Aadaab: Samaresh Basu

Shaking the silence of the night, the military patrol car completes a circuit around Victoria Park.

A curfew as well as Section 144 has been clamped on the city. Hindus and Muslims are rioting. Frontal battles are raging – with cleavers, spears, daggers, even sticks. And secret assassins are spreading everywhere, striking under the cover of darkness with intent to kill.

Criminals are out on looting expeditions. The scourge of death on this dark night is making their euphoria wilder. Slums are on fire. The dying screams of women and children are making things even more grotesque. Armed vehicles are ploughing into them, the soldiers firing indiscriminately to maintain law and order.

Two lanes converge at this point. The dustbin has upturned at the spot where they meet, parts of it broken. A man crawls out of one of the lanes, positioning himself to use the dustbin as a shield. Lacking the courage to lift his head, he lies inert on the ground for some time, keeping his ears peeled for the indistinct cries floating in from the distance. The sounds aren’t clear. Is it Allahu Akbar or Bande Mataram?

Suddenly the dustbin moves slightly. All his nerves begin to tingle. Clenching his teeth and tensing his limbs, the man waits for something terrible to happen. A few moments pass. There is stillness everywhere.

Probably a dog. The man pushes at the dustbin to drive it away. There is no response for some time. Then the bin moves again. This time there is curiosity mingled with his fear. He lifts his head slowly…and so does another man on the other side of the bin. Two creatures, frozen, a dustbin between them. Their hearts have all but stopped beating. Two pairs of eyes, probing, the look in them a mixture of dread, suspicion, and anxiety. Neither can trust the other, each of them considers the other one a murderer. Their eyes locked on each other’s, both wait for an attack, but even after some time, there is no aggression from either. Now a question arises in both their minds. Hindu or Muslim? Perhaps the answer will lead to a fatal outcome. So neither of them dares ask the other one. Nor can they flee for fear of being attacked with a knife.

After several minutes of discomfort and doubt, both become impatient. Finally one of them blurts out the question. Hindu or Muslim?

You first, says the other man.

Neither is willing to state his identity. Their minds are swayed by suspicion. The first question is buried. It gives way to another. Where are you from, asks one of them.

Across the Buriganga, in Shubaida. You?

Chashara, near Narayanganj. What do you do?

I have a boat. I ferry people. You?

I work at the cotton mill in Narayanganj.

Silence once more. Each of them tries to covertly scan the appearance of the other. They try to gauge how the other one is dressed. The darkness and the shelter of the dustbin makes this easier. Suddenly a commotion breaks out nearby. Manic screams from two groups of people can be heard. Both the millworker and the boatman become alert.

Seems to be nearby. The millworker sounds terrified.

Yes, let’s get away from here. The boatman’s voice holds the same note of fear.

The millworker stops him. Don’t move. You want to die?

The boatman is overcome by suspicion again. What if the man is plotting something? He stares into the millworker’s eyes. The millworker has been looking at him too. As soon as their eyes lock he says, sit down, stay as you are.

The boatman’s heart leaps into his mouth at this. Is this man not going to let him escape? Suspicion gathers in his eyes. Why? he asks.

Why? The millworker’s voice is muffled but sharp. What do you mean why, do you want to get killed?

The boatman doesn’t care for this manner of speaking. He considers the possibilities, even the impossibilities, and comes to a firm decision. What do you think? You expect me to keep hiding here in this dark lane instead of leaving?

His obstinacy makes the millworker suspicious too. I don’t like your intentions, he says. You didn’t say whether you’re a Hindu or a Muslim. What if you fetch a group of your people to kill me?

What do you think you’re saying? Forgetting where he is, the boatman shouts with rage and regret in his voice.

What I said is right. Sit down. Can’t you understand what’s going though my mind?

There’s something in the millworker’s voice that reassures the boatman.

I’ll have to stay here alone if you go.

The uproar dies down in the distance. A deathly silence descends again. Even the moments seem to pass in expectation of death. Two living beings on two sides of a dustbin in a darkened lane reflect on their own predicament, their homes, their wives and children. Will they be able to go back to their families alive? Will their families survive, for that matter? Like a thunderbolt from the sky, without any warning, the riot has erupted in their lives. There they were, strolling around the market, laughing and chatting with others—and in a moment it had turned to murder and violence, rivers of blood. How can people turn so cruel in an instant? What an accursed race we are. The millworker sighs. The boatman echoes him.

