Dharampeth Coffee House
Dharampeth Coffee House14 mins 18.5K 14 mins 18.5K
Sukumar has not turned up yet, neither Ranjit. Pinaki’s red scooter is parked at the corner but no sign of him. The Dharampeth Coffee House appears like an ancient catacomb at times, Arun muses. Clusters of tables and chairs stand like deserted isles across the sea of death, impervious to all communications. Arun is sure that other people get the smell of the hidden corpses too; he must not be an exception. A narrow flight of wooden stairs leads to the deserted second floor of the coffee shop, identical with the picture of the catacomb Arun once saw in the National Geographic. The Egyptian version was made of stone, however, the chamber too, with irregular stony walls eclipsed by undulating shadows – perhaps the light source of that photograph was a burning torch. Here it is fluorescent tubes that cast anemic luminosity on the dirty linens of the waiters and spills on the stained tablecloths. There is no shadow on these walls, only a diffuse whiteness you often see on the dead faces. Arun finds the Sadar Coffee House better, the usual waterhole of Paula, Moumita, Alok and Shankar. They frequently meet there after the office hours. Arun feels the urge to join them, galloping down the distance on his rickety scooter through the empty stretches of the Mount Road. He is not sure whether they would meet there today, but still he may take a chance. Better not, he thinks, because Paula would certainly sit tacit if Arun joins the group, picking her manicured nails unmindfully, or holding the cup in a fashion that guards her ripe lips from Arun’s vision. Arun knows that she does these gestures purposefully, because she is aware that Arun notices. Still Arun cannot suppress his urge. He can visualize Paula’s long neck that slopes down to her pronounced cleavage. Arun touched them once, letting his hand gaze down to her deep navel; his forefinger played with her belly-button and he noticed the droplets of dews appearing on her swan neck. But today Arun sits still. He notices the moisture clustering on the glass pane where he rests his cheek, as if the fog has just rubbed its muzzle there.
The West High Court Road is teeming with end-December crowd. Down the road Piramyd, the huge departmental store, waits decorated for the Christmas shoppers. Once he kept standing in front of the store for hours, but did not enter. Strains of peppy music came out wafting whenever the glass door swung open. All Pyramids were essentially mausoleums. Those innumerable sarcophagus chambers hidden underground haunted Arun, he could recognize the music of death.
In such moments he craves for Paula’s warm company. She is not far away. Perhaps a light fog covers the Seminary Hill within its flimsy wrap, bathed yellow in the street light and the yellower autumn leaves carpet the asphalt road, crackling delicately under the paws of predators. Perhaps a steaming cup would sit on Paula’s table, emanating the strong dark aroma of coffee beans that would mingle with Paula’s own smell. Arun picks up his own coffee and finds it dead cold.
Arindamda usually drowns his coffee in one gulp when it gets cold. There is a walled garden inside his quarter at NEERI, a tiny patch actually. On a lazy Sunday morning Arun had a long discussion with him about the coffins and the corpses, how a film of aromatic raisin kept the dead souls encased. Arindamda told him that he had read about a special kind of wooden coffin in some journal that drew water from the body, desiccating it into a piece of wood, fragrant with raisin. Next day Arun kissed Paula for the first time, but he could not feel Paula’s lips, only smelled the fragrance of raisin and perhaps coffee beans coming from Paula’s warm body and when he touched her waist, he felt the waxy smoothness of polished wood.
All these happened long back. Nagpur was not plagued by the concrete jungle then. There were patches of green. The green leaves used to soak away the major part of the summer scorch. The orange orchards were not far away. The scent of orange blossoms hung heavy in April heat. In the orange glow of dying sun Paula looked like a copper statue.
Arun saw such a life-size copper statue of Buddha in a Sikkim monastery when he was a teen ager. Bells rang and the spherical gong rolled undisturbed down the slope of green hills towards the valley etched far below. Only a few thin wisps of the sound clung to the needle-sharp leaves of pines. The darkness gathered fast as the sun set and magenta clusters of fog were swooping down heavy from the parabolic sky like a flock of predatory birds. Suddenly a candle light reflected on the Buddha statue in the huge prayer hall and for a second Arun noticed a predatory flash in those copper eyes. Arun usually comes across dead-fish eyes in the people around, a few dark-maroon hostile eyes may be, but never such a violent gleam in any human being. Yet Buddha’s eyes are so placid, quiet and full of forgiveness. How could Arun notice such a formidable gleam there? Later, so many times Arun searched for it in different eyes. When they had gone to the Piramyd for a shopping, he noticed the meek looks in the button eyed staffed toys, the hungry look in Paula’s eyes when she ran her fingers on the rich fabrics of expensive clothes, lustful eyes when some old men looked at the lingerie-clad manikin and on one occasion suddenly Arun looked up at a decaying smell and saw Tutankhamen standing across the display isle with the solitude of death in his cold eyes.
