Tag Archives: Short Stories

A Full Night’s Thievery

Mitra Phukan

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves

The late forties of the last century.

The air was clean and the streets uncrowded.  True, there were very few cars in the town, people preferring mostly to walk it to nearby places. At a pinch, they would cycle to work, or perhaps take a ricksha. Even so, there was an air of spaciousness about this little town of Rupohi in Western Assam that was not seen in too many places in the rest of the State, even at that time. The British, who had moved out only recently, had left the town with a legacy of parks that fronted the broad and beautiful river, enormous fields where football could be played, and was, with gusto and skill, and large, spacious bungalows that gave the elite quarter of town an air of gracious charm.

It was still a town where people had appellations based on their professions. Himadri Dutta, the doctor whose jolly exterior hid a fierce determination to keep Yama away from the town, was known, inevitably Himadri Daktor. Or sometimes, if the person referring to the middle aged medic was much younger, he was called “Daktor Babu.” Lawyers Prasanna and Tridib were known as Prasanna Ukil and Tridib Ukil. Teachers in the school were known as This Mastor or, if a woman, That Mastorni. The policeman was naturally Daroga Babu. The merchant selling groceries in the largest store in town was known as Ajoy Dukani, literally Ajoy the Shopkeeper. This was because the town was not yet crowded enough to have more than a few people of each profession.

Of course it wasn’t as though the town consisted of upright and learned people only. Like any other self respecting town, there was a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself. Those neighbouring villages and little townlets that did not have a known thief were looked upon with pity by the people of Rupohi. Poor things! They were not deemed to be prosperous enough to support a full time thief, somebody who could proudly sport his own designation of “Sur”. Thief. Of course there were cattle lifters and grain pilferers in these other towns, but they did not really count, for theirs were deemed to be petty thieveries.

Modon, the official thief of Rupohi, therefore, held a position, if not of honour, exactly, at least of recognition in the town. Modon Sur. That was the name he was known by, and he never objected to being hailed by this handle in Rupohi’s marketplace. “Oi Modon Sur, do you know anything about the disappearance of the chair from my veranda last week?” somebody would shout across from the fishmonger’s shop. Modon would put on an injured air, and say, “Chair? Wooden chair? What would I do with a chair, Dada, I have only a hovel, where will I keep it?” And his demeanour would be so humble, so convincingly honest that it would not even register with the victim : if Modon Sur had not taken the chair, how did he know it was a wooden one?

It wasn’t really true, though, that Modon Sur lived in a hovel. His residence was a hut on the outskirts of town, beside his paddy field. For Modon Sur, in spite of his designation, was only a part time thief. Rupohi was not large or prosperous enough to support a full time one.  And after all he could hardly expect the townspeople to support him, financially, in a more direct way, through donations and handouts, for instance, just because they were honoured by his presence there. In any case, he had a wife and two young children to support, and thievery in a place like theirs was still a chancy business.

Modon Sur hadn’t been born or brought up in Rupohi. He had only settled down there because the paddy land was available. In the village where he had been born, he had been quite a successful cattle thief. Still, he hadn’t started practising his original trade in Rupohi till the time his crop had failed in the third year of his residence there. He had wanted to become respectable, and in any case all these night shifts were taking a toll on his health. He had heard the big educated people, sitting on their verandas in their bungalows talk of this many a time while he lurked in the bushes nearby waiting for an opportunity to enter the house and go about his work. Night shifts for nurses and people like them were ruining their health. Well, he too was a night shift person, though like many in his profession, he had a day job too. These days, he only practised his craft in order to keep his skills honed. He didn’t want his thievery skills to turn rusty. After all, who knew when they would be required?

Even now, so many years after settling down in this friendly town, he only stole things that he was almost sure that the stealee, the person he was stealing from, could replace without too much trouble. Things such a pira, a wooden stool left outside the kitchen, or perhaps a few brass utensils that had been left out to dry in the sun, and been forgotten by the careless new cook’s assistant of the house. Modon Sur’s forte was lifting clothes from the clothes horses, the wooden alnas on which were placed the gamosas, saris, dhutis, panjabis, and other articles of clothing of a family

Modon Sur was  thin of build and dark of colouring, as befitting one whose work required him to blend into the night. He also had a philosophy, a doctrine, about the justifiability of his alternate profession. A thief like him, he believed, was highly beneficial to society. His work made people careful. Without the disciplining effects of his thievery, housewives grew lax and left their clothes outside on the line at night, even though it was well known that doing so brought in evil spirits into the house. It gave Modon Sur a feeling of pride that women feared him more than they did evil spirits. He had heard matriarchs telling new and foolish daughters-in-law of the house, “Bring in the clothes, Bowari, it’s almost dark, can’t you see ? While you sit and idle away your time with gossip, Modon Sur will come and take away all the clothes…”

He was in the thoughts of menfolk, too, he knew, as shadows lengthened and lamps were lit and the evening prayers were chanted in the domestic shrines at dusk. Bicycles, left leaning against a wall of the front verandah, would be brought into the inside courtyard of the house, and chained securely to the guava tree near the well. Shoes left lying carelessly here and there would be brought into the inner verandas, near the bedrooms of the responsible people of the house.  Even though he only came out on moonless and sometimes rainy nights to purloin from homes, his shadow lay on the homes of the town every evening.

Every true professional has an area of expertise in which his mastery remains unchallenged. In Rupohi itself, for instance, Jiten Mastor’s knowledge of the history of the area was immense. Himadri Daktor’s ability to chase out all kinds of aches and pains afflicting the legs and feet of men was acknowledged to be second to none. Similarly, Modon Sur, too, had an area of expertise. His skill in lifting clothes from alnas was widely respected. If the clothes horse was near a window, it was an invitation to Modon Sur to come in and take away all the stuff that was piled on it. And even if the alna was at the opposite end of the room, several yards away form the window itself,  it was but the work of a moment for Modon Sur to poke in the special iron contraption he had himself invented, and pull out the muga mekhela sadors, the paat kurtas, the eri shawls,  and decamp. Sometimes, bags and jholas too, would be left hanging there. These would be a bonus for him. Clothing fetched a decent price, but if the jhola contained a purse with five or ten rupees and maybe a few annas, he felt that he had earned his keep for a whole month.

The strange thing was not that Modon Sur was never caught. After all, many thieves roamed the land whose skills were of such a high order that they always eluded being caught. The really amazing thing, the one thing that anointed Modon Sur as a master, was the fact that he always seemed to have a watertight alibi. He could never be nabbed and put behind bars for the disappearance of the butcher’s bicycle because, why, that very night, at,  in fact,  that very hour when the bicycle was likely to have disappeared, he was seen at a Naam Kirtan congregation at the other end of town, singing soulfully to the image of Krishna and keeping time with the cymbals in his hands.

How did he always have this kind of an alibi? It was a secret that he took with him to the grave (metaphorically speaking of course…he was cremated, with full honours when he died thirty years after the events that will presently be described here :  a highly respected, even prosperous farmer who came to be addressed with respect. By then, the appellation “Sur” had dropped off from his identity. )

But we are getting ahead of the story. Another thing he was careful about was not to have any of the stolen goods in his home, or shed. He took the purloined stuff straight to his contacts in the other town from which he had emigrated here, who were waiting just outside the town’s boundaries to receive the goods. It was this kind of clever planning that earned Modon Sur the admiration of even those who were the targets of his thievery.

In the largest official bungalow of Rupohi lived the town’s Magistrate, he who was in charge of the administration of the town. Not a Collector, because Rupohi was not the headquarters of any district. Still, the simple townspeople held the Magistrate in great awe, because, even though he was a brown skinned person just like themselves, the people who had lived in that house before him had all been Sahibs and Memsahibs, who had gone back to their island across the seven seas after Independence. Some of that awe that they had vested those whites with rubbed off on those who lived in that house for a long time.

