she stood on the third floor balcony, looking out at nothing actually. it was a bright day, there was a faint chill in the air even though everyone said winter was over. anyway, winter this year had not been that cold, she thought distractedly, although shurjo had as always worn his wool cap from the first day of november.
every year, sometime in the middle of october, he pulled out his two balaclavas and had them washed. one was dull grey, the other dark brown… or was it mustard? she couldn’t recall… anyway, he had two of them. both had to be ready in time to face the change of season, the lowering of temperatures, the thickening of smog, the advent of flu and cold. every year, without fail, he caught a cold that the doctor couldn’t get rid of while he grumbled away and tried new remedies suggested by his friends. his friends – many of whom he had known since school – and he met at four thirty in the morning every single day and walked around the lake. most of them were in their seventies, they ambled along amiably in the quiet of dawn; later, they sat on a bench by the lake and chatted loudly for a while before going home. she couldn’t remember for how long this had been going on. the walks had started even before shurjo retired.
her eyes narrowed, a tiny frown played on her brow. no… not before rima got married… after that… it must have been around the time raja went to study engineering in kanpur… yes, that must be it… so how long ago was that? she pursed her lips and pushed back a strand of hair, which a sudden breeze had blown across her face. she hadn’t put her hair up in her no nonsense chignon yet, she would do that soon.
yes, it was almost twenty seven years now that shurjo had been going for his morning walk around the lake… that day when raja had called and said…
she felt her head jerk slightly as her mind took a quick turn, and she saw mili, their neighbour’s granddaughter, come running out of her home and head toward the main road. mili was a lovely girl, she had just started college. she wore blue jeans as usual. but today, instead of a faded tee shirt, she had on a pretty light and flowing top.
raja had said he wasn’t coming back.
she felt her shoulders droop, her mind went blank again. rima and raja had both moved to america, rima’s husband’s company had transferred him there about fifteen years ago; raja had gone earlier, to do his masters. then he had found a job, a very good job…
five years ago, rima and arjun had taken canadian citizenship. she had felt unsettled for days, so had shurjo… but there was nothing they could do about it. they visited rima once in a way, and she came down as often as she could; she always tried to visit with lea and neel, their grandchildren. of course, they avoided the summer in calcutta, they came during their winter break. she wondered if lea and neel had ever seen shurjo without his balaclava.
raja came home every year, either in december or january. his wife seema and he had decided not to have children. when she had asked raja once if they were thinking of having a child, he had just shrugged and said, he didn’t think he was cut out to be a father and anyway, seema wasn’t interested either, she was too involved with her research.
she hadn’t been able to understand this at all, but she had known there was nothing she could do about it. shurjo had grunted a few times from behind his newspaper when she had brought it up over their late morning tea one day. obviously, shurjo wasn’t interested. she’d been irritated, she wished he’d do something once in a way other than grow shabby and old. she hadn’t said anything. he hadn’t lifted his head from behind his paper.
how much she had looked forward to raja’s visit this year. he had spent almost six weeks with them, a long break; this must have been the longest since he had gone to america. seema had come too, and hadn’t left earlier as she often did. she had made all raja’s winter time favourites; kodai shutir kochuri, notun gurer shondesh, gurer payesh, phulkopir shingara. seema had asked her for the recipe of fish kochuri and even helped her make it. he had enjoyed the kodaiyer daal with her home made ghee, the gooseberry jam, the mangshor jhol – goat meat, that’s what he called it with a hearty laugh every time – and the malpua and chhanar jilipi she’d made ever since rima and raja were very young. also kucho goja… he’d carry back two plastic jars filled with those every time. she’d ordered special moa from joynogor for them and sent bhola, their cook, all the way to north calcutta to get sweets from nakur.
they’d gone to shantiniketan and dakshinswar and belur together. raja had taken them to a mansion in the middle of nowhere, which had been restored and was a hotel now. it was very expensive, but raja had made up his mind. shurjo had carried a thick shawl with him because out there away from the city, it got even colder. raja had as usual made fun of the temperature that had calcuttans shivering and in caps and sweaters and heavy shawls.
twelve degrees? he’d scoffed… in minnesota it must be minus twelve or even lower and it had snowed again the day before. shurjo, unperturbed, had burrowed further into his shawl, he wore a full sleeved bulky sweater below it. the two of them had played chess the entire day, while seema had walked across to the river with her; they’d sat quietly watching the water. she hadn’t seen the ganga for so long.
now raja had called to say, they had decided to stay on in america, he was not coming back.
she took a deep breath trying to ease the feeling gnashing against her heart. it was a bright evening and the sun was getting stronger before setting. she could hear the chirping of birds, they were heading home in flocks. she must go now and have a shower, change, tie her hair, and see what was there for dinner. shurjo’s sugar had again gone up, she had to force him to have some bitter gourd juice. his gout had been bothering him a lot of late, there had been too much eating while raja was here. her knee too was aching more than usual, maybe she’d go across and see her homeopath dr chakrabarty later this evening.
she looked out again at nothing in particular. a new house was coming up next to mr nandy’s two storey home, the workers had started to leave. it must be past six, where was shurjo? he had gone to the library straight after lunch… she turned to go inside. shurjo hadn’t said much about raja’s decision.
