The Mimicking Girl

A small yellow river flows though the flat landscape. I stand on the riverbank, watching the seemingly unending flow of the fluid. I look ahead onto the other side of the stream; as far as I can see it’s a desolate place – just red-orange mud everywhere, orange-red mud which bears patches having a bit more than a tinge of yellow; scattered shrubs and a few trees (which I can almost count with my fingers) providing the necessary elements to exempt it from being considered a barren wasteland. This singular sight extends as far as my eyes permit me to see.

But wait, maybe I have spoken in haste. There are trees out there in the horizon; nay an entire forest! Ah the horizon! Why is it always the horizon that people look to? Why is it that the horizon always feels more beautiful than your immediate vicinity? Is it is because the horizon is always out of our reach? Because by its very definition it runs away from us try to get closer to it? But wait again…the stuff that horizons are made of – aren’t they still there? Suppose I cross the river and start walking in that direction towards the forest; won’t the trees still be waiting for me? Yes they will! So what was all that about horizons? What ludicrous blabber? And so knowingly I start another one of my inaudible monologues…until it is cut short. Someone speaks behind me.

‘How much money do you have now didi? I want to go home! I don’t like it here.’ a high pitched voice says, undoubtedly some kid.

I look back, expecting to see a small girl and her elder sibling. To my surprise, it turns out to be a small boy. But of course it is a kid; I can’t help but forgive myself for this error – after all girls and boys generally sound the same when they are kids.

I look down at the two figures. The boy is three and a half feet tall. He wears a black vest, discoloured and muddied to the point where it looks pale dark-blue. He has black shorts on; they look relatively newer but I am not sure whether my judgement is correct or it is his astonishingly shabby vest which forces me to think like that.

The girl seems to be around twelve. She is much taller; the boy barely reaches her breasts which protrude as small lumps against her frock. The frock is yellowish, but I am sure it was white once upon a time. It is muddied too but this still comes nowhere close to the boy’s clothes. Her frock bears some red floral design on the borders and on its seams.

And now, something catches my eye – I look behind the two children and there it is – in a place which I assumed to be far from civilization, there it is – hundreds of dilapidated tenements sprawling all over the place and behind these tall structures that look like chimneys; black smoke rising from two of them – brick kilns! And now the girl speaks in a voice which I am sure I would have mistaken for a grown woman’s, had I not seen her already.

‘Not much bhai. Not enough for starting a life in Kolkata at any cost. Tumpa’s mom says it takes a lot of money to go there, 25 rupees by train! I only have 50. And then things are more costly there. I have to work some months more man; and then let’s see what happens.’

The coarse texture of her voice, the loudness in her words, her thin outline, their dirty clothes…they work at the brick kiln no doubt…but there is something confusing here that I cannot fully understand. Wait, they are looking directly ahead at me! But my presence doesn’t seem to trouble them in the least. Well, why would the presence of a twenty year old man trouble them anyway? Hmm, maybe indifference is the more suitable word here – they seem not to take any notice of me. In most other situations I guess I would find that pleasing. But there is something about them which makes me want to get their attention. No, I do not know them; but with my ridiculously sensitive ears I can hear courage and bravery in their voice; and more realistically I can feel fear – fear of the future.

But before I try to analyse anything more, I now see them walking – they are walking towards me. I keep standing stubbornly where I am but they don’t seem to try to walk around me. Wait…what is this?! The slum children just walked through me! How is this even possible?! I try to call out to them, but can’t, I try to shout, to yell; but nothing comes out of my throat – I am literally speechless! Ah, what is all this sorcery? Where am I??

‘And besides,’ the girl continues as if answering my question, ‘I know cities are not as beautiful as Laalmati here. It is cool and beautiful here isn’t it? Just look at the river!’