The current incumbent of that rambling red bricked bungalow was Animesh Choudhury, who had been posted to the town just a couple of months before the events of this story. Tall of build and imposing of demeanour, he brought dignity and a great reputation for fairness and efficiency to his post. But more than even this was the fact that he brought to the town his large family, consisting of his wife and six daughters and his small son. The daughters ranged in age from twelve to nineteen, and the son was only five. Even though the eldest two were married, they were often at their parental home, for their husbands were on transferable jobs and they liked to come and stay with their parents while the husbands settled into their new postings and arranged their quarters before sending for their wives.

The girls caused quite a stir in the little town. Though there was quite a good girls’ school in Rupohi, they were tutored at home by a series of teachers who came in from the school in the evenings. However, the girls were in the habit of taking the air on the river bank every evening. Though their large lawns fronted the river, the view was impeded by walls and hedges. All six girls therefore went right out of their gate, to the concrete promenade that bordered the river, without fail every evening. They usually took along their little brother with them, and often sat for a while in one of the parks adjoining the riverbank while the little boy played.

The girls were of course beauties. How could they not be good looking when they came from such an aristocratic lineage? Tall, not thin, but not fat either, and with skins that glowed like the setting sun in October, they would stand out, singly, in any crowd of people. In a group, they were simply devastating. When they went to watch the Durga Puja celebrations that year, their beauty, whispered the awestruck townspeople, rivalled the Devi’s herself.

And their clothes! It was said they went to Calcutta especially to shop for the latest fashions. Instead of the simple muga and paat and cotton mekhela sadors that the townspeople wore, they put on beautiful silk and muslin saris brought from Calcutta. Their blouses were bordered with fine lace, and their hair was always uptwisted in the latest fashion in chignons. As for their jewellery…ah! Of course the Magistrate Sahab was a rich man, but even so! It was said that his wife herself came from a family that was so prosperous that they had gifted her a huge black trunk full of jewellery of purest gold when she had got married. And probably the girls had added to that storehouse, for their necks, wrists and earlobes twinkled and gleamed and glistened in the light of the setting sun on that river bank as they took in the fresh air.

In short, they were loaded with jewellery. And costly apparel. Enough to get any self respecting thief’s hands itching.

Of course Modon Sur was only a petty thief. Still, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t, in his time, pinched a gold chain here or a finger ring there, selling them in the market for a sum that was in fact less than that of a cow in those days. All that gold was really inviting. And it wasn’t as though they would miss the stuff. There was that huge black trunk stowed away somewhere.

Besides, (and here one falters in telling the story) the fact is that Modon Sur rather enjoyed some of the perks of his profession. One was the feeling of power that pinching even a small an object as a cushion from a cane chair gave him. The other was, frankly, more shocking, especially in those prudish days. In fact Modon Sur himself never actually admitted it even to himself, but…the fact was, he enjoyed the sight of all those women in the houses he had come to burgle, lying supine on beds, their clothes all awry, delicious bits of their body exposed, and even more delicious bits hinted at…In fact, many a time Modon would come away without having actually burgled anything, but quite happy nevertheless at the sight of the sleeping girls and women of Rupohi. Of course in no way was this any kind of disloyalty to his wife, to whom he was quite devoted. But he felt it was quite all right to ogle the prostrate bodies laid out so invitingly in the houses he visited at night. It was like staring, open mouthed, at the women he saw in the bioscope that came to town occasionally. They, like the women he burgled, were from a different world.  He would never have dreamed of touching them, except in the line of duty, as it were.

Still, here was a double bonanza! And added to it was the extra thrill of actually going into the lion’s den and decamping with the loot. Delicious! The Magistrate’s house had two durwans, of course, who were supposed to guard the gates, and the house, taking it in turns. But that in itself posed no problem for Modon Sur. Many of the big houses had durwans, but in his experience, they were creatures of habit, and as prone to sleep-wake cycles as the rest of humanity. It was just a question of studying their schedules for a few nights, and planning accordingly.

Of course stealing jewellery was a totally different challenge to that of lifting bicycles. Modon Sur realized that he would need to hone his skills in this department further. This actually suited him fine. It was only February now, and quite chilly at nights. The fog from the river crept into the town at night, laying its damp fingers on everything. It sidled into homes, as well, making people sneeze and develop the sniffles. Everybody in Rupohi kept their windows closed at night in these months. It was only after Bihu, in mid April, when the sun took on strength again, that people began to sleep with their windows open. Luckily for people like Modon Sur, electricity had not yet come to Rupohi at that point. When it did, he was sure that people would sleep with their windows shut even in summer, when instead of punkha wallahs, this thing called “current” would make fans twirls around on ceilings making rooms as cool as though this was January, even in August.

So that gave Modon Sur a couple of months, if not more, to plan a heist that was shaping up to be possibly the biggest heist of his career. Big, in terms of risk, glory, and spoils. If he could sell off the gold at a decent price, he thought he might retire from his night shift career. Perhaps though he would keep a couple of pieces of jewellery for Senehi, his wife. He would not be able to give them to her immediately, of course. Perhaps he would bury them in the earthen floor under their bed, and take them out only after the Magistrate had been transferred to another town, which would no doubt happen in a few years’ time.

In the meantime, there were two areas of research that he had to conduct. One: did the punkha wallah pull the rope to swing the cloth punkha on the ceiling even at night? Modon Sur was almost hundred percent sure that he was sent off when the women went into their rooms to sleep. After all, no woman liked the idea that the punkha wallah could at any time climb up and peep into the room of sleeping girls and women. Most women were prepared to sacrifice this comfort for privacy. This bit of information was easily got. Modon Sur sent out a few feelers to those professional punkha wallahs whose job it was to tug at the ropes that manipulated the cloth fans above the main rooms in the offices of Rupohi. Within a week, without drawing any attention to himself, he was in possession of the information that the punkha wallahs at the Big House were all sent away at seven in the evening. In fact, none of the bedrooms had any provision for punkhas at all. And also, all the help – armies of them, excluding the durwans – lived in a large complex that was connected to the main house through a pathway. They, too, retired there for the night after cleaning up after dinner. This happened by nine thirty, ten at the latest. For Rupohi was a town that went to bed early in those days.

Secondly, and more important: did the women take off their jewellery at night? True, there were thieves who pulled chains from women’s necks, but Modon Sur was not one of them. Purloining, not robbery, was his job description. Well, he would take along his contraption, he thought. If he found that the jewellery was not accessible, he would make away with the clothes on the alna . That too would satisfy him, if not monetarily, then at least from the point of view of professional pride.

And so it happened that for a few months, the more prosperous villages and the little towns around Rupohi began to report a spate of jewellery thefts. Nothing much, to begin with. A small gold chain left carelessly on a table near the window. Perhaps a ring, kept under a pillow while its owner went out to the outdoor toilet at night.

Modon Sur’s greatest asset was his total calmness. He had nerves of steel, which ensured that his brain worked alertly and coolly even as he was lifting a chain from right beside a sleeping girl. Besides, his fingers were deft, and his steps light. In all cases, without exception, it was only much later, when Modon Sur was safely back in Rupohi, making sure he was seen in the shops or in the fields by potential witnesses, that the theft was discovered in the village or town an hour’s journey away by bullock cart, when its owner went in to make her bed, after her bath.

Gradually, as Modon Sur’s confidence levels grew, so did his boldness. He began to purloin jewellery in ever more risky situations. In the heat of Rupohi’s summer, most girls and women kept aside their jewellery while they slept, in order to be more comfortable. After all, even the purest gold chafed terribly against skin made even more tender in the horrendous humidity of Assam in summer. On the other hand, it was considered inauspicious for the house if its daughters and daughters-in-law went about with necks, earlobes,  wrists and fingers bare of gold. To get around this, therefore, they usually took off their jewellery last thing at night, and pushed it under their pillows for safe keeping. In any case, it was considered the sign of industriousness and good breeding to make one’s own bed in the morning, even if the household had many helpers to do the other work. There was therefore little risk of some maid purloining the gold in the morning if the mistress forgot to wear it after her morning bath.

