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Mrs. Sen stepped out to the balcony attached to her new room and looked out beyond the garden with its rampant bougainvillea bush, across the street, to the plot of land with a pond staring out from it, reflecting on its dirty green surface the slow moving autumn clouds. Her house had stood there and now where the walls and rooms were, there was nothing. She tried to imagine where the window of her first floor bedroom might have been, how it might have looked from outside on an autumn morning such as this. Then she had a strange thought: if her house had still been there, and if she were a stranger but still looking out from this very balcony, what would this hypothetical stranger think if she could see, outlined at the window of the old house, a figure that was Mrs. Sen? But it was impossible to read other people’s minds, even if they were alternative versions of the self, and in truth, things changed, rooms disappeared, and windows that were once square-shaped gaps to frame the sky had to be knocked down to accommodate the entire sky.
Mrs. Sen sighed and turned her attention to the garden below. The garden was what had attracted her to this house; she had imagined that the garden would be her solace in this new place, for moving to a new house at the end of one’s life for someone like Mrs. Sen, who hardly ever left her old house, had not been easy. The two old women who owned this new house and lived on the ground floor had been helpful, but they were not exactly friendly. Mrs. Sen’s feet felt cold on the mosaic floor and although it was only the end of September she could feel a nip in the air. She pulled out a chair from her room into the balcony and sat cross-legged on it, that way her feet wouldn’t be cold, although she would have to remember to alternate between the right leg and the left leg lest they fell asleep or got deep scars, temporary wickerwork patterned tattoos.
As she settled on the chair, she wondered if she would really have to unpack, a task she had been procrastinating over, if only to retrieve her pair of rubber flip-flops. The pair must be in one of the seven suitcases that she’d brought with her, but it was too much trouble to unpack, to take out all the things that were once in a house that is no more. It would be such a shame to take out the pair of Bankura horses and not be able to place those lovely terracotta creatures on the corner of the staircase landing, or to touch the mask from Sri Lanka and not be able to hang it on top of the living room door. So the flip-flops had to be done without, and although she hardly left the house, she would not allow herself to wear her Dr. Scholl’s indoors. Two or three years ago, Mr. Sen’s friend from New Jersey, who was visiting Kolkata for a day on his India tour, had come over for dinner and she had been so upset that he walked into their living room, especially cleaned for him, in his sneakers, and had almost walked into her kitchen too, with those filthy sneakers on! That was why she liked her husband’s Japanese college friends much more; there was no trouble when they came to visit for they knew the difference between streets and floors. They understood. And their wives were also so friendly, teaching her little tricks to make a simple bunch of gladioli look beautiful. Mrs. Sen rested her hands on her knees and sighed again. No, she would not think about the past, she decided. The garden below looked as impossible as always, she found it beautifully strange, or strangely beautiful, she could not decide which one for there was a difference, and although it was not well attended to, she found herself oddly attracted to it, as one would find oneself attracted to a tousled bun on a woman in a metro. Bougainvillea bush climbing to the house, hibiscus red, pink, and pale yellow scattered like crumpled paper napkins after a child’s birthday party. Rows and rows of nayantara, some tomato plants, a lone neem tree−under which she had decided to sit basking in the winter sun− and other shrubs she could not identify because they did not flower.
As Mrs. Sen kept looking at the neem tree, a man in a pink shirt and checked lungi lifted the latch to open the gate. He walked into the garden casually bringing a fat brown shiny cow with deer eyes behind him. It seemed the most normal thing to do. The cow sniffed the air and then started to chomp away at whatever foliage struck its fancy. Mrs. Sen smiled at the sight of this cow and his owner. It was six-thirty in the morning and here she was Mrs. Sen with no intention of making the morning tea but watch a cow chew on grass, just watch the animal go on with its life, chew the grass and go back, then digest it later on, at leisure. She wished she could do similar things. Just go on with something, some activity, like unpacking her suitcases, to find her flip-flops, or better even, to move out and buy tickets to all the places that she wanted to go to, and just do it, without thinking about the past or the future, but just be wholly engaged in the chewing of the grass, and later when she had stomach to digest, assimilate her experiences, sort them out and feel whatever she was meant to feel about them.
