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Crossed & Knotted
by Sutapa Basu (Book Preview) | Published On:

This book is a Composite Novel, written by 14 different authors. An excerpt from the first chapter is given here,

Chapter 1    A Curious Dalliance

Sudip looked out of the window. The wall clock chimed eight but not a sliver of dawn cracked the darkness. The howling of the wind pierced even the double glass windows. The tall trees swung desperately bowing their bare, spiky tops to the storm’s caprices.

The turmoil out there perfectly mirrors my thoughts. This curious empathy somewhat cooled his boiling mind.

Delhi was weathering its first storm of the new year. Temperatures were at freezing and the chill drilled its icy fingers into the bones. People had wrapped blankets and quilts over their thick woollies though the heating was at full blast in the large room. In fact, some of them glanced curiously at Sudip in his shirtsleeves and jeans. But, he had been sweating profusely through his bleary vigil of the night before.  The coat, hastily flung on when leaving home, was discarded on a chair. Even now he could feel a trickle sashaying down his back.

He was in the ICU lounge of a renowned private hospital. There were at least a dozen more attendants of the critically-ill patients. In various postures of relaxation or sleep, they spread out on the lounge chairs. The acute air of anxiety and tension in the room last night was now considerably reduced, simply because sleep had mercifully brought a lull. But for Sudip, there had been no respite from tumult raging inside him ever since an unconscious Megha had been wheeled into the ICU.

Sibilant whispers hissed at the small of his back.

 ‘Is that the guy? The one who came with that…’

‘Yaah! All over the body…the sores…’

 ‘…and the stink…’

‘…did you see the face…swollen…’

‘Eyes…just slits…’

‘…wonder if she was already gone…’

‘…his wife…do you think…?’


They trailed off, as Sudip turned around. Two bulky bundles of blankets, scarves and shawls were sitting side by side in the last row. Only pairs of beady, inquisitive eyes were visible, following him across the room.

Yes…my wife…

The doctors who met the gurney had been brusque. ‘Please wait outside. We will let you know.’

Not that he wanted to be close to the festering and suppurating mound of sores and abscesses, hardly recognizable as human; his wife, Megha.

He had been sitting on the edge expecting a call from the ICU precincts anytime. The night had passed in fits and starts and now it was another day. Sudip was still waiting; waiting to hear his sentence. It had become intolerable. So he had walked over to the window to watch the storm, outside, hoping for a diversion.

The first time he had seen Megha had also been through a window. Nine years ago, he had been twenty one; thin; face more angular; hair curling behind ears; soulful large eyes full of innocent eagerness; a shy smile usually playing on his gently curving lips. There had been a boyish vulnerability about him.

Circumstances in the last few years had altered his world view, bringing subtle changes to his appearance. He was heavier; a beard and mustache eroded angles and masked the softness of his lips; his eyes, still large were inscrutable now. Cynicism peeped through now and then.

That time, eons ago, he had been sitting at the window of his room and going through the manuals of his new job. Only a few months ago, he had arrived from Barasat, a suburb of Kolkata, to his uncle’s home in Delhi. His uncle had been living in the capital for the last twenty years. When Sudip graduated with Honours in History, he had insisted that the boy take a shot at the position of a cataloguer with the American Library, in Delhi. His uncle had swelled with paternal pride when Sudip was selected. ‘And of course, my brilliant, now-nearly-American nephew must stay with me,’ His uncle wrote to Sudip’s parents. They were relieved. Raised in a large joint family of a small rural hamlet, they had worried lest Sudip felt lost in the vast city. His rudimentary acquaintance with Hindi would be another hindrance.

‘Now we can relax.’ His mother had sighed. ‘His Chotka and Kakima will take full care. Sudip can eat properly and live with our own family.’

That evening, Sudip had just taken a sip of tea, when the hairs on the nape of his neck tingled. He was under scrutiny. He lifted his head and his gaze caught on the window opposite. A girl stood there! She was staring directly at him. Sudip had only just taken in her shoulder-length hair and yellow salwar-kameez, when their eyes locked and she smiled! Dazzlingly! Her dusky face lit up. Her dark eyes gleamed. Sudip’s heart leaped into his mouth. He turned to look nervously at the open door. Oh my God! I am actually looking at a GIRL! I can’t do that…I can’t…It’s not right! It’s… it’s…it’s improper! What if someone catches me? Oh no! And what IS she doing? She is SMILING! At ME!  How will I explain that I have done nothing to bring that smile on? He stood up hastily, his books dropping to the floor. Leaning out, he pulled the shutters and bolted them. The last picture retained in his mind was of the girl laughing! Uproariously! Head flung back! No doubt at me! What was her joke? Sudip was disgusted. And what kind of a wild girl is she?!

Brought up in a parochial family with traditions of propriety and taboos, socializing between sexes had been strongly discouraged. Even at a tender age, boys and girls were expected to play games matching their diversified adult roles and certainly not with each other. When necessary, the men did converse with the correctly-veiled women of the family. But, even glancing at women, not of the family, was considered indecent behavior. At home, the only females, outside the family, Sudip had encountered were his younger sister, Shona’s friends. And they would either hurriedly move out of his way, or turn their faces away to giggle irritatingly. None of them, even, dared look at him let alone smile! Sudip had naturally assumed that this inclination to shyness, especially before unfamiliar males, was an aspect common to all females. And the only women, who were not this way, were spoken of in whispers, by the boys in his college. Yet that night, as he lay down, the girl’s laughing face rose behind his closed eyes. Who is she? He wondered before sleep overcame him.

