Short Story, first published in my blog in B’Khush, dated January 5, 2015
She was a new bride, draped in the vermilion light of the day. The crimson red scattered in shreds in her hair, locked in a bun, all the way to her forehead and nose, breathed of a newly forged, sanctioned communion of love. Love was solidified by the family priest with the burning embers of fire and the rigorously uttered Hindu wedding mantras. Her hands, holding on to the grains of the puffed rice shivered as they were held by the groom’s, standing erect, eager, behind her.
“Aguner poroshmoni chh(n)owaao praaney
E jeebon punyo koro, e jeebon punyo koro dohon daane”
(Let the flames of the holy fire touch our souls/Let us be sacred in the fire, let us be beautiful, complete in burning).
She breathed, shallow, forlorn, trying to chase the intangible bubbles that she could see, sprouting out of time’s indelible conspiracy. Her hands, tied around the groom’s hands with a sacred red thread were squeezed, grabbed by a pair of arduous male hands inside the transient dark of the movie theaters; the snug comfort of the cabs after dusk sheathed the city and its desperate lovers in its silhouetted beauty. Her hands grasped his and spoke volumes to him while she would board the train back home, the whistle blowing as the young lovers would take in the dense breeze of departure. “Wish you a safe journey. Call me once you reach home”.
Together with the groom, she melted in the fire and the cacophony of the Vedic chants, as her uncle offered the bride to the groom in the ritual of Sampradan. “Bor khub shundor dekhte, Sukanya (The groom is really handsome, Sukanya). Lucky you, and see, the sindoor spilled over your nose too.” An elderly aunt, holding in her arms a truant toddler boy, came close to her, trying to fix her tilted topor (crown).
She watched the noisy children, the guests gathered in clusters, the austerity of the priest and the earnestness of the groom, a stealthy drop of tear or two pushing past her rouged cheekbones. Sukanya Bakshi chewed on the last slices of her maiden identity, her first real date in the old, nameless alleys of College Street, the fruitlessness of nibbling on the secretly scribbled pages of her life with Aniruddha, the notes of togetherness, intimate, unguarded moments, promises wincing at her in the solemnity of the rituals.
“Ki korchhish ki? (What are you doing, you crazy girl?) Don’t rub it off your nose! You know it’s the testimony to long-lasting love!”
Ayan, the groom, gave her stealthy glances of unbridled desire, an anxious, yet rehearsed one filled with a sense of urgency and a surge of newfound love, admiration and promises of a conjugal life that he had waited for, all these months of this neatly arranged, telephonic courtship. The marriage registrar was there in time, the affidavit and the legalities solemnized with immediate, extended family members, an array of people of various ages and sizes, munching on delectable food, the aroma and festivities of the night.
Across the crowded room of Ayan Mitra’s ancestral north Kolkata house, her fate stumbled. Sukanya Mitra, a brighter moon with the aanchal of her pink Benarasi sari tangled with her new husband’s wedding attire, scurried through the unfamiliar faces, the claustrophobic walls, the alleys, the forlorn shrubs and the narrow verandah. Her kohl-laden eyes, taking in the pandemonium, the nascent constellation of relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, settled in the ground beneath her feet, where the women of the house prepared a rectangular wooden ‘jalchauki’. Her alta-clad, crimson feet followed every minute gesture, every miniscule ritual they were immersed in, as they welcomed her to the house with paddy, durba and a pan of simmering, boiling milk. She watched the night in its dancing shadows, the whirlpool of revelries, the series of the rituals performed on her, while Ayan pried over her, died to hold her, touch her amidst the strictures and the never-ending customary occurrences.
“Just one more night, and you will, fully, completely be mine”, he had whispered in Sukanya’s ears, aching with the weight of the heavy, vintage gold earrings.
“Do you think, I will ever be able to completely belong to Ayan?” She had asked her best friend Soma over a cup of coffee, the day they went to shop for her wedding.
“Well, you know, you can’t absolutely belong to anybody, no matter how close you are in the relationship.” Soma smiled, looking at her furtive, questioning eyes. “But you will surely bond, over time. Just give that much time to him, to yourself and you will be fine.”
“You know, I’ve asked myself the same questions about Ani. Was he ever mine? If any part of me truly belongs to him, how could he let me go?”
“May be, yes, may be a part of him really belongs to you, Sukanya.” Soma replied, as both friends walked hand-in-hand amid the din and clatter, the evening rush of the Gariahat market. Soma had seen the lovers ebb and flow in their five years of togetherness. She had seen it all happen as both of them met, for a beat, a fleeting thought, a happenstance, a chained turn of events spurred on by serendipity, which looked like a lifetime of dreams.
