Entwined

Here the perfectly aligned boulevard escapes the madness of downtown of this desert city. When the sun is up afresh and the moon had declined to leave, this roadway is an utter departure from dissonance. In  twilight like ambience, lined only by trees on both sides it vanishes into the blue of the sky, looking mystically.

When I first arrived here posted by my newspaper employer it was ten in the morning and the deserted road has already been populated with move about shops on both sides, the considerable  crowd, countless handcarts, the arguing rickshaw pullers, the incredible push sellers, the road cleaner; with his assembled dust from head to toe, the worthless  passers-by, the artful  pickpockets and the detached spies. It reminded me of a street scene from the movie ‘Casablanca’, nothing has changed here I wondered.  I was directed to the house next to Amira’s for my office. I believed Amira to be some sort of an actress, every other man was calling her name and the last elderly gentleman smiled coyly peering away from me when I inquired about who she was. I found Amira’s house where the boulevard discharges its first side street on its way southward. The next was the little three storied office my newspaper has here, camouflaged by shops selling petticoats with kites, the unusual coexistence I had never witnessed before.

‘Got the office without problem?’ asked the regional manager. I responded hesitantly.

‘Anyway, whose Amira?’ I  asked quickly  without losing time.

‘The landmark,’ he too replied bluntly, but his smirk was same that I saw only minutes before in the elderly gentleman’s face. The disclosure came soon. I was allowed a one-room cave on top of the office, guaranteed that its shabbiness will be removed promptly, at least by a fake whitewash and cleaning and replacement of the dull yellow incandescents with new LED bulbs. But thankfully the toilet was clean and the view from the room endless and happening, opening straight onto the street one can look far away into the blue where it met yellow of the desert sand. Airy, as the departing manager said, not lying, and it was quite true as it often carried my papers out of the window. The next morning I took charge and bid goodbye to the man I relieved, the last manager whom I had never seen before. I had climbed only a few steps when he returned to my help. I thought he had forgotten something. He made me move to the one storied box shaped dwelling standing only next to ours and called aloud, somewhat noisily ‘Amira, Amira.’ Briefly out came the little agile of two, pulling her mother’s hand as vigorously as she could, her smile filling the air.

‘I’m leaving, tata,’ said my friend softly, keeping his eyes off her to hide his tears, I was convinced of that, but he didn’t hesitate to continue, ‘Don’t worry, this is a new friend of yours,’ he said pointing at me and left hurriedly. The little child had taken refuge behind her mother by now, shy, but the shyness was like a trance she knew well, I believed.     

Quite early, even before the morning had turned up, the teleprinter sounded, I looked out of the window over the empty thoroughfare. Farhan was not alone there, the road still empty, his two year old Amira, sitting on her father’s shoulder, not awaken from her last night’s sleep, but wakeful and vigilant of the cold breeze that blows from the desert. This father daughter duo is inseparable, everyone knows them by heart, my impression was clear and assured. Farhan quickly looked at the window, aware of my standing there and watching him. I waved. He turned back abruptly to his home but soon arrived with a thermos and two cups. The tea was fuming. He laid the child on my bed, asleep, the diminutive holding her father’s index finger.

‘She is only two but loud and naughty as four, never leaves me,’ fretted the father caressing her golden locks, assuring her of his presence. Your daughter is quite a famous entity here, I must take it, said I when I found her other hand grasp my little finger. She was quietly pursuing us feigning half asleep, now her one hand held her father’s and the other; mine, in gratitude.

Ping-pong balls kept rolling from next door into our office, the shrill cry of the child when her father left in the morning and her mother often handing over the child to the editorial desk, as we did with our news items, when she left for the morning market, kept repeating. None in our office got bothered for that. Someone was always there to bring in a piece of chocolate or a cheap plastic doll tickling the child. The mother would come in soon complaining of no place left in her home for toys. But the child never stopped smiling. The parting smile she gifted each time from her mother’s arms was new and indelible. It lingered like a precious perfume for some time after she left the room, no less a gift of the magi.

A week later, half a kilometre away I discovered the city market followed by the only petrol pump the township had. A peaceful, upper class restaurant stood four blocks away, an air-conditioned one that allayed the blare of the bombs. Each time I looked at it I thought it was my duty to treat my neighbor a dinner there which they always shied off, a part of my committal as I would ever believe.

Farhan drove a taxi and leaving home each morning was no easy task for him. The child would never sanction his leaving and the mother usually failing in her endeavor to resist the child often found her hands over the child’s back. Pat came the reply each time from the father to the mother, the same way as hers, and our office bearers found themselves entering the troubled waters, negotiating.

Scorching summers faded into winters, then into desert storms but the bombs never stopped dropping. They said the tribals will soon consume the city. It’s only a matter of time. The sky filled with bizarre lights flying in unison, a sight of eventful fireworks that illumed the space. But only those who knew the color of those farcical brilliance spent sleepless nights. Nevertheless this city was far away from the tribals who came in from the north east in large consorts, armed with modern machine guns and rocket launchers, only rich governments could acquire.  Bombs dropped throughout the day, people on road took shelters in nearby shops while smoke engulfed. It was a routine affair of dust and smoke and howls and clamor that faded into undesirable peace in an hour, coexisting with another brewing bloodshed and conflict nearby.

I still remember the day Amira went mad and reckless. She would not allow Farhan to leave for the taxi without her. I haven’t heard such prolonged brooding over since long. Her mother stood helplessly by the staircase while Amira sat on the floor with her legs spread dejected and inconsolable. Farhan took her on his shoulder reluctantly, the child still crestfallen.  He took her in his taxi to fill it up. While they waited in the queue, ten in the morning it was, I still remember, a rocket launcher was fired over the petrol pump. The explosion quickly blew into a large cloud of smoke and sound ruining the eardrums. Body parts remained scattered, strewn over the place extending till our office. But we could find Amira no more.

When the sun was down, the coarse smell of gunpowder still filling the air and hurting, the owner of the petrol pump came rushing in. He was luckily saved while having his breakfast at the nearby restaurant a few blocks away, they have found Amira.

I found a block of charcoal, seemingly a pair of little hands pressed round the neck of a torso, an indiscernible shape of father and child. The next day when I followed the crowd to the burial ground, the charcoal block could not be separated and they put the two together in one grave.

The curse of the paragon

Certainly I didn’t have the good fortune of meeting my great- great-grandfather, but I did have the luck to uncover his fountain pen that rested in a place of dirt, filth and fusty smell in the bye lane of a mofussil town.

My maternal great- grandfather had his home in one Medinipur town, full of history since the fourth century A.D. Days with my other cousins here during summer breaks are worth remembering. My grandfather did have a B.A degree in those days right at the beginning of the twentieth century, a crowning achievement indeed for one far away from a metropolis; nevertheless he had anything but to do with writing or one sort of writing implement. Not exactly a zamindar but an enviable land owner who held enormous tracts of cultivable land, felt quite demeaning for him to hold a pen to scribble down his worth and its increase in giant strides. A cunning writer he had with him, some sort of a secretary as you may call this man, jotting down all his needs and this writer was the ace brain behind the fall of one such cynosure. But he floundered to fail this paragon as Keats had always spoken

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness;

One morning in the heat of the summer I noticed two small round objects lying abreast, one mocking the other, simulating in silence, peeping through my grandfather’s almirah which he seldom left open. It must be two well crafted bottle caps my grandfather had collected I wondered.  Fountain pen heads were they and it was the last that could survive my imagination. When the two pens were laid by him on his office table, the difference was readily discernible. One was delicately crafted in black ebonite displaying vigorously its snowcap and bearing the nearly arcane ‘Meisterstuck’ lithographed across the shining black cap while the other lay flat and numb and fabricated beside the original Montblanc. The unvarnished anecdote that began was hard to escape.

My grandfather’s grandfather, a nondescript five feet, colored entity in the British ruled India  had his home at Medinipur where he kept his eleven children and spend much of his time working with a steamship company at Calcutta situated along the present day Strand road beside the Ganges. This little uninspiring individual who didn’t even have the freedom to witness the walls of a school was remarkably good at English language and it was heard he carried a copy of Fowler’s English grammar right inside his head recurrently putting other British whites in his office to shame. His longhand on white sheets that arrived from Wales appeared accomplished calligraphy beyond ambiguity. That his grammar was flawless made his white employer recommend him for a short stint under John Lockwood Kipling when he arrived at Calcutta in 1883 to curate one international exhibition. Happy and overwhelmed with this native’s work Lockwood gifted him his Montblanc pen and while doing so

Lockwood said ‘Keep this with you young man and, you must take care because it belonged to my son Rudyard, he is too sentimental about pens.’ Though time had bleached the veracity of this saying no doubt, but the stylograph continues to exist though over hundred years had passed since then.  

My great-great grandfather’s secretary had a needless liking for this Montblanc and on one such occasion when its clip went loose he took the pen to a repairer and changed its clip, replacing it with a fake. On another instant when it dropped while writing, the clerk took the opportunity to change its barrel with a similar looking fake, that the original one had cracked he said. But the greatest of all conveniences lay before him when the pen stopped writing one winter. The ink inside must have dried up by then. He pretended to take it for repair though he returned shortly saying that the pen was dead and could no more be fixed. Since then it found a place on my great grandfather’s desk quite neglected. Then the pen took up dust and grease while inside the obscure depth of the table’s drawer. My great-great grandfather had passed away by then leaving behind his clerk and his son keeping a close eye on the pen they both craved for. Weeks withered but not the clerk’s envy and heedfulness. As good fortune would prevail for him one day he quietly replaced its internal parts with fabricated ones and decreased it with dust putting it back to its place. None in the family noticed the changes but the eventual task the cunning clerk had on him remained. He waited patiently for weeks to find a likeness of its nib and its feed but an eighteen carat gold nib refused to get a surrogate. At last all he could do was to hurriedly replace the nib with a low-priced stainless steel one. But this odd looking fountain pen, as it had turned out to be, retained its fame and name, ‘a gift from the Kipling’s’ though practically all its anatomy has changed and a metamorphosis had occurred.. But alas, the day he changed its nib with a counterfeit one, the unexpected struck.

The cunning clerk was secretly assembling the parts of the original gift the Kiplings had bestowed upon the native Indian. Rudyard was not much of a popular personage then. But his acceptance was growing fast in the English world. His writings in Pioneer published from Allahabad were turning into inspirations. But to my great grandfather’s secretary it mattered little and was never of any value. Only the dazzling fountain pen captivated him. After he had quietly assembled the final and most vital part, the nib and its feed, he rested it on his bed while an expression of devious satisfaction smoothly proliferated over his face. Now eager to start with the equipage he readied the pen, sufficiently filling it with writing ink, and moved it over a clean white piece of parchment paper. A delicately squishy quiver ambled over his right arm raising the hair and standing them on ends while the pen refused to write. He moved it vigorously over the paper giving jerks after jerks to make the ink flow, but it didn’t. Metempsychosis had quietly taken place without this man’s knowledge. Ink thereafter had never flown through this Montblanc the senior Kipling had gifted with love and affection while the fake kept on writing miles after miles.

