By Nabanita Sengupta
Ghumi was in an uproar! The small township was suddenly awake with whisperings in every nook and corner and accompanying giggle or exclamations. The rumour mills had started running overtime, churning out spicy tidbits at small intervals. In the freezing winters of this green plateau, people relished those piping hot juicy nuggets of gossip with their steaming cups of evening tea or under the weekend sun. The quiet and sleepy region had suddenly turned chirpy and each gatherings of its inhabitants were spiced up with perky speculations and tangy bits of news. It was not everyday that some scandal of this magnitude shook Ghumi.
For the routine bound life of the Ghumians, unshaken by any happenings more interesting than the Sunday bazaar or a community movie night, elopement was a scandal that had the capacity to take the town by storm. And that’s what it did. It took the area by storm — a storm that literally brewed in teacups and coffee mugs.
Even the winds of the place whispered — Mrs Aggarwal had eloped with Mr. Ghosh!
The club corners, pool sides, badminton court, card tables were humming loud. Even dinner tables with couples who otherwise had got used to the everyday silence struck up conversation. Well, that was a positive side of rumour. It often rejuvenated the dead river of communication between people who had nothing new to say to each other.
Mr Agarwal was a senior manager in the company. Quite innocuous in his commonness, he had an amazing capability to blend in any kind of gathering. So plain he was that no one ever noticed his presence or felt his absence. His usefulness was felt at gatherings whenever there was a member less than the required number. So, he could easily pass on as the fourth hand at card game or as a partner for a round of badminton or to fill the gap at the pool table. But no one had ever associated anything drastic with this non-confrontational, calm and quiet person. He was indispensable to Ghumi in his own ways. No one could challenge his efficiency at his workplace, and none could barbecue chicken as succulently as him. So naturally none of their club parties could be complete without him. There was not another hassle-free soul like him in the whole of Ghumi. His wife, on the other hand, was a different story altogether. The young, chirpy, stylish woman of fifty could easily be the centre of any gathering. At the same time her quick tongue could easily lash out at any moment, making her quite a bundle of opposites.
That fateful day, Mr. Agarwal had gone to his neighbour’s house in the evening, looking for Vineeta, his wife. They had had a spat in the morning before he left for office, a continuation of a difference of opinion that had cropped up a few days back. Now, on his return, he had to enter the house using his set of duplicate keys as no one answered the doorbell. He had thought initially that Vineeta must have gone to some friend’s place but when even the mobile phone responded switched off, he was a bit worried. In Ghumi, words travelled faster than wind and by late evening all of the township, knew the tale of the missing wife. This was the second time that such an event had occurred. Though the first time the gossip mongers had been proved woefully wrong, it did not dampen their spirit. This time once again they kept adding fuel to fire.
Only Raya and her family did not join the bandwagon. They maintained an uneasy silence, distancing themselves from the whole brouhaha. Being on the receiver’s end once, they could feel for the person concerned. Such gossips were always associated with public disgrace. But that’s a story for some other time.
There was a crisis brewing at Ghumi club house. Every year Mr Agarwal would oversee the arrangement for the New Year party. No one was as perfect as him when it came to estimation for the feast. Hence, he was the one who decided upon the quantities of mutton or rice or other ingredients required for the New Year’s party. But this year, with the racy gossip doing the rounds, none knew how to ask him about it. There was of course still a couple of days left before the New Year. The shopping for the party was generally done on the morning of that day itself. Still the panic button had been pressed and no one knew how the crisis would unfold. Added to rumours about the elopement, were the speculations of a spoilt feast. Both these stories kept the Ghumians quite busy.
The moment she stepped out of her house, Vineeta felt lighter. An oppressive thought was weighing on her mind since the day she had seen Phuli. She had seen the girl being beaten black and blue by her mother for not cleaning the utensils properly. There were a few jhuggis* huddled together in one corner of the estate where the Agarwals and other families of the management executives lived. The jhuggi dwellers catered domestic help required by the residents of the estate. Vineeta had to cross the jhuggies quite often on her way to meet friends or to go to the temple or club. Whenever she walked along that area alone, she stopped to talk to the little boys and girls who played bare feet and were raggedly clad. She loved the innocent bantering with them, at times even gave them some toffees or biscuits that she would be carrying from home. Over the years, she had grown to know each of them by name and any addition to the brood did not pass unnoticed.
She had also seen children, especially girls being ill-treated by the mothers. Though she had tried to intervene at times, it didn’t yield much result. Slowly she learnt to accept it as a part of their lifestyle. Just as she had accepted the club, the kitty parties, as a part of hers. At times, remembrances of scenes from the past did upset her. But she had learnt to cope with it. Overall, she was a happy woman. Her nature did not allow her the leisure to crib over her past. She knew she was quite admired, and she did enjoy the harmless attention that was bestowed upon her. Yet somewhere lurked a thorn of dissatisfaction, a yearning for a space that was her own, a self-created identity. Despite that nagging she had moulded herself to this life of sedentary existence, soaking herself in the natural beauty of Ghumi.