Want a bidi? Taking a bidi from his pocket, the millworker offers it to the boatman. Accepting it, the boatman squeezes it gently out of habit, waves it in the air near his ear a few times and then clamps his lips on it. The millworker is trying to light a match. He hadn’t realised that his shirt has become wet, and with it, the matchbox. The sound of the matchstick being scraped against the box is heard repeatedly, but there is barely a spark. Disgusted, the millworker tosses the stick away.

Bloody matchbox is soaked. He takes another stick out of it.

Impatient now, the boatman leaves his position to crouch next to the millworker.

It’ll work, give it to me. He practically snatches the matchbox from the millworker’s hand. And, after a couple of attempts, he actually manages to get a matchstick alight.

Sobhan Allah! Come on now, light up quickly. The millworker jumps out of his skin, as though he’s seen a ghost. The bidi slips out as his jaw slackens.

So you…?

A gust of wind blows out the matchstick. Two pairs of eyes widen in suspicion again in the darkness. The owner of one of them says, yes, I’m a Muslim. So?

Nothing, answers the millworker. But…

Pointing to the bundle under the boatman’s arm, he asks, what’s in there?

A couple of shirts for my son and a sari for my wife. You know it’s Eid tomorrow, don’t you?

You aren’t hiding anything else? The millworker cannot shed his suspicion.

You think I’m lying? Check for yourself. The boatman offers his bundle to the millworker.

No, there’s nothing for me to check. But you know the times we live in. You tell me, is it safe to trust anyone?

That’s true. Er…you don’t have anything, do you?

Not even a needle, I swear on god. All I want is to go back home safe and sound. The millworker gives his clothes a shake to demonstrate.

The two of them sit down again side by side. Lighting their bidis, they smoke in concentrated silence for some time.

Can you tell me… The boatman seems to be addressing a close friend now.

Can you tell me what all this killing and maiming is for?

The millworker keeps in touch with the news, he reads the newspapers. Hotly he says, it’s that League of yours that’s to blame. They’re the ones who started all this, calling it a protest.

I don’t understand any of it, the boatman retorts harshly. All I want to know is, what’s the use of this fighting? Your people will die and so will ours. What will the country gain?

That’s exactly my point. What do you suppose the country will gain? A big zero. He makes a circle with his fingers. You will die, I will die, and our wives and children will be out on the streets begging. They chopped my brother-in-law into four pieces in last year’s riots. So my sister became a widow and now I have to look after their children too. The leaders lie on their soft beds in their mansions and issue orders and we poor bastards have to die.

We aren’t humans anymore, we’ve become dogs. Only dogs bite one another. The boatman wraps his arms around his knees in impotant rage.

Exactly.

Who cares for us? Where’s the food going to come from, now that we have a riot going on? You think I’ll get my boat back? Who knows where they’ve sunk it. Rup-babu is our zamindar, his manager used to travel in my boat to the island in the middle of the river once a month on work. The zamindar was as generous as the lord, I’d get five rupees as bakshish and five as the boat fare, ten in all. I could buy food for the entire month. And the man who rode in my boat, he was a Hindu.

About to respond, the millworker stops abruptly. The clomping of heavy boots can be heard. There’s no doubt that the marchers are coming into the lane from the main road. The two of them exchange terrified glances.

What should we do? The boatman grabs his bundle.

Let’s run. But which way? I don’t know my way around the city.

Doesn’t matter which way, says the boatman. We’re not going to sit here and get beaten up by the police. There’s no trusting the swine.

Yes, you’re right. Which way, then? They’re almost here.

This way.

The boatman points towards the southern end of the lane. If we can make it to Badamtali Ghat, he says, we’ll be safe.

Lowering their heads, they race out of the lane, not pausing till they reach Patuatoli Road. The deserted tarmac is glittering under the electric lights. They stop for a moment – there’s no one lying in ambush, is there? But there’s not a moment to lose. A quick glance up and down the road, and they rush off again towards the west. After they have travelled some way, they hear hoofbeats behind them. Turning, they see a solitary horseman approaching. There’s no time to think. They duck into a narrow alleyway on the left used by those who clean toilets. In a moment, an Englishman on horseback, holding a gun, gallops past them. Only when the sound recedes in the distance do they leave the alley for a cautious peep.

Stay close to the houses, the millworker says.

They move forward swiftly and fearfully along the edge of the road.

Stop, the boatman says softly. The millworker halts abruptly.

Come this way. Taking the millworker’s hand, the boatman leads him behind a paan shop.

Look.

Following the boatman’s direction, the millworker’s eyes stop at a lit-up building about a hundred yards away. A dozen policemen with guns are standing like statues in the veranda adjoining the building. And an English officer is speaking continuously through a mouthful of smoke from his pipe. Another policeman is holding the reins of his horse on the road in front of the building. The horse is stamping the ground restlessly with its hoof.

