“Let’s run away.”
“To a city where they don’t know our story. We will rent a room…The funds will be low, but we will be happy, because we will be together!”
“Shifting to a new place in the month of Bhadra brings bad luck, so my mother says. We should wait-”
“Oh Suchi! You know I don’t go by these old wives’ tales.”
And that night, they had run away.
Suchitra chuckled as she recalled the night from almost thirty years ago. Memories poured in like the drizzle that was drumming on the streets with a soft patter. It had been raining that night too. Leaving home at sixteen, with nothing but a little duffle bag, and with a man, that her family disapproved of… What a naive fool she had been! Why the sudden reminiscence, she wondered.
Perhaps, it was the love story unfolding before her very eyes. She had been watching this lad on his bicycle crossing the road every night, of late. She would have thought it was a thief out for a recce, for the boy did not belong to the neighborhood. She had even contemplated telling her husband. But then, she had spotted the teenage girl from the house across the road… how she would sneak out to the balcony, and how the two would exchange smiles and wave at each other. Ah young love!
She turned her head towards Milan, who was snoring away peacefully, without a care in the world. A warmth spread through her frame as she gazed fondly at her sleeping husband.
Yes, she had been reckless, but the last thirty years had been worth it!
A one-room shack first, then a rented two-room accommodation… they had been moving a lot before settling down in this humble old one-storey house once Milan managed a decent job. Suchitra had wrinkled her nose first. Where was the little south-facing verandah she had always dreamt of? With time, however, she had gotten to like this place. But now that the funds were plenty, with their daughters all grown-up and married off, Suchitra had been nagging his miser of a husband to move to a bigger house by the city, where they could all live together someday…
Somewhere, a grandfather clock chimed twice. Suchitra sighed. Old age was catching up with her, and so were its assortments. Damn this insomnia.
Even the dogs fighting in the street had retired for the night. Suchitra turned on her side and closed her eyes. She couldn’t afford to sleep in till late next morning, for it was supposed to be a special day. Her children would be coming home after years. It would be their thirtieth anniversary in two days.
Triloknagar stood in the suburbs of Kolkata. The townsfolk mainly comprised of settlers from the hamlets, near and far… people, whose livelihood had forced them out of their homes in the countryside, and made them settle here. This meant, the people were always trying…trying and failing to mimic the all-inclusive cosmopolitan culture of the city close by. So, when a man and woman of different faiths, bought a house in the heart of the place, they tried not to raise eyebrows. When the two renovated their little one-storey house beautifully, they begrudged in silence. But when Suchitra and Milan Rehman named their house, Shanti Neer, they all sniggered. For not a day went by that the sound of heated arguments or falling utensils, from Shanti Neer, would not pervade the shanti that prevailed otherwise in the neighborhood.
This was bound to happen.
What else did you expect?
Oil and water never mix, didn’t I say so?
Comments from the more daring and nosey neighbours would often float in through the open windows and reach Suchitra’s sharp ears, like irritant mosquitoes that ruin a night’s sleep.
It wouldn’t be entirely true to say the words never bothered her.
But the people tired themselves out soon, for they had hardly seen two people more in love…that cared deeply for one another.
The snide remarks lessened with the passage of years. But their bickering did not, and neither did their love. So when Milan and Suchitra decided to part ways on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary, it raised a clamour in the neighborhood.
It had all started, as usual, with Milan returning from the grocery with the wrong items. The argument had stopped for a while, but its heat continued to simmer their minds silently, well into the time of the luncheon. And by afternoon, it exploded with such might that the blast attracted a small group of onlookers outside the house.
Though the phrases floated around in the air occasionally, they hardly reached the ears of the elderly couple, who were fighting between themselves with youthful vigour.
“Yes, it’s all my fault… If I had my way I wouldn’t be living with this man!” Suchitra announced finally.
There was Suchitra’s trump card. On other days, Milan would apologise and make peace with his wife, after this.
