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Amit Shankar Saha

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   Recent stories by Amit Shankar Saha
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An April Afternoon
By Amit Shankar Saha
Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A story about love, death, time and writing.

Afternoon. I like to spend my afternoons in my mother-in-law’s house now. I take the Metro. Get down at Rabindra Sarobar. Take an autorickshaw. Get down near South City mall. Walk. Afternoon in this Jodhpur Park residence and in the neighbourhood is siesta time. The streets, the balconies, the verandas are all empty. The iron-grill gate that leads to the couple of steps towards the door is ajar and if a dog has a mind it can get in and rest awhile in a corner undisturbed. I sit inside the grilled veranda and watch nothing in particular. The street outside is asphalt and only half bathed in the rays of the setting sun. Sometimes I hear a cycle bell ring and an old man on a bicycle goes past nonchalantly.

It is twenty years ago. Afternoon. The old man is young. The bicycle is new. He goes past that same house and sees a young girl in a frock behind the grilled veranda. The girl has a Marie biscuit in her hand and she is gnawing at it for quite a long time it seems. She has come back from school and has changed her white and blue school dress for a yellow and red frock. Her mother had fed her rice and hilsa fish for lunch. Now she is in the veranda while her mother sleeps. The neighbours sleep. The corner stationery shop is also closed. She is trying to slide her feet on the slippery red-cemented floor of the veranda with black borders. Then she hears the ring of the cycle bell and stares outside. A young man who will be old in twenty years’ time bicycles past her staring eyes. The man is perhaps an errand boy of a factory or a peon of a company. He does his duty on his bicycle. The little girl stares at the passing figure. Not just today but almost every day, barring Sundays and holidays. Then she resumes sliding her feet on the slippery red-cemented floor with black borders.

One day there are guests in the house. The little girl is busy playing inside with her cousins. The veranda remains empty and the cycle bell does not fall on any ear. Then one day a friend of hers stay the afternoon at her house since the friend’s parents have to go out on an invitation and leave her behind at the girl’s house in the afternoon to study for the ongoing exams. Both the girls sit in the veranda with their books to study, though the girl’s mother asks them to sit inside and study. She scolds, “You cannot concentrate on your studies by looking at the road.” But the girls remain adamant. “The road is empty in the afternoon.” That day both the girls hear the cycle bell and see the man cycling past. They study history. Get good marks in the exam.

One day the girl sees a Buddhist monk in saffron robes passing by. It seems to her as if a Fa-hein or a Huien Tsang has leapt out of her history book and crossed her sight. Years later that girl, grown up into a beautiful woman, recalls that sighting of a Buddhist monk when we are on a halt in Bhalukpong on the Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang circuit. She had insisted that we visit the Buddhist monastery in Tawang during our holidays even though it was the high time of ULFA militancy in the north-east. I had tried to reason with her but she insisted that the tour will give me substance for writing. I had said exasperatedly, “Mala!” and then acquiesced.

There is the ringing of the bell once again. This time it is a cycle-rickshaw. Did the girl see any cycle-rickshaws during all those afternoons of her childhood from this veranda? Perhaps she may have seen hand-pulled rickshaws instead, tintinabulating past.  We had taken such a handpulled rickshaw from outside Calcutta University the day when I saw her last. We had gone to Central Metro Station and taken the same train. I got down at Esplanade and she went on to either Rabindra Sarobar or Tollygunge. She was very quiet that day. I thought it was one of her many ways to cause me little pain and gain for herself some sort of sadistic pleasure. The next day I got the divorce notice from her lawyer.

It seems strange that the Metro stations have become witness of our first and last meetings. That day I was in the queue at the exit turnstile of Rabindra Sadan Metro Station and had forgotten to insert my ticket into the machine. But the stiles revolved and I got out because she, standing behind me, had inserted her ticket, and then seeing me absent-mindedly going away leaving her stuck, had shouted, “Give me your ticket.” I had apologized, “Sorry, I thought the gate was out of order and open for anyone to pass through.” That was our first meeting. I exited on her ticket and she on my ticket and our lives got entwined.

