Next morning when I reached the hospital, I noticed two police vehicles were parked on the road. I walked up to the lift, showed my visiting card to the security guard and reached the sixth floor. I found a police constable standing guard at the door of Poree’s room.
I showed him the pass, but he didn’t allow me inside.
“You can’t go now.” He blurted out.
“Why not? I have the visiting pass!” I flashed the card bearing the hospital logo and all required seals and signatures.
Confronted with a visitor, armed with legitimate pass issued by the hospital, he looked flummoxed. Holding the door slightly ajar, he put his head inside and spoke to somebody. I heard somebody telling, “Let him come.” Then he allowed me to go in.
I noticed two additional chairs were brought in for the honour of somebody. A grave-looking middle-aged man was sitting in one of them while the other one was occupied by Mashima, Poree’s mother. There were two more people, with darting eyes and obsequious faces, who seemed to be the stooges of the grave-looking gentleman, who were hovering near him. As I stepped in, four pairs of eyes quickly sized me up. I felt the heat of the scrutiny. Mashima’s face didn’t reflect the kindness as it used to be when she visited Cavenders; she looked rather cold and distant. The grave-looking man, seated next, who should be Poree’s father, if I was not wrong, was a heavily built, muscular man. He was clean shaved with a prominent nose, thick jowl and bushy eyebrows and wore his grizzly hair neatly brushed back. He looked conceited with an air of self-assertion befitting to his social and political status.
Poree was sitting on her bed, with legs drawn, her elbow clutching her knees, in a miserable posture like a frightened squirrel, trembling in terror. It wasn’t difficult to realise that she had a harrowing time answering her parents about all that happened in their absence. From their face it was quite evident that they were annoyed because somebody like me was called in and perhaps this was the reason for which she was censored harshly.
Facing a hostile crowd, unexpected, I looked around for an excuse to run away from this suffocating scene. But Mashima suddenly spoke in her familiar buttery voice.
“Arre, Biplab, come. Why don’t you sit?”
I looked around for a seat. There was none vacant except the sofa at the far end of the room. It would be ludicrous to sit so far away when I was invited to take part in some discussion.
“It’s okay Mashima.” I answered just changing my stance on the same spot. I noticed, Poree’s eyes were following me intently.
“Thank you very much Biplab. You have been very helpful yesterday.” The man with bushy eyebrows said in a guttural voice, which seemed superficial, bordering sarcasm, despite the line that was meant to be gratitude.
I looked at him.
“I am Poree’s father. Sukhendu Das Gupta.” He told me in an obnoxious rude voice which said without uttering that if he wished he could trample me like a cockroach just now.
I brought my both hands together and bowed a little. “Namaskar Sir.”
“What’s is your full name?” He asked.
“Biplab Naskar.” I said.
“Naskar! Oh, I see!” He said.
“Yes Sir.” I nodded.
Sukhendu Das Gupta looked around the room, swiping his gaze at all of us with a contemptuous frown to find out how everybody was reacting to this question-answer session. I noticed, except Poree, who was sitting with her head low, all of them had a derisive look on their face as if wondering how a low class boy like me dared to help the daughter of an MP. Given a chance, they wouldn’t hesitate to swat me off like a nagging housefly.
“Where do you live Biplab?” MP Das Gupta asked me.
“Gobindapur? You mean the slum by the railway line?” He asked.
“Yes sir.” I admitted without hesitation because it had already been proved that I belonged to a low class; and it was slum where lowly people lived. It gave me kind of vicious joy to declare my impoverished status, for the information made them angrier.
For a fraction of a second I stole a glimpse of Poree. Her face was flushed, exasperated, as if the intended insult for me had landed on her face. She had taken it as an insult hurled on her by her own father for selecting wrong people as her friend.
But I was hacked off already and was feeling like storming out of the room. What was wrong with these people? They can’t keep their own daughter at home safe, allow her to kill herself and when somebody rushes for help, they find his fault!
I turned my back to step out of the room. But Mashima called me back.
“Are you in a hurry, Biplab?”
“Yes, Mashima. I have to report for duty now.” It was blatant lie because I had taken a proper full day leave today for Poree. I had planned to stay the whole day with her and listen to the stories she wanted to tell me.
“Okay, never mind, you are free to go. Just tell us did you discuss anything about Poree with anybody?” MP Das Gupta asked me.
