Thursday 1 September 2016

ShortStory 2016 Firstprize Ujan Mukhopadhyay

The South Park Street Cemetery

This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,

We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh

In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
- James Thomson

In the ancient city of dead people, Marco Polo woke up, and found on his grave a young girl speaking to herself. On listening closely, he realised she was speaking to the soul of a boy who had died centuries ago. The boy was two scores and four years of age then, when the Plague-bearing-East-Wind wiped him out. The boy never aged since, and existed only in the yellow pages of a long forgotten novel. The girl, obviously, was oblivious of that. To her, he was real. She thinks she can touch him. Did she just kiss him?

- Marco Polo, the veteran traveller, decided to rest. His grave smelled of Chinese spices and Italian gourmet, and rotten wood and weeds and mushrooms…
Above him, he knew, another novel was in the making. Is he going to come out of the book, or is she going into it?

Even at your home, where you think you know every nook, where ants line up, every window and whatever is beyond, the creepy screech made by the kitchen door, the staircase that has exactly seventeen steps and a switch for the light bulb at the end of it, which of course, doesn’t work, but doesn’t matter anyway because you know there are three steps left… Even at your home you lose things.
And very rarely you find something while you were frantically searching for something else. Something very insignificant and utterly irrelevant props up from under the carpet, and makes you forget what you were after in the first place. And you can’t figure out whether it actually belonged to you, and if not, where it came from.
You decide to look for more clues, and you wipe off the dust with the sleeve of your shirt. And you find a book with a ruined cover. An anonymous hand written book? You turn to the first page. A certain Alexander James had gifted the book to his beloved. What was her name? Illegible. And the date? Yes. It is 1914.

And she started reading –
She, who was scared of the nameless, shapeless phantom cloudlike entities surrounding her who whispered in her ears in a language she had never heard before. And yet, she could feel that they were asking for something, requesting, demanding, pleading, and begging for something, something which they thought she was hiding. Which wasn’t hers to keep. She could smell their cold and saline presence when she walked back from the church on empty evenings or when she was brushing her rodentious teeth in front of the empty mirror or in the shower or in the bed or in the classroom. They fed on the white pills and on the streams of cigarette smoke spilled out by her lungs – and on her fear.

But for the precious eleven minutes that she spent on the nameless book, she could smell only the Oriental spices that her grandmother used to put into the chirping hot mustard oil in the frying pan. Of hing and tej pata and panch foron. And immediately she knew she was going to read the book. See the end of it, as they say. So after eleven minutes and twenty six pages, when her mother alarmed her of the oncoming downpour, she found herself put a pagemark and rush to the roof to rescue the half dry clothes from the imminent attack.
April it was, when the massive Elizabeth docked at the Salempore Port in the Bengal Province. The ship looked fatigued, carrying a burden of history and cargo. So were its crew. Seventy Irishmen and a twenty four year old architect set foot on a foreign soil. They were greeted by a pack of dogs, three cows, a swarm of uninterested men, a mesh of wet and narrow lanes, and a sense of being alien and unwanted in this Oriental country. 

The Irishmen took off in a group, searching for a place to sleep. Salempore had plenty of space to offer them, to the whole of East India Company, or so they thought. As the brown skinned natives started unloading the Elizabeth, the Irishmen, with their own sacks and rags and whiskey smelling breath and three and a half months of unshaved beards, discovered a large empty hall in the largest warehouse by the river. The twelve banjos and seven flutes tried to puke a tune, which was absorbed by the crates of sealed, unsealed and broken bottles of Irish whiskey, the thick brick walls of the warehouse and the busy Strand Road traffic. Somewhere not very far, a cannon fire announced the daybreak. The crimson sun was disappearing beyond the July clouds, beneath the foreign horizon, leaving a drop of its colour in the coursing Varsai River. The young architect from Somerset was lost in the burning dusk, in this young city of fifty five distinct odours. But then one is truly lost when he can’t find his way – way to a destination. Alexander James did not have one.

Everyone was lost in Salempore. There were the British and Frenchmen and Irishmen and Portuguese and Chinese and of course Bengalees of every kind, and no one knew from where the others came and what were they trying to say and for what purpose they kept bumping into each other in this emerging hotspot. So what does it matter if you didn’t add one more stranger in the land of the infinite? The tavern would have sold one less mug of beer a night, the yellow corner house of the East Circular Road would have had one room empty, though not for long, and the little woman on the Middleton Roe would have read one less book. Much of a loss for anyone? Alexander James thought he knew the answer to that question, and he wasn’t particularly happy about it. But he discarded within himself this feeling and constantly repeated the slogan he had been saying to himself over the past couple of years, that he was a traveller, and he couldn’t afford to matter to someone in anyway. So he chose to think about the towns and the streets and the inns he had spent the previous nights, and the nights before. And then the nights on the ship. The short and sweet girl from Japan, who didn’t speak much but only looked. Looked at everything as if she was reading a book. She was roaming in the bazaar of Al Bakht when the ship was anchored in the port to refuel and replenish the inventory. She never came back. Nor did the empty-basketed dates seller girl in Cape of Good Hope who had promised to bring more for him the next day. But then, will HE ever return to all those places he had been to?

