Blue Blood: Ashapurna Debi

It wasn’t exactly early evening – nearly twelve-thirty in the morning, in fact. Suddenly there was a huge uproar from Flat No. 7, where Ganesh-babu lived. I paid no attention at first – for generosity was not one of things that the nineteen families who occupied the holes in this enormous mansion of nineteen flats could be held guilty of.

Therefore I was no longer in the habit of displaying curiosity at an uproar.

When things seem to be going out of hand, I usually slip into my sandals and slip away.

But there weren’t many instances of a melodrama being enacted at this hour, except in Shashadhar-babu’s flat. ‘Shashadhar-babu drinks, so…’ explained Boudi. ‘Rubbish!’ countered her husband, my brother. ‘We’ve been working in the same office for twenty years, how could I not have known if he was a drunkard? It’s his wife who’s mad…’ As for me, I couldn’t tell a lunatic apart from an alcoholic.

Whatever the truth might be, we often had to wake up at midnight to be listen to every word of this domestic strife.

But as far as I knew, Ganesh-babu’s wife was away.

I thought I saw her get into a car the other day with her trunk, bedroll and children. Well then? Ganesh-babu’s voice was prominent, which meant he was one of the participants. But who was the other? How had Ganesh-babu found the strength to go on this way? Who had inspired him?

Trouble was, the commotion was growing louder. Such choice phrases as ‘Trying to murder me’, ‘have you arrested’ and ‘my god’ could be heard. Should I get out of bed? What was the matter?

I had another problem – I felt faint when people made such scenes. Condemn me as a ‘coward’ if you will – but this is the truth.

Wondering whether to get out of bed, I stayed in it.

The gale was getting weaker. Small mercy – at least it had not been necessary to summon the police. I had been terrified, wondering when the police would start banging on the door. Their judgement was hopeless; they might well have arrested me instead of anyone else.

It wasn’t the police, but there was a banging on the door.

Not loudly, but accompanied by a loud voice.

– Are you asleep, Thakurpo?

Jumping out of bed, I opened the door. – What is it, Boudi?

– Kurukshetra. How could you sleep through it all, Thakurpo?

– My crime?

– What do you mean! A thousand salutes to you, honestly. No wonder I call you a saint. Are you telling me you didn’t hear the hullabaloo at all? Ganesh-babu was about to be murdered.

– About to be?

Relieved, I didn’t hesitate to speak up – about to be murdered? Not actually murdered? God is merciful, but who was the would-be assassin? Against whom was the murderous battle staged at midnight?

– So this is what you think, Thakurpo? That our only mission is to kill people? That’s why you haven’t married, right? Do you know who had turned up to murder him? Lalit-babu’s daughter Sarama.

It was becoming difficult to sustain indifference.

– Lalit-babu’s daughter? She was trying to murder Ganesh-babu? What do you mean?

– What do you suppose? Miss World was caught stealing.

– Stealing? Lalit-babu’s daughter? In Ganesh-babu’s house?

– Yes, my dear. Everyone knows she’s the first among thieves. Just because you stroll through life with your eyes shut. No one dares keep money in their pocket out of fear that she will steal a rupee or two whenever she can.

Overcoming my astonishment, I said – Wait, let me get this straight. Ganesh-babu was in his room, wasn’t he?

– Of course he was. She thought the rogue was asleep, so she crept in.

Needless to say, Boudi had no reservations when it came to use of the language; to make herself clear she used both classical and modern allusions.

– All clear so far. But after that? Did she try to stab him in the heart or strangle him?

Boudi was irritated. – Not at all. She had just opened the drawer quietly when Ganesh-babu woke up and grabbed her. Whereupon she picked up the heavy brass tumbler from his bedside and smashed it down on his forehead. Oooh, so much blood! Nani’s mother’s nephew bandaged him. Imagine a woman being so ferocious!

With some hesitation, I said – But this is just one side of the story, isn’t it? It could also have happened that Ganesh-babu himself had a bad intention…

– Why couldn’t it have? Anything is possible. I don’t consider the scoundrel a good man either, but remember that this was not Lalit-babu’s house but Ganesh-babu’s.

