In the bed, like every day, under an unceremonious compulsion, Mr. Biswas began to count.
It was by 137 he had to stop. Mrs. Biswas opened her eyes to see Mr. Biswas was crying.
Her husband was a sensitive fellow, she knew. Who had written a love poem on her last birthday and bought her The Selected Poems by Jibanananda Das, an old Bengali poet. She didn’t care to read the book but was thrilled to find her name on the second blank page.
“In the lotus hands of darling Nirmala” handwritten in cursive by the husband and that was enough for her.
“What happened? What happened?” she asked Mr. Biswas with furrowed brows. The hollow of her eyes had sunken further in mild anxiety. The loose end of her sari was spread across the Mickey Mouse bed cover.
“I was smart once, Nirmala. My IQ was 137, once.” Mr. Biswas said, crying.
Mrs. Biswas got up in the bed, coaxed her unruly hair back with her fingers and sighed.
It was an old story fashioned by her husband, but an every day one. That when Mr. Biswas was young, he was a brilliant student; particularly good in mathematics and geography; as much as when a psychologist from Kolkata had visited the school, he had found him in possession of an abnormally high IQ, higher than everyone in the class.
That only should have settled his future, ensuring him a rewarding life. The unbridled enthusiasm in the teachers’ room at the event and the extra affection that had been showered upon him aftermath were tremendous. So much so that Mr. Biswas would end up being a private tutor of English, in this small sub-divisional town, for a small monthly sum, was nobody’s prediction.
The meanhearted among the relatives who had followed Mr. Biswas’s career path eagerly went as far as calling it a psychological disaster.
Mr. Biswas, himself, believed the psychologist though. He had believed in his lucid explanation of the esoteric theories, his seemingly strict science. Moreover, he still felt a great surge of emotion just below the rib cage that sometimes felt like a violent thud of a hammer that he fondly named inspiration that called to wake him up time to time.
Those moments were magical. The day then would suddenly seem colourful and cheery. Every town folk would seem capable and overtly friendly. The town itself would look like preparing for Diwali. Even the unkempt shrubs at the front garden would seem at ease and in wait for a benevolent sun.
Those moments didn’t last. He would wake up in the morning to hear the old mother mumbling- pungent curses- for him not buying her a tout medicine for running stomach: for receiving a son’s brazen disobedience, instead of careful service by his dead father. His friends- acquiring permanent jobs- of peonship, teachership- by bribing, political canvassing- making Mr. Biswas feel incapable and jealous. The god-fearing wife (His marriage was well below his intellectual stature and lack of faith), with a slivered face and buxom legs applying Fair & Lovely to her skin before going to bed and coaxing him to join her; not with words but with a befuddling elbow nudge. The spell of the magic long broken, Mr. Biswas found an escape from the ignominy of hopelessness, by alienating and hating the world, especially her.
He had devised, in fact, a silent but elaborate torture. He had decided he would remain aloof when he entered her. It was a difficult plan for him to execute. Thinking about other unrelated topics during the intercourse, for example, geography- all the wonderful places in the world – invariably took him to pleasure. Pondering upon art took him to the memories of his favourite actresses; those imaginary faces of the movie starlets made him hurry up. Many trials and tribulations later, his old studious pride came to his rescue. He began to count his thrusts.
As the act progressed, he became more and more engulfed in a cloud of supremacy and, with every increase of the count imperiously separated from her.
That he broke down today was surprising, even to himself. The obvious emotional surrender to his wife made him violently distraught.
Mrs. Biswas could sense her husband and begged, “You were smart. You are smart. You will always be. No one can take that from you. But enough about yourself, now that you have a daughter, think about her.”
Mr. Biswas sneered, “Don’t talk about daughter. She is only like you. An idiot. Doesn’t even know the capital of Mongolia.”
Mrs. Biswas said, “But she passes her exams.”
“Everyone passes exams!” he said, in a fury.
Mrs. Biswas was obstinate. She said, “She passes her exams and she studies everyday. She tries and tries, but never complains. Probably she will go far because she doesn’t carry any of your burdens- ”
That made Mr. Biswas calm.
Mrs. Biswas- God knows how- making sense.
