It was horrifying for Kushan to see the grotesque red hearts swinging from every shop on Gariahat Road. Couples holding hands, holding roses, holding gifts, et al passed him by. He could have killed them. Every single sign of love reminded him of his lovelorn life.
He never knew such cruelty lurked inside her. She chose Valentine’s Day last year to make the announcement of their break-up and her impending marriage. She wasn’t happy with his salary of Rs 10,000 a month and was sure it wouldn’t go up ever. Now standing at the Gariahat auto stand, Kushan thought if only she knew that in his new job his salary was Rs 25,000. Would she have approved of his Van Heusen shirt and silk tie worth Rs 2000 that he was wearing now?
He was confused if his hatred for her transcended the love he had felt for her. What irked him most was his inability to confront her and tell her she was wrong. But she was too far away now. In the US, married and happy, he assumed. She probably couldn’t care anymore what the figures in his salary looked like or how dapper he looked in a branded shirt.
There was a girl standing in front of him in the auto-rickshaw queue. Lost in his thoughts, Kushan hadn’t noticed her. She kept looking back at him. She had a pretty face, a slim waist, hair tied up in a ponytail and she was in a salwar kameez. She smiled at him. He didn’t smile back. Simply because his mood was at its worst that day and also he didn’t know her. Five minutes later she looked back again. Kushan looked away.
‘The queue is too long,’ she said.
Kushan just nodded disinterestedly.
‘Where are you heading?’ she asked.
‘I am going to Baghajatin.’
He nodded again.
‘Can we hail a cab and share the fare?’ she asked.
‘Autos are coming we will get one soon,’ he said.
‘I like your kind of men. You didn’t grab the opportunity to be alone with me in a cab,’ she smiled.
Kushan noticed she had bright eyes and wore large loops in her ears. He wanted to remain expressionless but he ended up smiling. What happened in the next instant always remained a blur to Kushan. The girl suddenly grabbed his hand.
‘Why are you touching me?’ she shouted.
‘What?’ Kushan jumped up.
‘Yes, how dare you touch me?’ she screamed.
Two burly men quickly came forward. They seemed to have emerged from the shadows.
‘What did he do?’ they asked.
‘He was constantly brushing against me inappropriately and saying filthy things,’ she complained to the men.
All eyes in the queue and around it were on Kushan now. He tried to speak but lost his voice. Even in his worst nightmares he could not imagine something like this could happen to him.
‘Ki dada dekhey toh bhadrolok money hoye.’ One man said.
The other man dragged him by the collar and took him to a narrow dark lane next to the auto stand. ‘You can’t do this with a woman. Give us what you have, otherwise we are calling the police.’
The girl had followed them. Her harassed expression had vanished. She looked eagerly as one man forcefully shoved his hands into Kushan’s pocket and fetched out his purse. Kushan tried to resist. The man slapped him hard. He reeled against the rickety wall in the lane.
‘He’s got 5000 rupees here,’ the man said triumphantly.
Minutes before Kushan had picked up the money from the ATM to pay the maid’s salary, the monthly bill of the grocer and the milkman. But Kushan wasn’t thinking of the money. He was thinking of his shame. Would he ever be able to come back and stand in that autorickshaw queue again?
‘Pinky, let’s go. We don’t need to go to the police,’ said the other man.
The three of them walked out of the lane and into the night with as much swiftness as they had appeared. Kushan was contemplating going to the police. But he was not sure if the police would put the blame back on him.
A couple of days later he saw the headline in a newspaper: A girl and two men conning people at bus stops. He snatched the paper and headed for the police station. They gave him a number and told him to call immediately if he spotted the girl or the men anywhere in Kolkata. Kushan kept loitering in and around Gariahat bus stops hoping to see the girl again. After office, it kind of became his life’s mission. Since that incident he never stood at the queue again or had tea at the tea stall next to it, because he feared whoever saw him that day would judge him.
Three months passed when he got a call from his friend standing at a bus stop in Salt Lake, Karunamoyee. ‘Kushan, the girl’s very pretty. I saw her talking to a man at the bus stop. I noticed she started the conversation. Then two well-built dark-skinned men appeared and they are having an altercation with the man. Do you think it’s them?’
‘It’s them, it’s them,’ Kushan said excitedly.
‘Can you hold them there for a while? Just intervene and talk nonsense. I am calling the police.’
The police were quick in their action and nabbed them immediately. Kushan often visited the police station to find out how the case proceeded. He came to know Pinky was in school. She had an ailing father at home. She was 17 and was in a juvenile delinquent home. The other two men were hardcore criminals and had been involved in every kind of crime.
Pinky was to stay in the delinquent home for two years and the men got five years each in jail. Kushan felt he had reclaimed his dignity. He could go back to that auto stand and tell each and every person there that he was a perfect gentleman and would always be.
Four years later...
It was a Sunday. Kushan now had a car of his own which he used to travel back and forth from office. But after adda under the Gariahat flyover and a game of chess he preferred to take an auto home. He was standing at the auto stand when she came and stood behind him. He could never forget that face. But there wasn’t a flicker of recognition on his face. He kept toying with his mobile. Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder, her hand was quite soft.
‘Was it you?’ she asked.
‘To get you guys nabbed?’ Kushan completed her question.
‘No. To send money to my home when my father was in the hospital?’
Kushan looked away. He never imagined she would guess. He didn’t want her to. But now confronted with the question he had to tell her. ‘I was the one to send you to that home and I was the one to send money to your parents. Now judge me the way you want,’ he said.
‘I knew it. I knew it,’ she said animatedly. ‘The way things were going if not that day I would have been arrested some other day.’
Kushan nodded. She looked older. But her face was still very pretty. She continued, ‘I want you to meet my parents. Will you come home with me?’
Kushan was hesitant. She took out a heart-shaped chocolate from her bag and gave it to him. ‘I want you to keep this.’
Kushan had forgot that today, it was Valentine’s Day.
Amrita Mukherjee's latest book is Museum of Memories, a collection of 13-soul stirring short stories. She has worked in publications like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Asian Age in India and she has been the Features Editor with ITP publishing Group, Dubai’s largest magazine publishing house. An advocate of alternative journalism, she is currently a freelance journalist writing for international publications and websites and also blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com