A step backward

Carl Miller, sixty-eight, remained on his bed, his ankle resting on the other foot and   touching the floor, in anguish, looking into the Central Park that overlooks his seventy-seventh floor duplex on Billionaire’s Row. From here, through the imposing glass which extends over a dozen feet across its elevation, the Hudson, in the morning mist, looks like an anchor rode. This view had cost him over seventy-eight million dollars, and the shadow his Pied-a-terre casts over the Central Park now appears cheap and atrocious.

They call Miller the ad-guru of the west, juggling words and music that brought opulence to ‘Mesmerising’ and affluence with prosperity into his life. Some thirty years back  he joined ‘Mesmerising’, an obscure, nameless identity and never thought of leaving it. For him it always been rubbing his life the wrong way. When he graduated in mathematics, he never thought of  joining a business school. Luckily or unfortunately as you may call, after passing from Wharton, he foolishly,as others would say,  followed his favourite Frost, joining ‘Mesmerising’ instead of an FMCG house. His batchmates looked at him up and down in a calumnious way,  afraid of  Miller weakening their career prospects, very unusal of a Whartonite. At the beginning he shrugged off others’ perceptions but with time  he lost his grit and interest to surf over and over the pinnacles of  the billion dollar world. Some said he belonged to a shiftless lot you always find in B-grade business schools but never in Wharton. Others were skeptical of this, pointing their fingers at the charming copywriter sitting two rooms away from Miller at Mesmerising. What ever it may be only Miller knew the truth behind his shyness, his longing for painting, writing and aesthetics.

Miller looked into the Manhattan below,sitting quiet and the sun rising on the Hudson. He didn’t time it how long he sat there. The sun rising slowly piercing the Manhattan skyline will soon stream into him. He heard Caryn open the door behind. She is thirty-six,  an  African  American jewish, black. Caryn, a high school drop out  raised by her single mother  started working at Miller’s production  house long before  Miller had bought Mesmerising, slowly and steadily rising from the ground up.

‘ Mister Miller.’, she said in an imposing but tending voice, pressing the electric switch and collapsing the curtains, ‘You need some coffee. And get yourself a shave and a bath.’

‘ Guests will soon be over phone’

‘I know’, Miller replied in a feeble tone.

But Miller still waited, he didn’t know for whom, sitting at the edge of his bed, while the coffee got cold.

Miller and his wife Laura couldn’t recall when Caryn came closer to the family and became a part of  it. Miller still remembered  little Caryn with a smiling  but cautious face, hardly fourteen, holding her mother’s hand brought into the studio for an advertisement photoshoot.

‘Mister Miller, you still didn’t…… Your coffee getting cold. Wait till  I heat it for you.’

‘Did you brush?’ Caryn continued.

After an hour when Miller was ready calling his office, it was ten in the morning. Laura still asleep blearily, drained for the last seven days. Miller looked at his wife, gentle and peaceful as if she had pressed the erase button in her head. But he knew that her halcyon days were gone for ever.

‘Smith’, he called the vice-president, ‘ Charles is dead. At four in the morning.’ And then unspeaking he felt mute, being carefully noticed  every turn of it by Caryn. As he clumsily dropped  into the sofa looking overdrawn, Caryn took the phone from him, keeping her right hand over Miller’s shoulder, in empathy .

‘This is Caryn, Sah.’ She continued,

‘Yes Sah. You heard him right Sah. Mister Miller’s son expired this morning’, Caryn spoke in an exceedingly low voice into the speaker.

‘No Sah. Mrs Miller till asleep. I didn’t bother her Sah. They returned from NYP about five in the morning.’

‘Wait I’m coming’, replied Smith.

‘No Sah. You can’t Sah. We  all three in self quarantine Sah.’

‘Oh !’

‘I will ring you after half hour Sah. They won’t hand over the body Sah. I will let you know if they allow guests at the burial.’ said Caryn cautiously hanging the phone.

 

The virus was wreaking havoc in New York, over fifty thousand dead and still counting, hardly a hundred had  recovered. When Charles, Miller’s son returned from the university he was already running high fever. At thirty six, just the age of Caryn, he ran a high risk suffering from diabetes. He was dead in six days. A six feet two,tall even by american standards, who played volleyball with his students, looking young and who easily could find a friend amongst his undergraduates, lay dead at NYP fighting Corona virus.

Caryn saw ‘ma’ get up. Laura never objected to Caryn calling her ‘ma’, redolent of  Caryn’s fourteen- year face, still not arraigned by the interwining intricacies of  adult cerebration. Mama was talking rubbish, uncharted logic bringing forth inadequate, imperfect sentences. Caryn had never seen mama talk like this before.

‘Calm down mama. Calm down.’, said Caryn her hands comforting Laura. But no word could heal her. At noon the telephone rang, Liz, Charles’ wife was too devastated to reveal. She too has been found positive for the virus.

After the sun disappeared  below the north west horizon, the bareness of the air consumed Miller. Laura lay in the other room emptied and sedated. There was no sound of  television emanating from the living room. Half  the lights have been switched off  by Caryn who stood by the glass, the silhouette made by the skyscapers which looks fanciful and mesmerising now appeared annihilated. Miller lay on his bed, his eyes watching the twelve-foot high ceiling, but his body flinched and his lips curled in disdain.

What was he doing at Mesmerising ? Thoughts like these now started flooding Miller, benumbing him and impeding his genius. Suddenly his first day at Mesmerising acquired him. Yet not married, exuberant, he worked hard relentlessly, obstructing every deceit in his intransigent way. Climbing the ladder hard was no easy task for him. Politics, shrewdness besieged him but the incursions failed to pin him down. He slowly acquired the character of  an irreproachable man. He never had the appetite or the courage to be a Atwater.

As Miller mellowed he drifted, meandering over the crescendo he had made for himself. Too busy he didn’t even perceive that he had reached the crest of  advertising world, but the irreproachable man had nonchalantly stepped into a world of deceit, chicanery and subterfuge. A world he started with great candor has rested its feet in bait-and-switch. The fraudulent world quickly brought fame and invulnerability but a vulnerable world of  bribes,larceny and misappropriation had taken its toll by then, in an obscure sphere of the ‘guru’. As he silently languished tangled under his own creativity of  misleading claims,puffery and manipulation, his only son had drawn himself away from him.

‘Dad, you are just cheating yourself,’ that Charles had once said, suddenly came back upon him.

‘Mister Miller,’ he heard Caryn call her as if whispering.

‘You remember Mister Hall sah. A school friend of yours. That retired school teacher, you had often described him as a simple, honest man. You remember him sah ? You met him at the last school reunion.’

‘Why don’t you inform him sah, about Charles.’

Miller, even today believes Caryn to be a God sent creature. Miller didn’t call Hall that night but he had made up his mind what to do. Instead, he called his batch-mate at Wharton, dean at the business school and said that he wanted to pledge some sixty million to set up a chair that will teach us values : to be a simple, honest human being who can bear an elementary life with the bare essentials.

