“Let’s go,” Biplob said with a tone of authority, one moment and immediately flinched the next.
“I already made myself clear over the phone. If the flights get cancelled, I will manage something on my own,” Taposee said.
The official lockdown was yet to be announced by the government, but everyone was preparing for it. Every person behaved like WhatsApp forwards – circulating unverified messages, inventing preventions, and prescribing them to others. Neither Taposee nor Biplob fell into the trap. Yet neither of them realized that the sudden situation will put them into a specific state of an affair they had been dreading for some time now.
“Like what?” Biplob replied with a higher pitch. A few years back, a tone like this from Biplob would have instantly resulted in revolt, but through the years Taposee had learned to ignore it.
“Don’t bother. I am shifting with Indrani in a couple of hours.”
Taposee ran her fingers through her handbag, grabbed her mobile, and dialled Indrani’s number standing at one place as Biplob waited outside the hotel room.
Indrani was Taposee’s friend. Over the years, apart from being a close friend of Taposee, she had grown an unlikely fondness for Biplob. “I see,” Taposee said as Biplob noticed a change of colour on her face as she continued to talk on the phone, “I will manage…. No no, it’s okay… I’ll manage it.”
Taposee pressed the mobile hard on her palm and then disconnected without looking at the screen.
“You’ll not kill yourself if you stay with me and anyways, we have two separate rooms.”
“Don’t bother. I can stay with Jhumpa Pishi or Bubai till everything gets settled down,” Taposee said in a normal tone this time. Apart from Jhumpa Pishi, her father’s ailing sister, who was bedridden after her kidney had stopped functioning correctly, and she had to undergo dialysis twice a week and Tubai, her mama’s youngest son who worked in a Software start-up, no other relative stayed in Kolkata.
“Jhumpa Pishi is not doing very well nowadays, and going to her place would mean an extra burden. And you know the financial condition of Tubai’s family.”
“I just don’t want to be a burden,” she said, still standing at the same place. He tapped his fingers on the wall but didn’t reply. As he waited for Taposee to pack her bags, the day’s events ran inside his head. It was difficult getting to the hotel, and there were cops around the area. In the hotel too, the receptionist looked suspicious when he asked for the room number for Taposee Kundu. Before giving the details, he was checked for fever and was then provided with the information. “I don’t think the hotel will shut down.”
“Are you done with your reasons?”
She turned inside and packed all her belongings as fast as she could.
Still waiting at the hallway, Biplob had an inner urge to ask her to check the bathroom for a thing or two, she might have left, but remained quiet. In the past, whenever they were on vacation, she would eventually forget to check the bathroom and remember once they were on the flight back home. After two or three times, Biplob made it a habit to do it himself. The last time such a thing happened was two years back.
When Biplob saw that she was almost done, he said, “I’m waiting outside in the car.”
On the way back to a place, both of them called home once upon a time, almost empty roads complemented their state of mind. An epidemic which people first took lightly turned into a pandemic in no time. The people who felt remorse were now freaked out of their lives taking all the precautions.
The carburettor Biplob’s old Wagon-R made noises, so did the awkward silence between them. Biplob turned the radio on when the silence became uncomfortable to him. A local Bengali channel was running a Rabindra Songeet:
Majhe majhe tobo dekha pai
Chirodin keno pai na.
At times, I get a glimpse of you,
why can’t it last forever?
Keno megh ashe hridoyo akashe
Keno megh ashe hridoyo akashe
Tomare dekhite dey na.
Why do the crowded clouds in my soul,
stop me from seeing you?
Moho-meghe tomare dekhite deyena
Andho kore rakhe
Tomare dekhite dey na…
Majhe majhe tobo dekha pai
Delusioned me stops from seeing you,
Makes me blind,
At times, I get a glimpse of you,…
He switched the radio off and looked ahead in the road, gripping the steering wheel with all his might to squeeze out whatever he was feeling inside. Taposee let out an audible sigh.
There were no more songs for the rest of the journey. Even the silences failed to make a noise.
Twenty minutes later, Biplob drove inside the parking lot of the Geetanjali Complex. A total of twenty-three families lived in the six-storey housing complex. One of the apartments was vacant after the previous owner sold it and the new one was still to move in.
Biplob grew in a neighbourhood not far from the place he now lived. He knew the people around, the lanes by heart. If one asked him to tie a cloth around his eyes and go to the nearby grocery shop, he eventually would find his way back and forth. It was not magic; it was by design; he always had a mind that paid attention to details. Some of his friends said that it’s because he taught history and history as a subject had always been kind to details that suited a ruler.
By the time, they stepped inside the apartment; the PM announcement had begun. Biplob turned the Television of the drawing-room on as Taposee looked around finding herself in a place she knew nothing about. Then she drew the nearest chair and sat with her right arm resting on the dining table.
The prime minister announced, “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes. Every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown.”
With her ears towards the speech and eyes all over the place, Taposee inspected every inch, every corner of the apartment.
Biplob had changed the apartment like he always wanted to. Things had changed places- Television was no more in the bedroom. The fridge was shifted from the south-west corner of the house to the east wall. The sofa set along with the centre table was moved to a space near the Television.
