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Broken pieces salvaged – brilliant and beautiful – sparkled against her fate lines. It was a promise of sparkling tomorrows made out of broken yesterdays.
It is during the early hours that human conscience is at its most sublime. So much so that even the claustrophobic confines of mosquito nets and sweaty sheets evoke possibilities. This is when Aru experienced a brief rapture of delight every morning, before earth shattering yells dragged her into the insufferable ‘awake’ phase.
The world outside reached this phase much earlier. Kolkata, the city of joy, is also a city of ‘dawn at midnight.’ Here, the migrants and day labourers culminated their long trips into the city at the local stations in the last hours of the night.
They walked past the sleepy apartment buildings, chattering in unison and spitting red beetle juice onto the street side well before the sky lightened. By the time Aru was jolted into full awareness, they were long gone. They were absorbed into obscurity in the construction sites and markets of the city to be spewed out again only at dusk.
‘I am a working woman with a degree -not a housemaid,’ the clanking of steel utensils against hard cement floors followed the angry words.
Aru rubbed her eyes, slowly sitting up to catch a better glance of the slim figure reduced to a silhouette standing at the feet of her bed. She breathed a sigh of relief. No matter how mad, Ma couldn’t kill her if there was someone around.
Aru had often wondered if Ma could really kill her one day. It would happen in the mornings, if it did, as mornings were when Ma felt very bad. But could it happen? Maybe Ma wouldn’t mean to but it will just happen.
Aru was sure Ma would feel terrible, in that case, like the time when she hit Aru with hot iron without realising and had cried for hours later. Ma rubbed ice over and over on Aru’s bruises in effort to make the marks go away. But if she did kill Aru she won’t be able to do anything about it and would be devastated. So, Aru needed to stay alive for Ma’s sake more than her own.
‘I am tired of you. You are as selfish as your father. How many times do I need to remind you – the bed gets made only after you get your lazy ass up? I am just waiting for you morons to die so that I …’ Ma continued her monologue as she grabbed Aru by her arm.
The lines didn’t need to be understood, analysed, or even heard. The words – selfish, moron, lazy, die – filtered deep into her little brain. Aru played with them, arranging and rearranging, tossing one up another down, ruminating and alliterating, trying hard to remain oblivious to the possibility of getting killed.
But her eyes betrayed her as usual – pathetic and improvident – they welled up as Ma dragged her out of the room. The awaiting silhouette emerged from the shadows, moving mechanically to start making the bed. Nibha Masi, their help, was too afraid of Ma to intervene unnecessarily, but surely would if there was a real need.
Lal waited for the noises inside to subside. It wouldn’t be of any point otherwise, for although quite loud, his singing would not make it to Aru through the commotion. But once it subsided, he would start singing and she would surely come, hiding few coins in her hand. Lal had something for her today – a branch of krishnachura flowers that she had admired in his hair last time.
‘Men don’t put flowers in their hair’ She had giggled. Lal had too, amazed at the amusement in her eyes from a matter so insignificant.
‘Who says so?’ He asked. She didn’t have an answer. Lal knew she wouldn’t. She was very wise, but still just a little girl.
‘How come you are not singing today?’ Lal hadn’t noticed Aru come out to the balcony.
‘I was going to,’ He responded, handing the krishnachura branch to the little palms that quivered in excitement while grabbing them.
‘Sing.’ She commanded – holding the branch close to her heart.
Lal cleared his throat. He knew only one song but that hadn’t been a problem. It had served him well in gathering alms from the apartments, and was enough for Aru too.
‘Sei je amar ma…biswa bhuvan majhe…’ His hoarse but full voice filled the small balcony, ‘Madhur amar Ma-er hasi…’ There can be no comparison to my mother – she is only one, Aru listened on, humming along with Lal. She knew the song by heart.
Manasi could feel the anger crawling out of her skin, slowly sitting up as it prepared to reach for the brick lying underneath the flower pot. She could hear the ‘other’ her – the one that was once the only one – plead thinking of the terrified pair of eyes, the broken glass everywhere. And the numerous hours of ‘if only’ that would follow.
But her anger was already up, starting to breathe on its own as she stood straight with the brick in hand. She managed to pull it out at last from under the heavy pot it was balancing, tumbling the latter in the process.
Swiftly, her anger merged onto the brick as it hit the panes, shattering the glass and chipping of wood from the shutters that had refused to open. And then, her anger retreated, tired and accomplished, into her eyes – slowly flowing out as salty drops as she thumped onto the ground.
Aru watched silently as this happened, waiting until Manasi was no longer standing. It had been a tough day for Ma. Rainy days always were. These days still made Aru happy, like they should make all children in a hot land, but rainy days were hard for Ma.
As the clouds emptied their buckets, the poorly drained streets and by-lanes flooded. The toilets filled into both of their bathrooms bringing cockroaches and small black worms along. Manasi panicked and sobbed every time this happened.
She tried in vain to pump out the water and screamed at papa for his useless existence until a catharsis like the smashed panes happened. After that, Aru and Papa could lift Ma up into the bed or couch, whichever was closest, and share the cleaning and clearing up.
