Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writers, Amit Shankar Saha

Love and Hate

She came out on the balcony to see the rainbow: with all its colours, on the eastern sky, like a bridge, bridging the north with the south. Shining. Evanescent. Colourful. The colours fading into one another producing hues and shades on the dull blue canvas. And far away she knew it was raining for she could see the dark clouds hovering in the distance. It must be still raining there, she thought. Pouring, showering, drenching; birds, trees, trains. Spurting from the dust, jutting from the railings, splashing on the sides, submerging the tracks and ... She knew; she felt. She wondered why rainbows are not of any other shape. Why are they shaped like bridges? She thought she knew why. Because they bridge north with the south. She smiled. She wanted to laugh; laugh loudly so that the innumerable pairs of ears beyond the great arch might hear her. But she knew she can’t. So she smiled in ecstasy. Seeing her smile the children came out of the folds of her sari with their faces still in a conundrum. They began to stare at the beautiful spectacle. A bridge from north to south. And he was coming from the north.

Presently the little girl gave a shout, VIBGYOR. And her brother started saying aloud Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red. red, red, red, red, the red colour seem to echo in the mother’s ears. She felt it was a strange colour; most unlike any other colour. It was a living colour as well as a deadly colour. The colour of life as well as death. And she knew it was the colour of the setting sun. Today also, like any other day, she won’t see the sun at dusk. In this flat in the ghetto the western side never had a horizon. It only has neighbours. So for ten years she didn’t see the sun set. It wasn’t the sun did not set all these years but for her the sun only rose. Sometimes in the rain.

But the children were still more unfortunate. When she was in the north, everyday she saw the sun set. Sometimes in the rain. But alas! The children had never seen the setting sun. The only time they saw a tinge of red in the sky was when there was a rainbow. So they began to love the rainbow dearly. Whenever there was a rainbow they used to rush to look at it with puzzled expressions on their faces. They waited for the rainbow. Days on end. Sometimes on bright, sunny days they used to rush to the balcony and stare at the sky and ask, will we get a rainbow today mom? And the mother used to answer, if it rains. So they began to love the rains too. But the rains were a bugger. It betrayed the children. It hurt the children. Now and again; for not all rainy days the rainbow came out. The mother grew worried when it rained and rained for days and days without the rainbow. And always, before the internecine rains could cause any harm, the rainbow came out. The children were joyous; the mother was happy; the rainbow becalmed all their sufferings, pain and anxiety for the time being. The rainbow was so beautiful, so colourful. The red colour contrasting with the blue of the sky. But the mother knew that their happiness was as fleeting as the rainbow. So gradually, unknowingly she became afraid of the rains. Whether it drizzled, showered or poured her heart sank heavily in her bosom. And the children seeing the mixed expression of love and hate on her face had their faces riddled with confusion. They knew not that their mother feared the rains, except when it rained at night and when it rained with a rainbow.

The mother and the children stared at the rainbow until it grew dark and the rainbow faded into the azure. Then she ushered her children into the room from the balcony. They had today’s fill. She hoped they will remain glad all through their maternal uncle’s visit. She prayed again that anxiety might not overcome their gaiety in the coming days. The coming days were important for her. She had waited for it for ten long years. For ten long years everyday she waited for these days and now when these days were so close she grew nervous. It seemed that these days have come too early. It could have waited a little longer. She could have prepared herself. Prepared her home. Prepared what she had been preparing these ten long years. Still after ten years of restlessness she wants a little more time. Till her husband gets a good promotion or till they get into a good house or till they own a lot of things they had planned to own or till her children are grown up and established or ... But now the days were there. The days after which she was running so long that now she can’t run away from them.

She went to the kitchen to prepare food for the man of the house. The ushered-in children sat on the bed with their books and copies to do their homework. The father will be home soon.

It was not long when the doorbell rang and entered a surly, burly figure. A figure whom the children had got accustomed to looking at this hour of the day. The man sat where he was accustomed to sit. Very soon his tea will arrive which he will slurp happily. The children feigned to be busy with their homework. They loved their father dearly but they also knew that their father so nonchalant towards them that it was akin to hatred. So they need not and should not disturb him.
After some time the tea arrived with their mother. They saw everything with their heads in their books and copies and their eyes slanting away. The father sipping tea. The mother standing with the tray in hand and watching the man of the house with contempt. When is he coming? the man asked earnestly. The train is due to arrive at eight, she answered blankly.

