Kausik Chatterjee



Kausik Chatterjee


Blue Planet.com

Blue Planet.com

15 mins 18.3K 15 mins 18.3K

Of late, the power goes off as a routine in the evening. Getting down from the auto-rickshaw, Titli headed for the convenient store to buy some candles. It was nearly seven and the sun had set for sometime; but the sky was still bright with an orange afterglow. The heat was strong and scalding. The store, into which she walked in, stocked every conceivable product. This present trend of a ‘one stop shop’ somehow disturbed Titli. Not long ago a provision store stocked provision; a stationary shop was where you could buy your cold cream, shampoo or sanitary napkin. Nowadays, there was no distinction between a provision store and a stationary shop; every shop stocked everything, with the keen determination of not letting one customer slip through. But why should Titli object to this? Rather it was a very convenient development, as far as customers were concerned. Though she did not have any concrete logic, Titli did not like the concept.

She was so preoccupied with this thought, that she did not notice that she had entered her alley; the sky was suddenly darker, the surrounding buildings seemed to have moved closer, so that their parapets and cornices brushed against each other in a rather intimidating fashion. Shaken out of her reverie, she realized that the power had gone. The sky overhead donned a neutral grey cloak, devoid of any discernible colour or hue.

‘The sky has no distinct colour, so, does that mean that it has lost its individuality?’ Titli muttered to herself.

‘What individuality? Everyone wants to become a self-sufficient departmental store,’ came the reply.

‘You mean everyone has to be faceless?’

‘That is the trend, it is called Globalization.’

‘But then the importance of uniqueness is lost!’

‘It is difficult to handle too many unique identities. The more generic the characters get, the easier it becomes for supercomputers to handle the data. Computers do not like idiosyncrasies.’

‘So all in one mould?’

Titli almost bumped into her house, so lost was she in her musings. Her apartment was on the first floor. She opened the front gate. It was pitch dark. Titli arranged her sari and started climbing carefully counting each step: one, two, three….seven, eight, landing…After turning at the landing, the darkness seemed to dilute. Till now, she was moving unseeingly; suddenly Titli became aware of her vision. Through the layers of quiet, she perceived muted waves flowing towards her from the dark and unseen world that surrounded her. Some of the waves were in her visual range, while others seemed to rise from the darkness beyond. The vision and semi-vision created a hybrid impression on her consciousness. The vestiges of light percolating through the casements created illusive contours in space. She noticed that the front door was not locked. ‘So, Dhruva has returned from his office early today’, Titli surmised. She knocked on the door, expecting it to be locked from inside; but the door caved in, without any resistance. Titli entered and could not detect even a sliver of light coming from anywhere. The darkness within her house was thick and solid.

Every human being has a strong but dormant animal instinct, which surfaces when in crisis. Titli tried to feel for any sound with her entire being; the tiniest out-of-pattern noise, the sudden whiff of air cutting through the intervening solitude; she tried to sense it all. She was not carrying a torch, more out of habit rather than negligence. Now, she tried to recall; had she left it on the refrigerator, or on the dining table, or was it in the drawer? Should she call Dhruva? But her throat was parched, like a piece of dry wood. What if there was a hidden predator lurking in the darkness. She would be in mortal danger, if her voice attracted it. The darkness was so heavy and viscous that she could feel it on her skin. Suddenly there was a slight rustling, somewhere in the darkness. Titli involuntarily stooped, ready to pounce. A blob of light ripped the darkness and in its flame she saw Dhruva’s familiar face. Dhruva was sitting, across to where she stood, not even a meter away from her, and he was lighting a cigarette! He extinguished the matchstick carelessly, and asked through the corner of his mouth, ‘You panicked?’

Titli felt completely drained; her muscles flaccid after staying taut in apprehension for so long. She wanted to collapse on the floor, as relief and anger washed over her.

Dhruva lighted a nearly burnt piece of candle; a soft flickering glow waded off the oppressive darkness.

