Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Shortlist Haimanti Dutta Ray

When the morning sun came streaming inside her room, she was unprepared for it. Lying awake for the past couple of days, had taken its toll both on her health and her state of mind. Burning the midnight oil would surely reap a golden harvest, Urmila wondered despite strong misgivings. She, like other students appearing for their respective baccalaureate examinations, was left apprehensive regarding the final outcome of her untiring efforts.

“The slow and the steady win the race, eventually. Just you wait and watch”.
Nitish, Urmila’s fiancĂ© for the past four years had whispered in her ears one day, when she had expressed her inner anguish about the results of her examinations. They were sitting on the park benches adjacent to Urmila’s hostel and munching dried, roasted peanuts, seasoned with salt and chillies. These peanuts which are served on paper cones are the staple for people – lofty thinkers-with a few pennies in their pockets. Roasted peanuts were Urmila’s favourite, especially when they were bought and presented to her by Nitish’s unkempt, rugged hands.

“My parents want me to sit for the IAS exam. It is not easy to get through the Indian Administrative Services, despite the efforts you put into it”, Urmila said, lowering her eyelids so as to hide the tears that were welling up inside her.

Nitish Mukherjee. A scholar extraordinaire from Calcutta’s erstwhile Presidency College, Nitish was a gold medallist and an Ishan scholar. The Ishan scholarship is awarded to the overall topper of Calcutta University who scores the highest in its Arts faculty.
Nitish was staring at Urmila’s lowered eyelids. The urge to plant a kiss on those eyelids was becoming too powerful, yet he had refrained himself. Good boys don’t hurry in these matters. And besides, Urmila was a very sensitive girl. Even though their relationship had entered into its fourth year, there had hardly been a moment when they had progressed beyond touching each other’s hands. When their respective parents had been newly-weds, even holding hands in a public space was considered to be a shameful deed. In the Calcutta of today, the utterly western concept of ‘live-ins’ does hold true, given the fact that family pressures and personal allegiances and predispositions have inclined many females to bow to this precariously fragile of human relationships.
But Nitish knows that to hurry matters with Urmila would be asking for the annulment of their personal bonding.

“Urmila, did you ever realize how long we have been seeing each other? We got engaged four years ago simply because your parents wanted that kind of arrangement. But at that time I did not at all fathom that they had insisted on our engagement simply because they wanted to get their hands onto a boy like myself”, Nitish confessed dreadfully. He had just uttered the misgivings that had been at the back of his mind for quite some time now.
Urmila slowly lowered her cone of roasted peanuts on to the lap of her just-purchased navy blue South cotton Chettinad sari with an embroidered border. She had realisedlong ago that their relationship which had stood the test of time, had recently gone into troubled waters. She had many a time felt the almost-compulsive touch on Nitish’s part. This has aggravated with time. It was as if he was touching her under some compulsion or under someone else’s orders.

“What do you mean, Nitish? You mean my parents had grabbed you by the collar and had forced you to get engaged to me? You seriously must be joking. It can be the other way round also”.
“The other way round?” Nitish was stupefied.
Of late this has always happened whenever the two of them met. They had quarrelled but had ultimately made amends by kissing each other. Anyway theirs was a love that had withstood many upheavals, both temperamental as well as climactic. It seems just the other day when Urmila had presented Nitish with a wristwatch with her stipend money.

“Wear this on your wrist and feel my presence. A-n-d”, Urmila had caught him by his wrist while trying to put together the leather straps of the new watch, “Don’t be late. I hate to stand by the roadside and made fun off by onlookers”.
The Metro or the Underground services had just about commenced in Calcutta. The city was celebrating this milestone in its history with its people thronging the Underground with a lot of trepidation. For some, the escalators posed serious threats and for others, the speed of the trains proved to be a boon. Commuters no longer had to jostle against each other in order to gain a toehold in an already overcrowded public bus.

Urmila and Nitish were what one called ‘regulars’ at the Calcutta International Film Festival venues as well as the Calcutta Book Fair, the former being held during the onset of the winter and the latter during the end of the season.  Waiting for Nitish on the steps of the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station on their way to catch the special screenings of films from around the world at the Nandan film complex, was a new found enjoyment for Urmila. She would buy a guava and tell the fruit-seller to season it with pepper and rock salt. She simply loved guavas. She strongly believed that it could well have been the fruit from a guava tree that could have led Newton to formulate his law of gravity. Apples are, she felt, hugely overrated.