An undisclosed disclosure

Three of them stood by the clock, a miniature grandfather Mr. Gupta purchased yesterday from DeCosta’s, an auctioneer at Park Street. It makes beautiful Westminster Quarters when its bells strike. Indeed he had it delivered to his home, only for its chimes, it mattered little whether the hands obeyed the rules of the orb.  A minute or two late, even a half- hour would worry little this octogenarian widower who left his office some twenty- six years ago. And after his wife died, time seemed unworthy of him. These days he seldom leaves his chair by the window, only twice I believe, for a nap in afternoon and around ten in the evening for his bed.  Rest all he trusts is the generous framework with pane that overlooks the grass, bordering the tram-line, travelling east to west. A book often read twice, his breakfast, the tea that keeps showing up, the ting-tong given off by a passing tram, the subtle woody noise emanating from hand-pulled rickshaws and a rare nod from the next door child now in his fifty, bear the transition. His fragile alveolus allows him to speak sparely. Occasional turning of the head; the breathlessness and his failing eyes are all that remain of him.

Urmi, Gupta’s daughter, now nearing her sixty, her friend Brishti with her husband Roddur had assembled for a lunch at Gupta’s that afternoon when the sun came down well before noon. The get-together was planned nearly a month back when Urmi at her Washington home was preparing for a summer with her lone- father at Calcutta. But the windstorm at cockcrow had struck unexpectedly, bringing disappointment.  Lights were on at ten in the morning, the windows found shut and the doors closed when Roddur left his car at the portico.

It started early without a drizzle around eight after the day broke, and a downfall by evening was promised by the incoming cyclone. The lamplighter had prematurely lit the street lamps along the tramline. It was a sickening sultry morning amidst darkness and a dismal overcast gloomy dawn that makes one wipe his neck and glasses again and again. Little air blew when the two-bogie tram ran past, the depression was quite palpable. The wind took to its pace quickly while the drizzle started and the downpour beat the patter hastily.

‘Let’s start with some tea, the lunch will be ready by one,’ spoke Urmi displaying the 4R size photographs she took at the Niagara Falls the year before. They were good to watch, the mist arising from the huge cascade draped Urmi , belying her forlorn look for a  moment.

‘Who took this pix of yours?’ asked Roddur inspecting it closely as he moved his eyes over Urmi’s, dividing his time between the two and pondering what made her age so quickly. Urmi didn’t reply, still placing more photographs on the bed where they sat.

‘Who took the photograph?’ repeated Roddur believing Urmi had missed him.

‘I thought you forgot your question,’ she said flatly and continued,  ‘ Smith, he works with me at the University, we both went for a trip to Niagara,’ said Urmi her ears reluctant to accept more questions.

‘You love him?’ dropped Brishti aware and vigilant, keenly watching Urmi’s face.

‘No.’

‘Smith loves you?’

‘May be, may not be, I am not sure.’

‘You look much younger here,’ added Roddur wontedly, pointing at the photograph and diverting the angst building up slowly.

Urmi married Saurav some thirty years back and their only son Sujoy, stays at Brisbane. She resides at Washington, separated some ten years ago from Saurav, who has his home at Davis. Their son is not yet married, but still he is divorced, divorced from his parents. Roddur regards the relationship as quite complicated and difficult to reveal, the veracity behind its separation was buried since long. And the three of them continue to stay detached from each other.

The lunch was over by two in the afternoon when Roddur put himself at the easy-chair perfectly contended that lay beside where Gupta sat. This pretty long mahogany woodwork belonged to Urmi’s grandfather. It is old nonetheless utterly comfortable and consummately attractive. Roddur couldn’t refuse himself falling asleep there. Gupta retired to his room for his afternoon nap and the two ladies adapted themselves on the large teak wood bed, where the photographs still lay haphazardly.  It was four in the evening still the rain didn’t care to recede. The darkness that sank at noon sustained and trams were plying no more. When Roddur left the easy-chair Gupta had resumed his view at the window. At his age a maid cares for him all the time. Roddur said ‘hello’, a little embarrassed imagining how Gupta might have stared hazily at him while he was deeply asleep. The evening tea came ready when the ladies were still in bed.

The rain came quickly pouring in a deluge making it quite evident that for the rest of the day it will limit the three to the bedroom. They sat on the bed talking desultorily, the heavy rain often obscuring what they spoke as the Westminster Quarters remained carelessly abandoned. At one time their words lost each other’s threads acceptably affirming that they had nothing much to share at this age, their secrets have turned  more secretive unworthy of disclosure, while they abated from each other, their minds dwindling as they grew old. Only the Westminster Quarter played at a distance by the shadowy corner of the staircase but it rarely overpowered the downpour. The sound from the human voices was fading in the distance down the silence that was creeping in slowly. The three had comfortably composed themselves on the bed as quietness descended lazily. ‘Let’s try some planchette,’ Urmi dropped her idea all of a sudden. The other two wondered how it came into Urmi and in fact for Roddur, he had hardly used the word in last thirty years, if he is to be believed. He, a man of science had little inclination for those séances. Brishti kept quiet not joining the words. She knew well how adept Urmi is in automatic writing on Ouija talking boards. She had witnessed her more than once during her college days and it quickly reminded her of Urmi’s mother as an accomplished medium fostering communication with spirits. Suddenly Brishti felt reasonably apprehensive mindful of the setting that may develop under this noisy inundation and was gently laying down the lull. She thought it is the rain that mattered, and without it Urmi wouldn’t have made up her mind to settle for planchette, a paradigm shift from her letup to a turbulent rise and this reflection made her simper spontaneously.

‘Let’s begin,’ Urmi joined in breaking her silence. Roddur wondered how swift she was eager to begin her grind as if some unknown hand was accompanying her endeavor. Brishti, still not talking much kept herself at ease holding her last posture with difficulty.

 ‘You know the science behind planchette?’ Roddur was eager to drop the unknown facts the others knew nothing about, he believed.

‘There can be no science behind it. It is a paranormal activity, it’s even beyond imagination of the subject you are talking about, the bloody science,’ quickly added Urmi  without a pause, she was spewing, her face was asserting it all. But Roddur was barely interested to follow her, eager to put in his words of justification before she cuts his words off again.

‘I will tell you about the science,’ he spoke finding a gap, now quite decisively. He lit a cigarette and made himself comfortable. The rain which hardly surrendered a quarter of an hour back, resumed its fury. But Urmi was averse to paying any heed to Roddur, her annoyance persisted.

‘Let me be allowed to speak,’ Roddur continued distinctively, raising his hand, defying Urmi’s interception. 

‘It is a psychological phenomenon, you understand that?’ spoke Roddur less intrusively this time.

He didn’t stop here. ‘It’s called ideomotor reflex in the scientific jargon. The subjects participating in planchette make some miniscule movements in their hands not aware of it. And that moves the pencil or whatever you use,’ he continued, ‘you people should  make some effort to move yourself from your ostrich like luxury and read Carpenter’s effect who first published his scientific views in 1852 ignoring the spirits. He was harsh I believe when he made the facts clear. ‘There is nothing called spirit, hence there can be nothing called planchette,’ he added and abruptly put out the cigarette stub angrily on the ashtray. His disgust was discernible.

Photographs were moved to the end of the bed, the lights put off, the door closed and a hard piece of cardboard was laid on the bed. Only a little blue night lamp simmered behind the mirror that stood on the dressing table, silently reflecting every ones mood.  Urmi was so quick in putting the English alphabets on the board with 8B pencil that Roddur couldn’t move his eyes off it. What a mastery of work, she must be doing it every day thought Roddur, arresting Urmi eyeball to eyeball. Roddur hadn’t noticed her carrying a cap from a perfume bottle hidden in her left palm. She quietly placed it on the cardboard over the word A and whispered ‘silence.’

They all three had put their index fingers on the little cap of steel. The cap struggled to slip out of the fingers placed inconveniently one above the other. There was a little noise outside of the room. Mr Gupta must be making efforts to move out of his chair, they believed, and  the lady was expected to be present  but there was no way to ascertain it, Urmi had already closed the door to the balcony. The sound withered away quickly but appeared again somewhere from outside the house near the portico where Roddur stood his car.

The rain was steadily making its presence with ease. But from nowhere scene of a fearsome unstoppable rain from Kuruosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ began to appear eerily before Roddur.  Soon its sound turned muffled and diminished but an alarming calmness has quietly begun to emerge from beneath the board that lay on the bed.

The room appeared placid before the darkness whilst a yellow light emanated from the slit below where the door appeared shut. But it interfered little with the blue haze inside the room. Some insignificant insects raised their voices together in lowliness at the corner of the bed room. It bothered little the built up atmosphere. The perfume cap suddenly shivered and began to move. Roddur felt a strong pull on his finger placed over the steel cap which Urmi kept pulling, but he hardly could believe what he was witnessing. Urmi appeared too reluctant to strain her finger only pressing it delicately on the cap. Brishti behaved like a novice as if she was participating unwillingly, but Roddur was too curious to abandon the game. They had earlier decided to invite Urmi’s mother whom all three knew well. She started with some silly yes and noes  but Urmi without reason decided to release the spirit suddenly and the fingers that rested on the perfume cap turned flaccid. To Roddur the game was over and he decided to relieve his finger when Urmi proposed to bring in the maths teacher’s spirit. He was a large angry man who lost his temper often and the cap began to move erroneously for some time. It made brisk and vehement movements refusing to answer questions the three had raised. Roddur fell in a trance unable to fathom the pull that generated on the bottle cap. It continued its vigorous movements on the cardboard for some time when Urmi requested the spirit to leave.

With the darkness haven’t eased much, the insects raised their voices. When the rain and the wind began to wean, the cap from the perfume bottle without the knowledge of the three had moved itself to the letter G and generating a fine unnoticeable tremor settled itself. Roddur moved his finger from the planchette board and raised his eyes only to find Urmi stiff and erect like a man. Her delicate right hand now held the planchette board with a grip of a male looking eyeball to eyeball with Roddur. Roddur couldn’t move his eyes off her face enveloped in a layer of heavy delicate sweat refusing her to breathe and look orderly.  All that Roddur could see through the blue haze of the room was Urmi’s eyes turn red in a burst of anger but she spoke in a very easy male voice, modulated yet flat. A heavy male guttural tone from Gupta’s younger days began to emerge from within Urmi’s.

She now looking straight into Roddur’s face spoke with a pause in Gupta’s voice,

 ’Sujoy is not Urmi’s, he is from Saurav, his father, not a legitimate one obviously.’ He continued with affection, ‘I feel sorry for the child.’ Urmi rotated her head, still stiff and exanimate, towards the bunch of photographs that lay one above other near the brink of the bed and stopped uttering a while. A cold zephyr blew between the cards lifting one from its pack and suspending it in levitation.

‘Don’t show this Niagara picture to Saurav. It will make him unhappy,’ spoke Gupta in a clear distinct voice, loud but tender.

