DECAY AND DESCENT OF THE CALCUTTAN EMPIRE

PART 2

Story and future of its skyline

A crowd of about seven, mostly aged men and women, and a child reluctant to waste his time, waits at the corner of a pavement that borders the intersection of two prominent arterial roads, wide enough to be called a thoroughfare. It is evening and a scorching summer, the heat having risen from the melted tar. They are waiting for the breeze to pass from the lake located diagonally across the road.

The wind these days blows barely, hindered by vertical jungle of bricks and mortar that rule the city like imperious people. One has no authority here and now to complain about development of human race and rise of humankind. The crowd can only wait and wait and wait at the mercy of this concrete jungle and on every rogue for his or her insatiable greed that defies Mother Nature.

I wondered if one could lie down supine at the middle of the intersection of these arterial roads and look at the vault, the upper atmosphere, how much of the sky one would ever see. Heavy wires and pipes, cables and coils, having embraced the best of dirt and oil, leftover and forgotten by the rich and wealthy, dangles over ones nostrils. These uneven, unwanted lines now rule and bear the power to outline and sketch the blue sky soiled and stained by the excrement of growth and evolution. A myriad of banners and hoardings, mostly disregarding the basic principles of aesthetics hinder a rare display of rainbow bared by a rain- drenched sky. The view is strenuous and demanding. Only the exclusive and fashionable paint their façade, mostly in crude and garish tones, to enlighten the street on which they dwell. Others have their broken homes to exhibit. The sense and affection and an appetite for grace and refinement is near morsel today. It is a pity that a true aesthete is missing in Calcutta. The merit and worth of aesthetics had always been acknowledged by the learned and the rich, the latter for the value of it. But today, the philosophy of beauty, finds its home mostly with the fat cat and the arrogant.

Where is that man on the street who speaks of Tagore and Ray with casualness and poise? His existence would have barred and frozen the obnoxious and abhorrent banners and the loudspeakers too that blare the beautiful sky with music no less a cacophony. A customary oil lamp lit with the transition of sun into Capricorn rarely adorns a Calcutta roof. Its place has been occupied by cell phone towers.

In modern Calcutta flyovers crisscross in harmony in an unharmonious way that flouts the beauty of architecture. The LEDs on soaring sticks adorn modern streets crippling radiant stars. The children have forgotten the rhyme their forefathers memorized. To witness the artistry of ‘Victoria Memorial Hall’ partially imbricating ‘Howrah Bridge’ is a rare view to appreciate and the modern people have forgotten it, I believe. Sight of giant tree-lined avenue of Calcutta mesmerizingly complementing the blue sky, one must forget and wait for a studio to fake. Alas Bansi Chandragupta, Satyajit Ray’s art director is no more. It will be a rare event indeed to find Calcutta’s skyline cast a full shadow on the ripples of river Ganges. Hard time for an ardent, not impatient, photographer to click the dome of Victoria Memorial Hall with its gorgeous fairy against a clear blue sky is a common saying amongst the professionals these days. Too many skyscrapers can spoil a beauty like too many cooks spoiling the broth. The foliage is down in Calcutta for the city to breathe. If it is true then how can it elegantly beautify the skyline of Calcutta, I wonder hopelessly. The sky no more falls effortlessly on Calcutta and kissing it nobly with its azure tinge to glorify the city’s joy. In modern day, Calcutta is unceasingly battling, to upkeep its cerebral and creative beliefs. Only a true Calcuttan by belief can shrug the existent despair or else the charm and style of Calcutta’s skyline will exist only on ripped, collarless tee shirts for men and women.

The Locard’s Principle

They sat on the lawn elegantly scythed, that lay idle before the King’s College Chapel. This huge piece of sloping green monoculture, chequered alternately in light and dark existed in its same build and glory since 1720s.The abruptness gave way to a great deviation down towards the river Cam. In spite of its eternal beauty the college law prevented onlookers using it. ‘You mustn’t touch the grass’ the dictate was stern but polite. Still it was the city’s one of best known images.  Suddenly the signs “Keep off the grass” were seen being removed. And a word of mouth says that this ground is to be turned a wildflower meadow, a delightful walk through buzzing bees, efflorescence and other pollinators. This new endeavor though strikes hard but the bell is happily ringing in everyone’s ears, especially those who hate seeing possessions unused.

Arthur was two years senior to Sarah. But they cared little to see each other till Arthur was about to leave college in two weeks time. When they met at the cafeteria Sarah was sitting four tables away, quite a distance indeed for eyes to meet and hearts to render. The middleman or the interceder, as Sarah’s friends would prefer while referring to her, plainly because middlemen always faced the wrath of history, was Anne, a little known face in the refectory. Anne would always take her food to the college hall or eat in seclusion in the bar, reading over and over the plays of Chekhov or else a page or two from Brecht’s. It was a sort of an obsessive compulsive behavior believed her friends, but for her it was homecoming. Her biological mother was a Russian.

Anne that day, seldom she would have done, sat with her batch mates at the cafeteria. The book of plays left behind in the act of an accident, now what it seems might be ‘a mischance’ or evident and conspicuous, the stars having overpowered her moves, she reluctantly buried herself into the sandwich when it  struck her that she had a pass on her for Sarah for a special screening of Ray’s Charulata at the auditorium. She waved at her friend and Sarah arrived as energetic as firebolt, as if she had waited eternally for the movie pass.  Here before Anne her eyes met Arthur’s.

I was thinking about the stars. And what are you thinking of?  Who plays the trick, I wondered. The moon or the sun in the birth charts? It must be the moon I thought. Their eyes met, both having willingly abandoned their restraint, but the Saturn laughed in absentia. When all had left the place, they two were still together, talking to each other, deserted and forgotten like a last remaining fragment of a cake on the platter which refuses to be cared by a spoon.

‘You love movies?’ asked Sarah.

‘Surely I do. Have you seen Ray?’ answered Arthur.

Sarah’s eyes never looked so bright before. Lightning colors flickered through her eyes, but they missed the tinge of blue in it. Rarely does one care why. May be at the height of yearning one forgets to look into each other’s face.

‘I have one pass for Charulata, but I will manage a second one from Anne. I believe she would love to give it to me.

‘Would you join me?’ added Sarah hurriedly without pause, often stumbling upon words and allowing no second thought.