But it is surely to be late by an hour or so.
Is the room okay? I mean have you cleared all their things and locked the cupboards, he asked staring at the children from his cup.
Yes; again was her short reply.
And, and the new bed-sheet.
He must feel comfortable. You must look to it. He is coming after such a long time. He must not feel any discomfort while staying here. He is our guest. And the children must also behave well.

She went to the kitchen with the empty cup and saucer. He got up and went to the basin to wash himself. He came back with a towel on his shoulder and reseated himself on his chair. The wife hated him because of, among other things, this habit of not himself before taking tea. But the children loved him all because of his bad habits. After taking the hot tea he seemed to cool down a bit because of the wash. And that was the time the children thought when he became a little indulgent with them and their work.

The boy seizing the opportunity jumped down from the bed and came beside his father. He asked him to explain a problem in arithmetic. The father obliged and explained it to him as if he was lecturing a class of hundred students. The boy shook his head even though he could not make out anything of the explanation. But it wasn’t that he did not understand the problem for he had already solved it; it was just to talk to his father. When he returned from his endeavour the younger one jumped down from the bed with a book in hand. She opened the book on a certain page and gave it to her father. Then she began to recite from memory the poem. The father stopped the recitation mid-way and said, Darling ask your brother. He’ll hear it. She returned to the bed with her book. That was probably the end of their conversation with their father for the day. They went on doing their work either in pretence or in reality. Laboriously. While the father lighted a cigarette and began to go through the morning newspaper. It was quite warm outside but the children could feel their insides getting colder and colder. The children would then start shivering momentarily in periodic intervals, sometimes long and sometimes short. And each time they shivered the children used to turn their faces hither and thither like fawns and make sure that no one noticed them. Then they would stare at each other and wait for another round of fits to come. This went on and time passed. After eight O’ clock they had their day’s last meal. By nine they were in bed and by ten they were fast asleep. Still there was no sign of their uncle. Meanwhile the train from north Bengal, the Darjeeling Express, was three and a half hour late. So when it reached Howrah it was almost half past eleven. From the first class compartment stepped down, among others, a man in traditional Bengali dress. He called a coolie.  The coolie took his suitcase outside the station and arranged a cab for him. The driver seeing a well-dressed Bengali “bhadrolok” asked to be paid fifty rupees extra. When the coolie assured him that the driver was charging reasonably he yielded. It was well towards midnight when his taxi was going smoothly over the Vidyasagar Setu that his thoughts veered again and again towards his sister. He began to think of her ten years ago. How they used to run down the declivity of their tea garden. How they used to play hide-and-seek among the bushy trees. How they used to wait for the snowfall. How they used to run after the toy trains. How they used to see the sun rising from the Tiger Hill. And how they used to see the sun set in the western horizon with a red glare. And before she realised that he was old enough to fall in love and run away with the no-Bengali tea estate manager of their firm, she was gone. He never forgave her for that. These thoughts began to make inroads into his mind. He wanted to just stare at the road, slipping past the tyres of the cab but hat also tormented him. He felt that as the car sped he was getting nearer and nearer, faster and faster to something unpleasant. It was getting unbearable. He began to hate his sister more and more. His pleasure trip was becoming from unpleasureable to displeasureable. He wanted to turn back. And he decides that he won’t stay for more than a day in his sister’s house. So when he knocked on the door quite past midnight and his sister opened the door the first thing he said was, I paid rupees fifty extra for the taxi.

The night was slumbering. so they all went to sleep. Some minds were occupied in thoughts and some in dreams. But outside the wind wasn’t slumbering, the moon wasn’t slumbering, the stars weren’t slumbering. The earth was awake that night. Had anyone of them opened their sleepy eyes that night they would have realised that they were the only ones sleeping that night. And dreaming. Outside there was a conspiracy. In their bed chamber air was filling in thick. Until it was so dense that it felt like liquid. So they all opened their mouth and gulped in mouthfuls. The air going in their lungs like thick treacle. It seemed that they would suffocate and die but they lived. Lived through the night as if they knew about it all. As if they have been prepared. Preparing themselves for ten years. Ten long years. Even the children were aware. It seemed.

So they all slumbered unaware of the ticking clock until the wind which has raved all night restlessly, sleeplessly banged a window pane and the house was awake. All were awake, at once. The children got up and stared at each other fearing another bout of fits. The father and the mother beside them woke up in love and hate. And in that other room the uncle who arrived last night was also awaken by the noise. Suddenly they were all awake and all aware that they were all awake. It seemed the day dawned suddenly without the twilight. It seemed the other moment it was night and the very next moment it was day. Suddenly.

