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.

Ten Days of the Strike: Sandipan Chattopadhyay

It was September 27, Thursday. The month, October. The toilet of Shubhobroto’s flat had now been blocked for ten days in a row. The morning of Tuesday before last. Before going to the market, Shubho normally checked, to the accompaniment of a cup of tea and two biscuits, how the week would go. That day, too, he had just fixed his eyes on Aries when his seven-year-old daughter Pinky came out of the bathroom and said, ‘Bapi, the pan filled with water when I pulled the chain.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Shubho, hoarsely.

‘Yes, it’s still full. Take a look.’

Shubho had never heard of such a thing. They had eventually twisted the arms of the company sufficiently to extract an eight per cent bonus. Screaming ‘We want’ and ‘Meet our demands’ for the past one-and-a-half months had almost deprived him of his vocal cords. And at last, since the sky really was looking blue now, since there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, he had assumed that, as before, this time too the Durga Puja holidays would go well. What strange mockery of the gods this was at such a juncture.

Shubho’s ancestral house was in Ahiritola, on Joy Mitra Street. Five years ago, when the company had moved to Joka from Behala, he had also been forced to move home with his wife and daughter. After all, a three-shift job couldn’t be held down from Ahiritola. The house was over sixty years old, and thirty of his years had been spent there at a stretch. But even in that house he had never heard of anything like this. Naturally it didn’t seem believable.

Shubho rushed to the bathroom, still holding the newspaper. There he saw, what rubbish, there wasn’t a drop of water in the pan. There had been, certainly, because of which some stool was still stuck to the sides. But there was no more water now, all of it had flowed in. So without going in for any more chain-pulling, he filled the ten-litre bucket and dumped all of it into the pan.

Oh god! Look, not only had water and stool come rushing up, racing each other to fill the pan, but they had also overflowed onto the bathroom floor. He swooped down on the sweeper’s broom to at least clean the floor before Kuntala turned up. Her mania for cleanliness had reached a stage where, except for sex, everything at home had been classified as ‘yours’ or ‘mine’. So much so that their toothbrushes on the glass tray above the basin didn’t dare knock against one another. In fact, even the plastic clothesline on which Kuntala’s and Pinky’s clothes were hung up to dry was different from his – theirs was the shade of deep anger. Although he had had this explained to him repeatedly, in his mild rush after his bath to get to work, he had hung his towel on that line one day and then – good god – what a row! All the way through dressing and eating, the bickering had continued up to the moment he had shut the door behind him. He had even suspected that she would throw the rest of her invectives at him from the veranda. So Shubho quickly tried to at least… Just as he’d thought. The girl had told her mother. Or perhaps the racket made by those ten litres of water had made Kuntala rush out of the kitchen and turn up in person to investigate, the end of her sari tucked into her waist. Although the bathroom floor was more or less clean, the toilet was still a grotesque mess of shit and piss. His pyjamas were wet up to the knees.

‘Oh god!’ said Kuntala. Untwisting the end of her sari from her waist, she clamped it on her nose with a force which suggested that she wouldn’t stop until she had unwrapped the entire thing.

The first thing Shubho did was to run to Gopal-babu, the ancient tenant on the ground floor. He dealt in milk products in Notun Bajar, quite a solvent business. Spreading out ten-and-odd saris on the bed, his wife was explaining her Puja gift purchases to him, while he was saying,’O no no no, this one suits you, don’t give it away.’ He wasn’t particularly pleased when Shubho entered suddenly through the back door and appeared in the bedroom without so much as a by your leave. ‘What is it?’ he asked.

On hearing the whole story, be said, ‘Come now. You realised it today. We’re ground floor. Our stuff hasn’t been passing since last week.’

‘What! But you never told me! How did you manage?’

‘Come now. We’re refugees. Came over and settled on a platform in Sealdah Station. Never mind us. Me and my son go shit in that field there.’

‘What!’ Shubho gulped. ‘And the ladies?’

‘They take a rickshaw to my wife’s sister’s place over in Unique Colony. Why don’t you tell the landlord?’ Changing the colour of his eyes like a cat, Gopal-babu smiled dirtily and said, ‘You’re very thick with him.’

