Translated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
Ruby’s tiger’s name is Shantanu. Just like the others of his kind, Shantanu is ginormous, striated, with a tail curved like the crescent moon. His massive paws are covered with soft silvery fur and he has two melancholy yellow sapphires for eyes. There are some deep gashes on his paws and behind the ears.
It’s midnight – the confectionery store around the corner has pulled down its shutters. Its two front steps have come down to meet the cracked sidewalk where the moonbeam and a sliver of streetlight are wrestling each other to grab a solitary patch of green grass. Nearby, two red cars are parked in a row.
Between Mitra Sweets, the confectionary store, and the cars, Shantanu was peeing on the moon-ray with full concentration. He had lifted his face toward the sky. His body weight was on his front legs, the back two were pleated down, his long tail hung parallel to the ground. In the moonshine, the stripes on his back had taken on the hues of sepia and white. A folded black shawl was on one of Ruby’s arms, the other rested on Shantanu’s back. Ruby was standing tall and looking about. She stood like a closed door, behind which, free of all worries, Shantanu was responding to the call of nature. A pungent wild odor rose and crept up the double stairs to reach the sign on the door of Mitra Sweets. The moonlight on the grass was gradually turning yellow and watery.
The alley Ruby lives on is twisted and intricate. It bangs on someone’s wall, stubs its toes on another’s storefront, and, finally, slides into the main street. Only rickshaws and pushcarts enter the alley. But nowadays, at night, Ruby’s ears detect the sounds of auto-rickshaws[i]traveling to and fro. Shantanu had arrived on one of those.
Ruby was in bed. It was late at night. The auto[ii] had tripped on a pothole in front of her home and croaked like it had fractured its legs. A probing odor pervaded Ruby’s second storey room. What a curious smell it was! Like someone had punched the redolence of honeysuckle with the typical smell of a zoo in a bottle and shaken it until it bursts! It was late at night; the whiff was peculiar – it was sudden and severe. Ruby turned on the lights and opened the door. Shantanu was sitting on the landing in the stairwell – his branded broad back with sturdy muscles looked grimy in the 40-watt light. He had dried blood on his ears. A honeysuckle vine had grown next to the stairwell. Shantanu had trampled on the creeper to climb up to the landing. Now the staircase was soiled with crushed flowers, mud, and blood. He looked into Ruby’s eyes and yawned large – she got a glimpse of the pink tongue and rows of piercing white teeth inside his mouth. Ruby thought he looked like a weary king returning from a battle. The moment the word ‘king’ popped into her mind, she came upon the name Shantanu, not Sourabh. It was an instinctive reaction. Just like tiny passport pictures – small frames with orange crowns, a royal robe of orange and black – emperor Shantanu with an orange bow and arrow. The blue backdrop flaunted a painted notice – King Shantanu of Hastinapur. Since then, Shantanu has taken up residence in this house and is living with Ruby.
Today is the first day of Asharh[iii], it’s midnight – Ruby’s birthday. Ruby marks her calendar like thus. If ninety-two percent of the people say her birthday is on June 16, Ruby declares it is on the first day of Asharh. Actually, she shifts auspicious dates a bit. For instance, her brother’s birthday is on August 13, but Ruby claims he was born on Indian Independence Day[iv]. For similar reasons, Ruby’s parents’ wedding anniversary falls on 25th of Boishakh[v], and her mother’s death-day on the joyous full-moon of Dol[vi]. After repeating these altered dates for a while, Ruby began to believe them herself. She remembers watching the national flag fly high on the day Bilu was born, remembers carrying Bilu in her lap and standing on the balcony – smiling. She remembers marching in the streets and singing to commemorate that particular event. She seems to recall the sandalwood paste mark on Bilu’s forehead. She recollects the golden full moon – her mother’s bier being carried by hymn-singing pallbearers to the funeral pyre. The path they walk is sparkled with scattered Khoi and coins.
When she was in school, this tendency to amend particular dates got picked up by some and gossiped by many. One day, Chhanda raised a finger to her and yelled, “Liar!” Soon Sunanda echoed this cry. The girl who always stood first in class, Nayantara, went to Supti-di and complained about her. Complaints, punishments, adjectives attached to her name – nothing could dissuade Ruby. After thirty-five years of such revisions, her birthday has become the first day of the month of Asharh.
