There is always a light

There is always a light
Don't be afraid if you are alone or surrounded by darkness. In some part of the world, the day has just begun. There is a always a light waiting for you to find your way to touch its radiance.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Between Life & Death

By Shubhomoy Banerjee
Anand, India

Good morning! It is 6 AM. A mechanised voice greeted Sourojit as he was rudely jolted out of his sleep. He was alone. And he was in Kolkata. Sweta was not there. Darjeeling? He was at home in his pyjamas which he would always wear to bed. So it was just a dream then? Lying awake he wished for a moment that the dream be true. But then dreams are just that. Dreams. Just then the reminder alarm on his mobile phone went off. Visit Dr. Bhattacharjee for biopsy report, it read. So the day of reckoning had finally come. He had been having some trouble with a boil on his chin for the past four months. Initially, he had thought that it was the result of just another careless shaving manoeuvre. But then it had been increasing in size. Some amount of prodding by his colleagues finally led him to consult Dr. Bhattacharjee. Dr. Bhattacharjee after hearing him out, too for a moment had ceased to be his usual jovial self. With a grim face, he prescribed a biopsy. “Biopsy? Is it cancerous, doc?” Sourojit was shattered. “I am not sure, but we need to confirm before we continue with our treatment”, said Dr. Bhattacharjee. “Get your report a week later”.

That was last Wednesday. The week had been hectic for Sourojit. Driving from his
Santoshpur Avenue flat to his Salt Lake office would suck out half of his energy everyday. He worked as the marketing manager in a reputed pharmaceutical company. The company had recently come out with a new drug and as had been happening in the previous couple of weeks, this week too had passed off in a jiffy, preparing and making presentations, attending doctors, formulating strategies and the like. So much so that the report had gone out of his mind. Dr. Bhattacharjee’s grim face was also forgotten. But his mobile phone had brought him back to the present. Is it cancer? What if it is? What will happen to me? My career? And Sweta? Will she miss me after I am gone? Will she cry over my dead body? Probably not. After all hadn’t she herself shouted on the phone the other day that she hated him? No, Sweta will never miss me. She might rather be happy. Sourojit had by now decided to give office a miss. So he will have to wait till 10 AM before he got the report. Two cups of strong coffee and three cigarettes later, he sat down with the newspaper. The “Sunday feeling” refused to leave him. India had won the one day series in Australia and Dhoni had become the new national hero. There wasn’t much else to catch the eye. It was 8.30 AM. Another one and a half hours of wait. Sourojit wondered what to do. Should I call Sweta? She wasn’t aware of his condition. Though Sweta had left him six months back, he would often call her up. Her response would mostly be cold and many a times she wouldn’t even take the call. He would also often take a detour through Gariahat so that he could drive past Sweta’s Dhakuria flat, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, even if that would take another forty five minutes to reach his office. Sweta had gone to live in Dhakuria six months back, two years into their marriage. Calling Sweta now would not serve any purpose. She would be on her way to office. He called his office and informed them that he won’t be coming that day. He arranged some files, made another cup of coffee, and smoked another cigarette but time just refused to pass. It was just 9.15. Dr. Bhattacharjee’s clinic was just a 15 minutes drive away. Sourojit was having butterflies in his stomach. He shaved, took his bath, had some buttered toast and another cup of coffee. 9.55 AM and he was off.

Dr. Bhattacharjee was intimated of his arrival. On entering his chamber, Sourojit had the first sting of doubt. Dr. Bhattacharjee was unusually grim. “Morning Doc. What does the report say?” , Sourojit found himself croak. His efforts at remaining carefree were failing him. Dr. Bhattacharjee got up from his chair handed him the report, and placed a hand on Sourojit’s shoulder. “You came here a bit too late”. Sourojit didn’t need to be told anything else. The doctor continued, “The stage of metastasis has set in a little time back. I am afraid there is very little which can be done now.” Dr. Bhattacharjee’s words did not reach Sourojit’s ears. He was not hearing anything. “How much time do I have,doc?” He heard himself asking. “Three months at five cigarettes a day”. Sourojit rushed out of the clinic. He was shattered. Why did this have to happen to him? Why him? What should he do now?  He drove through the bye pass to Karunamoyee and then came back home, all the time groping for an answer.  He had not found any answer on the way. He had always hated death. He loved life. He was a passionate singer and was a member of the college band at
Jadavpur University, from where he did his bachelors in pharmacy. He had taken his passion to Delhi where he went for his MBA and was also judged the best singer on many occasions in many competitions. Always flamboyant in his college days, and even now, he loved wearing new clothes, eating good food and partying. He would smoke the costliest of cigarettes and wear the costliest of brands. Sweta had often chided him for his spendthrift ness. But he was not the one to listen. “What the hell I earn 50000 bucks a month for?” He would ask.

