Since the last monsoon, the door was giving Paritosh a hard time. He reached home before Malini, hence he was the one in for the trouble. Pulak, the locksmith must be called for, this coming Sunday and the key should be altered. If needed, the padlock itself must be replaced. The plan in his head never translated into reality. That day, Paritosh ran a fever. It was stark noon and the key kept turning into the lock. He had about one-and-a-half bottle of water at the office, now his bladder ached as if it was going to burst, a splitting headache left him numb and the door refused to budge! At first, when the key wouldn’t fit, Paritosh wondered whether he entered the wrong key under feverish daze. He rummaged through his bag just to be certain. Then, when the key entered the lock after six attempts, it would not turn in any damn direction. Paritosh worried that he might just soil his trouser or collapse right there. A hotchpotch of ideas jet passed in his head– should he go and knock at the neighbour’s door or should he text Malini asking for Pulak’s cellphone number or should he rather call his dearest friend Samaresh? he even laughed up his sleeve when the idea of messaging his expatriate daughter and son-in-law and its feasibility flashed past his mind. Right then the key turned, Paritosh pushed, the door did not open. As if someone on the other side countered his efforts with equal and opposite force. Then, pulling all his strength together, Paritosh gave it one mighty push, not caring if it would break the damn thing and it came open with a loud creak. Paritosh barged in. Colliding with his head the wind chime broke into a melodious tune.
As he threw the bag on the sofa and sprinted towards the bathroom, he could feel the sun and the air flooding the veranda, the warm rusty smell emitting from the hot window grille mingling with sundry other domestic aromas—the spiced tampering from last night from the kitchen, the mixed fragrance of the soap, the shampoo and the aftershave lotion from the bathroom, all seemed to surround Paritosh excitedly from all sides. Paritosh felt as if the house was sun bathing, alone and unkempt, delaying his entry and just as he stepped in, the bell rang, the sun, the wind, the varied smells welcomed him and all seemed to strike the note— opening of a festivity on Paritosh’s homecoming. He was, as if, an ancient had returned to his palace after ages. His crown grazed the temple-bell and it broke into a celebratory chime spreading it across the kingdom. Curled under a shawl in bed, Paritosh kept thinking how he was outside— anxious, breaking into a sweat and just as the key turned how everything changed! In an instant, he thought of death and then of superannuation. His retirement was around the corner. He feared it for so long, wondering what he would do, how he would he live without the office. But then, in that afternoon, in a daze of fever, Paritosh turned into the King of Halla—running in the sunny veranda, clapping and exclaimed, “it’s a holiday, it is, in deed”!
However, the day of retirement was overcast. Paritosh had gone quiet. With bouquets, nosegays and gifts in his hands he stood in front of the house, flanked by Malini and Samaresh on both sides. A slanted white gash formed in the sky—intense and bright.
“The clouds seem tilled, Malini was trying to break the ice.
“Is it the mark of the wheels of a chariot or that of a bicycle? ” Samaresh lit a cigarette. The word ‘bicycle’ or the cigarette smoke abruptly opened up a space for conversation. As he e door, Paritosh blurted out, “remember the plan we hatched back in seventh class?”
“Which one ?” asked Samaresh relaxing on the chair taking a drag at the cigarette..
“The one about waiting…for death! Don’t you remember?”
“Oh come on, spare us your senile blabber! as if no one retires ever! Samaresh da, please take this up with your friend. I have been telling him to join something somewhere else. Might even start a consultancy firm or something. Everyone does it these days …even Papia’s husband—and here he is with his morbid plans!”…
Malini turned sombre.
“I am not going for any damn consultancy; have slogged enough…. No, no, not anymore.”
“Is anyone forcing you at all? You have retired just today and you have to get going on dying right this instant? If you keep brooding and lock yourself up at home, you will grow even older!”
“Why shall I brood? I shall wait. A beautiful wait. Thought about it since my childhood.”
“Oh God! Again, that predilection with Death! If this is not brooding, what is?!”
“Hasn’t that eccentricity spared you as yet?”
“Any new insanity, Samareshda? Don’t I know anything of it? Please sit. Let me get you some tea.”
“I can’t today. have to go see the doc. Just a routine check-up. Come on, while in school, I had gone through “Arogya Niketan” and suffered a great remorse, I felt for him who could not see it till the last, that’s it. Both of us thought, we would be able to accomplish that which Jibonmoshai failed to do till the very end. Ha, ha… we were barely twelve years old, we chalked out a ‘to-do’ plan in the pages of our ‘Bangalipi’ exercise book, a numbered checklist, the fifth one was perhaps, to refrain the eyelids from shutting out with the help of a broom-stick.”