Sukumar enters first, followed by Pinaki. Sukumar looks savvy in a navy-blue denim shirt. Arun calls him to join. Pinaki shouts: ‘You people are always late comers.’ The waiter serves fresh coffee. Arun is waking up from his reverie. Sukumar starts pulling out cats from his hat, well, rather his satchel: little magazines from different parts of the country, a few slim collections of poems and some letters. Kamal Chakrabarty from Kaurab magazine has written a beautiful letter: ‘I can still remember the serene deep look in Shakti’s (poet Shakti Chattopadhyay) wide eyes.’ But Arun has never got the chance to gauge the fathomless depth in Shakti’s eyes unlike Kamalda, who had the privilege to spend hours sitting in front of the great poet. ‘Of course Shakti was a charmer’, someone retorts. Then the Dharampeth Coffee House starts brimming with its regulars. Kamaleshda comes with a bag full of vegetables, just purchased from the adjoining Gokulpeth market. Arun stares for a while at the spilling profusion of green, a droplet of dew on a spinach leaf and then asks him, ‘Well, Kamaleshda, how’s your take about death?’ Kamaleshda quotes a few verses from the Gita, but Arun insists, “No, I’m asking about your own realization, your analysis. By the way, have you ever sensed any mummified corpse kept in the hidden sanctum of this Coffee House?’ ‘Yeppie’, shouts Jayanta, ‘It can be the best detective story of the century.’ Some laugh. Tapas remarks, ’Jayanta better searches for simpler clues.’ Pinaki says, ‘Wao, just the latest Klu Klux Klan’. Jayanta jumps up from his table to protest, but turns over a glass of water in the process. Everyone guffaws loudly. In the midst of this growing hullaballoo somebody shouts from another table ‘Silence, please!’
The Coffee House closes at the stroke of nine. Then they regroup in the pavement across, chatting for another hour or so, puffing cigarettes. The swirling smoke wafts above the giant billboards, disappearing in the dark nothingness. It starts getting chilly, dew gathers on the cool surface of asphalt roads. Gradually they disband, one after another. Arun and Sukumar start for home together. They stop their scooters at the Seminary Hill before parting ways and Sukumar lights a cigarette. Arun wants to tell him about Paula. Perhaps Sukumar will understand. After all, he has written those lines about the Negroid bathroom and the blooming black bra in his poems. But how can Arun explain to him his obsession, why he wanted to run away from the Dharampeth Coffee House today. Only because of Paula? Why he wants to race his scooter through the Mount Road bathing in yellow light, why he wants to connect with the yellower oblivion of the valley of death, strewn with fallen leaves! Will Sukumar relate his dreams with the woodiness of death, fragrant in raisin-scent? Can he explain the momentary flash in Buddha’s eyes? Well, he has never shown his poems to Sukumar, not a scribble, not to anyone for that matter. After finishing off his cigarette and a lazy chitchat, Sukumar heads towards Wari. Arun lingers in the solitude, recollecting his childhood days.
The days when he was afraid of the darkness, but was thrilled at its proximity while lying alone in his cot, smelling the rice boiling in the next room. He could visualize his mother sitting stooped in front of the open stove, staring vacantly at the flames. He could remember the warmth of well worn quilts under which he created his fantasyland. He waited under it for the precious moment when her mother would join him. Her fingers would run lovingly through his hair, caress his cheeks and the sleep would slowly envelope him with its viscous lassitude. At that very moment of his twilight consciousness the cat used to come, he knew. He could recognize its foot-falls even half-asleep. It jumped up stealthily on the top of the cupboard and from there crawled into the narrow space between the corrugated roof and the walls. The birds made their nests in that space, tiny feather-ball like bird lings. Arun had seen the pink throbbing capillaries through their translucent skins. He could hear the cat’s nails grazing against the bamboo brackets of the ceiling. In the morning there were invariably some dead birds lying on the floor, blood congealing around their severed heads. The unpleasant nauseous smell of the coagulated blood still haunts him. His father used to enter their bed around the same time in night. Arun’s sleep got disturbed by the acrid smell of burnt tobacco mixed with the unpleasant smell of perspiration emanating from his body. All the lights in the house would have been extinguished by him and Ma would have removed her hand from his head. The squeaks of the rickety cot kept him awake and he kept praying so that the cat could not reach those birds’ nest.
Arun does not want to return to his lonely room, to the darkness, to the sticky solitude. He waits under the yellow bubble of the street lamp. He can hear the soft sound of falling leaves, heavy with the collected waste of life and time. They are touching the wet earth delicately. He thinks of the coffin made of dried wood and how his moist body would feel within. How the wood sucks away all the moisture of life. He recollects the delicate wooden curves of Paula’s waist. That magical smoothness, the smoothness that clings to his fingers even today and his grip slips, the smoothness of her thighs like the trunk of an Eucalyptus tree. Gradually a quiet lonely libido creeps up through his legs, from deep down the earth. Should he now return home?
But instead Arun drives his scooter to the Sadar. The Coffee House has long closed down. Occasionally a car screams through the deserted street. A few mongrels fight for leftovers in front of the Barbecue Restaurant. The faint burnt smell of kebab and tanduri dishes hangs in the air. This street meets with the long stretch of Kamptee Road down a couple of hundred yards.
