Book 2. For a shelter. 1. The accident
It was around two o’clock on a sunny spring day of 2000. The new century. And a new world suddenly opened up in front of me. ‘Over the rainbow’.
There was nobody on that lonely lane of Shantiniketan to witness the accident except for me. An accident. A life crossed the path of death violently and abruptly. A shattered shell bared a shelter less soul. A dreamt reality. I remember it all as if it had happened just yesterday. The time was odd. After midday. The sun was sliding down towards the west, leaving long linear shadows of the rows of trees standing by the side of the lane. It was the fall season for many of the trees in this area. So, the shadows of the bony trees were not shady. I was coming back from a landscape sketching session. I saw a small, about ten-year-old village boy, as skinny as those lane-side trees, with a brown terracotta body, crossing the lane quite leisurely as there was absolutely no traffic on this half tarred, narrow, lonely, rough lane of a small town in West Bengal. His small head was crowned with exuberant black frizzy hair. It looked as if he was a crested wonder. I looked at this unusual sight and wondered if I could do a portrait of him with such a spectacular natural hairstyle. I called him, ‘Hey, you, you boy .. .’
The boy turned his face towards me. His vitreous eyes reflecting a bewildered question. Just then. It happened just then. In a flash, emerged a helmeted figure behind him, at the corner of the lane, barrelling along on a motorbike. The boy, the small village child with his black, frizzy natural crown, already half shocked at my call, confusedly stopped, but the motorbike could riot. The helmeted rider braked sharply. His motorbike swerved across the lane to hit against a tree and stop without any apparent damage to the rider or carrier. But he could not avoid the accident. The boy had already been hit. And the air was hit by a sharp screeching sound and a terrified scream. The shining silence of a spring afternoon shattered into pieces and fell wasted with the piles of dry, dead leaves. There were no houses nearby.
Shantiniketan is a place set in the midst of nature with more open rustic and rugged land wrapped in fragrant calmness and less people and concrete structures and their intimidating interference. It is almost a quiet countryside, around 150 km away from Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal. An ashram-like township with a residential university for students, coming from all over the universe. I was a student in the department of Fine Arts, learning painting. I was out to observe the nature of this tableland so that I could serve up its speciality on a colourful canvas. And here the colour spilled, scary scarlet, streaming along the furrow of the broken rough lane. The boy was flung down by the speeding motorbike. His head hit against the rocky pavement. Blood was gushing out.
The canvas, papers and other drawing accessories slipped down from my loosened grip, while I began to stiffen in the grip of some unknown feeling. Do I have to see death from such a short distance? I thought and yet the life in me pushed me towards the boy. I squatted by his side and saw the unconscious skinny face, flailing legs and gasping agony. ‘Help, please help.’ The words rolled out of my mouth automatically without knowing who I was calling for. But I got the answer immediately in a clear foreign accent, and in a voice as deep as the calmness of this afternoon nature. It was as if some echoing device was inbuilt in the voice. It said,
‘Will you look after the boy? I shall come back in a jiffy with a rickshaw.’
The voice vibrated in the shimmering afternoon and the last words were almost lost in the loud vroom of the motorbike. I turned my face round only to see the helmeted figure vanishing with his motorbike at the end of the lane. Barrelling like that! Even after such an accident! What nerve! Or perhaps, he had just escaped! There was no guarantee that he would come back. I had not seen his face. It was all covered under the blackish visor of his crash helmet. The skeleton branches of the barren trees with one or two dangling pallid yellow leaves were getting reflected on it, as if it was the face of death. I could recall only that much. What if he did not come back? He! Yes, it was a man, a man no doubt. The construction of his body and specially his voice, when he spoke, made it very clear that it was a man with a unique voice. But he had gone after hitting this boy down, half-dead, and I had allowed him to go, stupidly, without knowing anything about his identity. A man in the helmet mask with a voice deep and echoing. Even more mysterious than a veiled lady. Even more romantic? But with death sucking out life bit by bit in front of me, romance seemed just a distant blob, near the invisible star of the afternoon, hidden under the shining sunlight. ‘Only darkness does not hide a thing, light also does.’
I was feeling wretched for having called the boy. Did he stop short for that? Was I as responsible for the accident as that rash driver? Many a time I had called unknown faces, specially the tribal women with their terrific figures, to capture them on my canvas. Never before had such a thing happened. Had the speed been moderate, nothing would have happened either. Who could have known that in such a calm and balmy afternoon, some motorbike bum would vroom in out of the blue, making it all red! It was his fault, I concluded. Yet, I had a guilt-pricked feeling. It pricked me more for allowing that masked stranger to go. No doubt, there were not many options I did have. I could have gone myself, for calling a rickshaw, but in that case too, the stranger could very well have escaped before my returning back with one. This was a small place and no taxi was available. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws were the main modes of transport. Scooter rickshaws were rare. A few lucky people had their two-wheelers and cars. Rickshaws were available only on the main road. There were some rickshaw stands also. But rickshaws were pretty scarce during this time of the day. This was siesta time for the people of this small countryside-town. Being an ashram, classes would start early in the morning at seven o’clock and be over by one o’clock in the afternoon.
Till four o’clock outdoor activities would remain minimum, except for the rustling of the mango groves, the rippling of the vast corn field, the fluttering of butterflies and the quivering of a cute serenity over this peaceful town, nurtured by nature. Even the small shops, which were just a few, would stall business with their shutters half-down. Inside, there would only be the stealthy movements of mice and the soft breathing sound of the sleeping owner.
Just to think I had come from a place called Darjeeling! A city teeming with tourists and the touring excitement. Shops were open all day long, inviting even the fog and clouds along with the tourists. We had our own shop, a shop of antiques where my father would sit and attend to the customers and his antique pieces the whole day. From His Highness highland of Darjeeling I had come down to His Humbleness plain in Shantiniketan. Alone. Away from my parents who were now in another tourist spot, Goa, Her Majestic Excellency. I had been staying in the girl’s hostel here for the last three and a half years or so, playing with my brush, colours and canvas and never before had colour scared me so much. When I watched a blood-soaked scene on the TV, I would press the colour button of the remote to make it black and white in order to avoid the bloody part of it. How I wished I had a natural remote now. Instead, I kept pressing the wound with my palm to stop the flow of blood, while the red was getting darker and darker. He had fallen unconscious. His eyes were half closed and beneath the eyelashes the glassy stare made me shiver. Will he survive?
What about that masked man with a majestic masculine voice? What happened to him? Why wasn’t he coming back? I looked anxiously towards the end of the road for his return. Or somebody else, maybe some of my friends. No, it was a rickshaw, it came slowly and stopped by my side.
‘Oh my, what a ghastly scene!’ the rickshaw driver said.
We both carried the boy to the rickshaw. We laid his thin body on the seat and I sat at a corner holding his injured head in my arms. I had in the meantime, gathered my drawing papers, board, etc. and kept them under a tree, under the weight of some chunks of rocks. Later I shall come and pick them up, I thought. There was hardly any time to lose. I asked the rickshaw driver to take us to the local hospital. It was not a big, well-equipped hospital, but the doctors would take immediate care to save his life. The rickshaw started moving slowly along the bumpy dirt lanes. It was as if I was sitting on a jerking machine and for the next ten to fifteen minutes I would have to. I was wondering at my power of tolerance. My flesh used to creep at the sight of blood, and here I was, sitting with a bleeding head on my lap. The frizzy hair was wet with blood and had almost straightened out. Blood was dripping, drop by drop on my right foot shod in the white sling back and dappling it. I did not cry. Tears were strangers to my eyes. There might be a very few occasions when I welcomed these watery guests. My mom had taught me to treat tears as strangers. So my eyes remained dry but I got too numb to feel anything, to think anything. I forgot about the helmet- clad stranger, the hit-and-escape driver!