This was true. She was right. Boudi may have been uneducated, but she understood logic.

I was silent for a few moments. Then I asked – What did she do when caught?

– Oh my god. Don’t even ask. At first she was blustering. ‘So what?’ ‘I’m glad I did.’ ‘Pervert.’ And so on. Then she stood like a wild horse, refusing to budge. People swarming everywhere, but she couldn’t care less. Eventually her father whisked her away, practically beating her up.

Dada could be heard coughing in the next room.

Not coughing exactly – pretending to cough. In other words, he wished to inform his wife that he was awake and suffering the pangs of separation.

Following the natural order of life, Boudi’s enthusiasm was diminished. Summarising the rest of her statement, she disappeared.

– Go to sleep. Sorry for waking you up with my story. She may have left after these words of politeness, but sleep eluded me now. I had often seen Lalit-babu’s daughter… going up and down the stairs, in the veranda and balcony. But I hadn’t heard her talk overmuch. The more I tried to picture the tall girl with short hair and an aggressive attitude, the less I could reconcile her with Boudi’s description.

Could Boudi’s accusation be true?

Where was the furtive, cowering air of the thief?

* * *

But…

Had I myself not been puzzled over the changing weight of the contents of my pocket recently? It was true that I had a reputation for being absent-minded, but it was happening so often that even I had become alert.

But I had not said anything, for if Boudi got to hear, the maid would be persecuted mercilessly.

Was it Sarama then?

Could the impossible be possible?

Despite my misgivings, I said nothing.

* * *

The days passed…

I saw the girl moving about in the same aggressive manner, her short hair flying. And the money in my pocket still didn’t add up. But I felt no inclination to be watchful.

Suddenly…

I caught her red-handed, just as Ganesh-babu had.

I had just returned home from the last show at the cinema – I was stunned when I switched the light on.

Sarama was poised before my open suitcase.

I had never realized the meaning of the word ‘perplexed’ so deeply before.

– Switch the light off, switch it off at once.

A sharp, low command.

– Why should I? I said with great difficulty. – Run away. Quick.

– Why should I run away?

Her tone was as hostile as her gestures.

Annoyed, I said – Do you intend to throw a tumbler at me instead of running away?

– Oh, you’re being snide about Ganesh-babu, aren’t you? I’m glad I attacked the swine. I’ll do it again if I have to. Do you know I can throw a brick at him if necessary?

– Now I do. But I would be delighted to know what you’re doing with my suitcase.

To tell the truth, although I could see her sitting before the open suitcase, I did not have the sensation of being in the presence of a dangerous thief.

Shutting the lid loudly, Sarama rose to her feet and said belligerently – No need to be proud of your suitcase. All my effort wasted. There’s nothing in the suitcase, only rubbish.

I was vastly amused.

The thief had no stage fright! She was lecturing the householder for not having anything worth stealing. Definitely entertaining!

It’s possible that I would not have been quite as amused had the thief been Lalit-babu’s son and not his daughter. There was no point denying the enchanting influence of a young lady. Although I was fully aware that I should get rid of Sarama before anyone found out, I kept talking simply because I was tempted to – I had no hesitation even in sharing a laugh with someone who had entered my room to steal my things. Smiling, I said – Indeed, it really was wrong of me not to have left something valuable in the suitcase, don’t you think? But why this terrible habit? Taking things from people without telling them…

Sarama asked angrily – Why shouldn’t I have such a habit? Will anyone give me money willingly?

– But why should they? Who gives money away without reason?

Sarama was worked up at my response. – Oh yes, I know very well no one gives money away without reason. But what are we supposed to do? Should we starve to death?… Don’t you see how badly the landlord’s son insults us every day because Baba cannot afford the rent?

– That’s for your father to sort out. I spoke gravely.

– ‘For your father to sort out!’ How good my father is at sorting things out! Sarama mimicked me. – As if Baba can even understand. He’s drunk twenty-four hours a day.

