Gopal’s slight frame marked itself by giving very subtle slopes to the huge green blanket. Kalipada was relieved to see that the floors where clean and the smell of Ethanol defeated other odours. He had been apprehensive when his neighbours warned him about the deteriorating standards of the hospital but he couldn’t have afforded the daily charge of a nursing home and among hospitals, this was the only one where a bed was available. It was the time of dengue epidemic and many patients were laid on the floors in several large hospitals across the city. Gopal’s condition was not dengue; the heart ailment he had been suffering from, finally got diagnosed and needed an immediate surgery. Kalipada held Gopal’s hand.
“Why didn’t didi come?” Gopal asked. His large black eyes looked tired and there were new pimples on his brown face.
“She wanted to come but I asked her to concentrate on her studies. She may come tomorrow. Anyway you don’t have to stay here for long.”
“Don’t be scared. Just listen to the nurses,” Kamala, Kalipada’s wife said and hugged him before leaving.
Kamala recalled the days when Gopal used to accompany his mother to their house. He was a little more than a toddler at that time. While his mother swept and wiped the floor, he sat on the steps leading to the roof and fiddled with the only toy he possessed- a wooden car.
A sense of curiosity growing over several days had suppressed his initial shyness, drawing him to the balcony. Pots with plants were kept on the floor, on railings and some were even hung from the ceiling. Most of the pots were made of burnt clay but some were of plastic. There were even a few glass bottles, tendrils coming out through the narrow mouths found their way beyond the grills. It was Kamala’s late mother-in-law who had encouraged her to discover her love for plants. She had bought many of the saplings from the annual fairs celebrating Rath Yatra, where sellers spread out their wares along muddy streets or fields pocketed with rainwater. The space was too small for so many plants. The green effect was like that of the container of Kamala’s mixer whenever she grinded green chillies. The presence of so many plants reminded Gopal of the greenery in the village, where he had once lived with his mother, while his father worked in a shop in the city. Their arrival in the city was caused by his father arrest on charges of stealing a large amount of money from his employer.
An adult had to crouch like one has to do while getting inside a palanquin, for entering the balcony so as not to disturb the jutting branches of so many plants. Little Gopal could easily walk beneath them till he came to a less densely green spot and spotted a door on the wall it shared with the bedroom. Gopal realised there was a tiny room between the bedroom and the balcony and this excited him very much as if he had chanced upon some secret hideout.
It suddenly occurred to Kamala, who suffered from occasional bouts of forgetfulness as the consequence of being perpetually afflicted to anxiety, to check whether she had put off the fire in the clay lamp she lit as a part of her rituals of worship. As she walked towards the balcony with long strides, spotting Gopal undoing the latch of the door belonging to the tiny room, something occurred, slowing down her pace; something that had halted civilisations. Prejudices concerning caste and birth came crashing as a precariously piled assortment of daggers, swords, spears and arrows. Old beliefs nourished and kept alive by dying days, for millennia, scoffed at modern attempts at assimilation as though the latter was a child challenging the authority of an adult. Workings of the mind are unseen by the eyes like overlooked objects strewn on the floor that causes one to trip. For a moment her heart stopped with fear as if she had glimpsed a dangerous beast among the thick foliage. Then incensed, she yelled, stooped down beneath the leaves, crawled forward a little, stretched out her hand and dragged Gopal out of the place as roughly as she could. She was so blinded by rage that she did not notice how Gopal was getting lashed by the branches. Gopal cried out as he got pricked by a rose thorn. Kamala continued abusing Gopal and his mother for several minutes.
The disturbance within Kamala took time to settle though the swirl grew weaker with each passing hour. By bed time, the last of the grains lifted had been placed back, yet traces remained of their misplacement. Before going off to sleep, Kamala confessed to her husband how bad and guilty she felt about her behavior towards an innocent child. She also feared that Gopal’s mother would not turn up for work the next morning and that would be a loss since she was a diligent worker.
Gopal’s mother however, did not have the luxury of quitting her job in the Bhattacharya household given her circumstances. So the next day she came knocking on their front door at 6 AM as usual. Gopal was not with her. She told Kamala that she had left Gopal in her hut with the door locked from outside as all the other women from the slum went out to earn a living and there would be no one to look after him. Since Gopal was very small, she did not want him to wander about with the other slum children, who often got into dangerous situations. Just a couple of days ago, one of them had crept into a storehouse and got killed when a heavy sack fell on him. Kamala shivered thinking of Gopal locked in his home. She explained to his mother that what she had done was also risky. What if there was a fire? She told her she could bring Gopal along but she must ensure that he would not enter the room next to the balcony.
