Friday is my off day. On Fridays I sometimes go the auto stand and meet my old friends. Though I can’t stomach their bullshit for long nowadays because I find their topic of discussion hasn’t changed much and revolves around female body and drunken orgies, which I usually detest.
Today, after I have had my breakfast, I walked to the auto stand. Three autos were waiting in queue. It`s an working day for others. I walked up to Bhanuda’s tea stall.
“Hello!” Bhanuda hailed me. “Haven’t seen you for quite some time! How is your new job?”
“The pay must be good. And what a nice swanky place to work inside AC and all! No heat and dust!”
I smiled in reply, “That’s true.”
“You are a lucky boy. But it`s not only your good fortune. I know how hard you worked towards it.”
“Yes, that`s right. Labour of love, I’d say.” I echoed his comments.
“Nothing in particular. I am learning the tricks of the trade, how to sell stuffs.”
“Interesting! It must be challenging too.”
“You get to meet many VIPs, celebrities. This is an extra.” I added.
“Oh, yes. Who are the celebs you have met recently?” Bhanuda asked.
I told him a few names: a couple of actors who played side roles in Bengali films and soaps, a real estate magnet who was in the news for financial fraud, a famous painter, who wore his hair long in a ridiculous pony tail and a famous Manipuri danseuse who often appeared on page three of the newspapers. Then I remembered Mashima, who, strictly speaking wasn’t a celebrity herself, but a VIP nonetheless for her three times MP husband. But, I withheld the last name for the simple reason that I might get started on Poree, who was the real reason why I wanted to mention Mashima.
Bhanuda passed me a clay cup of steaming tea. The road was busy as usual with buses and taxis jostling their way, honking mercilessly while young men on sleek bikes were swerving dangerously through the horde. The huge banyan tree with a formidable trunk where Bhanuda’s tea stall stood, soared upwards expanding into a giant green canopy at a great height; so high that the place was always cool under its shade at the all times of the day, irrespective of the sun’s position. I took my seat on the edge of the cemented pulpit around the trunk of the tree.
My phone rang in my pocket. I took it out. It was Poree calling.
“Hi.” I greeted her.
“Are you on duty?” She asked.
“No. You forgot, Friday is my off day.”
“Great! Come over to Southern Avenue. I have come here just now.”
“It`s 26 G, Southern Avenue. Just two blocks away from Lake Kalibari. Watch out for ‘Poorboraag’ on your left; it’s a ten-storied building.”
“For nothing. Maybe to talk about something over a cup of tea. The other day the line was cut midway. Maybe we start from there.”
“I don’t like to face your parents. They hate me.” I said.
“Dad is not in town, and mommy is busy elsewhere. Only Shantimashi is around. I think you don`t hate her!” she said giggling.
Since the name of Varun had cropped up, I developed unexplained cold feet. I was jealous of the boy I didn`t know, for the simple reason that at a point of time he used to be her lover. Though it was foolish to imagine that a pretty girl like Poree didn`t attract attention of boys, and in all probability she did, I was sure, but her confession was a dampener to me, despite my knowledge that she had moved on. Nevertheless, her invitation was irresistible.
“Okay. I am coming. It’ll take half an hour.” I said.
“Never mind! I am waiting.” She disconnected.
The security man asked my name when I stepped inside the main gate of Poorboraag. He inspected me from head to foot with his slit like eyes while I filled the guest register. He looked almost like a sniffer dog, which smells to find out potential rogues, who might create trouble. I breezed through his scrutiny, which made him a little frustrated and he snubbed me with a canine grunt.
“10C. Take the lift, press 10. Turn to your right; the flat number is written on the door.”
I found Poree smiling at her doorstep wearing a loose sleeveless purple tee and a yellow knee-length Bermuda, waiting for me. Her bare legs were smooth, silky, gleaming as if coated with butter. Her slightly curvy hair was untied and fluffy.
“Come on.” She said and ushered me in.
It was a big, luxurious flat. The drawing room was huge with an exquisite chandelier hung from the ceiling just above the sitting area where plush sofa set and other accessory furniture were kept. The walls had artworks displayed in gigantic frames. As I went in, I felt the gentle breeze coming in through the open windows.
Seated on a sofa facing the window I smiled awkwardly as Poree climbed into another sofa beside me and drew up her legs and sat curled up like a queen-cat.
“It’s a wonderful house!” I started nervously.
“Yeah! Didn’t I tell you before? I don’t know why we don’t stay here!”
“This flat remains closed all the time?”
“No, it`s used by my dad for his politics and all. When he is here, the flat is full of the party crowd. Only when he goes to his constituency, or Delhi, I am allowed come here.”
“Where has he gone now?”
“Delhi. For the Parliament session.”
