By Achyut Dutt
Shalik’s earliest recollections were of her aunt’s home in Lake View, a leafy street in southern Kolkata, by the Dhakuria Lake.
In the beginning, her mother would leave her there for a few days at a stretch, “Didi, ektu Shalik ke kichu diner jonney raakhbi? Aami Bombay jachchi kaje, ashche robbar eshe oke niye jaabo. Lokhkhiti.” (Didi, can you have Shalik with you for just a few days? I have some work in Bombay, will pick her up Sunday. Please.)
Those brief disruptions in her life grew as time went on and the ‘few days’ gradually expanded to a few weeks at a stretch. And when she did return to pick her up, Shalik’s mother looked more and more drawn and pale, like she hadn’t been sleeping well in a while. If she tried to ask her, “Ma, tumi ki koro eto din okhane?” (Mother what have you been doing over there for so long?), her mother would just say, “Oh nothing much, sweetheart, it was boring really” and she’d deftly change the subject.
Shalik’s mashi and mesho were a cold, remote, and mirthless couple and their irritation toward her began to grow in direct proportion to the length of her mother’s absences. It was not like she was a burden on them. They were well-to-do and an army of servants took care of everything. It was her obedience, her attitude, her innocence, and her entire demeanor. She was in sharp contrast with their only child, their daughter Hanshi, a brattish girl who was two years Shalik’s senior.
In Shalik, they saw everything that they’d ever wanted in Hanshi but did not get. They rued the thought that here was an angel that a mother had virtually deserted and she wasn’t their own. Instead, they had a spoiled, whining, loutish girl, who was getting gradually out of control. It seemed crazy but Shalik’s aunt and uncle gradually started despising her for this.
Let me clarify here that there was never any physical or psychological abuse inflicted on her. The couple were quite civil that way. It’s just that they grew cold and distant with her. The smiles, the hugs, those kisses, the sitting together in the verandah on the Sunday mornings rubbing coconut oil into her hair and twisting it into pretty pig tails, those things happened to other little girls, not to Shalik.
Shalik’s mother never missed her birthdays. She’d always be back loaded with presents, not only for her but for everybody else. She would stay a few days, till it was time again. Time for Shalik to hear the words that she dreaded, “Shalik shona, kal shokal shokal berute hobe abar. Aaj chol shara raat goppo korey katai, ha?” (Darling, I have to leave early in the morning. Let’s spend the night just talking, OK?)
It was her mother’s visit on her 14th birthday that Shalik remembered clearly. And it was also the last she saw of her mother alive. They lay together cheek to cheek, in the dark, after her aunt and the others had gone to bed. Shalik clutched her mother’s (by now) very frail body, one leg flung across her waist.
The summer moon had suddenly decided to peek out. In the glow through the open window by the bed, Shalik sensed wetness on her cheek. Drawing her head back, she saw in the moonlight her mother’s face, once beautiful and now gaunt, the kajal smudged a little by the tears. Her mother just smiled back, “The next time, I’ll be back for good, I won’t have to go away anymore”.
“Teen shotti?” (Say swear?) she pleaded as she held on to her. Her mother nodded and smiled.
“Shotti shotti shotti.” (I swear, I swear, I swear.)
No one knew exactly how her mother died. Shalik was just told that it had been a hit-and-run in Mumbai. Her mother’s passing somehow softened Shalik’s aunt, uncle, and even Hanshi’s feelings for her. Funny, isn’t it, how just when you feel you cannot go on, things begin to look brighter.
Someone else entered her life around then. A boy she would see sometimes, walking by on his way to the South Point High School, the same school that she went to. He went by the name of Arjun. Arjun Das. She learned this when she met him one Sunday by the lake, a block from Anderson’s Club. She also knew he was two years her senior and would be graduating that year. She had heard that from Hanshi, who happened to be his classmate.
This is how it happened. As Shalik walked by on her way to her favorite bench up the lake shore one Sunday, she came upon Arjun, seated on a rock at the water’s edge. He had a line in the water. Those days, no one could afford any fancy fishing gear, so he just had a stick with a line, at the end of which was impaled a worm. He’d just snagged a smallish katla, now lying inside a basket, still flopping around. He had the line back in.
On his left hand, the boy held P.G.Wodehouse’s The Mating Season. He was chuckling quietly to himself when she came upon him. With the katla in the basket still doing a flip-flap, it looked as if Arjun was reading out loud and the katla was ROFLing. The whole thing was funny enough for her to stop in her stride and burst into laughter. He jerked around at the sudden noisy giggles and stared at her, annoyed.
“Listen, miss, what you just did was unforgivable. I was negotiating with this huge mommy katla when you scared her away. If this was medieval England, you’d be burnt at the stake for this.” Arjun paused and took a second look at her. The edge in his voice was missing when he said, “Well, don’t just stand there, give me a hand, will you?”
The boy dragged her by the hand to an adjacent rock and held out another fishing ‘stick’ already rigged with line and worm. There was so much authority in his tone that she came forward, hurriedly sat down on the rock, and took charge of the stick after he’d swung it into the water. And there, as they sat, they laughed over Wodehouse (who was Shalik’s favorite, too) and this and that. The sun seemed to be flying across the sky much faster that day.
They caught two katlas and one huge rui by the time the shadows began lengthening. As he gathered up his fishing paraphernalia, Arjun turned to Shalik and said, simply, “I am going to marry you. You will be my wife. You are going to wait, for me to be able to.” That was that. He reached inside his pocket and brought out a ring, one of those shiny trinkets the hawkers sell at the Gariahat crossing.
“So, you are one of those roadside Romeos, walking around with a ring in your pocket,” she said lamely, her pulse throbbing, as she let him take her small hands gently in his, while he threaded the ring in. But she wasn’t prepared for his reply which left her stunned, pleasantly stunned.
He simply shook his head and said, “It had been in my pocket for a while, waiting for you, ever since I’d spotted you with Hanshi. I knew it’d just be a matter of time.”
He had then taken her by the hand, up the grassy slope, onto the narrow walkers’ path that ringed the lake. Exactly ten years from that day, they were married. He had a few conditions that she had respected. That she’d walk into his home with only one suitcase filled with just the things dear to her. There would be a civil wedding and a small dinner for very close relatives and friends. He would be back at work the next morning. And that’s exactly what happened.
Over the years, Shalik learned to fall in love with Arjun and he with her. She was first attracted by his stern exterior and mushy insides, his quick wit, and his unending optimism about life in general. And she still is even now.
And Shalik? Well, as she reached out to Arjun’s sleeping form in the dark and ran her fingers through his greying hair, Shalik drew a deep breath and whispered softly, “Nandini Shyamrao, I’ll take it from here. Shalik is back in town.”
Before I finish, let me tie up some loose ends here. Shalik’s aunt and uncle later came to love her just as much as Hanshi. They have settled down for good in Salt Lake, where Shalik’s uncle runs a successful law practice. Hanshi grew into advertising like a fish takes to water. She is now the creative director at the Indian subsidiary of one of the largest ad agencies in the world. She remains unmarried but blissfully tied in knots with a dozen eligible men, at any given point of the time. And as to the question of Shalik’s father, who finds no mention here, the writer begs the reader’s forgiveness for skipping the old man, who asked that he may please be left out of the narrative.
Old writers hate writing about themselves, y’know.
Illustration: Achyut Dutt
Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. To read more about his take on life, just google ‘spunkybong’.
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