By Swaty Mitra
The anti-CAA protesters were to hit the road again. Today it would be college teachers from all over the city and its fringes, foregoing their own party banners and colours. Rohit had strict instructions from the headquarters to ensure nothing untoward took place. Restrain from trouble, don’t retaliate. He had given firm instruction and was present at the site to ensure that his orders were followed. Thirty years with the party, Rohit looked down C.R. Avenue at the approaching blobs. The sound grew, the police took their position, Rohit threw his warning glances at the party workers.
There was the usual raw banter of his party men when he gave the orders of ‘no action’. Mishra leered and then whispered indecencies into his partner’s ears, with his customary paan masala spit. There used to be a time when Rohit’s shoulders heaved in a shrug at these exchanges. That was in those early years, when he had joined the party to salvage his father’s business. He was 22, just out of college. Maa was diagnosed with cancer. She had kept the business going for ten years since Baba’s death. Grit and need kept her going. Didiya had to be settled, his education had just started. When the doctor first broke the news to them, panic welled up her eyes. Rohit held her hand. He fought a mini battle with her, convinced her that he didn’t really need to go anywhere for his MBA. IISWBM will do. Didiya and Jamaidada said they would help in. Rohit landed among the sharks. Sejojethu and his cronies had to be kept at bay, then there was the local MLA, also fond of the fresh kid. They flocked to him with their conned papers and conmen. That’s when Sahooji decided to become his self-appointed god-father. When the time came he asked Rohit to do him a favour. Rohit wasn’t supposed to refuse. He took over the party’s reorganization in Calcutta and then Bengal.
The sound of the procession, the call for azaadi, of the police holding them off from their party office, faded out as Rohit swirled when a tight voice, ‘It doesn’t work like that, you know.’ The words drew his eyes to a middle-aged woman arguing righteously with a police sergeant. There was very little to recognize after the decades, but Rohit could still see the young girl in the womanly bearing. He smiled at the commotion. He drew a little nearer; the voice was now trying to reason. Less harsh, it was more known. Rohit was about to step in; the officer gave him an uneasy look, before turning back to the lady. The lady looked at him and then back at the officer, ‘He must…,’ the voice went on. Rohit stepped back and moved out of range.
She didn’t recognize him, like always. How would she? They never met. It was a few days after Maa passed away. He had come home to lunch. He swallowed it as if it was sawdust. It was then he reached at the phone. He lifted it and pressed a button, his face somber and grim. Strange, a number started dialing. He had pressed the redial. A young voice answered, he was silent, it insisted ‘Hello’. As if compelled by the voice, he responded with a comically shaky, ‘Hello’.
Who is this? The girl demanded. He didn’t know what to say, so he said, ‘Who do you think?’
What? Look this isn’t funny! Who is this? She demanded again.
Strange you can’t recognize me, Rohit played along.
No, I can’t. The receiver was put down. He dialed back, bemused by his own actions.
After Ria’s royal ditch, he had little interest in girls. Then life had stunned him so that he had slipped out of his youth almost without notice. His friends, who were still finishing college, or chilling out before getting into the grind, were caught in the feminine mire. Not he. They used his old car, his empty house for their dates, and always his phones, at home or in the office, for their romantic tete-a-tete. His best buddy preferred his room to talk to his girls. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him a little belatedly. Was it one of his girl-friends? He felt a little dismayed. He looked at the phone long and hard. The other day his buddy had just finished a grim conversation and he had teased him about the lover’s tiff. He had said it isn’t like that, she isn’t one of them. He had raised an eyebrow; his friend had just shrugged and walked off. He called out to the old man and asked him whether his friend had come to make his calls. As expected, he nodded in affirmation.
Rohit looked around the empty house, it was quiet and dead. He picked up the phone again and pressed redial. The same voice, a little quieter, searching for a clue. Who is this, she asked. May be you don’t know me, Rohit said quietly. Then why have you called, came the pertinent question. May be to talk to you. Rohit was floundering. This wasn’t he – sure, swift, at times lethal. Why would I talk to you? What the hell, who is this? She asked again.
You will know that if you talk to me.
What! Why would I? Why on earth?
Because you are enjoying it, Rohit offered. What followed were sounds. Then the receiver was banged down. He called back almost at once, ‘Hey listen, my name is Rohit. What’s your problem? Why can’t you talk to me?’ It took several more minutes of coercing. Rohit didn’t know what he wanted from this girl, but for some strange reason he wanted to talk to this girl. Is this the girl buddy said was not one of them? He wondered as he talked to her.