The spirit expressed with a breathing space in a delicate but impressive voice turning toward Brishti, and leaving the room it added smilingly ‘Don’t bother if the clock doesn’t make  sounds any more, I will carry the Westminster Quarters with me.’

The spirit must have left after that because the frigid air had suddenly disappeared.  What Roddur could see was  Urmi’s fatigued body lying over the planchette board drenched in sweat and smell of steam  and gloom.

When Roddur and Brishti rushed to Gupta, he was dead and the lady earnestly trying to revive the gentleman who brought some relief to her poor family. The grandfather clock no more made beautiful Westminster Quarters thereafter.

I do not know what happened next. But it was for certain only three of them knew the mystery behind the clock’s losing its music. They stood by the clock; still, watching its hands move silently, without a word arising from the gong below. It will be too childish for them to reveal what the old man had disclosed in that creepy dark room the other day.

A brief encounter

From over her head flows the ‘Rapid Transit System’ on wheels and bogies, swaying the foundation as it gushes in, pushing the air forward parallelly and anti-parallelly into its lethe.  Below where her foot rests is embroidered with paving stones for pedestrians’ comfort and setout betwixt and between the two are colossal colonnades of abutments and piers. A roof above and a palpable concrete below, but still, there exists no home for her. She stood there clumsily protecting her perilous insecurity in a half torn drape that smelled, unwashed for ages. Her nails have drawn-out harboring filth and grime and her wheatish, lowly hair has turned a sully knotted rope of disgrace, besmirched and rendered incorrigible.  Her skin arose from the dirt crumpled, thin, pale and translucent, preceding the milestones. But she stood reluctant to take care of her misery herself, happy and smiling, I wondered how.

The drizzle soon slipped into a deluge with a dozen passersby infringing on her privacy of half a dozen mutilated, bruised plates, spoons, a broken stove and three dogs -a three legged one amongst the three. A bunch of ripped down jute bags for carrying cement hung from the sides to bring a deceitful sense of home. It likely brought an invalid solitude to the smudged lady standing.

Dhruva, twenty-six, a petty clerk with Thompson and Mayne, took refuge from rain like ten others that day, back from office. He had no other way to cheat the fall. This was a place new to him, away from his office, away from his home. Quarter of an hour had passed by then, the downpour refusing to leave while the water level rose. The crowd swelled and the sleet buried itself on glasses making it difficult to discern the squalor. Dhruva waited, pushed to the right, then to left by the bevy of hidebound office-goers returning home. The street lights were not up by then. He wondered who the lamplighter may be in the crowd, waiting impatiently like him to finish his job and return home. Who is awaiting this lamplighter at his hovel, his wife or his little son? Such feckless thoughts buried him more in his overweighed boredom from the ceaseless rain.

The crowd bloated and soon the place became overcrowded drenching him, his right shoulder first,  then his left as the water came pouring in through the overhead. A strong whiff of cow manure began to emerge and soon the place submerged into darkness. For some, patience ran out quickly or probably they resided at nearby places and left for their homes. But for Dhruva it was too early to decide. Another half a kilometer waited for him to move along on foot for the way to the station atop the pillars. By eight in the evening half the crowd had left.

‘Why not you sit here Babu?’ asked the lady pointing at the broken stool that stood beside her. She asked him to come closer drawing her hand toward herself, voicing little shyness. These pavement dwellers have long shed their shamefacedness, sleeping unguarded under the open sky for years. The stool too had three legs on it like the dog, but sustained by a column of queued up crippled bricks. But reluctance showed up on Dhruva’s face. He was hesitant at the beginning apprehensive with a measure of fearfulness amid sleazy darkness around and then an unavoidable sense of dirtying himself crept into him. But the lady didn’t cave in, wiping the seat earnestly with her sullied drape. She was too eager to rest the gentleman and offer him a shelter and contentment. Only when she stood near facing Dhruva, away from the thinned out crowd, could he notice her candid face drenched in sweat and rain. The lady kept pestering him as the rain played a mysterious, inscrutable come and go. Still undecided, he lighted a cigarette and gestured the lady to wait as if it was too early for him to follow her. The lady was hankering to make him rest. Her chutzpah was appreciable. Not paying much heed to what the lady said he looked at her.

 ‘What’s your name?’ asked Dhruva.

The lady didn’t reply, only her sullen face showed up beneath an oil lamp she had lit. He thought she had been shamed for his refusal. He traded his mind and reluctantly took to the seat but without turning his head could see her face fill with friendliness.

‘What’s your name,’ he made a statement this time, waiting for her to reply.

The other ragpicker who stood behind the lady in darkness was now clearly visible. He was in his fifties with stubs of colored beard, unshaven, looking much dirtier than the lady herself. He wore a lungi not torn but it looked as if unwashed for weeks. He had some ten fake bracelets and some colored stones round his forearm like a poor bedouin lady, to turn his fate, and a burnt-out half smoked cigarette on his right ear. His cap was filled with holes to air his bald. He had bought some cheap tea from a seller who too took departure from the rain and was dispensing it in tiny throwaway cups of plastic to be shared by others in his group.

‘Would you like some tea babu?’ asked the lady, ‘it will keep raining for some time,’ she giggled but Dhruva didn’t reply.

‘You have a name, isn’t it?’ enquired Dhruva, quite desperate to know someone’s name who has selflessly indulged him for a cup of hot tea.

‘Maya’s mother,’ she spoke hesitantly in a quiet voice, her words sinking below the deluge.

‘Your name, I mean,’ a little loudly said Dhruva.

‘Maya’s mother,’ she repeated

‘You don’t have any name of your own?’

‘They call me by that only.’

‘But don’t you have a name of your own?  Funny!’  murmured  Dhruva.

She said ‘No’ but quickly turned her mind saying ‘Losty.’

‘Losty? This can’t be a name. Who gave you this?’

‘The police people.’

‘Who?  The policemen?’ asked Dhruva, the discussion was turning quite interesting and he cared little about the rain.

‘I was only two, when someone deserted me at a fair, the maid at the shelter home told me. You know those large fairs at Park Circus ground?’ she continued directing her hand somewhere toward the west where the sun had dropped.

‘Yes.’

‘I was Losty two, the other one who joined before me was one.’

The rain now was aiming west and the jute bags could no more work as an impediment. From below it appeared a little girl of about four, drenched in full but still ludicrously smiling. She was too little to move her hair the wind has swept over her face. But she could easily find a hideout- a space in between the lady’s two legs.

‘Your daughter?’

‘Yes,’ she said

‘How old is she?’

‘About four, may be a month or two less,’ said she caressing her daughter affectionately.

‘She is only over three and a half, you mean that?’

‘I don’t know babu, how can I?’ she continued, ‘I can neither read nor count.’ The baby stood sheltered in her mother’s lap.

Angrily came in the ragpicker with all his might, furiously exhibiting his discontent.

‘Why don’t you say it’s not your daughter,’ said he, froth and a foul smell infused with cheap mouth freshener dribbled down the corner of his lips. The atmosphere has abruptly turned dismal but the lady spoke nothing, her life depending on the caprice of this fickle minded ragpicker. After the man has left I asked her ‘Your husband?’

‘You people are so much in love can’t think anything other than a lover or a husband,’ she answered curtly. Intensely irked she was spitting poison.

‘Who is she?’ I couldn’t resist asking her, looking at the daughter. She kept silent for a while, staring desperately at the man who debased her.

‘Lousy bastard,’ her foul mouth has found a break and she looked differently the other way, tears rolling down under her jowl. The little girl raised her head imperviously, quite immune to the scenes and quickly put it back where it had rested.

‘I got her from by the side of the railway tracks, it was a Friday and it was raining as badly as today,’ she whispered protecting the child from hearing it. Although the child understood every word of it.  But she has not yet learnt the biology of accouchement and the unworthiness of an orphan.

‘Where from did you get her,’ Dhruva  asked again

‘I told you,’ she continued angrily ‘it’s not these tracks here, it was the Tollygunge railway tracks I got her from. She was hardly over a day old, and it was raining heavily, draped in a wet towel that was bound to kill her. In the darkness of the storm I couldn’t even care, a boy or a girl.’

‘It’s unethical, unlawful. You know that. You didn’t take her to an adoption center I believe,’ Dhruva countered.

‘You think they will allow me to adopt her looking at my state?’ she burst into a guffaw this time, showing her stained row of ugly teeth. She has started equating Dhruva with her fellow ragpicker.

‘Don’t you think she deserves a better life than yours?’ the words slipped out of his lips.

The child lifted its head drenched in sweat and wet air that blew a mist with it, smudging the eye liner her mother had put on her. She looked naïve and unsophisticated, much like a delicate black and white photograph in light and shade hanging from a large empty gallery. She then smiled a Duchenne smile. It was a reward smile only a child’s unfilled heart can deliver, unfilled with misery, despair and affliction unable to decipher the depths of the three. She then buried her head again where it was.

When Dhruva   waded through the water logged street he could still remember the delicately moving tender nape of the child’s neck, of a clean and subtle hairline, sharing a giggle, playing hide and seek with him as she buried herself in her mother’s dirty drape. A hard to discard nascent numbness, interbred with sense of guilt, error and passion slowly rose like gangrene through his feet. He sweated in the depths of cold breeze, the rain having returned to a drizzle, and he still had another half a kilometer to go that felt like a mile.

‘Why did the lady lie? There was no need. It was the garbage bin from where she got her and not the railway tracks,’ he said to himself not expecting a rejoinder. The heart in his gut was pounding, crushing him. He was aware of the pain which keeps repeating, he touched himself.

The next morning he visited the place again. But Maya’s mother had already left with the little girl the others knew nothing about. It’s an irony that one can read other’s face but not his own, Dhruva will come to know of it when he grows old.

Reflections from the modern world

By the fourth light mast on the left, where the road has taken a hasty turn, stood two bare chest men in their thirties in torn, half drawn shorts, discussing their daily routine in an irresolutely fearful manner. The summer is harsh here but their faces divulged little. Sweat trickled down from their glabella flowing deep down by the sides and middle of the nostrils draining into the philtrum of nose. Here their moustache felt heavy with the weight of the salt but in no way could they use their hands to wipe it off. One of them held a little bottle of turquoise blue copper for their use. Here the roads are empty by the morning but not the air. The wind is heavily laden with deplete from the army airways and the nearby cement plants, but it didn’t bother much, as it does not to the other dwellers nearby.

If one would closely look onto the faces of these two human beings nothing much else would it reveal of its countenance, half drawn faces, unclean beard shaven long back and hair that likely would turn into ropes of jute if not taken care of in a week. Their faces arrived simple, but the eyes bellowed an appearance that divulged nothing of their souls. God had unknowingly glued a stucco of ravaged, benumbed pound of flesh on each of these two gaunt faces that voiced a poignant emptiness. Expressions have long deserted their exterior and the mind beneath can no more command the mastery of its sinew. They are the two idiots from the nearby village where the urban metalled artery has silently camouflaged into queer muddy roads.   Their children had long learnt how to run their bellies half empty by compulsion very unlikely the other members of the cohort they formed when health organizations explored epidemiological data.