Urmila’s all-time favourite films were La Dolce Vita and All The President’s Men. Her favourite authors included Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee. So when one day Nitish had presented her a book all wrapped up in blue cellophane on her twentieth birthday, she was jubilant at first. But on unwrapping, she couldn’t stifle her sobs. The book was a biography of Che Guevara.
At the very beginning of their relationship, she had felt that Nitish was far too idealistic whereas she was an incorrigible romantic at heart. But Urmila like all the girls of her age was too happy at having found a beau who doted on her.  She had asked Nitish one day, “What had attracted you towards me?”
“It was your hair”.

Bengali maidens usually are born with good hair, albeit with a few exceptions here and there. The Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das, had penned immortal lines of verse in his poem Banalata Sen. Nitish had gifted her once with the collection of poems by Das where the first poem was Banalata Sen.
She had hair as dark as the long-forgotten night spent at Bidisha,
And a face which mirrored the sculpted craft of Sravasti; from distant oceanic shores
Where sailors, having lost all direction and hope
The land of green grass they see in their mind’s eye through cinnamon islands,
In the same way, I have seen her as she had asked me, “Where’ve you been for so long?”
Much like a bird’s nest, she had raised her eyelids. She was Banalata Sen of Natore.”

On the second of January, the year being nineteen hundred and eighty nine, Urmila and Nitish tied the knot and were bound together in holy matrimony. Amid the sounds of conch shells and gala merriment, friends and family had gathered at Urmila’s father’s place on the northern fringes of Calcutta to celebrate the auspicious occasion. There had been few members on Nitish’s side because he had been orphaned at the tender age of thirteen. His friends had performed the needful required from the bridegroom’s side and had embraced Urmila, whom they had known to be their friend’s better-half since long, with much love, affection and warmth.

A new-found home where there were never the background cacophonic orchestra of in-laws, proved to be a novel experience for Urmila. She had the personal space to purse her own studies as well as provide an emotional foil for her husband, who, she had noticed from the past, suffered from desolation and a sense of spiritual angst.

Nitish was reading THE STATESMAN, when Urmila called out from the kitchen.
“We didn’t have mutton since we had been to Baba’s place last month. Could you buy a kilo while returning from your college?”
“Urmi, you know very well that we can’t afford mutton at this stage. Prices have rocketed so steeply that for men like me, culinary delicacies would have relegated to the absolute no-no. And besides, I would have to take an extra class for my batch of students who are appearing for their finals this month”.

Nitish came forward and planted a peck on his beloved wife’s cheek and having cupped her with both his hands (he was well aware that is wife’s waist was the envy of many onlookers), he said, “Can’t this be scheduled for the next month? We are trying to make both ends meet, Urmila. My meagre salary hardly caters to all your whims, I am well aware. I also know that by marrying me you have opted out of family opulence and have embraced a life of hardship just for my sake. I knew from the very first day when I had met you that you’d be able to combat all odds that would come in our mutual paths”.

What Nitish didn’t know by now was the fact that Urmila had been sending her stories to a reputed Bangla magazine and after a long hiatus they had responded by their letter of acceptance. Bishwalok, meaning The Cosmos, is going all the way out, in publishing her story, the first in a series.
The editor of the magazine had smiled at Urmila, when she had visited their offices during the late afternoon hours, when Nitish was away.

“You have promises to keep and miles to go before you sleep”.
“Would I be paid for the publication of my short story?” Urmila couldn’t stop herself from asking. After all it had come down to a hands-to-mouth existence for the two of them lately. If she becomes a published writer with Bishwalok, an esteemed journal by any given standards, she won’t have to look back, Urmila thought.

