Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee

Tags: #Fiction


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‘Rahul, you look just like I used to at your age.’ Baba ruffled my hair. I wriggled away, not wanting my carefully arranged hair to get messed up. I had worked very hard on setting my curl just right.

As we drove up to Banjara Hills, close to where Ranjan lived, I remembered Shubho and wished I could see him again. I hoped he would be at the wedding. I wanted to see him all dressed up—and I wanted him to see me in all my finery.

The wedding was being held in the garden of the Bella Vista Club, an exclusive establishment open only to members. As we drove through the gates of the club, the light globes on their posts shone a milky yellow-white light on us. The driveway and the road outside were full of cars, mostly Ambassadors and Fiats. There were a few American cars too—Chevrolets and Buicks. A Lincoln Continental
sedan with dark glass windows, covered by strands of fragrant jasmine and rose, was parked to the side. This was the car the married couple would leave the ceremony in.

The pandal was a very large affair. Gaily coloured stripes and scalloped edges decorated it all over. Tall bamboo poles held it up in the centre and on all sides. These were secured to metal stakes in the ground with thick and sturdy ropes. The Durga Puja festival was also always held in a gigantic pandal like this. I looked around me with great interest. There were hundreds of guests, speaking in Bengali, English, Hindi, Urdu and other languages I could not recognize. I had never been surrounded by so many people dressed in such finery. The women and girls looked like brightly coloured songbirds, their gold, diamonds and rubies flashing. The men were dressed in dark suits and looked like sinister crows next to the women. The Bengali babus were dressed mostly in dhoti–kurta, the yards and yards of gold-embroidered silk making a swishing sound as they moved. Servile waiters in fine livery walked around with trays of drinks and food.

A band played at one end of the lawn, where some people were dancing to ‘
Come September
’. The band members were dressed in velvet jackets with gold braid and the conductor waved his baton with a flourish.

‘Where is Mallika Didi?’ I asked my mother.

‘Why don’t you and Rani go and see? She is probably in the pandal, sitting by the fire. The wedding mantras started a while ago.’

‘Come, Rahul.’ Rani held my hand and we walked into the pandal. On the way, I stumbled and the carefully arranged accordion folds of my dhoti tumbled out—I almost lost half of my clothes right there.

‘Clumsy,’ Rani said, laughing at my embarrassment. ‘Why don’t you walk more carefully? Here, let me fix your dhoti.’ Disaster averted, we continued walking.

We wove our way through the crowd sitting around the couple by the fire, in front of the purohit-moshai. The rotund priest was wearing only a dhoti and sweating profusely. His bald pate and body glistened in the light of the flames. At specific intervals, he would pour ghee into the fire, and the flames would leap higher each time he did this. The priest was supposed to be chanting Sanskrit hymns, but because he was Bengali and his accent was very strong, the mantras sounded like Bengali too.

‘Look, there’s Mallika Didi! Isn’t she looking beautiful?’ Rani clutched my arm and asked me in an excited whisper.

Mallika did make a beautiful figure, in a sari of red and gold like all Bengali brides. She had garlands of fragrant flowers around her neck and a delicate crown made of pith. I could not see her face, which was partially covered. She looked like the heroine of a film in her scarlet silk and brocade sari next to Sanjib, who was dressed in a silk dhoti– kurta. He was heavily garlanded and also wore a crown of ornately decorated pith with tassels hanging on each side of his face. Mallika and Sanjib were facing the fire together. I thought of Salim and felt sad. He should have been sitting next to Mallika.

Shyamala waved to us with a small flick of her hand. She was sitting very close to the couple, at hand to help out if needed. Anjali Mashi and Binesh Kaku were watching intently. Sanjib’s parents sat by their son, looking overjoyed.

‘Look, it’s time for the Subhodrishti—the auspicious glance!’ Ma whispered excitedly as she seated herself behind
me. The auspicious glance was the part of the marriage ceremony where the bride and groom looked at each other for the very first time and made eye contact. This had been a custom from the time arranged marriages had started—in those days, the bride and the groom never met until the wedding as the elders in the family made all the decisions. This part of the ceremony was supposed to be very romantic and was loved by Bengalis.