Laalmati, literally meaning red mud, falls within Vikrampur subdivision but is really ten kilometres away from the edge of the city. It’s a desolate place, known for (and named after) its reddish, clayey mud which, though unfit for crops, is perfect for pottery and bricks. Owing to this, there are a lot of brick kilns here. I have only been here once as a kid though I do not recall the reason.

I look on as the two siblings approach the river. I try one more time to call out to them but in vain; for some reason I am rendered dumb. I get the hint, ‘It’s the time to remain passive in the course of things Abdul. Just watch, listen and let take fate take its course’.

And I watch…the two children stand by the bank for more than a moment. They stay silent for some time and then the boy takes a few steps back, follows it up with a short run-up and jumps into the river. The girl giggles…the boy laughs. This is real joy; I can hear it in their laughter, feel it in the air when they chuckle. And now the girl calmly gets into the water too, though her entry isn’t anywhere near as dramatic as her brother’s.

For sometime, I watch the kids as they splashed, giggled and swore at each other. Sometime, but how long? What is the time? And to go ahead and add to that, what is the date?

‘What is the date didi?’ the boy asks my question, splashing some water onto his sister.

‘Why, you kutta (dog)!’ she laughs but goes on without waiting for a reply, ‘It’s the 15th today. 15th of May! Ha-ha…wait you kutta!’ and she sends a splash of water back at the boy who has just done the same to her again. She starts swimming after the boy, who is now on the run, or more correctly on the swim.

But the date sends a chill down my spine, a sense of déjà vu, and I am rendered immovable now. 15th of May…I know the date, I know it well. I have been lost in my thoughts (nay possessed) about this day before. Though I haven’t heard it from them and do not have any evidence to prove it either, I know it is 2002. It’s that tragic day in the life of the Goddess…

And here it comes; I should have expected it – a bag, a satchel. A black satchel floats passively in the water, almost on the edge of the river, near the other bank. And along with the calm water it translates ahead towards us from the right. No, it doesn’t swirl for the river is calm and doesn’t have eddies in it. It solemnly flows towards us, propelled by the water.

The twelve year old sees it first. ‘Bhai look!’ she yells out. The boy halts his getaway from the chasing sister, looks back at her and his sight follows her extended index finger to the satchel.

‘Wait, let me get it’ he says and starts swimming towards the other back. He gets there with quite sometime in hand and awaits the arrival of the black bag. ‘What do you think is in it didi?’ he asks.

‘I have no idea.’ replies the girl in the frock ‘But bring it over here!’

Inevitably the satchel arrives. The boy takes it, but he swims over to the other side. ‘Hey! Bring it here you dog!’ she yells. ‘Wait!’ he shouts, opening the bag himself ‘First promise you won’t hit me!’

‘Okay! Okay!’ she shouts at him.

But he has already opened the satchel now and, as it seems from here, is exploring its contents. ‘Didi! There is another small bag in it! Looks like purse!’ the kid shouts. He takes a few steps back; and another run-up now, and he throws the satchel with all his strength. It flies through the air, its straps floating behind like a set of wings. Poor kid, it doesn’t reach the other side, but nonetheless it falls pretty close to where his sister is in the water. Not a bad throw by any means, considering his size.

‘Come over!’ yells the sister. The boy obliges and quickly swims back.

They are both on the red ground at some height above the coarse river ghat. But I am still immobile and from where I am standing, I can only see their backs as they both squat around the bag. Relying on my immaculate sense of hearing, I try to make out what is going on.

I hear the sound of a zipper opening…and then, the crisp rustling of some plastic packaging and the boy exclaims: ‘Biscuits didi!’ Another zipper opens now, but this one is much shorter than the first one – I can hear it in the high pitch of the squeak it makes. And now, metallic tinkle of coins; coins…these must be coins. Ah, I KNOW it is coins! And now the adolescent girl speaks: ‘Wait, what is this…Oh my! Look Salman – money! Aare there must me at least 200 Rupees here apart form the coins man!’

