17/23 Ramkrishna Naskar Lane
Kolkata – 700010.
Samar examined the rickety grey post box. The address seemed to have been painted in white with a masterly flourish of the brush.
Do artists hone their skills on post boxes now?
He took a step back, wincing slightly as his sneakers came into contact with a pair of pebbles. His eyes darted up, and his gaze fell on the window of the first floor. The shutters were drawn, but slim rays of light crept out through the gaps, as though trying their best to illuminate the dark lane. A lamp post stood opposite the house, but nobody had bothered to replace the bulb.
“Are you sure this is the house?” His question was directed at Debjani, as she got out of the car.
“This is the address ma gave to me.” Her voice quivered as she spoke. She slid her hands inside the pockets of her jeans and turned to the driver. “Kaku. You know this place, right?”
The old man nodded.
“Phew! Come, Rama. We are at the right house. I am sure aunty is waiting for us. Her room is lit. See. Upstairs.” She raised her right hand and pointed her index finger towards the window.
Rama opened the door of the car and adjusted her kurti. “Oh ma. I have been to North Kolkata so many times. And yet, these areas always spook me.”
Indicating her driver to wait for them, Debjani strode towards the door, and pressed the doorbell. A moment later, she brought the palm of her hand to her forehead. “Shit. I forgot. Totally. Uff. Ma had told me aunty doesn’t lock her house. We needn’t knock.” With that, she gave the door a slight push, and it creaked open, slowly.
“A…a… are you sure we are doing the right thing?” Samar stammered.
Rama pitched in. “Of course. We are in it together. We want to speak to Vidhatri. How can you doubt that?”
Samar said nothing. They climbed the steep flight of stairs, with only the sound of their footsteps breaking the eerie silence. Debjani’s mother had sworn by aunty. Whoever she was! None of the three friends knew her name. They didn’t bother either. All they needed was her help – in communicating with Vidhatri. The effervescent girl who bound them together in an unshakable friendship. The bindaas babe who would be regaling the Gods now with her antics.
A room came into view.
“Erm. Is aunty inside?” Samar turned to Debjani.
At that precise moment, her mobile buzzed, startling them. “It’s ma.” Relieved, she read out the message. “Please stay in the room. Aunty will be back soon. Don’t be afraid. You are safe.”
Samar entered the room, and immediately took his seat on a worn-out sofa. “Don’t fear! Huh! You know what? I will shit hot bricks now.”
“Ssssshhh.. Don’t speak rubbish.” Rama placed a finger over her lips, struggling to suppress a giggle. Only Samar could come out with such hilarious stuff in such circumstances. But deep inside, she knew that he was trying to make the two girls relaxed. Her heart seemed to do multiple somersaults like a trapeze artist at the circus. And Debjani? Her large eyes were stamped with the fear of uncertainty.
“Oh my God! Vidhatri!” Samar’s eyes widened, as he rose abruptly from the sofa. Debjani and Rama let out a loud gasp. The cherubic face of Vidhatri smiled down at them from a photo hanging from the wall. Shoulder-length hair with random streaks of burgundy cascaded down her shoulders. Her kohl-laden eyes sparkled in sheer joy, as if they agreed with the curve on her lips. She had always been like this. Natural. Bereft of any artificialness.
Debjani wiped away the solitary tear which had escaped her eye. She ran her hand over her curly hair. “You know, Rama. I had always wanted to straighten my hair. And to colour it. Just like Vidhatri.”
“You could have done that.”
“Come on. Look at my chubby face. Will it suit me?” Debjani instinctively looked down at her tummy and patted it. “See. It looks as if I have stuffed myself with hundred roshogollas.”
Samar chuckled. “Don’t lie. You are quite capable of doing it.”
Debjani glared at him. “Not hundred, definitely.”
Rama put her hand around Debjani. “You are not fat, my dear. And by the way, you will look good in any hairstyle. You’ve a beautiful face. You just need the attitude.”