The children already knew that the uncle must have arrived but still while brushing their teeth they asked their mother, Has uncle arrived, mom? Was the train late? Why didn’t you wake us up? At what time did he come? How long will he stay? Is he very rich? Was he happy? And the mother replied sometimes with certainty and sometimes doubtfully; sometimes with a yes and sometimes with a no; sometimes she advised them and sometimes she kept quite; sometimes she nodded her head and sometimes she shook her head.

It was not long when they met their uncle. He was most unlike the young man they had expected to see. He was no more the same youth whose picture they had seen in their mother’s family photograph. The boyish cheerfulness of his face was gone; instead a grave expression was on his face. Now he can only be cheerful when he wishes to be so. They could not read his face clearly. Was he a friend or foe? They could not make out. So they put aside all their conjectures. They were ready to let time and actions guide their feelings.

The uncle, on first impression appeared cheerful with them. He addressed them by their first names. He caressed them with genuine warmth. He behaved with them as if he was meeting with them after a long time and not exactly for the first time. But the children found that their uncle was quite cold with their mother. He was warm with their father, so why coldness with the only other remaining member of their family? They reserved their opinion about him for the time being. They won’t haste. They wanted to know what ten years’ separation from his sister has cooked in his heart and mind. Was it love or hate? Ten years is a long time and anything that has been cooked in his heart and mind for all those time is sure to decide the future, far away. Now they just waited for the immediate future.
At breakfast their uncle was most animated. His tintinabulating voice aroused their awe. He talked about anything under the sun. He talked with their father jovially, cheerily and sometimes seriously. He amused them with his knowledge, with his etiquette, with his mannerisms, with his facial acrobatics, with his gung-ho spirit. But the children felt a pin-prick in all their amusements. They saw their mother; her face expressing the pain of torture. She was uncomfortable; she was bottled up; she was suffocating. It seemed that all night she had just breathed in and not breathed out. They pitied their mother But they knew not why she was in such a poor state when others were enjoying themselves.

After breakfast the mother went into the kitchen for she had much work to do. She was happy to be away. The children were happy that alone in the kitchen she might feel a little better. The father would stay in that dining-room-cum-drawing-room. With their uncle. And possibly the children would also stay there. It was a Sunday. So the four of them sat in the room and conversed. Every word of their conversation was distinctly heard in the kitchen. And the mother was aware that the father would try his best to send the children away from his sight. He could not tolerate them. But the uncle wanted them in there. She was glad for that. All through the day, till the afternoon, the struggle of the farther would continue. And neither the children nor the uncle would know the strife going on. The mother would know. She would loathe her husband for that. Soon she found the children running into the bedroom, now to get the newspaper, now to get their father’s spectacles, and now for something else. They always ran for their errands at a single command from their father. They loved their father. How can they disobey him? They ran in pairs. Never separating from each other. They were like Siamese twins. They were so close to each other. They shared something common between themselves - if not physically an organ or something then certainly something psychological. Either they had a common id or a common ego or they might have a common super-ego. There wasn’t anything to show that one of them was dominant over the other. They were both, as if, finely tuned to play the same note. The mother saw it and liked it. She was also once so close to her brother. The father also saw it but did not like it. He felt their closeness too sticky. But what can he do? So he remained indifferent towards them. And his wife did not approve of his attitude. So the children ran here and there pleasing their father. The mother getting annoyed every time they were on the run. But every time they returned from their errand their uncle had new things to tell them about. They were eager to hear. Hear how their mother spent her childhood with her brother.

The uncle said, We used to run down the declivity of the tea-garden and there used to be those bushes behind which we used to hide while playing hide-and-seek.
The father ordered them to go and confirm whether it was true or not. They rushed to their mother. Is it true, mom, is it true? The mother answered, yes, in agony. And then.

We used to wait for the snow fall so longingly and sometimes in the snow we used to run after the toy train and always beating it in our run.
Again they were rushed to the kitchen for confirmation. And each time they met the eyes of their mother they found her in extreme agony. Gradually they were figuring out the ploy. And then.

We used to see the sun rising from the Tiger Hill. Oh! What a sight it is! And again it agonised the mother. She prayed to god that the father won’t send the children again to her to increase her agony. But she knew he would. He was as stupid, senseless and stubborn as a dotard. Why had she married him? Infatuation, and nothing else. What else can it be? She was enamoured by his masculinity. His soul had forever remained a far country for her. Unapproached. Unexamined. Unexplored. He was now just a big dildo for her. She realised that back then her heart did not reason. But it was not so now. All was changed. She no longer loved him. She could not love him. Since she could not love him, she hated him. And again.
We used to see the sun set with its red glare.