The next evening, he unlatched the shutters of his window with some trepidation. But the open window, of the flat opposite, was empty. He read for nearly an hour and was about to close his books, when he happened to glance out. And there she was! This time in fiery orange, holding the window bars and swinging herself forwards and backwards. How long had she been watching me? When she noticed he was looking at her, her full lips curved into a smile that seemed to hold something more than mere merriment. There was a hint of a tease in it, kindled by the sultry eyes. Sudip was mesmerized. The minutes ticked by. The primordial dalliance of senses played and bait was dangled on the hook. Naivety took a bite, the hook snared and the prey was reeled in!  With tremendous effort, Sudip broke the spell that held him captive and banged the shutters closed! Why can’t I breathe? He was gasping.

Yet, the next day and the next and the next, the open window enticed him inexorably. The very audacity of the girl, that had revolted Sudip at first, inexplicably fascinated him. On the seventh evening, Sudip bolted his bedroom door. Impatiently, he crossed the room to fling open the shutters knowing the girl would be waiting. And she was! They smiled at each other.

She was saying something, her face stuck out, as far as the grill would allow. ‘Do you have a name?’

Sudip grinned at her teasing familiarity. ‘Sudip Roy.’ He had lost a little of his inhibitions, but a lot remained. There was a pause. Then he muttered, ‘And yours?’

‘Megha. Megha Sarvarkar.’

Years of conditioning kicked in. Oh! Maharashtrian! I knew it. Bengali girls are not like this!

 Sudip came to know that she was taking undergraduate classes at a nearby college. Her father was a senior engineer in the government, her elder brother, a clerk with the Ministry of External Affairs, and her mother, a semi-invalid. Sudip, in turn, told her about his family in Barasat. That he had grown up amidst a brood of cousins, surrounded by aunts and uncles. His own parents had been embedded somewhere in the intricate family structure. Nostalgia tinged his reminiscences of fishing in the gurgling brook that rippled over rocks behind their large, old, rambling family home; his mischievous dares to steal from orchards; devouring plucked fruit sitting on laden branches; running pell-mell when chased by the stick-wielding neighbours! He also spoke of his job with the American Library, acquired through several tough rounds of tests and interviews. And, went on to express his gratitude for Chotka’s generosity and belief in him. ‘I had never dreamt that I could get into the American Library. Everything happened because of Chotka and my parents.’

He noticed that his sincere, unassuming words had given him a certain stature in her view. Looking down from that unfamiliar height, made Sudip dizzy!  

Soon they started meeting at small teashops and cafes. Accompanying a girl, who so obviously liked him, gave Sudip a hormonal high that was addictive. The mating dance thus commenced. Other than her fine eyes and an enchanting smile through which a little crooked tooth peeped, Megha was quite ordinary in appearance. Her dusky skin and buxomness prevented her from being a real beauty. It was her piquant vivacity that attracted Sudip. He hardly noticed her lackings. Her panache in dealing with waiters or auto drivers held the young man in awe. Besides, she was completely conversant in Hindi--- and the ways of the city; still a mystery for Sudip. In short, he adored her for all that he found missing in himself.

Once, while they were sitting in a café, a sudden deluge poured down. It didn’t let up till darkness fell. As Sudip pondered excuses to give at home, he pointed at her damp hair. ‘What will you tell your parents?’

Casually pushing back a wisp, she shrugged, ‘Oh, I will make up an excuse. Maybe a bus strike….a friend’s party…a traffic jam… water logging.’

Sudip just loved her nonchalant stance. And never thought of questioning the kind of liberty she seemed to enjoy at home. In fact she took him to her other friends; both boys and girls. Sudip was intrigued by the bold, jeans-clad girls incessantly chattering about fashion, films and boyfriends. The boys accepted Sudip as Megha’s boyfriend. Occasionally the boys’ easy back-slapping familiarity with Megha annoyed Sudip. Yet, having been friendless so long in the city, it felt good to belong to a peer group.

One evening, Sudip returned home to find a letter from his father that ended with an exhortation to him,

‘….there will be many distractions in a big city. But I know that you will avoid them and dedicate yourself to your new job. There is much to learn, so don’t miss any opportunity to do so. Also, never forget your roots and your family…’

Sharp guilt pierced through his happiness. What am I doing? Is Baba’s faith in me justified? Then and there, he decided that his meandering must stop. That evening he hardened his heart and kept the shutters latched. He read till he heard Chotka enter. Then he went down to dinner.

Chotka, Kakima, his young cousin, and Sudip were about to start eating when the doorbell rang. His uncle got up and opened the door.

‘Yes?’ Sudip heard him inquire politely.

‘Can I come in?’  A familiar voice! Sudip nearly fell off his chair. Stunned he looked at the door as Megha entered. She looked furious. ‘I want to speak to your nephew.’ The tone was ominously quiet.

Confused, his uncle’s reply was involuntary. ‘Yes.’ And then gathering his wits, ‘But who are you?’

‘I am Megha Sarvarkar. I live next door. Your nephew is going to marry me!’ It was a calm announcement.


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