Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta
Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Rishi…
Today Rishi turned five. The slicing of the cake is celebrating that. This is to be followed by dinner. Pulao*, mutton curry and sweets. The four-five guests present all know each other. They are people who frequent this household. Snigdha kaki*, Pranab kaka*, and the young man Friday of this building.
“Ananya, here’s your share of the cake, ” Bharati mashima* stretched her hand to offer it to me. How adorable she looks, this young lady of 70 summers! Red bordered white sari, a large bindi on her forehead, that endearing smile playing on her lips. I took the cake from her and glanced at Rishi’s photograph. A chubby little boy, a headful of raven hair, happiness in his smile and sharpness in his eyes. He is in Hyderabad. In all likelihood, he is cutting a fancy cake in a bustling party. Probably he is not even aware that he has a Grandmother and a Grandfather.
Holding on to the cake, I walked across the room to sit next to meshomoshai*. Long flowing snow white beard. A curious lack of guile marks the face of this 84-year-old man. “Do you know dear,” he was telling me, “Bharati has called so many times, to simply hear the kid’s voice. No one answered the phone. Not once…”
That no one will pick up the phone is clear to everyone by now — save mashima and meshomoshai. After Kinkar da*‘s death, the day Kanchana left with Rishi, she had expressly said that no one should attempt to contact her in any way. She wanted to retain no link with this household in any manner whatsoever.
Kinkar da was only forty then. It was the midnight of a sweltering July day. The call from the Police Station had come to our house. Later we got to know that ours was the last dialled number in Kinkar da‘s phone. Around 10 pm he had called to tell Maa that he had picked up a quality Hilsa, so we should lunch together the next day. Kinkar da‘s car was spotted on EM Bypass, crumpled like a tin toy car. Even before he could be taken to a hospital he had…
The post mortem report held the excess of alcohol in his blood to be the cause of death. Kanchana held Mashima and Meshomoshai responsible for his death. “They not only put up with his bohemian ways, they even boasted about it.” And that was partly if not wholly the truth. They never objected to anything their son did. On the contrary, they took pride in their son.
But, then, there was sufficient ground for that. Kinkar da was a renowned linguist. He was good at painting. His byline was a regular feature of many newspapers. Almost every week he was giving a talk on diverse platforms. All in all he was nothing short of a celebrity. In actuality he was a down to earth person. He would always dress in khadi kurta* and lose pajama. And always, he sported thick framed glasses.
Kinkar da often took me out in his car. We would chat endlessly over puchkas*. Yes, he was senior to me by many years but he was more like a friend. He was my Confession Box. I looked up to him like my own elder brother, my dada. Even now I remember him on Raakhi* and Bhai Phonta*.
“What’s the matter Anu? Why are you sitting still with the cake in your hand? You’re all right?” I was startled by Snigdha kaki‘s voice. “N-no no, I am fine,” I hastily replied. “Here, I’m having…” I was born in this very Suman Apartment, so all the elders in this building complex have a sense of belonging about me. And I love that. But this day is so very different that I am unable to enjoy anything. Haltingly I headed for the bedroom. A baba suit was resting on the bed — along with it, a Teddy bear and a pink coloured envelope. Rishi’s birthday gifts.
Just like the four previous years, this year too these will be sent. I will myself courier them, and they will come back to me. Unlike the first time, that year it had been returned to the sender — mashima. Consequently, for three days and three nights, she did not utter a single word. Only, from time to time, she sat staring fixedly at Rishi’s photograph. The next time onward, I have been putting my flat number in the sender’s column. Like the last three years in all likelihood this year, too, the gifts will lie hidden in my almirah.
I took out the letter from the envelope. mashima‘s handwriting.
Today you turn five. You must have grown in these years and learnt to speak full sentences. I hope you are learning Bengali too, dear child? Do master the language — your Grandpa has tons of books, you will read them all — some day. I have baked a cake for you today and cooked mutton-pulao for everyone. Don’t you be sad — when you come down here I will cook them again for you. We will also go out to visit all the attractions of this city. You have barely seen Kolkata. You just grow up fast and come visit us…
Much love and blessings to you shona*.
Lovingly – yours Thammi*
Just think! After all this I must lick the mutton pulao off my fingers. This day is to me no less than a punishment. So many times I have thought of going away somewhere to avoid the celebration. I don’t, only because of these two oldies. Take a look — they have put up balloons everywhere and done alpana* on the floor at the entrance. Poor Rishi! He will never even hear about this.
