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Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
Mini rang the bell once, then a second time. There was no sound inside. Meanwhile there was another bomb explosion, more gunfire. Mini hadn’t counted, but there had been at least three hundred rounds of firing. The granite lobby was wrapped in an icy silence. One lift was still on the 22nd floor. The other two were stuck on the ground floor. No one was coming up or going down in any of them at this moment. If someone were coming up Mini would have assumed it was Sumit, that he was on his way. He hadn’t called because getting the network was often a struggle in this area, particularly inside the complex. Mini had called Sumit as soon as the first bomb had exploded, but the network had been unreachable since then. When the fusillade of bullets had begun she had called the main gate on the intercom: ‘What’s going on? What’s all this firing? There’s no trouble inside the complex, I hope.’
The security officer had assured her, ‘No madam, how can anything happen inside the complex? Don’t worry, whatever’s going in is over at the Singhanias’. But the main gate has been locked, the entrances to the towers are being locked too. Please stay inside your flat.’
It would have been safest for Mini to have done just that. But most of these flats had glass walls. Even the railing of the balcony running along the length of the building was of glass. Mini considered these glass walls instead of concrete extremely dangerous in any case. And up on the 23rd floor she felt no security at all in the balcony, it was as though she might fall any moment. She would drift downwards like a piece of paper on the wind, except that she would be hurled on the ground at the last moment. It was true that these glass walls had created the proposition of all manner of light and shade playing with the lives of the residents. A glow at dawn, twilight at dusk, the uncompromising noonday sun, the threatening night – all of these could enter every corner of the flat unobstructed. But the same glass walls vibrated so uncontrollably under the impact of loud noises that a cowardly woman like Mini felt the ten-foot-by-ten-foot panels would be shattered, with the splinters raining down on her head.
The first bomb exploded not at 1 AM or 2 AM in the morning but at precisely 10.30 PM. Then came an unrelenting barrage of explosions and gunfights, and, with them, the constant shuddering of the glass barricade on the 23rd floor. It was fear that propelled Mini out of her flat. No one else lived on this floor. All she knew was that one flat at the other end of the 22nd floor was occupied. The lights were visible from the driveway. She didn’t know anything more, just as she didn’t know anything beyond the fact that the combatants in the bomb- and gun-battles were rival land mafias here in the Rajarhat area of Kolkata.
She climbed down one floor out of fear, and spotted a thread of light beneath the door. So she rang the bell. Once, then a second time. With no response forthcoming, she was about to leave when the door opened. A man in track-pants and a T-shirt was looking at her, his eyebrows raised questioningly. In his eyes lay the annoyance of having had his sleep interrupted, and one single query: what is it? Salt-and-pepper hair, freckles on his face. Handsome and broad-shouldered, with powerful thighs and an enormous watch on his right wrist. He had only parted the door slightly. A tall lamp inside the flat gave off a faint glow. These flats were three thousand square feet each, it was impossible to tell whether anyone else was in there. Wasn’t there a woman in the flat with whom Mini could talk for a few minutes, at a time when all this firing was going on, her husband wasn’t home, and the glass walls were about to be broken into smithereens? Mini knew they wouldn’t be, but still she was frightened.
‘Yes?’ said the man, the irritation palpable in his eyes.
Mini was so taken aback by his reaction that she didn’t know what to say.
‘Yes?’ the man repeated. ‘Any problem?’ Mini answered in broken English. ‘I live on the floor above yours. My husband isn’t home yet. Which in itself is not important, he’s often even more late. But I can’t reach him on the phone, there’s no network.’
‘Oh, so you want to make a call?’
‘Not exactly. There’s a lot of gunfire, they’re throwing bombs too. Thugs, the land mafia, criminal syndicates. Aren’t you aware of all this? And these wretched glass walls. Every bomb sounds four times louder from the echoes. There must have been a hundred rounds of firing, maybe two hundred. I can’t stay inside my flat. Security has forbidden us from going outside the tower. I’m frightened. The glass walls may break, aren’t you afraid?’
‘Is that so?’ said the extremely handsome man. Gunfire? Bombs? I didn’t know. I’ve heard of such problems in Rajarhat. But I don’t live here.’
‘You don’t live here? Do you live abroad? Most of the flats in this complex are owned by Non-Resident Indians. The flats are locked up all round the year. The glass walls are covered with blinds. The lights come on just once every year. But why do the lights burn in your flat even when you’re not here? I can see the lights whenever we’re driving in and out of the basement parking.’
