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LIPIKA DEY

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |




AUTUM SONATA

The sun was about to set. The liquid rays of golden sunlight shimmered as they crossed paths with the trembling young leaves of the jacaranda. Though there was still a light nip in the air, winter had paved the way for spring. Irabati sat down with her cup of Darjeeling first flush tea - light and aromatic. It had been a long day.

A lot of things have changed since the time Irabati had moved to this quiet little town of Chandanpur about three years back, when she had set up her organic farm here with the help of Kaushik. Kaushik, her friend from the days of yore, was a genius in balancing the commerce of business with the art of life. When Irabati decided to quit her job at the IT industry, she joined hands with Kaushik to start this initiative along with him. Irabati was tired of technology. She was also tired of human beings.

But times are changing. Chandanpur is no more the sleepy little town that it used to be three years back. Apart from the two colleges that were already there, a Girls’ poly-technic has started last year. Though Irabati wanted to move far away from the world of automation and competition, she had accepted membership of the governing body. Try as much as she would, it was difficult for her to remain immune to the society around her. A degree or diploma would be of no value unless the girls learnt to be self-reliant and independent in their minds. Little by little, almost unaware of it, she has been drawn to the task of mentoring the girls. The teachers, the girls, the parents depended on her to guide them and she could not refuse.
The college was celebrating International Women’s day today. Irabati was the chief-guest and a speaker. She had also arranged for a few of her erstwhile colleagues and friends to come down and address the girls. The college was ecstatic. But Irabati is exhausted. Close to fifty-five, she now looked forward to spending a quiet life talking to her plants.

The day would soon come to an end. The jacaranda was coming alive with the chatter of home-bound birds returning to their nests in every nook and cranny of its expansive trunk. The erstwhile grey branches were covered with a bright green sheath of tiny young leaves. Soon bright blue petals would be flying all around the garden covering the chair, table and the flower-beds with a purple-blue carpet. Her knees creaked as Irabati finished her tea and got up to take a stroll in the garden. The day seems incomplete unless she calls on each herb, shrub or bud in her garden at least once a day to exchange pleasantries with them. 

The rose buds take an eternity to bloom. But like the fair maiden of sweet sixteen, these buds are as pristinely beautiful as the roses they are to become. The tube-roses and the night queens were still asleep. They wake up at the dark of the night to bathe her dreams with their fragrance. The dahlias were in full bloom. Next to them, the partially dry chrysanthemums were trying to hold on to their forte boldly and resist Rajen, the gardener from weeding them out. Irabati quickened her pace towards the vegetables. Multi-colored hibiscus adorning the path that led to the vegetable beds were pregnant with half-closed buds ready to burst into a riot of colors as soon as the sun rises tomorrow. 

The vegetables were the true sons of the soil. Earthy and healthy, the plump brinjals waited to be plucked. She made a mental note of talking about it to her manager Jogesh tomorrow morning. Neat rows of cauliflowers and cabbages were ready for the harvest. The bell-peppers added color to the otherwise demure setting in this part of the garden. But Irabati’s favorites were the tubers which hid their treasures underground, challenging Irabati to infer about their booties without revealing their secret to her. Irabati enjoyed playing the guessing game with them. It was just like growing a child within yourself – knowing it intimately and loving it hopelessly much before you have set your eyes on it.

Irabati’s reverie was broken by the jingle of a bell. A cycle-rickshaw had come and stopped in front of her house. The passenger’s back was turned towards her, as he was busy in counting change to pay to the rickshaw puller. Irabati was surprised. She rarely entertained guests. Almost never ever at night. Kaushik and his wife Nilanjana sometimes drove over from Kolkata. The only other person who came to visit her was Neel, her only son, who works in Chicago.

As the visitor turned to open the gate, Irabati froze on her tracks. The last rays of the setting sun on his charcoal-grey hair, the unmistakable glint in his light brown eyes, the lean, strong, yet slightly stooping frame – why has he come to visit her? Why?

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Arhan Balikai was not in Irabati’s team. But his comments during cross-team meetings had sparked Irabati’s interest in him. Theirs was a comparatively small department in charge of Product Design within a large IT firm. They worked closely with the Research and Development division of the organization. Their task was to conceptualize and design innovative products jointly with the R&D division. The senior managers went for lunch together. Arhan was a misfit in their group. But being a mid-level manager, he was an even greater misfit in the junior team. So Irabati tactfully drew him into their lunch circle, gently coaxing him to share his views on plans and strategies that Chandran, Rahul and she would be discussing informally over lunch. She found his ideas very useful though trying to include him in formal meetings would have ruffled many feathers.

As it is Irabati Sen was not quite a candy to deal with. Her colleagues tolerated her simply because they did not know what else to do with her. She did not care much for rules and conventions. Armed with a degree from Amherst, Irabati was technically sound, but not very adept in marketing. Irabati knew that unless the organization woke up to the technology-driven new world, they would be pushed into oblivion. But it was difficult to drive this point home, especially with colleagues who only dreamt of retirement benefits, a constipation-free morning and grand children. Irabati argued with all and sundry, as if she was God’s trusted agent to infuse logic and reason in this unreasonable world. In the bargain, though there was some love and adulation from juniors, there was enough contempt from her contemporaries to keep her grounded.