And she would have continued to live so had she not seen Phuli that day, shivering and still being beaten by her mother. That sight snapped something within Vineeta, pulled her out of a dormant existence she was slipping into. She rescued the girl from her mother’s mad wrath and took her home. Once stopped, the mother also realised the extreme to which she had gone. Vineeta knew these girls had to bear the brunt of their mothers’ frustrations. Women in these shanties lived a life much harder than she could ever envisage. Defeated by life, their menfolk took out their disappointments by keeping their women terrified and these women in turn let out their steam on the children, particularly girls. The boys here were still slightly better off by virtue of their gender. Bringing Phuli home had led to the most bitter spat of words.
It was only at certain times that the otherwise calm and benevolent Mr. Agarwal erupted in anger and one of those times was when he felt that his authority was being challenged at home. The master of the house had always let Vineeta do things her own way, till it came in his. Phuli stood for all that he hated or perhaps feared. The deprivation, the squalor, and above all, the disruption of a system that he had closed himself in. it was the first time too that Vineeta felt the need to stand her own ground. Phuli was fed and soothed and sent home as soon as Vineeta felt the storm brewing. And she prepared herself for the impending outburst. It was still a mystery to her how a publicly affable person like Agarwal could be so venomous during his occasional outbursts at home! Anyway, being experienced in the ways of her husband, she was already prepared with her answers and this time she too did not mince words. She had decided on her course of action and needed a few days to organise everything. That new year she wanted to begin with a new chapter, the old had to give way to new.
Vineeta kept thinking all these as she sat in the car with Sushrut Ghosh taking the wheels. Monty, the neighbour’s son, had seen her carry the bag and get into the car. She immediately knew that Ghumi will have a story for their evening tea. She smiled to herself, with a fondness of the matured for the inane. She loved the place but was aware of its faults too. She was also confident of the inherent goodness of the inhabitants. It had been a difficult task convincing Mr. Ghosh to her plan. She had to use all her arguments and persuasive skills to embark on this journey. She had not said anything to her husband; serve the old man right she thought to herself. And as the car moved ahead, she felt strangely liberated.
Their first step was going to be the most difficult one. They drove to the block development office to seek the required permission. The officer was a middle-aged person and quite positive in his approach. He was more than willing to cooperate with Vineeta and Sushrut. He also gave them relevant papers and explained the process, which though a bit tedious, as all government affairs were, was not impossible. Once out of the office, the magnitude of the project they were about to undertake stuck them. And both remained in silence for a long while, sitting quietly inside the car, each one deep in contemplation of the future, before they had the courage to utter a single word. Neither of them wanted to return home immediately for reasons of their own. Vineeta wanted to give herself some space before confronting her husband and Sushrut did not want to return to the loneliness of his apartment.
It was only then that Vineeta suggested that they drive down to her parents’ place, some 3-4 hours’ drive from there. Sushrut could spend the evening and drive back by night. His work as a security officer in the explosives’ factory at Ghumi had familiarised him with the area and driving back at night would not be a problem at all. The next day being a weekend, he would laze in the house. This would help them maintain the secrecy they wanted to till the New Year just in two days’ time.
Meanwhile in Ghumi the rumour mills worked even on the following day. Mr. Agarwal was aware of his wife being at her parents’ place and whatever emotions that might have evoked in him, he would not get a chance to talk about it anytime soon, not at least till she returned. So, he decided that he must go on with life and strolled into the club house, to look into the New Year feast preparation that had been his passion for a long time. He loved the meticulousness that was required in planning a feast. It allowed him to work in peace, alone. Not that he did not like gatherings, but he was happiest being with himself. So, completely oblivious to the gossips around him, he went to the club that morning and busied himself in the preparations for the feast to be held the next day. People were looking at him with sympathy which he did not realise as he did not even know that Vineeta’s going away from the Ghumi had become the talk of the town; that Monty had already reported yesterday’s sight to everyone at Ghumi, which, added to his own enquiries about her whereabouts had formed quite an interesting story! In fact he was blissfully unaware of the entire thing, comforted in the knowledge that Vineeta had left for her parents’ place after that day’s quarrel, something he considered typically feminine and did not consider to be worth his notice..
On the New Year day as people started gathering in the club for the feast, there was suddenly a hush. The missing lady had arrived, right from her hideout, and she was accompanied by the Block Development officer or BDO sahab as he was popularly known as. He asked everyone to pay attention for a while. Vineeta took the centrestage.
I apologise for my absence from Ghumi for a couple of days. It was high time that something was done for the children of the jhuggis, those kids whose parents work to make our lives comfortable. Using my previous experience as one of the co-founders of an NGO before we had to move to Ghumi, I have drawn a plan for the education of these children. I propose the formation of a similar organisation here, run by the ladies who would volunteer.
Mr. Ghosh has been of immense help in this regard, as he was the one from whom I sought help first. Being in the security department he had an intimate knowledge of this place and I had often seen him play with the shanty kids in the evenings. BDO sahab has given his consent and we have also completed the initial level of formalities required for setting up such a voluntary organisation.
This is my new year gift to Ghumi. Now let us all enjoy the feast and discuss this idea further over food.
Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of English by profession and creative writer by passion. Translation remains one of her chief areas of work and interest. Her works can be read in various journals, anthologies and e-zines.
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