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Crossing the Mirage - Passing through Youth
Waking up at eight, Prema sprang to her feet to ring up her friend and as Nithya was waiting for her call, she answered the call by the first ring itself.
“What a coup in the making!” a joyous Nithya soon appraised Chandra about the development and its import on the final act.
“Don’t get carried away and spill the beans,” Chandra cautioned her. “Let it pass off as a twist of destiny.”
After speaking to Nithya, Prema sat down to draft a new twist to Vasu’s destiny. At length, she went to Sathya only to find him stirring in the bed. When she sat on the bed to wake him up, he pulled her into his arms.
“I wish we begin afresh,” he said winking at her.
“Won’t you help me end this chapter first?” she said smug in his embrace.
“Only as a sequel,” he said squeezing her hip.
At length, as they got up for the day, she went into the kitchen.
“There are things to sort out right away,” said Prema as they had their coffee.
“Assign my duties,” he said, “and the responsibilities.”
“Like Kala before me,” said Prema deliberately, “I want to acquire a fresh wardrobe.”
“Likewise,” she said, “I want to shed him off all that my father gave us.”
“Why to go to such lengths?” said Sathya a little taken aback.
“Well, it’s my whim?” she said spiritedly.
“Stop being considerate to all and sundry,” she said unrelenting. “Won’t it do that I gift them away to the needy of the neighborhood?”
“It’s a point of view.”
“Let’s put the car on sale,” she said in the same vein. “And donate the proceeds to some orphanage.”
“Rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“Why forget he robbed your honey to butter his bread?”
“I wonder how your parents will react,” he said coming to reality.
“Can’t you imagine?” she told him assuredly. “Don’t you know how they wanted me to be your wife? It would be better late than never for them.”
“What a day it would be!” he said dreamily.
“Our wedding day!” she smiled coyly.
“That be our own day,” he said taking her into his arms, “for the rest of our life.”
“I wish we will be around,” she said sinking into his embrace, “to celebrate the golden jubilee.”
“Well, the law of averages might help,” he said hopefully, “for the way we have suffered so far.”
“It’s my promise,” she said lovingly. “I will strive to make you happy every day of those fifty years.”
“Are you on the pill or what?” he asked tentatively.
“It didn’t happen that’s all.”
“Hope our aggregate improves,” he crooned into her ear.
“Am I not desperate to bear your child?” she said happily. “But for now think of the job on hand.”
“You cover the neighborhood and I’ll go round the town,” he said giving her his hand. “Is it okay?”
“Get me light blue lingerie for our first night in your flat,” she said coyly, “that is, after dinner at the Chandras. Well I forgot to tell you that we're invited as a couple.”
“Made for each other I suppose,” he said and added in undertone, “what about the made for you uppers and lowers?”
“Don’t forget to pick up some petticoats as well,” she said aloud after whispering in his ears.
That evening, dumping the purchases at his flat, they set out for dinner at the Honeycomb.
“You're an expert,” said Sathya watching her drive.
“Are you any less,” she said winking at him, “in handling the fair sex.”
“Don't you make much of it?” he said feeling flattered.
“Oh, how kind is God to us!” she said dreamily.
“Of the rarest kind, isn’t it?”
“How I felt like praying to God to get you back,” she said nostalgically. “But I didn’t dare after all that.”
“Assuming there is God,” he said philosophically, “He's not amenable to your prayers. I've come to realize that.”
“Have you become an atheist or what!” she said struck by the conviction of his tone.
“As I told you,” he began nostalgically, “I believed Kala was a mislaid jewel to be retrieved with my love, and understandably, I turned to God for help. And for over a year, though the deities differed, my prayer remained the same: oh, God make me the means of her happiness! And how fervently I used to pray! Believe me, my own fulfillment through marriage was never in my mind. Wonder how I could become so selfless in my endeavour! Why, the singularity of the appeal and the constancy of my prayer had to be seen to be believed! It was nothing short of a tapasya.”
“I can see from your face,” she said stopping the car by the roadside as her eyes welled up, “your capacity to love. Why I couldn’t see it then when I snubbed you? Maybe I've noticed that with my mind's eye, if not why did that look of yours come to solace me ever since?”
“Won’t we make up Prema!” he said wiping her tears.
“Now that God has willed it,” she said, “I know we will.”
“Well,” he said stoically, “when I failed with Kala, it made me introspect about the power of prayer over the will of God. Could there have been a more worthy cause and a selfless prayer than mine? Yet, why did God dispose of my proposal! For all I know, God is but a myth and even if there is one I've realized, he would only grant that which He thinks fit and not what we might pray for. Any way you look at it, we can’t bend His will through prayer and if there is none, well, it's a waste of time.”
“Maybe your theory,” she said as she steered the car back on to the road, “leaves no scope for anything contrary.”
“It was then I turned to the Bhagavad Gita only to find it was all there in it to the last detail,” he said in apparent admiration for it and added, “It’s the tragedy of man that he doesn’t benefit from the existing wisdom.”
“How true,” she said, “but do tell me about life in Calcutta.”