Arhan had come like a breath of fresh air. Armed with a management degree from Harvard Business School along with a design degree from a reputed college of India, he had the right pedigree to be heard. Together, she thought, they could have changed this organization, which God knows needed a change. Arhan was not an overtly expressive guy. He put forth his views in a quiet yet determined manner. He preferred to sail his way through without creating too many ripples.
At times Irabati thought perhaps Arhan was not very ambitious. But so long as he fitted into her scheme of things she need not bother. As it is Chandran was not very happy about Irabati’s preference for Arhan. If he did not protest, it was simply because he knew perfectly well how to use the situation to his favor, since he was Arhan’s boss on paper. Irabati could not care less. 
 ………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Irabati felt lost in a time warp. What is Arhan doing here? She had not left her new address for him. Irabati was hurt by the fact that Arhan had left without informing her. Time heals. But she had hoped that she would not meet him ever again. Though she had a few friends in the organization, none of them were close enough to ask for her future address.

Arhan had opened the gate and was walking along the graveled path towards her. Irabati stood there frozen in time – her peppery-silver mane blazing in the setting sun.  Confusion writ all over on her face. Has she aged a lot in the last few years? Were the wrinkles visible on her tired face? Irabati, one who never cared for rules and conventions, was thinking that Chandanpur was a small place. People talk. But why should she care?

Arhan never cared. As Arhan walked towards her, Irabati suddenly felt exposed. Was she really the liberated woman that she portrayed herself to be? Was she lying at the convention today when she urged the girls to think about what they wanted first and then think about the rest of the world? Or was she baring the truth about herself? Is Irabati selfish and self-centered?
“May I come in?”
………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“May I come in?”
It was late in the evening. The sky was overcast. Yet Irabati felt no urge to pack up for the day. She hated going back to the empty house. Irabati was a home-maker. She loved cooking, partying, singing, decorating her house. She loved life. It was difficult for her to go back to the life-less house since Sugata had left her.

Irabati was staring at the desk calendar on which the date-marker showed 12th August. Long gone are the days when the 12th of August would come drenched in a heady concoction of Rajanigandha, Charlie perfume and Old-Spice fragrance. The notes of shehnai had ceased to tug at the heart long before Sugata had left her. Yet, 12th of August shone like a star in the dark-blue night sky – sending her the rays from a day, long past, across thousands of light-years.
“May I come in?”
This time it was accompanied by a light knock.
Irabati woke up as if from a trance. Her eyes were covered in mist. She could not see through it. But she recognized the voice.
“Come in Arhan.”
“I am sorry. I saw your lights were on – so ... Is something wrong?”
“No! Nothing! Please have a seat.”
Irabati fished out a hanky from her hand-bag and wiped the tear-drops slowly and carefully, first from her eyes and then from her glasses.
An uneasy silence hung between them.
“Care for a cappuccino?”
“Okay. You carry on. I will join you at the food court.” Irabati forced a smile.

The food court was almost empty now, other than a few youngsters who probably worked in the evening shift. The coffee shop was about to close. Irabati went and sat at a table by the huge glass windows. Arhan came with two cups of cappuccino – one with an extra shot of espresso for Irabati, just the way she liked it.

The moving lights on the national highway that connects Delhi and Gurgaon looked enchanting from up here. The glittering specks of lights were carrying people back to their homes. Irabati was still staring out of the window. The thunder growled. A shimmering mist hung low over the city. It would start pouring soon. Were the cars speeding against time? Would they reach home before a swirl of dusty storm gobbled them up? Irabati and Arhan sipped their coffees, unhurried, sitting on the edge of this speeding life, waiting for eternity. Lightning tore through the tar-black sky. The wind seared the cloud cover and the rains gushed out, lashing and hitting the world below. The glass panes shuddered as thick blobs of quick-silver rain hit the windows. Unable to bear the fury, the electricity went out. Irabati sat still in the darkness, as Arhan drew her hands into his palms. Her palms were soft, clammy, smelling of Chanel, coffee beans and liquid soap. As another flash of lightning whiplashed its way through the darkness, Arhan caught it for a brief moment in the pearl-drops hanging perilously from Irabati’s kohl-lined lashes. He drew out a handkerchief that smelt of Cologne and tobacco. Slowly yet steadily Arhan wiped off the pearl drops from Irabati’s eyes, tracing the deluge over her cheeks, drying it before it could inundate the world.
……………………………………………………………………………..

“Hi!” The honey brown eyes were smiling. Has Arhan grown more handsome over the years? Age has lent a distinct maturity to his angular features. A waft of the familiar cologne swamped her senses as Arhan stood right in front of Irabati, the setting sun like a halo around his head. Irabati missed the familiar smell of cigarettes. Did he still smoke?
Arhan stood smiling in front of her.
Irabati stood mesmerized. Was she hallucinating?
Arhan stood in front of her like a shimmering flame, melting away into the golden deluge as his hair caught fire from the halo around his head.
“Hi!” Irabati could at last find her voice.
“How are you?”
“I am fine. Why have you come here?”
Arhan gazed at Irabati’s eyes. The black kohl-rimmed eyes raged with fire. Arhan saw his aquiline face caught in the fire, his features breaking into a thousand splinters and dissolving into the eternity of those dark black eyes.
“Won’t you call me inside?”
……………………………………………………………………………….