That’s Islampur police station, says the boatman. There’s a lane near it, it leads out of the street and goes to Badamtali Ghat. We can take it.

The millworker looks terrified. But how will we get there?

I suggest you stay here, reaching the Ghat is of no use to you anyway, says the boatman. This is a Hindu stronghold, but Islampur is filled with Muslims. You can spend the night here and go home in the morning.

What about you?

I’d better go. The boatman’s voice cracks in anxiety and apprehension. I can’t stay. It’s been eight days since I left home. Allah alone knows what state they’re in. I’ll just have to sneak into the lane somehow. Even if I don’t get a boat I can swim across the river.

What are you saying, mian? The millworker clutches the boatman’s shirt anxiously. How can you go this way? His voice quavers.

Don’t try to hold me back, bhai, I have to go. Tomorrow’s Eid, don’t you see? My family must have been looking out for the Eid moon tonight. My children are expecting to wear new clothes tomorrow, to climb into my lap. My wife is weeping her heart out. I can’t stay, bhai, I can’t, you cannot imagine how I’m feeling. The boatman’s voice is choked with tears. The millworker feels his heart breaking. He loosens his grip on his companion’s shirt.

What if they catch you? His voice carries a mixture of dread and compassion.

Don’t be afraid, they won’t be able to catch me. But you must stay here, bhai, don’t leave this place. I won’t forget this night. We’ll meet again, if fate decrees it. Aadaab.

I won’t forget either, bhai. Aadaab.

The boatman steals away.

The millworker remains standing, his mind clouded by anxiety. His heart refuses to slow down. He stays vigilant—please god, don’t let the boatman come to any danger.

The moments pass with bated breath. It’s been a long time, the boatman must have got away by now. How eagerly his children must be waiting for him to bring them new clothes, how happy they will be to see him! A father’s heart, after all, poor fellow. The millworker sighs. Miansahib’s wife will throw herself on his breast with love and tears.

You’re back from the dead?

A smile appears on the millworker’s lips. And what will the boatman do then? The boatman will…

Halt!

The millworker’s heart leaps into this mouth. Some people in boots are running about. They’re shouting.

He’s escaping!

The millworker leans out to see the police officer leap into the street from the veranda with his gun. Shattering the silence, his firearm roars. Once, twice.

Two bangs. Two streaks of blue. The millworker bites his fingertips in anxiety. The policeman vaults on to his horse and gallops into the lane down which the boatman tried to escape. He can hear the death rattle of the man he has shot.

An image floats up in front of the stupefied millworker’s eyes. The blood flowing from the boatman’s body is soaking his children’s and wife’s clothes. The boatman is saying, I couldn’t do it, bhai. My wife and children will be swept away by tears on the day of the festival. The enemy did not let me go to them.

Another: Tanmoy Mukherjee

Ashutosh-babu made his blunder as he was rushing to get on the tram at Ballygunge Phanri. Missing his footing, he went down in a heap. Evening crowds, the street choc-a-bloc with buses and taxis, auto-rickshaws whizzing past. As he was wondering whether his mis-step would send him under the wheels of a tram or whether it was a minibus tyre that fate held for him, he fell headlong on a wooden floor.

What was this? How could the tarred road of Ballygunge Phanri turn into a yellow wooden floor? Looking around him, Ashutosh could only see impenetrable darkness. Nothing much was visible. This was magic. He had been in Calcutta earlier, but where was he now? Had he died, then? Had a bus come from the back and smashed his head to pulp? This was too much pressure. It wouldn’t have hurt to have died at 42, but the LIC policy was due to mature next month. What if his wife couldn’t manage things properly?

He felt a sharp pain in his side. Should he have been in pain if he was dead? He had no idea. There was no blood on him or anything, but then a spirit shouldn’t really have bloodstains. Still, Ashutosh-babu was astonished at the shabby appearance of the afterlife. There was neither the gloss of heaven nor the frenetic activity of hell. Just this yellow wooden floor.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness Ashutosh-babu discovered that all kinds of objects were strewn on the floor. A comb, a wallet, a spear, tickets to the cinema, a pen, a mortar and pestle – an extraordinary variety. Ashutosh felt deeply intimidated. Was he dreaming, then? He pinched himself.

Benu-mama from Bhadreshwar had taught Ashutosh as a child how to deliver a lethal pinch. He groaned in agony.

Ashutosh got to his feet slowly. He needed to walk around and survey the place. But how would he walk, the floor was littered – books, bottle-caps, old inland letters, cigarettes, tonic water, and so much more. This was making him very uneasy.

