Mrs.Sen ran a crèche in the Block. The township, drawn by Soviet-leaning planners, was plotted in neat geometric patterns, called Blocks. Each block had a cluster of beautiful houses--- A labor of love, of honest, hardworking owners; the homes reflected the owner’s tastes, and wealth, in the number of storeys, architecture, and upkeep.
Every single house, like the house-people in them, had a story to tell as all homes do. If anybody would listen, probably they would tell about the dog that died this morning at Mr. Roy’s; or the guava tree that was cut down on the corner house because Mrs. Anna didn’t fancy it; or the name of the boy that was born to Diggi at C-13!
The township itself was an island of peace and order in the midst of the disheveled Colonial metropolis Kolkata. Thirty years had gone by since the township and its independent standing homes were built; still, some of the houses, shone as new, like yesterday. Others silently spoke of their owner’s apathy, bearing signs of the vagaries of the tropical land like badges of honor.
Not all owners were residents like Mrs.Sen. She lamented that it had become fashionable in recent years to live abroad, for months together, leaving their homes to caretakers! The caretakers, from the grimy slums that had sprouted just outside the township, found unbridled freedom and sense of class in the upscale houses. All they had to do was to sweep the porticos and light the lamps in the evenings. They got paid what they wanted. In fact, with time, the owners would be grateful that they could engage someone at all! And the caretakers would behave as if they were doing a favor.
The owners, who stayed back, had all been respectable working class. Homes of bureaucrats, teachers, and retired judges built around the same time brushed shoulders. People had aged together and forged bonds stronger than family; they took immense pride in the community. There were bonhomie and tranquility but looming like an unseen ghost, was loneliness. People bunched together to combat it.
The elders took walks at the leafy community parks. Huge Mahogany, Mango, Neem and Gulmuhar trees lined the pavements. Mysterious unnamed foliage grew, a consequence of the place once being a forest.
Mrs.Sen loved the dense greenery. She loved the damp smell-the smell of moss. She thanked God each day for blessing her with a home here!
This late afternoon, most of those trees were shedding their leaves in the intermittent gusts of autumnal wind; like sudden awakening from mournful reverie. It was the harbinger of a short, mild winter in this part of the world.
Central to each block was a Community Hall, beside which was erected a huge fabric canopy where the residents had gathered. The biggest event in the community’s calendar---the festival celebrating the conquest of the Mother Goddess over demons, known in these parts as Durga Puja, was about to commence.
Presently, a small group of ladies were seated under the canopy. Mrs.Sen was part of the group. They had pulled their chairs together to form a closed circle. Closed circles! In other words, exclusivity! The community prided in exclusivity- whether it was the Benevolent Ladies Group, The Music Club or this, the Durga Puja Committee. New entrants were snubbed. It had been that way, always. Not that there were many new entrants or claimants to their elite groups anyway! The few who rented in the Block were soon shown their place in the hierarchy, and soon left the Block---reason why Mrs. Sen’s crèche was not doing too well. How many little kids in an elderly, closed community.
On either side of Mrs.Sen sat Mrs. Banerjee and Mrs. Mitra, the most erudite of the group. The rest of the coterie was Mrs. Ghosh, the loudmouth and the frail Mrs. Sinha. None of them quite remembered how they were drawn towards each other like atoms and formed this bond that lasted so many years.
The five elderly ladies, dressed in their festival finery, were sitting in front of the idol of the mother Deity. The Mother, having vanquished the demons, was visiting her maternal home---the Earth---with her children, from her heavenly abode. It was an occasion of jubilation, which her earthly children celebrated with equal measures of obeisance and fervor.
The priest was arranging the earthen lamps for the ritualistic obeisance to be performed later in the evening.
Dusk had pulled down a curtain of misty haze, accompanied by an unmistakable chill. The heady concoction of incense, flowers and smell of new clothes hang thick in the air. A group of small children were joyfully dancing to the tune wafting in from some distance.
“It is for this that I make sure I come down each year,” said Mrs. Banerjee, admiring the vista and taking in a lungful of the aroma.
“You can’t have this in Melbourne however much you try. Tell me, I say to my husband, can you pack in this air for me, over there?” she continued unmindfully stroking a pleat of her dark magenta kanjeevaram. The ladies nodded in agreement, their eyes resting where her hands were. They noted the expensive saree, and, with some jealousy, the large diamond on her finger.
‘It is important to dress well’, thought Mrs. Sen, ‘but you can’t wear a magenta at seventy, can you?’
She, on her part, was in an off-white silk with a royal blue border, hair neatly drawn to a bun and pretty pearls in her neck. Mrs. Sen took particular care of her appearance. Her idea was not to look fashionable but well groomed and presentable. She had been a teacher for the most part of her life; always surrounded by children. None of her own, though. After retirement to keep amidst the innocent laughter of little children, she had opened the crèche at her home. Her home was her nest, designed by her architect husband himself. Pretty potted plants lined its window sills and a huge bougainvillea hang above the wrought iron gate. Since, it was not for her livelihood; Mrs. Sen only accepted a token amount from the children in the crèche.