She had dug out an old calendar from the discarded dump. And she had carefully clothed the century old book. The first one hundred and thirty two pages were budding with a promise. A strange promise, though. Rather a promise of being strange, of being weirdly communicative. It was this intrigue that kept her drawing to the book every now and then. And she would find, at times, that she is stuck on the page she has last read. She can’t turn over to the next one at HER will, as if the book had a mood of its own, and it would talk to her when IT felt like. She used to get scared at first. What if the book didn’t let her see the next page? Not after two hours, not after a week, never? And then she sensed that promise. It will talk to her. Maybe after two hours, after a week, she wouldn’t know, but it will. And when it does, she gets to know. Whether she is in class, being taught the randomness of variables, or in the bathroom, or in the church, alone with her smoky companions, or in the balcony, smoking—she always feels the next page coming alive. And then she secretly takes it out of her bag, carefully veiling it from the curious and often judgmental eyes, and starts reading. And stops, whenever the book wants so. She would shout at it sometimes. Why does SHE have to go by the command of a lifeless book with a calendar cover? And in one hot summer night, when the one thirty second page refused to open, and without any hint, and that too when she was on a really interesting paragraph, she lost her patience and threw the book at the wall. The binding came loose. She ran, swearing that she’d never do so again, and picked it up. The pages were scattered. Randomly. She began arranging them. And she couldn’t resist peeping into the next page.
It was empty. So was the one thirty third page. And all the others after them. They were yet to be written. All she could do now was wait.

They were building a bridge over the Varsai, the Company People. The design came from the Kingdom, and Alex and a hundred others were sent to Salempore to oversee the mechanics on field. That’s what he did, he looked blankly at the meandering river practically flushing out the civilisation’s waste, and yet being called the holiest, a river which provided the water to purify the Mandirs of those bhaktas who didn’t hesitate to take a dump by it when they felt like. He stared at the other bank of the mighty Varsai, and realised, it was a distance which tons of steel cannot bridge.

On a really sunny Sunday, Alex went to the church. The only church in this oriental city dotted with old mosques and older temples. It was not the usual Mass hour, and the large prayer hall was frightfully quiet. Alex took seat in the third pew, and stared at the oil painting hanging from the wall to his left. It seemed so familiar, and yet clearly distinct. This was much more Oriental, the sword was tulwar, the water ewer was a spittoon, and the twelve wise men looked at a bit Indian as well. It was a replica of “The Last Supper”. And the church reminded him of a home he never had. Alex looked at Jesus in the eyes. “I wish a good evening to you, Mr. Christ,” he said. “It occurs to me that today is a bit sunny. A bit too sunny, I should say. Is it possible for you to do anything about it, Sir? What I mean to say is that, you know, a few clouds from here and there, a little breeze and perhaps a shower too? Then again, you should not be bothered about all these. Not from me, at least. I acknowledge the fact that I have not paid any visit to you for long, Sir… Never to be more precise. I was wondering, whether you are not mad at me, or is it that there is verity in my apprehension? Sir, you see I’ve been drifting lately, I presume you know of that. Of course you do, you’re God! Please forgive my disrespect, dear Lord. Gustakhi maaf ho. So… Ummm… How do you like this city, Salempore?” “It has turned out, it is not quite as I had imagined. The inhabitants of this place are nice. When they run out of our English vocabulary, they grace the silence with their smile. They eat vegetables, unknown to me, and perhaps to you too. And the spices…” “No Sir, there is no need to mind all these… This is perhaps not the reason I was here. I don’t know why I was here my Lord. I hope you do. I can’t find it if I don’t know what to look for, can I?”

The light dimmed in the church. Shadows grew longer. Alex smelled a presence in the prayer hall. The candles flickered. The gong on the church tower resonated. The sound came from beneath the earth. Four times. Alex stood up, and took a long walk down the aisle. When he reached the door, all his blurs from moments ago blew away along with the dry leaves of the ancient banyan beside the church. Clouds were marching in from the banks of Varsai. It was about to rain. Three noisy naked kids ran across the Warehouse Road towards the river. “Ka-aa-al-bo-oo-oi-sha-aa-khi-iiii,” they announced the victory.