I didn’t discuss anything with anybody, except stating my ignorance to the young doctor who had asked me if I knew anything which could drive Poree to take such a drastic step. I hardly knew anything about her. I never knew that she had a mental illness, that she lived alone. On the contrary, following the discussion, I came to know many things about which I had no inkling.
It seemed to me that there was something behind this tragedy. The family knew about it and it was a closely guarded secret. The MP and his wife were concerned because they thought I came to know about the secret from Poree. Moreover, they were ill at ease with the fact that I became a witness to this suicide bid, which I was sure, they would hush up as an accident. Both of them would have liked if I wasn’t called in, but now, in their utter disdain, they wanted to be sure that I didn’t disclose it to anybody.
“No.” I told him bluntly.
“Hmm.” Das Gupta let out a grunt.
“I hope you will keep it within you. After all you are a well-wisher!” Mashima said. I sniffed the hidden sarcasm in the sentence.
“May I leave now?” I asked them.
As I was leaving the room, I caught Poree’s distraught look, her simmering eyes. My heart ached. But I couldn’t stay here anymore; the room was stifling. With long strides, loftier than usual, I stomped on the floor, as if to express my disdain and came out.
Breathing in the fresh air outside, I felt slightly better. But the MP’s offensive slight was ringing in my ear. It angered me because I was called, I didn’t come on my own. Over and above, I donated my blood, did whatever was expected from me, but not a single word was sincerely said about my selfless help.
Why are they such hypocrites? I wondered as I walked up to a tea stall in a corner. I knew even if she wanted, Poree couldn’t be a friend with me; her father would always remind her that I belonged to a lower class.
I imagined Poree looking out of the window of her cabin. I counted the sixth floor, but couldn’t locate the window of room number 603. I felt an urge to call her, tell her to look outside, spot me in front of the tea shack.
The bus stop was half a mile walk. Frustrated with the face-off, I was reluctant to walk in the sun, but a stray auto, almost God-send, came from nowhere and I thumbed a lift to the bus stop. I looked at my watch. It was 10.30 am. Cavenders was going to open in half an hour. I had the option of going home and sleep or I could go back and join my duty.
Finally I went back to Cavenders. There was no point going home now as Ma wouldn’t be there. I noted if you came back home at an unusual hour, neighbours started asking all sorts of stupid questions. I knew Vandana might query why I came back despite taking leave, but that was okay.
On entering my familiar place, I felt peace with myself, my anger dissolving out slowly. On my way to my section, somewhere in the alley, Rehana tapped my shoulder from behind.
“Who is sick? Your mother?” She asked.
“No. Somebody else. You won’t know.” I said to dismiss her.
“I know. I was just testing you! I knew you won’t admit.” She smiled sheepishly.
“Then why are you asking me?” I grumbled.
“That girl tried to commit suicide. Isn’t it?” She said in a conspiratorial low voice.
“How come you know about it?”
“Some news spread faster than others!”
“Do you know she is a psycho?”
“I didn’t. But now I have come to know. But why are you so concerned about it?”
“Just to warn you because I consider you a good friend. She is a drug addict too!”
“It’s surprising! Except me all of you know everything about her! Why didn’t you tell me all this before?”
“Before what?” Rehana asked.
I felt I was getting trapped in my own words. Honestly speaking, I meant ‘before’ as before I gave her the money. If somebody had asked me, I wouldn’t have told him that I had some hidden agenda at the back of my mind when I offered her the money as a loan. I was enamoured by her. To be honest, it was not only her beauty, but some kind of vulnerability that her sad eyes seemed to convey. I wished her to seek my shoulders to cry, accept me as a good friend to begin with, and offering her a loan was the best way to strike a friendship. But if I knew she was a mental patient or a drug addict, perhaps I’d have steered clear of her from the beginning. Now, it was too late.
“Before ...” I stuttered, unable to find an appropriate word.
Rehana looked at me, her eyes wide in disbelief. As if so far she thought it was some kind of boyish infatuation on my part, like just ‘a boy chasing a girl’ type of situation.
“Oh, my God! Biplab, you seem to be already drowned deep to your neck!” Rehana sneered.
I stared at her. What she has said was correct. I couldn`t refute it, but neither did I realise on my own that almost without knowing, despite aware of her disabilities, I was gradually drawn to Poree, like the proverbial fireflies are drawn to flames.