‘New here?’

The high-pitched bellow caused great consternation to Ashutosh-babu. Turning around, he discovered a decrepit old gentleman lying less than five feet away, a blanket drawn over himself. His age seemed beyond human reckoning, he could well be ninety. All he had by way of physical features was yellowish skin drawn taut across his bones, and not a single hair on his scalp. Clouded eyes, sunken cheeks. He seemed to be trembling.

‘And what might your name be?’ the old man asked.

‘Ashutosh Mitra, sir. I was on my way to Park Circus but I slipped while trying to get into a tram. I don’t know how I got here. Who are you? What is this place?’

– A different dimension.
– I beg your pardon?
– A different dimension.
– What’s that?
– Meaning. Two dimension. This dimension. That dimension. None of those. This is another dimension.
– Pardon?
– Why can’t you understand? Let’s say you put a pen on your desk. But it’s nowhere to be found two minutes later, although you’ve searched the desk with a toothcomb. And then half an hour afterwards you discover the pen exactly where it was. Doesn’t this happen all the time?
– Yes sir, it does.
– So the thing is, many objects frequently slip out of the dimension we occupy on earth to arrive here in this different dimension. You could call it an exception-cum-error of nature’s.
– A mistake on nature’s part?
– Right you are. Most of the time the error is corrected by nature’s own laws. And so the lost pen finds its way back to the desk. Things that disappear unexpectedly are also restored equally unexpectedly. But once in a while they remain trapped in this dimension till infinity.
– My throat is dry.
– Don’t worry. It’s an illusion. Physical sensations like hunger and thrust do not slip into this dimension. There’s no illness or disease either to speak of. How else could I have been hale and hearty even at the age of a hundred and fifteen?
– Er, did you also slip from Earth to this other dimension?
– Yes, I did. Not that too many people make it alive into this dimension, for their dimensional equilibrium is very high. Once in a while they do, though, especially when they’re flung downwards from a height, there is a slender possibility in those cases. In the past eighty years I haven’t seen more than seven or eight humans arriving here. But in most cases they returned to their original dimension, a few in a couple of minutes, some in a couple of seconds.
– But you? You stayed on?
– Yes, what can one do. Destiny. I had nurtured many dreams for my original dimension. All gone to hell. Exceptions like these are not very common. But what to do. I’ve been an optimist since birth, but the trouble is that optimism has no value in this dimension.
– Er, sir, how did you arrive here? Like I missed my footing when trying to get on a tram…
– Air-crash. I made a calculated jump from the burning plane a few seconds before it was to hit the ground. There were definite chances of survival. But who can protect you from god’s will? I landed directly on this yellow wooden floor.
– When did this take place? And where?
– In ’45, I think. I was on my way from Saigon to Manchuria. The plane lost control suddenly when flying over Formosa…
– You…you’re…you’re…
– Subhash…Subhash Bose…
– Ne…ne…ne…

Ashutosh opened his eyes to the sensation of water being splashed on his face. He realised he was lying flat on a pavement in Ballygunge Phanri, surrounded by at least a dozen people. The man who was checking his pulse said, ‘It was a near thing. Very lucky.’

Overwhelmed, Ashutosh declared, ‘Jai Hind!’

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, because he uses some brilliant ideas to add style and impress the ladies. 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.

Mahesh: Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

I

The village was named Kashipur. An insignificant village, with an even more insignificant zamindar, but such was his authority that you could not hear a peep out of his subjects.

It was the birthday of the zamindar’s youngest son. Having performed the holy rituals, Tarkaratna the priest was on his way home in the afternoon. The month of Boishakh was drawing to a close, but there was not even a trace of clouds anywhere, the searing sky seemingly pouring fire on everything below.The field stretching to the horizon before him was parched and cracked, with the blood in the veins of the earth escaping constantly through the crevices in the form of vapour. Gazing at it coiling upwards like flames made the head reel with drunkenness.

Gafoor Jolha lived on the edge of this field. The earthen wall of his house had collapsed, merging his yard with the road. The privacy of the inner chambers had all but surrendered itself to the mercy of the passer-by.

Pausing in the shade of a white teak tree, Tarkaratna called out loudly, ‘Are you home, Gafra?’

Gafoor’s ten-year-old daughter came to the door to tell him, ‘What do you need Baba for? He’s got a fever.’

‘Fever! Call the swine! Monster! Godless creature!’

