By Amita Ray
“What is the other side of love?”
“Hate of course.”
“No it’s love too.”
“What makes you say so?”
“Look at Ma and Baba, it has always been love…. friend or foe, through thick and thin.”
The daughters of Mr and Mrs Chatterjee were indulging in banter. It was initiated by the elder of the two, Sushmita. The younger one, Supriya, was cool and calculating while the other was sprightly and full of spark. They were the best of friends since their childhood. At times they were mistaken as twins; being of same height, almost the same features, the same likes and dislikes. The difference in their ages was only two years. Nothing could tear them apart. Even when caught at mischief , they would shoulder the blame for each other. A happy family of four, the Chatterjees were known as peace-loving respectable folks in their locality.
But Mr. and Mrs. Chatterjee had their share of arguments and tiffs, probably a bit too many. It was contained and confined within the contending couple and rarely did it spill over to damage the peace of the household. The two daughters when big enough would at times take sides jovially and then it would inevitably climax to hilarious crescendos. The children preferred to be the silent spectators of the daily drama and enjoyed it, knowing very well the happenings during the post-argument phase; the epilogue to the drama. Ma with a grumpy face would resort to stoicism doing all household work with robotic precision. Baba would try his best to evoke a flicker of smile on her lips.
The arguments usually would spark off from trivial things and a day without bickering was unthinkable. The pet sentence of their mother when on the verge of defeat in an argument was, “Oh! What will I do with this person once he retires and stays at home the whole day to pester me?”
The daughters would then look at each other to exchange a meaningful look. That sentence would mark the end of that episode for the day. Mr. Chatterjee would meekly admit defeat with a faint hint that Mrs. Chatterjee was at a loss for repartees.
Many a time a squabble would erupt from Mr. Chatterjee’s love for jokes. Picking on his wife, even in jest, would enrage her and an altercation would ensue. How the children lamented their mother’s poor sense of humour!
A young boy, Khokon, used to work in their garden tending flowers, turning the soil and planting seasonal flower trees specially during the onset of winter. Khokon was so pampered by their mother that Mr Chatterjee at times would call her Khokoner Ma or Khokon’s mother jokingly. That would infuriate Mrs. Chatterjee marking the beginning of yet another tiff where the children sometimes joined in flippantly pointing out how she had been partial to Khokon among his three children.
It was usually Mrs. Chatterjee who called it quits in meandering long drawn altercations. Then the daughters beheld a unique scene of togetherness and concern; one coaxing the other to eat, reminders of taking medicine or they would simply get engaged in casual talks watching the television together. Strangely enough the television itself was at other times reason enough for their habitual contention. It is often said that true love sans arguments and pleasant quarrels hardly exists. It adds charm to the happy blend of sharing and caring among couples. Mr. and Mrs. Chatterjee’s relationship was an embodiment of this love in its true sense.
The couple had been married for twenty five years, a long enough period to get adjusted to the rhyme and rhythm of each other’s ways and nature, but the propensity for arguments and occasional tiffs persisted. That seemed to uplift their spirit as a hearty interlude. It could be also a sort of cathartic release of boredom as Mrs. Chatterjee being a homemaker stayed indoors busy with domestic chores. Mrs. Chatterjee was petite and simple in her ways. She spent her early years till she married in East Bengal, at present Bangladesh.
The traumatic phase of Partition and her subsequent migration to the west of the border had taught her ways to overcome hardships. So when she got married to Mr. Chatterjee, a modest employee in government service belonging to a middle class family, she had no problem adjusting herself to the new family.
Then her daughters were born in quick succession. Her father-in-law had lived for a decade after her marriage. Her mother-in-law had passed away long before her marriage. Hence, she shouldered the responsibilities of the family and fulfilled her role in all facets of family life as a wife, daughter-in-law and later as mother admirably.
Her father-in-law was enamoured by her sweet nature and looked upon her as his own daughter. In the early days of conjugal life, when her father-in-law was alive there were lesser verbal frictions with Mr. Chatterjee and even if there were, they would wind up soon enough. The senior Mr. Chatterjee would take side with his daughter in law and the altercation would be soon hushed with a sweeping comment, “My Bouma (daughter-in-law) is Lakshmi of this house. You have no right to demean her.”
After the death of her father-in-law, the once coy bride — now a seasoned housewife –became all the more responsible, looking into every minute details of household affairs. This she did to the extent of becoming a bit nagging and fastidious and it paved the path to greater confrontations; the husband mildly dominating, the wife defiant.
But all said and done, Mr. and Mrs. Chatterjee were head over heels in love with each other but rarely did they make a blatant show of it. It was evident in small gestures of appreciation and doses of kind words.
“Hold your mother’s hand and be very careful while crossing the road…”
“While boarding the bus with your mother and getting down, hold her hands properly. She has a pain on her knee…”
“Help her to get up on the rickshaw. She is at a loss when she goes out. Be careful with her…”
The above words of caution were uttered by Mr Chatterjee repeatedly and ritualistically each time before the children took their mother out. The younger daughter, the jovial one, would at times mimic her father’s voice and rattle off the overused sentences of caution. The three of them then had a good laugh over it and the father too reluctantly joined it.