 

 

The Unbelievable Belief

I would’nt have believed a word of it, if I didn’t have the chance for a cross-check. Lies travel faster than the wind and the stilted ones, faster than the spirit. It’s a kind of vetting I was in search of, prior to putting it in words after I first came to know of it from a twenty-three year intern at the state run medical college at Pathankot.

It all began with Dr Vivian Mukerji  a  half Anglo-Indian by birth, only twenty- nine, too encumbered  by  the incredulous weight of her books, standing calm and frozen by the window. Her gaze though discreet,  bound nothing along its beaten path and  it only disclosed  her befuddlement without  assent.  She could care little for herself  and look forward  to a happily  married life.  Reflections of  her home in Calcutta, now tormented  by her parents in disagreement, bring  little hope to look  eastward. This window, her only fancy,  will soon be occupied by the newcomers  at the medical college dormitory  in Jaipur.

Vivian, I don’t know why , miffed and riled, may be by some inherent forestalling had deterred her age from catching her up, looks  younger. But a close inquiry into the creases  along  her  temples   reveal  the pain and agony that kept  vexing her since  childhood.  Her placid eyes divulge little but beneath the lasting  glistening tear, which never had  rolled,  lies a different world of love and hatred.  She, still unable to decide where to head after her postgraduate training that ends next week, had sought permission to stay at the dorm for an extended fortnight. But this deferment, she believes, may bring more misery to her than the much needed contentment.

The notice in the newspaper  read  “Wanted a general duty residential medical officer  at Missionary Hospital, Palampur, H.P 176061. Salary will not be a bar for the right candidate.”  It  was brief. For  Vivian, it seemed  too pithy, missing even a proper postal address. She read it for a second time,  only to find  a landline telephone number that seemed  too outdated to be tried.

When the train dropped Vivian  at Pathankot it was  noon. In the December sun that hung right over her head, she felt comfortable in a full sleeves  woolen. The very  feeling of  coldness of  night deterred her. She wondered how bitter  it must be, for Palampur  lay another  three hours up the hill on road.

The bus reached the railway rest house at about half past three in the evening. The missionary hospital stood right behind the railway campus, surrounded by the woods. Father Doyle, an Irishman in his mid seventies, and  a surgeon himself, had asked Dr Vivek Agnihotri  to pick up Vivian. When the bus conductor asked the passengers to leave their seats, Vivian could easily recognise the doctor waiting for her.

“Come my child, come. Take your seat. Just a minute. Dr Mukerji ? Vivian?  I’m Dr Doyle. Sit, sit”, the smiling  large face swiftly spoke without  pause, somewhat panting. Then he  took to his chair wiping his dripping forehead with a piece of embroidered handkerchief that looked funnily smaller than what the enormous face needed .

“My B.P, you know, It always troubles me,” uttered  Doyle, looking above the thin golden frame as he pressed the bell  below his writing desk. Vivek  kept waiting by the bookshelf, without a word,  which  Doyle  had kept in his room blocking another door leading to the library.

“ Oh. Sit my son, sit ,sit” Doyle asked Vivek, a little embarrassed at not having set his eyes on  him so long.

Vivian noticed how ignorantly  this old delicate creature repeats  his words. She had earlier met fathers from the church, her mother used to take her to on Sundays. Then in a christian school it was a common sight. But a father, a doctor himself,  with a face so resolute, was new to her. She couldn’t shift her focus off the gentle affectionate man, still sweating in the December cold. A pleasant quiet voice, such tenderly he spoke, that even an ardent listener would often put  his hand cuffed behind his ear, his eyes expectantly   reaching  Doyle’s lips to synchronise the words he uttered. And when a few days  would  pass, one  quietly gets familiar to  Doyle’s inadvertant whisperings  in baritone.

The matron in-charge accompanied Vivian to the first floor of the doctors’  hostel.  The flat occupied two-rooms,  a kitchen and a balcony overlooking  the Himalayas, standing tall, now washed by the cerise of the setting sun, only a hand’s breadth away. The moutain is so steep here  that it strains your neck. Vivian stood there awed. When  Miriam, the matron,  bid good-bye, Vivian lay on her bed drained enough for the rest of the day.

At about  nine in the evening  Vivian heard Dr Seema Sharma knock. The supper at the dining hall reminded Vivian of the training days she has left behind at Jaipur and it won’t be difficult for her to tailor herself, she thought. There were about twenty souls  in the middle of their dinner and getting to know each other was no hard task.

This missionary hospital is a hundred bedded three storied structure which  had  about a dozen doctors under its belt. There were only two wards, one for the surgical cases and the other for the medical ones. Each ward housed in two large rooms accommodated about thirty patients each for the male and the female. A very long corridor lit dimly  by the incandescents,  with  rooms binding on one side,  seized a greater part of the floor. There the  patients ambled down in the evenings . In each floor a  doctors’ room stood inbetween the expanse meant for  male and female sufferers.  And through a small glass window,  the doctor watched the  patients on either side, pass their time in horridness waiting to be discharged.  The nurses shared their space with the medics. But the little room at the end of the ward, stuffy and overflowing,  doubled as a gossip room for the nurses and the ward boys. This room had little to ventilate its body, but it matterd little when a mouthfull of slander would endanger a young sister’s dome threatening to spill. This room smelled heavily of a concoction of benzene, chloroform and antibiotics and as soon as its door was held ajar, the ward would bury itself under an impending  cloud of odour neither pungent nor sweet.

Dr. Doyle, who suffered from insomnia, as everyone believed,  reached  at nine for his rounds. After the visit was over, the smell of coffee emanating from the amenity center at the rear  of the hospital would allure everyone.  A very large round table occupied the center of this coffee shop, and a few odd narrow  counters mounted on the wall, brought coziness and warmth to all. Doyle had made it a point to open this shop for the doctors, and the patients alike. Even the stray dogs would sit  muted beside the staff.  But at the corner of the room  hung a display ‘For doctors only’,   quietly insulating  about eight chairs and silently drawing a line that  patients knew well.

 

For Vivian, fresh out of a large hospital, the work here was not much of an affliction to her. She always kept a ‘kindle’ in the locker, her only way of communicating with the outer world. New places of work,in some ways or the other,  detracts sufficient part of ones rambling thoughts, and that brought  Vivian closer to the woods beneath the towering mountains,cherishing them. Here the air seemed  lighter and smelled only of wild flowers barring the heavy tar that the vehicles spewed in  Jaipur. One Sunday morning while her feet delicately trod the cobble stones that landscaped the garden,  she heard Dr Sharma call her.

“Good morning,’, she said with a smile, Vivek joining  her from behind. At six in the morning, the sun still not up, the cold had started pestering  Vivian  to return to her room. The enormous  mountain that faced her, now looked dull.

“Good morning,” replied  Vivian, “Its  too cold here.”

“Would you two mind a cup of tea with me?  I have an electric kettle.” she added.  After the three had reached her room, the place no more felt  desolate.