“You are playing with fire, Biplab! I don’t know what will happen in the end! I wish you to come out unscathed.” Rehana said leaving me in the middle of the aisle, brooding, indignant.
Throughout the day I felt miserable. Later in the afternoon a nagging headache started. When I reached home at nine, ma was watching her favourite Bengali soap on TV.
“Wash your hands and feet. Dinner is ready.” She said.
We always eat our dinner sitting on a mat on the floor. The room is too small to squeeze in a dining table. It had just one bed, neither a single nor a double, something in between, custom made by Bishnupada Naskar, my father, to fit into this house when he had married my mother. My mother cooks in a corner on a kerosene stove and the small colour TV perched on table was bought by me when I started earning.
All of my life, that I can recall, I have lived here in this tiny one-room house. Because I had always known this is what a home looks like, I never felt that it was just a rat hole in comparison to bigger houses of Jodhpur Park, where my mother worked. Since I had joined Cavenders, I started saving for our own house. Though it was too distant a dream at the moment, I believed one had to start from scratch, especially for a boy like me, whose father left him penniless, kind of orphaned, with his brooding poor mother.
As we ate silently, Ma watching another dance program with her eyes glued to the TV screen, I wondered what Poree was doing now. Was she alone? Was she sleeping? When she would be discharged from hospital? I wished she texted me something.
So far, I said nothing to my mother. Though she was the only person I shared my worries with, for some unknown reason, maybe out of modesty, I didn’t tell her anything yet. The last twenty four hours, which was the most distressing spell in my life so far, had left me bewildered. I didn`t know whether it would get more complicated if I shared it with her. With her fetish for frantic screaming whenever anything went haywire, I was scared to tell her lest it turned out to be just another trigger.
Suddenly I found Ma staring at me. She had finished her plate, while I was yet to start.
“What’s the matter Biplab?” She asked me.
Her anxious words brought me back.
“Nothing, Ma.” I said.
“You look tired.”
“Yes, I am really feeling tired today.”
“Finish the dinner fast and go to sleep.” She said and got up from her seat, gathering all the used utensils into a small pile, to be scrubbed the next day. I ate the humble dinner of two rotis, a bowl of sabzi, a green chilli and half of a raw onion.
In the dark room lying down with my eyes closed, I recalled the events that left me drained. The rational half of me found no reason why I took the leave and decided to visit her. The other half, which didn’t listen to reasons, whispered in great eagerness and countered the arguments. I found myself vacillating; not really knowing what should be the best thing to do in such a situation.
Ma began to snore, dead to the world for the rest of the night. I recalled Poree’s disconcerted face, her apologetic eyes as if she were asking to be forgiven. Why on earth my heart flutters for her? What is it that pulls me towards her? Is it her beauty or something else which I am not able to define? I recalled one story that my mother once told me; how the dark night beckoned a prince drawing him to the graveyard where his sweetheart lay buried for one last embrace she craved before she died.
Thank God, the night’s sleep was refreshing. In the morning when I got up, I felt invigorated. Ma had left for her work. I reheated my cup of tea and sipped it slowly. She had fixed my breakfast like other days and kept it covered. Suddenly I remembered that I had turned my mobile silent when I left it for charging before going to sleep. I unplugged it from the charger, and switched it on.
Poree had made thirteen calls. It started at midnight and went through till 4 am. And there were a few unread text messages too. I hurriedly opened the message box. In the first three, she begged me to take up the phone. And in the fourth she cursed me for being so cruel as to not take the phone up. And in the last she sent an emoticon – a crying face with tear rolling down her cheek!
I looked at my watch. It was eight in the morning. Like me, she must have tossed up in her bed throughout the night. It gave me some sadistic satisfaction, what you might find repelling, to know that the yearning was not one sided. While I was awake till midnight, in her case she suffered worse and perhaps lapsed into sleep following night long brooding, just at daybreak. It would be prudent, I decided after a careful thought, to call her later, may be around ten, considering six hours sleep was necessary. For the sake of acknowledgement to her call and message, I sent her a ‘sorry’.
Later on the day, at around lunch time I felt the squirming of my phone inside my pocket. It stopped after a brief stir. I knew it was a text message.
“Just got up. They are taking me home. Why are you so cruel?” Poree wrote.
“Sorry! Slept early. Had a bad headache.” I answered.