The screaming and shouting brought Gafoor mian to the door, shivering with fever. An ancient acacia stood next to the broken wall, with a bull tethered to it. Pointing to it, Tarkaratna said, ‘What’s all this? Have you forgotten this is a Hindu village with a Brahmin zamindar?’ Red with rage and the heat, he could only be fiery with his words, but Gafoor stared at him, unable to understand the reason for the outburst.

‘When I passed this way in the morning it was tethered there,’ said Tarkaratna, ‘and now on my way back it’s still tethered the same way. Karta will bury you alive if you kill a bull. He’s a devout Brahmin.’

‘What can I do, Baba thakur, I have no choice. I’ve had this fever for several days now. I collapse every time I try to take him to graze.’

‘Then turn it loose, it’ll find food on its own.’

‘Where can I turn him loose, Baba thakur? The winnowing isn’t done, the grain is still lying in the fields. The hay hasn’t been sorted, the earth is burning, there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. What if he eats someone’s grains or hay—how can I turn him loose Baba thakur?’

Softening, Tarkaratna said, ‘If you can’t let it loose at least give it some straw. Hasn’t your daughter made any rice? Give it a bowl of starch and water.’

Gafoor did not answer, only looked at Tarkaratna helplessly and sighed.

Tarkaratna said, ‘No rice either? What did you do with the hay? Did you sell your entire share without keeping anything for your beast? You butcher!’

Gafoor seemed to lose his power of speech at this cruel accusation. A little later he said haltingly, ‘I did get some hay this year, but Karta moshai took it away to pay for taxes left over from last year. I fell at his feet, I said, “Babu moshai, you’re the supreme authority, where will I go if I leave your kingdom, give me at least a little hay. There’s no straw for the roof, we have just the one room for father and daughter, we can still manage with palm leaves this monsoon, but my Mahesh will die of starvation.”’

With a mocking smile, Tarkaratna said, ‘Really! What a loving name, Mahesh. I’ll die laughing.’

Paying no attention to the taunt, Gafoor continued, ‘But the lord had no mercy on me. He allowed me some rice to feed us for two months, but all my hay was confiscated and the poor thing got nothing at all.’ His voice grew moist with tears. But this evoked no compassion in Tarkaratna, who said, ‘What a man you are. You’ve eaten up everything but don’t want to pay your dues. Do you expect the zamindar to feed you? You people live in the perfect kingdom, still you bad-mouth him, you’re such wretches.’

An embarrassed Gafoor said, ‘Why should we bad-mouth him Baba thakur, we don’t do that. But how do I pay my taxes? I sharecrop four bighas, but there’s been a famine two years in a row—the grains have all dried up. My daughter and I don’t even get two meals a day. Look at the house, when it rains we spend the night in a corner, there’s not even enough space to stretch our legs. Look at Mahesh, Thakur moshai, you can count his ribs. Lend me a little hay, Thakur moshai, let the creature feed to his heart’s content for a few days.’ Still speaking, he planted himself on the ground near the Brahmin’s feet. Leaping backward hastily, Tarkaratna exclaimed, ‘My god, are you going to touch me?”

‘No Baba thakur, I’m not going to touch you or anything. But give me some hay. I saw your four huge haystacks the other day, you won’t even know if a little of it is gone. I don’t care if we starve to death, but this poor creature cannot talk, he only stares and weeps.’

Tarkaratna said, ‘And how do you propose to return the loan?’

A hopeful Gafoor said, ‘I’ll find a way to return it somehow Baba thakur, I won’t cheat you.’

Snorting, Tarkaratna mimicked Gafoor, ‘I won’t cheat you! I’ll find a way to return it somehow! What a comedian! Get out of my way. I should be getting home, it’s late.’ Chuckling, he took a step forward only to retreat several steps back in fear. Angrily he said, ‘Oh god, it’s waving its horns, is it going to gore me now?’

Gafoor rose to his feet. Pointing to the bundle of fruit and moistened rice in the priest’s hand, he said, ‘He’s smelt food, he wants to eat….’

‘Wants to eat? Of course. Both master and bull are well-matched. Can’t get hay to eat, and now you want fruits. Get it out of my way. Those horns, someone will be killed on them.’ Tarkaratna hurried away.

Gafoor turned towards Mahesh, gazing at him in silence for a few moments. There was suffering and hunger in the bull’s deep black eyes. Gafoor said, ‘He wouldn’t give you any, would he. They have so much, but still they won’t. Never mind.’ He choked, and tears began to roll from his eyes. Going up to the animal, he stroked his back and neck, whispering, ‘You are my son, Mahesh, you’ve grown old looking after us for eight years, I can’t even give you enough to eat, but you know how I love you.’

