Thursday 1 September 2016

Shortstory 2016 Featured PriyankaRoy Banerjee

Death of A Marionette

Clayton woke up with the antagonizing beep of a text message. Irked with himself for having forgotten to turn the phone silent last night, he checked the text.
‘Want to meet today. Can you?’

The first thing that struck him was the realization that it's a Monday and he had work after work. He wanted to meet, but it was going to be quite a hectic evening. This tussle was turning into a norm since the last few Mondays and he had a feeling that it might become a reason for petty stifles. He had lost the habit of enduring demands of a lover since his previous break up. This time, he didn't want to lose the person on such trivial issues. But Mondays are difficult these days. He had to reply,
‘Can't make it today. You know I have work. Will meet tomorrow, please.’
He didn't receive a reply for rest of the hour, and it stuck at the back of his mind like a stubborn fish bone.

Reluctantly choosing a pressed formal shirt and a pair of trousers, he dressed for work and left home for another day of struggle with the traffic. Mondays made Calcutta worse, or so he believed. His para appeared the same though, mostly laid back people oblivious to the working class. He grew up amidst people who let their professions choose them instead of following their dreams. He became an exception among his peers when he decided to lap up the opportunity of a Drama teacher at a famous high school. Who teaches Drama, anyway! That’s what Uncle George or his sister Juliana would tell him each time. Isn’t there enough drama already in our lives that it has to be taught separately to kids in school now? They would complain to Clayton’s mum that she was spoiling her own son rotten by letting him do such work.

He dragged his hefty frame of six feet onto a dazzlingly sunny street. The autumn heat was still unbearable in this city. Clayton craned his neck backward at the dilapidated apartment on Armenian Street where he lived. It had become his habit each day to check upon the crumbling structure with a fear of collapse. If such a disaster ever happened, his mum Eliza wouldn’t be able to inform him as she didn’t even own a mobile phone and the landline chose to remain dead very often. He had tried to buy a cheap set and educated her about making and receiving calls, but she was adamant. It’s not that she dwelled in the past, but she was inadvertently weary of modern gadgets. She would gawk at the television all day and absorb nuggets of information about mobiles and other such wondrous inventions, but wouldn’t lay her hands over any. After her husband’s death, all Eliza had was the boy and a close-knit community to live within.

An inescapable sigh was breathed, and Clayton came back to reality while he had already begun to sweat. Something in him screamed that it was going to be a bad day. The blooming sun was burning his pate, he wanted to run away to someplace or just go back home and curl up in the cool confines of his room. Mondays meant a hectic day at school and rehearsals in the evening. Clayton was associated with a theatre group since his college days. He wrote plays, dialogues and had to be present at most rehearsals till the play went on stage. It was a passion he had nurtured with care since the last few years. When the actors on stage uttered words written by him, it gave him an orgasmic pleasure, a sense of accomplishment that nothing else provided. He wanted to carve a niche in the city as a playwright and tour the world with his troupe. But it was a dream, a well frequented dream that he groomed and polished day and night. He was in dire need of the job at school to sustain his nuclear family. After his father’s death, the Armenian society and church bore the expenses of his education. His mother provided the necessary bread and meat by working at Uncle George’s bakery. It was one of the best in Calcutta and acclaimed by tourists and residents alike. Clayton made her retire and rest after he had joined as a teacher in a reputed Convent.

Alighting at the bus stop near school, Clayton was irreparably drained. Air conditioned buses hadn’t yet begun operating in this part of the city and he had to avail those tin cans that they pass off as public buses. Of course, he committed the luxury of hailing a cab once in a blue moon, but it was expensive. He hated carrying other people’s odours on his shirt even after the bus ride. Every day, various odours would adhere to his shirt with a unique one or a fragrant perfume once in a while. Today, it was residual smoke from a beedi, a cheap alcoholic deodorant and a plethora of sweats from different people. Disgusted as usual, he fished the phone out of his satchel and checked for any notifications. There was no call or text from his lover. Probably busy at work, or fighting Monday blues. With that conclusion, he began walking on the canopied promenade from the bus stop till the school gate. He had three classes to take on god-awful Mondays, and pore a little on a new manuscript.