As far as Mr. Chatterjee was concerned, he was more than aware of his responsibility when he took her out, sometimes verging on obsessive overprotectiveness. Not for once would he leave his grip over her hand fearing that she would either get lost or trip over to fall down. In the initial days after marriage, Mrs. Chatterjee would mumble a protest; the spectacle of walking hand in hand on the streets of Calcutta would seem preposterous to her.
She became more conscious about it as years passed when they couldn’t even pass off as a young romantic couple. But the possessive husband would have his way. Mrs. Chatterjee was forced to yield to the demanding gesture of her escort for all it meant was love for her. How could she be so rude? She knew that she didn’t feel confident enough to venture out alone for some strange reason. So whenever she went out of her home, she was in the endearing company of her husband or her daughters and complied with their wishes.
It was a Monday morning. The Chatterjees had to go to a relative’s home in neighbouring Jamshedpur for a wedding. The daughters chose to stay at home as they were busy with preparations for the University examinations. This was the first time the Chatterjees were not travelling as a family outside Kolkata.
The anxious children laid down a set of dos and don’ts for their parents while travelling. Of course one of them was the mandatory holding hands. Howrah station was a crowded place with people almost jostling in and out of its premises all hours of the day. In peak hours, it seemed to be a sea of humanity. People were in a hurry to catch trains from different platforms while those entering the station in down trains headed towards the exit.
Getting down from the taxi at Howrah station, Mr. Chatterjee held his wife firmly and led her into the station. It was afternoon and fortunately the place was not too crowded at that time. Being a railway employee, Mr. Chatterjee had a railway pass. They had ample time at their disposal. Having nothing to do Mr Chatterjee felt the instinctive thirst for a cup of tea. Moreover, it was almost time for the evening cuppa. So both of them headed towards a nearby tea stall; the husband careful enough about his grip over that tender hand. While sipping tea, suddenly a wave of passengers lashed towards them like a tsunami and crowds of people swept from other directions simultaneously.
Many down trains had arrived at the same time in various platforms and all the passengers tried to rush out. There were people negotiating the outgoing rush from the opposite direction too. In the vortex of such chaos Mrs. Chatterjee was pushed and her hand loosened from her husband’s clasp. She was compelled to drift along with the rush of people in a bid to save herself from falling down. It was impossible for her husband to either keep track of her or follow her. Thus she was virtually pushed to the exit point at one go when she sadly realised that she was lost. She could not spot her husband as she was far from the tea stall.
When the mad rush of people abated she looked out for her husband and tried to locate the shop. She was panic stricken and in the process discovered her husband had moved away from the tea stall. Mr. Chatterjee was also looking out for his dear wife frantically ruing that it was his fault. How could the hand which he had kept in his firm grip for twenty five long years slip off! But being a practical man he didn’t waste much time in looking for her. The time for the departure of the train was announced. He immediately got an idea. Why not approach the personnel in the public address system? He knew that his wife wouldn’t leave the station at any cost. But he grew increasingly uneasy and concerned thinking about her wife’s helpless condition, a lady who hadn’t ventured out of her home alone even once in her life.
Soon the public address system blared… “Here is an announcement. Mrs. Sumedha Chatterjee from Tala Park Kolkata…you are requested to be at the Big Clock of Howrah Station…Your husband is waiting for you there.”
The announcement reached Sumedha Chatterjee’s ears and she beamed with relief. But the problem was that though she had been to Howrah station several times she did not know where the clock was. Ultimately she reached there guided by a young man whom she had approached. Thank God! There was enough time left for the departure of their train.
So overjoyed were they on being united that they did not start off with a round of blame game. But back home while narrating the incident to their daughters it was time to initiate the postponed battle of words. But this time each chose to take the blame on oneself.
Mr. Chatterjee: “It was my fault. I should have held the other hand so that you could be to my left. Then being in your place I could have withstood the impact of the sudden rush of people.”
Mrs. Chatterjee responded: “Oh no! How could you say so! Anyone would have been swept away in that wild rush. It happened because I was unmindful.”
“No dear, how can you claim yourself to be unmindful! That’s the last thing I can say about you.”
“ Last thing you can say about me! How often you have accused me of being unmindful…”
Thus Mr. and Mrs. Chatterjee went on in their journey of life; spells of loving words spilled in the guise of tiffs, an oscillation between a war of words and treaty. So is it even now when both in their late eighties sit together at home most of the time cooing such words of love.
Amita Ray, a former associate professor of English is based in Kolkata. An academic of various interests she is a published translator, short story writer and poet. She has two books of translations to her credit. Her short stories have been published in The Sunday Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Setu and other online journals. Her poems have been widely published and also feature in several anthologies.
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