‘Why didn’t you light the candle?’ Titli asked her voice still dry.

‘The power has just gone.’

‘So you were sitting in the darkness like a ghost, you lazy bum!’ she made light of her fright.

‘One gets adjusted to darkness, if one remains in the dark for long.’ Dhruva retorted quizzically.

‘Well, here are some fresh ones, that one’s got very little life left,’ Titli gave the new candles to Dhruva. Taking off her slippers, she placed the heavy shapeless leather satchel on the corner shelf.

‘Can I have a glass of water?’ Titli asked unmindfully.

Dhruva got up from the chair and lumbered towards the refrigerator, a tall sinewy figure, wearing white pyjamas and sleeveless tees, his long and dark arms dangling lifeless at his sides. Titli watched from behind - coarse crops of body hairs jutting out from his shoulders like an ancient primate, as he lurched forward with a little stoop. He took out the bottle, and extended it to Titli, ‘Can you pour it into a glass….please.’ She added the please after a pause, perhaps as an afterthought, perhaps she did not want to utter it, but did so just out of habit, out of long tutored convention.

Dhruva poured chilled water into a glass, and offered the sweating glass to her.

‘You returned early from office?’

‘Hmmm, a bit early, you may say.’ Dhruva went out to the balcony.

After finishing the water in hurried thirsty gulps, Titli felt an irresistible urge to take a cold shower. The Nagpur summer scorched your skin till it reaches your bones. She carefully took off her well starched sari, and left it on the chair, loosely cast, to let the perspiration dry off. Lighting another candle she entered the bathroom in her undergarments. Turning the tap, she closed her eyes in anticipation of the cool water running over her flushed body. A few drops of warm water trickled down between her breasts, drying up before it could reach her navel. A flash of anger bolted through her. Seething in frustration, she realized there was no one to get angry on; there was just no body who can be blamed for this oversight. The anger died down creating a hollow; an utter sense of futility seeped into that void making her feel miserable. Her eyes welled up with tears of frustration that rolled down in angry drops and escaped in a miserable whimper. She wept helplessly; standing naked and forlorn in the poky bathroom, wanting to purge out all her sorrow and frustration. The salt on her lips made her crumble from self-pity. The flickering candle light caressed the soft contours of her body.

‘Titli, Titli!’ Dhruva was calling, urgently knocking on the door. Startled, Titli surfaced from her deep reverie. Uncertain, she opened the door. The familiar face was all she needed; the last vestiges of control gave away and Titli impulsively hugged Dhruva, sobs wrecking her naked body. Did she feel him stirring up at the touch of her naked body, as his hands encircled her back? The moment was gone in a flash; Dhruva stiffened and withdrew.

‘Here, I have stored cold water,’ Dhruva sounded concerned, but rather detached.

Suddenly Titli became aware of her nudity, and pulled a towel to cover her. Dhruva put down the bucket and left the bathroom.

Refreshed, Titli entered the kitchen to make tea. The flickering soft yellow light cast long and trembling shadows around. She gazed unmindfully at the interplay of light and shadow on the wall, while the tea leaves steeped. The walls seemed to unfold, and stretch like a corridor into the penumbra of eternity. Then it folded back, changed depth and rushed towards her. The walls moved with a life of their own, changing the patterns ceaselessly, the depths seamlessly merging. A distant horn brought her back to senses, and she strained the tea into two cups, and brought them to the balcony. Dhruva was sitting on a chair and smoking silently.

‘You are smoking heavily these days,’ Titli complained mildly. Without replying, Dhruva took a cup. Titli sat on another chair and sipped her tea. The silence coiled up between them, punctuated occasionally by distant horns and muted shouts wafting, into their alley, from the main street. There was no breeze, and the surrounding concrete structures emitted the heat of the day, stifling the already stifled silence. The sooth Titli had felt after the shower was evaporating rapidly.

‘So how did your chat with Cyberborg go today?’ Druva’s deep voice startled her to the core, and she did not find her voice for a while.

