‘If this business of love had not existed,’ said Pinaki, ‘three-quarters of life’s troubles would be over. Do you know exactly when it was imported to India, Bachchu-da? You writers know all this.’
It was Pinaki and Mala’s fifth wedding anniversary. Mala had telephoned in the morning with this information. ‘Bachchu-da and you must come over this evening,’ she had told Sudeshna. ‘We’ll chat for a bit and then go out for dinner.’
‘Who else is coming?’ Sudeshna had asked.
‘Nobody. Just you.’
‘Just us?’ Sudeshna was surprised. ‘But why?’
‘Pinaki himself doesn’t know it’s our wedding anniversary. He’s forgotten. But he’ll find out if we have a lot of guests. Remember,’ Mala had reminded her, ‘not to bring presents or something. He’ll find out if you do. All these years he was the one who used to organise the celebrations. He always remembered. This time he’s forgotten completely. I’m going to embarrass him tomorrow by reminding him. Keeps talking of love, you see.’
Pinaki and Mala lived in a ninth-floor flat halfway up Southern Avenue. We were seated in the balcony looking out on the road. Far below us, cars and buses streamed past continuously. A silent contest to snake past and overtake one another. From a height, the vehicles seemed to be moving rather slowly and steadily.
The car engines could not be heard up here. Only the dim light from a shaded lamp illuminated the balcony.
Although we hadn’t got them gifts, I had brought a small premier whisky. It would be enough till we went out for dinner. For two of us. A bottle of chilled beer had emerged from their fridge. Mala and Sudeshna were sharing it. A trolley of snacks had appeared from the kitchen. Among which was some homemade chilli fish.
‘When?’ I laughed. ‘I don’t know the precise time. But in Bengal it might have been around the time of Vaishnava Padabali. Or was it even earlier?’ I looked at Sudeshna, who taught Bengali. But having no responsibility for being extra-knowledgeable, she only smiled.
‘Right from the beginning. Ever since god created woman.’ Laughing, Mala twisted Pinaki’s ears. ‘Got it? My husband is getting to be a lovelu type of person with every passing day, Sudeshna-di.’
‘Lovelu? What does that mean?’ Sudeshna giggled.
‘Meaning lovesick. All those people who’re always dying of love. Mister doesn’t acknowledge anything but love. Doesn’t know anything but love,’ said Mala. ‘These days.’
‘But that’s why we’re here. That’s how it was supposed to be after we got married.’ Pinaki was slurring his words a little. ‘What else could it be? You tell me, why?’
‘Be quiet now. Don’t bore us anymore.’ Mala got herself another beer from the fridge. Sudeshna was still on her first glass.
‘This problem probably didn’t exit in the absolutely primitive era, don’t you think?’ Sudeshna smiled at me.
‘Ye..e..s, how could it have existed then?’ I said, refilling Pinaki’s empty glass. ‘In the primitive era there were just three basic urges. Sex, security and hunger.’
‘Then all this love and things,’ Pinaki took a big sip, ‘wh… when did it show up?’
‘You’re pretending to be drunk aren’t you? Harping on the same topic. Just a couple of drinks.’ Mala set down the fresh bottle of beer on the table with a thump. Switching from angry to coquettish, she said, ‘Open it for me.’ The bottle, that is. As though she was asking for her bra to be unhooked.
Pinaki had finished off most of the pint I’d brought. It was natural for him to be a little high. So it appeared to me from the way he opened the beer bottle after several misses and a lot of time. He hadn’t touched the snacks either. But Mala? Her behaviour was ominous too this evening.
‘Don’t we have a gin?’ asked Pinaki.
‘No more gins or anything.’
‘Why not, my love.’ Pinaki rose to his feet. From the other room he asked loudly, ‘How long have you two been married, Bachchu-da?’
‘Ten years,’ I shouted back.
‘Te..en! Do you love each other?’
In the balcony I looked at Sudeshna. What was her opinion?
‘Ours is an old story. It’s good enough that we’re still alive.’
I had to lower my voice in proportion to the shrinking distance between us and Pinaki as he returned with the bottle of gin.
About to pour himself a drink, Pinaki paused. Locking eyes with Sudeshna, he said, ‘What do you think, Boudi?’
Sudeshna was gripping my hand. I squeezed it lightly. Still holding it, I said, ‘We’re okay. You should tell us. You’re ones who’re newly married.’ ‘Listen, don’t drink anymore. We have no food at home. We have to go out for dinner.’ Sitting next to Pinaki, Mala hugged him lightly and said, ‘Please hold your drink.’ Her voice was pleading.
‘What is it? What’s wrong with Pinaki today?’
