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Star gazing
by Sutapa Basu (Contest Entry) | Published On: 14-Aug-2014

Sudip stepped through the lighted door onto the dark, open terrace. He turned the corner and the darkness was solid. He could not even see his feet only feel the flagstones, as he stepped on them, still warm from the day’s heat. He looked up at the velvety sky stitched with millions of twinkling diamonds.

A laugh tinkled behind him. ‘Counting the stars?’

Sudip turned around. There she was--his very own Tara.

“Actually I was trying to search for the biggest one to put in a ring for your finger”, he said.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed in mock horror, “My poor finger will never take the weight. Do you want it to crack?”

Along with all the gifts she had brought him, Sudip loved best Tara’s quick repartees to his nonsensical jokes.

She came and stood beside him, her crisp cotton sari gently billowing in the night breeze. Putting his arm around her and pulling her close, he looked up once more and remarked, “What do I need stars for? I have the best tara in the world!” He bent his head to smile at Tara. His heart jumped into his throat. His arm dangled in the air, curved around nothing!!

Sudip turned on his heel calling out in panic, “Tara, Tara  don’t go. Where are you? Please come to me” His voice echoed hollowly mocking him. He ran up and down the dark terrace, tears running down his cheeks, his eyes trying to pierce the darkness. Even the doorway he had come through was dark now. There was no Tara. There was nobody but him on that terrace.

His eyes opened. The hot summer day peeped through his bedroom window touching him with a long sunny finger. Sudip sat up and wiped his still wet cheeks with his palms. He ran the fingers of both his hands through his thinning silver hair and pressed them hard to the sides of his head. Why was this dream coming back again and again for the last few days? And just when he believed, he was past the pain and the loneliness and the guilt. Why this haunting?

Tara had been a lodestar guiding him through his life filling a void that had been a part of him ever since he could remember. With her passing the aching void came back, eating away his insides for the last fifteen years. It was only recently that he had succeeded in going through an entire day without thinking about her. And now this!

Suddenly a thought struck Sudip. He exclaimed, “O God! I am late for my meeting with that frenchie, Monsiuer Phillipe !” He rushed towards the bathroom unsteadily, on aching joints.

His 20- year old Bengali sweetmeat business was expanding at a frantic pace. Just a year into their marriage, Tara and Sudip had launched a small, corner sweet shop. Right from the first day it did well and Sudip credited Tara with its success. It was her idea to offer a speciality sweetmeat each day, which Tara herself conjured out of her grandmother’s antique recipes. Also the ambience she created in the shop relaxed the clients so much that they meandered around the glass shelves just looking at the attractively decorated wares and ended up buying more than they had planned to. Soon the small shop had expanded into a three-level building renowned for its designer sweets. The employee roster showed 200 people, yet Sudip and Tara were on their feet all day. Orders for marriages, events, from hotels, even overseas poured in. After Tara left, Sudip drowned himself in the shop, seeking solace in managing all that Tara had built. And the shop flourished, expanding into a chain of shops across many cities. Today Sudip was on the verge of finalising a deal with a French hotelier who wanted to introduce an Indian Sweets Bar into his hotel.

But as he shaved and bathed, his mind was far away. Images and thoughts from the past cascaded through it.  Sudip had first seen Tara at their engagement twenty two years ago.  Tradition- bound, he had let his parents take the decision of selecting  his life partner  even though he had had attacks of apprehension about their choice matching his needs. On a cool spring day, in a room full of people laughing and talking, with conch shells sounding, Sudip tried his best not to glance at the doorway through which his fiancée was about to enter any moment. Then everyone turned to look in that direction. A vision in azure blue with ornaments twinkling and tinkling, surrounded by girls, Tara entered. She started moving around the room, bowing low to touch his parents’ and all the elders’ feet. People blessed her and remarked on her saree, jewellery, and her beauty. Sudip kept his eyes averted afraid of being teased by his relatives and friends but his heart pounded. Finally she stood before him and her friends joked, “Here is your prince!”

Sudip looked down into a pair of large green eyes twinkling with mirth. A smile was tugging at her lips pressed together to suppress it and failing. A pert nose sat above those delectable lips and all of it was set off by a creamy pale complexion. She was not very tall, her grace made figure lissom with delicate wrists and ankles. Sudip was startled to see a frank curiosity in her gaze but what made him lose himself completely was the tiny pout right in the centre of her upper lip deliciously overlapping her lower lip. “As though a bee had stung her. Lucky bee!!” thought Sudip and instantly chided himself, “You hardly know her.”

