Basudev lay on his bed looking at the adjacent wall. The walls of the room of his old house bore damp marks and swelled up in places like tumors; an outcome of a century of decay and neglect. But they were now his dear companions and friends. It bore imprints of images which came to life before his eyes and spoke about themselves.
There on the left corner of the wall was a young mother sitting with her baby on her lap; the veil of her sari covering her head.
Babu Sona stop crying, she said rocking her baby son on her lap.
“What’s wrong with you? What do you want? Just now you finished drinking your milk.” she said concerned. Her son continued wailing, tossing and twirling and kicking his legs. She picked him up anxiously from her lap and placed him on her shoulder patting his back gently. The baby gave out a burp and gradually became silent. His two tiny arms were clenched around her neck and his head rested on her shoulder. She started singing a lullaby as she lay him on her lap again, cradling him off to sleep.
“The dear child sleeps,
The locality is quiet,
The Bargis have invaded our lands
The Bulbulies (nightingales) have eaten up the crops
How will I pay my taxes? ”
“Dadababu get up. It’s high time you took your bath and had your lunch,” said Dibakar his servant for the last fifty years as he entered his bedroom.
Fifteen years had already passed since he had retired from his governmental job as a gazette officer. Meanwhile his wife, Manasi had died. A shock which had weakened and devastated him both mentally and physically .They were a childless couple and their world was confined within themselves. Time and age had brought them closer to each other. It was Dipakar’s firm grip as a confidante and friend that kept him going .Like him he had no other place to go and nobody else to lean on.
Age and ailments had crippled and confined him mostly to his bed. Sandeep and Rajdeep, his elder brother’s son lived in Delhi and Mumbai, respectively with their families. Occasionally during the Durga Pujas’ and in winter vacations they came visiting home with their wives and children.
Finishing his afternoon meal and routinely gulping down his medicines Basudev retired to his own bed .He was once a voracious reader but his eyesight was feeble now and he couldn’t hold his attention on the pages of a book for long. Reading the daily newspaper was a habit which he had inculcated from his childhood and till now he glanced through it every morning. Neither news nor politics seemed to excite him like before. He tried to get some sleep.
On the middle of the wall facing him the outlines of a fierce looking youth pinning down another frightened boy of his age by the collar rose before his eyes.
“I will kill you today,” cried the bully to the other. His head full of curly, ruffled hair leapt up like a fire and his eyes had a menacing look. His strong muscular arm thrust harder on the throat of the helpless boy who cringed under him terrorized.
“Have mercy on me,” he cried in anguish.
The right arm of the bully was bent and raised above clenching on to a sharp object tightly. What could it be, wondered Basudev “Oh no!” It struck him like a lightening .It was a knife.
Its shinny blade pointed at the hapless fellow. “I don’t forgive anyone who utters a word against me or does anything against my will or wishes,” he said savagely.
“Arrey, what are you doing?” shouted out Basudev arising from his slumber. Beads of perspiration had gathered on his forehead. He fell very thirsty and sat up on his bed to pick up a glass of water that was kept covered with a coaster on the side table.
In the evening Dibakar had very little work to do. He loved watching television; especially Bengali serials, old movies and songs. Basudev took a stroll around the terrace and then sat with his cup of tea and biscuits in the drawing room couch chatting and watching television with him for a while. Sports interested him. He used to enjoy watching cricket and football matches but now his failing health had even snatched away that pleasure from him. After an hour he was guided back to his bedroom.
He lay on his intricately carved wooden double bed gifted by his in-laws at the time of his wedding, staring at the damp mark ridden walls. The day had come to an end. In the soothing light of the dusk a farmer headed homewards carrying a plough over his shoulder and walking along a red mud road. A cow sat lazing on one side of the road with its legs bent inwards, chewing its cud. A stray goat wandered aimlessly. In the distant backgrounds like a thread, a river meandered by, on which a sole boat set sail. Dark grey clouds floated on the sky giving signals of impending showers.
“Hurry back home, brother farmer,” uttered Basudev as he closed his eyes.
He could hear the sound of thunder followed by the sound of drizzling raindrops. Within a few minutes it gained momentum and the pattering gave away to a heavy hum. He felt refreshed and at peace as he went into deep sleep.