I told you about the stars, didn’t I? They work rather fast not even waiting for a nod from anyone or for the matter not even the readers. The stars did it. And this was the beginning of the end and a beginning of the principle.

Sarah didn’t marry Arthur. Their families had different systems of beliefs in divinity and so they both parted themselves. Looking into the future they decided not to break away from their families. They knew, it wouldn’t bring meaning and happiness to their homemaking.  But they didn’t do it willingly. Some accidents  bring happiness but misfortunes don’t. So after twenty long years when the alumni association invited them at the inauguration of the newly laid ‘wildflower meadow’ they both decided to attend it.  Right then Sarah had a lightning color flicker through her eyes, still blue but less dark with passage of time. Colors do change or fade away in one’s life.

When Arthur left, Sarah had gifted him a cardigan of hers as a parting gift. And Arthur offered her a shirt of his which Sarah would always love him to wear. Both their mothers knew of the gifts they had on them. Mothers do love their children and want them to be happy in their lives. Before Sarah got married her mother had quietly removed the shirt from Sarah’s special wardrobe, a thin piece of sufficiently crippled suitcase Sarah had carried with her during her stay at the college hostel. Arthur’s mother gifted Sarah’s sweater to an orphanage. But little did the mothers know about Locard or his principle.

Wisdom is something that one cannot grow forcibly. When people turn old they learn that many a things are not worth to be said or divulged. It’s not a truth that one suppresses or a lie one utters. It’s a reality too hot and too fiery to be handled by the human race. Arthur waited for Sarah at the same table in the cafeteria where they first met. The place had hardly changed since then. Only the people around had been replaced. And when he found Sarah approach her, their senses of sadness overwhelmed their joy. They sipped coffee but they forgot to utter a word. Then they moved to the garden and sat there, still not uttering a word. And while they caressed the flowers, Arthur took out a thread of wool from his purse that belonged to the cardigan Sarah had gifted him.

‘I couldn’t bring the sweater with me,’ said Arthur.

‘I too couldn’t bring the shirt with me,’ added Sarah, taking out a piece of button that made the shirt more handsome.

Sorrow can silently carry some people long distances in life.

DECAY AND DESCENT OF THE CALCUTTAN EMPIRE

PART 1

Story and future of its lingua franca

(Only for readers above the age of eighteen.)

The period of my animate existence and my fettle permits somewhat obscurely but not improperly to recollect Calcutta as early as 1965. I believe that by the age of nine or ten one is sufficiently schooled to savor his busy circumforaneous operations. This city’s overt but silent expression as a city of palaces is long gone. Some, though very little, of the palaces do exist today, but a palace does require a meaningful environment for its continuation. The pedantry for culture, education and civilization is now simply nonexistent and most of them have vanished without a trace.

Not many a metropolis in the world is capable of effortlessly using its demonym to fecundate, conceive, nourish and finally cultivate and sustain its aura in other man’s intellect. Romans and French are only a few who proudly refer to their country or a glorious city. You won’t find a European residing at Delhi for decades blissfully calling himself a Delhite. But for Calcutta, it’s contrasting. The city nevertheless small, suffering from spatial inadequacy for long retained its unusual fusion of youthfulness and wisdom. This took hard labour to cudgel one’s brain, done deliberately from all walks of life. As if everyone was quietly putting his effort to gain acumen, lucidness, sanity, good taste, poise, nous and compassion at one go. You may think it to be an impossible, unrealistic and absurd task to take up, but Calcutta’s population did it. Much of the advocacy and assistance came thoughtfully from the city’s cerebral community. The politicians who were a mixed bag of fortune either willfully supported the thinkers or never opposed them. And with it, stilly grew the language of Calcutta, what its men and women spoke and a distinct tranquil way in which they delivered their thoughts.  There were others too, the harsher and the disordered ones.  They were so meager in number that they suffered from inexistence, nothingness and unfruitful survival.

When one speaks it’s not only what the individual delivers that matters. The style, pattern and virtuosity with which it is dispatched, displays the ultimate kindness and urbanity one has imbibed during walking his or her life. A sane, evenhanded man or woman walks one’s life slowly and passionately, while gaining on the way the ethos, ethics, goodness and scruples a life is ready to offer. For the individuals in Calcutta it mattered much. Old writings, cinemas or even the demonstrations on streets reflect what I scribble here today. But it changed too indistinguishably to be appreciated. Many a thinker would define the period when Calcutta changed the way what and how it spoke. But to me it is harder than said. The process was too slackened and too instantaneous at the same time.

Today the intellectuals rise from within the strength of a political organisation or they themselves add to the clout of it. When you follow a dogma you lose your faculty of free thinking. And when you lose your unbigoted thoughts you are no more a cerebral soul to guide the common man. The consequences are apparent and evident. This ramification may be one of the multi-factorial reasons behind the decline and fall of the city of Calcutta. And when the city fell to the depths of adversity and misfortune, the newer means of communication developed. If you have your patience to follow the language of the street in modern Calcutta you will be astonished to find much of its characteristic has changed from stylized, stately and solemn to heavily rustic, harsh with backcountry overtones. The art and craft of delivering quality undertone has been lost since long. The dialect has turned bumpy, acrid and cutting. The tone is often hurting, miserly and stingy. Listening to this you finally earn a sense of sympathy for the speaker. The child has not been taught how to speak and in the bat of an eye he has turned an adult.   

The psyche of the Calcuttans is degrading and degenerating at an astonishing quickness. Much of which can be attributed to the lack of an entrancing ambience, loaded with goodness of thoughts and enveloping the psyche. This ambience is willing to nurture the latter. It is not easily acquirable and takes quite some time and effort to assimilate. And this is one such abstract existence which you can conceive through the eye of your mind. When a gentleman from Calcutta speaks he lays before you his ambience that he has carefully crafted for years, intermingling with other gentlemen who carried with them essence of good reading, good viewing, good listening  and good thinking. Most of this is gone now and the modern Calcuttan presently believes it is of little or of no value.  As if a child is hurriedly learning to pronounce his favourite word in the English dictionary, ‘floccinaucinihilipilification,’ just for the sake of it, without knowing its implications.

