About 2 girls who are friends, growing up in different households, and where life takes them.
She combed her hair and placed the black plastic hairband to keep it off her face. she could still hear the Chinaman performing. This was now the white china plates, with the deep blue line that ran right around the edges, faded in some places but visible still, which he was thrwoing up and bringing down, she knew this to be the next act after the flying balls. And then it would be a combination of the balls and the plates. The things moved faster than the eyes could follow. Only he was static and visible, short, smooth skinned, chinky eyes and with crooked yellow teeth which sometimes showed between his thin chapped lips, pursed in concentration. The kids were too stunned to clap, every time they watched, they forgot to clap. Mandira knew that she felt the same, and her heart had begun to skip a mad beat now, for she knew he would start with the act of juggling sticks with fire burning on one side. He would fling these flaming wooden torches up in the air and then they would always land in his hands with the unlit end. This was the magic of his fingers. Soon his act would be over and the children would run in, if they had been astanding around, and pull at their mother’s saris or father’s pyjamas to request that the Chinaman be given some coins. Mandira did not think she would make it in time downstairs to catch the Chinaman, but she ran to her verandah with her wet hair to see if Potlu was there. Happy to see her tall and plump friend among the children around the Chinaman, who had yet to begin his flame throwing act, she ran upto her mother to tell her that hse was going down to watch. Her mother stuffed a couple of rolled aloo-puris in one of Mandira’s hands and some coins in the other and told her to come up soon. Mandira ran down the stairs, too impatient to wait for the big black lift that clanged up and down these apartments, and was quite a novelty in itself.
These pictures were the ones she had surreptiously gone and bought tickets for with her friends and watched in movie halls, totally gooey- eyed, waiting for the moment when all would be right, and the heroine would literally melt in the embrace of the hero. A sigh would escape her then, and a shiver would run up her spine, her hand would want to touch her breast for reassurance of some kind and then she would blush, as though the hero of her life had actually touched her. she would be trembling when she stepped out of the movie hall, and it would take her a while to return to her senses, so affected was she by what she had seen on the screen. For days on end after that she would sing the movie songs to herself, and stare at the trees and flowers in her garden with unseeing eyes, visions of her hero swimming before her eyes. She was a plump and beautiful girl, traditionally good-looking in a very Indian way, big black eyes, long black hair, and soft light gold skin that shimmered in the sun when she did allow the sun to touch it. she was conscious of her looks and took good care of herself, all preparation in her life had been for the marriage, she was learning to be a good wife and capable housewife. She excelled in cooking and in taking care of the household chores, her parents did not lay much emphasis on her education.
So there was this romance and her husband that was missing from her life. And then her son was also missing from her life. If he had not been born, she would not have missed him. It was as if she had been given someone to cherish and then that gift had been snatched away from her. all the time she dreamed of him, her son whom she had already named before he was born. He was to be called Suman, so sure she had been that the child would be a boy and that Viviek would forgive her for having the child without his coming to know of her conception. Viviek had been so angry when he had got to learn about her pregnancy. His eyes had been dark shots of anger, his lips had pursed into a thin black line and even when the child was born, he had not come to look at him. he had been away at work as usual, in some corner of Burma.
Potlu was 5 when she joined school, and whatever little confidence she had she lost soon after that. The other girls, feminine already, simpered behind their fingers as they looked at her. they whispered Pot , pot, pot…loo at her as she walked past. One or two of them pulled her plaited hair, the ribbon coming untied. She began to hide in corners during the school break. Eyes downcast, she would look at her feet and wait for the bell to ring so that she could scamper into the class before anyone else and go and sit at the back. She ate her lunch hungrily during the break, sitting in the corner and wolfing it down, satisfying some unknown urge within her. all the time , though, her eyes never watered, she never cried. The pain that she felt she held tight within her, unable to understand the behaviour of the other girls, but also not willing to let them get the better of her. she sensed that they wanted to see her cry, for that would give them satisfaction, and she would deny them that.
But now this. Mrs. Basu ahd stopped praying to god after this. Her puja room had been locked, no one went there now. The idols that had been so carefully collected and cleaned and dressed regularly, the puja room was the first place where she used to go after her bath and before she cooked anything. Now she could not care. The first place she went to was the kitchen to make herself some tea even before Seema was up and about. Then she would sit quietly with that cup of tea and nurse her thoughts, away from her daughter, who would be asleep if thye were lucky. Or she would be stairng at the wall, but Mrs. Basu would not enter her room immediately. She would be at peace with her self for a while so that she could survive the agony fo the rest of the day. and agony it was, to see her daughter lying in bed like a corpse and no one to turn to for help or consolation or even an answer. When would Potlu wake up from all this, if she ever did?
Seema sat opposite her now, stitching something. Binodini sat and looked at her, then her daughter, then her room. the letter lay on the table next to her. She looked at seema, the poor girl must be tired. Seema often stayed awake at night for Potlu, changing her napkins and making her comfortable. She had persuaded Binodini to sleep in her own room, she slept next to Potlu on a small narrow makeshift bed. There had been no extra beds in the house, it had no guests dropping in , and so there had been no such arrangements made. This bed of Seema’s was a narrow foldable cot, something Seema had gone out and purchased one day, since sleeping on the floor was becoming uncomfortable for her. it was not that she was not used to it or could not do it, it was just that she would have to get up from the floor and then get to Potlu’s bed, which was a high and raised bed with a mosquito net around it. It was an old four poster bed that vvivek had bought from one of his clients, or so he said, it ahd come cheap and they had needed something for a growing child to sleep in for Potlu had soon outgrown her cot. For some time she had slept next to her mother on her bed, but when Viviek would come, she would have to sleep on a mattress on th floor. she ahd not said anythign about this but one day Viviek came home with a man who had brought in his truck the bed which was to become Potlu’s bed. it was huge and was ornamented with green and red glass embedded in the wood at the head of the bed. Potlu had fallen in love with the bed, or so it seemd for she spent long hours sitting there right after it arrived. it could be of course that she wanted to claim it as her own for sure and wanted everyone to know that it belonged to her.
