By Anindita Das
The water in the deep-bottomed pasta pan came to a rumbling boil before Sunetra gingerly added the soaked, fine-grained Basmati rice to it. Not waiting to check the gruel appear, as she would normally do, she urgently pulled the dark-wood scallop knob in the oak cabinet drawer. Hastily fishing out a ballpoint pen, jostling amid the crowd of stainless steel cutlery, she walked over to the fridge, next to the stove. Cereal boxes lay stacked on the fridge top, mostly semi-finished or down to their last dregs. Mementos and memorabilia, souvenirs from her several holidays, lay plastered on the fridge door. For a moment she studied the numbered-grid calendar on the door before quickly allowing her eyes to settle on a date, December the seventeenth. Every January, for the last three years, she would receive these magnet calendars from an anesthetist, her ex-colleague from India. She pressed the button of the retractable pen exposing its steel nib before running it twice diagonally across the date. She exerted pressure on the pen, so the rib impressed on the back of the paper. The sixteen dates before the seventeenth had all been struck out, blue ink crisscrossing the numbers. The eighteenth prominently stood out from the rest – a circle inked around it in scarlet. Only a few hours separated her from her long-anticipated holiday to Kolkata, her hometown.
Normally, Sunetra would devote the afternoons to cutting, chopping, slicing, julienning vegetables to be cooked for dinner. But today she did all that in the morning as soon as her son had left for school; his last day before the Christmas holidays. The fine rice grains, now plump and pudgy, danced vigorously in the rapidly thickening rice gruel. Sunetra turned the heat off and covered the pot with its strainer lid. As she drained the scalding hot liquid down the hollow of the sink duct, steam warmed up her face and hands. But she couldn’t care less. She had other things in mind, things that had been keeping her in a state of delirium for the last fortnight. Placing the pasta pan on the countertop, , she dashed to the living room. Her haste and impatience had the same immediacy that marked her impatience to rush home every evening from the hospital.
The living room, spacious enough to have lured Sunetra to decorate it with furniture items picked from neighbourhood garage sale, now resembled a mini battleground. Clothing items, fancy perfume bottles, toiletries and a host of kitchen paraphernalia lay strewn across the floor. Apart from the three check-in luggage bags that the airline would allow her and her family, an extra baggage was deemed necessary by her. She intended to use it solely for packing gifts for relatives. Her husband, though unwilling to cough up an additional hundred dollars as charge for excess baggage, had to eventually agree with Sunetra.
She wanted to finish packing before her husband and son returned home. Squatting on the floor, the way she would during a meal in the boisterous company of her numerous cousins in back home, she flipped open the lid of a black luggage bag. Outside, the afternoon sky, leaden and gloomy, looked pregnant. She carefully counted the hooked dish towels, about ten of them, before piling them neatly in one corner of the bag. A Corelle dinnerware, bought during the Black Friday sale, was cautiously laid amidst a roll of cushy bath towels. Daintily folded was a powdered pink frock for her sister’s year-old daughter whom she had seen and heard only on her fourteen-inch laptop screen. Zip-lock bags were stuffed inside the side pockets. She began humming a Tagore song about a bumble-bee merrily buzzing its way into a room.
Sunetra had started training in classical music when she was barely six. As she reached adulthood, the mounting academic pressures of medical school left her with little time to devote to her hobby. Yet her love for music was so untiring that she would practice the notes and cadences to the accompaniment of a harmonium at the crack of dawn on days when she could steal time. Family get-togethers were incomplete without her crooning. Locally held functions came alive with the rendition of songs in her mellifluous voice. Inter-school competitions and inter-college fests, which she zealously took part in, didn’t go unrewarded either. Victory goblets in brass, copper and nickle adorned the armoire shelves in the display rooms of her alma mater. However, marriage and, subsequently motherhood, had seen her juggle family and career, desperately but unsuccessfully. Eventually, she bid an unsung end to her musical aspirations.
A gynecologist, she was earlier employed with a top city hospital in Kolkata. But after resuming work following her maternity leave, she learnt that managing the home and her medical career required a degree of efficiency that she lacked. There would be days when her infant’s nanny would be absent without notice. In the absence of a daycare facility in the city, she would drop her baby at her parents’ in the northern fringes of the city before dashing off to her workplace in South Kolkata. Dates in her organizer would be scheduled for surgeries only on days when her mother would be available to baby-sit the infant. Many a time, she would contemplate taking a break and devoting her time exclusively to her new family. The option, though apparently alluring, was impossible for her to act upon. It was not her overweening ambition as her relatives inferred, but due to her unwavering devotion to her noble profession that made her continue. She started practicing at a private clinic, one that was far smaller, both in size and in reputation, than her hospital but located nearer her home. It cut her commute time and also reduced her stress levels, while providing her with ample time to devote to her infant son. When her son started school, she rented a place, barely five kilometres away from her apartment and started a private practice, one that soon saw her win the goodwill of the locals.
Four years ago her husband, Akash, a consultant with a multi-national firm, found an opportunity to work in the United States on a covetous work permit visa. When he proposed to migrate to the US, Sunetra refused to quit her medical practice. Tiffs and squabbles followed, snowballing into arguments and altercations in no time.
