'Missing Glow-Worm': Mallika Bhaumik's Brilliant Short Story That You Should Be Reading Right Now

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'Missing Glow-Worm': Mallika Bhaumik's Brilliant Short Story That You Should Be Reading Right Now

Short fiction by Mallika Bhaumik

I

It was around four in the afternoon, that Hiya's brisk footsteps crossed the sprawling courtyard of Banarjee Bhaban. The old discoloured bricks of the house watched with clenched teeth as she walked towards the gate that led to their portion. She climbed the stairs and creaked open the large green wooden door and stepped inside the space which she had known to be her home since birth.

A broad verandah ran in front of the three rooms leading to a washroom and kitchen and a small open terrace. The verandah had grills, which was a later addition. Hiya unlocked the door of her mother's room, which was large, unlike the other two rooms. A musty smell greeted her as she stepped in.

Her mother's grand mahogany bed, ornate closet, dressing unit and piano stood in complete contrast against the plebeian look of the room. Her eyes inevitably fell on her mother's framed loveliness on the chest of drawers adjacent to the bed, captured by the famous Bourne and Shepherd, smiling at her.

She switched on the fan, threw her duffel bag on the bed and lay down. While looking up at the ceiling fan, numerous past moments swirled within her along with the circling blades. It was a hot afternoon and Hiya, tired that she was, slipped into a short blissful nap till she heard some playful voices outside and got up. She sat up and looked out with puffy eyes. The late afternoon sky was a palette of scarlet and gold, melting. Some young boys were running across their lane, few known and unknown faces walked by, a woman occupying a portion of the sidewalk was frying fritters, a very popular evening snack for many in that neighbourhood. She remembered Noni bringing in lip-smacking fritters for them in earlier days. Hiya wondered if Noni used to bring it from the same woman.

She almost called out, 'Noni' dragging the i sound as she had always done expecting her to be around in no time.

"What makes you shout?" Noni would come chiding her, can't you say, I am hungry?" and then, "when will you grow up?" Next she would put down a glass of Horlicks and order, "Drink it now."

Her mother, Madhurilata, would mimic Noni's tone and say, "I am hungry," and both of them would laugh out loud. Noni would take some small changes from the table and go out to bring fritters, which would be served with puffed rice and tea .She would then remorsefully add that it was unfair of God to make Madhurilata eat such modest food as Noni herself. She never failed to reminiscence about the lavish days Madhurilata spent at her father's home, like a true princess. Madhuri came to Banarjee Bhaban with colourful dreams heaps of gold and silver, mohagany furniture, her favourite piano and of course, Noni. Her dreams had withered with time and most of her jewellery pawned or sold but Noni, with her loyalty and love, served her till she lived.

Dusk would arrive in their home not with the sound of conch shell as in other nearby homes, but with the sound of piano played by Madhurilata.

Hiya and her twin brother who were called Mimi and Buro at home, listened to her songs while sitting with their homework. They hardly mingled with the other children of the house or with any of the neighbourhood. Madhurilata did not talk to many either, making the gap between her aristocratic upbringing and their ordinariness look even more stark. She did not attend any puja function of the house either, being a Bramho by faith.The other inmates of the house too maintained their distance and their conversations were limited to Noni or Amal Kanti, Madhurilata's artist husband, who could never impress anyone in life, except the beautiful and rich Madhurilata. She saw sparks of genius in his art, fell in love and married him much to the displeasure of her family.

Hiya sighed while thinking of her mother. What a waste of her mellifluous voice, her lovely looks, what a waste of such fine taste for life! Madhurilata was fond of Sandhya Mukherjee's songs and often sang those to near perfection. She would tuck some flower in her hair and looked every inch a diva.

She was a misfit in the house or rather in the very life that she led. Her frustration with the monotony of a middle class life and its financial constrains often made her days dull in the Banarjee household. However, her fizzled out dreams and all other associated bitterness were brushed aside when her nimble fingers played the piano, taking her to a different realm.She was an artist at heart who worshipped beauty, and hoped for a fine life which eluded her the more she chased it.

Hiya looked back at her own life and found it similar to the emptiness of the house, the house too looked back at her through the cobwebs of memories.

The faded hues of her girlhood days nudged her gently as she noticed a pair of lizards with eager bulging eyes running across the discoloured wall. The four pairs of busy feet reminded her of the two pairs that ran along the verandah, hers and Buro's. Hiya felt sure that the lizards too were twins like them.

