Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Aarti woke up to an unfamiliar, raucous singing from upstairs. Slightly irritated at having to forfeit her early morning succession of dreams, she got out of her blanket slowly, trying not to move her knees too much. It was already the end of February in Doon but it had rained for two days and the cold sting was inevitable. Her arthritis was getting troublesome. She gave out a small tired sigh and had a familiar moment of incredulity. No matter how early she went to bed, that sigh never failed to escape.
The cacophony upstairs has taken the form of some recent bollywood song, and the endearing accented articulations meant that Frankie, one of the two north east boys she has recently rented her upstairs apartment, was bathing. Suneetha, her friend and colleague was not too comfortable with the idea of renting it out to young bachelors particularly when her last tenants had been a charming family of three, a young couple and their daughter. She had pointed out, “Didi, these young boys would drink, smoke and do what not and you wouldn’t even come to know. Anyway your neighbours are so conservative.” The locality was a relatively posh one; but, then the same neighbours had raised their eyebrows when her son and his group of friends used to have sleepovers and loud gatherings in her house. Even now when Brotish comes home, he would call up some of his friends who are still in Doon or in Delhi and they would have a get-together. Though no eyebrows raised or surreptitious whisperings anymore. Why would there be? Brotish is sufficiently earning to live in a duplex in a posh residence in south Kolkata and married to an employed woman, who diligently sends her mother-in-law Dior perfumes and curios from her trips abroad. The bottles and porcelain ornaments with their myriad shapes and mottled hues of amber, turquoise, ruby, rosy colours adorned her glass wardrobes and dressing tables, satisfying inquisitive neighbours.
Besides, the boys had not been any nuisance. If at all anything, they had been helpful with her emergency groceries. Toofan had even helped her fix her old Kinetic that had been lying practically untouched for the last 5 years after the doctors advised her against riding in her diabetic condition. Both were quiet though Frankie was livelier and had a tendency of running to destinations instead of walking to places. This time when he went back home, he brought her a pair of miniature shield and spears for her living room which they have jokingly conferred the name ‘auntie’s museum’. Her living space was her radiating source of pride. People who knew her appetite for decoration would bring her ethnic ornaments from new places they had been to, and she herself collected curios on her school trips. The living space was sprawled over two rooms and had numerous knick-knacks from every part of India. The first object that one would notice on entering was a huge semicircular ornamental bar at one corner of the room made of intricate bamboo works and varnished regularly, with a quaint gramophone sitting atop it. Instead of bottles of alcohol lining the lower shelf, it had a dozen records standing up diagonally against the delicate bamboo filigree giving the whole aspect an old-fashioned chic appearance. There were a couple of tea tree trunk tables at the corners, each one showcasing a different culture, a different identity from various nooks and corners of the country. There were wooden dolls from Assam, terracotta horses and brass figurines from Bankura, miniature copper pots from Haridwar, Bengal silk wall hangings embellishing the walls, a sandalwood elephant from Karnataka, a Kashmiri carpet spread on a dainty charpoy in the middle of the room, the assortment preserved in an enchanting harmony. She was meticulous when it came to dusting each and every trinket like little pieces of treasure. She would ritually polish the brass and copper ones with a concoction of brass and lemon every weekend. Even the occasional varnishing, she did herself. One could not discern a trace of unconformity in that sublime blend of little treasures.
Being largely a single mother, life had not been indulgent towards Aarti. She yawned and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. At 55, the patchwork of thin wrinkles were spreading on the foundation of her face inter-weaving and branching out from the corners of her eyes and breaking off again to emerge softly around her lips. She had been noticing lately that her hair was becoming increasingly frizzy. Suneetha has planned for them an old ladies day out this Saturday since they won’t be having teachers meeting and during this time of the year they had hardly any corrections to do. Only she knew calling it a day out was a little superfluous since it usually ended either with her or Suneetha being unwilling to step out. They would eventually apply henna on each other’s hair and laze around the whole day discussing their students, the principal, Aarti’s son’s new job , Suneetha’s daughter who is married and stays in Delhi and their grandchildren and in the meantime listening to the clock go tick-tock, tick-tock.