He was still looking for an answer to his question. Why him of all on this earth?  He felt like crying. He was missing Sweta. He desperately wanted to hear her voice. He was looking for comfort. He wanted someone to say that this was a bad dream and would not last. He tried Sweta’s mobile phone. It was switched off. He did not feel like having his lunch. He tried to sleep but sleep eluded him. He lighted another cigarette. Should he hang himself? Three months later or now. He was dying anyway. At least if it is now he won’t have to count his final days. Then finally it dawned upon him. He had hurt Sweta a lot. God was now giving it back to him. He had got his answer. He was being punished for all the misery he had heaped upon Sweta. Sweta’s tears were the cause “why it was he of all on this earth”. He found himself unable to think rationally. He remembered the day when Sweta left for her Dhakuria flat. That was the Thirteenth of December. A Friday. “Friday the thirteenth is unlucky”, Sourojit would often say. Sourojit remembered Sweta’s teary eyes that misty December morning. And also the hatred behind those tears. The hatred in her eyes had haunted him for about three months and he had not dared to call her up all this time.

Sweta’s flat in Dhakuria was very near to the Dakshinapan shopping complex, where he had met her for the first time. That was in 1998. Sweta was a student of  computer engineering in Sonarpur, not far from Jadavpur and stayed in a PG accommodation near
Jadavpur University. Sourojit stayed in the university hostel. Sourojit would visit Dakshinapan almost every evening for his daily rounds of adda with his friends. Sweta was introduced to him during one such adda session by a classmate of his, who shared her accommodation with Sweta. They seemed to hit it off instantly. They had many common interests, music being one of them. Sourojit was not a trained singer but sang beautifully. Sweta had learnt classical music in Durgapur, where her parents stayed. They would chat for long hours and would continue it at night on phone. They joined coaching classes for MBA in Jodhpur Park and got calls from reputed institutes. Sourojit joined an institute in Delhi and Sweta went to Hyderabad for her MBA. Their courtship continued for the next two years and Sourojit put the question to her on the day of his placement. It was also the thirteenth of December. But not a Friday. Sweta said yes. Both of them chose Kolkata as the city of their postings. They married in 2004, bought a flat in Santoshpur Avenue and moved ahead with their careers. Sourojit had everything going for him. A successful career, a house, a car and a happy married life, everything he had hoped of as a dreamy eyed youngster in the steel city of Jamshedpur. But then it happened. Soma was newly recruited in Sourojit’s company as a marketing executive. It was 2005. She was to report directly to Sourojit. Teaching her the nuances of marketing in the “highly competitive” pharmaceutical industry, and making business plans together, Sourojit had become quite close to Soma. Suddenly he had started finding faults with Sweta, started shouting at her and once even slapped her. Soma seemed to be perfect in all she did. Sourojit found himself being attracted towards Soma. He started going out for lunches and dinners with her. Sweta, though she was surprised at Sourojit’s sudden change in behaviour had not suspected anything, till Sourojit told it all himself. Sweta was shocked, but hoped that he would come over this fling. But things did not improve and Sweta found a flat in Dhakuria and started living there. Two months later Soma introduced Sourojit to Abhro, her “good friend” from college. Sourojit was stunned. He had never imagined his life to be in such a mess, especially when he had thought that he had everything going for him. But then that is life.

He was jolted back into the present by the sound of his mobile phone. It was a message from customer care. Get a top up of 50 Rs. and get unlimited free local calls to any customer of the same network. Sourojit remembered his college days. He would wait for schemes such as these, so that his late night chats with Sweta could be longer at lesser costs. He smiled in despair. At his helplessness. How much his life had changed in the past six months! Sweta had left him. Soma had ditched him. And now the death knell by Dr. Bhattacharjee a few hours back.

