Like any other serious predicament, it all had started most ordinarily. And, if the phenomenon which is being considered to be the underlying reason of everything is found justified, then it should boil down to a very simple affair, after all. Because the darling daughter used to be cross with her parents regularly, as they happened to be late returning home almost daily. And, for that matter, who would like to come back to an empty home everyday, unlock the front door, and wait, and wait for the other inmates, sitting all alone?
Jiji, however, was never to return home straight from her school. She had to attend her tutorials four times a week and music and dancing classes on Saturdays and Wednesdays. She would spend her Sunday mornings at home, taking painting lessons. Had she, then, got mad at seeing the yellow note posted on the refrigerator after she had just been back from the weekly dance session? Certainly she was or, why should she crush the chit in her palm angrily, and throw the paper ball away so fiercely, blindly that it rolled under the sofa and rebounded from the wall?
But that missive was such an ordinary one! That simple letter read like this: Kiddy darling mine, your sandwiches are in the hot-box; please eat them after washing your hands well using Lifebuoy liquid. In case auntie Mitu phones, tell her we'll be late returning home tonight. Pay Ronnie Tk sixty when he arrives with the laundry; you'll find the money under the telephone address-book. Be a nice, goodie-goodie kiddy. OK? Your dearest Mum-Mum-Maa.
Now, if this endearing note from her mother had angered Jiji (that is, if she had read that at all and afterwards got enraged), then, immediately after she had read the letter, or otherwise, sometime after she had got back home that evening, she had thrown her satchel possibly stooping a little, following her very favourite Azzu's style, aiming to land that on her bed, in her room. But the heavy bag perhaps had grazed the bedroom door and fell a cubit away from the wall where a mirror was hung, which was, right on the left of the box containing her new Reeboks.
It's also difficult to surmise if she at all had made faces then at her grandma (at her photograph actually, as was customary with her) or secretly dropped hints of her formidable resolve. Of course, it might have so happened that she hadn't ever considered taking any such vow!
On the wall facing grandma were the busts of the always apathetic Azhar, black-shirt Jackson and one-earring-adorned Sachin, hung in a row. In the mirror, Jiji might have exchanged quick glances with Jackson as well; right then, she might have considered returning Rimpy's cassette. But during that fateful evening, she had not ventured towards Rimpy's place though. On the contrary, she had proceeded in the opposite direction, leaving the Red Fort (a house actually!) on her right. As soon as she switched her Sony walkman on, her favourite tune was playing….did you even stop to notice the crying earth, the weeping shores!
But things were different with Jiji during grandma's days, that is, when granny was alive. As soon as Jiji's footsteps were heard on the stairs outside, she would open the door ajar to receive her. As Jiji used to enter the house, granny would gather her fondly in her arms, taking the satchel off her shoulders, complaining earnestly all the time—who says it's a school-bag, I'd call it a bale! Jiji would lose no time. She would wash her hands and face in a jiffy and sit down to eat her repast, holding onto her grandma like an appendage. The old lady always gave her the most delicious and exotic tiffins to eat—milk and ripe bananas mashed with soft rice, fine flattened rice steeped in hot milk and mango juice, sweetened and condensed milk or some other recipe, not quite known to or favoured by Jiji's mum-mum-maa and her likes. Grandma's fingers would delve into Jiji's hair and caress her scalp—darling, your mum-mum-maa will be a little late today, she would softly say. Oh, don't mention her, grandma, Jiji would sultrily interpose, her face buried in her granny's cosy, reassuring lap. No dear, good girls don't say such things about the elders. God Almighty will be angry with you, granny would say, and then, as if to better compensate for her mother's absence, she would be recounting the favourite fairy tales for Jiji's pleasure.
It was apparent that Jiji had not washed before leaving the house that evening. The toilet was thoroughly dry. The wash basin was a little tinted with coke though. So, it was conjectured that she had partially used a can of Coca Cola (that her father used to dilute his drinks of rum) and drained the rest down the sink. The empty can was found on the sofa.
It's still not quite clear why she had left home; maybe the familiar fragrance that used to exude from her granny's living body was wafted to her by one of those fairies in an elfin boat, or, maybe she had wanted to teach her parents an opportune lesson! Maybe she was getting lost in a kind of strange monotony, a kind of unsavoury fatigue she may have made efforts to drown in the dark, wavy folds of an unfamiliar void, like an alien, like a somnambulist, she may have walked away in a dream on her sojourn to another dream domain.