But that day, something egged him on. Perhaps, it was the presence of the onlookers. He was not to be defeated tonight.
“You can leave my house. Go stay wherever you want to, I won’t stop you,” Milan roared from the doorway.
His voice jolted Suchitra. She stood still like a statue for a while, and then glided past Milan, into their bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
“You shouldn’t have said that, Baba,” Anisha shook her head.
Milan had no retort ready on his lips. Yes, he shouldn’t have said that.
“Can’t we ever have some peace in this house?” Aisha admonished her father.
A few minutes passed. It could be eons. The inquisitive faces outside had begun to disappear. Milan shifted weight on his feet. While he deliberated, the door flew open. And out came Suchitra, carrying a little duffle bag, “I’m leaving. Anisha, take out your car, and drop me where I say.”
“But Maa, rel-”
Anisha stopped midway, for Suchitra glared at her with fire in her eyes, “Let’s go. And tell your father not to come after me,” her lips quivered a little, “I’m not setting foot in his house again.”
And saying so, she stomped out. Anisha and Aisha followed. Milan stood rooted, unnerved.
“Where did you drop her?”
“At Fufu’s place. Where else?”
Milan Rehman heaved a sigh. Of course, he had known where Suchitra would be. Nasrin was the only next of kin living close by who still talked to them.
They had been disowned and disavowed the day they had run away from home, ‘disgracing’ their respective family names in the society. None of their relatives were keen on keeping in touch with the couple, except for Nasrin, who adored her elder brother and his wife.
Milan knew it all, and yet, Anisha’s words pierced his heart like a knife slicing through butter. He recoiled with repentance as he remembered the words he had hurled at his wife.
Of course, where else would Suchitra go? She had no place else to call home, except this house… the house that belonged to him on papers, but Suchitra had given life to… her labour of love still etched in its nooks and crannies. And today, he had proclaimed her as an outsider, sheltered in his house.
He felt miserable.
“Let her calm down. We will go and fetch her from Fufu’s house tomorrow,” Aisha assured her father.
A serpentine shadow raised it’s ugly head somewhere… She started it all. Why should I apologise? I have been doing this all my life.
“Let her stay there if she wants to, I’m not going to beg her to come back.”
Aisha looked at her sister for support.
“Baba… We will stay here for another week or so, but what about after that?”
“Yes, you can’t leave Maa at Fufu’s forever.”
“You don’t have to stay back for me. And besides, she will come back in a day or two. She loves these theatrics, that’s all,” Milan declared with a finality that shut them up.
But Suchitra didn’t come back in a day or two, or even three days after.
Word spread around the neighborhood. Some of the well-wishers came to Shanti Neer in the afternoon, to convey their sympathy, or to shower Milan with advices. Some even stopped to say hello in the market place, probably looking for fodder for gossip. And though Milan hardly opened his mouth, they got what they had been looking for, few days later, when they spotted a black car, driven by a woman, stopping by Shanti Neer one evening. Milan got into the car, dapper in his suit, and it vroomed away. He came back an hour later, by the same car, all smiles. And this went on for a few days in a row.
As days passed, words did rounds from mouth to mouth, mole-hills became mountains, and facts became stranger than fiction. By the time they reached Suchitra, miles away, she was fuming, for rumour had it, Milan had had enough of her tantrums, and he was now hanging out with some other woman.
“Nonsense!” Suchitra slammed the door on the face of the newspaper-delivery boy who had come to Nasrin’s house to deliver this piece of information.
“Alright. Don’t believe me. Shouldn’t have come here. No place for do-gooders, I see,” the boy shouted as he left.
Suchitra knew it was very unlikely.
That foolish man couldn’t even tell apart a good potato from a bad one!
But her insides burnt like lava. Anisha and Aisha came to see her everyday. They never mentioned any woman. Oh, how would they tell their mother of their father’s philandering ways! No wonder they had been begging her to come home.
“Didi, did he call?”