Not a word since morning. She was in the middle of a sentence when she fell asleep last night. She woke up with her face buried in the book, drooling on the two hundred and eleventh page. “May be I am saying all this because I’m drunk, but…” But what? Oh! Why did she have to fall asleep? Now she won’t know the rest of the confession! Not at least for the next few hours, and it’s almost day break now! Imagine how she spent the day with an anxious anticipation in her stomach! Is this what they call butterflies?

Empty pages. The rest of the story was precariously hanging around a doubtful conjunction. “But…” The plot, much like her, was lost in the centre of a seven point crossing. The doubt amplified and multiplied in her mind for the whole day. She couldn’t decide between the cupboard full of dresses and ended up wearing a white one with flowers printed on it. The three minutes of four o’clock rain caught her off guard, and pointed out the error. Bad decision. Now everyone gets a peek at her black brassier through the wet white shirt. It clung to her like the phantom clouds did. Like moss, growing on her shoulder, creeping through her neck, whispering in her ear. She attempted to shrug them off, dust them with her handkerchief. They wouldn’t go. Not like this. She chose to ignore their presence, and marched into the exam hall. Wrong hall. 

Three hours. A small co-ordinating conjunction pinned her to the wall. She was exhausted after a doubtful test. Faces blurred, voices scrambled. The moss was conquering her tongue and forcing their way in through the ears. They were hungry. She threw her bag on a corner of the bed and closed the door behind her. A three inch white stick came out of her jeans pocket. The nagging whispers burst out in screams. She lit the cigarette, and watched the moss feed. They’ll rest for a while now. So will she. 

The knocks weren’t discrete. In fact, they were too loud for her to pretend she didn’t hear them. She rose from the lag and unbolted the door. She knew exactly who was on the other side. “I am sorry,” he said, “I am so sorry… I shouldn’t have…” He wasn’t sure who he was talking to. She sure did look like the one he came in to apologise, but- Anyway, he thought his apology worked. On any other day, he would have faced a flurry of choicest profanities, well directed sarcasms and even a few desperate swats which he used to dodge with the agility of mosquitoes. So, it was safe to assume from the absence of the routine violence that – or was it? He was hesitant. Something was definitely off. That look in her eyes, what was it? He held her face with his hands and their foreheads touched. Normally, she'd come the other halfway to greet his lips, but – He waited for a tense second and decided to go for it. Her lips were cold. He could smell nicotine, and something else. Something ominous. And why was she still looking at him with that gaze of a dead fish? What was in that look? Disgust? He pressed his lips against hers, in vain search of response. The look changed its colour. Was it abhor now? Disregarding, he meekly attempted to dig a little deep. She snapped. She slapped. She pushed him away. He was too shocked to react. As he made his way out through the dark stairs, he realised he was wrong. Her look? It was of horror.

Yet another night of wet pillows. She couldn’t believe what had happened. He was breathing greenish fumes. His face was bony. His touch was pricking. And he smelled like something in rot. The clouds had conquered him. Or was it her? Was she the one under a dark spell? She couldn’t think anymore. She was drowning in sobs when she heard it. The book has returned. She zipped open her navy blue bag and took it out. She didn’t need pagemark to remember where she was.
“- but I love you.” The moss sublimed away. The wild weeds that had gripped her leg, loosened. And the clouds disappeared in the strong Varsai wind.

“A letter for you!” Alexander James stopped fiddling with the steamed rice and mashed potato on the banana leaf and stared at the bearer. He had learnt to eat with his fingers. Was it fun? Pouring gravy and vegetables over rice, running fingers through it and then putting a handful of the soaked rice into the mouth. A small, thin, green chilli sitting inadvertently on one side, discussing life with a piece of sliced lemon and a bit of salt. A nine inch fish, crowned with coriander leaves, lying half submerged in the bowl full of gravy, with its head sticking out. And an ever-smiling cook standing by the door just for a nod of appreciation. But now, a puzzle in a white envelope ruined his appetite. “A letter! For me?” The cook nodded. Alex lifted the heavy brass glass of water, and washed his hand on the brass bowl kept for the purpose. Somewhere a cat smiled.

An East India Company seal decorated the envelope. Alex sighed. More instructions, explanations. More numbers and diagrams. Architecture was something Alexander loved to do. It was a perfect blend of aesthetics and utility, he thought. But his job here in Salempore wasn’t exactly designing. He had to comply with orders, and ensure the blueprint was implemented precisely. Often, he would stare at the one dimensional monster on the chart and sketch some modifications, to make it stronger, adding elegance. But he was a low pay scale employee, a young lad of twenty four. Who would listen to him?

