I love reading books. You can just give me a couple of books and lock me inside a room; I won’t mind. Books are amazing. I am now reading short stories written by O Henry. I bought the collection from a roadside old book stall at Golpark. The pages are frayed, mildewed, but the book was dirt cheap; suited my pocket. Of course I could have read it at Bookmark, but in that case, I couldn’t have brought it home.
I liked many of them if not all. The story, ‘The Last Leaf’ was the best. I found my eyes full of tears for the old painter Behrman. It was so heart-breaking. Well, you might doubt if such a altruistic man existed in today’s world.
People have become too selfish nowadays. Nobody cares about others. Take the MP, Sukhendu Das Gupta, Poree’s father. He is such a rich and influential man, a three times MP. Instead of insulting me on the other day about my humble and low origin, he should have patted me on my back for taking all the trouble of attending hospital for his daughter whom I hardly knew.
I have a feeling that both her parents are suspicious about my intention. They might have assumed that I am trying my best to win their daughter’s heart by showing my sympathy, acting a Good Samaritan. They have a sneaking suspicion that I have some hidden plan. A grand scheme to be a part of their family so that in course of time I could lay my hands on the property he has amassed and turnaround my wretched worth. I know they will never trust me even if I admit that it’s nothing but undying love.
But what Ma said yesterday was an eye opener to me. The broken wooden horse, still dumped in a sooty corner, reminded me how love could kill.
I got ready for going to work. Today being a Saturday, the footfall was expected to rise. Nowadays, people flocked to malls instead of visiting a friend’s or relative’s home.
When I reached Cavenders, the last batch of the maintenance boys in orange uniforms were sweeping hard to shine the floor. One of them smiled at me.
“You are early today.” He said.
I nodded and went to my desk. I dusted the top of the cabinet, wiped off the laptops and put them on display. Then I switched on my demo set, covered it by other things cleverly and scanned my emails. There were two unseen emails from one grammar site, which had sent two sets of questions about English grammar and usage. I opened the mail and for a good half an hour forgot the outside world.
Customers poured in slowly. I sold a Dell tablet and a HP laptop within one hour. The customers were knowledgeable and had come after researching thoroughly. You feel good when you don’t have to explain the basics and concentrate on the salient features of the gadgets. Though, I hardly can be called a product specialist for I don’t have any formal knowledge of electronics, but I have picked up the minimum necessary from Chironjeet. I didn’t know where he did he join after leaving Cavenders; but he was a nice fellow, technically much better than the present one, the loud mouth Vandana, though she was quite generous otherwise.
Just when I was contemplating running upstairs for my lunch, Dilip, who looked after the cell phone counter, went past me. He stopped and retraced his steps as if he had something important to tell me. Patting me on my shoulder he smiled conspiratorially.
“Hey Boss! Sinking sinking drinking water?”
I knew my colleagues came to know about Poree. ‘A poor boy meets a rich girl’ made an ideal fodder for gossip. The story had all the ingredients – a lovelorn boy, a junkie girl, a politician father of dubious credibility that gossipmongers loved to spice up.
“Yes.” I said, and he got the shock of his life, for his face turned pale. He was expecting a denial perhaps.
“What else do you want to know?” I asked.
Dilip nervously babbled something.
“Want to know if we have slept together?
Dilip stuck his tongue out in embarrassment. “Sorry boss. Don’t mind. I was just joking!” Then he ran away for lunch.
I didn’t know why I suddenly flew off the handle. Maybe, it was the bleak future of our relationship that I could foresee was peeving me. For the first time, I cursed myself. Why did I answer to that call of the hospital? I could have denied that I didn’t know that girl apart from being a customer of Cavenders. Was it my destiny only?
My phone began vibrating in my pocket.
It was her. Poree was calling. I looked around, no one was nearby; half of the boys and girls went upstairs for lunch. I had a neat half an hour at my disposal.
“Hi.” I said.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“Nothing. Waiting to go up for lunch.”
“I had mine.”
“I am on diet, you know?”
“You need no diet. You are just fine.”
“I was 60 kilos before I met you, but now I am 54.”
“Good. What did you have for lunch?
“Chicken stew and cucumber salad.”
“No rice or roti?”
“No.” Poree giggled.
“If you eat so less, you will die from malnutrition.” I said.
“No, this a diet chart prepared by a dietician. I am following this since the last six months.” She said, still giggling.
“Okay. I don`t know anything about dieting.”
“Dad is going take us for a vacation during the Pujo holidays. I thought we will hop pandals together, but not this time!” she said sadly.
“In any case, I don`t like pandal-hopping. It`s so boring. I hate the crowd.” I said.
“Are you stealing my lines? When I used to have frequent attacks of the bipolar thing, crowd frightened me. But I am much better now. But tell me, isn’t it a fun to be with friends, eat fuchkas and rolls from the streets for a change?”
“No, Not at all.” I said. “I get stomach ache and diarrhoea from fuchka. I hate them.” I said gravely.
“Hey! You don’t look like my boring Maths teacher! Then how come your taste is like him?” she said giggling.
I laughed. I never considered myself a very interesting person. I had my own set criteria for happiness. I avoided get-togethers always, where one garrulous guy steals the show and does most of the talking. I have very limited vocabulary, and in places where there were people vying for attention, I feel uncomfortable and cornered. In a crowd, I always feel lost, and find my identity threatened. Working in a group is my nightmare. I have so many drawbacks.
“Hey! Where are you? Are you still there?” She asked; her voice frantic, questioning.
“Yes. I am listening.” I answered.
“Why is that you act like such a bore? I know you are actually a quite interesting guy!’ She said.
“Where are you going for the holiday?” I asked her bypassing her praise.