she walked across, limping slightly, to her bedroom. her cupboard was unlocked as always, she took out a printed cotton saree. it wasn’t starched. she was not feeling up to that stiff crispness today. something soft, something that yields… anyway, who was there to see her. shurjo must have gone to a friend’s home after the library, or he was with his brother in their flat downstairs.
for some odd reason, she remembered the old house… the cavernous rooms, the shuttered windows and doors, the high ceilings with wide beams running across. a man came every month just to clean the cobwebs. took him almost a whole day to get the job done. then in the early nineties, the developers came and it all changed. now there were eight flats belonging to all the siblings and cousins and a deck of twenty four flats next to that. the developer had sold them cheaper to the family, shurjo and she had bought a small flat for rima. their flat would go to raja.
something lashed against her heart again. she hurried to the bathroom.
she was twisting her chignon into place when she heard shurjo’s footsteps. he was coming along the corridor. she tucked a pin into her hair and called out, “where did you go? do you want some tea?”
he didn’t reply for a moment. she frowned, what was the matter… hadn’t he heard her?
“gayatri…” his voice was hesitant. at home, she was usually called by her pet name, ranu. or as shejo boudi, bou ma, didimoni,… ma, depending on who was addressing her. but shurjo had always called her by her given name. gayatri.
why was he sounding like that? she turned around to see what the matter was and almost stopped breathing.
her mouth fell open, in fact. shurjo was standing at the doorway wearing a suit.
she hadn’t seen him in a suit now for how long she couldn’t remember. her astonished gaze went from his jacket to his trousers, to the midnight blue tie… the knot… she peered at his face and her eyes fell on his feet at last. he was still wearing slippers.
she looked all the way up again and stared befuddled. he wasn’t wearing his balaclava.
gayatri jumped up and went to him quickly.
“what’s the matter? shurjo…” she was so taken aback she almost yelled.
“er… i was thinking… is this suit fitting all right? how am i looking?” shurjo muttered looking at her sheepishly.
“looking?” gayatri was lost. she squinted at him in consternation and for some reason noticed his eyes. when was the last time she had done that? his irises were clear, light brown and glinting. there was that flick of intelligence in them that had attracted her that very first time they’d met.
“yes… i was thinking…” shurjo hesitated again. there was a little movement and he thrust something at her.
gayatri was speechless. it was a red rose. shurjo was holding a red rose in his hand.
the incongruity of it almost made her laugh.
“gayatri,… why don’t you wear a nice saree and then we can go…” shurjo started to speak…
gayatri’s brow furrowed… what was shurjo saying?
“.. and see a movie… i have the tickets… after that we’ll go to peter cat and eat chelo kebab…”
watch a movie? chelo kebab…?
“you haven’t had a tutti frutti icecream at kwality’s in a while… we can have that after dinner…” shurjo was tucking the rose into her chignon and tilting her chin with his forefinger as he spoke.
it had been a warm day in june. their first time out together, just the two of them, without friends and her cousin gina who went with her everywhere… apart from gina, no one at her home knew she had met someone she liked. he too hadn’t told anyone. he had just got a job, they were celebrating. they’d seen satyajit ray’s new film, nayak. then he’d hailed a taxi, she had looked bewildered. he’d said the day deserved a taxi ride, no bus or tram… not today. they’d gone to park street. first to peter cat then kwality’s. on the way back home he had held her hand all the way in the taxi. he had also pulled her aside as she was about to enter her home and kissed her on the lips… the first time.
and he’d done something else. he had called her “darling”.
gayatri began to feel a lightness.
he bent forward and gave her a quick kiss on the lips.
“happy valentine’s day, darling…” he said, chuckling slightly.
gayatri stood quiet as the years fell away and then gathered more gently around her. around them.
oh, so today was valentine’s day, they’d never celebrated it, of course… was that why mili was dressed in that pretty top? gayatri wondered if seventy two was too old to wear a favourite pink and green kanjeevaram saree.
she held shurjo’s hand and giggled, “will you go in those slippers…?” then she lay her head on his chest and put her arms around him.
happy valentine’s day. after a long time, my old house threw another story at me… hope you enjoyed it. tried not to use too many bengali words, but the food somehow just sounds better in the original. “kodai shutir kochuri” is a flour patty (poori) with a delicious green pea stuffing; “notun gurer shondesh” is a cottage cheese dessert/sweetmeat flavoured with fragrant new date jaggery; “gurer payesh” is delightful dessert made with rice and milk rice and the same new date jaggery (we absolutely love this thing); “phulkopir shingara” is cauliflower samosa; “fish kochuri” is again a flour patty but this one has a delicate fish stuffing; “kodaiyer daal” is split and dehusked black gram lentil, it’s delightful with ghee; “mangshor jhol” is a curry made with the meat of a kid goat (usually); “malpua” and “chhanar jilipi” are fried sweets made with condensed milk and cottage cheese that are dunked in syrup; “kucho goja” are small (kucho) crumbly sweets made of fried dough that’s tossed around in thick sugar syrup, it’s delicious right from when the syrup is still sticky and shiny on the surface to when it’s gone hard and opaque white; “moa” is a sweet made of popped/puffed rice and jaggery, a winter delicacy. “nakur” or girish chandra dey and makur chandra nandy to be precise, is a wonderful sweet shop in north calcutta. “shejo boudi” is how you might address the wife of one of your brothers, the third one in a group of siblings. “bou ma” is how a daughter in law is often called, “didimoni” an elder sister. “ma” of course, is mother.