Well, for the convenience of recounting the tale, let's assume that Jiji had stopped at some place abruptly, in the midst of her sentimental stroll. That stoppage had roused her, rendering her aware of the environs. She had realized that she had trodden on unfamiliar grounds somewhere around the lake. She had found stacks of huge cement pipes on one side and dark, heavy lake waters on the other. The full moon reflected in the water reminded Jiji of her father, because it was Babu (as she fondly called him) who had mentioned in the morning that it was Buddha Purnima that night. And standing there, all by herself, when Jiji was experiencing a creepy, chilly sensation and considering to go back home and setting her shock of hair with the right hand in a bid to ward off her nervousness, about that time, Francis had spotted her.
And Francis was not supposed to be seen at all outside his hide-out; because he knew it only too well that Lottery Pappu and his gang were chasing him desperately. They were sure to kill him as soon as they would spot him. Francis, however, had no idea of how it would be like getting terminated; though he happened to possess a lot more of this kind of 'almost there' experience compared with other youths of his age. He had considered the possibility of being murdered and concluded that it might be a trifle more painful than the gang-beating he had received in the hands of Raju and his company a few days back.
But he had seen on many other occasions that people generally were quite scared when they faced death. Francis remembered a recent event when they were taking Mohan to gang-hack him; the victim was crying so haplessly in fear. In spite of being the hulk that he was, Mohan was all entreaties then, imploring him so pathetically—boss, please let me go, don't kill me. The poor guy wet his trousers before being chopped to death. During the operation, when his accomplices were busy doing the job, Francis sat leaning against a pipe, smiling indifferently and thoughtlessly trying to push the tip of his tongue through the crack of his broken front tooth.
Francis, in fact, had run out of his 'spiritual stuff' that evening. So, he had to sneak out compulsively only to manage a little something to take a puff on and he was going back to his den carrying the stuff alright when, looking at the cement pipes bathing in the milky light of the full moon, he considered stopping there for half a mo and taking a lungful of the essential smoke. And that did it, he had just forgotten to leave that place, he was sort of caught in a trance, relaxing and luxuriating in that unearthly atmosphere and enjoying his whiffs of sugar like he had never experienced before. In his own lingo, this kind of inebriation was 'full-tight' or 'full-chhakaas'. Anyway, Francis had known for certain that taking that particular drug topped all kinds of intoxication.
But the trouble starts when you miss the timely shot, as it had happened once when he was interned at the police station. At first, he was yawning, then he started shedding water, drop by drop, through his nostrils, eyes, and next, there was physical, real pain all over. It was so bad that he felt as if the bones of his body were about to come out from under the skin and muscles, piercing the protecting bands. Guru, that's known as 'turkey', Billu had explained. Billu had initiated him into the realm of this particular kind of 'masti' last year, when both of them were in jail. Francis used to nauseate a little as a novice, but then he had graduated to be a seasoned addict.
Billu, though unlettered, was a worldly-wise guy. These addictions have been introduced by the 'saahibs', he says. That must be true, Billu was considering mentally, or, who else could have innovated such wonderful means to enjoy the 'blissful kicks'? With his eyes closed comfortably, he was viewing a huge 70mm movie screen, on which was spread a torn, yellowish mat. The miserably groaning fellow who had just been kicked about and thrown on a corner of the mat was his father and the owner of the booted leg that had served the kick was his uncle and, the intimate harlot hanging off his uncle's shoulders and giggling all the while and arranging her dishevelled hair was his own holy mother!
As Francis could see the same happening everyday, whenever he closed his eyes, the subsequent scenes had been, sort of engraved in his memory sequentially. He knew it only too well that the guy known as his uncle would next unzip the fly of his trousers and urinate on his father's indolent, supine form. And then, the female known as Francis's mother would still be laughing and setting her hair and finally hop into a taxi, accompanying his uncle. After the pair left, his father would pull himself up with difficulty, pull his lungi up and around his middle and finding none else, serve his son a mighty blow, uprooting a front tooth!
On that fateful evening, Francis was enjoying the same movie, free of cost, his eyes closed, his brains buffeted about. He was pulling the inevitable piece of tinfoil out of his trouser pocket for a relieving whiff so that he could sink into oblivion again, when he sighted the unbearable illumination. No sooner had he opened his eyes than the full moon came low upon him. Clenching his teeth, Francis muttered his favourite three-syllable obscenity and then turned his face to the left, intending to avoid the celestial luminary.
