Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013, Third Prize Arka Datta


And they kissed for the very first time---

Something like fifty hours ago...

The serenity of the vast green rice field and the end of November cool breeze touched the tired soul of Kala. He looked at his cows with drowsy eyes to make sure that they are not getting farther away. Kala lied back on the soft green grass, and they shivered through his bare back. He dozed of as his muscles relaxed, putting him into a trance. 

Just when he thought things can never go bad from there on, the harmony broke with the rude sound of Howrah-Baharampur Town Inter-City Express train, speeding passes the fields. He turned back to curse the train, when a piece of white scarf drew his attention. It waved from a window of the train, holding Kala’s attention till it disappeared on the horizon.   

Ananya dragged her scarf back and wrapped it around her ears. Her mother Tilottoma looked at her and commanded- ‘Anu, close the window if you are cold!’

Ananya looked over to her mother and said ‘I am getting married in two days mom! I know when I am cold.’ She said that with a smile to not sound rude, but she knew she was. Lately she have been using I-am-getting-married escape route quite too much, and she was enjoying how it worked with everything. Her younger sister Anindita came to Ananya and sat on the other side of the window sit her sister had preoccupied. She closed the window of her side, and looked at Ananya. ‘Your cheeks are red!’ she said, stretching her legs beside her sister.

‘I am fine!’ Ananya said, smiling.
‘I don’t mean its red from cold. You said ‘married’ and that’s all it takes for you to blush!’
‘Ok! You got me. Fuck off now.’

Anindita raised her eyebrows, baffled, and said ‘Our parents are right here, honey!’
‘So? I am getting married, remember?’ Ananya said as they both broke into laughter.  
The fading light of setting sun reflected from her radiant face. Anindita looked at her elder sister. She looked most beautiful, and happy. Anindita realized how much she was about to miss her best friend. She knew not having Ananya in the same house will change her life for ever, and it killed something in her.
‘I am glad you are finally leaving. I will have all the attention from now on’ Anindita said, looking at her sister with a frowned face.

‘And you are supposed to smile with that!’ Ananya said, and a strange sadness trembled through her.
Anindita kicked her waist, but Ananya didn’t react. Her eyes were back to the outer world, the dusky sky, the last bit of pink sunlight, and to a closing future that scared her out of her guts. As the wedding day was coming close, she was more and more uncertain about everything. She wanted this; she was the one who rushed the wedding because she wanted to be on the plain to U.S with Shantanu when he leaves. But that was when she was the one making the calls. From the moment on the dates and venues started to get arranged according to Shantanu’s convenience, Ananya started to feel isolated. The world was spinning around him, and that was everything that she found wrong about this society, which defies the very concept of marriage for her. 

Ananya’s chain of thoughts broke as Anindita moved towards her, and closed the window. She went back to her spot and asked- ‘what’s troubling you?’
Ananya tried to avoid the question saying ‘you!’ but she never in her life could deceive her younger sister, who knew her better than Ananya knew her own self.

‘You seem unhappy. Tell me what actually the problem is.’
Ananya looked at her sister’s eyes deeply, and slowly said ‘Shantanu is a great man!’
‘Oh! I see! Yes, that’s terrible!’ Anindita mocked her.
Ananya lied down on her sister’s lap, took a deep breath, and slowly said ‘Shantanu and I, we don’t love each other.’
Love?’ Anindita laughed, ‘don’t talk like a girl!’

‘See, Shantanu is the most incredible man I have ever known’ she said with a smile, ‘and he will always be the most incredible man I have ever known! I respect him, I care for him, but it has been a year since I know him and I still don’t love him. I should have been in love with him by now. Hell! He should have been in love with me by now.’ Ananya looked at her sister when she finished, hoping that she would come up with something that justifies things.

‘You knew the risks when you gave green signal to arranged marriage’ Anindita said, running fingers in her sister’s hair.
‘You know me babe! I always hope. I always like to believe that things will turn out to be just the way I want them to.’

