It was the middle of October. The city had dressed up in her festive plumes for the annual extravaganza called Durga Puja. Banners came up on both sides of Dhakuria Bridge. Pandals were erected on every neighbourhood playground, even at crossroads where there was no public place to erect one. Organisers declared virtual war with each other putting up banners vying for the attention of pandal-hoppers to their exclusive themes. A Khajuraho temple or a Kedarnath shrine appeared in the middle of every busy neighbourhood. Some of them used weird material like glass beads, coconut shells and candles to make the idol.
We worked harder at Cavenders to serve the customers better. All my colleagues negotiated with Vandana so that they were not allotted duties on those three days. All of them wanted to get their evenings free so that they could join their friends and family for pandal hopping. I had no such desire, neither had Rehana; so Vandana put both of us on duty.
Poree had flown to London with her parents for a fortnight. She was out of reach for me. I didn’t know if she had taken her phone along. I did send her a text message, but it wasn’t delivered, the automatic response conveyed the message to me.
On the evening of Ashtami, when there were hardly any customers, Rehana walked up to me.
“You didn’t go pandal hopping like others?” She asked.
“I hate crowd.”
“Oh, a bit unusual, I must say!” she said.
I remained quiet but Rehana hanged on. She shuffled along the isle, tapping here on a laptop, brushing her hand on another. I turned towards her. She was eyeing me and our eyes met.
“What’s it? You seem to have something to say!” I said.
“Do you have time to listen?”
“Yes, why not?” I looked at my watch. It was seven; we closed at nine. In any case I have to spend two more hours on the floor.
“Let’s go out for ten minutes.”
“Okay.” I agreed.
We came out on the road and walked up to a tea stall on the sidewalk.
“Tea?” I asked her.
Prince Mansur Alam Khan Road was swarming with cars and motorbikes. Puja revellers in groups were marching in high spirits, children blowing whistles, boys firing their toy guns. We selected a quiet dark spot where a man was selling tea in clay cups. I paid him and received two tiny cups of tea.
“What’s it you wanted to tell me?” I asked.
“My parents are pressing me for marriage.” She said.
“Good. You should get married on time. What’s bad in it?”
“It’s not about good or bad. It’s about the marriage itself.”
I didn’t get her at the first go. Rehana seemed to sound a bit philosophical.
“What did you say?” I asked her.
“Is it essential to get married even if I am not mentally ready?”
“Come on Rehana! If it’s your marriage, you should have the last word. Tell them what`s in your mind. After all, they are your parents.”
“Tell me if you are to take a call between marrying somebody whom you don’t love and remain unmarried all your life, which one will you choose?”
‘Oh, my God!’ I thought to myself.
Why was she asking me this? The question, hurled at me in an impersonal way, seemed not so innocuous because, I noticed Rehana bracing herself for some imaginary face off. I shuddered as suddenly something flashed in my mind; and for a moment I was petrified to imagine if it was I for whom she wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice her life. But I was never attracted to her in romantic way; for me, she was a good friend only. If I had dreamt about marrying Poree, it was only because I loved her. Marriage isn’t just about sex and begetting children. I couldn’t imagine what a loveless marriage would be like.
“I’d prefer the second.” I said.
“There you are!” She said.
“For me, it’s almost absurd to marry a girl just for the sake of marriage.” I reiterated.
“I said the same to my parents, but they cited the example of their own marriage. Ammi said she didn’t know Abbu when they got married. My grandma had chosen her as her daughter-in-law. But the marriage has lasted three decades, and still kicking!”
Well, there are many ways to skin a cat, I told her. What is important in my opinion is how you look at it. I was pleased with myself to get away with some kind of philosophical answer befitting with the generalness of her question. But I knew, the same question might crop up again, bluntly, and on that day, I’d have to declare unequivocally about my stand. Till then, it was better to drop sensitive subjects.
“So what have you decided finally?” I asked.
“I haven’t decided anything. I only said I need more time to think over.”