“I don’t know why,” he began reminiscently, “but the Howrah Bridge always fascinated me ever since I’d seen it in the title movie starring Madhubala. It’s a different matter that her love story is no less fascinating than her persona, and her life as poignant as her death, at only thirty-six. You know what a fan of hers I was but you don't know that I mourned her death like a lover, as you know, I was in Ranchi then.”
“I was no less lovelorn then,” she said with a sigh. “Maybe, the saving grace of unrequited love is that it makes a fascinating story. And what an irony that is!”
“True, but our story of rediscovery” he said lovingly, “makes it a fairy tale really.”
“Isn’t it written all over our faces?” she said joyously. “Now continue with your Calcutta.”
“That morning when I first set foot there,” he resumed, “I was awestruck finding the cantilever bridge right across the railway station. As I crossed it in a cab, I was overawed by its awesome grandeur. Many times over, I used to saunter on it only to experience a peculiar sense of solace looking at the Hooghly down below. Come evening and all that would change. The sprawling structure becomes a hindrance to those who have to catch the trains that leave the Howrah station around that time. The traffic jams that stretch up to miles send people in the cabs and cars alike into jitters. But the ingenuity of the coolies provides escape routes for those who’re willing to venture out. With your baggage as head load in their bamboo trays, with you in tow, they meander their way over the bridge to the railway station and imagine boarding the trains that are a heartbeat away from the green signal! But all can’t be lucky, all the time, and the queues of hapless souls who've missed the trains could well be the index of Cal’s chaos.”
“Isn’t it a mirror image of unrequited lovers?” she said reminiscently. “Either way that is.”
“Well, nothing symbolizes Cal better than Kalighat I suppose” he continued with his account of the place. “I haven’t seen a more chaotic place than the Kali temple there that's too small for the furious goddess, with that protruding tongue. Then the ritual of animal sacrifice, before the deity itself, in the precincts of the temple, and bless the goddess, how the leeches of the priests bleed the jostling crowds to the dreg what with heir knack to spot the gullible first-timers bordering on sorcery. By the time you’re through with your perambulations, you find your wallet lighter for the assorted blessings you’ve had from them, at every corner of Her majestic pedestal. When you come out in the end, you would tend to think but for Her divine hand, the edifice of faith would’ve long crumbled at Her shrine itself.”
“Won’t all that give it a torrid look?”
“Well, try worshipping the sedate Kali in Her serene posture at Dakshineswar,” he said, “and you may find you’re far off from the devotional fervor that accounts for the religious faith. I felt if Kalighat is Cal, Belur Mutt across the Hooghly is some other world. That’s not all, thanks to the red light area nearby; devotion and debauchery go hand in hand at Kalighat. Why can’t I be frank with you? I used to go to a joint at the Free School Street for a fling or two, well nothing free about it though, but the schooling was not bad there. I never ventured into Sonagachi, for I heard it was a crowded bazaar but once I felt like trying it out at a Kalighat brothel.”
“Don’t I know,” she said winking at him, “what all you learnt in that Free School Street?”
“Mind you, it’s still it’s a learning curve,” he said in smile, “and as I entered the zone that evening, I found it was all lit up. There were girls all over, decked up in the traditional attire. Though I sauntered up and down, as none came to solicit, I approached the best looking one, only to learn that being Karthika Purnima it was a day of abstinence for them. As bachelors form the bulk of their clientele, seems it was their custom to appease Karthik, the Bachelor God, without any indulgence that day. What an ingenious way to appease the demigod to further their trade.”
“Oh, what to say of customs,” she said in smile, “was it a wild goose chase then?”
“Why, I came across a beautiful transgressor,” he said winking at her. “But there is more to it. Soon after we were alone, as there was a brawl outside, I wanted to lave, but she wanted me to stay as otherwise it amounts to paying for her for nothing. When I told her not to bother, she said it would matter to her if I don’t make it with her and sensing that I didn’t believe her, she told me she rarely gets to sleep with a decent man. Oh, what a lesson in love and life that was for me.”
“Oh, how are these women supposed to fleece of their customers?” she asked.
“Not all of them as it seems,” he said. “If Cal is formidable for its structural grandeur, it’s the women who provide it its splendor. I may say Bengali women are apart with most of them being above average and any connoisseur of the fair sex would second my opinion. Like the statistical line of poverty, if ever an empirical line of beauty is devised, I’m sure you would find very few Bengali women below par. Maybe, it’s the Bengali way of celebrating the charms of their women by centering all their festivities on various goddesses. Where else are Durga Puja, Kali Puja, and Saraswati Puja celebrated with such pomp and pageantry?”
“Oh how lucky,” she said mirthfully, “you weren’t hooked by any!”