I got the boy admitted to the hospital. I had personally known Dr Sen, who was the doctor in charge of the hospital. The boy was taken to the emergency ward. I was told that his condition was serious, as the head injury was severe. However, the doctor told me they would try their best and if necessary he would have to be shifted to the main hospital, about fifteen kilometres away from Shantiniketan. I had to register my name as the boy’s escort. And I felt very amused while signing as an escort, as I was still in my teens, turned nineteen just last month to be precise and an accident had promoted me to the post of a responsible escort.
I was hesitating in the beginning, but the doctor explained the formality of the hospital and when I looked at the boy I felt more than pity, a strange empathy. From the clothes and bare feet it was clear that he was from a very poor background. But he also had a life to live in his own way, with a crown of unusual, frizzy, black hair, petal-shaped eyes and perhaps, a lot of perfumed dreams stuffed in them. I did not know his whereabouts, not even his name. I asked them to write his name as ‘Keshi’ in the official record. Kesh means hair. I told Dr Sen the whole story. I knew him very well, as some time ago when I had viral fever the doctor had treated me with a lot of care and affection. This elderly professional was quite popular in this small area for his excellent behaviour and sincerity, despite his limitations as a doctor. He advised me to go to the local police station and lodge a complaint against the unknown motorcyclist. He also promised to help me in case of any problem, ‘I can’t go with you right now, leaving my duty. But I know the man who is in charge at the local police station and I shall talk to him on the telephone,’ he said.
In a small place, usually all prominent people know each other. But I did not know the police, in fact, I had never even thought of going to a police station. I was shaking a bit within and cursing that irresponsible, inhuman, seen yet unseen, known yet unknown human form. It was so clever of him that he did not show his face. Otherwise, being a man why would he keep his face covered under the crash helmet like a burqa-clad Iranian woman! I thought, and started sweating. Dr Sen was a fatherly figure. He kept his hand on my head and said, ‘I understand your feeling, my child. Why don’t you go back to the hostel first, freshen up, take some of your friends with you and go to the police station? It will definitely help you.’
‘Yes, Doctor Uncle. That man must be punished. I’ve heard his voice. And I’ll definitely recognise it if I hear it again. Please, take care of the boy.’
‘I shall do my best. And don’t worry, that rash driver will be found out. There are not many motorbikes in this small town and the police has records about all of them. He will be brought to book no doubt,’ he said, and went inside the ward.
I walked through the huge halls and long corridors of the hospital, smelling sickness and medicine all over. This was the smell you could only get in hospitals, the shelter for the sick and ailing. I came out of that sick-sheltering centre, feeling a bit sick myself after the shocking incident I had witnessed and the nerve-wrecking experience I was going through. There would be still more - the unpleasant feeling of visiting a police station, a sleepless night with the haunting glassy eyes of the boy, dripping blood on my feet, and the masked masculine motorbike rider. I went near the tube well by the side of the hospital, which provided water to the common people. My white top and blue jeans were smeared with blood. The dark thick stains of blood were slowly drying up. A rickshaw was standing near the hospital, some people had brought a patient in that. I requested the rickshaw driver to pump water for me as it was just impossible to do it myself and wash the red stains from my palms, arms, face and other bare parts of my body. Clothes could not be washed here. I washed the red stains off my arms and face as far as possible. The silty, turbid water in the narrow drain turned reddish, to match with the red earth of Shantiniketan. Only this colour was not loveable. I asked that rickshaw driver if he would take me to the hostel, but he was in fact engaged to wait and take back the people whom he had brought. However, getting a rickshaw here wouldn’t be a problem. The rickshaw stand was just a few yards away, on the road, across this stretch of open ground in front of the hospital.
I started walking towards the road. The ground was strewn with dead, dry leaves. Their brittle existence was getting noisily crushed under my shoe. There were quite a few trees standing on the ground. I was passing them, one, by one. As I was feeling uneasy in the bloodstained and soggy clothes, I was looking down while walking to avoid people’s inquisitive eyes. Of course, there were not many people around, except for a few hospital staff and a few more people going towards or coming from the hospital.
‘Excuse me,’ I heard a voice suddenly. Rather I heard ‘the voice’, the unique voice which had been haunting me all through. It sounded from somewhere behind me, very nearby. I looked around. There, just ten or fifteen feet away from me by the dark flaking trunk of an old leafless tree, he was getting down from his motorbike. With a camcorder hanging around his neck and of course with his crash helmet and lowered visor fully covering the face.
‘Do you have a minute?’
The sound came filtered through the visor. It was so unexpected that I could not think. Only my reflexes pulled me towards him. Or was it something else? The urge to unveil a masked mystery? As I went near him, I saw the distorted reflection of my face on his glossy visor. Slowly, he raised the visor uncovering his cheeks, eyes and nose. A window of wonder. I saw a little of his autumn-brown eyelashes, the aquamarine eyes, a pinnacle of a nose and a lot of pinkish white skin. Oh gosh, some foreign student!
And he was the killer driver! Unless the boy died one could not call him so. But he was the killer. I realised it as soon as he took his helmet off, completely off his head. And I got completely off my head, at least for a few immobile moments. The human flesh cast in a die of gracious Grecian perfection. A tall towering arrogance. Trim as time. Strong as passion .. A long face with a strong jaw. A slightly projected mythic chin. With a mystic dot on it, a mysterious dimple. A chiselled nose as high as a fragrant desire. A melodious forehead. Two dashing rhythmic eyebrows. Deep aquamarine eyes with overflowing warmth. And a pair of lips with a dreamy droop at one corner and a lilting curve at the other. A soft transparency. But no, he was no anachronism. The unruly silky dishevelled blonde hair added the careless jazzy touch to the classic sonata. And the combination was deadly. In fact, the charm was oppressive.
It was better veiled under the visor. How could simple human eyes· bear such a superhuman sight! Beneath the bloodstained clothes my blood rushed madly through the veins. I could not talk for a few seconds. Neither did I hear anything from the other side. A raven cawed shrill enough to break my trance and with a little hesitation I started, ‘Listen, I. .. ’
‘Would you ... ’ He also started simultaneously. Then, both of us stopped simultaneously, willing to give an uninterrupted chance to the other. A few seconds’ silence followed. Then again, both of us started together and again stopped simultaneously. The next moment, he shook his head, and broke into a hearty laughter. It vibrated through the quietness of the surroundings. The deadly curve on his upper lip straightened, deep dimple on the chin lost depth and the sunlight-coloured face sucked all the radiance from the spring afternoon. I got infected by his laughter and could not help smiling. It was good to relax after the tense encounter with death and blood and intense repentance for letting the culprit escape. Actually I heaved a sigh of relief as he had now turned up, on his own.
‘How is the boy? Can I see him?’ He inquired.
‘Not right now. Doctors have taken him to the operating theatre.’
‘Is he serious?’ He was concerned about the boy’s condition, no doubt.
‘Yes. He has to be operated on.’
While I was talking to him I felt a cool touch of the spring wind on my eyebrows, on my cheeks and hands. I realised that the water had not dried up on my face and hands. Suddenly, I became aware .of my miserable appearance. Here I was standing in front of the most handsome man I had ever seen. In all probability I would never see another. And I was in a completely shabby and blemished shape. Automatically, my hand took out the handkerchief from the pocket and I was about to wipe the watery touch off my face, when a strong hand with throbbing blue veins visible through the transparent white skin touched my hand. A subtle feathery touch, with the tip of the fingers, yet it was powerful enough to prevent me from rubbing my cheek with the handkerchief.
‘Hold it. Just look at your hanky.’ He said with amusement bubbling in the aquarium eyes. It was difficult to take my painter’s eyes off that perfect portrait face, but I looked down, literally. So far I was looking up at a face set at a height of six feet plus and now I, only 5′2" tall looked down to my hand and saw a pale pink hanky smeared with dark blood spots. The blood had soaked through my pocket, soiling the hanky. So much blood! The poor boy had lost so much blood! Would he survive? I dropped the hanky on the red soil; the crumpled red hanky looked almost like one of the small red chunks of rock scattered on the rustic barren earth.
