(Reading Time: 15 minutes)
Cobwebs clung like shriveled skin to the sides of the wall. Like the sudden twiggy cracks that appear on an ice cube when dowsed with water, the walls were an expanse of spidery strands that yawned here and there. The ceiling was slapped with a hurried paste of congealed blue to cover up the soft bruises of dampness. The wall was corrugated, so it seemed that the harassed pastel was crushed with an ugly fat palm, all over the place, leaving clumps, creases and the putty colored bricks jutting here and there. Feather weight and un-colored dust pirouetted within the apartment to settle down into greasy thick clods on the corners sticking to chair legs and cloaking that one, solitary, forgotten showpiece on the desk. Weeds of soot dangled and fluttered from the ancient fan, as it creaked and groaned and squealed, trying to blow a tiny tempest of air to the man on the chair beneath it – Mr. Hariprasad Sharma.
The chair overlooked the window. There was nothing spectacular about the view. Clusters of tired buildings hunched and huddled with age. The rain had washed over the original paint; the sun hammered an unrelenting soprano on them, leaving them looking bedraggled and pale. You could see staircases with rusty banisters and steps speckled with red spit and desolate toffee wrappers. Clothes hung on wash lines, multicolored pegs keeping them in place, as the wind ran long, seductive fingers through their damp, limp fabric. Delicates peeked over the grills. Tiny alleys and roads, where rickshaws wheeled by, carrying tittering teenagers and their sedate mothers. Coils of rubber wires lay on the roofs, scraggly children in thin cotton clothes, pudgy harried mothers in worn-out saris, men with bristly mustaches and cell phones in pouches stuck to their belts. Overflowing garbage of gaudy plastics and pungent waste. Rag-pickers. Mongrels with skinny, droopy tails. A common man’s street-view from a common man’s room.
He sat on the chair, a little slouched, his feet outstretched and the wet towel still slung on his neck. The seven o’ clock – river of sunlight made gentle forays into his room. The creamy yellow tumbled from the soulful blue sky and splashed softly on the streets and on the tree next to her apartment. An old tree with a gorgeous plumage of green, whose leaves shone like it was pickled in mustard oil; sprinkles of fat, fresh white flowers sitting jauntily in it.
He sat with his morning paper. The one he picked up every day at six – left hand pressed against his arthritis-riddled back as he stooped to fish it out from the doormat. A quick warm bath later, he would sit down with it, in his chair placed right in front of the window, his bifocal-ed eyes slowly reading through the tiny print. He was a neat man, his clothes were old but clean, the shirt pressed to a sharp crease near his shoulder blades, his somber brown pants – flapping and flopping at the straight lines that the iron had stressed along its length. His hair was sparse – grey strands slick with jaborandi oil, separated from each other at the same distance as the teeth of the green comb that he used to run through it. Every now and then, he would pick up the paper to swat at a fly that would buzz noisily around him – he hated flies and the monotonous irritating way they tattooed an itchy hum right next to his ears.
He knew she woke up at eight. He could see the curtains being parted, the puritan blinds in white. The quick glimpse of her face, washed with sleep, eyes caked with grease – sagging cheeks making pouches. That old nightie which had a fading pink bib. He slowly got up from his chair, knowing that she would go for her ablutions now – across the terrace lay her bath.
She lived in a tiny room, right opposite his window – a rectangle, with tinier rectangles for windows and a big terrace. The terrace was not stone colored, but covered in what seemed like molded furry velvet with slimy spawns of moss swimming haphazardly here and there. In the corner, there stood a marble slab where she had kept a Tulsi plant and a pair of conch shells. A broken chair stood woebegone on one of the side walls.
He lifted himself up, placing the newspaper on the table next to the chair and tried straightening his wizened frame. To the tiny kitchen across the room, he shuffled slow steps; the slippers smacking weakly on the stone floor. He knew it took her twenty minutes to take her bath and prepare her morning tea and he knew it took him the same time to make his.
Tea making – was an elaborate affair for him. Bring down the kettle, the rings of pale steel on the inside, always jolted him with a bolt of melancholy. Boil the water, drop the tea leaves and watch it stain the liquid with its iron tint. Look at your watch and wait for its pointed hands to circle for exactly ten minutes. Then, topple one full spoon of sugar and wait another five. When agitated bubbles start simmering to the surface – angry transparent blisters sprouting wildly, while the tea leaves swim serenely in circles at the bottom, pull out your cup from the hook.