“If you can’t handle these twenty-one days, this country and your family will go back twenty-one years,” the prime minister continued. “The only option is social distancing, to remain away from each other. There is no way out to escape from Corona Virus besides this.”
The wall adjacent to the fridge had all the photographs from the various trips they had made over the years. She was in the photographs but nowhere in the apartment. Her existence was rubbed off, forgotten like an old piece of cloth that once used to be a hot favourite. She felt her hand touch all the frames, making slight adjustments to make them aligned with each other. She hadn’t had that urge in ages. She was ageing.
“All the steps to ensure essential commodities will be maintained.”
“I presume the flights will be cancelled from tomorrow,” Biplob said, switching the TV off and keeping the car keys on the table-top. “There are masks and a few bottles of sanitizers near the TV set. Use them in case someone visits, and I am not around,” he said like he would address a guest about a new rule of the house
“I also feel so.”
“Somehow, I knew something similar to this would happen considering the situation in other countries, so I made a grocery shopping that would last ……Ummm…about twenty days for both of us.” It had been a couple of months that she had heard the word ‘us’ in the context of their marriage.
Without changing the clothes, Biplob wore his house slippers and was already on his feet, moving vegetables from the fridge to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
When Taposee couldn’t think of anything else to do, she said, “Let me know if I can be of any help,” and waited for a reply as she noticed Biplob from the corner of her eyes. When no response came, she said, “I am in the guest room.” She waited on the dining table with nothing else to say – wondering how she would manage to survive the rest of her stay in his company. Then Taposee slid her bag that was crowding the pathway to the guest room. The fear of estrangement didn’t suddenly crop up in her head. It started building from the car, grew on the lift and was at its peak now. A feeling that was once a doubt during the journey became evident as she sniffed the unpleasant air inside the apartment.
“Some of your clothes are cleaned and pressed in the almirah,” he said before she was about to enter the room.
She remembered leaving some of her stuff here. Only the things she thought would have the utmost need were packed in a hurry.
There was a time they shared a small house with just one bedroom. Now and then when they fought, the only bed of the house they shared melted away all the egos and anger. But now that the apartment is a bigger one, there was enough space for the anger and ego to breath and live in.
Biplob ladled a spoonful of Ghee over the rice when they sat for the diner. Over the years Biplob had developed a strange affinity towards Ghee, the reason for which was never clear to Taposee. During the first few instances, she used to fight with him in the dinner table saying that it’s bad for his cholesterol. But when he became deaf ear to all the bickering, she started hiding the bottle of Ghee. And in one such instance, she had mistakenly hidden it near the pills.
In the long pauses of their conversation on the dinner table, the cutleries screamed. They didn’t discuss their separation nor the proceedings that were due. They made a deliberate effort to be like a normal couple having dinner. Both of them didn’t want their case to be dragged for days in court, so their lawyers drafted the agreement in such an order. No personal attacks were made; no alimony was claimed, just a deal was signed for mutual separation. As soon as the paper works were done, the lawyers assured that they would be legally separated once the paper reached the court. But then the lockdown happened, and all courts were closed.
A year ago, Taposee got promoted to Manager of Decision Science at a multinational bank. She had started living in Bangalore since then with her parents, elder brother, sister in law and five-year-old niece.
“Maa called,” Biplob said. “Everyone is worried.”
Over the years, Biplob had developed an individual relationship with his in-laws, now soon to be ex. He regarded them as Maa and Baba, just like the way he used to call his own. He had decided himself that even if they are no more in a marital relation, he won’t change this part of his marriage. It had been about six years that his parents died in the Malaysian Airplane crash. They were touring as a part of Biplob’s father’s annual trip from the pharmaceutical company he worked in. After their death, he moved away from his ancestral house and sold it away.
“Hmm. They called me too and..”
She stopped abruptly. Biplob lifted his eyes which were fixed on the plate till now, to listen to the rest of the sentence, but she kept on eating, and he didn’t press forward. He knew Taposee was not willing to move this conversation any further. So, he diverted the topic instead.
“Take out all your clothes that need to be washed. I will wash them in the morning.”
She looked at his green round-neck t-shirt. It was a gift from her on Biplob’s second birthday after her marriage. The colour had faded, but it didn’t look old. She tried to comprehend a connection to their dwindling marriage but couldn’t.
“Why bother? Saraswati will do all the chores.”
Saraswati, Biplob’s house help, was a widow in her fifties. She lived alone after her only son went to Hyderabad in search of a job.
“Not sure if she will be able to come for a few days now. And in any case, if she does, I will pay her for a month and tell her to stay indoors.”
“We can ask her to stay here for some days till all this is over.”
“I will ask her tomorrow morning if she arrives.”
The next morning, Taposee woke up to the sound of utensils being washed. When she reached the kitchen, she saw Biplob scrubbing the pan and keeping it in the cupboard.
“The cops are on the street. She was told to return home.”
“Who will do the chores then?”
“Don’t bother. I’ll manage,” Biplob replied with a grin in his voice.
