Sabir is a retired bachelor from Kolkata. In his entire life, he never really felt any attachment, fell in love or got married. But then, life took an unusual turn. There are a few stories which stick to you long after you have read them. For many, this would be one of them.
(Retd.) Professor Shams Afif Siddiqi is a prominent literary figure with a long list of laurels and accolades, few of which includes, an all India prize awarded by the then President of India, Mr. Giani Zail Singh, stories selected by Khushwant Singh to be published in The Telegraph, an illustrious career as an english professor in top MBA colleges of the country and so much more.
Two weeks had passed since Sabir retired from the Commercial Tax office at Beleghata,
Kolkata. Thirty years had flown by; he hardly understood how time deceived him. Now he knew
why they say time flies.
But after retirement, time changed its course. It was limping slowly like an old man, refusing to edge forward. He fell from the sky when friends and acquaintances left; the family that prepared food for him also closed their doors. He could not blame anyone. He wished he had not wasted life in constant bachelorhood. He had never fallen in love; never thought of marriage. A lurking fear kept him away. But the past was dead; the present had to be looked into. He wanted a domestic help; someone to cook his food, wash his clothes, keep his house in order. He was prepared to pay any amount; his pension allowed him the life of a retired prince.
His search ended with Asma; her face could scare babies in the dark.
Her first day at the house was a clutter and a jumble. The clanging, swishing, gharang, ghrung, in the kitchen was followed by the screech of a ceramic cup that fell from a height breaking into bits of broken music on the floor.
The sudden noise was jarring to the ears like music played during festivals by local boys.
He covered his ears in the bedroom, tucked away to the south end.
She was unaccustomed to a gas stove; could neither light it nor switch it off. What really irritated him was when she locked the door. He could not imagine staying in a closed apartment with a woman.
‘People will say I have gone mad,’ he muttered to himself.
He went to look at her from a distance. She was at war with the dishes swimming in the overflowing sink. She must have been above fifty, looking darker in the dim light. The cotton sari stuck to her body like a leech. Her high cheek bones spoke of a village descent. She turned to look with eyes that were slices of peeled mango.
He edged closer, hesitated, and cleared his throat.
‘Asma,’ he spoke softly as if singing lullaby to a baby, ‘whenever inside the room keep the door ajar…’
He went to the door left it partly open. ‘Like this…’ he whispered and stood as if he had committed a sin.
‘Why should I keep the door half open?’ Asma turned around, the muscles of her face stiffening. ‘Why?’ she shouted as if rebuking a child.
He stood and blinked.
‘Fresh air,’ he stammered, ‘I like air from the south…’
‘This door opens east…,’ she stared into his eyes,
He blinked, his bald pate glistening in the sun rays that swept the half opened door.
She scanned his figure from head to toe as if ready to pin him down; tee- shirt, trousers, and brooding eyes. He could easily pass for a Russian or an Iranian.
He fidgeted with his fingers; she was admiring his figure. A girlish smile appeared at the corner of his lips only to die.
‘Okay Asma!’ he managed to say, ‘I’ll be back soon…’
He walked down the lonely street.
He had become used to it; crowds irritated him. Whenever upset he would walk alone.
If loneliness was a part of life, death was a close companion. His father died when he was a child, his mother before he entered college. His distant relatives left for their heavenly abode when he started his job. So when his colleagues would take bribes he would taunt them. ‘More you take, poorer you become…’ He steered clear of the fair sex and love. ‘You cannot love and be wise …’
He must have walked for half an hour when he turned around.
‘Let’s see what surprise awaits us…,’ he told himself ascending the flight of steps.
Asma had cleared the clutter as if with magic.
He halted at the door to confirm whether it was his own house.
‘May I come in,’ he chirped.
She had no time for frivolity.
When lunch was served he licked his fingers. ‘Never had such a meal…,’ he told himself.
She left after lunch.
At night sleep overpowered him as soon as he came to bed. He got up in the middle of night to find the light on, the fan moving in the sitting room. ‘How could I forget?’ he said before returning to the bed room again.
The next day when Asma knocked, he came out on the threshold.