‘What do you mean? Who is Cyberborg?’ she finally replied weakly.

‘You know, what I mean, Titli. Your favourite hunting ground these days; the Blue Planet chat room?’ Dhruva’s voice was mocking.

‘Yes, …but why are you asking all these? I don’t understand what you mean!’ Titli couldn’t hide the slight quiver in her voice.

‘Oh yeah, don’t you?’ There was a rising note of anger in the mocking voice. ‘You had an exciting session of cybersex with him day before yesterday, and most probably Last Mohican also participated later in that orgy. Did he not? You were sexually quite aggressive, Titi, and imaginative too, unlike in bed.’

Titli felt flabbergasted, angry and betrayed. She held on to her last reserves and not knowing what to answer said, ‘Dhruva, are you out of your senses?’

Dhruva chuckled, a dry sarcastic sound. ‘You are mistaken, Titli, if you think that the cyber world is faceless, and hides the identity of the participants. The chat rooms are veritable traps, didn’t you know that?’

‘But of all persons, you…whenever did you have the time for all this?’

Dhruva laughed mirthlessly, ‘You can call it knowledge up gradation, if you like. The world of software professionals is getting more and more competitive, and we have to keep abreast with all the latest developments, for our own survival, to prove our worth to our company. It of course helps that computers are just not my profession but passion too. With a few specialised programmes, you don’t even need to be a specialist.

‘So you were spying on me?’ Titli was aghast.

‘Technically speaking, not on you, but rather on your net avatar,’ Dhruva lit a cigarette and puffed slowly, ‘In fact, I did not prowl on you intentionally. I found you in the Blue Planet chat room, quite by chance. Do you remember your very first day at the chat room? One very kind hearted gentleman, who took you through the techniques and protocols of the chat room? One Curious Not, whom you thanked profusely and complimented on him being very different from the men in your real life?

‘Curious Not…I do recall someone but can’t remember the name’ Titli offered.

‘Naturally, you forgot. The friends in chat rooms change so often, faceless and masked. Many masks for one person. You remove one mask to reveal another, don’t you Titli?’

‘So, you are the real Curious Not? But when you are accustomed to net-chat, you must be aware of the implication of virtual identity, Dhruva. It is common to play imaginary roles in chat rooms that may not represent one’s true self. You can be a billionaire, a socialite, a famous doctor, a beautiful woman or a handsome man. All that you cannot be in your real life, you can play act, can’t you? That’s the real fun in these chat rooms, don’t you agree Dhruva? Why mingle your true self with the virtual self?

Dhruva stared tacitly at Titli for sometime, and when he spoke he uttered each word very discretely, ‘If you think deeply, you would realize that the identity of each individual is largely artificial, rather fabricated. But his behaviour will someway betray at least a semblance of his true nature. Titli, our identity is nothing but the way we represent ourselves, whether in the virtual or real world. Chat rooms just give you more freedom. Freedom from social nitpicking, to express yourself freely, perhaps an identity closer to your real self. So which one is real, this Titli, in front of me sipping tea in domestic bliss or the aggressive sex goddess playing around in the chat room?

‘The chat room is a make-believe world, Dhruva. People do role playing for fun, for spice. Hardly anything to do with the ‘I’ here with you,’ retorts Titli. ‘To fit into the role-play, one just morphs into the singular features of that role. Nothing different from acting in a play, you know.’ Titli’s voice grows confident with sound logic.

‘You cannot change your essential characteristics, Titi, never. And, no, I am not philosophising here. The superficial profile may change, but the basic traits not only remain but may sometimes accentuate. Remember, Titli, I could identify you in the guise of Pretty Girl, though you faked your age, location and even your background. How could I do that, tell me.’

‘Simply because I was a novice, then,’ flashed Titli, getting angry. ‘I was still not comfortable playing my fake identity. You would be foxed, if it had been my tenth day, instead of the first. But you were obviously quite a pro and I could not identify you, even though we spoke.’

