heard any minute. The cacophony of crows would begin somewhere. And the clang of the garbage carts would assault the senses of the sleeping city.
But it was only midnight.
Tarangini and Bijoy had locked their door much earlier. Bijoy’s snoring could be heard in this room too.
Biman was fidgeting under the onslaught of mosquitoes.
He could not sleep beneath a mosquito-net – apparently he felt suffocated. Kanka had often considered stringing up the mosquito-net by force to check whether Biman’s fluttering heart would really stop beating.
But she had simply not managed to perform this test. Using whatever little life-force he had managed to retain in his cage of bones, Biman enjoyed the breeze from the fan in Kanka’s hand till he dropped off.
But was it possible to go to sleep every day?
He needed sleeping pills.
But strangely, he would refuse them at first. As though he was willing to suffer as long as he could, simply to make Kanka toil away.
The moment Kanka reached for the bottle, Biman would snarl. ‘That’s it?’ he would ask hoarsely. ‘The dutiful wife is done caring for her husband? Will your hand fall off if you fan me a few minutes more?’
Kanka would pick the fan up again.
As she had today, too.
She fought against the heat and the mosquitoes with the broken fan.
‘I want some water,’ said Biman.
Kanka rose and fetched him a glass of water.
‘Take the sheet away,’ Biman directed.
Kanka removed the sheet.
Biman moaned and groaned a little longer. Then, flaring up suddenly, he said, ‘Get those damned pills down my throat.’
Kanka rose and fetched the bottle. She got a glass of water too. She examined the bottle of pills. It was new, almost full.
‘What’s taking you so long?’ Biman barked. ‘Are you chanting a spell?’
Without responding, Kanka made him gulp down the pills.
Swallowing, Biman grimaced. ‘Cover my feet with the sheet,’ he growled.
A brief silence.
Biman’s eyes drooped, he slurred out a few words, Kanka stopped fanning him to check if he was getting angry.
He was not getting angry.
Kanka sat frozen, observing whether Biman stirred when a mosquito sat on him.
He was not stirring.
Should Kanka string up the mosquito net?
Should she perform her test today?
No, Kanka did not string the net up.
Tarangini would enter the room in the morning, so would Bijoy. ‘Who put the mosquito-net up?’ they would ask. ‘Doesn’t he feel suffocated under the net?’
So Kanka only sat and waited.
She didn’t even breathe normally herself, lest she was unable to trace the rhythm of Biman’s breathing.
Biman fell silent after a while. He stiffened. The bird stopped fluttering under the cage of bones.
Kanka drew the sheet from his feet all the way up to his neck. She looked at him, gathering every nerve in her body into her vision. She was certain.
Then Kanka glanced at the clock.
It was two-thirty in the morning.
She opened the window looking out on the lane. She saw the dead glow of the pallid moon in its waning crescent spread like the sigh of a lifeless spectre across the dilapidated wall of the Mullicks’ house, over the corner of the stoop of Bimala’s house, and into the uncovered drain outside Kanka’s window.
Kanka tip-toed up to the terrace.
Sitting with her back against the wall of the room on the roof, she could see everything now. She could see herself too. From a distance, as though in a film.
Should Kanka go downstairs now? Even before it was morning? Should she shriek as soon as she entered, ‘Oh my god! When did this happen?’
Lots of people would rush in at the sound of her sobs.
Kanka kept pronouncing the words over and over again. Softly, loudly, quickly, with pauses.
She just couldn’t get them right.
They grated on her ears.
They were out of tune.
Then should she go downstairs, unroll the mat propped up in the corner, and lie down on it? When the maid called out, ‘The stove’s blazing, chhotoboudi…’ she wouldn’t answer. She would be fast sleep.
The maid would call out again.
Then Tarangini would awake in annoyance. Coming up to the door, she would say, ‘Don’t you have any sense, chhotobou? Still snoring? All that coal going waste. And here you are sleeping like the dead!’
Then, glancing at the person actually sleeping that way, she would gasp, ‘Thakurpo!’ And at once she would screech like a hawk, ‘Come here quickly, will you!’
Bijoy would rush in.
Kanka would sit up and stare blankly as though she had just woken up.
In moments the house would fill with neighbours responding to Bijoy’s incoherent screams and Tarangini’s piteous weeping. The neighbours would say, ‘How his brother and sister-in-law loved him. And such a paragon of virtue too, their brother.’
The neighbours would also say, ‘How cold the wife is, she didn’t shed a tear.’
Let them. This was the method that seemed the simplest to Kanka. She rose, pausing at the head of the stairs. The darkness was impenetrable. Surprised that she had taken the same stairs upstairs a short while ago, Kanka retreated.
Should she go downstairs with her eyes closed?
But it was not just the matter of the staircase. Kanka would have to enter her room too, where a human being now lay like a block of wood – covered by a sheet. A person who was no longer being bitten by mosquitoes. Who was not feeling warm either. Who would not feel warm even if covered all the way up to his head.
Oh no, Kanka simply couldn’t go back into that room now.
She would have to wait till daybreak. When dawn broke she would call out to Tarangini, ‘Didi, come quickly, the worst has…’
Tarangini would rush in. She would weep.
She would forget to ask, ‘Where were you chhotobou?’
But Kanka could lie down for a bit now.
The floor of the terrace was grimy.
So what. Kanka curled up next to the wall.
But she hadn’t thought she would fall asleep.
How did she still fall asleep so soundly? Even without a sleeping pill?
She had not realized when the sound of the streets being watered had died down, when the cacophony of the crows had begun, when the garbage vans had clanged along their way, assaulting the senses of the sleeping city.
She had not realized when the white sunlight had spread from the eastern sky across her body.
Suddenly someone broke a plate somewhere. There was the sound of shattering glass. Kanka sat up with a start.
It wasn’t a plate breaking but the voice of Tarangini’s eldest daughter.
‘Honestly kakima, here you are sleeping peacefully while chhotokaka is flinging his limbs about in a rage because there’s no water to brush his teeth with.’
Kanka wasn’t acting, she really was staring in bewilderment.
Tarangini’s daughter repeated, ‘Aren’t you awake yet? Don’t you understand what I’m saying? Chhotokaka’s throwing a fit because he doesn’t have any water to brush his teeth with. Got it now?’
Kanka adjusted her sari and rushed down the stairs. ‘I knew it,’ she told herself, ‘I knew it. I knew something like this would happen. I’ll never be able to open that door and run away.’
She entered her room downstairs.
‘Where were you all this time?’ Biman rasped. ‘Don’t you care that a sick man is dying of thirst?’
Kanka didn’t respond.
She held the spittoon out, poured water into an enamelled mug and put the toothpowder on the table. She gave Biman his towel. Then she glanced at the medicines arranged on the shelf. The bottle of sleeping pills was new. Almost full.
Looking at the bottle, Kanka said to herself, ‘I tried. I tried very hard. I couldn’t do it.’