Translated from Bangla by Shrideep Biswas. Cover art by the Le braccianti di Euripide collective.
The joy of taking off from the ground and leaping into the big blue sky is simply ethereal. When the gigantic bird spreads out its silver wings and flies across the land of the clouds, a strange sensation takes hold of the mind. The airship, which a little while ago was hovering on terra firma, gains a tremendous speed and suddenly shoots up into the air. The buildings, the roads and the winding river below all start to shrink in size and finally disappear from sight. It is like making a trip into an unknown world. It feels as if this onward journey is the only concrete reality and all that existed a little while ago were mere illusions.
Arshi would be meeting Shaluk exactly after fifty days. She also knew what that meeting would entail. Their conjugal life was never without strife and discord. She would often wrack her brains to recall any pleasant or romantic episode in the twenty five long years of their married life. And yet she couldn’t get over the love sickness of her courtship days. Nor could she get rid of those butterflies in her stomach whenever she would meet him after a hiatus. On a sudden impulse, she would yearn to hold him in a tight embrace, just as she used to do in days gone by. Those yearnings would flutter in her heart for a while, calm down and eventually slip into a deep slumber. In slumber those yearnings would remain, like the legendary sleeping giant Kumbhakarna, for at least six weeks if not for six months. Then again, new yearnings would crop up.
Palki often gets annoyed. “Ma, this love of yours for Baba, irritates me at times. I do not understand wherefrom you muster so much love for the man who spews venom at you day in and day out and prefers to stay away from you by all possible means.”
“Shut up Palki. Stop talking nonsense.” Arshi could feel her rising anger. “The man in question happens to be your father.”
“Fatherhood entails certain responsibilities, Ma.”
Responsibilities! Arshi broods for a while and falls silent.
Palki goes on. “Ma, this man does not genuinely love you. He only pretends to. Don’t you remember what he did last time when we had gone to trip together? Shall I narrate once again the outgoing message that I chanced to see in this mobile phone. ‘The drama queen is with me darling. Please do not get mad at me. Blah, blah, blah…..And yet, the way you molly coddle this man…….. ”
Arshi slips into a silent soliloquy, “ I know all about it. Yet, I would rather vent my spleen myself rather than anyone speak against him. It makes me angry. I feel like leaving the spot right away. I don’t know why…..!
Grandmother used to say that a conjugal relationship lasts for seven lifetimes. Couples are united by the will of Providence. That is why they vow before God at the onset of their journey. One rash act in a sudden fit of rage can jeopardize everything and damage the set up beyond repair.
Perhaps Grandmother was right after all. Arshi continues to murmur. That is why the idea of breaking up seems like an outrage.
# Endless Waiting!
Entire lifetime is replete with so many instances of waiting. That long wait, that terrible yearning to join college after the high school examinations were over. An admission to college was a sudden passport to adulthood! A gateway to freedom! An opportunity to attend classes with boys! And yet, Father frowned upon the idea. It had to be a all-girls’ college for her. Finally, Sarada Mission was short listed for her sake. This time Mother vetoed. A wilderness stretched en route this institution. The large tract would overflow in the monsoons and be infested with venomous snakes. She would not let her sari-clad daughter to trek through this obnoxious swamp.
Hence the search began for yet another college. The second institution was close to the residence. The Principle was an acquaintance of her Father. He glanced at the result sheet at stared long at her Mother’s face.
“Madam!” He exclaimed. “I am aware of the fact that your husband is a busy man. He hardly has the time to spare for his daughter. But your case is not like that. Besides, you are a teacher yourself. How come you are being so ridiculous?”
Mother appeared to be startled. “Why? What’s wrong? Would you not admit her then? But her results are good enough. My husband too assured me of your help. I was told not to worry.”
“Her results, Madam, aren’t just good. They are, in fact, brilliant. Our college is only for second and third-divisioners. Your daughter has scored a high first division. No Madam. She is too good for us. There is no dearth of reputed colleges. Get her admitted to one of those.”
So yet another round of search began. By then the all the reputed colleges were through with the distribution of admission forms. Her cousin came to the rescue. “No need to worry”, he assured everyone. “Only you have to stand in a queue, and that too while it is still dark.”
“-What do you mean?”
“-I mean to say that while the admission form distribution process would start at a six in the morning, people start queuing up from the previous night. But, there is no point in worrying about it. We have to fix our agent in advance, say by about nine o clock at night. He would lay a brickbat for our candidate in the queue.”
