Anindita was born and raised in Siliguri, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in the northern part of West Bengal. Having done her masters in English Literature from the University of Calcutta, she currently writes from Kolkata. Her works have been published in Café Dissensus and Indian Review.
It was the worst possible irritant for Meeta. Poornima has been absent for the last three days, without notice. And Meeta has had to do the household chores all by herself- dusting, cleaning, washing and the likes. To add to her woe, she has not been able to reach either Poornima’s or her son’s phone, something that has seldom happened before. All her enquiries to the others working in the neighbourhood apartments who, like Poornima, commuted by the 6 A.M. suburban train, have failed to yield any information either. Fretful and with her imagination running wild, Meeta has been madly speculating the possible reasons behind Poornima’s sudden disappearance. May be she has remarried. May be all her allegiance lay with Meeta till the time she got the television set for free. May be her widowed mother has once again taken ill. Or may be her son has been afflicted with chicken pox or dengue or typhoid.
Meeta met Poornima’s son only once, though she had been hearing about him from Poornima for the last eleven years. He appeared a month back with his mother and his cousin at Meeta’s doorstep. Meeta’s husband had bought a new television set and they hadn’t yet disposed off with the old one.
“Will you sell the old television, baudi?” Poornima had asked Meeta inquisitively.
Poornima’s village had only recently been electrified. And Poornima, as though it were a ritual, would visit her neighbour’s house every evening to watch the Bengali television serials, the ones where all the characters had to willy-nilly cry glycerine-induced tears. This ritual was, what she called, her way of ‘unwinding’ after a hard day’s work.
The following morning while washing the utensils, she would ask Meeta, “Did you watch the serial last evening?”
Around this time in the morning, Meeta, in doing her chores, would be racing against the ever-speeding hands of the clock. She would prepare breakfast for her husband and son, then pack tiffin for both, before seeing them off to office and school respectively. Hence her reply to Poornima’s question, too, came in quick burst of hasty words, “I don’t watch those mindless serials.” The pot of rumbling water over the gas oven turned a dark shade of amber as she added tea leaves to it.
Notwithstanding Meeta’s evident disinterest, Poornima would still go on narrating the episode, employing much melodrama, obvious from her tone that would transform from being excessively caustic to sickeningly mawkish.
“That man, arre the hero… left his wife and married another woman tch tch. Men!” She would utter ‘men’ with such vitriol as if they were creatures that aught to be hated before adding, “The wife was crying so much. Ahare.” An overdose of compassion would ensue as she sympathised with the female protagonist as though the wronged wife were real.
Someday she would hum a new song while sweeping the floor and when Meeta, out of sheer curiosity, would enquire what she was singing Poornima, at once, would discard the mopping cloth and break into an impromptu jig; all this while singing the song, rendering an effect that would be guttural at the most. But amidst all this buffoonery, what would really warm Meeta’s heart was her joie de vivre, infectious enough to rub on anyone present. Indeed, like her eponymous name, Poornima had the enviable ability to light up any boring situation. In spite of her battle-torn life, what made her so remarkable were the small mercies that, otherwise overlooked, were counted as blessings by her and that she was infinitely thankful for. Like her holiday to the beach town in Digha when she had dipped her dry, cracked heels in the frothy sea water for the first time; thrilled like a child at the sight, touch and feel of the huge expanse of the Bay of Bengal. Like her son who was her pride, her reason for her unendurable toil, her reason to live.
So when Meeta decided to give away the old television set to her, she had offered Meeta Rs 500 in return. It made Meeta glare at her as if she had committed a sin, making her break into peals of laughter.
“I knew you wouldn’t take the money but I was still offering you the same,” she winked mischievously.
She put the bill inside a small pouch- bag and as she raised her arm to tuck in the bag inside her sweaty, grimy blouse, that had begun to tear at the seams, her armpits reeked of sweat.
It made Meeta grimace instantly. “Why don’t you wash yourself Poornima?”
As if an aspersion on her character, Meeta’s innocent query made Poornima look straight into her eyes with a defiance bordering on arrogance.
“What you smell is not sweat baudi, it is the odour of my labour,” she snorted with laughter; not a condescending laughter, but one that is normally employed to belittle someone’s effort; in this case Meeta’s labour or rather what Poornima thought the lack of it.
Meeta was no stranger to Poornima’s sense of self-esteem. A month after her marriage, when she was barely fourteen, Poornima’s husband had left her for another woman. Eight months later she gave birth to her son. At thirty six she could neither write nor read but she did obtain a legal separation from the husband.