 

During the first six months  the hours moved  effectively.  Days that began in ward rounds with Doyle, followed  a spell with celerity at the out-patient-department,  finally  ending  in a quiet dinner with Vivek. The kindle and the coffee shop freed her inbetween.  But empty apprehensions and uncharted thoughts kept  troubling  her. Her distress did not escape Doyle, a keen observer who noticed  how disquiet her mind was. But he was the last man to put his remarks about  someone else’s world. Whenever  he found  Vivian in his room, he would  ask her to look at the little ceramic  of Jesus that stood beside Doyle’s pen stand, for compassion.  But Vivian had never emptied her thoughts about her childhood. Only she didn’t know,  how pensive and sorrowfull her eyes looked  when they wandered faraway.

As the days passed, time lost its momentum, and eased its pace. Seema often would accompany Vivian to the bazaar a furlong away both carelessly watching the shops.  Vivek rarely visited her residence wary of others’ thoughts. But after work he would call Vivian over the intercom, restless to know how she had passed her day.

One Friday after about eleven in the morning  a clerk from the office  asked  Vivian  to meet Dr Doyle.  This was the first time Doyle had sent someone to call her.

“My child, would you mind working tonight at the casualty?” Doyle enquired hesitantly. “ This year- end almost everyone is on leave and its hard to manage the roster,” he continued,” I belive you will relieve Dr Agnihotri who will be in his afternoon shift.”

“Yes  father, I will.”

“ You are all right I believe ?” asked a skeptical  Doyle,  as he looked at the ceramic that lay on his table.

“Yes, I do Sir.”

The casualty stood at the end of the corridor on the  ground floor facing the garden. It bore a large room  with two beds,  a doctors’ ante-room and a medical store. The nights often passed lean though cautious of its highway that ran right across the boundary wall obliterating the garden. Vivian went to sleep by twelve at night, feeling dizzy after all the hard work that morning, in the ante-room. This act of sleeping, though sounds uncomfortable, is a routine affair  and how quick these doctors  are in responding to the bell sounded by the sisters in crisis, is worth imitating.

“Hello doctor. Doctor Vivian I believe.” Spoke the sister-in charge over phone from the surgical ward. Vivian could easily recognise her voice.

“Yes, What is it? You need me upstairs”

“ Oh. Its all the same. That poor,old cancer lady  at 31.”

“Ok. Don’t mind. I will be in a minute.”

In the second floor, just by the side of the stairs is a small room for two patients in isolation. Beds 31 and 32 are not that easily noticed unless one peeps into the room.

“May I come in?”, enquired  Vivian, knocking the door, not willing to disturb the nurse in the middle of the night.  The room, poorly lit, with half the incandescent bulbs put off at night appeared sultry. At thrity one, the old lady in her terminal stage of carcioma breast sat, thinly covered with a white sheet. She waived at Vivian and spoke with an obfuscated voice.

“Doctor you know, I have a cancer and my chemo is done.Would you please mind treating the burn on my leg with a graft you had suggested earlier. It’s an old burn,” she moved the sheet on her leg and  continued in a drowsy voice. “You know, I cant walk.”

Vivian knew well that it was not her who recommended the skin graft. Watching the frail body  gather  so much desire to be alive, she felt pity for this old lady. She  thought what an hour to ask a doctor in the middle of  night such unworthy a  question.  But the doctors are used to it.

“Don’t worry. I will take care of it,” she continued.

“I will look into it for sure tomorrow morning,” nodded Vivian, knowing well that the lady was not worthy of the surgery  with her metastising tumor ramifying fast. Vivian left the unused gloves, ready to return to her room, with all the sleep that is gone for now.

The next day it rained heavily clearing the sky for the belt of Orion to look abnormally bright. Vivian  having finished her dinner, too cold and reluctant  to follow the Orion from the naked ground, stood at the vernadah beside the dining hall, protected in a thick woolen she had bought from Shillong. She then returned to the casualty for the second night that Doyle had requested her with humility.

It was a bitter  January and burrying under a heap of blankets  was the only reasonable comfort nature could bring. At the ‘Emergency’ Vivian kept quiet, not uttering even a word, reluctant to lose an inch of warmth she had gathered from the room heater that lay near the footstool, keeping her legs crossed, afraid of scalding her feet. The empty verandah behind  the closed doors looked stress free. Most of the switches having been put off by midnight, darkness buried  all the  incandescence that emerged from a few bulbs already covered with dust and smoke. Chilled wind found its way through the slits between the doors and windows bringing  discomfort faster than the hours that elapsed. This missionary hospital now over a hundred years old had withstood the earthquake of 1905 that left behind  a trail of destruction at Palampur. The ceilings that rose too high and  the windows,  twice the size of the modern ones, proved to be a hindrance in modernising the building. There was no way to have air pockets that would work as insulators. Doyle was strongly opposed to renovate the concrete into a thin walled avant-garde of steel and glass.  After midnight, the chill advanced faster, bringing shivers and headache. Too cold to sit, Vivian walked into the veradah to check  where from the cold wind came. The next  day she would request Doyle to cover up the  grills with a thick sheet of tarpaulin to deter the chill that only brought despair. It was too cold outside. In the narrowness of the verandah, nothing  to prevent the air from being turbulent , sound resonated  into  eerie noises that brought fear into the weak hearts. Nurses were too afraid to go out into the icy obscurity, fearing spirits that roamed the cemetry on the rear portion of the church at Palampur. Vivian walked slowly, inhaling the cold air that swiftly brought a pungent smell from the wild flowers. Then rather suddenly, catching her unawares and cutting short her thoughts,the old lady appeared  in the bat of an eye at the end of the corridor  where an intense feeling of coldness  popped up from nowhere, freezing everything it found along  its path. For a moment in utter coldness, contracted with fear very unusual for her, she stood stiff.

“Oh my god!” she said, scared and in a feeling of  sheer worriness.

“I am so sorry,” said the lady.

“ I didn’t want to scare you. I just came to remind you for my skin. You remember that doctor?  Its all that I need for the graft. Won’t you gift me some skin for the burn? ” she murmured, looking away from Vivian and her eyes transfixed on her own shadow.

“ I will do it for you, I told you once.Don’t worry,” replied Vivian, a little annoyed but in a voice she could hardly hear.

Still trembling and unable to hold back her displeasure she spoke again, “Who permitted you to come downstairs? Did you ask the sisters  for that?”

But the lady seemed to have little patience on her and was reluctant to be attentive.

At last she replied hesitantly in a very low and thin voice, still staring at the other direction watching her shadow, “No madam, they are fast asleep.”

“Then I must accompany  you and find out the truth.”

At this the lady, her eyes still focused away from Vivian, into the darkness of the verandah, left quickly leaving her shadow behind. The shadow trailed the woman too slowly, as  if it was not hers and  Vivian now motionless and daunted looking at a distance in the faintness of the  dark corridor wondered how fast a fragile lady could walk. She had never felt so distraught before. The coldness of the wind, the intense freeze,the odor  from  wild flowers and the turbulent air followed her and then suddenly disappeared as quickly  as the old lady had left. Vivian stood astounded, unable to fathom the weird happening  but  not much eager to find it out, may be out of sheer fright and a sense of edginess slowly creeping into her, returned to the anteroom and fell asleep.