‘Carry on,’ he said, ‘I’ll return with meat and vegetables…’
As he turned, he thought he saw a neatly dressed woman. She wore a printed sari; her hair was brushed, tied into a bun.
He shook his head, climbed down the stairs.
The bazaar was close but the stench of the surrounding entered his nostrils; it gave him a headache.
‘When did I come here last?’ He shook his head like a donkey refusing to move with its load.
‘Where do I buy meat? Who can help me with vegetables?’
A local youth recognized him, understood his predicament. He did not like the grin on this boy’s face.
‘What makes him smile?’
He trudged up the stairs with packets that could feed the whole building.
‘Enough for a month,’ he laughed. ‘I hope she does not mind…’
When Asma opened the door his jaw hung loose, his eyes popped out of their sockets.
Asma had repositioned the furniture of the room. It looked like an immaculate picture in a frame.
‘I don’t live this way,’ he smiled sheepishly. ‘It’s like asking me to go away…’
Asma snatched the bazaar bags from his hands. ‘Why so long?’ she growled. ‘I am waiting for ages…’
‘Stay at home while I finish cooking,’ her voice sailed from the kitchen.
He lit a cigarette and slipped into the armchair. He could hear her chattering; say something to him. At times it seemed she was speaking to herself.
‘I have changed things without your permission…’
‘You have no sense of order…’
The feeling of loneliness dissipated out of his mind.
She went on and on while he relaxed; the tension oozed out of his skin. With the smoke rising upwards he was floating on clouds. ‘God! Why I never felt like this before…’
He threw curled smoke; searched for his wallet on the centre table.
It was not there. It was here for years; never anywhere else, he thought.
‘It can’t vanish…,’ the veins on his temples popped out like caterpillars.
He pushed the cigarette into the empty ashtray; went looking for his wallet like a man gone crazy.
He looked under the table, on the bed, under the carpet….
‘Four five hundred bills,’ he tried to recollect, ‘may be more… it must have been a temptation for her…’
He went to the kitchen to look at the woman; get some clue about the missing wallet.
She turned around. She must have seen his shadow on the wall.
‘What do you want Master?’ she asked.
‘Tea,’ he quickly said, ‘if you can…’
‘It’s ready,’ the tone had changed; a sense of familiarity had been added, ‘steaming hot …’
So, she’s softening her attitude, he wondered. To make me… how can I forget? It’s a lot of money. She could have asked me for some, his thoughts wandered.
‘Thanks!’ his heart sank within like a stone in a pond.
He failed to ask her.
‘How can I?’ he told himself. ‘She may think…’
He waited for the tea.
The lunch was served on time. He couldn’t understand how she managed to do this without looking at the clock.
The food left a raw taste in his mouth. The meat was fresh; it didn’t have the usual taste, forget the appetizing, yummy part. ‘Something’s wrong with me? He shook his head.
She had worked hard; prepared two different dishes apart from the dal the colour of which appeared creamy. He had liked her dishes last time.
‘What’s the matter? He told himself, ‘the taste is missing…’
She stared; aware he was not enjoying the food.
‘May I help you Master?’ she stood before the table.
He never liked people to stand, watch during lunch. He certainly wouldn’t allow a woman who had …, he failed to say the word even in his mind. It was too despicable a word…
She took care of him as if serving a teenager; one who could spill things over.
‘Don’t know how to eat…Bitter gourd should have been first… don’t mix too much of dal…’ and so on.
After he was over she took her meal.
The smacking of her lips, the slurping, munching sound, made him uncomfortable.
He smoked another cigarette and waited for her to finish.
He soon stretched on the bed and fell asleep. He must have been tired. He even saw a long dream. He saw a figure playing hide and seek with him; another image of a child waving from a distant world…
When she awoke him it was dusk.
‘Master it’s time for me to go…’
‘Sure,’ he said and looked at her.
He did not like her face. He wanted to ask her about the missing money. He wanted to tell her that her services were not required any more…‘It’s late…You may go,’ he said.