I await the boy’s reply, Salman…I know his name now. Intriguing how the mere knowledge can make people feel more connected with a person. Well, at least I can feel this is the case with me right now. Salman – two syllables, six letters. What’s in a name? Well, I do not know the answer but certainly it has transformed the boy from being just another face in the suffocating crowd of anonymity into the unambiguous possessor of a name.

Anyways, I await Salman’s reply, expecting to see some expression of unadulterated childish joy in this lucky discovery of biscuits and money. But wait, where is Salman? Where is his sister? Where is the river, the orange-red coloured ground of Laalmati and the tall brick kilns and the slums comprising their undergrowth? Suddenly these images, these shapes fade away, distorting into something which closely resembles the smoke from the kilns. And then these ghostly fumes fade into nothingness.

But no, once again I have spoken too soon. For now the fumes re-emerge something is materialising out of the momentary nothingness surrounding me. Shapes, colours, silhouettes, heat – these elements take form! And slowly, as if toying with my patience, the fumes rearrange themselves… and they give rise to a city. I have started to comprehend as the surroundings still take form, perfecting the last bits of their creation.

A small bridge across a river in Vikrampur. The river is the same one that passes through Laalmati a little further down its course – Konika Nodi­, that’s the name by which it is known to the people, Konika River. A man walks on the bridge along the almost invisible sidewalk, covered in dull yellow dust and sprinkled with paper, candy wrappers and polythene bags. He wears long grey trousers, old, dull and dirty. He has a red gamcha – a red towel, loosely coiled around his neck. I have been here before; more specifically, I have been here on this day before. It is around 1 pm. And it is dusty and hot…very hot.

The man is Shubhankar Das, Devi’s father; a daily wage labourer. He is back on his way to work at the construction site of the new town hall after having his lunch at the local dhaba. A black satchel hangs from his right shoulder.

‘Ha-ha, just ask anyone! We make the best puri’s in Vikrampur young man.’ the owner of the dhaba had said today to a new customer – a teenager who was saying he does not like the look of the puri’s.

‘The man is right kaka (literally uncle).’ Shubhankar said chuckling, ‘Their puri’s are first class! I never go anywhere else for my lunch.’ And then he produced from his trousers a small torn brown bag, and from it an equally dilapidated 5 rupee note.

‘Well said Shubhankar.’ said the owner, taking the money, ‘So you are going home today right?’ The owner was seated on a wooden chair, smoking pleasantly. He wore a white vest and a checkered blue-green Lungi. He looked around fifty, about 15 years more than Shubhankars real age.

‘Yes dada.’ Shubhankar said with a smile, ‘I have managed to save around 300. Going home after over a month here in the city. Oh and that reminds me, give me two packets of those biscuits I bought the last time. Devi loved those.’

Eei Hori! Give him two packets of those biscuits, those green ones.’ the owner called out to one of his assistants. Starting out as a dhaba, their shop had steadily grown in popularity over the years, thanks to their delicious puri-torkari (bread and curry) and they now sold candies, biscuits, soft drinks and other snacks. The owner hands Shubhankar two green packets – ‘Parley 50-50’ it reads on them. Shubhankar took his black satchel from the table between him and the owner and put the biscuits in it. He then took out his purse again, handed over a 10 rupee note and put the purse in the satchel.

‘Bye! We will meet when I return.’ Shubhankar said with a smile.

‘Of course.’ assured the owner, dragging in another mouthful of cigarette smoke and exhaling it with pleasure…

But now here on the bridge, Shubhankar is walking back to work along the sidewalk. And I know what is going to happen, but cannot bring myself to look away. An young girl stands in his way. With her thin limbs, brown hair and a bulged tummy she stands and stares into Shubhankar’s eyes. Her stretched thin hand sticks out of her torso like those of a snowman. There is a fire in her eyes, fuelled by determination and perhaps Shubhankar sees it too. ‘Give me money now!’ her eyes scream at him. Yet these ostensibly violent elements in the starving girl is contrasted by her dilapidated clothes which seem to be holding together for dear life; by her face which bears the familiar innocence of childhood and by none less than what she does herself – miming desperately to tell him that she wants food, making no secret of her vulnerability. And so she mimes, her stretched out right hand transforms into a fist of rice, the tips of the finger touching each other; and she puts the rice in her mouth…only the rice is not there. And so she mimes, her hand then reaching to her neck, her gestures saying to him that she can’t speak, that she is dumb.