Of these two idiots one was Nasir Mullah who mostly went by his nickname Mintoo, an honest Musalman by birth who lacked intelligence enough to be corrupt and be untruthful to his work and the second  one his childhood friend, a dwarf Hindu otherwise with no name,  amusingly referred to as ‘Shorty’. Their religions had battled each other for no apparent reason since antiquity but they themselves found no time to sharpen their weapons which they never could acquire at the closing moment. They were a crazy lot of two nebbish whose simplicity never allowed apportion themselves. They had no money, no reputation and no destiny on them, only a bunch of delving worthlessness.

The Musalman and the Hindu unable to initiate friendship with other humanfolk, for lack of a decent intelligence, tied themselves up by unbinding themselves with the ersatz world. Their companionship grew in a different sphere of unsalable existence where they laughed for reasons different from ours and shed tears for no reasons thereof discernible to this cutting-edge world. It was their own world meant for the nitwits and dorks. In other words they were a bunch of idiot savants.

Whatever you may call them by name, a fool, an idiot or a buffoon, one would never fail to meet the other at the same place each day, armed with a vial of an alluring crystalline azure grain of salt, they never would know the connotation of its contents. After they had accomplished their work truthfully and accurately, the large tree would start losing its bark in a month or two and fall dead in half year. A glorious piece of work they would believe of the act they had performed only to be praised by the king himself. The charming young prince had carefully explained the science of a dead tree giving birth to new ones as part of God’s own cycle for the cosmos. There was nothing in it to disbelieve.

Caught in the fieriness of June, beneath its glaring heat, one day the Musalman’s little child fell ill with siriasis, a kind of heat stroke. Graveness of the bearing appeared soon as the child lay dead on its mother’s lap readily. Baffled and unable to save the child the doctor had inadvertently blamed the barren road lacking beautifully lined up trees, under shade of which he had taken refuge unendingly since his childhood. The news from the doctor’s room reached the king soon. When the Musalman had arrived at the king’s court with the dead child, the charming prince rubbished the doctor’s anecdote asking the Musalman to visit God’s land to know the truth.

‘Won’t you visit the almighty to find the truth my son?’ asked the king.

‘Yes my lord,’ answered the Musalman intently and in all conscience.

‘And my dear little loving Shorty,’ continued the king with kindness, ‘how can you leave your friend and not see him each day?

The doctor now looking to his right and left, anxious to lose the end of the rope, as a desperate remedy uttered into the Musalman’s ears,  ‘If you go to heaven, who is going to complete the  rest of your work?’

Prompt came the reply, ‘Don’t worry dear doctor, there are many like us left behind.’

‘Oh! and my doctor friend,  sorry that I forgot you, my son. You must accompany the two savants to the heaven.  There is a dearth of good doctors there,’ spoke the king.

From behind, voices from the crowd could be heard.

‘Long live the king.’

‘Long live the ignorant.’

Eye of the horoskopos

Cynthia Davies, now ninety-four, fritters away her time mostly on a manicured lawn, about ten by ten in size, overlooking her drawing room. It is a small piece of land with a one and half bedroom house her husband had bought in the forties before India gained her independence. For her it’s nothing but utter, uncomfortable indulgence, situated beside hotel Windamere on the way to Mahakal temple in Darjeeling. From here an unimpeded view of Khangchendzonga allays the colossal burden she carries on her, indiscernible to all knowledge.

Cynthia is a Greek by birth, perfectly turned English by marriage to Davies, a doctor with the British army who never thought of going back to England after the war and made Darjeeling his home. They met on the lawns of Acropolis, when Davies was on his leave returning to India and they both decided to marry over a cup of cold coffee losing its ice in the heat of June.  Her son Carl, a doctor like his father but a little more than that, a passionate mountaineer by heart, would have been in his sixties by now if Cynthia wouldn’t have lost her to the Himalayas when he was only thirty. Her husband died a year later.

But the nut in Cynthia was too hard to be cracked. Tears dried up quickly and brought in an expansive void of anguish and agony which appeared a soupcon to the occupants of her outer world. She gained weight, her flowing skin continued with its gleam and her effortless charm obscured an inordinate pain and drudgery of her life. Mornings didn’t wait for the sun to rise, for sleepless nights compelled this unwilling lady’s otherwise lissome fingers move over the books her son had left behind. She didn’t remember what she read or what she felt below the delicate skin of her nimble index finger. Only an impression of hollowness and dissolution had overwhelmed her by then below the quiet limpid sky.

In the early December light the Khanchendzonga appeared meaningfully bright and luminous. A plume of smoky, silvery cloud arose from its peak, resembling an unblemished headstone before the undarkened cerulean sky. Cynthia rested her feet on the hassock to ease the tremor and waited for the cloud to pass over to see her son showing up like a black dot carved over the astounding elevation this mountain has. She never cursed the Himalayas standing wise and honorable, tall and erect before her. She forever considered the mountain as an everlasting friend of her son who had wholeheartedly invited Carl to spend some time over its agile bosom. It is a half-hearted belief she carried on her passionately like any wistful mother would do. And now after eight in the morning when the clouds shadowed the snow capped crown she lowered her sight over the mall road to see Denzongpa climb the way to her house.

To Cynthia, Denzongpa appeared too quickly lose his tempered physique and conspicuously gain age. He is a retired commissioner of police younger than her husband and herself but older than her son, who has stood by the Davies family at all the best and worst of times. Cynthia had sent Tina to Denzongpa’s house at Gandhi road to request him to pay a visit. A cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling tea in all its glory in an immaculately displayed white cup and saucer Cynthia possessed, gifted by her grandmother, waited for the commissioner.

He quickly handed over a bunch of blue berries and half a dozen Java Apple, he had brought for Mrs Davies.  For Denzongpa an invitation to tea at the Davies’ was an overwhelmingly florid indulgence to watch the snow capped mountain that improved the fuming extract that he missed from his home. But the cloud today had concealed the enormous mountain winning the game.

‘Do you still enjoy watching the sky and unravel the writings in a horoskopos?’ enquired Cynthia.

‘You mean the birth charts,’ said Denzongpa inquisitively, unknowingly interpolating the word horoskopos with horoscope.

‘Yes I do, but why?’ he continued with a pause.

‘I would like you to take this piece of parchment I found yesterday,’ Cynthia paused, ‘it is losing its worth below a handful of dust in this unemptied drawer,’  pointing at the writing table she completed her sentence.

‘You must have a look at this paper. It’s Tina’s. Her mother gave it to me before she passed away. She suffers from allergies and asthma so much these days and it’s growing considerably.  It’s painful for me to watch,’ said Cynthia.

The commissioner put down the sparkling white cup on the saucer not missing its unspoiled, flawless distinctive shape, rarely found here. Cynthia too hadn’t missed Denzongpa’s eyes.

‘It’s from Greece a hundred years back,’ she mumbled. But Denzongpa had already readied himself to leave, impatient to decipher the mysteries of the planets that ruled Tina’s horoscope, still smelling of the grime it carried with it.

Dr Davies, Cynthia’s husband had met Denzongpa, a young police officer long back while performing some autopsies at the district hospital in Kalimpong. Davies couldn’t move his eyes off this young man, looking smart and honest and they quickly became friends though Davies was older than him. A quite rigid but attractive character this policeman, who stringently followed the rule book came out as a dependable popular face in the old town of Darjeeling. Their friendship still lasts even after the two doctors had left for their heavenly abode and one would not be astonished to find the father and son duo blissfully encircling Denzongpa in a sepia tinted photograph that adorns a wall in a quiet house at Gandhi road. The richness of this positive, the three young adults with their perceived intelligence freely flowing down their face, clicked by Cynthia, gives Denzongpa a sense of wealth and abundance whenever he looks at it.  Astronomy has been a passion for this officer since his college days, a graduate in physics who reluctantly joined the police force in independent India. And the stars he witnessed carelessly at the beginning, through his small telescope, the study of planets in human birth charts followed promptly, unknowingly. He can no longer divorce these two diversions, perennially in disagreement with each other.    Denzongpa cautiously unfolded the fiercely frangible parchment on his table and placed two paper weights at its corners to make it straight and readable. This rusty paper had been kept rolled for over some forty years and no one had cared to see what it had on it. Soon Tina’s beautiful face arose before him.

A Bhutia by birth she has a tinge of European nose and a pair of wide open eyes on her, very unlike the north-east people and with her fair complexion she quickly found a place among the growing young English speaking boarders of St Paul’s school, a ready-made love indeed. Her father was a petty clerk at the hospital at Darjeeling where Dr Davies worked. On a visit to Davies’ house Tina’s father had left his daughter at the stairway reluctant to bring her in when Cynthia noticed the charming silent face in tears. A mother- daughter accord exchanged their eyes and soon Tina became one in the family. Cynthia sent her to Loreto Convent, caring for her in her own distinct way and then to the University at Jalpaiguri for a degree in Philosophy, turning her into a part and parcel of Davies’ blood. But she was too young to be Carl’s better half which Cynthia envisaged in her unreal world. After the two doctors passed away Tina had never left that home. Love and contentment had bound her to the Davies’.

Denzongpa cautiously scrolled his index finger down the horoscope, carefully removing the dirt it had accumulated over the years. The Devanagari script in beryl has mostly lost its luster with passage of time gathering grit and grease over it. Some alphabets had found its home in the crevices, the folding of the paper had inflicted on it. But the parchment made very little forecasts. It contained notes about Tina’s allergic manifestations at every other line. Skin allergy, bouts of asthma, redness of eye, afraid of thieves, loss of a bag came in one after the other in repeating phrases. Nothing much of an interest thought Denzongpa, when he noticed his finger stuck over an unusual phrase.  ‘Near fatal encounter with..’, when Denzongpa could read no more. The incomplete sentence had lost its terminal words into a precipice formed by the undulating paper. But the next sentence stood bold and bright before him. ’The eye bares it all.’ He knew about Tina’s miseries and ordeals arising from bronchial asthma since her birth which gave way to bouts of acute sufferings from dust and some food. Senior Davies had once taken her to his friend, a physician with the School of Tropical Medicine at Calcutta. But it didn’t bring much relief to her.  In spite of the bouts that became frequent, she remained as charming as she had been in her younger days, blinding her agony and endurance to all. He tried to read the incomplete sentence once more, stretching the paper as far as he could to free the long wavy crevice, when his phone started ringing.

It was an urgent call from the house of Davies’. Denzongpa couldn’t recognize the frantic voice on the other end and when he had reached his destination, Tina lay supine and still on the beautifully clipped lawn, a dusty froth emerging from her mouth. She lay dead ending her life full of love and glory in a growing sense of identity crisis. Denzongpa stood still by the writing table, unable to talk, unable to reason himself as if all of a sudden he had lost his instincts he had gained from his police days.