Days passed quickly for both Vivian and Vivek. Nature, for a reason best known to it, bequests  good and happy days to frisk itself and have wings. Dr Doyle too felt happy as he loved both of them but never expressed his thoughts.  Doyle looked the same as before, repeating small words unknowingly and wiping the sweat over his platform. Then another day arrived when Dr Doyle requested Vivian to perform a  third night’s duty.

 

On Friday, Vivian had her night to perform, but this time it was in her ward. At about half past eleven Vivek, as seldom  as one gets to see, arrived with a smile, carrying a thermos on him.

“I thought I should bring you some coffee for the night”, he said.

“Oh thank you,” replied Vivian, the color quickly rising on her face.

“Won’t you share some with me?” she asked, but Vivek refused, afraid of losing his sleep.

They sat quietly for sometime,  Vivian carrying her notings on the bed head ticket  as Vivek looked over her head thinking how beautiful she looked in that stance.

Vivian broke the silence.

Looking straight into Vivek she asked, “Is Doyle all alone?”

“It’s a sad story  I believe. His wife died young, when his daughter was hardly eight years of age. She had a background of cancer in her family,”  Vivek continued,

“After  his daughter left  school, she felt sick. I believe she must have been around eighteen then. She started feeling feverish every alternate day and  it sadly came out to be leukaemia. She didn’t survive long.“

“Doyle still says that he often hears  his daughter cry in pain.”

Vivian had never heard of this before. And finding no word redundant, undecided, she silently rose from her chair.

“How old would she have been now?”.

The nurse, who stood near the shelf, readying a syringe, replied, “Had she been  now, she would reach  your age madam.”

The air in the room stood still while the night turned colder.

“Would you mind putting on the room-heater,” she asked the sister.

The clock stood at half past midnight and when Vivek was about to leave, the room suddenly froze in a vacuum  of cold air. Vivek changed his mind and  took to the chair. There was an intense odor of chloroform and benzene, emerging from the other end of the room. Vivian knew where it came from. Someone must have opened the storeroom, she thought. Then rising from her chair in repulsion and moving the chair aside she was ready to reach the store when  Vivek abruptly held her hand.

“Wait, don’t go, you won’t be able to open the store. The door now  is  glued to its frame.”

Vivian, failing to grasp what was happening, turned towards the sister. The sister stood calm, wedged  with the syringe still in her grip, not much willing to fill it up, appeared immobile  rigidly fixed to the shelf. As the strong smell of the blend  moved over the beds, it became increasingly  pungent and aggressive. Abruptly it  stopped near the shelves where the sister stood, distorting her face into a gurn. Vivek looked at the clock, hanging over  the wall. The second hand had stopped by then. It stood stiff  for about ten seconds and then  started moving again. The pungent air moved quickly away from the shelf as quickly as the second hand had started moving away from the minute arm.

“What happened?” Vivian asked, rising from her captivity not fully appreciating the appalling situation.

Not paying attention to what Vivian said, Vivek enquired ,“On Wednesday night  why did you go to the ward for thirty-one? “

“Why shouldn’t  I? The sister rang me up”. Vivian’s face looked deadpan.

“Are you sure it was a phone call?”

“Yes.”

As the three of them sat, now keenly  looking at each, unable to fathom what did go wrong that day and who made the call.

“She is dead for over a year now.” Vivek explained.

“Who ?”,  “The old lady at 31?”

“Yes.”

“How did you know I went to the ward?”

“The sister told me. She saw you leaving the locked room.”

“Locked?”

“Yes.

“Who locked it?”

“ it’s locked since the lady died.” Vivek replied

Vivian lay thawed over the chair. The night at the verandah beside the casualty and the shadow trudging behind came into her mind. Things were making sense now.  The air felt breathable.  The sister having finished with the injection now took to her seat, the pelvis away from the backrest of the chair, the legs stretched and crossed , dozing.

“Was it the old lady this time?” it suddenly came out of Vivian’s mouth without an impediment.

“No. It was Dominique, the stretcher bearer.”

“Lets get out of this place”, said Vivek, but  he wanted to mean something larger than that. It didn’t reach Vivian. The whole country was under lockdown for the pandemic.  Nowhere to go she thought.

The last time I had been to Palampur for a trip, I enquired about Vivek and Vivian. They are married now.

Dr. Doyle who unlawfully  practiced euthanesia on the terminally ill cancer sufferers, had died. His body lay in dust, forgotten, in the cemetry behind the church at Palampur. Since then  no one turned into the store room at odd hours of the day and or anyone asking for a piece of integument.

 

 

 

 

The brewing of wit

Not many from the present generation have noticed the decrepit  foot long pillars bordering the narrow pavement around the seven-storied plaza. These battered pillars still  bear the cries and whispers of the  forgotten bazaar on which this new mall now stands. These colonnades, many as old as hundred years, carry on  them anecdotes on visits from  Ray and  Basu and even a  gentleman forgotten and  left far behind, William Makepeace Thackeray, the British novelist. But this story is not that gray. It is about a man who was young  some fifty years ago. Shops those days, no more than half a middle-class bedroom, all laid across  one floor, happily led a spartan life. The bigger ones, only a few of them, lit up the façade.  But I never found anyone complaining for that. It was not  uncommon to find a buying infuse over a little social gossip finally ending with a free cup of tea from the shopkeeper. These candid gestures, rarely with absonances continued over babbles as diverse as current political affairs to the making of Mona Lisa . Those were the lazy days before the celphones and internet arrived, turning markets into malls and plazas. The shabby shops now raised, no more  genuflection is to be seen and that hot cup of tea has evaporated for ever.

Now where this  huge concrete stands, on its basement  was a  little shop selling  leaf  tea. There was tea for everyone, for the commonman, the middle-class with a distinct nose for the Darjeeling and the rich self proclaimed  connoisseur,  who cared only the price. The shopkeeper was a short man, a mere human who loved running his life on the maxims he had learned on his grandmother’s lap. . I still remember  him as a gentleman, soft but swift in his dealings who climbed up the wooden ladder with a long-handle spoon, scooping  tea-leaf from the large plywood boxes stacked one above the other. He was a loved one and always had an ear for other shopkeepers in times of need. A disciplined man as punctual as the Big-Ben, he would  open his workroom right at eight in the morning. Cleaning the shelves and then the wooden boxes he would continue with the photograph of goddess kali  kept immaculately  at the corner of his desk. After the prayers had been heard, he was ready with the newspaper, reading ,with an eye  for the first customer.

On Sundays  customers would join the tea-man, starting conversation about  anything   that came up before  them, idling away the morning in search of nothing.  And when an aristocrat  buyer would arrive,  the tea-man was ready to abort his obligations and bringing forth all his incantations  climb the ladder to the highest point, coming down with the little ladle full of  excuisite variety of  Darjeeling tea, filling the room with an aroma which even the queen may never have dreamt of. The distinctive smell pierced the Sunday air, travelling leisurely  from one shop to the other  like in a fairy tale, finally losing its relevance in the fish bazaar.