The dampened walls which had her story written all over them stood in grave silence, like a lull before a storm. It seemed, with the passing away of the night the flaky plastered walls would come crumbling down and all the moments of her girlhood days would scatter on the floor. She found her eyelids growing heavy and some warm salty drops ran down her cheeks. Banarjee Bhaban would go to a city based Marwari promoter and each branch of the big family would get an apartment or money, as per their choice. This was a trend that was fast emerging in the city and many such colossal houses, being high on maintenance along with multiple owners were given away to promoters for slimmer looking flats which boasted of modern looks and better facilities. Hiya being the only representative of her family would get her share of money since she did not want any space there. She had come to sign the final documents and sort out the things before the handover of the property.

She had nothing left in that house and was willing to let go of it and carry on with her life in a different city. It was her last night in that house which was a witness to the happiness and pain that had coloured the canvas of her life. A ray of hope filtered through her gloomy thoughts that Buro might come back some day. Her heart skipped a beat thinking that he might not be able to locate her since the house would be gone. As her thoughts meandered along the different possibilities she realised that Buro would never come back. He was like the swallowed chunk of earth by a ravenous river, which could be mourned and remembered but never owned again. Still she decided to leave behind her address with the families of the Banarjee clan who would reside in the newly built flats.

Hiya was like her father. Their otherwise plain and simple looks had interesting bright pair of eyes giving the impression of a bright mind. Hiya had been a bright student all along. Being a quiet person it was much easier for Hiya to accept life as it came to her, still at times she felt that she was walking through a long tunnel of loneliness and failed to see any light at the end of it. She suffered silently just as her father did.

Amal Kanti had passed away when she passed out from high school. He had been an alcoholic in his later years. The disillusionment with his art and marriage left him a shattered man. He had always been a person of few words and gradually got reduced to a nonentity.

He carried the guilt of not being able to provide his wife with the best. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and had an infectious love for life and all the charms it had to offer.Her dreams about her artist husband bled colours with time and faded in the absence of the usual comforts she was used to. Her ways and manners were alien to most of the inmates of Banarjee Bhavan. Their prying eyes and curious nature added to her irritation and she avoided them like plague. Noni was her friend, confidante, mother and servant who sheltered her from many unpleasantness of life. It was because of Noni that Madhurilata never had to enter the sooty kitchen of the house.

The birth of the twins brought her immense joy and Madhurilata named them Hriday and Hiya, both having the same meaning, 'heart' since she believed that they were conceived first in her heart and then filled up her body and later, her life. She became a doting mom and their every tiny movement excited her to no end. She had lost her mother at an early age and her heart brimmed with happiness to give motherly love and care, of which she herself was deprived.

The birth of her children, opened the floodgates of love in another heart too, that of her father. He softened towards his daughter and came to her house for the first time. The sight of the little bundle of joys thrilled the old man who was in the autumn of his life. Being wise through years, he realised that love alone was not sufficient enough to bring up two children in a respectable way. He fixed a good amount of money for both the grandchildren and a generous monthly allowance for Madhurilata as long as she would live. Madhurilata's brother, who had inherited the entire property of his father did not falter to give his sister her due and Madhurilata enjoyed her monthly allowance till the end. He never got in touch with his sister and Madhurilata 's last visit to her father's house was to bid goodbye to the mortal remains of her father.

The sudden influx of her ancestral money stabilised the family to a certain extent. In the course of time, the children were put in good reputed schools, a fresh coat of paint adorned the walls, the verandah had grills, a gas stove; which was a new entrant in the kolkata market; got installed in their kitchen much to the thrill of Noni, whose work became easier and less time consuming. Amal Kanti too, landed up with some new assignment in the studio para, near Tollygunge. The family looked cheerful and finally managed a cosy holiday in Darjeeling. Their sepia hued happiness wrapped in woollens warmed the cockles of Hiya's heart whenever she turned over the pages of their old albums.

II

Hiya's eyes inevitably went to the locked door of the room that had once belonged to her and Buro.It was kept locked since he mysteriously left them one afternoon, never to return.The lock remained as a statement that one part of her life was sealed and she did not wish to access it again. The lack of expression belied the density of her grief.

She carried his absence like her heartbeats, letting it to be a part of her existence.

Buro was her twin brother. They were the best of friends and almost inseparable during their childhood. They looked different and gradually displayed contrasting nature as they grew up. Buro had bright charming looks like Madhurilata, he had the same zest for life, the same love for art and he was the same headstrong.