“No,” Nasrin chuckled. She knew how much this woman loved her brother, “But I called him last night… Asked him to come here, and take you home.”
Nasrin sighed, “He said you had asked him not to come.”
Suchitra’s heart sank. She felt a knot in her throat, and a burn in the corner of her eyes. Yes, you go hobnobbing with another woman, and tell people I asked you not to come!
“I asked him to apologize. But… You know my brother can be stupid. And you know how men are…”
Suchitra kept mum.
“You’ve always been the most cool-headed and sorted of the two. I say, why don’t you go back…”
“He didn’t stop me when I was leaving, Didi… And now-” Suchitra stopped, “It’s alright. I will go live with my daughters. I won’t be an inconvenience to you.”
“I didn’t mean that, Suchi…”
Suchitra knew her sister-in-law hadn’t meant ill. But the venom that had been gurgling inside her was looking for an escape. It was all Milan’s fault.
Milan tossed and turned in his bed. Sleep eluded his eyes that night. His daughters would be leaving the day after the next, which meant he would be left all alone in this house. He had called Nasrin this morning, hoping to speak with Suchitra. But she had declined.
Milan sighed. What was he expecting? It would take more than a phone call to melt a mountain of grudges.
A sharp rap on the open window tore through the web of his thoughts.
“Shh… Let me in. Don’t make a sound, I don’t want a scene here.”
Milan’s heart leapt in delight. He let the intruder in.
“What did you think? With the old hag gone, you’d be free to go around with girls half your age?”
“I-I never… What… Suchi…”
“Don’t mumble now. The neighbours… They told me everything… about that hussy that drives you around in her car. Oh what a shame! After thirty years of marriage!”
“Who told what… Oh!” As realization dawned on Milan, he started laughing.
“How dare you laugh, huh? I came here in the night to be sure. Wait till you see what happens in the morning!”
“Oh Suchi! You’re so naive,” Milan crossed the room in two long strides, took out a bunch of keys from his drawer, and dangled it in front of his wife, “Here! Two spacious rooms, semi-furnished, a south-facing balcony to watch the sky… All yours!”
Suchitra stood dumbfounded.
“Darling, I’m sorry for what I’ve said to you. This house may be mine on paper, but you know it is yours, as much. And when you left that night, I realized something. I recalled my mother, leaving for her father’s home to sulk, every time she had a fight with my father. I’m sure you have watched your mother do the same. But my Suchi has no place to call her own… all thanks to me. Now where would she go if she had to sulk?”
Tears pooled in Suchitra’s eyes.
“Not because of you, no…”
“Yes, it is because you ran off with me, isn’t it? Last year, there was this lottery by the government for these old properties in the east. I had totally forgotten that I’d put my name for the lucky-draw… Got this one cheap, no loans needed. Here,” he thrust the keys in her hands, “For all the times you feel you can’t live with this man… It’s still in my name. But it will soon be yours, once I complete the formalities. And you must have been talking about Nida, our advocate. She’s the one who pulled off the impossible and did all the paperwork in a week… “
“Why didn’t you come for me?” Suchitra fell in his arms, in tears.
“I thought you didn’t want to live with this old man… in this house…”
“Stupid…man,” she sobbed between words, “I’m… sorry too.”
“No it’s not. I was serious when I said about tomorrow morning. ”
“They said they wouldn’t tolerate this blasphemy in here, and they said they would gherao you, first thing tomorrow morning, if I agreed, and I said yes!”
“Oh lord! Foolish woman! What now?”
“Let’s… Let’s run away tonight,” Suchitra smiled amidst tears.
“To a city where they don’t know our story yet… To our new house!”
“But they say you shouldn’t be shifting home in the month of Bhadra… It brings bad luck.”
“You know I’ve never believed in those old wives’ tale.”
And they both laughed.
That night, the young lad who had come to check on his ladylove on his bicycle, watched in amazement as an elderly man and a woman, sneaked out through the gate of Shanti Neer in the dark, hand in hand.
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