The white envelope with the company seal found a corner on the mahogany table by the window. It was evidently not the priority of the receiver. He took out his leather bound book instead. And dipped his long sleek ebony pen into the inkpot. A week since he had written anything. A week since he had knocked on his door on the East Circular Road, stinking of whiskey, and went straight up to his room and lit the candle not before the fourteenth matchstick, and wrote something which he thought he might regret. He didn’t. But he didn’t dare to write something for the whole week. As if he would have to explain whatever he had written, to the reader. But there wasn’t any, was there? Not yet.

Alex was pouring all his secrets into the pages. Not exactly a diary, it wasn’t. He invented characters and made them do whatever he liked. He imagined situations and sometimes it would be difficult for himself to make out the real ones from the fantasies. And all along, if someone cared to know about him, he would find striking resemblances between his characters and himself, his life. Alexander James was telling a story, and he was hoping that someday, someone would listen to him.

Errors kept repeating. A left-out grocery item, an unpaid bill, a broken China clay cup, flunked tests and gross mistakes of all sort. Her father never failed to show his disappointment, her mother would admonish her, with a faint hope that may be she would listen. The moss would grow denser thicker, the clouds would howl into her ears as she put enormous effort to withhold tears. Then at night, her bag would glow, and she would plunge into the words. And smile and laugh and grin and smirk and giggle and turn to the next page.

And she would avoid him to the extent of denying his existence. She wouldn’t answer the phone, pretend to be busy when he pleaded to meet and put on an expressionless mask if, by some miscalculation (or by his perseverance,) they bumped into each other. This ailed her, because she couldn’t find a reason strong enough to tell him to go away. Or maybe, she herself was too weak to do so. It will stir things a lot anyway… He would be persuasive, she would be evasive, friends would come to know in a matter of minutes and ask all sort of stupid questions, some of them would show sympathy and the whole mess would turn a lot worse. Also, she thought, he had been with him for eight years now, a lot of memories would be unearthed if…

But for how long? How long she seek asylum in the book? It had to end somewhere, someday! And how long can she keep him away? She knew that eventually he would penetrate her defensive wall, much like he did some eight years ago. Nevertheless, she decided to not decide, to postpone the confrontation to the brink of the inevitable apocalypse. Till then she’d leave it all to fate which, unfortunately, was showing no sign of being on her side. On her side, always, was the navy blue denim bag. Inside of it was unexplored terrain. The availability of any particular object that once entered the dark room through the zip, followed the Uncertainty Principle forwarded by a certain Mr. Heisenberg. You have to touch and feel and be familiar with the object you are looking for to successfully pick it out in less than eight attempts. Pens with caps, decapitated pens, eye drops, antacids, handkerchiefs, keys, ticket stubs, an empty purse (because all the cash were in her pocket and the clinking coins sunk at the bottom of the bag,) cigarettes, paper, wrapped weed, tablets and capsules and million tiny things. A not so tiny book had lately become a permanent resident of the navy blue bag. And it had a hilarious sense of timing. It would ping her just as she introduced herself to the panel of grey-haired, wrinkle-faced professors waiting to pounce on her with out-of-context questions and to point out miniscule errors in her thesis defence seminar. It would spring to life when she still had two thirds of her dinner left and “I’m full,’ wouldn’t satisfy her mother. It would cry out almost audibly in the Church prayer hall, in the crowded bus with a fat lady squeezing her against the stinking conductor, while she’s taking a very urgent dump in a nearby shopping mall loo (because the college lavatories aren’t clean enough,) and when the three twenty ninth page announced its arrival, she was in a cab, alone. She was returning from a theatre in Free School Street, where one of her friends was a cast of a macabre play they called The Last March, and wasn’t exactly sure where she was. This happened a lot, she wasn’t well versed with the streets and the lanes of Salempore, and cabbies had never let her down, so far. So she unsuspectingly relied on this young taxi driver and concentrated (or rather embraced the distraction,) on the book. Seventeen pages later, she realised that they had been travelling long enough to have reached familiar boundary, but given her history of direction sense, she chose not to bug the driver. However, merely after eleven more pages, the cab slowed down, and the cabby shocked her by saying that he was lost. “So am I,’ she said to herself, but blasted out on the young man anyway. “What sort of a cabbie are you? You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? I now your kind…” her voice faded out. They were parked outside a pre-historic gateway. The large boundary walls were worn out, remastered, and worn out again. The gate had a morose appearance in the dusk, and beyond it, in between trees and shrubs, she could see gothic silhouettes of a million shapes and sizes. “What are these? What is this place?” “Saheb der gorosthan,” the cabbie pointed out a marble name-plate on the wall. “South Park Street Cemetery,” it said, “1706-1914”.