“Never mind! Sorry for the bad words!” She returned a smiley.
“Why did you call last night?” I shot.
“To tell you that I am going home today.”
“13 calls! I almost had a heart attack!”
She sent three smiling faces in return. For sometime nothing came, and I could imagine very well that she was on her way to home, or maybe reached home, but couldn’t get time or privacy to text again. I attended a couple of customers in between. Some nosey types, who came to window-shop, and kept on asking all the details about the latest iPhone; but I knew all my time would be a waste because what they could afford was a Lumia 540, at the best. But if you are a salesman, you would know the agonising necessity to display all your stuff and lure the customer so that he didn’t leave without buying one. I did the same, but because my mind was preoccupied, I couldn`t do justice to myself and the two pricks, dissatisfied, left soon.
“I am back at the old house. But I don’t like this place. The flat is much better.” She wrote after some time.
“Sorry! I didn`t get it! You never told me where you lived.”
“Did we ever speak about ourselves? I have never met a shy boy like you!”
“I am a bit slow to open up, but now I am curious to know about you.” I wrote back.
“You seem to have mustered courage suddenly.”
“No, I get nervous, kind of scared, when you aren’t front of me!”
“I didn’t know I looked scary!”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I mean when I am in front of you, I become nervous.” I wrote.
To surprise me, Poree called back. I was happy playing with tiny keys of my mobile phone, writing whatever came to my mind, freely, with the luxury of pausing and mulling over, but her call disrupted the calm.
Though there was no customer presently, but I knew this wasn’t proper time to remain glued to the handset for a long period. But, neither could I refuse her. So I ran to the toilet. She picked up the sound of my hurried steps.
“Why are you running?” she asked.
“Just getting into a corner so that I can talk peacefully. Lot of customers around.” I said.
“If you are busy, I can call later.” She allowed me an excuse to disconnect, but I had already locked myself in the toilet.
“No, it’s okay. I can afford to chat for a while.” I said.
“You said you want to know more about me. What do you want to know?”
“Like, do you go to any college? When did you finish your school?”
“Look, I am twenty one. I should have finished my college by now. But since last year I am not going to college. Do you know why?”
“Because I can’t concentrate. I can’t stand a crowd around me. I find the clamour intimidating. Doctor Sen says I am suffering from bipolar disorder. It’s a type of mental disease.”
I shuddered at her admission. What Rehana said wasn’t untrue. Indeed, she was a psychiatric patient. But Rehana said that she was a drug addict too. Her candid confession about her own illness was so spontaneous that I realised it was possible for people to mistake her illness for drug addiction. Whatever it was, I was embarrassed to ask the questions which led to this uncomfortable disclosure.
“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have asked it!” I said.
“No, it’s okay. What about you? You seem to be too young to start working.” She said.
“For me things are different. We are poor. We live in a slum, my mother used to work as maid servant like your Shantimashi before I started working.”
“But you don’t look like people living in slums. Neither do you speak like them.”
I kept silent. I didn`t know why I suddenly felt indignant about my deprived status. Maybe because Poree identified slum dwellers as stinking beggars who always looked ragged, smelled awful and used dirty language. People always have fixed ideas; they are class conscious without knowing it, and Poree wasn’t an exception. Well, neither I am, because I had almost started believing that she was a kind of junkie from the crap Rehana told me. The reason; she was a rich man`s daughter. Who knew it wasn`t the psycho meds she took that made her look like zonked; at any rate I couldn’t accept her to be a tweaker.
“Are the meds you take very strong?” I asked her.
“Oh, yes, they are. They make me sleep longer at times.”
“Why did you try to cut your vein?” I asked her suddenly. Not that I was specifically interested about her mental illness, but suddenly I recalled the doctor’s apprehension about she doing it again unless the triggering factor was identified and taken care of. I was curious to know what it was, if it was related to any acute burst of emotion.
“Because I didn’t want to live anymore.” She said.
“You can’t imagine how lonely my life is. My illness had turned me into an outcast in our home. All my cousins are talented and ambitious, doing well in their respective fields. And here I am, not able to complete my graduation even.” She paused.
“It’s something not under your control.” I consoled.
“But nobody understands this. They consider me a dimwit, and avoid as if I was a black sheep of the family. Dad is busy in Politics and my mother is busy fighting him. Even Varun, whom I trusted, left me suddenly. So I thought there was no point to remain alive. My life was not worth living.”