“I think that’s the best way to deal with it. Time is a very powerful tool. You don’t know what will be your frame of mind after a couple of years from now! You might even find the whole concept of ‘love’ ridiculous!”
Rehana threw her empty cup into the dustbin, I threw mine too. We walked slowly back to Cavenders.
Poree called me on the day she returned.
“Hey angry young man! Did you miss me?”
“Not really.” I said.
She screamed in mock anger. Then she whispered, “I have brought something for you from Belgium. You will like it.”
“It’s a surprise, can’t be told. By the way when are we meeting again?”
I remembered the threat of the nameless hooligan. Once I thought telling her about it, but on the next moment decided against it. After all, I wouldn’t gain anything except frightening her.
“You tell me. But it’s better if we don’t roam in public places.” I said.
“Dad is leaving for his constituency next week for Kali Pujo. How about meeting at Southern Avenue?”
“Okay.” I said.
Today Ma cooked khichuri and fried aubergine for lunch: courtesy, Diwali. I watched an old Bengali film after the lunch on TV, and then lied down for a catnap. When I got up, it was dark already. Ma had gone out to cook dinner for the old lady at Jodhpur Park. I checked my mobile. Poree had texted me to reach their Southern Avenue house at seven. She wrote she bought some candles to decorate the house and a few crackers too, in case I was interested.
At six-thirty, I went out locking the door. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour to reach Southern Avenue from my house.
I cut through the by lanes and the railway line to save time. The newly erected statue of Rabindranath Tagore at the other end of the Lord’s flyover frowned at me. The balconies of the houses were lit with candles and fancy lights. Children were out with sparklers in their hands, screaming in delight, while the more energetic young men were playing around with more noisy and colourful stuffs like smoke balls, missiles and fountains with glee. The air smelled of sulphur, chemicals.
There was no security man today at Poorbaraag to challenge me. When I pressed for the lift button, the door opened and the lift man, seated on a low stool cast a quizzical look at me. My earlier experience had taught me it was best to put on a superior face to keep him at bay. I carefully avoided looking at him and read all those crap written on the inside wall of the old elevator to pass time. He asked me which floor I wanted to go. I said tenth, without looking at him.
When I was about to get off the lift, he wished my ‘Happy Diwali’. I smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. Not all of them were meddlesome, I finally decided.
A colourful rangoli painted on the floor of the doorway welcomed me to the house. Two terracotta candle holders were placed on either sides of the door. Each of them had half a dozen unlit candles on their slots kept ready to be lit. I pressed the door bell. Poree opened the door in a golden-yellow dazzling sari. I have never seen her in a sari. She smiled at me with a mock-formal namaskar, joining her hands in front of her chest.
She looked like an apsara in her festive ensemble. Her eyes were smoky, kohl-lined, lips painted scarlet and a jasmine gajra was tucked on her coiffure. It seemed as if she was a devdasi in the Garden of Eden, waiting to start a solo recital in front of her beloved. As I gawked at her from the doorstep, she frowned at me shaking her head in mock anger.
“Come in.” She said.
Shantimashi, standing behind her, greeted me with a smiling face. As I took my seat, she brought me a plateful of sweets and a glass of Sprite. Poree took her seat on the sofa opposite me. She looked cheerful.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“We have done lot of cleaning of the house today since the morning. Shantimashi, tell him. Will you?” She asked.
The matronly maid approved with a smile and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Why such an elaborate make-up? Are we going out for some party?” I teased her.
“I have a few nice saris, but I hardly wear them. You need an occasion to take so much of trouble. Today, being Diwali, I decided to wear one of them.”
“You are looking stunning in sari!” I said.
“What did you do the whole day? Friday is your off day, if I correctly remember.” She said.
“I did nothing. Watched a film on TV and slept through the afternoon. And now I am here.”