“Oh…is it so ? I knew of ‘Kalida’ but had no idea about this! How absolutely bizzare! And, Oh God! In fact, you are still the same.”
Paritosh chuckled , “Look, now you call me ‘old’! What can I do?”
“Your family rests easy if it knows what you are going to do…otherwise…”
… “well I Haven’t planned as yet,” Paritosh retorted.
He put the flowers in his hands into the vase, put the sweets in the fridge and started to unwrap the gifts. Malini glanced briefly, lowered her eyes and went to the kitchen to get tea.
A couple of weeks passed by doing nothing. In a few days Paritosh, it seemed as if a new Paritosh with unkempt stubbles dawning a little ruffled, soiled vest and pyjama had been conjured up, dismantling old routine habits of getting up early, having tea and finishing up shower and shave. As a result, he kept snatching a look at himself in the mirror repeatedly, even clicked a few selfies with eyes closed and mouth agape – he ran his fingers on the touchscreen. Amused, he deleted them and spruced himself up by shaving and brushing his hair.
And then, he glided into a schedule straightaway. He lay his hands on the bookshelf after a long interregnum. He took The Mahabharata down followed by Arogya Niketan, Mrs. Dalloway, Cold Mountain, Emperor of all Maladies, even Abhedananda. He frequented College Street nearly ten times, and ordered a few books online.
Malini used to go out for college in the morning with Paritosh stationed at his reading desk with laptop, strips of blood-pressure pills, water bottle and books. It overlooked the veranda in front, sunshine, the play of the wind and a patch of grass just beyond. The left window opened to the street, people, cycles, rickshaws, autos or the cars. The sun mellowed gradually the shadows elongated and Malini came back home when the streetlights lit up. “What are you reading?… What have you read so far?… Such and such incidents took place in the college today… I am fed up by now!” … Malini’s words, the way she looked at him—her concern and worry running underneath, Paritosh could sense them all. As she spoke, Malini warmed the dinner, freshened herself. After dinner, she would return to the college copies, readings, intermittent phone-calls, to their daughter and the son-in-law on skype— Paritosh too returned to his reading-desk. Then, there was sleep.
Paritosh was reading widely —both in Bengali and English— stories, novels, essays—as if through reading he was actually trying to carve his own personal image of Death. Meanwhile, the sun rolled over and away from his feet, morning led to noon, noon made way to afternoon, life’s pageantry glided by outside the window— the reading-table seemed to constitute his entire existence now. Paritosh desired to meet Death thus—he expected for it show up just like that and sit on the chair on the other side. And just like that, he would start, “Hello Kali da, how do you do? Would you like to have a cup of tea? How many teaspoons of sugar?” And then, swinging his legs in the sun on the verandah, Death would sip that tea, flip through the pages of his books, Paritosh would observe him too, tallying with the facts he learnt from the books. Later, after a round in the loo, brushing his hair, he would be all set, “Come, let’s be on our way, Kalida!” …
It went on thus, for months. Paritosh, increasingly reluctant to go out —he was annoyed to attend invitations, the shopping-malls or movie-halls. Malini mentioned Papiya’s husband, off and on, and Paritosh simply laughed it away. In fact, he was bent on severing himself from this house, this seasoned domesticity, daily involvements and even Malini. He seemed to want go back to his twelve years of age hatching a plan for confronting Death, along with Samaresh. The latter kept busy with theatre, music as usual. Paritosh was bored of his solitude. He felt having a witness to this wait, someone to keep an account of each moment of it, much like a reality-show camera was necessary…. he thought of the desk, where he could have something alive apart from the ants, mosquitoes and flies –something more permanent something that would feed and doze off on the desk. He could not think of anything save plants and fish. Rearing fish called for much involvement—changing the water, distributing their food in measures among other thing and even then fish die pretty soon. Keeping a small fishbowl is, of course, feasible but if it slips from your hand, while refilling the water, it would be a disaster, Paritosh shook his head, waving his left hand up and his right one down and vice-versa simultaneously. Plants are better. Malini agreed.
