The breeze turns more gentle. “How about going for a stroll?” I ask her. She smiles as she says, “You haven’t changed!” Change, I feel, is a complicated phenomenon, almost bordering on the incomprehensible for tardy minds like mine. So, all I have as a reply is a characteristic shrug. Her glance doesn’t waver and her smile doesn’t wane.
From Karunamoyee to Labony is a beautiful stretch. Central park is almost exactly at half-way on this, and is a favourite haunt for many. Sprawling roads with hardly any crowd, it’s any stroller’s dream. Especially so in Calcutta, known for dingy lanes and poverty-scarred streets choking with maddening traffic.
A speeding car plays a new bollywood number loud that breaks the quiet. “Vikki’s favourite song these days. At home,” she recounts gleefully, “he plays it on and on. Abhi tries his best to divert him, but he remains adamant. And you should see when he starts dancing! He just wouldn’t stop! On his birthday, he brought six of his friends and they danced for hours.”
“That must’ve been fun!” I interject.
Age doesn’t show on her face yet; she still looks stunningly beautiful. I catch a furtive glimpse as her laughter fills the air.
“Indeed! Yeah! Did I send you the photographs of his last year’s birthday party?” She looks at me.
Even as I strive to recollect, she continues, “You should see him. He’s all delight. And his friends! There’s this cute one with glasses – he says she’s his girlfriend.” The sponteneity of her laughter makes me possessed with an urge to hold the moment and make it last for eternity as I look at her. What appears to be a trivial pursuit in times of solitude becomes an obsession, demanding fulfillment at this very moment.
“What’s with you? No girls? It’s sad that the best you manage is a married woman, a mother of two, on an evening like this!”
I smile back. Seven years ago, we walked this stretch, holding each other’s hands, every such evening. She was not married, she was not a mother. The tread was light, the destination did not matter, the world was beautiful and everything was possible. Now I walk with the same woman, but our destinations are not same. Her world is defined and I am no more a part of it. She’s right beside me, but I feel utterly lonely.
I quickly reckon it doesn’t matter anymore. I have met her after seven years. And there are just thirty minutes to go. Hardly any time to devote attention to both her and contemplation of the merciless inevitables. Abhishek will come and pick her up, and they will leave for the U.S. For another few years or for ever. Every fleeting moment seems to whisper, “it will end soon. She must go.” Reminder. Agonising reminder. Of that event called parting, the food for bourgeois tragedy.
We stop by at Manik da‘s. His café still attracts good crowd. Raju greets with his usual grin. “Two special chai, one classic milds,” I tell him. He doesn’t, obviously, recognise her; he was a kid when he saw her last.
“Raju! Kamon aachen?” She recognises him.
“Bhalo achhi, didi,” he replies, amused and surprised, as he rushes to fetch tea.
“Big boy he is now! In quick time!” she refers to Raju. Raised eyebrows, and the beautiful eyes reflecting element of surprise.
“Not quite. Seven years is some time,” I assure her.
“Hmm! You are right. I find it hard when I realise that Vikki is already five years old. Lekha is three, but she has also grown up fast. Or so I feel,” she ponders.
As I enjoy the fag, I notice signs of uncertainty in her eyes. Maybe it’s typical of mothers when they think of their children. A woman’s world revolves around her family.
She knows about my habit. She admonished for a few weeks and then gave up. “Still on twenty a day?” she asks.
“Only ten, I suppose. I cut a lot in the past couple of years.”
She smiles in appreciation.
“I don’t see Manik da,” she looks around.
“He is opening another café in CK block. Must be overlooking the work there.”
“Two families, two cafés. Good going!” she says in jest. A sly smile adorns her face. She never thought high of Manik da, she never appreciated the course of a second marriage. As most people, too, I believe, don’t. It hits straight at one’s need for security. Fear defines and models one’s belief system. Marriage is sacred and happens with divine decree, she believes. Being “morally challenged” – as she would say – I understand none of that. “It’s a biologically driven, socially imposed, legally monitored affair that serves the aims of evolution rather well. A shallow, rubbish institution otherwise. Everything else is mush,” I would say. “Shut up!” would be the quick rejoinder. Both of us are very familiar with this course of conversation. But I don’t take it there now.
Raju gets the tea. She stares and smiles at him again and he is pleased. “Not the shy kid he used to be, anymore!” she seeks a response. “Yes. Demands of the job; he deals with many people every day,” I aver. She doesn’t like such dismissive, matter-of-fact statements. Such statements cut out, to my mind, the romance of a conversation. Whether she’s not amused, none of her gestures suggests. Or, maybe it’s the distance; I belong not to her primary circle, but the secondary – or the tertiary or the beyond – one, whose members don’t evoke any intensity beyond indifference. I may, at best, be good enough for a few moments of laughter, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, I may be wrong.