We ran into each other a number of times since then: on the stairs around the lift in Asutosh Building, in the reading room of the Central Library, at the screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the British Council, at a book exhibition in the Academy of Fine Arts, and so on. Until we decided to plan our meetings. The name Mala became a word that was always on the tip of my tongue. Mala took me to the National Library and there I found an out-of-print Terry Eagleton book. I wanted to photocopy the full book but the library officials will allow each member to get only one-third of the document photocopied. Mala got one-third photocopied in her name and even convinced a complete stranger to get the remaining one-third photocopied in his name. Mala took me to seminars in Jadavpur University and showed me her article in Essays and Studies. Mala took me to Gol Bari and showed me how the statue of Netaji stares at the eatery from the five-point crossing. Mala took me to Birla Industrial Museum and showed me the models of colliery workers just after I had read Sons and Lovers. Mala took me to book fairs and book launches, film festivals and theatre festivals, concerts and conferences, and even to discos and parties. And then Mala took me to Digha secretly. After coming back from the seaside town we married on a rainy day. Her mother, relatives, and friends were shocked.

That little girl in red and yellow frock must have watched the rains too from this veranda. Twenty years ago did she wish to get married someday on a rainy day? A day of unseasonal rains. In April. All those years ago on a rainy April afternoon when the man on the bicycle passed by cloaked in a raincoat and ringing his cycle bell to no one in particular in that empty road. She had cried out to his apparition like presence in the drizzle - “Pagol”, meaning “mad” in her native tongue - and hidden behind the curtains of the door leading to the veranda. Did the man go home and tell his family of being teased by a little girl? And the girl had in that moment of wickedness spite some subterranean spirit. Years later on another rainy April day she will get married and the avenging spirit will start a process that will not end until her death.

This April afternoon as I imagine the childhood of that girl, who grew up to marry me after that secret trip to Digha, I realize that it was not sadism that made her say that I cannot write anything of depth because I was too happy. Near the lake in Tawang she had surmised that if she jumps in and drowns then how it will give substance to my writing. I had scolded her not to talk like that. Then she had confessed that at the last party that we attended she has been taunted with the question - “Has your genius husband written anything of substance till now?”

It was perhaps then that she decided to divorce me for she realized that her presence in my life was a distraction of too much happiness. So she wanted to separate from me. But why she had to die - some said that it was an accident and some said that it was suicide. Or was it the vengeful subterranean spirit who took advantage of her state of mind? Succumbing to the guilt of her wanton act committed all those years ago on a rainy afternoon in April while looking out of this veranda.

Soon the afternoon is breaking. I hear the sound of shutters being opened. The sound of air being coughed out of taps before the water arrives. The sound of pedestrians’ feet increasing in volume.  Speech growing louder but still indistinct, like the sound of the approaching tide of the sea. I want to join the tide before it enters the house. I go to wake up my mother-in-law but find her already awake. I take her leave for the day. She does not stop me for tea as she used to do when I first started my afternoon haunts in this house. She has stopped thinking that I come for her. I leave, walking down the loneliest of lanes. Until I come to Prince Anwar Shah Road. I get engulfed amidst the traffic and the commuters. I temporarily lose my thoughts. I hail a taxi and hurriedly get in. Esplanade, I say. Inside the nook of the taxi I try to reconnect. But fail.

I am taken away. Further away. Further away. Away from Jodhpur Park. Away from Prince Anwar Shah Road. I close my eyes. A thought comes to my mind. The ideal is not the world where we both exist but the world where we both do not exist. There is no fear of separation then. That world. That world. Far away in remote time. Taken away. Further. Further. When I open my eyes again I am near Park Mansions at the crossing of Park Street and Free School Street. I go further away. I enter Chowringhee Road. I look out at the White Town. I am so far away. So far back. I get down at the crossing of Corporation Street, which will in time be rechristened after Sir Surendranath Banerjee, and walk east, up the street. I see Keith lamps lighting the street. I cross the Corporation Building. I go further back. I walk past a palanquin near Rani Rashmoni’s house. Gas lights adorn the street now. I go still further back. I walk in Jaun Bazaar Street. It is a dirty, filthy, narrow sort of lane with irregularly built houses.

In that disreputable corner of the city, in the past, when we did not exist, I stumble at the asymmetry. I feel the romantic poet’s despair and melancholy. In that mood I write of her childhood as I imagine it. In time I am accused of being melodramatic.

[This story was first published in The Four Quarters Magazine - December 2011]

       Web Site: TFQM (First published - December 2011)

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