The psyche I am talking about has its power to drive the cerebrations, both unconscious and conscious. With no healthy ambience to guide it, you know what happens next. By now this psyche has turned vulnerable to aggression and influence from animus that has the propensity to hit-and-run. A friend of mine, a Delhite, once asked me “Is a Calcuttan’s psyche so fragile?” I couldn’t find a quick answer to his question. May be everything in this world is fragile or degradable and has been refused existence for life.

The populace of Calcutta is defenseless considering influx from other nearby areas that has been inferior across eighteenth through twentieth century. One may oppressively argue this substance of thought even for sake of a hearty debate. Alas the truth lives firmly. The influx slowly takes time, not bothering itself, finally gathers its strength and momentum and is able to dilute the psyche of a Calcuttan. The situation appears hopeless with the steady rise of the subaltern. The dialect changes and you know well that it can never revise for good at this juncture.

 At the street corner I find an association consisting of buskers and personalities from other organized groups demonstrate the fate of one modern civilized metropolis in form of a street theatre. And I find nothing can be more appropriate than this at this zero hour.

Three modern men and two women from the city have parked themselves on the pavement at the juncture of a major arterial road during rush hour. They sit on foldable chairs with their legs stretched right across the heavily flowing pedestrians who face difficulty in crossing them.  None from the group is bothered and the pedestrians do not complain. These three men are citizens of repute and all of them are either in their late fifties or in their sixties. They are in their best of gaudy dresses. But neither of them is an earning member of the society nor anyone of them have sufficient balance in the bank to meet the pleasures. They sit, idling away their time. Cups of tea, free of cost, from a nearby makeshift shop moisten their lips every hour and nourish the cunningness of these masquerading swaggerers. Soon a known passer-by comes from across the road. The time is evening.

First sitter. [Waving at the known passerby and yelling at him]  Hey Mother f****r, where had you been so long?

[The passerby does not object to the slang uttered by the first sitter and smilingly replies]

The Passer-by.  [Heartily and loudly replies]  F*****g my wife.

Second sitter. [Jokingly] Really?   Not your sister? You are popular as a sister f****r from your school days. You forget that?

The Passer-by. [In anger and clenching his jaws] Mind your tongue or else I will rape your mother in public here.

[The second sitter smiles but does not respond. The women sitting with them smile too. A few from the rushing public laugh at them while enjoying their dialogue but others hurry their way in shame]

My readers, whoever you are or wherever you come from should be aware of the truth that this new practice is to prevail. Shamefulness will disappear. These sitters are here to stay and they are in little hurry to leave their space. Soon their language will flourish and take center stage. People will write about them and don’t be surprised to find one of them inaugurating a ‘Book Fair’ or a ‘Film Festival’ in near future.

Preface to the play ‘Hold-up’

I had no intention of writing the play ‘Hold-up’ in the midst of excellent new ones, previously unheard of,  that keep coming  every now and then by promising new writers in English literature. Only a chance exchange with my sister-in law, a well read overtly no non-sense woman, a teacher by profession, who made her views clear that the human race over thousands of years has shed a bulk of its savage, brutal, rapacious constitution or characteristic as you may cautiously prefer to call it, to avoid insulting humanity. She was referring to the acts of gladiators of Rome and the two great wars of the twentieth century. A seasoned bloodshed was on progress across the north-eastern part of the globe laid flat by equirectangular projection over the television panel in front of us, while we talked about the gigantic development in engineering science the last century had bestowed upon us. I looked at the world map followed by a peaceful city of well laid palaces and offices and high-rise structures reduced to rubble by bombs and missiles, the best the modern science from the best of the brains could produce. And I wondered how pugnacious, the modern virility would prefer to call it beautiful, displayed before my eyes and the women and children fleeing their country in dire cold and hunger. Oh what a colorful sight of disgrace and humiliation unfolding before me, bodies strewed across beautifully arched wide roads and narrow lanes a reminder of forgotten lover’s lane. I wondered how far we have changed for good in these last thousands of years or so or for that matter, the last five to seven million years of existence of human ancestors on our holy earth. And suddenly I decided not to name the mother and the boy. It can transpire anywhere, anytime.

The Hold-up

       (A One Act Play)       

Characters in the play

The Mother

The Boy

The Radio

The king

The Minister

The public about ten in number

(The action takes place in an underground metro railway station where the citizens of a city have taken shelter during bombardment by its neighboring country. The time is well within twenty-first century.)

[SCENE: Bogie of an underground train waits motionless on the railway platform. About ten men and women all dumbfound, shattered and traumatized can be seen scattered across the station. Their unwashed face, their unclean dress and their bearing reveals all. They are discussing in a low voice the future of their country. Some are planning to get food which they believe will be in scarcity soon. One adult male with his right leg hanging and the left folded at knee is seen sleeping on an unused railway vendor’s van.  On the right advertisement from a ‘Life insurance firm’ displays benefits but with an asterisk which mentions ‘wars not included’. From the left a baby (not visible on stage) is heard crying. The platform is dimly lit and appears dirty, not cleaned for a week.

On the forefront a mother aged about thirty-five, lean and thin is seen seated on a stool. Unable to read a book for distractions, she rests it on her right knee balancing it with her right hand. She is wearing the same dress for almost a week. Her look is uncertain, her hair uncombed. Her ten year old son hugs her and fiddles with his mother’s dress. He holds a cellphone in his left palm. The time by the railway clock is eight in the evening.  Siren is often heard from above the stage, meaning from the road above. Near continuous sound of gun firing strains the platform below. Explosions from rockets fired and bombs hurled shatter the air beneath. Often a deadly noise from the rolling tank and the whump from its main gun hurt the ear. Today’s supper has not yet arrived from the NGOs who till yesterday had delivered.]

A boy is seen fiddling with his mother’s dress not caring much about the crowd around him.

THE MOTHER. [Not looking unkindly but disturbed, burdened with anxiety uses her left hand to free her dress. She speaks loudly but politely] Oh! Stop it.

[The boy frees his mother’s dress]

THE BOY.  [Ashamed of what he was doing]  Sorry Maa. [Pause] Is this a real war? [An earsplitting sound of bomb can be heard and everyone puts his or her hands on ears] When will this end? It’s boring and I’m so hungry, won’t they serve the dinner? How long will it take  Maa? [The son abruptly squats, tired of standing. Then he rises again. Undecided what to do.]