Papa wasn’t really useless in any normal sense of the word. Raised by a widowed mother, he topped engineering and rose through ranks in the prestigious Indian Oil Corporation. A government job and a two bedroom apartment – Papa had achieved what most would envy.
But Papa wasn’t special. He wasn’t a Sengupta. Ma was. Manasi Sengupta was the only daughter of the business tycoon Sunil Sengupta. The Senguptas, a Bengali, joint, ‘business’ family – oxymoron in all ways – stayed not too far from their apartment complex in a real house four storeys high.
When the Senguptas were looking for a groom for their only daughter, they had left no stone unturned. She was a prized catch with her pedigree and accomplishments. The senior Senguptas had doted on Manasi, fuelling her spirit to first blossom and then burst. Where other girls were said no to, and warned of possible disastrous consequences, Manasi never even got the brief to have to ask for permission.
But it was this trailblazer fame of hers that became the issue when the Senguptas started searching. That and her non-negotiable, ‘will not concede’ condition: she would not marry into a household geographically distanced from her own.
So the Senguptas kept looking, promising everything from land to share in the family business in return of their daughter’s hand. But the soft spoken young engineer they failed to notice was the only one who stepped forward – and he wanted nothing in return.
Prakash had grown up in the same neighbourhood as Manasi. He moved into the apartment community of mostly middle class salaried government employees with his widowed mother. That’s where he had noticed the fierce and feisty Manasi grow up into a woman.
When the Senguptas grew rich and moved out to their newly constructed mansion not too far away, Prakash changed his office route. He made it a point to get down one stop earlier to be able to walk past the Sengupta mansion and catch a glimpse of Manasi. She would often be storming off in the white ambassador. Manasi was always behind the wheel, never a passenger. Something within Prakash’s obedient, reticent heart was fascinated by this.
Their wedding was an opulent one. The first one for the Senguptas – that too of a daughter. The senior Senguptas spared no expense. Folks queued up outside the glaringly lit mansion, as food packets were given away.
Jewellery to be sent with Manasi were consigned from the finest of karigars. Manasi didn’t weep as expected of the brides before getting into her vidaai vehicle. She was not going anywhere, she was merely getting married. Prakash had waited inside the rose covered jeep for Manasi to join him, still dazed over his unbelievable fortune.
The glass pieces today looked lovely in the post rain scattered sun. And the open hole in the pane allowed cool air to come in. Aru felt a little sad to see papa sweep them up, slowly taking away from the cement floor, the sparkle they added, returning the floors to their mud red monotony.
‘What will you do with the glass pieces papa?’ she asked at last, unable to resist her concern for the fabulous material looking so forlorn in the cracked plastic dust pan.
‘Will throw them out.’
‘Nibha Masi said glass dust can be used to line kite threads. To make them stronger. So, that it cuts through the other kites,’ Aru continued to offer her recycling possibilities, ‘Maybe we can save them in a jar?’
Prakash didn’t respond to Aru. He seldom did.
‘Think Papa, think!’ Aru’s voice was louder with excitement, ‘If we collect every time, how much glass dust we will have by the Kite flying season!!’ Her voice followed Prakash as he left the room, almost as if in a daze, to trash the pieces of what wasn’t left anymore.
Lal looked on as Aru followed her papa around. He saved most of the glass pieces Prakash dumped out into the garden. It would detract trespassers, he had heard them discuss. The small garden was more of a jungle – with thorny hedges overshadowing the very few flowering plants. Lal was collecting the pieces to make a wind catcher for Aru. Just like the one he used to have in the home he had left behind.
‘He is better off gone.’ His brothers had argued vehemently, disregarding his mother’s sobs. Lal knew he’d have to sooner or later. He hadn’t been ‘born right’ – his years in his own home were loaned therefore from an empty chest.
But Ma wouldn’t let him. Weeping profusely, begging and pleading with all, she managed to delay the inevitable every time. And there was no way for Lal to sustain himself. If he did have to beg, his chances would be much better in Kolkata.
He thought often about when he would go back. How his mother would stand trembling, holding his hands tightly like she had on the day he had left. But except for the mother he had left behind, Lal preferred Kolkata. It was so much easier to be a self here that didn’t conform to a ‘him’ or a ‘her.’
‘Go away, Lal. Ma is resting. Don’t sing today,’ again Aru had arrived unnoticed.
‘Why does your Ma get so angry?’ Lal wanted to ask. He had seen Manasi over the years. Since he had started coming to this complex, getting worse and worse. A once put together proud self now in displayed disarray. But Lal couldn’t know that it too was a story of loss, just like his. He had lost his place for being neither a man nor a woman and Manasi had lost hers for being a woman.
‘I have something for you.’ Lal said, instead to Aru, wanting to watch her eyes brighten.
In the early days, Manasi did try to make Prakash’s home her second home. She intricately dressed the doors and windows, and cooked and cleaned. Her skills further added to the amazement of her already besotted husband.