‘Yes! That’s your real problem. You know what? Your problem is not that you always hope things will turn the way you want them, but your real problem is that they always do. You are great, you know! You are beautiful, you are powerful, and you are everything parents want their children to turn into- well at least it seemed that way. Now, Shantanu-da overpowers you! That’s what troubles you.’
Ananya sat back on her seat, and softly said ‘oh! You are on his team now too!’
‘Don’t be a cry baby, Anu!’ Anindita said with revulsion, ‘You know, its quite natural in your condition. We all have spoiled you with praise. You deserved it, but Shantanu-da deserves it even more, truly. He never tries to overpower you. He is just too simple to know him being him sometimes troubles you. Do you really want him to nudge it down a little?’ 

‘Now you are just being silly!’
‘Am I, now? Is his being simple your problem?’
‘It was a mistake telling you all this,’ Ananya said with disgust. ‘You are just randomly shooting for the bull’s eye.’
Anindita shook her head, ‘It’s either one of the reasons I just gave you or there is no matter to ponder. You are over thinking this. It’s just pre-wedding blues.’

‘Maybe...’ Ananya started to say something, but cut short by the lack of reasoning. Her sister was right. There was no possible reason for her to be sad, or unsure about the wedding. She never believed that love is more important than compatibility, and Shantanu offered plenty of that to her. They were precise together- like two pieces of a puzzle that complete the big picture- and she was comfortable with that. They disagreed on things that mattered, and they handled things like adults. She was 27 and he was three years older than her. Their fundamental believes matched, and most importantly they were comfortable with each other.

Shantanu was a CEO of a gigantic multinational company, and he was brilliant at what he did. He kept his professional and personal worlds separated, with a tad inclination to his ambitions. Ananya accepted that happily, as she found that to be perfect for her. Ananya was working in an architectural firm in Kolkata, with a dream to run an office on her own someday. She was well admired in her professional space and having a husband, who won’t be dependent on her for each cup of tea, was just the perfect thing.   

Suddenly, Ananya realized that the problems were all in her mind. Things were perfect, they have been that way for last 1 year, and the realization curved out on her lips. She looked at Anindita and said ‘maybe you are not wrong! It can very well be- my sense of stability shaking a bit. Maybe I am just scared of the thought that things are going to change!’
‘I am always right’ Anindita said with a wink.

The train reached Murshidabad station at around nine pm and sharp cold wind welcomed them on the platform. Rishi, Ananya’s father, started unpacking the warm cloths with Tilottoma, when memories of Murshidabad hit Ananya. All the reminiscences of her childhood home came rushing back. They were coming back to their Grandfather’s house after exactly a decade. They had a two storeyed, medium sized mansion in Baharampur. Their family shared it with Rishi’s brother Rajen’s family when their father Durjoy Mukherjee was still alive. Two brothers had a falling out when Durjoy Mukherjee died in his sleep with a sudden heart attack. Rajen stayed there, running the family business, when Rishi shifted to Kolkata and started his private law practice.

For last couple of years things started to improve between two brothers when one fine morning Ananya’s uncle called her father and invited them to join his Son’s wedding. It started as a family reunion, and slowly turned out to be deep dependency. The family knot was strong again, and it was only a formality when Rishi asked Rajen if Ananya’s wedding could be arranged in their family home.

Ananya looked around the platform to feel connected with memories, but things were changed. The only familiar thing she noticed was Diganta, her uncle’s elder son. For last two weeks Rishi and Tilottoma was in Baharampur for the wedding arrangement, when Ananya and Anindita were busy balancing work and wedding shopping with their mother’s sisters. Her parents came back to Kolkata only two days ago to finalize the arrangements in Kolkata. For those two days, all the sisters heard were Rishis’s bragging about the wedding arrangements in Baharampur. Diganta’s car was standing outside the station. Ananya hopped in the back of the car with Anindita, when her father got in front with Diganta- leaving the middle seats for Tilottoma to lie down. Ananya looked at her sister with a smile right after the car started.