– “How on earth would people know that the very same brickbat represent our position in the queue?”
-“Do you suppose that he would take the money for nothing?”
Eventually, she secured admission in a well reputed college. Without anyone’s recommendation or getting into the complications of long queues and brickbats.
One wait ends and yet another wait begins!
When would Shaluk come to meet her? A secret rendezvous for about ten minutes, a little touch and a little increase in heart beat.
Thereafter began yet another round of waiting. When will they overcome all obstacles, persuade their reluctant guardians and finally unite as one!
Even that wait was over in the appointed hour. While still in college, they were united in holy matrimony. Life suddenly became colorful. Every fiber of their being began to dance with joy. As if, they were in the midst of a concert, every day and every night,
Is everything predestined or are we ruled by chances? Nobody knows for sure! Or else, how could everything go awry so soon. Within days things began to change, one by one.
Soon began her long nocturnal vigils. Right after her college hours she used to stand at the crossroads and wait for Shaluk to return from work. Buses, auto-rickshaws and taxicabs used to pass by one by one. Tired men and women used to return home after a hard day’s work. The night-watchman used to strike at the lamp-post with his stick and blow his whistle. As if to tell folks that it was time to go to bed.
Arshi knew no sleep. Her man was still out of doors. Those lonely nocturnal vigils got her acquainted with so many strange souls of the night. Once she found a young fellow, stone-drunk and wandering aimlessly. She got to know his story while escorting him to his home. The fellow is an engineer. Seduced by a siren, his father had left his mother. Twice his mother had attempted suicide. “As if I meant nothing to her!” The boy groaned. “I tell you Didi , the whole world is a Bas….!
Arshi took him to his home. She gently admonished the boy, “Time will heal everything. Don’t drink so much. What would happen to your mother if you would drink yourself to death? Have you ever thought of that?
The next day she had met the boy again. He was on his way to the office. He had lowered his gaze and quickened his pace.
“Perhaps this is how the dark night conceals all melancholy!” Arshi mused.
Her landlady had the habit of loudly talking to her from their apartment on the first floor. From time to time she used to shout, “Arshi, has Shaluk returned? Now I am really worried about you. It doesn’t look good for a young girl like you to loiter the streets at night. Get inside and shut the gate. Open it once he comes back.”
Arshi could not tell her that she felt scared all alone inside the lonely flat. A weird sensation of someone prowling around constantly haunted her. She could not reveal all these to the landlady. She complained of a mild headache and explained that she was in need of fresh air, She assured the landlady that Shaluk would be back soon. She wished her goodnight.
The landlady would depart for the moment. Only to return after a short while and shout at a voice that would reverberate through the neighborhood. “Arshi, has Shaluk returned home?”
Arshi would not feel like giving an answer. Anger would pile up in her mind. What on earth does the man do till this hour of night? Does he never think of is wife! How on earth could she stay all alone at night in this strange neighborhood!
Yet again she would assure the landlady. “He is almost here, Auntie. You better go to sleep. Its late night already.
-Give me a call if you feel like. My husband is still awake.
-Alright Auntie, Arshi used to reply.
–Shortly afterwards, Shaluk would step down from the cab. Arshi, about to yell at him, would look at his tired face and calm down. She would step indoor and prepare a glass of cold drink for him.
Her annoyances and anger would disappear. They simply would dissolve like the lump of sugar and the pinch of salt dissolve in the drink. Arshi herself would dissolve under the effect of overwhelming affection.
Another day would begin and so would another round of waiting.
“Attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen, the flight will return to Kolkata on account of heavy rainfall in Ranchi”
The same announcement followed in Hindi and Bengali language. Arshi kept her eyes shut. She was feeling that this journey would never end. As if they were in the midst of infinity, without any destination whatsoever.
“Did you hear that, Ma,? Are you awake?” Palki shook Arshi out of her reverie.
“Ma! The plane will be returning to Kolkata. Due to bad weather.”
“I see. Well, there’s nothing that we can do about it”, replied Arshi. She stared out of the window carelessly, as if she was in no hurry to reach the destination.
Dark grey rainclouds had gathered all over the sky. The outside looked like a confluence of the seven seas. A multitude of black waves were advancing like an army of angry serpents. A thousand faces were shaping up in the haze in kaleidoscopic succession, one after another.