And right at that instant, his eyes fell on the jeans-clad loner standing. One of her hands held a walkman and the other was busy in her head of hair, exactly like that woman known as Francis's mother.
Since morning, the police station premises seemed overly alert and busy. Miz Antara alias Jiji, a student of class ten, and the only offspring of Dr. Manzar Al Huq had been reportedly raped and murdered afterwards. The local community peace procession had just turned back, tracing this end of its routine route. All the evening dailies of the city treated the news attaching due priority.
As a result, the police station is receiving incessant phone calls; everyone is anxious to know how it all happened. Mr Chowdhury, the Officer-in-Charge of the police station, had recently managed to be transferred here from Bandarban, after a lot of hassle. He hadn't even been able to settle down comfortably yet and now this disaster…Sitting in his office, the grim and sullen-faced OC is seen twisting the rings on his fingers; he looks at the precious stones and gems—zircon, pearl, agate—supposed to be bringing him luck while warding off catastrophes…. like this? Oh, no, no, I must wear a coral this time, he contemplated. No more dilly-dallying. Chowdhury decided quickly and dialled his astrologer's number.
Enamur Rahman, the Second Officer has served here quite a long tenure. He came out of his office to see what's going on. Going back to make a situation report, he found Chowdhury speaking into the telephone in earnest; so, he kept vigil over his avid looking boss, standing outside the door and picking in between his stained teeth most arduously with a matchstick. At last, the call ended; Mr Rahman dug out a miniscule areca-nut chip from his oral cavity, flipped it away into the space and dashed into the OC's room.
Drawing a chair and settling down, Rahman said—Sir, have you looked at 'the body' yet? There's hardly anything left on the carcass. The left one has been virtually shredded into pieces!
–Ridiculous, Chowdhury retorted. It looks like the whole nation is hell-bent upon committing the same morbid acts they keep watching on the TV screen round the clock!
–They had gagged the victim well. But I guess it was not a gang, it might have been committed by one or two persons, at the most. The offenders might owe her an old grudge, I guess.
–Oh, don't talk nonsense. Who would bear a grudge against a kid like her? Chowdhury dismissed the idea summarily.
–You call her a kid , sir! Rahman laughed aloud, slowly shutting his right eye meaningfully. Then he added, they are all storage tanks, sir, veritable reservoirs, I must say. You don't know much about these west end girls, apparently. I've served my years here—not for nothing, sir!
–No, no, what are you trying to establish, Mr Rahman? West-end or south-east hasn't anything to do with this. Chowdhury muttered, waving his head emphatically.
–It has, sirrah, it has. Have you ever heard about any girl from our Gazipur area coming out at night and standing in the dark on the lake-shore, all alone? That too at eight O' clock after dusk? I'm ready to take up a wager, sir, there must have been an old grudge. I have had enough of such experience here. Now I hate all of these—can't bear it any longer, said Rahman. Then he fished out another matchstick from the box, started scraping the powder off its black and rounded end and and left the room unceremoniously.
As Rahman went out, Mr Chowdhury suddenly remembered that the day was Wednesday, and, that it was on Wednesdays that his daughter went to music classes. It was her final year at music school; still, he decided that Nandita shouldn't travel alone any more, all the way from Phoolmandi to the Banani school—specially the dark stretch along the Carson Road—ugh… he couldn't think about that coolly. It wasn't yet seven O'clock by his Rado wrist-watch. He phoned his wife hastily, losing no time.
–Listen, Rani, has she left already?– Who?– Who else, but your daughter? Is she gone to her music class?– No, not yet. She is getting ready for it. But why do you ask? – Listen, don't let her go. From now onward, she will be receiving her music lessons at home. –Well, how can that possibly happen? You know it very well that her teacher Rabiraag does not teach music outside the school! –In that case, Nandita will be tutored by someone else. The thing is, she is not going anywhere, anymore all by herself. Have you got my message, dear? It's my order and it's final. –Won't you tell me what has happened? –That's none of your business. What will you gain by simply knowing what has happened? Chowdhury grimaced. –To sum everything up, she is not going anywhere after last light. Saying the words, he slammed the receiver down, without waiting for any reaction from the other end.
