This year Sunanda’s birthday was celebrated with great pomp and show. A big marmalade cake was ordered from a reputed confectionery shop in the city and forty-two candles were fixed upon it with sighs of concern for her spinsterhood. All her friends and relatives had religiously turned up on time in her new flat, which she had purchased a year ago, after being promoted to the post of zonal manager of the company where she worked. Food was brought from the nearest outlet of KFC restaurant and everybody agreed that the arrangements were really grand. Also, there was no dearth of whiskey and beer in the party as hard drinks were no longer considered a taboo among the male members of the family. The younger generation, consisting of half a dozen of nephews and nieces, had arranged for a small performance of hip hop dance to entertain their spinster aunt, who showed no sign of tightfistedness while splurging on bounties for them. Whether, it was a matter of buying a new motorbike for the college-going Tony, her elder brother’s son, or it was of paying the donation fees for the admission of her younger brother’s twin children into an A-grade residential school, her sisters-in-law were sure that Sunanda would not mind providing these assistances. After all, she wasn’t burdened with a family—I mean husband, children and parents-in-law—like them.
In the spacious flat, Sunanda lived with her invalid mother. Mrs. Sanyal, her mother, suffered from a series of cardiac arrests in the last eleven years, since the death of Mr. Sanyal, in a road accident. Giving an emergency call to the Doctor and rushing her to the hospital late at night had become a day-to-day matter for her sons, with whom Mrs. Sanyal had been staying before shifting permanently into her daughter’s flat in the metro city. Earlier, when Sunanda visited the family in the weekends, she found her sisters-in-law complaining endlessly against the whims and tantrums of their senile mother-in-law. One day it would be that she had puked the soup on their faces, the other day it was that she had soiled the bed before giving a call for assistance. After managing the affairs of household and children, it had really become very difficult for Shreya and Reshmi to keep an eye on their mother-in-law for twenty-four hours. Sunanda had suggested that a nurse or an ayah should be appointed for taking care of their mother but the two brothers fell on the issue of who would pay the wages for that extra helping hand. The matter wasn’t resolved even when Sunanda agreed to bear the monetary charges. Although most of the household expenses were shouldered by her, it had been something like a tradition in the family that after her father’s death she had to take the consent of her brothers in decisive matters such as the one described above.
One evening after dinner, by chance Sunanda happened to hear a conversation between her elder brother and his wife. Shreya was speaking angrily, “Look Ronny! She is your sister’s mother too. She would wear make-up, go to office and I have to show dedication in cleaning your mother’s stools because I am a homemaker.” Ronny was trying to pacify her by uttering phrases of consolation but the latter seemed to be furious and continued to grumble, “Reshmi behaves like a maharani (queen) because her husband’s salary is more than yours. She does nothing for mother-in-law, and her husband, your younger brother Suneel, is always there to help her out in giving lame excuses.” Before someone could accuse her of eavesdropping outside the bedroom of a married couple, Sunanda ran away to her room and dug her face into her mother’s bosom sobbing noiselessly so that Mrs. Sanyal would not wake up. Then and there, she had decided to buy a flat and take mother along with her. An ayah was appointed to look after Mrs. Sanyal. On weekends, she herself took care of her mother and the ayah was given a day off. There was also a maid who did the cooking and the cleaning for them. Mrs. Sanyal was well looked after in her daughter’s house than she was in her sons’ but most of the time she stared blankly and tears flowed from the corners of her eyes. The relatives who made occasional visits for enquiring of her convalescence pressed her paralytic hand and sighed, “We can feel your pain, Sister. If she could have been married of in time, then, your heart would have lightened a bit…a girl remains a girl, after all.”