“I used my thumb print to wipe him from my life,” she said with a sudden wave of her hand as though she were shooing away an annoying fly. “Besides,” she reminded Meeta, “I don’t need a pen to erase that loser.” “This,” showing her upright thumb in a manner as if it were a weapon, “is enough.”
As soon as she had obtained the divorce she got rid of the red and white bangles. Meeta also noticed that the middle parting in her hair was no more adorned with the thick stem of vermilion powder, symbols of matrimony that she had religiously adhered to for eight years.
From all the details that Poornima had fed Meeta, the latter had drawn a picture of the former’s son in her mind. But when she met him in person she was pleasantly surprised by the young man’s courteousness. For all her harboured pre-conceptions, this was one virtue she certainly wasn’t prepared for. He said he studied political science in Surendranath College.
“That is so far away from your home,” Meeta wondered, her eyes almost popping out in disbelief. “My son gets tired travelling from Jadavpur to Ballygunge. Can you imagine?” she shook her head.
“Yes, I take the 7 AM train and get down at Sealdah. From there, I walk by foot.”
His voice had a gravelly texture, as if his throat were perpetually sore; but it also had an element of resoluteness that was both admirable and intimidating at once.
On the couple of occasions that Meeta had spoken to him earlier over the phone, she was taken aback by his confident, unambiguous speech. And now when she spoke to him in person, that same confidence was unmistakable. Each word that he spoke was marked by an eloquence befitting only an orator. He was lean without being lank, but thin, almost wafer like. His Adam’s apple protruded through his crane-like neck every time he uttered a word but to Meeta’s curiosity, he wouldn’t look into her eyes as he spoke.
He dunked a biscuit in his cup of tea before eating it. But the way he went about the process was marked by a certain shyness, not inhibition, but bashfulness, a kind that one would normally associate with brides of yesteryears. It made Meeta quip, “Poornima your son is so shy.” The remark made the young man blush at once.
“Shy?” Poornima rolled her eyes. “He talks nineteen to a dozen. Come and see him at home or go to his college and hear him talk. He does politics,” she prattled as though politics were an act that needed to be played.
As soon as she uttered ‘politics’, Poornima, turning towards her son, bit her tongue as though she was forbidden from uttering that word. An uneasy silence descended over the room for a while. It was Meeta who asked, “Politics?” her eyes, small but inquisitive, as they roved between Poornima and her son.
“Oh it’s nothing much,” he dismissed with the wave of his hand, his irritation at the sudden revelation evident but it did not deter Poornima from revealing things further.
“What nothing much?,” she snapped. Then, lowering her voice as if she were giving an important piece of information, further continued, “You know, baudi,he is the leader. That red party, CPM or what.”
Poornima’s sketchy knowledge notwithstanding, there was a touch of pride in her voice, latent but hard to miss. Meeta was quick to discern it too but it certainly did not prepare her for what she was about to hear next.
“Not everybody is kind enough to give away a television set for free,” Poornima’s son said, looking at Meeta for the first time, his eyes acknowledging her generosity. “We are the exploited, persecuted class. If we do not raise our voice now,” he said with an unwavering conviction, “we will remain so for the rest of our lives.”
For Meeta, politics was merely a word that she read in newspapers, heard in cosy drawing room conversations and saw in television screens. Her privileged, middle-class life did not give her the discretion to differentiate between the haves and the have-nots. Hence when Poornima’s son broached the topic of the exploited, she found it best to digress.
“You don’t have to go visit neighbours anymore to watch the serials now,” she smiled.
“Serials?” he asked, stealing a cursory glance at her and dunking the remaining biscuit into his tea, added, “That’s for mother to watch. I am more interested in watching the Indian Premier League.”
The Indian Premier League was about to begin in a month’s time and he was supporting the local team Kolkata Knight Riders. He and his cousin bundled the television set in old sarees, tattered old sarees, that they had brought from home. As he stepped out of Meeta’s apartment, he looked back at her one last time and said, “Thank you.” A gratifying smile mushroomed over his lips. That was the last when Meeta had seen him.
Meeta tried calling Poornima and her son for the umpteenth time but as was the case both the phones were turned off. She loaded the washed, wet laundry from the washing machine to a red bucket and lumbered to her sunny balcony. She was drying clothes in the washing line when the day’s newspaper, lying on the floor, caught her eye. A small box carried a picture of a woman who, she recognised with difficulty was that of Poornima. With her thick, wiry hair untied, Poornima looked haggard and disoriented. Her eyes, sunk deep into the hollow of their sockets, stared blankly into nothing. The dark patches around them was testimony that they hadn’t shut for days. Another picture, that of her son, much bigger in size, took much of the space in the front page. Garlanded, he was laid, face up, on a pick-up truck. With his eyes shut tight, his face looked serene, as if he were sleeping. His body was covered in a white banner with a red star on its top left corner. Peering out from the jasmine wreaths that lay successively arranged over his chest, stomach and limbs, was a slogan in scarlet. Meeta lifted the newspaper and brought it within a few inches from her eyes to read the slogan- Independence, Democracy, Socialism.
