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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

THE LAST PORTRAIT. Part 1

October 2001.
Manhattan, New York. 

It was just yesterday that the sun was beaming at its pinnacle and the sky, a crease-less sheet of blue overhead, stretched across the wide bed of heaven between the infinite horizons. Pillows of clouds rose stacked and the sun with its back against it, comfortably shone from its adobe. 
And the light was just brilliant, like on any late summer day, like spools of silk threads being unreeled from the sky, as they lower and entangle between the branches of the trees, glistening upon the leaves, slowly waking up sleep laden streets early morning, quiet between the high rises of Manhattan and reflect ferociously, like shards of broken mirror scattered across the face of Hudson, as it flows in its blinding shine of molten gold and silver with a million mini balls of fire lit at the surface.
And just the very next day, everything is changed at the turn of a conspiring night, he wonders. Unexpected, like a bend along the roads of fate, the city experiences its first snowfall for the season. 
Somewhere, at the heart of the truth that only we seem to know, our life too is an array of all such bewilderment, interspaced by our own undivided reactions of joy and sorrow, shame and hate, to every such bend we lean into in this ride.

Satyajeet is sitting at his desk, his laptop computer opened in front of him, as he types into the keyboard, pausing to squirm through the pages of a thick hardback by his hand, a blunt tip pencil lying in between; perhaps preparing the notes for his next lecture. Cleopatra – The ancient pharaoh, reads the title in bold curlicue letters at the header of the document, the pages of which are watermarked with the university emblem - Hastings College of Arts, written in a semicircular arch over the holy cross propped above the waves and two opened lotus, bending inwards towards the base of it. The blinds of the window to his left are only partially drawn and the slits are being poured with the dim, spilling grey of this unlikely morning, defining his still, broad frame, somewhat prominently in the otherwise dark shell of his room. He seems to wear an old, V-neck pullover and a slacks, the wool having gone prickly by the seasons, by the scrub of the detergent for years as spiky strands emerge up on his collar, tingling his nape with every single tilt of his head. His face is the shape one would easily be reminded of symmetry with. The hook of the nose setting up perfectly like a uniform hill beneath the dipping cliff of his brows, followed by slightly broader lips, that purse and relax in unison, as if in synch with his mind. His hair is unkempt, tight circular locks ride above his ears hiding his narrow sideburn that taper down to the jaws to meet his beard. At the front, the curls are swept backwards, shaped like the underbelly of a wave atop his forehead, streaked with a lines of white. He has got an attractive pair of eyes, deep set into the socket of his face, like ancient pictures of hunting dug and drawn into the walls of the cave, bordered by long eye lashes that almost seem to touch the insides of his spectacle every time he happens to blink at the screen. The rapt attention flushing the white in his eyes with a fusion of pink.

The quietness of his apartment is then suddenly shattered by the sharp ringing of the telephone at the foyer. He gets up from his chair and collecting a white, woolen shawl from the arms of an abandoned hat-stand at the corner, ambles down the stairs in the dark, flicking on switching of lights along his descent.
He picks up the cradle from the base-set and the ring dies, letting a momentary calm gravitate back into the foyer. It is his sister Riya, all the way from Calcutta and he is just as exhilarated to hear her. A kind smile doped with love and longing ripples across his face as he lowers himself into the cane chair and crossing his legs, prepares himself for the talk. She tells him about her marriage being finalized and asks him to be home for the same. He enquires about the groom, as she tells him about Ratan, a road engineer under the PWD, single child to the Chatterjee’s residing in Triangular Park. His father, now, after retiring as an Ophthalmologist from the city hospital, serves as the committee head for the club that hosts the grand celebration of Durga Pujo at Triangular Park and his mother runs a sewing school at the first floor of their house. Every evening from 4 to 7, she is with her students, walking down the aisle in assistance, lined by women seated behind tables installed with sewing machines. Their foot of the peddle, the shaft rotating by the ducked heads as the spool unwinds with a whirr, lending stiches of hundred kinds to the cloth pressed beneath the needles under her experienced gaze.  