He was growing up in a milieu when the wind of anti establishment was blowing strong. The colour of revolution was red, the world had known of the Vietnam war, the memories of Naxalbari Andolan was still raw and India was reeling under the rude shock of Emergency. Buro started reading the newspaper thoroughly everyday. He was gradually coming out of his cocooned childhood, unfolding his wings, ready for his flight. He was heavily leaning towards the Leftist idealism.

It was during those unsettling days that he got into Presidency College. His mother feared for him since he was a rebel heart and was sucked into student politics in no time, but ironically it was not politics that was the cause of his disappearance, which she learnt later under tragic circumstances.

Hiya, studious and self effacing person that she was, got into Medical College and immersed herself with the study of the human body and its ailments. She was the least inclined to any form of art in the family.

Their college days started with the loss of their father. Amal Kanti was found dead at the doorstep of Banarjee Bhaban at the wee hours of an autumn dawn. He was coming home late into the night, heavily drunk, tripped and fell, never to get up again. Hiya saw him lying flat on his back, his face turned to one side. Blood that was deep, red and brooding like his love, formed an umbrella around his head. The eyes and mouth were open like that of a fish brought out of water. Was he taking in the last gulp of air? Hiya wondered as she looked at him lying helplessly at the doorway and realised that he had moved beyond her reach and she would not find him around any longer. The sense of an endless distance created a feeling of helplessness within her. That was how death bruised her with its unforgiving presence for the first time.

Amal Kanti, whose presence was hardly felt by anyone became the topic of discussion due to his sudden unexpected death.

Madhurilata fainted and everyone was shocked out of their wits. After recovering from the initial shock they started making accusations about Madhurilata.

Madhurilata was working as a jatra artist at that time and that added fuel to the fire. When Amal kanti ran out of his luck at the studio para, Madhurilata found her footing through some side roles in some forgettable movies. The movies did not earn her name, fame or money as she had hoped for, but finally it was the stage that gave her some of it. The delicate and beautiful Madhurilata gradually got used to the cacophony, strong make up, loud music and blinding lights of the jatra. The children were growing up and the money that she brought in, apart from her monthly allowance helped them bypass any financial crunch. Hiya looked in wonder at her mother when she came home late with her make up. She felt Madhurilata looked like a goddess. Buro used to remain immersed in his own world and sometimes wondered as to why his mother did not work in serious political theatre, but the person who had strong resentment against Madhurilata working on stage was Amal Kanti, though he never voiced it.

His relatives compensated his lack of words with berating comments and Madhurilata had none but Noni to save her. She left the stage and stopped singing too. She realised without the silent presence of Amal Kanti that, his love quiet and strong had been her shield and her weapon too, to face life. She used to stare at the street from her bedroom window, as if looking out in time awaiting the familiar figure to appear at the turn of the lane. The shadows of the evenings were long and wrapped in strange stillness. She did not sing or play the piano any longer. The children had grown up and spread their wings. Buro mostly came home late, Hiya came in with the dusk and buried herself in her books. Noni took the initiative of tying the long tresses of Madhurilata. She would often bring up some past incidents and both of them would talk endlessly, while on other days, Madhurilata would be unmindful and answer in monosyllables.

Madhurilata's producer and director, Madhusudan Ghosh used to come often to request her to go back to the stage. He was an elderly man who was besotted with her charm and was ready to do anything to please her. However it was not he, who brought her out of the sorrowful stupor but a bright young man, Sagar Dutta, whose calm composure and bright eyes made her heart leap once more as it had done years back for the artist, Amal kanti.

Sagar Dutta was a poet and novelist and whom Buro and many of his friends admired. He was their mentor and would often come along with others for adda (chitchat) and Madhurilata felt the strings of her heart throbbing with desire. She got attracted to him like a moth to flame. Her unruly heart pursued those people with the greatest zeal, who should have been kept at a distance. The very sight of the young gentleman broke all her resolve and made her desires run amok.

Madhurilata sat at the piano once more and none except Noni could make out that it was a ploy to attract her young lover just as nature has her own trick of wooing, the scent of flowers inviting the bees.

The young man gave in to her charming looks and gradually they came close. Noni's heart beat wildly, she knew Madhurilata like the lines of her open palm and could sense that nothing could deter her and feared some untoward happening. He would often come before Buro's return from college and both of them would talk and laugh endlessly, as time froze in their eyes.