 Soon Sudip was married to the girl who had started appearing, regularly now, in his dreams at night and even during the day! The heady intoxication of the early days gave away to a steady contentment as the days passed in care, concern, devotion, love and joy given and taken freely, in full measure, by Sudip and Tara. They meshed so well into each other that soon each could anticipate the other’s thoughts and responses quite accurately. For all her youth,  Tara was both sensible and sensitive. Sudip’s parents and relatives were delighted with her presence and missed her small caring gestures when she accompanied Sudip to the city where he held his job.

Though money was scarce, Tara set up her home with all the first-time excitement that was infectious. Anyways, Tara insisted on all household decisions to be consensual. One day Sudip came back home to discover the dining table overflowing with multi-hued pieces of cloth and Tara absorbed in matching one with the other. “You have to take this over. I am confused. Which colours should we choose for the curtains so that each room gets an individual look as well as harmonise together?” she exclaimed the moment she saw him. So as she arranged the tea tray for both of them, he pored over the rainbow of colours. But he didn’t mind, happy to be a part of her happiness. What he minded was not being able to take her out to meals or hire help for housework.  But Tara didn’t want to waste money and anyway she loved to cook and clean. After a lot of animated debate and decision on the curtains, she suggested, “Let us go to the terrace. It is cool up there and tonight there is a full moon.” They sat on mats on the terrace floor and Tara melodiously sang Tagore’s odes to  moonlight. Sudip responded by reciting the poet’s immemorial verses. The singing and recitation went on each proving a lyrical foil to the other. Tara’s literary, musical, culinary, and various homemaker skills were enhanced by her practical attitude to life. It was her idea to start the sweetmeat business by first supplying the neighbourhood corner shop with homemade sweets and then buying the business with Sudip’s gratutity money when she convinced him to leave his job and join her. After that there was no looking back for Sudip and Tara.

Planning, creating, expanding their business brought them closer, making them into one team working towards one dream. Then came a day when Sudip returned to a home full of yellow flowers. He could hear Tara humming a melody in the kitchen from whence wafted the aroma of  briyani. Sudip tiptoed  up to her. Clasping his hands around her, he kissed her. Looking into the green depths of eyes, he remarked, “Today is special. Tell me why, sweetheart?”

“First tell me the price you will pay.”

“ Will a star do for my Tara?”

“Don’t tease me. I want 25 red roses”

“Done! Now tell me quickly.”

“Guess what? The red roses will need a cradle to hang on.” laughed Tara.

Sudip just picked her up and whirled her through air till she screamed with merriment and pounded his chest with her fists, admonishing him to put her down at once.

 Their joy knew no bounds. Since their earlier baby, the sweet shop, was running fine, they threw themselves into planning for this baby. Sudip would bring home a toy, a dress, anything connected to babies, each day, and Tara  would break into peals of laughter at his enthusiasm. She continued to work at the same pace even as she grew heavier with the child. Sudip grew anxious and pleaded with her to rest more. But the doctor was happy with her progress and she continued to run the shop with her usual acumen. Both her parents and Sudip’s wanted her to return to their town, at least, for the confinement. Tara promised them that they would come two months before the due day after making all arrangements for the shop.

Sudip will never forget the sunny winter morning that they started the four-hour journey to their parental home. With Tara comfortably ensconced beside him, Sudip was cruising along joking and chatting, both relaxing from the cares of their business, when there was loud metallic clang. Sudip immediately applied the brakes. Their car turned around completely before stopping all askew. The passenger side sloped to the ground. Thankfully there was no other car on the road.

“Tara, are you okay?” Sudip shouted, panic choking his throat.

“Yes. I think so,” came a shaky reply.

Sudip quickly got out. Rushing over to the other side , he slowly helped Tara out. She emerged with one hand protectively holding her swollen stomach. As she stood up, she moaned. Sudip, who was on his heels, inspecting the damage to the car, looked up at her. “What is it, sweetheart?”

“My back hurts,”replied Tara, rubbing her hands on the spot. Sudip put his arm around and walked her to a large rock by the road and sat her down.

“Relax here. I will have the car fixed in a jiffy,” he assured her. He ran back to car. But on a closer look he saw that the axle was broken. No way but the car would have to be towed to a garage.  He stood with his hands on his hips peering up the road for another vehicle when he heard Tara moaning. He ran back to her and held her close.

“My stomach hurts. O Sudip! Is it the baby?” Sudip had never heard so much fear in Tara’s voice. It echoed his own panic, but he retained a calm exterior.

