An open notebook stares straight into my soul. Its empty pages seem to be praying to be filled up with words. The blue ball-point pen lies on the table beside it with a similar prosaic look. I woke up early today, determined to start a story. I have been thinking about it for some weeks now. But my thoughts, which start at my thinking about the plot, inevitably switch quickly to trying to think how a life as a famous writer would be. It is the same today, and here I am still at my table, still just thinking without making any progress with my writing. And of course, there is that girl…but no, I must not think about her! I must not let her hijack my mind; not now.
A sound creeps into my ear. I can hear sound the landlady of the apartment; Mrs. Banerjee is coming down the stairs. Her feet – a couple of sizes too small than what would have been okay for her obese body – sound as if she is galloping. Clap-clap, clap-clap, clap-clap… the sound of her rubber sandals hitting the concrete steps resonate down the stairs and along the short corridor on the ground floor where I live. She has just had another altercation with the man above (no, not God) – an altercation with Mr. Sengupta, the alcoholic widower, who came home drunk last midnight and beat up his boy again. A brief pause in the galloping – she is on the landing; and now it resumes again – clap-clap, clap-clap, clap-clap… And now the galloping gives way to the sound of feet dragging. She is on the ground floor and is advancing this way. Here she comes; I hear her passing by the door which is still latched from within. She hums a song; some morning prayer. Hard to imagine that five minutes ago these same lips threw out words so loud that even Mr. Sengupta was compelled to listen in silence.
‘I will not tolerate any of this I tell you mister! If you don’t improve your habits, just find another house. This house is a respectable one in the neighbourhood. Just ask anyone! No one drinks in my family and I will not tolerate your habits. What will people say? A alcoholic in Banerjee bari (Banerjee house)? No, I will not tolerate any of this any more I say to you! Start looking for a different house from next month. I know many respectable families who want a room in the house!’
Her humming gets fainter by the second until it vanishes into the cold morning air. The sound of the front iron gates opening and closing reverberates in the corridor beyond the walls. She is out for her morning walk.
I look down at the notebook – not a word written. Somehow I can’t get my thoughts translated into written words, much less speech. My thoughts manifest themselves in a language only known to me. And they are lost in translation. And yes, there is that four-letter name…but no, I must not succumb to her!
Why do my thoughts, my stories, which fill my mind when I am alone to the point where I can’t think of anything else, elude me when I consciously want them to come? But I am determined to pen down my stories, I will write. Maybe I just need some time; maybe I just need some inspiration to get me going.
On second thoughts, why wait for inspiration? No, it will be better if I go looking for it. I am going out now; yes, fresh morning air, albeit cold, will do me good. I should get my jacket and head out for a morning walk.
I look around my room – it is dark, even though it is 7:09 am, as the digital watch on my study table depicts in glowing blood-red electronic numbers. Must be foggy outside…and now I open the window beside the table. Yes, it is foggy – I can barely make out the shape of the coconut tree about 20 metres away! I stand at the window; the birds are there perched on the electric wires and poles above the road chirruping. A group of sparrows are on the ground, fighting over a piece of bread. It is cold, I grip the horizontal iron bars; they are cold as ice. A sudden masochistic desire arises and I tighten my grip. Slowly the freezing sensation in my palms gives way to pain. I release my grip and smell my palms. Ah! This smell – the smell of rust – somehow I have always loved it. And now the cold air tickles my nose (or is it the dust from the rusty bars?). An uneasy feeling, the tinkling gets more severe. I am going to sneeze; here it comes: ‘Aachoo!’ I sneeze into my sleeve. For some reason, the room feels colder now after the sneeze. I close the window and smell my palm again. The smell of rust…ah! It has some nostalgic vibe I can’t clearly comprehend.