I have read about Delhi and the Parliament only in books. I haven’t seen the capital city, neither the Parliament where politicians decide the fate of our country. In fact, I haven’t been outside this city ever. Tourists come from abroad to visit our city, its historical monuments, but I haven’t visited any of them. In the winter, on weekends and holidays people flock to Birla Planetarium, Nicco Park and Science City. Those are the usual places where the families visit for fun and pleasure; fathers holding their children`s hands. While travelling on bus, a couple of times, I have had seen families standing in queue in front of Victoria Memorial. But my mother, a humble maid, a deserted wife of a mason, didn’t have time and money to take me to those places. I remembered visiting the Alipur Zoo once when I was a kid, but couldn’t recall who accompanied me.
“How long you will stay here?” I asked her.
“May be a day or two.”
Suddenly I remembered about her hand injury. But now there was no bandage on her hand.
“Has your wound healed?” I asked.
She took her hand out, leaned forward.
“See, it’s healed.” She spoke like a kid, placing her hand on my thigh. I noted a narrow brown line on her wrist. I felt her feathery forearm, and her hand, tiny, delicate, like a half-open lotus. She rubbed the scar softly with her other hand to prove that it had indeed healed.
“It itches a little sometimes. Otherwise it`s fine. My fingers are also okay.” She made a tight fist to show me. She seemed too naive like a little child, or else how could she boast about a cut which could have killed her!
“You are lucky. You reached the hospital on time.” I said.
“You didn`t tell me that you donated blood for me on that day?” She asked.
The day was crazy. I recalled how confused I was when the doctor had informed me about her injury. And so many thing happened quickly over a few hours that I almost forgot about my small bit of humanitarian service. Now, being reminded about it, I blushed.
“It wasn’t worth mentionable.” I said.
“People donate blood without knowing who was going to receive it. That`s a selfless act. In my case, I knew, you were going to receive it.” I said and immediately mortified by my own statement for in my own admission, it was my own selfish act.
“You mean it wasn’t a selfless act?” She asked.
I wished she stopped wondering about it for I knew, on her second thought, if she pondered over the word carefully, she would find out the irony of my statement. But, in her simplicity, she considered my words too modest and let it go.
“Want to have some tea?” she asked changing the topic abruptly.
“I don’t mind tea anytime of the day!”
“Okay. Then give me five minutes.” She got up and disappeared into the kitchen.
I walked up to the window. The grassy woodland afar was really soothing to the eyes. From this height of tenth floor, Southern Avenue looked like a sleeping python in a shrubbery while the water of the lake, amid the islands of trees and bushes glimmered under the sun like flakes of gold. The breeze was gentle now, hardly perceptible; but I could imagine how it`d be like in the afternoon when the city would be swept over by zephyr flowing in from the Ganges.
“Hey! What are you looking at?” I heard Poree behind me.
“The lake. It’s beautiful.”
Poree kept the tray with two mugs on the table and stood beside me. She came so close that I could smell her, feel her breath over my neck. She pointed at something and told me to look at a tall building, slightly hazy against the blue sky.
“This is the City Mall where you work. Can you recognize it?”
I inhaled deeply. I liked her smell. It was intoxicating. I heard her speaking something more, but her words didn’t reach me. Then I felt her skin touching mine. I felt the softness of her breasts against my arm. She said something more but now the words seemed not only incomprehensible but unnecessary as well. I felt a strange happiness inside. Is it what Kahlil Gibran described as a quivering happiness?
I got back from my trance when Poree said, “Your tea is getting cold!”
We came back to the sofa. But my tongue felt dry, so dry that even swallowing seemed difficult.
“May I have some water?” I said. She had already kept a bottle of water on the table. I emptied the whole bottle into my throat. Water spilled on my shirt, but I didn’t care. Then I drank the tea as fast as I could. She watched me amusingly.
“Are you in a hurry?” she asked
“No.” I stole a glance at her.
“You will burn your tongue.”
I laughed recognising my restlessness. Poree shifted in her chair. She sipped slowly from her mug, pausing to watch me. She had a hypnotising Cupid’s bow and her lips were full and pink. I changed my crossed legs. Suddenly I found both of us silent as if we were groping for words. This silence felt awkward. I didn’t dare to look at her face for fear of discovering something I didn`t know how to handle. Then suddenly I recognised we were alone in the house, the maid going out for an errand. The acuteness of the discovery made my heart thud so hard and loud that I wondered if she was able to listen to it. Then Poree spoke.
“That day you asked about Varun...”
“Yes.” I said and felt my mouth was getting bitter and sticky again. I didn`t want to listen to his name. I got my dander up. I wished Poree gave up the topic.
“I was devastated after he left me.” She said.
Poree! Stop this! I can’t take it anymore!