He had been living there for fifteen years. His rent hadn’t been raised by a paise. In five years, Shubho had voluntarily increased the rent he paid by Rs 25, in the hope of a few drips and drops of favours. A bolt on the door had broken, the landlord hadn’t bothered to have it repaired. To rub salt into the homeless Gopal-babu’s wound, he had put up a tin-roofed room under his very nose and taken in a Muslim tailor named Liaqat Ali as tenant. The new tenant had no toilet. Apparently he raised the iron lid of the septic tank at dawn every day and, along with his offspring, defecated inside directly. And today Gopal-babu was being snide with him about the landlord! Shuhho really had been mistaken. When merely letting out a two-room flat brought in an advance of ten thousand rupees that wouldn’t have to be returned, twenty-five a month was nothing but a pinch of snuff.

His lips had assumed the shape of the letter o for a long time now. Seeing him in a fix, Gopal-babu probably felt sorry for him. Changing his tune, he said he and his family could cope, but Shubho and his family were cultured people, their case was different. There was something Shubho could do – he could go to Kalikishto-babu, the Conservancy Block Officer of the ward. Nutu’s tea-shop near Pushposree Cinema Hall – that was where the gentleman was to be found every morning. If Shubho went right away, he’d see him there. Kalikishto-babu would find a solution.

At that moment Gopal-babu got a phone-call from Notun Bajar. Grabbing the receiver, he said ‘Hello-who-yes-no-yes-no-yes-yes-no…’ into it. When he found Shubho still standing there, he arranged his fingers and the upturned palm of his left hand into a Bharatnatyam pose, telling Shubho to go quickly.

The gentleman was middle-aged, with the muscular appearance of those who deal in shit and cheese. A two-day stubble on his cheek, without a single white hair. Shubho found him exactly where he was supposed to be. And yes, Shubho was definitely efficient, for he managed to get the gentleman into a rickshaw and straight home within fifteen minutes. Sitting on the sofa, Kalikishto-babu took a luxuriant pinch of snuff between his fingertips, some of it spilling onto his half-dirty kurta. Gesturing towards the TV set, he asked, ‘Watched the Olympics?’

‘Yes.’

‘Not as good as the Russian one.’

‘No. But…’

‘Saw the P. T. Usha thing? Choo-choo.’

‘Oooh, Just a hair’s breadth.’

‘Yes. Juuuust a little more…’

‘The Bengali newspaper had the best headline – Usha touches gold and returns.’

At that moment, quite a lot of fried-rice, with two – yes, two – entire sweets arrived on a quarter-plate, carried by – not Panchidi – but Kuntala herself. ‘Tea or coffee?’ she asked

‘En-no-no. Tea…’

Shubho saw Kuntala standing by the curtain. He didn’t hesitate anymore and said, ‘Well, Kalikrishno-babu, about our toilet… ‘

‘That’s being taken care of. I’ve told Tulsidas. He’ll be here any moment.’

The bell rang downstairs almost immediately. Pinky ran to the balcony. ‘Is that Tulsidas?’ bellowed Kalikrishno-babu.

Before removing the lid of the first tank downstairs, Kalikrishno-babu asked Shubho to step away. Even Gopal-babu drew the curtains of his windows. Standing astride the opening to the septic tank, Tulsidas rotated a long, curved pole inside. Because of the horrible, fearsome stench, the windows of the first floor closed one by one. Only Kalikrishno-babu stood tapping his nose with his index finger, while Shubho held his handkerchief over his nose.

Putting the lid back, Tulsidas jumped down from the cement tank. Shubho noticed his splendid physique for the first time. He was completely naked except for the short dhoti wrapped around his waist, at least six feet tall, with thick hair on his chest, and an aluminium disc hanging from a chain around his neck. Shubho suddenly recalled that their print of Nandalal Basu’s painting Kiratarjan, which used to hang for at the head of their dining table, had fallen to the floor during a storm, the glass breaking. It would have to be framed again. Tulsidas said, ‘The tank isn’t completely blocked yet. It’ll work for a few days more. But vanishing is a must.’

Vanish? What was that? To make something vanish was to hide it. Like making a corpse vanish. Or stolen goods. What was it that was to be made to vanish here?

Kalikrishno-babu said, ‘Do you know how long it’s been since the tank was cleaned?’