Modon Sur was of course as well aware of this custom as anybody else. Gradually, it became ridiculously easy for him to lift jewellery from tables near the bed. He felt the need for further challenges. Cautiously at first, therefore, and then with ever greater degrees of confidence, he began to lift the pillows from beneath the heads of the sleeping beauties themselves. After a few such missions, he was able to judge to the last inch where the jewels were likely to be kept, at which precise angle and point they would be located. Usually, for some reason, they would be located almost directly under the flowers embroidered in red, green and blue at the corner. (Here it must be mentioned that it was the fashion in those times to sleep on pillows whose covers were embroidered by the women of the house themselves). It became the work of a moment, eventually, for Mondon Sur to locate the jewels under the pillow. And in any case the beds were always pushed against open windows in those days of summer, in order to catch every cooling breeze from the river that came that way.

Once or twice, if the chain around the sleeping girl’s neck was a thin one, and if the girl herself was alone in the room and was, in addition, a slender specimen of womanhood, Modon Sur even went so far as to snatch the chain from around the said neck. This was a new thing for him. He knew it was much more risky to snatch a chain from a neck than it was to pick it up from tables and from under pillows. Still, such was his confidence in his prowess that he attempted that feat with aplomb. By the time the girl in question realized what was happening, and called out for help, he was already quite far away from the scene of the crime. Even so, he had decided not to attempt this again, even if things seemed easy. It was just too risky.

And so, these days, he only lifted from under pillows and from tables and beds.  It was only after he had put away the jewels in the jhola that he always carried slung crossways across his chest that he allowed himself to indulge in the perks of office. If the girls and women were pretty and lissom, he let his eyes linger over the curves of their bodies, before finally making off. Of course there was nothing of the voyeur in this action of his. Rather, Modon Sur’s eyes took in this offering of female beauty spread out before him much as an art lover would a painting by some great Renaissance master.

. In the meantime, he also familiarized himself with the lay of the land, as it were, in the Magistrate’s compound. This he did by sauntering past the gates every evening, his demeanour casual-seeming but his eyes taking in every detail of the house as it was visible to him. He also located a fine, mature mango tree near the back wall of the house. The long, leafy and sturdy branches of this tree spread out over the wall itself, and hung low over the adjoining lane. Fortunately, this particular lane was deserted not just during the night, but also during most of the day. Modon Sur spent many an evening fruitfully employed, up on the mango tree, gazing at the grounds and the house before him. Here too, the bonus was that he could take home some choice mangoes for Senehi  and the children every night.

IN a few weeks, Modon Sur knew almost as well as the occupants of the house themselves which rooms were occupied by the girls, and which by the Magistrate and his wife. He had of course no intention of disturbing that personage himself during his night’s work. That would be tempting Fate. He also familiarized himself with the habits of the two guards. The day guard was not really of any interest to him. However, he was not surprised to find that the night guard would give a couple of turns around the compound, and then doze off in the guardhouse. He would wake up every now and again with a start, and start banging his stick against a wall or post, shouting something unintelligible all the while. After which, he would go back to sleep. Modon Sur had surmised right at the beginning that the guards would not pose any problem to him. And now he was only proved right. Thank goodness though, the Magistrate was not a dog lover. There were no dogs to wheedle over and feed sleeping draughts to in this particular house. With guard dogs, things became more difficult and time consuming. Not impossible, no, but difficult.

The decision that he was ready to “work” at the Magistrate’s house came to Modon Sur, quite suddenly, one night. He was on his way back from a heist at the neighbouring town. It had been a good night’s work, one of his best so far. His jhola was chinkling satisfyingly at his side, full of gold ornaments, and silver anklets. Besides, he had come across a plateful of pithas too while he was going through the rooms. It had been standing temptingly besides the kitchen window. Munching on them as he cycled back to Rupohi, Modon Sur was filled with satisfaction.

It was a beautiful night…not moonlit of course, for that would have not been suitable for his work. As a person whose toils made him think in ways that were different from most other people, Modon Sur’s notions of natural beauty too were coloured by his line of work. So, while others extolled the virtues of a “purnima” night, lit up by the silvery beams of the full moon, Modon was happiest under a dark, “Amavasya” sky, moonless and shadowy. Indeed, others would not find it easy to find their way home in this darkness, on a night as black as coal. But Modon was not a successful thief for nothing. Whistling softly to himself, he rode his cycle back quite confidently through the narrow mud lanes of the area. He could see in the dark, and relished the aromas of the night flowers all around him, as well as the soft breeze against his skin.

That was when the idea came to him. He was having a run of good luck. Like all thieves, Modon Sur too was highly superstitious. He believed that when luck, Fate, Bhagya, whatever you called her…when she smiled on you, she did so for a certain period of time. And when she looked somewhere else, or began to frown at you, then the bad luck, too, came for a fixed amount of time. Certainly, this was a time when Bhagya Devi, Lady Luck, was smiling on him. Why not take advantage of this, and strike at the Big House this very night? The conditions were just right, and he himself was as ready as he would ever be. His footfalls had never fallen softer, he fingers had never been nimbler. In a flash, he made up his mind. Yes, Tonight would be The Night.

The lane at the side of the house was empty, as usual, and quite dark. Soundlessly, Modon leaned his bicycle against it, and prepared to climb the spreading branches of the mango tree. The jhola, with its burden of gold, thumped against his side. Besides, it made that chinkling sound at every step he took. And in any case, the buttons on the jhola still left gaps through which the smaller gold items could slide out. He realized that it was not really practical to carry it around with him as he proceeded with his final heist.

Impossible to leave the jhola on the bicycle.  After all who knew better than him, how the minds of thieves worked? Even a person who was deemed honest would bend his morals if he found this bag with its precious burden lying unattended in that dark lane. Modon decided to take it into the compound with him, and leave it leaning against the tree. He could pick it up on his way out.

Carefully, making sure that nothing fell out of the jhola while he climbed the tree, he went across the wall, and then climbed down the other side. He had made this trip several times before, and was, by now, very much at home here. Still, he moved around silently as he prepared for the work ahead.

First, he took the jhola off from his shoulder, and leaned it against the tree. Then, taking off his sandals, he tied them together and slung them around his neck. This was part of his preparations. All the while, he kept a look around the compound, which now lay under the blanket of darkness. If his eyes hadn’t been used to it, Modon would not have been able to make out a thing.

He began to move quietly away towards the girls’ bedroom. Glancing back once, he saw that his jhola, with its precious burden, had fallen to its side. He came back again, and picking it up, stood undecided about what to do. What if a stray animal came up and scattered its contents…yes, he made up his mind. Taking the jhola, he went to a nearby golonchi bush. The plant was now in full flower, its creamy blooms seeming like soft stars in the darkness. Carefully, he fastened the jhola to one of its branches. There. It was safe from the inquisitiveness of animals now.

In a couple of minutes, Modon was at the window of the room which he had rightly surmised to be the girls’ room. It was in fact like a dormitory. Large and tall ceilinged, Modon could see, by the light of the hurricane lantern that burned dimly in a corner, that it was a kind of dormitory. Each of the five beds was placed against a window. Four of them had one occupant each, while one had two girls sleeping. The youngest two, he surmised, dismissing them. They were unlikely to have much gold on them.

The women were certainly sound asleep. He could hear the even breathing of the six ladies. It was a strange sound. He had never, truth to tell, seen so many females all stretched out, somnolent, in one room. Resisting the urge to stare, he looked around.

The windows had the usual iron rods placed horizontally across to deter people like him. No problem there. His practiced eye judged that he could easily put in his arm to scoop up whatever was left lying around.

But where was it? The loot, where could it be?

And then, suddenly, he saw the pile. A pile of gold that gleamed even in that darkness, heaped up carelessly on the table next to one of the girls. She was probably one of the older ones. Silently, Modon moved to the window beside her bed. Yes, he would be able to reach the table, he thought, quite easily. No doubt she, this older daughter of the Magistrate, had thought that by placing her sleeping form between the table full of gold and the window, she was protecting the pile. Well, in the morning, she would find out how futile it had been.