Jiji's place is so crowded today that the assemblage has spilled out into their next-door neighbour's flat. Her uncles and her father's friends were seated in Monica's drawing room. Jiji's mother Mansura is receiving her brothers and her colleagues in their own flat. She is seen reclining against Jiji's bed-post; her whole existence seems slackened, body and soul. Her sister is holding her hands. Before them, a photograph has been placed on Jiji's reading table, propped against a fat Oxford dictionary. Jiji's uncle is taking that photograph for lamination today.
Last year, her father had taken that snapshot in their hotel lobby in Shillong just before going out to Cherrapunji. In its left corner, Jiji is seen laughing merrily, in a pink dotted frock. Mansura stands in the middle of the frame, embracing Jiji and wearing a scarf, a pair of sun-glasses and a tight-lipped smile. Most of the space in the right half is filled with the embroidered border of her fluttering saree. Looking intently, one might even be able to discern the familiar motifs of Gazir Pot woven intricately all across her 'aanchal'. Also, part of the old but well-kept colonial structure of the Pinewood Hotel peeked from behind through the 'aanchal' of the saree.
Jiji's aunt is managing all the cooking in the kitchen. The older aunt is suffering an acute attack of her chronic gout; so, restricting her movement, she has settled herself on a wicker stool placed conveniently at the kitchen entrance. Manzar, Jiji's father is looking after the guests busily, moving about constantly in and out of the two contiguous flats. He is donning a becoming red ochre 'punjabi' over mustard pickle corduroy trousers. Both his hands are engaged—one holds a cup of black coffee and the other, an ultra-slim cigar. His aunt, a very old lady finds him at the door and solaces him whimperingly—don't you lose heart, Manju dear, it's all divine tests, you know…My foot….Manzar swears inwardly and dropping the cigar right there on the door-step, tramples over it grudgingly and saunters away.
Ripe mangoes are being dressed for treating the guests. Besides, platters laid with delicious 'shandesh' and pots of freshly brewed coffee are there. But no one is particularly minding the refreshment. Someone picks up a 'shandesh' at the most, or a slice of mango. –Perhaps you have sliced the mangoes too small, haven't you, Mansura? Jiji's aunt pointed out. –Oh, don't worry, sister. I'll be providing forks with it. –But where will you find so many forks in this disarrayed place? Surma, the housemaid informed haltingly while cleaning the tea cups, dozens of them are there on the upper shelf of our showcase.
The older aunt snubbed her gravely, saying, you better mind your cleaning job, Surma. The guests have brought in ample quantities of fruits, flowers and sweets—both refigerators (including the neighbour's larger one) are almost full. It wouldn't make much difference if I take some of them home, Surma contemplates…the children would be just thrilled … as it is, none is going to offer her anything as a gift; these people would rather waste things, than parting with them to make anybody happy. Then, suddenly she remembers Jiji. Just a few days back–she recapitulates—the cute girl used to run after her, calling her 'auntie', 'auntie' all over the place, wearing red nickers. She had grown up so fast, Surma wonders, in only months, she was towering as tall as her father! Ah, Surma laments mentally, tears welling up in her eyes.
Today, Jion, the son of Jiji's younger uncle, is the happiest soul around. Stopped by none, he has managed to bring out a Barbi doll from the show-case, taken it to the small, blue basin at the corner of the verandah and now ecstatically giving it a thoroughly drenching bath there. Today, nobody is asking him to eat, or to put on shoes, or even to stop playing with water! Well, it's not so bad. Jion chuckles to himself, it's so good to enjoy such freedom at times and he maneuvres with the faucet to spray the face of the lovely doll with water. He knows this much that some wicked men have killed his Jippu. Yet he didn't cry at all, because he is certain that the chivalrous He-man should be arriving with a sword in his hand any time now and bring his appu back in one piece, only after entertaining them with a heroic fight.