The silence of the morning shattered, literally. Mrs. Sen frowned at the sound of glass breaking from upstairs; suddenly the garden looked like a real mess. They are at it again, Mrs Sen thought, the husband and Kalpana, the wife. She did not know the husband’s name yet, but she had finally met the wife two days ago coming down the stairs. Mrs. Sen could hear him screaming at her, throwing things at her, perhaps even hitting her. Last week Mrs. Sen had decided that she would interfere, but the old women downstairs had asked her not to, because it would be a pointless waste of her energy. More noises followed from upstairs, she could hear the wife crying. Out in the garden, she saw the man in the pink shirt look up at the house, right above where she was sitting, where the second-floor balcony must be. Perhaps the wife was standing there.
Kalpana stood there with her hair in all tangled up, in her soft morning sari she stood there drinking tea silently from a small cup. She stood there with her eyes brimful, but not yet defeated into tears. She stood there watching the neighbourhood wake up and the garden come to life.
Sometimes, these bits of words, these small sequences would just come floating into Mrs. Sen’s head, like an ad jingle that sometimes escaped her lips when she was concentrating on the day’s Sudoku puzzle. Perhaps she ought to write it all down. Perhaps the bits would add up to a story, perhaps it was her way of collecting, like her own mother has collected cloth pieces for years in the hope of making a patchwork quilt one day. Perhaps with stitching, these patches would grow into a novel even. Mr. Dutta’s son, Mrs. Sen had heard, had drawn, not even written a story, and a publishing house was giving him money to turn it into a book. Perhaps if she wrote her story, she could talk to Mr. Dutta’s son and ask him to help her get in touch with the publishing house in New Delhi.
From upstairs the husband shouted, “What are you doing in my garden? Out I said! Bloody milk man and his cow come in for breakfast. This is my garden; get out before I throw a bucket of hot water on you and your animal.”
Mrs. Sen half wanted to tell the man in the garden to not pay attention to the man upstairs, he would never be able to do that, throw a bucketful of hot water. The husband, Mrs. Sen had decided, was a strange person. Each day, she watched him come into the house at around seven o’clock, first silently opening the gate to go to the end of the garden and fish out a bottle of whiskey from behind some shrubs. He would hide the bottle after he was done. Then he would walk outside again and this time let everyone know he was home. He would sing, or call out to his wife and make more noise than was necessary when he opened the main door and climbed upstairs. Why he had to drink in secret, even though he did not ever drink for more than five minutes, she never understood. Then for a while, the evening would be quiet, but would burst open with the husband picking up a fight. Mrs. Sen had been in the apartment for some months only, and she spent much of her time trying to guess what kind of people they were upstairs. She carefully went over each small detail she knew about the two, for example, she knew that the wife was religious, for every evening she would sing from the Panchali and go around the house with the dhunuchi, burning coconut husk and incense for so long that Mrs. Sen’s house would also acquire a bit of the fragrant haze, but she had not yet figured out why the husband sometimes played the sarangi at night, and sometimes he would be at the strings until daybreak.
Mrs. Sen watched the man take this cow by the rope, and exit the garden even as the man upstairs shouted, “Make sure it doesn’t excrete on my soil. Bloody cow and cow dung, it’s everywhere like plague.”
But of course he was there again, the next morning, with his cow, brown and silent, eating grass, and Kalpana stood on the balcony watching the two trespassers in her garden.
“Hello there, you in the garden, please don’t let her eat the hibiscus flowers.”
“Mrinalini here has a taste for wildflowers and leaves. Boudi, your hibiscus will not be touched. She will clean up your garden in no time.”
“It’s not my garden. I do not own it, my husband does.”