‘I know,’ said Gopal-babu, drawing the curtain. ‘Eighteen years.’ He drew the curtain back. Kalikrishno-babu said to the man behind the purdah, ‘That does it. Do all of you use acid to clean your pan?’

No reply. Shubho said, ‘We do.’

‘Then don’t,’ said Kalikrishno-babu.’The insects that breed in the tank eat up the stool, that’s why the water flows easily between the tanks. Four tanks in all. What happens is that if the acid kills off the insects, the outlet of the first tank gets jammed with stool and dead insects.’

Shubho said something that had occurred to him right at the beginning. ’Kalikrishno-babu. The sanitary privy in our Ahiritola house is at least forty years old. But it never…’

‘Look. That is in Calcutta. It is connected to the central sewerage. Goes straight to the dumping ground in Dhapa through the underground system. And this is Behala. It’s a personal system here.’

‘I see.’ The basics of socialism and capitalism became somewhat clearer to Shubho.

The meaning of ‘vanish’ also became obvious. It was nothing but the use of a bundle of rags tied to the end of a long bamboo pole. Since there wasn’t enough, Kuntala had to hand over a frilled petticoat. The drawstring was removed to tie everything together, but it didn’t work. So Kuntala eventually had to offer her scarlet, for-her-majesty-only, plastic clothesline. Then, fill the pan with water and apply a vacuum-pressure on its mouth with the rug-covered battering ram. This, in short, was vanish.

But, worse luck, not even half an hour of vacuum pressuring could clear more than an arm’s length of the stuff. As soon as it had been used once or twice more, the pan filled with stool again.

That’s how it had stood on the sixth successive day. All this time, a yard or so of shit had been clearing up on its own every night, while Shubho managed to make another arm’s length worth disappear with fifteen minutes of effort every morning. The three of them somehow managed to do their business once a day, their faces covered. But for the last three days, the stool had accumulated in the pan without budging an inch.

Shuhho had been urinating outdoors since the beginning. The bathroom was a completely forbidden zone to him for this particular activity. Kuntala had made it clear on the very first day. ‘You can do that wherever the hell you can. Don’t you set foot in the bathroom.’ But two days ago, seeing that the stuff in the pan hadn’t cleared at all, she dealt a heartrending blow. ‘You can shit outside the house too. I don’t know where.’

As a result, for the past two days Shubho had been unloading where Monica – a former student of Kuntala’s – lived, across the road. He went over only after the men folk had left for work. He had had to take casual half-days at his office all those days. Never mind that, but not only was it embarrassing for a thirty-five-year-old man to use the toilet in someone else’s house, it was also, oh god, no little trouble. First, which of the mugs to use? Then, there were pieces of red-blue-yellow-differently-coloured soap on the window sill. Obviously, one was Monica’s, one her parents’, one her aunt’s or brother’s. Alas, couldn’t there have been one colour from the vibgyor exclusively for Shubho? Crossing the road every day with a mug from his own toilet was unimaginable. He had clean forgotten to pull the chain the day before yesterday. Of course, it wasn’t as though there had been any stool left in the pan. It had all disappeared while cleaning himself afterwards. But Kuntala sent him back all the same. Glaring, she practically shouted at him, ‘Go pull the chain. Someone else’s toilet, after all – shame on you.’

So, for the last two days the stuff in the pan had remained in the pan. Covering their face, shutting their eyes, mother and daughter had been unloading on the existing heap. There was no question of pouring water in either. The pan would immediately fill with water and, now, it wouldn’t even flow. Instead, it would splatter them. Kuntala’s foresight had consequently forbidden Pinky to spit into the pan. Indeed, Kuntala was more dedicated than the Anand Marg people in her quest for cleanliness. One felt, not sorry, but like weeping for her.

There was no option now but to clean the four tanks. If the Municipality were informed it might be done, but that would cost Rs 4,000 and neither the landlord nor Gopal-babu would pay a paise. Kuntala had still been willing to pawn her jewellery. But Kalikrishno-babu said the Municipality wouldn’t send its vehicle before six months. So it had been decided that he would employ a dozen sweepers overnight to clear 80-90 per cent of the stuff in the first tank, on a payment of Rs 300 for the moment. Six months of relief, at any rate! ‘Where?’ Kalikrishno-babu answered with a half-wink, ‘What business is it of yours? Here and there,’ swinging his arm in an arc that included India as well as the rest of the world. Shubho’s earlier notion of the word vanish would be given this new interpretation in the early hours of Sunday – even before the birds had risen. Or so things had been fixed. Which meant four more days in hell.