‘Thanks’- she said, poking Anindita with her feet.
‘Finally! After 25 years of sacrifices, you thanked me at last!’ Anindita said, laughing.
‘I was over thinking. Shantanu is just perfect’ Ananya said with a happy voice.
‘He knows we reached?’
‘Unhun… He didn’t ask. May be he is busy!’ Ananya said with a self assuring voice. 
‘Ok! Just send him the damn message!’

Ananya picked up the phone, and messaged Shantanu- ‘Reached. Had a productive day?’
For next 40 minutes, she stared out at the darkness, trying to remember the town- the way she last saw it. She never though about Baharampur since she moved to Kolkata with her family. The memories, both pleasant and painful, were locked inside her, in a dark corner of her mind. Sitting there, looking out of the car window, she realized that she missed growing up in here. She missed everything that Baharampur could offer her, unknowingly. Every time the car went by a street lamp, she tried to see the area surrounding it, trying to recognize the place, trying to connect it with her memories. She kept telling herself- ‘nothing has changed! It’s just the darkness that’s hiding all the things I know about this place!’, the same way she was trying to make herself believe that the reply to her SMS will come any moment- but it didn’t, just like the changed roads of Baharampur remained unrecognized to her.

The car stopped in front of their house, and vibrancy dazzled them instantly. The path from the entrance gate to the house was decorated with makeshift light posts. It was roofed by zigzagged flower chains. The two storeyed house was decorated with multicolored blinking lights, hanging from the roof. Even if it was night, the brightly lit garden- surrounding the home- was clearly visible. The entire land screamed that it was getting ready for a special occasion. Diganta pushed open the gate and what Ananya first noticed was the river of relatives approaching them. She took a deep breath and pushed Anindita forward.    

Hours went by knowing them all, and it took minutes for Ananya to forget any relative she never seen before that day. She liked things cozy, but the wedding house was anything but comfortable. She had to repeat her job description to people, most of whom were concern that it won’t be easy to settle as just a housewife after marriage- and those were the sophisticated ones. Others were one step ahead- happy for the fact that she didn’t need the job anymore. After correcting first few of them, Ananya replaced her answers with a smiling nod.      

It was already midnight by the time they finished dinner. Ananya’s childhood room was reorganized for her to stay. Everyone was discussing important, unimportant and everything else in between, in divided groups- scattered all over the house. Ananya excused herself to her room with multiple yawns, and plenty of ‘good night’ wishes. She released a sigh of relief as she entered the empty room. The room always seemed tiny to her when she was a kid, but it somehow appeared large enough to her that night. She walked towards the verandah and found an old chair, almost hiding under a pile of dust. Ananya turned the chair upside down, and found what she was looking for. Under it was embedded texts that read- ‘property of Anu and Ani’ with faded marks. A smile took over her irritated face. A bunch of memories ran through her mind. She remembered how she and Anindita ruled their empire, marked every asset of their castle with their names. Recollections of a long lost childhood flashed in front of her, like forgotten dreams- shaky, blurred, with random color splats, but somehow connected with her very existence, with a sense of owning. 

She leaned over on the balustrade and looked across the road. The verandah faced the back of the property. It was dark, strangely contrasting with the garden on the opposite side of the house, which was brightly celebrating its newly found life in order to honor Ananya’s wedding. Only few feet away, from this side of the house, was the boundary of the land. She looked beyond that, and her eyes fell on a old house. She knew that house. She had been there uncountable numbers of time, spent hours, and played with her childhood best friend Pabok. He was few day’s older to her, and they were inseparable.

She wondered how Pabok would be like, if he was still the shy soul he had always been. She realized how much she had changed since she left the place. A smile arisen on her face, unknowingly. Memories of Pabok took her into a distance place, far back from the present. The silence of the night shattered, right with her thought, with Shantanu’s call. She let the phone ring for few times before picking it up, giving herself enough time to talk like she was not waiting for last four hours.