Mini had no idea how someone could sleep peacefully through the explosions and firing. ‘Come in,’ said the man. Despite his annoyance he had probably realised Mini was frightened and helpless. ‘You can sit inside.’ He flexed his biceps. How old was he? Forty-six? Forty-seven? Clearly he wasn’t a Bengali. Was he a Punjabi? Would it be right for her to enter? Was the glass in his flat reverberating to the sound of the bullets? He was sleeping through the deafening noise – was he very tired?
The man shrugged and moved away from the door. She stepped in hesitantly, beset by doubts. There was no other light besides the lamp in the living room. Her eyes were drawn to the bedroom door as soon as she entered. The man had obviously come out though it. There was subdued lighting inside the bedroom. ‘You stay alone here?’ she asked.
‘Yes, alone,’ he answered. ‘I’m captain Nishant Sharma. I’m a pilot. This is a company flat. I drop by four or five times a month here. So do other pilots. Stewards and air hostesses too. That’s why you see the flat lit up most of the time. Besides, the company caretaker is here as well, though he doesn’t switch on the lights, he lives in the servants’ quarters.’
‘Oh, you’re a pilot.’ Mini stared at him in wonder. The sound of the firing had stopped suddenly. How terribly silent and cold this flat was. She could easily leave now. But she decided to interrupt the pilot’s sleep instead and sat down on a soft couch. ‘I’ve never spoken to a pilot before, Captain Sharma.’
Suppressing a slight yawn, the man said, ‘The firing can’t be heard anymore.’
‘Yes, it’s stopped. I should go.’
‘Why don’t you stay? I’ll make some coffee, would you like some?’
‘Yes, thank you. You’re leaving again tomorrow?’
‘The car will be here at 3 AM to fetch me. I’m taking the 5 AM flight to Dubai. From there to London.’
‘Is there a problem here? Rajarhat is a lovely new township, I’ve been coming here for two years now. I’ve seen it grow gradually. It could become one of India’s most modern places. Which is probably why the land mafia has become so active.’
‘They’re a huge menace. The Singhanias are building a housing complex across the road, they’ve hired a gang of criminals. They roam around openly with pistols at night. My husband and I were returning home late one night when we saw imported marble being looted from a trailer. Still, there’s never been firing on this scale before.’
‘Do you want to call your husband?’
‘No, no need. He’ll call me when he gets back.’
‘How will he enter?’
‘He’s put a computerised lock on the front door. You can open the door from anywhere in the world with a password. You can also use the cameras in the flat to see what’s going on inside from anywhere in the world.’
‘That’s why I hate being in the flat. Believe me, I’ve never been able to live there the way I want to. Everyone has their own way of living when they’re by themselves. I have never been able to do that.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘How do I mean?’ Mini looked at the pilot sceptically. ‘You won’t believe it.’
‘Tell me, let me try. Of course, you don’t have to if it’s very personal.’
‘Personal? It’s very personal. No woman has ever told a man anything so personal. But what if you tell my husband?’
‘How can that be possible? I don’t live here, nor am I your neighbour. It’s not as though I will gradually develop an intimacy with your husband and then blurt everything out one day in a fit of drunkenness. It’s entirely possible that the airline will never even put me up in this apartment again. For all you know this is my last visit here. Wait, let me get that coffee.’
‘Where’s your caretaker?’ Mini asked. ‘Won’t he make your coffee for you?’
‘He isn’t here today, I’m not sure why. I’m least bothered. I’ve brought a packed dinner, I’ll heat it in the microwave later.’ Sharma went to the kitchen, returning a little later with two cups of coffee. Suddenly Mini’s phone began to ring. It was Sumit. She didn’t answer.
‘Was that your husband?’ asked Sharma. ‘Why didn’t you answer? He must be looking for you.’
‘Let him? Are you planning to get me into trouble?’
‘If he’s back I’ll have to tell him where I am. What should I tell him?’
‘The truth?’ Mini paused to think. ‘Impossible, he’ll divorce me.’
‘He’ll divorce you for such a trivial reason?’
‘Sumit is capable of divorcing me for even more trivial reasons.’ Mini took a sip of her coffee. ‘Take all those personal ways in which a person wants to live. Sumit will never let me live my way, he never has. We’ve been married three years.’