Today, on Asharh 1, after thirty-five years, Ruby will meet with Sunanda, Chhanda, Nandana, Deepti, and Anasuya. Nayantara has returned from America – they’ll all meet at the City Center for lunch and a chat. Deepti found Bilu after scouring the pages of Facebook. He had handed over Ruby’s phone number to Deepti.
Deepti called her and said, “We’re all on Facebook. We’ve been searching for you – where have you been? Don’t you have a Facebook account?”
Ruby replied, “I’ve been here all along… Where else would I be?”
Deepti had smiled, “You know, I never even thought of looking for you in your old neighborhood. Actually, everyone is married now and scattered. So, I believed…”
Ruby understood that Deepti has already gathered her story of the past thirty-five years from Bilu. Nonetheless, riding on Deepti’s laughter and voice, Ruby’s childhood blew into her room. Supti-di, Purabi-di[vii] – the two burflower trees on both sides of the green school gate, the dance-drama ‘Pujarini’ being staged; Bhaskar drawing a ship for her – the ship is purple, waves green – and then, proposing to her: ‘Will you marry me?’…
Ruby thought she should inquire, ‘Where do you think Bhaskar is now? What does he do?’ Then she promptly agreed, “Of course, I’ll come. I WILL come.”
Actually, no one had telephoned Ruby for a long time; no one had invited her to go anywhere. On her way here and there, Ruby has seen the City Center – the lighted shops, the rush of cars, people going in and coming out – smiling; their hands clasping children’s hands, balloons and other possessions. She has yearned to go in. She believes there will be a day when she gets there – perhaps only once in her life, on a very special day. Perhaps on Christmas or…
After she hung up with Deepti, Ruby started to think. This is going to be a perfect 50th birthday – City Center in the afternoon, bright lights, a huge cake in front, with her childhood friends around her… The telephone conversation had taken place before Shantanu’s arrival.
Today is June 16th – in another thirteen hours, on the afternoon of first Asharh, she will have to go to the City Center. Will Shantanu be able to stay alone in the house for that long? While considering this problem, Ruby walked up the sidewalk in front of the confectionary store. She has been secreting Shantanu for several days now. There are no other tigers in the neighborhood, at least none that she’s aware of. People might banish Shantanu if they come to know of him. Not everyone can take everything. Ruby’s uncle was allergic to dogs, just as her Mom was to cats. Aunt loved lizards but brutally attacked cockroaches. Her neighbors could be allergic to tigers – who knows! Up till now, she hadn’t taken anyone into her confidence. No one comes to her house. She even completes all the household chores by herself.
Early every morning, Ruby walks about five minutes to buy a couple of potatoes and onions, along with two pieces of fish, leaving no possibility that someone might visit and discover Shantanu. The problem is with his odor and howl. But he’s been quiet these few days. When she cleans the gashes behind his ears and paw with Dettol, he just makes a small ‘gaank’ sound, but otherwise remains silent. She has tried to control the smell by tightly shutting the windows and doors. He doesn’t fuss about his food either and shares Ruby’s rice, lentils, and fish curry. Ruby adds a few drops of lemon juice to the lentil soup. Shantanu really loves the soft fish bellies. And Dadagiri[viii]? The moment he hears the word D-A-D-A-G-I-R-I, Shantanu jumps to take his seat in front of the television.
At night, when the whole neighborhood is muted in sleep, Ruby goes out for a walk with Shantanu. He likes to utilize the piled-up plastic plates, spoons, and clay pots in front of Mitra Sweets as his bathroom.
Now, at midnight, in the somnolent neighborhood, Shantanu’s bodily needs have been met. Ruby spots a drop of red glow on the third floor of the Sonar Tori Apartments. Someone is smoking – probably Mr. Basak. Ruby pitched the black shawl over Shantanu. This is Ruby’s tried and true technique. Whenever she goes out, her eyes shaded in a pair of dark sunglasses, the end of the saree wrapped tightly around her shoulders, a shawl draped over her head in winter months, Ruby becomes invisible. No one ogles her on the streets, or asks her if she is afraid of living alone in a big house, or why is she losing weight – doesn’t she get enough to eat? Hey, you! Aren’t you in touch with Samiran any longer? She turns out to be wholly unseen! Whether in the neighborhood, market, bus, or Metro, people no longer look at her and grin. They just pass through her form without cracking a smile or chatting her up. And yet, Ruby can watch their every move through her dark glasses. This is how she has come to fully assess the worth of the black shawl. Even at midnight, she has swathed herself in her saree.
