Prodip was surreptitiously watching Milu. The crow on the sill was watching them both. Milu crooned some words in a language that only she could understand. Or perhaps her mother Ashima. Her curls bounced and a toothless grin spread across her face. Prodip felt a spasm in his chest. A desire to lift her in his arms and squeeze her little body swept through him. His first grandchild!
The crow squawked suddenly, and with a jerk launched into flight. Milu turned to him with wide eyes. He smiled and picked her up from the floor. Together they stood at the balcony of his flat and looked out at the world. It was a typical sunlit morning. Nothing out of the ordinary was going on in Greenfields Society. In the circle of the housing society, four medium sized buildings housed the residents in this teeming city. Most were retired folk like him, but increasingly now, younger people were coming in and buying up the flats.
The location was considered desirable – just off Gariahat Road, close enough to the shopping district and with direct links to the multi-national offices in Salt Lake, yet set back in a lane away from the main arterial junction, so that a taxi dropping off passengers had to navigate a sudden shift from the busy road into a tree-lined quieter counterpart. Mostly when reciting the address to the taxiwallah, he was subjected to a quizzical look, “Where’s that?”
He had often had to explain. Prodip was ambivalent about how he felt about this. In the city of Kolkata, surely he was one of the lucky ones? He owned his flat, a two-bedroom, kitchen and two bathroom affair. He lived in the flat with his wife Promita, his son Abhi, daughter-in-law Ashima and of course, his little darling Milu.
He kissed her, inhaling the scent of her freshly bathed chubby body.
In the opposite building, his friend Manob Mitra was savoring his cup of tea, smiling at him. He made Milu look towards Manob and murmured, “Milu, see Manob dadu is waving to you. Say hello?” Of course, Milu ignored him and continued to look around. There were other, far more interesting things to see. A cow had wandered into the building and the watchman was shooing it away gently. For a devout Hindu, it was inauspicious to be aggressive where cows were concerned. So Baldev Mahato implored the cow to go elsewhere. His attempts were frustrated since the cow appeared to be engrossed in contemplation. Prodip smiled in delight. A feeling of wellbeing permeated him.
The weather, for April, was still mild in the mornings – a rarity for the city. Notorious for its humidity, April was usually ghastly. Tempers frequently rose and people snapped. It was reported by the Patriot that more murders were committed in April than any other month. Idly Prodip wondered who had actually undertaken that research.
“Are you there?”
He turned inside as Promita came into the room bearing his 11 o’clock cup of Horlicks. He hated the drink. But Promita insisted it was beneficial to his health. He wished she’d let him have tea, just like Manob Mitra.
Once he had even broached the subject. There had been a little war of words, then anger and spiteful hissing from her. He failed to understand what the drama was all about. Just a cup of tea! In the end he had given in, and accepted his cup of Horlicks without any comment. He kept his face bland while he sipped, just in case Promita was watching, and minded. Such are the little pretences one maintained after 35 years of marriage!
Milu slipped away out of his grasp. She was crawling pretty quickly nowadays. Promita smiled indulgently, “Soon she’ll be walking!”
Prodip nodded his assent. He asked, “Did you remind Ashima to book her vaccination date with the child specialist?”
He settled in his easy chair and leaned back with his steaming mug. Promita adjusted her sari and said softly, “Well, I have reminded her twice already. Now…”
Ashima walked in at that moment carrying Milu.
“Look Baba, Milu is going to eat her stewed apple now. Isn’t she a big girl? Milu, open your mouth now.”
They watched with lively interest as Ashima tried to feed Milu. The grandparents looked indulgent, Ashima looked busy with importance. Prodip strolled to the balcony again. Manob was leaning over his balcony, watching something below with great interest. Prodip wondered what had attracted his attention.