I look around my room… but can’t remember what I wanted to do. And now…and now a thought crawls its way back into my mind – a name, a girl, a story. It has started to possess me and I have no option but to succumb to its mercy…
A puddle of water on a kachcha road and three boys are squatted around it. It is monsoon in a remote village in West Bengal. Kalabon – Black Forest – that is the collective name by which this and the neighbouring five villages are known to the world. The name is a misnomer for certainly the forests aren’t dense enough to be black during the day. The time is July; somewhere in the mid 1990’s. No need for the exact year – though I am pretty sure it is 1995 – for Kalabon has been left untouched by time since the early 80’s when some gourment (government) people built a primary school to encourage the families to send their children to school. Before this, the handful of children who did go to school had to walk five kilometres every morning to the nearest town of Soumpur. And about the primary school – it has remained closed for the last 5 years and its veranda serves as a refuge for children, cows and sometimes dogs caught in a sudden shower. There is no electricity, newspapers published in the city of Vikrampur 80 kilometres away patiently wait for a day to arrive; the nearest hospital is a small government clinic, again in Soumpur. Roads lack black asphalt here, like many other remote villages in the country. The playground is still in use though – the smaller children play kabaddi, tag, hide and seek and the bigger boys play cricket and football.
But now three boys are squatted around the puddle that has collected on the road over the two days. The rain has decided to take a break today and the sun is out. The boys, all between five and seven, comprehend the epic struggle for survival going on in the shallow muddy waters.
‘Tadpoles. These are tadpoles I tell you. Baby frogs – I saw them last year too!’ said the tallest of the three boys. He was the only one with a shirt on – a plain shirt which previously had probably been navy blue but now looked more brownish because of the dirt.
‘They look like fish to me. I know frogs, frogs never look like that. And just look – so many of them! What are they trying to do?’ said a second one. He wore black shorts.
The sun was out and the sky was perfectly blue. The humidity exaggerated the heat and the boys were sweating generously. Beneath their eyes they looked on as imperceptibly the puddle got smaller. It was near the side of the narrow cart road which had paddy fields on both sides. Paddy fields with rice planted in neat rows and with standing water, six inches deep. Tadpoles wriggled in the shallow puddle – some of them were already dead because of the heat.
For thirty minutes the kids watched the puddle – they watched it halve in size, more dead tadpoles surfaced and finally it got too boring for the kid with the shirt.
Splash! He threw a piece of stone into the puddle. The other boys jumped up in a start.
‘Hey! Why did you do that? Now I have dirt in my eye.’ said the third kid rubbing his right eye. He was the smallest in size and had grey shorts.
‘Look!’ said the kid in the shirt. And they watched – two crushed tadpoles lay dead at the edge of the puddle. A solitary drop of blood flowed into the puddle, leaving a red trail behind. The water was still agitated and they watched the blood mix into the orange-brown colour of the muddied water.
The boy with the grey shorts started searching for a stick while the other two began throwing more flints into the puddle. Splash! Splash! Splash! The smallest one found a stick and began poking at the dead tadpoles. He turned the bodies over and twisted and poked at them, investigating their morphology.
At this moment a mechanical sound in the distance got their attention. Here, in the middle of paddy fields, they listened attentively – a low pitched buzz getting closer by the second, the increase in its pitch complementing the increase in loudness.
‘Car!’ shouted the boy with the black shorts, pointing out at where the road vanished into the woods. The boys watched as a white Ambassador appeared from where paddy fields gave way to the forest. As it got closer, they ran towards it along the side of the road. The car staggered towards them on the rough mud road; the boys stopped for a moment as it overtook them and continued towards the village, and then they began running after the Ambassador shouting in joy. As the car went over the puddle, it splashed some of the water onto the paddy field to its left – killing half of the tadpoles and saving the rest. And that is how a white Ambassador played God on a sunny monsoon day. Within the car there were four people – the driver, a nurse, a mother and her new-born daughter.
‘Look at her Ria! Such a princess you got there!’ the nurse said looking at the baby. The girl was asleep in her mother’s lap. Her skin was dark brown; so was the colour of her hair and this made it difficult to distinguish hair from scalp. She slept peacefully – her small chest rising and falling, it would seem, in harmony with the bumps on the road. Her mother had a dejected look on her face. Completely worn out by the events of the past week, she stared out of the window towards the horizon where the paddy fields met the forests. And now the smell of wet mud, along with the heat and humidity, the bumpy ride, the eternal vibration of the engine – all this made her sick. She handed over the baby to the nurse and vomited through the window. The children continued chasing the car even though they were falling behind. The village wasn’t that far away now and evidently the vehicle was headed for it. The prospects of witnessing a car in close up and (who knows?) maybe even touching it was too intriguing.