He loved his cup – a black porcelain coffee mug with his name inscribed on the outside shell – a parting gift from his office mates at the time of his retirement. Marie biscuits piled on a plate (just two); he would pour the black tea into his mug and carry it back to his chair, and wait. And sure enough, she would sit by her own window too – her face fresh, her wet hair braided to a tiny rat’s tail end, her eyes staring vacantly out of the window, her cup of tea perched on the windowsill.
It was a calming sight, looking at the old woman’s fingers clasping the enamel handle of the cup, and bringing it to her lips. Her hair frizzing at the sides, her eyes magnified by her glasses, a flat chain of gold on her neck. A red – loose cotton blouse. Lips closed over a toothless mouth, wrinkled skin that gathered around it.
She took a sip and so did he.
It had been two years and Hariprasad had never missed one tea-date with his wife; whose name he did not know and whom he never married.
His life had been like a motion reel of fuzzy pictures. No father, a cantankerous aged mother, who wailed continuously. She had a pitifully thin body and a pitifully thin crackly-screechy voice. She trilled on and on, all the time – from the first slice of dawn till the gentle slosh of blackness of night.
She puttered, stewed and spouted brittle strings of words and laments. While sweeping the floor of their tiny house – her soiled sari hunched up at her knees, hair scrunched into a greasy bun, while scrubbing the clothes, warily and gingerly touching her face, while chewing on her daily paan that left an almost permanent red spittle on the side. He did not pay much attention to her, he was a shy boy, a bovine demeanor. Harassed by his mother’s sadistic pricks and pokes and sneers and her thankless tongue – he lived, he played and he grew up.
His mother kept shrieking and growing thin – her body started hunching with age, her eyes cranky with cataract and yet her voice getting sharper with every passing year. Soon, she was bedridden, but her voice never stopped its relentless parade of litanies. It got thinner and thinner, shriller and shriller and one day, in a savage rhapsody of a cruel life, she drooled and slobbered and choked on her own spit to an ugly, repelling death.
Hariprasad was twenty at the time and he was relieved. His mother was the only woman he knew, and they had no relatives. Freed from the obligation of looking after a parent and freed from the continuous high pitch drone that swirled in frenzy around his ears, Hariprasad started living his own life on his own terms. A life where no one was peeking over his shoulder and poking him with their jibes; where he could sleep, arms spread out like an eagle, mouth sloppily open and not woken up by the distinct biting shrill of his mother’s voice. Where he could stare into the azure blue sky and smile at the clouds prancing like polished stallions and not be rapped on his head. Where he could go seek work, wherever he liked and not where his mother wanted him to be. His mother’s feverish mewl about what a man ought to be like had burned an ugly sensation onto his skin and all in these twenty odd years of his existence, there was a quivering, persistent thought in his head, that stayed – never ever to get married.
She sipped her tea in a leisurely way – her eyes tiptoeing and taking in the street side scenery. He watched her while he drank his own – scrunching his nose as the steam waves tickled it, every time he would lift the cup for a sip.
His wife. He loved the way she looked in the morning. Frail and delicate. Endearing sacks of mongoloid skin – folds and furrows of skin. Fleshy long earlobes. That little mole on her left cheek which he found, so becoming. Sunlight reflecting off her glasses. He did not know the color of her iris, but he hoped they were a brew of brown – he loved brown. Crispy autumn foliage.
There was a sudden gust of air and the curtains rippled with nervous laughter. She hurried to hush them. She tamed them to a more subdued state, running her hand along the curtain length, a little pucker playing on her forehead. He loved these little habits of hers. It was always her left hand and how she would curl the fabric along her arm and pinch it in place with her fingers. How, she would first tuck-in the corners and then smoothen out the rivers of creases on her bed, wiping a palm across the bed-sheet. He could see her bed from his window. A single poster bed, with one fluffy pillow. She washed the pillow case every week – wrapping the pillow in a towel till the case dried. Hair-washing days were Wednesdays and Sundays. Tea-dates, those days, were with her wispy head of grey hair slowly frizzing and drying in the playful, boisterous sunlight. He knew she listened to Rabindra-Sangeet, her crackly radio eagerly warbling the mellow lyrics. And that she liked birds. How she left her plate of rice on the mossy terrace after she was done eating, for the birds to feed on the leftovers. There was always a bird who would hop cautiously to the daal stained plate left on the terrace. A darting glance here and there, ready to take flight if threatened and it would start pecking, little by little, inch by inch. That stray rice, the broken green chili, that pudgy piece of potato.
Hariprasad Sharma was in love with his wife. The woman whose name he did not know and whom he never married.
As the anemic gold of the morning slowly nurtured itself to a cheeky carmine flush and his wife slowly disappeared within the folds of her faded curtains, Hariprasad went about his medley of duties.
