by Nidhi Mahesh

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He shut the door behind him, ever so softly. Mindful, not to wake me up from my early morning dream. “Early morning dreams always come true”, he would always tell me. But do those living a nightmare, ever dream?

I shift to the other side. Shutting my eyes tightly, making one more attempt to go back to sleep and dream. But I cannot, anymore. I count every agonizing second, apprehensive that the phone by my bed would ring.

No, that is not a strong possibility. He will not call. He never does these days. My cell phone might beep with the usual message though, “won’t be back at flat now, going home, will call”. Terse, flat and dry words. A matter-of-fact statement that should shake me off all my wishful thinking and accept the truth of our relationship. But instead I get more and more tied in the whirlwind of emotional tangle. Oh why am I delving into these depressing thoughts again? The sms has not come and hopefully will not.

He will be back dot at eight, carrying the freshly fried crispy kachoris and potato curry from his favorite confectioner. He indulges in these high calorie fares, especially at breakfast. He loves the traditional Indian fries, and Bobby hates them. In fact, Bobby hates whatever he brings. “He gets me things of his choice, never asks me what I like. He is not bothered about my tastes”, Bobby always complains and I pacify him. He is easy to pacify. One CD of video game and he is happy to move out of the way. That is one big job I have to manage, keeping him out of the way of our relationship.

Bobby missed his last semester at school. His father was not willing to take his responsibility. “So what if he misses school, he is in class two only not in high school!! And anyway, why should I be tied with him while you merrily hop and run with your rich patrons!” He had simply shrugged his shoulders, averting his share of responsibility to his own son. I had pleaded with him, had tried to make him see reason. I would take Bobby with me and put him in school in the next session. I had to settle down in Calcutta first, before I could take the child with me. But he was not relenting. “Why such urgency to move to the big city lights…what is so important there that cannot wait? Or should I say who or who all cannot wait for you to reach fast and warm their beds…” he had spat out in his usual menacing manner and I had thrown the crystal flower vase at him. It found its mark on his head and then fell to the floor and scattered in thousand pieces. It was a special gift from my new group of friends on my first story, my prize possession. He was more furious than ever. Catching my shoulder length hair, he banged my head on the wall till I fell unconscious.

I had no family of my own. I pleaded with his parents to keep Bobby for a few months. They were not unwilling but did not want to go against their son. I could understand their dilemma. I was left with no choice but to bring Bobby with me.

With a six year old holding my fingers nervously and almost no money in hand, I had limited choice. I went straight to the roof-top where I had met him for the first time. But of course, it was inaccessible. “Only on Sunday evenings and on the day of events I open the terrace gates. Otherwise, Babu Saheb has to tell me.” The watchman was polite but firm. I called him on his cell. “I am at the club now. You know that very well. There is this Russian theatre group performing for us next week, I am sitting with them”, he had sounded exasperated. “But I have nowhere to go?” I had whispered, almost on the verge of tears. I had never felt so helpless in life and it showed in my voice. There was an awkward silence on the other side for a few lengthy seconds and then he had spoken to the watchman to let us in.

We, mother and son, sat huddled together in the middle of the forlorn looking makeshift stage on that wide empty roof-top, now bare of its festive face that it puts up every now and then. We sat there for hours, waiting for him to come and take us home. We must have dozed off for; I woke up with a start as a cold mettle touched my hand. A heavy key was proffed towards me. “Babu Saheb said, you should wait in the flat downstairs. I will arrange your dinner.” The watchman was polite again and we descended from the open rooftop to the closed and dark basement flat that I resolved to make my home, with him.

Seven-forty-five. Now the cell-phone will not beep. He will be back soon. A cloud lifted from my foggy mind and I stepped out of bed. I heard a gunshot and rushed out of the bathroom. Bobby was holding the gun in both hands, aiming at the showcase. The new teddy bear had fallen on the floor, scattering other things on the rack all over.