It had been almost 3 years since he had been to Calcutta and now with this call, with Riya’s voice sailing to him like a happy laughter ricocheting between steep valleys, he feels the nostalgic din of the place wring his heart with a calling he did not feel until then. The news equally comforts and unsettles Satyajeet as his mind wanders back across the ocean, to the narrow lanes of his hometown, where behind his eyes he recollects his ancestral house in North Calcutta, at the far end of the bustling lane. He fondly remembers the claustrophobia of the very place with his house standing out above it - the rain-darkened walls mirroring the smoky sky; the wide corridors where the hollering voices of him playing hide-n-seek with Riya on school vacations seem to be embedded between the bricks and even after all these years, a walk down those corridors and he could hear the reverberation deep in his ears and the familiar smell of his bed where he passed out every night in a protective sleep and had woken up to the din that rose from the street below no sooner than the morning light evaded from the clouds. The old buildings leaning close across the street, seem to cut out the slant of daylight that pours in through the little slice of sky pressed between the rises of the houses. Mornings use to rather noisy – vendors clad in soiled vests sat out on the pavements beneath awning sheets, ranting on top of their hoarse voices from behind stacks of wicker basket filled with fresh vegetables; the clutter of men’s voices drifting like incense smoke down the packed lane as they make small purchases, haranguing for every single penny; the sudden stuttering of hand-pulled rickshaws driving the mob aside, kicking mud and gravel from the clay road and queues of birds swung and chirped from overhead wires, their scales gleaming in the slant of sun. He remembers being in the middle of the hustle with his father on Sunday mornings as they stood at the makeshift stalls with Riya in her father’s arms and had waited for their turn to make purchase. As evening drew in and the lingering light of day receded from the lanes, an unusual calm descended the place. Beneath the trickle of moonlight, the shadows of buildings overlapped on the pavements where the homeless often slept between tattered rags. Smell of cooking smokes rolled through the open windows mixing with the sweat and dirt of the day, as an aura of life silently rose from the alley and sailed into the night sky. And the moment he numbs himself from the conundrum of everything and lifts his head to the ceiling, he couldn’t resist in his heart the desire to get back to the place and enroll himself in the humdrum that had his childhood written over every tiny attribute of it.

He lights a cigarette and standing by the window of his first floor room, draws the blinds. The traffic is mild along the streets below as a steady snow continue to fall and thicken upon the pavements, coating the city in a spectacular view of white. With every long drag as he felt the ineffable joy of seeing his sister happily step into the much awaited phase of her life swell in his chest, he couldn’t keep away the unsettling feeling that came crawling along. A strange sadness; the kind that lovers shared in a hug and closed their eyes; the kind that a village in the desert wept seeing the rain clouds fly away with the wind.

Closing his eyes to all the apprehensions that had pledged for his attention, he had stuffed a wad of currency from his last month’s saving into his waist and had set out in the snow to buy a camera for the all memories and moments that will be his only companion those unavoidable, weary evenings, in this vast, opportunistic land of the New York city. He had walked down the block of pavement, his rubber boots squashing the fluffy snow to pleated sheets against the concrete as twirling flakes settle upon his shoulder and is caught in the curls of his unkempt hair. He evades into the mist, the hem of his corduroy overcoat flying in the wind behind. His heart cushioned by a genuine happiness and the saddening touch of a premonition, he couldn’t figure then. Yet, that precise moment, he had held onto to the winning feeling of ecstasy and let everything fade. He smiles imagining Riya in her embroidered marriage veil, her hena stained palm, seated at the high ceiling hall of his own house, he has spent his childhood in and leaves the world behind. He falls and fall deeply in love with her shy eyes ablaze with the color of the flame as the backdrop bursts with colors of music, light and laughter.  

*****
Calcutta, 2001.

Riya stands at the arrival of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport, trying to spot him from above a thicket of shoulders that jammed the entrance beyond vision as soon as the flight status rolled and changed to ‘Landed’ on the electronic display board. People emerged out of the sliding doors pushing loaded trolleys down the ramp, as cab drivers in their peculiar Calcutta trend, had surrounded them and talked with screeching voice, coaxing them for a ride with them. The approach often scared foreigners, sabotaging their initial impression card about Calcutta with a poor grade. But then who really cares about the impression of the state, unless you are the one campaigning for Incredible India.