‘You challenge me, do you? By your own claim, you are no longer a novice, right? But even today I know you,’ Dhruva was triumphant. ‘Queen of Spades, and don’t you dare deny it, for I know I am right.’

‘You are spying on me, Dhruva?’ Titli was shell-shocked.

‘No, Titli. I did not need to spy. You were as naked through your conversation, as you were sometime back, in my arms. For the last few days you are opening out your heart to psychoanalyst Doctor Desire.’

Titli was perspiring profusely. The sultry air stifled her thoughts; the candle light crowded the darkness around her. Like a cornered animal, she waited for her chance.

‘You gave several sittings to Doctor Desire,’ Dhruva carried on, ‘revealing your oppressed childhood, your psychological turmoil, the traumatic first encounter with your father-in-law. The last two sittings were largely dedicated to the gradual worsening of your relationship with your husband. You told him about your suffering during childbirth and the psychological breakdown when you came to know that it was stillborn. You found your husband self-cantered, even heartless at times. He even tortured you sexually. You never could share anything with him,’ Dhruva continued in a dispassionate tone, ‘but how well Doctor Desire understood you. Titli, is it not ironic that when your husband was unable to understand you, his virtual identity was your perfect confederate?’

‘Don’t you feel ashamed, Dhruva, that you could never bond with your wife in the reality of the last so many years? Remember, how bluntly you told me about our baby, how you described every detail of his birth to me, when I was still numb with grief? The stifled cry distorted Titli’s voice.

‘Not only ashamed, Titli, I feel a deep hatred, towards me, as well as towards our hypocritical relation. That’s why I raised this issue today. Come, let’s come clean. What’s the point in maintaining such a sham relation?’

‘Yes, Dhruva, let’s come clean, let’s get it all out in the open. Ask yourself honestly. Why did you try to avoid all these questions for so long?’

‘You told you virtual doctor that your husband treated you like a sex-object, rather than a human being. Do you really harbour such notion after spending so many years with me? Do you remember those nights, when you lay like a log, stiff and cold, uncommunicative mentally and physically? When we did not have any sort of communication for days, when you hardly responded to my questions or care to talk to me? Did you realise how deserted, how abandoned I may have felt? And now you are complaining that I never asked you the questions; that I never tried to establish the communication?’

‘Those questions were just for question’s sake. Did you really want any answer? Remember that day? I was just nineteen. I had broken all ties with my parents and relatives to marry you. I touched your father’s feet, hoping to be welcomed with an embrace, with kind words, with love. But what did he tell me? He did not ask me a single personal question, not even a formal greeting. He just looked away and impersonally muttered to himself that he missed his wife too much on this auspicious day. Just that! Till his death he had hardly gone beyond the familiarity of that first day. And you? You used to leave for your office by eight in the morning, and returned after nine in the evening. Our only form of communication was the extensive pawing and elaborate love making. While I wanted to share my day with you, learn about your day at the office, joke about Malati’s mother’s accent, all you ever wanted from me was sex. How many years have I spent like your sex-pot, have you ever considered, Dhruva? I still did not lose hope. When I got pregnant, I thought that I would have someone exclusively for myself, but even that did not work.’

Titli wept, the tears welled up from the deepest confines of her soul, it purged her pain and shame, and it cleansed all the muck that had choked her free spirit for years.

Dhruva listened. The questions turned from simple acquisitions to bigger doubts. Society and convention had steamrolled two individuals and their individuality to protect an ancient institution called marriage. And both he and Titli had fallen prey to it. To protect one lie, they had created more. The questions hovered around. Was marriage and love a product of rules? Was there no soul to this body?

The questions encircled Druva, and then, from the broken corners and jutted angles of their ruin, a bridge shaped up. Dhruva stood up, his legs rubbery, but now he felt confident. He looked at Titli, and noticed with concern, how pale and thin she looked. He held her within his arms, ran his fingers through her thinning hair. Her neck was still long and proud like a swan, and he kissed her there. The sky stooped low, and the stars appeared so bright, so near!

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