Now it was my turn for an acidic retort. – And so like a dutiful daughter you earn money to pay for his alcohol. Not a bad way of doing things – no hard work required.

Sarama seemed to explode. – What else can I do? Have I been educated? Can I get a job and make a living? Do you prefer hearing what that scum Ganesh-babu says?

While I didn’t exactly know what Ganesh-babu said, I had a pretty fair idea from what had happened the other night.

I said with a grim lack of humour – I have no desire to know what Ganesh-babu says. But there’s no credit in stealing to pay for our father’s drinking. You can’t call that bravery.

– Who says it’s bravery? Who says it’s creditable? Sarama seemed reckless now. – You’re a decent man, you’re the best among the people here, but even you say such things. Don’t you understand? Don’t you realise Baba beats me black-and-blue if I don’t get him money? He beats me up and pushes me into Ganesh-babu’s house.

Suddenly she did something incredible.

Even before she had finished speaking, she burst into tears and flung herself on my bed.

Imagine my plight.

I couldn’t pull her away, but suppose someone saw? What was I to do?

Who would believe that Sarama was in my room only to steal money?

Should I make my escape quietly?

But where?

The door to the other room had long been barred. I couldn’t go out on the road either, for the main gate was locked by now.

Should I remain rooted to the spot like a fool?

I had no choice but to go up to the bed and say – Listen, you have to go now, there’s a good girl. This isn’t right. Here’s all the money I have, take it and leave, I beg of you.

– I don’t want your money. Rubbish. How much will you give me? How much can you give me? How long will it last?

Guiltily I asked what my responsibilities were.

– But what else can I do?

– You can do everything. Save me from his misery – I beg of you. I can’t go on like this.

She neither got out of my bed, nor raised her face. Still lying face down, Sarama uttered these words.

The sight of a sobbing woman in my bed was a strange feeling. This strange scene made my skin prickle amidst the silence that enveloped us. She no longer seemed arrogant, it was hard to believe she was a thief. How beautiful her pose was on the bed…

Gazing at her, I seemed to enjoy the sight of her heaving and weeping on my bed…. I was surprised… intoxicated…

* * *

– Ah, I see. Now I realise why Thakurpo has been talking to himself at this hour of the night. He isn’t alone, he has company.

A chill ran down my spine.

Boudi was in my room.

– Excellent. So our Sarama knows how to steal all kinds of things. Don’t you agree, Thakurpo? She’s not just a petty thief.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t force a single word out.

Boudi did the talking for all of us. – So even saints are led astray? But shame on you Thakurpo, it’s one thing to slip and fall, but another thing altogether to do it in the mud…. Never mind, shut the door before you make up, Thakurpo. If other people see, they will say terrible things about us if not about you. I’d better go; if your Dada sees me here he will refuse to see my face ever again.

I had the power to rescue Sarama this instant.

I could save her from ultimate disgrace… from the hands of extreme ignominy. In Boudi’s presence I could put my hand on her head and say – Get up, Sarama, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just as well that Boudi has come to know. Come, let us seek her blessings together… There were plenty of wonderful things that the language would allow me to say.

It was not even sinful to lie in order to protect someone seeking sanctuary… but it wasn’t easy either.

Just because we had been forced to take shelter in this pigpen because of the post-war situation, our blood had not turned red, after all. So, forsaking the lure of platitudes, I followed Boudi out of the room to explain everything. With great contempt I said, ‘Are you mad, Boudi? You think that thing and I…’

The Game: Ashapurna Debi

The car left the tarmac highway to turn into a bumpy road.

Touching her husband’s hand on the steering lightly, Sabita said, ‘Can’t you drive a little slowly?’

Turning his head to smile at her, Amlankusum asked, ‘Why, are you scared?’

– I’m not scared, I’m enjoying the drive. I don’t want this road to end.

– This road isn’t ending anytime soon. These people live in the back of beyond. Really, couldn’t Samaresh have got a job somewhere else?

