I was still a thief when I met Shimona, and though I was only twenty, I was an experienced and fairly successful hand. Pick-pocketing being mastered when I was barely ten and now surplus ten years, I had added house robbery to my forte. The streets of Kalikata, would shed off their veils when a handsome dacoit like me made them his place of worship, his land of fertile harvest. Where I was born? To be born, whose womb I tore apart? Whose patronage I grew up in? All different stories told to different audiences met on railway platforms, lockups, pavements and on occasions of Durga Puja.
For some I was an abandoned son of the landlord, for some my father was an artisan in Kumaratuli, for many I was born in the bin and raised by the dust. For months I was addressed to as Soumesh, for some fortnights someone called me Bikim, on some other couplets it would be Chandresh but all of this never for an entire year. Perennially, I was a shout out of bondho, dosto, boro bhaee( very rarely), chhoto bhaee(always). This till I befriended the neighbourhood for my loot, the vegetable vendor christened to be my dada, the sweeper my chacha, the sondesh seller my foopa. Adversity sometimes blessed me with khaala and foopi, to oil my curly tresses and feed me macchar jhol. How superficially or deeply they cursed me after the midnight train escaped their village, only the lone Kalikata streets could tell. With the loot I would become part of the inferno of heaving, shouting, agitated human bodies, bustling the busy lanes. At the crack of dawn, in a new hamlet with a new identity, I too would sweep down with the tide of people upon the nervous ticket collector, and gazing hopefully, amble my way towards a new house, new mission, new confidantes, yet with an old confidence.
Shimona, my melting roshogulla, my daffodil amongst the wild dahlias, I met her on one such dacoity expedition on the outskirts of Kumaratuli. Dogs howled strangely, on the night I was loitering the streets near Shakti havelli. A dry puff of wind rustled in the leaves, and put me in mind of a snake slithering over dry leaves and twigs. A thunderclap shattered the brooding stillness. A streak of lightening forked across the sky, it would rain any moment. I saw a shaft of light coming from the banging windows of the corner room, up on the second floor. I waited for the last candle of the havelli to douse out. Somebody pulled tight, the loosely clattering glass panes, and then again it was all silent.
Without wasting a minute, I climbed up the drainage pipe to the now peaceful window. On a balancing act, I pushed open the docile window that guarded a secret chamber; a chamber of the Rapunzel hidden from the glint of my eye. She lay asleep unawares of my visual indulgence in her. Moonlight came in from the veranda, and fell across her bed. Her spotless, dusky skin shone like gold in the dark; her lotus eyes, shielded by long, thick eyelashes made my heart skip a beat, the earth skip a rotation. Time stood still and me on the sill, marvelling at the epitome of beauty.
The lips with a tinge of maroon parted to take a deep sigh, and delicately she rolled on the other side. If all this was not enchanting and casting a spell on me, the mole on the nape of her neck, allured me further. She slept peacefully, with a soft and easy breathing. Her face was clear and unlined. Even I had more markings on my face, though mine were mostly scars.
“Mahesh Babu’s house, there you will find some stray job.” The paan-infused mouth of the vegetable vendor spoke. “Bibaha is happening of his youngest daughter. Mahesh Babu is employed with the Angrezi Sahab, he will pay you handsomely too.” The pharynx, after swallowing a part of the bloody filth, continued emanating some news.
Bibaha Ghar– this was a heaven of opportunities, and a clean chit escape when I wanted. Next morning, my heart galloped to breathe in its first ever love story, not knowing it could be last of its kind.
The house was flooded with cries of ‘ki bhalo’, with clanging of shakha and pola bangles, with silks and cotton weaves bustling hurriedly in and out of various chambers. Each busy with some wedding task, considering themselves busy with utterly important task. My eyes danced like a butterfly searching for the right daisy. A Ma tried to lift an unattended basket of bright, yellow marigold. “Wait, wait, Ma I will pick it up for you.” I offered myself to help. She must be definitely Mahesh Babu’s wife, the thakurain. Who else would bother for a basket of flowers when more crucial matters lay unfolded? Only the lady of the house would relax herself bothering over petty matters.
“God Bless you, my child. Give it to Shimona on the second floor, corner room. She will intertwine threads in them to make garlands. Rush.” She gave me my first task of the day. “Hey, but wait. Who are you?” her suspicious gaze stopped my hurried feet. I turned to give her the most innocent smile of my life, not even seen in my cradle days.
“Oh, my bad. You are Raju, the helper send by Mr.Mukherji. KORRECT? How I keep forgetting! Bless my weary soul.” Ma went muttering to herself to pick up something least important, and I was reborn as Raju, the new servant. I winked, and sent a flying kiss to my subdued stars, as they shone on me even in broad daylight. As I passed the rooms on second floor, little girls practised dancing to ghun ghuna re ghun ghuna in the veranda for the palkhi ceremony. The walk to the corner room was a long one. Why this Shimona was so isolated? Why such a dark room at the end of the veranda where the merriment stopped? Patience, Raju, patience, I told myself.
“May I come in Didi?” I poked my nose, through the unbolted door of the silent room.
“Eso, eso..” a mellifluous voice, and the door opened by my damsel in distress. My last night’s Rapunzel, sleeping beauty, woken by my charming call. I would have crushed myself to death for having called her Didi, had she not touched my hands to take the basket. A hundred violins stormed a melody in my ears, the curtains fluttered with fragrant winds and the stars again shimmered around the angel, who stood smiling at me. Only an ass like me would have not smiled back. She must be definitely the bride to be. Who on earth would look so beautiful on a burning, hot sultry day in West Bengal!
