The emerald green Jamdani saree hugged the slim frame of Swatilekha Devi. The sexagenarian looked at herself in the mirror. A medium-sized bindi adorned her forehead. Her grey hair was tied neatly into a bun. Her dusky skin radiated a glow that came with peace and tranquility of the mind. A pair of simple pearl studs completed the accessories. She adjusted the pleats of the saree one last time, and after switching off the tube light, left the bedroom. The delicious aroma of kheer wafted in from the kitchen. He’ll relish it!
The grey curtains fluttered in the gentle breeze. Swatilekha Devi hobbled to the window, and stood there, clutching one of its bars. Somewhere, a television blared out an Uttam-Suchitra number. Ei poth jodhi na shesh hoye! (What if this journey never ends!) Songs appeared as chartbusters and vanished into oblivion, but none of the cacophony that was passed off as music nowadays could match the allure of the black-and-white era of Bengali cinema. Pushing these thoughts aside, her eyes darted around. On the footpath lay a brown street dog, curled up. Its ears, however, remained alert, as people rushed back to the confines of their home.
He should be here any moment. Swatilekha Devi left the window, and sat down on the sofa, and leaned her head back against the soft cushion. A minute passed by. The gate outside her house creaked in a show of protest. She straightened up, pursing her lips. How many times I have told him to oil it! It’s becoming rusty. She got up, and winced in pain. The arthritis was getting worse. She limped to the door, and opened its latch.
Rakhal Babu flashed a toothy grin. “I could have been an intruder, you know!”
“Thieves don’t announce their presence like this, creating a racket,” she retorted. “I think I have to go and oil the gate myself. The squeaking sound is now starting to grate on my nerves.”
Rakhal Babu said nothing. He stepped across the threshold, removed his slippers, bent down, and took them in his hands. He then placed them inside the shoe rack, and rubbed his feet against the doormat twice. Giving his dhoti a vigorous shake, he proceeded to the living room, where he took his seat on the sofa, resting the black umbrella against its arm.
“Kalbaishaki is due anytime. I didn’t want to take any risk,” he explained, before Swatilekha Devi could pounce on him, and reprimand him for taking an umbrella out at this time of the hour. When no reply was forthcoming, he sniffed like a puppy. “Kheer?”
“How could I not prepare it on your birthday?”
Rakhal Babu rubbed his hands gleefully like a child. “Bring it now. I will have it.”
Swatilekha Devi giggled. “Wait! Be patient!” With that, she ambled to the kitchen, and came out with a ceramic bowl, filled to half its capacity with kheer. Rakhal Babu snatched it from her hands, brought it closer to his nose, and inhaled the contents. His eyes sparkled, and he ran his tongue over his lips.
“I tell you, nothing can beat the aroma of Gobindobhog rice. The so-called famous basmati rice brands can’t even hold a candle to it.” With that, he scooped out the kheer, and polished it off in one go. He licked the spoon for any remnants of the delicacy, and finding none, placed it back into the bowl.
“You want some more?”
Rakhal Babu shook his head. Swatilekha Devi took the bowl, went back to the kitchen, rinsed it, placed it upside down near the sink, and returned to the room.
“Do you remember? As a newlywed bride, you rustled up so many delicious desserts.”
“Yes. I also haven’t forgotten how you used to do the tandav dance if there was less salt in the fish gravy.”
Rakhal Babu smiled, and patted the sofa cushion next to him. Smiling, Swatilekha Devi sat down. He took her hand in his, and caressed it lovingly. Wrinkles had replaced the once smooth skin.
“I have grown old, buro,” she said wistfully.
Rakhal Babu dismissed her statement with a wave of his hand. “You look as radiant as ever. As you sat on our nuptial bed, flowers strewn around you.” He winked at her. She blushed, “Uff! I can’t take it anymore. Have some shame. You have a grown-up daughter now.”
The doorbell chimed at that moment.
Swatilekha Devi got up. “It must be Titli.”
A young woman rushed in, as soon as the door was opened. “So sorry! The traffic can be so pathetic. It is extremely irritating.” She stopped dead in her tracks, and a broad smile flashed across her young beautiful face.
