Sunday, August 20, 2006

At Howrah: A story

Meet Rajan, my husband…
Rajan was sure he would not react. But before he could compose himself words burst out from his mouth.
…and he? Is he your lover? Rajan feels sorry after putting forth the question. He wants to disappear from the scene.
No actually. He is the father of my son. Mira answers politely.
There is no sign of discomfiture in her gait. She has gained some weight. But her hair is still jet-black, long and smooth.
Rajan shakes hand with the thin man next to Mira. He has a firm hand.
Let’s go and sit somewhere. Mira insists.
Without a word Rajan follows the couple: the thin man and the bulky woman. Rajan is not sure if anyone would ever believe that this woman is his wife. Why is, she was, of course, it is ‘was,’ not ‘is’. They settle down on the corner table of the Railway Cafeteria.
Are you still in your diet of black tea, or would you like to have some coffee? Mira asks and Rajan nods ambiguously.
Mira gets busy with the waiter, caressing her hair, letting her big earrings jingle. Rajan looks at the man in front of him. The man grins.
Sorry, did not catch your name… Rajan mutters.
Oh, I’m Rajdeep. I work in Tata Tea, currently in Calcutta…
Going for a trip somewhere?
To Bangalore. He grins again. To see our son…
He turns toward Mira keeping his grin intact.
She is free now. She fiddles with her handbag.
And you Rajan, where are you going?
Coming. Rajan corrects her.
From where? Mira cries. Don’t tell me you don’t live in Badarpur anymore. They are going to miss you.
Rajan doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to answer. He doesn’t want to tell Mira that he left Badarpur just a few months after her disappearance. It was impossible for him to continue there with so much rumours going around. He doesn’t want to tell her that he is coming back from Bombay after meeting his doctor, that both of his kidneys are now defunct, that he is…
So, what’s you son doing in Bangalore? He asks Mira.
A big group of youngsters jostle around them looking for empty chairs. The waiter in his dirty chocolate-coloured uniform arrives with coffee. The question is lost on Mira.
You are not taking care of your health, Rajan. Mira pushes the cup towards him.
Rajan picks up the cup and looks at Rajdeep. What about your lover? He wants to ask.
Don’t compare. Mira snaps.
My God, nothing escapes from her. She is the same old bitch. Rajan thinks.
Don’t compare. Mira repeats smiling sweetly, adding, he was always thin.
Hereditary. Rajdeep chimes in, very smartly.
But you have put on weight.
Rajdeep looks at her from the corner of his eyes, hinting, see, I told you.
Happy women are always fat. Mira laughs heartily, nudging Rajdeep.
I hope you are telling the truth Mira. Rajan thinks. He doesn’t like the idea of Mira being happy with this thin man. When she could not be happy with him, how can she be happy with any other man? And this poor fellow, he’s totally a henpecked bastard. His body-lingo shows.
You said you are coming from… I missed that…
The noise in the cafeteria increases. Mira bends down toward Rajan to make herself heard.
Where do you live now?
Rajan moves his head in a circular motion without moving the muscles of his face.
In Cal? Just imagine? The world is really a small place, isn’t it, Raj? We are in Cal for last 7 years. In Bullygunj. Been there ever? Now that you are here, you must visit us soon, as soon as we are back from Bangalore. Why don’t you give him your card, Raj, how would he know the address?
The thin man fishes out a fat purse, picks up a card and offers it obligingly to Rajan. From the gloss and the minimalist look, Rajan can read that this Rajdeep guy is a rich customer. Where did Mira find him?
Mira is chatting away: Listen, Rajan, give me a call just after 2 weeks from now. We’ll be back on 27. I want to stay more, but Raj does not have time. I can never get enough of Ranjan. Oh my, just imagine, you are in Calcutta all the while and I did not have a clue.
And I did not have a clue where have you been all the while, you bitch. Rajan thinks. He smiles politely, knowingly. He is not angry which he imagined he would. But he is not sure what his feelings are either. He’s confused.
When is your train? He asks.
At 12 midnight. Rajdeep answers, adding, still 3 hours to go. We had to come early because Mira was worried that she’ll miss the train and won’t be able to see her son. He explains; he is a gentleman.
But that was a good thing, isn’t it, meeting Rajan suddenly after so many years? Imagine he was in Calcutta all the while.
She fiddles with her purse again.
It’s a long time since I have seen you. She adds.
Yes, Rajan wants to say. It’s been 23 years 6 months and 18 days. He looks at the youngsters in the table next to them.
But darling, what about food? The gentleman enquires.
Why, we can have our dinner here, with Rajan to give us company. This place looks ok to me. You cannot have a better place in Howrah station anyway, what do you say, Rajan?
Rajan opens his mouth. He wants to excuse himself. He wants to say he’s tired. He wants to say his wife would be waiting for him at home, or any damn lie. He wants to get rid of this place. He wants to excuse himself from the happiness of Mira.
Please stay for the dinner. I will be obliged to have your acquaintance. The gentleman pleads.
Rajan shuts his mouth without uttering a single word.