“Oh Dadababu! Oh Dadababu! Wake up now,” called Dibakar shaking him gently with his hand.
“I have been calling you since nine o’clock and now it’s already ten thirty at night. When will you have your dinner and your medicines? How are you supposed to keep well if you are so careless?” he whined.
Basudev had a frugal dinner at night. Two to three baked ‘rotis’(bread), a bowl of dal (pulses) and a vegetable curry followed by a glass of warm milk before he retired to bed.
Even three years back he went to the marketplace to purchase vegetables, fish, meat and fruits. But now that has all stopped. He never ventured out alone. Dibakar has taken over the entire reins of running the house.
Where will I be without him, he thought.
“We are in the midst of autumn and its already getting a bit chilly,” he said.
“Will I close the south facing window?” asked Dibakar
“Well, that you can,” he replied back.
Basudev lay tossing in his bed unable to sleep. He shouldn’t have slept for so long in the evening. How could he now ask Dibakar to give him company at this odd hour? He must have gone off to sleep tired by now. He has also grown old.
In his youth, Basudev would burn midnight oil reading books. He often returned home late after gossiping with his friends, playing cards, carom or table tennis in their local club. Sometimes they would go to watch a night show in the theatres. Yes, those were the golden days when life was full of vitality, worth living with joyous hopes of a bright future, he recollected. His mind drifted off to fonder moments in his life. Sujata was a very attractive girl. She was slim, fair and sharp featured with large doe eyes and thick black curls of hair framing her pretty face. Almost all his friends had a crush on her. She lived half a kilometer away from his house. Every afternoon after school was over he stood on his terrace to catch a glimpse of her as she walked passed his home with her friends. It was only when she joined his college that he got acquainted with her. He was studying in second year while she was in her first year of college. That they studied the same subject helped him to get close to her. During college functions she played a leading role in the dance recitals and dramas. He watched enthralled captivated by her grace, charm and beauty. He smiled at the thought of how he planned to talk to her and impress her. Their romance however didn’t last long. Even before she could complete her graduation they lost contact.
In the dim light the numerous tiny grey streaks on the wall became more prominent as they took shape, glimmered, swarmed and fleeted across the walls like glow worms in the darkness of the night .They clustered around the bushes and trees illuminating them with a wondrous glow.
“Oh! What a magnificent sight I behold! ”
He could hear a female voice singing fragments from a Rabindranath Tagore’s song from a distance far off.
“Thy thoughts, like sparks,
ride on winged surprises
carrying a single laughter.
The tree gazes in love at the
who is his own and yet whom he
never can grasp
Let my love, like sunlight surround you
and give you freedom illumined
Joy freed from the bond of earth’s slumber
rushes into the leaves numberless
and dances in the air for a day.”
The grandfather clock struck two as he passed off into a tranquil slumber. He opened his eyes to the humming of bees around a beehive in a tree.
Since early morning it had started raining in spouts spreading a feeling of fore brooding gloominess.
“Dadababu, let me cook kichidi today. I have bought Hilsa fish from the bazaar. Kichidi, hilsa fish, brinjal fries and tomato chutney. What do you think?” Dibakar declared his menu for lunch in excitement.
“Divine!” exclaimed Basudev approvingly. He tried concentrating on the newspaper. The same political drama, war of words; promises some kept and most failed. Then there was the usual murders, accidents, bomb blasts, turmoil, as predictable as ever. The newspapers have become flashier, urbanized with colorful pictures and eye catching presentations more like a daily magazine. In addition there was a new lifestyle page introduced which spoke of grand parties, functions and trends followed by popular socialites and celebrities. All these neither fascinated nor interested him. Life was so uncomplicated when he was young and joy was found in the simplest of things and mere togetherness. The world had grown smaller and faster with the advent of computers, internet and mobile phones but people have grown distant.
The phone rang out aloud in the living room. Dibakar left his task in the kitchen and went to pick it up hurriedly.
“Dadababu come, Sandeep dada is on the phone from Delhi.”
Basudev stood up from his bed slowly to receive his call.
“How are you, Kakababu (uncle)?” said Sandeep from the other side.
“I am doing fine. How are you all doing?” he replied back.