After a pause Sabita said – But how beautiful the scenery is.

– Rubbish, madam. Scenery my foot. So far away from civilisation – so very far. It’s strange, I must say.

– What’s strange?

– All of this. This getting back in touch with your unsuccessful lover and my spurned heroine. It’s just like a novel.

Sabita said gravely – This gentleman named God is a full-fledged novelist. Or, if you like, a dramatist.

– That doesn’t mean there’s quite as much drama in everyone’s lives. Just consider the whole thing. There I was in love with your friend, convinced that having her was all I needed for fulfilment, and then I met you, and my viewpoint changed drastically. And you, while flirting with my cousin, ended up marrying me – and now the two of us are on our way to their house where we’ve been invited. None of this is natural.

Sabita said placidly – And yet it appears so marvellously natural that there doesn’t seem anything remotely illogical about it.

– They’ll be very happy to see us, don’t you think?

– Since they invited us so earnestly, that should certainly be the case.

Amlankusum drove in silence for some time.

– Are you sure of the road? Can you find the house? – asked Sabita, breaking the silence.

A conversation in a car is not exactly a conversation, it’s more of scattered, desultory exchanges.

Amlan said – I have an accurate map.

– How much longer?

– Almost there.

When they had nearly arrived, Sabita suddenly made an unusual suggestion.

She said – How about having some fun and fooling them a little?

– Fooling them? – Amlan asked in the surprise. – How?

– About our lives, for example.

Amlan turned towards her to ask – How do you mean?

Sabita smiled, blushing. – Never mind, I was just saying.

– But you didn’t. Why this sudden plan of fooling them? What’s the plan?

– Nothing, just a trick we’d play on them.

Amlan laughed. – But can you please tell me what you have in mind?

– I was thinking… let’s say this is how we fool them… we’ll pretend to be pining away for our old loves, our lives are barren now, there’s no love between us, we’re at different poles… as though we don’t even know each other… wouldn’t we be fooling them thoroughly?

Twisting the steering, Amlan said – Wonderful idea! Really, you women have such fantastic imagination. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with such a superb trick even if you’d given me a week to think it up. What fun.

– Isn’t it? You think it’s fun too? Sabita laughed like a child, clapping her hands. Then she stopped laughing and said – It seemed such fun when the idea popped into my head… I was only wondering what you’d think of such childishness. You’re willing, then?

– Why not?

– Now tell me, what’s the first thing we should say when we get out of the car? How should we behave to prove that there’s no love lost between us? Come on, tell me what we should do. Let’s say… you’ll tell me grimly, ‘We’re here, Sabita.’ I will retort even more grimly, ‘I didn’t need to learn that from you.’ Then we’ll follow your cousin into the house… Like it?

With something like a smile, Amlankusum said – Wait a minute, let me apprise myself about the drama before taking on the role… During the rest of this journey I have to reconcile myself to the fact that you may have married me, but you aren’t happy, you haven’t been able to forget your old lover…

– What do you mean! – Sabita scolded him. – It’s not just me alone. Make it ‘We haven’t been able to forget our old lovers’.

– Oh yes, of course. You composed the story, you see, so it’s not unusual for me to get it wrong at first.

Glaring at him, Sabita said – You’re not allowed to get anything wrong, mister. No salary for you if you do. You must have seen a lot of unsuccessful lovers and jilted lovers in films, think of one of those characters.

– Very well.

– What is it, don’t you get the game?

– At first I didn’t, but now I have.

Sabita asked sceptically – Let me hear what you’ve got.

Smiling faintly, Amlankusum said – What’s the use of talking? Let me start the game, you can check for yourself whether I play my cards right.’

Amlankusum had indeed grasped the game, he bid perfectly, played his aces flawlessly, every day during their stay. In fact it was Sabita whose game went to pieces now and then.

On the day that they were to return, Sabita’s former lover told Sabita’s husband in private – I couldn’t have imagined this, Amlan. To tell the truth I got married quickly out of rage at your behaviour. But still I was content to think you had found happiness. But now you’ve dispelled that contentment too.

