It was a dubious night. The pitch dark canvas of the sky held aloft a crescent moon and some countable glitterati of the galaxy. Monsoon clouds were yet to depart in preparation of Goddess Durga’s homecoming this year. The hills on the ridges of river Mahananda, that passed almost all the houses in the vicinity, drew a scary sheath. Nothing was objectionable. Nothing seemed to catch the human eye. Nothing meant to set standards, except the beads that shone on the unsteady upheaval of the Mahananda; a tinkle of life…a representation of brightness and intermittent hope.
Antara sat by her window. She looked pensive and hurt. She carefully tried to make out how frequent and bright those beads appeared on the surface of the water that were magically formed by the enigmatic sheen of the moon. There were thousands of them and each sparkled a shade brighter than the other. The moon, it seemed, had produced them to allow her to believe how dynamic life was and how seasons changed. She was defeated and trapped in her state of pessimism.
The melodious rhapsody of an unacquainted flute casted a trance and tied a web of episodes to Antara’s memory. She had been hearing it for the past one week that she had taken refuge in this peaceful part of the world, which was Antara’s paternal uncle, Shubhomoy da’s home. Shubhomoy da had died of cancer the previous week. The flute from a distance played in compliment to Shubhomoy da’s home; a bachelor artist’s den. Antara stared blankly at the half-done clay pots and the pastel colours that were to soon adorn them. The pot carried a crack at its bottom and the battered grey on the colour plate spilled over to the floor. A tampered sketch sheet of a kind held two eyes; prominent and spiritual, humble yet brave, unfinished and waiting to be brought to life. Shubhomoy da’s last works these that were left orphaned and belittled in a material world that demanded reason and rationality. The eyes on the sketch pad resembled someone’s, Antara had thought.
She still heard the flute play, resounding in the wilderness. The arch of its notes pierced through her. It read like ecstasy. Tomorrow would be Mahalaya; a day of offering to one’s ancestors and the welcoming of Goddess Durga to her father’s home, the Earth. The eyes were as powerful as God’s herself. She stared into the eyeballs, that were blackened deeply at the centre, with a transluscent fade near its cornea, reflecting light. The eyes were as persevere and divine as the one who fought evil out. Antara waded into a part of her memories of childhood in Kolkata; ones that were evidence of her liberal upbringing, ones that had stamped the mark of a ‘tigress’ in her. She cried for the tigress had long lost her ferocity.
Antara pictured her mother, a devout, a pious and religious lady. She remembered her intoxicating eyes and tried to put together the set she saw on Shubhomoy da’s sketch sheet. Were they hers? Shubhomoy da had been close to his sister-in-law in many ways than one after she adopted him as her brother. Antara followed the thick brush of eye lashes that she saw on the sketch sheet. They were abundant and bushy. They were long as eternity and they could conceal the most wretched mistake. She remembered how her mother had protected her at the university when a fellow classmate, who she claimed was her biggest well wisher, tried to violate her dignity. Nobody came to know of it and Antara remained untarnished.
She wept in steady fits. She wanted to have her mother back, who was now no more and the days, she was fighting to get back.
The flute rang in perfect harmony to what was supposedly Antara’s last night of freedom. She was in shackles…ones that were trenching deep under her skin. The blood that ran in her was cold and discoloured. She hummed a forgotten Tagore song and latched onto the window bars. She wanted to know the maker of those far-off melodies and seek peace. She sailed with the Mahananda and hoped to become a sparkle in its sprinkle.
Antara shrugged a strange thought. Could those eyes be hers? Doe-eyed dame with a mission of a lifetime…that is how college mates had known her some ages back. She studied the stretch of its contours and noticed deep rings under the eyes. She felt purity in the whiteness of its sclera. The brows were tall and impressionable. A sumptuous amount of kohl marked its dimensions, as did it of the eyes. She felt a difference and instead strayed back into another resemblance.
The flute, as a companion of bliss suddenly became faint and obsolete. Antara pressed to its direction and fought to hold its tune together whilst images of her meeting with Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan’s political bearers, stormed her insides. She wouldn’t want to recall this part of her life and how sacredly she had tried to keep it at bay this night at least. Her memories were wild and frightening. Antara didn’t want to face those eyes on the sketch sheet anymore. She wished she could erase them as much as she desired those days in Larkana near Mohenjodaro, Pakistan, had never existed. In a lowly built shack with bricks that edged out and a ceiling made of broken tiles she had spent some five years of her misery. Something or the other recalled for her the trauma every night. Today they were the eyes…she felt now were very similar to Lady Bhutto’s.
Antara was an undergraduate when Shafique, a Bangladeshi muslim, met her in the course of an interim project for her semester. Shafique was working as an intern with the art associates. Antara was just out of a relationship then and in her agitation would not know the duplicacy Shafique would bring to her life thereafter. In his posh New Alipore apartment, that evening after training, Antara pledged herself to him. She had looked around and had admired the exclusive mahogany chair in his study and the expensive bamboo ashtray. She knew what she wanted in life…an education to boost her skills, a freedom to soar and comfort of lifestyle. She found all in Shafique. It was a similar day in October six years back when she had duped her mother to settle for her beaux.