When her father would go to the airport to catch a flight, little Arshi would wait for him to return. No one, save her father could fathom the depth of the love that went along with that wait. No one, save her father, could understand her. Her world used to revolve around him.
On the days of his scheduled return, Arshi would remain awake all night. Sitting by her window she would gaze at the world outside. The Nepalese night-guard would patrol the sleepy neighborhood and intermittently shout at the top of his voice, warning the residents to stay alert. The stray dogs would join him in chorus.
Mother appreciated this exercise. “This will ward off the thieves and burglars”, she used to comment.
Lalu, the tramp would also stroll the place. Singing, as he went by. The dogs would sing along with him too.
Arshi’s gaze would then suddenly turn to the sky. She would try to spot the airplane carrying her father. What fun it would be if the plane could land on the rooftop of the house! Father would arrive directly at the very doorstep. Driver Kalicharan would get a respite from waiting at the airport at this hour of the night. Suddenly she would hear the bleating of the siren from afar. The rotating beacon light of the car, sometimes blue, sometimes red, would become visible. Arshi would rush to open the door and plunge into the arms of her father.
“You are still awake, My Darling”, father would say and gently caress her hair. Next, he would pull out a handful of chocolates from his pocket.
For a long time Arshi had a firm conviction that those chocolates were available only in airplanes.
Her reality check came when she herself took a flight for the first time in her life. The refreshments included only one chocolate and that too on selected flights. Yet, she loved to hold on to her childhood belief that her father got all those chocolates only because he was a famous man.
Shaluk once ridiculed her on this and had commented, “Your father is the greatest man in this country. How commoners like us can can even dream of the privileges which he used to enjoy.
Finally the day came when father left Arshi for good. In his last moments someone had pulled Arshi from her dying father. That is all that she could recall. The next part has been completely deleted from her memory. Any reminiscence of that episode always darkened her vision and gave her a headache. Arshi sighed.
“Father! Where are you? Are you afloat on a heavenly raft in this sea of clouds? Can you see me, now that I too am in the midst of these clouds? Or are floating higher up? How high do I have to fly to catch a glimpse of you?” Arshi went on asking all by herself.
She remembered the wristwatch that her father gifted her. She was a student of Class 8 at that time. One night, after a long wait, her father had brought this gift on his return from Guwahati. The golden wristwatch glittered on hand, and remained there, long after she had slipped into a slumber.
The wristwatch marked the onset of a new form of waiting in Arshi’s life. It kept a constant vigil on every passing instant. The golden hands of the watch were in perpetual motion, slowly advancing towards the unseen future, silently witnessing every twist and turn of life.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, attention please……”
-“We will be flying back to Kolkata, Ma. Who knows how long we shall have to tarry!” Palki said. Arshi smiled in response.
-“Well, why are you smiling?”
-“Just like that. No reason in particular, replied Arshi.” She looked out at the sky of Kolkata. There were white clouds all around, like tufts of cotton. Within an instant they were replaced by dark rainclouds. It began to rain heavily. Arshi brought her mobile phone back to normal mode and dialed for her husband.
Shaluk picked up the phone and asked, “Have you reached Ranchi?”
-“No we are back in Kolkata.”
-Why? What happened?
-The flight could not land there due to thunderstorm.
– Ask the aircrew how long is it going to take. By the way, don’t try it yourself. Your English and Hindi are disastrous. Better, you hand over the phone to Palki.
-“Right! Talk to your father, Palki.” Arshi handed the phone over to her daughter.
-“Hello, Baba, nobody knows how long is it going to take. Probably the plane will take-off once it stops raining in Ranchi. The plane has to be refueled as well. Nothing can be done till then.”
-“Are you out of the plane?”
“-No. We are sitting inside. I shall let you know once the plane takes off. Don’t worry. Bye, Baba.”
Palki returned the mobile phone to Arshi and plugged the head-phone back to her ears.
These headphones will damage her head and ears some day. How irritating. Arshi grumbled and closed her eyes. She remembered that foolish lamb of fairy tales who closed her eyes and felt that the tiger would not be able to see her.
These kids are always on their headphones. Every one of them will tell you that he or she is enjoying a song. Do they know even one song properly?