They went to the mother and asked, Did you see the sun set with a red glare? And this they saw that their mother’s eyes were red. They knew she was repressing something. It might be tears. Yes. Tears. It seemed that just then it was going to burst out in rains. Drizzling. Showering. Pouring. The mother got afraid. She turned aside. She won’t speak. For fear. With the pointed end of the kitchen knife she carved on the table YES. The children saw and knew. They knew it was their uncle who was making their mother suffer. Consciously. They began to hate him. Hate him to the core. They realised that everything he said was directed at their mother. To tease her. To make her suffer. Reminiscences which will wound her. Their uncle was sinister. He hated their mother and they hated him.
The lunch was a light affair. There was no tension, struggle or strife nor was the air as thick as liquid. It was because all of them were of anything but eating. The father was tired of ordering, the uncle was tired of recalling the past, the mother was tired of hearing about her past and the children were tired of running for errands. But they were all aware; all five of them, that what they had been doing so long in the hiding, they will have to do it in direct confrontation. After lunch when they would all be together and resting, the tension would be at its height. And it might not last long before...
They were all bound together by love. But their love for each other was like lassoes and lariats - the noose of which was hate. If they loved too much the noose might get tighter round the throat. They all knew, even the little ones, that love has a potency to give birth but hate has a greater potency to cause death.

Immediately after lunch the uncle took out a photograph from his suitcase and also opened the floodgates of confrontation. It was an old, black and white, sepia-tint photograph. It showed a tall monument beneath which stood a boy and a girl, arm in arm. The boy and girl were not much older than the brother and sister we know about as children. The boy and girl were also brother and sister. A more than ten years old photograph. The uncle showed it to the children. Even before they recognised the tall monument as the Shahid Minar, they recognised that the boy and girl were their uncle and mother respectively. Standing below the towering architecture. Smiling. At the camera. And now at them. Show it to your mother, the uncle said. But the children would not yield to his ploy any more. They refused. The father was angry. The uncle himself handed the photograph to their mother. She did not want to take it. He forced her. She took it and folded her arms. He won’t take it back from her until the photograph has done its work. She was to suffer, he decided. The children’s eyes were full of hate for their uncle. And the father in turn began to them even more. And the mother’s hate grew more for her husband when she found how, along with her, her children also suffered. 

It was a whirlpool. A vortex of love and hate. Everyone knew that they were sinking. All. Still they were trying to hold on to others either in their last ditch attempt to get refuge or to make sure that along with them the others also sink. It was both a struggle against each other and a struggle against struggle. A situation where salvation was annihilation and annihilation was salvation. They had all painted themselves into a single corner. Whose mistake was it?

They all knew. They all knew enough. They all knew enough to know that they did not know.
The uncle spoke, That’s the Octolorney Monument. And that’s me and your mother. What do you about the monument?
It’s now called the Shahid Minar, replied the little ones.
And what else?
They kept quiet. They knew no more. The father was piqued, even though he knew nothing more about it. He shouted, Idiots.
The uncle intervened in the crisis. But the mother spoke first, Don’t ever you speak like that to my children. Behaving as if you know a lot.
Then the uncle, just to make his sister worse, reproduced the exact words that they had heard just after they had got themselves photographed under the monument, on their first visit to Calcutta.
The guide spoke, It is sometimes called “Kolkata ka debota” (The presiding deity of Calcutta). It has a very peculiar architectural style. Its base is modelled in Egyptian style. Its column is Syrian. And its dome is made in Turkish style.

The children and their father heard these facts for the first time. The children hated their uncle still more for showing off his vast oeuvre of knowledge. They made faces at him. The father was impressed by the uncle. And he hated the children for hating their uncle. Only the mother knew about these facts. The familiar words wrung her being. It seemed that someone was thrusting his hand in her chest and pulling out her heart. How happy she was in those days. In her childhood. Until. She threw down the photograph on the bed. The father winced. The children knew that their uncle was destroying their mother. At present in their family the uncle was like a fifth quarter - an intruder. An impostor. An unwanted guest. The mother wished that her brother would forgive her. She loved her brother dearly. But she knew not that while all these years she was storing up love for her brother, her brother was storing up hate for her. He was adamant to remain an intruder. An impostor. An unwanted guest.

The children wanted to know more about one thing that fascinated them. The setting of the sun with a red glare. But they feared that it would hurt their mother. So they kept quiet. They weren’t surprised when, despite their fears, the subject was taken up by none other than their uncle. They looked at their mother. She was prepared. They were a little relieved.