Before I get into my story, I feel it will not be irrelevant to speak a few words about the tea trade in India. Darjeeling in Bengal and parts of Assam are the two main producers of tea  in India where  auctioning   is mostly done in tea gardens and its adjacent areas. Another bulk of the stuff shipped to  major cities like Calcutta are sold to the small retailers. The best of the tea comes  in  ‘first and second flushes’  in the month of March- April whereafter the leaf loses its flavour, aroma and colour substansively. For the rest of the year the buyer savours an appreciably low quality of the purchase. No one gets annoyed by  that, but complains from customers keep growing till the arrival of the first flush next March. The tea-seller obviously being bothered regularly is so accustomed  with this unhapiness  that to protect himself  he keeps his answers rolled below his tongue, ready to be delivered in nick of time. The tea-man  I am talking of, was a real wily and cunning fellow and I liked  the way he handled  his customers. But  for those who had certain  liking for good tea,  suffered  most. The lanky,  retired  professor of Medicine, a  teetotaler, was one such customer of his.

On one such Sunday morning, the doctor frisking his displeasure called the tea-man by his last name and said, “ Chatterjee, the other day I had the tea, is just a sheer bunch of tasteless leaves.”

The tea-seller was quick to respond,  “ I’m sorry doc. But  did you keep the leaf in an air-tight box ? You know,  how much the air destroyes the leaves, it blows away all the aroma it has.”

The doctor curtly replied,  “Yes. Yes, I did it for sure. I packed it in the box myself.”

“ Ok! Don’t worry,  I will give you a better tea from another garden in Darj.”, answered the tea-man.

The doctor then  left happily feeling confident of  a better  flavour  he hoped to cherish. After about another fifteen days  had passed, the doctor returned  only to find a friend of his, a lawyer , waiting for the tea-man to respond. The lawyer  was making the same unhappiness heard in his own way.

The Lawyer raising his voice a little in sheer disgust said,  “ Chatterjee,  this time its just horrible. It seemed like I was drinking a cup of boiled old newspaper. No color, no smell, nothing.”

The tea-seller finding an opportunity quickly came to his relief and said,  “ Oh! I’am awfully sorry sir. Just bring in the old leaf, I will change it for you. But did you get filtered water ?” He then paused a little and continued, “ Or was it  the rubbish that comes through the corporation pipes ? A good tea always needs good water, you know.”  Then draining all that he had in his facial muscles and  moving his hands to and fro in every direction, making his hands speak,  mumbled  a tune like a passerine, “water is to good brewing as blood is to man. A blood is to man as water is to brewing……..”  .And he went up the ladder.

The lawyer, now a little cornered  coughed  clearing his throat and  uttered,  “ May be, I will check it with my wife. She  actually does the tea making. I will ask her and let you know.” and he left.

Another fortnight had passed and the cold breeze of November had begun its journey. There was no sight of a leaf with a subtle aroma and a  golden colour that will delight the doctor. The abatement continued and as more and more days passed, the brew turned pungent. The doctor now  with ample time at his disposal, starts experimenting with tea leaves for a distinctive smell and a lingering  taste on the buds. Often he dispenses less tea for each cup, sometimes he increases it, frequently  he changes the brewing time, occasionally he boils the water less. His obsession only upsets  his wife. But  the doctor never hesitates and continues  his experiments scrupulously.  Alas, there is not a sight of good odour or the transparent golden hue that reveals  the bottom of the porcelain. By December  when  the doctor had exhausted  all his imaginations  he decides to visit the tea-seller and teach him a lesson. Complains kept flying outside the tea shop  but impatience  never surfaced. Blows are never exchanged and voices never raised as  gossips and tittle-tattles continue over free cups of tea. The lawyer too joined that turning Sunday morning together  with a life-insurance agent and a retired school teacher, all the good-hearted   customers the tea-seller had.  All loudly proclaiming at the same time,  “Bravo doctor, bravo. What a googly.”

When the doctor arrived, the tea-man  had just completed his rituals. Now unfolding the newspaper he  pressed and rolled his hands on it, making  it straight and readable,  passed it to the doctor. As the doctor took his seat, he too rolled the paper,  but this time it was  his cigarette, then pinched the ends making the tobacco compact itself.  Then he  lit it and  gave a drag of satisfaction.

“ Chatterjee” letting the smoke get out of his mouth, the doctor said gently , “You know, all that I can tell you, the flavour seems to have gone for ever.”

The lawyer  seizing the last words from the doctor added, “ The last good flavour I remember was sometime in October.”

The teacher now having comfortably seated on the bench continued, “ I don’t think its October.” (Pausing he continued)  “May be end September.”

The tea-seller now finding himself in a rather uncomforable footing ,  started by saying, ”I believe you people drain all the water after you clean………”

The doctor now interrupting the tea-man and  raising his hand with a skeptically humorous smile said, “  Hold back my friend, hold it. I will tell you what I did.”

The doctor had  lifted himself  from the stool by then,  and  with  the immaculate posture he had always  tamed his naughty backbenchers in college, started by saying, “ I will tell you what I did.” He then continued,  “ Last week I bought a five- litre  stainless steel container and filled it up with distilled water. Mind that. Its not cheap and its abolutely free of all impurities.”

The tea-man,  a bit nervous now,  not finding any clue to what is in store for him, murmured, “ What for ? For brewing only a cup of tea?”

The doctor continued, “ Wait man wait, have patience. In the boiling distilled water I put my teapot to boil. After  it was  clean, I drained all the water from  it and put it to dry for half- hour, covering it carefully  with a  dry-cleaned piece of cloth.”

The tea-man finding nothing to say; murmured,  “ Then ?”

Others  waited in silence as the lecture advanced, the doctor savouring his  baritone from his  good old college days,  continued by saying,  “ After the teapot had dried,  I made it warm with a hair drier. Then with a  digital scale I had borrowed from a pathology- friend,  measured exactly five grams of tea-leaf and put it in the teapot ,  still warm, and closed  the lid.”

The listners by now had started delicately moving themselves  in verge of losing  their patience.  But the doctor continued, “  I took out my stop watch and put a measured thirty ml of water to boil for precisely five  minutes and then poured it in the teapot, covering it instantaneously with a woolen tea cosy specially made by my sister-in-law for the purpose. I started my stopwatch again and started brewing.”

The tea-seller who so far was listening intently without a bat of an eye, suddenly found himself at the end of the rope.  Having no more words rolled below his tongue to take refuge,  he swiftly took to his seat with a sigh. But he smiled a tiny arc and  kept it  lingering at the corner of his mouth. Understanding well that he has lost the game but still with honour, he accepted the defeat. The doctor by now  having exhausted himself  with all the drama he had in him, took to his seat and rolled another cigarette. The tea –seller asked his customers to wait, took out the cheapest  leaf-tea he had  and put it to brew.” Let the buyers taste the bitterness and ugliness of the worst CTC tea on earth and  then will they appreciate the flavour of a good Darjeeling.”, he told to himself  as the tea kept brewing. But nothing of the sort  was in wait to happen.

Athena the  Greek goddess was keeping a close watch on the drama the wity doctor was unfolding  as a tit for tat, for the tea-man. Suddenly,  to everone’s  utter surprise,  a captivating delicate aroma  from the finest of  Darjeeling leaves  started to  emerge from the kettle.