And it happens again – Shubhankar stops, moved (possessed?) by the urchin. In her she sees image of her girl, the Goddess. He stops and now everything happens quickly. Shubhankar saying ‘Wait, my girl’ and reaching into his satchel for money, and she calming down, the muted mimicry of her own situation stopping as she waits for whatever her to-be benefactor would provide; the fire in her gaze somewhat extinguished by his friendly and reassuring voice. And so Shubhankar stopped…a fatal choice.

The sound of a fast approaching overloaded truck, and instinctively he looks behind him, but it is too late. The sound of brakes screeching; but not enough space now and it hits him and drags him on for 30 feet before coming to a halt. His satchel is thrown onto the river over the low railings as the truck hits him. A violent but silent death; no exclamation of horror or pain is heard from Shubhankar; just a soft thud, almost polite, a screech of brakes and then the confused silence of death. Ah no, that’s not true. For milliseconds before the impact, was not that a scream I heard by the bhikari meye (beggar girl) as she jumped out of the way? And here is she now; crying, sobbing audibly as she gets up, her stick limbs shaking like twigs in a windy day. She wasn’t dumb after all…or maybe more melodramatically she regained her voice through the tragic death of her never-to-be benefactor. And now slowly the confusion gives way to the cacophony of rage – people running and shouting, cars coming to a halt, pedestrians rushing to the truck, people shouting ‘Someone call an ambulance!’ and ‘Does anyone have a mobile?’ and ‘Get that driver! He is running away! Hey stop you motherfucker!’ And the truck driver getting down and making a run for his life, shouting ‘It wasn’t my fault! I lost control trying to avoid a bike! Please understand!’ By the end of that day, he would be in the Vikrampur hospital with a fractured hand and skull. Shubhankar’s mutilated body lay stuck under the front right of the truck, a red trail of blood leading to it from the spot where he was hit. And among all these the girl, the one who mimed; she slipped away from all the cacophony, in search of food from someone else. But all these details are nothing new to me; I have been here, seen it all before.

And yet again, now these images, the anonymous faces of people, the immobile truck with the body of the Goddess’s father beneath it, the markets, dust, concrete buildings, the summer heat, the smell…all these again dematerialise into fumes and diffuse away.

Wait, what is this I hear? In this pandemonium resulting from a fatal car crash, what is that noise blaring across the hot and blue May sky? Slowly it is getting louder and I realise it is not a dissonance – far from it. A way more structured and disciplined sound – Music! And I recognise it, the tintinnabulation of a small bell, the rhythmic drumming of a bongo and the very soft sound of a violin – or maybe more likely and instrument that sounds like a violin – I hear this familiar tone, the ringtone of my mobile! Reality calls me through music. And I realise I am dreaming; have been dreaming.

I open my eyes, there is the phone ringing. But it is too cold and I am very tired. And I am feverish – I can feel it in the pain at the joints, the sore throat, the running nose – rendered useless for breathing, and the involuntary shaking of my body…and it feels cold, ice cold. Yes, the weather is indeed cold but surely not enough to warrant this response from me. The sun had just set; the last remnants of twilight dimly light the blue walls of my room, giving them a ridiculous tinge of orange (is that really orange?). Still under the warm comfort of the blankets, I take a look at the clock, straining hard to see in this light – 5:30 pm, it reads.