Arshi’s young driver Babu, too, is not an exception to this trend. A pair of headphones is perpetually attached to his head. Once in a while a stanza or two of a song can be overheard from the gadget. Yet, in all these years, Arshi has never heard the boy himself sing, not even for once. The boy, nevertheless, ventures to offer suggestions to his employer. “Madam, you better install a music-player in the car”, he insists from time to time.
Back in those days a music-player used to be called a tape-recorder. The first tape-recorder was introduced in the house on Arshi’s sixteenth birthday. A couple of cassettes with the selected songs of Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam formed a part of the package. The instrument played on incessantly on the day of its arrival. As days went on new arrivals started pouring in. Choir-songs, folk-songs, the best of Geeta Dutta, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey. Jhum, her younger sister, would turn on the set the very moment she got out of the bed. Studies and music went on in tandem. Slowly, unconsciously, she came to know the lyrics of every one of those songs by heart. Jhum had a habit of writing down a line from those songs and the bottom of her examination answer sheets. She used to sing those songs in numerous concerts as well.
Head phones and analogous gadgets were unknown those days. Thank God for that. Music composers were inspired by the various sounds around them. Music always maintained a delicate balance with the harmonies of nature.
Arshi wondered as to how these kids, with their ears perpetually sealed, could remain deaf to the cacophonies of the outside world. Has the entire generation embraced a strange philosophy of isolated, insular individualism? But, unless they open up their senses to the myriad stimuli of the external world, how will they be able to adjust themselves with it.
Arshi was convinced of her theory. It is only because of their inability to synchronize with the real world, young people have become so obsessed with head phones and mobile sets nowadays. This obsession has evolved into no less than a mania. Nothing else can explain the tantrums of these kids, their loud and violent behavior the moment these gadgets are taken away from them. In fact, these machines are transforming human beings themselves into machines and robots.
She looked at Palki. Is Palki gradually transforming into a robot as well?
-“What are you looking at?” Palki took off her headphones and threw a questioning glance at her mother.
-“Nothing,” replied Arshi. She took a deep breath and walked towards the cockpit. The co-pilot and the cruise members, with headsets, were taking their instructions. One of them raised his thumb and signaled at one of his colleagues who stood below.
A flight attendant approached Arshi. Her name “ Aparoopa” was inscribed on her badge. The word meant “beautiful beyond compare”. “Now that’s quite an aptronym for her”, thought Arshi.
The girl pleasantly smiled at her. “May I request you Madam to please return to your seat”, she said.
The announcement rang across the aircraft almost immediately.
“Flight 308 via Ranchi is ready to take off. Passengers are requested to return to their seats and fasten their seat-belts.”
Arshi dialed up Shaluk from her mobile phone. “The plane is about to take off. I shall call you up again once we arrive at Ranchi.”
“Come over. I am already at the airport”, was the reply from the other end.
Arshi was amazed. In all these years this was the first time Shaluk came to receive her at the airport and that too much in advance.
“The fruits of patience are always sweet”, Grandma used to say.
“Does it mean then…….!” Arshi thought no more. All her thoughts went out of the window like a flight of multi-colored birds, released suddenly from their gilded cage.
By then the sky had taken up a sparkling golden shade. The rain had left a thin streak of water on the runway beneath. That too glittered in the afternoon sunlight. No less golden than the sky above.
Bitasta Ghoshal was born in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She is a popular writer, poet, translator of recent times in Bengali literature. She is also an owner of a 48 years old publication house Bhasha Samsad, and editor of renowned Bengali translation magazine Anubad Patrika.
She is also a Manipuri dancer and a social worker.
She has translated several Indian & International stories, and poems by different authors.
1. Ekanta’r katha sahittik puroshkar
2. Dui Banglar sera kabi samman
3. Bangla Academy Swaraswti sammanana award
4. Bangla Akademy Award for Anubad Patrika
5. Chalantika award
6. Ketaki kabi award
7.Vivekananda Yuba award
8.Bijaya Sarbajaya Samman
9. Goutami award etc…
Her works have been translated into Hindi, Oriya, Ahamiya, Rajasthani, English & Spanish by different authors & translators. She has written 32 books.
The translator, Shrideep Biswas, is an alumnus of JNU, New Delhi and an official of the Government of West Bengal. He has recently published his first book, a Bengali translation of thirteen historical short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle under the title, ‘Oitihasik Kahini Sankalan’, published by Bhasha Samsad.