Gopal’s age was such at the time of the disagreeable incident that
memories had not started boring their claws into the mind. One of the few impartial things in this world; something common to everyone irrespective of caste, class or even intelligence is the inability to remember anything about the first year of life and very less about the next two years as events however exalting or appalling they might be, do not leave imprints, like a stealthy cat over a smooth railing. He did remember his mother telling him not to go near the room because she had reiterated the warning in the subsequent years. On the other side, Kamala could not forget her own spell of nastiness and she had to live with her guilt like one has to bear with the burden of interest for a large loan.
After the factory where Kalipada used to work as a middle rank employee pulled down its shutters, Kamala sacrificed the luxury of keeping a maid and asked Gopal’s mother not to come. This came as a shock to the woman whose endeavours in finding work in some other houses as well, to supplement her income from the Bhattacharyas, had not met with success so far. The families she had inquired about through acquaintances, already had maids. At her sad and defeated expression, Kamala’s feeling of guilt shot up within like the mercury line during a high fever. Her husband’s face was also shadowed by a similar look – the curse of joblessness. There was nothing she could do for her.
Even while coping with the uncertainty looming over her own family particularly the future of her daughter Komalbina, she was a bit relieved to hear within a few days, that Gopal’s mother had found the job of a full time cook in a house in their neighbourhood. The one she had replaced had served that family for decades and was sent abroad to assist the householder’s daughter who found it very difficult over there, managing domestic chores along with work and higher studies.
Kalipada had some small investments and occasionally got offers to perform puja rites at people’s houses. His father had been a full time Hindu priest and his good reputation still prevailed. Komalbina was admitted to a school with lower fees. It took her a lot of time to adjust to the fact that she would not get to meet; at least not regularly, her friends from her old school.
The Bhattacharyas had just enough to buy simple food items, pay the electricity bill, their daughter’s school fees and spend on the duties towards the God and Goddess who resided in the room forbidden to Gopal and those from his caste.
Kalipada’s late great grandfather had unearthed the idols from his ancestral house at Bankura after being told to do so by Lord Mahadeva Himself in a dream. The idols were made of white stones and shone when polished. The raised hood of the snake coiled around Shiva’s neck was in contrast of his and Parvati’s hands raised in an act of blessing. The crescent moon rested at a strange angle on the tangle of Mahadev’s hair as if the Lord has caught it with his head just in time during its fall from the sky, so that it was not lost in the space. Parvati’s large petal shaped eyes were reflective and her sari ended in waves. Both the idols were adorned with jewels bought by Kalipada’s grandfather, father and also Kalipada himself during better days. The idols were believed to be around one thousand years old. To Kalipada and his ancestors the value of the idols did not lie in History nor in craftsmanship but in the belief that God Himself had come to them.
The calling bell and the alarm clock had followed the mixer and the water purifier in getting damaged and not being repaired. Kamala was shoved out of her sleep at the sound of someone banging at the door. She checked the time from Kalipada’s wrist watch and was alarmed to find it was 7:30 AM. Her days generally started at 5 AM. She attended to the deities, cleaned the house before preparing breakfast for her husband and children. She caught up with some sleep only after lunch.
Kamala was still drowsy when she moved towards the door. She had gone to sleep very late the previous night since Komalbina was not well. She unlocked the door with the key from the antique silver key ring inherited from her mother- in-law. It was Gopal, wearing a pair of oversized shorts and looking blankly. He must have been ten at that time. It had been four years since his mother was asked not to come. He was short for his age. His eyes red from crying and his hair dishevelled, he told Kamala that his mother had passed away and he had nowhere to go.
Gopal was ready to do any type of work in their house in exchange of a meal and a roof over his head. He had already been turned away by his mother’s more recent employers. Kalipada did not know what to do but it took only a few seconds for Kamala to make up her mind. She said, “We can’t turn away a hungry and homeless child. We’ll keep him. Our Lords will see to the rest.” She did not know at that time what her words meant.
Kamala joined a women’s group and under its guidance she sold her needlework and pickles to support the little cost of the new member. Gopal started going to a free school. Kamalbina was only two years older than him and many of the books followed by his school were common with the ones she had studied. A few others were borrowed and only two had to be bought along with the exercise copies and a few stationeries.
Gopal was kept free from most household chores. He just had to do simple things like opening the door when someone knocked, serving glasses of water when guests arrived, keeping objects back in their places after they were used and so on.
