This short story is selected as Story of the Month October’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
My plane has left Dumdum and I’m on my way to Istanbul, where I’ll be joining my team. We have a contract to make a documentary on Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
But I am having a strange feeling. It is the fifth time that I am leaving Kolkata, my hometown, to go on a tour and every time previously, I’ve been excited and willing to go and see the world. However this time, it seems something is pulling me back, I don’t know what, but there certainly is something extremely precious that I’ve left behind in Kolkata.
I have for long wanted to be here, in Istanbul, the city where the east merges with the west, the city where catholic goes hand in hand with the protestants, the city where pristine and modern ideas compliment each other.
So what goddamn thing on earth is stopping me from diving into such mesmerizing beauty?
Anyway today happens to be Saptami, the seventh day in the celebration of Durga Puja. The streets of Kolkata are lighted and the crowd must have filled the roads by now; the hard time for the traffic controllers have just started! It is 3.20 here, so by now in Kolkata, the streets must be filled with the madding crowds’ deafening happiness. The city of joy is in fact, in the truest sense of its name, full of joy now, with the people engulfed in the myriad colors of the season. And here I am, sitting thousands of kilometers away, where all these fun and happiness seems so very obsolete and fairy-tale-like.
And in my home now in Shyambazar, where we have our own Durga Puja, there must be a lot of people there; only if I could hear the drums and see the smoke of the dhunuchi and taste the many sweets and smell the sweet perfume of the flowers used to decorate the house. Is it the Puja that is pulling me back or is it something else? I do not have any clue, indeed.
And as for my family members, all of them must be very busy handling the guests, the important ones, as well as the unimportant ones. Okay, let me guess: dad must be busy with the arrangements, especially things going on the kitchen, while sneakily putting in rasogollas in his mouth; mum should be in the Puja department along with my grandma and numerous aunts, at the same time she must be looking after my sister; grandpa is surely sitting on his senile armchair, surrounded by his old friends and the other older members of the family, each with a cup of tea in their hands, telling about his reminiscence about our family; my elder brother must be flirting with the young girls around, or he might be out with friends too; and then how can I forget about… No, I wont say her name, she asked me not to mention her name in by blogs or books or anywhere else, for that matter, and I will respect her decision by doing the same. So I should just call her S, I guess.
S must be in the Puja department, but dad must be calling her every now and then for something or the other, she is my sister’s favorite playmate, she is there giving tips to my brother on what to say and what not to say to girls, and I can almost hear my grandpa calling out her name and saying “Aar ak peala cha dibi ma aamar?” (Can you get me another cup of tea darling). So in all the events, in every corner of the house, she is there, everywhere, with everyone, asking nothing but love and a smile in return.
She had been my playmate and best friend since childhood and our bond continues to be the same, or maybe not, because since I left home, we had talked very less. Even the last time when I went home, i.e. the week before, she was the most shy person I saw. And I don’t understand, why all of a sudden, I started talking about her so much. Perhaps the magic of this city, where we get the taste of east and west together reminds me of her, her modern ideas with an old fashioned mindset.
It was Panchami. The house was full of our relatives who came during the Puja. The holidays were on and everyone was in a very jovial and relaxed mood. I obviously attracted much attention being the only person to be a photographer-cum-shooter for Fox Travels in a family of professors and lawyers.
The moment I felt that my parents and grandparents were blowing my trumpet in front of our relatives a bit too much, I took the opportunity to get out of there as the situation was really getting uncomfortable for me. I went to the kitchen, where thankfully, S was alone. She was making tea with her back to the door, and I silently stood and watched her work, from the door. She was the same, more or less, with her somewhat fat physique, although I guess she has put on a bit more weight, her complexion was fair, but her uncovered parts were dark, might be because she has been traveling in the heat quite often these days, she was still short, but the one thing I noticed was her hair, it was long, very long in fact, but she always liked her hair to be short. It was in a bun on her head, but in absence of proper care, the bun loosened and her hair fell.