She turned on the tap. Was she really once that girl of eighteen Fresh out of school, daddy’s favourite girl, with wonders in her eyes, and not a shred of worry, swept off her feet by Dev? Dev was already an army captain back then stationed at Patiala with brilliant future prospects. Yes, she was swept off her feet, at least for the first couple of months after their marriage. She had fought incessantly with the gradual but definite realization that it was impossible to plan an even moderately, normal life with Dev since she had been convinced a calamity in the form of a bad marriage was not in the fate for someone like her, who has lived a sheltered life and had loving, well-to-do parents and had had practically no major mishap in her life. She had this grounded conviction that being a normal person, it was only natural that her marriage would prosper like most other people. Her conviction finally crumbled one chilly morning in Kargil some three decades back ,when she stepped into the premises of the army cantonment mess to witness Dev playing a game of cards with his familiar, carefree disarming smile of a gay host accentuating his broad foreheads, brown eyes and handsome lips, apparently forgetting to fetch her from Srinagar and oblivious of the fact that his heavily pregnant wife had to travel all the way from Kolkata to Srinagar and finally a harrowing bus ride to reach Kargil. She had fainted at the mess entrance. Luckily someone had been nearby to hold her. Even now, she would feel sick and seethe in helpless anger remembering that roller-coaster bus ride to Kargil and the small, dingy inn full of foreigners, where she had to spend one night before leaving for her husband’s cantonment.
She could hear Frankie’s exuberant singing in between sloshing herself with water and she missed her granddaughter, Rimjhim. The little girl has just turned six but already she had been training in music for a year and had the amazing ability to memorize every song she listened to. They say she is going to be a musical prodigy. Rimjhim had an uncanny resemblance to her grandfather. The little nose was already taking the shape of a somewhat lofty prominence and those frank brown eyes frowning at her reproachfully when denied an extra bar of chocolate would take her back in time. Only three months after her marriage, Dev had taken her to Amritsar station and after making her comfortable in the coach, announced that he was obviously not travelling back to Kolkata with her, so she would have to travel alone. When she had exclaimed how could he forget telling her such an important fact, he had looked at her reproachfully in the same way, the difference is she had felt a surge of anger and perforce helplessness instead of the brimming love and fulfilment her granddaughter induced in her. She had just been eighteen then; travelling in the two seated coach with an unknown Sikh passenger. She had been terrified and had stayed awake the whole trip. The man had been kind and had tried to put her at ease by telling her about his family and business in Kolkata and asking her about her own family. However, she had been too distraught by Dev’s sudden assertion and mentally unprepared for the long journey to care for his friendly overture.
Brotish was five when Dev was posted to Dehradun. Even now, when she was not thinking anything in particular, somewhere a trapdoor in her memory would unhinge and she would be on that bumpy, tin bus ride on her first trip to Mussourie. The road was a slow slithery Boa, speckled with dry yellow leaves, heaving its way through the hill ridges. There had been a continuous drizzle in the city earlier. The rows of Sal and Deodar cradling the road were temporarily sporting a summer green and she had welcomed the tingle of fresh pine scented chill through so many layers of woollen. As expected, they had found traces of snow on the Library Chowk. It was hardly forming a veritable layer but it was enough to make Brotish excited and spill his bowl of thukpa on the rather elegant wooden flooring of the Imperial restaurant. Lately, their meals were taken in goaded silence except from the occasional oral outbursts coming from Brotish. He had already gone through that transitory phase of a toddler and had started making utmost use of the newly acquired skill of verbally giving vent to his befuddled thoughts. While going back they stopped at the forest institute with its acres and acres of rambling meadows and quiet roads heavily shadowed by giant looming eucalyptus. Brotish was crushing the fragrant leaves between his fingers. The keen citrus scent engulfed mother and child. That evening while coming up the forest trail she made her decision. She was going to stay back in Dehradoon. She could have gone back to Kolkata back then. Indeed, while staying in the metro, she had finished her graduation shuttling in between her parents and her in laws. Her in-laws were sympathetic. Dev in one of his leaves got involved with a group of sadhus, found himself a guru and spent his whole vacation in Haridwar. She could not trace him for the two weeks he was gone. She was new in the city then and could not confide her distress in anybody. One of his maternal uncle at that time posted in Haridwar spotted him on one of the concrete Ghats with the bunch. She did not blame his family who had almost certainly known his restless and wild temperament. In all probability, they had thought he would settle down once he got married.