Soon Satyajeet emerged through the roll of the gates. A sling bag strapped across his chest and a trolley, trudging along his heels. He wears a sky blue cotton shirt and a pleated trousers that fits loosely around his legs. The sweeping underbelly-of-wave like strand, flatted across his forehead in sweat as Riya greets his fleeting, jetlagged eyes with her raised hand.

“Look who is receiving me. The girl of the moment. For whom people are travelling from all parts of the world, is here at the airport to receive me.” He nudges her after hugging for a whole long minute.

“Why? Can’t I?” She chuckles. A tenderness rising in her narrow eyes.

They walk across to the already waiting taxi at the parking and having loaded the bags in the boot of the cab, slips onto the rear seat. The traditional yellow cabs of the city, striped with blue across the doors, a first age ambassador car, starts with a groan and haltingly, rummages through the crowd of vehicles within the airport premises, before hitting the highways. The afternoon was humid and the strong light of the sun rained in torrents on the asphalt roads letting heat waves rise and wipe across faces with a burning intensity. Landscape shifted in the windows as he watched the city with interest. Frames of memory from the past came together with the pieces of the moments and reflected vividly upon his realizations.

“This city seems to be an exception to the theory of this universe’s timeless expansion. Nothing really seems to have changed.” He remarked and turned to Riya who is fidgeting with a lock of hair, the breeze seeming to persistently pluck from behind her ears.

“You know what Satya, sometimes we are so much in love with the old setting that despite the new having taken the place now, we continue to see before our eyes what originally existed. One that inspired love in us and that way the new remains forever neglected.”

“Did you just read something from dad’s collection or what?” He laughed a full mouth laughter and she smiled back in acknowledgement.

The cab turned and rose upon a flyover, the windshield ablaze with the scorching sun as hundreds of mirages gleamed upon the road ahead, vanishing even faster as we sped past them. Roads narrowed, traffic drew in, we slowed down and soon we were rolling through the heart of the city, the hustle triggering an uncanny nostalgia deep in his heart.

“Riya, why are we taking this road?” Satyajeet asked. A furrow of curiosity splitting his forehead and before she could answer, the cab slithered left along the road and came to a halt.

He watches her frame carefully against the clear panes of the car. The hook of her nose crinkled in apprehension and her face, as blank as a untouched canvas while the imagination of the artist deliberately eluded. The moment Satyajeet raised his arm to touch her shoulder, her eyes cracked with a devastating agony and a tear trickled down her face.

“There was no other way you would have come. I am sorry.” She spoke beneath her breath, the cry in her throat chaining the words down and as he shifted his gaze from her painful frame to the city dwelling beyond the clear glass pane, the earth beneath his feet blew open. They were at the gates of a mortuary and he could already recognize few mourning faces from his family at the front.

They left the taxi and walked over to the other side of the road as he suddenly remembers the unsettling feeling he had deliberately ruled over, that snowy morning in his New York apartment. He kind of knows that awaits him, yet he pleads Riya to word the pain for him. Perhaps hold his shivering, fading body in her embrace and lead him to the pain, the revelation, he would eventually stand face to face with. Every bit of noise that rose and drifted from the street at his back dwindled to dreading silence in his mind and his heart trembled with a violent ache.

“They needed your signatures and I knew you wouldn’t come.” She spoke convulsing, her shoulder contracting with a shuddering jerk.

They walk down a crowded corridor with wailing people rolling by the sides. Their faces swelled and eyes bloodshot as they cry out aloud, freeing the pathetic grief in their heart, beating their chest with closed fists before passing out to what seems to be the filthiest sensation of their whole lifetime and ironically that very moment, grieving about the dead, each of the souls present there wanted to die and get buried than braving the heart-wrenching moment. Pain, fear and agony oozed from every nook and corner of the place and blending with the sweet smell of flowers that garlanded the corpse, rattled the settlements on the earth of our heart with a calamity, everyone felt they wouldn’t recover from in this lifetime.

Satyajeet was given a clipboard and as he signed the papers, one after another, a gurney shrouded in white was rolled out from the frozen chambers and they stopped before him, Riya covered her mouth with her palm and faced the wall. Her eyes flooded and her face was a carcass of makeshift houses post a violent storm. Broken. Uprooted. Shattered.

