The Necklace15 mins 216 15 mins 216
Prabhat wiped the film of sweat off his forehead. He was nervous; his eyebrows rose in mild expectation. He took back his updated passbook from the bank teller. His face crumbled. His balance was a meagre Rs. 1,264.
“This is a black hole,” he thought. “I’ve just deposited our entire month’s earnings, and look at how low the balance is now!”
He walked out of the bank into the swelter, dust and stench of the Behala market in Kolkata. He smirked. Deep within, he knew that the passbook balance was far from shocking. The ‘princely’ amount that he had deposited that day was a ‘staggering’ Rs. 207. Despite digging into their savings twice to have ends meet, that was all that he and Pratibha could save that month – the May of 1989.
Prabhat lighted a biri, and walked through the dust, grime and noise towards his workplace. His dark, cratered, stubbled visage deceived his age. The crumpled semblance of a little hair on his pate, his thick, frosty glasses and his droopy gait did not help, either. At best, he looked forty-five – a far cry from the early thirties that he actually was.
But, at the moment, his mind was muddled with thoughts that were far more important than how he looked. It was May. He had just six more months to achieve what he set out six months back – a gold necklace for Pratibha. It would be a surprise on their fifth anniversary – one that would make her smile, a genuine smile.
Prabhat and Pratibha lived in a slum in Naya Basti, a Kolkata suburb. While Prabhat worked as a contract worker in a nearby factory, Pratibha took up odd labour jobs at road and building construction sites. They struggled to eke out a living. A bulk of their income would go into the rent of their one room, tin roof shanty. The remainder was, usually, just enough to satiate their hunger, pay the utility bills and provide for some bare minimum clothing. A small part of it, of course, satisfied Prabhat’s biri addiction, if not for which, he felt that he: “…would’ve gone mad!”
Prabhat was depressed. He did not see a way that would lift them up from their abject lifestyle. He loved his wife and felt guilty that he could not do much to fulfill her latent material desires. Pratibha was practical.
“All I desire is your company,” she said one night, at bedtime, her head on Prabhat’s chest. “As long as you’re with me, I’m on top of the world.”
Prabhat repented broaching the topic yet again. He knew what his wife’s response would be. She was only being nice to him; she did not have a choice – and he knew that. This increased his guilt and made him feel like a loser.
So, the fifth anniversary necklace surprise was more than a gift. He saw it as something that would give Pratibha a real reason to smile…something about which she would be proud of him…and something that would be a correction to not giving her a good life in the four and half years of their marriage.
Prabhat sucked deep into his tiny biri; almost half of its dry leaf cover got burnt by the puff. He trudged along the crowded lanes, blowing out half of the caustic, pungent smoke and allowing the other half to settle deep within his systems – to absorb his worries and give company to them. He avoided the noisy cycle rickshaws on the road, as much as the heaps of trash off it – covered with house flies, mosquitoes and insects of all shapes and sizes. Once in a while, a car or a tempo would appear out of nowhere. Its wheels would splash the mucky black water in the pothole puddles from the stagnant, overflowing roadside drains. Prabhat was used to this, like anyone else in the locality.
But, six months – it seemed an uphill task. A gold necklace would cost no less than Rs. 3,000. The gap was huge.
After about half an hour, Prabhat reached his workplace. It was a small factory – a wretched structure, where they manufactured fans for the Polar Fans Company. He was late that day, thanks to his bank detour. He would, therefore, have to forego a portion of the Rs. 18 that he received as his daily wage.
“You’re late?” The familiar, rumbling voice of the Shekhar Sen, the shift supervisor rang in Prabhat’s ears. It was so sudden that his hands shook for a second and distorted his initials that he was putting into the attendance register.
“I had some work in the bank, Shekhar Babu.”
Shekhar’s glittering, beady eyes looked through Prabhat. The gaze was so penetrating, that Prabhat rolled down his eyelids for a couple of seconds, in discomfort. When he looked up again, he saw Shekhar’s lips stretched and parted, exposing his yellow brown teeth from behind his white, dangling moustache.
“Come to my office,” said Shekhar. “I need to speak with you.”
Prabhat followed the portly figure through the greasy, murky, grey shop-floor that was buzzing with activity. He wondered what this was about. In a far corner of his heart there was a flicker of dread – that the worst might happen.
“I won’t be fired,” he thought. “I’m way low in the pecking order.” This thought that stemmed from a confidence of his ability and performance at work, was enough to douse the dread.
“Sit”, said Shekhar, pointing to a chair across his work table. Prabhat could not but take his eyes off Shekhar’s pronounced pot belly, as he sat on the other side and caressed it with his hand. It was a small, cool room, a little away from the noise and the grime. The fan rotated at full speed. Prabhat felt in heaven. He sank into the chair and half-closed his eyes, experiencing the cool feeling of the sweat evaporating from the surface of his skin.
“Something seems to be troubling you these days, Prabhat.”
Prabhat sat agape. He could not believe that he was such an open book. He lowered his eyes and shook his head.