In the past, they fought innumerable times over this. Taposee would find a reason to escape doing the house chores; however, menial they were and Biplob would be pissed off eventually. After a point of time, Biplob started managing on his own, silently. Even after returning from Scottish Church college late in the evening, where he was a professor of history, he made the house in order.
Taposee having freshened up sat on the Sofa kept just outside the kitchen with a laptop on her thighs. She worked on some spreadsheet while Biplob brought her toast and eggs.
“Thanks,” she said. Biplob faked a slight smile in reply.
On the seventh day of the lockdown, after dinner, Biplob scooped two bowls full of vanilla ice cream from the fridge while Pather Panchali was being broadcasted on DD Bangla. As old tele-serials like Ramayan and Mahabharat were becoming popular on Doordarshan National, the regional channel decided to run old classic movies. On that day DD Bangla was running Pather Panchali. As Durga’s mother let out a list of all the house chores to Durga on TV, Biplob offered a bowl to Taposee. It was at that time he suddenly remembered that the flavour was her favourite.
Back in their early twenties, IISWBM had the annual fest. All the reputed colleges had been invited to participate in various events during the four-day long fest. Biplob was in the debating team representing the Presidency college, and Taposee was leading her host college in the same event.
In the semi-final round, Presidency college lost to IISWBM.
After the event was over, Biplob built up a nerve to approach the girl who had defeated him. What turned out later was Taposee was waiting for Biplob to make a move. Biplob, who was supposed to come to her college for just one event, went to the fest on all four days. Over the next few weeks, both of them had missed several classes to walk on the streets of North Kolkata humming Rabindra Songeet and discussing old Bengali movies. Biplob was a fan of Satyajit Ray, and for Taposee, Ritwik Ghatak was the greatest filmmaker. Many evenings they would have a cute fight over a specific movie and its flaws. On one such evening, both of them decided to take a walk from Park Street to Rabindra Sadan. While taking a longer route through Citizen’s Park and entering Nandan theatre, Biplob said, “You see the logo of the theatre there.” Taposee nodded, “Satyajit Ray designed it.”
They dated for about three years, and as soon as Biplob started teaching history as a part-time professor at Scottish Church College, they got married. Taposee was already working in a multinational bank as a business research analyst.
When Durga offered sugarcane to Apu in the movie, Biplob rose from the Sofa and headed towards the kitchen to do the dishes. While walking back to the refrigerator, his eyes fell on a framed picture of Satyajit Ray peering through the viewfinder of a camera. There was a time Biplob did not miss even a single frame of the movie.
On the tenth day, they had visitors at about one in the afternoon, two people from the local municipality- one male and one female.
“We have information that someone with a recent travel history is staying here,” the lady said as soon as Biplob opened the door. Each one had face masks and latex gloves. They look like doctors without headgears, Biplob thought.
“Yes. What about her?”
“We need to take her temperature and ask a few questions. Can you call her?”
Engulfed with worries, he approached the guest room. He had questions too – would she have a temperature? Would she be asked to accompany them to a medical facility? How will she be treated?
Before today it never occurred to him that she might also be Covid positive.
“Tapo,” In the company of the fear it never occurred to him not to call by that name. As soon as he realized, he corrected himself by knocking the door, “Taposee.”
She emerged from the room soon.
“There are people from the municipality. They want to ask you a few questions.”
“Okay.” When Taposee reached the door, she said, “Yes, I’m the person you people are looking for.”
“What’s your name?”
The lady noted down and then raised her hands with the thermal imaging camera and pointed it to Taposee’s forehead, “Temperature is normal.”
“Do you have a fever or any other health condition?”
“How long have you been staying here?”
“In this apartment or Kolkata?”
“In this apartment.”
In December, when the world was just starting to recognize the existence of the new Corona Virus, Taposee received a WhatsApp message from her lawyer. It said that a meeting had been fixed with Biplob’s lawyer to discuss the terms of their divorce in the first week of January. She was quick to reply- Will be busy. March is fine. Along with the message her mobile screen flashed with a headline of a supposed pandemic, she ignored it like the rest of the world.
When the world leaders recognized the gravity of the virus and its effect on the public, the date of their settlement was finalized. In the third week of March, four people met to discuss the primary proceedings of the divorce.
“Eight days?” she looked at Biplob for confirmation as he nodded in return. “Eight days.”
“Your relation with this person.”
“Ex.” Biplob intervened, “Ex-husband.”
Both the people looked at each other as if they thought it’s unnatural for a former couple to share a house.
“Please inform the municipality in case any one of you develops a fever or cold.”
Biplob and Taposee nodded, but by then, the other two had stepped away from the door and on their way back.
For a week or two, their schedule was quite the same – waking up around nine, eating breakfast by ten, doing the household chores or surfing the internet in the name of work from home, Taposee made two or three boring presentations that she knew would be rejected or reworked on, call her parents in between and lecture about taking all the precautions, Biplob made notes on the syllabus for the next year, having tea with some Muri and Chanachur at seven, dinner at eleven and back to their respective rooms by twelve. Every night Biplob would go to bed with the sound of Taposee talking over the phone as she hovered aimlessly in the drawing-room. She either had long conversations with her brother in Bangalore about the health of her parents or her batch-mates from college who found lockdown as an excuse to catch up and relive old memories every Sunday. While she joked and laughed, Biplob found it irritating as her cheer would sometimes knock him off the sleep, but he didn’t complain.
