As my breathing turned laborious with every tick of the smallest hand on the clock, the touch of the metal felt colder against my burning toes. I had wound up in a hospital bed after 87 rounds around the Sun, give or take a few, depending upon my father’s memory. I tried to move my feet away from the bedstand but it required too much energy, much more than I could expend. Tears rolled down my face, tickling my hot face, nestling in my week-old stubble, but there was none to wipe them. My hands lay by my side, feeble and wrinkled. I reminisced the touch of wrinkled hands on my skin over the years – the grandmother who nursed my fevers, the mother who taught me to cross the roads, who I later accompanied to hospices, the wife who died in her sleep while she held my hand. That touch of wrinkled skin is what I longed for again, as I lay breathing my last, my skin on ice and fire at the same time.
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. … There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!” ~ Nietzsche.
Out my grilled windows of opportunity, I eyed the wings hung out to dry, shining, gleaming with drops of perspiration, bejeweled with courage, preened carefully by a woman’s struggles, cast aside after a woman’s untimely and dismal departure – not that all death is dismal, some is disappointingly delayed – a woman I knew, admired. I’d hoped the wings would be bequeathed to me, be mine much like the life lessons she’d bestowed upon me, mine to wear and strut about. As I strutted in my thoughts, women eyeing me green, the same women were approaching the precious, greed gleaming in their eyes, their walk cautious, stealthy. But as soon as they touched the wings, it’s magnificence turned into hues of red, blood dripping onto the ground beneath and screams of anguish, pain and disappointment ranting through the air, of the women who’d dared to adorn the fruits of a path they had never walked upon.
“If the battle isn’t yours, don’t crave the glory,” she’d said.
He heaved deep breaths, silently. The room was lit up and the windows closed. How do I know this, he thought. He re-traced the conclusions his brain had arrived at. He couldn’t turn around but the steel mug placed in front of him reflected a light source, looked like a bulb. If he tilted his head slightly, he could see the outline of a bulb, yes. And the closed windows? The air was still and stale. He could feel the dampness of stale breath in the stillness of the room. Even his closed eyes could figure it out. His mouth was dry and his hands numb. As he sat with his head hung, fatigue trudged upon him. A door creaked open in the distance, heavy footsteps lining the carpeted floor, now an empty commercial space. He could see the reflection of a man in the mug in front of him. And that was the last thing he saw before a bag was pulled over his face.
Sudipto was driving home late one night – later than usual, at least. The clock was ticking closer to welcoming the new day. The roads, broad and empty of the never-ending stream of cars, lit with street lamps on both sides, white and blue fairy lights trailing the silver poles. There were no buildings, no civilisation laying home along this road – only roads, statues and a wide, green patch in the middle of the city, fondly called the city’s lungs. He pushed the clutch and rammed the car into the fourth gear as he approached Red Road. Parts of his twelve-year-old ambassador creaked at the engine speed falling a decade or so short of a ton. He could never drive at such speeds with a passenger at the back – they called it rash driving – but this was when he enjoyed his bread earning life choice. It was always the bus and taxi drivers who drove rashly, never the rule admonishing pedestrian or the swerving bikers and honking and overtaking private cars.
He took the circuitous path home through Red Road, choosing to enjoy the wind rather than hurrying to park the taxi in the garage. The window on his side was already open, so he leaned to the left to roll down the passenger window too. The wind rushed into the car from both sides, driving out the smells of the day – the food, the sweat, the leather. He threw open a few more buttons of his front open shirt, unzipping his pants. The sudden touch of air on his sweat-caked skin made him shiver, a rarity in the humid city.
The next right would take him towards home. As he approached the turn, he still honked on the deserted road out of practised caution. The next moment he got distracted by someone waving out from the extreme left side of the road – he saw it out of the corner of his eye. He had slowed down for the turn but his head was now craned towards the left to see if he could help the person. He saw glimpses of white and then nothing more. Just like that, there was no one there anymore. He blinked his eyes rapidly, not sure if he was hallucinating before or now. His hands turning the wheel right and legs controlling the speed, he’d made the turn and sharply looked right to check again towards where he’d seen the hapless soul but nothing anymore. He’d heard stories of hauntings before but had never believed in them. He wasn’t afraid. He dismissed the incident and looked ahead to find the lane plunged in darkness. As if on cue with his sight on the road, the car’s headlights flickered off and the engine sputtered to a stop. Now he was afraid.
My eyes are paining from the long hours of research on the laptop. The pain in my back has aggravated. As I close my eyes and lull myself into sleep, I can feel your arm around me, snaking its way through the blanket onto my shoulders. I open my eyes but there’s no one beside me. I miss you. My heart does and today the mind does too, I guess. I check my phone again to see if I missed any of your calls. You are still at work or you’d have called. I hope you’ve eaten; I drop a text seeing no harm in reminding you once. I turn and shift to right side and close my eyes again, wishing sleep would come soon. I was tired but you must be more so. You’d been working long hours recently, barely managing to catch up on time to eat or even sleep properly.