Maybe it was her son’s education that convinced her not to leave the place. She did not want him to go through the tedious routine of changing schools again and again, and acclimatize to every new place especially when his father would be involved in some new eccentric venture or other. It was bizarre how he would forget both of them in frenzy over a new addiction. No, he was not abusive and he would usually manage a pacifist stance when they would have had fights. She would be the one shouting, calling him selfish and insensitive. In fact, other than pursuing his ever new adventures and being exceedingly easygoing he did not have any other vice. At times, she had thought maybe she was way too accommodating and soft to make him stay. She had tried to impose herself but before she knew he would be off to rock climbing in Rishikesh for days, later murmuring an apology about being forgetful. Eventually, she had come to terms with the insight that he was just not meant to get married. She was averse to the idea of a divorce. They had a mutual separation. He had been sorry but he did nothing to prevent it. Her relatives back in Kolkata insisted that she should raise the child amidst her own kith and kin. However, for the first time in her life she was making her own decisions.
Aarti usually took an auto but today the auto driver was late. She would have to walk to the clock tower for an auto. She locked the door quickly. On her way out, she tenderly glanced at the house with its front patch of gerberas and poppies. After moving out of the army quarters, for the first time she had utilized her English Honours’ degree. She moved into an apartment and started giving tuitions. Her father had wanted to buy her a house in one of the number of estates that were coming up. Even Dev had offered to contribute. But she had started cultivating a stubborn conviction that she would build her life from then on alone and on her own terms. Brotish was already going to the Central School in Doon and she started attending B.Ed. classes in the mornings. She had the most successful coaching classes in the city those days. Still the next two years were hard. In addition to her handicap at speaking Hindi, she could not get a permanent teaching job since her graduation degree was from a different state. After her B.Ed. she got her first teaching job in a school near her residence. It was convenient since she could spend more time with Brotish. In the next couple of years, more teaching offers began to come her way. Some of the better schools were at the fringes of the city. She began looking for residential places near the Clock-tower, which with an array of market nearby and bus stops and auto-stand was convenient for her travelling. She started saving meticulously and bought the ground floor of this house which would become her home finally.