On the sixteenth day of the lockdown, Taposee woke up early and did a round of the house. While roaming in the kitchen, she found some unwashed utensils. She moved close to the basin, rubbed some vim on the Scotch-Brite and slowly started scrubbing them. The last time she had cleaned a utensil was during a Bangla bandh three years back, Biplob was invited by JNU to give a lecture on Marxism, Its Failures and Its Legacy and Saraswati had suddenly fallen ill. Alone in the house and restricted to go outside, she had to do all the household chores by herself for a day.
A Koel was calling at its highest pitch when she was about to sit having done the cleaning of the apartment. The sound led Taposee to the Veranda. She tried to locate the bird on the trees adjacent to the apartment, but couldn’t. The algae had caused the pond water to turn green. No human being could be seen in the pathway close to the pond that led to the main road. Two dogs – one standing and the other one was circling it. Her heart was out in the free air talking to nature. She imagined herself flying like a bird with no boundary, no lockdown to hold her a prisoner.
Back during their idle evenings, Taposee and Biplop would spread legs on the boundary wall of the Veranda, her leg on top of his, watching the sunset behind the buildings following the pond.
“Don’t you think the view behaves like a pet?” Biplop had said, “it always brings a smile at the end of a hectic day.”
“I never thought it that way.”
“Look at the pond forming the body. Its shallow edge looks like a face, fur-like weed growing around it. The coconut tree is resembling a tail.”
“Are you sleep talking?”
When Biplob woke up that day, he saw the door of the guest room open. He rolled his eyes from left to right but found his eyes responding to the sound of a Rabindra Songeet-
Pran chay chakshu na chay,
The heart desires but denies, the sight..
Slowly he paced near the Veranda with the intention of not making Taposee conscious.
At the time of rendezvous
But stopped seeing Biplob standing on the Veranda door, she didn’t complete the line-
The heart still dwells on the ache of separation…
“Why did you stop?”
She shrugged as she didn’t know the answer to the question. For the first time since she had arrived, she was looking happy as if a bird had just been welcomed in the nest it built.
Later that day, Taposee was in her room, attending a virtual meet with her colleagues when she heard a loud sound. By the time she reached near the source, Biplob was sitting on the floor holding his head as blood trickled between the gaps of his fingers.
“What happened? Let me see.”
As Taposee was about to touch the head, he said, “it’s okay.”
For a moment she forgot they were not together. For a moment, it didn’t occur to her that she had no right to touch Biplob without his permission. And she came back to reality when Biplob turned his face to the other side without making eye contact. There was a time they stole glances even when they were at the company of friends, but now, they somehow find it awkward to look at each other and talk at lengths when they are in the same room.
“Can u at least tell me where the first aid box is?”
Time and again, Taposee had told him not to wear slippers in the house, especially when the floor is wet. But as always, he had turned deaf ears to all her badgerings. And now that a thin stream of blood trickled down his forehead, all those badgerings were running in front of his eyes as he closed his eyes more out of shame than pain.
A flood of memories hit her as she entered into what used to be their bedroom even a year back. The wall colour – butter yellow was chosen by her from the heavy shade card, the small book rack half-filled with books she had gifted him on birthdays, anniversaries or during their visit to the Kolkata boi mela, the hydraulic bed they had bought after they moved to this apartment, the long flower vase which was a gift from a former colleague when she was leaving her former employer, the tablecloth beneath it – Biplob’s mother had bought for her from a trip to Meghalaya and the wooden Almirah they got after a discount along with the bed.
She paced towards the Almirah and moved the nob. In the second rack from the top along with his clothes was kept the first aid box.
Back in the kitchen, she made a cotton pad and applied Betadine on it.
He slowly removed his hand, making a deliberate effort not to look at her. They hadn’t been this close for some time now. As she slowly wiped the blood from the forehead, his heavy breath touched her left arm, making him feel like a young man unable to fathom his next move in the proximity of the opposite sex.
Biplop never really took smoking. At the end of the week, alone in his apartment, he enjoyed a peg or two of his single malt, now that Taposee was in the apartment he didn’t feel the need to drink, he didn’t feel lonely.
“I have stopped looking over the numbers,” Biplob said over the phone one evening to a colleague as both of them were working on the material for the virtual meeting of the college faculty the next day. He changed the slides of the PowerPoint presentation rectifying a typo. “They are depressing. No government, be it central or state is going to do anything extraordinary to save the people. Whenever the people of the earth have crossed a line, so far that they even can’t remember having crossed it, nature always draws a new line, over millions of dead bodies.”
As the people started turning into mere numbers and statistics, Taposee and Biplob involuntarily started living like a married couple. During the initial days of the lockdown when they were in the same room, Biplob made a point to scream the numbers – the number of cases and the number of deaths in the country. Taposee would reply with a “hmm”, audible enough to knock Biplob’s ears. But then one day he stopped which surprisingly didn’t result in any sort of complaint from Taposee.