Tubaan’s mother, who was addressed as Sister-aunt, was one of the frequent visitors in the flat. She exhibited a superfluous self-confidence in interpreting the unclear words of Mrs.Sanyal’s distorted voice. Although Sunanda understood well that the old lady’s interpretations were all tale-telling monologues for sufficing personal needs and interests, she did not mind her presence. At least, her garrulousness sprinkled a few drops of vivacity in the dull ambience of the flat. “Poor Sister-aunt,” Sunanda would sigh. It was known to all that Tubaan, her thirty-five year old son, smoked ganja with his good-for-nothing friends in the fringes of the art college from where once upon a time he had been rusticated for his addictive indulgences. The dark circles around his eyes made him look ten years older than he was. Occasionally, he made some money by painting signboards but his earnings were spent on his addiction. In front of Tony, Humpty, Laltu and Palki he always boasted that soon he would go abroad on a scholarship for doing research on Egyptian frescoes. The truth was that the mother and the son dropped in frequently at Sunanda’s flat for having wholesome meals consisting of fish-curry, chicken stew, parathas, fruit-salad and even milk-added tea with cookies, which they were not in a position to afford in their own house.
Today, amidst the din and bustle of the birthday party, Sister-aunt was the one who reminded the other women-guests—I mean the mothers-in-law, the daughters-in-law, the married cousins and the wives of Sunanda’s colleagues—to pay a perfunctory visit to Mrs. Sanyal. The old lady was having her dinner when the group of women entered into her room. They were a bit embarrassed to see the big bib that hung around Mrs. Sanyal’s neck. Holding a bowl of slurry-like mixture in one hand and a soup spoon in the other, the ayah was singing the old melodies of Bengali cinema to stimulate the oldie’s appetite. On seeing Sister-aunt and her retinue, the ayah stood up and wiped the corners of Mrs. Sanyal’s mouth with the small towel. “Sister is having corn-flakes now. We give it to her after churning it in the mixer-grinder, as you do for your babies,” remarked Sister-aunt with an air of authority. Then she called aloud the women one by one either by their names or by terms of relation, in the manner of introducing them to Mrs. Sanyal and also made replies on behalf of her sick sister for greeting the guests on her daughter’s birthday. Lying as usual with her head and lips tilted towards the paralyzed left, Mrs. Sanyal looked excited but the guests as well as her two daughters-in-law could not understand what she was trying to say. So, Sister-aunt started her enactment: “Don’t worry Sister! Sunanda will come back on time. You know how busy she is, don’t you?” Mrs. Sanyal was refusing to take the helpings of food from the ayah as she was trying desperately to explain something. Unable to get her message across, she spat on the ayah’s face. The ferocity of the bedridden woman stunned the gorgeously dressed women in the room. They moved a few steps behind and covered their mouths in shame. Sister-aunt explained to them that her gestures of defiance expressed her anxieties. She said, “All of you have given birth to children. Don’t you understand her worries?” This remark was powerful enough to set the ball in motion. Sometimes queries of concern came from among the older women and sometimes the apprehensive statements followed from among the members of the younger group. One after another, they pondered on issues such as who would look after Sunanda when she would grow old; this world is not at all a cozy place for a single woman; did they not hunt for a groom when she was of marriageable age? Is there any romantic tale of languishment in the past or a complication in the present status of an office-affair? However, everybody agreed that in spite of being a woman she had succeeded like a man by buying a house of her own. “Alas! It is a pity. She is a queen without a king,” said Charu auntie’s daughter-in-law Prabha boudi and everybody nodded their heads in agreement to a statement which seemed to have a universal significance to them.
While the women carried on with their tete-a-tete by sipping tea and munching the chicken crispies, the men folk consisting of the middle aged brothers and half a dozen of doddering uncles discussed politics, science and share market with either fuming cigarettes in between their lips or glasses of whiskey in their hands or with both as was the case with Humpty’s father. Tubaan’s father, whom everybody looked upon as a sage and addressed as Saadhuji, had refrained from smoking and drinking ever since he had become a disciple of some Swami in a monastery. He sent the watchman to bring betel leaves from the nearest paan (betel)shop in the neighbourhood. Tony and his troupe were busy in practicing their steps of hip-hop dance. On being insisted by her mother, Palki volunteered reluctantly to sing a raga she had learnt in her classes of classical music. She too wanted to dance on the steps taught by Tony dada (elder brother) but her mother wasn’t granting her the permission for that. “How carefree these boys are! Nobody reminds them about the dimensions of their body parts,” she grumbled as she adjusted the scarf over her spaghetti top.
Tubaan was looking at the arms of the clock anxiously. The passing hours of the evening doubled and trebled his restlessness because these were his routine hours of smoking ganja with his cohort of vagabonds. In spite of sitting in an air-conditioned room, droplets of sweat appeared on his forehead. “When will she arrive? How long shall we wait?” he wondered as he swallowed a mouthful of fish fries. Sunanda has promised to help him in starting an enterprise of signboards in the nearby market on the condition that he has to give up his habit of smoking ganja. For the last two months, he had been trying to give her an impression that he has relinquished his addictive indulgences, though the reality was that he could not even think of doing so. Today, she would be giving him a bank cheque of fifty-five thousand rupees. He needed this money to make an advance payment to a middleman who was assisting him in getting an office-room on rent.
The delay in Sunanda’s arrival made him apprehensive of the possible dangers that may befall her on the road with nightfall. Nowadays women are not safe at all. And Sunanda, she was beautiful. In spite of the broadening lines on the sides of her nose and the layers of fat around her waistline, her prettiness was admired by all. She had been Tubaan’s first crush. Down the memory lane when he was a kid and she, a teenager, he hanged around her to smell the scent of jasmine flowers embalming her person from morning till night. In his thoughts her name smacked of the fragrance of jasmine. That fragrance remained fresh over the years. But, Sunanda hardly cared for his feelings. She always treated him as a little one whom she could rightfully snub and scold. One strange thing about Sunanda was that she used to be both scared and irritated when Saadhuji was around. Though Tubaan was a little boy at that time he could understand well that his father was a cause of her trepidation, which she tried to camouflage by complaining about malaise and nausea. One day while playing hide and seek in the afternoon, he had hidden behind the wardrobe in a room where Sunanda was sleeping. All of a sudden his father had come into the room and Tubaan had been petrified on witnessing a monstrous image of his father whom he had known uptill then as a passive person obeying meekly the commands of his assertive mother. Unaware of his son’s presence in the room, Saadhuji had pounced on the sleeping girl. Before she could shout for help he had gagged his handkerchief into her mouth and had tied her hands to the bedpost near her head with her scarf. Satisfying himself with salacious actions, he had punched and kicked on her struggling body. After he had left, Tubaan had come out of his refuge to console Sunanda but she was in such a rage at that time that she had pushed him away and had rebuffed him by saying, “His blood runs in your veins. I hate you too.” Since that afternoon, Tubaan had always hated his father. He had even thought of killing Saadhuji by adding rat-poison in his food but something had stopped him from perpetrating the murder and after the frenzy was over he had found himself enmeshed in a never-ending feeling of guilt from which he sought temporary relief in minor addictions such as smelling adhesives, chewing pieces of chalk and smoking the butts of half-ignited cigarettes abandoned by the elders in the ashtrays.
The other members of the family could never know about Saadhuji’s misdeed as it is quite common among us to suppress and hide such incidents for the sake of protecting the honour of the families. So, everything was made to appear as normal as the sunrise and the sunset. As it had been the trend so far, for every ceremonious occasion in the family, Saadhuji’s advice was always sought after by the Sanyals. However, Sunanda stopped visiting Sister-aunt’s house after that incident. Even if she visited them on any rare occasion she neither slept nor stayed in their house for long.
Gorging on his third plate of mutton-korma, Tubaan watched his father giving counsel to a cousin who was in a dilemma whether or not to file a divorce suit in the court against her unfaithful husband. “Old swine,” he muttered to himself. From another room flowed the neighing loudness of his mother’s laughter, which made him wonder for a while if she was really ignorant of her husband’s perfidy? The people who had come from the suburban towns worried whether they would be able to catch the last train or not because it was almost midnight and the birthday girl hadn’t yet reached home. When everybody had started to think seriously as to why Sunanda was not picking up her mobile phone, all of a sudden, the blurting horns of a car in the street raised an alarm among the guests. Laltu and Humpty, who must been engaged in some mischievous activity in the balcony rushed into the hall shouting, “Auntie has arrived…Yeah!” Humpty’s father, who was completely drunk by that time remarked in his inebriated tone, “Finally…Her Highness” and drank a toast in her name. Tony switched off the lights and everyone waited eagerly to surprise the birthday girl by the flamboyance of illuminations in the hall.
When the lights were put on, they seemed to be twice more surprised than Sunanda. Under the fountain of colourful lights, she looked like the hallowed Virgin holding baby Jesus in her arms. The baby looked pale and one of its legs was plastered from the knee. Breaking the silence that shrouded the festive ambience of the hall for a couple of minutes, Sunanda said, “I have adopted this child. Her parents have died in the bomb blast that took place last year in the Ganganagar Express train.” Immediately, a commotion started among the invitees. Gradually, the situation became so grave that Tubaan decided to forget about receiving the cheque from Sunanda. However, he could not refrain from feeling frustrated for losing the blissful hours he could have spent in the company of his fellow ganja-smokers. In the meantime, Sister-aunt had managed to awaken Mrs. Sanyal from her sleep. After dabbing a few puffs of talcum powder on her face and neck, she drove the dozing lady on her wheelchair into the hall where according to her a big drama was going on. Mrs. Sanyal was not in a condition to comprehend what was going on due to the soporific effect of the medicines she had taken after dinner.
Sister-Aunt’s stomach was full with excitement. “Sister wants to know why you have picked up this lame kid. Couldn’t you take a good one?” She asked in an authoritative tone. Her audacity and duplicity infuriated Sunanda so much that she lost control on herself and replied bitterly, “Auntie! Are you the one to sermonize on what is good? If we could always choose the good ones and discard the rest, then, years ago you should have slapped and threatened your husband, not me.” Her words seemed to go beyond the freezing silence of the well-decorated flat, in the sleeping streets of the posh neighbourhood. Without uttering a word of defiance, Sister-aunt drove Mrs. Sanyal back into her room and locked herself in it along with her paralyzed sibling. Her meekness surprised everybody except Tubaan. In the meantime, Saadhuji had managed to escape from the scene. In order to lighten the ambience, Palki came up to the baby and put a birthday cap on its head. Following her, Humpty and Laltu proceeded with balloons in their hands. Tony said, “Come-on auntie, cut the cake.” The baby made a crackling sound and hid her face on Sunanda’s shoulder.
The party continued for another hour. Wiping their mouths with tissue papers, Shreya and Reshmi sighed over the thought that thereafter their children might not receive any boon from their spinster aunt. The brothers were so much puzzled at what their sister had done that they fumbled for words to express their dissatisfaction. Some of the invitees started a discourse on Indian culture with reference to Lord Shrikrishna’s foster mother. Others twitched their lips comparing her with the celebrities who have adopted children. Few started gossiping about gay and lesbian relationships. All the guests decided to leave in the morning except Tubaan. Ashamed of his parents’ wrongdoing, he could not look into the eyes of Sunanda. As he was preparing to leave stealthily, Sunanda called him from behind. Handing over a blank cheque to him, she said, “I have put my signature on it. Write down the amount you need and encash it.”
Before Tubaan could utter “Thanks” she turned behind and started responding endlessly to the cries of the baby. Her clothes, wet with vomited milk, effused obnoxious odours. She ran into her room. The cries of the baby faded out as Tubaan walked down the staircase, forgetting all about the elevators in the thirteen-storied building. When he landed into the street, the stillness of the night frightened him. The streetlamps looked like the fiery eyes of demons. Under a decrepit bench on the footpath a skinny dog sat licking its sores. Tubaan felt like weeping his heart out to the emptiness of the night. He lit a country cigar but the man inside him refused to smoke. Baffled and tired, he sat on the footpath and closed his eyes. Tubes of different colour, a bottle of turpentine oil, a wooden palette and brushes of different number were lying scattered in front of him. One by one, he collected them and started painting the fragrance of jasmine on the canvas of darkness.