Shantanu was the first to talk- ‘Sorry! I was in a board meeting when you messaged. Guess where I am?’
‘Not in Kolkata?’
‘Not even close! I am in Sydney!’ Shantanu said with a pleased chuckle.
‘What are you doing in Australia?’
‘Work, what else? Don’t worry; I will be back by tomorrow afternoon!’ Shantanu said in a reassuring tone.

Ananya smiled, ‘I am not worried. I know you won’t miss my wedding for the world!’
Shantanu laughed. ‘So! How are things down there?’ he asked..
‘Beautiful! The decorators have done a fantastic job.’
‘And what about you?’
‘I am fine too. I just thought I would be more excited.’

‘Yah! Me too!’ Shantanu stopped for a second, and added- ‘but I am caught up in work, again!’
Ananya smiled again- ‘I bet you are enjoying it there!’
Shantanu laughed again- ‘you know me! But this time I am more excited about coming back.’
‘I know! Me too.’
Ananya heard another voice on the other side. Few seconds later Shantanu was back on the line- ‘they are waiting for me. I got to go. Sleep well!’

By the time Ananya could say ‘work well’ in return, the line was disconnected.
She came back to the room and threw herself on the bed. She clearly remembered the day when Shantanu proposed to her for marriage. Though their first meeting was arranged by their parents, they liked each other. Shantanu was pressured by his parents to get married, or at least to get ready for it, when Ananya just wanted to get over with what her parents would eventually made her do. She thought that Shantanu would understand her. At that point, that was all she was looking for. When Ananya proposed that they should give it some time before making the call, Shantanu was happily supportive.

Eight months from their first meeting, Shantanu felt comfortable enough to ask for her hand. He did that sitting in a fancy restaurant. When Shantanu popped out the diamond ring, she smiled and said- ‘I was expecting you will go down on your knees.’
He shook his head and smiled- ‘You kidding me? This suit costs more than the ring!’
She smiled and they were officially engaged. They decided to get married the next year, and let their family know. Everyone was happy, and it was settled. Things changed when Shantanu’s company wanted him to work in their head office in U.S. She asked him if they could get married before he left. It was mostly because she thought they were ready, but it was also partly because she hoped that America will make it easier to go along with her career plans. Shantanu agreed, happily. Ananya was happy being the one taking the final step, and that leads to everything that happened next. The remembrance slowly turned into a trance and she dozed off. 

Ananya woke up early morning, with soft sunlight all over her. It took her few minutes to finally get out of the blanket. The cold floor tickled under her bare feet. Anindita came into her room few minutes later. She let herself loose on Ananya and hugged her. ‘This is your last day of freedom!’ she said softly and smiled.

‘And, you need to brush! Eww’ Ananya replied, making a funny face.
Ananya came out of the room. The Mukherjee house was already wide awake. She exchanged smiles with relatives on her way to downstairs. She entered the kitchen, maintaining a constant smile now, and found her mother and aunts. ‘I want to go out, and see the town,’ she declared.

Her aunt widen her eyes and said, moving her head constantly- ‘you are not allowed to do that!’
Ananya’s sister-in-law Renu was busy preparing breakfast. She smiled and said ‘it’s only frowned-upon’ and then she turned to her mother-in-law and said again- ‘she grew up in Kolkata. Let’s not bore her with our rules!’ and turned her gaze to Tilottoma. who smiled with a little hesitation and asked, ‘Do you remember Pabok?’    

Ananya disguised her anticipation with a little nod and said, ‘Of course!’
He is here, helping with the arrangements. Meet him and ask him to take you to a parlour.’
Everyone turned to Tilottoma, with disgusted and awestricken faces. Only Renu had a broad smile and went back to work. Ananya said- ‘I will skip the part where I am clowned up, but maybe I will meet Pabok!’ and went out of the kitchen.   