“But I don’t agree with you. How can you call this a genocide?” the person on the other side of the phone asked.
“Genocide is a form of a massacre. This is no different. The country from where it is said to have originated is documented to have fewer deaths than other countries.”
“The oppositions are also saying it’s a conspiracy.”
“The politicians have a habit of putting propaganda everywhere. They eat money and shit propaganda and feed their propaganda to people.”
Biplob always had a strong political outlook, a staunch communist, something which he inherited from his father. The change of power in the state after thirty-three years had filled him with pessimism and scepticism. He never actively became a party member of the CPI(M) but was a number of a few pro-party groups on Social Media. Now and then he also shared a post or two on his social media feed. On the other hand, Taposee always held a neutral view. She criticized each political party on a case to case basis. Biplob always detested and often regarded her as a spineless woman.
Taposee came out of the room and went towards the fridge. She scanned the contents, and then as she was heading towards the room, Biplob asked, “You want something?”
“Something to eat,” Taposee replied.
“Please hold a second,” he said on the phone. Then he looked towards Taposee and said, “I have made some Halwa. It’s in the pan in the kitchen.”
“Yes, so as I was telling,” he continued over the phone, focusing on Taposee. “Everything is planned. Let’s say on an island if I have three hundred people of three ethnicities and a virus outbreak. And I give the vaccine to the people of only one ethnicity and let the other two die, won’t you call it Genocide. Something similar happened in the 1930s when Nazi used Typhus to disgrace Jews.” At this moment, the laptop screen in front of him went blue, “What the ….?”
“The laptop. It malfunctioned.”
“The meeting? You know I am technologically handicapped and so are the other professors at the college.”
“I know, I know. I will try to get it fixed. Let me try something and give you a call later.”
Taposee came near the table and stood facing the laptop, holding a small bowl in her hand. She wanted to ask if she could help in some way, but something was stopping her as if the willingness to help had been subsided by the prospect of an insult. On the other hand, Biplob was thinking about the meeting the next day. He long pressed the power button, but the light rejected any sign of glow, then he flipped the laptop and took out the battery- Inspecting the outer surface like a laptop mechanic with no knowledge in the subject.
“Can I do something?” she asked.
“Have you been learning how to fix a laptop lately?”
She feared this, but she instead chose to ignore the harsh comment. Taposee looked at Biplob’s head. The baldness was more prominent. It had more grey hair than the last time she had noticed. At thirty-seven he looked in the late forties. They were growing apart, and that’s a sign that they both were growing old, Taposee thought and then shrugged it off her head.
“No,” she said with authority. “But you can work on my laptop.”
He found himself staring at the small black mole in her temple and looked away as soon as he realized what he was looking at. Whenever they made love, he made it a point to kiss the mole first. He believed it was a switch that aroused her.
“It’s okay I will manage.”
At one moment, she thought of leaving things here and moved towards the guest room, and then she knew Biplob had been stubborn all his life. Biplob also alleged her of being in the same category. A trait that once brought them together was the reason for ripping them apart.
“It’s of no use to me tomorrow.” He looked hard at her, trying to penetrate inside her mind and read her thoughts. Then in a flash Biplob checked the date on his mobile – 2nd of May. Tomorrow is Sunday, he thought, she indeed won’t be working tomorrow. “You have a meeting, right? I know hosting a web conference is tough, especially when people on the other side are techno-peasants. You will have to make calls, tell them how to join. It will be a burden if you have only a mobile phone. Working with a laptop and phone will make things easier.”
She gave no choice to him this time.
The next day when Taposee woke up, it was already ten. The dishes were clean, the clothes were washed and spread out in the veranda, and the floors smelled of phenyl. Without going to Biplob’s room, she tried to hear the sound of his existence inside, but there was none. She looked at the shoe rack and noticed Biplob’s leather sandal was missing. There were books spread – right side up, notes, and a diary was scattered on the centre table of the drawing-room.
For years now, Biplob was working on a book about communism. With this lockdown, he thought of finishing the first draft he had been delaying for about two years.
When Biplob had proposed to Taposee for marriage, she got a bit surprised and asked, “Are you serious?”
“I can swear on the Communist Manifesto,” he had said.
Taposee stacked all the books now– one above the other and arranged all the papers in order. She read a few pages of the open diary bearing his handwritten notes and closed it, making a thaw sound. She had been brought in a family that believed an open book to be a curse. “All the gained knowledge disappears when a book is kept open for long,” Jhumpa Pishi would say when she was small.
The apartment felt her for a moment. It had been precisely four years, Biplob had bought this apartment. When Taposee had insisted on putting in money, Biplob made a pact with her. “I want to buy this apartment. I know you can pay and we can repay the bank loan early. But please let me do this,” he had said.
“Since when have you started acting patriarchal?”
“Since when did following a dream become a sign of patriarchy?”
They both peered at each other and then Biplob said, “Okay, let me buy this, and you’ll sponsor every trip we make henceforth. Deal?”
And their lips had curved a smile.