Modon rolled up the sleeves of his dark coloured shirt, and flexed his fingers. All right then. This was it…He put in his hand, and slowly, moved it towards the table. Quietly, with practiced ease, he grasped the pile. Almost all of it came up in his grasp. Carefully, swiftly, he started to take out the pile.

And then…

Reba, the Magistrate’s eldest daughter, was spending some time with her parents and sisters and brother. Soon, it would be time for her to return to her husband, who was even then shifting from one town to another. In the meantime, it was wonderful to be able to giggle and laugh with her sisters and parents, without a care in the world, as though she had no responsibilities …

That evening as usual, all the sisters took off their jewellery and put it on the table beside Didi’s bed. It was quite safe there. And of course it was too hot to sleep with it on. All those chains, rings, bangles …and those earrings! How they made their skin itch!

The girls, as was their habit, talked and giggled well into the night. It was well past eleven when they drifted off, one by one, their murmurs dwindling to occasional whispers, and finally dying out altogether. Reba was the last to drift off to sleep.

She awoke a couple of hours later, fully alert. She wasn’t sure what had woken her up, but she knew there was something. Without stirring, she listened. She heard her sisters’ even breathing. Everything seemed all right there. But something…

She remained quiet, but opened her eyes a crack. Not fully, but enough to see her surroundings. The light from the lamp in the corner showed….ohmyGod…Krisno, Krisno! Ohohoh!

Reba stifled the instinct to scream, and watched, fascinated, as the dark and hairy arm slowly came in through the window. Like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra’s hooded stare, she watched it lift up a fistful of jewellery, and then start to take it out carefully.

OhmyGod. She should do something. She should…ohmyGod what if no sound came out from her throat, like in nightmares….? What if he throttled her or something…?

The hand was almost out of the window now.

It was the sight of her thick gold mangalsutra dangling from the hairy hand that brought her to her senses. Her mangalsutra, given by Probir  during their wedding just two years ago. And this thief, this robber, was actually taking off with it, that too, right under her very nose! Literally. And what would Probir and his mother say if they knew she was sleeping with it off her body? She was supposed to wear it night and day. Indignation coursed through her being, displacing the fear at last.

Modon’s concentration levels while at work on his “night duties” were always high. His brain seemed to work in high gear, and all his senses, his antennae quivered alertly. He was focussed, at this moment, in drawing out the fistful of jewellery through the gap in the iron rods of the window without disturbing the sleeping owners. Yet he was aware also of all the other things that were happening in the room. The sleeping forms, the even breathing of the six girls, the shadows thrown by the lantern…he was conscious of them all. What he did not realize, though, was that the woman on the other side of the wall was now awake. To say he was startled when the woman decided to take matters into her own hands would be a gross understatement. He had in fact never been more astounded, frightened and shocked, all at the same time, ever before in his life.

Reba’s scream, “Sur! Sur!” came out shrill and strong. But it was not that which stunned Modon so much. It was the fact that she simultaneously grabbed his arm. And right after that initial scream, she bit down hard on it.

Pain coursed through Modon Sur’s arm, radiating upward in agonizing waves. Of course his fist automatically unclenched itself. The jewels fell in a shower on Reba’s body, but she continued to clamp down with her teeth on his arm.

There was turmoil everywhere. The other five sleeping forms had of course woken up at the first scream. Through the pain, Modon’s bewildered mind registered that after the first surprise, they, too, were now screaming at the top of their lungs.

“Sur! Sur!”

“Kon aasey! Who’s there?”

“Deuta! Ma! Come quick! Something bad is happening…eeeee!”

“Eeeee! Durwan! Where are you? Eeee, bring your lathis…”

“ Help us! Help! There’s somebody inside the room!”

“He’s murdering Reba Didi!”

Of course this was not technically correct, but possibly they could not see him as he stood outside in the dark. Through the fog of pain and shock, Modon’s mind registered this fact as a ray of hope. All was not lost, not yet.

The noise levels in the room were horrendous. Five women, screaming at the tops of their lungs, unnerved Modon Sur completely. The sixth still had her teeth around his forearm, but even she was uttering high pitched though unintelligible sounds.

Modon’s instincts, honed finely over a lifetime of thievery, took over. With a supreme effort, ignoring the pain, he shook his hand free from the woman’s mouth. He could feel blood dripping down from it, but he blocked his mind to it. Quickly, like the shadow of a fleeing bat, he ran back to the mango tree. Without looking this way or that, he was up and then over, in a moment. His cycle was as he had left it. Mounting it in a trice, he turned around and pedalled off into the dark.

Behind him, there was pandemonium. The Magistrate and his wife were told the whole story when they came rushing in. At first, there was consternation when the lamp was turned up and Reba’s bloody mouth was seen. However, it soon became apparent that the gore was not hers. The screams had subsided, but the girls were still sobbing hysterically.

“Such a huge man, Ma!” moaned Rina, the middle girl. “A monster, I tell you! Black as coal, with eyes that were full of blood.  He was wearing nothing on top…such muscles, Ma, one flick of his wrist to Reba Didi’s neck, and she would have been like a chicken. Dead in a minute.”

(Here, let us fast forward twenty years. Rina has now become an acclaimed writer of fiction. Possibly this childhood trauma has had something to do with it.)

The room filled up quickly with the help, who rushed in, pell mell, into the house. The sight of the blood on Reba’s face was enough to send two of the maids into a dead faint, while a third fell on the floor with a thud, screaming and thrashing her feet around. The staff became so engrossed in this little side drama that they gave it their full and fascinated attention.

The durwan, disturbed by all this noise, woke up at last, and began to shout, “Jaagte Raho! Jaagte Raho!” automatically, groping for his stick and topi.

(Here it must also be mentioned that though the Durwan was in great danger of losing his job, the intercession of his – the Durwan’s – weeping wife, who fell at the angry Magistrate’s feet the next morning and refused to let go till he relented,  saved the man his salary. The Durwan retired many years later on a full pension. Till the end of his days, he recounted this incident proudly. It is a trifling matter that in the recounting of the tale, it was he who caught the famous dacoit and rescued the six damsels from all kinds of horrors. Perhaps if he had been literate, the Durwan, too, would have been a noted fiction writer.)

Of course there was no question of sleep. Reba had a full and complete bath, while the others took turns to count the jewellery. It was all there, thank God. By the time they had all stopped chattering and counting, dawn was breaking.

“But how did the man come in?” wondered the Magistrate. Followed by his fluttering brood, he walked out, in full majesty even though he was wearing his pyjamas, following the trail of footprints that led to the mango tree.

“Ah!” he said, not without admiration. “So that’s how the thief entered the house! Mali!” he called the gardener. “Make sure that no branches cross over the wall any more. Lop them all off!”

Turning on his heel, he was walking off when something in the golonchi shrub caught his attention. A jhola! A dark, buttoned bag, hanging from a branch. Curiously, he walked up to it, and unhooked it. The chinkling sound that it made could be heard even above the excited chatterings of the women of his family, who had all followed him out.

The Magistrate opened the buttons, and peered inside the jhola. Fistful after fistful, he took out the gold jewels. Balas, bautis, chains, jhumkas, even a slim waistchain emerged. The women watched, stunned into silence.

“Obviously, the thief came here after robbing some other homes,” he said, in his most impressive tones.

IN the silence of the dawn, not even a bird chirped. Finally, Rina, always known for her boldness, stepped forward.

“But Deuta …now that it’s here with us, we should keep it, na? It’s ours now, na? That’s the law, I’m sure…”

The Magistrate turned and looked at this child of his loins. With a voice like thunder and eyes that sparked lightning, he roared, “No, it is not the law! Teaching me the law, are you? This will go with me to the office, where it will be held securely till the real owners are found. Real owners, do you hear! From wherever it has been stolen. Now we have to find out who the thief is…should be easy. After all, he has Reba’s bite marks on his right arm.”