Ananya freshen up and came out of the house. There were plenty of men working on the garden, decorating and arranging the tent. She looked around and to see if Pabok was there. Few yards away from her, a tall and well built man was talking with a florist. ten years is a long time, but not long enough to change a small-town-boy’s hairstyle, or to change the way he stands and talk. Ananya knew it was him. She walked towards him, and tapped on his shoulder. Pabok turned back, gave her a long hard look, and returned to what he was doing. Ananya politely asked ‘Are you Pabok?’
The man dismissed the florist, and turned back. He looked at Ananya’s eyes and nodded, saying, ‘So what if I am Pabok? I have no business with you!’

He was about to walk away when Ananya grabbed his hand. She stood in front of him and said- ‘I know you are angry! But just hear me out Pabok. My father walked away from this house, without a luggage, without a piece of cloth, or even any cash on hand. Life was a struggle for next few years. I am sorry I couldn’t tell you. I am really sorry that I couldn’t contact you. But I had to forget. You see, Pabok, you was the only thing about this town that I didn’t hated then, and that hasn’t changed.’
Pabok finally smiled- not in a happy or satisfied way, but in a way that reflects forgiveness, and relief. ‘Congrats on the wedding’ he said, and shook her hand.

‘You have grown up a lot!’ she said, laughing this time.
‘You have, too!’ Pabok said, and started walking towards the sitting area, Ananya’s hand still in his. Half way there, Ananya said- ‘let’s go out. I want to know how much it has changed.’
‘I don’t think your elders will allow!’

‘Well, I have allowed myself!’ she said and started walking towards the gate.
They were walking within the roads of their area. There were more new houses than the ones she recognized, and it made her sad. They reached the water tank that was their favorite place as children. They climbed up the stairs of the tank, and sat on the top-most slab. They started talking about their life that they couldn’t share in the past years, and the uncomfortable distance between them, created by time, slowly faded away with time itself.
The sun was rising higher on a clear blue sky, and a cold breeze started to blow towards them.

Ananya looked at Pabok and said- ‘let’s get down now! It’s cold up here!’
Pabok looked at her with a strange smile and slowly said- ‘Do you remember this place?’
‘Sure I do’ Ananya said, ‘we used to come here everyday.’
‘Not that!’ Pabok turned his face away, and continued- ‘this is where we first kissed!’
‘Huh! Kiss? When?’
‘Leave it!’ he said and stood up.
‘Stop! Stop!’ Ananya grabbed his hand and pulled him down. ‘We never kissed, or at least not when I was awake.’
‘It was few weeks back from the day you left.’

‘Pabok, we never kissed!’ Ananya said and started to laugh, as the incident came back to her. 
When she stopped laughing, she added- ‘kids this days call that a peck… on the cheek.’
‘Kids here still call it a kiss. Elders call it a sin.

They both started laughing, and Ananya started punching his arm. Pabok said ‘cut it out’ with a mock anger, and pulled her up. They strolled back to the house, taking as much time as they could, and by the time they reached- it was 10 years back all over again. After a long time Ananya felt unruffled and cheerful. She was glad that she was back to Baharampur, but her reasons were uninvited to the people waiting for her. She didn’t heed, she couldn’t care less. Her sense of stability was back, in an unconventional, but a mysteriously desirable way. She moved pass the faces greeting her, holding her smile that they thought was for them. When she reached her room, Anindita was waiting for her there. She told her everything. Anindita listen, without an answer, without a comment. It was an act of a sister who had too much trust for her elder sister. 
The pre-wedding rituals started after sundown. Ananya didn’t have a choice but to take part in each of them. She met each custom with a smile, but she was with Pabok whenever she could catch a break. It didn’t matter to her that there was no news of Shantanu’s coming back to the country. Her smile only stopped when it was Pabok’s time to return home. By the time all rituals of the day were over, and she came back to her room, it was almost twelve. She was there, sitting in the verandah wordlessly, and only then she came back to her senses. Her wedding day was only a clock hand’s stroke away, and she had no clue what she was doing.    

She didn’t notice when Tilottoma came in and stood behind her. She ran her fingers on Ananya’s hair and slowly said- ‘need any light?’
Ananya looked up at her mother and let a sigh go. They came back on the room and sat on the bed. Tilottoma said- ‘talk to me, Anu’ and put her hand on Ananya’s knee.
‘I don’t know what I want!’

