The horizon was deepening into a band of evening orange-red when the train from Midnapur touched seams of “Howrah Station” .
Blare of train horns, noise of the passengers, vendors and the beggars melted into a unique symphony, a symphony common to all railway stations in India. Nalini alighted from the train — her large Kohled eyes looked with awe at the hugeness of the station. She thought to herself that if the station was that big then how big would be the city! A shiver went through her spines. Her uncertain alta marked feet and the jewelery laden body clearly said that she was a newly wed bride who was left by her family to face the huge city alone and begin a new life — by herself with Naren (her husband but a stranger in her life).
Naren followed Nalini out of the train with luggages, goodies, coconuts and betelnut baskets. He too had his apprehensions. He was young, in his twenties, was a clerk in a small accounts firm, had a tiny house somewhere very near to Boubazar main road. Getting married was not in Naren’s priority list but parental pressures and his own health problems caused by unhygienic food habits drove him to get married to Nalini. Little did he realize that he was being married off to the beautiful Nalini. He fell in love with her instantly. Nalini too liked Naren but she was too young to understand the feeling and her distance from Ma-Baba was painful for her to bear.
Since, it was her first day in the city, Naren took Nalini by a taxi so that she would enjoy the sight seeing and get a good view of the city while they journey into their new life. They reached “home” – a decrepit, small two-bedroom house in a narrow-winding gully. Unused to this suffocation and claustrophobic from the constant gaze of neighbours, Nalini immediately went out of her new home to catch some fresh breeze, when Naren went for his bath. She had been outside for only a few moments when Naren worriedly came rushing after her. He commanded her to come inside and threatened saying: “Ki Pagol Me ta! (What a crazy girl) Don’t do this again….This is one of the most notorious localities of Kolkatta…Do you know that this area houses pimps who can take you away? I will take you anywhere you want to but you don’t you dare to get out without my permission…Now come in!”
Nalini burst into tears…not only because she was shocked to have been thrown into a world so different and so terrifying from the beauty of her little home in Midnapur but also because she was shocked to see Naren behave so rude with her. But soon he cooled down and then they started becoming friends bit by bit. However, Nalini could never forget her first evening in Boubazar. After Naren went for office, she would cling to the railings of the back window and keep staring at the roads with blank expressions. She loved Naren and there was no doubt about it! But she also loved her freedom — longed for her life in Midnapur where she ran from friends’ houses to her home late in the evening, was scolded by her mom, yet repeated the story again the next evening. Here she was caged — with a man who was away for work the entire day, came late in the evenings, took her out only on Sundays and brought her home before night-fall and left her with nothingness for the rest of the time.
Once Nalini heard Naren talking to a kid in the neighbourhood about a new temple that had come up close to their locality. She begged Naren to at least let her visit that temple each morning — Naren accepted but asked her to be careful. Since then, the temple steps were Nalini’s recourse after Naren went for office. She would spend there a few hours after Pooja and Arti, just sitting quietly and watching the passerby.
Nalini came to the temple everyday. After a few days, she noticed a young girl, tanned skin, large eyes but extremely attractive watching her movements with intense curosity and happiness. She was afraid for a moment and thought of Naren’s cautions, but then thought “she’s only a girl, she can do no harm“. Nalini noticed that the girl came everyday to the temple and observed her movements. One day she went close to the girl and asked her, “Ki re! Ki bepaar? Why are you observing me everyday in the temple? What’s wrong and who are you?” It seemed the girl was aroused from a deep trance with Nalini’s voice. She was taken aback, but then responded with a polite but curt tone: “Aamar naam Devi (My name is Devi). I sell flowers here boudi, but I like watching you. You are so beautiful and you are newly married na? Aami sab kicchu jaani… (I know everything) I see you coming everyday and offering flowers and also see that you are missing home a lot.” Nalini was touched…she didn’t have much to say and neither was there too much time left in her hands…that day she was unsually late for home. But she liked the girl and she wanted to talk to her…
Soon the friendship between Nalini and Devi started to flower. Each morning Nalini came to the temple after Naren left for office, bought some flowers from Devi and came back, sat on the steps and chatted for hours with Devi. They would discuss their childhood, their toys, friends and Nalini would happily talk about her life with Naren, but for some strange reasons Devi would become uncomfortable and sad. Both were nearly the same age, Nalini was 21 and Devi a year or so older than her. Often, Devi would tell her that she was very fortunate and that not everyone is fortunate to get a wonderful husband like Naren. Nalini would retort saying: “Dhut! You will also get your Rajkumar and then you will tell me…I’ll envy you then!” Devi would then immediately change the topic and harp on how naughty Nalini’s kids will be and that she would herself knit a scarf for the kid when it is born. Devi had a coarse, rugged accent while Nalini was melodious. She had finally found that one friend in Devi whom she had been searching for in Kolkatta. But there were certain things mysterious about Devi like she never told about her whereabouts and she never went inside the temple even when Nalini called her, even though she sold flowers there.
