“Duto paisa diye jao baba…bhogoban mongol korben.”(Please spare some change, my son….and may God bless you for it.)
Meghna turned around to see an old lady in a maroon shawl and a saree that in some distant past must have been white in colour. She was old and emaciated, just like so many other old and emaciated women in tattered clothing that turned up round the corners, with bent spinal cords and thin, bony hands protruding from under the rags, whether in anticipation or in resignation it was hard to tell.
They were standing just outside Priya Cinema in South Calcutta’s Deshapriya Park. The lady in question was begging for alms from the audience as it streamed out of the theatre and instantly scattered in different directions. Almost everybody walked away from the woman, either because they were engaged in an excited post-mortem of the film that had just got over, and hence failed to notice the frail figure beside the exit, or because they had the capacity to look through human forms. They saw her but they didn’t. And it was remarkably easy to un-see, for she wasn’t much of a figure at all.
Meghna had also exited the theatre amidst the crowd. She had not seen the lady, but she wasn’t sure how she would have reacted if she had. In fact, she was pretty sure she would not have reacted at all, but simply continued on her course. She was one of those hundreds who looked through beggars, old women and all, as if they did not exist. She was not proud of it. But she knew it. And that is why she found herself squinting in surprise when she looked to find Abhra handing the woman a fair amount of coins from his wallet.
“My hero!” Meghna simpered as she tucked her arm into Abhra’s and the two of them made their way to the Dhakuria Lake. “That was nice, what you did.”
“What, paid that old woman?”
“Yep. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. I didn’t.”
“Well, that’s because I’m not like most people. I’m different. Quite unique, as a matter of fact!”
This was familiar banter for them. Meghna laughed and the conversation soon veered off to other topics, like the film they had just seen, until they gradually walked in companionable silence, hand in hand, across the busy intersection of Southern Avenue and Deshapriya Park.
It was dark by the time they passed through the entrance of the Lake, although the watch showed the time to be 5:15 only. The place was already sparsely, but sufficiently, illuminated by the street lamps that had now been turned on, that lit up the path along the sides of the Lake, and reflected on its still water. There wasn’t any breeze, but the mild December chill made up for the lack of it. Meghna wasn’t sure whether the soft sense of serenity, that seemed to be creeping through her spine and spreading through the rest of her body right up to the tips of her fingers, fingers that were entwined tightly round those of the tall man walking beside her, was simply something her mind was conjuring up in the moment’s intoxication. Or whether it was the atmosphere of the place itself, and every other person present on the scene was experiencing the same strange sense of happiness, and exhilaration that Meghna felt.
The two of them slowly followed the sidewalk, passing other couples on the way. The stone seats on the walk had always been a favourite with young couples looking for a few moments of privacy although Meghna had never imagined herself amongst them. She had in fact treated this public show of affection with sarcasm, always thinking that when her turn came, she would not make an exhibition of herself. And yet, here she was. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Abhra lit a cigarette. Meghna was doing her best to make him give up smoking. But for all that, she could not stop herself from stealing a glance at him as he took a drag. Abhra wasn’t conventionally good-looking, but there was something about the way he smoked that made her want to gaze at him more than once.
There were other people smoking as well. The air did not hang heavy with the smell of tobacco, but it had a hint of it nevertheless. Most of the smoke came from cigarettes that had been lit by young boys who sat in clusters, bantering loudly. Meghna watched as they passed groups of old men, discussing politics and sports, as they sat enjoying the chilly December evening. She knew this was a kind of routine for most of the elderly gentlemen participating in the discussions. The men would come to the Lake for a walk, and after a stroll or two would inevitably settle down for their evening chat. A lot of them probably did not know one another outside their acquaintance at the Lake, but each greeted the other like old friends in a way that seemed to fill one with an old world charm that was fast diminishing.
There were families too, with small children, and regular evening walkers who marched past in their sneakers, looking determined. The dim lights hid them away from clear sight, but they were there alright. Meghna liked it this way. The presence of so many people, the sound of their voices and laughter gave the place a homely feel, thus taking away from it any feeling of loneliness; yet the semi-darkness rendered a privateness that discarded whatever sense of intrusion one might otherwise have felt, giving each individual, couple or group their own space.
The two wound their way to the rocky ledge on the other side of the Lake. There were less people here, mostly couples like themselves. Meghna was the first one to talk after they had settled down, comfortably positioning themselves a little way away from other couples who also sat on the same ledge.
“It’s colder here than out on the streets. I should have got my stole. I suppose you don’t feel it much? The chill, I mean.”