“Do you miss home? You must be missing home, I can tell… Your mother, she’s worried about you, whether you are eating properly, is your headache bothering you… Your father is anxious too, he just doesn’t show it as much… Your sister is hoping for a valuable gift from the Orient. Isn’t it?” asked the landlady. The tropical sun had painted him a shade darker. The labourers and chowkidaars and dokan-wallahs and juri-gari-drivers had almost perfected his Bengali vocabulary. But long before he had learnt how to say, “I have no bloody clue what you’re trying to say, because I don’t know your language,” his fat landlady in her 60s used to visit him often, rarely to remind him of the due rent (because he was always punctual on principle,) but she felt a filial need to check upon the kid from Bilet, who stayed alone upstairs, away from his home and family, and had that dark, mysterious, saddening aura about him. She used to smile and talk to him, and it was the affection in her tone that Alex could recognise.

But now Alexander didn’t need the help of Mansoor Chacha, the cook, to decipher her words. And yet he had that same look in his eyes. Family is a vague concept to him. Home, for him, is wherever he sleeps at night. He would listen to anyone who had something to say, not necessarily to him, and he would talk to his book. The landlady’s question reminded him of all those people who had been kind to him. The coffee brewer in Cairo, who was also his cabin-mate in the trip from Turkey to Egypt, he remembered, gave him a room in his attic, when he turned blue in yellow fever, a mosquito gifted him in the city of Angora. The childless couple took good care of the ailing architect. The wife fed him slices of pita bread dipped in chilli pickles and mustard sauce, and scorned when he attempted to move to the veranda to have a look at the shabby streets and loud bazaars where everyone was negotiating the prices of everything. He would see donkey carts bring in jute baskets full of coffee beans. People came to Cairo to cure their lungs from tuberculosis, he was told. The dry wind filtered by the yellow sands of the Sahara worked like magic on his yellow fever as well. As it turned out, the caffeine merchant had never known the presence of an Oriental beverage called tea. He took the first sip of the dark red liquid made from grounded leaves Alexander bought a while ago from an East India Company employee en route home, with much scepticism. He finished the cup silently and asked Alex to leave at once. The Devil’s Drink, apparently, was intended to drive him out of business.

Yes, Alex could call them family. Mansoor Chacha with his paan stained teeth, isn’t he the family as well? The landlady, still waiting for an answer while Alex is contemplating, she’s family too. So is the old fisherman of Ural, who provided Alex a shelter during the great Russian winter. Old man Oleg and his wolf sized hound Viktor kept him warm with the fur coats, alpine fire, fat oil lamps and bear hugs of their friendship. Alex shivered in the steaming heat of Salempore just recalling the white shiny horizon of the tiny Russian village on the Ural River.
Alex smiled at the landlady, and nodded. Even after a year, he still can’t pronounce her name properly. “Well, take care son,” she said. “Go visit your desher bari when you find time…” He could hear the loud footsteps descend to the ground floor, and then a squeak of the wooden door. He lifted himself from the easy-chair, and bolted his door, and flung open the Southside window. A gust of the Varsai air was waiting outside, and now they pounced upon him. It fluttered through all the papers on the adjacent mahogany table. The leather bound book came out from the bottom drawer and the pen, after a little hide-n-seek surrendered from underneath a chart paper of blue prints. Alex needed to talk to someone.
She couldn’t wipe out the image of an ancient cemetery right in the heart of a modern city from her eyes. It didn’t belong there. Not there, sandwiched between the high school and the twenty-two story building under construction. And a cobbler in front of it, relaxing on the footpath in front of the guardian wall. Does it even exist? She was perplexed. Her father had just heard a mention of it somewhere, in some article. Mother was furious right away. What do you have to do with a cemetery? A dirty place with dying people! Peek into any corner, and you’d find anti-socials, doing drugs. Do you have any idea how unsafe these places are?” Her room was not any safer, she thought, and if her mother was keen enough to peek at certain places in her room, she’ll find drugs there too. She would have asked her friends at college, but the city to them is a mesh with shopping malls and restaurants at the nodes. With a little hesitation, she questioned him, for he claimed to be an anti-consumerist and whatever. He frowned. “Cemetery? What are your plans? Who feeds you these ideas?” This was not the first time. The book she was reading, was in love with Salempore, and it had this urge in it to make her aware of the enigmas of the city she lives in. And whenever she got overwhelmed, she tended to discuss with her boyfriend. And every time she met the same reactions. 

“Who tells you such stories? How did you know the Chinese originally settled in Trinity-bazaar and not China Town (And I don’t?) And this Shinghi Ghat on the Varsai… You’ve been going on about the evening aarti like you’ve been there. Who took you there?”
“The book I’ve been reading…”
“What book? Who gave it to you? (I know I didn’t. I certainly talk about reading, but…)
“I fou- I bought it. From an old books store.”
“Give it to me. I’ll read it.”
“What’s with this book and you? You seem so different these days. So distant. Where have you gone? Where are you?”