Instead of bookstores, he veered to the nursery. It had rows of flower plants, tubs, seed-packets, sacks of saplings and fertilisers—umpteen gardening supplies lined up there. He imagined himself digging, watering and preparing the soil. He thought of rose, marigold, jasmine, tomatoes, beans thriving around him. There he was, taking a breather, hands on his waist, sweat beading on his forehead, his white vest soiled with dirt and all of a sudden in that instant, Death chuckled from amidst the sunflowers and dahlias. Standing at the nursery on a Friday afternoon, Paritosh was lost in such reverie. And that was the beginning of the gardening!
The garden was in fact the verandah, few tubs on the roof and a slim strip of grassland, at the front. Quitting his desk, Paritosh was now out of his room most of the days – his muddy hands had axe, fertilisers and water in them.
A heavy downpour occurred that day followed by a light shower. Then the western sky cleared up and tearing the clouds, sunshine poured over Paritosh’s verandah, those redolent passionflowers, in the corner-tub, there purple petals and leaves shivered in the monsoon wind, the hazy lilac reflection fell on the wet, red-floor of the veranda, the water and the roots trickled down—Paritosh looked on standing on the threshold. The moment seemed ethereal. All too fragile. Ready to crumble into smithereens once the light shifted just one bit or the veranda dried. Paritosh was scared, he brought the ten fingers of both his hands closer to his eyes, in a beehive pattern beside the greenish vein on his rumpled skin, and on it fell the post-shower glow—the light in which any bride would look her best! He ran to his reading table to fetch his cell-phone—he captured the moment just before it got crushed into fragments—CLICK!!
It seemed like the opening scene of Andalusian Dog—Paritosh’s eyes opened. Next morning as he woke up, he came straight outside in bare feet—clouds had vanished, the lilac shadows were no more, long orange threads came to fill in the floor instead—CLICK! Rabi’s mother, the house-help had strained rice in the basin, few grains lay mixed with rice-water on the metal-grid, the mingling of rice with rice-water lent it a look of rice-pudding—CLICK, CLICK! The girl wrapped her hands around the boy’s waist firmly as they rode the scooter, with the tail-light on. Just as the scooter turned in front of Paritosh’s house, the tail-light, the right leg of the girl all shot up in a straight line, as if it were the third eye down her white salwar—CLICK,CLICK,CLICK! Malini suggested a good camera. Paritosh refused, “No need. This the cell-phone works fine!”
All those minutes, seconds and bits of his waiting now froze under Paritosh’s touch —his cell-phone overflowed megabytes, gigabytes of images soon spilling over to the “Cloud”— he was inching towards his destiny through an arrangement of moments after moments. As if he would be able to locate Him in one of these frames… and ….
“How are you, Paritosh?”
“Kalida, welcome home, come in, have some tea.”
Samaresh was diagnosed with cancer. Both his daughters took him to Mumbai in no time. They brought him back after three months.
“They handed out my final sentence, you know. Date and time are yet to be fixed. But six months to go, at the most,” said Samaresh, lying down in his room. The tube-light flickered, the choke had gone non-functional.
“The last hours would be Bad…Lord, I’ll suffer all the—ha, ha, ha the doctor said, they’ll probably keep me sedated mostly, at that time. I’ll miss Kalida’s arrival. Think the broomsticks will be of any use? Samaresh broke into laughter, his usual boisterous guffaw. Malini wept, silently.
Paritosh’s gaze wandered adrift on the face of his friend, all over his body, stygian darkness had trickled down those green veins of his fair arm to the tip of his nails. Darkness loomed on his forehead, over his weary eyes, the nose and the lips seemed somehow askew in appearance. Paritosh’s heart quivered. What if Kalida visits him too like this?
Paritosh clicked a photo, Samaresh leaning against the bedpost, the backdrop stretched as far as the lens would cover through the open window, comprising a garden and a cat. While returning, he and Malini both remained quiet. Malini gazed at Paritosh’s face quite often, once she seemed to put her fingers on the veins of Paritosh’s hand too. Paritosh moved his hand aside, startled.
Paritosh’s daughter and son-in-law visited on Christmas holiday.
“Your father needs a change. He has been sitting idle at home for a long time—let’s go somewhere for an outing together”.
“Will father go? The situation with Samaresh Uncle… and his gardening, photography… but what’s next?”
“Let me talk to him. It’s a matter of just a few days. You talk to him too.”
A vigorous resistance was what they had expected. But Paritosh nodded in consent in an instant.