Actually four more days in hell wasn’t the right way of putting it. It was quite wrong, in fact. As in all small flats, the toilet was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a six-foot-high partition. Which meant that it was exposed at the top. The unbearable stench flowed out, filling the flat at all times. Not even incense could keep it at bay. So Kuntala had hung up a packet of Odonil in each room – including the kitchen. And – this was a lack of foresight on her part – the constant scent of five packets of Odonil bad turned the entire flat into a unique two-room toilet, complete with kitchen, storeroom and dining space. So, instead of four more days in hell, four more days in the toilet would be a better way of putting it.

It was about three in the morning. Cring-cring, cring-cring. The phone was ringing downstairs in Gopal-babu’s flat. Even a sound as soft as this could wake Shubho up. But he went back to sleep with its sounds in his ears.

Kuntala woke him up about fifteen minutes later. His mother had died a little earlier.

She had been quite old. This time her cold had taken a detour towards pneumonia. Even a couple of weeks ago, she had appeared to have turned the corner. He hadn’t been able to check on her during the toilet crisis. Did she have to take the opportunity to escape this way?

‘What went wrong so suddenly?’ he asked absently.

‘They didn’t say. Come on, hurry up. Go to Madhu-da. Ask him to get the taxi out.’

‘Y-yes, I’m going.’ Holding up his pyjamas with his hands he was running to the bathroom to urinate. Kuntala objected mildly, ‘Where do you think you’re going? The pan’s full. Nothing’s gone down all night. You’re going out, aren’t you?’ Meaning, do it outside.

‘O yes o yes,’ he said and, unbolting the door, was about to totter out bare-bodied, trapped between semi-somnolence and grief for his mother. Kuntala handed him a singlet. The first thing he did outside was to squat by the open drain.

Sunrise was some time away. One of his elder brothers was standing by the small iron gate. Putting his hand through the window he unlocked the door of the taxi and said, ‘Ah, you’re here. Come in. Couldn’t let you know earlier. O ho, o ho.’

The Ahiritola house was dilapidated. Nearly all of it was now under Shubho’s brother’s control. There weren’t enough rooms for everyone, so only when someone died did one of the young men get married. The eldest brother had died quite young of cancer, and his wife had moved with their children to the room on the roof. Shubho had got married. Their mother, of course, had delayed things considerably, and Shubho’s brother had no choice but to shift her downstairs from the first floor. Setting up a bed in a corner of the dining room and laying her on it for her final repose, he had got his nephew Boltu married the month before. The room that Shubho had shared with his eldest brother a decade ago was now in the joint possession of the family deity and his brother’s youngest son Punpun.

Ignoring the formal gestures of deference for her brother-in-law, Kuntala led Pinky directly into the dining room. Shubho sat with his brother in the front room. His brother switched on the table-lamp and the fan. Some plaster flaked off the walls, falling on the floor. They were both quiet. When the cook came and asked, ‘Tea or Viva?’ Shubho’s brother said, ‘Tea? Mmm… um…’

‘Viva then?’

‘Viva gives me wind. OK Viva.’

‘Tea for Chhotobabu?’

Shubho nodded. His brother’s chest heaved as he sighed. ‘She drank all the holy water in my hand and then passed away. Before that she threw away all the medicine Gouri had given her.’

Shubho was silent.

He was thinking of the last time he was here. His mother had obviously known she didn’t have much time left. Taking his hands, she had said, ‘Come back soon. I want water from your hands before I die.’ Since her illness began, Shubho had been visiting twice a week anyway. Suddenly, out of the blue, while all the toilets in the world were in working order, theirs had to be the one to be knocked out.

