“Kalpi...Kalpi…wake up! Go to the backyard. Chickoo might be shivering…” Someone was shaking her awake. Kalpita opened her eyes with a start and sat on the thin mattress. The voice was Shekhar’s. Was that his silhouette in the dark? Pacing up and down? As though looking for something? Kalpita wanted to find out. But soon exhaustion took over and before she realized, she was asleep again.
Moments later, the voice returned. Persistent, grave and pleading this time.
“Kalpi…Hey Kalpi. Go to the backyard, na. Chickoo must be feeling cold…very cold.”
For the second time, that night, Kalpita woke up. Her forehead felt damp with sweat. Above her, the ceiling fan had stopped whirring. The room was jam-packed with her relatives, all sleeping scrunched close together. They were everywhere, on the sofas, the diwan, on the floor, stirring in their sleep. Their breathing made Kalpita feel claustrophobic. Trapped. As though she did not belong to this place.
She wanted to flee. Run into the wilderness, into the comforting arms of Shekhar.
Outside, the rain fell in gentle monotones.
Disengaging herself gently from her sister Aarohi’s arms, Kalpita got up, tiptoed across the hall and opened the door to the balcony.
The raindrops on the steel railing were fast coalescing into a big, fat bubble. Kalpita sat in a cane chair and let her eyes wander. To the swings—wet, heavy and solemn, on the other side of the playground. To the mist that hung around the sodium vapor lamps. To the hibiscus tree down below. To the watch man, who seemed to be snoring through it all.
Her eyelids felt heavy, as though greedy for rest. Kalpita hugged her knees and felt her shoulders tighten.
“I must not sleep,” she told herself, “I must not!”
But sometime afterwards, as the rain turned silent, Kalpita felt her defenses slip.
Her body relaxed.
The aches started to leave. From her head, neck and back, arms , fingers and legs, and finally her toes.
That was when she felt his embrace. Light and feathery at first, almost like butterfly wings. Heavy afterwards, drawing her inside, pulling her into him. Like a wave swelling into a tsunami. Kalpita inhaled deeply, absorbing into her lungs the sweaty, lemony smell that clung to his skin. That was when his words reached her ears. Again.
“Kalpi…Kalpi…go to the backyard. Chickoo might be shivering.”
But his words came slurred now. The “b”s taking an enormous time to roll off his tongue and the “yya” stuck on the base of his throat. His breath— fragrant with cardamoms felt moist and cool on her skin, but why was his shirt plastered to his back like that? And his eyes, why were they red and blood shot? Was it the pain again? Consuming him? Devouring him like a beast?
Kalpita wanted to find out. But Shekhar kept on staring at her. Kalpita felt her palms going wet.
“Talk to me Shekhar… is it the pain again?”
But Shekhar did not reply. He kept on staring as the moments ticked by.
A tremor shot through Kalpita’s spine. She jerked forward and realized, she was still sitting in the chair. There was no trace of Shekhar. All around her, darkness lingered. The aches started to return, to her toes and legs, fingers, arms and neck. To her back and finally to her head. Her cheeks felt hot. Perhaps it was a fever. Or perhaps it was not. Kalpita closed her eyes, praying that sleep return to her eyes, and to her mind.
Just before dawn, the rain stopped and the sky filled with the shrill cries of the koel. Inside the house, the noises multiplied. Feet scurrying across the floor, doors banging shut, buckets filling with water, clothes being rinsed, wrung and dried. Milk, hissing and boiling over the stove, coffee being made and poured into the tiny, steel tumblers. And in between, all this, an occasional wail rising. Then finally the hush.
Kalpita squinted her eyes in the morning sunlight. Two squirrels were chasing each other on the neighbor’s terrace. One of them was thumping its tail.
“Why do they do that Shekhar?” she had asked Shekhar once.
They were strolling by the lake, and Chickoo was peeping out of Shekhar’s pocket.
Shekhar inched closer and leaned over her shoulder.
“Because they get horny?” he whispered, even as she turned a deep shade of red. They had been married for a month and he enjoyed watching her discomfiture whenever he talked like that.
“Akka..Akka…they are calling you inside!” Aarohi’s nudge startled Kalpita out of her reverie. The squirrels had disappeared into the branches of the giant mango tree. A tent had been set up outside. The priest had arrived. She followed her sister into the house.
Shekhar was nowhere to be seen. Was the pain very intense this time? Questions. So many of them bubbling inside her mind. Why did Shekhar shake her awake like that at night? And Chikoo, that blind, naughty squirrel. Why was Shekhar so worried about him?
Kalpita walked past the bustling relatives. Every now and then, someone would hold her hand and pat her back. An insane jealousy tore through Kalpita. For once, could not she— Kalpita, be the queen of Shekhar’s thoughts? For once? Or was that asking for too much?
Her mother was calling her inside. They had set the hot water for her inside the bathroom. She shut the door and heaved a sigh of relief. And there was Shekhar. Once again they were alone, just the two of them.
She started pouring mugs full of hot water upon herself and turned towards Shekhar. She had to remind him. But she had to be gentle, she told herself.
“Shekhu…Chikoo is no more with us no? Don’t you remember that rainy night when his little body shook in your palms and he breathed his last?”
Shekhar frowned, as though trying to remember.
“Both of us buried him in the backyard, no?”
“And then we planted a mango sapling, no? You remember”
Shekhar nodded again.
“Now that mango tree is half grown Shekhu. Below that tree, our Chickoo lives.”
Shekhar’s eyes glistened.
At last, Shekhar smiled.