“I killed him Ma.” He looked at me with the malicious grin that he inherited from his father who had taken immense joy in plying an innocent child with toy replicas of deadly weapons. “Tell him never to get a teddy bear. I am a big boy not a girl”, he continued in the same breath and shot again at the fallen toy.
“How many times have I told you not to take out that gun? You don’t have to remind me of your father every time. Don’t you dare do it again”, I shouted. He shrugged carelessly and went back to his video game.

Bobby was getting very hyper these days. He needed to mix with kids of his age. But with no school and almost no outing he was turning out to be a difficult child. He did not like Bobby playing with other kids in the apartment. It might create unnecessary complications, he said. He allowed me to take him to the Club sometimes. But Bobby refused to be confined to the children play area and insisted on accompanying us to the Bar. Of course we could not take him there. “He cannot come with us anymore”, he declared one day when Bobby’s tantrum refused to subside even after promises of new Video Game CDs. And that was that. Bobby had to be confined to the flat and an occasional walk with me to the nearby park that he did not like. He went deeper and deeper in his video games and toy guns. He never touched books. “They are silly tales of poor princess and stupid prince… ducks and dogs… boring funny men and weepy women”, he would say.

It was necessary to send Bobby to school. I had finally managed to get him enrolled in a boarding school and he had agreed to bear the expenses. It would keep the kid out of the way.

Eight-fifteen. He is late. Maybe the queue at the famous confectioner was longer than usual. He likes his tea steaming hot. I have it ready but it is getting cold now. It does not matter. I will make him a fresh one. I add two full spoons of sugar and a generous helping of milk before sipping it. He takes it plain. “Sugar and milk kill the taste of fine tea,” he says. I take it plain as well, when he is around. I like conforming to him, to do as he pleases. I never tie my hair, he likes running his fingers through them. I wear saris. He had said whenever I wore a skirt or pants- “Western dresses make you look girlish” And he wants a woman. At sixty-five you would prefer accompanying an elegant woman than a flippant girl. So I take pains to look classy, graceful, well dressed; older than my twenty-six years. I spend a fortune on expensive chiffons and crepes, perfumes and beauty aids. I spend hours in signature beauty salons.

He does not mind expenses. I have free access to his wallet. An expensive leather case loaded with large notes, soft tissue to wipe his glasses, his various membership cards, loads of plastic money strips and a black and white photograph of a smiling lady. The lady in her late twenties has happiness written all over her oval face, hair swept back in strong breeze, eyes dancing with mischief… his wife, dead for twelve years, but living nonetheless.

I have accepted this. I do not really resent his love for the dead wife. I admire it in a way. How many men care for their wives while sharing their lives, leave alone when they are no more! This man does not only have a picture of her in his wallet but a strong imprint of their shared love in his heart, relishing memories of his happy marriage. A stature I always coveted.
My husband had burnt all the photographs of our marriage, each one of them. “I do not want any trace of you in my house…” he had bitterly declared. I too do not want to be reminded of that aborted relationship as well.

“Ma… I am hungry, I want something nice, not the usual milk and egg”, my son demanded as the clock struck nine.

It is too late now. Where is he? I am getting apprehensive again. But what choice do I have other than waiting for him to contact? Not that I ever had any choice in the matter of men in my life! I was too young and too naive when my marriage was fixed. My parents were dead and I was living with an old aunt fighting cancer. A respectable Professor, earning a decent salary and owning a big house seemed to be an answer to all our prayers.

I had spent all my childhood in the crumbling mansion left behind by my parents, unable to find means to maintain it. I never had much company except for some occasional visits by distant relatives who never forgot to carry back some valuables still left at the house as “memorabilia”. I had never questioned them. What was the point? I did not seem to want much company either, content with my romance with words. Yes, that was my little secret.