THE MOTHER. [Irked but not losing her motherly love looks wistfully towards her son] Bored? Bored with the war games in your phone? [Pauses] Or the real war bores you?

[Continuous noise from bullets fired can be heard with very little interruption.]

THE BOY. [Stamping his right foot in disgust and making a sound] When will this end?

THE MOTHER. [Calmly] Which one? [Points sarcastically, at the cellphone which the son holds.]   The real one or the one in the mobile?

THE BOY. [Displeased with his mother’s reply] Stop toying with me Maa.

[The mother bends and hugs her son affectionately.]

THE MOTHER. [Stops  behaving childishly and the agonizing truth is about to be expressed. Makes herself sit erect, her left hand rests on the boy’s right shoulder] I don’t know my son. [Pause] The adults are playing a ruthless game. It is a matter of honour and prestige for both of them.

THE BOY. [Inquisitively] You mean fame and power? Like our Maths teacher who fought hand in hand with History teacher in staffroom?

[The mother quickly puts her left palm over her son’s mouth, afraid that he might spill more beans. Some men and women laugh. Obviously someone is listening. ]

THE MOTHER. [Reluctant to support her son’s views] Don’t say that, they are your teachers.

THE BOY. [Pressing his views quite convincingly somewhat nagging, to what he witnessed himself]  But I saw them fighting Maa.

THE MOTHER. [A bit sternly]  That is none of your business.

[The boy stops arguing, but he is unwilling to support his mother’s view]

THE BOY. [Speaking softly in a painful tone] Why can’t they air some music or some quiz in the radio mother?

THE MOTHER. [Rather abruptly] Because of  war.

THE BOY. Then there will be music and quiz when the war ends?

THE MOTHER. [Not confident]  Hope so.  But it will take time.

THE BOY. [Looking at a distance  to find what all others are doing he restarts to fiddle his mother’s dress again and asks rather involuntarily] Then why are they fighting mother? [Looking at the group of people]

THE MOTHER.   The  border.

THE BOY. [Understanding clearly what his mother meant]  You mean the land? Which part belongs to whom?

[The mother in affirmation nods to confirm]

THE BOY. [Like a simpleton] What will they do with the land mother?

THE MOTHER. [Angrily] Stop asking silly questions. [She frees her dress]

THE BOY.  [Laughing, somewhat giggling] You don’t know the answer mom, so you are angry. Our History teacher often does the same when he had not prepared himself for the class.

THE MOTHER. [Uneasily] You seem to talk like an adult in these seven days.

[The boy listens, feels elated, but suppresses his feelings, not responding to his mother’s views]

THE BOY. [Inquisitively looking for his mother’s support] The maid next door was saying there must be some girl involved in the war.

THE MOTHER. [In utter surprise, not believing to what she heard, but somewhat smiling, raises her hand for a slap but she knows well, she will not deliver it.] [Angrily] These are the things you are learning in school.

THE BOY. Not in school Maa, in neighborhood. [The boy giggles for her mother’s wrong statement]

[The mother shyly accepts the ‘Freudian Slip’ she had committed.]

[Someone from the crowd laughs. One lady is enjoying the discussion]

A LADY [sitting behind the mother but cannot be seen] Your son looks intelligent.

THE MOTHER.  [Responding, she turns her head backwards]. Nothing  intelligent. He is just gathering all that dirty adult rubbish.

THE BOY. [Pointing at someone in the crowd behind] That uncle was saying that there are many dead bodies lying on the main square, even children.

THE MOTHER.  [Holds her tears.  Her hands clasped over her mouth. Her two thumbs touching her lips in silence.] Don’t say that [She pauses] Your father is fighting for his homeland there.

[The boy moves and calms his mother, his hands comforting her.]

THE BOY.  Then why are they fighting mum?  It’s so boring. No school, no friends, no TV.

THE MOTHER. [Recovering from her tears]  It’s not boring. The adults are enjoying.

THE BOY. [Unable to believe] Enjoying? Killing others?

THE MOTHER. Why not?  If you can do it in your mobile games, why can’t they?

THE BOY.  [In a nagging voice] Stop maa, it’s just a game. [The boy tries to justify his war games in computer]

THE MOTHER.  Don’t worry. You are learning how to do it.

THE BOY.  Do what? Killing harmless people?

THE MOTHER. [Convincingly] Yes.

THE BOY.  [In a very low voice] I will never do that.

THE MOTHER.  [Now raising her voice, she insists] Say loudly, ‘’I will never do that.”

THE BOY. [Looking at his mother and speaking very loudly]  I will never kill a man.

[The mother hugs her boy affectionately and brings him closer]

THE MOTHER.  I believe, the king who is killing, has never been brought up properly by his parents.

THE BOY.   Never?

THE MOTHER.   May be.  I don’t know for sure.

THE BOY.  Hated by his parents?

THE MOTHER.  [Angrily] How come I know? Hated or loved? [The mother chuckles] Stop silly questions.

THE BOY.  You only started the thread.

THE MOTHER.  It’s not Quora. Stop living in your computer world.  [The mother pauses]. What I meant was much depends upon your upbringing.

THE BOY.  What is upbringing Maa?

THE MOTHER.  Raising one’s child. To guide him what is good and what is bad. What to do and what not to.  And of course,  loving the child.

THE BOY. I know that. [Pauses] [Rolling the word on his tongue]  Upbringing.

THE MOTHER. Pretty smart you are. You know the word upbringing?

[The lady from behind laughs]

THE LADY.  [The lady cannot be seen]  I told you, your son intelligent.

THE BOY. [Looking behind at the lady who spoke] Not upbringing, it’s caring. My classmate who sits next to me always says that he is not loved by his mother. She hates him.

THE MOTHER.  It may not be true my son.

THE BOY. [Stressing]  No it’s true maa. The whole class knows that, even the class teacher. He says his parents always fight.

[The mother rather angrily and swiftly puts her palm over her son’s mouth for the second time, not allowing him to speak. The next moment the mother hugs her son affectionately.]

THE LADY. [From behind] You can’t stop the new generation.

THE MOTHER. [Exhaling in disgust]  May be. [Pause] [Looking toward her son] I don’t know.  I have to wait till your friend grows up. And find whether he has turned up into a good human being or not. [A longer pause] Some people are blessed with a quality to self-educate them and teach themselves good things.

