By Atreyo Chowdhury
It was a Sunday. Sudha woke up later than usual. She glanced at the wall clock and hid under her blanket again. She stayed there, motionless, a drag of weariness over her. The doorbell rang, and she sat up.
Champa arrived every morning to sweep and mop the apartment, wash the utensils, and help Sudha make breakfast. There was no need to prepare lunch on the weekdays as Sudha left for work, but on a Sunday, Champa had to spend an extra hour making preparations for lunch.
As Sudha chopped onions on the kitchen counter, Champa spoke: “My mother-in-law watches me like a hawk. It’s as if I’m a devil who’d possess her son and manipulate him to my wishes. She thinks I’m scheming to throw her out of the house. Once she takes the cot, she keeps her ears cocked as I make my bed on the floor. There’s nothing but a curtain that divides the room in half, and she’s wary of me drawing the curtains close, always making excuses. Arré, then why did she wed her son to me? She could have kept him to herself… Didi, you tell me, am I being too demanding?”
The doorbell rang. “Uff, who is it now?” Champa dropped her broom and rushed.
Sudha could overhear their conversation.
“I hope you aren’t selling anything,” Champa said. “Didi will be furious if it’s a salesman so early in the morning that too on a Sunday.”
“Can I speak to… um, Arun Banerjee’s wife?”
“Why? Tell me what you want. Didi is busy.”
“Who is it, Champa?” Sudha craned her neck from the kitchen and intervened.
“He isn’t saying….”
Sudha placed the knife on the chopping board and proceeded to the drawing-room. “Let me speak to him. You go and dice a couple of potatoes.”
The man at the door had a lean physique with an elongated face, a sharp nose and dull eyes. He glanced at Sudha, and then his head wilted like a flower, his chin almost touching his chest.
“Yes, can I help you?”
The man stayed as he was, frozen, staring at his feet.
Sudha frowned. She was about to say something when the man reached for his pocket and took out a wallet. He didn’t have to utter a word since Sudha had recognised it.
“Where did you…?”
The man didn’t answer.
Sudha stood with the wallet in her hand. The weight of memory descended upon her, and her knees trembled.
The police had not found Arun’s wallet on him. Before their arrival, a crowd had hailed a cab to send him to a hospital. The traffic volunteer, who had accompanied him, had found his phone, but not his wallet. Later, the police tracked Sudha to inform her of his death.
Presently, Sudha stood staring at the wallet, tracing her fingers around its edges. She wished to open it but thought it might seem rude. The man was still there, gazing at his feet. He didn’t appear to be well-off. He was wearing a pair of rubber slippers, light grey trousers and a chequered half-sleeve shirt. His clothes were faded due to overuse, and his skin was dark, almost burnt. It looked as if he spent a lot of time in the sun.
“Please, come in,” Sudha said.
The man looked up now. There were dark circles around his eyes, and he had a week-old stubble. His hair was short and generously oiled. “No, thank you,” he said. “I should get going.”
“Please. I would like to know more.”
Sudha nodded. “Please.”
The man entered the apartment and looked around. Sudha asked him to take a seat, and he settled on the edge of the sofa uncomfortably.
“Would you like some tea?”
“What? No… it’s alright.”
“A glass of water, perhaps? It’s hot today.”
The man nodded, and Sudha went to the kitchen and asked Champa to fetch a couple of shondésh from the refrigerator. She returned to sit across him, placing the glass of water and the plate of shondésh on the centre table. The man downed the water in a go.
“Where did you find the wallet?”
The man hesitated. “Um, at Gariahat Crossing… I was returning from work… and, and it was lying on the pavement.”
“When was it?” Sudha asked, now opening the wallet to take a look. There were a few currency notes, and the wallet felt heavy because of the coins it had in its pocket. The credit and debit cards were there, as were the receipts and tickets. She closed it and placed it on her lap.
The man was looking at his toes, which curled-uncurled. Sudha repeated herself, and he gulped and trembled and rose to leap at her feet. “I’m sorry,” he said, weeping. “I didn’t steal anything. It’s all there. I didn’t touch a thing….”
Sudha was taken aback; she didn’t know how to react. Champa stood by the kitchen door, bewildered. Sudha placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “It’s alright… I’m not accusing you. Please, calm down… I just wanted to thank you, nothing more, nothing less….”
