[Issue 9 / May 2014]
WINNER, OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE 2014
Every Monday when he would return back to the rented house in Tezpur, the dogs would leave a line of sanitary pads at the gate; sucked clean, layered in muck. While opening the door-lock he would take care not to keep the suitcase on the floor. It smelled moist, somewhere inside his head. For a few minutes he would lie on his iron bed and look out the window at the mango tree growing out of nowhere. He had often tried on such Mondays to push his hands through the window grills and trace its origin. But the grills were knit in a pattern too close. One could only push his finger through and pull the thread tied to the window hook, for opening and closing. Soft, sinewy, ripe; in his dream he would remember his dead mother’s breasts and get up early morning to see if the mangoes had turned to stone.
At 9:30 am Tourjo would lock the door back and leave for the hospital. The rickshaw pullers had grown accustomed to his puerile, hairless face. Men from big cities do not look their age. Neighbors discussed amongst themselves, trying to decipher his age and how someone so young qualified to be a doctor, yet almost all the people around including the Rickshaw pullers, the shop-vendors and the cobbler at the turn of his lane, called him Sir. By now they recognized him from a distance. The moment he would step out of his gate, somehow managing to jump over the line of sanitary pads that the dogs had garlanded the earth with, one of the pullers would drag in his Rickshaw close, in seconds from the main road, completely indifferent to the moist fish-like smell floating inside Tourjo’shead.
He would have to cross the two bridges. At the single traffic signal where the town came to a standstill, M would wait for him. She worked in the Saree shop near the DC’s office as a desk-accountant. For four months she was unaware if a man inhabited the house opposite hers. She always thought of it to be haunted. The night she read a piece in the newspaper about a police-man’s head crushed like a berry by a tribal axe-man at Bishwanath Chariali, she felt like retching and threw up. It was then that her father came running to fetch Tourjo and stuffed Rs. 300 in his hands before his daughter woke up to the sedatives that Tourjo had injected her with. He’d felt her hands and found them hard and wiry. The skin over her knuckles had cringed like that of a dead frog. Her eyes looked un-slept and revolting even when closed.
The next day after he returned from the hospital and hopped into his bed with the new postcard in his hand, M came in without asking. He slipped the postcard inside the nearest book and looked down at his bare feet. It embarrassed him—naked fingers jutting out of his two mocking feet. Brushing it off when he looked at her, she too had her head hung in shame.
“Thank you,” M murmured, looking down at the floor.
“It’s okay.” No other response felt apt for the moment.
“Did Baba tell you about Jiban?” M enquired looking straight into his eyes now. Her face seemed to be puffed with sorrow.
Tourjo felt taken aback. Trying to register her words deep in his memory, he replied “Sorry. I don’t remember Mr. Rai taking any such name in front of me.”
She kept staring at him rubbing her back uncomfortably against the wall. Tourjo had the strange feeling of a child accusing him of stealing his ice-cream. For some moments the silence lingered. He could only hear the flakes of paint coming off the wall against which M kept rubbing her back. After a minute she dashed out of his door as one of the dogs came running with a sanitary pad in itsmouth and followed her to the gate. It sat there sucking at the piece of cloth and Tourjo felt the moistness invading his house. Before it could, he shut the door with the book in his hand. Trying to re-align his chain of thoughts, Tourjo took the postcard out of the book and began reading it. The writer had given no excuse for not remembering his birthday last month. Infact he had lovingly stated in less than three lines that he wasn’t good at remembering dates and that the cold is unrelenting this year in Berlin. Tourjo must try to come over soon. He read it back-to-back several times and found the words going blurry; his eyes heavy. Between wakefulness and sleep, the dogs’ barking crescendoed into a heady mix. He dreamt of the writer, writing across his palm, the slants pointing upwards and words moving by themselves to the circle of his heart. Tourjo slowly slipped into the dusk.
Last year the writer had to leave the country. Tourjo had asked him if they could meet up somewhere and spend some time before he left. The writer had agreed and had called him to his house in Silchar. Tourjo had taken the day-super and had found himself in the company of people with slanted eyes, in the bus. Their cheeks puffed with the same grief as M’s. The road seemed familiar and for some strange reason it felt like returning back home. An ectopic piece of land was picked up from some nameless geography of Bengal and was planted on the chest of a vain map, at the end of the world. That night he couldn’t sleep. Not because he was conscious of some make-believe return. The fans were withdrawn and the constant hooting of the trains from the nearby station made him feel sick. Not when they made love. Not at all. It was in that awkward moment of delirium, which lingers after bodies separate, uncoil, and each head turns to the other side to weep silently, did he feel the strong gush of blood hitting against his skull. The faint whiff from the ant-mounds rising up in proud conquests around every damp corner, smelled muddy, floating from one room to the other; casting insinuations like a slurring wet dream, where the body became the mind. The buzzing crickets behind the pond, their incessant flapping, almost fighting against the hot summer air, the whiplashing mimicry of a heavy downpour. The ferns and the mosses spread out loud, flaming green against the empty sky, almost stripping it bare. In rapid whispers, he prayed to be taken back. To be left alone.
Early morning when they got ready for the airport, he found the tulsi in front of the house, drenched like a freshly bathed virgin, deflowered just the night over. He asked the writer’s mother if it had rained last night. She shook her head, unable to speak a word. She had silver irises like her son and one could not easily make out even when she cried. Yet in the chromic stillness of her silence, he heard her breath growing deep as she handed him the round steel tiffin, with ishit and nokuldana folded neatly inside in separate chambers. He took the next flight to Guwahati and then a taxi to Tezpur where he worked as a Resident at the Civil Hospital. By that time the writer had boarded the Air France.