Shuhho was her favourite child. Before her got married, he had taken her on all the pilgrimages she had wanted to – Kashi-Vindhyachal, Haridwar, Kedar-Badri. At Vindhyachal he had been a bit short with her about something. That had done it – the old woman had disappeared from the dharamshala. A terrible loo was blowing in the middle of the afternoon. Searching for her all over, he had finally found her beneath a banyan tree. The way she had turned away her face in rage on seeing him was not to be forgotten. Only after much pleading had he succeeded in getting her into a tonga.

That last day he was here, his mother’s meal had just been served. When Shubho’s sister-in-law saw a couple of rats scurrying about, she exploded. ‘Oh, Ma, can’t you even shoo them off?’

What a moonglow had spread over her face! Between the rise and set of a faint smile, she had said, ‘What can I do? I used to shoo them off. They’d run away. Now they don’t pay any attention. So I call out to god now.’

That night Shubho had told Kuntala. ‘I’m bringing Ma over tomorrow.’ ‘Your brother won’t let you. Ma still wears that necklace. Besides,’ Kuntala had said, ‘Ma won’t leave her home either.’

‘Of course she will, of course she will,’ Shubho had said, thumping the bed. ‘Does she have to die in a damp room amongst rats and cockroaches? Must Gouri talk to her that way? Can you imagine how she must be treating Ma?’

‘Yes, bring her over if you can.’ Kuntala had sounded keen.

It hadn’t been possible. The toilet had become blocked immediately afterwards.

It was getting light outside. A taxi drew up. Shubho’s sister Kamala and her husband Jagadish got out amidst the ear-shattering din of street dogs barking. Switching off the table-lamp and draining his cup of Viva, a final sip, Shubho’s brother rose to welcome them. As he walked off, he said, ‘I believe your toilet’s choked?’

Drinking his tea, Shubho felt his bowels stir. He hadn’t yet been to the room of the dead. His entire being was telling him not to go in there, not to witness the one completely believable thing in life that could not be disbelieved at all.

He went to the toilet instead. A toilet that needed the light to be switched on even in the daytime. The light revealed an uneven wall and hundreds of cockroaches. A cracked, scarred pan. The sweeper came just once a week. No cistern. And yet, because it was connected to the central sewerage system, look, just two mugs of water made the shit dance away.

As Shubho’s brother’s wife touched his mother’s forehead with the bangle and vermilion of the married woman before she was placed on the cot that would take her to the crematorium, all the other married women, including Kuntala, lined up behind her – while Shubho’s brother told the photographer, S. Kumar, ‘For the rituals I want a photograph of my beautiful mother, absolutely young,’ – Shubho entered, threw a single glance at his mother and averted his eyes. Her final expression, when she was still alive, hadn’t yet been wiped off her face. ‘Thank god!’ it seemed to say.

His brother was still saying loudly, ‘O ho, is there anything I haven’t done for my mother? When she had cholera… Shubho was a little boy and she was pregnant with Kamala…’ Shubho took the opportunity, put his head on his mother’s feet and said, softly, twice, ‘Forgive me, Ma.’

There was a long line of corpses in front of the electric furnace at Nimtala crematorium. It was evening before Shubho’s mother’s turn came. Before bathing her and dressing her in fresh clothes, during the rite of ‘severance of earthly ties’, the priest at the crematorium said, ‘All this is mine,’ and started taking everything away, from the old clothes to the amulet tied around the corpse’s arm. There was a tight knot in the sari, which simply couldn’t be loosened. All of them bent down for a closer look – Shubho, his brother, his nephew, his brother’s brother-in-law. What could it possibly be? Gouri had already removed all the jewellery. Shubho’s mother had displayed her last remaining possession – the necklace at her throat – just a few days ago, telling everyone, ‘This is for Pinky.’ Gouri would never hand it over.

After a great deal of tugging and clawing, the knot was loosened and a twenty-rupee-note was found. No one knew how long it had been there. It had undoubtedly been washed several times. Holding the pulpy currency note gingerly, Shubho observed a distinctly displeased expression on the priest’s face. Taking his hands, he said, ‘Look, purutmoshai, you can still read the serial number, you just have to go to the Reserve Bank office, they stand outside on the pavement, they’ll keep a rupee at most.’ Shubho apologised repeatedly for his mother’s inconsiderate behaviour.