The man looked up, still crying. He was on his knees now, hands folded, begging for forgiveness. “I was there when the car hit your husband. I rushed to the spot like others. As they carried him to the cab, I was there to help. Then his wallet fell out of his pocket, and I stole it. I don’t know why. Trust me, I’m no thief. I work for a reputed insurance company. I have committed a grave sin. Please, forgive me….”
Sudha didn’t know when tears had welled up in her eyes. They were now flowing freely down her cheeks. She composed herself. “I understand. You don’t need to explain. We all make mistakes, but you dared to make it right. I forgive you.”
After the man had gone, Sudha remained on the couch. Champa left too. She asked if there was anything she could do and even offered to return and cook lunch. However, Sudha told her not to trouble herself. “I will manage,” she said.
Presently she opened the wallet and laid its contents on the centre table. Cash—a couple of five-hundred-rupee notes, three hundred-rupee notes, and some loose change—a total of one thousand three hundred and eighty-six rupees. There were four cards; a credit, two debit, and the fourth was a rewards card of an apparel chain.
Sudha recalled the last time they had gone shopping. It was a month before his death. She had noticed that he was barely present, always looking at his phone, replying to messages, smiling to himself. She had caught him in glances browsing through the dresses. He lifted his head only when she asked for his opinion. “It’s good,” he replied, without even a look. They went to the food court at the mall afterwards, but he hardly paid any attention to the food either as he was busy scrolling through his phone.
Sudha sighed; she placed the card down and looked at his driver’s license. On the fateful day, their car was at the service station. Perhaps, if it was there, he would have lived, she ruminated.
In the wallet, she found an envelope, folded to fit. Inside it was a gold charm bracelet with a pearl and a few hearts hanging off the chain. She recollected the last time he had bought her a gift. He had presented her with a wristwatch on her birthday last February. Her eyes brimmed up, and she buried her face in her hands.
She had no idea what he was doing at Gariahat. Initially, she thought that he was meeting a client. But then his colleague mentioned that Arun had taken the afternoon off — left the office early. Perhaps, he was visiting a friend or a relative. Sudha tried to make sense, understanding very well that no one she knew lived in that neighbourhood.
Presently, she scrambled through the receipts in his wallet. He had the habit of keeping them, no matter how irrelevant they were. An ATM withdrawal slip… A receipt for petrol… for lunch at a restaurant in Park Street… Ice-cream, the same afternoon, at an ice-cream parlour nearby… a couple of parking tickets… and, there it was…the receipt for the bracelet. She glanced at the address of the jewellery store. It was on the same street he was hit by the car.
According to the receipt, he had collected the bracelet three days before his accident and had paid the due amount by his debit card. It also mentioned that he had made an advance payment a week prior.
If he had the bracelet three days before his accident, why didn’t he give it to me? Sudha asked herself. Was he waiting for an appropriate moment? My birthday was, and is, months away. Our anniversary was near, but still weeks away… They did gift each other on these occasions, but it was merely a ritual. Did they feel the same tug of emotions each time they were close? When was the last time they held hands? Sudha couldn’t remember. When was the last time they kissed? Sudha sighed.
She didn’t want to think anymore. She didn’t want to think any less of him. She wished to remember him for the moments they had cherished together, not for the moments they had faltered.
She looked out of the window. The sky was clear without a trace of any clouds. She got up and kept the wallet in her wardrobe amongst the other things that reminded her of him. She changed into something appropriate, brushed her hair, and headed out. She wandered for a while and then hopped onto a bus heading towards Gariahat.
Upon reaching there, she located the jewellery store with ease. It was on the main street, past the Gariahat Market. The person at the shop looked at the receipt and the bracelet. It was a piece of jewellery they had custom-made, and a woman had come with Arun to order it. Arun had paid the due and collected it a week later. Did they have an address? No. But the woman had provided a second phone number, and someone recalled that Arun had referred to the woman as Naina.
Standing on the busy pavement, Sudha hesitated. She then took out her phone and dialled the number. The phone rang for a while, and just when she thought of disconnecting the line, a woman answered. “Hello?”
“Is this Naina?”
“Yes, who is it?”
 Bengali sweet made out of cottage cheese
Atreyo Chowdhury was trained to be a mechanical engineer and has a postgraduate degree from IIT Guwahati. Besides writing, he shares an equal passion for music and travelling. He can be found at https://atreyochowdhury.wordpress.com/
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