It was a bright morning in the month of May. The gentle warmth of spring had given way to hot and sultry afternoons. The mercury soared threateningly, even as the sun glared down with menace, at the scanty passers-by it happened to meet. Schools had closed for the summer holidays and the privileged little ones lazed about in their air-conditioned rooms , with their parents grumbling over the ever-rising temperature, that had , long ago, surrendered to the cooling machine and , hence, dared not disturb them. The more privileged people beat a hasty retreat to the hill stations , casting a pitiful glance at the hapless ones left behind to suffer in the ‘ City of Joy’. Our heroine is one of the less privileged ones.
As you wind your way through the maze of alleys, lanes and by-lanes of Kolkata , by evening, you finally reach a two-storey bungalow, resting comfortably, in a shady corner of the street, in a posh residential area of the city. People know it as the ‘ Vasant Bihar’. By the second-storey bedroom window, you can see a lady, draped in a black-and-white sari. A trace of vermillion lingers in her otherwise grey hair. A few dark strands peep in through the mass of white hair, like the last leaf clinging on to the tree, reminiscent of spring , at the onset of winter. On her lips, rests a nostalgic smile, and her eyes seem to pierce reality in their search for a nameplate down the memory lane. A Parker pen in her hand confirms that she is writing , and her mind is travelling far and wide to help the eager fingers. If you get closer, you may see what she is writing-a journal and you may be lucky enough to catch an excerpt from it.
“So, the children are finally home. My little granddaughter sits at my bedside all day long and moans, ”Please, Granny, another story!” Talking too much at a stretch tires me out, but a child makes you forget that. Now, she sits with Nikki in her room, listening to the violin. Nikki has got a knack for music and now , she plays a beautiful tune:
“I dreamt a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life worth living…..”
One of the modern English songs, I guess. Nikki is the granddaughter of my childhood friend.
Having a childhood friend as a neighbour in your old age, is an unrealized dream for many, and we-me and Rini, spend a lot of time together.
Today, the little dear put vermillion in my hair from her mother’s stock. If my daughter sees me now, she’ll laugh her head off. I was , never, much of a thing to look at , but the girl is bent on dressing me up. The company of a child is, indeed, a wonder.
She likes the pickle so much. Tomorrow, I’m going to cook her my special malai-curry. I bet, she’ll never forget the taste.”
The doorbell rang once more and a voice was heard,” Meenakshi Devi, newspaper!” A faint echo of the bell reached the sleeping lady, as she felt some furry thing snuggling up to her. She opened her bleary eyes, when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in through the open window, she discovered that she was, now, the weary possessor of a pounding headache and had, at some point in the past , managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse. With reluctance, Meenakshi Devi left her bed . The newspaper-boy had already left, but there was the puja to be performed and breakfast to be made. Rini had often insisted on her keeping a maid, but, she had objected strongly. “Work keeps me alive,” she had said, and that was a year back. She now toyed with the idea of having a maid , after all, as she sat in bed. After the morning showers and the puja, the old lady made her way down to the kitchen. As she passed the rooms, one by one, their emptiness seemed to delve deep into her. She stopped by one of the rooms, almost expecting a cheerful voice to ring out in a sing-song manner, but the prevailing silence mocked her. The table was set for four people. The little one would sit at the sofa , swinging her legs, her eyes glued to the television. “Soon, they’ll be down to breakfast,” she smiled. Her eyes attained the dreamy gaze once again, and her mind turned into a live movie. She had never noticed when this invisible camera had captured images as lively as it now showed her. Meenakshi Devi belonged to an era of black-and-white–photography , but here she was, watching herself in her childhood, her parents and siblings , all in the most vibrant of hues. One-by-one flashed the moments when she had first met Colonel Mukherjee, the day Meenakshi Roy became Meenakshi Mukherjee, the day her child was born – all the precious moments of her bygone days had been filmed with care and now, she was the guest to its special screening. As the movie approached the age of modern photography, the hitherto bright images deteriorated in quality. They turned black-and-white and went on becoming hazier. At a point of time, she could no longer distinguish between the images . She didn’t watch the movie any more. The delight that had marked its beginning, turned into sheer pain and horror. The extreme currents of emotion flowing through her veins collided blindly, lost each other and again collided, till they had exhausted themselves in their own vigour. The emptiness of the house made its way into the heart of the broken lady and numbed her completely, as she dropped, limp, and senseless, onto the sofa.