Someone was banging on the door. It was her aunt, asking her if she wanted more hot water. “No,” replied Kalpita and hurried with her bath. Once outside, Kalpita quietly bolted the door to her room and threw herself on Shekhar’s side of bed. Kalpita never realized when her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep.
But someone was shaking her again. This time, she knew it was Shekhar. And he was smiling. Kalpita inhaled deeply.
“Hey…wake up, na…they are waiting for you downstairs Kalpu.”
Kalpita loved it when he talked to her like that.
“Kalpuuuu…you lazy girl! Come…come get ready.”
Sunlight fell on his eyes. He looked more handsome than ever.
“Shekhar…the pain…How is it now?”
“What do you think Kalpuuu? It is gone! Kaput.”
And right there, he did a little jig. Kalpita laughed. But, somehow, just like that, the tears returned to her eyes.
“Shekhar…hold me tight, na. Tell me your pain is truly gone.”
Shekhar looked deep into her eyes, the way he used to, when he would wave her goodbye, before one of his long voyages. Or the way he looked at her, when he was explaining something to her. Something she would find it hard to comprehend. Something which required enormous patience on his part.
“Kalpu…the source of the pain is gone. So how could the pain remain? Hai na?”
Kalpita nodded. It was really as simple as that. Or perhaps it was not. But now Kalpita did not want the conversation to end.
“Shekhar…was it always the ship?”
“No Kalpu..not always..”
“Was it always Chickoo?”
“Nah…that naughty squirrel lives below the mango tree, no? You told me that in the bathroom.”
Kalpita nodded and hesitated.
“Shekhoo…was it me…by any chance?”
Shekhar came close and cupped her face in his palms.
“Silly Kalpu…foolish Kalpu…I am a man of the seas, and I know this…those mighty waters can never be divided.”
Arguments rose in Kalpita’s throat. But, she felt spent. Shekhar was pulling her towards himself now. First, he kissed her on the forehead, and then her cheeks. And then the shiny tip of her nose which was his favorite part of her face.
“Shekhooo..Shekhoo I am…”
“Exhausted? Fatigued? I know Kalpu. We are best friends…no?”
She wanted to do many things now. Like bury her head in his chest. Be hugged by him like there was no tomorrow. And fall asleep together. Only to be woken up by warm sunshine on their faces— their arms, legs and limbs a tangled mess of body and mind.
Perhaps Shekhar also felt like that.
But he was a man of action.
“Kalpu…let us do this together.”
“Dress you up.”
Kalpita nodded, weak, powerless and exhausted.
First, he made her sit on the bed, tenderly, slowly, and with utmost care.
He smoothed the creases on the blue kurta and pulled it over her head. As she let the warmth of his body seep into her skin, he eased her arms out of the kurta sleeves. Tied the two tassels at the back and turned his attention to the cream salwar. She slipped her legs into the pants obediently, letting him pull it up and tie the draw strings. Not too tight. Not too loose. Just right so that she would feel comfortable. Finally, he was done. The dupatta rested on her shoulders.
Fear rose in Kalpita’s throat but Shekhar remembered something. He went to the dressing table and taking out a packet of bindis, he pressed a maroon one onto her forehead. Neither of them talked and stared at their reflections in the mirror. But Kalpita wanted more. She wanted to fill her ears with the sound of his laughter. Argue with him till the wee hours. And get dressed by him.
Silence returned to Shekhar’s being. He drew her into a tight embrace till the pains finally left every crevice of her being.
From her head and neck, back and arms, fingers, legs and toes.
As she opened her eyes, Shekhar was not there. Perhaps, he was gone. Melted into the white sunlight outside, this very moment, dissolved this very instant. Kalpita wanted to run after him.
Someone was banging on the door again.
“What was his favourite sweet?” The lady was asking her, “We will make it.”
“Halwa!” replied Kalpita.
“And gulab jamuns, pastries and kheer,” muttered Kalpita to herself.
After that, she did not see Shekhar. The rituals lasted till late evening. More people trooped in; they held Kalpita’s hands and drank tea served in little tea cups by her mother.
Finally, Kalpita fell asleep that night with the taste of halwa still lingering on her tongue. No one shook her awake that night. No one argued with her, and no one called her into the balcony. She slept through the dawn.
The next morning…
Shekhar would not be returning. It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
Kalpita rushed into the garden. Darling Chikoo, furry and so full of life, now lying under the half-grown mango tree. And Shekhar, with his endless arguments and hair always falling into his eyes. How without a second thought, both of them had left her, as though they belonged to the earth more than they belonged to her. As though, in their invisibility, they gained more light.
But she needed answers.
“If I leave this house and this garden…will your footsteps follow me?” She asked, raising her head towards the sky.
There was no reply.
“Will you talk to me as you talked to me yesterday?”
No one answered.
“Will you at least listen to me?”she asked.
As though in response, the sky rumbled. The mynahs and crows on the neem tree squawked noisily. A few squirrels, which were scampering about, stopped midway, startled. The tender leaves on the mango tree began to flutter.
“Will you listen to me?” Kalpita asked a little louder this time. A streak of lightening shot through the sky.
“No?” she asked, her voice a bit shaky now.
The raindrops came hurtling in large numbers as finally, huge sobs wracked her body.
From inside the house, a woman came and threw her arm over Kalpita’s shoulders and hugged her tight. The rain continued. Noisily, it fell on the tree tops and the white asphalt below. Perhaps tomorrow, Shekhar would answer. Or perhaps not. For now, all she wanted to do was sit near the mango tree and inhale its sweet sour fragrance. And cry till there were no more tears left. For here was where she had fallen in love, deeply and irrecoverably. Like the wet soil, which was now holding in its bosom— the roots, pebbles and remnants of an ancient, far-flung promise.