He had other plans for tonight. The doctor has given him the final result, 2 months at the most. He has many things to do within this short period of time. He has to windup everything. He has already fixed up an appointment with his lawyer for tomorrow. He had to get his paper ready by tonight.
Gitanjali Express was right in time. He wanted to get away from the station fast. The crowd always gave him a nauseating feeling. Then someone dashed him, forced him to make a halt and asked him if he was Rajan. It was Mira. He recognised her instantly. Who can ever forget these cat eyes?
By the way, Mr. Moitra, are you still with the Birla’s? The gentleman asks.
These days Rajan suddenly goes out of breath. He drinks some water from the glass and answers:
No. I own a spare parts shop in Bau Bazaar. It’s a long time that I quit Birla Cement.
He gulps another mouthful of water.
Mira is busy playing the host, instructing the waiter, asking all those silly questions that only women are capable of asking.
Rajan puts down the glass. The group of youngsters has already left. The place is decently quiet now.
Seems you know quite a lot about me.
Oh, no. The gentleman apologizes. Only that much that Mira would tell me. And she has all good things to tell about you.
A sudden gust of nausea fills Rajan in. He twists his mouth and asks politely:
If you don’t mind asking me, are you happy with Mira.
Rajan inspects the thin man’s face intently. The hair of his moustache is graying.
Oh, very much. She is my life.
There is a tiny black spot on the white of the thin man’s left eye. The thin man averts his eyes.
If you would please excuse me…
Rajdeep gets us jerkily and makes away for the loo, leaving the two long estranged people together.
To what end and to what purpose? Rajan can’t fathom it. He feels strangely calm. All the bitterness he had for Mira for all these years suddenly disappear from his mind. He doesn’t know about Mira, but for him, he feels nothing, absolutely nothing.
Mira has finished placing the order. She fiddles with her handbag, again. She looks up, smiles at Rajan and asks almost inaudibly:
How are you?
So you have told him everything about me.
I had to. You cannot start a relationship based on a lie.
And you also told him that you run away from your husband.
No, I did not run away. I walked away. There is a difference between the two. Yes, I have told him that.
What do you mean by ‘walk away?’ You disappeared.
But I left a note there on the table asking you not to look for me.
Your young wife disappears and you expect the husband not to look for her! Do you know how much trouble I had to face on account of you?
Rajan wants to add, you bitch, you destroyed my life. But he does not feel sufficiently angry. It does not matter to him anymore.
Yes I know. Mira answers in a low, clear voice. Once I met Sanyukta many years later. She told me how you used to run from one police station to another looking for me.
She halts. The clutter around the cafeteria continues.
I am sorry Rajan. But that was the only thing I could do.
You could have told me. We could have discussed it out.
I tried. You know that I tried. Anyway, it’s already done. Let’s not talk about it anymore. How are you doing? When did you leave Badarpur?
Seriously, Rajan does not remember anything anymore about Badarpur, that small, sleepy town covered with the white layer of dust from the cement factories where he began his married life. It all feels like a memory of a film he saw long time ago. He does not remember anything particular about Badarpur, except one, a passing comment doubting his virility: “woh toh hijra hoga, that’s why…” should Rajan tell this to Mira? How would she react? Would she say that it is not true? She knows.
The waiter arrives with the food. The thin man too returns looking fresh and terribly fragile. Mira bids the waiter to leave and begins to serve them.
…sorry, I got late. The gentleman apologizes. They have caught a pickpocket there. There was a big mob around.
The poor boy must be a novice. Rajan comments.
The pickpockets around here are very smart. You can never catch them.
It seems you know all about Calcutta. As for me, I’m always confused.
Rajan mixes the daal fry with jeera rice, swallows a mouthful and comments: Cities are like monograms written in an esoteric language, Mr…
Rajan looks enquiringly at the thin man and chews the mouthful.
Mr. Bhandari, cities are esoteric languages. If you know the language it is very easy, if not kaali akshar… you know what I mean?
Mr. Bhandari knows. He’s a smart guy.
Even Mira knows a lot about cities. She has already written a book. Mira, why don’t you tell Mr. Moitra about your book?
What book? Rajan looks at Mira, and then turns to his food again. Your Ph. D. thesis? You always waned to complete your doctorate degree.
She has done it already.
The smart guy informs beaming all over, making the daal spill in his chin, the proud husband.
She is now Dr. Mira Moitra.
Rajan is not sure if he has heard it right. He gives a quick glance to Mira. She is busy eating. There is no sound except for the clutter of plates and spoons. Rajan drinks some water. Did he hear it right?
What did you say, Dr. Mira…
Yes, Dr. Mira Moitra. Author of the book, “Skyscrapers of Shialdah.”
For the first time in the entire evening, Rajan is surprised. Why? Why, Mira has still kept her marriage identity, her long abandoned husband’s name?