No, this was never her house, she thought, coming back to the present. Biplob had always found out reasons when she wanted to make a big investment in renovating the house.
The car – his.
The Insurances and medi-claims from his money.
Nothing was mutual. Not even love.
She looked at the clock hanging above the fridge – Eleven. No sign of Biplob yet. Walking to her room, she grabbed her mobile. She knew, there won’t be a message, or a call from him still couldn’t help but look at it. She was right. No sign of a virtual presence too. She moved to the Veranda and stared at the path connecting the housing complex gate to their building in the hope of seeing him. No luck either. The clothes were dry by now. Unclipping the clothes, she couldn’t help but look at the gate. There were days when she worked from home, she would see his maroon Wagon-R emerge from the parking and slowly vanish into the traffic of the main road from the Veranda when he left for college where he taught. She was happy when she was away. She didn’t have to think of Biplob and handle his recklessness.
It was twelve-thirty when Biplob came back two bags in hand – One full of vegetables and another one having groceries. Taposee had thought several times to give him a call, but every time she was about to dial the number, someone from inside stopped her. When she saw him enter the door, she gave a hard look at him – sweat trickling down his forehead, and a facemask was hanging from the left ear. Biplob was surprised to see her sitting on the dining table with eyes stuck on the door. He wanted to say the reason for him being late, that he went to Saraswati’s house to give her some money that he thought would make her survive during this period and while returning his old Scooty broke and he had to push it all the way. But he didn’t say a word. His eyes kept staring at her as she kept the laptop for him to use for the meeting and walked to the guest room.
Biplob always wanted a child, Taposee was never ready. For the first few years, Biplob tried to persuade her, but when the years of marriage grew, the love plummeted between them. And soon he made himself believe that a childless marriage is as pointless as a cigarette-butt. That was the beginning of the end.
His constant bickering at the end of each day made Taposee furious after a point, and one day she decided to lie to him, “Let’s give it a try.”
Alone in the house one afternoon, Biplob sat at the dining table about to have his lunch. As he was about to open the rice cooker, he noticed the Ghee was missing. In the next fifteen minutes, he searched every corner of the house- the fridge, every rack in the kitchen, even the almirah as he thought Taposee might turn naughty and hide it away. Then as he was moving out of their bedroom, he wanted to give another try, so he searched Taposee’s dressing table. It was there, behind the lipstick box in one of the lower racks along with it a strip of contraceptive pills- six of the pills missing.
That night they had a massive fight. Biplob, whose emotions never betrayed him, screamed at her for the first time. Taposee also revolted in the same way. First, she fought, and then as an act of revolt, she moved out of the apartment. She took a promotion which she had been delaying for some days because she didn’t want to leave Kolkata and Biplop in a sign of rage.
In a fit of anger, Biplob sent her a divorce agreement. Taposee signed it back to show her revenge.
She left with questions- is this the same man she had once loved? Is this the same person for whom she was going to sacrifice her promotion because she had to change cities? Is having a child more important than living happily?
On the other hand, Biplob was inundated with thoughts too – Is asking for a child much? What wrong am I doing in my eagerness to begin a family?
The call was late at night, Biplob had already drifted off to sleep. With a heavy head, he answered, “hello.”
The sound of soft sobbing preceded the words from the other end, “Jhumpa Pishi passed away this evening.” This bad news alerted all his senses, and he sat on the bed. “The hospital called an hour back.”
After the call had ended, he tiptoed out of the room without his slippers. As he was about to tap the door to the guest room, he heard a weak voice – Taposee was weeping. He barged inside without a knock. She was sitting on the floor with a pillow on her lap, her head against the willow of the bed. Biplob lowered his body, went on his knees, and kept a hand on her left shoulder. Her breathing was uneven. She said nothing, neither did he. And when the tension in the room and between both of them was on the verge of melting, Biplop in sudden movement removed his hand as if he had a sudden realization and rushed out of the room.
On the Eighteenth of May, Taposee received a WhatsApp forward about a super cyclone in the Arabian Sea. As always, she thought, it won’t affect most places of Kolkata and will move its course to Bangladesh. It never crossed her mind that she could be wrong.
Two days later, news of the cyclone and predictions of its destruction inundated every local news channel as Biplob changed one channel to another. Some said wind would blow up to 150 kilometres per hour, and some predicted more.
“Charge all your electronic gadgets,” Biplob said, “we might have a power cut.”
“Yes,” Taposee was looking at the dark clouds from the glass window pane, “and my power bank is charging too. But I presume it won’t be as serious as it looks like. The media also informed us about the cyclone just a day back.”
“Nature has a habit of showing its darker side whenever people try to scoff it off.”
“A storm is a sign of change. It’s not a sign of doom.”
“This part of the land has not witnessed a category five cyclone in this century. A super cyclone is not to be taken lightly. The media is all caught up with the Covid crisis. They think this will just pass.”
“Ma and Baba are worried; they strictly directed us to stay indoors.”
Ignoring Taposee’s decree, Biplob said with a tone of mockery, “Who names the cyclones?”
“Amphan or Umphun is a Thai word for sky. Sky a name for a cyclone? Are you kidding me?”
