The tattered, old pair of Bata tennis shoes, that had been kept out to dry in the south-eastern corner of the terrace, wore a shriveled look. They'd been left there for more than a day now.
It had been pouring incessantly for over a week. The rain God had unfurled his fury on the quaint little town of
Harinath Mukherjee was a former principal of the Suri Polytechnic College. An amiable man, he was extremely popular among his students and colleagues alike. Admired and revered by one and all, he had retired from work few years back; four years, to be precise. They say, behind every successful man is a woman. Mr. Mukherjee would agree to this adage, wholeheartedly. Malati devi, his wife of 30 years, had been the crucial anchor of his ship called life. Kind, soft spoken, most women looked up to her. She was a mother to their only son Arkoprobho, as she was to Dulal, their cook, Abedin, Harinath's peon, or Bidur, a rickshaw puller.
Arko was an exceptionally bright boy. Even as a child, he could memorise lines from Tagore's poetry after reading them just once. When he reached fifth grade, his parents decided that he must be sent to the Ramakrishna Mission in Narendrapur for further studies. And so, one June morning, when the sun was beating down on the parched earth, and every living creature was desperately seeking some respite from it, Arko's bags were packed and he was bundled off to Narendrapur, which was closer to Kolkata than to Suri.
Days turned in to months, and months in to years. Arko passed out of school with flying colours. After topping the state board, across all streams, Higher Secondary Examinations, Arko decided to go abroad to pursue a degree in engineering. His mother, Malati Devi, though distraught at the very thought of not having her son around, was proud of the fact that he had made it to the MIT. How many people from moffusil towns like Suri can even dream of such a thing? Arko, barely 18, was already a legend. Almost the whole of West Lalkuthi Para congregated at the
As Arko boarded the aircraft, and found his way to his seat, he was glad it was all over. That he was away from it all. Poor things, his parents. They were already preparing for his arrival, back from the U.S!
Back in Suri, life continued as usual for the Mukherjee couple. Every year, they would wait eagerly for the winter. December heralded Arko's arrival. It marked the start of a flurry of activities in the Mukherjee household. The walls of Arko's room would be whitewashed, new bedspreads would be bought, his favourite fish, vegetables, and sweets would be brought home. And before they would know it, Arko would be home, and gone, in a whoosh.
After graduating, Arko decided to work in the
After retiring from his job, Mr Mukherjee took up the responsibility of imparting tuition to underprivileged children around his locality. It gave him a kind of pleasure that he had never felt before. But, as the years rolled on, he developed glaucoma, and was forced to discontinue his philanthropic work.
22nd May, 1992
"How I wish we had another child. A daughter, to be honest. Our only child seems to have forgotten us. Just dumped us off his mind, and heart", lamented Mr. Mukherjee. It was an unbearably humid summer morning, and he had just got back from the daily bazaar, fish, and vegetables held in both hands. His wife was busy in the kitchen, fixing them both a simple lunch that usually consisted of bhaat, shukto, daal, bhaja, maacher jhol, and doodh-bhaat, a customary dessert. "It was your idea to have him study at a boarding school. What's the use of complaining now? You got him used to being away from us", was her icy retort. In the same breath she added, "I no longer pine for him the way I used to. I'd rather spend the rest of my days tending my plants, and looking after Madhu".
Madhu was a honeybee. She had been lovingly named so by Harinath. One day, as he sipped on a cup of sweet, fragrant
"It is intolerably hot today. I hope we get some rains soon", prayed Malati devi as her husband nodded his head in concurrence. Theirs, along with many others' prayers were answered as ominous looking grey clouds cast a gloomy look to the afternoon sky. As afternoon gave way to evening, the sky began to pour. A faint drizzle, initially, that soon turned in to a heavy downpour. The dry, cracked earth thirstily drank up the generous dollops of heavenly elixir. And rain it did, for the next seven days... so steady, it seemed unstoppable. Those seven days there was no sign of Madhu. It was assumed that like in the case of most people, she too had been rendered immobile by the onslaught of the rain God. And then, it stopped. The sun was seen after days. Its bright, warm presence was welcomed by one and all. Schools, which had been shut on account of 'rainy day(s)' re-opened, the bazaar was brimming with people, hawkers on the streets did brisk business, rickshaws screeched, cars honked. The sleepy town had woken up from its rain-induced slumber and was back to life.
Arko's wife, Mel, was in the final month of her pregnancy. The baby was due any time now. After spending a sleepless night with a cramping wife, Arko decided it was time to take her to the hospital.
The telephone rang. Malati answered. "Hello?". "Ma, I am at the hospital. You'll be a grandmother, soon. I'll call you with the good news". And, click. The line went dead. He had not bothered to ask about their well being. He never did. But Malati did not let that bother her. She was anxious now, like any grandmother-to-be. But unlike other grandparents, they won't be around to hold the newborn in their arms, or feed him/her rice on the Annaprasan. The very thought pained her.
"Buro called. Bouma is going to deliver soon", she informed her husband. Buro was Arko's nickname. His bhalonaam had been decided by Mr Mukherjee's father. Malati devi had wanted to name him Tridib, that literally means heaven. But, she did not wish to upset her father-in-law, and her son was duly named Arkoprobho, on the occasion of his rice-eating ceremony.
Mr. Mukherjee was listening to some old, K L Saigal classics that sunny afternoon when his wife announced that tea had been served.
"Your tea must be growing cold. It's kept on the dining table, by the window. Drink it, taratari", said Malati, and hurried out of the house to chase couple of stray dogs out of her kitchen garden.
But Mr Muhkerjee was traveling back in time, reminiscing about the days when he was young, ambitious, romantic, and had just brought home a lovely wife. Lost in those warm, comforting thoughts, he forgot about the tea. "O go, will you have your tea or not?", yelled Malati from the front courtyard. Rudely jolted out of his trance, he turned the gramophone off, and proceeded towards the hall where stood the dining table. And there, he was greeted by none other than Madhu, who was sitting gingerly on the rim of the cup, and buzzing with glee. Harinath knew the tea was still hot, though he couldn't see very clearly because of his failing eyesight, and the distance. Before he could chase Madhu away, the unthinkable happened. By the time he reached the table, Madhu's limp body was floating in the cup of fragrant tea.
And he cried. All the tears that he had held back till now came flooding out. He kept weeping bitterly, inconsolably, all evening.
That night, Suri saw a storm like never before. Strong winds bent even the strongest of trees, vicious rains lashed against the ground like a whip. Telephone lines were destroyed, hundreds of huts were reduced to bits of wood and hay, countless trees were uprooted. The Mayurakshi gurgled with all her might, almost threatening to overflow and wreak havoc.
The next morning, Suri woke up to a rude shock. The town had been brutally attacked, and left to bleed. But, the sun shone brightly, almost heralding a new beginning.
The Mukherjee household wore a desolate look. The kitchen garden, where Malati Devi grew chllies, coriander, lemon, pumpkin, and her favourite bottle gourd, had been butchered to death. Repeated rings of the doorbell went unanswered. Neighbours assumed, the elderly couple must be asleep.
On the floor of the bedroom lay the lifeless body of Harinath Mukherjee. He had suffered a massive cardiac arrest the previous night. Heaven had poured like never before. Tridib had cried. At his feet sat Malati devi, traces of dried tears on both cheeks, hair disheveled, face devoid of emotion. About his head, hovered a honey bee.
Mel went in to labour the same night. She gave birth to a baby girl. Arko named her Madhumita.