He began sharing all of it with M, as they started meeting at the Pan-shop below the deodar at the corner of the Chowk in the evenings. Mr.Rai was happy at the prospect of his daughter finding an ideal man in the end and had believed that she had finally given up on her telephonic-lover—someone called Jiban from Sipajhar who worked as a school teacher.
Discovering her opportunities at freedom, M would come out of her house every evening and call up Jiban from the PCO under the pretext of meeting Tourjo, which she regularly did though. Tourjo would light up a smoke behind the shop and silently listen to her re-telling of their conversations and the small sex talk with a cold indifference in his loins. Morning, she would wait at the traffic and share his rickshaw halfway to the Saree shop. On Saturdays and Sundays she would watch TV and wait for Tourjo to return from Guwahati, as he left every weekend to spend some time in the house where his mother died. Tourjo had grown used to her stories and had slowly started opening up about his affair with the writer. He had just met him twice and his photographs were tucked inside his books. They would talk over phone occasionally and write to each other. The writer had not asked anything from him except for a watch on his birthday. Of late he had developed a keen interest for Chopin’s nocturnes and had been writing to Tourjo about man discovering the infinitude inside him by listening to Chopin’s infinite variations.
The second time M fell sick, she had read of a violent rape in the tea gardens of Dhula where a school teacher was burnt down by two labourers. The roads were blocked and the girls from the nearby high school accompanied by other women from various NGOs scattered in and around Tezpur, had marched up a procession shouting slogans at the top of their voices. The policemen remained gathered in front of the DC’s office chewing their khainis the whole week. He saw them every morning, while crossing the bridges, from his rickshaw. The traffic signal looked like a giant red mole where the universe had cluttered out its entropy. The hospital was the only office running; its banality unaffected by the chaos.
After returning from the hospital that afternoon when Mr. Rai informed Tourjo that his daughter had cried the whole night over, he went and saw her. Instead of her father stuffing Rs. 300, M handed him a wrinkled piece of paper this time. It had Jiban’s number written on it. “He knows about you. About us,” she whispered to him leaning against the window sill. “Please tell him that I’ll be fine by next week. Till then he must wait.”
Tourjo smoked up alone that evening behind the pan shop. The shop owner smiled at him in a gesture of assurance. Tourjo couldn’t bring up his face to smile and it contorted into a frown instead. He felt guilty and stubbed the cigarette on the lamp post painted white with finger strokes of choon. He walked up to the PCO and took out the piece of paper M had given him. The dial tone was missing the first time. The phone on the other line must be dead. He dialed it again and the phone kept ringing. The operator at the PCO told him that it must be a false ring. He should come back again the next day.
At 3:00 in the morning he heard Mr. Rai’s screams coming from somewhere far. It came out in bursts that tore the thick winter air. M had slit her left wrist unable to bear the disgust of her own imagination of the burning woman. By the time Tourjo could pad it with cotton and wrap it with gauze she had stopped breathing. Mr. Rai fell down on the floor, in sweat and tears and crawled up like a foetus against the walls. His breaths were sparse and Tourjo had to take him to the hospital in the same ambulance along with his dead daughter. Rumors were already going around the neighborhood about the illicit love affair between the doctor and the girl, how he must have got her pregnant and asked her to abort the child. Men from big cities cannot be trusted.
In a week’s time the rumors had snowballed into loud remarks on the road. The rickshaw pullers no longer came dragging their rickshaws to his gate. The women gossiped in groups in front of their houses and glowered at him whenever they saw him passing. The cobbler no longer called him Sir and the dogs now heaped the sanitary pads in mounds outside his door. The owner, too, came in one evening and asked him to leave the house.
The night before his departure he contemplated signing in his resignation letter. It rained and he thought if he could ever come back to this house. At midnight he wept remembering his dead mother and dreamt of the mangoes hanging atop somewhere like thousand watt bulbs. Next morning he walked up to the bus-stand with his suitcase and took the first bus to Sipajhar. He must tell Jiban before he left. As the bus picked up, the roads turned mud gleaming lustily in the light of the emaciated sun. After a distance the sky became sooty and the air heavy with moisture. Tourjo tried to sleep leaning his head but failed to keep his eyes closed to the bumps on the road every time the bus jumped over. For some time he tracedminiature rivers of rain droplets on the window glass but soon got bored of it. As the rain turned into a storm he saw the squares of landscapes outside his window changefrom green to grey, spread out in melancholy. He thought of Berlin and how unbearably cold it must be there. The writer’s fingers must be frostbitten and he must be unable to write his next postcard. Few years later they willmeet in a small, dim inn in Berlin and Tourjo willfeel that he has lived with this man for years and died therein too. He willlove the single bulb in the room and although the writer willinsist that he read out his un-posted letters to him under the grandiosely sculpted tube lights, Tourjo willtell him how much he likes the light of the single bulb and ask him if it is possible to miss a person when he is sitting next to you.
The storms kept on till dusk as the falling light mislead the birds, flying across randomly against the rain. Near Tangla, an hour before Sipajhar, Tourjo saw some red conical flowers blooming on the naked branches: almost plastic against the vehemence of nature. He felt a buzz slowly grow deep inside his ears that reverberated into a dull ache. Tourjo tried to ease his throbbing head by squeezing his temples hard, remembering Anaya’s realization: the germ of creation lies in violence. He imagined his mother’s palm, soft against his forehead. The bus moved on, breaking the rain.
Gaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and essays have been published in The NElit Review, The Tenement Block Review, Indian Ruminations, The Four Quarter Magazine, Fearless [poetry zine], The Northeast Review, and The Solstice Initiative, among others.