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 .

 

LAMPOONS

 

Confederate leaders sat on a wall

Confederate leaders had a great fall,

All the Trump’s horses and all the Trump’s men,

Couldn’t  put  Confederate  together again.

 

Hickory Dickory dock

Xi Jinping ran up the clock,

The clock struck nineteen

Jinping ran jitterin’,

Hickory Dickory dock.

 

Baa baa black sheep have you any money?

Yes sir,yes sir hidden below tummy!

Some for the whistle-stopper, some for his wife

And some for his  little boy mischievous and vile

 

 

 

 

 

An Utter Confusion

You may have come across or at least heard of troublemakers who patiently wait for an opportune moment to burst into, disturbing an overall placid mood,  firmly bringing and  effectively implanting a chaos which refuses to  egress as quickly as it has emerged.But the more efficient inconvenience breeders, easily make a time for themselves and evolve spontaneously to everyone’s surprise, unwilling  to obey the perpetual  biological clock. One such entity as I would prefer to call him and  intend to introduce you to, I believe, is one in a million and the class to which it belonged to, has silently disappeared into oblivion in this witless twenty-first century.  For this, a bit of your patience not readily wearing thin, is the only thing I would ask earnestly.

Only a week back a mere luck as it would  have been,  a black and white glossy print of a bunch of school boys all around twelve years of age emerged while discarding a handful of once valuable papers turned a discerning disadvantage with passage of time. The photograph showed some thirty odd students seemingly  half  way into a rugby game in summer, refusing to be grouped,apparently the school authority having forgotten to intimate about the photo shoot the next day.But the class teacher shaven immaculately,  his hair well nourished and glistening, parted slightly toward the  left, spartanly dressed though, sat comfortably and commandably at the middle, with his pupils equally distributed on either side. This ostentation of his, a confident look, appearing only once every year was relished by all especially his colleagues with little idolatry.  The photographer must have had a difficult time  I believe, in balancing the act,  keeping the tall unruly ones at the ends of the row and putting their shorter friends kneeling  right before the heavily polished shoes of their teacher. But the teacher well hydrated and perfectly groomed who delicately sat right at the centre of the first row, I must say, was the odd man out.

As I scoured the unclean refuse, the  black and white  turned sepia, oxidised well over half a century, an uncanny force drew my attention towards the plump sitting right beside the class teacher much earlier than I  could locate myself in the  photograph. It was our last day before the summer, and I could easily relish a perfect blend of  all shapes and sizes on earth in the print. What a perfect sampling by God, I wondered, who carefully sifted through his home made sieve in search of an ideal combine. There was the tall fellow at the end, I forgot his name, the  shorty kneeling at the shining boots of the teacher, the good-hearted fat pumpkin  third from the right in the second row and the perennial liar beside the stammerer in the last row standing. They all were there in unison only the shorty appeared  less attentive carefully managing his violently escaped shirt during the football match held at recess, while the talkative good-humoured  thin man; whose mother always complained of a half empty tiffin box returned everyday, sat rather unusually  quiet  beside the shorty, watching him tuck his shirt.

There are stories about everyone even  the lean fellow who talked very little, and could easily be passed of as a dumb, attentively  listening to others with inadvertently raised eyebrows in awe and a half drawn mouth through which imminent passage of a fly, if not careful in its flight, would put you on tenterhooks.  But this is a tale about the  plump who sat right beside the  class teacher, the perennial  troublemaker, unintentional in his very own way. And I still believe he took to his seat in the photograph in the bat of an eye, in the very front row, just before the photographer had clicked his shutter, only surprised to find him at his position in the finished plate.

 

I have forgotten most of their names but the one in question, the troublemaker, had a nick name  Lord Madison, emerging from ‘mad’, but he cared little and only laughed at when called for. This mad boy, as others would jokingly refer to, had well oiled hair standing perfectly at right angle to his skull, was an intelligent fellow who cared little to finish his home work and came up with excuses as wild as anything. Once he cooked up a gullible story having been punished by his father to walk a hundred miles over the stairs up and down, the previous night. On another occasion unable to attend to his classes for two consecutive days, he came up with an excuse that he was suffering from sleeping sickness and slept for two days. His confabulations were great and one must approve of the fact that it held immense imagination and readily accepted the risks inherent with it. Running differently at different times he  carefully weaved them with utmost heed never to be taken as an escapade, never repeating one before the same teacher. His imagination would fly wild but still I would not call him a seasoned malevolent  malingerer by any chance because his lies never harmed anyone, save this little boy.