She stopped at Ellora’s bakery to get some of their freshly baked butter muffin for her tiffin. She had not felt like packing anything today. Brotish loved this particular butter muffin. In those days when she was saving every last penny and generally making ends meet, an occasional toffee or a mere muffin would wholly delight the child and in the course break her heart. As she waited at the Clock-tower for an auto, she gave a sweeping glance around her. Doon had changed a lot over the last thirty years that she had been staying in the city. She is one of those city dwellers who had seen the transition from horse drawn carriages and a staggering bus service to a rather congested network of shared autos, which were huge six-seaters commonly known as vikram, private autos and buses. The city with its rolling roads surging up and down, luckily averted the breeding of a rickshaw service which would have led to further traffic overcrowding. However, there were parts of Dehradoon which still had no transport facility and one still had to travel quite a bit to reach the next bus-stop or board a vikram. She could not spot an auto today. A vikram was trudging along and she hauled herself gingerly into it wincing as her stiff knee complained. A few days back, she had hurried out of the shower to answer the ringing phone and in a moment of carelessness tripped over a dining chair onto her bad knee. Her long time friend and orthopaedician, Dr Dhawan had treated it skillfully as usual. However, he was concerned enough to advice her on hiring a permanent help. She had a part-time maid, Shilpa. She had been with her for the last five years. Shilpa’s mother had been a help at Suneetha’s some years back. The girl was hard-working, bright and when she came to work for her, she had just dropped out of school after her tenth board exam. Aarti was pleasantly shocked that the girl had passed in second division. After all, rarely a father less girl and a mother working as a maid finishes school and here, Shilpa had not only done it but had gone through with it working part-time helping her mother out regularly. Aarti took her in and put her back in the government school and paid for her tuitions. The girl did the washing and cleaning and the occasional cup of evening tea. Since she herself liked to do the dusting and polishing of the myriad brass and copper artifacts, the arrangement worked out effectively. She gave Shilpa the occasional guidance she needed and she would be giving her college finals that May. Well, she had not thought about how things would turn out after May but she kept telling the girls’ mother how lucky she was to have a gem of a daughter and not to marry her off soon after her finishing graduation. She was already working at a nearby beauty parlour as an apprentice and saving up money. Aarti could use some of her resources that she had built over the last two decades by virtue of being an able school teacher, to get her into some school as a data entry operator. The girl was smart enough and she was a survivor, so she liked to think Shilpa would have quite a few options. Of course she would have to think of finding another good help but she would never want someone working full-time. She was too comfortable living alone for too long. She had been careful not to divulge the little mishap to Brotish who would naturally get worked up over the whole incident. As a precaution she changed the setting of her dining arrangements.
The vikram sputtered along with her and her co-passengers, a Garhwali family. The girls piquantly beautiful, yet strong with their jutting cheekbones and rich tan. The young mother was holding on to her chubby toddler son. The boy had chubby chafed faint rust coloured cheeks and was giving Aarti a coy toothless smile all the while snivelling through his runny nose. The mother-in-law and Aarti started chatting casually. The family was from Gopeshwar and had some curio shops and fast food joints along the precarious Uttarkashi-Gangotri road frequented by pilgrims. Last year’s heavy rains and apocalyptic landslides shattered almost everybody who did a living on that very road. The roads had crumbled in minutes in front of their eyes, the shops collapsing and pets dying. They were staying in Doon with some relatives till the men could figure out some resources to put things back together. Crumbling of other lives nearly always gave her an inevitable if not justifiable sense of guilty assurance. She could see the rows of eucalyptus lining her school’s main building. Dirty white peeling barks, giddy first graders crunching around the school ground and the exuding citrus scent; everything that had affected her on the very first day she came for the job interview still lingered on. This part of the town has always been slightly cooler and calmer than the rest of the burgeoning city. The moment she had entered through the massive arched rusty iron gates, lightness had cocooned her, all the distress and desolation of her everyday existence momentarily forgotten. She knew she would teach here for as long as she stayed in this city.
The day was tugging along languidly keeping in pace with the general post-vacation mood of the children. She was interrupted half-way through her fifth period English literature class with the office peon shuffling nervously at the doorway. It was an emergency call. She rummaged inside her bag for her cell phone. It was switched off as usual. She could never learn to figure the thing out. Asking the class prefect to take her place, she excused herself. Along the length of the corridor she prayed it was nothing to do with Brotish. Surprisingly, it was Frankie on the other end. One of his mates was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. The local hospital authorities were heckling them with unfair charges for admission. The poor boy had quite a few broken bones and was in a lot of pain. They didn’t have any guardian in Doon and were short on cash. In principle, she was their warden and one who could be counted on. She pacified Frankie and told him to go over to Dr Dhawan. At one point of time, he had been attached to the hospital and still had some friends there. Next, she called up Dr Dhawan to inform him of the situation. He agreed to give a reference to ease up things. Although, it had always angered her that why such maneuvers were at all necessary and the discriminations her lodgers were facing assaulted her personally as if she was the one suffering all over again from universal alienation. On her way back to class, she could hear voices of her angelic sixth graders loud enough to echo off the buttresses and arches of the old school building, her prefect’s chagrined shouts providing modulation to the pandemonium. With a sigh, she crossed the threshold of her classroom and everything went hush in a matter of seconds. She knew what the students called her- ‘the iron lady’. Her niece who studied in Doon would come over sometimes to listen to her rambling anecdotes of her teacher-life. She would roll over with laughter. “Mashi, you are the sweetest person on earth. How can one ever think of you as a dragon lady?” She corrected her “Iron lady, not dragon lady”. Her students loved her especially the mischievous ones, but they respected her like no other. The firmness she put on show was an old habit from her days with Dev that has stuck on like a second skin. It came in handy as a teacher.