‘Hurray.Hurray’ jumped the insurance  man  in sheer joy,  while the tea-man, transfixed  with his jaws open in awe kept watching the fume come out of the kettle.

The lawyer  wondered  what a beautiful act in celluloid it would have been with Mickey Rooney as the tea-man and Spencer Tracy as the doctor.

The Wait

Dharma  lives in the hearts of public men; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no amendment, can save it” –  Nani Palkhivala

 

 

Fatima, deserted, stood poised on a mound looking as far as where the skyline had dropped into an evaporating spirit. It was two in the  afternoon in August, but the sun kept hanging on her head, dehydrating nerves and straining them into pieces. She could guess the fence around the refugee camp at Kutapalong, appearing faintly greyish and crooked in the distance. Another three kilometers to go and there might be food for her, she kept telling herself. But the belief refused to go with her hope. She looked behind her, still standing on the mound like an ugly shepherdess, a vast nothingness lay across the barren fields, a week she had taken to cross on foot and sometimes in a four-wheel drive in lieu of ugly hands tormenting her and pestering Gayatri’s daughter Usha.

The military came on the twenty-fifth, half past three in the morning, when all were asleep in their makeshift tents, raising a savagely fierce alarm and destroying everything they found before them. They came in groups of fifty, lifting their guns and asking men to queue up. Then they poured kerosene on tarpaulins and set them ablaze. The fools who protested, were made to stand apart, praising their courage the military released them only to be shot from behind after they had fled into the forest a kilometer ahead. The other men, they carried them in trucks down the meadows, their hands tied behind. They made these inocents work hard for a week and took  time to shoot, calling them snakes and insects belonging to nowhere, only meant to be raped and killed. The beautiful meadow quickly turned an abattoir. There were about thirty families where Fatima lived and about twenty odd villages in a distance of around thirty kilometers, all were put to flame by the military. Fatima still could see those images settled like a moraine in her mind, unfazed.

The sweltering heat pushed Fatima out of the hillock with no trees in sight and little hope left in her thoughts. The one month old child, lay frozen in her lap, too weak to protest the unbearable heat. The mother by now has thinned out to her bone, looking a kwashiorkor. She had tried to breast feed the child but had too little water in her to form the milk. The last time she could feed her was in the car when its owner had put his hand in between her thighs in exchange of a few sips of  lemonade and a dozen of  biscuits. With the other hand holding Usha, she drove past desolated settlements put to flames, bordering the beautiful valley.

“Let’s go”, she said. But Usha, now ruined, overwhelmed with shock and grief stood rigid in unresponsive stupor. Fatima tried again. She knew that the sun will give up soon, but unable to move Usha she gave it up. They stood there quietly, quiet like a catacomb, with nothing left in the mind and within. When their destiny had brought them to their knees, Usha could stand no more. Her abdomen was hurting, not until Usha could move her finger at it, too tired to speak. Fatima saw Usha’s  skirt turn red.

Another three kilometers to go, she mumbled, forgetting Usha only thirteen now, clutching her in fear. She too has to bear the uncomfortable heat in the travel. Fatima had nothing left to lean back in her frenzied thoughts, only the painful sight of two soldiers raping Usha, beneath the open sky  appeared in flashes. A week back after all the men had been taken away in truckloads, a colonel came in an army Land Rover asking his men to force open the barricade the girls had formed holding their hands, in fear. They hit them with the butt and jostled with each other to get the best they could from the lot. The air reverberated with ugly shrills and cries but none bothered. Happy with their catch they turned abusive, only those who had old women left for them thumped their boots in disgust. Fatima held Gayatri’s hand in one and Usha’s in the other, the child lay on the ground. But little they knew what was in store for them. They pulled Gayatri hard and laid her down on the silage and twelve of them took turns to enjoy her corporeal cage devoid of soul. Her face, defaced by now with utter pain and disdain, she tried to flee but unable she lay on her back to be shot by a military man as young as her younger brother, out of sheer fun and heroism. After that, one of them sang the military anthem and then they disbursed. After the group had left and about half – hour later Fatima’s legs started hurting. Usha now silenced seeing her mother raped and shot, lay on the ground with her eyes fixed, when another group of fifty arrived.

The military made the women stand in queue and after dragging their objects of desire, another six of them took turn to rape Fatima beneath the moon.  Usha, too sick to move and listlessly lying like a dead, was luckily left out. Fatima by now was no more afraid of  abuse and the thoughts of foreseeable death after ravishes emerged,  making her motionless with shock. About fifty of them were molested and raped and when suddenly the colonel’s phone rang they left hurriedly, forgetting to shoot the girls behind them.

 

 

*********************************************************

 

The refugee camp was now easily seen and cold wind blew from the river that looked like a silver streak beneath the last fuming rays of sun. Fatima never imagined Raf could look so thin and silvery. She could see another fifty like her crossing the river, the water knee deep, and the sun made beautiful shapes on the body of Raf. The men too kept moving, having separated from the women.

And then there was a sudden loud burst of noise and the rattling of bullets hit Fatima’s ears. They were shooting the men from behind and those who turned back to see where from the sound had come, were shot in their vital organs. On the other side of the river stood a new country, waiting for them, raising hope like a smoke gone astray for Fatima.

From a distance the makeshift blue tarpaulin huts in rows looked like beautiful little railway bogies that covered the hills of India. But they were only ugly shelters in knee deep mud where swarms of flies made sounds of reckless honey-bees. There was no space left for Fatima and someone from behind hissed in her ears of a new refugee camp to be ready by a week.

The man who hissed asked Fatima to go with him a kilometer on the west and he had a bottle of drinking water on him and a half bitten guava peeping out of his dirty lungi. But the rape on Usha suddenly flashed and it made her forcibly release her hand the man had held so tightly.

The doctor from ‘Docteur Sans Frontiers’ spoke little English. She was instructing in French and her eyes struck Fatima’s, standing on the other side of the fence. “Come in, come in through the gates” she said in French, waving her hand and directing her fingers toward the gate, a furlong away. Fatima then found a blue tarpaulin sharing with ten others only to hear their stories from the horrid full moon lit valley they had left behind.

The next day they gathered by the side of Raf  when a body washed up by the foamy brown tides of  Bay of Bengal, appeared. As if they haven’t seen a dead man, they stood like curious onlookers joined by Fatima. It gave the image of  a crazy window shopping. Suddenly the sight of  Chameli’s newborn  kicked into fire like a football re-emerged like a horrifying nightmare. She then bent down, and now the dead man out of sight, she started vomiting. After the bout had stopped, her stomach felt empty and the thought that her other friends who were either dead by now or starving, made her mind keen for her child. She rushed for her tarpaulin. There she saw the doctor standing with onlookers bent on Usha who lay flaccid and unconscious, her legs apart and froth dribbling from the corner of her mouth. She lay dead, her heavily strained body bitten by a weak heart.  Her left hand rested on her chest, clutching forcibly a piece of dirty paper her village school teacher had given her. The doctor tried to pull it out but it tore.

The doctor still holding the paper in her hand thought, how hope exists differently in different hands and she put her caring hand in Fatima’s. And while they stood silent, Fatima stared at a distant, her view unmarked and undecorated, with a refusal. The sun still made very special designs on Raf’s body, separating  two nations, separating life and death.