“Mommy has gone to Dakhineswar with her sisters to offer prayers to Goddess Kali. Dad has gone to Rainagar, his constituency. He had been organising a huge Kalipujo in Rainagar ever since he won from there. It’s more a show of the might than a religious occasion; you probably know how the politicians flex their muscles time to time to prove their worth. It’s always been like this. Both of them are busy with themselves. On Diwali, I generally watch TV or go to some friend’s place, but this time I thought of inviting you.”
“Not a bad idea, because I don’t like to join the rave parties that my friends arrange on Diwali. Last year I was just sitting at home by myself reading a book.” I said.
“Let’s light up some candles then.” Poree got up. “I bought some candles and some crackers, if you are interested.”
“No, I am not fond of crackers. I’d rather like to help you light the candles. Diwali is supposed to be a festival of light, not sound!”
“Exactly.” She said.
We placed the candles in rows on the parapet of the balcony. I liked the way how Poree held the bottom of the candle close to the flame till it started melting a bit. And immediately, in deft movement of her fingers, she tucked it on the flat surface of the parapet. Quickly, the parapet had twenty something candles in a row, each one at equal distance from the other. Then she lit all of them one by one. Firework enthusiasts at the ground floor lighted up skyrockets that whizzed past us hissing through the air, spiralling high, and then blew up squirting colourful flakes that lit up the sky for a few seconds. You could hear the blast of cherry bombs and whizzbangs from neighbourhood houses. We watched the fireworks for awhile. At a distance, the club houses dotting the bank of the lake, looked like fairy land with dwindling dots of lights.
“I haven’t given your gift.” She said.
“Come on! Give it to me!” I laid down my palm open.
She went inside and came back with a packet.
“What is this?”
“Open it yourself.”
I opened the packet. There was a T shirt with ‘Mount Titlis’ inscribed in the front with a bar of Belgian chocolate.
“Thank you.” I said.
“I bought them when dad and mom weren’t looking at me. Dad has bought a few bottles of fantastic wines and champagnes. Would you like to taste one?” She smiled mischievously.
“How do you know they are fantastic?”
“I have stolen one from his cellar and tasted it. It’s sweet. Want to taste?”
I was not particularly interested in alcohol, and whenever my friends indulged in their drinking sessions, I always shied away with a pretext of my studies. In the beginning, on a few occasions, I had tasted whisky, but I didn’t like its horrible bitter taste. I often wondered why they drank such a tasteless substance so excitedly; but today, with Poree praising the taste of the wine, I was a little curious.
Poree brought out a tall green bottle its mouth closed with a cork lid. Seated on a wicker chair, she poured the golden yellow liquid in two tall glasses.
We sipped slowly, and I liked its fruity aroma and rich flavour. It wasn’t bitter at all like the whisky I drank with my friends. Poree, smiling like a mischievous imp said.
“Good, isn’t it?”
I felt a little light-headed and relaxed after a few sips. Soon I found both of us had finished our first drink. Poree poured another for both of us. Suddenly I remembered her maid was there when I had entered the house. But since we had begun our little drinking session, she was not to be seen.
“Where is your Shantimashi? Has she gone out somewhere?” I asked her.
“She has gone to visit her son. She will come back tomorrow in the morning.” She said.
It thrilled me to know that only two of us were alone in the flat. The desire raised its head like the hood of a black cobra. We talked this and that, and refilled our third glass soon. The night appeared magical. I looked at my watch. It was eight-thirty. If I didn’t leave now, I’d have to face my mother’s wrath. But Poree’s company was too alluring to miss; and now that after three drinks my inhibition was gone, I was feeling quite fearless to claim what I wanted.
“Let’s go inside,” Poree said.
As we got up to go inside, I found my legs a bit wobbly but my mind was clear and my heart was aflame with desire. Suddenly I drew her towards me and kissed her. She softened in my embrace like a purring pigeon. I hoisted her in my arms; she appeared amazingly light. She giggled and curled her arms around my neck. I padded up towards the nearest bedroom.