‘Thank you.’ I just managed to say.
‘I’d say you are a very brave girl, what’s your name ... ’
‘Lucie Roy,’ I said and forgot to ask his name. As though deep in my heart I believed that no name could befit this perfection. My subconscious realised that anything would be a misnomer for this perfect visual phenomenon. Next, I was expecting a fleshy flashy handshake but he folded his hands in a semi-Indian style and I had to return the compliment. Once more I felt wretched for my soiled appearance on the backdrop of such a lovely red land and in front of such a radiant vision. As he folded his hands I saw a fresh red wound on his left hand. Right below the knuckles. Blood had dried up but it was a big red wound. When he hit the tree he must have scraped his hand badly against the rough and hard tree bark.
‘My god! You are hurt!’ The words rolled out automatically from my mouth.
‘Oh this? Nothing serious,’ he said looking at the fresh live wound.
‘Why don’t you go to the hospital, get it dressed and bandaged?’
‘Not required. Just a small scratch. I’ll tape it up myself later.’ He did not pay any attention to his injury and shrugged off the worry shown by me. Then he looked with gratitude in his eyes and said, Well, Lucie Roy, I think you should freshen up. Where will you go? May I drop you?′
Although the pillion seat appeared more coveted than the throne of a queen, I restrained myself with a lot of effort and quipped, ‘Thank you, but I am in no mood to come back here to lie down on a hospital bed!’
He shrugged his shoulder, looked straight into my eyes and laughed again, that vibrant laughter, changing the contour of his face and making it even more charming. The remote sky of Shantiniketan hung down very close, as if to provide a roof over only the two of us, the two strangers. The anxiety, the tension, the bleeding face of a helpless boy seemed too far near the pale moon of the placid afternoon. He waved his hand, covered his face with the helmet, and drove off. The smoke of red dust blurred my vision and before the dust had settled, he had disappeared. Such incorrigible craziness. I trudged along the ground and wondered, he had not thanked me even once.
When I came back to the hostel I got mobbed by the inmates there. Why were my clothes soiled with blood, why was I looking so pale, why was no wound visible on my body. They threw a hundred and one questions to get more details about the incident. My small mouth was in no mood to elaborate. I just gave them a thumbnail sketch of what had happened. Then, I asked my room-mate Deepa to go to the accident spot and bring my things back. After a proper bath and a cup of hot coffee I felt refreshed.
I stretched myself on the bed and was about to stretch my imagination beyond this small hostel room with a piece of sky at my bedside, when a friend of mine entered with two letters received today. One was from Mom, I could recognise it from the handwriting on the envelope. The other one was a sky-blue envelope, with a touch of flowery design on it. It could only be from Joy. He was so predictable, at least, for me. I knew so much about him, maybe more than he knew himself. Joy had been my best friend since my childhood. In the nursery we had trotted to the school together, in the primary we had run to the playground together, in the secondary, we had gone hiking together, and in our college days we would have entered ecstasy together, had not destiny separated us. At present I was here, at Shantiniketan, and he was in London to do his MBA, as his dad had planned for him.
The map of his life had always been well planned, no earthquake, no landslide, changing the face of it. Or maybe there was one, our separation. Had it affected him that much? May be it was a little upsetting tremor he had shaken off while he still believed that a happy villa was waiting for both of us near the Happy Valley Garden, on the lush hilly slopes, among the exuberant leaves and buds, amidst the favourable flavour of Darjeeling tea. He always wrote me letters and no, he did not dream. Joy was not a boy to dream, but he assured me of that home in many ways, though never very directly. I could never visualise it very clearly. The future seemed to have smudged the picture with a little Darjeeling fog and flurries and a lot of worldly uncertainties and worries. Yet it was there. It had always been there. Like the undefined, intangible soul in the perceptible human body.
I always used to get the flavour of strong Darjeeling tea whenever I received Joy’s letter. The strong, tantalising aroma of tea. But today the flavour seemed to be very feeble and the alluring smell of the mango blossoms had filled my senses. The mango grove was by the side of my bedroom, yet never before, the smell had invaded the senses this way. Strangely enough, I didn’t want to open the letters today. I kept them in the bedside drawer and looked outside the window. Perhaps, I was too tired and exhausted to relish any cup of tea at the moment. I was seeking some time to allow all the incidents of the afternoon to sink into me.
It was past five o’clock and the sky had darkened, branches of the tree and the leaves had darkened even more. The incidents came crowding into my mind, one by one. Was I forgetting something, perhaps; some minute details? I could not remember it till Deepa, my room-mate, chucked a magazine at me and said, ‘Where are you, dear? Should I inquire with the police in the lost and found department?’
I was startled and realised clearly what I had forgotten. The police station. Yes, Dr Sen had asked me to go there, and lodge a complaint. And I had forgotten. I had even forgotten to ask the stranger’s name, although he had asked mine, I recalled. The intoxicating attraction, the lavish lustiness, the white shining illusion had totally overwhelmed me. A tingling sensation crept up my spine. I had missed the police station and I had missed him again. What would I tell Dr Sen? There was no guarantee I would meet him again. He never assured me that he would come to the hospital in the evening. And I did not know much about him. Only a fascinating face with a deep dimpled chin, a vibrant voice, and a bubble-subtle touch of the finger tips, too subtle to even leave a fingerprint on my hand. But my memory was full of his larger-than-life figure-prints, at least for the moment.
A nudge at my waist woke me up. ‘Lost in thought again? What’s the matter?’ Deepa was standing near me. Her widely set fishing-net eyes were trying to fish out some secret. She was holding a plate in her hand with some snacks in it.
‘Here have some,’ she almost ordered. Deepa was a sympathetic room-mate.
‘Just look at you. You are looking so dry,’ she said as the fishing net was rolled up and an affectionate gossamer web was spread. She stroked my long hair and tried to push away some of my curly forelocks falling over my eyes. I had this special feature. Curly forelocks along my hairline. My father affectionately called them ‘tender tendrils’. People used to say these curls had beautified my otherwise common face. As did my small pouted lips.
Deepa looked at those lips and said, ‘You must have been out today without an umbrella and without even applying that sunscreen lotion. You’ve got a sunburn. And look at that small mouth of yours. As everybody says, those lips are the smallest and the cutest, one has ever seen. Now just see, they are cracked so badly. Take care of yourself, dear. What will happen to all those dozens of boys who hang around you, if they see you in this condition?’
‘It will do them good. Only the sincere one will still stick around.’
‘Gone are those days when the inner beauty was more important. Nowadays-’
’Nowadays, the cover covers up everything?′
‘No. You need both. Appearance and intelligence ... the woman of substance don’t you know?’ Deepa was in a mood to give a small lecture, but I stopped her.
‘I know your philosophy very well, my dear. Now skip it. I am exhausted.’
‘You can afford to be so careless about your looks, because you don’t care for any boy here. Broken a couple of hearts too, for that matter. You are doing well with that steady boyfriend of yours from London, aren’t you?’
Joy, my boyfriend! Somehow, it sounded very strange to me whenever Deepa called him that. Joy was just Joy. Did I ever take him for a boy? All through my childhood? What was the meaning of gender in these tender days? Only those last few days in Darjeeling had added a new note, a love- toned hue. Just when we had found the forbidden apple, we were forced to depart without sharing a bite. The shadow if the apple hangs between us, without its taste. I smiled faintly.
‘You always exaggerate things, Deepa. Nobody has really broken his heart for me.’
’How do you know, you don’t allow anybody to approach you that way. You just snub them.