Suddenly he craved some distraction from the domestic scene. He did enjoy his retired life, but at times, he envied his son for having a life outside the confines of these walls. Inhaling deeply, he looked downwards. A faint feeling of boredom overcame him. Also, it was starting to become hot. Baldev Mahato in his khaki uniform was sitting on his stool, wielding a stick aimlessly. Beside him, his three year old daughter played in the mud. His wife was inside their room next to the gate. A thin stream of smoke exited the window of the room.
Outside, in the lane, the shop keepers appeared listless. There were no customers at this time. They restacked and rearranged endlessly their cigarette packets, tea, soft drinks, chips, batteries, ribbons and the DVDs of the latest Bollywood hits. A lone goat lay under the banyan tree, beside the dozing rickshaw pullers. The main Gariahat road lay ahead at the end of the lane.
A taxi was drawing up the lane. It was piled high with luggage and tooted importantly in front of the closed gate. Baldev Mahato, sensing a tip, clambered off his perch and opened the gate. He stood by ready to help.
Mildly interested, Prodip wondered who the visitors were. A man alighted from the front seat of the taxi and took out his wallet. He was dressed smartly in ironed jeans and a sky blue T-shirt. His white hair was neatly combed back and he wore expensive shoes. From the second floor, Prodip could see clearly that the man’s watch was foreign.
“Wonder who they’re visiting!” he mused. In his head, he ran over the list of his neighbours, trying to fit the visitors in. He didn’t have to wonder long. Piali Sen came running down from 3B. There were excited shrieks and a woman’s hand emerged from the taxi. Piali was Ashima’s friend in the building. They were roughly in the same age group and were generally on the phone with each other. Piali did not have any children yet, but with Ashima’s not-so-discreet hints, he understood that some ‘treatments’ were on. He liked Piali’s husband, Alok, who worked at a bank on Chowringhee. The serious bespectacled man often came with Piali to visit then. Sometimes the two couples went for dinner to Mocambo or Blue Fox on Park Street.
The lady emerged from the taxi and Piali enveloped her in a hug. Prodip’s heart suddenly lurched. Something about the way her plaited hair swung to her hips, seemed familiar, like a tune heard long ago. He leaned further to have a closer look, and collected himself with some embarrassment. Manob Mitra was watching him slyly and smiling.
Prodip cleared his throat and threw a question over his shoulder to Ashima.
“Some guests at Piali’s?”
Ashima grew animated and rushed up to the balcony.
“Oh are they here? That’s Piali’s aunt and uncle. They live somewhere in one of the Gulf countries. Now they’re back home and visiting her. Oh, just look at her Mashi’s sari! Ma, come and have a look!”
Prodip realized he was holding his breath. He was sure now. The way she walked, moved her head – nothing had changed. It had to be her. After thirty years, he could still recall the lines of her face. He felt a sudden burning curiosity to see how she looked now. Face to face, she may have changed. Would age have left its imprint on that face?
Aware that his hand was trembling lightly, he turned away. The party had moved on inside the building and Baldev Mahato was carrying two suitcases. Promita was looking at him, “Shouldn’t you be having your bath? Lunch will be ready soon.”
He murmured a hasty ‘yes’, and escaped into his bedroom, through into his bathroom. Automatically he switched on the hot water geyser, checked the water temperature and ran cold water in the bucket. From outside, he heard the shrill cackle of a pet mynah. Taking a fresh set of clothes to wear after his bath, he locked the bathroom door.
Though it was April, it was one of his quirks that he couldn’t shower in cold water. Something to do with being dunked in cold water as a child, he supposed. He dipped his mug in the bucket and scooped up the lukewarm water. Pouring it over his body, he felt some of the strangeness wash away. Consciously he rubbed soap over his body. The grey hairs on his chest prickled, his shoulders relaxed and he closed his eyes. A humming filled his ears and her face came to him clearly again. In the privacy of the bathroom, he whispered her name, “Shilu!”