Her friend sighed, “That’s what I lack, Rama. I don’t have it in me. Look at Vidhatri. She could carry off any dress with elan.”
“Hey. What’s that?” Samar dashed to the mahogany table. It was bare, except for a book. “I have seen this at Vidhatri’s house.” He picked up the paperback. “It’s in Bengali, yaar.”
Debjani rolled her eyes mockingly. “A resident of Kolkata.. and he can’t read Bengali.” She then went to Samar. “Oh! It’s Ghare Baire, by Tagore.”
“It was her favourite movie,” Rama whispered hoarsely. “You remember that day, Debjani? You had recommended this to her.”
Debjani leafed through the book.
“She loved it so much. She almost cursed herself that she hadn’t seen it earlier. And later, she bought the book. I recollect that day so well. It was at the book fair. I had asked her if she could read Bengali.”
“But she could, right?” Samar looked at Debjani.
“Not fluently, though. I doubt if she could have finished a novel. That too by Tagore. Come on, it’s not easy even for us.”
“Maybe she had bought it just like that,” trailed off Rama’s voice.
“That’s fine. But what is this book doing here? First this photo. And now, this.” Samar paused. “Girls. You know what! I am feeling uneasy now.”
“Oh come on. Finding books in a Bengali household is common. You should be knowing that.” Debjani knew, however, that she sounded unconvincing.
“Where are the rest of the books then?” Samar demanded to know.
Debjani shrugged her shoulders. Rama’s eyes darted around the room. Apart from the table and the sofa, the room was sparsely decorated. The ceiling fan whirred at top speed and a sixty-watt bulb lit up the room. She tiptoed to the window and opened it. A gentle breeze hit her face, as the branches of the tree opposite the house swayed. Her mouth curved into a smile.
“Vidhatri used to love the beach. Remember how happy she was in Puri? That college trip!”
Samar ambled to her. “Of course. She used to behave like a child.” He looked out of the window. “The way she jumped with joy, almost screaming.” His voice choked with unshed tears. He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Debjani, who hugged him tightly from behind.
“We are lucky, Samar. We have beautiful memories of her,” she commented.
Rama continued to stare outside. “How I wish I knew where she is now. If she is happy!”
“Hey, that’s why we are here, right?” Samar asked her.
“Ma says this aunty holds séances. That’s how this idea struck me. To contact Vidhatri.” A tear trickled down Debjani’s cheek. “If she comes, I am going to throw all the gaalis I know. She just can’t leave us in the lurch like that. No way,” she sniffed.
Not a word was spoken for five minutes. Somewhere a stray dog howled. The leaves rustled in the wind. The round moon played hide-and-seek with the clouds. Most of the adjoining houses were empty. Maybe some of the owners had accompanied their children to other cities. Young people seldom liked to stay back in Kolkata. But like a dying man latching onto the last breath, the elderly too clung to their houses, bound by an invisible umbilical cord.
Samar broke the silence. “Doesn’t this area look haunted?”
Debjani slapped his back lightly. “Shut up, you fool.”
Rama giggled. “Vidhatri was an expert in telling ghost stories. We used to sit on the edge of our seats while she imitated an owl’s hooting.” She let out a sigh. “How time flies!”
Samar looked at his watch. “True. Hey! It’s already been quite some time since we came. And still no sign of your aunty.”
Debjani took out her mobile from the pocket of her jeans. “Let me call ma. Oh no!”
“What happened?” Rama and Samar asked in unison.
“Wait. Let me take out mine.” Rama opened the zip of her handbag, which she always carried with her. “Here you go.”
Debjani dialled her mom’s number and waited. “She is not picking it up.”
“I think we should leave.”
“I agree with Samar. This is getting too scary now,” Rama joined in.
“What will happen now? I thought we wanted to speak to Vidhatri?” Debjani asked.