Wrong question. When is she? She is in the same good old Salempore, with a leather bound book. She is in the nineteenth century. And her tram is being drawn by two incredibly well bred horses. And the massive Varsai hasn’t yet been bridged by tons of steel. Soldiers in khaki uniforms cross the river through the temporary platoon bridge. And a twenty four year old chap sits near the pulley, overlooking the construction, and contemplates.
“I am sorry.” He wouldn’t understand, she knew. She kissed him on his beardy cheek, and smiled. No, the clouds don’t interfere much these days. The moss stays locked in her socks. Yes, she is happy.

Architects love arches and arcs. And symmetry too. Varsai was going to be stringed by a symmetrical archetype bridge pretty soon. There would be a long base supported by seven columns hung on a pair of semi-circular wings on either side. It was going to be grand. Spectacular. “And probably a failure,” Alex told himself. The pillars would have to negotiate the ever persistent under current of the Varsai. Yes they were strong enough in paper, but this river, it has eroded mountains in its course, made its way through all the obstacles the Indian plain tested it with. Seven iron columns? The Varsai has already set an expiry date to it.
The ever busy giant mechanical toys toil day and night like genies from a dozen of Aladdin’s lamps, piling on neatly ordered metal segments. Metals of every nature, weight, volume, shape were hitting, touching, frictioning against other metals of every other possible variances. The whole yard was a concert of such metallic sounds. Heavy metals. Loud, lifeless. 

People got used to it, money matters. Alex used cotton plugs and a late night dose of the Esraaj and the Tabla flowing in from some temple somewhere. He even remembers the tune of a couple, he can distinguish between the devotional bhajans and the melancholic thumris. Once he had come across the enigmatic seductress living a few blocks away from his residence, while she was peeking out of her paalki and smiling quite dangerously at his next door neighbour. Mansoor Chacha had mentioned her before, apparently she had this amazing voice, with that appropriate amount of the elixir that kept her clients drawing towards her like the Shyama-poka to the burning lamp. Evidently, not everyone could afford her. A few moments later, Alex witnessed a domestic war resulting in a rare defeat of the patriarch. The wife kicked the drunk babu out, she was not willing to share her man with a Bai-ji, however well she sings.
Alex sighed. He could make a better blue-print of the bridge. But there is not enough time. They would start installing the pillars in a week. He neatly folded the papers into squares. And walked off into Salempore. He left the Sailor’s settlements behind him and followed the river. The older Salempore. Armenians arrived here much before the British did. They built a church, a few dwellers settled. Babu Motilal Sheel arranged a Ghat for them. It was quiet in the late afternoon. The huge banyan leaned into the water, and provided a nice seat for him. The Varsai had taken a turn to the left a few hundred yards from the Armenian Ghat, right where the Varsai was to be bridged. The site had a distant view from here. A different perspective. Alex could close his eyes and imagine the megastructure. Not at all like it was drawn in the plan. Alexander James took out his drawing tools. He was going to plan his own bridge.

“You didn’t know THIS? REALLY?”
She was visibly embarrassed. She had very inadvertently asked her father whether they had to cross the first Varsai Bridge to get to the Grand Central Railway Station. She had vaguely assumed that it was located in the East Bank, with Salempore.
“Well, we do have the second one, but the first one is much nearer. In any case you’d HAVE to cross the Varsai to get to Grand Central from Salempore! It’s on the West side, Salempore is in the East! How can you not know that?

She made a few half attempts to speak up for herself, to defend why it was okay not knowing the key whereabouts of her city, but all she managed to do was pout and leave the room with a well-aimed glance at her father smirking beneath his moustache. She knew with a fair degree of certainty that this is not the last time she was going to be digged at with this topic. All upcoming family and friends packages would definitely commence with, “Do we have to cross the first Varsai Bridge to get to Grand Central?” It was going to be a ready-made joke.

She didn’t mind. She might not know the street names and shortest routes between places, not yet, but she knows stories about them. Stories they don’t know. Nobody else does. So when she paid the cab off the Betancourt Square (although it’s a circle,) and strolled past the Nawab Bagh Cricket Stadium into the shabby alley behind a mosque with surma-eyed people in white Fez hats and strong Atar perfumes selling magical tabijes and madulies, nothing seemed unfamiliar to her. She didn’t even have to ask someone for the subtle left turn that led her to the white Armenian Church with a giant clock in its tower almost concealed by the old shops. She walked into a courtyard with a large contrast to the rush outside. There was a silence looming. A few, three or four people, here and there. A lot of tombs in the ground, faded, fading names on them. Blackened, murky oil murals, obscure Aramaic markings on a wall. She felt them with her fingertips.

