| Tapti Bose | January 2024 | Short Story |
When the morning visitors to the lake were suddenly wistful over the migratory birds that had not returned that winter, Anita thought the lake and the city were a second home to the birds because home was, after all, not where you lived but where you belonged. And what better way to know if you belong or not than by the fact that you are missed, that your absence is felt. But then, did the birds also miss the city?
It was after what seemed like a long time since her husband’s death that Anita had stepped out on a late winter morning in the city of Kolkata. The warmth of the sun and the cold air caressed her as she sat on the stony seats by the lake, and the morning walkers in groups were returning to their homes after having a fresh cup of tea at the roadside stall. Her husband, the poet’s death had been news two months ago in the way that 24×7 channels reported news, everything reduced to an exciting cricket commentary. The condolences, the remembrance meetings, the publishers calling for the last of the manuscripts, and then she was left in the cold with the house that was all about him every breadth length, even the corners to the kitchen, like a country whose constitution could not be amended.
The poet’s birth coincided with the independence of the country in 1947. He began to write at a young age. His twenties were turbulent times in West Bengal, his home state, and at that time, his poetry and his words came out like volcanic eruptions. There are, in the end, two kinds of poets: those who illuminate the world in a flash and then fall silent, snatched by the jaws of death, and those who move slowly to a higher plane, from youthful beauty to spirituality. But then there are also those who die a spiritual death, even if given a long life. They are not the worst poets but the most tragic, and then there are those whose poetry rises to a peak because it speaks the voice of an age, and then when that age has passed, it becomes discarded like the latest fashion. And then which of the latter two categories—the tragic or the chic, the poet belonged to could still be debated, even though in the media there were no such discussions except a loud, monotonous repetition of the time of his death that came as flashing breaking news.
Yet the facts were that governments changed, prime ministers were assassinated, and the economy was liberalized. Whether history affected or did not affect the life of the poet, his world was gradually becoming cold and stubborn. The poet found himself at a loss for words, and he shifted to prose. With prose, his first marriage was gone and then came his second wife, who died shortly thereafter, and his grief metamorphosed, his poetry was about his muse and her sensuousness.
And when she, Anita, became the poet’s third wife, she was a good fifteen years younger, and he was twice married with a son by his first marriage. Even in school, Anita had been a bright student and could have chosen to study science, but it was poetry that made her pursue literature. She enthusiastically followed the movements of poetry that were shaping Bengali literature in the literary and little magazines. It had seemed natural that she had fallen in love with this man, her teacher, the older poet, who had then just lost his second wife. Her parents had tried to dissuade her, but in vain. Her mother had told her that she was ruining her life and that the marriage wouldn’t last, but she had been persistent. The first time she came to the house, she thought of it as the home of poetry. And yet, by the time she became his third wife his prose was reduced to the sensibilities of the Bengali middle class, novels filled with sensuous love stories, detective stories, young adult stories, ghost stories, and adventure stories. These latter books, with the clear division of the good and the evil and the former centered on women who fell into stereotypes of the wife and the public woman, were best sellers. A few years into their marriage, he had shifted to prose so completely as though he had betrayed her. No doubt, the more middle-class his writing got, the more he earned. And then as if to prove he had adapted completely, he fixed the highest rate if he were to be invited to a literary sabha and fixed a time beyond which he wouldn’t speak.
The morning walkers in Kolkata were a variety, some brisk walkers of the younger generation, conscious of their health, others forced by their doctors, and then the more relaxed senior citizens, as she heard a group of them singing the Rabindra Sangeet. The poet’s wife had never been a part of the walking groups. After she completed her doctorate, she had worked contractually in a number of colleges. And then she also remembered that for all her love of literature, she wasn’t particularly an enthusiastic teacher, in spite of her sincerity. She had worked to convert her temporary contractual appointment to a more secure permanent position, which wasn’t unnatural. But after she had gotten the permanent position, she had nothing much to look forward to except the final retirement benefit.