She screamed, “Not this!” and pointed at the other bedroom. I teetered with her lithe body in my arms to her bedroom and lowered her down. But she didn’t let me loosen my embrace. She pulled me close and drowned her face into my chest. I felt her heaving breasts against mine. My body shivered in anticipation of an imminent storm. I kissed her again and she responded rising up on her toe.
Our bodies rubbed against each other with insane eagerness and I was feeling every part of her abutting against mine. With my left hand I peeled her sari off and tried to get rid of her blouse, but couldn’t find the buttons. She whispered into my ear, “Stupid! Buttons are in the back!”
Gesturing me to calm down, she slowly put away her pearl necklace on the side table. Biting the edge of her sari, she erected a momentary screen to hide herself from my lascivious gaze. Arching her both hands back, she unbuttoned her blouse, unclasped her bra and then suddenly let the sari drop. Her youthful breasts quivered as I touched them. The pink nipples hardened up in my mouth. With a sharp pull on the drawstring, her petticoat unfurled and all her ensemble dropped down on the floor leaving her absolutely naked. For a moment I turned blind from the dazzle of beauty of a naked female body. Gripped with intense passion, I watched her steamy eyes turning lustful. She clung to me to cover herself, as though to hide from my gaze which seemed scandalous to her, but from the touch of her searing skin I knew it wasn’t only modesty, she was craving for me, every part of her was longing for my wild torture. I groped every inch of her, felt all her undulations and crevices and found her wet and inviting.
She felt my hard on and guided me into her. I never had sex before. But I found it instinctive as I rolled her flat and got between her thighs. I pounded her, my raw vigour crushing her brutally until she broke into groans of ecstasy. As I came inside her I felt an intense flash of an impulse passing through my entire body, an indefinable sensation, which shook my entire body as if I had touched a livewire by mistake.
I lay over her, panting and sweating. She moaned softly as I nudged her cheek with my nose, kissed over and over again. We lay side by side, on our back, both stark naked, heaving. Poree drew a sheet to cover us. And soon we were dead to the world, clutching each other, in great peace and satisfaction.
When I got up in the morning, Poree was still sleeping. Curled up and turned on her side she was facing me with her arm put on my bare chest. As I took her hand off me, she woke up. Narrowing her eyes at the bright light the room, she asked, “What’s the time now?”
I looked at my watch. It was already seven. She jumped off the bed, but finding herself completely naked, she retreated under the sheet. I slipped into my trousers and buttoned my shirt down.
“Shantimashi will be coming soon.” She said pulling the sheet over her. Looking at the heap of her clothes lying in a deplorable state on the floor, she smiled as if reminding me about the insane last night. Now, with the day break, she was mortified for her madness and even embarrassed to come out naked in front of me.
“You must be hungry!” She looked at me from inside the tent made of the bed sheet.
“Yes I am, but it’s better to run before your maid comes in.”
She drew the sheet onto her body in a clumsy way to cover her and got up with it. The edge of the sheet grazed on the floor as she waddled up to her wardrobe and found out her daily wear.
“Don’t look at me.” She screamed as she put on her clothes. I watched her slip into a tee and a pair of pyjamas. She picked up her sari and folded it carefully to stow it in her wardrobe.
“I am sorry; I didn’t offer you dinner. Mashi had cooked rice and chicken, enough for both of us. All those must have got rotten by now.” She said.
“Let me run now.” I said and searched for my mobile phone which was missing. Poree rang up my number and we finally traced it below the bed.
Thank God! It was working. I checked the missed call list. Ma had called six times. I knew I was going to face tough questions. But I could always tell her some story; parties are quite common on the Diwali night, especially when I had friends like Bapi.
Before leaving when I hugged her the calling bell rang. Shantimashi had come. Poree opened the door. The elderly maid was taken aback finding me inside. Her eyes became wide in horror because with all her experience she was able to guess what transpired between us. Though she covered her mouth to hide it, her eyes were too outraged to miss. I slid away silently.