Congratulation. Rajan glances at Mira for a fraction of a second. He doesn’t dare to read her reaction. Trying to make his voice as caustic as he can he continues:
Congratulations. Dr. Mira Moitra… But why Moitra, why not Bhandari, or Sarkar.
The smart guy Bhandari can sense that something is amiss. He adds jocularly:
It sounds sweet, isn’t it?
Rajan can feel that he is beginning to get angry. The whole thing looks like a very bad joke to him, a very obscene, but well planned joke. He does not like the idea of being the butt of a joke. He pushes his plate aside, drinks some water and wiping his mouth with a napkin looks at Mira, this time glaringly.
Mira keeps the spoon on the plate, moves her long fingers along her hair and smiles: Because, Rajan, you are still my husband.
Are you insane? It is all Rajan can ask this moment.
No. I am talking complete sense. We ain’t divorced, are we? You are right; I could have gone back to my maiden name Sarkar. But it was easier for me to carry the burden of your memory then the memory of my father.
What nonsense.
Rajan cannot stand the way Mira is explaining things. This woman is sick. She doesn’t have a heart. You bitch, first you destroy my life, and now you explain to me why you are still keeping my name. How dare you? Rajan drinks some more water. He calms himself. He does not want to create a scene. Anyway it does not matter to him anymore. Nothing about Mira matters to him anymore.
Memory of a runaway wife…
Words slip involuntarily from his mouth. He sadly observes that he’s beginning to get involved. He must curb himself.
No, I didn’t run away, Rajan. Probably it would have been easier for you if I had informed you. But you know what happened. I did not have any other options. I did not want you to find me again.
She halts. A faint smile plays around her lips.
I did not trust you then.
Rajan wonders if it is the same Mira with whom he had spent 25 months together.
And now, do you trust me?
This daal is very tasty, want some more?
Mira asks first Rajan then Mr. Bhandari. For a thin man this guy is a voracious eater.
You should take care of your health, Rajan. You look ill.
I am ill, sick and tired. Rajan wants to scream. He smiles politely.
Oh, my, it’s already 11. Raj, please hurry up. We’ll be late.
As the thin man cleans the plate of food, Mira summons the waiter and asks for the bill. Rajan reclines back in his chair and watches the couple, openly and blankly, the entire scene looks surreal to him as if it is a dream and he will wake up soon. As if he has just eaten in dream.
The thin man finishes his food. Mira moves her fingers in her hair. Rajan looks at the seashell bangles on her hand. Are those the same bangles she wore when she became his bride? Rajan thought that the question would be impolite. And then how these two people are managing without marriage? How come there is a son? How old is he? What is he doing in Bangalore? Rajan thinks these questions would be too personal to ask. He lets his curiosity ebb away.
The waiter arrives. Before the poor chap can place the bill on the table, Rajan jumps up from his chair and snatches it.
The bill is on me please.
The thin man wants to say something. But Rajan watches Mira’s hand pinching the thin man’s thigh asking him not to interfere.
As you wish. Mira obliges amicably.
Rajan pays the bill and all three of them come out of the cafeteria. A rowdy female voice announces the departure time of some unknown train. Rajan clutches his air bag under his arm. Mira rearranges the plaits of her sari. The thin man beams self-consciously and looks around.
So, that’s it. Rajan says. I wish you a very happy and uneventful journey. Events are always cumbersome. Rajan tries to be funny.
It was nice meeting you. Mr. Bhandari offers his hand to Rajan. Do keep in touch. He says politely. He has a very strong hand.
You don’t mind my being the husband of your lover? Rajan curses himself after uttering the sentence.
Mr. Bhandari grins meaninglessly.
I told you Rajan we are not lovers. We are just living together without giving our relationship a name. At the most he’s my son’s father. Our relationship is open. I can leave him any time I want and the same goes for him too. She caresses her hair. That is why I won’t leave him. I won’t leave him because I can leave him. And I am sure he would not leave me either.
Do I have a choice, darling. This time Mr. Bhandari tries to be funny.
And you left me because…
Because we were married. I did not like being dictated by someone whom I barely knew. I did not have options…
Mira extends her hand to Rajan.
I don’t know what I did was right or wrong. I had to do it, you know.
She shakes Rajan hands. Rajan recognises an old silver ring on her finger. He picks her hand up and examines it closely.
Oh, this, I decided to keep it, you know… memory of a runaway wife…
Do visit us at our home. Mr. Bhandari invites Rajan again before turning to leave. They disappear among the mob.

Rajan fishes out the thin man’s business card from his pocket and throws it in the dustbin. Then he proceeds towards the magazine stand. He has to buy some magazines. He does not want to spend the whole night thinking about Mira and the thin man.


  1. :-) great story!! enjoyed a lot!!

  2. great story! enjoyed a lot... keep it up!