It was then that she turned around to arrange it properly again, and she saw me. Both of us got startled for a moment as our eyes stuck on each other for a second, that to me, seemed no less than a year, and again, as always, it was S who got me out if this not-knowing-what-to-do situation.
All she did was, to smiled at me, followed by a tiny “Hey!”
She turned around and resumed her work. I went up beside her and sat on the kitchen slab.
“You seem to have completely forgotten me.” I said, trying to start a conversation.
“Obviously” was her quick reply, as she poured tea in the cups.
“So, how did you manage to successfully forget me?”
“Just didn’t think about you.”, she said, now adding milk and sugar to the tea.
I was thinking about what to say, she was surely in no mood to chat, when she said “You know, the wind is very nice in the terrace right now.”
I went upstairs to the terrace, beside the Thakurghar inside which there were the women of the house. I climbed to the higher terrace and sat there. It was a clear night with the cool autumn wind blowing and a faint sound of chatter and laughter was coming from downstairs.
S came and sat some distance away from me, leaning against the parapet and spread her thick cellulose legs in front of her. And a long silence followed. I was again going through the same old topic problem of mine. I did not understand on what topic should I talk with her. And then I got it: I could easily converse with her about her studies, although I knew each and everything about her studies!
“So you are doing BA in History, right?” I asked.
“Again that same question, Avi, even last time when you came you’d ask me the same question. Why do you always lack in topics to chat?”
How does she understand me so well, I just don’t understand.
“You’ve not changed.” I said, as this was a safe remark. “But why are you always so hyper with your work?”
“I’m not hyper. It’s only I have a lot of work to do.”
“What work?” I asked as I went up and sat beside her.
“I don’t know.”
“You are very confused, you know.” I laughed. “You are more confused than the Malay and Indonesians who don’t know whether they are Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist even?” these stories about the foreign countries might interest her, I thought.
“Tell me more about the outside world.” was her approval!
“The people I saw there are very cool, you know. Just your contrast actually. They don’t have that only-work-and-work-and-work-and-work attitude. I mean, they obviously do their work, but they are not a hyper like you. They work wholeheartedly while working and enjoy heartily the rest of the day.”
“Tell me what is lacking in us, but the Americans and Europeans have?”
“The thing that is lacking here is discipline and proper management. Here everyone is thinking about making money, there everyone is thinking about advancements; here people are competing, there people are co-operating. Again, the mindset of the people is a huge issue. Still today in the 21st century, many conservative Indians consider sex to be a taboo.”
“Stop it, stop uttering those words please.” S requested clapping her hands on her ears.
“It’s natural, sex. There’s nothing bad about it.”
“Do you always talk about these things abroad?”
“Not always. But these things come up in conversations and people take it quite lightly. Like for example, I have a friend called Rupert, from Mexico, he has two sons but no wife.”
“What?” S’s eyeballs were just about to fall off the terrace. “Is his wife dead?”
“No. He has a girlfriend and that’s it.”
“Do you have girlfriends too?”
“I had, but all temporary relationships.”
“And you have children too?” S’s hands were trembling.
“Oh c’on, obviously no. Listen S, I respect India and the Indian culture and traditions. You’re a student of History so you’ll know better. From time immemorial many different people belonging to different races came to India – starting from the Aryans to the British. They came with their own culture and religion that had only mixed with the Indian culture and the Indian ways, but India never lost her own senile traditions and that is why she is unique in the world. I’ve still got my cultures and I know my roots. It’s just that my mindset got a bit updated.”
S smiled and seemed pleased.
“The foreign winds have matured you, Avi. You’ve grown up.”
I smiled, or rather blushed. It was a praise worth something and from someone worthy in my life.
“Okay, tell me” S said, siting up, “Have you seen the Eiffel Tower?”
“The Rhine river?”
Now it was getting boring.