‘I know.’ Mala’s eyeballs were intense, large and a deep black. Long lashes. Plucked eyebrows. She couldn’t make even a serious statement without throwing at least one arch look and undulating her over-generous middle. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, ‘Yesterday I went and told him that I only used Avon cosmetics in Biswajit’s time. Even perfumes. He used to have them sent from Bombay. You don’t get them these days, which is why I brought it up. You tell me, Sudeshna-di. How can I forget him completely? How can I not be reminded of him sometimes?’ Mala actually wept a little. ‘I did live with him for four years. We even had a son, you know the whole story. He used to love me.’
‘No!’ Pinaki roared in English. ‘That’s no love. The fellow used to beat you up. And regularly.’ He continued in Bengali. ‘Didn’t he drag you to the bathroom by your feet? Were you clothed? I drink too.’
I didn’t know much about Biswajit. I had heard that he used to have a middle-level job at CESC. And Pinkai was practically an adopted son at Larsen & Toubro. A flat, a car – there wasn’t much the company hadn’t given him.
Mala snuggled up to Pinaki.
‘A little. Give me a little gin.’
‘We’re out of beer.’
Pouring her a gin, Pinaki said in English, ‘That’s no love, I tell you.’
‘Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I won’t think of him at all.’
Pinaki waved away an imaginary fly. ‘That’s no love.’
‘No, Biswa loved me too. In his own way.’
‘By beating you up.’
‘And when was that?’ Mala rose to her feet. Tousling her own hair, done with great care at Topaz, she said, her eyes blazing like a spirit’s, ‘He used to beat up his wife. What b..b… business is it of yours?’
‘That’s no love,’ Pinaki said quietly, holding his glass to his lips without taking a sip.
‘Maybe. Maybe that’s how it seems to civilised people like you. I admit that it wasn’t exactly normal. But it was love of a kind. And her proved as much with his death.’
Death? Yes, Biswajit would invade their flat sometimes in the first year of their marriage. Once, he went up to the ninth floor and rang the doorbell continuously. Absolutely drunk. They hadn’t dared open the door. Pinaki had summoned the security guards from the gate to have him thrown out. He hadn’t returned. I had heard all this from Sudeshna, who used to be two years senior to Mala at Lady Brabourne College.
Pinaki probably needed to go to the bathroom. He had been looking for his slippers for a long time, lowering his wobbling head. But he simply couldn’t get his feet to approach each other. It seemed to me that it wasn’t his slippers but his very feet that he had not found as yet.
‘Actually, you know what, dada,’ Pinaki said, raising his face to look at me, ‘you know what, Bach…chu… da… actually… ack…chu…’
He remembered what he was trying to say. ‘Actually you know what. Mala is a victim type. The more you kick her, the more she…’
‘Shut up, you!’ Mala slapped Pinaki, not lightly, but with all her strength. ‘Don’t you dare behave like a drunkard here. You piece of shit.’
Trying to get to his feet, Pinaki collapsed on the sofa. He didn’t respond anymore.
Picking up the end of her sari from the floor, Mala began to sob. Putting her arms round Sudeshna, she said, ‘Tell me Sudeshna-di, how can I not remember him? Don’t you remember Hiran-da? Tell me. At least you didn’t marry him. I lived with him for four years. We had a son. He had a hole in his heart, else he would have been eight today. And Biswa did leave evidence. In the form of his suicide. Didn’t he?’
Sudeshna had told me about Hiran. She had had a relationship with him for four or five years before our marriage. I knew as far as the kissing and necking. I didn’t stoke the dying embers beyond this. Hiran worked at Indian Paper Mills in Badarpur, in Production Control. Whenever he came to Calcutta, he met us with his family. Our children went to the zoo. We went out for dinner. Even I had had a relationship with Laboni before our marriage. Hiran’s wife Monica may have had someone in her life too earlier. But we never had any problems. Like life, we knew that even relationships died. All these deaths had kept us alive – Hiran, Monica, Sudeshna, me. Or, call them suicides. Whatever eagerness we felt today for survival in whatever condition possible was all because of these deaths. Or, suicides.
Mala was still sobbing. Sudeshna had found my hand in the dark and was holding it. A strong wind had sprung up. A long way beneath us, the flow of traffic had dwindled. There weren’t many people about. What was probably the last double-decker for Shymabazar had just passed by. From a height, the area around the Ballygunge Lakes looked like a forest. Were there really so many trees there? We passed the trees one at a time in the daytime.
The strong wind from the lake swept a bunch of leaves into the balcony. They fell on Pinaki’s sleeping form. More leaves blew in on the wind. They fell on us. Entered the rooms. It was hard to say why they were there. We didn’t know what the implication was. But they had blown in. And… leaves shed by trees were obviously dead.
Although it was spring, a storm seemed possible. In that case, even more leaves would be blown in. The balcony would be filled with leaves shed by trees. We would have to carry Pinaki to his bed.