The mornings were untroubled and as restful as the mysterious runes. Tea time over, Hariprasad would shuffle across to his kitchen and wash his tea-cup meticulously with the tiny stream of water that flowed from the tap. The saucer, he would position at the exact same angle, near the shredded blue ledge, at a perfect hundred and twenty degrees- sunlight bouncing off, as water slowly whimpered and trickled down its curvature.
Obituaries. Eulogies. Black and white pictures and an elegy to the departed. Hunched over his table, back baking in the unquenchable suttee of the ten-o-clock sun, Hariprasad perused the obituaries in the local paper, devotedly. At first, it was painful. Sometimes, it was a person he knew, from work. Memories marched in like enemy soldiers, shooting stinging darts of old times. A joke shared over bland coffee in the canteen and the general back-slapping. The jokes familial life, conversations he never participated but was attentive to – of nights of alcoholic exuberance. Slowly, it became more of a curiosity. A mild smile would snake up his lips as his eyes would lose focus and a dry chuckle would escape. The wilting blue of the walls would become a landscape of vagueness as his mind painted a mural of colorful memories. A breath of a prayer to the friend and a silent thank you that it was not him, or his … wife.
Evenings were dreamy. The wine from God’s feast would spill into the sky, intoxicating vermilion trembling and cascading down the landscape – silent and soothing. Like every man who went back to his wife when the shadows shortened, Hariprasad walked the short distance from his bed to the window, stubby old man fingers drumming a random beat on the window pane, waiting. She would appear at around 5 – the creaking doors announcing and heralding her. Lock the door, gently place key on ledge. A white saree with a faint strip of black on the sides. A handkerchief neatly folded to a prim triangle dangling from her flaccid waist. In the crepuscular evening light, her skin looked like softened tea cakes, dusted with powder. A single indulgence of gold knitted itself to her neck. Her hair was sparse on her scalp, the oil glistened in the light. A simple ribbon of cotton laced itself like poetry around her feeble bun.
To Hariprasad, she looked like a painting in gentle motion. He would watch her pace the terrace, in simple, unhurried steps – sometimes in cadence to the song that whistled gladly through the radio, head bowed down; it struck him, how much he loved her. He knew not her name, except her address; G7, Block 42, Chowringhee Street. He did not know her parentage, neither her birthplace. He did know whether she liked the smell of lilies or the velvet of a rose. He would never know the stories from her life or the stories she wished were her’s. But for some inexplicable reason, he loved her. He worried over her. If the delivery man who came every Saturday, did not turn up, he spent anxious hours, for he knew it would mean that she would not be having her cup of milk before sleeping. If she was a little late in pulling open the blinds in the morning, a dull, nauseating throb would pulsate through him. If love meant caring, If love meant knowing what was not being told, He knew he loved her, truly and honestly.
Black painted the sky – gliding and roller-blading like an imp. First, a spot here, a curl of purple cloud there. He could only faintly make out the patches of sweat on her underarms now. The street-lights sprang to life like a phoenix- glowing halos of halogen. Her pace had slackened, the pallu had slipped out of her waist. Her hand inched up to lift the key from the ledge, she slowly walked to the door, unlatched and went inside.
But it was not adieu yet.
He stayed there by his window, black light raining all over him. He knew she would show herself just once more. And sure enough, some minutes later, the curtain parted one last time. An incense stick was placed in a tiny shrunken brown skinned vegetable – the smoke curled in wispy ropes, melting into the balmy night. Moonlight kissed her serene face, eyes shut close in fervent prayer. A smile. A gesture. He touched his hand to his forehead, looked at her and whispered “Good Night”.
Like a wayward drunk; bloated beyond consciousness and tramping in untidy directions, he scrawled on that paper. Stilted strokes – almost graceless. Tiny pools of black here and there, places where he had placed the nib on the paper, but had drifted off in his own mind; Syllables were dragged; the curve of the “a”-brute, the dot of the “i”- far flung, the slash of the “t”- merciless. Some words glared bold and huge and black, some were dwarflike and almost unreadable. It was a tiny black leather book, with some rough pages hewn together. On each page, there were scribbles. Cuts, hashes, underlines and ferocious darkenings. They were names. ‘Her‘ names.
‘Laxmi’. Maybe, her name was Laxmi. Maybe when she was born, wealth rained like a hailstorm on their family; from plates made of banana leaves, they started eating from porcelain cutlery. Maybe, when her shy mother wrapped her in her cotton blankets, her harried father got his first deal. Maybe, his frown froze over to a sweat dripped smile, annoyance gone in having a girl in the family; he touched her for the first time. And when she wrapped one stubborn finger along his calloused thumb, eyes still caked shut; he kissed and christened her “Laxmi“.