Gradually, Kalipada became baba from babu, Kamala became ma and Kamalbina-didi just didi. A long time ago, before Kalipada had got any whiff about the impending closure of the factory, he and Kamala had wished for another child. The wish that had flown about near their minds only to be forgotten like a game of yore, found fulfilment through Gopal. This enhanced their faith in their household deities and they sensed a calmness amidst their struggles. They did not legally adopt Gopal because they lacked the awareness and money to face the hassles. Everything that belonged to the Bhattacharyas also belonged to Gopal, except the prayer room. Kalipada and Kamala had discussed this many times but had failed to reach any conclusions. Certain notions clung despite the tussle. Arguments brought along with them counter arguments forming a chain that bound them to the replica of the previous day.
The air conditioning was too cold for Kamala’s comfort. She draped the end of her sari tightly around herself. Kalidapa too shivered from the cold, sitting in a cushioned chair in a minimally but ascetically decorated room with polished wooden floors. Loss of sleep had made them weaker. The little smiles curving along the cylindrical pillars of their inner temple had been ironed out the day Gopal’s chest X-Ray reports came out. Gopal had not been studying for several evenings after coming back from school, complaining of excessive fatigue. At first Kamala thought he was just being naughty. A particular memory prevented her from shouting or scolding at him but she explained to him why he should study to grow up and get a good job. In the weeks that followed, she realised he was suffering from some serious problem, when he refused to play cricket with the boys from the other houses in their alley on Sunday mornings, as this was an activity he enjoyed too much to excuse himself from, unless there were any pressing reasons. Kalipada took him to the local general physician who referred them to a cardiologist.
Before accepting the most undesired means of procuring the money for Gopal’s heart surgery, they had tried other options. They had appealed to everyone they knew. Kalipada had gone to every house where he had conducted religious rites as a priest, requesting for their help. Among them, the old acquaintances knew that Gopal was not his biological son. Some of them helped as per their means but there were many others who despite of pledging their assistance in whatever way possible, commented behind his back that he should not have taken the responsibility of an urchin when he did not have much for himself, his wife and daughter. A young man whose sister’s marriage had been solemnised by Kalipada, turned out to be very helpful, circulating e-mails to his friends and colleagues urging them to contribute. Some money did come in but it was not enough to meet the huge combined expenses of hospitalisation, doctor’s fees and vital checkups to be done after the surgery. Sleepless nights brought Kalipada to the streets, but his familiar lane was dark as a cave tunnel, with shadows of temple spires like stalactites and a patch of light from an illuminated billboard- the opening.
The idols had passed the antiquity authentication test. They dated back to the 8 AD. The only way they could pay for Gopal’s medical expenses was by selling them. Kalipada and Kamala bowed their heads and touched the sacred feet of the idols for the last time before they were taken away to another room. The celestial couple looked as serene as ever. Stones and Gods were unified in their lack of pain as that was a trait borne by the ones in between those beyond consciousness and those without.
Coming out from the office of antique dealers, the couple walked a long distance in complete silence along a noisy, crowded pavement before boarding a bus towards the hospital.
Words came back to Kalipada when he was asked about his destination by the bus conductor. To their own surprise he and his wife seemed to feel better, even somewhat at peace as the bus sped along. A decision however hard, once made and sealed had a strange kind of a soothing effect. Kalipada wondered whether the Lord and His Consort had come to his ancestors for this very day and this very purpose? Who could guess what goes on in God’s and Goddesses’ minds?
On the way back from the hospital, a pair of kites caught their attention. One soared, the other soared higher, then the first one caught up. The sun’s last glow outlined the distant coconut leaves near the crucifix atop a church. A cool breeze brought an expression of relief on vendors’ faces and a brown mongrel settled down to sleep upon a shuttered shop’s step. The couple felt the whirl of the divine iris which ceaselessly looked upon all that was around them, within their sight and outside their known ambit with its gaze of brilliance. To them, it was the divine gesture that was outlined in the trajectory of a toss choosing for men what they could not decide for themselves. They had read it in texts, heard about it from the words of wise men and women of their land carried down to them through many people and many ages, but for the first time they were experiencing it – Shiva and Parvati were everywhere.
Lahari Mahalanabish a software engineer by profession as born in Kolkata, studied in Carmel Convent (Kolkata) and graduated as an engineer from Jadavpur University. Her first book of poems entitled One Hundred Poems came out of Writers Workshop, India in 2007. Besides creative writing, She does enjoy other art forms like painting, making paper crafts, needlework, singing, composing music, cooking different dishes. Being closely involved with orphanages and nonprofit organizations for underprivileged children and destitute women, Lahari has been affected by the sufferings in society as well as influenced by those who work selflessly to eradicate them