It was 5 PM. He was feeling hungry. He made a cup of coffee and some toasts. After having his full, he lighted another cigarette. His tenth for the day. Dr. Bhattacharjee had said “three months at five cigarettes a day”. At this rate he would live for an even shorter time. He decided to try Sweta’s number once again. This time the call went through.

“Yeah Sourojit, what is it?”, Sweta asked. “Sweta could we meet?”, he gathered courage to ask. “Why? what else do you want to come out with?”, Sweta was cold. “That can’t be told on the phone”. “Please, Sweta”, he pleaded, “please”. He trailed off. Sweta sensed that something was wrong. In the eight years she had known him she did not remember Sourojit’s voice ever breaking. He had always been cool about everything. Absolutely no tension about anything. Sweta would infact silently admire Sourojit for this facet of his personality. Okay 7.30 in the evening. Where do we meet? “Dakshinapan? On the stairs in front of Nazrul Mancha?” “Where we had met for the first time?”, Sourojit suggested. “Okay but by 7.30, I mean 7.30.” Sweta said and hung up. Sweta hated waiting and was very particular about punctuality.

She was surprised. She had been staying away from Sourojit for the past six months. But was some part of her still clinging to the past? Sweta’s thoughts went back to the day when Sourojit had first asked her out. He had turned up a full one hour late. From then on Sweta had always made it a point to remind Sourojit that he should be on time. “When I say 5.30, by that I mean 5.30.” She had often remarked to Sourojit. That was when they would plan to meet after college. Not that it had made much effect on Sourojit who would almost always be late but disarm Sweta with the 100 watt charming smile of his. Sweta’s chain of thoughts was broken by the cuckoo clock. It was 7’o clock. They were to meet at 7.30. For some reasons she did not want to be late today. She reached Dakshinapan at 7.25. Surprisingly Sourojit was already there. Probably for the first time or was it the second time in the eight years she had known him, Sourojit had out timed her. Sourojit looked strikingly thin. Sweta knew that Sourojit would often pass by her flat. She could not have made any mistake here. The deep blue colour of the car, Sweta’s favourite colour and the number, WB-02 R, 1312. The 1312 stood for the 13th of December, the day she had said yes. Perhaps it was an unfortunate co incidence that she had left her
Santoshpur Avenue home on the same date. They had to pay an extra 500 bucks to the transport office at Alipore for the customised number. Sweta also had had some conversations with Sourojit on the phone but had never met him in person in the past six months.