There is a knocking at my door; I am hurled back into the real world and my thoughts run away – they are afraid of reality. I look at my hands; smell them – yes, remnants of the rusty smell are still there. The clock states it is 7:34 am, I realise I have just spent another thirty minutes thinking. When lost in the labyrinths of my thoughts as I often am, I need a wake up call. This time, it is the knocking. I go ahead and open the door, inwardly thanking the person at the door and inadvertently hoping that I don’t have to engage in a long conversation.
‘Hey!’ says he.
He is Sagnik. Sagnik Roy, my classmate. Happy as I am that it’s not a stranger, I cannot help but feel disappointed.
‘What’s up bro?’ I ask.
‘You tell me man. Where have you been these days? Haven’t decided to drop out of college have you?’
I chuckle. ‘Ha-ha…no man, that’s not it. I just haven’t been well lately. Got a cold for the last 4-5 days.’
‘What? Let me check.’ He places his palm on my forehead. Instinctively I close my eyes; his hand is cold; almost as cold as the rusty iron bars of the window I had held. ‘Man! You are burning! Have you seen a doctor?’
‘Ha-ha…Naa bhai (No bro), your hand is freezing!’ I chuckle. I always find this irritating. People thinking they can tell if someone has a cold just by feeling their forehead. Why not use a thermometer? Surely a cold hand would find even a normal forehead warm while a very warm palm would find the same cool.
‘Of course it’s cold. Anyways, when are you coming back to college?’ he says. Is that sarcasm I find in his voice or am I just too irritated?
‘Yeah, I will go on Tuesday, the day after tomorrow.’
‘What about tomorrow?’ His question irritates me. I try to reason with myself – he is a good friend; look, he cares about you. But I can’t help it; I reply in irritation.
‘Man, I am busy! Have lots of work tomorrow bhai!’ Lies, all lies. But I would do anything to end this conversation.
‘Okay, I guess. Just see a doctor man – you still got fever.’
Fools! Why does he still care? Leave me alone! I never care about him or anyone else. Why do they have to come here and ask questions? It’s my wish whether I go to college; I will go when I like! I try to keep a calm face and believe I rather manage to do that well. I don’t think he understands much of what is going on in my mind; though I am sure he can understand that I am irritated.
‘Bye man’, he continues, ‘See you on Tuesday!’ He turns towards the front gate. Should I ask him to come in and have a cup of tea? That’s the proper social convention isn’t it? I hesitate and by this time he is at the gate, I quickly go after him. Feeling a little sorry for my awkward behaviour, I call out to him.
‘What are you doing here this early in the morning anyway?’
‘I was just visiting my aunt, she is ill.’, he says opening the gate. “Her house is beside the street, near the bank there.’ He is out on the street now; the fog is till there, though visibility has improved considerably.
‘Oh I see. What happened to her?’
‘Stone; in the gall bladder. She has her operation next month; they will take her to Kolkata.’
‘I see. Okay.’ I should say something here. Shouldn’t I? Something to console him perhaps? But he doesn’t look too sad. It’s not too serious probably. I ponder over these thoughts while in the meantime he is walking away – there he is waving goodbye. I wave back at him and return to my room, remembering to close the gate behind me. This is one of the things all the tenants get reminded to do by Mrs. Banerjee.
‘The gate is always open! How many times have I told them to shut the gate after they enter or leave? But no, they never listen. These are dangerous times; just last month there was a theft in broad daylight in Dr. Bikash’s house just up the street. But no, they don’t listen… Mashi (literally aunt), you forgot this corner! Here look, there is still dirt. Is this how you clean your own house mashi?’
And so went her monologues while she instructed the 65 year old maid in sweeping the floors.