My phone rings once. It’s you! Before I can take the call, you’ve disconnected and dropped a text. Maybe you thought I’d slept already. “On my way back. Will eat at home.” I sit up excitedly, forgetting about my back pain. I grimace in pain. As I stare at the wallpaper of my phone, of a holiday last year, both of us at the beach, I’m at ease. I walk out to the kitchen and put your food into glass bowls for reheating in the microwave. I sit by the sofa, lights flipped on, just in case the darkness makes me doze off. The clock ticks by and I wait for you to be back home. I think about the past when I’d snorted at the practice of a lot of Indian women eating only after their husbands had. I hadn’t realized that what might have started out as a traditional practice in reverence of their husbands, could also be a form for love for many. I silently laughed at being thick headed enough for having judged them.
The lock clicked as you slid the keys in them. I could see you, oh how tired you looked! But you hadn’t seen me yet. You took off your shoes, turned and laid eyes on me. You were surprised, all your tiredness washed away in that instance. That smile; the smile that lit up your face and crinkled your eyes! I would stay up all nights if I could be the reason behind that smile, I thought as I walked up to you. Is that why they say love is blind?
Nose squashed against the glass, the nine year old saw the corn kernels sizzle in the butter and pop. His breath fogged the glass and the sweat on his nose ran it down. His eyes squinted every time a kernel popped close to his side of the glass box. His father scooped out two paper cups, powdered it with flavours and handed it to him. He ran to the couple sitting on the bench with ice cream cones and handed their order to them. He stood smiling as the girl retrieved cash. She looked at him, slipped an extra note into his hand and said, “Go have some ice cream, popcorn boy!”
I had dozens of marigold flowers in my hand, a garland of it actually. What lovers did to a rose, I did to the pretty orange flower. “He loves me, he loves me not,” I uttered, plucking out the petals one by one at first and then bunches of it together until all that was left in my hand was the green stub filled with white broken fragments of the petal base. I ended at “He loves me.” I thought of picking another flower. Instead, I closed my eyes.
When he was in pain, I felt the pangs. He ran against the odds, but I felt breathless. I would be worried about him, but his first words would be “How are you?”. No one said it would be easy, but being by his side made it all so. “Was this love?” I asked of the marigolds. They wouldn’t say.
I heard a rustle I hadn’t before. There was something alive around me. A second step and I realised there was something soft and squishy beneath me. A soft shriek emerged from my mouth. My hand flew to my face, covering my eyes and face. I took my phone out of my pocket to flash light the floor beneath. “It’s okay. All is well,” I murmured repeatedly. Turns out all wasn’t well. I’d stepped on to a pile of leaves soggy from the evening damp but the rustling I’d heard was the bats waking up. The house, or whatever it had once been, now had a bat infestation! Lightning struck again. I didn’t need the flashlight to see the bats this time. Thunder followed slower this time though. “All is well,” I repeated. I pulled the sleeve cuffs of my sweater up to my palms and covered my ears with them. It muffled the sound and the cold out.
I squatted outside on the porch, back stuck to the brick wall. I tried recalling why exactly I’d stomped out of the room. It was my honeymoon. And I couldn’t get myself to even begin to adore him. We constantly fought. Our match was arranged by our parents. I’d known him for six months and been married eight days. We’d fought enough already that I was fed up of being in the same room as him. Just thinking about him stressed me out! My stress came rushing out in the form of tears. I bawled.
Once I’d cried enough to tire myself out, I checked my phone. It had network bars now but I no longer cared. The winds had calmed down and I’d made up my mind. Trees swayed lesser; I heard a car honk in the distance. Maybe I’d find a road that’d take me away from the resort. Vigor induced in me, I rushed up from the ground and flashlight on I walked towards the direction I thought I’d heard the honk from. Come jaguar or snake, I didn’t care now. I couldn’t fight them maybe but I needn’t sit crouched in fear either. I saw a road, a dust covered grey strip of tar, to be precise. It needed washing. I almost ran to it and found myself looking at what I was running away from. The resort loomed large and at the gates was my husband getting into an open Jeep, possibly to hunt me down. Again.
Gritting my teeth, I snorted and stepped back into the bushes, taking cover behind a tree. I wouldn’t let him see me. I couldn’t.
The box. The door. The crumbling brick. They all begged me to enter. It was the only shelter I could find from the thunders outside! I’d lost my way back. Now it didn’t seem such a good idea to stomp out of the resort in anger. In my blind anger, I’d forgotten the road and the turns I’d taken, the spot where I’d decided to enter the woods. I recalled a milestone sign, but I couldn’t recollect the number written on it as I’d seen it through my blurry vision then, clouded by tears. I was never this careless. My mobile phone showed no network. This was a decision I’d have to make. I couldn’t Whatsapp a friend and ask them about whether I should enter the house or try another turn in the woods. The trees were swishing loudly, the darkness that had set in not helping my heart calm down! I was shivering, gooseflesh lining my arms. Was it the cold? Or was it fear?
My ears were on alert but I didn’t want to pick up any more noises than I already was. I didn’t know what a slithering snake or the roar of a jaguar sounded like, or the bite of a wolf felt. Lightning struck once again. The trees around me lit up. The house was just a dozen feet away. Closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, I decided to go there than lose myself further into the woods. I took each step carefully, hands crossed across my chest, lest my heart thumped out of my body, phone inside the pocket and head lowered. But one step on the porch and I knew I’d made a mistake!
Unwritten destiny of the unplanned twin.
Idea courtesy : Dad! Yes, I am in Calcutta. ❤