I have no strength to get up and pick up my phone…or maybe it’s my excuse for being lazy. I am sure I wouldn’t have picked it up even if I had been well. Lucky I have a genuine excuse this time to gratify my own conscience. I lie awake shivering in bed, savouring the last bits of the ringtone. ‘Sunset’ – that is what it’s named, I remember. Too tired to think, I decide to try to fall asleep again.

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A Late Visit to an Old Friend

The cranky sound of the rusty gate,
Proclaimed that I might have been too late;
In paying my visit to an old mate.
I wavered ahead to the front door;
Where the rusty lock that the house wore,
Stated that the occupants lived there no more.
I turned around, and might have thought my memory
Had tricked me in making a mistake;
But the sight of the distant blue lake,
Made it clear that none such was made.
With a heavy heart, I commenced to walk away;
When the lone sound of a crushed leaf,
(For there were many on the lawn astray)
Made me pause a moment; and look beneath,
And reflect upon my latest grief.

Pearls of shame

An old mango tree behind a mud house. A narrow road, dark-brown in colour, runs beneath the tree. And a name echoes in the damp air of the afternoon sun – Devi, meaning ‘Goddess’ in Bengali. A woman – Rittika Dey, the mother in the white Ambassador, is walking alone on the road. She wears an untidy yellow sari. Her thin figure with its perfectly black curly locks stops in the shade under the mango tree and yells out: ‘Devi!’ A pause now, and her pulse beats twice. ‘Devi?!’ Another pause, half as long as the previous one. ‘Eei Devi!’ Her voice reaches a crescendo on the second syllable.

Standing under the mango tree, she looks around her – towards a pond down the road, a hundred yards away, subject to the imperfections of my ability to estimate distance. She has already been there a little while earlier today. Her black eyes narrow into two thin lines as she investigates the people bathing on the bank. She sees three figures – two elderly women and a girl. The sight of the girl makes her a little restless. The girl’s torso is more or less visible but her face is hidden behind one of the old women. With equal anticipation and irritation she gets on her toes; she moves her head, first to the right and then to the left to get a better view of the girl. This does not help. She contemplates heading to the pond herself but now the old woman blocking her view does a favour and gets into the green water. The girl reveals herself – she is squatting on a stone in the ghat, talking with the other old woman. Seeing her short hair and light brown skin, Rittika recognises Tuni – Rajat Datta’s daughter.

The calm wind suddenly picks up, sending an unexpected chill through her body and a loud rustle through the leaves of the mango tree. She takes the aachal of her sari and wipes sweat off her face. For the last two hours or so, she has been searching for Devi, her six year old daughter.

As usual Devi had gone out to play with her friends in the neighbourhood after breakfast. But today she was not back before midday for her bath. One pm and she was still not back. Rittika – Ria to everyone in the village – then set out in search of her. She went to the playground, but didn’t find Devi or any of her friends. A visit to Shonali’s house, one of Devi’s closest friends, revealed that Devi had not been to the playground today. The search for her daughter had taken Ria to the brook on the outskirts of Kalabon where Devi sometimes went with her friends and the mango garden (there was a possibility Devi had gone to steal mangoes) in the neighbouring village of Kashbagan. All her inquiries gave no insights as to the whereabouts of the six year old. When she came back home around 3 pm, she had genuinely hoped to find Devi. She was wrong. And now here she is, standing in the shade of the mango tree behind their mud house, still searching for her daughter.

‘Where did that girl go? Just wait till I get my hands on her! She spends the whole day outside. No more of that from now on!’ she thinks. But she can feel her heart pounding rapidly in her chest. Though she doesn’t express it, there is a fear in her mind; a fear even she does not fully understand.

She looks back into the other direction of the road. The bright green paddy waves in harmony with the wind. And now she sees a figure emerging from where the road disappears behind the bamboo bushes. A girl, with a yellow shirt and dull green frock, her skin is the dark-brown of the wet soil of paddy fields; her perfectly black hair is messed up – Devi! Ria watches as the girl slowly walks back home. She doesn’t call out to her. Devi doesn’t notice her mother; with a bowed head and slow steps she enters her home through their non-existent gate.