That bollywood tune, Vikki’s favourite, plays on her phone. She answers the call. She keeps it brief. I notice the ring, complete with a pretty diamond, anchored to her slender finger. The sign in metal and stone that says she is anchored to someone. That could have been me. But I am not there. The question, “What went wrong?” occurs to me again. I never found an answer for that.
“Where at Labony are we going to wait?” she asks.
“At the housing board bus stop.”
She informs the same to the caller.
“Abhi is not coming. Caught up with some last-minute errands. He’s sending the driver instead,” she says, carefully putting the phone down. “He has just started”.
The familiar good news/bad news line runs across, written large in white against red background: “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” I’m quite pleased that Abhi is not coming, but I don’t show it. For obvious reasons. She adores him. I hate him. I have never met him, but I hate him. I find it queer, but I stop at that. It’s a feeling I hold without any compunction.
“Oh! He has already started?” I ask. A redundant question. She nods.
“You haven’t picked up Bengali yet?” she is curious.
“No,” I reply, unabashedly. Cannot help to reciprocate her smile, though.
I look at the empty tea glasses. I look at her. Her gaze is intent, but doesn’t seem to say anything. I give Raju ten rupees, and we start. The final lap. A sense of desperation creeps in. Imperceptibly.
The sun is preparing to set. Three kids are fighting over a piece of bread. A gorgeous girl is waiting for her boy, in front of the park’s gate.
“Salt Lake is still the quiet place it used to be. Don’t you think so?” she asks.
“Yes, it is. Excellently planned and maintained very well. Odd for a city like Calcutta!”
We talk about the metro, the busy college street, the death of Ms Mukherjee, whose house she had stayed in. She remembers her with a sense of sadness. I remember her with a sense of fondness, for Ms Mukherjee told me many a time, “You two are quite a pair. You must marry.”
We stand at the Labony housing board bus stop. “When are you visiting the U.S?” she reminds. “I will, I will. Will make it for your birthday,” I reassure. I know I’m being casual; she knows, too. We laugh. She clears the hair falling on her face. I’m driven by the impulse to caress her face, to hold her hand and plead, “You are mine. Don’t go.” But I stand where I am, and my hand moves not.
For a while, I am two people talking to each other:
“She is married”
“She is someone else’s”
“Technically, perhaps. But I care not”
“What about morality?”
“What is that!?”
“You are impossible!”
“If I am, I don’t know”
Consensus surfaces. Moderated agreement. Agreeable, nonetheless.
A car appears at the turn and is approaching. This looks like it, I feel. A chance guess. Works, at times. Especially when you don’t want it to. The driver, manoeuvring impressively, stops the car barely two feet away.
It’s that moment. A pat on her shoulder, a quick, formal clasp of hands, a fleeting exchange of glances and smiles, and she gets into the car. For a moment that I had expected would effect in a deluge of emotion, this is a surprisingly easy transition. The words “Don’t go” remain unuttered. I don’t have the right to utter those. Seven years ago, when I had, I did not, either.
A brisk wave of hand and a beaming smile later, the car starts. Moving away from me – the car, and she. The sun has set. I light up the last fag as I start walking back. Alone. But not, ironically, lonely.
At a distance, the car takes the left turn and disappears.
Bhalo achhi, didi: ‘I am fine, sister’, in Bengali, the native language to the region of eastern South Asia known as Bengal
Bollywood: Popular name for the Hindi-language film industry
da: Bengali greeting to mark love and respect. Equivalent of ‘elder brother’
Kamon aachen?: ‘How are you?” in Bengali
Karunamoyee: A prominent location in Salt Lake, Calcutta
Labony: A prominent residential location adjoining Salt Lake, Calcutta
About the Author
Vijayender Cherupally is a 36-year old Indian national who is intrigued by randomness and uncertainty. He has a collection of books many would envy. An avid reader and a travel freak, he enjoys being lazy and considers ambition a vice. If you prefer a quiet evening over a cup of tea, then he makes for good company. Besides writing for pleasure, he enjoys designing graphics for print and web media, covers for books, and offers consulting services in digital marketing. He has published poems in Platform magazine. His short story, Invincible, was published in the anthology titled Only Men Please, and The Departed was published in the 2011 New Asian anthology titled Mr. Cheng’s Silver Coffeepot.