No one could say how long Meenakshi Devi had been lying unconscious, and , maybe, she’d have slipped off to a silent death had it not been for the cat. The cat had been purring to wake its mistress up. When everything had failed, it climbed onto her lap and tried shaking her with all its might. This was a medicine that had never failed before, even on the coldest of winter mornings, when getting out of bed made one a martyr. This too having yielded no result , the cat realized , something was wrong. It slipped out of the house through the dining-room window . The neighbours , it knew, cared for its old mistress and cats know, better than us, the meaning of faith.
“Mrs. Roy, it’s our duty to inform her relatives. Since you know her well, we hope, you’ll help us,” said Dr. Sen.
“Her daughter’s in America. She hasn’t come home in seven years and I hear, she has a little daughter,” replied Mrs. Rini Roy.
The young doctor’s face wore a puzzled expression.”But, Meenakshi-Devi is so fond of her little granddaughter. Why, she goes on speaking of her daughter and her husband, too! How…”
“That can’t be so, Dr. Sen,” interrupted the old lady,” My granddaughter, Nikki, shows her pictures of the child on social media, though. As for Colonel Mukherjee, he’s dead ten years now.”
The doctor struggled ,in vain, to hide his bewilderment, as he stammered ,”They ought to be informed.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Doctor. The last time, her daughter had decided to sell their ancestral house off, putting her mother in an old-age home. I had resisted and had promised to take care of my friend. If they have to fly over now, I can’t stop them and the blow will be too much for Meenakshi.”
“But, Madam, she can’t stay alone anymore. She needs constant attention for, as we see, loneliness has affected her health,” argued the doctor.
“What if she moves over to our place, Doctor? Nikki is motherless and another granny will do her some good , too.”
“Shouldn’t you inform her family?”
“Is family nothing but blood relations, Dr. Sen? We need her and they don’t. Isn’t that strong enough a reason? “ sighed Mrs. Roy.
The doctor smiled at last.
“Well, alright, Mrs. Roy. Have it your way then,” he said, as he escorted her to the patient’s room.
She lay on the hospital bed, her eyes wearing the same faraway look, as they scoured the distant horizon. She was just the same as we had last seen her-only, a little paler, with her hair a little greyer and the trace of vermillion missing. At her bedside, sat a young girl, violin in hand. A beautiful melody filled the air of the sick-room.
“But, there are dreams that cannot be,
And there are storms we cannot weather….”
The words reached the eager ears of the sick lady. She turned her face at the sound of footsteps. It was her childhood friend.
“Rini,” she whispered,”Do you remember our favourite past-time as a child?”
“Yes,” smiled her friend,” Grandma’s stories. I wish, I could listen to them again.”
“Good old days!” murmured the patient.
Outside, the sun was setting, bathing the sky in a myriad of nameless colours . The fading light welcomed the newly-wed darkness into the threshold of the sky’s mansion- endings can be beautiful , too.
A drop of tear lingered on Meenakshi Devi’s pale cheeks. It seemed to hold all the blows life had inflicted on her-a dewdrop waiting on the grass blade for the sun to make it shine. Now, she would look forward , with renewed hope , to the morning that was to come. All the years that had wasted her away, drained into the fading light and the end of the day promised a new sunrise.
“What is the end, but a new beginning?” smiled Mrs. Roy , as she stepped out of the hospital.
The last ray of the sun peeped in through the growing darkness to bid the world goodbye. The street lights had come on. Above, the full moon smiled and stars twinkled in the night sky. They healed the wounds and erased the scars of days gone by. Beneath the star-studded sky that night, a family was born.