There is always a cold air around you.′
‘Imported from London in a sealed envelope you know.’ I said with mock seriousness, and both of us laughed. Then, I told her that since I was anxious about the boy I didn’t feel hungry. I also made a clean breast of my guilt and told her that I had called out to the boy, confusing him, which might have been a cause for the accident. But Deepa smiled it off.
‘You are crazy. In no way you are at fault. It is only that speeding driver. Nobody else. However don’t tell anyone about it. People tend to exaggerate.’ She spoke in a mature tone and offered the plate.
‘If you don’t eat, it will in no way help the boy recover.’ She averred and also explained, ‘Physical weakness begets mental weakness.’ Like a caring mother she fed me and made me feel at home.
Home. Yes. At this moment, I was missing my home and my mom specially. But there was no home for me. Although I used to go to my parents in Goa in the summer vacations and during Christmas holidays, I never felt as if it was my home. With a bunch of strangers always around I could never feel the intimacy and the privacy of a home. I never liked crowds. I had been a diffident child and a difficult teenager. Ever since we had left Darjeeling, I felt that I had lost my home.
From Darjeeling we had first gone to the ‘home sweet hotel’ of our grandparents. I stayed there for a short period. A few months, till I passed my school final exam. After that, following Mom’s wish - she had always wanted me to be a painter, - I enrolled for a diploma in painting at the Kalabhavan, the Department of Fine Arts of the Vishva Bharati University of Shantiniketan, one of the best Art schools in India. Mom chose it for another reason. It was in West Bengal, and right from my birth I had been in Bengal. She thought I would feel more at home here. So, I was admitted to the university and stayed in the residential hostel for girls. But this was no home for me, no home for any of us, it was only a shelter for a brief period of our lives.
We stay here, share our lives with each other, but never feel as if it is our own. Never, after reaching the hostel, we feel that this is the end of the journey. It cannot give us the wide gamut and the various shades of feelings which can be unfurled in the folds of a home. If home is a kaleidoscope, our hostel is a paperweight with floral patterns in its transparent body. There was no home for us, we only tried to make ourselves at home.
At the moment, I was missing home and feeling homesick for the old house filled with antiques and antics, lost in the grip of time; or the other one, yet to be built, a villa by the side of the Happy Valley Garden, hidden in the grip of the future. I looked at the stars set in the frame of my bedside window, and recalled the twinkle in Joy’s eyes.
In London it would not be evening now, Joy would be busy with his studies. I, had last seen him around two years ago, when he had been leaving for London. From Darjeeling he had come to Calcutta to catch the flight to London, with his family. He had made time to come and meet me at Shantiniketan, just 150km from Calcutta. Without his family.
I relived the moments.
He arrived in the morning and left in the evening. That was our first meeting since we had left Darjeeling. But the soft snow flurries were not to be found on the dusty red rocky soil. We visited the important places together, laughed together, trod on the gritty ribs of barren Khoai, remembered our gliding childhood days on Darjeeling snow. But it was never the same, no way the same. The snowball did not roll and roll to grow bigger and bigger. To sum it up, it was Kanchenjunga without the snowy summit. Of course, we hugged- once. Forgetting Mom’s ‘no-touch’ advice, to give each other a touching farewell gift. But we had hugged so many times in our childhood, that there was hardly anything new, at least for me. That was wip.ter and both of us were wearing thick warm clothes. So, there was not much to feel near the heart. The only difference I felt, was that my chin could no longer reach his shoulder. He had outgrown me. And I had outgrown the Darjeeling delirium. The tea had been getting cooler and cooler and cooler.
I wondered why I had been thinking about Joy. Maybe I was just afraid to think about the present. I wanted to escape from the thought of a damaged terracotta body, a hospital bed with a few dangling bottles of blood and glucose and hope of life. Even more, I felt that I wanted to evade a perfect portrait, the vibrant laughter, and an imperfect police station with the smell of crime. A glaring blunder-- yes, I had not asked him his name because I thought perfection could hardly bear any mortally imperfect name. And now my friend Rani came running and informed me that Dr Sen was on the phone. My imperfection will be bluntly bared.
‘Dear Lucie, will you please come here immediately. A few policemen have come. We reported on behalf of the hospital. You .. .’ I could gauge the urgency in Dr Sen’s tone.
‘I’m very sorry, Doctor. I couldn’t go to the police station. I got late and .. .’ I was excellent in keeping a secret but very bad at telling lies. I started groping in my mind for some exclusive excuse. But Dr Sen was a nice man. He relieved me of my uneasiness, ‘Doesn’t matter. You may come now.’
‘How is the boy?’
‘I’ll tell you .. First, you come immediately. They are waiting. I’ll speak to your superintendent to permit you. Don’t worry. Just be quick.’
I had to rush. My hair was still wet after that late bath. I was wearing a long ankle-length skirt and a loose top. A comfortable outfit but not presentable enough. Yet, I had hardly any time to change. After all, I required to be marked present by the police. Their eyes look for criminals and not for beauty. I just flung the purse across my shoulder, borrowed Rani’s moped and set off.
When I reached the hospital, Dr Sen was talking to the police in his chamber. There were three of them, from the local police station. Dr Sen introduced me to them. One was a sub-inspector and the two others were constables. They noted down my name and address and other necessary whereabouts. They also took a brief account of the accident, as I had witnessed it. They wanted to know the exact time of the accident, which I could not supply. I just expressed a tentative idea about the time. When I used to go out for some outdoor session all by myself and without any fixed engagement thereafter, I never wanted to be disturbed by thing, not even by the distracting presence of the watch. I was not wearing it that day.
As they asked me about the man behind the accident, I floundered. The aquamarine waves surged to flood my normal sharpness. A disturbing dilemma. :
‘A motorcycle knocked the boy down, that much I saw,’ I said with a lot of effort, and did not mention that I did see him afterwards and allowed him to slip by, owing to my weakness for wondrous beauty.
‘Deliberately or accidentally?’ the SI asked in a grave tone. His dilated egg-white eyes behind the glasses gave me nausea. The smell of smoke almost choked my heart. Our burning shop. Police enquiry, people’s curious eyes, burnt and half-burnt corpses of the curio items. The same question had been hurled at me on a foggy morning in Darjeeling after the burning of our shop and house ’Deliberately or accidentally?′
I closed my eyes for a few seconds. Mom’s eyes lit up in my memory among all charred curios.
I answered firmly, ‘Accident, it was an accident.’ The very same words I had uttered around five years ago. And the very same words kept gnawing me when I almost chewed the words out. For Mom then. For a stranger now. The only difference was, this time I was convinced that, I was telling the truth.
‘Describe the man as elaborately as you can,’ he commanded next. His assistant’s hand was ready with the pen and a pad. How would I describe? Would they understand if I say a Michelangelo magnificence, a Rubens-Vinci-exuberance, a Cezanne-enigma, one Dada dimple, two surreal eyes and one super-real existence?
I was pondering over the question and how to answer comprehensively, when to my great delight the sunlight face appeared right at the door of the cabin. The swing door swung back and forth, back and forth. My mind too. The very next moment I desired to be eclipsed, with my dishevelled hair, with my shoddy clothes and shabby appearance. There was one Indian man with him. They came in and to my big relief he did not wish me to show that we had met earlier. But was it really a relief? He didn’t even glance at me. A sneaking squeak in the hinges of my pride. I wanted not to look at him, but in the blue synthetic light of the room the aquamarine acquired overflowing excellence and I could all but keep staring at that.
‘Hullo Prateek, how are you dear?’ Dr Sen’s intimate tone made me look at the new man on the scene. An average Bengali man probably in his early thirties. A key chain with keys was jingling in his hand, just like my senses at that time.
’Well Uncle. Something unfortunate has happened I heard. This guest of ours was driving my mo’bike. He has just come here two days ago. Today there was a mishap, he’s informed me. So
we have come.′
‘Well in time I’d say. The police are here.’ Doctor said.