“ Don’t worry, Tara, it is all this tension that is making you ache. Everything will be fine.” He assured her.  His head reeled trying to grasp the situation---the car broken down, the baby coming, no other vehicle on the road, no hospital close by.

“Do you have to go somewhere?” asked a voice. Sudip turned to see a cycle rickshaw behind him and the puller looking at him questioningly.

“I have to go to a doctor or a hospital. Can you take us?”

“There is no hospital. Only a health care centre two kilometres away. I can take you there for twenty rupees.”

“I will give you fifty. Take us quickly”. Sudip carried Tara and placed her gently on the rickshaw. Her face was bloodless, green eyes wide with fear, and the sweet pout of her lips pressed down with the pain. Sudip’s heart went out to her and he wished he could take on some of her suffering. The rickshaw jerked down a mud track through fields, and Tara groaned at each movement. Finally they reached the centre and Sudip helped Tara into the room that had a single bed with a dirty sheet on it.

A fat woman, chewing pan, entered through the inner door and gestured to Tara to lie down. Sudip tried to explain, but she had no patience “It is obvious, isn’t it? And I know what to do. You wait outside.”

“Where is the doctor?” asked Sudip.

Aiming a jet of red liquid at the corner of the room, she said, “No doctor. Comes only once a month. Will come after twenty days now.”

“ …Uhh, then who will treat my wife?”

She laughed, “Why treat? Is your wife sick? She is only having a baby. I am the dai and I help everyone here to have babies. Must have delivered hundred babies by now.”

Sudip went out to pay the rickshaw puller and gave him a piece of paper with his parents’ telephone number on it, requesting him to call them from the nearest telephone and give them this address. The puller nodded and went off.  Sudip came right back into the room. The midwife shrugged, “She will take time.” And went out to sit comfortably in the shade of tree leaning against the wall of the centre. Tara was now gasping with each contraction and Sudip held her hand tightly while comforting her. Between the waves of pain, Sudip wet his hanky from the pot of water placed outside and kept wiping her brows and neck. Her body dripped with sweat in the chill air. He was sick at heart and helpless at her agony in this comfortless room.

By evening Tara was screaming as each contraction came faster and faster. The midwife stood between her legs with her hands on her belly telling her, “Now push. Now breathe. Now push.” 

And Sudip kept murmuring, “Just a little more, sweetheart. Please do as she says. I am here and everything will be alright.” He was not sure whether she heard him because there was a wild look in those deep, green eyes. Her head kept turning from side to side, as though searching for an escape from her nightmarish ordeal. Her lips were parted, her breath rasping.

And then the midwife shouted, “ Push, push, push...”and a thin cry tore the air! Sudip’s attention turned momentarily to the foot of the bed and he saw a blood covered small creature lying across the midwife’s hands.

“All this trouble for a girl!” was her wry comment. She carried the baby to the next room.

Sudip turned back toTara. She lay inert with her eyes closed. Now that the crisis over she seemed at rest. Sudip also relaxed a little and perched on the window sill. He closed his eyes and let his head drop tiredly on his chest. He sat that way for a little while. The next moment his eyes fluttered open, he spied a red line snaking away across the floor. Was that blood? Confused, he glanced at Tara. She was still lying in the same position. Then he saw a steady stream of blood flowing from under the sheet covering her. Sudip staggered to the door,“Nurse, nurse, come quickly.”

The dai lumbered in slowly. When she saw the heavy bleeding, she quickly ran out and returned with some cotton and bandages. Sudip was shocked into anger, “What can you do with these? Don’t you have medicines to stop the bleeding?”

“Have you ever heard health centres being stocked with medicines?” muttered the old hag as she tried to swab and bandage the area. Sudip looked around desperately, searching for a solution to this fresh crisis.

“Don’t worry. Your wife is young, healthy and strong. The bleeding will stop. Give her some time,” consoled the midwife.

After two hours, the bleeding had not decreased. In fact, it seemed to Sudip that more and more blood was flowing out. All this while, Tara lay motionless and pale. Her chest rose and fell, the only sign of life in her. Sudip stood beside her, crying silently. But he was unaware of his tears or of anything else, even the fact, that he had been on his feet now for nearly five hours! He was totally engrossed with his unconscious wife. He kept walking up to the door, looking up and down the road, for some kind, any kind, of help. But in vain! His Tara’s life was ebbing out drop by drop and he could do nothing to hold it back. All thoughts of the baby had vanished from his mind! Eventually, even the midwife gave up her ineffectual efforts and went out.