When she left, the room appeared like a desert; sand below, empty sky above. He went down to ward off the lonely feeling and walked in the park. He wondered whether people who walked with him were also smitten with loneliness. ‘Someday it will kill me,’ he spoke to himself.
He sat for half an hour when the chill made him realize he was still in a tee shirt. Back home a splitting headache bowed him down. He drank a glass of water. He made black coffee without sugar. He could hardly help himself to a morsel. He lay down but the intermittent sleep made him dream of floating on clouds. He saw a face he could hardly recognize; the face of a child waving from the clouds….
Asma knocked in the morning and found the door open.
She slipped inside the room; a surprise on her face.
‘What’s the matter Sir?’ her voice conveyed her anxiety.
When he failed to reply she touched his temples.
‘It’s just a headache,’ he said getting up, ‘but it’s killing me…’
‘God forbid! Have a light breakfast and hot tea with ginger. Take a tablet. You will feel better.’
She gave him toast with butter and ginger tea. Then she asked money for grocery and chicken.
‘You need chicken soup…’
‘I can’t find my wallet…’
‘My God!’ she replied. ‘It’s in the showcase.’
‘I keep it on the table. I always do…’
‘That’s not the place,’ she brought it from the showcase and handed him the wallet.
He looked pokerfaced. He wanted to hide his face under the pillow. ‘How could I?’ he told himself. ‘Such a nice woman… and me, worse than…’
He took out a five hundred note and handed over to her.
‘Buy whatever you want… keep the rest,’ he said thinking that could ease his own battered soul. Even though she knew nothing about it, he did. That too was painful for any man with a soul… and everyone has…
‘What do you mean?’ the muscles of her face suddenly turned taut. ‘Why will I keep the rest?’ She left the room neighing like a horse throwing dust with its hind feet.
He scratched the back of his neck, as he did whenever caught in quandary; moments that lay between unease and bliss. ‘Oh no!’ he said aloud. ‘Oh yes!’ he corrected himself.
She made a light soup. She prepared dal and kept the vegetables for the next day.
In the evening Asma took pity on the man and sat by his side.
‘Allow me master,’ she said, ‘to massage your forehead.’
His body shivered as if a feathery, slimy worm had passed from right to left on his temples. He wriggled within; fighting a battle with his own self. But forced himself to be still. She ran the fingers of her parched hands till his eyelids and back.
His body moved though it was still.
He had never experienced a feeling where refusal meant acceptance. He closed his eyes and slipped into a state of lethargy. He had not known the magical powers of a woman’s fingers.
‘What’s your family Asma?’ he asked with curiosity.
‘Your husband Asma… What does he do?’
‘He left for another woman….’ There was no malice in her voice.
‘I am sorry,’ he said and added,’ your children…’
‘Two boys! No daughter.’
‘God is great. They must be living with you…’
‘No. Not them…’
‘Then! But why?’
‘Haven’t you seen the fledglings, weak and helpless? Once they develop wings, they fly away…’
‘I know,’ his face looked like the overcast sky. ‘You are right. It’s sad…’
‘That’s natural master,’ she laughed. He could see that she hid a tear.
He sat up and looked straight into her eyes.
He wanted to hold her face within the palms of his hands. He wanted to embrace, caress the folds of her hair that fell over her face. He only stared at the strange woman with whom he could identify. She was different and yet like him.
‘How could they go away?’ he shouted. ‘What makes you live?’ His voice died into a whisper.
‘Life’s ways are mysterious master! You don’t get everything. If you do, even for a moment, that is enough. You make that moment an eternity, and live…’
Her face changed colour; a tear fell on his open palm.
‘I am sorry!’ he said.
‘It’s alright,’ she cleared her throat. ‘I have to go. My landlady will get worried.’
‘Khuda Hafiz,’ he said and looked at the retreating figure.
He thought and lifted his voice. ‘Come early…’ he shouted. ‘From tomorrow close the door. I won’t mind…’ Then whispered, ‘even if they say I have gone mad…’
But she had already left. He heard her footsteps down the stairs.
He turned on the bed and smiled.
This time he whispered to the pillows words he would not have dared to say to anyone before.
Shams Afif Siddiqi