THE BOY. Who blesses them Maa?

THE MOTHER. [Raising her right index finger pointing at the sky above]  Numen.

THE BOY.  Numen?  What is that Maa?

THE MOTHER.  The  almighty.

THE BOY. What is Numen doing right now Maa? Can’t he stop the bullets so that I can watch some TV shows at home.

THE MOTHER. [Answers indignantly] You don’t have the right to say like that.

THE BOY. [Knowing well what he said was not right] Only Daddy has the right? He keeps saying words like this.

THE MOTHER. [Vexed] Stop silly arguments.

[A long pause ensues.  Only talking amongst the public can be heard. They are still discussing their fate, their home, the war, politics between the two kings. The man continues his slumber on the vendor – trolley. A focusing light points at the sleeping man. And then it moves on a transistor radio lying beside him.  A silence of about fifteen seconds is suddenly broken by the boy.]

[The boy is seen fiddling with his mother’s dress again]

THE BOY.  Maa. Those who are not loved always turn ferocious?

THE MOTHER.  [Jokingly laughing] Like tigers?

THE BOY. Oh stop kidding maa . [Throws his right hand in anger]

THE MOTHER. You mean aggressive?

THE BOY. That’s right maa, you know so many exact words.

THE MOTHER. [Caressing the boy]  You too will learn, if I teach you properly. It’s important that you utter the right word at the right time. Most of us do not know how to speak, it invites misunderstanding, confusion. And if you are not aware of this you will have a growing list of enemies. Even if you are not fighting, you are losing your valuable time.

THE BOY.  You are lecturing me Maa? This is what Daddy often does to you.  [Pausing] And you get angry. When I keep on playing with the mobile games, Daddy keeps on saying, I’m losing my time. A wasted time never comes back in your life.

THE MOTHER.  Daddy says that? And you believe that?

THE BOY. [Pauses to answer, scratches his head] Yes I do, at least now I do.  When the adults are fighting and making me lose my time.

[One lady from behind is found laughing. But she cannot be seen]

THE BOY. [Questioning inquisitively]  You love Daddy?  Maa.

THE MOTHER.  Yes, that’s the reason I wait anxiously. [Pause]  And it’s not only your Daddy, for others who have nothing to do with the war. They have just been sucked into.

THE BOY. [Not understanding a word of his mother] You mean sucked into?

THE MOTHER.  Yes sucked into. Just like, being pulled into a vacuum.

THE BOY. You mean the ‘vacuum’ ? The vacuum from General Science?

THE MOTHER.  [ Laughing, hugs her child again] What should I do with my little Teddy.  [She pauses to explain the word ‘vacuum’.] Here vacuum means…… [The mother falters to explain, not finding the exact word]

THE BOY.  [Understanding that his mother is at a loss of words] I understand Maa. They are pulled into the war , to fight people and kill them though they don’t like it.

THE MOTHER. [Now relieved that her son has understood exactly what she meant] I told you, you have suddenly grown up.

THE BOY. [ Not believing what  his mother said] Are the people, fool?  They suddenly start fighting against their wish?

THE MOTHER. [Whispering in negation]  Uh-Hooh. [Then loudly] They are no fools but they can easily be tricked into the war.

THE BOY.  Tricked? Like in magic?

THE MOTHER. [She is quite serious and understands that her son is not yet ready for this] This is not my word my son, Goering said that. [Pauses] Forget that.

THE BOY. Who is Goering Maa?

THE MOTHER.  I told you to forget that. It was just a slip of tongue.

[The boy pulls his mother’s dress repeatedly and insists about Goering. The mother at last is forced to comply.]

THE MOTHER.  He was Hitler’s right- hand man, Herman Goering.  You will come to know of him when you grow up. And you must know him well or else you face the same mishap again.

THE BOY.  What’s  mishap  Maa?  [Pauses] And what is Right- Hand?

THE MOTHER.  The closest man Hitler trusted upon. To some he is God. To many a monster. 

THE BOY. [Quite inquisitively eager to know] Who’s Hitler Maa?

THE MOTHER.  I will tell you about him another day.

THE BOY. [Confused]  A  monster and God at the same time?

[One more pause ensues.  The boy now confused with what his mother said. ‘A monster and God’]

THE BOY.  [Speaks like a grown up man]  Am I losing my childhood Maa?

THE MOTHER. Who told you?

THE BOY.  From the Television,  Maa.

THE MOTHER.  A cinema?

[The boys nods in affirmation but does not speak]

THE MOTHER.  Yes.  And you are losing your time too. It’s more vital than a childhood.

THE BOY.  [Speaking convincingly] Then there must be a girl in between, what the maid said.

THE MOTHER. [Now angry and not smiling slaps the boy lightly on his back] Stop that adult rubbish. I told you earlier.

THE BOY. [Not proven guilty by the slap, abruptly joins the conversation without wasting his time] Then there must be money.  Hard cash’.

THE MOTHER. [Facing another blow from her son and shaken by the dreadful utterances from him] God only knows where you are being taken to. Where from did you hear these words?

THE BOY.  Television.  Maa.

THE MOTHER. [At a loss] God only help this child.  What the hell the T.V is teaching you?  [The mother’s anger is utterly palpable]  I will sell off the T.V when I get back.

THE BOY. You can’t Maa. Our city is put to rubbles. Our house is gone.

THE MOTHER.  Now it’s pretty bad. Who told you that?

THE BOY. [Again pointing out at a person who is sitting behind at a distance] That uncle, he heard it from the radio.

[One person is seen rising from the crowd and walks towards the radio and switches it on. The cracking sound wakes the sleeping man. The man sits up, as if panicked, quite confused and unable to gather whether it is day time or night. Others laugh at him.]

THE MAN. [Asking the person facing him]  Got a nice sleep?

[The man now sitting upright on the trolley doesn’t respond. Still confused. The other man keeps tuning the station in the radio set.]