Paritosh and his family went out well ahead of sunrise, this hour having the highest possibility of seeing a tiger. Being late would mean a return on getting to see just four deer, two peacocks and a host of monkeys. Malini rushed—she set an alarm at 3 a.m. and woke up, nudged Paritosh out of sleep and then went straight to rap on the door of their daughter. Dawn was yet to break, the sky was muddy, fog stood intertwined like grey strands of an old woman’s hair at the tip of the dry twig Malini nagged Paritosh to put the monkey cap and muffler on.. She, herself, wrapped a shawl over her sweater.
Malini, Nandini, Samrat and Paritosh got into the unhooded jeep. The guide kept belting out his spiel—this mountain, the jungle, the ways and manners of such forests. The park was divided into ten zones. Supposedly, each zone would have one tiger, yesterday and the day before, the tourists had encountered a tiger in Zone 3 multiple times. Their jeep left the populated locality behind to make a foray into Zone 3.
–“Well, can the tiger not pounce on the jeep?” cocking her head out of the shawl, Malini asked.
— “Don’t worry, Madam! Such cases had never happened here so far.”
— “Who says I am worried? just curious !”
The narrow road was flanked by woods on either side and various trees embraced each other overhead. In that play of light and darkness, the Aravalli massif was looking like the clouds. The jeep moved slowly. Samrat and Nandini kept clicking pictures with their stupendous camera. Paritosh had his cell-phone in his hand. Malini went rubbing her hands under the cover of her shawl. The driver and the guide kept vigil on both the sides. Once the driver held his fingers up to draw their attention to a herd of deer, who crossed the road sashaying, without paying any heed to them. The sky was getting clear gradually.
– “Who knows whether we would get to see a tiger? Morning is about to break—why didn’t you all get up a bit earlier?”
– “Come on, Maa, we will be here for another couple of days! We’ll book the safari for this evening. Guide Sir, can you get us four slots for this evening?”
Right then, a peacock called and flew away. The guide motioned at the driver to stop the jeep. He asked everyone to keep silent. The mountain sloped downwards in steps right by the jeep. Far below, round, smooth pebbles could be seen. A thin stream ran gently on the other end, the mountain expanded brimming with more woodlands. The guide pointed, “There it is… over there!” Paritosh focused into the cell-phone camera— he stood witness to the drifting clouds, the fog melting into droplets from the end of the dry branches, soft vapour rising to the heavens from the grasslands, and an ancient volcanic rock stood at one corner of the frame. Right behind the mound of granites where the quiet stream flowed, his royal presence flashed. Lowering its orange-black-striped face, it lapped the water. Two more jeeps pulled up silently by then. The universe, replete with the chirp of a few early-morning birds, mild murmur of the water flowing by and the shutter clicks. Samrat and Nandini pointed their huge lenses, pulling her shawl off, Malini stood up grabbed the iron hold of the jeep-, and all of a sudden jumped out and ran towards the water!
A broken, rugged, gravelly path, undulated and steep—Malini stumbled and rolled right to the bank of the creek. The tiger of Aravalli looked up. Paritosh cried out and as he was about to leap out of the jeep, the guide held him back. Paritosh kept trembling, throwing his limbs like a madman. At some point in time the cell-phone slipped off his grip, tossed on the rocks and vanished.
Malini lay still, she could feel the ice-cold water and smooth stones on her back. She looked up at the sky, the morning was about to be. Voices screamed from afar, “Idiot, is she dead-drunk or mad?” A familiar voice croaked, “What are you doing? What exactly? Come back, please come back!” he cried.
Malini was watching the melting-down of an ice-cream above her head, the deep hue gradually fading out into ashen to orange and then bluish—but it was not flat like a canvas, it seemed three-dimensional— a mountain. At first it looked like a small rock carved out of a hefty mountain, then it appeared as a real ice-cream. A stupendous ice-cream kept melting and falling on the gravels with a fizzle, forming small crowns— a glass diadem at first and then letting go of shapes, mingling with the reddish tint of the stones, seamlessly. And then, the ice-cream burst —an orange flame spurted !
Malini knew: KALIDA!
Paritosh’s cell-phone rolled down into the wilderness. The moments of waiting scattered into smithereens across the forest!
Born and raised in a Calcutta suburb, Indrani Datta is an expatriate writer who started discovering her writing skill after landing on a distant shore. While on an incessant mission of searching for the magic words to connect with the readers, Indrani authored two collections of short stories and is working on a novel.
Kataki Datta – is an Associate Professor of English. She is a writer, poet and translator.
Cover artwork by Mubeen Kishany.