“Well, my ardency for the Bengali beauty was dampened by the domineering nature I noticed in many,” he said. “But yet I couldn’t take my eyes off them, especially during the times of Durga Puja. Nights come alive during those thirteen days while life ceases during the daytime. You should only see to believe Cal's infectious atmosphere during those days. It’s as though no one stays at home during those nights. Millions are ever on the move from one puja pandal to the other till the wee hours. Once I got naughty and came out unscathed with the skin of my teeth. With my hand on Gopal’s shoulder, I squeezed the breast of a teenaged beauty as I passed her by but as she cried foul and before the mob could react, I melted in the multitude. Well Gopal wasn’t harmed as the girl didn’t name him and joining me shortly thereafter, he told me I would’ve got lynched then and there but for my presence of mind.”
“So from bottom pinching,” she said naughtily, “you’ve graduated to bosom brushing and commuting by bus would've been handy.”
“But once I tie the knot,” he said heartily, “don’t you think my hands would be tied as well? Well, in Cal, if you don’t want to miss your bus to the office, you should be fighting fit, no matter your gender and age, you won’t board a bus in Cal; you just barge into it that is against all odds. No quarter is asked or given even to the fair sex. They too have to go through the same grind, but once inside, courtesy beckons them at every turn with men offering them seats all over. Oh, what can you make of that?”
“Well, having taken the woman on board,” she said in the lighter vein, “man knows it pays to keep her in good humor, doesn’t he?”
“Don't I know you are naughty,” he said enthusiastically, “but on the trams, one fares much better there, literally that is. It’s a funny sight to see some pretending to be fast asleep as the conductor approaches them for the fare. Maybe, being wiser for his unpleasant experiences on earlier occasions, the conductor prefers not to disturb such. But once their destination is reached, these sleepy bhadraloks alight from it with alacrity. Oh, all this farce, when one can travel from one end to the other for a fare of eighteen paisa! It appears communism doesn’t confine itself to proletariat in Calcutta. It seems to be at work at all levels of its society. Doesn’t the state own all property and isn’t the state our very own? So the state property is people’s own property and why should pay for the services of what he owns and it could as well be the reasoning of the Bengali intellect.”
“What makes communism tick there?”
“It’s not for nothing that communism is so well entrenched in Bengal’s polity,” he said, assuming the tone of a political pundit. “The philosophy of communism is but the credo of the Bengali: high on rhetoric and slow to takeoff. Could it be any different given the Bengali penchant for artistic excellence? What an artistic people these Bengalis are. Why should things mundane interest them at all? See the creative range of the pandals erected for Durga Puja and others, and you would get to know the brilliance of their ingenuous minds. After all, communism is all about each working according to his abilities and paid according to one's needs. What abilities can an illiterate possess and what more would the poor need than a plate of mori and a cup of chai, that together cost twenty-five paisa. It’s a different matter that the gentry feign asleep, on the trams, to save much less than that.”
“What a city of contrasts the Cal is!”
“The contradictory ethos of the Calcuttans is no less puzzling,” he said. “Even as they come out in numbers to mourn the death of a minor comrade, they all remain immune to the plight of the rickshawala, who doubles up for a mule. One evening, Gopal engaged a rickshaw though I felt odd about it. But after a short ride, to my great surprise, my conscience stopped troubling me, maybe, it’s in communism to cast a shadow on the collective consciousness of the Calcuttans, and well the rickshawalas serve the needy, otherwise too, by pimping for the prostitutes. It’s amusing to see them line up their rickshaws near the pavements at the Dharmatalla and ring their hand bells as a call for service.”
“Maybe, once we taste the creature comforts,” she said intuitively, “we turn insensitive to our fellow beings.”
“Oh, dear, it’s so like the Bengali articulation-- intellectually stimulating,” he said in apparent admiration. “You would come across that at the coffee houses and the tea stalls alike. At the bars, however, it could all be bawdy as intoxication and articulation make a heady mix. Gopal was a little too fond of drink. On occasion, he used to drag me to a bar at the Jaggu Bazaar that he frequented. Once I met there a marwari businessman who was trying to rope me in ever since I began rejecting his supplies. Inebriated by then, he demanded that I tell him why not I favor him by taking a bribe? I told him that my income lets me a drink or two at a bar and a fling or two at some brothel, that too occasionally. And if I start compromising, I said, the easy money could bring me to the bar daily and might lead me to the whores regularly, injuring my health permanently and the Bengali, who overheard us, began articulating about the corruption of their culture by the marwari businessmen. And this led to a brawl naturally.”
“Oh you, sensible as ever!” she said ruffling his hair and smelled her palm for
“What a romantic reminder,” he said exultantly, “but I used to feel sad at the Victoria Memorial, designed to uplift Cal's haggard souls. You may remember my friend Soni from my Ranchi days,”
“The papaya lover you mean.”
“Not a bad memory,” he said, “we met again in Cal and I used to go there with him once in a way. Finding couples all over cuddle around the tree trunks, I used to crave for some fun with Kala but as he was critical of those lovers once, I told him that it‘s all sour grapes, and that he would find the company of a lass far more preferable than mine, if only he could manage one.”
“We shall make it to the Victoria Memorial,” she said animatedly, “well before our lovers’ tag starts getting faded. Why, we shall have our honeymoon in your Cal.”
“Won't I love it,” he said leaning over her shoulder.
“That is after Vasu gets his just deserts.”
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