“No. This is very mild weather compared to Boston at this time of the year.”
Boston. Meghna felt a tug at her heart as the word was uttered. She did not want to think about it just now. Abhra would have to board the flight back to Boston, but that was still about two weeks away and Meghna wanted it to stay like that. She changed the subject.
“Well, aren’t you going to take me out for dinner tonight? Let’s have mutton biriyani today, shall we? I feel like I could do with some.”
“I’ve been taking you out ever since I arrived.” Abhra replied. He sounded in earnest, but Meghna knew it was laced with affectionate humour. “And you’ve felt like having biriyani at least twice already! Tonight either it’s you treating me to my choice of cuisine, or you’ll go home and have dinner with your parents.”
This was received with a fond slap on the shoulder. “You brute! I’m having dinner with you, do you hear? Okies then, you win. It’s my treat tonight. But you can pick the restaurant.”
They haggled a bit over the restaurant, and were still not done completely when yet another old lady in worn out clothing and a rather shrill voice came by begging for coins and reprimanding people shrilly when they didn’t concede.
Meghna braced herself. Either they would pay, or be ready to listen to the loud curses of an old disgruntled woman. Abhra however solved her dilemma by fishing out his purse and bringing out of it a ten rupee note. The lady took it from him, and went on her way after touching her forehead with the hand that clutched the note.
Abhra replaced his purse in his pocket and turned to see Meghna looking at him intently as she spoke.
“You know they say that a person’s nature is best judged by the manner in which he addresses those who are below him in stature.”
“Yes. So I’ve heard.”
“And you mister, have been helping out old women all this evening. You’ve got your heart in the right place, Abhra. It’s feels so good to see how compassionate you are.”
A few moments passed before Abhra responded.
“It’s not just that.”
“Then what is it?”
“Well of course it never hurts one to pay, although we hardly ever do. A few bucks here and there! The film itself cost us nearly two hundred rupees each. But we don’t spare a tenner for those who need it. And even I won’t be quite so generous to any beggar that came along. It’s only when I see old women such as these….that’s when I see that image in my head.”
Meghna had been resting her head on Abhra’s shoulder while he spoke. Now she sat up to look at him, taken aback by what he had just said.
“What image? And why is it in your head?”
Again Abhra didn’t speak.
Meghna tapped him sharply on the shoulder. She was suddenly aware of a subtle change in the mood.
“Are you trying to tease me? Because if you are, then you’re doing a damn good job of it.”
It was a few more seconds before Abhra finally fixed his gaze in front of him, towards the still dark water with the lights from the street lamps still reflected upon it, and began to speak.
“It’s like this….. Years ago, I must have been about seven years old at the time. Baba started working for the Reserve Bank of India around then and my family moved in to live in the staff quarters on Dover Lane. Well, during that time I made friends with other boys within the complex. It was a mixed group – there were kids of various ages — the oldest was about eleven I believe, and the youngest a year or two younger than me. Well, you know the kind of games boys of that age-group would play….they aren’t really games at all. Just a lot of rough tumbling, kicking around, and generally being very annoying. And that’s what we did most of the time when we got together. Hit each other and annoyed people, mostly passersby.”
“Well, this lady appeared one day. Another of those passersby. Only this one was more ill fated than the others.”
“For god’s sake Abhra, what lady??”
“An old one. Just like the ones we saw tonight. She had that same rickety look and a ragged shawl around her shoulders, I still remember that. Only unlike the old ladies we met this evening, this one was not quite all there. The older boys called her pagli buri. She was but a pathetic shadow, but she was vulnerable. And that made her our target.”
“What did you do?”
“We started pushing her. For fun, at first, although now when I think of it, I cannot imagine what fun we could possibly have derived from it. But push we did, till she stood at the edge of a drain. And we still jostled her, and pushed, by now aggressively. Until she fell into that drain.”
“You pushed a helpless woman into a drain?!”
“And strangely, I don’t think she uttered a word of protest the entire time. There were about eight or nine of us I think. One kid, I cannot recall the name, repeatedly droned away something about how it seemed all wrong. And I remember thinking how unsporting he was, and how much fun it was to annoy the pagli buri….well, we left the lady in the gutter. You know how kids lose interest in things after a while! And back we all went to our respective homes, laughing and jostling one another.”
“Monsters, were you?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact we were. The next day one of the older boys told us that the woman had been lying in the gutter throughout the night, although she was gone the next morning….. I think he got that from the security guard.”