‘We have already passed the stage where it was relevant!’ Tilottoma said with a definite voice.
Ananya looked at her mother, with moist eyes, and said- ‘I know, mom! I only see darkness!’
‘Oh my little Anu’ Tilottoma said with a smile, ‘you are still so na├»ve. You don’t know what you want because you already have what you need! You are just too deluded about your own self to know that.’

Ananya looked at her mother with a clueless face. Tilottoma continued- ‘you are not who you think you are. You sketch your future in your mind, hoping that someday, someone will come and pour color in it. Like every other girl, you wait for your prince charming, stepping down from his horse.’
Ananya was still, listening to every word coming from her mother. ‘And I surely haven’t found him yet!’ she said, looking away.

‘That’s where you are wrong!’ Tilottoma smiled again ‘your prince is already there in your life, like everything else you think you still don’t have, but you cant believe that because you are too busy acting unique. Anu, ‘unique’ is just the meaning of your name, but you are just like every other girl, waiting for her prince to declare himself.’

Tears came running down on Ananya’s cheeks. Tilottoma came closer, wiped the tears from her daughter’s eyes and said- ‘you are just afraid that your life is going to be defined from now on! The truth is, Anu, that it’s the exact opposite to that. You are going to marry a man few hours later who loves you more than he can express, more than you can understand. You judged him too quick and fixed your mind to that. But this is still your call, Anu. You will wake up with your husband each morning, and decide to be together another day, not because the society permits you to, but because you want to.’

Ananya was steady. Sitting in a definite pose that state that reality had hit her, with all the beauty it has.
‘Get your beauty sleep now!’ Tilottoma said and stood up, started walking towards the door, but stopped midway. She turned and said- ‘Anu, if you are still puzzled then know this- when you are confused, the best way to go is what’s right for you!’

Ananya couldn’t sleep, couldn’t move, or couldn’t be happy. She decided to do the right thing, for her parent’s sake, for Shantanu’s sake, but she was still waiting for a sign. The first sunray of her wedding day found her awake. She left her bed at dawn and it was a roller coaster ride from then on. The wedding day rituals began and Ananya followed them the way she should have. Each time her eyes met Pabok’s, she smiled vaguely, making him bemused, making Tilottoma relieved. At 7 p.m that evening, Ananya was sitting in her room with everyone, in front of the mirror, staring at her own reflection- beautiful, calm, still waiting for a sight. A cousin of hers came running in, and declared that the groom and his family had arrived.

‘I have to use the bathroom,’ Ananya said, as she closed the door behind everyone. She returned to the mirror, giving her unmarried life the last few minutes of aloneness, and sat there for a while. Finally she took a deep breath and turned to the door. Just when she was about to leave, a known voice from the verandah took her by surprise. She went there running, and standing there- on a ladder, leaned over the railing- Shantanu smiled.

Ananya’s jaw dropped. Her smile reached her eyes, for the first time in last few days, and words came out of her mouth on their own- ‘what the hell do you think you are doing?’
Shantanu jumped in, gave her a tight hug, and said- ‘I haven’t seen you in ages. My plans got changed and I just dropped in India this morning. Then I was planning this…’ he pointed to the ladder and continued- ‘It was important!’

‘What plan?’ Ananya shouted, ‘what are you even saying?’
‘We decided we want to get married. We are the ones going through it all. Why the hell bunch of other people deciding how to do that for us?’
‘What do you have in mind?’- Ananya asked, smiling, shaking in excitement.
‘Huh?’- Ananya’s jaw dropped again.

I have a car waiting on the other side of the boundary. There is a temple just a kilometer away, and I am all ready to give this wedding a serious spin. What say, we get married before the social event?’
Ananya put her hands gently around Shantanu, and said- ‘I love you!’
Shantanu chuckled and said, firming his grip on her- ‘I love you too, Ananya!’
And they kissed for the very first time.

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