The sub-inspector’s sadist eyes gleamed behind the specs. He started asking questions when Dr Sen held my hand and made a sign to go out with him. I went out of the chamber and proceeded along the corridor. We came near the operating theatre. He stopped and looked at me.
‘Lucie, my child. The boy is serious. It is a serious head injury. We need to operate on him, immediately. We don’t know about his family. You have to give consent and sign if you really want him to have the operation. Medicine and all. Quite a big amount involved you know. Of course money won’t matter much, now that-’
‘Money won’t matter Doctor Uncle. I shall arrange somehow. You must try to save him.’
‘Oh you don’t have to spend I think, now that we know about the driver and specially when he is with the Ganguly family. They are our very close family friends you know.’ He spoke with a firm assurance. Then after a few seconds’ pause he asked me, ‘You don’t know Prateek I suppose, do you?’ I shook my head.
‘He is the bank manager of our local branch here. His father is a retired army man. They have a big bungalow in Purvapally.’
Purvapally or the eastern parish is the name of a locality in Shantiniketan. A posh locality against the rustic backdrop. He kept on talking something about the family which did not reach my ears. A frizzy crown clammy with blood disturbed me. A glassy frown freeze-dried in a spring afternoon haunted me. What if I had not called him suddenly? The thought drove me mad.
‘Doctor Uncle, I think we should send him to the District Hospital. Before it is too late.’
I knew that apart from lacking in highly skilled doctors, this small hospital did not have many sophisticated and improved facilities, which might be required in such a serious operation. The District Hospital was about fifteen kilometres away and the boy could be taken there.
‘You are right. Although we’ll try our best, it would always be better to take him there. In fact, I was just thinking of sending him there. I was only hesitating that nobody from his family ... ’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I urged. ‘Please send him there. Poor boy. He should live his life,’ I said without having the least idea about what kind of life he would live. A poor village boy! Two bare feet, one mere existence. Yet, it was a morsel of life and I felt desperate to save it.
Dr Sen looked at his watch and sent for the ambulance.
‘I think we can start just now. You just sign a paper that you are sending him to the District Hospital. I’ll take care of the rest of the things.’
We came back to his chamber. The SI was scribbling down something. He looked at us and made a sign with the index finger of his left hand, to go near him.
‘Was it him? Can you recognise him?’ he asked me looking straight into my eyes. I glanced at him. Did I see a faint smile at the corner of his lips? I dropped my eyes as they met his and answered, ‘I could not see his face. He was wearing a helmet.’
‘How did the mo’bike clunk the boy?’ His eyes were fixed on me. Stuck. Fevicol-white eyes. ‘Was he driving rashly?’
A motorbike slid along the wall of the well of death. Inside me. I could not look at the stranger. But strangely, I saw his magic face. Inside me. A lie bubbled out of my mouth, ‘I. .. I did not notice exactly. Normal speed, must be.’ I swallowed a lump. ‘I think-’
‘She thinks wrongly, officer.’ A deep voice cut me short, ‘I was driving quite fast. There was hardly anybody on the roads and I did not expect him to be there, in the middle of the road.’ He jerked his Greek God head in annoyance, ‘Shit!’
I was shell-shocked. So was Dr Sen. A macho mind flexed its muscles through a dreamy masculine body. Mr Prateek Ganguly tried to cover up for him.
‘Well, it is about perception officer. The speed you are thinking high, she may think it normal, it happens. It’s the way you look at it.’ He spoke with some authority in his voice, ‘He has already shown you his international licence. He is ready to bear all the medical expenses. I think you should drop the case.’
‘The boy is not out of danger yet ... ’ The officer adjusted the specs on his big fleshy nose and got up from the chair implying, ′ ... so is the foreigner, therefore.′ He thanked Dr Sen. ’Well doctor, I think we have gathered all the necessary facts for our preliminary enquiry. I ’ll contact you again. In fact, all of you should remain in town, till we permit you to leave the station. Also
keep me informed about the boy’s condition.′
‘Shit! I’ve got to go back to Calcutta.’ A deep annoyance resounded in the foreigner’s voice. ‘Can’t stay here for more than ten days.’
‘That will depend on how the thing goes.’ The SI scratched his sweaty nape and advanced to the door. ‘Goodnight officer,’ Dr Sen said very politely. ‘Goodnight.’
The SI adjusted his belt over his bulging stomach and flanked by his two assistants made a grand exit.
An uneasy silence enveloped the atmosphere. Dr Sen sat on the table, Mr Prateek got up from the chair. The fair foreigner took out a wad of notes from his pocket, as fresh and crisp as his appearance. He kept it on the table, in front of the doctor. Dr Sen took out a form from the drawer of his table and handed it over to me, along with a pen. And all this without any sound. A silent movie. You could hear a pin drop. Instead, the pen dropped from my trembling hand. The silence was broken. The blond head bent over and picked the pen for me.
‘Thank you,’ I said without looking at him. Dr Sen instructed me how to fill in the form. I followed his instructions. Then, he informed Mr Prateek and his friend about my decision of sending the boy to the District Hospital.
‘Why? Do you know this boy?’ As I shook my head, Mr Prateek looked surprised.
‘Has anybody from his family asked you?’ He continued to be surprised at my unreasonable decision. I shook my head again and Dr Sen told him that nobody had come so far from the family of the boy.
‘Then?’ Mr Prateek looked into my eyes. Two coin-coloured eyes. Suddenly I remembered Ramesh Uncle of my Darjeeling days.
‘I just want to save his life. So he has to be shifted to the district hospital.’
The rolling coins got fixed on me. I felt like an eighth wonder of the world. But why me? The wonder of the world was very much at hand. The most handsome male figure with a mellifluous voice.
‘I’d say it is better for you too. If something happens to the boy you see ... ’ Dr Sen suggested the rest with his eyes.
He continued, ‘You know very well about our condition here. We can’t give him the best.’
‘Is it required?’ Mr Prateek jingled his words with his keys.
‘Oh, his condition is pretty serious. It is a head injury. Multiple-’ He could not finish his words as one doctor entered the room and intimated that the ambulance was ready and the boy was being taken on the stretcher. I rushed out of the room. I saw him, lying on the stretcher. Heavily bandaged and unconscious. The oxygen mask was pumping life for the moment. I let out a scream.
‘Oh god, is it life or death?’
I spoke to myself, but the words crawled out entangled with the scream. Dr Sen’s fatherly arms supported me. The faces of Dr Sen and the two others, who were standing by my side, faded and went out of focus. I remembered the face of death. The only death I had seen in my life at very close quarters was when my grandma had had a heart attack. I recalled...They took her unconscious to the hospital. When we went there, it was all over. Her body, her face were all covered with white. Absolutely white. Ghastly white: an eye without its iris and pupil.
All of a sudden, I felt possessed.
‘I have to go with him to the District Hospital. I have to, Doctor Uncle,’ I pleaded. I feared that proper care might not be given to this unknown unidentified piece of life unless I remained present there, as his kin. On the plea that I was too young I was not allowed to go to the hospital, when my own dear grandma had been admitted. I could not save my grandma. Now, I could save this tender life. The life which was in danger partially due to my fault.
‘It is not necessary, my child.’ Dr Sen tried to reason with me, ‘I’ll talk to the doctors there, personally. You needn’t worry.’
‘Let me go with him, doctor.’ My eyes did not shed tears but did send the shocking appeal he could not shove away any more. He put his reassuring arm around me and pressed my shoulder. He told the doctor in the room to look after the charge as he had decided to go himself He rang up the District Hospital and informed them. At my request, he also rang up my hostel superintendent to take permission from her for taking me to the District Hospital at this odd hour. He explained it was an emergency and my going there was absolutely necessary.