“Of course. Your cheque would reach you within a month of the publication. And I as the editor would like to take this opportunity to request you not to stop writing at any cost. Our doors would remain forever open for talented writers like you”.
The editor, Projjwal Chatterjee, knew what a talent Urmila was. Her stories, especially “The Fisher Woman” where she has portrayed the hapless condition of a lonely and destitute woman, waiting for her haul, have that uncanny perception of the effervescent human condition that would throb within the pulse of every reader. Quite contrary to his usual stance with contributors to his journal, he had summoned Urmila to his office quarters and had handed over a cheque of two thousand rupees, in advance, for regularly contributing to his journal.

Urmila had returned home that day, a kilo of mutton wrapped in a black plastic bag clasped in one arm, while in the other she had a brand new shirt for Nitish which she had purchased from New Market, previously called Hogg’s Market, an area which lay adjacent to the magazine’s head offices.
Urmila would never be able to forget that day for as long she lives. Nitish had returned home a little before nine at night, totally drunk. In a bout of drunken stupor, he had slapped Urmila when she had dared to question him about the delay.

“You are drunk, Nitish”.
“Yes I am. Who are you to mother me? It seems you think I am answerable to you, but I am not”. A drunken Nitish had slouched himself on their bed.
Urmila had spent that unforgettable night lying cramped on a couch on their living-cum-dining area. At the break of dawn, she had taken the course which she had been mapping out for the past couple of days. Theirs had been a marriage of convenience. Urmila knew it from the very first day of their wedded lives. She had always thanked God inwardly that they had no children. It must have been because of this (her inability to conceive) that had ultimately snapped the slick thread by which their marriage was bound together. Lovemaking had become more a routine affair. Urmila had wanted more out of her marriage to Nitish.

She had come out of her home –the one which she had built with every drop from her slowly-drained-out bloodstream – never to return. The city was waking up to a warm summer morning. Newspaper hawkers had started dropping the papers onto their destined houses by throwing rolled up balls of newspapers in a manner which could have landed them in the Olympics Games’ discus-throw event. Having grown up in North Calcutta, Urmila sorely missed the raucous cries of the maid servants of respective houses when they ushered in the morning sun with their banter across terraces.
South Calcutta’s difference from the ambience prevailing in its Northern sector, is marked and a matter of pronounced critical debate. Much like the tug-of-war between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan football fanatics. East Bengal fans are basically the ‘Bangals’ who themselves or their ancestors had left East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) whereas the Mohun Bagan supporters are the ones who had been residing in Calcutta since the time of their forefathers. The latter are called endearingly as the ‘Ghontis’. ‘Promoter-raj’ has so far been successful in altering the skyline of the city. Calcutta has sacrificed many of its architectural splendours, dating back to its colonial ancestry, to the megalomania of certain moneyed classes. These people, in an unprecedented drive to amass more wealth, are bringing entire edifices to the grounds and quite contrary to popular belief, it is always the wealthy who win over the poor and the needy however conscientious the latter might be.
North Calcutta had yet to welcome skyscrapers and South Calcutta was on the verge of being engulfed in the money that was being thrown around to poison the middle classes.
Urmila came out of her house where she and Nitish had shared many a full-moon night. She was heading for the main road where she’d be able to alight onto a public transport. The Calcutta Tramways is a heritage institution. Urmila quickly alighted on a tram that was coming down its tracks in no hurry at all and quite oblivious to the urgency of its probable passengers. 

“Ticket please”, the tram conductor tried to ignore the look of anguish on the part of Urmila as she rummaged the knotted ends of her sari and handed out few coins as payment for the fare.
The tram began its crawling journey towards various destinations. Urmila had her seat adjacent to that of the driver himself, who was a dark and soiled personage to whom carrying passengers in his two-bogeyed vehicle was more a duty than a personal preference. Given a chance, he would well love to enjoy a plateful of rice and mutton curry with family. Yet to satiate his as well as those bellies in his family which are always craving for food, he had taken up a driver’s job.

“Trams would soon become a relic of the past. Given the fast pace of our lives today, they are an unnecessary baggage”, Urmila’s father had told his daughter one day. But inwardly he also believed that trams offered one the airy comfort of a laid-back attitude to life, which is fast vanishing.
But Urmila strongly believed, contrary to her father’s visionary assumption that trams were like family heirlooms. They would be hard to cast off, yet would have to be relegated to the background and treasured for posterity.  They offered one the airy luxury of a slow, sure and serene ride.
As soon as the tram had entered the crossing of Amherst Street and Harrison Road, Urmila stepped down from the first foothold, where she had been standing for quite some time and letting the morning air play around and dishevel her dark hair. She closed her eyes and allowed the coolness to seep into every pore of her being.