How often do you’ll see the setting sun? The setting of the sun with a red glare. Just as we used to see in those days, asked the uncle.
Often, retorted the husband.
Never, countered the wife.
Why, rejoined the uncle.

You know, dear. Now don’t punish me. Have pity on me, moaned the sister.
I am sorry if I have caused you any pain. But I am not. I just wanted to recall those days of our childhood. I didn’t mean to.

No, you do it purposefully. You bother our mother, cried two voices in unison.
Suddenly the father towered over them and just managed to control himself from hitting them.
Is that the way to talk to your elders? Don’t you have any manners? You brutes.
Shut-up, shut-up. Don’t try to show your over-smartness, my dear husband, hollered the wife.
When the sun sets, continued the uncle, the sky and the sun both are so red. It seems that somebody has spilled on the western horizon. It’s the only time the sky and the sun seem to have a blood relationship. Just as we used to have.

“Used to have.” The words registered in the mind it was intended for. The whole atmosphere was now so tense that it looked like a stretched balloon. Even a slight pin-prick would cause large gaping holes in it. But their world was in a well and who would go in the well with a pin. The liquid air that they were all breathing for so long, laboriously, now was in such a state that they all knew that any moment it might solidify and they would all die of suffocation. For want of air. If they all have top die then why does death not come at once? Why was the delay? How long are they to wait? They could not stand the tension building up. But their fate was linked with the colour red. Red is both the colour of life and of death. So they have to live and die at the same time.  They would live to die and die to live. A state of uncertainty. A state of delirium. Not induced by any drug, but by their intricate love-hate relationship. They would stay in a state of indecision, for they have loved and hated at the same time. They would be stoned for life ... unless ... until...

They kept quiet. No one spoke. Time passed as if in slow motion. Still they did not speak. They knew to speak is but to cough out blood from their mouth. That was agony. It had a red colour. The colour of life. The colour of death. The colour of the setting sun. And the only colour of the rainbow that contrasts with the azure the most. So they kept quiet. They were afraid to meet each other’s eyes. So they stared away. Mainly at the sky. Some saw a bright sun beaming in the sky. Some saw dark clouds hovering in the sky. Some saw a rainbow in the sky. Some saw it was raining. And some saw it was raining with a rainbow. Everyone saw a separate thing. They didn’t divulge what they saw to each other. They would keep it a secret. In the secret chamber of their heart. Time passed ever so slowly. Still they were silent. Until it chimed and it was almost time.

I am almost late. I have only an hour and a half’s time, declared the uncle.
Suddenly the stretched band of tension that was engulfing them began to get perforated at a number of places. Fresh air gushed in. They were at last to breathe freely. Their lungs were in a poor state. So was their heart. How much blood was in it? How red was the blood? Will anyone fever spill their blood in the skies of the western horizon? Will their rainbows ever have the red colour? They were busy.

Tea was prepared and served. Everyone was again happy. But no one knew that others were also happy, so they did not show their joy. Instead they remained thoughtful and brooding. It was not more than half an hour before they realised that though their lives were proceeding they were not proceeding towards the future. The past was ahead of them. Again they will fall into a ten year long wait. Again they will busy themselves preparing for a future day. A day like this that might not come again after a ten year gap. It might take longer. They wanted time to take its own sweet time. They won’t hurry time anymore. They won’t wait for someone to come from the north. They would wait instead for the rains. Or the rainbow. So what if the rains were a bugger. Nature is not as harmful as others are. Nature is compassionate. It will oblige before any harm is done. It might be they won’t see the sun setting with a red glare for ten more years or for twenty more years or even more. They would be satisfied and happy and pleased to see the red colour in the sky only when there is a rainbow. It will bring them happiness. The little tensions in their family will be like some slow poison administered in very small doses. They would all be aware of it. But they would also know that they are not going to die. They will live. Nature will protect them. They will live for ten years or for twenty years or more till their uncle returns. Of course the rainbow will still form a bridge. Bridging the north with the south. And the hope won’t die that since the bridge is there the distance will be bridged one day.

He left when it was quite dark. Again he will have to pay fifty rupees extra to the taxi. Again the coolie will say that it is reasonable. Again he will sit in the first class compartment. Again the train will trudge up north. And if it rains then ... spurting from the dust, jutting from the railings, splashing on the sides, submerging the tracks... and...

The children woke up early the next morning. It was a bright sunny day. They rushed to the balcony and stared at the sky. Their mother also came. They hid themselves in the folds of her sari. They asked, Will we get a rainbow today, mom? The father, who was nearby, wanted to answer either yes or no, But the mother replied, If it rains.

No comments:

Post a Comment