The mobile rang. She looked at the screen and accepted the call. “Ma. What’s this? Where is aunty? Ok.. ok.. tell me! What? I can’t hear you. A bit loud, please. What? Oh! Really? Ok. Hmm. I know, ma. I promise. Chalo, bye.”
“What happened?” Rama touched her hand.
Debjani looked at her. “It was ma. Aunty is on the way. She had an emergency. She didn’t say anything more. She asked us to sit on the floor, and to write at least one line about Vidhatri. There’s a piece of paper in between the Tagore book. Wait! Samar, you have a pen?”
Samar pointed to the breast pocket in his T-shirt.
“Oh yes. How did I miss that?”
With that, she dashed to the table, and returned in a minute. A paper torn from a diary was in her hands.
Samar handed his pen to Debjani. “You start.”
Debjani sat cross-legged on the floor. Rama and Samar joined her.
“I don’t know what to write.” She nibbled at the pen, staring at the blank page. She closed her eyes for a second and scribbled something on the paper.
“What did you write?” Rama bent over, trying to peer.
“She gives two hoots about what society says. How I wish I could do the same.”
Rama smiled. “Her favourite term was carpe diem. Here. Let me note it down.”
“Let me also write something.” Samar extended his hand towards Rama.
He glanced at the paper. “She always preferred to reminisce over happy times, and shrugged off the gloomy ones with her characteristic nonchalance.”
“Baap re! Samar Tharoor!” Rama mocked him, laughing uncontrollably. Samar glared at her, but his veneer gave way to giggles, as he joined her.
“How she used to mock fun of Samar and his high-five English!” Debjani threw back her head and laughed.
“Do we really need this séance, girls?”
Rama stared at Samar. “What happened, yaar? Why this doubt now?”
Debjani pursed her lips. “I agree with Samar. Would she want this? I don’t think she will be happy seeing us like this.”
Samar nodded. “Shouldn’t we celebrate her memories? By living the way she would want us to. Maybe we can fulfil her bucket list. What say, Rama?”
Rama was silent. After a while, she spoke up. “You are right, my friend. Her soul would never find peace if we are sad. Debjani. Call your mom. Tell her we are coming home.”
Debjani nodded. She hesitated for a second, but dialed the number.
“Ma. Yes. It’s me. We are coming home. What? Speaker mode? Why? Ok.”
She then whispered to her friends. “Ma wants to talk to us.” She then pressed the speaker icon.
“So, you do not want aunty’s help?”
“No”, replied Rama.
“Good”, she continued. “And thank God for that. Because poor aunty is an artist. That too, she’s scared stiff of ghosts. I mean, if they exist.”
“What?” Debjani couldn’t believe her mother was playing such a trick on her.
“Yes. She is a good friend of mine. It pained me to see you three like this. Refusing to accept Vidhatri’s death. I know how you feel. Trust me, I know. She was your best friend. But you all retreated into your shells. You all were scared. It’s natural – this fear of death. Especially when it hits home. Anyway. I had to act. So I took my friend’s help. By arranging this small setup. I wasn’t too sure of my plan, let me confess. But I am glad it worked.”
“You mean….,” Rama paused.
“You think I will leave my kids alone in a godforsaken building just like that? Can any mother do such a thing?”
“We are not kids,” Samar mumbled.
Debjani’s mom chuckled. “I know. You are grown-up kids.”
The three friends cringed at the way she put emphasis on ‘grown-up’.
She continued. “Anyway, come out now. Aunty is waiting in the car. Yes, kaku knows about it too. Hey, who’s sniffing now?”
“It’s me,” muttered Debjani.
Her mom paused. “I know it’s difficult for you three. But how long can you deny the inevitable? You have lives to lead. You have a long way to go, my dear children. I wanted you to move on. But not by force. Or even ordering you to do it. This thought should strike you. That was my intent.” She paused. “Your friend Vidhatri will always remain alive in your memories. But it’s high time you seek closure.”
The three looked at each other.
“You are right, ma. We are coming back.”
With that, Debjani disconnected the call.
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