It’s really been a long while since I last boarded a tram for a long ride, Urmila thought.
She started walking as soon as the tram had deposited her, safe and sound, at her desired destination. She reached her paternal home when the neighbourhood was just about waking up to another busy day. Their maid, Purnima Mashi, was just getting the stove ready for the breakfasts of everybody in the house. She had already prepared two rounds of tea which were as necessary as the early morning air that steals into every Calcutta household.

“Who is it?”
Urmila’s mother could be heard from the other side of the door, when her daughter rang their doorbell. Except for the milkman, no one rings their doorbell at such an hour. By its very tinkling sound, Urmila’s mother could fathom that here was someone known to her. Just like certain smells are associated with certain persons, so with doorbells. No two tinkles of doorbells are alike, so it is believed. The way one presses a doorbell reflects the inner calm or turmoil of the visitor.
Urmila had not informed her parents prior to this visit. Yet her mother sensed a foreboding and with much trepidation, had opened the door.

There stood before her eyes her daughter, dishevelled with dark circles around her eyes. Urmila suddenly stooped and touched her mother’s feet, a custom which is followed on auspicious occasions in Bengali households even to this day where the younger generation seek blessings from their elders.
“It is you? At this hour? Is everything alright in your home?” Urmila’s mother stared into her daughter’s eyes where she found a deep sadness and melancholy which unsettled her. She had seen the same sadness in her daughter’s eyes, when she had been told that her daughter won’t be able to bear them any grandchildren by the gynaecologist of a reputed nursing home in Calcutta.
“Your daughter suffers from malnutrition. It would be advisable for her not to conceive at this stage. I cannot guarantee the health of the child”, the doctor had informed Urmila’s father, after performing the tests.

So when her daughter came knocking in the early morning, Urmila’s mother’s instinct knew that her daughter has perhaps fallen into some trouble.
“Can I have some food, mother? And”, Urmila paused here to look pleadingly at her mother, “a cup of your specially prepared tea?”
“Of course”, her mother went hurriedly into the kitchen. After all, it was seldom that their daughter visited their household after her marriage.
She had put ground ginger pieces and cardamom sticks into her daughter’s tea. She had always been like this, her mother mused.
Urmila. Their daughter.

Whenever she had been down with any ailment like common flu, it was always her mother’s specially prepared tea which had enlivened her spirits.
After drinking the cup of tea, Urmila rose and all of a sudden, touched her mother’s feet.
“What was that for?” Her mother couldn’t help asking her somewhat-whimsical daughter.
“Just felt like”.
“I have some work to complete. I would be back with a couple of hours”, Urmila quickly adjusted the folds of her crumpled sari and bid farewell to her mother. Her father, a late riser, did not perceive an inkling of his daughter’s sudden visit.

The plan was well chalked out within Urmila’s conscious mind.
Often, when they were still unmarried, both Urmila and Nitish would frequent the banks of the Ganges, the lifeline of the state of Bengal. They used to dangle their legs, sitting on the wooden planks of the ferry service and watch the sunset. They had also, once or twice, boarded a boat and had requested the boatman to carry them to the other side, for a pittance.
The place was as known to her as the back of her own hands.
The water seemed inviting – as inviting as the bridal finery with which Bengali maidens are decked on their wedding day for their bridegrooms. She looked back towards the edges of the banks. Except a few early morning bathers, the entire place seemed apparently deserted....
Urmila’s body was washed ashore during the latter part of the day.
“A case of death by drowning.”

The medical practitioner had diagnosed the case when the body of a woman found on the banks of the Ganges, had been brought to him. The only identifying papers found were the cash memo of the purchase of a shirt, brought from a shop where Urmila had noted down her address. That was how Nitish could be notified about his wife’s death.
The sunset that day had a fiery glow to it and as the onlookers watched the slow but eventual dip of the halo of orange light into the river, they also witnessed the hapless cries of a man over the dead body of his wife whom he had loved but understood little.

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