After covering Shantanu up with the shawl, Ruby sighed in relief. In the luminescent moonlight, Shantanu’s stroll under the shawl – the movement of his sinewy limbs – were quite perceptible. Ruby reached the end of the alley with the large dim shape by her side. The television set was in the great room. In front of it, a bed was laid on the sofa for Shantanu, a bowl of water was near the window. Shantanu lapped up some water and curled up in his bed. Ruby turned on the TV but became quite anxious – what if someone had noticed Shantanu! After half an hour of no commotion, she was further convinced of the power of the black shawl and decided to take Shantanu with her to the City Center. All she’d have to do is throw the black shawl to cloak him.
One could walk to the City Center from Ruby’s home. A bus route covered the distance and a number of Auto-Rickshaws also ran the route; but Ruby decided to walk. With Shantanu, she reached the intersection of the larger streets. She was sans sunglasses and didn’t cover her body with the end of her saree. She was going to meet her childhood friends! After many months, she was craving fried rice – fried rice, chili chicken, and ice cream.
With his enormous bulk, Shantanu was casually ambling along under the shawl. He had tucked his tail under his belly and was walking alongside Ruby like a huge piece of dark shadow. When they had to cross a street, he stopped upon Ruby’s signal. From time to time, she checked if the black shawl was in place, and, once, dragged the end of the shawl to cover his tail. After some time, they reached the City Center.
Ruby reached the foodcourt and found Madhuchhanda, Pratima, Sulata, Latika, Deepti, Yamuna, Sunanda, Chhanda, and Nayantara – she had no problem recognizing them. The others hadn’t come yet. Deepti was checking out the jewelry around Pratima’s neck and arms, Nayantara took selfies. Yamuna and Chhanda nudged each other giggling. Ruby arranged the dark shawl on Shantanu and placed him in front of the KFC booth. She went forward.
Yamuna and Chhanda were occupying a table in the Food Court – Sulata hung on to Nayantara, who kept snapping pictures. Pratima joined them. Ruby watched Chandana,Jhimli, and Uma walk toward them. Each of them came, clasped each other close, took pictures, put their purses on the table, wiped their sweaty foreheads, and laughed aloud. The women had changed a lot in these few years – they had gained weight and were wearing expensive sarees. Ruby felt a bit nervous. She used a hanky to mop her brow and sat on one side of Nayantara. Pratima, Chandana, and Deepti sat on the other side. Jhimli and Uma were sitting opposite – talking nonstop – about their fathers-in-law, their aching backs, younger daughters’ exams, older sons’ college entry tests. Ruby heard loose words fly crazily, like acid reflux, Suprakash, Chanchal, and Bijan. She watched Nayantara, Pratima, and Yamuna’s eyes float over her, but no one looked at her. She kept grinning at everyone for a long time – so long that her jaws began to hurt. Deepti took off her glasses and polished them. Ruby thought once she puts them back on, Deepti should be able to see her and then, Chandana, Jhimli, and Madhuchchanda will sing in unison, “Happy, happy birthday! When did you get here? You haven’t changed a bit.”
Deepti put her glasses on and looked at Nayantara. Nayantara stood up and stated dramatically, “This is my treat today – I’m meeting you guys after soooo long – ‘am so, so grateful, y’all! You’ve made the trip especially for me – soooo sweet of you!” Deepti tucked in her saree-end tightly and said, “So, who’s going to have what – Yamuna, announce it now, Yamuna! Jhimli, you are a vegetarian for today, right? Uma, you? Madhuchchanda, what are you allergic to, list them quickly…” Ruby desperately waved her hands and said, “Why don’t I pay today? It’s my birthday! Don’t you remember?” Her girlhood friends’ eyes flitted over her, pierced through her, and landed behind her – on the shops, lighted garlands, burgers, momos, pizzas, fried rice, and chili chicken. Ruby stood up and brandished her arms, calling each by her name, “Uma – yo Uma, Madhu – Madhuchchanda, Deepti, Nayantara…” Gradually, Ruby’s voice cracked. The last name, Yamuna, sounded like a wail. The sparkling stores and gushing humans surrounding them were noticeable to all. Only Ruby and Shantanu, shrouded in black shawls, were concealed.