After that day, they talked almost regularly. Rohit started enjoying his lunch. He ate as he talked with her. She ate as she talked with him. Lazy afternoons were filled with knowing each other, then chit-chat, sob stories and a warmth that stayed in his heart in the coziest corners. It left her cheeks smarting as she tripped out in the evenings. At first she didn’t tell anyone about him. But then she couldn’t hold back. She told Avni and her close buddies in school. All urged her to meet him. She saw no reason for a meeting at all. Besides there was Akash and she didn’t want to get into anything with anyone else. Talking was another matter, and she continued her daily chatter. She told him what she had never thought she had in her mind. She also told him about Akash. He was quiet. She asked him why he sounded so weird. Aah, princess, Rohit said, I just realized that you must really trust me, if you could tell me about your boyfriend. Not really my boyfriend, you know. Yes, yes, I do. Someone with whom you have your undefined, special relationship. Rohit’s voice was scathing. She was hurt. Why should the truth affect you, she asked. How idiotic she can be at times. All righteous and idiotic. You told me about Ria, I didn’t behave like this? Did I?
Ria!! Rohit wanted to wring her neck. How idiotic and completely childish. Can you meet me this Saturday, he asked instead. No, I can’t. Why not! It will spoil everything, let it be, she said. They hung up. Both disturbed and perplexed by the sudden shift. Suddenly the phone rang again. She answered meaning to say that she would meet him. It was Akash. Oh, you! Were you expecting anyone else, he teased. She was distracted. She fought with her thoughts and talked to Akash. Okay meet me at the street corner in an hour and with that he rang off. She was very confused. She wished she had Rohit’s number, but he had said it was better that he called, to avoid complications. What complications? He had said something vague.
As Akash was about to leave, Rohit came in. You going off? Yes, have to meet, have called her out. Who, one who is not one of them? Akash smiled sheepishly. I will drop you off, Rohit offered. On their way, he asked Akash her name and winced when he said it. Why was he taking Akash? Rohit wondered. He knew it was because he couldn’t resist the idea of seeing her. They parked at the bend and Akash sauntered up to the shop where she was chatting with someone. Akash was exasperated, this girl is always talking with everyone. On seeing him she moved a little away. Rohit sent rings of smoke from his mouth, and looked at the scene from the rearview mirror of his car. Suddenly she nodded towards his car. Rohit panicked even though he was also thrilled. But Akash said something. Rohit could imagine her sardonic voice at whatever Akash said to her query. It was a brief, snatchy meeting. Soon she hurried off around the corner. Akash returned to the car, a little high – studies and strict parents, he explained. A kid actually. Rohit nodded and smiled. Next day he didn’t call her. Rather it was almost after two days that he called. The phone barely rang and she answered and smothered him with ‘why’s’. Rohit let out a warm laugh as he said, ‘I also have to work, princess.’ She felt so very good when he called her princess and spoke like this. She felt held close, in a warm embrace. After that Rohit drove down her streets several times and caught glimpses of her walking down with her friends. He waited in front of her school when it got over and saw her pass by his car, but he couldn’t talk to her. What had stopped him?
He was sent out to prepare himself completely for party work. There was no way he could call regularly. He was free in the evening and the few times he tried to reach her, her mother answered and he disconnected the line. On her birthday he sent her a card and flowers. It would get her into trouble but at least she would know he hadn’t forgotten. That was important.
The flowers created havoc at home but she was mightily thrilled. Her friends told her she should sort this out with him. Sort what out? She wondered. She wished she could meet him. But he had disappeared. Suddenly, one afternoon he called. The easiness was missing. Can I meet you? She asked him. Do you love me? The question came out of him without notice. He kicked himself. She was silent. Then she said, ‘It doesn’t work that way, you know.’ Rohit was about to respond, when there was a tap on his back and he had to hang up. I will call you back, he had said.
And he had many a time. At first no one answered. Later a recorded voice said the number didn’t exist.
He looked at the lady vehemently talking to the police officer, now also surrounded by the media. Rohit walked into the lane to his parked car and drove slowly away from the procession, the noise, the voice, the girl who used to be, into the settling cold and darkness of the wintry evening.
Dr. Swaty Mitra is Assistant Professor in English, West Bengal Education Service, currently posted at Barasat Government College. She is interested in multivalent possibilities of verbal and cinematic narratives. She has worked on the novels of Doris Lessing and is a member of International Doris Lessing Society.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “On the Table: Pathways between Food Studies and Food Writing”, edited by Somrita Urni Ganguly, Fulbright Scholar, Brown University, USA.