Mahesh responded by stretching his neck and closing his eyes in pleasure. Wiping his tears off the bull’s back, Gafoor murmured, ‘The zamindar took away your food, leased out the grazing ground near the crematorium just for money. How will I save your life in this year of starvation? If I turn you loose you’ll eat other people’s hay, you’ll spoil their trees—what do I do with you! You have no strength left, people tell me to sell you off.’ No sooner had Gafoor said this in his head than his tears began to roll again. Wiping them with his hand, he looked around surreptitiously before fetching some discoloured straw from behind his dilapidated house and placing them near Mahesh’s mouth, saying, ‘Eat up quickly, if not there’ll be….’

‘Baba?’

‘Yes, Ma?’

‘Come and eat,’ said Amina, appearing at the door. After a glance she said, ‘You’re giving Mahesh straw from the roof again, Baba?’

This was just what he was afraid of. Reddening, he said, ‘Old rotten straw Ma, it was falling off anyway…’

‘I heard you pulling it out, Baba.’

‘No Ma, not exactly pulling it out…’

‘But the wall will collapse Baba…’

Gafoor was silent. The house was all they had left, and no one knew better than him that if he continued this way it wouldn’t survive the next monsoon. But how long could they go on?

His daughter said, ‘Wash your hands and come, Baba, I’ve served the food.’

Gafoor said, ‘Bring the starch out Ma, let me feed Mahesh first.’

‘No starch left today Baba, it dried in the pot.’

No starch? Gafoor stood in silence. His ten-year-old daughter knew that when the times were bad even this could not be wasted. He washed his hands and went in. His daughter served him rice and vegetables on a brass plate, taking some for herself on an earthen plate. Gafoor said softly, ‘I’m feeling cold again Amina, is it safe to eat with a fever?’

Amina asked anxiously, ‘But didn’t you say you were hungry?’

‘Maybe I didn’t have a fever then, Ma.’

‘Then let me put it away, you can have it in the evening.’

Shaking his head, Gafoor said, ‘Eating cold food will make things worse.’

‘What should I do then,’ asked Amina.

Gafoor pretended to think before solving the problem. He said, ‘Why don’t you give it to Mahesh, Ma? You can make me some fresh rice at night, can’t you?’ Amina looked at him in silence for a few moments before lowering her eyes, nodding, and saying, ‘Yes, Baba I can.’

Gafoor reddened. Besides the two actors, only someone up there observed this little charade between father and daughter.

II

Five or six days later, Gafoor was seated outside his front door with an anxious expression on his face. Mahesh had not been home since yesterday morning. He himself was too weak to move, so his daughter Amina had searched high and low for the bull. Returning home in the late afternoon, she said, ‘Have you heard, Baba, Manik Ghosh’s family has taken our Mahesh to the police station.’

‘What nonsense,’ said Gafoor.

‘It’s true, Baba. Their servant said, “Tell your father to look for him in the Dariapur pen”.’

‘What did he do?’

‘He got into their garden and destroyed their trees, Baba.’

Gafoor sat in silence. He had imagined all manner of mishaps that might have befallen Mahesh, but had not anticipated this. He was as harmless as he was poor, which was why he had no apprehensions of being punished so severely by any of his neighbours—Manik Ghosh in particular, for his respect for cows was legendary.

His daughter said,‘It’s getting late, Baba, aren’t you going to bring Mahesh home?’

‘No,’ answered Gafoor.

‘But they said the police will sell him in the cattle market after three days.’

‘Let them sell him,’ said Gafoor.

Amina did not know what exactly a cattle market was, but she had repeatedly noticed her father becoming agitated whenever it was mentioned with reference to Mahesh. But today she left without another word.

Under cover of the night Gafoor went to Bansi’s shop, saying, ‘Khuro, I need a rupee, and deposited his brass plate beneath the raised platform on which Bansi sat. Bansi was familiar with the exact weight and other details of this object. He had been pawned it some five times in the past two years, for a rupee each time. So, he did not object this time either.

Mahesh was seen in his usual place the next day. Beneath the same tree, tethered to the same stake with the same rope, the same empty bowl with no food in front of him, the same questioning look in the moist, hungry, black eyes. An elderly Muslim man  was examining him closely. Gafoor mian sat nearby, his knees drawn up to his chin. When the examination was over, the man extracted a ten-rupee note from the knot in his dhoti and, smoothening it repeatedly, went up to Gafoor, saying, ‘I don’t need change, take the whole thing—here.’

Holding his hand out for the money, Gafoor remained sitting in silence. But just as the old Muslim’s companions were about to the untie the bull, he suddenly jumped to his feet, saying belligerently, ‘Don’t you dare touch that rope, I’m warning you.’

