It was a hot day. The sun shone with all its might and the sand was hot. Tired, he settled down on one of the comfortable chairs placed on the beach. They weren’t meant for him, they were meant for the men and women who crowded the beach, drank things out of pretty coconut shells and stupidly walked around with hats on and little else. The shack owners seemed to love them for some reason, those noisy idiots. He looked around scornfully. There was a plastic bottle with a little water on the side, but not enough for him to be able to drink. Must be those thoughtless humans! Irritated, he looked around as he always did in these cases. Idiotic as they were, the tourists always left a thing or two in their carelessness, and he picked them up without remorse, taking those back to his nest. It was the closest and most viable imitation of a revenge in his mind. As he looked around, suddenly something caught his eye, shimmering and glittering in the scorching sun. Aha! Must be one of those glittery things they wear around their necks. Over the years, he had come to realise that those were quite valuable to the humans, although he never understood their purpose. With one last look around, he swiftly swooped down from the armchair and picked up the trinket from the sand. With an air of victory and a sense of pride in his heart, the crow flew away. His prize hung from his beak, a liquor bottle cap, shining in the sun.
Uma was looking outside her window, absent minded. The sky was a monotone of dark grey, a patchwork of thick rainclouds. Deep rumbles emerged from the horizon in steady succession. The old grandfather clock announced the twelfth hour of the day, gong beating away musically. However, looking around, one could be convinced that it was well past sunset. “Bouma, did you bring back the clothes? All his white shirts, office shirts Bouma, don’t let them get wet!” Bhabani Debi called out urgently. Hastily twirling her hair in a bun, Uma ran to the terrace. Just as she picked up the last shirt from the clothesline, the rain began falling in large drops. Uma loved the rain, the way it caressed her skin, wet her hair- but she couldn’t let the starched office shirts get wet. Downstairs, there was a commotion. Her mother in law, aged but domineering Bhabani Debi was rebuking their cook cum servant Ramu sternly. “What’s the matter, Ma?” Uma interjected. “Let Abani come home tonight, he has to do something about Ramu. Your Baba indulged him in all his nuisance and now he wouldn’t lift a spoon!” she looked over her shoulder and glared at her late husband’s picture on the living room wall. Exchanging a few words with Ramu, Uma quickly learned that her mother in law wanted to eat some fried pumpkins and Ramu was expected to oblige. An expert in maintaining household peace, Uma cajoled Bhabani Debi into retiring to her room, promising that she’d fry her some pumpkins at once. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Uma looked out of her kitchen window. A neem tree, freshly bathed in rain, now looked greener than ever. A faint smell of mud and dust wafted in the air. Her sons were inexpertly trying to dribble a football. The sky…fresh leaves…smell of rain-
“The earth awash and smiling shy,
Like a timid bride on her wedding night…”
Uma smiled as the words circled in her mind. Turning the stove off, she quickly disappeared into her room. She’d have to write them down, or they would be completely lost from memory in a few minutes. In beautiful handwriting, she scribbled the couplet on her notebook and stared at it admiringly. Her first and an abrupt attempt at English poetry- not complete, but a start nonetheless.
“Bouma, don’t let the fries sit cold. Why don’t you bring them over here,” Ma’s voice broke her reverie. “Yes Ma, at once.” “You have a gift for cooking, darling. Why don’t you take some?” urged Bhabani Debi. Uma politely refused. “You need to put some flesh on your bones, at least till you’re nursing. Did you feed her?” Uma nodded faintly. Her mind was busy with the couplet, tearing the lines apart and stitching them again, adding and removing words, trying to rhyme. “Don’t let her sleep in the sun. She’s a girl after all. How’s the knitting coming along? Show me the baby’s sweater once you’re done with it, won’t you? I need you to embroider this table cloth after that”, Bhabani Debi pointed at an off white piece of fabric that covered the sturdy Mahogany tea table. “Yes, Ma. The sweater is almost done, just the sleeves…”, “Oh you can finish that off today”, the old woman dismissed her with an impatient air. “There is a party at Ghoshal’s this Sunday. I was wondering if you could stitch a piece of lace on that white blouse of mine. It’ll look elegant for the evening.” Uma looked through Ma’s neat wardrobe and spotted the garment under a pile of blouses. “I’ll get this done in the afternoon.” Bhabani Debi watched her daughter in law walk away with admiration. She had found a perfect wife for her Abani. An expert in music, cookery, knitting; beautiful and obedient. Her luck was envied by many in the neighbourhood. She raised her hands to her forehead for a quick prayer.