 

 

The Miss

Jill Barnett is eighteen. Her father Jim is attached to the British Services and has his tenure at the embassy in Nepal. Jill though had a part of her childhood in England but she was often seen with her father at Kathmandu. Her mother died young when Jill was only seven. Since then it was punishing for the father to stay without his daughter. When Jill’s mother died, Jim slipped into depression for a year. His employer brought him back to England but his mind lay in the snow capped mountains of Himalayas and the lush green tea estates of eastern Nepal. His love for trekking in the Alpine forests of the mountain drove him closer to the Himalayan range. His yearning for the mountain earned him the nickname ‘Hillary’ from the Nepalese working in the embassy. Unable to bear the stress after his wife’s demise, he got his daughter admitted in an English school at Kathmandu and the father daughter duo managed to heal the bruise in their hearts. When Jill turned eighteen, it was her father’s second turn to slip into depression. There were no good colleges those days in Nepal and the daughter had made up her mind to become an architect.

Even in sadness when Jim was determined to send Jill to Liverpool for her studies, a friend of his from the French embassy suggested Calcutta in India. In the seventies Calcutta had a few technical institutions of repute, the city appeared cosmopolitan and safe too. What gave Jim the final push was that Calcutta was nearer to Kathmandu, much nearer than Liverpool and it would be easier for him to visit his daughter. Jim had no second thoughts and he got his daughter admitted to the Jadavpur University. The event was smooth through diplomatic channel but none knew what was in store for them.

While Jim returned to his office at Kathmandu, one Jack White, a fair skinned good- natured fellow from the Anglo-Indian mixed race community hailing from Bangalore, previously from the Bengal Nagpur Railway community in Calcutta, entered the Mechanical Engineering course in the same university.

Jack met Jill one Monday afternoon while waiting in the queue, depositing the course fee. Earlier Jack had been to the missionary school at Darjeeling and his grooming was so tuned to the English culture that at first sight it was difficult for Jill to take him to be a non-English.

“Hello”, said Jack

“Hi !” came the prompt from Jill.

And later, they never could recall the moment when the ‘first sight’ from heaven alighted upon them.

I myself, happened to be from the English department of the same institution, far away from the humdrums of Phi, Kappa and gamma, but still we three became friends. I don’t know what prompted us to do so. We started the journey at the university canteen called Amenity Center. Then we shifted our stance to the long stairs of the History building where after two in the afternoon no one would bother us. Jack smoked and made moving rings in the air, one ring passing into the other. We often smoked the same cigarette. They talked and I listened, looking at the fluid that had gathered in Jill’s eyes and the way it moved with Jack’s each expression. Time dissipated fast and the dialogues had all jumbled up by then, losing all its syntax with it.

After lectures we often took long walks to the old book shops behind a place called Golpark. There we had tea, bought second hand books at throw away prices. Jill was very good at bargaining and the old bookseller, may be out of fatherly love for a fair skinned British, made himself lose the game each time. But Jill was notorious for jotting with fountain pen in the books, which Jack detested. He would scold Jill like an elderly guardian for spoiling the book with indelible ink marks and hit her knuckles warily with a pencil.

“Why don’t you use a pencil,’’ Jack told Jill each time she marked the pages with ink.

“Sorry, I never do it again. Sorrrry again.” stretching the word half smiling, Jill would reply.

 

After five years flew like a few minutes, campus interviews and our fate in disguise threw us apart. Jack joined a spinning mill in Gujarat, I somehow managed a scholarship for a PhD and Jill got an OXFAM attachment to work with sustainable housing in earthquake prone areas in Bhutan. We got lost as quickly as we turned friends.

There were no cell phones those days and noisy long distance calls made holes in pockets. Letters from Calcutta to Gujarat took weeks and often got lost in transit or were put to pieces and bundled away into dustbins by delivery boys. Calls to Bhutan were classified as foreign calls and not only made holes but also burnt the pockets.

We were in such a hurry that we forgot to exchange our second addresses. When Jim Barnett accompanied his daughter for her to join the services at Thimpu, Jill narrated her story about Jack, the good-natured simpleton who forgot to tell her that one day he planned to marry her and settle for ever. Tears of happiness rolled down Jim Barnett’s cheeks but deep in his heart the very thought of losing his daughter brought an uncanny feeling down his spine. But it mattered little because Jim was a man with a big heart and he felt happiness in his daughter’s endeavour.

In those days we had very little money with us. Twice a week in the evening, Jill taught spoken English to a little girl of twelve. I prepared notes in English Grammar and Literature for school leaving children. Jack taught physics to high school boys and managed some pocket money. We pooled our earnings to make our life a little more colorful. We were happy with the little coins that made rumbling noise in the pocket.

I still remember one Friday evening,  Jill  bought a rain soaked paperback ‘Outsider’  and wrote on it with a fountain pen, “To my loving outsider Jack, eagerly waiting for him to be an insider- Jill” and presented it to her friend saying happy birthday. After I had left Calcutta for Bombay I never could trace Jack any more. Nobody knew where he had been to. On one such visit to Calcutta in October, I was told Jill had come and searched frantically for Jack. When Jill left, she had no one to leave her address with. I searched hard for the two of them and when I was at the end of my tether, didn’t even spare asking the doorkeepers of our departments. The new generation of students knew about Jack and Jill’s love story but never took it seriously. They only made fun of them, twisting the ‘Jack and Jill’ rhyme into a parody. They were too busy with themselves.

Then one day Jack came to the old book shop where he often met Jill. The shopkeeper was dead by now and his son had taken the seat. It will be useless to talk to this young fellow, Jack thought. He then waited for a few minutes, holding the paperback in his hand which Jill had gifted him some twenty years ago. His hands trembled unnoticed by the passersby and even the young shopkeeper who stood beside him. Some unknown power had robbed him of his breath and the lean strip of air and water that lined his airway. His mouth turned arid, the mind now devoid of judgement and its ability to come to conclusions.  Jack so far had saved this last resort he had with him. It was all that was left of Jill. He opened the book, his fingers somehow entangled, still unable to move from one page to the other with ease. He caressed the hand written words, still looking bright and beautiful, Jill had put in with indelible Chelpark.

Holding the book in his hand, he told the young shopkeeper, “Keep this with you. You won’t have to pay me for this. I have finished reading.  Your father had sold it to a friend of mine.”

Jack had carefully written a note to Jill in pencil in between the printed lines of Camus. He didn’t forget to put his address there expecting Jill to come one day, fetch the book and find Jack.

After another two years had passed there were no takers for this classic. Reading habits have changed and the shopkeeper rarely comes across buyers of serious reads these days. The ‘Outsider’ changed its place from one row of books to the other, from top to the bottom and from left to the right. It was too old and the book’s cover has lost its sheen to entice someone’s eyes to be bought and be preserved.

Then as god would have proposed to achieve, more interested than us to find the fate of the two lovers, Jill one day visited the book shop and while turning one book after the other found the old cover design of Camus’ ‘Outsider’ and took it in her hand only to be horrified to find the one she had gifted to Jack, lay insolently on her palm.