The whisper sent a series of waves through him. It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought about her in the years after…naturally it wasn’t a continuous thought lodged in his head. He wasn’t a sentimentalist, thank God, he thought, rubbing himself vigorously with a towel. But seeing her after so many years was a kind of mild shock. He had never mentioned her to Promita, even in the early heady days of his marriage. And later, when they had achieved a kind of stable balance, a balance composed of their only son Abhi, the death of their parents, the time when she fell ill with a violent viral fever which took 28 days to disappear – all these and countless other links in the chain which bound them, it was too late. When he almost lost his job, when he had that trouble with the landlord on S N Banerjee Road, and they lived in daily fear of being evicted, these incidents had only served to bring them closer into each other’s orbits. It was as if they were null and void without each other.
He told himself that no one took as much care of his comforts as Promita. Standing in front of the dressing table mirror combing his thinning hair, he was reminded of Promita as the young bride he had brought home. Over the years they had learned to please each other in most things, gauge each other’s silences and words and hurts. They had gleaned the wisdom of staying clear of certain minefields, when to speak, when to touch and hold on to each other against the world. It was a marriage of need, a partnership, and at this latter stage in his life, he recognized it as it was. A complete householder, he was content.
“Why am I thinking of these things?”
All these unspoken, half acknowledged thoughts baffled him, as one not used to introspection. He took his place at the table in front of the spread out lunch that Promita supervised personally. Prodip had always expected to eat together. It bothered him that she usually watched him eat.
She protested with a wave of her hand, “Ashima is with Milu till she falls asleep. Once she is sleeping the two of us eat together. You finish and go. She’s in our room.” He continued with his lunch. The room was faintly darkened, the windows closed against the afternoon heat. The ceiling fan whirred at top speed. He could hear Ashima singing a lullaby.
“The fish curry is really well made today,” he smiled at Promita. She wiped her face with the end of her sari and said, “The fish was of good quality. You should buy from the same person always.” But there was a slight smile on her face and he knew he had pleased her with the compliment.
After lunch he prepared to read his ‘India Today’ magazine sitting on a chair while Milu slept peacefully on his bed. Generally he enjoyed the political analyses the magazine provided. Yet, his mind was wandering and he realized with a pang, the direction his thoughts were leading him to.
Surrendering, he gave himself up to speculation. What did Shilu look like now? She must be in her mid-fifties. He wondered if she thought about him, ever, if she had any children. They used to talk about having two, back in those university days. He distinctly recalled the green sari with the black border that she wore, her hair knotted at her nape, the two of them sitting under the tree on campus. Her books lay on the ground and she rummaged in her purse.
That was when he had said impulsively, “Come on, let’s get married!”
She had been nonplussed, mouth parted, eyes jet black with surprise.
“What? Are you mad?”
“Why not?” he had asked, warming to the subject, as he lit a cigarette.
“What’s to prevent us going to Kalighat and asking the priest there to do the needful?”
“How much money do you have in your pocket, mister?” Shilu had grinned cheekily at him.
Prodip recalled with wonder his flippant answer, “Money? What is money in the face of true love? Money will come when I get the job. The final interview is tomorrow. You’ll see, I’ll get the job.”
Now, he smiled grimly, astonished at his audacious answer. He stared hungrily at the image of his younger self. In that golden afternoon, a sense of ‘I-can-do-anything-and-be-anyone’, had caused barely a ripple in that huge reservoir of promise that inhabited his core.
Was that cavalier youth him, Prodip Roy? Was he ever able to snap his fingers at Fate, his poverty, his large dependent family, and quite simply, with that green sari-clad figure by his side, take confident steps into the future? Could he really have done that?
Youth, he smiled indulgently!
At that time, he was made of glass, a shimmering translucent ornament. A fierce desire to protect that sparkling self of his youth, overcame him. Now he knew what the hard knocks of life could do to such optimism, such blithe uncaringness.
Shilu had of course, laughed and laughed. With her laughter, he had grown hard with anger. She noticed the change in his mood and became loving at once, teasing him like a mother coaxing her child into a good mood.
“What will you do if I said yes? Is marriage a game? Then let’s play, shall we?”