“What is the matter with you? You seem to have lost a lot of weight. Everything okay?”. Sourojit was moved by Sweta’s concern. He felt belittled. Even after what he had done to her, Sweta was still so caring. Or was it a show she was putting up? No Sweta had always been like that. He hated himself for thinking that way. He lost all control over his emotions. He broke down. “No Sweta, nothing is okay”, he sobbed between his tears. A couple seemed to stop, but then moved on. Sweta did not know what to do. A part of her wanted to embrace him and move her fingers through his curly hair, something which she had done the day Sourojit lost his grandfather, a person he was very close to. But the other part seemed to tell her that everything between them was over and they were just two people bound by a tumultuous past. In the end the other part won. Sweta stood there like a statue. Sourojit wiped his tears and looked at her. “Sweta, I am dying.” At first Sweta did not seem to understand. But she didn’t have to probe further. “I have cancer and have got only three months”, Sourojit blurted out and started crying again. As if the burden he had been carrying for the past nine hours had suddenly left him. It was a cry of relief. Sweta could not stop herself this time. She hugged him and ran her fingers through his curly hair. But she didn’t say anything. Perhaps, she was too stunned to react. She still applied sindoor and wore the shankha and the pola, the signs that she was married and that her husband was still alive. They had not formally filed for a divorce yet. Finally after he had stopped crying, he detailed Sweta about all that had happened. Sweta, the good listener that she always had been, heard him out with compassion. She could feel tears stinging her eyes but she controlled herself. Sourojit seemed so vulnerable. She could not afford to break down in front of him. She steeled herself. Sourojit suggested that they eat something. They went to their favourite south Indian eatery and ate their masala dosas in silence. They took leave of each other at nine. Time, it seemed had flown by. Sweta could not control herself after she reached her flat. She broke down. Sourojit, her Sourojit was dying. She still could not come to terms with this fact. It was a fact that she had hated him for all that he had done to her. It also was a fact that they had not been staying together for the past six months. But at the same time it was a fact that somewhere deep down she still cared for Sourojit. Sourojit had told her about Abhro, Soma’s “good friend from college”. She had then in fact felt sorry for him. It was her empathy for Sourojit, for she herself had gone through her share of heartbreak not very long back. She had also wished that they start their life afresh and forget all that had happened as if it were a nightmare. But she never told Sourojit about what she wished. Somewhere her ego had pulled her back. Every time Sourojit called, she would wish that he would make that elusive offer. But her conversations with Sourojit would never extend beyond the formal pleasantries. Slowly, hope had given way to despair and she had brought herself to believe that Sourojit no longer missed her and had learnt to live without her. That was till today evening. Sourojit’s way of talking had somehow given an impression that he was ready for reconciliation. But what happened at Dakhsinapan, was something which she hadn’t thought of even in her wildest dreams.
She was in no mood to eat. She tried watching a movie. But her thoughts wandered elsewhere. She thought of the mess Sourojit had put himself in. She still remembered the night when Sourojit had told her about his affair with Soma. He had in fact blurted it out in a fit of rage. They had a small argument about the food which Sweta had prepared. “What the hell is this?”, Sourojit had shouted. “Why don’t you tell Soma to prepare your food?”, Sweta had retorted. “Ha! Soma, You know what, Sweta, you could never ever even think of preparing food like she does”. “Oh so you have tasted her food? And pray when are you going to sleep with her?” “I wish it were today.” , Sourojit had shouted. “Are you guys having an affair?”. “I don’t know what an affair is but I love her”. Sweta came back to the present. Her phone was ringing. It was Sourojit. He had probably left his ATM card with her. That was a usual practise. Sourojit would never keep his ATM card in his wallet. “If my pocket is picked, the ATM card will be gone”, he would say. He loved wearing jeans and T-shirts and to do away with the discomfiture of the ATM card pricking his thighs through the trouser pockets, he would hand it over to Sweta, when they met. Even after their marriage it was Sweta who would carry it with her, whenever they went out together. Sweta remembered that Sourojit had actually gone to the ATM just opposite Dakshinapan that evening. The past was coming back to them quite naturally. Everything was moving as if nothing had happened. Can’t it be true? Sweta told him that she would hand it over to him the next day on her way back from office. Sweta could not sleep the whole night. At the office too she was preoccupied with thoughts about Sourojit. Sourojit was not bad. He had just lost his way. She was sure he missed her as much as she missed him. Sweta reached
Santoshpur Avenue at 7. It was after six long months that she was travelling on S-9. Everything seemed so familiar. Even the conductor for once had seemed to recognise her. Earlier she would come to Karunamoyee from her Sector V office and take the 6.15, S-9 from there. The watch man at the apartment complex looked surprised but gave her a salaam, nevertheless. “Kemon Achcho, Basuda”( How are you Basuda), she asked. “Chole jachche didi” (Life is moving on didi). Sourojit was waiting for her. He told her that he had taken a week’s off from his office and would join only next Monday. Sweta sat in the drawing room. The interiors had not changed much after she had left. A new table clock now occupied the place on the rack, where Sweta’s convocation photograph stood earlier. Sourojit’s convocation photograph was still there. The TV screen had a thick layer of dust. So Sourojit still hates cleanliness, she thought. Sourojit looked weak. He seemed to be having some problem with his breathing. “How many today?” she asked. “15 and still counting”. Both of them were surprised at the natural manner of the question and the answer. They smiled to themselves. Sourojit had always been a heavy smoker. That was probably the only thing about him that Sweta found disgusting. “Why don’t you quit it?”, she would ask. “It keeps me awake”. “And I am not quitting till the doctor says, another puff and you are gone.” “But why reach such a situation?”. “Oh! Come on Sweta, Everyone of us has come here with a fixed span. Smoking or no smoking you are going to die at the time you are supposed to. Not a second earlier, not a second late”. “But if you say I might consider reducing my intake”. Then onwards it had become a practise. Whenever they would meet, Sweta would ask “how many today?”

