The pleasantly familiar smell of deep-fried onion rings wafted in through the crack under the kitchen door. Slowly, he felt the veil of drowsiness begin to lift. He needed a cuppa and a few of those rings to clear the cobwebs.
Still jet lagged? the tired-looking man with a weeks stubble, staring at him from the mirror, asked. The cold water, when it splashed against his face, felt so good. It was December in Calcutta but winter hadnt landed yet. Like all those international airlines, would winter too pass Calcutta by?
He listened. The sound had stopped the sound of yet another building being pulled down; yet another prominent reminder of his youth razed to the ground to be replaced by faceless, soulless collections of shops and multiplexes. Was it past six already?
Stepping out of the shower he saw his wife at the dressing table on the other side of the room combing her hair. He thought she looked rather fetching in her bright orange sari. It was only when they were in Calcutta that he saw her in a sari. She smiled. The driver is waiting below, she said. I am almost done. Almost, but not quite, he thought, puffs and powders, patches, bible and billet-doux. It usually took a good hour from almost done to done and then another quarter to ell done. It usually amused him but sometimes he found it tiresomely exasperating. How do I look? Like lady Clementine, he remarked. Gracious as usual, my kind Lord Marmaduke, she said, engrossed in her ritual. Why did she have to fish for compliments? he wondered as they passed a man at a pavement stall, hawking glistening fish in silvery death throes under a yellow light.
Stops and starts; past the encroachments and the long marches, between a muezzins call to prayer and the hysteric wailing from the public address system of Lightning Lilly a Tollywood starlet, revelling in the loss of her virginity they progressed through the traffic to their rendezvous with an ancient relative, dutifully scheduled by his wife over the Internet, from a foreign shore, many weeks in advance.
Neeru mashi may be past 80 but she can still be her old, spiteful self , she said as he flicked on the light inside the elevator and pulled the collapsible gate shut before pressing the nearly obliterated 3. The elevator cranked into life. She cant wait to find out if the Rays will invite us to their daughters wedding, now that they know we will be here next Sunday.
He kept quiet, he knew what would happen next someone would open the door, they would shuffle in; start taking their shoes off despite shrill protestations from inside, No, no, dont… No need, keep them on. Slowly and unsteadily, supporting herself on all available props animate and inanimate an old, diminutive figure, elegantly draped in a spotless white sari, would come waddling towards them. Neeru mashi's niece his wife would take a quick step forward, bend down low, touch Neeru mashis feet, straighten up and pass her hand slowly over her own hair from front to back in a carefully choreographed movement. In the beginning, he wondered if this was really a gesture of genuine respect seeming as if to say, Neeru mashi, This dust from your feet is such a blessing for me, or was it just a ruse for a last minute check, a confirmation that her carefully set hair was not catastrophically transformed in the half hour drive from their flat. This stooping to conquer hearts by touching the feet of relations more advanced in age was something they had agreed to disagree about. It was a compromise, not necessarily a happy one, but a compromise all the same. To him it was an empty gesture at best; at worst an act of servile, self-denigration the badge of his tribe wrapped in meaningless customs, outdated ideology and mawkish sentiment. Luckily she had not insisted he follow her example, though in truth, it would have made him happy if he could influence her out of this vacuous little act of ritual humiliation, as he called it. Can understand if the person is a font of respectability, he had argued, But why everyone? Just because they have more years in their lives than you? Ma called when you were out, she said as they stepped out of the lift. She asked us to be a little careful what we say. You never know with Neeru mashi. He felt the urge again, Then why do you have to do this? Just because she gave you toffees when you visited her as a child, took you swimming at her club and babysat you when your mum and dad went to the theatre? Did he miss the hidden symbolism? Now that we have done this, got this out of the way, let us spread out the shroud of hypocrisy for the evening, for the forced laughter, the faked concerns and all that love. Or was it a protective cover to prevent past and future thoughts, words, actions, all rushing in to spoil the evening. And what if this was to be their last evening together? Who knew? In the beginning he thought he would know. He knew she believed he would.