In the gathering dusk, Sudip felt that along with Tara’s, his breath was also flowing away. As the darkness gathered to end the disastrous day, it also snuffed the spark of his glowing star. Sudip kept holding Tara’s hand and from time to time tenderly smoothened her brow. He could not discern when his beloved Tara gave up the fight with a soft sigh.  The midwife, who had come in silently, whispered, “She has gone.” But Sudip refused to believe it. How could Tara, laughing and singing just this morning, have gone from him?! All through the chilly night, he stayed by the side of his extinguished lodestar.

By dawn, when his parents arrived, fatigue had lowered Sudip to a kneel on the blood spattered floor, but he still held tightly onto Tara’s hand. They had to forcibly remove his hand from her stiff fingers and lead  him away to the waiting car. He was in a daze; unable to focus; unable to even put one foot in front of another; unable to think; even unable to cry!!  Tara’s body was put into an ambulance accompanying them home. When they were leaving, Sudip took a little hold of himself to ask, “Where is the baby?” His parents hesitated.

Then his mother gently explained, “Sudip, she was too small—premature, you know. So she couldn’t breathe properly and finally her breathing stopped this morning.” Sudip’s shoulders slumped  little more. Their dream.....

 Sudip sleepwalked through the last rites and all the ensuing ceremonies. Two months passed and he lay in a dark room sick, depressed, and unconscious of the world.

The first sign of his recovery were his questions about the baby, as though there was a lingering doubt in his mind. “Did you see her? Was she really dead?” he asked his mother.

“Yes. The midwife gave us the body wrapped in a towel and I did see her little face. She was very dark and I remember that I found that strange. After all, both Tara and you are so fair. But I am sure about her death. Who can go against the wishes of God, my son?” she consoled Sudip.

Sudip came back to their shop and drowned himself in work, trying to find hisTara in the business that she had built with so much care.  But something had died in him that fateful night. For a long time, he was distressed by nightmares. Sleep eluded him. He would often endured pangs of guilt for Tara’s death always asking himself how he could have saved her. There were times when he would suddenly stop in the middle of his work and would be unable to remember what he should do next. Gradually, with time, all this passed but an aching emptiness became his constant companion.

The hot sun beat down on the Honda City speeding through the city roads. The interiors where Sudip reclined were cool. No passerby could guess the thoughts that absorbed this patrician gentleman. Above his ivory features, his silver hair was parted neatly and gold-rimmed spectacles glinted on his aquiline nose. He was garbed in a spotless white, fine, muslin dhoti and a raw-silk kurta on which diamond buttons sparkled. Soft leather sandals covered his feet. Sudip took pride in dressing as a traditional Bengali bhadralok and firmly believed that the success of his business was attributed to its identification with the Bengali culture and cuisine.

The car suddenly stopped with a jerk and Sudip forced himself out of the murky depths of his mind. “Just what I needed when I am late! A procession of striking workers! What is this country coming to?” he remarked with a frown. All the traffic was at a halt as the sloganeering strikers milled around. Suddenly a face appeared at his window and Sudip glanced up in irritation. “Another beggar!” he thought. Then he froze. A pair of large, green eyes, looked inside in frank curiosity, mirth dancing in them. Just below them was a pert nose. A pair of lips, curling in a smile, displayed a pout prominently overlapping the lower lip. Most amazing was the creamy complexion peeping through smears of dirt.  Even the height was the same. Sudip shouted, “Hey!”

Seeing his frown the girl turned away. By the time Sudip had opened his door and hurriedly got out, she was running. He held his dhoti up and hurried after her calling, “Tara, Tara, come back!” From a safe distance she stopped to look back, but seeing him in pursuit, she took to her heels, dodging the shouting strikers. His driver got out and shouted, “Sahib! She is a beggar!”  Sudip ran after her. People stopped and stared at this mad man, silver hair flying, dhoti trailing in the dust, sandals slipping off, screaming, “Tara please come back. Don’t leave me. I beg you, Tara, come back to me.” The young girl was now being rapidly swallowed up by the crowd. A few pointed out this new street drama to others. Women twittered at the scandalous behaviour of a man old enough to be her father, but Sudip ran on, stumbling and nearly getting run over. All he wanted was to catch up with a pair of green eyes and a mesmerising pout that he had lost and was once again losing! 

You see, when you are star gazing, you must know that you run the potential risk of being crazily hypnotised by your lodestar shining up there!!

                                                           

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