In the evening, Taposee emerged from the guest room headed towards Biplop, who was making notes with all his subject books spread on the floor. Lately, Biplop preferred to work in the drawing-room. He made notes sitting on the floor, sat with his newly fixed laptop watching a documentary on history on the sofa, talked for long hours with his friends or colleagues about the crisis as he chopped vegetables on the dining table.
“Indrani was taken to the hospital,” Taposee said.
Biplop removed his reading glasses and said, “Why?”
“She contracted the virus. She was experiencing difficulties in breathing and fever for the last five days. Neel took her to the hospital; she had been tested and got the results an hour back. She just talked with me before heading to the hospital.”
“What about the family?”
“Neel and her kids are told to stay in home quarantine for the next fourteen days.”
“Do I go and buy them some essentials?”
“I will ask Neel once he is back from the hospital.”
“Don’t worry. She doesn’t have any major illness. She had been healthy most of her life. She will just be fine.”
She nodded and went back to her room.
At about three in the afternoon both of them felt the winds swelling under the dark clouds. The trees on the other side of the road moved like a dancer banging his head to the music of punk rock. Their similar view from the Veranda which they often compared to a domestic animal easing the tension at the end of the day had turned into an angry animal staring at them waiting for the right time to attack. At this time Taposee got busy along with Biplob shutting all doors and windows, double-checking the bolts.
After a while when they were done, Biplob asked, “What do you want for dinner?”
“Dinner? It’s just four.”
“Well, the electricity might be gone any minute. So, I better finish off everything before.”
He was in the middle of his chores when the storm intensified. Despite the windows and doors being wholly shut, the sound of the gusting wind was audible as if a loud ghost was revolving around the building. Biplop left whatever he was doing and stood beside the sofa, where Taposee was sitting with anxiety all over her face. Back when both of them were dating, during a trip to an amusement park, Taposee had fainted inside a Horror Park. Afterwards, she had said, “I fear the darkness. I feel claustrophobic when I can’t see anything around.”
Taposee pressed her palm against the ears to resist the sound of the wind slapping the glass of the windows and kicking the building. At this moment Biplob who was hovering down the hallway, with hands locked behind his back and slouched stomach, came and sat beside her. With the utmost attention to her, Biplob kept his fingers run aimlessly over his mobile screen.
When the storm took a breather, he asked, “Are you okay?”
She nodded her head lightly.
“Good. Let me check if the water is coming in through the corners of the doors or the windows.”
He had left her seat by the time Taposee moved her head.
“Can you come to my room?” he screamed from inside. When she reached near him, he was holding the mattress of his bed. The rainwater had made its way in drenching his bed. “Can you help me move the bed?”
By the time they were done moving the bed and putting an old cloth below the windowpane, the storm had intensified again. At this time, lights went off. “This is what I was fearing. Luckily, dinner is ready.”
Taposee’s face had turned anxious again looking like a scared cat drenched in the rain as Biplob pressed on the flashlight of his mobile having returned to the drawing-room and put it on the centre table, upside down. Taposee sat quietly on the sofa while Biplob kept moving around the sofa with hands behind his back, he kept circling the sofa as if he was guarding her against all the evils and all her subconscious fears. But then they heard the loud sound followed by a massive scream, and the next moment she caught hold of his hand. He removed her hand and moved towards the front door.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if everything is alright.”
She gulped the air and said, “Don’t. Please.”
He ignored her and unbolted the front door. People from the other apartments were on the stairs, staring at each other with questions.
Then someone from upstairs screamed, “A windowpane wedged off completely in Mukherjee’s flat. Fifth floor. Everything is okay.”
He nodded, entering the drawing-room and said, “We have the luxury at our fingertips, many don’t. They suffer—different gods for rich and poor. In the negotiation between nature and life, nature always has the upper hand. If you raise your hand against it will crumple you, the only way is to bow down in front of nature instead.”
That night both of them slept on the sofa facing opposite to each other. He faced the roof thinking about her. The presence of someone in the room gave Biplob a feeling of someone in his life. It never occurred to him that it was all mandatory. He felt safe. He fell asleep, having grasped with happy thoughts. Taposee faced him seeing him occasionally through the crevices of her half-shut eyes.
Electricity came at four-thirty in the morning by then both were too sleepy to move to their rooms.
The next morning at around ten, Taposee woke up to find Biplob nowhere. Upon investigating around the apartment, she deducted that as there was another power cut, the water supply was cut too.
As soon as Biplob entered through the door, he fainted, keeping the jar of water he brought along. Luckily, Taposee was near him, preventing him from falling.
She quickly checked his pulse-slow. He was sweating. She was fast to kneel near him and raise his heavy legs and his shoulder- something she learned while watching a movie, helps in restoring blood flow to the brain. When there was no response, she supported his legs in an inclined position and went up to open the door and windows. There were leaves stuck on the windowpane. The storm had subsided leaving behind its footmarks.
After some time, Biplob opened his eyes, and as he was about to raise his head, Taposee pushed it down with authority.
“Who told you to carry the heavy jar up the stairs? Are ageing backwards?”
“There was no water in the house.”