I did call Kanchana once. I had suggested that she come on a visit with Rishi. She had cut me short with her terse retort: “I will not let the dark shadows of that house spoil my child’s life. Spare me this request Ananya. If you do, I will be forced to sever all connections with you too.” I’m not sure what connection I have with Rishi and Kanchana. Still, I must admit, she does take my calls. But that is about all.
“Ananya, don’t forget to courier the gifts tomorrow. ” I had not realised that mashima was standing by my side. I nodded in assent. “I had saved Rs 500 in my piggy bank, you know!” mashima continued to speak, “That’s why I could buy the Teddy. And don’t you like the dress? dadubhai is v-e-r-y fond of red!”
“How do you know that? You have not set your eyes on him since he crawled.” But the moment I had spoken, I bit my tongue in remorse. What’s this? What have I done! But mashima was offering an explanation: “Kinkar was very fond of red. Don’t you remember how many of his kurtas were in red? Rishi also…” the words trailed off as her voice choked with emotion.
I held her in a tight hug. I couldn’t control myself either — I let my tears flow freely down my cheeks.
It was well past midnight when I returned to my flat, after lending a hand in serving dinner and cleaning up afterwards. My parents are away at Santiniketan. So I permit myself this bit of ‘late night’ outing. Besides, I was having a tough time going off to sleep. Kinkar da, Kanchana, Rishi, mashima, meshomoshai — they kept crowding before my eyes…
Trinnng! Tring tring… T-r-i-n-ggg…. The constant ring of the calling bell woke me up. Is it for real or am I still dreaming in sleep? No, the bell is still ringing — and someone is also banging on the door. Must be Kamla. How many times I have told her not to wake me up early on Sundays? What is the tearing rush about? “Kamla come back later,” I was on the verge of telling the person on the other side of the door. I stopped mid-sentence as it wasn’t Kamla at the door, it was the young caretaker. Fear was writ over the face that was glistening with sweat. Before I could speak he said, “Didi* please come up to the terrace right now!”
Before he had finished an unknown fear compelled me to race up the stairs. As I reached the landing I saw the two oldies, flopped on the terrace, crying away ceaselessly. I went across and sat down next to mashima. “See?” mashima turned towards me, “See how happy Rishi is?”
I could not make head or tail of what mashima was saying. I have yet to courier the gifts. So, did Kanchana make that elusive call?? mashima’s pallu* was all over the floor. Her hair was dishevelled. I can’t remember ever seeing meshomoshai so worked up over anything, not even on the day Kinkar da passed away! With her left hand mashima held me in a tight grip — and with her right hand she was caressing the red Rangan that stood in a pot at one end of the terrace. “See how it is bursting with flowers! This plant has never blossomed before, and today?!”
Three years ago, when this Rangan was planted, mashima had christened it ‘Rishi’. That sapling was smiling at the world today, with flowers on every leaf. Is it actually Rishi saying, “I am doing fine Thammi and Dadu. You too stay well!”
*Pulao — Indian fried rice
*Kaki — paternal aunt
*Kaku — paternal uncle
*Mashima — maternal aunt
*Meshomoshai — maternal uncle
*Da/dada — elder brother
*Khadi Kurta — a long Indian shirt made of homespun popularised by Gandhi
*Puchkas — savoury snack
*Rakhi — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties
*Bhai Phonta — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties
*Dadubhai/Dadu — grandfather
*Shona — darling (Gold)
*Thammi — grandmother
*Alpana — designs made on the floor with ground paste of uncooked rice, traditional folk art
*Didi — elder sister
*Pallu — loose end of the sari that drapes over the shoulder
*Rangan — ixora
Published originally in Bengali in December 2017 issue of Batayan, a Magazine of West Bengal Motion Picture Artists’ Forum.
Aparajita Ghosh, an actor and television anchor has done her Master’s in Mass Comm. She writes stories, has written plays including #Life, which was staged at multiple venues in Kolkata. She has directed Dance of Joy, a documentary on Rabindra Nritya, screened in Dhaka and Singapore, besides India, and the feature film Mystic Memoirs, screened in Kolkata International Film Festival 2019. Dance of Joy been to 7 international festivals and won 2 awards. Mystic Memoir as of now has been selected for 5 International festivals and won one award.
Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).
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