The flute was even fainter now, as if in resignation to Antara’s self chosen fate. The tones were much too distant and Antara turned the ring on her forefinger, her mother’s last gift to her. Those eyes on the sketch sheet stared at her in sheer disobedience and demanded explanation. Antara calculated her shaky steps that walked towards the sketch sheet. Her mind was into a whirlwind. She wanted to take the sketch to some conclusion. It had been years since she had actually put pencil to paper. The dim glow of the room reminded her of the house that had stripped her of all her grace and well being. The flute still sprayed among the hills a euphoric sheen and much to compliment the contrast in Antara, turned to farther, happier destinations. Antara didn’t try to hold the tunes anymore. She heard them move away from her and hit her only with a sudden gust of wind.
Shubhomoy da’s pencils and charcoal lids were littered in his case on the bottom most shelf of his book case. Antara picked a few of them and began her work. She drew an upward arc above the eyes on the sketch sheet and densed the side lashes of the upper lid of the eyes. The shade in the dip near the nose became prominent. She could feel some of its blackness in the corner of her own eyes also, reasons of which lay in Pakistan.
Opposite to the grand crematorium of the Bhuttos in Larkana, Antara had stayed with Shafique for five long years. As a revolt to hysterical relatives and explosive religious subjugation in Chittaranjan, Bangladesh, Shafique’s home, they had eloped to his ‘supposed’ maternal uncle’s place in Mohenjodaro. After some weeks of manufactured prosperity, the proclivity seemed to disappear. Antara would find pills that were stacked in Shafique’s drawers. She wouldn’t know what they were and hence was keen to know what took place behind her. Some Latif would visit Shafique twice a week and they exchanged some illustrious notes. Shafique’s ‘supposed’ maternal uncle didn’t seem to exist. There were neighbours but none would interact with intimacy and hence life would transform into a gory, isolated dungeon for Antara.
Antara aimed at the sketch’s forehead with a ferocity and focus she didn’t know to have had. She stroked a huge tuft of hair upwards in a continuous and deft manner leaving behind a virtually broad forehead. Her mind did stop thinking though, chapters of her life so painful and malignant that would, perhaps, require death to beat. A couple of months before her assasination in November 2007, Antara remembered to have met Lady Bhutto in Larkana. She had returned from London and was on way to reviving PPP’s stature in Pakistan, when she had visited their ancestral crematorium for blessings. Antara could not forget for days thereafter the aura and grit the lady reflected. She had seen a part of herself in Lady Bhutto’s quest of purpose. If her ways were correct, and if the final achievement worth it, were not Antara’s concerns. She still remembered her words when she had waved to a group of deprived women and hinted that their strength laid in their weaknesses. “How often great women speak alike!” Antara had thought reminiscing her mother.
A picture dredged up a tumbler of guilt and remorse in Antara when she remembered the phone calls she had made to her mother on Elgin road, Kolkata, weeks after weeks from her world of mischief. Her mother was as calm and elegant as a swan and had just advised her to be safe wherever she lived. Another week…and she was no more. The shame and pain of what was, perhaps, the dreadest part of her life, had cut deep into her conscience and though she had forgiven Antara, the quietness killed her.
Antara drew a sharp nose on the sketch sheet, taut on the outer cover of the nostrils. There was seemingly less space between the lips and the nose. The lips were painted red and the skin appeared flawless in the pencil marked image. Antara’s eyes were fixated on her work and she didn’t seem to garner any lament. The flute could no more be heard and the night was at its most silent hour. For days, as today, Antara had been wondering if the flute player could actually read her mind, for whenever she traversed melancholy the past few days, the flute would stop showering its ecstasy. She thought if that was metaphorical of God’s punishment to her.
Antara’s pencil drew a straight line on the sheet as did her memory on her mind. Shafique’s pills were drugs and he, a mafia. She took a while to find out the truth about Shafique. He was a drug addict and a lunatic too, who had forced Antara into three abortions. Latif was a jehadi and the house was a private trap. She would wake up to noises of crime and hidden agenda. She heard nothing of that New Alipore flat of his ever thereafter. Was that a mirage? She had questioned herself umpteen times to no avail till that day when she managed to escape playing the guise of a spy.
Antara was into the last few curves of her sketch. The jaw line fell from a height in a calculative stroke of her pencil. The face was long and the hair bushy. The picture wore a head cover that stood like a hood and those protagonist eyes were a mark of elegance and austerity. Antara had drawn Benazir Bhutto. She could see dawn breaking outside into another day. The flute and the beads were gone. She could hear birds chirping outside and the hills were partially visible now.
The morning opened to the chants of Mahalaya as broadcasted on the local radio channels. Antara heard after six long years those chants that were so dear to her mother and that she remembered an incredible portion of still. Shubhomoy da’s final portrait was complete and possibly held a different meaning from what he would have wanted it to be. Antara, stared in awe of the sketch she performed and its manifestations. Tears ran down and slipped from her chin as her struggle was over now.
Lady Bhutto was symbolic of the years she had spent in exile and anonymity. The face was a declaration that those years, indeed, happened to be an integral part of her life…somehow that wouldn’t leave her on her own…years that underlined her presence and defined her identity. She was an escapist. She was not the ‘tigress’. Her mother, as God herself, stood to fight evil. They were the epitome of patience and tolerance. Antara felt petty. She could see the banks of Bangladesh on the other side of the Mahananda. She hated to recall the man and her experiences that had reduced her to such a negligible frame. Mahalaya welcomed the Goddess of power. Three weeks later would be the sixth death anniversary of her mother. Lady Bhutto was among one of the graves in Larkana, being a victim to political hullabaloo. And here Antara sat, the once aspiring artist, with her masterpiece; the one that surmised her existence. Today, she would begin another chapter of her life. She would soon be fetched by relatives who would admit her to an asylum in Kolkata.