The class teacher alloted him two benches before the last not finding him quite fit to sit beside the rank holders in the first two. But Madison quite competent of handling every opportunity that would arise, would quickly rush for the seat left vacant  by the first bencher in middle of a class who had left for the washroom. On returning, one could well imagine the hush hush sound emerging from the rest of the boys, the returnee, the first boy, not finding a seat, while the teacher silently looked at the black-board . The teachers did not bother him much, aware of losing a valuable part of the time alloted to them. But master Madison would never allow  time to elapse without his attention being drawn. He would raise his finger to answer almost every question he felt he was capable of, invariably stifling others in the process. Some took him to be a benign troublemaker but others  believed him to be a laughing stock providing harmless fun at every corner.

At one such class in science when the teacher had decided to ascertain how his students had gained about ‘Siphon’ trouble arose to an exorbitant height.

‘Tell me how will you perform an experiment on Siphon at home,’ he continued,  ‘Tell me what I have taught you yesterday,’ while he sat comfortably at his desk raised above a large wooden platform. At this a quiet blue- eyed fellow, with proven ability, sitting in front of the teacher  raised his hand. But before he could raise himself to answer, Madison was ready.

‘Sir, he won’t be able to answer properly,’ said Madison in haste, “let me do it Sir,’ he continued.

The teacher thought it would be better to give him a chance first or else a hullabaloo may arise.

‘Yes Sir,’ continued Madison boldly, lifting his body erect, confident of answering it with ease.

‘First I will go to a shop Sir, to buy a bottle, a cork, a rubber tubing for the siphon to be prepared Sir,’ spoke Madison still upright and his face showing signs of gaining a complement in full on answering it.

‘Oh Sir!’ he stopped with a sigh.

‘What happened? Carry on my son, you are quite right,’ answered the teacher.

And then with a pause Madison said, ‘ I forgot the money, Sir,’ and he started again from the beginning.

‘I took two bucks from my father, Sir, and went to the grocery shop, Sir. Oh sorry, Sir, I went to a hardware shop and purchased a glass bottle, a piece of rubber tubing, a cork Sir,’ and then after a long pause he remembered to complete with ‘ the glass beaker.’

‘Yes carry on quickly and don’t lose your time.’

‘Yes Sir,’ Madison continued with a gulp of air passing through his throat, reminding himself every step he shouldn’t forget by any means.

‘ I take the glass bottle and put the rubber tubing into it,’ but by then a set of well formed crease surfaced on his forehead, realising  that he had forgotten a step in between.

‘I am so sorry again, Sir. I have forgotten to pierce the cork through which the tube should pass.’

The teacher now getting a little impatient, annoyed with Madison’s details brushed himself  over the chair on which he sat, making himself comfortable, wary of the time which  may run into a year at this speed.

‘Be quick,’ he said a little harshly and waited for Madison, ‘Don’t begin from the beginning. Start from where you ended. Ok?’

Madison nodded.

‘ I take the bottle, Sir. Then take the cork, Sir. Then pierce the cork, Sir and then pass the rubber tubing through it, and place the bottle on a stool at a height so that the water should effortlessly pass through gravity, Sir.’

The teacher looked approvingly, happy to find his pupil confident this time. He waited with a smile for Madison to complete his answer.

The latter abruptly took to his seat without finishing his sentence. ‘I have forgotten to put the water, Sir,’ he sighed as he rested  his forehead in dispair as though he had missed the last chance of his life before God. The class tittered, forcing the teacher to disgruntedly raise a pitch with his metal ruler.

‘Now stop it,’ angrily rose Sir, still  compassionate, approaching Madison, he said in a mellowed voice, ‘Why are you so confused, my son, why can’t you make it at one go?’

Pat came the reply, ‘Sir, with so much knowledge in you, if you are confused with which came first, the egg or the hen, why can’t I be?’

 

 

 

 

A Mistaken Identity

“সবার উপরে মানুষ সত্য তাহার উপরে নাই ” (Sabar upare manush satya, tahar upare nai)

Man and mankind is the truth and there is none above him- Chandidas (? 1339-1399 A.D), 14th century  poet from Bengal, India

 

 

Yousef carefully rested his taxi at Jaffa road junction. At eight in the morning the sun diligently rode Jaffa, the port city of Jerusalem in ancient time, rolling east to west,.The pale Melekeh limestone wall which bore the blue white reflective sign ‘Jaffa St’ still looking empty recuperated, yet to be caressed by the hands of tourists in search of a history sullied by the human race. He switched off his white Mercedes and with it the yellow sign on it softened. Here in Jerusalem second hand Mercedes is a common sight and Yousef had responsively driven it for over thirty years. At sixty-three he feels lonely, miserably unable to forget his days as an electrical engineer when the first intifada drove his diploma worthless.