“Europe. Mainly Switzerland, but we will also stay for a couple of days in London and Paris.”
“Wow! Great! Enjoy your holiday!” I said.
“I wished it were you and me.” She said.
Well, I’d have loved to walk on the cobbled streets of Florence, or watch the icy mountains from the balcony of a Swiss chalet, visit all the nice places in the world that I watch on TV, but the reality was too harsh. Here I was, struggling to arrange the margin money of a small flat, to have a simple life with some dignity.
“You are dreaming in broad daylight?” I said. “Do you think I’d be able to take you to Switzerland on a vacation? I am just an ordinary boy. People like us go to Digha or Puri on vacation. You are lucky to be born in that family. So, enjoy your good luck, who knows what will happen later!” I said.
“Hey! What’s wrong with you?” Poree screamed.
“Nothing. I just don’t know what I am doing!”
“This is crazy! Are you upset?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can we meet?”
“Not before next Friday.”
“Okay. I’ll ping you on Friday. See you there. Bye.” She disconnected.
On Friday I got her text message. “Dad is here, the flat is not available to me. Why don’t you come to our house, it’s in Ballygunje.”
I didn’t feel like going to their house where there would be a host of others whom I didn’t know. One day she had said about this old house that was built by her grandfather, a very successful barrister of yesteryears. I was sure they were a joint family, with grumpy uncles, fidgety cousins and nosey aunts who would peep through the window as if I were a monkey that has fled from zoo.
“Let’s go to Princep Ghat or take a boat ride on the Ganges.” I texted back.
“Why didn’t it occur to me?” came her prompt reply.
“Because I am smarter than you.” I chuckled and texted back. “Let’s go to Princep Ghat. What time will suit you?”
“Four o’ clock.”
At four I hired a taxi and reached Gariahat junction, the spot we agreed upon as the meeting point. I spotted her from a distance. For a change, she wore a bright yellow kameez today teamed with an olive-green salwar. A sequined dupatta was dangling from her neck, its end flying in the afternoon wind. As I went close and told the driver to stop for a moment, she recognised me and waved her hand. Soon we set out for our first date.
When we reached the elevated promenade on the banks of the river, the sun was about to set. We selected a less crowded spot and sat on an empty bench. The great river was front of us with a couple of boats gliding afar as the dying rays of the sun simmered like specks of gold upon ripples of the flowing water.
She clasped my hand gazing at the beautiful sunset. Her eyes were set at yonderness as if the crimson sky and the gentle breeze had transported us to a quaint magical island.
She had braided her hair into a single thick plait. Her midline part, a thin white line, which I never noticed so clearly, bestowed her with innocence and purity of Virgin Mary. A green bindi, to go with her yellow-green ensemble, sat pretty on her tiny forehead. She didn’t wear lipstick, or maybe she had worn something, like natural gloss, which I couldn’t make out. She looked like a pretty girl next door, and I was eager to take a photo of her which I could set on my mobile and even show it to my mother as well. She agreed. I took a few photos from different angles and finally a selfie, both of us huddling together.
We sat there watching the nature, speaking now and then, but essentially enjoying the proximity of each other. Some of the visitors watched us from corner of their eyes, passing comments which Poree ignored impassively.
Light faded as the sun dropped below the horizon. The second Hooghly Bridge appeared like a crouching prehistoric monster looking down upon the river. The last rays of the setting sun, golden and orange, glittered on the undulating surface of the water.
“What made you upset yesterday?” She asked.
“Nothing in particular.” I answered.
“You got that quirk trait inside your head, I guess!”
I turned to her. She smiled. Her face looked angelic, true to her name, in the receding twilight. I knew it would be impossible for me to leave her ever.
“Everything will be alright.” She whispered and locked her fingers against mine and pulled them into a tight grip.
Will everything be alright? I didn`t know. I was sure she didn’t know as well. We were trying to fool each other. But how long? I felt sad again. She sensed it from my loosened grip. To cheer me up she rose from the seat.
“Let’s have some tea.” She pointed at a couple of stalls that had come up on both sides of the walkway selling tea, snacks and ice-cream.
“Would you like to have a Pepsi?” I asked.
We finally settle with two bottles of chilled Coke. The garden lights came up one by one. Number of visitors swelled up and I noticed a gang of young men, with dubious look in their eyes were following us.
The group consisted of four skinny boys, in cheap body hugging tees and jeans. They waited at a distance casting suspicious gaze at us. I turned my eyes away, for I knew, Poree would be terrified, if she found out somebody stalking us with questionable intention.
We returned the empty bottles, and paid up. Poree took out her purse and gave me a five hundred rupee note. I snapped immediately.
“A Coke costs twenty rupees only.”
“The taxi fare. I’ll pay the return fare.”
“You don’t work.” I said.
“But I get pocket money. I have my own bank account.”
“Really? How much you have in your account.”
“I haven’t checked ever. It’s with Dad, sometimes he tells me to sign on the cheques which I do blindly.”
I looked at my watch; it was six-thirty. The evening had set in. I glanced at the spot where the louts were killing time. Nobody was there. The bunch of thugs had vanished.
Inside the taxi she sat close to me touching me sidelong. I felt a little embarrassed as I picked up the amused face of the taxi driver on the rear view mirror. I signalled her to sit apart, but she ignored my plea and pulled my hand into her lap. Besieging my arm into her bosom she swung herself like a pendulum.
Looking out of the window I watched the busy city speeding away on the opposite direction. The cool breeze swept our faces. I felt her heart pounding against my skin. She was still swaying with her eyes closed, my arm in her siege. But an eerie feeling swept me over as I recalled the hideous faces following us for it foreboded of something sinister in the coming. Who had sent them and why?