Manigram, a developed village, was no longer the archetype of a rural society. Located close to a sub-divisional town, it embraced the intrusion of the town’s culture and the people soaked themselves in it, absorbing more and more of modern life. Hedonism and not plain living was the new philosophy.
The only irritant for the people there was power failure, often mandatory and prolonged, during summer or rainy evenings.
It was on one such dark evening that villagers heard shouts of “Thief! Thief!” and came out in droves picking up sticks and stones and flashed their torches in every direction. Confusion prevailed for some time before they got to know that the thief was seen loitering behind the backdoor of Akbar Ali’s house along the edge of a bushy pond. Most of the crowd then melted from the scene leaving only a handful to gossip not on the attempted theft but on Ali, the owner of a stationery shop, and his daughter Sabina who took over the business from him. Her rivals would interpret her lascivious gestures and the wacky glint in her eyes as a shameless attempt to lure customers with the power of her sexuality and spread salacious stories about her.
“It’s she and not the items displayed for sale that sells well.”
Much to their chagrin, she’d built up a cosy relationship with only the scions of the area and enjoyed their company with an uninhibited attitude towards physical relationships — something that earned her the sobriquet of a “tearaway” and a “male eater”.
As power supply was not restored, the gathering could not sustain their gossip for long and dispersed, their minds plagued with the suspicion, “Did any thief at all target Ali’s house or was he actually a client of his daughter?”
“Please leave me now and go home. You’ve been here far too long. It’s already eleven,” Sabina pushed Ramapada aside, her hair tousled into a mess, her sleeveless baby pink blouse unbuttoned. She never allowed him or anyone else to maul her for long, to the point of savaging.
Every morning after taking a bath she would routinely take off her bath robes and stand before the large bedroom mirror to check her ample body objectively, like a brothel owner examines a new find. She felt assured that her buxomness toned with regular physical work combined with her large eyes and fleshy lips gave her a look lustful enough to tantalise the locality’s cash rich satraps. To them, she was winsomeness and ferociousness rolled into a vivacious woman.
Freeing herself from Ramapada’s tight embrace, she put her hair and clothes in place and finding him still vacillating she gave him a hefty shove on the shoulder. He was drunk but not in a drunken stupor.
“Go home, I say,” she repeated.
“Home? My home’s lost forever. You know what it feels like to be damned, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. . . I don’t think I’m damned.”
“Not damned? Even after three sham marriages? Even after bedding blokes like me? Ha…ha…ha!”
“Why should I allow them to use me as a bait to fill their pockets? So I fled. But no more tonight.” She got up, almost dragged him out of bed, made him stand on his feet and led him outside by the same back door through, which he had stolen into her room. His footsteps had then created the illusion that a thief or a pilferer moved about or escaped behind Ali’s house.
Clutching a drink, Ramapada staggered along, unsteady as a just-born cub when it tries to stand on its own feet and take a step or two soon after birth. He fell on the narrow, uneven path several times but as the alcoholic haze started wearing off gradually, he regained some control over himself, and groped his way, his ears catching some high-pitched wails of grief and angry voices floating in the air from the vicinity of his house.
Although nothing could be seen or identified in the dark, he flinched instinctively for a fraction of a second when a snake-like creature slithered away almost over the soles of his feet. He was alarmed but not scared. Had he not heard the cacophony of heart-breaking noises disturbing the atmosphere of relative calm of the night and had he not been drunk, a shiver would have gone down his spine. The wails and shouts grew louder in the still and stale air as he was only a few steps away from the doorway. It was past eleven, but he saw a good number of neighbours standing and talking loudly in the yard of his house.
As he picked up snatches of agitated voices, his mouth fell open, and he hid himself behind the large jackfruit tree near the doorway of his house like a thief.
“Dr Pal says she’s had a heart attack while her body was in blaze.”
“Her face is unscathed. Looks as calm as a starry sky.”
“It’s because she poured kerosene on her body and not on her face.”
“Ramapada has been exerting too much pressure on her to bring more money from her father.”
“Is there any daughter who wants to see her father beg for the sake of her prodigal and demonic husband and that too after 20 years of marriage?”
The observation sounded like the verdict of a judge about the offence of a criminal who can’t avoid feelings of shame, guilt and self-pity knowing that every word of it is true. Placing his left hand on his head Ramapada began to desperately pull his hair with his fingers realising he’d squeezed Arpita’s father so dry the pips had begun to squeak.