Fate had willed this life for her. Sometimes she envied the neighbors as they went abroad to their children. How they brought back stories (she thought, on purpose, to tell her), of how their grandchildren giggled and frolicked around them! But then, was she not happy at the crèche? How the kids hugged her and said they missed her on Sundays. She loved the children like her own.
She was jolted out of her musings by a sudden laughter. Mrs. Ghosh was extraordinarily amused by something! Mrs. Sen didn’t bother to ask.
Aloud, she spoke in a slightly teasing tone,
“Lovely ring, Mrs. Banerjee!” pointing to the stone, now sparkling in the fading light.
Mrs. Banerjee smiled sheepishly. “My husband insisted on having this from the duty free at Singapore airport while we were waiting for the connecting flight.” As the ladies watched, she lifted her hand closer to her eyes and looked at the ring endearingly. She thought of her husband. Even at this age, he was a jovial man with a hearty laughter, someone who loved and lived his life to the fullest.
She was still besotted with the man she fell in love with almost half a century ago!
“We missed you on Holi and Poila Boisakh”, Mrs. Ghosh made a face of mock anger, “Particularly the cuttingchai of Mr. Banerjee”, she added with a wink.
For many years, Mr. and Mrs. Banerjee hosted their neighbors at their home on festivals. ‘Get-togethers’- they were called, where the food took a backseat and allowed the conversations to take centre stage; interspersed by the full throated laughter of the imposing Mr. Banerjee. It almost reverberated in the circle that the ladies were sitting in now! These had continued until their son Sugato, travelled across the seas and the parents followed, ostensibly to keep a home for him. Initially, Melbourne proved warm and welcoming, and the son, grateful to his parents, for supporting him. But now it was different.
Mrs. Banerjee sat reminiscing. How the trips Down Under were becoming more and more of a chore! The smiling face of Michelle, Sugato’s Filipino wife floated across her eyes. She was a good daughter-in-law, happy and ebullient about everything. Both worked, then travelled, trekked, went camping and were generally living in their own bubbles. The household and the responsibilities of their three children fell squarely on the elderly Mrs. Banerjee. At the start, the elders were upbeat about this, having found a purpose in life. But as the trips to
Melbourne became more frequent and the stays longer, Mrs. Banerjee felt more and more tired and detested it. Now, they lived permanently in Melbourne and had hired a caretaker for their house that once buzzed like a beehive. She let a melancholic sigh escape her heart, feeling better for it!
Addressing her friends she said,
“Sugato and Michelle have sent in their love for all of you.”
A wry smile fleeted across her face, which nobody quite noticed.
The plump Mrs. Ghosh was the most candid of them. She couldn’t help but ask,
“For such a sociable man like Mr. Banerjee, how does he get along in that foreign land?”
Mrs. Banerjee looked annoyed.
“O, we have friends there.”
Mrs. Ghosh reckoned she should have kept her mouth shut. She looked at Mrs. Banerjee from the corner of her eyes. Without doubt, she had rightly gauged the Banerjee couple’s dilemma. They missed their homeland. So many times Mr. Banerjee had proudly announced to the gathering that his Public Accountant son would have his office at the house.
And now? Thousands of miles away the couple was in forced exile! Their exuberant life was being drained out bit by bit.
The other ladies were busy deciding on the merits of issuing food coupons for the community lunch the next day, as against simply coming over, as had been the practice for decades.
“Of course, we all know each other and who would bother to gatecrash a humble community lunch in today’s day and age?” Mrs. Sen made an honest observation. But, then, they all agreed, with so many houses having caretakers and maids, it was no more like old times.
“Whatever it is, it is certainly a huge relief that I needn’t cook tomorrow!”
Everyone laughed out.
The lights under the canopy were lit. People were steadily streaming in. The music had grown louder. Yet, the music was getting drowned in the cacophony of the merry crowd. The ladies stopped in the midst of their conversations and watched wistfully-the newly wedded couple from No. 62, the doctor with his son holding hands, Mr. Mazumdar, back bent with age, but walking in nevertheless, with a stick in hand. It was a celebration of life-the joy of living.
A woman in a silver brocade sari waved to the group from some distance. Mrs. Sinha waved back. It was her daughter-in-law.
“She’s asking me to wait here until they are back from their local visits.”
Mrs. Sinha said by way of explanation to the interrogating eyes of her peers.
A few years after the advent of the daughter-in-law, Mrs. Sinha had become a ‘Second Class’ senior citizen! People treated her like a guest in her own home. She had to seek permissions, obey instructions and follow rules. Mrs. Sinha did not like it. She felt like some stock that had been downgraded! Sometimes, Mr. and Mrs. Sinha would go to their other son, who lived in a different city. But, ever since her husband took early leave of the world, Mrs.Sinha felt like she had no ‘Life Force’ left in her. She felt acutely lonely and had surrendered herself completely.
As though reading her mind, the peer group sat poignantly. Each of the battle-weary women wanted to escape. To run away from the harsh truths that faced their lives.
Presently, their attention was drawn to the pedantic priest who began lighting the lamps before the Mother Goddess one by one. The flame had something magnetic about it-holding one’s eyes and drawing the gaze within. One pondered over life, and beyond, and was led into a timeless trance.