The air smelt of burning ghee and incense. The bride and groom stood up and faced each other. The women of the family held a silk cloth, like a tent, over the heads of the couple. With both hands, Sanjib raised the end of Mallika’s sari, which was covering her face, and revealed her downcast eyes. Mallika was beautifully made up, her forehead covered with an ornate lattice of sandalwood paste. Sanjib looked at her with impatience, waiting for her to raise her eyes and look into his for that special moment, but she did not. I looked at my mother in confusion. She looked shocked. The auspicious glance had been withheld by Mallika.

At the very end, the couple had to walk around the fire seven times. The groom led and the bride followed, a corner of his shawl tied to the corner of her sari. As each round was made, the priest chanted sacred verses and threw more ghee into the fire. The slow progression around the fire was final and irrevocable. As they completed each circle, they cemented their togetherness in all worlds forever. My dreams for Mallika and Salim dimmed at the finality of these vows taken in our presence.

After the last of the mantras had been chanted, the bride and bridegroom sat on two special throne-like chairs that had been set up for them. Many guests and relatives milled
around the wedded couple. Anjali Mashi was busy tending to her daughter and new son-in-law. She looked harried but happy. I ran up to the bride as soon as I could.

‘Mallika Didi, Mallika Didi,’ I yelled.

She looked up at me, but I could not see her face because the heavy brocade veil covered it. She held out her arms to me. I walked over to her and playfully put my head under the veil. I saw tears streaming down her face and she grabbed my arms. I was pulled away by a pair of strong, determined hands.

‘Mallika Didi needs to rest,’ Anjali Mashi said, firmly leading me away. ‘Dinner is being served and it will get cold. Go join your parents and sister.’

In the Bengali tradition, the wedding dinner had countless courses. Dinner was served on plates made of dried leaves and the guests sat in a row on the floor on a folded carpet, cross-legged. A continuous stream of food servers came by and each had a bucket of steaming food. They stopped to serve at every plate and moved on to the next one. There was barely time to finish one course before the next one arrived. We started off with beguni, followed by chorchori, shukto, chholar dal with little bits of coconut and various curries. All of this was served with fragrant pulao, drizzled with ghee and full of raisins and cashews. Numerous fish dishes followed, each one cooked in a different sauce such as curd, or tomato and onions or mustard. Sweet tomato chutney acted as the palate cleanser between meals. The finale was the dessert, comprising sweetened curd, dark-brown and creamy, rosogolla, gulab jamun and payesh. ‘Bas, bas!’ the guests would say to indicate that they had eaten enough, but their pleas went unheeded and more and more food was heaped on our plates.

On our way out, I kept looking for Shubho, but was disappointed. Perhaps they had not been invited. Finally, we got into the car and drove home, feeling sleepy.

‘Mallika did not return the Shubhodrishti,’ my mother remarked to my father. ‘That is an ill omen.’

My father did not respond.

Mallika left on her honeymoon the next day. I waited impatiently for her return. Now that the wedding was over, I hoped that I could have my old Mallika back so that we could celebrate the upcoming Durga Puja together, like old times.

‘I ran into Colonel Sahib outside today,’ my father told my mother as he came back from the garden where he had been picking flowers for his morning prayers.

I sat up in bed, listening carefully, my spirits lifting.

‘So, he is finally back,’ Ma said. ‘He has been travelling a lot to Rajasthan lately to take care of his family estate. I have heard that he has a lot of land and that many villagers till his fields. The palace, I think, sits empty. It is very sad. At his age, he is alone—he should be with a wife and children and grandchildren. He must be a lonely man.’

I wanted to jump up and say that Colonel Uncle was not a lonely, sad man. In fact, he was full of life and seemed to enjoy living by himself upstairs. But I remained silent. To say anything would be admitting that he was my friend— and I was determined to keep our friendship to myself.

The phone rang. My father picked it up. ‘Oh, Binesh Dada,’ he said. ‘Congratulations. I am sure you and Anjali Didi are sleeping peacefully now.’ He listened for a moment and laughed. ‘Oh, I am sure the marriage will be a success.
Our children forget that we always know what is best for them. Mallika will thank you once she realizes what a terrible mistake she was going to make. Wait and see how much she will have changed after the honeymoon.’ He laughed again, as if the honeymoon would work magical wonders. ‘I am glad to hear the artists are here,’ he said, moving to the subject dearest to the Bengali heart. ‘The next month is going to be a busy one, preparing for Durga Puja. Okay, then … bye.’ As he hung up, he said to my mother, ‘The artists have arrived from Bengal and will start work today.’