“No, no,” he said. “Nothing’s troubling me.”
“Prabhat,” he said. “It’s okay if you want to keep it to yourself. But, look at these grey hairs.” He pointed to his sparse mane. “I’ve lived longer than you and seen more of life. You can’t bluff me into believing that everything’s okay.”
Prabhat knew that he was in a spot. He had to think fast and smart.
“Shekhar Babu, I need some money urgently.” His shifty eyes still refused to look into Shekhar’s.
Prabhat fidgeted and rolled his eyes around the unkempt, austere walls of the room. That gave him some more time to think. “My wife has not been keeping too well.”
Prabhat was disappointed with himself for having to tell this lie about the person he loved the most. But, that was the only reason he could think of. Perhaps, it was an outcome of ‘recency effect’. Pratibha had two abortions in the past two years. And after the second one, they decided against making yet another attempt!
The reason he gave, therefore, was not so much of a lie – it, rather, was an untruth, perhaps a half-truth – he consoled himself.
Shekhar did not delve into the details.
“Look, Prabhat,” he said. “There’s a huge order that we need to fulfill in the next few months. Hiring is not an option – the cost and the time that newcomers need to pick up – we can’t afford that.”
For once, Prabhat looked into Shekhar’s eyes. They seemed large and dilated.
“We’re looking to service a large part of this requirement through overtime. We don’t give the overtime option to anyone. But, you’re good at your work. Will you be interested?”
Prabhat was speechless. His heart beat in excitement; his head nodded in approval. This was a God sent opportunity. He grabbed it with both hands. For the next six months he put in twelve to fifteen hour days in order to achieve his goal. This took a toll on his health. Pratibha protested. But, Prabhat was like a man possessed. He gave it his all.
He reaped the benefits of his labour. Within a couple of months, the goal seemed to be within his reach. He did not slow down.
Soon, the D-day arrived – 31st October, 1989 – their fifth marriage anniversary – the day Prabhat was waiting for, all through the year. His heart pounded with excitement – but he could not show any. It had to be a surprise – he could not afford any spoiler. He left home early after the usual, trite anniversary greetings and passionate kisses.
He could not hold on to his excitement. He, first, went to the bank and withdrew an amount of Rs. 3,500 from his savings. He had achieved what he had desired a year back. He was all set to surprise his wife – and see on her face that smile; the genuine one, which he had so earnestly desired to see!
Once again, he stepped out into the dust and noise, and the subtle October nip. There was a spring in his step, a swagger in his gait. He darted towards the jeweller shop that he had visited the previous week to select the necklace that he wanted to buy. He wanted to complete this task before he reported to work. He had taken a half-day. He looked forward to leaving early and spending the evening with his wife. She deserved it. They deserved it.
A deafening sound from behind him, on the road, cut through his euphoria.
This was followed by a chilling screech and a sickening hoot of the horn of a car. He turned around to see a car speeding away. He rushed towards the spot, as did the several others in the vicinity. There lay a young boy – all of eight or nine, lying in a pool of blood, amidst shards of powdery, splintery glass.
“He’s dead,” said one of the onlookers.
“No,” said another. “Look, he’s moving.”
“These cars – they’re a nuisance. This is not the first time...”
Prabhat heard these conversations for a minute. His heart begged his mind to act. The necklace, the money, his wife – all of these, took a backseat. He did not have too much time to waste.
“We need to take him to a hospital,” he said, looking around, at the throng. They looked back, as if they had seen a ghost. The boy was indeed alive.
“Please help,” said Prabhat. “We’ll need to take him to a hospital fast. We can’t waste time.”
Another minute passed, without any action. Prabhat could not bear to see the child’s dilated, half-closed eyes any longer. He sprang forward and carried the boy in his arms. He called out to a cycle rickshaw and took the boy to the nearest hospital. Awestruck, the others looked on.
The rickshaw whizzed into the hospital porch. A couple of attendants appeared out of thin air and scurried into the casualty with the child in their arms. Prabhat followed them. There were drops of blood all the way. The child was taken into a coop and plastic curtains were drawn around the bed. A doctor and a couple of nurses barged into the coop. Prabhat sat on a wooden bench inside the casualty. Stains of the child’s blood smeared portions of his shirt and arms.
He could see from behind the curtains, the desperate attempt of the doctors and the nurses to keep the child alive – an oxygen mask, a drip and a bunch of cacophonic machines – all playing their part.
One of the nurses came out. “Your child?” she asked.
Prabhat shook his head.
“Then?” The nurse raised her eyebrows, in what seemed to be a concoction of confusion and suspicion.
“A car hit him,” said Prabhat. “He lay unattended. So, I brought him here.”
The nurse took a shallow, choppy breath. “So, you don’t know him?”
“How’ll we find his parents?”
Prabhat’s mouth parted. He had acted in an impulse to save the child. He did not have anything else in mind at that time.
“We’ll have to inform the police,” she said, while writing down something in a register. “We need to know who his parents are.”