“And what? That’s it. That’s the story. I believe the lady wasn’t seen much in the neighbourhood after that. Nobody knew what became of her. Not that anybody went looking! Or spared her a thought.”
Their eyes met, each holding the other’s gaze until Abhra looked away.
“What frightens me most is the sheer monstrosity of the episode. It’s possible that the guard had been lying and that the woman had simply hoisted herself out of the drain minutes after we left. Or, even if she lay there till morning, maybe it really didn’t affect her much, for she probably was deranged already. Or better still, I was only seven and hence too young to realise the full impact of what we had done. But none of that makes what we did that night any less cruel.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Meghna’s voice was quiet.
“And you know what makes it worse, what is even more scary? The fact that we forgot about the lady almost at once. Those of us above the age of six might just have had a recollection of the incident the morning after. The smaller ones probably didn’t even have that memory. And as far as I was concerned, the entire affair slipped right out of mind, as if it had never happened.”
“Except that it didn’t.”
“Well, it didn’t slip out of your mind because you’re thinking about it now, after all these years. And regretting it. It’s been in your subconscious all these years. So you never really let go of it. You’ve nursed it. As you have nursed that sense of guilt that came with it.”
The couple on their right got up and made their way towards the back gate. A jhalmuriwala stood close by, his entire livelihood literally hanging from his neck and across his shoulders. Meghna spied a little lantern set inside the large steel container that hung on a thick rope from the man’s neck, the container that Meghna knew held several pots and cans, filled with such items as puffed rice (muri), roasted peanuts, slices of onion and coconut, green chillies and cucumber, that when thrown in together in the right proportions along with salt and lemon, would give rise to a delectable snack that after phuchka happened to be the most popular street food in Kolkata. There was something very quaint about the man, his cans and his lantern.
“It’s true that I’ve had flashes of that image, the image of the lady in the gutter, ever since. It didn’t start at once, like I said. Apparently, I’d erased it from my conscious memory. But every now and then, and especially, when I see a destitute old lady begging for alms, or roaming the streets, I remember that woman. With that vacant look in her eyes, and that strange resignation to fate.”
A chill went down Meghna’s spine. She knew she was being fanciful. But there was something about the story, and the way Abhra told it, that made her shudder just a little. Amidst the peace of the evening, amidst the quiet romance, she suddenly seemed to become aware of a whole world of little monstrosities, uncalled for cruelties, and small but significant acts of unkindness that every one of them committed on a daily basis, to seemingly insignificant people, at seemingly insignificant levels. And then? Then they all went about their business, or better still, they all went home with an almost clear conscience.
Abhra stared at her.
“I haven’t what?”
“Gone home with a clear conscience. It stung you, what you did. And the memory of it stuck to you for good. It’s possible that most of the others who were present that night do not even remember the incident. But you did, and you have borne the burden for the lot of them. And you have tried to make up for it….by showing kindness as a grown man, by being aware of what you did all those years ago. That’s what sets you apart…..”
It was getting late. People had started calling it a day, and it was time for Abhra and Meghna to get going too, especially if they hoped to dine out. Abhra said so, and the two of them slowly pulled themselves to their feet, dusted themselves and silently made their way towards the gate at the back, that opened right at the corner of Calcutta Rowing Club.
It had grown chillier now and Meghna hugged herself as she walked, until she felt Abhra’s arm around her, holding her close, as if to share with her the warmth of his own body. She looked up at him, smiling. And Abhra smiled back. And at that moment Meghna knew that this was it. This was what she wanted, longed for. To look into those eyes and yield herself to the warm embrace of the man she loved. She could stay like that forever.
As they came out of the gates and once again onto the streets, again holding hands and again in comfortable silence, each lost in his or her own thoughts, the hustle of the busy Kolkata metropolis enveloped them. Perhaps some distance away, in some other part of the city, or perhaps nearby, another bunch of hostile kids was pushing some old hapless woman into the gutter, and leaving her there to rot overnight. But possibly, in that same city, and at that very moment, some young Samaritan was atoning for past unkindnesses of his own, and that of others, through little acts of kindness and love, warmth and gentleness. Such was life. And so it went on.
Surangama Guha Roy is a Master of Arts with distinction in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is a graduate in Sociology from Presidency College, following which she went on to obtain a Masters degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Roy is passionate about cinema and enjoys writing. She has several publications, both academic and otherwise to her credit. Her short story Suicide was published in The Statesman Festival Issue, 2014. She is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Government College, Kolkata.