“I thought I`d rather die than living a lonely life. I`d have died that day unless the doctors went ahead with the surgery without delay. They were waiting for somebody to come, to whom they could explain the need for emergency surgery, I was told. I had lost lot of blood already. I didn’t give them my parents number because both were away in Delhi and my dad didn’t like his name quoted in any unpleasant situation. They found out your number from my cell phone as that was the last number I tried dial myself. When I was brought back from the operation theatre, half-awake, and saw you by my bed, I knew you were my guardian angel. Trust me; you are the reason why I am alive today.”
I looked at her. Her face was flushed, crimson, and her eyes brimming with tears. She hid her face into her palm and sobbed.
Oh, my God! I didn’t know how to handle this!
I looked helplessly around, hesitating to touch her. She was sobbing, her body shaking like a cooing pigeon. I couldn`t make out what was she crying for. Was she crying because Varun dumped her, or over her virtual rebirth for which I played a part? My heart ached. I felt, it was out of her gratitude for all I had done. I wished I could comfort her, tell her sweat something. But something pinned me down to the chair.
She got up from her chair and planted herself in front of me. I felt my heart was thumping fast and furiously and I was getting drenched by cold sweat. My ears began to sting. Poree lowered herself and clutched my shirt with her both hands and pulled me up. I gave in like a moonstruck, and when I got up, I found out, I was one head taller than her. She flung her arm around my neck and pulled my face to her. I knew immediately this woman was mine, forever.
I kissed her on her soft lips and she clung to me, holding me tight. I felt her hands entwining my neck like soft velvet. I felt liberated from the suffocation. I squashed her against me and she allowed me to crush her as if this was what every part of her now wanted, to get dissolved in the embrace. We listened to each other’s heart, racing, pounding and rejoicing. Then I released her, stroked her face gently and tucked a lock of hair away from the wet face. She refused to let me go. She rubbed her face onto my chest muttering something and then asked me.
“Promise me, you won’t leave me.”
“Promise.” I said. “I won`t leave you, ever.” I repeated.
It felt like we were standing inside an ancient chapel, ivory white with a holy cross at the top of the golden spire. The priest had just declared us man and wife. The air smelled of wine and cheese; and we faced our family and friends, all laughing and clapping as we took a bow. Our minds were calm, contented and we were the happiest couple ever.
Then she disengaged herself.
I sat down. My mind wandered along the streets and alleys to the slum, to our one-room house. I knew a decent house was necessary before I decided to take her to meet my mother. I didn’t know how my mother would react? Hope she wouldn’t behave like Mrs Morel!
Somebody knocked at the door.
“Come in, it’s open.” Poree said.
Shantimashi came in with a shopping bag. She smiled at me and disappeared inside. I glanced at my watch. It was twelve and sunny outside.
“I should be going.” I got up from my seat.
Poree noded. Then she jumped off her seat and hugged me again. I cringed for there was a third person inside. She let me go and broke into giggles. I took the lift and went down. The liftman studied me again as if I were an unauthorised salesman in disguise who had sneaked inside. But he was disappointed as I didn`t have any bag with me. Given a chance I`d have definitely liked to play prank on him, but now I shouldn’t behave like a silly boy. So I let it go. From the sidewalk I looked up. Poree, standing in the balcony, looked like a tiny doll, waving her hands.
Poree! I love you!
Back at home, I sat down with my bank account. Since I had started driving an auto, I opened a recurring deposit and a PPF account to save some money. Though what I was finally saving per month was a meagre amount, and the total saved in two years wouldn’t sum up to anything great, nonetheless, it might be just enough to get a bank loan. I didn’t know if Ma had saved some money; I never asked her. Last year, when somebody informed me about a mass housing complex coming up near Sonarpur, I asked how much she had saved. She said, she had some money, but she didn’t know how much it was. I added up all my savings, but buying a home looked like a mirage at this point of time. It would take my lifetime to save what was required to buy the house. For all practical purpose, I would require a bank loan. But getting a loan was not an easy job. Once, I went to a bank with a friend who was trying to secure a bank loan for an auto rickshaw. The manager had said the loaner had to deposit 10 per cent of the loan amount to become eligible for the loan. I did some calculation, but even the margin money seemed insurmountable. Only if, I could get the loan, with my pay hike next year, I would be able to pay the EMIs.
I felt miserable, because I couldn`t share my helplessness with anybody. If I told my friends, they would laugh at me. I knew they might even suspect that I had gone nuts. You don`t know the girls of rich families? She is just playing with you, stupid! They would say.
When Ma came home from work and hurriedly started cooking lunch, I asked her again if she had some idea how much her savings would come to.
“Ten thousand.” Ma said.
“Only ten thousand? And how long you have been saving for it?”
“You are mistaken, ma! It’d be much more than ten thousand.” I said.