“I have a question for you, O Lord
Ask yourself, He replied       
For you have the answer, only you do,
The answer you long denied…”

An old man came out from the darkness inside the church. Wrinkly face, squinting eyes, no glasses he observed the girl translating an ancient Aramaic prayer.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She smiled, “There used to be a mahogany door somewhere behind the church, it was supposed to lead to the –“
“Armenian Ghat. Yes. The wall grew old, little woman, it turned to dust a decade ago, you can see the stairs, and they are still there.”
“So is the grandfather banyan. Kissing the Varsai.”
“Who ARE you?” Was his voice shaky solely because of his age?
“You can see the first Varsai Bridge from here!” She exclaimed. “The whole span of it! It’s beautiful!”
“It is. Isn’t it? Who are you, dear?”
“I just live in the city. I am living in the city for now.”
“You shouldn’t roam about alone in these parts, you know, it’s not safe…”
“I am not-- Not alone… I have company…” she smiled again, and kept staring at the distant, shining, century-old bridge on the Varsai.
Powerful are those, who can maintain a straight face without a hint of any expression whatsoever, somebody once said.
Alex silently cursed the Chief Architect and Planning Commissioner of the East India Company. There was no clue to any decision either way that he could read in his face. When he approached the bulky man with huge sideburns with his blue-prints, he expected an outrage. Something more in the line of, “You are implying that our plans are faulty? How dare you? The best of our architects have toiled relentlessly for this…” Not even a frown did he receive. He was asked to wait, while the chart papers with straight lines and arcs and calculations of all sorts were being reviewed. That was twenty three hours earlier. A little more than a million gallons of water has flown through the Varsai under the yet to be built bridge since then.

A reasonable restlessness grabbed Alex. His fat master was still nibbling at a piece of good looking paper with a pen made of polished buffalo horn and with a nib made of iridium. Alex was summoned in his office a quarter of an hour ago. He had had seven gulps of water since. He was reaching out for the earthen water pot the eighth time, when the Chief of Architecture looked up. There was a pause. An awkward silence Alex hated. He froze with his left hand stretched out, as if he was caught stealing. A sarcastic smile appeared underneath the heavy moustache. “Do you drink only water?” Alex pulled his hand in. A large mass of flesh and fat stood up with some difficulty as the chair creaked, and headed for a wooden cabinet. Two crystal glasses and a crystal bottle with a dark liquid came out. Scotch Whiskey.

The new plan needed less material, less time, and hence lesser cost. And of course, as explained meticulously by the young architect from Somerset, was expected to have more longevity. And elegance. The Company praised of him highly, gave him a raise of a few pounds. Apparently, the Queen was almost going to confer upon him the Knighthood, but he was so young! The construction was to start soon, the whole city witnessed a new tide of business. More and more Chinese cobblers and dentists with pocket full of opium, Afghan Kabuliwalahs with thick smoky beards and bag full of dry fruits, Africans with curly hair and ever-surprised eyes with nothing in their pockets crowded the dock and the railway stations, and the city started growing stranger and stranger. What’s one more stranger in that lot? What’s one less stranger cost? Except that Alex wasn’t a stranger anymore.
A sudden realisation dawned on her one morning, when she was re-reading the past chapters, and smiling to herself. The realisation, however, ripped her of that smile. There were only a few pages left in the book. Very few. A dozen, maybe. Fourteen, she counted. Fourteen pages left, then it ends. What next? The lack of an answer, the absence of a promise frightened her. A tear rolled down her left cheek and landed on a page. The ink didn’t smudge. “Insensitive,” she grumbled, and wiped her eyes. What was that faint droning sound? Can you hear that? Are those clouds back? She needs a smoke…

The book came alive before she could find one. She grabbed her lunchbox and stormed out. Two slices of bread, she watched while it was being packed earlier, and an apple. As if she’s going to eat that holy bread or the forbidden fruit! Her mother need not know that, though. For now, she’s on a tour, to make the most of the fortnight left.

For hours that day, and the days that followed, Salempore witnessed a short, chubby girl combing the city, with a black book in her hands, searching for something. She would often fumble while crossing the road, and reach out for a hand, find the book instead and then shakily manage to get to the other side. She’d scratch the leather cover like its itching, when she got excited. Excited to see somethings in the city haven’t changed at all! The potters of Kumordanga still wrestle with the clay and their life, as they plaster the Varsai silt on the inner structure of hay, and with subtle, skilful touches and immense patience moulds the larger than life clay models of the Goddess. That Chinese eating house behind the inconspicuous monastery in Trinity Bazaar where there are paintings of dragons and strange Chinese mythological creatures on the wall, and that peculiar zodiac. It was still the year of the Tiger, as it was in 1914, when a young man got acquainted and fell in love with a city lost in the carnival of opportunist strangers, piling on like ants on a sugar cube to scrounge whatever remains, and resurrected a little hope, may be not everyone is here to take. 