“I alone will earn more than what you and I together make here,” her husband argued.
Sunetra, not the one to keep quiet, had flared up, “Is it only about the money, Akash? What about my career?”
“And what about the home loan? The EMI? If we continue like this, it’ll take us years to close the loan.”
The thought of giving up her job made Sunetra break down. It was Akash who had taken her in his arms, comforted her and made her see the opportunities that America would provide to their young family, especially to their five-year-old boy. And if things worked according to plan, Sunetra, too, could add up on her medical degree. He spoke glibly about the respect that an American university degree would easily command. It dispelled Sunetra’s apprehensions about being jobless in a new country. It helped to see her future through the prism of dreams and aspirations. She kissed Akash and they made love that night as Bubai slept in one corner of the bed.
Continuing with the Tagore song, she hooked the handle of the luggage bag to a digital weighing machine. She still had six more pounds to go. The song’s bumblebee now brought tidings of love to the room’s occupant, who, restless in the lonely house, whiled away the infinite hours by counting days. Boxes of cling-wraps were fitted into the crannies while the nooks were stuffed with customized Pakistani biryani spices bought from the local India grocer. Her momentary preoccupation was interrupted by the hoarse call of a gull that flew over her apartment. She looked out and saw the snow, a steady fall in the blustery air.
Just beside the walkway leading up to the road from the apartment stood a maple tree. Fall had seen its branches gloriously clothed in a hue of flaming orange. Its ochre leaves often reminded Sunetra of palash, the ‘fire of the forest.’ As children, she and her cousins would pick these flowers from the backyard of their two-storied, suburban house. Shorn of its leaves now, the maple tree swayed violently, lashing over their apartment’s roof with a vicious ferocity.
At the dinner table that night, Akash’s reluctance to travel to India became all the more pronounced. Serving himself a spoonful of rice, he looked restless. Outside, the snowfall continued unabated. Sunetra noticed deep furrows lining his forehead.
“Wasn’t Florida a better option than Kolkata?” he blurted as his teeth scrunched into a roasted papad.
Sunetra craned her neck to check if there was any lentil soup left in the bowl. She made sure there was no leftover food.
“Say something,” prodded Akash, his brows raised in anticipation of a response.
“What do you want me to say?” Sunetra asked without looking at her husband. She carried her dinner plate to the sink and ran the tap open. “If a plane does not take off for Kolkata, it would not take off for Florida either,” her voice rose over the sweeping gush of the tap water.
Another lash on the roof, this time the sound of a giant whip coming down with all its might, as the wind shrieked, screamed and howled.
“Why digress? You know very well the issue is not about the planes taking off,” Akash argued.
“How many more years do you want me to not visit my parents?” Collecting Akash’s dinner plate, she was about to step into the kitchen when she paused in the hallway to remind her husband, “It’s been four years since I last saw them. F-O-U-R L-O-N-G years.”
Each word that came out of her mouth sounded as if she were chewing the alphabets before releasing them.
Realising there was little he could offer to appease his wife, Akash began minding their son who was presently busy at a game of super Mario.
“Why don’t you go to bed, Bubai? It’s going to be an early morning tomorrow.”
“It’s not yet eight, Daddy,” chomped the nine-year-old. Four years of school in America had made him acquire a distinctly nasal accent.
Hearing Bubai pay no heed to his father’s orders, Sunetra barged out of the kitchen and barked at him, “On to bed, Bubai. Right now! Will you?” her hand pointing towards the bedroom.
Having had his much-desired Florida trip cancelled due to the Kolkata trip, a resentment had been brewing in Bubai. Now when he was unexpectedly chided, he vented out his bitterness at once. “You always have your way, Mom. Daddy is right. We could have had so much more fun in Florida. You always have your way,” he muttered as he reluctantly walked towards the bedroom. His father followed him.
Sunetra wiped the dining table and headed to the kitchen. Standing in front of the sink, she watched the lukewarm tap water splash over the dinner plates. She began scrubbing the plates, almost in regulation, drudgery she has subjected herself to for four years. She did not realise when tears had started rolling down her cheeks.
Later when Akash and Bubai were fast asleep, Sunetra was still in the living room, still checking with the packing. The telephone was cradled between her shoulder and ear.
“You know it’s been snowing since afternoon,” she said over the phone as she peered outside.
The premature evening had seen the wooden panels in the balcony floor gather snow up to two inches. Glittering fairy lights spiralled up the balustrade of the neighbourhood balcony. Colourful mason-jar lanterns hung from its ceiling. Sunetra’s balcony, too, had been lit for Diwali in early November. In the absence of earthen lamps, she had used tea-light candles, the ones she lit religiously every evening in front of the gods mounted on one of the walls in her bedroom.
“At 11:40 a.m. We plan to leave home by eight. I spoke to the airline in the afternoon. It may be delayed but thankfully it’s not cancelled,” she spoke as she zip-locked her carry-on luggage.