But Modon Sur was not caught, then or ever. For he had taken the precaution of having a bad fall before entering his own home that night. The bite marks on his arm were now unrecognizable, camouflaged as they were by the injuries he had incurred. Not just his arms and legs, even his face was bruised and bleeding when the Arm of the Law came in next morning to question him.

And only Modon Sur, out of all those people who figure in this tale, ever talked about it to anybody else, ever.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is an Assamese author, translator and columnist. Her first novel The Collector's Wife (2005), is set against the Assam Agitation of the 1970s and 80s. A Monsoon of Music (Zubaan Books, 2011) is her  recent novel.

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No One in the Gondola but Them

Sampurna Chattarji

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational.

~

No one in the city dreamt in their beds any more. Instead, they climbed into the shuttles that sped through the rain, and found a seat near the window. The windows of the shuttles went all the way from seat to ceiling. A fine beehive pattern lay across the glass, so that when you looked out, the city looked pointillist. But mostly, you saw no city. You saw a sheet of liquid rippling past your ears, above your forehead, along your elbow. You nestled closer to the glass protecting you from the water, and you slept.

Swapna had started taking the shuttles instead of the trains. She didn’t need to go into town every day, she could fix the time of her meetings according to her convenience, mostly at coffee shops, and the shuttles left every twenty minutes from a stop ten minutes away from her house, no need for her to race to the station and brave the muck and so many umbrellas dripping down her neck. The conductors who started recognizing her urged her to buy a monthly pass, save herself money, but she mumbled about not having to go every day, this on the third consecutive day of taking the same shuttle. They probably thought she was an eccentric with her long flowery umbrella, her knee-length shorts and her black ankle boots that she took out every monsoon. She wasn’t young any more and she had gone soft in the belly and thighs, but none of that stopped her from wearing clothes that were practical. She wore a chunky stone at her throat and strawberry balm on her lips. Her arms she mostly left bare. She hadn’t accounted for how cold the air-conditioned shuttle would be. The first time she rode it, she froze so badly, it took a whole afternoon of cafe lattes to thaw her out.

But now she was a veteran. In her capacious tote bag—sunshine yellow, turquoise blue, burnt sienna or classic black—she packed a shawl to match her shorts, her bag or her neck-piece, and the minute she was done paying, she wrapped herself in it like a bug in a rug, and slept.

From time to time, she registered through her sleep where she was. Godrej Soaps, Chheda Nagar, Sion Hospital. Then there would be a long blank and she would wake just in time to see Gloria Church looming out of the greyness and slipping away as the bus curved past its spire. When the dome of the mosque below J.J. Flyover slid by in a green haze, she knew it was time to start unwrapping herself. Unwrap, fold, pack, comb, yawn, stretch, stand up, leave.

*

It was on the first Saturday that she understood what was special about the shuttles. There were only four people at the stop—a tall young man in a black suit and tie, a blowsy old lady in a yellow chiffon and a big red bindi that was curling at the edges due to the damp or the wrinkles on her forehead, a very stylish young woman with spiky gelled hair, and her. The rain came down as they waited, the drops blowing sideways. They didn’t have to bear more than two minutes of this before the great purple shuttle materialized out of the rain like a benevolent whale.

Swapna’s favourite spot was where the seats faced each other and were higher than the rest because they came over the wheels. She hated travelling facing the wrong direction, but that only happened when she was late and all the other seats were taken. She claimed her place with her tote bag, tucked her umbrella into the space behind the driver’s seat, and when she returned, the tall young man in the black suit and tie was sitting next to her bag which happened to be sunshine yellow that day, and would have matched the blowsy lady’s chiffon very well. The young man courteously held his knees sideways for her to get in and then stretched out again, placing his polished black shoes on the step where the facing passenger would have placed his or her feet if he or she had been there. Swapna wrapped herself up, put her tote bag on the empty seat opposite her, no one was going to steal her money, her mobile or her book of poems by Agha Shahid Ali, folded her legs so her boots rested neatly on the step, and fell into a doze. The AC blast had dried her wet calves and arms in seconds, and she felt warm and drowsy under her shawl, as if she had drunk a brandy. Knees covered, ears covered, hands tucked between legs, a cocoon.

The rain streamed past the windows, the wheels ploughed through the water, making arcs of spray so high they came up to her face. It was like being on an ocean liner, Swapna thought sleepily, a luxurious ocean liner. She was on board a liner, there was dancing in the ballroom, and soon they would go out on to the wind-lashed deck to see the penguins. There was a girl there with a mop of tight black curls dancing with a woman with straight yellow hair, and everyone was clapping. The penguins made a pattern of black dots on the white ice floe.

She stirred. The space that had originally been there between the tall young man’s black-suited arm and hers had vanished. Through her shawl she could feel, instead of a whistling fingerbreadth of cold air, the warmth of his arm.

However deeply she slept she always made it a point to hold herself away from whoever sat next to her, especially if it was a man. She hated it when a fat man sat next to her, his thighs and arms bulging over into her seat, no mal-intention there, merely an excess of flesh, and no place for her to shift and create that sliver of all-important space. If it was a woman, it wasn’t so bad, but she had trained herself to attract the right person, lifting her bag in time to catch the slim ones.

This man was slim, and he had chosen this seat when there were forty-three other seats to choose from.

Swapna did not feel the slightest tremor of alarm.

If she unwrapped herself even a little bit, the cold would enter. The rain was falling ceaselessly, and bursts of light, fuzzy at the edges, floated past, as if the entire city were under water. The thought of her safety, her immunity to the wetness of the rain and the coldness of the air conditioning made her snuggle closer to herself. It didn’t matter that the boy’s arm, for he was more boy than man, lay against hers. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was clean-shaven, his hair was neatly cut, he didn’t have much character yet, but that would come with time. His eyes were shut.

She did not draw herself away. The shuttle swerved. He did not take advantage of the swerve to press against her. That is how she knew he was innocent.

She was in a schoolroom, packed with fifteen-year-olds. She was talking to them about mathematics, about alpha sine minus one. Zito the Magician turned a rat into a rabbit and held out his hat. Archimedes was in his bath. Next he was on the sand, drawing circles, and a corporal chopped off his head. The school children were marching, one-two, one-two. You are as far as memory, she said, and I am as far as invention. The rabbit fell down the hole. The fifteen-year-olds giggled.

Through her dream, she felt the arm of the young man beside her. The idea that his whole body lay beyond that arm was one that did not have any reality. She noticed that her hip was close to his hip. Her arm touched the length of his arm. It was Venice, and the gondola was easing through the water. A child in a red raincoat with a hood waved at them, and then let the hood fall back to reveal the very old face of a dwarf. She was frightened. The warmth of his arm and his hip made her less frightened. She allowed her right arm to relax. Normally the idea of a strange man’s hip against hers would have disgusted her. This man did not feel strange. She allowed her upper body to relax. They drew their sleeping breaths together, and the rhythm of calm, soft, shared breathing soothed her. There was no one in the gondola but them.

Swapna was aware that the young man was aware of her comfort. Once, long ago, on a mountain road, with a mist outside as thick as the rain, she had sat like this with a friend, immeasurably sad at the thought that they could be nothing more. His arm had touched hers in just this way, and she had prayed, don’t let him draw away, god please don’t let him draw away, and he hadn’t. They had stayed silently pressed together along the length of their arms, and when the ride ended they had known what could never be said.