THE RADIO. [Suddenly bursting into a high pitched speech]  This is the ‘City Radio’ giving you the news in HAM frequency. Our city has been wiped off by the enemy. Every building has turned into flames. Our reporter says no high rise exist as of now. The buildings have turned charcoal like. Even the Montessori school has not been spared. The Central Hospital has been bombed. There were about four hundred patients admitted and a full strength of doctors when it was hit by a missile. It was further bombed  by the tanks to ensure its complete damage. There are intelligence reports that the enemy is finding ways  to gas the underground railway stations where many have taken shelter. They may try the Sarin gas which is odorless, colorless and highly toxic. We warn those in the underground platforms to keep a close watch to what is happening and keep their eyes and ears and nose open. The next bulletin if possible will be after half-an-hour. [The radio is switched off]

—————————————————————————————————————————————

[There is a pause for about twenty seconds. Everyone is suddenly muted by some unseen  magic wand. None is found talking. Even the child has stopped crying. The boy waits near his mother, not speaking a word. One keeps watching the other in a stifling quietness. No way is left for them to escape. The stage suddenly plunges into darkness.]

THE CROWD. [Immediately after darkness, a noise like in chorus erupts] Oh my God. Oh my God

[Now, the crowd can nowhere be seen having plunged into darkness. The light solely focuses on two men standing with gas-masks on them, on the right hand corner of the stage. They are softly talking to each other, inaudible to the audience. One is dressed as a King and other his mentor is the Minister. The King stands on the right hand side of the Minister. The King breaks the silence first.]

THE KING. [Looking at his Minister] Hey Mr. Minister, can you hear me? [The Minister is looking at the other end of the stage searching for something. On hearing the King, the minister quickly turns towards him.]

THE MINISTER. [Shaky] Sorry Sir, I am slightly short of hearing in my right ear Sir. [Smartly points his right index finger toward his right ear]

THE KING. [Annoyed and sarcastic] Then I believe you do not require the right ear. Remind me to call the surgeon tomorrow.

THE MINISTER. [Afraid of losing his ear, he is not only shaken but stirred too. Trembling, he starts talking like delivering his speech, as if before a large crowd eager to hear him.]  Yes my lord, the holy king, the God of all, the future of truth, the future of verity, the future of honesty and genuineness, the future of accuracy- correctness-rightness and validity. I mean the almighty.

THE KING. [Happy with the minister’s speech] It is the first flawless speech I have heard from you. It seems you have corrected and mastered your speech well. Hence forth dare not to call me “The President”. I prefer to be called a King [The minister nods, still feeling uncomfortable.] Anyway. Where is the child who speaks like an adult? And where is his mother?

[The minister points his finger below to an area within darkness where the boy and his mother sat.]

THE KING. There is not much need of them. The child has already turned an adult. Superfluous ones in this over congested world. And where’s the public?  Discussing politics amongst themselves?

[The Minister points at the area in the darkness behind where the boy and his mother sat]

THE KING. [Turning his lower lip over the upper one in disgust]  The crowd too appears superfluous.

[Smell of gas emerges from the backdrop slowly filling the stage and the auditorium too.]

                                                                     

THE CURTAIN FALLS

The Jester Who Killed Himself

Arubankalai appears to be the last railhead to the south. Your keenness may carry you over a few more miles along the dead tracks beyond this station, but woefully it leads nowhere. They were destined to be buried alive within the bushes when the tracks first came here, some sixty odd years ago. This little township boasts of a cornucopia of rain and foliage while calm and tranquility follows as a matter of course. Idle chugging of railway engines and motorists reluctant to blow their horns is all praise for this nondescript county of a thousand long years. Countless temples dating back to ninth century A.D. bear a humble testimony to this serene landscape. But today, when I roll out the first few pages of this story, it has passed twentieth century.  It is Monday, beginning of a new week, inception of a new era and birth of a new century.

Thus far the sun appears bright. Clouds as still as a mouse, have abandoned their routine hover. This is the last day of the twentieth century, a day to remember, a Sunday and weekend too. A festive mood has already set in. Camp fires will be held at night but cheap wine will follow suit right after the lunch. Dinner will be free for all. About thirty square kilometers of this forest, a piece of land like others is still ruled by a chieftain. Only for a few it is a strange historical happenstance that this holy day also transpires to be one hundred years of anniversary of independence.   The chief has decided to pray for the well being of his fellowmen and to ward off evil spirits that drive people against his county. 

When Hugues, only thirty-five, left his bogie at Arubankalai station it was five in the morning. He had boarded the train some four hundred miles away last night, north of this town. His fauces felt dry. The train air-conditioners are too heavy here. They can chill overwhelmingly and kill you. The blankets those come with the ticket have a mouthful of mites, ready to give you hives. At five in the morning the railway platform felt fresh, redolent of a quiet remote sea side and comfortable. The sea is not that far off from this place, only a couple of miles away in lone digit and the rawness of the morning breeze caressed his face like a tissue paper bathed in eau de cologne.  Through the tranquil, hazy mist that suffused the cool breeze he could see a deserted makeshift tea stall fire its oven. Hughes is new here but not new to this country. After he put his first sip he noticed Nagarajan approach him. They were roomies at Oxford some ten years back and now Naga runs an NGO here.  

They walked for over a mile to a tiny hamlet of a kindergarten school, a five bedded hospital, an office and a residential area for those who work here. Hughes was put up in Naga’s room and after a shower they left for the chieftain for a courtesy call.

The middle aged chief sat before his crowd praising them, who cheered in return. On seeing Hughes for the first time with Naga he waved at him. ‘You have a new friend of yours, an Englishman I believe,’ said the chief looking at Naga. He spoke fluent understandable English with a veritable touch of his mother tongue.  He wore some sort of a half-pant

that looked like old Gazebos made out of tiger skin, to please the villagers. He had an authentic collection of feathers from rare birds that decorated his cap.

Hughes bowed, but the chief didn’t rise from his tailored pedestal that looked somewhat like a cathedra. He only made a delicate customary nod, respecting Hughes’ curtsy. It is a practice here. People or even foreigners don’t mind this gesture. The king shouldn’t leave his seat.

‘I am Conway, Conway Junior,’ Hugues said repeating his name again.

The chieftain adjusted his earplugs. He had a large derriere that stuck to his throne and he spoke little. His trade mark kinesics took care of the rest. This brought some kind of a phony seriousness and honesty to his otherwise indistinctive banal face.

‘Conway Sir, my grandfather, was here long back. I believe before you were born,’ Hugues spoke, but he quickly lowered his words aware of the chief not happy to hear about that. Nothing on earth can be there before a chief is born.