His head was on her lap and he looked into her teasing eyes, “Fine, let’s play. We become the usual married couple, with a house, in-laws, one kid, and the rent to pay.”
“Not one kid, two!”
They had both dissolved into laughter at the thought of them as serious householders, with in-law problems, children, rent.
And in truth it was laughable, Prodip admitted wryly to himself. His family lived in the refugee colony, their mother widowed, their seven brothers and sisters carrying the trauma of eviction from their home in Bangladesh. Only his oldest brother worked and their hold on life seemed a stasis, darned clumsily with the needle and thread that his sister Sobita used. She was always sewing- for neighbours, their other relatives, and friends. It brought in extra money.
Prodip remembered the sinking feeling in his heart when he had first seen Shilu’s house. It was a majestic-looking white washed set of buildings with green shutters, set amid acres of landscaped grounds. They had the security ‘gurkha’ on duty at the tall gates. Two gleaming Morris Minor cars stood on the driveway. They belonged to her father and uncle, lawyers at the High Court. It seemed to him that countless minions scurried their days away waiting on the residents of the mansion.
Milu threw off her covers in her sleep. Prodip got up to tuck her in properly. Children were never sweeter than at this age, he felt. What a blessing, she was born and came into his life!
Near the window, he parted the curtains. All was still in the heat wave. Few people were brave enough to venture outside in the afternoon. His eye strayed to 3B. He wondered what was happening in Piali’s flat. Would the visitors be resting after their journey? He pictured Shilu lying on a bed, perhaps with her husband by her side, her arm thrown over her eyes, that thick plait of hair extending between the pillows.
“She hasn’t woken up?” He started guiltily. Ashima had tiptoed into the room. She picked up her sleeping child and left his room. Now mother and daughter would enjoy their siesta together.
He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. The last time he saw Shilu was in the month of April. What a coincidence! An uncharacteristic gravity on her face had set his heart beating uncomfortably as she took the seat opposite him in the little café on College street. Without even looking at him, Shilu handed him a stiff white envelope embroidered with gold thread. He knew then what it was.
“Congratulations! You’re getting married?”
He remembered his rage. And her silence.
“You couldn’t wait for a few months? You couldn’t tell them you’re not ready? Or that you want to continue with your studies? Anything at all?”
Still she was silent, twisting her handkerchief. Around them, people laughed and chatted. The radio played a song.
“Is it that rich girls have a little fun before settling down?”
Goaded beyond endurance, she raised angry eyes at him.
“If that’s what you think, I’m glad this happened.”
She had walked away and he was left with the enormity of the situation. They never met again. It hit him badly. He heard Promita walking into the room. A numbness entered his heart. His arm hurt and he turned the other way. He still wanted to see Shilu once more. How could he arrange that? Maybe he could ask Ashima to invite them all for tea. Nothing wrong with that surely? His mind fashioned scenarios, outcomes, happenings, though outwardly he lay calm.
“Asleep already?” Promita asked as she prepared to lie down beside him.
“No, just dozing.”
“Listen, Ashima was saying we should invite Piali and her guests tomorrow for dinner.”
His heart leaped and he turned away to the other side.
“As you wish.”
Prodip was on the terrace taking his evening stroll. The moon had risen, clear and full, just behind the black-etched palm trees. House after house stretched away towards the horizon, beyond lay the glistening train tracks. Someone was singing, and he hummed along. He would see her tomorrow.
Everything seemed touched with silver.
Tonight, I become silver too – the colour of rest, of mystery, of coolness after the heat, Prodip thought fancifully, looking at his body with wonderment.
Later that night, he waited for Promita to come to him. He wondered what mundane household task she was occupied with. The clock in the drawing room sang eleven times and Prodip could wait no longer. He got up, and moved his arm to swish aside the mosquito net. A stinging slash of pain ripped through his body and he gasped in shock. He fell back on his bed, the inarticulate sounds sticking like honey to his throat.
Moonlight flooded the bedroom when Promita came in, preparing to end her day.