But should they? Was this nestling right? As if to send the young man a signal that she was no frustrated middle-aged pervert, Swapna sat up straight, angled her legs towards the window, and drew, for the first time, her upper body a few centimetres away. After so many minutes of shared warmth, the gap between them felt arctic. She rested her head against the cold pane of glass. The windows were fogged up, the water splashed and streamed. She was in a mechanical car wash in a rich suburb north of New York. She sat with a married friend, whose wife and son were away in India. He was her merry host, he lent her his wife’s fancy chappals for that evening’s dinner at an expensive Thai restaurant, she was so tired of wearing sneakers and socks. Afterwards he drove her around, pointing out the large houses, telling her their ridiculously high prices, pointing out his son’s school, where he played the sax, the dead mall where they had bought iceberg lettuce and milk that afternoon. And then he said, I need to get the car washed, and she found herself sitting inside it, the windows white with foam, the jet of water thudding against her burning ears, two inches away from a suddenly silent man, talking to make the silence go away, talking to banish her memories of steamy car wash scenes in movies, wondering how anyone could do anything with those giant fronds of mop lashing outside like octopuses.

She slept. When she woke, he was right beside her, arm against arm, hip discreetly against hip. She felt a slow-spreading smile light up inside her. He was fast asleep, and he wasn’t the kind she saw so often, the kind who slept with their mouths open, letting out little puffy snores. He had repaired the rift that she had so carefully introduced into their relationship. He was telling her he had understood her message, and here was his in return—isn’t it nicer this way?

He was right, it was. Knowing he would not mind, or consider it unseemly, Swapna let herself go soft against his arm, noticing as she did so that he stayed absolutely still.

*

No one got enough sleep in this bloody city, Indra thought, as he stretched his legs out. A city of sleep-deprived souls. Akhil wanted to make a zombie-movie. Set it in this city, man, Indra had told him, look around you, you’ll never find more zombies per square inch in any other place. Chasing success, the standard Mumbai myth! What a con. Chasing sleep more like it, snatching whatever fragments came your way, greedy, desperate, desperately tired. You slept standing in trains, you slept sitting in buses, you slept luxuriously like pashas sprawled on velvet couches in cabs, whenever you took them. Hell, sometimes you slept at the wheel of your very own cars and crashed into the longest sweetest sleep of all. On weekends, you slept till lunch if you were lucky, if your wife or mother or landlady didn’t want you to go shopping, run errands or do some other lunatic thing. It created a craving so deep that on Sunday nights you couldn’t sleep just thinking how much you longed to. And then the merciless week began. All week you slept in bits and pieces, catching four or five hours at a stretch if you were lucky every night, and then off again every morning, running, with breakfast in your gullet and sleep in your eyes.

It sucked. Which is why Indra had decided not to buy a car, not to take the train, not to waste money on cabs, but simply take the shuttles that had sprung up miraculously all over town, connecting the dots that made the city a giant beehive.

What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational. All true. And all driving him slowly insane. If it weren’t for the shuttles, which left every twenty minutes from a spot just five minutes away from his flat, thereby allowing him fifteen minutes of extra sleep every morning, he would have lost it by now. Cracked under the strain. Like that man he saw two days ago, near Regal Bakery at Byculla, standing in the middle of the road in the pouring rain, his mouth moving soundlessly, gesturing wildly then stopping to make a frame with his fingers as if he were setting up a shot. His whole body felt splintered when he saw that man. It was the same shifting breaking sensation he felt on his sleepless, longing-to-sleep nights. It spooked him, and he turned away, glad of the shuttle’s speed.

Lately, the only place Indra could sleep soundly was in the shuttle. One and a half hours that refreshed him in a way not even five hours did. It was the pollution-free air, the cool, he didn’t have an AC in his room, it was the knowledge that from terminus to terminus, he owed nothing to nobody. And on Saturdays, it was the best.

It was on a Saturday that he realized—until he started taking the shuttle he hadn’t had a single dream after moving to Mumbai. Was it the rain? No, inside the shuttle, you never heard it the way you did when you were at home on a Sunday morning, covers pulled over your head, your entire body soaking in the pleasure of sleeping late, lulled and soothed by the music of the rain. Inside the shuttle, you were lulled and soothed by the movement, soundless and surging, through curtains of water, powerful and intact.

He dreamt he was on a water lily, a white lily, floating upstream. He dreamt there was a black horse galloping alongside. He dreamt that three moss-green elfin ladies in raincoats were swimming with him. He dreamt he was mute, and talking with his hands to a girl in a red and yellow salwar-suit, who listened to him with the sweetest look of comprehension on her face.

When it was time to get off at Cuffe Parade, Indra felt peaceful, restored. He knew then that he would have to do this again and again.

He started noticing things. The nature of your dreams depended on who you sat next to. Certain people made better dream companions than others. There were regulars. Following an unspoken code, they chose each other. The small man with the bulbous glasses sat next to the woman with the mole on her cheek. The young man with shoulder-length greying hair sat next to the girl in the windcheater which she never took off. The Parsi lady sat next to the Tamilian with vibhuti on his forehead. Indra still hadn’t found his regular. On weekdays he went with the flow, taking whichever seat was free. On Saturdays, he chose one, then another, relishing the fact that on Saturdays there were people you never saw the whole week—the irregulars, going to town because they wished to, not because they had to. On that Saturday, he chose the woman with the eccentric ankle boots.

She wasn’t exactly young or pretty or trim. But then neither was she old or misshapen or ugly. He chose her over the two other women. The older matronly one with too much rouge on her already red face who worked in the LIC building on PM Road, she was a regular, with many voluble bus-friends—today’s trip into town was clearly not for work. The younger one was a newcomer whose gelled hair and pierced nose attracted him, and yet, he chose the ankle boots. He knew it might look odd, his sitting there with so many seats free, but he was willing to risk it. She didn’t even bother looking at him as he held his legs sideways for her to get in after she’d stashed her long umbrella behind the driver. For a second, Indra was tempted to shift allegiances, choose Ms Spiky. He stayed where he was. She unzipped her tote bag, took out a shawl and proceeded to shroud herself in it. It was a large shawl, almost like a blanket, and she wound it around her knees, her neck, her head, and gave a little sigh before falling fast asleep.

A great calm stole over Indra. He closed his eyes. She was dreaming of penguins. He could see them, little scattered dots. He wanted to see them more clearly. She had a pair of binoculars in her hand. He came closer to take them from her. When he looked through them he saw, instead of the penguins, a towering flank of ice, coming towards them.

The liner veered to avoid it. Indra held himself steady against the rail, and felt fiercely happy. Her body was soft and warm against his. She was reading Alice in Wonderland. The Pool of Tears was rising, and she was swimming, trying to keep her head above the water. Two people were sitting very close together in a room, her and him, and yet there were a million light years between them. Someone had killed someone, only it didn’t matter much because it happened long ago. She was singing. He couldn’t make out the words of the song. At first it sounded like Spanish, and then it was Italian. She was frightened, there was a creaking wooden board giving way under her feet, and in the dark water below, an ancient sea monster bared its rotting teeth. He put his arm around her. She stopped trembling. She was soft and warm and breathing deeply close to him. He was dreaming of a giant squid, squirting purple ink in a vast translucent tank. He was dreaming of Claire Dane’s face seen through an aquarium of darting rainbow-hued fish. He was dreaming of Octopus Paul, picking the right team. He was dreaming of sitting in a car, with the rain pounding outside, lip-locked with a woman whose name he didn’t know. He was out in the rain, shivering, drenched.

Indra stirred. She had drawn herself away and stuck herself against the window. Was she angry? He sneaked a peek at her. She wasn’t angry, just worried where this might be going. Relax, he wanted to tell her, isn’t it nicer this way? I like the feel of you next to me, and I know you do too. Besides, we dream well together, you and I. Gently, he turned his body so his arm lay next to hers again. He could feel it under the shawl, her bare right arm locked between her legs, holding herself in place, making of herself a compact unit that would not jostle against him when the shuttle swerved or braked. She was dreaming again. He closed his eyes. He could feel her hip against him. All of her warmth and softness was accessible to him through these two parts, her arm and her hip. He slept . . .

‘Excuse me?’

She was asking him to remove the barrier of his long legs. She was getting off at Regal Cinema. She didn’t look at him. She had tidied her shawl away, combed her hair, put something fresh on her lips, which Indra suddenly noticed, with something close to regret, were very lovely. He stood up to let her go.