The chief smiled reluctantly and asked Hugues to take a seat before him.

“You mean Hugh Conway of Shangrila?’ the old man who sat beside the chieftain spoke with an eye on Hugues.

‘Yes Sir, my grandfather. We share the same name Sir. Hugh and Hugues.’

‘Funny,’ spoke the grand old man again. But Hugues couldn’t find anything funnier than what the old man spoke.  He sat crossed legged before the chief, the undeclared king of the region.

It looked somewhat like a circus. The crowd, the murky makeshift cinema screen erected at a distance, the giant wheel, temporary  shops from obsolete torn apart tarpaulins, the noise, the dust that blew in all directions, people selling crude, inexpensive goods shouting at top of their voice. The haze encircled those assembled, like a canopy. It looked amazing for some time, but the noise kept rising above the quaint flute someone blew, irked little by the lawlessness that arose. It is evident Hugues will be bored soon.

The chief, no less than a king, had ordered a goat to be sacrificed before the God. But a rather timid, uninspiring but not indeterminate and characterless ‘Association for the prevention of cruelty to animals’, under the leadership of mostly young school goers, now triggered by a bunch of cunning do-nothing seniors, had successfully   banished all the goats overnight.

Hugues had taken his seat in the midst of the conference when the chieftain appeared angry and now his anger was determined to blow up the beginning of the new century. Hugues didn’t recognize the jester sitting next to him. The man was dressed in a shabby trouser unwashed for days, tied to his waist with a discarded  elastic. His shirt looked equally awful, smelling when he raised his arms and his skin that peeped, bore marks of untreated eczematous lesions.

The jester stood up quickly from within the crowd and in a trice much like a magician, got into a clown’s dress he was carrying on him. Only at this juncture Hugues could notice a hatchling drool from his pocket. The young man now dressed in a clean cloak, looking like a medieval minstrel took out the baby tortoise from his pocket and said, ‘I know of this, Sir. Someone from the opposition must have intentionally hid all the goats to teach you a lesson of tit for tat. But don’t worry Sir, I have a tortoise for you.’

The crowd laughed at this, caring little for what the half-mad vagrant said. But the jester, disgruntled with his friends and paying little heed to the public, hurriedly made his way to the center stage where the chieftain sat, kicking his legs randomly to make his way.

It is true that there are ways penned in the sacred books some thousand years ago of sacrificing a tortoise in place of costly offerings like goats and other larger animals. Even the poor take pumpkins for oblation since antiquity. Bringing the offspring close to his lips and speaking a word or two quickly into the tortoise the jester laid it to rest on the hands of the holy priest. But as luck would have it the tortoise likely out of fear hid itself under its carapace. For half an hour or so a crazy commotion and ruckus ensued as if the moons of Neptune have unleashed a heavily laden box of pandemonium never witnessed before.  A resounding clatter was soon evident as every other capricious soul began trying his hand on the poor creature to bring out its head. The last man standing was the chieftain himself. And when he too failed the jester rose to his feet and suggested that there is one way out but it will be too difficult for the king to do.

‘How much will it cost the exchequer?’ asked the chief angrily.

‘Not much Sir, but it’s a difficult task indeed Sir,’ the quick rejoinder came from the jester himself.

‘There is nothing on this earth the king cannot do,’ spoke the chieftain in anger, his face enraged, sullen and fierce. The deputy has seen nothing like this before. Quickly accomplishing his face like an ignoramus person the jester said, ‘Sir, why don’t you put your head before the deity. It is the best you can do from your end. Moreover your head doesn’t have a shell to hide.

Silence fell abruptly like an intolerable vacuity and soon the lull shattered the bliss in a jiffy. A fearsome fate waited for the jester in reticence. No one had spoken a word for quite some time since the jester let his words slip his lips like a nincompoop. At this the old man rose from his seat and with a swift jerk to his neck from right to left he eyed  the law enforcers  to take away the jester. Then quickly coming across the stage he announced that the chieftain had forgiven the jester as he firmly believes the jester to be nothing other than nuts.

As the crowd waited in composure all of a sudden the jester could be heard once more. He freed himself from the clutches of the men who carried him and in a clear and loud voice said, ‘I too am ready to sacrifice myself if the chief hesitates.’ But before he could speak more he was ferried like a backpack by four black men to the gate outside.

The next day Hugues found the jester at the local police station. The lockup was too dirty, not even worth an hour’s stay. The dust and grime had found a permanent fixture on the walls and the floor. Even if cleaned every day, there air remained the same.

He was not much expected at the station, Hugues knew about that. His own and his passport’s colour went against him.

‘Your friend a reporter?’ the station officer asked Naga rather casually.

The Chieftain Turtle The Jester

‘A biologist,’ replied Naga, ‘a friend of mine since Oxford days.’

‘You mean the University?’ the officer enquired inquisitively, while his face filled with contentment. Oxford University has done the trick. The officer who was on a year’s contract was preparing for a permanent position in police services. Oxford’ was not new to him.

‘You mind a cup of coffee, Sir?’

‘I would be happy and happier if it’s black,’ said Hugues lithely, conveying that he was just a friend and nothing else. Marlboro did the rest.

The jester looked straight at Hugues from his seat inside the lockup. It was a small place, a ten by ten room, a lockup and a toilet. It was all that the station had.

‘Why did you do that?’ Hugues asked the jester still biting his nail, not seeking permission from the officer and looking straight into the lockup.

‘I am a professional jester Sir,’ quick was the reply from the depths of the darkness of the lockup.

‘A self made jester Sir,’ drawled the officer, disgusted with the happenings still unfolding.

‘I mean a self declared half-mad jester Sir,’ the policeman wouldn’t stop here. He rose from where he sat. He had a lean, stout frame in its dapper appearance, still enjoying the Marlboro stick, his fingers folded onto his palm to make a hookah out of it for more satisfaction.

‘You ask him more questions and he has his answers readied for all of them, plan A, plan B, plan C,’ the angry policeman had no intention of ceasing.

‘Look what he has done to my conscience, I can neither leave him nor hold him here,’ the officer stopped at last and took to his seat, disgruntled and disturbed.

‘They won’t believe me sir, I am nine generations into this trade, my forefathers were at the temple for some six hundred years sir,’ the jester spoke again from the darkness of his room.