A text message arrived in Mini’s phone: ‘Will be late.’ Mini said, ‘Sumit isn’t back. He just texted to say he’ll be late. How late? It’s eleven already. He never returns before 1 or 1.30 in the morning. And I am driven mad by loneliness, you know?’
‘Does it frighten you to be alone?’
‘Uh-huh. I’m not frightened, not of being alone. But I have to pretend to Sumit that I am. For instance, when he returns tonight I will say, “Oh, how scared I was for you Sumit. So much gunfire, so many bombs.” I know what Sumit will say then, he’ll say, “Give it another year or year-and-a-half, Mini, you’ll see how this place is transformed. Only those who cannot afford to live here will still be living in old Kolkata then. And you will be proud of me then for my decision to buy this property.”’
‘So you’re telling me, Mini, that your coming downstairs and ringing my doorbell wasn’t really out of fear?’
‘Security is very tight here. Close to two hundred of them guard the complex every night. They have guards with rifles at the main gate, haven’t you seen? All the towers have CCTV. It’s still a little scary when there’s gunfire on winter nights. It feels like there’s no one anywhere, and some unknown danger is lurking. My maid comes every day from a distant village, she says there was a graveyard here earlier.’
‘I asked the estate manager. He said it’s a rumour. The records say this used to be farmland. Mustard. A hundred acres of land, not exactly a small area. And there were Muslim villages where the Singhanias are building their complex. A mosque, too, and yes, a graveyard. So there certainly was one, though at a distance. But even that didn’t frighten me.’
‘Then why all these signs of fear? Are you acting?’
‘No, why should I?’ Mini tried to settle down comfortably. ‘All my fears are centred around Sumit. Like he’s put in cameras in all the rooms and I cannot forget them for even a moment and breathe. I cannot live normally. For instance, when I’m not paying attention I often…I’m embarrassed now, Captain Sharma.’
‘I might pick my nose unmindfully…’
‘Pick my nose.’
‘Ha ha ha, Mini, look at you, you look really frightened now.’
‘Terrified. I was picking my nose, and wiping it on my sleeve, he saw me. It was recorded. And how he harassed me about it! He had all my clothes laundered, all the things I use cleaned.’
Nishant Sharma cupped his face in his hands. ‘Mad guy!’
‘He once wanted to divorce me for something even sillier.’
‘What can be sillier than this?’
‘My family used to live in a rented house in north Kolkata,’ said Mini. ‘Once my brothers began to earn well they built a new house elsewhere. I was living there with them when I got married. So Sumit never saw our dilapidated house with the paint peeling off, shared by five sets of tenants. It was in a very old part of Kolkata. My two brothers and I were brought up in two rooms. Our parents slaved to look after us. I had never been able to tell Sumit about this life I had left behind.
‘But one day my brother happened to tell Sumit how there would be waist-high water in our neighbourhood when it rained, and how this dirty water would get into our house. There would be water in the yard, a quarter of the way up the walls, waiting to rise all the way to our beds. And once, after three days of unceasing rain, our entire home was flooded. We had to wade through the water to go from one room to another, but it was like a celeberation, we had so much fun. No school, no college, no office. Pure and simple holidays. My mother and the other tenants upstairs were frying up snacks, everyone was playing cards and Ludo and carrom on the roof. Do you know how to play Ludo, Captain Sharma?
‘So my brother was telling Sumit all this with great joy. Fond memories from our childhood. And Sumit was wrinkling his nose in disgust as he listened. Suddenly he began to retch and ran to the toilet. All of us were astonished. What on earth was he vomiting for? Do you know what he said when he came out of the toilet? “You used to wade through that filthy water? It used to be inside your rooms? Your bodies were immersed in it? And you ate and played games amidst all this? How could you? Are any of you human?”
‘That night Sumit told me, “Now I see why you’ve never developed a sense of hygiene. Can anyone who’s lived this way ever understand the value of cleanliness? Who else will pick their nose and wipe it on their sleeve if not you?”
‘All this information amounted to breach of trust for Sumit. I never brought up any aspect of my past in our marriage ever again. That we had grown up in great hardship, that the three of us used to split a single egg, that I had studied using my brother’s old books. Our bathroom was used by all the tenants. My mother had to come out of it every day in a wet sari. Rats used to infest our kitchen. The yard was covered with pigeon stool. Our bed was our living room. That was were we studied, where we snacked, where we listened to music, where we slept with our arms and legs wrapped around one another.
