“do you know,” she asked with a curious airy smile, “he wrote the sherlock holmes stories?”
the little boy on the wheelchair shook his head and pushed the large, gleaming rings next to the wheels, the chair rolled ahead. his tee-shirt was red, his hair was inky black, he held a small brown leather suitcase in his right hand. it swung over the right wheel.
“but he never could solve the mystery! never could solve the mystery…!” the boy laughed and grasped the push rings again, suitcase still in hand. he thrust the wheels forward, his movements agile and rapid. the wheelchair moved faster, gathering speed. and then it was gone.
auro woke up with a start. where did the boy go? he could feel the touch of the wheels on his heart, in his mouth. he looked around dazed. he had slept off after lunch. ma had cooked ilish maachher jhaal today; the rains had grown torrential over the last month, ilish with delicious roe had just started arriving. he’d come back from college famished. part two finals in a few months, there was a lot of work still to be done for the term and revision in the middle of that.
ma had sat in front of him and talked about all sorts of things as he’d eaten hungrily, finishing off three mounds of rice with the oily mustard gravy in no time. he’d munched through the deep fried head of the ilish. he enjoyed tackling fish bones, the finer the better. he could pick out a bone even from a mouthful of fish, rarely did a bone escape and get lodged in his throat. ma believed the ability to adroitly extricate fish bones was an indisputable sign of superior intelligence.
the ilish was fragrant and rich, he’d gone through three slices, keeping the roe aside for later. then he’d had some more rice, this time with the oil in which the fish had been fried. finally he’d taken a bite of the roe, the minuscule and innumerable eggs rolling about inside his mouth, on his palate and tongue, getting lost between teeth and gum.
as he ate, ma told him all about kakababu’s in laws’ visit. how kakima’s sisters had grown more lovely and they still couldn’t find a boy for the older one; no good bridegrooms among the kayastha community these days, ma had lamented as she’d served him more rice and set a green chilli next to a little heap of salt sitting on one side of his large bell metal plate. he liked to bite into a fresh kancha lonka – that chilli – dipped in salt every now and then. especially when it turned out to be really pungent, bringing tears to his eyes.
kakima’s mother had worn a pale yellow tangail saree, ma had said with a smile; she’d obviously liked it. the saree was very pretty, but his grandmother had felt it was a little too modern, not exactly tasteful really to don brightly coloured – rongeen – sarees once your children were married. this was, no doubt, to be blamed upon the brahmo influence in their family… one of kakima’s uncles had married a brahmo lady.
he had hardly paid any attention to ma’s talk. she always liked to tell him things as he sat before her and had his lunch, it was the only time she really got with him in a day.
auro blinked, sleep still clinging to his eyes, salty and a little gritty. where did the boy disappear to? he had an uneasy feeling, as if he knew the boy, he should have stopped him.
and what was the mystery? sherlock holmes? auro began to smile, it was just a dream, he had to let it go. he’d go splash some water on his eyes and face and start studying.
he stretched looking up, ready to shake off the sleepiness and the swirling wisps of a late afternoon oneiric tale. she was sitting on the shutter of the tall green double door right by his bed.
she had dark tightly curled hair that fell almost to her waist, her eyes sparkled. he couldn’t decide what struck him more. the irises of her rather large eyes gleamed with a peculiar intensity. she had unusually abundant and wilful tresses, they danced around even though the fan was off and the air quite still.
auro frowned as he realised the incongruity of the situation.
“who are you and what are you doing in my room?” he asked abruptly, throwing off the covers and standing up.
the girl swung her legs and smiled. she was wearing a dress his startled glance noted. a frock? even his thirteen year old sister wore a saree. where was this girl from? and really, what was she doing in his room? there would be such commotion… no, chaos, yes, chaos… if baba got to hear of it. and right now, he couldn’t afford to waste any time. there was too much work to be done. he had planned out his revision timetable with precision… he looked at her helplessly.
she remained sitting on the tilt rod of the second shutter on the right panel of the door. each panel had a set of three shutters, six in all; they were three and a half feet long, about a foot and a half wide. she was almost ten feet off the ground, counting the height of the crosspieces. auro was calculating unconsciously as he tried to take stock of things.
“sorry, it was raining so hard, i had to stop… though i am in a hurry,” she said all of a sudden. her voice was pleasant but much bigger than you’d expect. not that one could expect anything like this, so perhaps to talk of expectations was unwarranted, just a waste of time.
auro stared at her, not knowing what to do or say. how was she managing to balance so perfectly on that rod? his perpetually active mind moved from question to question. something told him, he wouldn’t be getting any answers. or maybe…
“i don’t want to be late, but if you like i can help you while i wait…” she said pleasantly.