He said, “We will teach her English well, Nirmala. We will send her to Kolkata and thereafter to Norway- that’s in Europe if you don’t know- for higher studies. The education is free and they speak English there.”
The mood lifted, as the moments passed, and as he became more and more satisfied with the plan, Mr. Biswas strode upon Mrs. Biswas again, and penetrated her.
This time he chose not to count the thrusts, but instead, secretly submitted himself to the pleasure.
At the end the boy was sobbing like a girl and the girl couldn’t care less, like a boy. After the coffee was over, and Whitney Houston sang, “And I-hi-hi-hi, hi-hi-hi will all-waysss love you-hu-hu, hu-hu.” Twice! If it could have waited a little more, the solemn pious gang, she would have obliged the patrons with another encore soon.
Audibly, the coffee shop didn’t own many tracks and the manager worried so much about the billing he lacked variety in musical taste. The din and the hustle bustle that drowned sorrows and day to day loneliness floated like pink heart shaped balloons, provided solace when the music was not sufficient.
Even then, everything would turn pleasantly for better. The boy and the girl, desperately in love, would exchange cards showing a checkered capped, bare breasted boy toddler kissing a willing and rosy girl toddler dressed in a frilly frock. They would exchange gifts wrapped in red and golden paper and say ‘I love you’ to each other. The sound of that in that crowded place would instantly turn into noise.
‘What did you say?’
‘You know what I said.’ The girl blushed.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You know-o.’ The girl blushed again.
‘I don’t know, I swear.’ The boy was serious like hell.
‘I said what you said.’
‘What did I say?’
It went on. Not a terribly interesting piece of conversation. If you were a little practical- say, ‘you do what you got to do’ kind of practical- you would see it was meaningless. Get a room, boy. Take her home. You could barely stop yourself hollering across the coffee shop.
Home? The boy was from Akola. A Banjara boy. He stayed in the city with five other clueless, ‘all dying to have a girl friend’ friends in a one BHK. A trainee graphic designer. There was obviously no money. There was, of course, no room.
How about the girl? Why, hadn’t she had one? Oh, she had. But, it belonged to her City Corporator father. Bolstered by the Maratha votes, he had amassed what one man generally wished to amass in a life time. Power, prestige, a BMW. Seven flats and row houses. And several farm houses. Ninety acres of land. Big property, nothing hers.
For those hapless lovers, there was nowhere to go, the noise of the coffee house being their privacy and the noise being the memory of their early disappointments.
It was not always like this. When the boy had come to the city, he had been alone. Unattached. Fearless. He had come here to make money, woo the city girls and leave his mark. As an artist. As we all knew the art conquered the world.
It was difficult to get interviews though. More difficult for him was to impress the interviewers. To be recruited permanently with a steady salary seemed then utterly impossible. When he was coaxing his mother at night on the phone-“Don’t worry, Aai, I will find a job soon.”- he was coaxing himself too. The mother was apprehensive and it was not because she was familiar with the city job market. The father was in debt. “Sahukar came again today, Bala. Your father hid in the jungle. We have nobody else to ask. Do something.” the mother said.
The best he could do was to get a trainee position with a minuscule stipend and impress a fellow trainee designer with his utter silence during the office hours and an inherent gloominess that came naturally to him.
“Look at us, sir-ji, talk sometimes.” the girl teased. The entire helplessness of him was a safe playground for her. The more he went into silence, the more she danced around it with a gleeful abundance, a good natured girl, having no pride in being a daughter of a rich and powerful man.
“But the money, how to find money? I shouldn’t be distracted.” the boy thought.
“What does he think? Does he think of me? What does he think of me?” the girl thought.
“If we get married, her father will give us enough money and the debt will be paid.” he thought again, wistfully. That made him smile. Made him a little bold, may be. That’s when he felt like falling for her.
“Will he ever raise voice upon me? No, he won’t. He is so nice. Can’t the world see how nice he is? We will be happy together.” the girl thought. She- what’s the phrase?- blissfully followed his suit.
Then those days of whirlwind romance, as whirlwindy it could be in a caste conscious city. Holding hands in the darkness of the movie house, touching legs below the restaurant tables, brushing the breasts against his back while he was driving her Scooty. The boy had to almost close his eyes.