But where else would he get the money from to splurge on wine and women?
His latest obsession — Sabina — lapped up filthy lucre and sensuality. He kept her in good humour, to the point of self-destruction; not knowing that the cheerful exterior that exuded an air of affability did actually mask her shrewish and vampish playfulness; not noticing the cold resolve in her eyes to destroy people she embraced.
He felt like crying but tried to suppress his emotion by gulping at one go whatever little was left in his bottle. The hair of the dog dried up the invisible tears of shame from his eyes for a few moments, made the skin of his face tingle and smart like it had got some fiery touch.
He was again distracted by the cries that rent the night sky.
“Ma, Ma, why did you do this? Why did you leave us in the lurch?” his son Arnab groaned and moaned inconsolably over the body that was brought into the small, hermetic and paved courtyard. “You said you wanted to see me stand on my own feet. Why didn’t you wait till that time?”
“Ma, why did you take this decision?” cried his daughter Soumi who was younger than her college-going elder brother by just two years.
Arpita was the only one with whom Arnab and Soumi shared their little joys, sorrows and secrets. She was their universe.
An elderly woman said, “We learn Arpita’s parents would be arriving soon. The police team too is expected anytime soon. But where is Ramapada? Two hours have passed since Arpita breathed her last. Why isn’t he still here? Are we to suppose he’s hiding?”
“Maybe, it’s because the police could arrest him on the possible charge of instigating his wife to take this drastic step,” said the woman’s husband standing behind her.
“Police?” he was alarmed and the instinct to survive got the better of the rising self-pity in him with the effect of wine having dissipated completely. He jumped off with a heavy thud and it attracted the notice of those who were nearby.
“Who’s it?” someone asked, alarmed. Ramapada tried to flee the place but couldn’t.
“Hey, come, come. See who’s here,” he cried out as if he’d found out someone that others couldn’t. And at once, almost everyone present there moved back to see who the person was. Arnab came forward when his neighbours started hurling abuses at him and rescued him from being mobbed and lynched. He seized hold of his father’s hands and dragged him near Arpita’s dead body.
“You’re now happy, aren’t you?”
“Baba, see what you’ve done to Ma,” Soumi cried out. Ramapada kept quiet, his eyelids lowered. He looked dazed and disoriented, as though he were grappling with the grimness of the tragedy that had struck, as though a wordless cry that had got trapped in his heart was struggling in vain to find an outlet at the sight of Arnab and Soumi clinging to the dead body of their mother and wailing like newly turned orphans. Minutes passed before he entered his bed room and took out a bottle of rum and disappeared from the scene down another way like a reptile.
Once outside, he whipped out his handset from the pocket of his trousers and pressed Sabina’s number repeatedly. . .
“So you’re back. But what’s my reward for your late night preying on my body?” muttered Sabina sleepily.
“Heavenly bliss,” he replied mysteriously, “I’ve given you all except this limitless joy. Let me hug you wildly and see whether you can match my passion.” He drank up the bottle of rum and pounced upon Sabina who had changed into skimpy, see-through outfits before he’d returned to her. He began lovemaking with extreme sadism. Never before did he display this streak to her in bed.
Suddenly, they were awed by the chanting of “Bala Hari, Hari bol . . .” piercing the silence of the night. The door of the dark cave of their primal urges abruptly closed for a minute or so, their ears catching the Divine Spirit being invoked by the pall bearers passing by.
Wallowing in intense self-hatred, he clung to Sabina with renewed gusto, “Sabina, we’ve found the meaning of life in the pleasures of the flesh. Let’s go down the way of all flesh.” Unable to get him, she just smiled but was baffled to see that he started playing with her throat and before she could understand his motive, he held it firmly between his two hands trying to throttle her with all the force he could muster, his eyes burning like two balls of fire.
She felt choked but struggled desperately reaching out for something under her bed and when she found it, she thrust it into his chest with lightning speed. He gave out a yelp and his grip loosened as the knife pierced deep into his lung sending spurts of blood.
“Ha, ha, ha, hi, hi, hi. . .”
She screamed out like a hyena, her face, hand and exposed breasts tinged crimson red, at the sight of Ramapada lying in a pool of blood in her bed, his last words, “Hari bol, bala Hari,” getting lost in her frenzied rage.