‘Sumit will be mortified if he gets to know we used the same towel. That he still eats what I cook or still goes to bed with me next to him is more than enough.’
‘It’s clear that there’s a class difference between the two of you. How did you happen to marry each other?’
‘Sumit’s grandmother saw me and liked me. I had gone to their neighbourhood with my friends for Durga Puja. A posh area in south Kolkata.’
‘It’s obvious looking at you that someone may like you, Mini.’
‘Don’t talk about all that. It would have been better if she hadn’t. I wouldn’t have to spend my days so miserably. This life of constant fear.’
‘What else do you fear?’
‘My biggest fear is with myself, Captain Sharma. I’ve begun babbling in my sleep these days. It’s Sumit who used the word “babbling”. “What do you babble in your sleep these days Mimi? Whom did you call and say hello hello to? What’s going on?” I have no idea what I say. I’m afraid to sleep next to him. Who knows what hidden compartment of my mind is revealed in the things I say in my sleep. Does Sumit watch out for them? Exactly what has he heard so far? Every morning I fear my husband will confront me with some hidden secret from my life. Take the fact that I’ve become involved in an extramarital relationship with Sumit’s friend Arnab – what if he finds out this way? Maybe the person I call in my sleep is Arnab. Suppose I moaned Arnab, Arnab in my sleep? Can you imagine how utterly dangerous it is for a woman with a secret lover to be prone to talking in her sleep? Then there are many things I do which are not caught on camera but which I know are unpardonable sins in Sumit’s eyes. What if I reveal any of those? Because it’s true that my subconscious is constantly wrenching at my suppressed actions and thoughts.’
‘What sort of things do you do that aren’t caught on camera?’
‘For instance, I…I…use Sumit’s toothbrush to clean the sink.’
‘Which means your husband hasn’t put a camera in the bathroom.’
‘No. That’s why I talk to Arnab from the bathroom. But that’s as far as it goes. I don’t meet Arnab, we can’t be together.’
‘Why aren’t you walking out of this marriage?’
‘Breaking a marriage is a lot of trouble. A great deal of conflict. This loneliness is preferable to all that. This humiliation too. No one else gets to know. Everyone knows Sumit has some idiosyncrasies. But Sumit loves me. Sumit tells me the same thing, that he loves me. Do you know how much he loves me? Let’s say he buys something from a brand outlet for ten thousand rupees. He gets a three-thousand-rupee gift voucher, which he gives me for my shopping.’
‘Your husband is extremely selfish.’
‘Captain Sharma, the heroines in our literature and our cinemas are so proud, so rebellious, so brave, they fight so staunchly on behalf of others. I don’t want to be like any of them. I’m content with my own small acts of sabotage. I’m only as wayward as I can be by talking to Arnab on the phone. Or, for instance, by doing what I did today.’
‘You have an interesting life.’
‘Today, for instance, when I was making an omelette for Sumit I found that the eggs were quite dirty. And an even dirtier feather was stuck to one of them. I stirred that dirty feather into the omelette. Sumit has no idea what he ate. An omelette smeared with chicken-shit.’
‘You’re a lot like my driver Ram Singh,’ said Nishant Sharma. ‘When you scold him he takes it all meekly, saying, “Sorry sir, I made a mistake.” The next day he dents the car. I’m beginning to be afraid of you, Mini.”
‘Did I tell you there’s a graveyard here? Sumit is terrified of ghosts. And he knows I’m not remotely afraid of them. Our relationship rests on a mixture of my fear and his fear, my helplessness and his helplessness. We had a special puja soon after we moved in here. The priest, Sadhan-babu, was from my old neighbourhood in north Kolkata. He knew exactly what he had to do. As he started the rituals, he began to behave peculiarly, muttering to himself. After much questioning he said, “There’s a spirit in this flat.”
‘Sumit leapt to his feet. “A spirit? A woman or a man? Look, Mini has to spend the entire day here by herself in this desolate place. What if she faints or something in fear? Do something, please.”
‘Sadhan-babu said, “I’m not an exorcist who can get rid of spirits. You’ll have to make your own arrangement. I can just conduct some rituals to ward off trouble.”
‘So the spirit remained with us. These days it’s not just me, even Sumit sometimes senses someone standing stealthily behind him. Or someone disappearing in a flash from the 23rd-floor balcony. He calls for me then.’