“The condition is horrible everywhere. The small shops that sell vegetables in the bazaar are destroyed—branches hanging from the broken electric poles like kites. So many trees are uprooted. Social distancing is down in the drain. Everyone is on the street. There is no electricity supply, no water to drink.”
“I have seen the condition from the Veranda.”
“But who told you to go outside. You didn’t even wear a mask.”
“I was in a hurry.”
“Always reckless, always stubborn.” She said, “we could have managed. A few days back, you bumped your head, and now this, God only knows how you manage without me.”
Both gaped at each other. Biplob had done something he shouldn’t have, and Taposee had said what she shouldn’t
Biplob had a problem of not apologizing even when he was wrong, that’s the one complaint Taposee always had. He would stop talking for days but won’t utter the word ‘sorry’. Something had changed him in the last year, or so, she noticed. It was a surprise to her, a surprise that gave her a hidden pleasure.
With the cup of evening tea in his hand, he stepped towards the veranda. She followed with her cup. There was no evidence of a broken tree on the street, although some branches were cleared. There was only a faint footprint of the cyclone near the Geetanjali apartment. The storm had changed the dynamics of their relationship too. They didn’t feel awkward in each other’s presence.
The electricity was restored after two days, water supply soon after and the internet after five days.
Then watching the sunset with a hope for a new day, he started singing:
Amaro porano jaha chay
Tumi tai, tumi tai go
Toma chara ar e jogote
mor keho nai kichuu nai go
Everything my heart desires
You are the one, yes you are.
Apart from you, in this entire world
I have none, nothing I have.
Everything my heart
At this moment, Taposee closed her eyes and sang along with a smile.
Tumi shukho jodi nahi pao
Jao shukhero shondhane jao
Ami tomare peyechhi hridoyo majhe
Aro kichu nahi chai go Amaro porano.
Ami tomaro birohe rohibo bilino
Tomate koribo bash.
Dirgho dibosho dirgho rojoni
Dirgho borosho maash.
If you fail to get happiness,
Travel in search of happiness,
As I keep you deep in my heart,
Nothing else do I desire more.
Pining for you, in your absence
I will fade myself, to live in you.
Long be the day, Long every night
Long be months and years that go by.
Having a rainbow of a smile in his face and a river of tears welling up inside her, they continued.
Jodi aaro kare bhalo basho Jodi aaro fire nahi aasho
Jodi aaro kare bhalo basho Jodi aaro fire nahi asho
Tobe tumi jaha chao tai jano pao
Aami joto dukho pai go Amaro porano..
If you love someone else,
And you never do return
Then whatever you covet
That you get,
And may all your sufferings be mine.
Taposee straightened her back as Biplob came near the sofa, waiting for Taposee to slide so that he can sit. All the while Taposee was acting a little naughty, she knew what his body language meant, but she wanted him to speak.
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
As she slid her hips to make space for him, she laughed and said, “you’ll never change”.
A reporter had just started reading the hours’ bulletin when Biplob switched the TV on, “The government has extended the lockdown, offering a number of relaxations to people”.
Biplob pressed the mute button of the remote and said facing Taposee, “Can I use your laptop? Mine is not charged. I need to check some assignments submitted by the students.”
She closed the YouTube window and opened the Google Classroom, “this one, right?”
While he got busy on the laptop, she fidgeted with her mobile, checking her social media. As Taposee was scrolling her feed, she saw a news article: Domestic violence cases up twenty-one percentages since lockdown. When reading the news piece got boring, she shifted to another app.
“What are you laughing at? Some meme?” He said, catching her giggling at the mobile screen.
“No, a news article.”
“Yes, the news is funny nowadays.”
“A gram panchayat in Odisha hired a sari-clad woman with chalk-white on her face and payel on her feet to roam around the village at night. This was done to ensure people don’t roam on the street and follow the lockdown.”
“There’s still some chicken left. I was thinking of making Biryani today. Do you mind?” Biplob said, having checked all the assignments an hour later.
She shook her head and curved her lips to give a slight smile.
He smiled back, “Okay.”
After their evening tea as Biplob did the dishes, Taposee got busy pressing the clothes that were washed and dried this morning.
On the Sixty-fourth day of the lockdown, Biplop was washing the vegetables for lunch when Taposee came inside the kitchen and said, “Indrani is released from the hospital.”
“She is weak but good.”
“That’s nice to hear.”
Biplob nudged her with his elbow and signalled to pass the wiping cloth.
She looked around the kitchen, passed the piece of cloth, and then asked, “May I?”
He passed the potato to her and asked, “Did you hear the news?”
They had never prepared food together before.
“The airport is up and running.”
“The first flight to Bangalore is on the Eighth of June.”
“We have to continue working from home for some time now.”
She looked at him, waiting for him to meet her eyes.
“I was thinking of getting the home painted, Topo.”
With excitement in her voice, she said, “A certain combination of Orange and Citrus for the Drawing Room and light shades for the bedroom and guest room would look perfect. I will look up the specific colours.”
They made prolonged eye contact, and this brought an inviting smile to his face, a smile he had forgotten that he ever had.
I write …