Translated from the Bengali by Archi Chakraborty
I am—I mean my name is Swarna Ghosal. My husband left for his office yesterday, that is, on 24th December and has not returned yet. He said he’ll take us to the zoo today. Actually, every year on Christmas we take trips to somewhere or other. It is already past noon today. But “he” has still not returned. That is why I am here, at the precinct.
The Police Superintendent, a middle-aged and fairly handsome man shifts on his cushioned chair. He asks, have you searched?
The Superintendent looks pretty cross at my reply. Yet he maintains his decency and manner “Well for a start, try to call your husband. What was his name again? Tamonash Ghosal and then, ring up his friends and relatives.
On the damp, alum ridden wall behind the Superintendent’s seat hung a tattered, old map of India with a humongous lizard the size of an infant crocodile sat on it. The Superintendent narrows his eyes to assess me: “What’s the deal? Did you not call them?”
I fumbled as I framed my answer N–no. My husband does not keep his mobile on him. It stays at home. I called those of his friends that I know. I do not have all their contact numbers. Other than that, Tamonash does not usually visit his relatives.
Irritation no longer stays hidden in his voice: Just because he does not usually visit, does not mean that he will never visit them! You pop at the precinct without even searching at all! Nonsense!
Even though he kept the last word to at a low, I hear it anyway and keep mum.
“So, when did you call?”
The Superintendent repeats with some sizzle: “I asked when did you make the call?”
“Today. This morning.”
He looks at me in amazement: “Why? What were you up to all through last night?”
I keep quiet. Nothing comes to my mind.
He asks again: “Did anything like this happen before?”
“I cannot clearly recall. So, I nodded in denial.”
The Superintendent now throws a strange question at me: “Were you not worried?”
I cannot respond. I blurt out all too honestly: “I did not even realize how the whole night had passed.”
Astonishment changes the color of Superintendent’s face: “What?! What were you up to the entire night?”
I look at the old, worn-out Indian map. The lizard has moved. Its tail will fall off if touched, turning it into an obnoxious creature. In my mind, I put a finger on the tail.
The Superintendent clears his throat and speaks with a certain gruffness: “I want to know; did you just sleep through the last night?”
I look down and answer as calmly as I can: “I was writing a story.”
The Superintendent may have dealt with a lot of criminals in his professional life. He may have battled many dangerous situations but what an otherwise innocent response did to him was evident on his body language. Springing up from his chair, he begins to yell in English: “What do you mean? Am I a joker? Are you out of your mind?”
I give the man some time to cool off. The lizard has now landed at the state of Kashmir on the map. Its tail shakes slightly. As if, scared. I speak with restraint: “No, Sir. Why would I joke with you? I was genuinely writing a story.”
The Superintendent calls out for someone named Satyabhama. The lizard of the size of a baby crocodile makes a clicking sound.
I think this may be the first time I have come across the name Satyabhama belonging to a man. The Officer dumps a bunch of orders to Satyabhama and inquired about some criminals in the lock-up. Satyabhama assesses me with his vexed guise. “See you, sir,” he says as he is about to leave but turns around. “Sir, did you find out anything about the pair of dead bodies retrieved at Gandhi Ghat this morning?”
Like a hermit crab, the Superintendent slumps for a bit. “No. Alok is handling it.”
Satyabhama really leaves this time. And he does not look at me.
A little boy comes in with a tea kettle and glasses. The Superintendent asks: “Would you like some tea?”
To be honest. I felt thirsty the moment I saw the tea. I hesitated for a bit but ended up saying: “Yes, I would like some.”
He might have gotten a little flustered at my affirmative reply. He asked the little boy for two glasses of tea. The boy began to pour tea into the glass and said: “Sir, you had promised me a cake today.”
The Superintendent looked at me, smiled unwarily and said to the boy: “Yes, yes. Come in the evening, I will buy you a cake.”
The boy hummed the song Chal Chhaiya Chhaiya tunelessly while he walked away. I sipped at my tea and looked at the officer. The Superintendent noisily sipped at his tea and looked at me directly to say: “So, where were we? Your husband left on 24th December . . . You did not contact anyone the whole night. You were writing a story. But why? Are you a writer?”