Naren too noticed this welcome change in Nalini. She was now comfortable in the place. She had already gossiped about her friend with Naren and every evening she would enthusiastically wait to tell Naren about the day’s happenings. Naren was curious as to who Devi was, but he understood Nalini’s loneliness and liked the fact that she was talking to this girl of her own age. Each morning after Devi sold the flowers, she had ample time for Nalini and both sat on the steps till noon.
One day Nalini announced shyly to Devi that she was pregnant and Devi was ecstatic. Both discussed all the possible names and would spend hours talking about the health of the child, what food to eat and all that stuff. Soon, Nalini could not go out much and Naren stayed back most of the times to take her care. One day she met Devi and told her she won’t be coming to the temple for some months now. Did she sense tears in Devi’s eyes? Nalini was not sure…Devi replied with a smile: “Of course you should now take rest at home….Why should you come here? I wish I was in your place, be a mother and have a naughty little kid…but…hmmm…leave it….Baudi you’ll come to meet me after the baby is born? I wish to hold the baby in my hands… I have never called anyone baudi in my life” . She held Nalini’s hands in her own hands tight and before Nalini could speak a word she vanished into the alleys.
Many months had passed. The baby was born and Nalini had named her Mrunmoyee (as suggested by Devi). She was caught up with the affairs of the world, but Devi, her eyes, her sharp words and her smile came intermittently into Nalini’s mind. She thought of her only friend in Kolkatta who had taught her to love the city. She had now grown into a woman — firm and in control of herself as well as the world. Naren had no more fears regarding her safety. One day Nalini was restless…she wanted to meet Devi and show her the baby. So, she went to the temple after Naren went for the office. There was no one around and she waited for many hours on the steps — but no sign of Devi. Next day also she went to find her friend and again Devi was nowhere in sight. The process continued for a week — Nalini would come everyday with the baby, wait till noon and go back disappointed.
Finally, in the weekend when Naren was at home, Nalini pestered him to go with her and find Devi, meet her and show her the child. Naren relented to her request. They first went to the temple, asked the Pujari, the flower-sellers and many others around about Devi’s whereabouts, but no one had any answer as to where she was. Finally, a fruit vendor gave a clue, “Oh that girl…she hangs around Chittaranjan Street close to Boubazar…I have seen her there. She was telling another phool-walli that she lives in one of the old houses there.” Naren and Nalini went to the place, looking into the ghettos of people residing near the street. Truck drivers, small shop keepers, pan wallas, children playing with punctured tyres, females wearing old tattered clothes, young girls in colourful salwar-kameezes peeped out from the balconies. The gullies became narrower as they went deeper knocking at each door and asking for Devi — a tanned skin, large eyed girl. Naren was getting nervous and impatient. Nalini pleaded that they should try one more house.
Finally, Naren knocked at the door of a dilapidated old bunglow that looked like British architecture but seemed to be now occupied by illegal occupants and suspicious elements. The door was opened by a lady in mid-sixties dressed in a floral printed saree, crumpled and soiled , with a large bun messily tied. She looked at Nalini and then at Naren and asked in a menacing tone looking at Nalini all the time: “Kai re? aar kauno badi jaga noe, aamar badi theke kyano thuk-thuk karo? (What You don’t have any other place except my home?) Naren was terrified now for he knew where he was, he tried to drag Nalini out of the place, but she retorted and asked him to stop a moment. Confidently, she asked the lady who had turned back to go: “Mashima aekto sono (aunty listen to me)”. The lady was slightly amazed to see this girl’s audacity, so she stopped for a moment and said : “Ki? Bak.” (speak) Then Nalini gave her the description of this girl called Devi and asked her if she knew her or had her address.
The lady was silent. She stood still for a moment and then asked calmly if she was Nalini, the wife of a certain clerk babu? Nalini nodded….The lady replied with an inscrutable tone: “Devi died a few months ago.” Nalini gaped…Naren stood in fix and disbelief as he held Nalini to give her support. “How?” asked Naren…Nalini was blank…“But she was…” the lady filled up the rest: “yes she was very young…like you…she was my girl…no not my daughter but was like my daughter…she worked for my clients”.
“What!!!” screamed Nalini….”Yes she was a ‘worker’ here in the gumnaam streets of Boubazar and she died of this job. She had AIDS for the past one year…”
Nalini and Naren stood still at the threshold of that house. The lady too was quiet. Time had stopped. Devi’s smile haunted Nalini. After what seemed like many hours(but only minutes had passed), Naren held Nalini to lead her away from the place and the memories of Devi. Just as they were about to leave, the woman called from behind: “Nalini ektu thak (wait for a second!) Devi has left something for you.” She went like a bolt inside the darkness and brought a packet from within which she pushed into Nalini’s hands. Nalini was in a shock and so Naren opened the packet. Inside there was a beautiful pink and blue scarf hand knitted with wool and on it was stitched in white “M” …
Nalini said quitely to Naren: “that “M” is for our “Mrunmoyee”… Devi had wished to see her.”
Nalini slowly sobbed and then broke into tears…Kolkatta skies had again coloured into a deep evening orange as they silently walked home.
( P.N : This is a work of Fiction)