Jill was too old to shed tears. Her hair had turned grey that made her look older, the wheaten skin now uncared for and the dress too ordinary to be worn by Jill. Her hands didn’t tremble, holding the book tight she thought to herself, what a life, what an irony.

“How much will you charge for this”, holding the ‘Outsider’ in her hand, she asked.

The shopkeeper waited for a minute looking at Jill’s miserable face, unable to fathom the turn of events which suddenly blew away all expressions from the face of this worn out foreigner replied, ‘Nothing. Take it for free. I didn’t have to pay for this who gave it me.’

Jill walked back to her hotel. This is all the remains she has of Jack, the one she had gifted to a man, she still loves. It’s a pity she thought that Jack no more cares for her. All the other things Jill had from Jack had been lost in a flash flood after a quake hit Bhutan. Life has changed after she had left the college. She doesn’t do Architecture these days. She teaches nursery boys and girls in a NGO school.

After she reached the remote village of Bhumthang, sheltered in the Himalayas, the way her father revered the mountains, she stared at the lofty snow capped peaks, closed her eyes in respect and genuflected. She thanked God for bringing back the book with which she can bear the rest of her life remembering Jack.

She opened the book and moving her hand to and fro caressed her neatly written words in bright pink Chelpark ink, in the same way Jack had treated them with affection. Her nimble fingers moved from one page to the other. The book looked same as the one when she had gifted it to Jack, kept neat and clean by the owner who returned. The young shopkeeper had erased all the words that were put in pencil only to make the book fresh and be sold.

(The names used here are imaginary but not the incident)

 

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A salubrious scavenger

 

This writing is not for those who persistently question the happening of a story and its truthfulness. I would prefer readers who believe,’ you read it’, ‘enjoy if it’s worth’ and ‘forget it if you can’. I am quite confident my imagination is not that a frequent flier able to cook this funny incident and pen it down. I heard it from my grandmother sometime by the end of fifties in the twentieth century and she heard it from hers. This event is supposed to have taken place sometime by the end of the nineteenth century in a quiet locality of Calcutta.

In those days several families having a unicameral origin resided in the same house and were commonly referred to as ‘joint families.’ In the northern part of present day Calcutta, from where the city evolved or the nidus of the city as you may wish to call it, thieves were common. They were basically petty burglars appearing at early hours of morning, having oiled their skin thoroughly making it slippery not to be caught.  They would get away with old utensils, worn away slippers, used garments and on the next day provide prompts and cues for ludicrous, mouth watering discussions amongst housewives. Some of these crooks when caught red -handed were often found to be next door slum occupants and were treated with sumptuous beating by the chivalrous house owners but rarely handed over to the police out of sheer humanity. When beaten black and blue by overzealous males in the family, the thieves were caressed by the elderly ladies by offering them sweets and homemade emollients. Funny, unbelievable and hilarious as it may sound to present day generation, these stories are true and frequently have found their place in movies of yesteryears.

On one such occasion a thief got caught and given a bountiful beating, then half tonsured and tied to a light post for the neighbour to have a close look. After a week had passed the thief decided to teach the residents a lesson they will never forget. From the anatomy department of the nearby medical college he managed to get a dead man’s skull, voided his excrement into it and laid it at the juncture of two roads. It was such an uncommon, obnoxious affair that onlookers gathered but none volunteered to clean the site. More than a day had passed when a meeting was called by the house owners to get rid of the stuff. They called a sweeper offering attractive remuneration, double the usual amount to take away the unpleasantness.  He bluntly refused saying he can handle the excreta but not the dead man’s skull. With much difficulty one ugly looking man from the morgue who doubled as a man from the crematorium was contacted. He was ready to handle the skull but not the excreta. Another three days passed and the scene turned itself into machinery, surrounded by hundreds of flies and maggots. People from nearby areas flocked enjoying the very unusual site but none cared.

Almost four days passed, the excreta having partly dried up, partly consumed by birds and mice but still held the center of gossip and sight. Then one fine morning a little boy of twelve came up with an idea which even the elders had not dreamed of. He went to an elderly doctor a kilometer away and knocked on his door and said,

“Uncle, you must come quickly to our house. It’s almost an emergency’.  The doctor believing him,  followed.

On his way, after the little boy had told the doctor the true story of how the elders had pressed their nose against their palm, not willing to clean the area as it would bring them shame and disgust,  the doctor burst into a laugh.

The doctor arrived, holding a piece of cloth around the skull threw it into the dustbin. And then he asked the little boy to get some disinfectant and taught him the trick of disinfecting an area and the occupants lived happily ever after.

Parallel Souls

The breeze is  sharp and damaging. The moisture from north pierces the tip of nose incessantly. The rain that started yesterday has stopped but a mile long cloud hovers above the head. The window pane is too hazy to look outside. Mist, rotten leaves and dust envelope it, camouflaging transparency. The glass felt like fiery ice, much like an irascible fire. But the mind is too young to distill itself in the room till the sun blows away the harsh wind.

Uma stood by the window but her hands could clean little that accumulated on the other side of the glass. Nothing was visible through the pane except the angry looking cloud. When she found no work left for her to do, she prayed to god for no more rain that might follow. Her mind is still restless, not having met Aaron for a week. He was too busy with his dissertation. Then the telephone rang like a gift from the angels. It was Aaron calling, a five minutes break won’t be that damaging for him, he said. Uma agreed to meet him at the ground facing the lake. The grass is wet no doubt but it matters little for a freedom from boredom.

Uma dressed herself in her favourite blue, expecting Aaron dressed in blue too. Then she sat on the drenched wooden bench facing the lake not caring her dress getting wet. The chill blew over the water, still sharp like a dagger cutting through her tender Adam’s apple. But she felt little, her mind away for Aaron.

A bright little yellow narcissus stood beside the grass where Uma has laid her foot. It has withstood the rain and storm for a day exhibiting its tepals for someone to notice.  How beautiful is nature’s gift, how perfect is the little flower standing alone not bothered for someone to lay eyes upon, Uma wondered.  She then bent down caressing the velvety petals and drying it for she thought the rain drops to be too heavy for this little creature to bear.

Uma lowered herself, her hand still caressing the little narcissus and told her, my dear friend, wait for me, till I come again to see you tomorrow morning.

Aaron came a minute later in blue, brightening Uma’s eyes as her soul leaped. She thanked god for both the lovers are so near to each other even in their thoughts. Aaron sat on Uma’s left, his hands touching hers and a sense of happiness passed through his eyes. Uma looked at the distant sky, their hands still touching. She saw the cloud fading towards north.

After a minute had passed in silence, none finding a word to utter, both engrossed in their happy imagination imagining each other, Aaron suddenly bent down and plucked the little narcissus offering Uma.

He said, “Happy birthday.  I won’t be seeing you tomorrow for exams.”

An unknown feeling passed through Uma’s spine making her forget to thank Aaron.

After she had reached home the feeling of pain mixed with gratitude has started subsiding,

Uma thought to herself, “Two people can be so near and so different like parallel souls which stay together but never meet”.