Uma was sitting on her bed, her fingers swiftly maneuvering the needle, but her mind distracted.
“The earth awash and smiling shy,
A bride in red on her wedding night,
Charming, fragrant, her features spry,
Sweet as a rose, large kohl eyed.”
She grabbed her pen and book, and after a minute of scrawling, found herself staring critically at the scribbled lines before her, chewing her pen, rummaging her brain for better rhyming words. Her first attempt in English poetry. Uma enjoyed writing, but predominantly in Bengali, despite her B.A in English Literature from the City University. She used to be secretive of her writing at first, but winning a grant or two back in her college days had allowed her to express some magnitude of brave love for it. Plath, Chopin, Shelley…she longed for a corner of her own, in the boundless world of literature. Her mind wandered back to the first few days of her married life. Abani had spotted her notebooks full of poetry in her half unpacked trunk. “When you told me you like writing, I didn’t think you were serious about it”, he wore a strange expression. Was it amusement? Appreciation? “It’s just a hobby really”, Uma had taken her notebooks from him and put them away under her sarees. “Interesting. Well, writing isn’t easy. And uh, after all, you’re a woman.” After a short pause he had added with a laugh, “It’s a great hobby actually. Maybe you can even write a poem or two in your free time. But I’d rather hear that sweet voice of yours humming to some Rabindra sangeet now.” With a surprising sudden urge to confide in her new partner, Uma had hinted of her desire to pursue writing as a career, hoping for him to churn out a reassurance that couldn’t be expected of other members in a house one was just brought to.
“What does that mean?”
“You went through the book. What did you think? Not very often, but fairly regularly…if I could publish…suppose in Amritolok or Sahityasambad? Just a weekly magazine maybe? I actually published an essay in college that won the…”
“Oh Uma! Why can’t you just let it be? You’re no longer a college girl. Besides, if you’re busy with reading and writing all day, I mean…think of the household. You’re a new bride. What will the neighbours say?”
“You will be at work, what will I do at home? Besides, I have a degree in Literature. Might as well make some use of it.” At this, Abani had laughed out loudly, “Well didn’t you make use of your education already darling? I for one, always wanted my wife to be educated.” he looked at his newlywed wife with adoration. “Besides, what do you mean you’ll do all day? Ma is old now, Ramu dada doesn’t cook well. I’m certain Ma will let you take over the kitchen. Don’t worry about spending your time, we seem to reside among some specific species of curious neighbours in a continual search for reasons to visit our house, ha ha ha.” Looking at Uma’s crestfallen face, Abani had added, “You can always write, like I said before. Write at your leisure, and maybe, when I come home from work, serenade me with your poetry.” With a smile, he had turned to his side and fallen asleep.