‘Where have you been? I have been looking for you for the last two hours! Where have you been all day huh?’ demands Ria as she enters into their hut through the light blue coloured door. She is equally relieved and angry but the relief does not show in her words. Devi has her back turned to the door; she is sitting on the clay-coated floor. She does not reply.

‘And what is this you have got on your clothes? Oh maa! You’ve got mud all over your body. Hey, tell me! Where have you been?’ Ria demands with heightened agitation as she walks up in front to get a look of the girl’s face. She sees Devi looking down at fairly large cut in her left ankle while squeezing some marigold leaves with her hands.

‘How did you cut it?’ her voice is a little softer now. Devi applies the crushed marigold leaves to the cut; a home remedy for cuts and bruises in this corner of the world. Still getting no reply from the girl she resumes her agitated blaring with even more ferocity, ‘Hey! Answer me! Look!’

Ria grips her hand tightly and gives a sudden jerk. To her surprise, Devi looks up at her and starts crying. Her cheeks, nose and most of her forehead is covered in partially dried mud. She has a few bruises on her cheeks and a small cut on her chin. A tomboy, Devi regularly gets scolded by her mom for causing mischief, sometimes even getting beaten. ‘If you were a boy, I think I would have killed you by now’, Ria used to joke with her. Devi rarely cried; and when she did it was because of the physical pain of being slapped or her hair being pulled or both. But right now, her mother did neither and the cut on her ankle and the bruises on her face don’t seem painful enough to make her cry. But here she is, weeping noiselessly. Two thick streams of tears emerge from her eyes and flowed down through her cheek, clearing away the dirt in their way; leaving (or so it seems to me) two mud-paths on her cheek, of the same dark-brown colour as the mud-road that went beneath the mango-tree behind their house.

Her mother’s agitation gives way to confusion and then motherly sympathy. ‘Devi, what happened?’ she asks, wiping away the tears from the girl’s eyes. And now more tears and this time it is accompanied by audible sobs. ‘Got a beating by someone; have you? Any of the big girls hit you?’ Devi shakes her head and now there are more tears and louder sobs. ‘Hey, don’t worry.’ she presses her wet muddied face to her chest, ‘Come, we’ll go to the pond. It is so late! I haven’t bathed too…have been searching you for the last two hours!’

And now, the yellow afternoon gives way to the blood-red twilight. Devi’s tearful visage, Ria’s serious look – all these fade and instead the unceremonious sight of Ria squatting out on their courtyard, attending to their cow and its 3 month old calf emerges. The day is the same, I know it. Having finished milking their orange Desi cow, it is now the calf’s turn to drink what was rightfully his. She picks up the red plastic bucket containing the collected milk. She frowns – the desi’s yield is getting less each day. Walking back to the kitchen with the bucket in hand, she has a passing thought about her husband Shubhankar.

‘I’ll be back in two weeks’, he had promised as he head out in search of work to Vikrampur three days ago. As she passes by the door of their hut, she peeps inside. Devi is lying awake on her bed. She had fallen asleep after her late lunch and has been sleeping for over two hours. Seeing her awake Ria speaks.

‘Good thing that you are awake. Get up and sweep the floor, then do the Puja. I’m preparing your milk. And I don’t want to hear any complains. The way it’s going, the cow is going to stop giving milk in a few days anyway.’

Devi did not make any movement and kept on staring at the ceiling.

‘Oh! And another thing’ Ria says as she slips out of her, ‘Where did you find this slipper? The right slipper isn’t yours. This one is much bigger than our left one. How did you exchange it?’

Devi replies to an entirely different question ‘I told you, I went to pluck mangoes from the garden with the bigger girls.’