I did not feel any constraints and spoke up with excitement: Yes, sir. The editor of a reputed magazine contacted me for the first time two days ago and asked me to write a story within seven days, so . . .”
The man cut me off mid-sentence and said my words: “So you were writing the whole night. Well, how much do they pay?”
I forget all about my surroundings and begin to holler: “No, no sir, how are they supposed to pay? They are not commercial magazines. They are Little Magazines. Some little magazines have now outdone mainstream magazines. But in majority of the cases, the editor has to pay from his own pocket to publish these magazines.”
The Superintendent fails to maintain decency or politeness anymore. His voice nearly reaches sixty five decibels as he yells: “This means that you have more knowledge of Little Magazines than your husband’s whereabouts.”
His words felt like a fierce slap across my face.
An F.I.R. cannot be filed for your case. I am filing a G.D. instead. I will visit your house in the afternoon. I need to investigate your family and neighbors. G.D. no. 185.”
I began walking past the crowd scattered around the police precinct. I was not feeling too well. The tea-seller boy, squatting under a shimul tree, stares into the dust.
Our eyes meet and the boy breaks into a smile. Pollens of it flurry around my lips too. I have a feeling that I will remember this boy for a long time. In front of the stationery store strewn about in a tempting manner, were cakes of different shapes and sizes wrapped in colorful papers, Santa Claus made of cotton, and Christmas trees. All this pretty pompously declared that it really is Christmas Day. A sudden thought crossed my mind: Has Tamonash come back? Tuktuk shall be really happy if he has. Tamonash is my husband, the father of my nine-year-old Tuktuk. Tamonash’s mother shall also be very happy if her son returns. On my way on the rickshaw, three or four picnic groups passed by me. I draw my shawl snug. The winter this year is pretty harsh.
The surroundings seemed pretty festive for Christmas. Every few meters, music beats from happy picknickers hit the ears. But my mind freezes at one place. Where did Tamonash go? Among shredded thoughts like this, the thought that horrified every part of me was: If Tamonash never returned . . . I lose my chain of thought thinking of the . . . the consequences. What may have happened: an accident? Lately, a lot of innocent people have been abducted in suspicion of being terrorists, did something like that happen? Thoughts like these caused a lot of uneasiness in my mind What if they ask for a ransom to free him! We do not have that kind of money. I calculated a little and deduced that we have only about forty thousand in cash at the moment.
The rickshaw entered Nilgunge road and stopped abruptly. A small crowd has gathered in front of a pop-up cake shop. Slightly stunned, I ask: “What happened?”
The rickshaw driver took up the responsibility to inform me about the crowd and walked towards it while I waited. He came back smiling and said: Didi, that dark-skinned girl whose hands are tied, stole a cake.
I had not noticed till now that a girl of Tuktuk’s age is standing with both her hands tied.
“Why have they kept her tied up, she can just return the cake,” I ask the rickshaw puller.
The man pedals on. I fall under the inertia of the rickshaw starting. The driver replies as if he heard something very funny: But she has already eaten it!
I immediately turn around. I see my dark, dusty, and beautiful Christmas girl. A tune came floating from afar: No-no no-no no-no no-no no entry . . .
Some lines from the story I was writing last night, haphazardly swarm inside my mind: “There’s nothing there/ Only flames from a candle/ Morning walk through the Garden of Edens/ A little resemblance of your visage/ or my father’s drowned corpse.”
Lately, you signify me. Trauma plays in every pore of my existence. I wish to forget you, to avoid you. I want to forget you. Avoid you. I fail. Maybe I want to fail. You had said to me: The River Atrayee is just like you. Like an alien visiting from another planet. I thought, together we will begin the story of a restless, ominous time. We lost to the flooding emotions of the times. Nonetheless. It was us who wanted to walk till the ocean. You are a poet: just a poet. Like the pollens of the dusts of a poem, you smear every bit of me . . . The name of the river was, Atrayee. Was it, truly named Atrayee?”