Dressed in her new clothes, his mother entered the furnace on a trolley. Just like a slice of bread in a toaster. At a touch of the hotplate inside, the flames leapt up. The enormous gates of the furnace came crashing down.

The next day, Friday, they went back to Behala. Shubho had phoned his office the day before, getting a verbal sanction for a fortnight’s leave. Maulik would come by with the application form. In the taxi, Shubho recalled the thought that had occurred to him the evening before while standing chest-deep in the Ganga. How would he go to Monica’s place the next day in this outfit – in the traditional garb of a son who had lost his mother? Of course, it was a matter of one day only. He was already done for today. And early on Sunday, 80-90 per cent of the stuff would be made to vanish. Which would mean six months of relief. Really, Shubho’s mother’s death had changed Kuntala overnight. She hadn’t mentioned the toilet even once. She would definitely cope with it one day more. And oh, Sunday was the first day of the Durga Puja fortnight. The morning programme on the radio would return like the childhood poem, ‘It’s dawn, night’s gone,’ waving its blue flag.

Back home, spreading sand between fresh bricks, Shubho and Kuntala were huffing and puffing for all they were worth over a nearly extinguished fire of sticks and wood – fanning was forbidden – with a boiling pot upon it, when, suddenly… whoosh whoosh!

What was that? They looked at each other with reddened, streaming eyes. Yes, the heartache of one was now, because of the smoke, rolling down as the tears of the other. But the language of their eyes was the same. Wasn’t the sound coming from the bathroom? Their eyes expressed the same hope. Pinky had run to the bathroom before anyone else. Opening the doors of the toilet, she screamed, ‘Bapi! Ma!’

Kuntala raced to the bathroom behind Shubho. What could this be but divine intervention? Despite a little stool still stuck to the sides, the pan, my goodness, was absolutely empty. There was no doubt that the pipe had opened up miraculously, and all the stuff had rushed out and sunk somewhere!

Shubho poured in an experimental mug of water. Did you see that, it just slid away like a gleeful rat. He couldn’t hold his impatience any longer. The muscles in his arm hardened in expectation of the ten-litre bucket filled with water. He poured in all ten litres at one go.

With bulging eyes he stared for a few seconds at the unblemished and clean white of the pan. Just like the inside of his thick head, which also felt clean and shining. His head had never felt so weightless! Swivelling, he did something very strange. He held his daughter up to the sky, piercing the roof of the bathroom with his screams. ‘Ma! Ma!’

Putting his daughter down, he shook Kuntala, his face lighting up as he told her, ‘Yes yes, Ma! My mother, Kunti! Ma couldn’t stand our trouble any more. She’s cleaned the jammed outlet in the tank with her own hands, believe me, look, my hair’s standing on end.’

‘You loved me so much, Ma,’ wailed Shubho, rolling and writhing on the straw-and-blanket bedding laid out on the floor. He sobbed noisily. Neither Pinky nor Kuntala could calm him down. In the kitchen, the food of mourning boiled in two side-by-side earthen pots on the brick stove, turning to bricks themselves.

All These Suicides: Sandipan Chattopadhyay

‘If this business of love had not existed,’ said Pinaki, ‘three-quarters of life’s troubles would be over. Do you know exactly when it was imported to India, Bachchu-da? You writers know all this.’

It was Pinaki and Mala’s fifth wedding anniversary. Mala had telephoned in the morning with this information. ‘Bachchu-da and you must come over this evening,’ she had told Sudeshna. ‘We’ll chat for a bit and then go out for dinner.’

‘Who else is coming?’ Sudeshna had asked.

‘Nobody. Just you.’

‘Just us?’ Sudeshna was surprised. ‘But why?’

‘Pinaki himself doesn’t know it’s our wedding anniversary. He’s forgotten. But he’ll find out if we have a lot of guests. Remember,’ Mala had reminded her, ‘not to bring presents or something. He’ll find out if you do. All these years he was the one who used to organise the celebrations. He always remembered. This time he’s forgotten completely. I’m going to embarrass him tomorrow by reminding him. Keeps talking of love, you see.’

Pinaki and Mala lived in a ninth-floor flat halfway up Southern Avenue. We were seated in the balcony looking out on the road. Far below us, cars and buses streamed past continuously. A silent contest to snake past and overtake one another. From a height, the vehicles seemed to be moving rather slowly and steadily.