“Ma can you make us some lemonade?” both her sons entered her bedroom, sweaty and beaming. “Oma, you’re drenched in sweat!” Uma quickly switched on the table fan, checked on the baby and went towards the kitchen. Her eldest son liked his lemonade sweet, the younger one salty. She squeezed a large lemon in a glass. It was after about a year of their marriage, Abani had taken her to a party at his manager’s house. The Senguptas were a cultivated family. Mrs. Sengupta harbored an affection for European literature and having learned of Uma’s academic endeavors, she had brought out a copy of Mrs. Dalloway and handed it to Uma. “My first book in London.” Mrs. Sengupta had insisted Uma keep the memento, despite keen refusals from the recipient and her husband. On their way back, Uma thought of the book, and its author, “You know, she said, a woman needs some money and a room of her own to write.” “So now our upcoming writer needs a room of her own is it? Ha ha! Mrs. Uma Virginia Banerjee.”, Abani was greatly amused. “Listen Uma, the Senguptas are a different category altogether. They have two cooks, and a gardener. All this reading and writing isn’t meant for us middle classes.” Abani’s eyes had been fixed on the wheel. “I like the embroidery on your blouse. Did you do it? You could do one for my panjabi too, the yellow one? You get a lot of time anyway, with Ramu dada helping you out.” “Hmm? Yeah, the yellow one did you say? Sure”, Uma’s eyes had been fixed on the empty roads.
Uma handed her sons two tall glasses of lemonade. The grandfather clock struck 3, filling the house with a deferential echo. In a few hours, she’ll have to wake Bhabani Debi with her evening tea and water the plants while Ma finished her evening prayer. The sky was now clear- the afternoon sun fierce. Sunlight fell diagonally on her bed, the notebook basking in it. Uma opened the book, her finger tracing the lines she wrote a few minutes ago. Mrs. Uma Virginia Banerjee! She felt a faint lump on her throat. She got up and moved to her wardrobe, shaky fingers pulling out a couple of notebooks from under her sarees. Essays, a short story, mainly poetry. She gathered her notebooks and sat on a stool in the attached balcony. A small corner for herself, in the boundless world of literature. A middle class family in Calcutta, with little to spare for nothing. An antithesis. A bride in red on her wedding night, who wasn’t asked if red was what she wanted to get married in. Uma’s eyes had stopped watering years ago. Uma looked outside through the railings. “Papers! Old papers, new papers, newspapers, care to sell some papers?” a familiar voice pierced through the silent afternoon. The ragman visited their neighbourhood almost every day, asking for glass bottles, sometimes scrap metal, and occasionally newspapers. “Hey, over here.” the words escaped Uma’s mouth before she realized. “Boudi, do you have some old papers?” the bony figure wiped his forehead with the gamcha he carried around his neck. “I have papers. But tell me, what do you do with the things you collect?” Uma pointed to his sack curiously. “Sell madam, sell. The glass bottles are crushed. They go to the factories. If we have some good clothes, we keep one or two for ourselves, and sell the rest. Old papers to make paper bags. A good deal can get us even five rupees! Do you have papers, Boudi?” he was impatient. “Yes yes, paper bags. Paper bags travel everywhere, I suppose.” “Yes, paper bags go everywhere. For the jhalmuri and the rice, peanuts in the train. Everywhere, Boudi. Sometimes you may find a Bengali newspaper at a station in Bihar, heh.” he wiped his forehead once again. Uma went inside the house and came out a minute later with a small pile of old newspapers. “Char anna”, he was done weighing the stack. “These papers go far and wide, you said?” She almost said it to herself, but the man looked at her bewildered. “Char anna, here”, a small coin shined on his outstretched palm. “Just a minute.” Uma ran inside the house and came out in no time. “Here, no need to weigh them.” she handed out three long hardbound notebooks, with printed illustrations on their cover. Paper bags travelled far, and along with hem, her poetry may too. The man picked up his scale and other paraphernalia, and was just about to leave when Uma called out, “I may have forgotten something in there.” She took out a green hardbound book and turned the cover. The swift sound of a page tearing was followed by an imperceptible exchange of expressions. “Here, take it back.” Uma stood with a leaf from her book in hand, watching the ragman walk away.
“The earth awash and smiling shy,
A bride in red on her wedding night,
Charming, fragrant, her features spry,
Sweet as a rose, large kohl eyed.”
Her first English poem was still unfinished.
“Shhhh, careful!”, fearful, Jule hissed from behind us. “You shouldn’t have come with us. I knew you’d be scared and put up a fuss”, I scowled at her.
“Both of you be quiet, this isn’t the time for you to fight!”