“But you tend to it. I have seen you water all the hibiscus trees after sundown, I pass by this street when I go home from work.”
“I have to water them, but they really grow because of the sarangi that my husband plays. Slow music makes plants grow quickly, don’t you know?”
How simple it would be, Mrs. Sen thought, her hands still on her knees as if she were meditating. One day the husband would not come back at night, and then he would disappear from the scene. Or, in the morning, he would not wake up.
And Kalpana did not feel anything, as she stood in the garden on the ordinary evening, just extraordinary in the littlest way because her husband was not alive anymore. His body had been taken away and they had said that it was from excessive drinking, his liver was damaged beyond repair. She stood there in the garden with the watering can in her hands, letting the water flow from the mouth to the flower pot, overflow and fall onto her feet, she stood there as little drops of mud-water splashed onto the sari, but what did it matter. On his way back the man with the cow stopped at the sight of the person in a white sari, and realized in one glimpse that her husband had died. He spoke to her, offered her condolence.
“And will Mrinalini come in the morning?”
“Of course she will, she does love your husband’s garden.”
And she will smile, for the first time, and correct him. “It belongs to me now. The only thing he ever owned, and now he has left me, he has left the garden, he has left me his garden, whichever way you choose to put it. Mrinalini is welcome in my garden.”
The garden will return to former splendor, Mrinalini will help, but the main cleaning up will be done by the man in the pink shirt. He will work secretly into the night and fix the garden so that when Kalpana walks out to her balcony the next morning, she will find her garden arranged beautifully and a new bunch of white jasmines blooming in the morning half-light, growing in bunches where the wild shrubs once were. And she will see a cow and a man standing, going on with their own lives, looking familiar, looking like old friends who wouldn’t mind a chat.
Mrs. Sen saw Kalpana’s husband walk out of the house. He stopped at the gate and then walked back to the secret shrub and picked up his bottle. Finding it empty, he flung it to the ground where the bottle broke into pieces and catching the light of the day, glimmered. Mrs. Sen finally got up from the chair, and went inside to make some breakfast. In the evening, she returned to the balcony, drinking tea from a cup. She could see Kalpana watering the plants down in the garden. She wondered if she should shout out a hello, try cheering up the woman, but just then a cow entered the garden and started eating at the hibiscus plant. The man in the pink shirt followed behind. Mrs. Sen held her tea cup in both her hands and watched.
Kalpana shrieked at the sight of the man, “Oi! Listen, you cannot let your cow eat from this garden. My husband and I work very hard to make the flowers grow and your cow comes and destroys it each day.”
“She is hungry after the day’s work, she doesn’t know this plants belong to you, it will not happen again.”
“I know you will come back in the morning.”
“I will not, you can wake up at five and at four and at six again tomorrow and you will not see us standing here. Your husband insulted me in the morning, and then even outside, when he saw me at near Gole Bazaar today.”
No one mentioned that mess of wild plants that needed clearing, the glass shards that needed picking up. Mrs. Sen finished her tea and went back to her room, closing the balcony door behind her. She sat at the small bedside table, and opened the newspaper to the Sudoku page. After placing some numbers on the empty squares, she shut the pages and cleaned the tea cup in the bathroom sink. She skipped dinner; she was hardly hungry these days. She could hear the wife singing verses from the Panchali now. Soon the fragrant haze of incense and coconut husk would creep in from upstairs. She turned out the light and lay in bed listening to noises. Mr. Sen had told her once about Araku Valley where he went when he was in school, and from one campsite you could hear buds pop open into flowers at night. Here she heard nothing of that kind, only the TV from downstairs and the noise of steel utensils from upstairs. Then, she heard a man’s coughing, the old routine of drinking in the garden. She heard what she had heard every day ever since she moved to this house, but that night, it all sounded louder, she could not sleep. Mrs. Sen lay awake all night to the sound of a sarangi being played.
In the morning, the garden looked the same.