I assumed Ma didn’t have any idea how much she had saved so far. She was illiterate, couldn’t sign her name even. I taught her Bengali alphabets and numbers, and now she could sign in Bengali.
“Maybe, I don’t know! Why don’t you go the bank and find it out?”
“Well, I’ll do that. Give me your bank documents.”
Later, when I was idling on the bed with a book that I borrowed from Dhakuria Public library, she asked me casually, “Why are you suddenly taking interest in the money I have saved?”
“How long do you want to live in this hell?” I answered.
She didn’t answer, but kept on grinding her spices in mortar and pestle. She threw a few pods of cloves and cardamom, a flake of cinnamon with a pinch cumin seeds and two red chillies into the stone mortar. The air turned pungent and whetted my appetite. She never failed to cook chicken on Fridays because that`s the day of the week I ate lunch at home. While coming home from work, on every Friday, she bought two leg pieces of chicken from the Jodhpur Park bazaar. It was our small world, our little luxury. I didn’t know where Poree would fit here!
While eating our lunch I slowly brought in the topic of Poree. She listened patiently and at the end told me, “You are living in a fool’s paradise son!”
“Why?” I asked.
“You haven’t seen the world yet. It`s not so rosy as it looks like.”
“You mean they are so rich and powerful in comparison..”
“Not only that. There are so many things one needs to consider before contemplating marriage. And unless ambitions and outlooks are similar, the marriage won’t last. Nobody knows it better than me!” Ma sighed.
I felt sad. This was one thing we never discussed. How could we? You can`t ask your mother why did your father dump her. When I was a kid, I used to feel jealous of the other kids when I watched them playing with their father. I had once demanded that my father should be forthwith brought to me. Ma had said how he could come home in such a short notice. Why not? I asked her point blank. Tell me where my dad lives. I`ll go and fetch him.
She never said that my father had deserted us; instead she used to say, “Your father has gone to a faraway city to work. He will come next year. He will bring you lots of gifts.”
I always avoided this sensitive topic earlier, but today, it seemed to be the most important topic ever. More so because she had observed, like her, I was also heading for a disaster.
“Why did he walk out on you?” I asked.
“He was very ambitious.” Ma said.
“Do all ambitious men leave their wives?”
“Did he ever write you a letter?”
“No, because there was no point. At that time I didn’t know how to read and write. Writing me a letter would have been like playing flute in front of a buffalo.” She said with a paradoxical smile.
“What did he tell you before leaving?”
“He said he would come back soon to take us to the new city. He used to say there is hardly any scope in this dying city. Bombay is the happening place. He used to say money floats in the air of Bombay. If you work hard, only sky is the limit.”
“And then he fled!”
“Ma, do you remember how many years ago?”
Ma looked away, counting in her head.
“Eighteen years. You were just two then.” She said.
“How old were you then?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know my date of birth, the poor don`t remember them. They have put an imaginary date of birth on my voter ID and ration card. Of course, it doesn’t matter anymore. My life is almost over.” Ma sighed.
“What if he comes back someday? Will you take him back?”
“I never thought about it!” Ma said.
I imagined my mother’s life. A life that has no goal apart from living for the sake of it; to just eat, breathe and sleep. No dreams allowed, no passions, no love, no gifts, not even a heart break! How old she would have been when my father had left her? Twenty? Twenty-five? It was the age when fleshly desires mattered, when a woman could start family again!
“Ma, why didn’t you marry again? You were young!”
“Now that you have grown up, I have no hesitation to tell you all.” Ma braced up for confession. I watched in surprise that her eyes turned unkind and ruthless, her face hardened, grew impassive. She took a deep breath.
“When you father left me, I waited for a year. When I didn’t get any news about him, I knew he wouldn’t come back. A man befriended me. A carpenter. He came from Bihar. He bought me gifts; he even played with you, bought you toys. He made a wooden horse for you, painted it in red and yellow, sewed a piece of foam on the top of it, so that it didn’t hurt you. You loved to ride it, rocked it for hours. One day he proposed marriage. But how could I agree? I still wore vermilion on my midline part in the name of your father. I rejected the marriage. But he kept coming. Sometimes he came at night. I couldn’t stop him one day. Then he started living with me here in this house. He was good and kind to you. But the neighbours threatened me. They said, either get married or throw the man out. I should have married him, but I wasn’t brave enough. So he went away. He cried like a child before leaving, but I couldn’t help. I watched him leave the house helplessly.”
As I listened to her, I almost stopped breathing. I couldn`t believe how lopsided the prejudices of the society could be.
“What happened to the man after you drove him out of the house?”
“He killed himself on the railway track on same the night. He jumped before a goods train.”
I closed my eyes. My throat got choked. I found it hard to swallow. Ma sat like a statue. Streams of tears flowed down her cheeks.