The other inmates of Banarjee Bhavan could not stop gossiping about Madhurilata's waywardness. Noni once brought up the topic in a hesitant manner, Madhurilata giggled and confided, "Well, Noni can you not make out what is going on within me, tell me, can't you? It's your problem to manage them," and then in a theatrical voice added, "take out thy weapon, oh brave woman, thy tongue," and broke into peals of laughter.

Madhurilata had hinted at Noni's habit of lashing out at almost everyone with her caustic words and most feared her for her garrulous nature and wagging tongue. Noni laughed too, remembering the very young, jovial, pretty Madhurilata of long ago. Love brought back the girlish naivety, which had slowly ebbed away with the continuous grinding of life. As love surged back to her shore, she was completely swept away.

Madhu Babu would come and go back from the stair case on seeing Sagar's slippers in front of Madhurilata's room, and the printed curtain drawn. Noni's sharp tongue would not spare him, "Why drag your old bones here, she would not go back to your stage. Go home Madhu Babu."

Madhu Babu would mutter bitterly, "Why would she? Now her home has become the stage, new script of love story is being enacted," as he climbed down the old steps of Banarjee Bhaban.

Madhu Babu vowed not to come again, but Madhurilata's lovely face was too much of an attraction, moreover he had given her undue favours, now all that investment was on the verge of getting washed down the drain, that too for a silly love affair with a 'chokra '(young lad).He was scared of Noni but on that fateful day, he did not see her around and tiptoed through the verandah and pushed the door ajar to find the lovers lying entwined on the grand mahogany bed. The voyeuristic pleasure triggered the old lame animal in him. His gluttonous eyes had their fill seeing Madhurilata's silken flesh and he vowed to wreck her lush happiness. As luck would have it, he found Buro at the turn of the lane and waved. Buro did not like the look of Madhu Babu as he lowered his voice and spoke in a tone of conspiracy, ”Your mother has suddenly taken ill, your novelist friend is personally taking care of her, run fast or else you might miss seeing her.” Buro gasped on hearing this and rushed forward towards the gate of Banarjee Bhaban. Madhu Babu smirked in triumph.

That was the last time anyone saw Buro.He simply evaporated from the face of the earth. None of his friends could throw any light, Noni had no idea, Hiya was clueless. Madhurilata felt defeated by destiny. During police inquiry, Amal Kanti's cousin brother, Abani kanti told them that he remembered seeing Buro enter the premises of the house at around four that afternoon. It was then that Madhurilata knew deep down that Buro had left after seeing her in bed with Sagar Dutta. She sank in her guilt and suffered a massive attack within a fortnight. She lived for another nine years as a vegetable. Noni passed away due to a strange fever while Hiya was working as a junior doctor. Madhurilata was left to a caregiver as Hiya left town in pursuit of her career, literally running away from the house, the city and her wrung out purple memories.

III

Hiya went out of the room and stood by the verandah overlooking the common courtyard. The star dotted sky looked like a black sequinned shawl. The night breeze was soothing. Hiya could make out in the darkness that the creeper, Madhurilata or Madhobilata was in full bloom. Her father and Buro had planted it on one of their mother's birthday. It was a gift to her, bearing her name and her lovely looks; when it bloomed. Hiya was reminded of the spray of delicate pink petals all around and how her mother would often lung forward to pluck a nubile bunch and tuck it in her hair in the evening.

Her heart ached with the pain of losing everyone she had. The creeper was the only living entity from her days in the house that she could call her own. She wanted to spread out her arms and hug it and share her grief. It seemed to her, that the leaves and tendrils and buds were trying her to comfort her in their own way. Her tears flowed freely.

The night listened to the hushed tone of silence that spoke of Buro. She closed her eyes, eyes that were maps, that led to the space where she and Buro lived, where their charming mother played the piano and sang n the evenings. The old bricks of their home had stashed away the sounds of their voices and she heard her name being called, "Aye Mimi, see what I've got, its a glow-worm, come, see the light!"

She stood there on the edge of time looking out into the infinite darkness.

***

Mallika Bhaumik's poetry, short stories, travelogue, and articles have been published in magazines like Cafe Dissensus, Madras Courier, In Parentheses, Mad Swirl, StagHill journal,Shot glass journal,Get Bengal,WomanInc and others. She is the author of two poetry books, Ethos (Authorspress) and How not to remember (Hawakal Prokasana). She is also a nominee for the Pushcart Prize for poetry,2019. Her poems have been include in the PG syllabus of BBKM University,Dhanbad,2020.

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