Would they acknowledge each other? If she wouldn’t, neither would he. What did the others do? The mechanical door of the shuttle opened with a gusty sigh, and she got off at the signal as if in a hurry to leave. As Indra watched her splash through the water flowing around the traffic island, he could tell she was weak at the knees too, and wet from more than the rain. She had forgotten to open her umbrella.

From Dirty Love (Penguin Books, March 2013), reprinted with permission of the author.

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, novelist and translator with ten books to her credit, and three forthcoming. Born in Ethiopia in November 1970, Sampurna grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi, and is now based in Mumbai/Thane. Her latest book, Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013), is a collection of short stories about Mumbai. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace writer-in-residence at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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The Last Time I Tried to Leave Home…

Rajorshi Chakraborti

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

… I asked to be dropped off at one of the bus stops at which the city-to-airport coach picked people up; it would save everyone the hassle of making their way back from the airport during what would be the evening rush hour. I have plenty of time, I argued, six whole hours, so the speed of the coach would be fine for me, and this way everyone else gets the afternoon to themselves. When they realised I was serious, my folks agreed quite easily to my proposal (and right they were to), because it was on the whole a saving of at least three hours for them, and several more if they were thinking they’d have to wait, for the sake of form, until my flight departed.

Six hours, I had six whole hours, and even factoring in the usual hold-ups due to traffic, the coach couldn’t take longer than two. So I decided not to take the one that was due to arrive in five minutes, but to give myself an extra hour to wander around this bit of town. After all, this was my home city and I didn’t know when I’d be back, so I was going to seize my final chance to look around and soak it in. The weight of my suitcase was just about manageable, and there was a bus to the airport every half-hour.

Within a couple of minutes of walking, I knew which way I should head. It was too inviting to ignore – our first family home was about ten minutes away (ten minutes with me pulling my suitcase). And today of all days, when I was leaving my birthplace to start a new life, it seemed right that I should return to say goodbye to the house where it all began, where I’d spent the first seven, extremely happy years of my life.

Since we’d moved, we didn’t pass through this neighbourhood much, so I was surprised to find that the house, while still standing, looked in terrible shape, as though it hadn’t been painted in over a decade and was now in a state of terminal neglect – suggesting that the landlord had finally got rid all of his tenants and the building was going to be pulled down very soon.

As indeed many other houses in the area already had been: one in three of the present buildings looked like they had come up in the last ten years, nondescript blocks of flats four or five storeys high that had replaced the old family homes on generous grounds which once dominated the street. And I didn’t really (even) have the leisure to stand and contemplate the decline of the house I’d once been so sad to leave – with its small balcony outside the front door on which I remembered numerous welcomes and goodbyes, and my ayah and me watching the life of the street go by round four o’ clock each afternoon before ourselves setting off for my daily walk and play – because directly opposite it, demanding my attention and awe, and expecting me and my suitcase to either keep moving or get out of the way of a constant two-way trickle of shoppers, was the gigantic re-development that crowned all the other changes to the street: the main entrance to a shopping centre that had replaced an entire block of homes. It was now clear why our one-time landlord was happy to let his building fall to pieces – there would be many developers eager to put up flats right opposite such a shiny mall, or even just a multi-storeyed car park.

I entered the mall in search of a drink (because despite the relatively pleasant mid-monsoon temperature, lugging that suitcase around for fifteen minutes had been hard work) as well as to take a look around. I also had some idea of trying to find a vantage point on one of the higher floors from which to view our old home more fully. Yes, I remember, it was our terrace I especially wanted to see, that had been the site of innumerable thrilling games of hide-and-seek and chor-police, with its pipes and ideal-for-concealment water-tanks, and the dangerous, strictly-off-limits, spiral wrought-iron stairway that winded down the left side of the building, which we defiantly used all the time despite ourselves being terrified of falling through one of the large gaps between the steps. But when I got to the fourth floor, from where I would have had an ideal view of the terrace opposite, I realised all the glass panels were heavily tinted, and besides, there was hardly anywhere one could get close enough to the glass to try and look through it without leaning over merchandise or attracting the attention of one of the sales assistants nearby.

On my way to the food and drink section of the department store I had entered, I noticed there was a big CD and DVD sale on, and stopped to take a look. Within just a minute’s browsing, I’d spotted heavily discounted box-sets of Seinfeld Season 6 and Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 2, so I picked these up and moved quickly on, afraid to look any further, because I had neither the time nor the space in my hand-luggage to go on any kind of buying binge right then. Instead, I efficiently located the drinks fridge, picked up a bottle of pomegranate juice, and looked around for the nearest till.

I had walked for a few metres, and was wondering whether or not it was worth the trouble to fish out my camera from my backpack, or even just my phone from my pocket, when a student who was sitting on a bench with an open laptop asked me if I was lost. 

Just then an announcement came over the PA system that owing to a sudden computer problem, the store unfortunately could not process any sales just now and would have to close for thirty minutes, therefore would all shoppers kindly make their way to the nearest exit? I however still kept walking towards the sales assistant I had spotted, but he claimed to be unable to help me, since all the tills were down.

‘Please come back in half an hour, Sir. It’ll be fixed by then.’

‘I can’t come back. Can’t you see I have a suitcase? From here I go straight to the airport.’

The guy apologised again, then asked me where I was going. I ignored the question.

‘Look, I really want these DVDs and this drink. How about I pay you, in cash, and you hand-write me a receipt, and later when the system is back on, you record it in the till?’

He asked my forgiveness a third time, and said that my plan wouldn’t work because the sensors at the exit would go off if the items hadn’t been scanned correctly.

‘But you said the system is down. Then the sensors won’t go off.’

‘No Sir, only the payment system is not working. Everything else is fine. It’s not a power-cut. Look, the lights and the air-conditioning are on.’

‘So you’re telling me that I want to buy these items, I have the money ready for them, I’m leaving the country in a few hours, but you still can’t sell them to me because of some stupid glitch in your system.’

‘That’s right, Sir. It’s very unfortunate that you don’t have a little more time. You’re going abroad? For higher studies or for job?’

Without aggravating myself any further on such an auspicious day, I planted the DVDs and the bottle of juice on the counter, and marched out. I got my drink from the small paan-shop right around the corner from the mall (although this guy didn’t have pomegranate juice, he also thankfully didn’t have a computerised payment system), and made it comfortably onto the 1 o’ clock airport bus, on which I was one of only eleven passengers. And everything else about the afternoon proceeded smoothly, so much so that even though, to my surprise, the coach took the old route through the middle of town rather than the ring-road around the outskirts, we still arrived at the final leg of the journey (where we would connect with the highway and reach the airport within twenty minutes) by 1.40, leaving me with over four hours to kill. Which was why, on a whim, I pressed the ‘stop’ button on the nearest handrail, picked up my suitcase from the luggage rack and asked to be let off at the last stop just before we got onto the highway. There was this new architecture college coming up on our left whose much-lauded campus had opened four months before, and I’d decided to quickly take a peek rather than waste the time hanging around the airport. Today, strangely, seemed to be an opportunity not just to say goodbye to the well-loved and thoroughly familiar parts of my city (for this reason, I’d enjoyed every minute of the coach-ride), but also to visit some of the exciting new locations cropping up all over town that I so far hadn’t had a chance to see.

There were some students chatting in the bus shelter, and I asked them to suggest some architectural highlights of their campus that I should particularly look out for. I also mentioned that I only had about twenty minutes because I wanted to be back in time for the airport bus at 2.30. Unfortunately though, I had happened upon a group of rather unfriendly, unhelpful students, one of whom replied cursorily that everything was plain to see right from the campus gate itself, and that all I needed to do was stay on the main path in the centre and glance to my left and right.

I was disappointed: I guess I had expected a little more enthusiasm from these people for the discipline they were supposedly studying. The guard at the gate took me, with my suitcase, for a new student, and pointed out the first-year hostel to me; I thought better of correcting his impression in case he then forbade me entry. Once I was inside, I realised that in a sense, the boy at the bus stop hadn’t been wrong – several, extremely innovative buildings, many in red sandstone, were immediately visible from the gate itself. My first thought was that the architect had attempted a modern interpretation of the Jantar Mantar.