I knew what that meant and was filled with delicious anticipation. I leapt out of the bed in excitement.

‘When are we going to the tailor to get new clothes?’ Rani, who was already up, asked my father with her most beguiling smile.

‘Yes, when? May I get the latest Rajesh Khanna jacket with the round neck? Please, please?’ I begged, hanging on to his arm.

‘Arre, stop pulling on my arm! How old are you? You are too old to be acting as if you are eight. Go brush your teeth and comb your hair. At your age, I never thought about fashion and films. I knew that I had to study hard and make my parents proud,’ Baba said, shaking me off. Seeing my scowl, he added, ‘Fine, we will get you your Rajesh Khanna jacket once I see the results of your tests. If you don’t do well, you will not get any new clothes this year.’

Rani glared at me for ruining her efforts.

Annoyed and embarrassed, I walked to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for breakfast. If my father was not satisfied with my school performance, this would be the first time ever that I would not get new clothes for
Durga Puja. I looked at myself in the mirror and kicked the bathtub in frustration. Growing older meant that I could not take my life for granted any more. I would have to work hard to earn what I wanted. I could not wait until I was old enough to do what I wanted!

‘Oh, I forgot. I have invited Colonel Sahib to tea today,’ I heard my father say when I came back for breakfast. ‘Do we have any snacks? He must be pining for home-cooked food. As a bachelor, he probably eats very little—and poorly too. I don’t understand why he did not marry, even if it was late in life. Every man needs a woman to take care of him and the household. From time to time, do send some food upstairs.’

‘I’ll go and take him food,’ I said before I could stop myself.

My father smiled approvingly. ‘All right. You can take him food sometimes … when your mother asks you to. Remember that some people are old and lonely and need our company and kindness. I am very lucky to have your mother. Colonel Uncle is not so lucky.’

I had never considered Colonel Uncle in that light. How could he be unlucky when he was so wonderful? I was pondering this later that afternoon when the doorbell rang. Rani had gone to visit a classmate for a few hours, but I was waiting. I ran to the door and opened it before I was asked to. The air was redolent with the fragrance of jasmine blooming in the garden, and the humming of bees and dragonflies was a constant drone in the background. And there stood Colonel Uncle, smartly dressed in beige linen pants and a pale-blue bush shirt, open at the neck. He looked cool and comfortable in the early autumn weather. In his hand, he had a box of sweets from the best sweet shop
in town—Goyal Mithai, the box said in bold red letters, and it was tied with a string of red silk and gold.

Colonel Uncle’s face creased into smiles when he saw me. His eyes twinkled merrily. ‘Hello, Rahul,’ he said. ‘We meet again!’

I gave him a shy but conspiratorial smile as my father came up behind me. ‘Colonel Sahib. What a pleasure to see you! This is my son, Rahul. You remember him, don’t you? He was a baby when you last saw him and brought Rani that wonderful kitchen set.’

‘Yes, but I have met him upstairs since.’

‘Really? Rahul, have you been bothering Colonel Uncle?’ It was my mother. She had also come to the door and was leading us all into the sitting room.

‘No, no, Bhabhiji,’ Colonel Uncle said. ‘Rahul is such a well-behaved and smart young man. It is always a pleasure to talk to him.’

‘Still … Colonel Bhai, I don’t want him disturbing you if you are not ready to have guests. I am sure you are busy with so many things. Come, please have a seat. So, how is the family estate in Rajasthan? I must say, you are looking fit and fine.’ She sounded a little surprised, as if expecting to see a starving and ill Colonel Uncle who did not have anyone to take care of him.

‘Everything is fine, Bhabhiji. Here are some sweets.’ Colonel Uncle offered the box to my mother.

‘Arre, Colonel Bhai, why do you insist on all this formality?’

‘No formality, Bhabhiji. It is for this festive season. Also, I am celebrating some good news I got in a letter from an old friend yesterday.’ Colonel Uncle’s eyes brimmed with joy.

‘Good news? Please share it with us,’ my father requested.

‘Oh, it is a letter from an old friend in Italy who wants me to visit. You know, it is always good to hear from old friends.’

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