Ever seen the singed logs of a pyre? Withered of life, starved of sheen, begrimed, bust yet bunched together to prevent a collapse. I too shared the same plight that afternoon.
I was 15 that time. The menace of Board examinations was over and I was relishing the small segment of respite my parents provided before enrolling me for medical coaching.
Last week over a cup of tea, when the ebullient yet overwrought parents lent their brains for shaping our career goals, Holkar Aunty’s daughter, Samiksha, surreptitiously handed me the novel Tycoon by Harold Robbins. Being a little defiant towards erotica, the protagonist Jack Lear, a flamboyant skirt chaser and an affluent libertine couldn’t allure me much. However, Harold Robbins’ simple narrative efficiently instilled the concept of adultery in my mind.
And there the story began.
That afternoon, when the sun blistered outside, I lay brewing in a melange of anger, agony and acrimony. Not for Jack Lear, but for the person I loved the most. The piece of paper clinched between my fingers fluttered, even in the faint sluggish waft of the creaking fan; as if ridiculing my ignorance and innocence in conjunction.
It certainly had been breathing in peace for many years. Deftly folded, gingerly preserved and absolutely undisturbed and undamaged. The well-sculpted four quadrants, the pastel yellowish patina acquired through years of quarantine and the stifled musty odour of old parchment, chalked a saga for that impoverished piece of paper.
It was a love letter. Scrawled with pangs of separation all the while deciphering the intricacies of love, the letter concluded with a thanking gesture; an impression of a full-bodied kiss emboldened with cherry colour lipstick.
Embittered me sat up on the divan and read the letter out aloud. The copperplate handwriting, inked in blue, flaunted the intricate curves of Bengali alphabets and pranced with the lyrical prowess of its creator. Many expressions bounced off my laconic stock of Bangla vocabulary. However, the connotations were thoroughly followed by my not so naïve ‘probashi’ Bengali intellect. The anonymous love letter addressed to my father slowly and snugly built a castle of conjecture through every emotion inscribed. The ink slightly blotted on the paper, swallowed a camouflaged life my father was leading.
I perused the letter. Again; probably the third time. My fingers perpetually stroked that immortalized cherry red kiss.
Dad had been cheating on Mom! Since when? Date was not scribbled anywhere. Mom knew? Nothing unusual I found ever in the house. But, since three months Dad had been sleeping alone in the other room. Why?
I smelled the letter. Was it three months old? Perhaps more? It was written with a fountain pen which had almost become obsolete.
Wait! I had seen Pandya aunty still using one. Even on that housie slip. Absurd. So, was she the secret admirer of Dad? She interacted more with Dad than Mom. True. But she wasn’t Bengali!
Bose aunty? No chance. She reeked unhygienic; especially in her sleeveless blouses with her underarms uncleaned.
Paromita aunty was indeed a better option. She looked good and a far cry from Chatterjee uncle’s dark pitted face with a blob-like nose. But she hardly spoke to Dad; let alone any man in the Bengali community.
Subhra di? Very much possible. Thirty five, still single and almost worshipped Dad for his indulgence towards Tagore. I often found her leering at Dad shamelessly. But her lips were just like a slit. Making such a voluptuous kiss would cost her a lip augmentation surgery. Top it all, her awful handwriting closed all doors on her.
Mitra aunty; Nah; too busy investigating her son’s love affairs. Chandrima aunty was pregnant and had moved base to Kolkata.
My head was spinning. If only I had not cleaned the shelves, I would not have got this letter dropping from Dad’s bag.
Should I tell Mom? She would be shattered. We were a conservative middle-class family. Defamation of divorce could never be entertained. And what about me? 15-year-old Lily Chakraborty couldn’t bear a life without a father or with a new mother! But for how long could Mom be kept in dark? Someday Dad would definitely reveal his illicit affair. Then?
The shrill ring of the doorbell splintered my bastion of doubts. It was 5.30 and Mom was back from her kitty party. Confused, anxious and a concerned me, opened the door for her. She looked divine in her white and pink chiffon saree. I couldn’t muster the courage to speak. All I did was to hug her and sob. My tears nestled a hundred doubts about my mathematics exam in her mind. But, finally, I lay the gaff.
“I am sorry Mom.” I showed her the letter.
She gripped it. Fondled it as if caressing a pet and let her eyes glide on every word.
“Dad is having an affair.” I sniffed.
A dead air sailed just for a second and she brutishly snuffed the silence with a raucous laughter. She fell about laughing; hysterical, unhindered and unhesitant.
Why did I tell her? Did Mom turn mad? What did I do?
Literature lugs an unseen power; both prolific and prodigious. If the printed tales can knit the emotion of love, they can buttress hatred too. They ignite the impotent anger, feed the nectar of forgiveness, morph a figment with a penchant and disguise the veracity with a hoax. Literature empowers us and sometimes overpowers us too. However, whatever it does, it spawns an amaranthine memory.
And the same happened to me that day.
The letter that plaited parables of Dad’s infidelity did not involve a house-wrecking second woman. Sixteen years ago, Mom had written that letter to Dad. The fountain pen. Remember? And the cherry kiss over which I erected all my deductions was made through the lipstick Dad gifted to Mom.