His phone vibrated with a beep for text just as he was about to exit the third period.
‘I’m sorry.’

Clayton managed a sliver of smile on his chiselled but exhausted face. He knew such a text would arrive sometime in the day, though his surety was falling off in pieces. He looked at the text and touched the screen where the name appeared – Ahan. When they first met, Clayton was curious as well as intrigued by the name that chimed on his ears. Ahan meant ‘dawn’ and at the expense of sounding cheesy, Clayton felt the mellowness of dawn every time he heard the name. They had met at a bar on an evening that changed their lives.

It was a Monday and Clayton was distraught. A play that he had co-written wasn’t doing well and after a show on Sunday, they had decided to take down the remaining shows. Breaking off from the theatre, Clayton didn’t want to go home. In an urge to ponder on what went wrong, he went to a lounge bar on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. The crowd was generally better here owing to the Tech Park nearby. A flock of men in their impeccable formals and polished loafers were omnipresent in the bar even on Monday evenings. Clayton chose the corner stool at the bar counter and ordered a tall beer. He had closed his eyes after a large glug of the chilled and slightly bitter wallop. When he reopened them, a pair of dark eyes, slightly amused and crinkled was staring at him. Clayton had given a small jolt and looked back at the entity. The face that hosted the eyes was handsome with a sharp nose and beautifully carved dark lips. The hint of a stubble confused Clayton as he thought, who doesn’t shave on a Monday! He was enticed when those lips spoke.
‘I have rarely seen someone enjoying his beer with such calm.’
‘I have rarely seen someone with such beautiful lips.’

Clayton had said that and regretted at the same instant. It was an obvious indication of his sexual orientation as men complimenting other men was considered almost profane in this country. He had offered the stranger an apologetic gaze and wanted to move away to another corner with his stout. The stranger followed him to a cosy two seater table and introduced himself as Ahan. Clayton remained apprehensive as he had encountered men previously who befriended and then made immense fun of him being gay. It was Ahan who broke the ice this time. They hit it off instantly and met more often. Ahan worked in a software company and lived with two other flat mates on the Bypass. He was from Allahabad and had fled to Calcutta with a new job as his family created a ruckus when he came out of the closet.

Ahan was an amateur photographer and Clayton had a great time taking tours of the city with him. He hadn’t explored his home town Calcutta the way a photographer would see and capture. Ahan had even ventured into Armenian Street to click photos of the Armenian Church, the oldest in Calcutta. Clayton had taken him to Uncle George’s bakery and introduced him as a friend. Recounting tales of his sparse community to Ahan was an enriching experience to Clayton as well. He was aware of the history and legacy they carried as the fewest membered race in India, but he hadn’t given too much thought to it hitherto. Uncle George’s only son was a singer and he lived in Mumbai, marrying a Hindu girl. Clayton had realized over the years that Uncle George was proud of him and cherished the fact that he lived within them, in Calcutta while his son went away in pursuit of a brighter career. He wasn’t a selfish father, nor did he frown upon Hector marrying in another ethnicity and religion. There were hardly any Armenian girls left to marry within the community. Uncle George was fiercely protective of their Armenian heritage and identity; he wanted to pass on the legacy and history to the younger generation. Hector was never much interested, so he tried to chat with the younger ones like Clayton every Sunday after mass at the church. Clayton would lap up the stories he heard from Uncle George while gazing wide eyed at the beautifully decorated panels of the Holy Church of Nazareth. The church was built in the 18th Century by Nazar, who came down from Armenia as a merchant.
Clayton wasn’t overtly religious, he attended the Sunday mass to keep his mother company and scoop an hour or two from the entire week to interact with his fellow Armenians. There were very few contemporaries of his generation; some had left the city like Hector, a lot had married Anglo Indian Christians and settled in Calcutta to run their family business. Clayton’s father was a clergyman and he didn’t have a business to fall back upon. His untimely death had left Eliza clueless, but she found a firm footing working at Uncle George’s bakery.
Since Clayton had a job now and was inching towards his thirtieth birthday, Eliza wanted him to get married to a suitable girl. She had broached the subject already with her son, but he seemed overtly reluctant to continue the discussion.
‘You see, there are some people that one loves, and others that perhaps one would rather be with.’
Clayton was reciting this line from A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen to his students on Tuesday. He was lost in thought as it reminded him of Ahan. He loved the man and wanted to live with him for the rest of his life. But he knew it wasn’t possible to label the relationship with a formal or legal name. They couldn’t get married as the Government barely recognized gay relationships in this country. It wasn’t illegal anymore but it wasn’t legal to get married or have kids either. Clayton felt claustrophobic and gasping for air whenever his mum approached him with the topic of marriage to a ‘nice’ girl. He knew that his mum or anyone from his community wouldn’t accept Ahan to be involved with him. Heck, they wouldn’t even try to understand the nature of this relationship, let alone approve of it.