The school was sacking their old principal for someone new and undoubtedly well rehearsed with technology and ‘open to change’. The old lady was usually in hysterics these days and Aarti being one of her oldest friends stayed with her after the school hours talking things over. Her leaving had an air of absolution, an era slipping through their fingers. Either you conform to technology or fade away. But, she didn’t have time for their talk today. She had to reach the hospital and arrange the cash for Frankie’s friend. She caught an auto to the hospital.
When she entered the place, she was amazed. Frankie had rounded up possibly all of his friends and acquaintances in Doon, students from different institutions all over the city, numbering somewhere around a hundred and no less, a priest. Not only had they arranged for everything, now they were lolling around all over the three floors of the hospitals to the utter discomfiture and grumblings of the nurses and orderlies. She was trying hard not to burst out laughing. Frankie said Dr Dhawan was kind enough to refer him to Dr so-and-so but he took further steps as insurance. To her utter embarrassment, he would stop each of one of his mate passing by to come over and thank ‘auntie’. Aarti looked into the victim who had fractured his tibia and was strung up, otherwise he looked quite cheerful. Satisfied, she left the big hearty family to their own devices and headed home.
It was drizzling again on the ride back home. She was searching for her door keys when the telephone started ringing. She hurried inside and picked the receiver in time for her granddaughter’s sweetish huffy voice complaining she was missing her dida. It was Brotish who announced they were all coming to Doon; the all included Dev. Brotish whispered rather alarmingly “Ma, I think he is having one of those moods where he misses you but is too pig headed to admit it. He comes over and lounges around our place with a sour expression. In fact, he is here right now”. Aarti knew these mood swings too well to take them seriously anymore. Last time he came, it was also with Brotish, bearing a touch screen cellphone as a gift which is still locked up in her almirah. She did not have the heart to tell him she had barely managed to figure out her basic keypad enabled phone. After lolling around the house for a couple of days he started doing the rounds of his ex army friends all over the district. So, it was decided they would be coming on the second week of March. There was not much time. The poppy flowers in the garden were wilting; she would have to ask the gardener to fix it. The silvers and brass needed polishing so did her woodwork; she would do that herself. The house would be full in two weeks time; Rimjhim’s laughter, her mother pottering in the kitchen trying to teach Aarti fancy cooking, Brotish grumbling for snacks every couple of hours and Dev, being Dev. She would have to check her pantry and make a list of what all she would need.
For now, she made herself a cup of Assamese. The rain has stopped. In the enchanting living room, her favourite Rajasthani stringed puppets floating midair were dancing in the afterglow to the gentle breeze; the husband and wife duo bobbing their heads and winking at each other. The scent of eucalyptus was in the air.
Almirah- a closed cupboard
Garhwali- a person from the region of Garhwal
Thukpa- Tibetan noodle soup
Vikram- shared auto
About the author:
Oishanee Ghosh was born in a tiny remote village nestled in the green plains of southern Bengal in India. Her childhood was spent intermittently in the mofussil of Bengal and the Kolkata metro from where she pursued her graduation. After completing her master’s degree from Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, she joined the National Institute of Disaster Management in New Delhi in research capacity. Thereafter, she enrolled in doctoral programme. This is her first story.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)