She then turned to Prabhat. “He’s critical,” she said. “He’ll need to be admitted into the ICU at the earliest. Someone will need to pay a deposit.”
For a moment, Prabhat thought why the nurse was telling him that. Soon, he realised, why. He had not thought through – there was no time to think. At that moment, his only thought was how fast he could take the child to the nearest hospital – and, so, he did. But, here, he was – sucked further into a space that he did not want to be in.
“Can’t you wait for the payment until the parents come?” he asked.
“No, what if they don’t?”
“From his dress, the boy looks to be from a decent family. He must have lost his way…”
“Look, sir.” The nurse was stern. She cut him short and handed him a slip. “I’m only a messenger. Rest assured, he won’t be admitted to the ICU unless the deposit is paid. You’ll need to show this to the cashier there.”
Prabhat took the slip that she gave him. In stony silence, he watched her turn to leave. He could see the cash counter across the aisle. He meandered towards it in short, ambivalent steps.
“How much?” he asked the cashier, handing over the slip to him. His voice was frail, almost a whisper.
Prabhat’s heart stopped for a couple of seconds. He laughed – a subtle laughter, almost invisible to the cashier. He laughed at himself – the eternal nincompoop. He was stuck – how in the world could he wriggle out of this?
He took the bill back and toddled back to the Casualty. The nurse had come back.
“Can I leave now?” he asked. He did not know why he asked this; perhaps there was an ounce of hope, deep within, that she would say “Yes”.
“No,” she said. “please write your name and address in that register. You can only leave when the police arrives.”
Her lanky frame strutted towards the nurse station; she then, turned towards Prabhat again.
“Did you make the payment?”
Prabhat lowered his eyes.
“What are you waiting for?” The nurse reacted, as she would to the relative of any other patient; perhaps, this was her tone…these were the sentences that she was habituated to using in such situations – whether the person was a relative…or anyone else. “Do it fast. The kid’s condition is critical!”
Prabhat was baffled. Was this his responsibility? He was not a relative, after all?
“Why should I pay any money?” he thought – and parted his mouth to say that…but, decided not to. He thought about the boy. Was the boy’s life more important…or his wife’s smile? He paced up and down the aisle for a couple of minutes.
And then, his instinct took him to the cash counter. He handed over the envelope with the Rs. 3,500 that he had withdrawn from the bank earlier that day.
His goal, for which he had worked so hard over the past year, and that he had almost achieved, would now remain unachieved. What would he tell his wife, around whom he had created the goal? It was so ironical that he had often neglected her due to his stretched work hours.
Despondent, he gave the receipt to the nurse. The boy was moved to the ICU.
A sense of negativity surrounded him in the hospital. He felt stupid…for being at the wrong place at the wrong time – and perhaps, doing the wrong thing. He did not want to stay on – he had a bad feeling about the police and answering their questions. He had had enough, already. Soon, he sneaked out, without leaving any of his information in the hospital. He felt that he had done more than what he could.
His heart beat with guilt and anxiety. How would his wife react? He just wanted to go back to her, place his head on her lap and pour out.
That, he did.
They hugged each other, tight, and cried like children – long and hard. He cried with remorse; she, with sympathy – sympathy for Prabhat, that his guilt would see no correction, after all. Their fifth anniversary was an anti-climax, culminating in their tears.
With time, they resigned to their fate, putting together, the broken pieces of their cruel life. Once again, Pratibha reiterated that she found happiness in Prabhat’s company – and nothing else.
“In fact, I’m so proud of you. A human life is more important than anything else.”
If, only, pride could bring the food into their dinner plates…Once again, Prabhat gradually entrenched himself into quicksand of guilt.
About a month after the incident, one sultry Saturday afternoon, the couple was lazing on the floor, with their eyes half closed. A sharp knock on their door jolted them to their senses.
“You have a courier,” said a short, stout man, handing Prabhat an envelope. Puzzled, Prabhat signed on the register, below where the man pointed to, and took the envelope. Pratibha looked at him. Her eyes widened and mouth parted. Prabhat tore the envelope open and took out a letter. His hands trembled, as he read the letter aloud.
I believe that you’re the one who saved my son from death last month. I wanted to contact you earlier, but it was only yesterday that I got some information. I’d requested the hospital for clues. Last evening, they gave me your name and address. They found these in the Country Bank withdrawal slip that was in the envelope in which you’d deposited the money at the hospital.
I wanted to thank you in person, but didn’t do so for two reasons – one, I felt that you had your own reasons to stay anonymous after playing your part. Second, there’s a remote chance that you may not be that person. If so, an in-person meeting would create confusion.
Although the value of what you’ve done for me is immeasurable, I’ve enclosed a cheque in your name, as a token of my gratitude. Please deposit into your bank account at the earliest.
Prabhat rummaged in the envelope and took out the cheque. It did not have the name of the giver; only, an obscure signature. It had Rs. 25,000 written on it and was drawn in favour of him.
He showed the face of the cheque to Pratibha. The couple looked at each other – stoic... frozen…