Which one, Didi?
I come out of my reverie at the words of the rickshaw driver. “Pinky Stores” is here. I had taken out eight rupees. The rickshaw puller smiles: Two more rupees, Didi. Want to get a cake.
A few steps into the bend of the lane I recalled that Tuktuk has not had cake today either. I do not know whether she will even get to. Her father is missing. I reach the front gate of the house debating whether or not it will be proper to get a cake home under such circumstances. My heart sinks seeing a crowd of people of different ages in front of my house. Did something bad happen? My eyes try to somehow locate Tuktuk. Shyamol kaku from next door was friends with my father-in-law. He emerged snipping the wings of the crowd and asks almost in a paternal tone: Where have you been, Bouma? Buro did not return home last night, you could have at least informed me about it.
“Why, would you have brought him back?” I almost blurt out and swallow my words.
Everyone looks at me like I am the one who was hiding Tamonash. I was the real culprit. I feel impatient. Where the hell is my daughter?
As I carefully walk past the crowd to enter into the house, my sister-in-law, Atashee shouts: “What is the matter? Why are you silent? He’s my brother and you did not even feel the need to inform me. Where did you go so early in the morning?”
My mother-in-law comes rushes in, wailing: “How will she inform anyone? My son did not return home the entire night and she was busy writing her damn story.”
I look at her astonished and notice that she is holding the papers of the unfinished story that I was working at last night. My mother-in-law tosses the sheets among the crowd like a giveaway. My unfinished story lay; a collage resembling a disarrayed procession. Atashee picked up a sheet and announced to the crowd. “It’s a love story, by the way.”
Then she began to read it aloud in an indecent and sarcastic voice: “You are not here. You are not anywhere in the world. This negative you is making me believe all the more that you are there. You exist through the entirety of my heart. You filled every pore of my life. I had loved you Nabokumar.”
I notice Tuktuk in a red frock behind the frame of the window. Tuktuk is watching me with fear in her eyes. I try to walk towards my room again. On my right, I see a sheet of my story in the hands of Kajol boudi, Ranada’s wife. I hear her mumbling: “With you pain and pleasure co-exist.”
Kajol boudi chuckled and nudged Aunt Sushma who was standing next to her. Tuktuk sat beside me and said in a manner of consolation: “Why did you leave the story pages lying on the bed? Thhamma called up pishi and asked her to come over and just as pishi saw them, she . . .”
Tuktuk leaves her sentence unfinished and changes the topic: “Mom, you know Granny also called up Dida and told her that Baba is did not return home last night and that you were writing a story all night.”
This is the first time that the police visited my in-laws’ place. And my mother-in-law has clearly told me that the reason behind their visit is me. The neighbors have all left after taking up some juicy snack of each of their choice. Only Shyamol kaku returned when the police arrived. He said to the police with a lot of emotion: “Buro is a really good person, sir. Very kind. Just a few days ago, he took leave from office and did everything for me to get my right eye’s cataract surgery done. He said, Kaku I have lost my father at a young age, I take you as our guardian now.”
Towards the end, the old man’s voice trembled like a moringa leaf in a light breeze.
The officer spoke to Atashee’s husband, Shobhan, for a long time. My mother-in-law spoke to the officer in a quavering voice: “Sir, her husband has not returned home the whole night and she does not bother at all. She had been busy writing some poppycock. She does not have any compassion for my son.”
Atashee joins in on her mother’s trail and chews on each word before spitting them out. “Maybe that is the reason why he left home in pain and grief.”
The Superintendent looked at me once and then stopped everyone: “Everyone please keep quiet and let me do my work.”
At this point, my mother rings on Atashee’s phone. Atashee mutters through her teeth: “Take it. Your mother. Shed some fake tears now!”
Somehow, I blurt out: “Hello Ma.”