The car engines could not be heard up here. Only the dim light from a shaded lamp illuminated the balcony.

Although we hadn’t got them gifts, I had brought a small premier whisky. It would be enough till we went out for dinner. For two of us. A bottle of chilled beer had emerged from their fridge. Mala and Sudeshna were sharing it. A trolley of snacks had appeared from the kitchen. Among which was some homemade chilli fish.

‘When?’ I laughed. ‘I don’t know the precise time. But in Bengal it might have been around the time of Vaishnava Padabali. Or was it even earlier?’ I looked at Sudeshna, who taught Bengali. But having no responsibility for being extra-knowledgeable, she only smiled.

‘Right from the beginning. Ever since god created woman.’ Laughing, Mala twisted Pinaki’s ears. ‘Got it? My husband is getting to be a lovelu type of person with every passing day, Sudeshna-di.’

‘Lovelu? What does that mean?’ Sudeshna giggled.

‘Meaning lovesick. All those people who’re always dying of love. Mister doesn’t acknowledge anything but love. Doesn’t know anything but love,’ said Mala. ‘These days.’

‘But that’s why we’re here. That’s how it was supposed to be after we got married.’ Pinaki was slurring his words a little. ‘What else could it be? You tell me, why?’

‘Be quiet now. Don’t bore us anymore.’ Mala got herself another beer from the fridge. Sudeshna was still on her first glass.

‘This problem probably didn’t exit in the absolutely primitive era, don’t you think?’ Sudeshna smiled at me.

‘Ye..e..s, how could it have existed then?’ I said, refilling Pinaki’s empty glass. ‘In the primitive era there were just three basic urges. Sex, security and hunger.’

‘Then all this love and things,’ Pinaki took a big sip, ‘wh… when did it show up?’

‘You’re pretending to be drunk aren’t you? Harping on the same topic. Just a couple of drinks.’ Mala set down the fresh bottle of beer on the table with a thump. Switching from angry to coquettish, she said, ‘Open it for me.’ The bottle, that is. As though she was asking for her bra to be unhooked.

Pinaki had finished off most of the pint I’d brought. It was natural for him to be a little high. So it appeared to me from the way he opened the beer bottle after several misses and a lot of time. He hadn’t touched the snacks either. But Mala? Her behaviour was ominous too this evening.

‘Don’t we have a gin?’ asked Pinaki.

‘No more gins or anything.’

‘Why not, my love.’ Pinaki rose to his feet. From the other room he asked loudly, ‘How long have you two been married, Bachchu-da?’

‘Ten years,’ I shouted back.

‘Te..en! Do you love each other?’

In the balcony I looked at Sudeshna. What was her opinion?

‘Ours is an old story. It’s good enough that we’re still alive.’

I had to lower my voice in proportion to the shrinking distance between us and Pinaki as he returned with the bottle of gin.

About to pour himself a drink, Pinaki paused. Locking eyes with Sudeshna, he said, ‘What do you think, Boudi?’

Sudeshna was gripping my hand. I squeezed it lightly. Still holding it, I said, ‘We’re okay. You should tell us. You’re ones who’re newly married.’ ‘Listen, don’t drink anymore. We have no food at home. We have to go out for dinner.’ Sitting next to Pinaki, Mala hugged him lightly and said, ‘Please hold your drink.’ Her voice was pleading.

‘What is it? What’s wrong with Pinaki today?’

‘I know.’ Mala’s eyeballs were intense, large and a deep black. Long lashes. Plucked eyebrows. She couldn’t make even a serious statement without throwing at least one arch look and undulating her over-generous middle. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, ‘Yesterday I went and told him that I only used Avon cosmetics in Biswajit’s time. Even perfumes. He used to have them sent from Bombay. You don’t get them these days, which is why I brought it up. You tell me, Sudeshna-di. How can I forget him completely? How can I not be reminded of him sometimes?’ Mala actually wept a little. ‘I did live with him for four years. We even had a son, you know the whole story. He used to love me.’

‘No!’ Pinaki roared in English. ‘That’s no love. The fellow used to beat you up. And regularly.’ He continued in Bengali. ‘Didn’t he drag you to the bathroom by your feet? Were you clothed? I drink too.’