I had walked for a few metres, and was wondering whether or not it was worth the trouble to fish out my camera from my backpack, or even just my phone from my pocket, when a student who was sitting on a bench with an open laptop asked me if I was lost. I said no, I’m just looking around, as if he was a shop assistant trying to foist help on me, but then decided to repeat my earlier question to this more helpful-seeming guy. Could he point a visitor towards the one or two buildings he would deem most architecturally noteworthy on campus?

‘Tell you what, I’ll show you,’ he said, shutting his laptop. ‘I’m Karan.’

‘Hey Karan, don’t take the trouble. I’m happy to just wander.’

‘No trouble. It’s a great campus. You should get a tour. How long do you have?’ and with that Karan did exactly what I’d been hoping for: within the next fifteen minutes he’d walked me briskly through the main administration building, the library foyer, the pool and gym entrance, and a glimpse of his first-year dormitory at the other end of the football field. In each case, this phenomenal student – who also had time to tell me about all the architecture-related software that was available to students these days, much of which he had already downloaded onto his laptop – had the necessary breadth of knowledge, and interest, to be able to name the various architects, eras and styles that had been referenced in this or that building or design detail. At the end of our tour, I was left feeling secretly embarrassed about how shallow and incorrect my initial association with the Jantar Mantar had been, grateful that I hadn’t mentioned this idiotic idea to Karan, as well as profoundly impressed at the point Karan was trying to illustrate through each of the examples on our walk – that the campus itself had been designed as a three-dimensional textbook, encompassing centuries and diverse traditions of planning and design for the students to live in, notice, and absorb.

At the end of our tour, I was also left feeling thirsty, so when Karan said that we were passing by the canteen and could stop for a drink, I took a quick look at my phone and said sure. Truth be told, taking the 2.30 bus would have been over-cautious on my part; I was a twenty-minute highway ride away from the airport. If I arrived at 3.20, that would still leave me with two hours and forty minutes in hand for my flight. This way, I wouldn’t have to cut short Karan’s stream of enthusiasm for his subject, and indeed, for his college campus; and also, standing him some refreshments would be a small way of showing my appreciation both for his intellectual keenness as well as his even rarer qualities of instant openness and warmth. This encounter was truly a wonderful note on which to leave my home-city, an outstanding example of energy and freshness to take abroad as a keepsake. In fact, I suddenly realised, my travels amongst the exciting and unfamiliar had already begun, and I hadn’t even got to the airport! All in all, this experience had completely wiped away any lingering sadness I might have felt about the transformation of my childhood street and the derelict condition of our former house, as well as any small measure of irritation against that sales assistant who couldn’t help me grab the great bargain that had already been in my hands. It probably wasn’t his fault: I guess he couldn’t let me go without scanning the DVDs properly.

At some point, while munching on an especially delicious fish cutlet and taking a sip of my Mountain Dew, I realised I had been lost in these thoughts and had failed to hear Karan asking where I was going. He repeated his question, and I was about to answer him when it occurred to me that it might be prudent to first check the time. It was 2.49, and I got up immediately because in my mental map of the campus, I was certain the bus stop was at least ten minutes away. Karan said, more like fifteen with a suitcase, but maybe I could make it if I ran. He still had quite a bit of food left on his plate, and clearly didn’t want to abandon it, so I asked him for the absolute quickest route back to the front gate, which he assured me wasn’t complicated at all – all I had to do was retrace our steps around the football field, continue past the admin building, and I would see the main path leading directly to the gate. At this point it was 2.51, so even my thanks were shouted out to him whilst I was already on the run.

At 2.54 (I was clutching my phone in my free hand as I ran, alternating it with the pull-out handle of the suitcase whenever I needed to rest an arm), I saw Shalu coming out of the administration building from about ten metres away, and couldn’t help but call out her name. And yet, such was the nature of my emergency that I couldn’t even stop and speak to the one person I had yearned to say goodbye to, but hadn’t been able to persuade to meet me before I left. She herself was so surprised at the apparition running past her (someone she’d taken pains to avoid for over eight months) shouting her name and dragging a huge suitcase behind him that she could only follow my progress open-mouthedly without a word. To this day (it’s been four years, and true to form, I still haven’t managed to see her again, even though I know where she has studied this entire time), I can summon up clearly that gaping but lovely face as I sped past, moving from her left to her right: a slow-motion shot of a spectator at a tennis match.

Maybe I should have stopped and talked to her. Maybe then these past four years would have been different. It would have seemed a suitably heroic gesture – a future gambled away on the off chance of love – and who knows, might have swayed her heart back towards me. Besides, in any case, although I couldn’t have known it at the time, the outcome of my mad dash that afternoon would still have been the same, so I might as well have given love one final shot, when it had cropped up so unexpectedly on the verge of my permanent departure.

I missed the three o’ clock bus by five minutes. No matter. I could still have made my flight by arriving at the airport at ten to four. But it was at the moment of handing my fare to the driver on the 3.30 bus that I realised I wasn’t wearing my jacket, in which I’d been carrying my passport. I had last placed it, owing to the sweat generated by an over-brisk campus tour, around the back of my chair in the canteen, planning to put it on again in five minutes right after I’d tackled that gorgeous-looking fish-cutlet. What a perfectly apt gastronomical note to go out on, I’d been thinking, at which point Karan had started talking, if I remember correctly, about features his college campus had in common with the city of Brasilia, which had also been constructed, apparently, out in the middle of nowhere. And right then, with Karan in the midst of articulating a complex idea, me two mouthfuls into my cutlet and half-wondering if there was such a thing as an evening class in architecture-appreciation, Baba had called to find out if I had already gone through security check. It would have been too much trouble to explain where I was just then, and why, so I’d simply promised to call back in a few minutes and hung up, and this had been another reason I’d forgotten about the jacket hanging behind me: later, while I waited at the bus stop for over twenty minutes for the half-three bus, my mind still awhirl with that sighting of Shalu, I had also been on the phone with my parents, giving them (each, separately) excited accounts of my afternoon adventures.

In case you’re wondering, Karan was no crook. He’d simply not noticed the jacket for the first little while after I dashed off, preoccupied with his own meal. Then he – understandably – assumed that I had caught my three o’ clock bus, and left the jacket with the canteen-wallahs, saying either a guy with a suitcase or a friend of his might come to ask for it.

The guy with the suitcase showed up at a quarter-to-four, managed to prove his case indubitably by asking the sceptic behind the counter to pull out his passport from the left-hand breast pocket, but couldn’t make it back in time for the 4.00 p.m. bus. By now the commuter rush-hour had begun, and it took him fifteen minutes to get an empty taxi. When the guy with the suitcase, and the jacket, arrived at the airport at 5.10 (the highway during evening rush-hour was not the smooth twenty-minute journey he had anticipated), his plane to Frankfurt was still on the tarmac, but he simply was not allowed to board, despite his lamentable condition and his heart-rending pleas that his entire life could turn on this moment. Looking back, his lamentable condition – sweaty, desperate and out of breath – might actually have worsened his case.

Here’s one thing that did work out for me later that week: I managed to return to the mall on the street of my childhood, and buy those Seinfeld and Curb… box-sets, as well as, on an afterthought, that appetising-looking bottle of pomegranate juice. I had also prepared for what would (inevitably) happen, and told the sales assistant when I ran into him that I was back from my business trip abroad, and that he could expect to see me quite regularly from now on.

From Lost Men (Hachette India, 2013). Republished with permission of the author. 

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Rajorshi Chakraborti is an Indian novelist, essayist and short story writer. He was born in 1977 in Calcutta, and grew up there and in Mumbai. He has also lived and studied in Canada, England and Scotland, and worked, between 2007 and 2010, as a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. He currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

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