It is late. Tia will be sleeping, she said as they got into the car. How did you think the evening went? she asked. Overall, I thought, he said, an impish smile crossing his face but choosing his words extremely carefully, it went very well. Neeru mashi, even at her age, she will be 83 come July, had done all the cooking herself and then the books for Tia. I wish you had said how good the food was. But I did, he protested. You could have said that a few more times. Wouldnt have hurt and would have made Neeru mashi happy. By the way, I have got the recipe for steamed banana flowers; just as you like it, but how will we get banana flowers in Geneva? Roots, branches, flowers, she sighed. Hope Tia turns out all right. She is so difficult sometimes. Ma says she is not like me at all. She was looking out, taking in the sights of Calcutta, which to them both, would soon feel so removed, like an alien world in a different age, speaking a language they will not understand, transacting in a currency they can never get. There was a time when Calcutta had seemed to them alight in the glory and freshness of their dreams; but it was so different now. The street light and the lights from passing cars caught her face in quick, heavy brush strokes of various shades of alternating light and darkness. He tilted his head admiringly, almost like an artist inspecting his own work in progress, not entirely displeased with what he saw, was beginning to take shape in front of him. She seemed happy, content. Was it just him then, he wondered. In the beginning, he wanted to have all of her for himself all the time. Hold her tight; almost squeeze the life out of her till she screamed before he let her go. And again! She would laugh, not minding it one bit. Perhaps she knew she would eventually wriggle out, slowly, almost imperceptibly. Was it what she wanted, in the beginning? We will need the driver at two tomorrow…. There was a time when in the beginning…. And dont forget Tonu pishi on Saturday… There was a time when in the beginning he thought they would write their own rules, define their own customs, and set their own boundaries. They would always come first for each other. Have to go to the bank tomorrow. Darjeeling tea for Anne and herbal medicines for Lynne, don't want be unpopular at work and yes, the curtains for our new home. Medicines? Aphrodisiacs, more like! I am not paying for those, he muttered. For the curtains, yes, you are, she came back sharply. In the beginning he had taken it for granted there would be complete trust. He would never even begin to want anyone else. I wonder, by my troth, he had an idea he would exclaim waking up every morning, what thou and I did, till we loved? But that was in the beginning. Not now as it had been in the beginning. What beginning, he muttered under his breath. Is there ever a beginning? Why fret about it? All that matters is the here and now. He tried to distract himself by looking out of the window as the car moved slowly through the mazy traffic enveloped in the wintry Calcutta smog. In the beginning… He closed his eyes and looked as far as he could see…. In the beginning there was no sky and no heavens beyond the sky, he said out loud turning to her.
She smiled. Snippets of second-hand erudition like this still amused her. In the beginning there was no light, nor day. In the beginning was our end.
They were home. The driver got down and held the door open for her. She got out gracefully, smiled at him, Remember you have your blood tests tomorrow morning. Tia will be alright, he said, Dont worry. He stood on the edge of the pavement, next to a sleeping dog, watching the driver manoeuvre the car in the narrow confines of the street, reversing it into the garage. From the corner of his eyes he saw a girl, zealously guarding the little fire she had struck up. He knew the girl. He had seen her sleeping on the pavement when he left home for his morning jogs. Two boys looked out for twigs and straws, dropping them in the fire and the girl blew furiously to keep it going. He smiled. He wanted to tell her, Dont waste your breath; you cant keep the fire going. It will die. It always does and all you will have left is smoke; only smoke and a fading memory of a fire which flickered ever so briefly." He did not say anything. The girl turned her head, looked at him disapprovingly and then went on with her blowing. Sir, the driver held out the car key. It was dangling at the end of a ring attached to a pink object which looked vaguely like a tiny, worn out hippopotamus. In the beginning…., he smiled; perhaps there was this pink hippopotamus. Still smiling, he took the key and let rip as he bounded up the stairs, Mud; mud; nothing like mud; for cooling the blood; so wallow in mud; glorious, glorious, glorious mud… There was a worried look on her face as she opened the door. You alright? she asked. O absolutely, he replied, more animatedly than he ever did that evening, I didnt drink much, did I? Didnt you notice? But tell me this, when do you think, I will see a fair hippopotamine, on the banks of le Petit Lac, lying peacefully on the laps….I mean the Alps? He saw a shadow pass over her face. Oh no, no, no I didnt mean you, oh no, he remonstrated, You look great the way you are, besides it wont even make a… I mean take a month to lose the few extra pounds, only if you want to, that is. Outside, like an old woman, Calcutta, their city, took one last look down the empty street beyond the old familiar faces of expectant dogs that had gathered outside the window; and then with a sigh, closed it for the night.
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