My diary was my only friend and confidant. It had a record of all my sorrows and tiny moments of joy. As I grew the pages started getting filled with fanciful stories… dreamy tales of far-away wonderland… of sad princess and lovely prince… The stories changed as the age progressed. The dreams became visions and ambitions. The distant wonderland took the concrete shape, of a home. The illusionary prince became a man of flesh and blood, who would set my heartbeats racing with a mere look of desire!

I was starry eyed when I married. I had nothing much to carry with me except my diary. The mortgaged house was finally sold to make my future home comfortable. Plush furniture and modern gadgets were splurged on, hoping my life would be smooth and trouble free with their help. There was not much choice left for jewelry after all these expenses. Just the very basic. A pair of thin bangles, a light-weight chain and tiny earrings was my only precious possessions; the ones I sold one by one for want of cash. I never had any money in hand. The Professor insisted on managing the home expenses on his own. “You are a spend thrift. You do not know the value of money...” he always accused.

I conceived Bobby in the first year of our marriage and that was the end of our proximity. He was always complaining about the baby disturbing his sleep; an excuse to move to another room. I knew the Professor had many obliging students whom he gave private tuitions. I really did not mind much. I was happy to stay away from him. I spent all my time weaving tales and recording them in my diary.

Left to myself I indulged more and more in my passion. Pouring out pages after pages of tales that had changed once again… the man of flesh and blood with those looks of flaming desire was replaced by an unfeeling, unreachable, unknown character. The search began once again for a wonderland; a cocoon of warmth and love. These tales came easily to me and they found way out of my diary to black and white prints of literary magazines. I had arrived in the world of literature.

When I first came to Calcutta on a cold winter morning, I was rather scared. It was a gruesome two hour journey by local train. The office of the most popular Bangla magazine looked crowded, spilling over with type-written stacks of yet to be printed articles. I felt a sense of pride; my writings were in print, away from the discarded lot of unsung genius. My story was chosen for the best debutant writer award. There was a cash prize and a chance of getting published in the forthcoming anthology of best short stories by the magazine, a much coveted honor.

The function was in the afternoon, in a famous auditorium. I was early, so I came to the office of the magazine instead. I felt curiously at home among the untidy desk, cluttered with overflowing ashtrays… rusty typewriters… rims of half-finished stories… tense looking writing experts bending over them with all the concentration in the world!! I call them writing experts because they do all the cosmetic enhancements to make all submissions stand apart.

At the function I met some famous names I had only seen printed alongside some of the greatest poetry and prose I read. I was bowled over by their praise and, they by my youth… my milky complexion and creamy texture… “Very unlike your writing….” a senior columnist had commented.

“Can I get some work?” I had softly whispered after the glittering ceremony. The editor of the magazine had looked puzzled. “We do not employ full time writers”, he had said, “but we can find some occasional work for you…Can you proof read?”

That was the beginning of my work-life. The two hour backbreaking journey to and from Calcutta had become more regular. Bobby was happy with his grand-parents who reluctantly took care of him while I was away. Things had fallen into a comfortable pattern and I was rediscovering myself, exploring a whole new world of freedom. But the comfort was short lived.

The memories of that fateful day are still fresh in my mind. As I stepped on to the Roof-Top, Calcutta’s most coveted art discourse destination, I had a shiver of anticipation run down my spine. The expansive open terrace giving the most fascinating view of the beaming metropolis was abuzz with activity. There was glitter and glamour, a rich mix of well known names in art and literature and who’s who of the city’s glamour scene. There were famous singers and poets, film makers and theatre personalities, media men and business tycoons. I was a rookie, an unknown face among the shining stars. But I was made to feel at home. I was showered with praise for my maiden performance at the annual poetry evening; my very first attempt at sharing my very private musing to an audience. My poem was among the four selected for the competition for best young poet of the year.

Words of encouragement echoed in my ears long after the evening drew to a close. But what I revisited most was the friendly pat on the back and the soft squeezing on my hands as he, the host, shook them and then almost forgot to release. “Woman, you were brilliant, too good…” his words were warm, eyes shone with admiration. As we parted ways that evening, he had stretched his arms and I had felt no hesitation in walking into them. In there, I found peace; the cocoon I was searching all along.