Yousef wiped his car again while the elderly restaurateur dressed in black fearing of breaking into a quaver slowly arranged the white chairs and tables on the pavement. A man with an office bag on him warily crossed the Jerusalem light rail track made slippery by the early morning rain. The verandahs overlooking the tracks adorning decorative grills now stood empty. But the mature colourful blooms on it had already turned its faces towards the east. Yousef, an Arab, waited patiently for his first customer.

Leaning against his car he turned his face across King George street, then onto his polished shoes, tucking his shirt and rolling his hand over the cardigan like a child making it smooth and placing it in style. Yousef had persistently put his effort to uphold his gentlemanly affair as a young sincere mechanic would care to maintain his machine oiling it at regular interval. He had worked hard in his life graduating all his five children and teaching them never to feel a stranger in a place where they had been born. His neatly backbrushed dark hair carefully set on a wide face with short white sideburns quickly reflects a dependable ageing look, which nowadays often consigns itself to oblivion. Yousef though born in Jerusalem had always felt an outsider, taxing and draining himself with the humiliating existence in a land he is made to believe, an intruder.

By one in the afternoon still without sight even of his first passenger he decided to finish his lunch his wife had carefully packed for him in a Mickey Mouse tiffin-box now abandoned by his grandson. His fellow cabbies had always joked him for his lunchbox designed in Walt Disney red shorts with A,B,C and D on it. But for Yousef, his life hanging at its tail end, such jokes had lost its sharpness and bore little dent. When another cabbie parked his car behind Yousef’s it had already turned two. Tourists since the last week had suddenly emptied the walled city afraid of  W.H.O soon declaring a virus pandemic. Only half of them stayed back either not afraid of the virus or already having spent a substanstial part of their savings for a tour, coming from distant USA and the south of America. The rest of the Europeans had waived their hands yesterday at Yousef saying bye-bye and adding a line in a deriding whisper of unforeseen arrival of the deadly virus turning contagious.

 

At about three in the evening a group of  six happily widowed elderly American ladies with their skin no less freckled than creped and wih an uneven gait, perennially appearing  congenital vitiligoes all tourists and above seventy arrived, not finding a proper touring agency to suit their somewhat amusing idea of visiting tourist places without  disembarking a vehicle, for a cheaper rate. One of them a little younger than the others, looking confident and cautious opened a dialogue with the second cabbie, raising and lowering her voice in quick succession modulating like an adept sopranist. Yousef waited and waited while the dialogue often emanating like a cacophony of talkative crows, but lightheartedly mellowed, continued without showing any sign of  ending. Suddenly the lady ripping herself up from her crescendo, aware of the hands of her wrist watch and the setting sun, agreed to a sum inbetween hers and the cabbie’s and decided to quickly finish up the set agenda. But six of them had little chance of fitting into one cab. The second cabbie now approached Yousef for a share, fairly distributing his customers into two cabs for a comfortable ride. The sopranist soon restarted her gramophone sensing double payment to two taxis but quickly realised that she still would be gaining from the deal in any case.

Turning toward the second cabbie and her back against Yousef , moving her head to her left, and thumb pointing behind her she whispered,

‘Isn’t he an Arab ?’ she moved her eye balls to her left making sure of Yousef.

‘Yes mam’ replied the second driver.

‘Then I am out of  the deal,’ she continued now raising her voice, ‘I have heard of enough problem they create half the way into your tour, spoiling the  mood.’

‘Don’t worry madam. He is a good man and will follow my car while I drive slowly’, the cabbie said without even knowing Yousef.

‘What does that mean?’

‘He no create no problem madam, I guarantee’, the cabbie replied with a smile, ‘And be quick madam, the sun will set in two hours.’

The cabbie winked at Yousef who had now come out of his Mercedes, courteously opening the door wide open for the ladies to grace them.

‘ She had mistaken me to be a Jew’, the cabbie said to Yousef in an equally low voice as the lady’s and switched on his car.

‘ Baruch Hashem’ which is praise be to God in Hebrew, said Yousef and rolled his car too.

Yousef wondered, what an idea about the Arabs. For whose fault?

He asked himself, ‘Yousef’s?’

 

 

 

A step backward

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

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

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

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

‘ Guests will soon be over phone’

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

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

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

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

‘Did you brush?’ Caryn continued.

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

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

‘This is Caryn, Sah.’ She continued,

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

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

‘Wait I’m coming’, replied Smith.

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

‘Oh !’

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Unbelievable Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Yes  father, I will.”

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

“Yes, I do Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am so sorry,” said the lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Vivian broke the silence.

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

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

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

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

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

“How old would she have been now?”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure it was a phone call?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Who ?”,  “The old lady at 31?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Locked?”

“Yes.

“Who locked it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The brewing of wit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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