Her breasts were so soft they felt like pigeons. How illegal it might be, the Banjaras still hunted pigeons. He wouldn’t hunt them though. He would protect them, look after them and make them his own.
And that lingering warm feeling, blood being shot everywhere in the body, the heart pumping extra fast. The boy could not look into her eyes. The girl winced at him and understood immediately. They were so in love, they were horny. One day, someday, they would get married, make love, have children- they were so made for each other. Today, regrettably, was not that day. So they waited till the coffee was over.
Then they heard the commotion. Did you hear the commotion?
You would hear it now. After the erudition.
After the liberalization, as the market opened up, the practice of American rituals in our country became extremely popular. Now, that was about to happen. Following (blindly?) the greatest civilization (!) in the world in itself is quite inspiring. But retaliation came surprisingly from some of the prominent political groups. Their leaders, not entirely against the market economy- a few of them benefitted immensely because of it- were worried, justifiably so, being the descendent of an ancient civilization, about the protection and the purity of the culture.
Let’s call them the solemn pious gang. Shall we? Today being the Valentine’s Day, they were untiringly hard at work.
If you had heard the commotion already that was they were climbing up the stairs, eager, passionate, dedicated to a cause. To the first floor, where the coffee house was located, where there was noise already, in which our boy and girl hid themselves from the world in a way only a romantic couple could.
“No, Dada, no!” the girl cried and rushed forward. The boy was still in a haze.
“Go home, Gauri, leave this to us.” the man in a white kurta pajama and a brown goatee gasped. Manhandling a twenty two year old boy would tire him later. Thank God, the boy immediately cowered on the floor and was cooperating. It also seemed like the man, the leader, was somehow known to the girl. A brother, probably.
In our country, it was the brothers’ responsibility, in absence of or in coordination with the fathers, to protect the dignity of the daughters of the house. This brother was dutiful. His gang of young men cordoned off, the best way they could, to protect the girl, without touching her, without looking at her secretly.
The man held the boy by his hair, shook his head a few times as if to give him clarity of thought. He didn’t bring the superiority of his caste into conversation. That would be tactless. He was there only to put a show to his naive sister, how unworthy, how cowardly this son of a pig was. Things would have been easier if he could prove the boy as he actually was: greedy. That generally broke a young lover’s heart. If he could only make the boy confess…
He kept shaking the boy’s head. ‘Tell, tell’, he was shouting, ‘why you hang around my sister? Why?’ He slapped. ‘Money?’. He slapped again. ‘Money? Bad motive? What? What?’
The boy could remember about his mother, despite the violence, and his father, a tenacious Sahukar and some unborn children he imagined not so long ago. A silent boy he was, a trapped child himself, he could see they would not come and help him now. He was evidently in danger at a far way place, without a known way out. He would lose many things hereafter, his job, this girl, her city, he would see if he could save his life. Before losing consciousness, he shook his head.
He shook his head.
He lowered his head, as if in shame, and shook again.
Would you blame a twenty two year old girl for believing what she saw that evening, that ashamed nod, after being thoroughly talked to by her mother, grand mother, girl friends and her affectionate father? That would be harsh. You see, she had loved him too.
So the boy was laid unconscious, completely in discretion of the coffee house management, littered with blood and cash that would barely cover his hospital cost.
Years later the boy would be woken up and asked for money again.
“I need money dad. It’s for the business. Trust me when I say this one will make money. Every dad helps. Every Dad. Can’t you understand? Too old for that? I will pay back. Charge interest if you wish… You don’t love me, pay some cash at least.” A young man with a hope of making big stomped his foot in front of the boy.
The boy who looked like an old man now looked at his son and hated him. For his insolence, for his carelessness. ‘If I would have been married to Gauri’, he thought, ‘I could have had a son like this. I would have hated him too.’
That brought him peace. Despite the onslaught of senility he could begin to understand that it didn’t matter who he loved, who he slept with, with whom he spent his entire life hoping for better things to come.
Tears came trickling to him. Nothing was nothing.
But, that was at the end.
In the beginning it was a love story.