“Didi.” Once a folly, always a blunder to repent for, I tried to break the ice with respect. “Is it your Bibhaha?”
“Na na re chhoto bhaee. It’s my younger sister’s wedding.” The words chhoto bhaee slashed my heart into multitudes, each beating in a different rhythm. So be it. If with the ties and lies of being a chhoto bhaee, I could spend time with her than, ‘What’s in the Name?’ philosophy sympathised me.
With the blessings of the unknown unseen Mr. Mukherjee, I oscillated between Ma and Shimona running errands. Under pretext of stacking envelopes with wedding cards or packing the bride’s essentials or even making boondi laddos; I stole glances at my beautiful Shimona. She told me stories of her childhood, of how she would jump off a running tonga or catch the frogs from a bog in the garden or simply marvel at the blinking stars in the serene sky. How animatedly she spoke with that sparkle in those deep, brown eyes! It was superfluous to say I was just in love. I dared to wallow in her profound conversations. Somewhere within her, too, there was a need to be heard, and I was all ears to the buried secrets. She told me how one day a palkhi had come for her too. A knight in shining armour was all, she dreamed of.
“Raju, the bud was plucked even before it could bloom. The palkhi days didn’t last for long; and I was send back on a tonga in white drapes. From then Ma and Baba, have kept me here. Spring or autumn; holi or diwali, I celebrate all occasions here, through this window. I watch the sunrise in the morning; the sky all red until its first rays splashes the windowsill and creeps up the walls of the room. And in the evening, I lament the sun going down in a sea of fluffy clouds. I watch the pumpkin creeper sprout from the mushy earth in the garden, planted by Ma. I watch the dhobi bringing colourful attires for all, and whites for me. I watch how he frowns seeing me because they say I ate my husband in the kaalratri itself.” Her voice turned heavier and fragile, as she ousted the burden off her soul.
Melancholy didn’t take away even an iota of her beauty. She shone like the dewdrop even in the misty weather. How I wish I could cup her face in my hands, and wipe those tears of misery! How I wish I could hold her, and console the grief giving a promise of hundred lifetimes to be her knight in shining armour! Alas! All I could do was stand in the dark corner wiping my own filthy tears.
Love made my world go round. An orphan realised he had a beating heart and a trembling soul. Durga Puja was around the corner, for the first time I prayed for the happiness of my love. Shimona kept staring at the luminescent night sky that seemed to wrap her in its gauzy arms, embroidered by the stars. Silently, her thoughts swayed with the cool breeze that blew soothing her dismal self. I walked out, crestfallen, grief stricken first time in my life.
“Didiiiii….Didiiii…,” I had grabbed my first steal from under Ma’s nose, a deep red banarasi silk saree. I wanted Shimona to wear it for the sheer joy of the colour. I wanted her to wear it, to believe love again is possible. But my Rapunzel was nowhere to be seen. The room was dishevelled, and it looked like the window had allowed the last night’s storm to creep in. Shimona’s whites lay strewn on the bed. On the table lay few scribbled papers, fluttering under the weight of a spongy doll.
Writing to you now, is an arduous task. But somehow I have to. Happiness, I always felt is a foolish thing, and love an unrealistic ghost hovering to kill your happiness. Again writing about love is an arduous thing. To experience it around you is one thing while to write about your own is a tad opposite of it. It’s a soda lime affair; bubbly and effervescent, when fresh, bland and groggy at the end. You don’t even feel like savouring the last sip. There it lies untouched, unfazed by the earlier eager exploration.
This belief of mine was blissfully broken by Satish. Yes Ma, Satish the boy who pushed me off the mango tree; the boy who pulled ribbons off my pigtails; the boy who stole papads from our terrace; finally, the boy who stole my heart.
Ma, this window was the only solace in my life. I watched you all galore for Durga Puja with thalas and conch shells, gleaming with exuberance. I watched Satish secretly climb up my room when you all were out for aarti. I watched him fill sindoor in my maang .But as I watched him walk away; I couldn’t stop myself. I followed him out of this window, to find my own world .Forgive me Ma.
Yours in love, Shimona.
The ink melted in the solemn tear that fell down my cheek. The blotches told my failed love story. My body looked calm compared to how tangled my mind was.
There was nothing this house could give me. Only the window gave a new purpose and meaning to a ruffian boy’s life. He got a taste of the dewdrop settled on the lotus leaf- together yet never to be one; burnt but never to see light. It was time for another city and another house, but this time the loot would be mine.
When I was on the street I began to run. I ran down the bazaar road to the station. The shops were all closed but a few lights were on in the upper windows. Maybe some artisan was painting the kohl in the deep dark Durga eyes, some else fiddled with the mukut. This Durga Puja, Shimona will definitely celebrate, and with this vibrant thought I too rejoiced.
When I reached the station, I did not stop at the ticket office but dashed straight on to the platform. The Amritsar Express was just moving out. It was moving slowly enough for me to be able to jump on the footboard of one of the carriages, but I hesitated for some urgent, unexplainable reason. I hesitated long enough for the train to leave without me. When it had gone and the noise and busy confusion of the platform had subsided, I found myself facing the peace of my heart. Shimona carefully got down from the tonga escorted by her knight in shining armour, Satish. She looked every bit replete with happiness in a red banarasi saree. Her deep brown eyes were smiling with satisfaction. Her dusky skin shone like golden honey, and her maroon tinged lips emerged in a coy smile; when the newlyweds locked eyes.
I wanted to call out, “Didiii…,” but again wasn’t prepared to hear chhotu bhaee from the bride, I had always longed for.
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