Taking Sabita aside, Amlankusum’s cousin told her – I may address you as my cousin’s wife in public, Sabita, but I can never forget that you’re still the same Sabita to me. I just have this burning regret that you threw away your life needlessly.

The car travelled along the same road, although in the opposite direction now.

After passing much of the journey in silence, Sabita said – We really fooled them, didn’t we?

Chuckling, Amlankusum replied – Well, it’s better to fool others than to fool ourselves.

Sabita asked doubtfully – What do you mean?

Amlan laughed. – How simple things would be if only everything we say means something. It’s because we cannot get the meaning of all we say that the world turns so mean.

The Terrace: by Ashapurna Debi

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.

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.

She smiled.

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.

On tip-toes.

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?

It wasn’t.

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.’

Farewell to Spring: by Ashapurna Debi

Bilu would have to sing at the annual college celebrations. With what amounted to a hunger strike, she secured a sari from her mother and, with it, permission to go to the celebrations dressed in the sari.

No, never.

In no circumstances would Bilu go to college in a frock today.

Bilu hated dressing in a frock – abhorred it. Theirs was a co-educational college. When she appeared in a skirt before her male and female classmates, Bilu’s discomfort with her body knew no bounds. She didn’t want to acknowledge her legs from the knees downwards, a shrinking feeling made her shoulders want to fold their wings, and Bilu would be relieved if the chambers of her heart could accommodate her arrogant breasts, which defied the discipline imposed by her tight dress. And could it possibly be any worse than sitting in class and trying in vain to pull the hem of her frock down below her knees?

And yet how beautiful, how exquisite, how alluring a sari was. If only she could accommodate herself in it, there would be no question of having that shrinking feeling.

And then the loveliness of a sari!

Could it possibly be compared to anything else?

Such a feathery softness in the folds of a silk sari, such regal opulence in the borders and extremity of the Benarasi sari. The entrancement of formal attire offered by Jamdani and Dhakai tissue saris, the air of a light-winged bird in mid-flight in the Mysore georgette chiffon, and as for the fine, milk-white sari from a loom… Putting these on must make one feel like a pure, sacred priestess – or so Bilu imagined.

Her mother possessed all such saris, as did her bordi and mejdi, the two eldest sisters. Even shejdi, the third sister, had been growing her stock recently. And Bilu? An entire shelf of the cupboard stacked with nothing but frocks. Who could doubt that it would take her fifty years to wear them all? Perhaps she would have a larger supply by then. For Bilu had not yet acquired the right to saris. Her mother was firmly opposed to “little girls” dressing in them.

A student of the senior-most class in school but one, Bilu had not yet been promoted by her mother from the ranks of childhood. And why should she? Even Bilu’s shejdi had barely achieved that status. She had received permission to wear saris only the other day.

When she saw Bilu sunk in dejection today, her eldest sister felt a stab of pity. She made a representation to their mother, ‘Your insistence is unfair, ma. The child has a fancy for a sari, why can’t she wear one for a day.’

‘It’s BECAUSE she’s a child,’ answered their mother gravely. ‘Why should a child want to play at being an adult? She’s at an age when she should be running about and laughing and playing, it’s so much more comfortable in a frock. Instead of which she wants to turn all clumsy in a sari… tchah! If I were allowed to, I’d give up my sari for a frock at once. Freedom!’

As she spoke, a hint of a smile appeared on the grim lines of her face, possibly as she pictured this brilliant sight. And, cashing in on this momentary vulnerability, Nilu chuckled. ‘Easily, ma, easily. All of us second this proposal unanimously…’

Their mother resumed her gravity. ‘You don’t understand, Nilu, this isn’t just a whim of Bilu’s, for a long time now she has been dying to dress in saris. Why? It’s only when grown-up thoughts pop up in the mind that people are possessed by such strange wishes. Let her try it once and she’ll pester me for it every day.’