The evening coffee had become a ritual. Irabati found herself waiting eagerly for it. Sometimes they went out to nearby places for coffee. At times they went out for dinner. They discussed projects. They discussed politics, art and cinema. Arhan did not speak much. Almost never did he speak about himself.Irabati often spoke a dime a dozen. At times she too was silent. Perhaps none of them were too sure about what to say to each other. They never went to each other’s house. Arhan seemed to be in no hurry to go home. Irabati had never asked Arhan about his family. She was surprised that she did not even feel curious to know. Perhaps she did not want to know. She enjoyed all the attention that Arhan showered on her. It was ages since she had felt cared for. She could not remember when anyone had given her the last gift. The world knew her as a strong woman. Perhaps they forgot that she too had a heart – a heart that cried in pain, a heart that bled.

She knew that the whole office gossiped behind their backs. She chose to ignore. In reality, she was scared to delve deeper into this. She was scared to look at her own reflection in the mirror. She saw a woman in her autumn - skin sagging, eyes tired, hairs greying. What could she, a woman of fifty offer to a man perhaps fifteen years her junior? How old was Arhan? May be a few years senior to Neel? Sometimes she woke up at night, clammy with sweat, gasping for breath. Why did Neel and Arhan appear together in her dreams? She felt guilty for merging them in the same frame. They were two different poles in her life, which should never touch each other. What did Arhan want from her? Arhan surely was not opportunistic. He did not need her for his material gains. If at all, he could lose everything because of her. Yet she chose to keep quiet, lest the only bright streak of light in her life disappears leaving her in the dark pall once again.
Was he exploiting her? There were only questions and no answers. But then some things are best left unanswered.
……………………………………………………………………

Their shadows, long and dark merged in the twilight.
“Won’t you call me inside?” Arhan repeated.
Irabati woke up from her trance.
“Why did you leave without telling me?” she charged Arhan. It felt strange. They had never really ever asked for anything from each other. They had never accused each other with any said or unsaid word. They had never sought any explanation from each other. There were no promises to keep.
“I did not leave. I went to Belgaon. I took leave for a few months.”
“You are playing with words. Why didn’t you tell me before you left?”
“I needed to sort out a few things myself. By the time I came back you had resigned from the job and left Delhi.”
“I could not bear the muted gossips. Can you even imagine the smirk with which Chandran informed me that you had gone to Belgaon to take care of your ailing wife? As if I was responsible for her illness! The whole office silently accused me for your wife’s illness. Goddamn – I did not even know you had a wife! Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“You never asked!”
“Did Chandran ask you?”
Arhan smiled.
“Well! No! But he was my boss. I had to tell him. By the way he did not tell you the truth. My wife, who stayed with her parents at Belgaon, was not sick. I went to sign the divorce papers.”
“But I did not ask you to get a divorce either!”
“No. You didn’t. And I did not get it for you. I got it for myself.”
“I see!”
 Irabati was suddenly at a loss of words.
She invited Arhan inside the house.

It was a small house, minimally spruced up. Kaushik, an architect himself, had designed it for her. The drawing room was done up in various shades of beige. Three walls of the room were stark other than a few hand-crafted wooden masks offering patches of bright relief.  The fourth wall served as a panel for tribal art, hand-painted with white Madhubani motifs on a dark shade of beige. The white patterns depicting epic scenes and artifacts from tribal life came alive with a few bright patches of pink, orange and green here and there. A few light-weight chairs and small tables made of a mix of cane and wrought iron were all that was there in the room. At one end of it was an open kitchen equipped with all the modern gadgets. Irabati loved to cook. She often taught the girls how to make salads, cakes, sweets and sandwiches. A pair of hand-painted earthenware vases held large floral arrangements made of dry twigs, bright red wild berries and long stalks of wild savannah grass. There was a bed-room and another guest room in the house.

Irabati, unable to carry on further conversation, concentrated on making coffee.
Arhan was standing in front of the wall and admiring the paintings, his back turned towards her.
Time ticked. Arhan had not yet said why he had come.
Irabati handed him a cup of coffee and finally asked, “Where did you get my address?”
“From Neel.”
Irabati choked on her coffee. The cup fell from her hands and smashed to pieces.
“Neel? How do you know him?”
“He is my Facebook friend. We came across each other at a common group of music-lovers. One day I saw your photograph on his wall. I asked him for your address.”
“And he just gave it to you?”
“Well no. Not really. He did not want to. I had to coax him.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him that I loved you.”
“Why didn’t you send a mail to me Arhan?”
“I did not want your carefully drafted pretentious answers. I wanted to come and see the truth in your eyes.”
“What did you see?”
“Myself.”  
……..

[LIPIKA DEY]






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