“Maa!” she squealed in delight. “I can’t believe it. At last! I am very happy now. It had been so depressing to see you wear only white sarees after….,” she paused, and hugged her mother tightly. “Now, better start eating fish too. Ok? No! Listen to me. At this age, you need proteins. I don’t care what the society says.”
She released her mother from the hug. “Maa! How many times I have told you to keep the window shut? So many mosquitoes must have entered the room by now.”
Murmuring something, Titli rushed towards the window, but didn’t make any attempt to close it.
“It was as if it happened just yesterday, maa. Remember? It was raining. Kalbaishaki. Wasn’t it, maa? Baba wouldn’t listen to any of us. He had always been adamant.” She let out a loud sigh, and continued, “Baba insisted on going out in that weather to buy Gobindobhog rice. If only I had put my foot down that day!” A lump formed in Titli’s throat. “I had always been so lazy, maa.”
She started sniffling. Swatilekha Devi came near her, and ran her hand lovingly over her daughter’s long hair. “He was always like this, my dear. You know it. He never paid heed to even my warnings.”
Titli rubbed her eyes. “He turned back and looked at us. Do you remember that smile? It was almost beatific. As if he knew, maa. As if he knew that he would never….” She bit her lips in a futile attempt to control her tears. “I will never forget it. Baba and his black umbrella fading away from our sight.”
“That’s fate, my child. It’s written. Who would have thought he would succumb to a cardiac arrest in the middle of the road? Thank Maa Kali that the neighbourhood kids knew him. Hadn’t they alerted us, what would have happened?”
Titli blew her nose with a handkerchief. “You are right, maa. It’s just that his end was so sudden. Anyway. Let’s talk about something pleasant. Hey! Is it kheer you have made? Why didn’t you tell me before, maa? Now, I am going to help myself to a bowl. Do you want some?”
Swatilekha Devi shook her hand. “Not now. After dinner, maybe. I have prepared fried rice and chilli chicken today.”
“Yummy! I am salivating now. Maa! You’ll also have the chicken, right? Yes! You have to. I have told you already. You need not follow these rigid rules. I am pretty sure baba wouldn’t object from the heavens.”
With that, Titli shut the window, and turned around. Her eyes widened, and she gasped out aloud. “Isn’t it baba’s umbrella? How did it come here?”
Swatilekha Devi kept mum.
Titli continued, “It was torn at one end. I vividly remember it. I used to taunt baba. How often have I called him a miser because he refused to get a new one! See, maa! The tear is still there. Where did you get it? When baba was brought home, it wasn’t there.”
Swatilekha Devi shrugged her shoulders. “I had it with me all the time. You were probably too busy to notice it. Now, go and set the table. I will serve dinner. Yes! Yes! I will also have chicken. Happy?”
With that, she patted her daughter on her back, kissed her on the forehead, and nudged her towards the dining table. On her way to the kitchen, her eyes fell on the garlanded photo of Rakhal Babu. Is it a figment of my imagination, or has his smile turned broader? A lump formed in her throat. She placed the pan on the gas stove to reheat the chicken.
The gate outside creaked, bidding a tearful goodbye to Rakhal Babu. I am never going to oil it.
The stray dog outside howled a couple of times, and became silent.
Happy birthday, Titli’r baba! She took a spoon from the tray, scooped out a tiny portion of kheer, and licked it slowly, savouring it, letting her taste buds getting seduced by Rakhal Babu’s second love, the Gobindobhog!
With that, she switched off the stove, and took out two plates.
Author’s Notes –
Traditionally, Bengali widows have worn white sarees, and have eaten only vegetarian food.
Jamdani – Saree made of high-quality cotton muslin
Uttam-Suchitra – A lead pair in Bengali cinema of the B&W era
Kalbaishaki – Nor’Westers
Gobindobhog – Short-grained, aromatic rice cultivated in Bengal
Buro – old man, used here endearingly
Titli’r Baba – Titli’s father (Women in those days never called out the names of their husbands)
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