Perhaps Nilu’s memories from Bilu’s age had long been wiped out, which was why she could view her sister with nothing but pity. It was from that perspective that she said, ‘You and your worries. When she trips over it at every step, she’ll say on her own, “I’ve had enough.” It’s nothing like that, the students will perform today – she wants a bit of novelty, that’s all.’

‘Very well then, let her. But remember, Bilu – just the one time. You cannot clamour for a sari every day.’

Bilu’s mother gave her daughter permission to choose a sari from her own collection.

Bilu was in seventh heaven.

She chose a light orange sari. Rubbing it on her cheek, running her hands over it to feel it, she sat down to dress herself, bursting with happiness. Her eldest sister took the advisor’s role, however, even lending her a lovely blouse.

After she dressed, no sooner did Bilu drape the end of her sari over her shoulder than her eldest sister laughed. ‘Silly girl, why do you want to look awkward like old women? Twist it around your waist instead.’

‘Oh no, why? This is very nice,’ protested Bilu.

As though she wanted to remedy her exposed state of all these years in a single day.

When she stood before the mirror after she was done dressing, Bilu almost had tears of joy in her eyes. Was she so beautiful! So very beautiful! When had she ever had the chance to learn that putting her hair up loosely instead of making her customary plaits on either side could make her face appear so lovely?

‘Bordi-ee.’

Bilu seemed to whistle. ‘How do I look?’

‘Oh, you look wonderful. Oh my god, you’ve put your hair up too. How ever did you learn?’

‘By myself. I’ve taken all the hairpins that you and mejdi and shejdi had above the mirror and stuck them in my hair.’

‘Good for you.’ Nilu hailed her mother, laughing, ‘Ma, come and take a look, your youngest daughter is a full-fledged woman today. And you thought she was going to trip over her sari – just see her now. She’s even put her hair up herself.’

The seventeen-year-old Bilu giggled helplessly at her own prowess with her hair – while Bilu’s eldest sister Nilu looked on with her thick glasses, her face pockmarked with pimples, her stoop prominent.

Bilu left in a rush before her mother could say anything.

So that her lack of poise in a sari was not observed by her mother and sisters.

Looking in the direction in which Bilu had disappeared, her mother sighed.

How would they know what their mother was perturbed about? In the past, women didn’t cultivate education, the family’s word was enough to tie down an unmarried girl indefinitely at twelve or thirteen. Even if relations or neighbours caught them out, proving beyond doubt that the calculations were doctored, the argument could still be won. But now such methods were ruled out. How could a college-going girl be passed off as a thirteen-year-old? Hence the futile attempt to hold back the hemline of age by forcing a short frock on the girl.

Bilu’s mother sighed once more.

Bilu was the youngest, after Nilu, Ilu and Milu.

How could this body, slim and sharp like a glittering sword, be allowed to dazzle under the polish provided by a sari just yet? The longer Bilu could languish in the darkness of the shadow of a frock the better.

Even if the song were completely memorized, having the book of lyrics open was a fashion. On her way to the library for a volume of Gitabitan, Bilu had to pause. Niranjan was on his way out of the room, leafing through the pages of a book of notations. She knew Niranjan a little better mostly on account of visits to the library. Despite their acquaintance, however, Bilu was of the opinion that the boy had a little too much of the air of an adult. Although he addressed Bilu respectfully, he seemed to exude an affectionate compassion for her.

But today’s encounter was completely unexpected.

Raising his eyes at the sound of Bilu’s footsteps, Niranjan seemed startled. Then he suddenly blurted out, ‘Glorious!’ His eyes shone with an unusual glow of wonder and admiration.

Glorious!

Bilu’s heart trembled.

Just a short while ago Nandita has exclaimed on seeing her, ‘Oh god! This is a new look! How fine you look – marvellous!’ But her heart had not trembled then.

But why should it have? There had been no such glow in Nandita’s eyes.

And what if there had been.

But even if her heart trembled, she must not let the trembling be found out. So Bilu had to say, pretending she hadn’t understood, ‘What’s glorious?’