‘You mean a court jester? Interesting,’ Hugues looked inside the lockup.

‘My great- great grandfathers had their names inscribed on the temple stone sir. You can’t miss that,’ the jester was not ready to surrender but stopped for a time managing his sullen breath.

‘Let them put me to the gallows, I don’t mind,’ he continued ‘after that, they may have to burn my effigy every year, can’t forget me sir, can’t forget me,’ he repeated in one breath with a laugh that sounded crazy and deranged.

‘He is talking bloody nonsense’ Hugues made a subdued statement staring at the rotten glass paper weight and rolling it, not expecting a rejoinder.

‘What can I do if the public has lost its wit?’ the jester spoke again. It sounded like a solo one act play.

‘Keep yeah mouth shut, it’s the only thing you can do that now,’ the officer shouted angrily at the jester. Hugues could see the jester bite a half- pound bread with the coffee.

‘Finish off your coffee fast, or they will finish me off,’ the officer spoke fast, faster than the jester could eat.

‘You tried to fool the government emissary with that tortoise? A very daring act indeed,’ Hugues couldn’t help making the statement, still fiddling with the paper weight.

‘If he can fool us with his tiger pants, why can’t I sir?’ pat came the reply from the jester.

‘He doesn’t seem like a half-mad man,’ Hugues added now looking straight into the officer.

The officer chuckled and said’ No sir, he has just made a screwball image cut out for his benefits, no half-mad he is.’

‘But I know of no other trade sir other than a pantaloon, just managing a free square meal from the temple, a harmless man sir, I am,’  mumbled the jester, still positioned in the depths of the darkness that was growing fast.

Some fifteen years later I got an email from Naga, a simple but a agonizing and heart-wrenching one.

‘You remember the jester? He has been put behind the bars for ninety-nine years.’

It would have been better if he would have been impaled that day.

The Witch

The sun was down and the caliginous surrounding appeared firmly under the grip of the waning gibbous moon. Bushes swayed against the wind, just the opposite we witness. No one noticed this, only the waiting street dog aware of the ruffled leaves that looked bravely, face to face with the mysterious zephyr, whimpered. But the innuendo was too low to break the unusual silence that overpowered the fifteen odd men who had assembled for the last Hindu rites. Each one of them, wherever they stood, cast large, tall shadows. In the next fifteen minutes or so, darkness fell quickly clouded by mist and the gust had unexpectedly stopped.

At the pyre

This is the hamlet called ‘Banshee’, one unobtrusive tiny village, with abounding foliage about fifty odd kilometres away from Calcutta. Only stunted rays from the sun can enter this place. When the sun sets, darkness falls over darkness.  But its residents are not bothered. ‘Banshee’ in Indian language is flute but little do the villagers know it’s an English word. Late in the eighteenth century when the East India Company men left this village after a short stint, they named this tiny plot ‘Banshee’ or the ghost, the other name for demon. Only the postmaster’s nonagenarian father, near bereft of life knows the story of Banshee.

The fifteen men, now looking rather strange and aberrant under the weird haze of the moon had carefully cleared a piece of land of the bushes, hardly ten by ten odd feet in size and laid the funeral pyre. They waited for the dead to arrive. The dead man, struck by an extraordinary appearance of a lonely firebolt, the sky still remaining rarely filled with cloud, is only twenty years of age, stout and strong. In a rare feat of dismal fate of the family, today happens to be his birthday and he had married his leman of over seven long years, only yesterday. The terse and morose marriage against the will of the clan was abrupt and full of hateful wishes. But he lay dead, heedless of the colossal abuses being hurled over his ladylove whose frozen torso stood unobtrusively hardly ten feet away, alone. She hadn’t spoken a word since yesterday. Only the priest stood beside her.

When her mother-in-law emerged from the crowd waiting at a distance, she howled at the lady, still in her bridal dress, in a shrill male like voice that had tortured her after hours of groaning. And then pointing at the bride she spoke aloud disastrously,

‘Bring the whore to the pyre, lousy witch not worthy of standing.’

‘Let her lit the pyre, bloody slut,’ she groused again.

The priest broke off four twigs from the bushes and lit it with a strange looking matchbox from his pocket, smoothened long back by his weight. It looked conspicuous with its earmark 666 but the darkness hid it. Only the priest was in his mind, reminding himself not to forget the steps of the ritual. He had seen many a dead like this. He held the bride by the arm and put the lighted twigs in her hand. She must now put the fire on her husband’s frail looking lips and touch it delicately. But the fire hovered over the mouth unable to caress it as if some depraved spirit has strained her hand.

The priest uttered once more, a little louder for the third time ‘Touch the lips with the fire.’ But still she couldn’t.

Only a faint wailing in stupor cried out for the first time ‘How can I, the fire will hurt him.’

calcuttawriter

It is as feathery as a tightrope when you align yourself at the juncture of profound emotional likeability and obsession. This way or the other, stick to the rope else plummet. Each time I had been out of Calcutta, for a week or two, I felt a monstrous but not ugly or terrible urge to return to the city. After I had done so, solace was readily obtainable.  Even after I have crossed the half a century mark of indelible existence in Calcutta the impetus of this irresistible attachment eludes me. I had always defied Garcia Lorca’s influence on Ted Huges’ saying  “Better be a bloodless carcass than alive with the blood rotting in your body” when it came to Calcutta. Oh dear Calcutta, give me pain and suffering and even if one’s blood rots let the mind thrive with meaningful beauty of existence, because everything is in the mind and not the body.

Calcutta Skyline in silhouette in summer

Entwined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The block of charcoal

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

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

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

The curse of the paragon

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

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

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness;

The Paragon

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

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

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

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

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

An undisclosed disclosure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No.’

‘Smith loves you?’

Grandfather Clock

‘May be, may not be, I am not sure.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief encounter

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘What’s your name?’ asked Dhruva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Maya’s mother,’ she repeated

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

‘They call me by that only.’

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

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

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

‘The police people.’

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

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

‘Yes.’

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

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

‘Your daughter?’

‘Yes,’ she said

‘How old is she?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections from the modern world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From behind, voices from the crowd could be heard.

‘Long live the king.’

‘Long live the ignorant.’

Eye of the horoskopos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How come you know Sir?’

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

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

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

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

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