They knew all along, this had to happen. Somewhere, down the line, he didn’t think marriage would necessarily solidify the belonging. She had cursed him for months, refused to speak to him, discarded him as a bohemian, as a coward, got herself strips of sleeping pills, promised herself their paths would never cross again, but none of that worked to ease her pain one bit. For some journeys, like this, she knew the cessation may remain undefined.
Years back, on a gleaming Diwali evening, Sukanya had fluttered in her pink chiffon salwar suit, her hands sweated as they held Ani’s in an act of complete, unquestioned surrender inside the cozy confines of his two bedroom apartment in Ballygunge. The smell of the house and its walls, the indoor plants, the aroma of food and of Ani’s lips, thrusting within hers, the world of Paulo Coelho, Neruda, Marquez, Che Guevara, Ravi Shankar, Jimmy Hendrix, which inhabited her dream for days before she set her first footsteps in the house, were all hers. The moments, at once spare and lush, the faint promise of rain inside her, were all hers.
“What’s your name again?” Aniruddha’s mother had asked her, curtly, as they both raced up the stairs leading to the terrace.
“Sukanya Bakshi.” She had answered, coyly.
“It’s a crazy night outside, Sukanya. It won’t be safe for you to stay here for long. Babu will go with you and see you off at the station.” His mother replied.
“What happened to you, Su? Why such a sorry face? Didn’t you like our house much?”
“Ki pagol-er moton bokchhish (You talk crazy, man)!” She had retorted, her face buried in Aniruddha’s chest in a secret nook of their terrace. “I was thinking if your mom even liked me one bit. She didn’t seem to talk to me much.”
“Who? My Ma? Don’t you bother about that. Ma is bindaas, she likes all my friends, tokeo bhalobashbe (will love you too).”
“But am I only a ‘friend’, Ani? Can’t I even think of a future, of a life with you, in this house?”
“Of course you can, Su, but if I would ever have to build a nest with us anywhere, it would be in the hills. I had told you before too.”
“But I want to get real now, Ani. I would want to ask you today, after almost three years of seeing you, when will you be prepared to take me in your life?”
“But you are there in my life, in every possible way, aren’t you?”
“I am asking you to really take me in your life, to marry me, damn it! I can’t get clearer than that,
“You can surely ask that, the way you all are conditioned and brainwashed to think of a relation culminated in the institution of marriage. I have told you over and over again that my love for you is greater than these pre-conceived ideas of conformity.”
“It is finally going to be over between us, then. From now, from today. I’ve tried to call it a day so many time before, Ani, but couldn’t. In all these years, I couldn’t”….In between incessant tears, her voice muffled. “It’s useless now Ani. All these years I’ve fooled myself to think, maybe you’ll change, but you won’t!”
“Listen, don’t do this to me, Su. It pains me as much as it does you, believe me if you can.” His hands usurped her, took her in the pulsating warmth of his chest, as she tried, vainly, to move away. “Now, listen to me. You know I have been working freelance for a couple of non-profits in the North East. I will be off and on, shuttling between both places for some time now. And you’ve got to believe that your love will be the anchor, wherever I will sail.”
“In a way, it will be good for both of us. This distance will teach me to yearn less for you, to live my life without you.”
“Do you really think it is that easy? Is it all conditioned?”
“Listen, Su. I understand what you are going through, every day. It is not easy for you to tolerate your parents’ abuse every time we try to meet, or talk over the phone. But I know I can’t be acceptable, by their standards.”
Once again, under the asphalt sky, amid the fire crackers and the lit-up houses, love breathed, wrenching and restoring, the pulsating heartbeats in sync, in tune with the cryptic music of the night. “I want you to remember that ours is a sacred journey, whether or not we continue to walk, hand-in-hand, through it.
It was not the forbidden apple that Eve had tasted when her world changed forever. There, in the soiree of fragrant flowers meticulously decorated in their nuptial bed, she was weightless, surrendering. “There’s a sense of salvation in this sanctioned intimacy, no heartbreak, no obligation”, Sukanya thought to herself in between the relentless, smothering lovemaking. Ayan had a past of his own, his girlfriend at IIT had ditched him for another batch mate. “We will work together as man and wife to get over our losses”, he promised, the day they became formally engaged. “Who was Aniruddha?” She asked herself that day. A non-conformist, confused writer, photographer, crusader who never got himself a regular job, never really ‘left’ her, an impatient beau who really never wanted anything permanent with her, an old scar she unconsciously kept scratching, a dark fog of memories, threatening to cover her? In all these months leading up to this marriage, she knew everything she believed about love, everything that really mattered, was falling apart. And yet, in the complete faith and surrender in the pitch dark of the room, something was building up inside her. Something constant, palpable, ineffable.