“help me?” auro started to laugh.
“geology is a difficult subject…” she said looking at him without rancour.
auro stopped laughing.
how did she know? how did she know he was studying geology?
“and it wasn’t your first choice even,” she continued, “you always get full marks in chemistry.”
he narrowed his eyes gazing at her, at a loss for words. so she knew.
“what’s your name?” he asked at last, feeling himself get a grip of things, though why that should be so he had no idea.
“nidra… i am nidra,” she replied as she got off the rod and floated over to his desk on the other side of the room.
she sat there on the desk top, which was spotlessly clean and without a thing on it, bar a table lamp.
“nidra! how clever! so you are miss sleep…” auro shrugged and gave her a mocking glance.
“but what if nidra isn’t sleep and geology isn’t the study of the earth and everything here is actually somewhere else… you know?” nidra was standing right in front of him now.
“what if… so you’re from the what if world,” he retorted, a sharpness in his voice, “you know, it’s afternoon, late afternoon… what if worlds belong to the night… please will you be quiet, i must study now. and by the way, don’t sit on my desk again. i really don’t like it.”
her face filled with remorse, her eyes began to water. auro heard himself say, “look, please don’t cry. i am… i am just particular about my things, that’s all…”
she gave him a dazzling smile at that, the shimmer of her her tears amplifying the effect. then she went and sat down on his desk again.
“oh really!” auro snapped.
“chemistry was too easy, wasn’t it? and geology would get stuck in your throat,” nidra said completely ignoring his ire.
he remembered the ilish maachh, it had so many bones.
“why did you choose today?” he asked.
“because it’s raining… otherwise i would have no excuse to stop, to get there late,” she said swinging her legs.
“why me? i don’t believe in such things. i can get rid of you i know the moment i open my books,” he walked up to her and glared as she shook her head from side to side blithely. her curls bounced and swirled, the pale blue skirt of her dress floated. he noticed, she wore tiny dangling earrings of some sort of stone. her head was thrown back, she’d closed her eyes.
as he watched, she sat up just as whimsically and peered at him, leaning close.
“so why don’t you open your books?” she asked.
a wrenching pain shot through him, he shut his eyes.
“i had to tell you, or… i felt i should… the books, they aren’t the escape route. you are reading the clues wrong.” her words came from far away. he looked up, searching for her… where had she gone? he needed to see her for some reason. she was perched on the tilt rod of the topmost shutter on the left door panel. he saw she wore pale silver shoes.
“nidra, i really must study,” he said. he wanted to ask her what she meant about clues. what clues? but how could he ask an apparition, a thing that didn’t exist, such things? or for that matter, anything? oh, he was sure she wasn’t really there. he must be dreaming still, all this was just that, a dream. he had been working a lot of late, staying up nights… nidra. he smiled, his mind played pretty neat tricks.
“i am not not there, auro,” she said quietly, “you can’t just wish me away. or open that book and shut me out.”
he watched as she descended gracefully and settled on his bed. she crossed her legs and patted the place next to her, pushing aside the light quilt he liked to use. he sat down without saying anything. yes, she was here. or maybe she wasn’t. but right now, he’d just sit and let it be. hear her out. everything has a reason for existing, perhaps even that which doesn’t. and every cause has an effect, every action, a reaction… there is sense in the world. a rational basis. something solid and indestructible. peace is to be found in that. it didn’t matter how much baba shouted, how often he pretended he hadn’t seen ma cry in the corner room where the mattresses and pillows were kept. it didn’t matter that his sister had been stopped from going to school because his father had declared, girls of “good” families didn’t go out like that, and anyway, what was the need for a girl to study? he had dared to question his father, tried to stop him, and been rewarded with another ruthless beating with his walking stick. he didn’t mind any longer. the books kept him safe.
“they are not your escape route. they are what you love. they make you happy. don’t use them to run away. i had to tell you that,” she said softly, a shaft of pale light fell across her hair, landing on her knees and slanting across his legs. she must have opened the top shutter inadvertently while sitting on the rod. he was wearing loose white pyjamas and his white singlet as he always did in the afternoons. he felt awkward, this is not how he liked anyone to see him. he would have gotten up to shrug on the shirt he kept on the clothes rack by the almirah, but a word held him still.