‘You are.’

‘Me! Me glorious! Oh, hahaha, I see…’ Bilu broke into giggles like a little girl given chocolate. ‘You’re saying this because I’m in a sari, aren’t you? Then you’d better use the word hilarious.’ She had to prolong her laugh, lest her heart be heard thumping.

‘What are you laughing for?’ Niranjan said, adopting the role of gravity. ‘You should be severely punished.’

‘Punished!’

‘Yes, severely punished. For not dressing in a sari all these days.’

‘I must be punished for not dressing in a sari? You’re funny!’

‘Funny? It’s the truth. In my opinion dressing shabbily is a palpable crime. You look so wonderful in a sari, but you…’

Was a man’s compliment such a dangerous affair? Did it make you lose your bearings this way?

But how could she afford to lose her bearings?

Forcibly exiling her heart to its rightful place, Bilu began to giggle like a clockwork doll. ‘I have to tell bordi when I get home. It was she who bundled me into a sari. “What do you mean you’ll sing on the dais in a frock?” she said. “No one will even notice you. At least in a sari you’ll catch people’s eyes, at least they’ll consider you a human being.” I must tell her.’

Maintaining his gravity, Niranjan countered, ‘Your sister is quite right. You’re catching the eye far too much in a sari. It is becoming difficult to tear my eyes away.’

‘Oh my god. You say such funny things. Heeheehee.’ Bilu’s forehead began to ache with giggling. ‘Oh dear, I’m getting late.’

‘Late? They’ve only just sent people to fetch the tabla players. We can chat for another hour.’

‘How simple it is for you. And to think I haven’t memorized any of the songs yet. I need a volume of Gitabitan…’

‘Which volume?’

‘Whi… which? The second, I think. Let me check…’

‘Come with me.’

She had no choice but to follow Niranjan.

Some time was spent in selecting the book.

A period of silence.

This was much worse than conversation. The silence seemed to make the ground sink beneath her feet. She could find nothing to hold on to.

‘Listen.’

‘What?’

‘Will you keep a request?’

‘What request? Join everyone for tea on the way back?’ Again Bilu’s eyes held the darkness of ignorance.

‘For heaven’s sake, who’s talking about that? What I’m saying is… I beg of you, don’t ever dress in a frock ever again.’

‘Not dress in a frock ever? Oh my god, how is that possible. But why shouldn’t I?’

‘Because… because…? Because it’s absolutely intolerable. Wear a sari every day from now on, red or blue or green or white… any colour you like.’

‘Oh god…’ Bilu’s eyes seemed to grow round with fear. Crushing the end of her sari between her fingers as though she were rather ill at ease, Bilu declared, ‘It’ll be the death of me. I won’t be able to go anywhere or play games. Even a single day is bad enough. I feel all bundled up. I’m just waiting to go home and take this sari off. My god, I really wonder how people do any work wrapped in twenty-two yards of cloth.’

‘So will you. The sleeping beauty will awake at the touch of the golden wand of the sari…’

‘Good heavens! What is this nonsense you’re spouting? What sleeping beauty, what golden wand. I can’t make head or tail of any of this.’

‘You really can’t?’ Niranjan asked hopelessly.

‘Of course not!’ A little girl of five seemed to have taken possession of Bilu. ‘How can I? You’re just spouting rubbish. “The golden wand of the sari!” Heeheehee. Why not talk of the golden sand in the curry!’

Bilu had to giggle again. She had to giggle even if there were tears in her eyes from the effort. What else could she do but giggle? She could not afford to be serious. Didn’t Bilu know very well that she still had three elder sisters!

For Bilu was much, much younger than Nilu, whose eyes got worse – and stoop more prominent – every year; than Ilu, who was adding weight and gravity with every passing day and turning into a football; than Milu, who still starred as a young woman although her youth was spent. Her childhood could not possibly end just yet. Let the sari remain with its sensuous beauty on the highest rack in the cupboard, the lower rack was Bilu’s, where piles of frocks were stacked.