“What happened, Auntie. Is everything alright?”
“Yes, no.., Mandira, can you come over right away? I need your help. Please inform your mother, or can I speak to her? You know the address, na? And you have to come fast, don’t delay.”
“I remember the flat, Auntie, so no problem, of course I will come. I just have to toddle down, you know. I jusrt returned from Indiana in the US a few days back and wanted to get in touch with Potlu but had lost her nuber. How is she?”
Binodini’s voice broke.
“Come, she said, “come and meet her right away. She needs your help.”
“Oh,” Mandira began to sound worried. “What is it?”
“Just come, please.And tell your Mom you might have to spend the night. Should I talk to her?”
“No, it is fine, Auntie, you don’t sound good. I shall let Mom know. She ahs no problems about me staying out, so don’t worry about it. I am on my way.”
“Women are hale and hearty and can bear any number of children. Doctors just like to scare everyone up nowadays.” But her husband was aware of the doctor’s advice and he had a sharp and clear understanding of what she had said. He had held his wife and whispered something in her ear which had made her forget her fears and laugh instead. She knew that he would find a good enough reason to tell his mother why they could not have more children. He knew how to get around his mother. He was manipulative to a high degree but he had to be that way because he could not get his parents to understand several things if he tried to explain them. so he said that if honey cannot be taken out of the jar with the spoon, he would have to use his crooked finger to get it out. It wa as simple as that for him and he felt no guilt nor shame in resorting to such tactics. He had told Suman,
“I like peace and quiet at any cost, especially at home. And my parents tyrannized me, how can I not understand your predicament.” He would laugh and say this. She had been really unhappy when she had seen him, he was by no means the handsome prince that every girl dreams about. But now she was very happy as a married woman. He kept her cheerful and though she had to fulfil all her duites in the house, the fact that she couls spend some time with him would bring joy to her face. those few hours with him made her so filled with joy that nothing else mattered to her, not the jibes of her mother in laww or the rest of the cousins and family members on how she produced only daughters.
She had no father then, to speak of. And no brother. The house where she did go and play, Mandira’s, had also only the women around even on Sundays, for Mandira’s father opened his jewellery shop even on Sundays. He had been brought up on the the saying that “work is worship” and that play was just to find another kind of work to occupy oneself. So the idea of entertainment was far from his or his family’s mind. He had learnt o laugh at life and make the most of what he ahd been born to and born with. His sense of humour prevented him from getting despondent or become a dull companion. But of course, Poltu had no idea of men or boys and that there were different kinds of men just as there were different kinds of women and mothers. She ha seen the difference in both her mother and mandira’s mother and for her the difference was stark. She could be comfortable with mandira’s mother, her presence did not irritate her. it was strange that this as os. With her own mother, Potlu has a tough time sharing the same space.
He poured a little tea onto the saucer from his cup and gave it to her to drink. It was their little secret that he sometimes shared his cup of tea wth her, without letting her mother know, for one of the few rules were that both the kids should only drink milk and tea was an indulgence they could do without. There was this idea that the skin got dark if one drank too much tea and that drinking milk ensured that the skin got fairer, or at least remained the colour it was and did not turna shade darker. Mr. gupta would laugh privatelya t this idea, but went along with his wife’s theory because he did want that his daughters drink milk and develop strong bones and teeth.
“So Papa…” began Mandira, having slurped up the tea like a cat.
“ I want something to gift my friend Potlu, you know her , na?”
“How can I not know her, all I hear from you is Potlu, Potlu, nothing about your Papa!” He smiled some more.
Papa, that is just not true.” She hugged him and hten sat away, looking at him with serious eyes.
“So for Potlu I want a necklace. “
D was shaken awake. He stared into the eyes of Shankar, the right hand man of Manojda. Shankar was almost as old as Manojda, but more active and the one who put manojda’s ideas into action. He was the action man. So Shankar had been sent by manojda to take care of D. D did not particularly care for Shankar. Shankar had given D a bad time in the beginning and D had not forgotten those terrible days. Not that manojda had been very kind, but he had been protective of the little boy, something Shankar could not understand. So Shankar would behave alright in front of Manojda but as soon as he was out of sight, Shankar’s attitude towards d would change. He would bully him and slap him around, once he had hit him so hard that D had lost his hearing in his left ear and it returned to him only after a long, long time. D had avoided Shankar as much as possible but he was often left in his care. “Care!” thought D with a snigger, “It was more like premeditated torture.” Every day Shankar would find some new task for D to do and if D failed to peform it the way Shankar wanted it, which was most times, then Shankar would take the belt on him or hit him hard, or make him run for an hour around the block in the afternoon whe the sun was at its zenith, to pay for his sins. D became hard and bitter through this treatment and developed real calf muscles that stood him in good stead later when he had to hit and run. As he grew up he began to run on his own, to build his strength and stamina. It made him feel good about his body and the power that surged within him through the control he could exercise. After a point, after all the suffering he had to go through, he managed to reach a point in time when Shankar had to acknowledge that he could no longer touch him. Since the time that manojda had found him and taken him under his wing, manjda was the one, who despite his rough and ready ways, was kind to him. yet he would not listen to a word against Shankar, for Shankar was his mate, his right hadn man, the one whom he trusted with everything, even his life. In a way you could sya that Shankar was the real king pin.