‘In case you need some more ... ’ the fairy-tale man came forward and took out not the magic wand but the very real solid wad of notes.
‘Don’t think it would be necessary, right now,’ Dr Sen said, and proceeded to the ambulance with me. The other two followed us. Tension was stencilled on their faces. The stretcher was already inside. One attendant was sitting. We went inside and sat on the opposite side. The ambulance started with its customary honk. The wheels rolled. The attendant got up and went to the door to lock it. But the door was violently pulled open and my fairy-tale man dashed into the vehicle, thrusting aside the attendant. He was thrown off balance for a second. Dr Sen caught him by the hand. He never lost his composure, however. He locked the door safely behind him and sat opposite us.
The attendant sat by him grumbling and mumbling. It was so sudden!
‘Do you want to go with us? To the District Hospital?’ Dr Sen asked him.
‘Yea. I just thought I’d better go.’ His deep melodious voice filled the darkness. Perhaps, it filled my sweet darkness too. Nobody said any more, on the way.
We admitted the boy to the hospital. He was taken straightaway to the Operating Theatre. Dr Sen talked to many doctors and officials there. As Dr Sen was with us we did not have to wait outside. We were taken to a big room with large sofas and divans - the rest room for the doctors. It was - quite comfortable. But discomfort pervaded the mind. For some time Dr Sen talked to a doctor who was sitting in that room. The foreigner went out. I held up a newspaper sedulously in front of my eyes. All the news was stale. I was remembering Dr Sen’s words to Mr Prateek and his friend, ‘It is better for you too. If something happens to the boy ... ’ What could happen to them? I imagined the wonder face with striped shadows of bars on it. The fragmented beauty. A shiver crept up my spine. The big clock of the hospital struck eight. The operation was still going on.
Dr Sen turned towards me as the other doctor left the room.
‘Are you feeling okay now?’ His eyes were sympathetic. ‘Yes Uncle,’ I just managed to say. Our third companion walked in.
‘Oh come in. I didn’t get your name,’ Dr Sen said with a tone of familiarity.
‘I never told you I suppose.’ He looked at me and smiled. His satin-blade lips dangerously
carved a deep slit in my heart. A few seconds’ throbbing silence. Then, he opened his lips.
‘I am Leslie. Leslie Fraser.’
‘Well, I’m Dr Subir Sen. This is Miss Lucie Roy. You must have met her at the site of the accident.’ He slowly nodded. ‘Are you a foreign student here?’ Dr Sen asked him.
‘Sort of.’ He shrugged his shoulders and sat down on the sofa. It seemed he was not much interested in answering too many questions about himself Yet Dr Sen went on, ‘You are from ... ’
‘How do you know the Gangulys? They are our family friends.’
‘My professor is their friend,’ he replied, and lit a cigarette. In order to avoid any further question he held the camcorder in front of his eyes, as if to shoot. He was not shooting though. The lens of the camcorder was pointed towards some big display board showing the growth of medical care in the district. Now the Doctor’s attention was drawn to the injury on the hand. It was bandaged unprofessionally.
‘Are you hurt?’ The Doctor’s worried voice drew his attention.
‘Just a scratch.’ He shrugged off the serious tone of the Doctor.
‘I think it is bad enough.’ I could not help saying. ‘Please have a close look at it, Doctor Uncle.’
He brought the camcorder down and let it remain suspended on his broad chest. Then he sneered, ‘You Indians worry a lot.’ He said without looking at me, ‘I’m fine.’
‘Let me see how fine you are.’ Dr Sen went near him and undid the bandage. The scarlet wound was swollen badly. Dr Sen shook his head seriously and opined that it was to be dressed and bandaged properly. He took Leslie Fraser along with him to do the needful. I sighed and for the first time, cursed my fate for not being a doctor or a nurse, forgetting conveniently my aversion to blood and bloody sights. I went out of the shadow of sickness. The big, vast ground in front of the hospital was almost empty. A few leafless trees were displaying their skeleton presence. I looked up at the sky adorned with the waxing gibbous moon. I felt gibbous, humped, dwarfed. Life and death and their mysteries all are out of my reach.
How long I wandered with my thoughts I could not say. Dr Sen touched me lightly on the shoulder and I came back to earth. He informed that the operation was over succesfully.
‘Well done Lucie. I really doubt if we could have saved the child there.’ Dr Sen affectionately patted me on the back. Then he added, ‘Now the only thing left is to inform his family.’
‘The police know already and they should take care of it.’ Leslie Fraser, who was standing by his side, remarked.
‘Well, I wish things were so systematic here. People hardly seem to bother about these poor uneducated people,’ Dr Sen said regretfully.
‘Uncle, I feel that the holes of the Internet are too big for these small fish to be caught in it.’
Dr Sen gave a hearty laugh. So did our fair companion. In fact, I wanted him to laugh; I wanted to hear the resonance of his voice. And laugh away the lingering tension in our minds. The doctor informed us that the next forty-eight hours would be crucial and· the boy would have to be under intensive care. that Anything might happen during that period.
We were about to start for Shantiniketan immediately. It was nearing ten. Leslie Fraser did not get into the hospital car.
‘I’d prefer to walk.’
‘Walk? All the way to Shantiniketan?’
‘I suppose so.’ He shrugged his shoulder.
‘It is around fifteen kilometres from here. The roads are deserted at this time.’
‘I don’t like crowds very much,’ he announced in a cold tone, ‘and fifteen kilometres is not a big deal. A matter of one and a half hour. Nothing new for me. I go hiking quite often.’
His smooth tone ruffled me. I hadn’t ever come across such craziness! As unique as his charm. And he did not sound crazy at all. As if it was his routine activity.
‘As you wish, but bad elements, you know .. .’ Dr Sen tried to warn him.
‘Bad elements!’ he laughed again as if there could be nobody worse than him! Well, in that case, take these with you. I’ll collect them tomorrow. I have my passport with me and a hundred bucks. That should be enough.′
He took out a stuffed wallet from his pocket and handed it to Dr Sen. He handed over his camcorder too.
‘Give me your watch too. You are our guest. I don’t want you to be in trouble. And please give a second thought to this wild idea of yours. Come with us in our car.’
He just shook his head in silence, obstinately. Dr Sen arranged one big flashlight for him and we started our return journey.
The road was almost empty. Darkness solidified as some wandering clouds covered the moon. The road lights were very dim. Many of them were not working. The vehicle moved very slowly along the bumpy and rough road. I was dropped near our hostel gate. Rani’s moped had to be recovered the next day from the hospital scooter shed.
Life seemed not very easy after the accident. Two images occupied my mind completely. One of life, the other of death. Both were equally strong. A flash of lightning. The light of life or the thunder of death? Deepa and Rani, my two best friends got suspicious.
‘Something is wrong with you, Small Mouth, you don’t look yourself.’
‘Do I look like Miss Deepa then?’ I tried to put it aside with a laugh. But it was difficult to deceive Deepa. She had her stupendous and sometimes even stupid logic to overshadow people. She had been a brilliant student of logic in her school days, I had heard, and now she was a bright student of philosophy.
‘Your daily routine has changed, I’ve observed. What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, dear. I am fine.’
‘You are fine, that’s why those two letters are still sealed even though one is from London. You forgetful jerk.’
‘Hey you creep, you spy on my things?’
‘I didn’t open any of them. But this is the sacred duty of a room-mate to remind her friend to open the letter of her boyfriend. Isn’t it?’
‘Yes, and I have to remind you to meet Nandan. You haven’t seen him for the last six hours and seven minutes, so hurry before he is all at sixes and sevens.’
She chased me in mock aggression and I escaped. Both of us had fun. Nandan was a senior student of economics, whom Deepa had been lumbering for quite some time now.