One day, he had read an obituary about a little girl called Hoor. Leukemia had put her underneath wooden logs at a tender age of seven. He was fascinated by the name – angel. A seraph with her gauzy white wings. Hoor, an angel. Hoor, he had traced in that book, the pen scratching against that granular brown surface. Hoor, his wife. How exquisite this sounded. An eternity and a life with his Hoor.
Maybe they had named her after a bird. Something as delicate as ‘Koel’. A quivery bird warbling songs, so mellifluous and soul plucking. Like her. Her careful steps, her carefully braided hair, the carefully tied window shades. Precocious, deliberate. Dainty, like a Koel.
It crossed him, it tired him. Often he was crestfallen, looked like a bereaved man. He was ok, not knowing her stories – the dreams she had woven as a girl, the sacrifices she had done as a woman. He was ok, not knowing about her siblings – the sister whose hand-me-down’s she wore and the brother in front of whom, she timidly pulled over a duppatta. He was ok, not knowing about the children she bore and the way her flesh had hurt her, leaving her alone inside the corpse of a concrete building. But her name, not knowing her name, he was not okay with. Helpless, tied to the arthritis of old age and inability to use technology, he would sit, silent and sad. Sometimes, when the mornings would dawn like a sonnet and it would seem like God was inspired by her to craft those tresses of golden sun, he would wish, and wish with all his heart. If, if he only knew her name. To be able to say it, caress those carefully chosen syllables by her parents, give it the love and respect which he wanted to bestow on her. But, alas, he knew her address, her habits, her fondness for incense sticks and yet he did not know her name.
The tea cup sat desolately at his side, the creamy milk having condensed to a flaky, coarse brown. He was slouched on the wooden chair, listless – a bag of bones assembled untidily. Vacuous eyes, supported by dunes of withered ancient skin. A rancid stench of hair, oil, vomit, stale daal and June’s dried – pasty sweat emanated from him. The jowls were more prominent, the skin papery, decaying with more of black, livery spots. Like an old, crusty yellowing parchment. His eyes were set deep in a face bleached of all emotions save one. Grief. Growing, glowing, stabbing grief. Like a dove being tormented, its button pink eyes ravaged with fear. His silence reeked of wails; of hair raising mourns of agony. Even the sky wept, a diarrhea of water.
She had died, five days ago.
A white morning, the sun rays plastic-ky; turning even the juiciest green into a fake neon color. June summer sky at its best. They had put her body in a stretcher – a bored young man and an equally drugged wife. They had cast a white shroud on her and shelled peanuts while hired men with their black skin hoisted the stretcher on their firm shoulders. Even in death she looked beautiful, in the somnolent heat, she looked placid, almost in bliss. At first, he wasn’t worried, when the curtains dint fall open in the morning, in fact, an adoring smile crept on his face at the thought of her sleeping in late. When the diminutive orange had washed over the skyline and her familiar pacing wasn’t visible, he wasn’t worried again. Maybe she had had a cold, she often caught a cold in the summers. On those days, she would tie a towel across her head and sniff some concoction from a bowl. But, when night time dawned and the veil of sputtering pinpricks fell over one half of the world, a small fire of terror started brimming in his heart. It turned into a full fledged forest fire by the next day and when at 9am he saw a sudden flurry of people breaking in her door- a vulpine faced man, the excited milkman, he knew that his chapter was over. She was dead.
A clap of thunder shook him out of his grief stained torpor. Slowly he lifted an ancient hand and fished the newspaper from the stand. Let his colorless eyes wash over the headlines before flipping slowly to the obituary section, a habit ingrained without the need of a thought. The newspaper crackled. The thunder boomed again.
“My Mother, Mrs. Anamika Basumatary expired of a heart attack in the evening of June the 26th, in her apartment at G7, Chowringee Street. She led a peaceful, graceful life and we hope God carves a little place for her in his sublime palace called Heaven.
Ma, we shall miss you. Rest in beautiful peace.
Your son and daughter-in-law,
Sonnu and Shweta”
The fake words scrawled across the paper in black- jolted him, jarred him. A sudden wave of nausea, a sudden spasm, another clap of thunder. Cataract eyes pooling with water and shamelessly, they traveled down the length of his withered face. Shaking his head at the irony of life, his lips parted at the faintest hint of a smile; showing yellowed, broken teeth.
In death, she was finally his. For the first time in his life, in his years of loving his wife, he could call out her name. With a harrowing sob and a long, aching sigh, his tongue touching each syllable with sacred devotion, he called out her name and let it dwindle to a gentle echo around him – Anamika.