I didn’t know much about Biswajit. I had heard that he used to have a middle-level job at CESC. And Pinkai was practically an adopted son at Larsen & Toubro. A flat, a car – there wasn’t much the company hadn’t given him.

Mala snuggled up to Pinaki.

‘A little. Give me a little gin.’

‘Gin? You?’

‘We’re out of beer.’

Pouring her a gin, Pinaki said in English, ‘That’s no love, I tell you.’

‘Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I won’t think of him at all.’

Pinaki waved away an imaginary fly. ‘That’s no love.’

‘No, Biswa loved me too. In his own way.’

‘By beating you up.’

‘And when was that?’ Mala rose to her feet. Tousling her own hair, done with great care at Topaz, she said, her eyes blazing like a spirit’s, ‘He used to beat up his wife. What b..b… business is it of yours?’

‘That’s no love,’ Pinaki said quietly, holding his glass to his lips without taking a sip.

‘Maybe. Maybe that’s how it seems to civilised people like you. I admit that it wasn’t exactly normal. But it was love of a kind. And her proved as much with his death.’

Death? Yes, Biswajit would invade their flat sometimes in the first year of their marriage. Once, he went up to the ninth floor and rang the doorbell continuously. Absolutely drunk. They hadn’t dared open the door. Pinaki had summoned the security guards from the gate to have him thrown out. He hadn’t returned. I had heard all this from Sudeshna, who used to be two years senior to Mala at Lady Brabourne College.

Pinaki probably needed to go to the bathroom. He had been looking for his slippers for a long time, lowering his wobbling head. But he simply couldn’t get his feet to approach each other. It seemed to me that it wasn’t his slippers but his very feet that he had not found as yet.

‘Actually, you know what, dada,’ Pinaki said, raising his face to look at me, ‘you know what, Bach…chu… da… actually… ack…chu…’

He remembered what he was trying to say. ‘Actually you know what. Mala is a victim type. The more you kick her, the more she…’

‘Shut up, you!’ Mala slapped Pinaki, not lightly, but with all her strength. ‘Don’t you dare behave like a drunkard here. You piece of shit.’

Trying to get to his feet, Pinaki collapsed on the sofa. He didn’t respond anymore.

Picking up the end of her sari from the floor, Mala began to sob. Putting her arms round Sudeshna, she said, ‘Tell me Sudeshna-di, how can I not remember him? Don’t you remember Hiran-da? Tell me. At least you didn’t marry him. I lived with him for four years. We had a son. He had a hole in his heart, else he would have been eight today. And Biswa did leave evidence. In the form of his suicide. Didn’t he?’

Sudeshna had told me about Hiran. She had had a relationship with him for four or five years before our marriage. I knew as far as the kissing and necking. I didn’t stoke the dying embers beyond this. Hiran worked at Indian Paper Mills in Badarpur, in Production Control. Whenever he came to Calcutta, he met us with his family. Our children went to the zoo. We went out for dinner. Even I had had a relationship with Laboni before our marriage. Hiran’s wife Monica may have had someone in her life too earlier. But we never had any problems. Like life, we knew that even relationships died. All these deaths had kept us alive – Hiran, Monica, Sudeshna, me. Or, call them suicides. Whatever eagerness we felt today for survival in whatever condition possible was all because of these deaths. Or, suicides.

Mala was still sobbing. Sudeshna had found my hand in the dark and was holding it. A strong wind had sprung up. A long way beneath us, the flow of traffic had dwindled. There weren’t many people about. What was probably the last double-decker for Shymabazar had just passed by. From a height, the area around the Ballygunge Lakes looked like a forest. Were there really so many trees there? We passed the trees one at a time in the daytime.

The strong wind from the lake swept a bunch of leaves into the balcony. They fell on Pinaki’s sleeping form. More leaves blew in on the wind. They fell on us. Entered the rooms. It was hard to say why they were there. We didn’t know what the implication was. But they had blown in. And… leaves shed by trees were obviously dead.

Although it was spring, a storm seemed possible. In that case, even more leaves would be blown in. The balcony would be filled with leaves shed by trees. We would have to carry Pinaki to his bed.