Rani was a student from Bangladesh. She was a student of music. She had came on a scholarship to India. Her real name was a bit of a mouthful: Nazrana, Nazrana Amin, so we used to call her Rani. Rani means ‘queen’. She was as beautiful as a queen. As bubbly as a child. I loved children. I loved childhood. I loved the callow youth in her.
‘Are you in love?’ she asked me directly. The word didn’t even knock at my consciousness. I blushed however.
‘With whom?’ I wondered aloud.
‘That I should ask you. Who is the lucky boy?’
‘No Rani. You’re wrong.’
‘People forget things like this when they fall in love.’
‘Do they? How many times have you fallen in love dear?’
‘Oh no, no. Don’t say this. I can’t fall in love. I mustn’t. My parents won’t allow it. Say, if the boy is not Muslim, I’ll have to die. I don’t want to fall in love to die. That’s not worth it.’
‘I hope you don’t,’ I said and thought, I shall also never FALL in love. Love is not a pit or hole to fall into. Love is a big sky. I shall float up into it.
In my memory, at that time two images were floating up. Two aquamarine waves and a few drops of black-red blood. They were intertwined together. Inseparably. I kept on calling Dr Sen. Twice a day. He informed me that the boy’s condition had not yet improved. He also informed me that nothing could be found out about the boy or his family. On the third morning, when I rang him up, he was out of station on some urgent work That was the day when we were supposed to know if the boy was out of danger. As I could not get the information, I kept feeling restless. I wanted to ring up the District Hospital to know more about the condition of the boy, but Deepa said it would not help.
‘You don’t know the ward number, cabin number, do you? They may give you some wrong information about some other patient if you enquire on the phone. You know very well dear, how they all work. You’ll be unnecessarily worried.’ Deepa and her logic. We were all under its spell. But she was pretty helpful.
‘I’d suggest Lucie, it would be better if you were to go there. Today is a holiday. You won’t miss any class.’ In Shantiniketan, Sunday is a working day. Wednesday is the weekly off ‘Just take permission from the superintendent. She is already aware of the incident, rather I’d say accident. I hope she’ll allow.’ Then in the same breath she continued, ‘But I’m sorry. Today, I can’t come with you. I’m already tied up. You take Rani with you. Don’t go alone.’ She rushed off to keep her appointment.
Rani shrank at the very name of the hospital. A shade of pallor shadowed her radiant face.
‘Lucie dear, I hate death. I hate hospitals. I’d go with you just anywhere else in the world except a hospital. That smell of the hospital gives me a nausea. Even when my mother was admitted for an appendix operation, I didn’t go to see her. Believe me.’
‘So, I’ll never expect you by the side of my hospital bed, if I fall ill.’
‘God forbid dear Lucie, God forbid. Don’t you ever say this again.’ She planted a warm kiss on my cheek. I did not insist. I decided to go alone. The boy’s life was still in danger. That terracotta body, that frizzy crown and those glass-bead-like eyeballs. What if he were to die? My senses became as numb as snakes in hibernation. I could not hear what Rani was talking about, neither could the chime of the large bell at the famous Bell Tower of Shantiniketan reach my ears. I just wanted to go and see him.
Taking permission was not an easy thing. Our superintendent, Madam Banerjee was a nice decent elderly lady. She never used to cover her head with her sari like the many traditional or village women would do. But her mind was veiled, burqa-clad. A stern voice sounded from inside that burqa.
‘I don’t know what is wrong with you. That night too you were very late, I didn’t like it much. Is your going absolutely necessary? In what way can you help that boy? You don’t even know him.’
A rage surged inside me. Nobody knows nobody initially. Even madam herself must have slept with a man, her husband, without knowing anything about him. That is the tradition of Indian arranged marriages. I wanted to fling some angry words towards her. A gale. To blow her veil off. But Mom spoke within me. When you are very angry, don’t talk. Don’t ever talk. And still better, don’t listen. Just don’t listen to what the subject of anger is saying. Mom did not tell me what to do instead, but I had my ingenious way. I used to dream. Dreams are the gods, or God is the dream, this world cherishes. I saw the face of the· unconscious boy. J saw his frizzy crown. Without blood. I caressed, I combed his hair. His glass-bead eyes rolled at me and on that I saw the reflection of two aquamarine waves. There was life all over.
I did not hear what she was saying so far, I just pleaded, “Madam, I just feel so much for the poor child. A mere child. You are a mother, you will appreciate.‴
She thought for some time. A soft rustle of the burqa. Two mother’s eyes peered through the veil. A mother’s heart faintly spoke, ‘Well. If you feel so much; it is better that you go, but ... ’ the veil was still a veil. ‘But your local guardians must give their consent. You bring a letter from them.’
She took up her pen to start her unfinished work but stopped and said, ‘You see, I have a big responsibility. I have to be very protective.’
Maybe she was right in her own way. My local guardians were a local family. The head of the family was a cousin of one of our family friends at Darjeeling. Relations between us were just formal. Moreover, their house was pretty far. To go there, convince them, get a consent letter, bring it back to madam ... Time would not permit me to go to the hospital. I went near the table, without any permission, picked up the phone and started dialling frantically.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Madam, why the local guardian? I am talking to my real guardians. They will permit me.’ .
Madam looked dumbfounded. The veil got all dishevelled. Fortunately, I got Mom over the phone immediately. I didn’t have to tell her much. She agreed. I gave the receiver to a bewildered superintendent. Mom spoke to her. Madam Banerjee could hardly speak. She was at her wit’s end. She hung up the phone when the talk was over and looked at me. A half-hearted nod and I smiled, ‘Thank you madam, please charge me for the call in my hostel bill. Bye.’ I rushed out of the room, before she could change her mind.
‘You must come back before lunch.’ I could hear her voice behind me filtering through a black, lightless burqa.
When I reached the main hospital by a local bus jumping and bumping along the narrow, eroded, rough roads and stopping after every ten minutes or so, to stuff more men with bare feet, more women with lice in their hair, more children with running noses and a couple of friendly chicken or goat companions, it was already eleven. The sun was getting hot. I could not get an express bus as the frequency was very less and I did not want to wait. The bus stopped just by the side of the hospital. Today I was in a sari. Outside the ashram campus, away from friends and acquaintances, and particularly in a Bengali village, the sari would be the best thing to wear, I thought. But it proved the other way around. As I was about to alight, my anchal caught the sharp edge of some sharply pointed wooden planks, being carried by a passenger. The anchal is that part of the sari which hangs loosely over the left shoulder like a lesser version of the long, trailing robes of the ancient nobles. Utterly uncontrollable for me. Quite unaware of the fact that my anchal was caught I hurriedly stepped down. Before I knew it I tumbled down the steps of the bus. I fell with a thump on the ground. The flying anchal was torn, shaped like a forked tongue of a snake.
When I got up on my feet, I noticed that the abundant red dust had adorned my sari, my arms and my face most adoringly. My purse had also slipped off my hand and was kissing the red dust. As I bent down to pick it up and take out a hanky to wipe my face, I noticed a masculine hand with long and strong, rajnigandha-stem fingers and blue veins throbbing through the white transparent skin, on my black purse, covered with the red dust. The hand picked up the purse and as I stood straight, I saw in front of me that sunlight-coloured body, that dimpled chin and curved lips. I had to cover my face with the torn anchal. This sun was much more dazzling than the one in the sky. And why, just why was it that every time I stood before him I was a miserable mess! I wanted to brush myself down quickly but everything went wrong. I forgot to take the purse and bring out the hanky, instead wiped my face with the torn anchal with which I had covered my face. But as it was torn, I made a mistake in keeping it back on the shoulder. Half of it was placed on the shoulder while the other half was not, and under the open blue sky, in front of so many people, half of my blouse got uncovered for a few seconds. Soon I gathered myself, my sari, and also my purse from his hand with a mumbling ‘thank you’. I could not look into his eyes as I felt terribly embarrassed. I could feel that even without any touch of red dust, my face and ears were red and this red could not be wiped or shaken off with any hanky of this world.