“Stroke.” She struggled to breathe. “The doctor said”. The shroud was pulled back and Satyajeet, finally came up front to the saddening feeling he carried in his heart all the way from New York, pushing it below the carpet of happiness, he forced himself to believe in. He met that premonition in form of his dad. Lifeless on the gurney. His nose stubbed with cotton.

“I had been to the market and when I returned, I found him in the room. Cold and static on the floor. Eyes popped out. The paint can upturned on his kurta and a bunch of brushes scattered by his head. He died in his work.”

He had walked away from the spot, holding the whirlwind of stale waves that rose in him to the back of his throat. The wail and words resounding in his head like a curse in the silence that started to freeze in the melancholic minutes of standing across his sister with his lifeless father in between.
“It is time to let go your grievance, Satya. Forgive him. It is time…”She repeated. Her voice failing. Her eyes oozing a heart rendering pity.

Satyajeet unzipped his sling bang and had pulled out the camera he had purchased for Riya’s wedding. Perhaps, like the unexpected snow drizzled upon New York that dull morning, this too was one such unpredictable bend fate had sent pushing his way and he had leaned into it invariably with reactions of grief, pain and pity.  
He had then hid his face behind the eye hole and through the veil of tears that finally webbed across his eyes, captured into the film, his father’s last existential token.  

*****
As they stood hand in hand by the meandering Ganga, the water a shallow trickle and watched a frothy wave catch the ashes and dissolve in its current, the earthen pot bobbing along by its side; Riya had tilted her head on his shoulder and stared for long at the bleeding sunset sky across the horizon.

“Earthy souls don’t carry to heaven their unforgiven sins.” She remarked. “I am happy that you forgave him and eased his last journey through the waves.”

He only held her tighter in response. Their frail bodies pressed closed through the dampness of tears and sweat as the wind rose strong and the wave curled away, sweeping for one last time into the depth of its bosom, the remnants of their father beyond their eyes.

*****

A week had passed and Satyajeet was sitting across the floor in his father’s room, staring at the paintings that adorned the wall through the grimace in his eyes. He looks at the paint stained square on the floor where his father might have fallen and writhed for help and is cut adrift by a hurt, he feels vulnerable living with in his heart.
Somewhere, something is ringing, perhaps the phone. But he is lost. Entranced. Too grief stricken to hear anything but the memories of his father in this very rom that clawed at his chest and nearly dragged him to death. He remembers his father there; hunched upon a stool, leaning into the colorful burst of the canvas, a brush pressed between his lips as he draws with another. But then as they say, the light of reality is such that it bites away the even the darkness of hell and this darkness was only the painful wave of memories that crashes on him and he couldn’t feel any light from the sodding wetness of agony on his skin. It had to fall away and it did just right then.

He stood and staggered towards the hall room. A frail frame clad in white cloth and sweat glistening upon his shaved head.

“Hello…”

“I am so sorry to hear this, Satyajeet. I wish I could have been at your side in this terrible span of time.”

The voice was a known one. Or maybe, not just known. To him, it was simply unforgettable.

“Rukshar….”

His breath suddenly heavy and chest contracting to the sudden, unexpected intensity of the situation he felt himself exposed to. As if the sun had suddenly rose in the middle of the night and people struggled to open their eyes. She was certainly unforgettable. How could he ever forget? How could anyone forget? She was the one to whom he had lost his heart to, some twenty eight years back and couldn’t gather to marry her. She was the one to whom he had secretly pledged his whole life to and never looked back at anyone. She was that one and only thing he could remember this evidently, beyond anything and everything and still recognize at the single cadence of her voice, when it had been decades since he had last heard the lilting melody of her voice.

But a call after all these years undoubtedly left him off-balance. What new bend fate had planned up his sleeves for him? He pondered over everything and when she spoke the next, it was as if a whole universe of possibilities was summoning him.

“You only know the half-truth, Satyajeet. And because I love you, I will complete you in possible sense.”

The line clicked off and he dropped into the cane chair by the telephone stand, holding his head in the cup of his palms. The room swirled around him at a breathtaking pace and the beams of light stabbing through the window, sliced his bewildered face like blades of reality torturing him with the truth.    

                                         To be continued....



                                 Author  - Sobhan Pramanik.





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