The wet bedspread remained half drawn over the nylon line, the other half lay crimped and crumpled as water droplets formed a pattern on the mosaic floor.
He breathed his last yesterday. When Poornima heard the news, she did not grieve. Neither did she utter a word. At that one moment, she shunned speech and befriended silence; a silence that, like a moonless night was impregnable, allowing not a speck of light to penetrate. She did not protest when her son’s comrades from the Students Federation of India decided to cremate his body in Nimtala Cremation Ground and not somewhere in Sonarpur where he lived. It was Poornima’s sexagenarian mother who had requested and implored before finally protesting, “Please leave the boy to us. He is dead. Leave him now.” Blind from cataract, the frail woman groped her grandson’s face, feeling the dry mounds of his lips, the acne-ridden bridge of his nose, the soft, bulbous lids before planting a tender kiss on his cold, lifeless forehead.
A veteran leader of the opposition party, with hair the colour of egg-shells, had tried to reason with the old woman, “Your grandson laid his life for the betterment of the students. He deserves a martyr’s send-off.”
And so a martyr’s send-off it was. His body was office hopped, first to the SFI headquarters in AJC Bose road and then to the office of the opposition in Alimuddin Street. During his final journey to the Nimtala Cremation Ground in Strand Road, he was joined by scores of processionists, students on foot; neo-intellectuals and film personalities inside their luxury sedans. As the motley cortege marched, the comrades put their vocal cords to test. Instead of chanting the customary bolo hari, hari bol, meant to put the soul of the dead to rest, they shouted slogans condemning police atrocity.
“Police brutality”, the leader shouted.
“Not done, not done,” the comrades chorused.
“Right now, right now.”
Popped rice were strewn along the way as a heady concoction of jasmine, burnt incense sticks and exhaust fumes wafted through the humid air. His funeral pyre was lit by his estranged father, the father who had met his son only thrice in the twenty one years that he lived.
All this while, Poornima had shut herself in a room in the mud house. Her mother’s house, not her home. She has never had a house that she could make home. She lay on the damp floor, doubled up, tears streaming from her sunken eyes; not the glycerine-induced, spurious variety but the one that, like her sweat, was salty to taste.
Meeta read the news. Each word that her brain registered was like drops, bitter as gall, being forced down her throat. Each line that her mind comprehended brought her a step closer to understanding the real meaning of ‘politics.’ With each paragraph that she read, she wanted to go and hug Poornima, but all she knew of Poornima’s house was that it was somewhere in Sonarpur. Poornima would often say, “You and dada have to come to my house when my son marries.” And Meeta had often pictured Poornima’s house with its mud walls and baked clay tiled-roof that got dismantled with every Nor’wester, its tarpaulin roofed kitchen that allowed a generous seepage of water in monsoon. She had even pictured herself walking across the sprawling courtyard of the house that led to the tree-lined pond where Poornima and her son had taken many a dip during the sweltering summers and tepid winters.
According to the report, three days back Poornima’s son had led comrades of the Students Federation of India in College Square to protest against the state government’s decision to stall student council elections in colleges for six more months. A sit-in protest, it was fairly peaceful. The police though, allegedly upon orders from the ruling government, came down heavily upon the protestors and bundled them off inside a van. They were being driven to the Presidency Jail in Alipore, when he, while craning his neck out from the crammed van, fluttering the SFI banner, hit his head against a roadside lamp-post somewhere near Mayo Road. Instead of attending to his wound, the police drove him to Alipore where he was further beaten in custody. He succumbed to his injuries early yesterday at the SSKM hospital. The opposition alleged that it was because of the inauguration ceremony of the Indian Premier League in the Salt Lake Stadium that the administration could not provide with enough police force to protect the peaceful protesters. The ruling government had dismissed the whole incident as a mere “petty issue,” arguing that the death, though ‘unfortunate’ was simply an ‘accident.’
In the evening, at the dazzlingly lit Eden Gardens stadium, the openers of the Kolkata Knight Riders came out to bat to a thunderous applause. Meeta looked on as her son watched the match with rapt attention in their new, forty inches LED screen. His school will remain closed tomorrow. A state wide bandh has been called by the SFI to protest against the death. As one of the openers hit a ball for four, Meeta headed to the kitchen to boil rice for dinner.
Illustration: Vijay Ravikumar