I walked towards the long and broad, giant steps of the hospital. I remained cautious, holding the pleats of the sari in my hand carefully. The sun was bright and I noticed that just by the side of my shadow, a long shadow had also appeared, moving up with me, getting wavy on the flights of steps. The figure behind the shadow had been printed in my memory. A lot of people were climbing up or down casting their corrugated shadows on the steps. I could not stop there. I stopped after reaching the porch, so did the shadow.
‘Hi! Want to see the boy? He is okay.’ I heard the deep voice and it was more than music to my ears. The voice as well as the news. I turned towards him, and he, towards me. I forgot about my blushing blouse or embarrassed anchal.
‘Have you seen him already?’ I asked.
‘Yea, I did. He is out of danger. But still under special care. Would you’ like to see him now?′
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that was why I’m here. What’s his ward number?’
‘I’d rather show you.’ His sky blue eyes were not overcast today. So, the shade was lighter. The other day they had been. Deep aquamarine. Or was it my brush of imagination? .
The boy was kept in a single room. Leslie Fraser told me that the doctors had wanted to keep him in a common ward, but after seeing the condition there, Leslie had asked for a single room and paid for it.
‘Oh, that common ward, as you call it! Sickening enough to make normal people sick,’ he remarked.
I saw the terracotta body, still unconscious. The eyelids had completely covered the glass-bead pupils. And instead of an uncommon crown of frizzy black hair, a heavy white bandage decorated his head. I uncovered his body, and looked at it. Small hands with smaller fingers, thin legs with slightly cracked heels and toes. There were patches of sticking plasters at various spots on his small body, to cover minor wounds. I felt a disturbing pain looking at the damaged breathing body. Leslie Fraser was standing by my side and repeated the question, that I had involuntarily asked the other day.
‘What are you looking at? Life or death?’
‘Is he still unconscious?’ I asked the nurse ignoring his question.
‘Yes, he hasn’t regained consciousness so far. That’s the biggest worry. This morning he was operated on again and doctors are hopeful that he will come round today.’
I could perceive the receding shadow of death over this hapless piece of humanity. And then, I looked at life, a sun-size life, placed in my orbit out of the blue, across a leaking darkness. Today, he was wearing a cream-coloured T-shirt and a pair of hip-hugging jeans.′ His strong and long arms were almost bare. They gave me an idea about the rocky muscles on the terrain of his body. Tall, like my imagination, wide-chested like my fondness, and supple like my nostalgia. My hands miserably missed a brush, a canvas and a few squiggly strokes. An extravaganza of beauty and life, a dream was in front of me against the backdrop of death, cased in this hospital. This man seemed so unrealistically real.
‘Would you like to go now?’ he asked, causing me to blink after a long time.
‘Oh yes, I think I will. How about your wound? Healed?’
He showed me the bandaged hand and shook his head carelessly, ‘It was nothing.’
We left the hospital, the shelter for the sick, unknown, helpless, damaged terracotta body sheltered in it. We walked through the long corridors and big halls, crowded with pathetic patients and their kin, white-collared doctors and white-clad nurses. The air was filled with the smell of health and sickness. A very typical smell of a hospital which Rani found nauseating. We came out in the open. Leslie Fraser had come on the same motorcycle. But this .time he did not offer me a ride back to Shantiniketan. This time perhaps, I would have accepted his offer. However, he proposed to share’ a drink, soft drink of course. There was a small, very small tea shack, with a few bottles of cold drinks, kept in a big icebox, a few jars containing biscuits and toffees, a few packs of cigarettes and bidis, i.e. local cheap Indian cigarettes, betel leaves or paan and a few more titbits. The shopkeeper and all the people around, kept on staring at Leslie Fraser, because unlike in Shantiniketan, a foreigner could be quite a rare species in this part of the country. Especially one who was so good looking.
Oppressive heat. Their eyes were scorched. Some small children came closer and looked up with their innocent eyes innocuously wide open. One of them, a four or five-year-old naively touched his leg with his teeny-weeny fingers, perhaps to check if it was as real as their dust and distress-stricken life.
‘This tacker is so cute. Is he asking for some money?’
‘Oh no.’ l stroked the untidy head of that sniffling tacker and caressed his pink cracked cheeks.
‘They are curious about you. They hardly see any foreigners here. This is not Shantiniketan.’
He looked around himself. He smiled. And that smile, that one particular curve at the corner of his thin satin-blade lips changed his countenance so much, I felt I had never seen him before.
‘Never mind. I’m quite used to it. Anywhere in the world. Even in my own country.’ The blazing blue overflowed as if in a blue-blooded superiority, and made me feel blue. The boy was quite conscious about his exquisite exterior, I realised. I had intended to warm up our acquaintance over the bottle of cold drinks, but his words silenced me. The fizz of the coke fizzled out abruptly, leaving the insipid liquid cold and blandly cold.
‘Do you stay in Shantiniketan?’ His bottle was perhaps still fizzy.
‘Yes, in the hostel,’ I answered without looking at him.
The conversation did not proceed further. Next, I saw my bus coming in like a saviour. I wanted to depart with a formal goodbye. But he stopped me.
‘Can’t you take the next bus? I need your help.’
‘Yes?’ My large eyes asked him.
‘Doctors at the hospital wanted some clothes for the boy. I don’t know anything here, neither do I know the language very well. If you help me get some clothes...? ’
’Yes, that would be necessary if he survived, I thought and blamed myself for not remembering such simple practical necessities of life. I also did not have much idea about the place. Only once had I come here, when one of our hostel girls had got admitted for an appendix operation. So, I thought it would be best to take a rickshaw as the rickshaw driver would know all the important places. But my sari! What about the torn anchal? In the hospital where people went with broken limbs and torn ligaments, torn clothes were not out of the place. But out on the road to a shopping area? Even though it was a small town. I tried to cover up my torn anchal as much as possible. Like the Santhal women of this area, I wrapped the torn anchal around my waist and tucked it inside the petticoat. Now, the torn anchal was hidden, but my bosom was highlighted, the narrow curve of my waist was bared. In brief, my vital statistics were on total display. I was feeling awkward, as like most Bengali girls my ‘waves’ were high. But I had the glass-bead eyes engraved in my heart and I was ready to do anything to help them.
The rickshaw driver took me to the nearest market, which consisted of two rows of small shops. Leslie Fraser followed the rickshaw on his two-wheeler. We went to a small ready-made garments shop. The shopkeeper got excited. He stood up, welcomed us, ordered coconut water and was kind enough to show us all kinds of expensive clothes. I told him that the customer was me and not my companion. The shopkeeper’s face paled like some cheap cloth which lost colour after the first wash. In the meantime the entire crowd outside had gathered near the door of the shop, for window-shopping. There was the most spectacular showpiece they had ever seen or they could ever afford!
First of all, I asked for a ‘chunni’ which was a kind of long scarf usually worn with a salwar kurta. All my curves got covered with that scarf. I saw Leslie Fraser looking at me with silent amazement and amusement bubbling in his blue eyes which must be carrying too many bikini-clad memories. I was not bothered. Next, I selected three pairs of shirts and pants, ordinary, cotton, suitable for that terracotta complexion and took out money to pay for them, when he objected and insisted that he pay for them. He was almost going to hold my hand to stop me, and every pore of my hand was bursting in anticipation of that intoxicating touch. But I did not allow it to happen.
‘Look,’ I told him, pointing to the crowd at the door of the shop, ‘they are already enjoying the scene.’ The rest was said by my eyes. We came out of the shop as the crowd made way for us. I handed the packet over to him and said ‘Goodbye’ as I decided to wait for the bus at the stop, by the side of the marketplace.
‘You are quite a girl. Goodbye.’ The black helmet encased the sunny face, and the two-wheeler sped away.