“Stop it.” I said, “I feel shy.”
S laughed, a clear ringing laugh from the inner self. At last , I could then recognize my old friend again.
“You feel shy, why?” she laughed again.
“I don’t like to tell people that I’ve been to this place and that place. It’s like boasting, and I don’t like to boast, you know that.”
“Okay so now tell me, Mr. Boaster,” she laughed again, “Which is the best place you’ve been to?”
The best place…I strained my mind. There were so many places actually jamming my brain.
“If you talk of natural beauty, I’d say it’s the drive from Buffalo to Chicago. If you say spiritual beauty, I’d say it’s Assisi. And if you say the best city I’d say Paris and Cape Town.
“And actually, there’s another kind of beauty, the beauty of war. I saw it in Kabul. I was there for two nights though, and I want to visit Afghanistan again.”
“War? What can be the beauty of war? Why would people want war in the first case?”
“When they get bored with peace, they want war.” I said sarcastically.
S gave me a you-can’t-be-correct-every-time look and looked up at the starry sky above. I looked up too. It was such a blissful night, so silent, so mystic, so dark, yet so bright. My taciturn self found itself included in a huge mass, I didn’t feel alone at that moment, I felt priced, as if someone arranged the whole of this beauty for me, so that I could appreciate it, so that I could feel relaxed. I wanted to close my eyes and go off to a deep slumber, but the beauty of the night prevented me from joining my eyes.
Intoxicated, I stared at the stars. The scientific explanations of the Earth’s revolution and the constellations seemed so obsolete then, the only thing that came to my mind was magic, the magic of creation. No God, no devil, no good, no bad, nothing it was only me and everything that was mine at that moment. I left myself lose and felt myself slipping and my head rested on a soft something, now I could see the sky in a better way, I felt more snug. There must be some other person, I thought, perhaps a hot girl or a depressed guy or maybe a beggar, or a business magnate, it can be some terrorist fellow or can even be a struggling artist or anybody, who is looking up at the sky right now and admiring the beauty of the night just like I am. I was swimming deeper into my thoughts when from somewhere far away, from some distant place a sweet voice called my name and said “You are so lucky to go out there and see the world. How I wish I could come with you!”
“Then why don’t you come along?” I asked in a muffled voice.
“What will I do there? I don’t know their ways, neither do I know their language, nor do I know how to use those professional cameras of yours.”
“Why don’t you try using them?”
“No, I’ll damage them.”
“If you don’t do mistakes then how can you learn?”
“They are your life Avi. Remember how you used to play with your dad’s old broken camera in childhood and tell me stories of the outside world that you came to know through books and TV’s.” she said caressing my hair on her lap. “Your hair is no longer oily. Which shampoo do you use abroad?” she laughed again.
I smiled and looked up at her face. There was something in her eyes, in her smile, in the way she looked at me, in the way she caressed my hair, there was some untold magic which I found nowhere abroad, it is there only and S is the proud owner of this magic. No money, no wealth, no joy in life can match that affection in her eyes.
“Is there nothing that I can do abroad?” she asked in a sad tone.
“Well, let me see. I am very untidy, as you must know, cannot find my things always. So you can just come with me and help keep my things in place.” I said mockingly.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. This work will suit me as I always used to put your things together in childhood, remember?”
“Tell me S, it’s so nice to be here with your family and friends, your own people, people who talk your language, who eat your food, whom you know, whom you are familiar with, then why do you want to go abroad? Here you are safe, here you know what to do and when to do and where to do. But there it’s completely different, you’ll always have to be ready for the most hostile situations.”
“When you become bored with a peaceful life, you long for some adventure.” S replied.
She smiled, I smiled back, and that moment stayed for what seemed to me like an eternity. Then S said, “I really want to do something with my life. Since my father’s death, a gardener in your house, your dad kept me in this house and looked after me and my studies. So now I really want to do something and help your family. It’s my biggest wish in life.”