She was tired, yet a strange sense of fulfillment infused her, as she leaned against the railing of the ferry in spite of the preventive looks from some of her elder co-passengers. Not all of them meant well, a lot of them bore the “I wish I could grab you bit I can’t, so I am going to stare instead’ glasses, but today she didn’t care. The ferry moved sluggishly towards the other shore leaving a prominent trajectory in the dirty green Varsai. The floating air of a strange familiar smell touched her, caressed her. Kissed her cheeks, eyes; went around her neck, peeping dangerously at certain sensitivities. It didn’t leave her, that scent. Followed her as she walked all the way along the Varsai Bridge, not even in the last seat of the crowded mini-bus, where it wrapped itself around her, tickling her senses. It faded though, as she set foot in her house.
“Where had you been? You never actually went to college! Where did you go?” Her mother knew everything. That she had barely chewed the bread while she was hurrying through the by-lanes of Mirza Ghalib Street, that the apple was lying somewhere in the vicinity of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road with the sticker still on, that something was going on. Did she know, there were just eight pages left?
Alexander James was no longer a supervisor anymore. He was an Assistant to the Chief Architect now, and the planner. The plan was done. Some other chap from Glasgow was appointed to look after the implementation of the fresh blueprint. Alex was proud of himself. He was leaving an indelible mark in a city he had set foot in, for the first time. Salempore would not be just another city he had traversed on his way… This one, he has conquered. Or is it that the city has conquered him? For why else would he feel a tad bit homesick for a city he had spent eight months in, as the giant vessel left the Salempore Port a little after midday?

Mansoor Chacha had packed some lunch for him and wiped his tears with his gamchcha. The landlady went on and on about how he was like his son, and refused to take the pending rent from him. Alex stood awkwardly, drenched in the raining sentiments. He lacked the gift of being emotionally overwhelmed, or appreciating the same. He feared attachment. So, when they required to build a cantilever somewhere in Baltimore, and Chief Architect W B McMillan recommended him, though mostly because he himself wanted to be remembered associated with bridging the Varsai and bag a Knighthood, if possible, he accepted it readily.

Alex had not much time to pack and not a big trunk to fill. He left out all that was significant, all those meaningful, all strings attached. In the winter of a tropical city, Alexander James decided to take one last look at Salempore, his beloved. He passed through the bazaars and muhallas unnoticed, he strolled through the bank of the Varsai mingled with the crowd, like just another stranger. And in an hour, the wanderer stood in front of the church, the only church in the Oriental city dotted with temples and mosques. He peeked into the prayer hall, “I came to bid farewell, Lord, see you again, someplace else…” And then he continued on through the courtyard, into the cemetery behind the church. Obelisks and Gregorian and Gothic tombstones of mariners and magistrates and all those who lost their life far away from their home in this city. Who knows how far his fate will take, his story would have an ending how far away from his home?

Banyans and Peepals provided a roof to the cool, dark cemetery. Diffused sunlight slipped in scarcely. Alex chose a tomb with a dome, and sat on the base where lied a certain Marco Polo, and started on the last page of his book, which he chose to leave behind.
“You and I have spoken all these words…”

“You and I have spoken all these words, but for the way we have to go, words are no preparation. I have one small drop of knowing in my soul. Let it dissolve in your ocean,” said a wise Persian poet, some eight centuries ago. Eight months ago, something very lifeless acquainted us. Eight months, several lines and even more between the lines, a couple thousand miles, some kind strangers, three hundred and twenty pegs and a fairy-tale later, here we are…”
There she was, in the South Park Street Cemetery, sitting on the tomb of Marco Polo, talking to a boy a little, may be a century, older than him, trying to convince him to stay, even if for a few more pages. The boy was silent. So was Marco Polo, in his grave.

The crimson sun dissolved in the silver Varsai in some distance. The caretaker asked her to leave, it was closing time. She walked out the alley in small, slow, heavy steps. She walked past the ruined church, the abandoned warehouses, accompanied by howling clouds and screaming mosses all over her. She walked right to the middle of the first bridge on Varsai. The pages of a nameless book in a calendar cover fluttered in the East wind. They were empty. Four hundred pages left! The girl cried as she was laughing aloud. It was the start of a new book.

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