Ruby had always wished she were invisible. But today, on the first day of Asharh[i], her 50th birthday, a strong desire to be seen surfaced in her. She wanted to laugh with others, wanted to take selfies with others, eat with others. It dawned on her that the world outside her black shawl had transformed entirely. It won’t change back, even if she threw away her dark veil.
Ruby wiped her eyes and decided to go home. She got up from the table and walked toward the KFC store. She didn’t need the dark cover anymore. She believed they would be undetectable. She yanked the shawl off Shantanu’s body, “Let’s go home, Shantanu.”
Under the dark shawl-tent Shantanu was dozing. When Ruby removed the shawl, the colossal cat woke up in the food court of City Center. His thumping tail and ferocious growl shattered all the glass panes in the shopping mall – Shantanu became intensely visible.
On the first day of Asharh, on a cloudy afternoon, Deepti, Uma, Jhimli, and the shoppers at the City Center rubbed their eyes to see in front of the KFC booth, a massive orange and black striped tiger thrashing its tail about and roaring again and again. Deepti, Anusuya, and Nandana stood up immediately and faced Shantanu. Nayantara was about to take her fifty-fifth selfie and had her pouty face on. Shantanu recognized the contraption, and the pose. A two-legged one had twisted his tail and taken a picture with just such a device. The I-Phone was slammed down on the floor of the Food Court at one stroke of his tail. Shantanu licked his paw once with his frightfully pink tongue. He twirled a couple of times around the rows of tables and, like a black and orange lightbolt, jumped up on a foodcourt table. Immediately, Deepti lost consciousness and fell to the ground. A security guard came running and before he could lift his rifle, Shantanu looked the guard in the eye. His body was tense – he recognized this particular apparatus also. At that moment, Ruby leapt, bounded over the tables and threw the black shawl over the guard. The rifle flew out of his hands.
Shantanu stood on one of the Food Court tables – the Sunday visitors were quaking before him. He lifted his head and roared once more. Then, he folded his two back legs slightly, extended his banded tail perfectly parallel to the table, and peed with force. The City Center was flooded with the yellow torrent of urine that he had been holding in for such a long time.
Shantanu and Ruby skirt the escalator of the City Center and the stream of people there to come out on the street. Ruby is holding two sticks of ice cream. Auto-Rickshaws, taxis, and buses crowd the street. A fistful of blue-black clouds gathers over the City Center; a topsy turvy breeze blows through Kolkata. The sky turns purple with lightning charges. Dust, sand, leaves from their tree-perches, and bouquets of burflowers, loop around the city. The first pour of monsoon, on the first day of Asharh, vigorously pelts the streets. A red double-decker bus, horn blaring, arrives in front of them.
Ruby and Shantanu are on the upper deck of the bus and occupy the front seats. Forced by the speeding bus, rather than trickling down, rain droplets are climbing up the giant windscreen. The city of Kolkata was suffering from an incurable disease, it went blind within.
On the streets of the sick city, Ruby and Shantanu went on licking their ice creams. After all, it was the evening of the first day of Asharh.
[i]A cheap and convenient mode of transportation in Bengal. It is basically a motorbike fitted with a cage of seats for passengers. These motorized vehicles tend to run on fixed routes in the city.
[ii] Abbreviation of ‘Auto-rickshaw.’
[iii] Asharh is the first month of monsoon in Bengal.
[iv] India’s Independence Day is August 15.
[v] India’s Nobel Laureate, poet Rabindranath Tagore, was born on 25th Boishakh.
[vi] The full moon day of Dol is celebrated as the day of festival of colors. It is known in the rest of India as ‘Holi.’
[vii] ‘Di’ is a relational honorific in Bangla denoting the status of older sister. Female teachers are often addressed as ‘di’ added to their names.
[viii] ‘Dadagiri’ is a popular quiz show on TV.
At The Antonym, we believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine: