The ringing echoed through the massive halls of the Convent. Philo shuffled to the door. Her legs were beginning to get as stiff as the chicken bones in the Sunday ‘Chicken Rice’ lunches.
‘God knows who it is,’ she muttered under her breath, ‘They never let me sit in peace.’
The dispensary doctor could not prescribe any medicine. He said he had to know her age to prescribe medicines.
‘Age! What is your age’? he questioned.
Blank eyes filled with gooey matter stared back at him. Two blank orbs in a lined ruined saga of a face. He prescribed something mild.
The matter was simple. Philo did not know her age. All she remembered of her life was the Convent. This was the only place she knew and the one thing she was sure of was that this would be her last resting place.
The bell screamed out in anger again. ‘No patience’, Philo wanted to scream out loud, but years of having people trod rough-shod over her had bestowed her with the gift of acceptance. ‘Another ring and what if Mother Superior changed her duty?’ she thought.
No, no, that could not be. She had always done this. It was her duty, her work, her pride. It was the only thing she dearly loved, apart from the boarding children. Managing the massive front doors built years back during the hey days of the by-gone French era was no mean feat. These doors were the stuff of royalty. Just few years ago, a team from National Geographic had come to the Convent to request permission to film parts of the Convent, which contained relics of the time when Chandannagar was a French colony. Unlike other doors, these ones had two huge hooks that needed to be taken off each time the door was opened. These doors required a lot of love and care and she went to great pains to provide both. She lifted the hooks tenderly and opened the doors. Rage creased the lines across her face making it resemble an orb of parched Earth.
He stood there with a garland and flung petals into her face as he bared his yellow, broken teeth and tried to get past her into the Convent. He had tortured her like this for the past fifteen years. How could a short, frail lady tackle a grown, strong old man, and, a mad man at that?
All hell broke loose as Philo screamed. Strong men workers from various parts of the Convent could be heard rushing to the spot. Sister Gloria beat the ancient massive gong with all her might. This was the last resort when there was an emergency. The sound clanged and shook the tiny town, cradled snugly on the banks of the River Hooghly.
Madho, the mad man had his way. His little, sparkling eyes darted to and fro, ablaze with mischief. He eyed the rock solid old grandfather chairs lustily. The pristine, virgin white covers looked like the perfect place he could rest in. He jumped onto the chair and rubbed his dirty, grimy toes laced with the filth of the roadsides on the squares of whiteness. As the burly men drew near, he tried to jump and hang on to the centuries old fan. Naturally, he failed and landed amidst the men. It was hardly a fall but enough to give the men a scope to get hold of him.
He was promptly thrown out and the gates were closed. Philo heaved a huge sigh of relief. There was a bit of damage but not as much as when Madho had been able to sneak into the nun’s rooms. He had caused irreparable damage and more important was that he had met Melody. Melody, who looked after the old nuns and fed the hens had loved him at first sight. She could hardly be blamed. Other than the workers, she had not really met a man. It was scandalous, the way she had clung on to Madho and kissed him full on the lips. The most shocking part was that Madho understood love and kissed Melody right back. That was what had happened the last time. Melody was ever since kept under strict super-vision which she resented. It used to be said that Melody herself had some ‘screws loose’, but Philo could never make out, since she liked to keep to herself and spoke very less. She was perfect at her work and one could find no fault at all in anything she did. Just like Philo, Melody had always been at the convent. Melody was good looking, fair with soft brown eyes and raven black hair that cascaded till her waist. How she landed at this Convent was a mystery and of course, the nuns never discussed who had arrived when and how and in what condition. That discussion was taboo.
After the chaos of Madho had died down, Philo had hardly managed to sit down, when the bell rang again. Her heart thumped loudly. The only thing this door lacked was a mechanism through which one could see the person on the other side. Sister Joy was mentioning something called a peep-hole. ‘Now that would be something spectacular’, Philo thought. Imagine the luxury of seeing what was on the other side without going through all that trouble of opening those massive doors. She opened the doors laboriously missing the non-existent peep hole. The visitors turned out to be a family. They wanted to know about the admission procedure. Philo briefed them and asked them to come at the beginning of November when they could meet Mother Superior. Thanking her profusely they left. Strangely, she did not feel like closing the doors. Maybe it was the little child’s face, or perhaps the family, somehow for the first time Philo felt a strange longing for something different. What that different thing was…even she did not know. She gazed out at beautiful strand right across the road built on the banks of the Hooghly River. She gazed at the huge Peepal tree, its branches spread across the bank, a part of it almost touching the river and her thoughts lingered on Madho, and just as if as if he had heard her she saw him materialize out of the blue at the far end of the strand.
He was strutting about wearing a crown of leaves, waving at everyone like a King. Philo was aghast at what she was doing…here she was with the doors wide open staring at Madho, gazing wistfully at the world outside. Something stirred within her as she gazed at Madho, wondering what it was to love and be loved. Such thoughts were sinful, so she quickly averted her gaze again towards the river. A small boat was floating lazily among the shimmering waves and then she noticed a grotesque object bobbing on the waters…what it could be…Every day the River threw up a new surprise. She was so lost in thought that she did not feel a small waif life person move swiftly past her. There were so many nooks and crannies in the ancient building, it was easy to pass through the shadows, so when Philo finally finished gazing at the River and closed the doors, she was blissfully unaware that the Convent had one less person. In fact, no one realised till lunch time. It was only when the old nuns rang their bell since lunch had not been served, that the news spread. Melody was missing. Sister Superior was furious. The men were sent to comb the grounds, the dogs were brought out but not a trace of Melody. Discreet phone calls were made and the police were informed. The tension was palpable. There was no news even at dusk. Chandannagar is a small town, how could she have gone so far, that she could not be found, Philo thought. It was around 10 P.M. that the small door hastily opened and closed, a few terse words passed between Mother Superior and the Inspector and Melody was back. She was unrecognizable, her clothes torn, she laughed hysterically as the nuns tried to quieten her. She jabbered gibberish as she was taken away to her room. The night was uneventful. When the bell rang next morning, Philo was at her post. She pulled together her aching arms and limbs and opened the doors. There was no one at the door. A mob was gathering outside on the strand, Philo narrowed her ancient eyes, squinting through the sun’s rays and there under the Peepal tree with the grotesque object she had seen in the river yesterday, clutched to his heart Madho lay with half his body in the water, a maniac smile on his face, his eyes open wildly, dead as a doormat. No one knew what had happened and precisely 9 months later, Melody gave birth to a bonny boy whom she adored and named ‘Madho’.
-Debdutta Saha (1497 words)