It was homemaking, which she had taken to with passion and vigor, the doing up of the living room, teeming with people—well-known intellectuals discussing literature and, of course, politics, with the dose of adda and amongst snacks and cups of tea, she was simply Boudi, the wife of the poet. The bedroom where she had gone from being his sexual companion to the ultimate caregiver, where only a corner was reserved for her, where she would cry quietly over his infidelities, and where she promised herself that the next time she’d leave, only the next time did not come. Even the kitchen had belonged to him and not her, for it churned out the food that he dictated and the needs of the people who visited his study.
And she thought that another of his students, whose name was Indrani, who came after her and took the place of his lover for sometime, had also sent her condolences and she had not replied. She remembered the affair, and she couldn’t tell him anything because he had told her right from the beginning that he would remain what he was, and it was for her to take it or leave it. ‘You are as free as I am,’ he said, as if he weren’t one of those husbands who took liberties and expected their wives to be soti. ‘Sotityo is not the basis of our marriage.’ She could have taken one of his younger students, Sujay, who had been in love with her, as her lover, even though she preferred dignified suffering in the name of morality in a world that wasn’t built on fidelity at all. And she also saw that the poet always tried to put her and Sujoy together by various means. She wondered if he did this to test himself or if he was doing it so that he could carry on his affairs without guilt. Perhaps it wasn’t suffering but fear that a lapse on her part would break the relationship and give a smooth entry to Indrani perhaps in the position of the fourth wife; that would also prove to her friends and family that she had been wrong all along.
Sujoy always addressed her with the word tui rather than tumi. Sujoy had said, ‘Friendship is the basis of our relationship.’ She wondered if she could have let herself go, but the poet had made that impossible, for he had tainted Sujoy with his shadow. Sujoy too had called, devastated by the poet’s death. ‘He was my father, my friend, and my teacher,’ and she had not listened to the rest, but some of the poet’s best recommendations were always reserved for Sujoy. So, she wasn’t wrong after all when she couldn’t be sure if the love Sujoy professed for her was his or his love for all things that belonged to the poet. But she wished she had been wrong about Sujoy, at least.
Anita stepped out of the gates of the park and began walking to her place. Kolkata was always a city of early risers, being geographically in the east. The cricketers practicing at the Maidan were by then returning home, the kochuri shops were frying the breakfast delicacies, and schoolchildren were waiting for their buses by their eager and anxious mothers. It wasn’t the poet’s fault, but she had never wanted children, not with her teaching, and she had expected to live a life full of literature.
The poet had died without a will, and she felt somehow, he must have wanted his son to claim him. His dedication for the last few years was always reserved for his past. In his last days, he often spoke of his only son, by his first marriage whose pet name was ‘Khoka.’ Even if he didn’t say he regretted giving up on his son at the end of his life. His son had performed his last rites, and they had met each other in what she thought would be an uncomfortable discussion about the ownership of the house.
‘I don’t want to claim anything’, he said coldly. ‘It’s all yours.’ But she still told him that he had dedicated his last manuscripts to him, and he said she could send her a copy when it was published. ‘Both my parents deserted me when I needed them the most. I don’t want anything from them; no one can give me back my childhood’ he said at last. She thought her son’s rejection was rooted in love, the Bengali word abhimaan, and that still remained while all the emptiness was only reserved for her.
As she walked the pavements and came close to the end of the road and the beginning of another from where she could see the house, it only looked small and cowed down like her. While once the poet’s dwelling house had stood majestically, when it was a landmark for locating the other houses in the neighborhood. The house where poetry had died a death before the poet. She had not really looked around all these years, and she saw that the locality was changing and dwelling houses were turning into apartments.
The neighbors, acquaintances, and even the local shopkeeper had asked her if she wanted to sell the house to tell them, some even unabashedly not caring to hide the glee of a future enrichment by commission. But it wasn’t the impoliteness of the people of the locality that looked to take advantage in any way when a woman was left without a man that bothered her. She thought of home and the migratory birds and saw the house that looked to her like a lover she had abandoned long ago and who was afraid of facing her. She had no obligation to keep the house as she went ahead and came to the door, her determination was more resolved.
Tapti Bose is a writer based in Kolkata, India. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in a number of literary online magazines including Women’s Web, Gulmohur Quarterly, Kitaab International, The Blahcksheep and others.
She can be reached on twitter/X @tapti_bose
Display Photo by Akash Das via Unsplash
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