‘Superb! This is what you call mutual dependence in a couple. A wife who can handle spirits must be specially valued.’
Suddenly Mini jumped to her feet. ‘I’ll leave now, Captain Sharma. I interrupted your sleep, told you all these strange stories. Even if you aren’t a resident here, you’ll go away with a twisted opinion of me. When you return you will think, even if fleetingly, that there’s a woman in this building who deceives her husband. Constant deception. For instance, Sumit is late every night, 1 AM, 1.30 AM. I have a full meal around 10, I eat whatever we have, whether it’s chicken sandwiches or custard or a curry or cake. Then I watch TV comfortably till Sumit comes home and says, “Have you been waiting for me? Why do you do this? You should eat.”
‘And I get very angry and say, “How can you say that! You expect me to eat? You come back after a hard day’s work, and you expect me to have eaten before I give you your food. I may come from a poor family but I’m not selfish like you.” Sumit thinks I’m a typical husband-fixated housewife. He has never asked me whether I love him. I know what I’ll tell him if he ever does. With tearful eyes I’ll say, “Can’t you tell? You’re the first and only man in my life. I don’t care for anything else.”
‘I’ll tell him, “Yes, when I was in school there was a boy I used to exchange glances with. He used to wait for me on the road. And I used to go out on some pretext, to buy a notebook or a pen or a hair-clip. But that was as far as it went.” I will never admit how much I loved Sagnik, how deep our relationship was. We used to sleep together. I wasn’t a virgin when I got married. I’ve been pretending with Sumit ever since that wedding night.’
Going up to the front door, Mini opened it and set one foot outside. Captain Sharma followed, stopping close behind her. ‘I had a strange time. Thank goodness I’m not married, or else even I’d have started suspecting my wife after this.’
‘If you’d been my husband and had come to know of all this, what would you have done with me?’
‘I’d have set you free. I’d never have installed cameras. If you’d picked your nose and wiped it on your sleeve I might have scolded you but I wouldn’t have divorced you.’
Mini walked into the lobby and pressed the button of the lift, which was now stationary on the seventh floor.
The lift would arrive any moment, and she would leave. There was nothing to keep her from telling this man anything she wanted to. She said, ‘Do you know what purpose it serves to eat in secret? I am never hungry. On the contrary, I get gas, I can’t tell you how terrible the gas is, Captain Sharma. Do you know it’s even worse than babbling in my sleep? On these winter nights, my entire body is wracked by discomfort under a shared quilt, a distressed wind swirls around in my belly, wanting to emerge. My stomach makes so many sounds. I cannot sleep for fear that he will hear all those sounds, all my secret thoughts. Sumit has studied abroad, you see. He detests snoring or farting. The woman in his life should be as perfect as his perfectly decorated flat, an enigma. But I’m not an inanimate piece of furniture. I’m a flesh and blood woman, my mouth falls open in an ugly way when I sleep. My buttocks have pimples on them all the year round. I don’t like showering during my periods. I really am terrified to sleep under the same quilt as Sumit on these winter nights.’
There used to be as many as thirty villages here. The people who led an easy, earthy life in the area had been evicted in order to build this intricate and complicated housing complex. The residents had to swipe magnetic cards to get in and out. Even the smoke from an incense stick set off the fire alarm in the lobby. There had been such a fuss when Mini had tried to light joss-sticks at her front door. There used to be a cemetery over on the other side. Mini had convinced Sumit that even if it was across the road, no one knew how many tunnels the skeletons had dug beneath the surface to infest this complex. Maybe the spirit in their flat came from a grave in that cemetery. And besides, no small number of people had been killed during the transfer of land. Their souls must also be wandering about with all their unfulfilled desires.
As the door of the lift was closing, Nishant Sharma’s hand shot inside in an attempt to take Mini’s. Even in the last scene the pilot appeared to be a generous man to her. Climbing up to the 23rd floor, she unlocked the front door carefully with the right combination of numbers. A lamp was glowing in the living room, a wine cellar stood on the left with a mirror on the door. In it Mini saw a woman in a black kameez step into the flat. Then she entered her laboriously imagined, hard, metallic marriage, lifted high off the ground with a crane, and shut the door. At the crack of dawn Mini felt the pilot flying his plane through a lightening sky while she was still gasping for breath next to Sumit in bed.