Manasi also visited the Sengupta household daily, seeing through the process of getting one brother married after another. But slowly, she wasn’t the one informed first when the maid didn’t come. Neither was she needed to help with the factory accounts anymore.
Puja shopping started happening without her, and the chauffeurs stopped standing up when she entered. Nothing was deliberate. Maybe not even conscious. But nevertheless, it happened.
It is said that Durga Puja – the biggest festival the Bengalis celebrate – is a celebration of goddess Durga’s homecoming. During the balmy days of October, Durga visits her maternal home for four days. At the end of these four days, her idol, adorned and embellished in layers, is immersed into the Ganges.
Before the government started caring about the Ganga enough to start the Clean Ganga Act, the abandoned idols could be seen stuck in the deluge. They would slowly be losing their layers – the garments, then the plaster and in the end, on the straw tied to the bamboo poles would remain.
It was as if Durga could never really leave her maternal home behind even though she was expected to after the four days. She awaited, therefore, forsaking her glory bit by bit to each passing wave, stuck in the shores so near yet too far, desolate and destitute.
And when Manasi realised that the windows in the Sengupta house weren’t for her to open anymore, she noticed the ones that didn’t open. The once doted upon daughter, the much revered sister, the fierce athlete, the courted lover and now a young mother, Manasi, now started being ‘not well.’
Lal slowly pulled out the the glass wind catcher, relishing the widening of the little eyes.
‘Give me! Please! Give me.’
‘No. Not yet. I still have a few more pieces to add. This will look like a peacock when done.’
Aru sighed. Lal was right – although the most splendid of things she had seen in a while, the catcher did look kind of incomplete. ‘Come tomorrow,’ he said at last. ‘It will rain again tonight.’
Lal smiled a forlorn smile. The clouds rumbled in the distance in support.
‘Your wife has issues,’ Mr. Dutta continued. They heard the screams daily for years, but had restrained themselves from interfering, until Manasi in her feat of rage had thrown a vase hitting Aru. She had come running to their door then, frantically sobbing and incoherently blabbering.
‘I wish…I wish I could go back…I shouldn’t have been a mother…I…’ Manasi had kept on saying. They had rushed to find a disoriented, but mostly OK Aru. But they were horrified at the extent of escalation Manasi had been capable of.
‘Please do something Prakash. These kind of…crazies…can’t be left alone with a child,’ Mr. Dutta stressed again. ‘Don’t wait until it’s too late.’
Mr. Dutta didn’t know that Prakash couldn’t. He was too much in love to separate from Manasi. Neither could he get Manasi to see a doctor. He had tried, only to be told that he was trying to prove her insane to get rid of her and keep Aru. So, he kept sipping on his empty cup looking down into the intricate floor mosaics.
Lal didn’t understand what the commotion was all about. There was a police van and quite a few cars lining up the street. He didn’t want to get too close. The likes of him were always the ones harassed in situations like these. But he was worried. The crowd seemed to be congregating around Aru’s apartment.
‘The little girl,’ he heard one of the maids saying. ‘This was to happen any day we all knew.’ Lal’s heart skipped a bit. He rushed towards the garden splashing through the flooded street. It had poured last night.
Aru was sure she would be dead, but strangely enough it hadn’t been painful at all. She remembered the red liquid slowly trickling down onto her dress, but not much of the rest. It was quite nice actually, for at the hospital Ma had sat next to her 24/7 – sobbing constantly.
Ma loved her – Aru knew for sure now. And all her uncles and grandparents had come to visit too – with toys, books and goodies. Papa had sobbed too, coming in when Ma wasn’t around. Aru felt more loved than she could remember feeling in her six year lifetime.
She wondered why they kept moving her. From the big room with the TV into the one with so many others who mostly had their mouths covered and IVs hooked up into their arms.
Manasi looked in bewilderment at the man again. She knew him. He begged around their complex. She had once slapped Aru hard after catching her chatting with him. But she couldn’t understand what he was saying. She needed to get back to Aru. Her child. And her head was throbbing and silent screams were raging through every thread of her body.
She didn’t know anything else other than the fact that Aru needed her. Aru was critical. Why was this man wasting her time? What was he blabbering? And then, it caught her eye – the sparkling thing the man was holding out to her. She stood motionless as he grabbed her hand, opened her fist, and placed it on her stretched palm.
Broken pieces salvaged – brilliant and beautiful – sparkled against her fate lines. Manasi could feel her eyes slowly escaping onto her cheeks as her throat failed her. She knew these pieces. Each and every one of them.
Aru scoured the corridor as they wheeled her cart out. Ma wasn’t here yet! They had said nothing would happen to her. Grandpa, Papa, they all had promised. So she should have been here. Her little heart started racing.
Turning her head as much as possible, she stretched to catch the fast disappearing corridor. And then it appeared. A silhouette in draped in red, running towards them, frantically waving something.
Just before Aru’s little eyes closed – they recognised what it was. A peacock wind catcher. A promise of sparkling tomorrows made out of broken yesterdays.
Picture Credits: Still from Hindi TV series Kulfi Kumar Bajewala
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