Two doctors from the district hospital nearby were attending to the corpse, in fact they had nothing much to do. The Superintendent of Police who knew the family very well sat by the sofa. Mrs Davies, too old to express her angst sat stupefied on the chair she used every day. A small crowd of passersby had gathered on the Mall road, all looking upwards towards the temple. Noise from the crowd started growing appreciably. In a trice, a rarely used word ‘Ligyrophobia’ cropped up from nowhere in Denzongpa’s mind when all of a sudden Mrs Davies broke the silence.

‘She only drank a spoonful of the juice she prepared,’ she spoke cautiously in her very polite voice. The police chief was carefully examining the contents of the juice in the glass.

Denzongpa quickly spoke, breaking the continuity of the keen act in silence with which the Police Super was examining, ‘The juice probably contains blueberry and Java Apples or Water Apples, whatever you call it.’

‘How come you know Sir?’

‘This morning I gifted it to Mrs Davies,’ said Denzongpa.

‘Anaphylactic shock,’ one of the doctors told the other.

‘I feel sorry Sir, I believe you have to face the inquiry,’ the Police Super, who knew Dengzongpa well, managed to spill these words at last. He had respect for the commissioner and Denzongpa’s emotionally perturbed face was nothing unsaid. After the Police Superintendent had dropped Denzongpa at his Gandhi road residence the words from the horoscope frightened him.

 ‘Was he the culprit?’ he asked himself, still unable to quite fathom the series of events that emerged one after the other since morning. At this fag-end of life he imagined standing at the other end of the court where only the wrongdoers he came across stood. He suddenly felt frozen with the unbearable thoughts that cropped up denouncing him a criminal. There was no way out and the onus lay firmly on hi m. How would he prove that he had no intentions? The thought of the very criminal lawyers asking him questions, dwindled him. He was not fearful of facing an inquiry but of losing an evidently clean image he took pains to carefully build through his eighty years of existence. He moved before the Belgian mirror that belonged to his father. The phrase ‘the eye bares it all’ made him more anxious. He moved as close as he could, the huge glass standing tall before him, so that he could examine the language of his eyes. His mind stood in a whirlpool still gathering all the words and the dust from the horoscope paper. But his eyes divulged nothing of him.

The small lawn felt emptied when all had left and the sun was about to down. There was no one to switch on the lights. Mrs Davies rested her legs, still trembling, on the hassock, unable to bear the series of longsome events that unfolded before her since morning. Suddenly before her eyes all at once the cloud that covered the crown of Khangchendzonga began to move. She never had been a spectator before to such an event by the end of a day. As the cerulean sky emerged behind the mirror finished whiteness of the crown, she could clearly see two black dots lay one beside the other while a simpering smile passed over her face. The words her husband once uttered some thirty years ago, ‘never to bring a water-apple home’ came reverberating in Cynthia’s ears. She could never move her eyes off Khangchendzonga. She has witnessed it all.

A strange connection

From far behind I saw the two- bogie electric tramcar, the last of the day,  scroll down on its rail toward the Esplanade, its tail lamp evaporating and appearing again in the winter smog. Shopkeepers mostly  pull down their shutters by nine in the evening, but christmas was less than a week away. They kept their stores  unlocked, at least a few of them,  late till the last public busses left, half hour to midnight. The northerly chill appeared  stubbornly.The street now looked empty and foresaken, quietly dedicated to the winterly nights. Everytime it reminded me how much the shops embellished the  pavements with their glow signs. When the shops closed, the sidewalks turned  perfunctory and eidolic.

I stood outside the door while Mr Biswas readied himself to put off the lights of his store that sold a meagre set of low priced watches and some sunglasses. I never could imagine how watches subsisted with sunglasses and photocopiers or Xerox machines  with telephone booths. But it did, at least in Calcutta. It was  a shop that mostly  repaired old watches in sixties, Biswas’s father tended after his hard day’s work  at the Anglo Swiss watch company at Calcutta, where as a watchmaker he worked with precision and pricey Omegas and Tissots brought by the Englishmen before the Britishers left.  But the day I stood outside the shop, it was a different day, all things considered.

Senior Biswas  was ninety-one and his son cared little to intimate their old customers like me about his father’s demise  a week back. I am nearing eighties and I knew him well before his son  was born after the independence in forty-seven.  The other shopkeeper two doors away had informed me about Biswas’s death the other day when I decided to meet his son at his shop to pay my last respects  to a no non-sense man who often cared little to charge his customer when he  worked briefly to bring a dead watch back to life. On several occasions I found him saying  ‘I did nothing, just stroked the machine which bore a loose battery and had stopped running.’

Suddenly it  started to drizzle in December and I had no choice other than entering the little shop about to close.

‘Come in Sir, don’t get wet,’ junior Biswas  waved at me, ‘Mind a hot cup of coffee, Sir?’ he asked opening a thermos. I took to the only narrow chair that existed in the six by six room  where one can hardly exist. The drizzle by then had seasoned itself into a full- grown rain. I had come to his shop over three hours now, mostly sitting on a stone bench someone had erected some fifty years back to while away his time babbling with shopowners  and some regular passer-bys who uttered a soft hello.

I broke the silence. “You didn’t tell me that your father was no more,’ I enquired. But he remained quiet,  staring at the old watches  in the glass showcase below. Another ten minutes must have passed in silence, the rain showing off its girth and skill like in the rainy days. I didn’t wish to bother him  much.

‘He must be in his nineties, I believe,’ I said with a sigh ‘ Its good that he passed away peacefully.’

‘Yes Sir,’ said he.

‘Its so beautiful to die a natural death without suffering at an old age,’ I uttered softly, wondering what was in store for me. But I didn’t expect what came next. Junior Biswas had extended  his arm’s length outside his shop inquiring the intensity of the rain when he unexpectedly  looked back  twisting his torso and said with a caprice ‘But it was not a natural death, Sir.’ Equanimity showed on his face.  I could easily guess the confounding appearance  of my look arriving rapidly.

‘It was an abnormal death, you mean to say that?’

‘Not exactly, but its hard to believe that it was a normal one,’ he replied.

‘A suicide at this age?’

‘No Sir. He was winding a clock on the wall.’

‘Winding a clock,’ I said rather surprised, ‘You mean the clock killed him when he was winding it?’

‘No Sir,’ he smirked without a reason, ‘it was exactly  ten minutes to midnight,  Sir. He put a broken chair over  the soft mattress on the bed and got onto it…… He never did such a foolish thing before,  a very unusual hour  in the middle of the night, I could see the devil on his face, Sir,’ he paused to breathe and suddenly  burst into tears.

The rain had stopped.  It was for the first time I noticed Biswas wearing his father’s pocket watch hanging from a neatly crafted gold chain the Anglo Swiss english manager Mr Outram had gifted him. He looked at the watch, taking it out from his pocket, ready to leave  the shop.

‘What time is it, Sir?’ he asked

‘Ten to midnight,’ I answered, but my watch had stopped I noticed.

Biswas gave a lurching move to his father’s watch. It too had stopped ticking, exactly at ten to midnight.

Apprehensively in a hurry I took out the mobile phone from my pocket, a sense of uneasiness pausing at my finger tips.

‘Its twelve minutes to midnight,’ I said

‘Its slow, Sir,’ said Biswas, his nervousness well palpable and I quickly  put it back to my trouser-pocket.

After a while I took it out again. The clock in the phone had stopped at ten to midnight. The wind blew sharply, it was time for us to leave.

A fascinating thievery

I am certain and convinced that you have not unearthed, encountered or even stumbled upon a thief  like this in the past and the authors from the preceding centuries had cared little to chronicle anything thus and thus, that I had come across. This thief I must not hesitate or be shameful of to name, is my significant other or as you may prefer to call,  ‘my wife’, a larcenist par excellence. But her escapades are not about anything. I mean she doesn’t steal anything she finds before her. She specialises in published documents or  books but her subspecialities bear a thorough spectrum.

The day I first noticed her craftsmanship I was astonished to watch in silence as time passed by in minutes extending upto an hour. She was carefully removing a book tightly wrapped in gift-paper made out of a fine sheet of  aluminium, a difficult task indeed  and her adeptness was worth watching. Her tools ranged from the innate ones like human nails to the fabricated objects  like shaving blades and cellotapes. As time played upon deep into the night I was blown away by her patience, not her usual self, I must admit. She took out the book from the envelope and started reading it at the dead of the night. An insatiable reader in sight, I must say. The book had to be gifted to one of my friends by the weekend. The next day when I enquired about the book she said she had carefully kept it in the almirah. After about two days I found it wrapped in the same immaculate way, the bookseller had done.  A wealthy piece of adroitness I must accept  but the words had been stolen from it.

While she gifted the book, I took the precise opportunity of  disconcerting her, whispering through her ear.

‘Where was the book?’ I asked, while  her face revealed it all. From that day onward the thievery was acomplished in daytime save the middle of the night. A quintessentially  greedy reader of anything, that would never  escape her sight, she let her artistry escape  in its very own way as rivulets flow out of a great river over its passage,  giving births never to deplete its own asset of generosity and civility. New unread books appeared in tight packets months after months and were devoured in quicktime.

On one such occasion when hundreds of invitees were  gifting only  flowers at a ceremony peformed in honour of a dead ancester, the Hindoos call it  ‘Shraddha’, my wife gifted a book ‘ Life beyond death’ a collection of lectures by  Swami Abhedananda in United States of America. My spouse had stolen the words no doubt but the recepient a banausic had turned a spiritual not undermining her materialistic originality.

On another break my awe knew no bounds. A brief history  of the incident is elemental here. She, my wife brought up beyond her place of birth, sadly is unable to write her natal tongue but can certainly read it well,  is an avid reader of all sorts published in the first language. When well above fifty she decided to teach herself to write the language  bought a bunch of very poorly crafted papers, turned into a book, may be  it brought very little to its publisher, called ‘Barnaparichay’ by no less other than Vidyasgar, the nineteenth century educator and social reformer, who rationalised and simplified the Bengali alphabet. And she gifted the book to a street urchin, obviously stealing its words before gifting it, her effort yielded nothing else but joy and satisfaction. The little boy of six had started reading books after that. But she had to keep pestering him all through her learning bribing him with all sorts of picture books, indoor games for kids and sometimes movie tickets too.

But it is  ‘magic’ she always said. The object of theft stayed with the receiver but its contents had been stolen from it miraculously.

When I said, ‘Oh I too can do it, ’ she looked at me with some kind of a reprisal.

‘Really?’ she said not looking at me now, attentively browsing an object to be gifted soon.

‘Yes, why not’ I murmured.

‘Its like your mind that I have stolen  from you but it still remains within where it was,’ I said when she raised her head and looked at me.

I added ‘ But it is the only book I had stolen, I mean the only mind. If you permit me……..’

But she had already readied her fist on hearing it with a smile on her lips.

Only I knew what a great effort one had made silently.

Destination where journey never ends

Who sits there by the roadside in this horrific heat of noon  in Jawdara? This stretch appeared wretched, near empty, when the clock struck two at the nearby chemist’s shop. The pharmacy has pulled down it shutter quite early, a very unusual sight indeed, but the clock seemed heavy with its enormous gong.