Now it was her mother’s turn to talk. Sunetra weighed each of the four luggage items for the umpteenth time. No nook, no cranny was left unoccupied. She had to still pack tooth brushes and other toiletries in the morning. Slouched on the couch, she ran her slender fingers down her voluminous hair when something her mother said made her frown.
“On the 21st? Invitation? Uh huh,” she shook her head. “No Ma, we have our visa stamping on the same day. We have to visit the American Embassy on the 21st.”
Something that her mother said made her sit upright. Soon the conversation shifted from the inconsequential to the sombre. She spoke animatedly using gestures as though she were talking to her mother in person.
“Ma, I’ve told you this several times,” a hint of exasperation was just beginning to form in her voice; though it was not clear if the exasperation was because her mother could not remember their visa interview date or because she would not be able to attend the lunch invitation at her uncle’s place. “If we don’t get it stamped, we won’t be able to enter this country again. You know very well how much I’ve had to fight with Akash for this holiday.” This put her mother’s insisting to rest and the conversation ended there.
Sunetra was up at five the next morning, awakened by the now-familiar drone of the engine of a snowplough. Daylight struggled to trickle in. But even in that obscure light Sunetra could make out the subdued glisten emitting from the snowbanks that had formed along the pavement. Huge snowbanks. In her four years’ stay, she hadn’t seen anything like that.
By eight they were on their way to the O’ Hare International airport. She prayed to God for the snow to relent but the weather gods had other plans. As the snow continued unabated, the wiper on the windscreen battled relentlessly. The weather forecast had warned of ice and sleet and the cab trundled along the slippery, blustery I-94. Sunetra peered through the rolled up glasses to look at the sky. It looked grey, a tedious grey that Sunetra had seen on many a winter afternoon. The scene outside matched the mood inside the car. Nobody spoke except for the driver who, notwithstanding the inclement weather, was glad that I-94 bore such thin traffic. Sunetra had not spoken much to Akash since morning, preferring to converse only in monosyllables. Bubai had dozed off once inside the car.
When they reached Terminal 5, they were met with a long queue in front of the Air India check-in counter. A commotion of sorts was just about to unfold. Her husband pushed his way toward the counter, leaving Sunetra and Bubai waiting with their luggage bags. At barely five feet tall, Sunetra stood on her toes, craning her neck; her eyes frantically hovering over a straggle of multi-coloured turbans. It was then that her restlessly roving eyes caught the electronic status board of the flights. The word ‘cancelled’ against Air India stared back at her. Each letter, formed in red, confirmed her worst fear. Her long anticipated holiday now stood cancelled. CANCELLED. She wanted to request each airline to fly her to Kolkata. If not, she herself wanted to fly. But all she could do was sob. Amidst the chaos, she slumped on the floor and sobbed.
“What happened to you, Ma? Why are you crying?” Bubai asked, looking flustered.
Sunetra could only shake her head as her hands fought to wipe the tears. Never having seen his mother cry, Bubai wanted to comfort her.
“Ma we are going to Kolkata. Don’t cry.”
Conscious of other passengers watching her, Sunetra somehow managed to stop her eyes from welling up. Her diaphanous eye-lids had acquired a soft rosy hue from all the sobbing. The tip of her nose had gone pink, the way it went when exposed to cold for long.
Akash emerged after a while. Most flights bound for India stood cancelled as did their Chicago-New Delhi flight. The ones that were flying were delayed and overbooked.
“But Ma wants to go to Kolkata,” Bubai butted in.
“I told you there are no seats, all are overbooked.”
“But there ought to be something. For January, for February,” Sunetra piped.
“They will be too expensive. It’s the holiday season.” Then Akash said something to Bubai that Sunetra was least expecting to hear, “I’ll take you to Disney Land instead. Happy?”
The nine-year-old’s empathy for his mother lasted only so long as the mother’s tears lasted. His ever-playful eyes twinkled at the mere mention of Disney Land. And now when his father offered to take him there for a holiday, the little man burst into a rapturous cry raving to his mom, “Ma, we are going to Disney Land. Yippee!”
Sunetra could only manage a smile, more perfunctory than real. She fought her urge to fight and feigned normalcy. But her eyes looked weary. The kohl had spread towards the outer reaches of the eyes giving them an unnaturally smudged effect. She would look like these on mornings of the nights after when she would be too tired to take off her make-up.
It was one in the afternoon when they reached home. The bare branches of the maple tree outside their apartment were caked with snow. A squirrel, braving the snow, sprinted across the road before hiding itself in the maze of the withered shrubs lining the walkway. Bubai, in anticipation of his holiday, had already started to plan his itinerary. They would be in sunny Florida in about two week’s time.
Sunetra was in the kitchen. The water in the pasta pan came to a rumbling boil when she added the long-grained Basmati rice to it. She stood there waiting for the gruel to appear.
Anindita Das is from Siliguri, a small town, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. A blogger and a freelance storyteller, she currently writes from Kolkata.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Gorkhaland’, edited by Dr. Rajendra Prasad Dhakal, Principal, Kalimpong College, Kalimpong, Darjeeling, WB, India.