From the other side, I hear the voice of my mother Shibani Biswas floating into the ears: “What is this, Swarna? Tamonash did not return home the entire night and you did not inform anyone about it and instead you kept on writing some story? Will you never get rid of this craziness? You are an embarrassment! You did not even think of Tuktuk and what will happen to her if Tamonash never returns. And where will you stand without him? On top of that you went to the police precinct without informing anything to anyone . . .”
Ma blabbered on. I did not feel like hearing anymore. I gave the phone to Atashee.
I could not hear what Atashee said to Ma. I hear Atashee’s sugared voice: “No Mashima, you do not have to worry. We are all here. After all, Swarna is your daughter, ask her to take care of the family matters with some seriousness.”
The Superintendent speaks to everyone but me. He just asks me to visit the precinct the next day in case Tamonash does not return. He has some personal questions to ask.
Evening creeps in the steps of a cat. The light outside dies. Night falls too quickly over the Christmas Day. The Superintendent asks for Tuktuk. For the first time, I resist: “Why? Tuktuk is already miserable, sad. What do you want to ask her?”
Clearly vexed, Atashee barks: “Boudi, just let him do his job.”
The Superintendent reassures me: “Don’t worry, I won’t scare her; just ask her whether her father had said something to her before he left.”
Shobhan calls: “Tuktuk come to this room once.”
Tamonash’s mother said in an utterly dissatisfied tone: “My son didn’t tell me anything. What would he say to such a small child?”
Shobhan calls again: “Tuktuk what happened? We are calling you.”
Tuktuk came in with the mobile phone and running very fast: Ma! Ma! Baba has called.”
It was as if I could not decipher Tuktuk’s words at first. Tuktuk pressed the mobile to my ear. I hear, my husband’s, my child’s father Tamonash’s voice.
Tamonash is saying: “Swarna, you are very angry with me, aren’t you? Actually, last night, Sandeep da forcibly took me to his house in Ghatal. I had thought to call you once I reached there but unfortunately there was to network in the place. Not even a S.T.D. booth. But there is a very beautiful river. Please don’t worry. We have left from there and will reach in five or six hours.”
I put the phone back in Tuktuk’s hand. Tamonash is trying to soothe Tuktuk in some way. I cannot hear what he says exactly. We hear Tuktuk saying: “Baba don’t bring cake. It will already be midnight by the time you reach, and Christmas will be over.”
I step out from the murky room and stand near the bars in the balcony. The house has become bizarrely quiet. The bulb in the balcony of sixty lumens is surrounded by noisy insects. The officer returned. Before leaving he tells me: “Please visit the precinct tomorrow and withdraw the G.D. entry.”
While getting on the jeep, he looks at me with an eccentric look. I look down to see a page of my story lying down in the balcony. I whisper in my mind: “You wanted to make me dream, honey. Do these luckless eyes dream? This ill-fated heart does not acknowledge. You are just a rotten corpse in the cold room. There’s no beauty in there. No matter how many palaces are built there. You are still a worm-eaten dead body.”
Atashee and Shobhan have taken my mother-in-law with them because she has been through a lot today. I fed Tuktuk rice with boiled egg and potatoes for dinner. I also had a few mouthfuls on Tuktuk’s insistence. When I was making the bed and hanging the mosquito net, Tuktuk comes in with a glee on her face and the pages of my story sorted in her hands. She gets under the blanket comfortably. With a parental tone, she reprimands me: “Mom, what will you do waiting for dad to come, you should finish the story. You have a deadline of seven days.”
Tuktuk has fallen asleep. A mild sound of condensing fog floats in from outside. Tamonash has called again to inform that he will reach in about two hours. I write on. Denying the winter’s plea, I scratch away on the white paper: “Conflict/ Human rights/ Only Trust, wake up just once. Trust, shattered, yet works within. I do not know. I know not my tomorrow, my future. I only knew you; loved only you. You-you-you, face smeared in clay, standing by the banks of Ichhamoti, you stay . . . in my river, it is you who wake the waves . . . I have saved frankincense inside the beetle of this heart, just for you! Touch, here’s love I have always loved you Nabakumar. I love you. I shall love you. Forever.”