He is Abu-Zar said my  friend Baseer, a journalist  with Bakhtar.  I couldn’t get  the man’s face but he seemed tall and lanky, aged and in deep distress, as he took the appearance of an indigent while he rested his head on his folded knees. He sat on a dusty mound made white with the dry wind that blew only dirt and grime and filth from the nearby deserted land, made incredibly barren by the intense heat of June.

‘You know him?’ I asked Baseer.

‘Yes. Why not?’ he replied without a smile. Very unusual it was as I knew him over  thirty years, he has the bad habit of smirking all  the time. I still remember once I told him ‘You will be in great trouble one day if you smirk before the president, leave that habit my friend.’ But he didn’t reply, I could see only a smirk on his lips.

‘He works with the cement factory?’  I enquired

‘My God. How come you know that?’ said Baseer, “You must be very intelligent’ the smirk was there again.

‘ Its all in Washington Post, man. He is full of dust and dirt and the coarse hair,  you can never comb a cemented hair,’ said I.

‘He is a street vendor my friend, selling tea,’ straight came the bombshell leering. It was such a curt reply I could imagine my face in the mirror, inarticulate and mousy.

I was with the Washington Post at Kabul and Baseer was a friend of  mine since  university days at Kent State. Passing our weekends together  every three months  had grown into a habit. When Baseer insisted meeting him at Jawdara in place of Jalalabad, it was a fragment of surprise. ‘There is a blast at a mosque at Jawdara. I have to cover it for NYT,’ said Baseer. But I could meet him there, where he told me, five days later. The small township looked tired, unhurriedly  recovering from the ‘towering debacle’ a phrase often used by  journalists  these days. When I was there the mosque had been cordoned off and the surrounding area more or less clean. But the devil and stench of ammo and gunpowder prevailed freely. Men and women breathed it instinctively as if they were born to breathe it that way.

The man at the road side moved keeping his legs at ease as he turned his torso to the right  and then to the left. He didn’t get up and while his chest moved it seemed as if he was sobbing.

‘Is he crying?’ I inquired.

‘May be. But I don’t think so,’ replied Baseer with an air of banter.

‘How come you know that?’

‘He lost all his tears.’

‘Don’t  joke,’ I said angrily.

As angrily I spoke, much more hastily than that with enmity,  Baseer left me for the ailing man. The man stood up and followed Baseer for where we had rested, to the restaurant nearby.

‘Abu-Zar, this is my friend Thomas,’ Baseer introduced me to the man I was keenly watching for a while. He didn’t nod, neither did he  say hello nor did we attract each others  eyes. He kept his head low as if a man out on bail didn’t know where to head to. No place for old men, I wondered.

‘Would you mind a cup of tea?’ I asked him but he didn’t bother to answer this time too. He was still keeping his head low and the shopkeeper following our conversation ardently not putting a word between us.

I looked at Abu-Zar and asked him, ‘What happened?’  He didn’t reply.

‘He has lost his son in the blast five days back but he doesn’t know where to find him,’ replied Baseer brusquely. His answer was so blunt and brief that it took off the intense summer heat on me for a moment. Someone had told him that his son was still below the rubble they are yet to clear.

‘Who’s yet to clear?’

‘The government.’

When Baseer had put his right hand over Abu he burst into tears and caved-in.  I pulled him up  and made him sit on the bench that stood inside the restaurant and he couldn’t resist his head rest on my shoulder. He was weak and smelled of sweat for he sat on the pavement for three days at the same place I saw him last. Another cartpuller had told him that they had found his boy at last and will be bringing him in a coffin.

‘Get  him a bottle of lemonade with salt,’ I asked the restaurateur.

‘He won’t sip Sir.’

‘Abu won’t you take a glass of water?’ I asked Abu, putting my hand over his shoulder and caressing it. He acknowledged. And while he sipped the  lemonade I watched his face full of dirt and his hair crumbled with dust and lard as if someone had cemented it.

Abu-Zar,  a Pashtun,  was fifty and sold tea on a makeshift cart on the streets of Jawdara. He looked fatigued and decayed. He hadn’t cleaned his beard for a week it seemed and I was convinced he didn’t brush his hair after he lost his son some five days back. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move himself and sat like a stonework that had gone somewhere wrong with time. I didn’t know what to do and what to tell him. Caressing him at this juncture seemed foolish. I had lost my words, I had never felt so helpless with words with ink on  paper.

The harsh hot air from the road outside blew intensely through the narrow window. There was no sweat flowing and the heat was ready  to strike a siriasis. It was Lu and nothing else it could be.

Our conversation came to a standstill, the words had gone dry in us. The restaurateur who knew Abu well too had stopped talking. With the next blow of the biting air I bust the silence.

‘Where’s your cart?’ I asked Abu.’

‘Behind this shop, he allows me to keep it there,’ he replied, peering at the shopkeeper.

‘Did your son go to the mosque?’

‘Yes,’ he nodded and continued with a  waver, ‘He had managed a loan to open a stationery shop and went to thank Allah.’

‘Why were you sitting by the roadside. Doesn’t the heat bother you?’ I enquired. I had nothing else to ask him, I found.

‘He will fly past, Sir, I won’t be able to catch him.’ The words were intense and bitter.

‘Who will fly off?’

‘My son Sir, he is such a fast runner.’

‘How will he fly?’ I inquisitively asked, I shouldn’t have done so.

‘ You don’t know Sir. Allah has given him wings when he was only a boy. He is so tall and thin and weightless he wins all the races here.’ I sealed my lips this time and silence fell.

The coffin came in after an hour and with it a hundred or so men from the nearby shops and dwellings. They stood beside the coffin outside of the restaurant and many hung from their dirty balconies for everyone knew Abu-Zar, for his tea was as sweet and humble as his tongue.

A boy of fifteen came in and stood before Abu. He is a fruit seller who maintained his cart beside Abu’s, but Abu didn’t look at him, his head still down staring at a nothingness that seemed to rest on the restaurant floor. Another half hour passed while the quietness of our place aroused by the crowd that waited outside, not content and moving around. They waited for Abu to join them for the last journey to the burial ground. But he sat as quiet as he was like a stonecraft, unresponsive and unsympathetic. 

‘Look Abu, your son has come, he didn’t fly past you,’ I said, very upset not finding a quicker phrase than this. Now I stood before him while my hands squeezed his shoulders gently.

‘He didn’t fail you,’ I said and waited.

‘ I’m an old man, how can I keep my pace with him? He runs so fast,’ he murmured suddenly breaking his silence.

‘You won’t have to, I will be with you,’ and he touched my hand delicately. I had never felt a touch so frail and placid, it spoke his mind.

While he put his shoulders below the coffin with me, I wondered how long this fragile infirm will live.

Who fights a war?  A nation? Their citizens, dragged into it? Or their nasty heads incapable of a sound management to deliver. It remained unanswered.

I looked at Baseer, he was weeping silently.

Not often morning shows the day

I will caution and favour children not to read this story, it’s profane and  it’s vulgar. But it’s witty too.Witty for those cultivated, civilised, well educated, discerning  brains who care to sieve out its sense of humor keeping aside the tawdry indecency in it. I overheard it whiling away  in a moving train when I was only ten and still recollect how it ruined me for a few weeks.

In Bengal,  in the fifteenth century,  there lived a king garrulous but articulate, too wealthy and too lackadaisical that he cared little what he spoke. His head never governed his lips. And he was so plump and unsightly and so sluggish but not listless that he kept himself mostly to his throne. He loathed visiting his kingdom and attend  to his subjects. He would rather admire the adequate cozy dent his overweight derriere had hollowed out his throne.

When only sixteen  he took  the elevated seat of royalty, rather ascending it, as his father down with an incurable disease of  colon had no other option but to abdicate. But he was not fit to do so as you have rightly imagined.  He ruled for some twenty more  years, enough for the kingdom to go astray, with the help of his prime minister, in contrast a rather intelligent, astute and diligent old man. But often the king paid little attention to his advice.

After  the king’s first son was born he ordered his prime minister to empty a quarter of his exchequer, lavishly and foolishly spending when the child was ready for the first Hindu ritual. A carnival that took place for a month ended in a grand musical evening. When the show was about to end at midnight  came a young duo, one with a dhol , a double-sided barrel drum another a shehnai, the Indian oboe.  The music, so mellifluous and dulcet  it was, the king ordered his minister to fill their musical instruments with gold coins, as a mark of appreciation. The drummer was happy with a few hundred coins but the shehnai could hold only a few.

After about twenty years had elapsed the king decided to marry off his son.

‘Let there be another extravaganza ,‘ said the king directing his prime minister to get ready for the great show. But the minister knew well  that it would  be hard this time to tie his laces.

‘Why don’t  you ask the drummer boy and his companion, they played so well last time.’ The king said.

‘ But they are old now Sir. I don’t think they will be good at their instruments,’ replied the minister.

‘ It’s not the duo, it’s you who has grown old,’ angrily replied the king.

The king could resist himself little when the duo arrived on the opening day.

‘Lets start with drum and shehnai and we will have them on the finale too,’  whispered the king into prime minister’s ear. But the drum was old and the shehnai too. No one listens to the duo these days. Time has changed and the music with it too. The duo finds little time to practice as one engages himself  as a carpenter and the other in the brick and mortar trade. They performed so poorly that it raised the impaler in the king from its ashes.

The king bitter and furious irately ordered his minister to impale the two musicians with their instruments. The drum failed to pass through but the shehnai did. The king disgusted and sickened kicked the drummer and let him go and you know what happened to the oboist.

After some six hundred years had passed, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, on the day of my superannuation as a teacher in a non descript primary school in a remote village, I met an old friend of mine in a local train.

‘You look so morose yet relaxed,’ said my friend looking at me.

‘ I have retired from my services today after a long forty years and I won’t have to get up early before the sun sets in,’ I replied with a sigh, ‘The train took half of my life.’

‘ I know my dear friend,’  he  consoled me, ‘ These school  teachers who build the nation are so poorly paid…..’ he breathed out heavily.

‘ Much like a shehnai player,’ I replied,  finding him catching the little old joke with a smile, we used to crack in our college days.

Salt and Sore

Some occurrences  are remarkably distinguishing and hillarious circumstances or accidents as  you may prefer to call it, arising from them, are so unique to their fields of practice that it is hard for others to savour in full the quip arising from it. Still, one such disaster as I would choose to call it, is so tempting to be told and relished, that I couldn’t help putting ink on paper.

Amitava, a young man from Calcutta, only twenty-four,  has just graduated  with a degree in medicine and intends to qualify with flying colours in the post-graduate medical entrance examination to be held soon.  When I first met him at the medicine ward at Calcutta Medical College he was on the verge of finishing the compulsory training meant for graduating doctors. He was a lanky,sober and intelligent young man as his face would reflect, troubled  and fussed  by the ongoing preparations for the admission test. I was earlier warned that his look appears subdued and  deceptive. He is rarely dressed in grandeur and the brilliance of his brain and his ability to percieve anything to the fullest is poorly understood. He was among the first ten when he passed out of school-board examination, stood first in the entrance test for undergraduate studies in medicine, scored a high in Graduate Record Examination when he had almost decided to be a physicist and easily managed a seat at Princeton, a rare feat indeed for an outsider.