He was still contemplating when he reached Ahan’s flat on the Bypass. It was his chance to make up to him for not meeting yesterday. Ahan was back from office and just out of the shower when Clayton arrived. He looked pale and his face was contrite with something serious. Ahan knew that his beau was being confronted by his mum for getting married. Frankly, he hadn’t thought about marriage at all. He was well aware of the society and its laws, and of his family that still believed in living the feudal way. He loved Clayton for the transparent person that he was, for the unconditional manner in which he could love. Ahan had this love lacking from his life till he came to Calcutta. He had liked men, boys in his teenhood, had been groped by relatives who were older men, and realized much later when he fell in love with a college senior. It was not easy to keep his feelings suppressed and always pressing the lid harder so they didn’t effervesce. He had taken a step further and raised the subject of being a homosexual to his parents. He was prepared that it would blow them off completely and it did. They were livid with anger and fright of losing their reputation in a society that was hypocrite as well. Tired of the daily squabbles and guilt trips from his parents, he fled to Calcutta. He was in immense peace in this city, to say the least. It had bought him freedom, quietude, a new camera and love. Most importantly, love. 

He loved Clayton. He loved caressing the man’s six feet tall frame, stroking his handsome Armenian jaws and long slender fingers that wrote plays. Ahan wasn’t sure how long this relationship would last resisting societal pressures. But he didn’t want to lose Clayton. He wanted to wake up beside the Armenian-Anglo Indian body every morning on a sun kissed bed. He wanted to click photos of the old city with Clayton on tow and later gorging on meatloaves and pastries at Uncle George’s bakery. What if he could hold this time tightly in his fists? What if life went by so smooth each day? But that wasn’t meant to happen. It was nearly impossible that they could live together without anyone prying or creating a brawl over.

They lay side by side on Ahan’s single bed, jostling for space, cramming each other’s arms and thighs together, their toes linking in a knot, their fingers clasping each other’s in a tight embrace. These were the moments they lived for and the pearls of memories that would weave themselves in a pulchritudinous chain binding their hearts together.
‘I have decided something.’
Clayton spoke after a long pause overriding the slight murmur of the air conditioner. Ahan still had his eyes closed. He was listening and he emphasized it by twirling their clasped fingers ever so slightly.

‘I am going to tell mum everything. And come live with you. I have to brace myself to be shared between you and her every week. Let’s rent a flat and move out. I want to live, Ahan…and not die each day under the burden of being maneuvered by the society.’
Ahan opened his eyes and sat upright looking straight into Clayton’s hazel brown eyes. His heart was filling up with something unknown, washing away every insult and molestation that he had faced. It hadn’t occurred to him that there could ever be someone who would complete him. What Clayton proposed wasn’t fool proof and it might come to an end someday, but it was worth giving a try for a few years, or as long as it lasted withstanding the blizzards.
He nodded in agreement. There wasn’t much left to say. They had arrived to the point of no return and he could feel the cool breeze that preceded a swarm of clouds over a cliff. He went back into Clayton’s arms, increased the coolness of the air conditioner and pulled up a bed sheet over both of them. 

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