“Rajdeep and I have both decided to come down to Kolkata with our families during the Durga Pujas , this season. So, I thought of informing you and Dibakarkaka beforehand” said Sandeep.
“Well, that’s good news. I will tell Dibakar to clean up your rooms.”
“No, no that’s no problem ‘, he objected. “Actually Kakababu we have both consulted with a local promoter and he said that a six storied building could be constructed on our land. The house is as it is in a dilapidated state. We can all arrange for separate modern flats in the building. One will be allotted to you and Dibakar. The rest can be sold off to buyers. You will have company in the building,” he stated plainly.
“Yes, I understand,” he replied after a brief hesitant pause.
“We will discuss the matter when at Kolkata. So long for now.”
Basudev stood baffled holding on to the receiver for a while before putting it in its place. He dawdled towards his bedrooms with studied steps. His mind went blank for a few seconds. He lied down on his bed staring blankly at the ceiling and the fan above whose blades rotated slowly making a squeaky small noise. He looked at the corner of the adjacent wall and there he saw the familiar figure of the young married woman sitting with her baby son on her lap.
“Today, he is sound asleep , Dadamoshi,” said the mother adjusting her veil over her head. He smiled back at her genially.
It had started raining again. A cool breeze blew through the window and with it carried sprinkles of rain water. He thought of calling Dibakar to close the window but refrained. The odor of wet earth filled his nostrils and senses .After a long time he yearned for his wife .Images from the past flashed through his mind like a kaleidoscope. Manashi’s radiant and kind face loomed before his eyes. She wore a big red ‘bindi’ on her forehead and vermillion was smeared on the mid partings of her hair which when let loose fell to her hips.
He remembered watching a circus with his brother and parents. He had held on to his mother’s sari throughout the various acts in wonder, excitement and fear.
The image of Godess Durga dressed up in all her finery; white sponge wood attire and ornaments emerged with the accompaniment of the beat of the drums. The Puja is knocking at the door. Soon his nephews will be here with their families. Their children were brought up in bigger metropolitan cities and although they enjoyed the open spaces and freedom here, the house seemed not well equipped to provide them with all the luxuries they enjoyed at their homes .They were co-owners of the ancestral property and they had their say. Times have changed and we all needed to flow with the tide, he pondered.
He gazed at the walls forlornly. His heart ached. He looked around the room trying to catch in everything that had become a part of him. The last fifteen years and his failing health made him more attached to this room than he had ever imagined.
He turned aside to gape at a patch on another wall. He looked intently at the design that took form of a camel crossing a desolate desert. A distinct silhouette of a vulture flew high above .Suddenly depression overtook him and he felt exhausted as he shut his eyes.
He pulled himself up mechanically to have his bath and then staggered towards the dining table.
“Are you okay?” asked a concerned Dibakar.
“Don’t worry about me Dibakar”, he said. “It’s just that I am feeling a bit uneasy. I will be fine.”
Dibakar served him his lunch silently .He looked at his dish disheartened. Only this morning he was so enthusiastic and eager to have his meal but now all hunger had gone. As he stole a furtive glance at him and wondered that he had prepared this meal with so much love and sincerity.
The day turned gloomier as thick grey clouds covered the sky and the sun. Darkness prevailed all around. The rains came down like a torrent beating and flooding the earth beneath. He rested on his bed as he lay awake listening to the heavy downpour.
What happened to that youth attacked yesterday he thought as he searched for them. They seem to have disappeared. Water had soaked in from the numerous pores in the wall and made it wet in places. The farmer still carrying the plough over his shoulder called out, “On Dadababu, I returned home safe yesterday,” He smiled back at him.
As new streaks of water ran down the pores of the wall, he visualized a waterfall and in front of it a lovely garden full of green hedges and bushes. Lilacs, roses, tuberoses, china roses, balsams, dahlias, grew in abundance and trees were overborne with fruits. There was a serene pond on which lotuses grew and ducks and swans swam. In front of the pond was a bench and on it sat two frail figures close to one another holding hands. He looked unfazed trying to discern who they were. It was of an old man clad in a dhoti and ‘kurta’ and the old woman sitting beside him was probably his wife. They sat there engrossed in the beauty of the surroundings .He felt an over burdening pain and thought his heart would burst as he choked for air. Tears swelled up in his eyes as he lay sobbing.