I had become an integral part of the Roof-Top. I was with him in planning events, sending out invites, welcoming guests. I had slowly become his woman, accompanying him to the parties and clubs, attending literary functions and get together at friends’ places. We were a pair and I was happy, so was he.

He was happy till I asked him for a home. “Don’t be silly, woman! We are together, we are happy. Why do you want a string?” he had scoffed.

But I insisted. I started demonstrating more loudly to all and sundry that I am the woman in his life, that we live together, that we are in love. If he was annoyed with this public display of our private arrangements he did not complain. Not in so many words. But I could see him feeling uncomfortable at times. This pushed me to try harder yet.

I started blabbering about us to his friends and the members of the coveted Roof-Top, hoping he would be cornered into giving a name to this relationship. He would not react, adding to my feeling of insecurity. I grew more and more restless, gripped by the fear that this warmth will wane… that he will move away, leaving me defenseless, lonely and vulnerable, once again.

Two –thirty-five. There is certainly something wrong. Why did he not message if he could not call? I punched his numbers forcefully on my cell phone. “I am unable to take your call right now, please leave your name and message. I will get back as soon as possible”, said his cheerful recorded voice. I did not leave a message; I knew instinctively he would not check it.

He would contact me on his own, in his own time. He always had. Whenever he got stuck on a Bangla word, he called. And, we delved deeply on that piece of prose or verse for hours. He was in awe of the modern rebel Bangla poetry in those days. Shakti Chattopadhyay and Jibanananda Das, the two firebrand poets had taken the center stage at the Roof-Top. But now they have been replaced by the celebrated twentieth century German poet, Benn.

Angelina, I think that’s her name, the young German student who has been bringing translations of German greats to the Roof-Top. She is studying Tagore at Vishwa Bharati and writes well herself. Enough qualities to impress the coinsures of literature!! He has been spending hours on Sunday evening on the Roof-Top discovering the foreign poets. Hours are spent on telephone too as he tries to decipher the deeper meaning of the verses… The rebel poets of Bengal have now faded in the horizon … But I am still holding on to their defiant spirit of rebellion…

Five forty-five. It is time for him to go to gym for his daily exercise. Maybe he will come later tonight… early morning rather when it is too late for him to return to his home. This flat has lately become more of a refuge for him, though I am the refugee here! He is restless in his sleep… mumbling German phrases… He has often been calling me Angel, at the peak of our passion. A new endearment? Or, a new name?

Eight. He will be at the club now. Should I go and ask him why he has not bothered to contact me through out the day? Force him to come back with me… but what if he refuses? What if he turns me down and says he is not going to come back to me anymore…? I am being unnecessarily perturbed. He has always been gentle and caring. He has never reacted to my outbursts. He ignores me when I bother him much. And that hurts…. hurts badly.

I keep pacing the confined space of the flat, worried and apprehensive. Its almost midnight and my eyes are drooping now. The tranquilizers are working their spell. I sigh and return to my bedroom, alone; hoping in my heart for him to join me sometime before dawn…

I am sleepy but unable to sleep. I am scared. Instinctively I know, there is something wrong, though it is not the first time that he is away for the whole day without a word. I caress the empty pillow beside me, still bearing his imprint, his fragrance still clinging to the soft linen. I bury my head in its softness; hug it tightly to my breasts, longing for the warmth of his loving embrace.

There… I see it laying the way I kept it last night, under his pillow… I had replaced the black and white picture of his wife with a color snap of mine… and he had left the wallet behind…

I knew now for sure, he is not coming back, ever.

Nidhi Mahesh


Stories by this Author :
* A Sentational Story
* Lost and Found
* Ajmera
* Gobindo
* Mirage
* Mithun's Mother
* Resilience
* Defending the Indefensible…

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