They were startled. The old man said in surprise, ‘Why not?’

Still furious, Gafoor said, ‘What do you mean why not? It’s mine to sell or not. And I’m not selling.’ He threw the ten-rupee note on the ground.

They said, ‘But you took an advance yesterday.’

‘Here’s your advance.’ Retrieving two rupees from the knot in his dhoti, he flung the coins at them, and they fell with a clatter. Realizing that a quarrel was imminent, the old man said gently with a smile, ‘You’re putting pressure on us for two rupees more, aren’t you? Go on, give his daughter two rupees more. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

‘No.’

‘Are you aware that no one will give you a better price?’

‘No,’ said Gafoor, shaking his head vehemently.

The old man said in annoyance,‘What do you think? Only the skin is worth selling. There’s nothing else in there.’

‘Tauba! Tauba!’ A terrible expletive suddenly escaped Gafoor’s lips, and the very next moment he ran into his house threatening to have them thrashed within an inch of their lives by the zamindar’s guards unless they left the village at once.

The possibility of trouble made them leave, but soon Gafoor received a summons from the zamindar’s court. He realized that word had reached the landowner.

There were people both refined and unrefined in court. Glaring at Gafoor, Shibu babu said, ‘I don’t know how to punish you, Gafra. Do you know where you live?’

Bowing, Gafoor said, ‘I do. We’re starving, or else I would have paid whatever fine you think fit.’

Everyone present was astonished. They had always considered him an obstinate and bad-tempered man. And here he was on the verge of tears, saying, ‘I’ll never do it again, karta.’ He proceeded to box his own ears, rubbed his nose into the ground from one end of the court to the other, and then stood up.

Shibu babu said indulgently, ‘All right, enough. Don’t do all this again.’

Everyone was shocked when they heard the details. They were certain that only the grace of the zamindar and the fear of punishment had prevented the abject sinner from committing worse trangressions. Tarkaratna was present, and provided the scriptural analysis of the word ‘go’ for cow, enlightening everyone as to why it was forbidden to allow this godless race of heathens to live within village limits.

Gafoor did not respond to any of this, humbly accepting all the humiliation and vilification and returning home cheerfully. Borrowing the starch from the rice pots of neighbours, he gave it to Mahesh to eat, murmuring many endearments as he stroked the bull’s back and horns.

III

The month of Joishtho was drawing to a close. The sun was still harsh and severe in the sky. There was no trace of mercy anywhere. People were afraid to even hope for change, that the skies could again be moist and pleasurable with the weight of rain-bearing clouds. It seemed that there would be no cessation to the flames burning constantly across the entire, fiery earth—that they would not die down till they had consumed everything.

Gafoor returned home on such an afternoon. He was not used to working as a labourer on someone else’s fields, and it had been only four or five days since the fever had subsided. He was as weak as he was exhausted. Still he had gone out in search of work, but all he had got was the unforgiving heat and sun overhead. He could barely see for hunger and thirst. Standing at the door, he called out, ‘Amina, is the food ready?’

His daughter emerged slowly and stood grasping the post without an answer.

Gafoor shouted, ‘Not ready? Why not?’

‘No rice at home, Baba.’

‘No rice? Why didn’t you tell me in the morning?’

‘But I told you last night.’

Contorting his face and mocking her, Gafoor said, ‘Told you last night! How can anyone remember if you tell them at night?’ His harsh tone doubled his anger. Contorting his face even further, he said, ‘How will there be any rice? Whether the sick father gets any or not, the grown-up daughter will eat five times a day. I’m going to lock the rice up from now on. Give me some water, I’m dying of thirst. Now tell me we have no water either.’

Amina remained standing with her eyes downcast. When Gafoor realized after waiting a few moments that there was not even any water to drink at home, he could control himself no longer. Striding up to his daughter, he slapped her resoundingly, saying, ‘Haramjaadi, what do you do all day? Why can’t you die?’

Without a word his daughter picked up the empty pitcher and went out in the heat, wiping her eyes. But Gafoor felt heartbroken as soon as she went out of his sight. He alone knew how he had brought up his daughter after her mother’s death. He remembered that it was not the dutiful and affectionate girl’s fault. Ever since they had run out of the paltry amount of rice from the fields that he had received, they had not had two meals a day. On some days, just one—or not even that. That Amina could eat five times a day was as impossible as it was untrue. Nor was he unaware of the reasons for the lack of water to drink. The two or three tanks in the village were all dry. The little water there was in the pond behind Shibcharan babu’s house was not available to ordinary people. The water that could be collected by digging a hole or two in the middle of the tanks was fought over by a crowd of people.