The years rolled by. Sukanya and Ayan, trapped in the perpetual calling of domesticity, forgot to sit together, smile back at old times and ponder about pining and loss, about existential questions of desire and yearning. The young girl who had once dreamed of a love nest with her unconventional lover had happily traded the old, mossy North Kolkata house cluttered with conservative in-laws’ with a new furnished flat in a greener neighborhood in Salt Lake. She cooked, hosted parties for family and friends, smiled coyly when they said it was high time for the couple to have a child now.
Thoughts of Ani became an occasional remembrance of her first massive adrenaline rush, her blood racing at the strumming of his guitar, at his recitations of Pablo Neruda’s poems. She stumbled, paused, took in the gusty wind, nestling in her frosted breaths. Five winters passed since the last time she let him know, they would never meet again. Five winters since her wayward mind, desperate to settle down, let the self-pitying dribble slip over her, implored on her to court and marry in haste. In a foggy December morning, precisely five years after their last meeting, Sukanya, weary from the strain of the first trimester of her pregnancy, opened her old email folder in an attempt to get rid of old, forgotten exchanges between Ani and her, no longer worth saving. An unread message, four years back in time, waited for her in the inbox, a blip in her brain, a lump in her throat.
She opened the message, lines hanging in the opaque stillness of the desktop screen, as she read on:
“Dearest Su, it’s been a year that we last met, my happiness dwindling in the evening you bade adieu. Did we fight that day?
In our university days, when we came together, our worlds collided perfectly in symphony, like the dance of swans. I know you wanted a home with me, to be with me in the most traditional of bonds, that of a man and his wife. You know how I had evaded it. I know with my life, marriage would be a man-made necessity germinating in barren soil, nothing would have grown out of us.
I had seen marriage stink in crumpled bed sheets and slaps, in shadows lurking in dark corners of 5’ by 7’ rooms. I had told you how my mother succumbed to this necessity twice, ending up in two biological baggages, me and my half-sister from Ma’s previous marriage, for her lifetime. Ki dorkar chhilo, bol (What was the need, tell me)? I have given it a thought for a number of times.
For me, mutual love was enough to sustain me, and even if I would succumb to tradition, would I remain true to my own complete foundation, my own being? Could you gift me a life free of slavery in the name of a secured, routine job? Could you gift me a life, a bliss, even a child, freed from this vicious cycle of traditions?
And then I met her, months after your last meeting, in one of my sudden, unplanned North East trips, a child of Mother Earth, grazing the hills with her numinous silence. A girl of six or seven, biting her nails frantically, shuddering as I tried to touch her, gazing at me blankly, as I asked her name, where she came from and who accompanied her. Her speechless mouth, her quiet presence and intent eyes hovered around me for days, and then I took her to an expert counsellor.
Severe violence and sexual abuse resulting in a trauma was confirmed. I named her Flora. Flora inhabited my room, my backpacking trips, my world with wordless love. Back in Kolkata with her, I had tried to accommodate her in institutions, but her hands, tangled in mine, refused to let go. Can you tell me if not here in this nameless bounty of love, where else can I find beauty and purity, which will fill my soul, make me whole?
Till the last day we had met, you had wanted to know if I could marry you. In my mind, I was split, harrowed, and had only one answer, our favorite sonnet, which I used to recite to you often, back then: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments. Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds/ Or bends with the remover to remove”. I wanted us to come together in an act of union, not in an institution.
Today, every moment I am reliving my life with Flora, my old thoughts, questions burning to their finishing embers. I am craving your presence, a mundane life, together with you and her, back in the hills, like I would vainly dream with you in our university days. A life you had once craved with me, that was too ordinary, too brittle for my thinking, back then. Will you come back to me, be a part of this world?
P.S. Because I have loved you so, will you reply?
She checked the date of the e-mail, drafted four years back, uninvited and unanswered, on the day she was celebrating her first wedding anniversary with Ayan. She drafted a reply.
Your letter reached me today, in the hushed fog of the years of our distance. I know, with the green pasture of your soul, you are beautiful, whole and free now, and Flora is with you, a part of your heart’s melody, liberation and dream, a dream that I cannot own now. But do remember that whenever I will return to our unfinished story, I will seek you and Flora, be a part of your pure, unbound selves, and be in love with ‘love’, yet again.
Yours’ ever, Su.”
It was a reply that she couldn’t send her long-lost love, a reply that she saved in a folder, in the recesses of her mind, a letter that she would now bury in the slippery sands of time.