After the post-graduate entrance test  I found him once more at the same place, still caring for the patients in his free time, waiting for the results to be declared. He looked gloomy, distracted and distraught. I felt pity for him but couldn’t ask him the cause. Later that evening I was told that he had been to Punjab for some interview which nearly guaranteed an opening for a teaching job. There, when asked by a professor to read an Electro- Cardiograph strip, he failed in his endeavour.

‘Don’t they teach you to read an E.C.G recording at Calcutta?’  asked the professor angrily. And then he summoned a nursing staff and gave her the strip of paper. The sister-in-charge quickly deciphered the graph. I apprehended a rather awkward situation arising. Firing from both ends seemed imminent.  And I  kept listening to the incident attentively.

‘What happened next?’ I enquired anxiously.

In shame and disgust a hurt Amitava did just the thing he shouldn’t have done. He rose from the chair and told the professor to remove all the ‘Bed-head-tickets’, which contains details of the patients, from his ward and guaranteed a quick diagnosis by only listening to the patient’s complaints. The professor had never before heard anything of the sort. Now both of them stood face to face in anger. But no fires were exchanged. It is said that he  rightly diagnosed nine out of ten patients  listening only  to their medical history. It was such an embarrasment that the professor left the ward and Amitava cared little to know what the interviewer thought  of him.

After about ten days I could find Amitava no more at his ward. A friend of his said that a very unusual incident had taken place. Amitava had scored rather low in the admission test and had just managed to secure a seat in the discipline of Dermatology in place of ‘General Medicine’ worthy of him and usually meant for the elite class. Since then he was so depressed that he marooned himself to the hostel bed and shies away from attending classes.

In a rare feat of solidarity out of sheer love two of his teachers had been to him at his hostel but failed to bring him to the lecture-classes.

But depressions often come and go  pestering and testing ones endurance and tenacity. After about a week or so Amitava was out from his boredom ready to attend classes for the first time. When he was about to enter the Ezra Building, hurriedly came a young patient from the other end of the corridor and almost dashed upon him. Amitava couldn’t help replying to his question.

‘Do you know the way to the leather department Sir?’ asked the patient all of a sudden.

Leather department?  It’s quite an insult thought Amitava, stupified. No stretch of his imagination could pacify him of shame and guilt and he returned  to his hostel without joining his classmates. I don’t know what  came next.

A month later as luck would have it, most unluckily I brushed upon a patient at the crowded  Medical College gate.

‘Sir, would you mind guiding me to the leather department? It has shifted from where it stood. A repair work…….’ asked a young fellow while I tried to interrupt him hastily.

Annoyed I curtly said, ‘ I don’t  know of any such discipline here.’ But quickly thawed out from displeasure I pondered, Oh this must be the culprit then.

‘Where do you come from?’ I asked him

The little boy of fifteen smiled and replied, ‘ From Park Circus Sir. My father owns a small tannery there.’

But unknowingly, the salt has already been sprinkled on the sore.

The Epitaph

They came marching in, in the wee hours of tenth of May, 1940. The German boots were heavy and the clamour silenced the  hilly town near Rotterdam. This was the beginning of starvation, humiliation and death, they knew but it helped little.  The bombing was heavy with over a thousand civilians dead and tens of thousands of homes destroyed.  But the shame and indignity carried with it was immeasurable.  The repression and starvation came quickly, much swiftly than what the commoners thought of. After Rotterdam was put to ashes the anti-Jewish measures followed suit. The beauty of the cobblestoned hamlet in spite of its hardship was lost in days. With every door shut and silence arising threateningly the anguish was palpable at every corner.

Occupation by the Nazis started after the five- day war when the Dutch were forced to surrender, aware of their dwindling supplies and ammunition. Soon the quietening appeared stifling, no more children gathered on the streets  and the grown-ups who dared to come out of their homes  talked little and their voice had a timbre of a deadly coldness. Soon the jews were discriminated and  thrown out of their jobs ready to be persecuted and shifted to Mauthausen-Gusen camps. Having forbidden to visit public places they were locked indoors in severance.

Wim, only twenty-one  then, was of the very few firsts to be earmarked. He was young and he was a Jew working as a petty clerk at the surveyor’s office. He was bright, sober and intelligent. Girls fell for him for his nostalgic look. He talked softly like a female in a mushy baritone voice but never lost his virility. He was so friendly and helpful and considerate that everyone took him to be born in their father’s dwelling. And the children I shouldn’t forget telling you about them,  they stuck to him as if glued  like old friends do, always caressed by Wim, as a loving father always did.

But Sundays were meant only for him. No one knew what Wim did on Sundays. He would leave his widow mother early morning and go cycling deep into the woods some thirty furlongs away. He loved nature, he loved the birds and the little animals that played in the bushes. He loved the clouds floating by on the azure sky often flaunting human faces with funny expressions as they drifted past. But there was another incurable bearing that allured him towards the obscured and secluded forest away from his home. It was his love for air rifle shooting and archery. The little box he carried on him had all that was needed for his sport. His mother cared little to know what the box contained that he kept high in the loft below the attic. He would tie an empty glass bottle by its neck and hang it on a tree some two storey high and swing it briskly, bouncing it in the air making it fly in some mettlesome fancy. And then he would shoot the glass in an unflinching determination killing it without missing a shot. He was a sniper par excellence that nobody  knew of. But in his twenty long years he had never killed a bird or an animal that moved past him.

Days came and made way, then came the weeks and months. They too disappeared . Jews bore the barabaric atrocities while the Germans enjoyed their free lunches at homes of the Jews, rather forcefully. Following that came the star of David batches which they were forced to wear on their clothing and get deported like bundles of dead wood. But luckily Wim’s practice in the woods far away continued.

A year was no different from the other that had slipped away. Then torturing the Jews began in the psychiatric hospital Het Apeldoornse Bosch and they transported them in groups to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They raped the girls, made them walk nude on streets as joy flowed over their parted lips. Then one day construction of the Atlantic wall began. NSDAP, the Nazi party has made a strong foothold by then.

The Sunday was cloudy and it had drizzled for sometime  early  morning making the cobblestones muddy and slippery. By afternoon everyone had finished their lunch when the SS came marching in troops of hundreds displaying  Aufseherins who  guarded the concentration camps. They blazed with more fury  than their male counterparts. Wim had earlier heard of one Maria working as an Aufseherin in a nearby camp. She was known for her fierce frenzied look that expressed her violent behaviour towards the camp’s inhabitants. Some said she had a brutal past having been raped by her own father that turned her a damnable wolverine. Others said it mattered little, she was born a bully with a five feet ten stature.  The villagers had after a long time assembled  by their door-steps  to witness  how the Aufseherins looked like, human or else while someone from the rear pointed at Maria leading the troop.

Blood flew as if an inferno through Wim’s  veins ajaring his agonising anger while he stood looking at the troop displaying their heroic achievements of killing. He wondered how devilish  a human race can be. He slowly moved himself through the crowd,  stepping aside and taking out the  archery set climbed the adjacent roof  that lay along the mountainous curve and through a hole on one of its caves marked the neck of Maria  marching  right at the centre of the first row. His hands had never trembled when it held a gun or a bow. The arrow quickly pierced her neck before she could ascertain its smooth flight.  She fell while others behind her tumbled  over her still body before registering what had happened. The dexterity of a sniper  had put its mark in the history of this little known hamlet.

The Germans were quick to react. The march has gone astray by then. Wim hurriedly joined the crowd ahead of  getting noticed before the old  and the invalid were separated and the young were asked to  report to the S.S  camp office.  The inquiry was gruelling and ran overnight often  followed by excrutiating pain from brutal force. But the S.S failed to find who behind the act was for no one really knew the hand that could inflict such painless death. They left the young  with battered and bruised skin. When the sun was showing up someone had quietly slid a hand written note under Wim’s door. It was a child’s handwritten letter.  ‘Don’t leave the town. They are watching.’ Wim didn’t hesitate to destroy the letter.

The Germans had guarded the border for over a month, keeping a close eye on the young who  passed through it. But the woe to them lingered. None suspicious could be seen over a quarter of a year. Then they came up  with a unique wicked plan, a rifle shooting competition. The S.S marched  all through the town asking everyone to join the show and succeed in gaining a medal and a place in the their office. Over a hundred of them from the town and the nearby places joined the show. But a child’s handwriting appeared for a second time under Wim’s door.  ‘Join the show but don’t hit your target.’

With their stomachs going empty and  their  rations cut off or shrunk  and a ban to visit the market place, over half the people from the town joined the spectacle. It was  eight in the morning when the crowd lined up before the S.S office hungry to hit the target. They called their names one after the other and were given a Gewehr 24 rifle, the best they had with them and the X ring fixed on the distant wall waited to be targeted. Over an hour passed but none could succeed. Wim waited for his turn at the end of the row. He took the Gewehr on him and  at once the child’s writing surfaced. He looked at the gun, a S.S rifle he had touched for the first time and soon the inferno appeared again. He thought of turning the gun at the S.S man standing beside him and pull the  trigger. But a  child’s unsettled face, he had never seen before, arose in a  jiffy reminding him of the troubled handwritten note passed underneath the  door. His hands didn’t quiver or didn’t even balk. It’s for the first time his shot would miss a destination, he told to himself. A bead of sweat cropped up over his right eyebrow, but it mattered little to him. It would take another six to seven seconds to drop on his eyelashes. After he had viewed through the ‘front sight’ a little black pencil mark in German alphabets appeared on the wall about six inches away from the target. He had made up his mind by then to blemish it and before he would decide the bullet had left the nozzle and erased the German word  from the wall.

The war ended in another three years and  the beautiful town went into disregard. The discarded cobblestones gathered layers of dust and rubbish. Another thirty  years  passed and  a new generation took the place of the old. People forgot Wim. After the war ended Wim settled in Austria as a shop assistant and grew old. When in his fifties, lean and thin, shattered by the war, he decided to go back to his own town to bring peace of mind and inner calm to his deplorable self. He who had never harmed a little bird had killed a woman, it troubled him year after year.  He did go back to where he was born but found  the town significantly changed. The cobblestones were not lost  but the children had grown up and with them the houses too. They didn’t recognise him much and he died soon in about a week.  They put him in a  grave behind the old church where he lay in peace with no name inscribed on him.

About ten days had passed, it rained heavily one preceding night, when the caretaker from the sexton’s office had decided early morning to examine the graves for any damage.  And when he had come before the new unmarked grave, the old caretaker stood petrified  in a frightening amazement. Someone had put an epitaph on it, still loose and unstable, it  bore “ Here lies a man who missed a target, because he targeted a miss.”