“happy?” he looked at her, incomprehension in his eyes.
“yes!” she clapped her hands and grinned, “yes yes yes yes yes! there… now i must go! i think the rain has stopped… oh, i hope they didn’t miss me!”
“i suppose now you’ll disappear just like that…” he said.
“yes, i will. but i might just come back,” even before her words were over, she was gone.
the agent was full of praise for the house she was about to show him. he’d just moved to england with his first job. though he had wanted to go back home after completing his phd in germany, the offer from the company had been lucrative. he had decided to spend a couple of years working outside, save some money, then go back to india. his father had been livid, completely disagreeing with the decision. whoever gave up a job in a couple of years? it was hard enough to find a job, where did he get his fanciful ideas from?! who did he think he was! he had commanded auro to refuse the offer, but auro had held out. he had said nothing when baba slapped him for his disobedience. ma had made a special koi maachher jhaal the day he left. the bones of koi were sharp and brutal, he loved the challenge they presented.
a light drizzle fell as they pulled up in front of the simple brown semi-detatched house.
“it’s not very large, mr sen, but the finish is wonderful, you’ll see… you see, the landlady is most particular. all the carpeting and linoleum have been changed recently… brand new, yes… yes… new…” the agent said, opening the door and letting him step in. she had a small voice, a birdlike, chirping quality to her slightly breathless sentences. right in front of him, a staircase ran up to the floor above, on the left was a corridor and the first door off it led to the spacious sitting room. auro felt an odd sense of familiarity as he looked around.
he knew the carpet on the staircase had been dark green before.
or maybe, it would be dark green some day soon.
where were the purple curtains of the sitting room?
auro shook his head trying to get rid of the inexplicable thoughts. what was the matter with him… and yet, he knew the bedrooms upstairs had a skirting of oakwood and the wall paper of the bigger room was in a shade of royal blue.
“you like it, don’t you, mr sen,” the agent said in a satisfied, i-knew-you-would sort of tone. “i have shown many houses along this street, i can tell you, but no. 3, it is the nicest on conan doyle walk.”
“conan doyle walk?” he asked, sounding flabbergasted, almost silly. memories that he hardly knew he possessed started to rush in from somewhere. getting between his thoughts, sticking to his mind, pricking his throat.
“yes, mr sen, do you know he wrote the sherlock holmes stories?” the agent exclaimed, clapping her hands, “named after sir arthur conan doyle this little road here… oh, me, i can’t read them, not me! give me barbara cartland any day, but the landlady miss dwam… ”
auro wasn’t listening any more. he walked out and looked at the road. the finest shower fell lightly… softly. little drops settled on his jacket, his hair, his face. yes, he knew this road, she had stood where he was standing now, in fact, and asked the boy on the wheelchair that question. he closed his eyes and waited for things to settle. the books, she had said, he loved the books, they weren’t the escape route… happy.
“mr sen, are you all right?” asked the agent, concerned.
“yes, absolutely… i’ll take the house,” he felt he’d never been more sure of anything in his life.
a boy in a red tee-shirt with black hair and a brown little suitcase came out of the house and sped past him on his wheelchair. “he never could solve the mystery… never could solve the mystery…” the words floated across as the boy went farther and farther away, he was laughing. and was there a girl pushing him now, did her curls fall to her waist?
auro wished he could catch him… catch them… or maybe he wouldn’t have to. or maybe all mysteries need not be understood and solved.
thank you for reading this short story. a house i’ve known since my birth, which is now no more, somehow lives on in my memory, every now and then throwing a story, or a character, or a smell or sound at me. the boy in red kept laughing and wheeling away as i wrote… i hope the bengali words were not an impediment in any way. “ma”… that’s how many of us call our mother. “ma” means mother. “baba” is father. bengalis are said to be obsessive about fish and sweet dishes, not always true, but there is some veracity to that claim. auro definitely loved his “maachh”… fish. “ilish maachh” is a sort of herring, it’s also known as hilsa. it’s indeed a delightful fish, the best kind is only available during the monsoon season. “ilish maachher jhaal” is a fish curry with ilish, usually made with mustard paste and plenty of mustard oil. “jhaal” means hot and bengalis make this sort of curry with several kinds of fresh water fish, including “koi” or climbing perch. “kakababu”… one’s father’s younger brothers are all referred to as kaka/kaku; “kakima” is an aunt married to one’s father’s younger brother. no generic aunty and uncle with us, it’s all specific. “kancha lonka” is green chilli; “rongeen” means colourful.