We tiptoed around the table, past the long corridor and were able, to silently cross Aunt M’s bedroom. Even though I mocked Jule, in my heart of hearts, fear ruled. My mouth was as dry as the loaf Aunt M gives us for breakfast. I tugged hard at Moddy’s shirt.
“What?”, annoyed, he turned to look at me. “Aunt M might wake up anytime, it’s almost three.”
“Oh she won’t! Now keep quiet or go back, and I’ll do this on my own.”
I was too scared but I couldn’t let him unlock the cupboard alone. So I followed him with a silent groan. Not that I wanted to see my demon, but Moddy said it’d be the size of a lemon, since it fit into that little cupboard. Jule held on to my hand tight, and both of us with all our might, followed our leader closely.
Jule and I met Moddy last year during Christmas. He visits his grandma’s house every now and then, which is a few houses away from ours. This time, he came here to spend his summer holidays. “I don’t like you playing with him”, Aunt M says always. But we naturally reunited. We invited him over for lunch last week, little did we know an adventure he’d seek. No sooner had he entered the kitchen than the tiny marble cupboard made his eyes glisten. There wasn’t much else to evoke curiosity, but the little cupboard with flowers on it was exceptionally pretty.
It was forbidden too. Aunt M always kept it locked, and the keys dangled from an unreachable peg on the wall. We weren’t supposed to go near it at all. It contained an ugly demon, locked up by Aunt, who would otherwise get out to hunt, little kids like us.
But Moddy did not seem convinced at all. “How can it hunt if it’s tiny enough to fit into a cupboard so small? Lies!”, he said. Although his words seemed wise, Jule and I never tried going near it, until he wanted to see how the demon fits. “No! You’re not supposed to see it. It looks terrifying. It has long canines, and only one eye. Has red hands and black fangs.”, I tried explaining. But Moddy was a headstrong kid. A little older to us, he was eight. Jule and I were young and naive. I was seven and she was five.
So we stood on the floor, eager but tense, glancing at the door every now and then. Moddy dragged a chair and climbed with ease. Within a moment he had the keys. Jule and I covered our faces, planning to flee before the demon chases. But as soon as the cupboard was unlocked, all three of us were surprised and shocked.
There was a row of large glass jars. One was full of raisin tarts. The others contained colourful treats, jellies and cookies and all kinds of sweets. “Here’s your demon”, Moddy smiled evilly, and started off the task of emptying them speedily.
And with my mouthful of red-blue fiends, I wondered if it was a coincidence that Aunt M wasn’t quite fond of our friend.
He was later than usual. The night was very dark, it had also started snowing outside. All he carried was a cleaver in his hand. There was a slight wobble in his steps. Was he drunk?
The room was dark and quiet. He lit a candle, then took off his patched woollen coat and hung it on the peg. He lifted the hem a little- the blood had already dried and was almost invisible. Dried mud was stuck to the cloth. His coat smelled of fish, it was full of bloodstains. You cannot expect a butcher to take his coat off at work in this cold, especially when he can’t afford any other clothing. The stains were all dried and looked like rust. One cannot easily make out because of the dark wool and the dirt stuck to it. The stains looked more like a subtle pattern now, almost like a pretty design in the otherwise plain coat, he thought. He admiringly stared at his coat for a while. It looked pretty, he thought. Even if it smelled of fish and blood all day. He didn’t really mind the blood, he hadn’t decided about the fish yet.
He had placed the cleaver on the small table near the door. He looked down at it with the same air of admiration, feeling the dried trails of blood. He picked it up and walked to other door at the end of the room. A gush of ice cold wind hit him as he threw away the weapon he used to kill the man, and shut the door.
Snowflakes steadily gathered on the sharp metal outside.
His blog posts became infrequent. The latest draft wasn’t touched up for a month. Storey after storey, the high-rise completely covered the orphanage and the adjacent park from his view.
The builders successfully created a permanent writers’ block for the paralysed poet.