Once Asimda, Sukumar, Kausik, Tapas and Arun drove down to Ramtek along this Kamptee road in Tapas’ ancient Maruti 800. Asimda authored a slim volume of poems, ‘Sadar Periye Majhrat’, immortalizing the midnightly flavor of this place. Tapas was driving. Arun was in the backseat, wedged between Asimda and Sukumar. Asimda was telling them stories of Czechoslovakia, about a bridge in Austria, the desolate pine forest, about the scintillating Luxembourg. Sukumar said, ‘I have no crisis. My elder brother died in an accident, in front of my eyes. Still death never haunts me. I think I could overcome those shocks.’ Tapas remarked, ‘Actually, all crises are relative. Living itself is a crisis sort of.’ Asimda did not agree with Tapas. He had seen the sunrise from the middle of a runway, seen the huge wings of a Boeing taking off from very close, even the undulation of paint-layers on those wings could be appreciated from that distance.
When they took the turn for Ramtek at Mansar, the blooming sun was bathing the sky. Small green hillocks adorned the landscape and thin films of crimson light reflected from the surrounding water-bodies. They got down from the car on a hill top. Sukumar started clicking photos in his Kodak. Asimda and Tapas got engrossed into some erudite discussion about the recent trends in Bengali essays. Arun could not open up in their company, so he approached Kausik, ‘Let’s visit the local Burning Ghat.’ Others headed for the Khindsi Lake, while they trotted downhill, following the bright red earthen path. The castle-temple of Ramtek was on the left hand side, a solid brown-stone structure. Arun told Kausik, ‘I would like to run my hand on those stone walls to get a feel of the texture.’ Kausik said, ‘You can’t feel the stones. Layers of moss have covered them for years; they grow and spread beyond the confines of the boulders. In fact, the stones grow too….the moss layers solidify to stones and the stones get alive and green.’ They reached the Ambala Lake. The Burning Ghat was located just in front of the lake, a series of raised cremation platforms with corrugated roofs.
A funeral pyre was ablaze, long tongues of flames leaping out. A few people were beating drums and blowing a special kind of pipe as a part of the funeral custom. The pipe bleated mournfully, like a heart-wrenching wailing, thought Arun. Then all music stopped. A deadly silence. Only the soft whooshing sound of the burning logs. Arun looked around and suddenly noticed Paula. She was not alone. Moumita, Anushree and a few other unknown faces circled her. Then he noticed Shankar too, standing a little farther. But no one noticed Arun except Paula. Arun was sure that Paula noticed him, because she moved away, behind a low wall. Arun no longer looked at that direction. Kausik was standing very close to the burning pyre. Was he searching something within those dancing flames? Arun walked near the lake and sat on a stair. Arun knew that Paula had come here and she would visit the Ghat. Didn’t Arun know that there would be a cremation ceremony in progress here today morning? Arun drank several gulps from the bottle of water Kausik gave him. He could smell a hint of Vodka, but nonetheless he drank more. The long walk, the bright sun and the heat of burning pyre all made him thirsty. When Arun looked at the pyre, he found hot fumes shifting upwards fast, the hot air was moving up and the cool air was replacing it. ‘Nature abhors vacuum’, some Greek Philospher had said once, was it Aristotle, Arun tried to recall. Arun saw the mountains were trembling across the layers of the hot air. The red and green mosaic of the mountains were shivering like the pixels of an over magnified digital picture. The molten sunlight percolated down the depth of the Ambala Lake. Scores of lotuses adorned the surface of the lake. The delicate pink of their petals. The pixels zoomed and Arun could appreciate the fine pink capillaries under the surface of those translucent petals. Arun’s eyes turned coppery, like a cat. He once noticed the finest capillaries under the whites of Paula’s eyes, widened in passion and lust when Arun’s finger hooked around the clasp of her bra, travelled down the deep gorge of her spine. Arun drank more from the bottle, finished it. Kausik was far away, strolling along the lakeside. Arun could see the dying embers under a thick layer of ash, the smoke stung his eyes. Had his eyes turned reddish too with dilated capillaries? Arindamda, in one of his stories, wrote about the homecoming of a blind boy, whose eyes were white. Was it like the white of a boiled egg when the protein got denatured, the amino acids of the yolk bonding haphazardly? Suddenly the drummers and the piper resumed their concert, with a gusto. A man was walking around the dying pyre sprinkling holy water in it, the water was trickling down all over his body from the earthen pot he was carrying on his shoulder, wetting his white wrap and the dhuti. His skin could be seen through the translucent fabric, full of goose-bumps, wrinkled and pale, like the skin of a dead. The half-burnt logs could perhaps sense the proximity of his cold moist skin and a few tongues of flame leapt out. He completed the ritual and broke the earthen pot, the remaining water spilled around. Suddenly Arun felt Paula’s hand on his shoulder. Arun reclined his head, resting it on the soft warmth of her pelvic triangle. Paula put her other arm across his chest, like a casual hug. Arun knew how deeply Paula loved him, but could he too?