Varun! Suddenly I felt cheated with the disclosure of a boy, who apparently seemed to be her lover. In a moment my mouth turned bitter and I started doubting her character. What kind of girl would send suggestive texts to a boy when she was already going out with somebody else?
“What happened to Varun?” I asked her to find out though instantly I started to hate him.
“Are you feeling jealous?” Poree caught me off-guard. Perhaps my voice, despite my effort to remain cool and unaffected, sounded artificial, but the hypocrite in me didn`t allow me to admit.
“No. Why should I?’ I said hiding my disparagement.
“He is very bright boy; graduated last year from IIT-Kharagpur. He left for the US.”
I was dying to know if Varun was just a friend or her lover. And if he had been, had he walked out on her. For me, it was important to know that Varun didn’t go to the US to study and would come back and reclaim her.
Though it seemed silly, it was of real concern to me. I wouldn`t take another look at her if she was somebody else’s.
“Varun didn’t love me. He just played with me for some time. It was my fault, I trusted him.” Poree sighed.
“Do you miss him?” I asked.
“I don’t. I have moved on. But I felt pathetic at that moment.” I felt her rebuttal was genuine; she had no trace of regret.
I felt better. Varun was not a threat for me. The acuteness of his betrayal in the background of a hostile cold home was possibly the trigger for her attempt to suicide.
“When did Varun leave for the US?”
“Almost a year now.” She said.
“That was last you met him?”
“Yes. But we called each other, chatted on line, and followed each other on Facebook.”
“Then how did you come know that he had broken up?”
“He un-friended me on Facebook, and then sent me a mail telling that he got engaged to an American girl.”
“When did he break up?”
“A week before I cut my hand.”
It was easy for me to corroborate the facts and incidents. Clearly, till Varun was in her life, she didn’t consider me more than a just friend and the acute episode somehow brought us together. Were we destined to meet? I, though didn`t believe in stars and things like that, our meeting seemed to me nothing but mere serendipity. But I was still at a loss why she decided to call me, an almost unknown person.
“Why did you take my name in the hospital? We have met only twice! You don`t know anything about me!”
“You are so friendly and helpful. I like you. You aren’t like Varun or other boys. You are different.”
I didn’t know what different meant. Or what it was that she loathed about Varun apart from dumping her. But the line got disrupted. I looked at my watch; it was almost an hour I was on phone inside the toilet. I heard a couple of impatient knocks from men in a hurry to answer to nature’s call. I waited another minute. She didn’t call again. I came out of the toilet, feeling victorious.
When I went back to my spot, Rehana came to meet me. I was gradually coming to understand that she had developed a soft corner for me. From the day I made peace bribing her with a chocolate and regretted about my rude outburst, she made it a point to walk in and talk about something which was apparently trivial but her voice betrayed her mundane discourse. It was a kind of tricky situation, which I loathed to be in, but Rehana was a sweet girl and a colleague nevertheless.
“How are you Biplab?” She asked.
I hid the mobile; sliding it back into my pocket. It was still hot from an hour of non-stop talk.
“Fine, thank you.” I told her.
“I am sorry.”
“I told you all those crap yesterday.”
“I don’t remember what you said!” I said because I didn’t really remember what she said the other day.
“About the MP`s daughter.” She said remorsefully.
“Forget it.” I said.
She looked at me, guessing my reaction.
“Are you angry with me?”
“No, Rehana. I am not.”
“You want me to go away?”
“What is this? Why are you getting so soppy?”
“Because I have discovered it hurts when somebody said something bad about somebody you love.”
Rehana wasn’t beautiful but she wasn’t ugly either. She was tall, endowed with a sparkling smile. She had a similar background like mine. On some private moments, she once told me about her family, her farmer father, her two brothers and their somewhat middling financial condition. It was the financial need of the family which forced her to seek a job leaving her studies incomplete. She lived in a faraway village, in South 24 Parganas, from where she commuted by local train. Because her last train left Jadavpur station by eight, she always made it point to leave by seven thirty. Today, when she suddenly spoke something so different, I was taken by surprise. I looked into her eyes for the first time. They seemed honest, unpretentious.
“What made you think that I was in love with Poree?” I asked.
“Nobody in particular. But I heard people discussing.”
“You are mistaken. She likes me, that’s all.” I told her.