 

 

Windword

She was nineteen. Fair and thin and delicate but never of a fragile disposition. The day I first met her on the grounds of Calcutta Book Fair in a departing winter breeze, it was the March of seventy-six. I knew it was not the first, I had glimpsed her before but I never could descry our first meet, when and where.  A city so free and  bustling, so crowded and so uncertain at the same time, lean and fat contiguously, old images tend to superimpose blurring each other. But she had unknowingly transfixed her on me. We put our hands on the same book at the same time that drew a fatal equality and it had made  the difference.

‘ Coffee House?’ I spoke first and I knew she had missed my courtesy in the over crowded book shop, jostling for space and words where no one listens to no one.

‘Presidency College,’ said she and gave the book to me we had touched together.

‘You first.’ And she accepted. And we became friends

It was not that easy  those days and it took time for closeness when a boy met a girl. But a face could detain so much of one’s mind, which likely flounders these days, we had already read our  faces by then. I still remember the book, Gibbon’s  ‘The decline and fall of the Roman empire’ , a hardbound edition from Modern Library, literary beyond everyone’s reach who cared  with empty pockets. Neither she belonged to history or literature nor me. But the book had quietly bared a part of our ideation.

 

We sat on the grass on the remote end of the fair where the clamour had decimated into a refreshing breeze and sudden silence. And there I found how silently she spoke like a softened wind on ice in a moistened caressing scratchy tone that lingered over the words she had spoken past. We spoke for hours, forgetting what we spoke and then exchanged our addresses and telephone numbers and walked past the giant wall of Calcutta Club till we reached her home on Hazra Road a distinguished piece in red. She left me there with a promise to meet me again next day at the fair.

She wore a white saree, I only remember that and how anxiously she waited, sweating in the cool breeze in the  afternoon shade while I came rushing in late. Annoyed? I asked and no she said, quickly changing it into ‘yes’ and smiled in silence. We walked and talked, past all the book stores reluctant to visit them and love was in the air. I don’t know what we talked about, she too, only her voice delicately settling over my ears layers after layers.

That was the day I noticed how delightfully she walked, floating on the grass not resting her feet on it as her supple words formed strings after strings interwining graciously describing how restless she felt since yesterday. And now when I have grown old I know, it was a tender liking, growing in us, unbound and free.

At sixty when I suddenly started recalling her in my thoughts I wilfully accepted that such a class where she belonged to is lost for ever. I still remember how she revealed herself  like a wind flowing close to a whispering breeze in a tone scratchy still fine grained, softly but not pale, not losing a word for a minute. And I thought,  was it God gifted? Or a norm those days.

Words came in succession, independently but not alone, interwind losely but still free like a wind turbulent and  streamlined  at the same time. She never poured a harsh word, words after words came modulating each other in ups and downs mimicing her walk profusely and silently as days passed quietly. Days after days, months after months. Winter fled, summer came, cheap lemonades died out  quickly and rains came in drenching us. Sneezes came in and disappeared. Fevers called on us and we missed our appointments, our unhappiness pouring into  telephone recievers. But still her voice never quivered. Crisp but soft she spoke like a free bird, without an inch of anger furiously trying to find its place between us.  And then I lost her, I know not how.

 

I met her again, after fifty years. Fat and plump I found her and the child had disppeared in her. Now she rested her feet on the  ground, not floating  above it. But her voice had remained as tender as it was. She asked me ‘Will you free me?’  I said ‘Yes’ and never found her again, lost for the second time.

The Journey

It is not the destination that is important, but the journey there    – Chinese    proverb

T wo hundred and forty eight. He rested his aching palm upside down with all that he could hold in it while the coins chinked. Carefully calming the elbow to   relieve pain, he repeated. Two-forty-six. Its foolish and  a sheer waste of time  to count how much I have on me thought Shivkumar,  the morning waits  impatiently only four hours away. A child aged about three lay asleep on a   makeshift bed of jute that has lost its skin, quite uncomfortable for a sleep. Only  a child can rest on it unable to discern the discomfort or probably he has not yet  construed  the words to describe it. His wife  slept indolently on her left, her legs   and knees bent and her hands splayed to make herself comfortable, while her baby within, only four months into the making, quickened with ease. But she looked frail and  ill-nourished. Her bones too fragile appeared below the pale skin as bluish sticks.

The virus was at its best, pestering and killing people like hell, spreading as fast as it could without a glitch. With no cure in sight putting the whole world under a lockdown was the only choice left. Shivkumar knew of the virus, already twenty-one days into a standstill with the factory shut and no job left. Now his calmness runs out and the money too. His makeshift hut lies hardly a kilometer away from where he had worked for last ten years and now it doesn’t look at him. Ten days back he had been to the lathe shop, only to find the owner missing and the lathe-room locked. Last night the world has announced a second standstill for one more  spell of twenty-one days, leaving him abandoned  with only one option he had earlier dared to think of, back to square one;  back home, walking. He unwillingly glanced at the mirror, image of a penurious ailing tramp appeared. The disturbing white bulb overhead glowed to keep the mosquitoes away while a stench diffused from an uncovered drain outside the doss-house. Shivkumar looked through the window in utter despair, still dark but the skyscapers only a thousand yards away dazzled, overpowering him. The capital looked nervous and the milieu has worsened in three weeks for what may come tomorrow no one knew.

 

Tens of thousands of migrant workers took to street, with transportation brought to a halt to stop human migration and bring the virus to its knees, their only option left was to walk home. For Shivkumar it was nine hundred kilometers. None would dare to take up the bizarre act but he thought its better to die where he was born than to die of hunger where he worked. Unknowingly the homing bird had got into him.

Rina, Shivkumar’s wife tied a miserably broken suitcase, the only thing that was left with to the cycle, a rotten one which moves strenuously that her husband had used for over half a decade on his way to the factory. Last night she thought of relieving herself of that junk that held only a saree, a shirt and two clothes for the child and nothing else. But her hands refused. Wrapped within her clothing is a photoframe that held together the couple and the child, a newborn then. She couldn’t throw it off. Earlier a jute bag Shivkumar had tied to the cycle had a broken stove, two old tin plattters with wobbled base having pores on them and such like. A trash that meant so much to him, he had sold off all the remaining he had.

Shivkumar settled his son on a tiny seat he had borrowed from his friend and fixed it before his. For the child it was a joyful day trip. The sun still soft, the air thin and stroking gently, the percussive signalling instrument that adored the handlebar looked attractive. Even a child knows the comfort  of his seat but is unable to fathom the depth of the comfort. He dabbled with the handle and thumped his fist on the bar, pulled the handle brake and rang the bell in succession. And then turning his head peeked at his father to make sure,  absence of his displeasure. Sounds of joy came pouring in and chafing of his thigh became eminent in glee.

Rina walked, nine hundred kilometers to go, a hundred kilometers a day, she whispered to herself with a sigh. Nine hundred kilometers on foot she had never thought of. She slogged hard from very beginning, trudging every step with an odd gait. Only she knew how the baby felt within her and the child without. Thousands of them moved with her, the younger ones stumbled little, their heart and mind bolstering every step they put forward, their stride expounded how different they were.

Soon the heat became disdainfully unbearable. Shivkumar still not losing his mind, but it was only a matter of time. When the sun rose up they halted beneath a large tree, cooling themselves, but a hundred kilometer a day they had intended, soon became an unsurpassable distressing task. After about fifty kilometers Rina abandoned, her legs could give no more, she sat on the road unmindful of the heavily laden trucks that grazed past her, the state borders still open, they raced against time. Then someone told that a kilometer behind a speeding truck had hit six of them killing all. But it mattered little as the man spoke. Only a dozen hand made breads she had on her, with hunger rising quickly she knew it will run out in  two days. It will not be the truck thought Shivkumar, the starvation and the humiliation will run them over.

The child soon exhausted itself slept, his head resting uncomforably  on the handlebar which moved with every push.  His father now fatigued forces his cycle unevenly notwithstanding realising it will hurt the child more. Hardly a kilometer behind, a man walked straining himself with a weight of about fifty kilos over his shoulders, cradling a friend of his who an hour back  had labouriously walked with him, now dead. Only a large poster how incredible his country is showed up on the other side of the road. This was the ugly face of the tragedy no one had expected to come up. Shivkumar’s livelyhood has been lost overnight. After a while a policeman stopped them, punishing them to crawl and hop for leaving their home. Luckily Rina was  left out.  But for her home was another several hundred kilometers away.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 .

The sun for a few moments stood at its summer solstice. A large tree now in sight waits to cast its  shadow hardly a few yards away. The child suddenly moved his head over the cycle, crying of thirst and hunger. The father now seemingly unkempt tried to rest him but failed. The mother too was tired to carry him and the foetus in her together, and so they rested.  The harrowing journey would never end, it seemed. It was more difficult to fight the poverty than the virus.                                                                                      Suddenly Rina vomited, the sight of a starving man on the highway eating a dog‘s           caracass came into her and helplessly she took the child in her arms while her tears flowed.

When they rested, far away in a highrise in the capital a corpulent middle-aged housewife complained of her growing agony of being jailed at home and missing her workouts at the gymnasium.  An electric bike for fitness her husband had bought to tide over the lockdown didn’t please her much. For her the gym bore a different charm with so many others to gossip with. In another condominium a young girl tested her might battling deliberately with a spoilt Black Forest cake in the making. No one was happy with the lockdown, waiting for the earth to calm and bring back their happiness, a bliss in their own different way.

 

A belligerent night fell quickly. All who walked had lost track of time. For them only walking mattered and with it their sprained legs and the breathers  in between. At midnight they could walk no more. Then Rina felt someone push her. Shivkumar stood beside his cycle, pointing a finger at the bush behind her. A full term mother had just delivered a baby girl.  The sun waited patiently, to be up in three hours. Only barren lands surrounded them and the sky lazily waited for the first glint to appear at its horizon. With no food or water in sight, may be another five kilometers or so would bring them luck, wondered Shivkumar.

An old man sat by the pavement when Shivkumar passed by. He could still hear the man cry when he crossed him. He turned back but could not discern the cause of his sorrow. Someone in the crowd told him that the man has just  lost his son, away at his home in Bihar. Shivkumar saw the old man switch off his cell phone in indignation.

The second day brought more misery than ever. With no clouds hovering,  the sun refused to vacate the vortex. The legs felt heavy and swollen. A passerby on truck offered a lift for about a twenty kilometers, a boon thought Shivkumar .  They had hardly covered a hundred kilometers in two days. The child rested on the little seat, his mother unable to bear its weight.

 

Then they paused by the road guard rails on the National Highway two, the sun still in a whirling vortex and hostile. Having only two breads left, Rina rubbed one against the other. One for Shivkumar and the other one for her and the child, she spoke low and inarticulately. The cycle rested on its stand while the child rested its head on the cycle bar. The exhaustion was palpable in air. Shivkumar stood beside his cycle looking at a distance with resignation, the exhaustion depleting him of all the vigor he had on him. He then released the cycle from its stand but the child didn’t move, his head stiff, still resting on the handle bar , away from the wordly  agony .