Their past was slowly but surely making its way into their present. And probably both of them wished, nothing had happened and life would have been moving as usual. There was an eerie silence in the room. Sourojit spoke first. “Coffee?”, he asked. “Okay”. Sourojit was an expert coffee maker. Somehow he always seemed to get the combination of the coffee powder, the milk and the sugar right. Sweta would in fact envy him for this skill of his. The coffee mugs were the same. Sourojit had taken special care to get her the coffee in her favourite “Dennis the Menace mug”. They had bought the set from Gariahat, just after their marriage, when they lived in a rented accommodation in Mukundapur, just off the EM bye pass. They did not talk much. And whatever they talked was just a formality. Probably an effort to keep the conversation going. Sweta left at 8.30. The C-5 which she took was surprisingly not very crowded. She reached her flat at 9:30. The long route which C-5 would take had always irritated Sweta. She was feeling hungry. She had some subzi from the morning. She prepared some chapattis had her dinner and went to sleep. Last night’s sleeplessness was making its presence felt.

Sourojit would call her up more frequently now. She would also call him up occasionally and would also sometimes drop in at his flat on her way back from office. The discomfort between them however was still there. Sourojit would look tired and would often gasp for breath. He had also been losing weight. Sweta would not spend much time in his flat and would often cry after coming back. Her Sourojit was going away from her. “Why us of all on the earth?” she would ask the photograph of Goddess Kali which hung just above her bed.

About one and a half months after she came to know about Sourojit’s condition, she received a call from the AMRI hospital in Dhakuria. “Mrs. Chatterjee”, the voice said, “Your husband has taken ill and has been admitted to AMRI, Dhakuria. He gave us your number and told that we intimate you about it. The visiting hours are between 5 and 6 in the evening.” Sweta hung up and ran to the washroom. She put the tap on and cried. So her Sourojit was finally leaving her forever. She will have to start circling the dates on the calendar once again. Exactly as she did during her MBA in
Hyderabad. Earlier it would give her an idea of the number of days left before she could meet Sourojit. Only this time it would be to get an idea of the number of days before Sourojit left her forever. She visited him in the evening. He looked weak but was breathing properly. He was discharged the next day. She had already applied for a week’s casual leave so that she could be by his side all the time. Well almost all the time. Because despite their being husband and wife, she somehow felt uncomfortable in sharing the bed with him. She would go back to her flat every night and would be at his flat by 7. He was still able to do everything himself. Only his gasps had increased. The doctors at the hospital had refused to specify the number of days he had. “It could be tomorrow, it could even be another two months.” Sourojit suggested that she move in his flat. “Temporarily”. “So that I could have you beside me if I were to die suddenly”, he gave a weak smile. “You can use the other bedroom if you please”. He understood her discomfiture. Sweta agreed.

They were now a little more comfortable in each other’s company and would chat for hours. Sourojit’s speech had become slower and he would gasp for breath more frequently. She would play his favourite records on the CD player and would sing “Tere Liye Palkon Ki jhalar bunoon” for him. This was the song she had sung when Sourojit had once jocularly told her to prove her love for him. And almost every night she would cry till she slept.

Shweta would always make it a point to steel herself in front of Sourojit. But one day she could not contain herself. She hugged Sourojit and asked “Sourojit why did this have to happen to us?”, she sobbed. “What harm have we done to someone that God has singled us out? Can’t we get back with our lives? As if nothing has happened? Can’t we get a time machine , go back in time and change everything?” “I love you Sourojit. I have always loved you. More than I would ever love myself. I won’t be able to live without you.” “Please Sourojit don’t leave me alone.” Sourojit’s eyes fell on the desk calendar. It was Friday, the 13th of July. “So Friday the thirteenth is not always unlucky”, he thought. He closed his eyes. He could feel tears streaming down his cheeks. His face wore a contented look. He did not hate death anymore. Life had taken Sweta away from him. It was death which had brought her back. How could he hate death then?


  1. Touching. Well written!

  2. Excellent piece..........leaves a trail of "that eternal feeling" after reading it........
    The pace is awesome and adds on to the flow of the story.......Gr888 job