Ria does not reply. She enters the kitchen and gets absorbed in her work. Devi slowly gets up, and takes the broom to do as she was told. Had anyone been there, they would have found a few liquid pearls running through her cheek as she wept again in silence.

Clang!

Sound of the front gate being closed with unnecessary aggression. A gate shuts close here, while the sonorous sound of the act opens the doors of reality in my mind. Ah irony – thou art a genius! The iron latch of the steel gate still oscillates while its tintinnabulation, a hangover of the initial metallic clang, gets fainter and fainter. I can hear it – my ears are sensitive to sounds, especially metallic ones.

Someone has just entered the apartment. Not knowing who it is, I keep my ears open. The sound of boots emerges from the concrete floor of the corridor outside. I think I can recognise the feet. Tap-tap-tap – three loud, quick taps enter my ears, each tap coming from a height slightly greater than the proceeding one. And now, a solitary stomp and it resumes again: tap-tap-tap. Manik Datta – Bubai to everyone; I recognise the 17 year old boy, in his final year of school who lives on the first floor. That is his trademark – a rebellious closing of the gate and six taps and a stomp on the landing to climb the two flights of stairs to the first floor. And with it he, wakes me up from my thoughts. And as I always do after waking into the real world, I look at my clock. The two thick black hands lie almost in a straight horizontal line, the larger of the two pointing at 9 and the smaller one at 3; while the second hand is perfectly vertical for the moment, pointing at the golden 12 in the white background. Ah, the beautiful symmetry of it all! I can’t help but feel a twinge of joy; while waiting for this temporary symmetry to end. The second seems to take longer than usual, but I am smarter than that.

Click! Eventually the second hand moves, while the minute hand shakes just that little bit (or is it my imagination?). And now I realise it is 2:45 pm. I get up and sit on my bed, wrapping the blanket more tightly around me. Ah, it is so cold today! Maybe I find it more so because of the fever. Contradicting my own ideals, I feel my forehead. ‘Oh my! You are burning Abdul.’ my consciousness says to itself, ‘Definitely no shower today!’ I lie down again and reposition my white pillow; pulling the blanket over me to cover my head and try to fall asleep.

Ah denial! I seem to have been tying as to act as if nothing has happened. Oh spell ill out! Don’t lie to yourself! Devi – that girl, nay THE GIRL – I was possessed by her all this while. Who is she? Is she for real? I would like to play psychiatrist and ask questions to myself had it not been for the fact that I did the same innumerable times before. Also, I am exhausted now and falling asleep promises to be comforting.

A cold winter morning

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.

 

Knock! Knock!

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.

Meeting a Street Urchin

On an orange summer afternoon I met you;

Then a stranger to the city, I was, when you found me

Among all the scrambling silhouettes you beheld.

Naysayers might call it luck, but certainly

I am not optimistic enough to call it fate.

I was intoxicated on other’s dreams,

While you were one getting acquainted with regret.

At the city square, where eternally the hypnotised fret,

I inadvertently pretended to be different;

And pity, you were desperate enough to believe

That for you this deranged soul was meant.

With those glittering black eyes you enchanted me,

Your young skinny hand reached out,

Covered in dust, it was yellow; glowing bright

In the red swan-song of the fading daylight.

I was compelled to stop; possessed by your sight

I waited, for I was certain you would speak.

But no innocent voice emerged from thin bruised lips;

No begging for help; food or alms you did not seek.

Your silence blared among the bedlam around us.

You stood beside me and your hand – the magic wand

Though dilapidated, did still manage to possess.

Alas, I was hesitant in my response, kept observing you

For what was, quite evidently, too long a time.

And then the moment was gone; you withdrew.

Some other hypnotised being passed us by,

Perhaps for you, she ostensibly had a less unsure gait.

And off running you went behind her;

As I watched you follow yet another bait.

Anonymous Bystander

July 2nd, 2015