She looked away from me and I again stared up at the sky. It was a bit reddish then, and that starry beauty was missing. S had fallen silent, and it was quite a long pause. I was not going through my topic problem again, it was only I couldn’t decide whether to ask her a question or not. It was about her hair. In childhood days she used to be very possessive about her hair, and would not tolerate any jokes regarding her hair. So after much debate with my invisible namesake, I dared to ask the question: “Why are you keeping your hair long? I mean you liked short hair, no?”
She smiled, rather blushed, and I knew that I had asked a safe question.
“It is for someone.” was her shy reply.
Wow! This was something new and interesting. I sat up beside her and mockingly asked “So do you mean to say that while I was away on my tours, did you manage yourself a boyfriend?”
“No, no, no, no”, she said hysterically, waving her hands in front of her. “How dirty-minded you are Avi! I’m not that kind of a girl.”
Now what was dirty in it? I thought it was a safe remark.
“Oh c’on, I’m your best friend, tell me at least, who’s it?”
She said nothing, she just covered her face with her palms and started laughing. I don’t know why but that laughter of hers made me break out in laughter too. That was a moment to cherish, we were again laughing just like two playing children. I thought it to be something lost. But it’s still there. Nothing is lost till you have it in yourself. I realized that the toughest challenge of life is to keep your love and passion alive even in the most hostile situations. And when that laughter made me realize that the funny little kid in me is still alive even after all these ventures of mine, I felt a strange bliss in my heart.
“Anyway, leave it Avi, you won’t understand this love of mine.”
I understand S, I understand. I bet no one understands you better than me. Still I softly asked her “Tell me, I’ll understand.”
“Do you know me?” she asked me.
Now that was a tough question to answer. Obviously I knew her, and she knew that I know her, then?
“I guess I do” I answered, confused.
“No you don’t” she said, “If you knew me then you’d have understood.”
It was getting rather complex then. “Tell me what to understand at least.”
“Without you, Avi, I have no one to talk freely with. People here are nice, very nice in fact, but I feel kind of conserved to talk to them openly about my feelings. It was all fine when you were here, but now you come once or twice a year, and that too for a very short time. Without you I feel very forlorn here.”
“So are you angry because of me, since I am not staying with you?” I asked softly.
“Not really. I’m happy that you’re living your dream.”
I looked at her, her face looked tired and sad. Suddenly, I felt a strange urge, a strong urge, as if my mind was controlled by someone else. I went closer to S. Her body odor getting more and more intense as my lips touched her soft cheeks, her cheeks seemed to go inside as my lips pressed against them, my eyes and nose felt her smooth hair and then before I could withdraw myself, she withdrew herself and ran downstairs.
I never talked to her freely after that.
Even today, in the morning, while I was leaving, I saw dusk descending on S’s face. As the drums started beating and the conch shell gave the call and the smoke from the dhunuchi spread its gray blanket on the guests and my plane took off for Istanbul, back home, among the happiness of the just arrived festive season, someone must have locked herself in a room upstairs and stare up at the sky. Yes, I can see that person with a pair of deep eyes, made even deeper by the kajol blurred by the tears, and a beautifully curved lip, and beautiful and smooth long hair kept loose.
Now I know what is pulling me back.
* * *
And now, the pilot just declared that we will be arriving in Istanbul in half-an-hour. A tough day lies ahead of me, made even tougher by this sleepless night.
I have been noticing from much longer that a girl sitting a few seats in front of me attracts my attention. But why? That girl didn’t look at me for once, neither did I see her face. Then what is there in that girl that attracts me so much. All I could see of her is her hair and sometimes her hand. Her hair, hang on, her hair, yes it’s really beautiful and smooth. And then it struck me like a fire bolt, S kept her hair long, while she used to keep short hair in childhood, and I like girls with long and beautiful hair. So was it for me, that S was keeping long hair?
All I can do now is just laugh and appreciate how much S knows me.