After a few minutes had passed, Mrs. Sen chose a more invigorating subject, about a new eatery that had opened in the next Block.
“We’d always thought that you would succeed very much if you opened one yourself, Mrs. Ghosh,” commented Mrs. Mitra. The plain, simple, retired professor at the Presidency University seldom opened her mouth, unless it was to say something important. Evidently then, people were bound to pay attention, when she did. Her thin frame, draped in a light blue cotton sari, in stark contrast to the others, shook as she spoke. The group immediately turned to her and, for the first time that evening, noticed how her gold rimmed glasses accentuated her soft, pale complexion.
After a moment’s pause, Mrs. Sen spoke,
“Well, yes, of course, she is quite right Mrs. Ghosh.”
Mrs. Ghosh, the usual motor mouth, for once, was lost for words. Her mind went back in a flash to the constant shortness of money at her home. How she’d managed, never anyone got a whiff of it! How her peers will never know her ‘good’ cooking was the result of a very clever putting together of bits and pieces of whatever was available.
Mrs. Ghosh remembered her childhood, in such abundance, at her home in Sylhet, in the eastern part of the other Bengal, on the banks of the Surma River. Still in her teens, she was married to a teacher in the other Bengal. Her life, like many others of her generation had been partitioned. It had been compartmentalized into two halves, each very different from the other.
All their savings went into building this house, here, in this upscale township. Then on, it was only hardship to get their only son educated, in the hope of a better future. But God hadn’t smiled upon her yet. Jobs being scarce, the family survived on her husband’s meagre pension and whatever her son earned from giving tuitions. She remembered how her peers, always appreciated her penchant for cooking, how they devoured the plates of rice pudding she could afford to make once in a while. Outwardly, however she was always cheerful; her impoverishment hidden behind the faded silks and imitation ornaments she wore whenever the ladies met. Only she knew how she allocated and proportioned every paisa, never compromising her self-dignity. Even on this occasion, she wore a cheap but tasteful taant in peach, the choice of color complementing her age and face, and she looked radiant.
Mrs. Ghosh responded with a naughty twinkle in her eyes,
“Not in this life, dear…Perhaps in the next one!” The unmistakable cheerfulness and positivity in her voice channeled to the peer group. The ladies smiled warmly, in recognition of their advanced ages, but part also to the essence in those words, of continuity and hope.
The traditional drums began beating, a slow languid pace at first. It would culminate in a reverberating crescendo at the end of the priest’s mantras.
Mrs. Mitra covered her head with the end of her sari and closed her eyes for a short, silent prayer. On cue, the others became solemn.
The eyes of the assembled crowd were on the deity. In obeisance and reverence, the atmosphere was palpably charged.
Mrs. Mitra opened her eyes. The eyes of the Goddess transfixed her. She felt like she was in a magnetic field, held by the large, powerful eyes of the idol. She wondered why the Goddess tested her so much. She had had a hard life. Her husband was in the Merchant Navy. She brought up her two sons on her own, all along simultaneously balancing her work. What would she do without her peer group? They had been such a support, when, she once fell down the stairs, and her sons were just three and one, or, on a rainy night, when her son had fever and convulsions and Mr. Banerjee took him to the only hospital in the township back then, in his car.
Tears rolled down her eyes. Now that she was in her golden years, her husband was a paraplegic, and every waking moment she was taking care of him, like she was serving God! Sometimes, she felt like the ten-arm Goddess herself, conquering all odds.
Life was like that-crests and troughs-rising and falling like waves. Men and women rode them. Sometimes one bathed in the beauty that is Life, sometimes one became cynical, a defeated idealist. The demons are within, to be conquered. The human spirit survived in the zeal to live and be a part of the Universal theatre.
Each one of the women in the peer group, in the twilight years of their lives, felt like that. There was a powerful goddess in each one of them.
The two priests stood up with the lamps in hand, to start the aarti.
The beatings of the drum had picked up pace. In a few wobbly but rapid paces, the five elderly ladies reached the front row of the assembled devotees. Men and women were completely attuned to the rhythm, their souls in unison with the celebration of life and their eyes on the Goddess in ardent devotion. They folded their hands and the mantrasbegan; smoke from the incense sticks enveloping the canopy in a mystic aura. All voices, outside and inside the souls of the devotees, were drowning in the fervent chants of the priests. The cry to be liberated from the cycle of life, was, simultaneously, being caged, in the beauty of Life itself. Tormented in their own worlds but clinging on to life, for the love of living, the women closed their eyes, in silent submission; at peace with their troubles. The flame of the lamp in the hand of the priest flickered just a little.
Mandira Pattnaik writes fiction and poetry in India. She had a poetry piece published by The Times of India when in school. Twenty years later, she quit government service to pursue writing. Recent publications include DoorIsAJar, Lunate, RuncibleSpoon, Eclectica, Spark India and (Mac)ro(mic). Her work appears in the February issue of The Bombay Literary Magazine and The Big Windows Review. She is also currently featured in the Editor's Picks section of Juggernaut.in