Being a Muslim, the young girl was not even allowed near that water. She had to wait for hours, requesting for some water, and only if someone took pity on her and poured her a little could she bring it home. He knew all this. Perhaps there had been no water that day, or no one had had the time to take pity on his daughter during the battle. Realizing that something like this must have taken place, Gafoor found his own eyes filling with tears. At that moment the zamindar’s footman appeared like a messenger of death, screaming, ‘Gafra, are you home?’

Gafoor answered bitterly, ‘I am. Why?’

‘Babu moshai has sent for you. Come along.’

Gafoor said, ‘I haven’t eaten yet. I’ll go later.’

Unable to tolerate such audacity, the footman uttered an expletive and said, ‘The Babu has ordered me to flog you and force you to come.’

Gafoor forgot himself a second time, uttering an unprintable word in retaliation and saying, ‘No one is a slave in the kingdom of the empress. I pay my taxes, I shan’t go.’

But for such a small man to give such a big reason was not just futile but also dangerous. Fortunately, such an insignificant voice would not reach the ears of the important man it was meant for—or else he would have lost both his home and his livelihood. There is no need for an elaborate account of what ensued, but when he returned from the zamindar’s court an hour later and lay down in silence, his face and eyes were swollen. The primary cause of such severe punishment was Mahesh. After Gafoor had gone out, Mahesh had broken free from the post, entered the zamindar’s yard, eaten his flowers, spoilt the paddy put out in the sun, and, when about to be caught, had made his escape after knocking the zamindar’s youngest daughter to the ground. This was not the first time it had happened, but Gafoor had been pardoned earlier on grounds of being poor. He might have been pardoned this time too had he begged and pleaded as in the past, but what he had said—that he paid his taxes and was no one’s servant—was the kind of arrogance from a subject that Shibcharan babu, being a zamindar, could never tolerate. He had not protested in the slightest against the thrashing and the humiliation, bearing it all in silence. Back home, too, he sat coiled up in silence. He had no awareness of hunger or thirst, but his heart was burning just like the noonday sky outside. However, when he heard his daughter’s stricken cry from the yard, he leapt to his feet and ran outside to find Amina lying on the ground and Mahesh lapping up the water trickling out of the shattered pitcher. Gafoor lost his mind in an instant. Picking up the plough-head he had brought home yesterday to repair, he smashed it down repeatedly on Mahesh’s head.

Mahesh tried to lift his head just once, but his starving, withered body slumped to the ground. A few teardrops rolled out of his eyes, along with a few drops of blood from his ears. His entire body trembled once or twice, after which, stretching his front and hind legs out, Mahesh died.

Amina sobbed, ‘What have you done Baba, our Mahesh is dead.’

Gafoor had turned to stone, neither moving nor speaking, only staring at a pair of unblinking, bottomless dark eyes.

Within an hour or two, a group of cobblers from one end of the village arrived, slinging Mahesh up on a pole and taking him to the dumping ground. Gafoor trembled when he saw their shining knives, but closing his eyes, he didn’t say a word.

The neighbours said that the zamindar had sent someone to Tarkaratna to find out what should be done next, ‘You may have to sell your house as penance.’

Gafoor did not reply to any of this, burying his face in his knees and not moving.

Late that night he woke his daughter up, saying, ‘Amina, we must go.’

She had fallen asleep outside the front door. Rubbing her eyes and sitting up, she said, ‘Where will we go, Baba?’

Gafoor said, ‘To work at the jute mill in Phulbere.’

His daughter looked at him in astonishment. Despite all their troubles her father had never been willing to work at the jute mill. She had often heard him say that it was impossible to maintain one’s faith there, that women had neither honour nor protection.

Gafoor said, ‘Hurry up, Ma, we have to walk a long way.’

Amina was about to take the tumbler and the brass plate her father ate out of, but Gafoor stopped her. ‘Leave them here, Ma, they will pay for my penance for Mahesh.’

He left in the dead of night, holding his daughter’s hand. He had no family in this village, no one to inform. Crossing the yard, he stopped abruptly beneath the familiar tree and suddenly burst into tears. Raising his eyes to the star-studded black sky, he said, ‘Allah! Punish me as you will, but my Mahesh died with a thirst. There was no land he could graze on. Do not forgive the sin of whoever it was who did not let him eat the grass you gave us, or quench his thirst with the water you gave us.’

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.’

‘When?’

‘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.’

‘D-i-a-m-o-n-d-h-a-r-b-o-u-r?’

‘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?’

‘Ruby.’

‘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.

Ghawrong!

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.