By the end of the third day following Jiji's tragic ending, Francis was murdered in front of Jamal's tea-stall, in the lane behind the kitchen market. Early in the morning at five forty-five, when after rousing Putia, the vendor, Francis could just collect his 'stuff' and was returning to his den through a short-cut route, a deadly group of eight suddenly appeared there from nowhere and surrounded him tightly. They were armed with swords, choppers, pipe-guns and revolvers. They fired four shots aiming to pierce his head thoroughly; only one of them sculpted a new sign in the back wall of the market. After he fell, they pushed his corpse aside, using the tips of their toes. Thus they cleared the middle of the alleyway for the benefit of the pedestrians. Then they made their exit through the open market, singing a popular Hindi number in chorus, clapping their hands to the tune in unison and advanced leisurely towards the railway tracks. It's needless to mention here that as soon as they quit, all the shops in the market pulled their shutters down and all souls evacuated. As a matter of routine that follows such incidents, after another killing or two, peace has been restored in the locality and everything is functioning normally.
The lights which were fixed along the brims of the lake after Jiji's mishap have disappeared again with the passage of time, plunging the area once more into its former dark cover. Consequently, the lovers, the police, the addicts and the vendors of peanuts and hot patties as well as other 'stuff'—all are back in their respective cosy coves. Everything is going on as usual, peacefully. God's in heaven and all is well …, one might say.
The Buddha Purnima has arrived this year, five days in advance compared with last year's calendar. Once again the sky looks not so vacant, putting on the full, yellow, mellow moon on its forehead. Mansura sleeps in Jiji's room these days. She was lying in bed in a pensive mood…. nobody remembered Jiji today…. none came to share her sorrow…. in fact, it was only her personal loss, the rest of the world is no more bothered…. she concluded.
There's none else in this flat today except herself. It's about nine months that she has quit her job. She spends most of her time in the community library. Many of her evenings are passed listening to recorded Quran recital or the interpretations of the Quran. Her Peer asked her to prolong the meditation sessions. But whenever she closes her eyes, sitting on her mat for meditation, Jiji's face surfaces on her mind's screen again and again. Despite frantic efforts, she fails to concentrate and rises. Then she gets busy rearranging Jiji's books, or she unfolds and smells her dear daughter's clothes, only to tidy them again. She had also considered bringing in their maid Surma's daughter to live with them, but it didn't materialise finally because her husband seriously objected to the proposal.
Many of their friends and relations suggested that they should go for another child. And why not? They argued: at thirty-seven, she could very well be a mother again. That might not be impossible, Mansura ponders….but she somehow despises the whole idea of it from her very core. Her physical desires and needs seem to have diminished to nothing; Manzar, rejected by her repeatedly, called her 'a frigid bitch' on one occasion. He was about to slap her face once! Now she realizes that their current hackneyed relationship might come to an end anytime. But such feelings cannot persuade her to condescend and gratify Manzar any more…. no way…. she shakes her head involuntarily.
In the afternoon today, Mansura had brought out Jiji's dresses again; she selected a skirt-top, fondly draped that around her bosom and sat silently there, like a rag-doll—reminiscing sadly. What happens if the door-bell keeps on ringing someday, …and…and the little dolly face Jiji of the past jumps up into her cradle, as soon as she opens the door expectantly? That cannot be, …she whimpers, she sobs desperately… from somewhere unfathomable within her pitiful existence, the unstoppered wailing surfaces once again, wave after wave of that undercurrent inundates her present, submerges her future. Lifting her face, Mansura found that the brazenly, accursed moon was staring down at her without a flutter; fountains of moonshine were pouring into her room through the open windows, rolling down the floor, surfing up against the white walls…. an utterly eerie experience, she thought ….and shivered. Wiping her eyes dry with the soft 'aanchal' and moving about the room, she drew the curtains close and shut the windows, frantically trying to stop the moonlight streaming in.
The days of Manzar are spent in lecturing his students, attending seminars and meeting friends at different haunts; but he cannot write poems any more– he's lost that facile pen…. whatever little literature he spins these days, ends up in idle reminiscences only. On rare occasions, when he remembers Jiji, the professor reconciles himself to the fact that he wasn't born to sing dirges…. life is only a larger kaleidoscope, frequently changing patterns emerging at every turn it takes, he considers. A man can only view the colourful, bright images it produces, or one may record the impacts that one experiences while passing by…. that's about all, he dismisses the subject there. Hence no death should reasonably cause any special sorrow or joy to humans, he decides inwardly in a tone of finality, while chastising and burying the uncomfortably tender feelings murmuring within him.
They have ceased haunting the Club on Thursdays and Saturdays; now the peers meet in the evening of the full moon every month. These sessions take place in the residence of one of Manzar's friends or the other—but much dismayed though he was, he had to stop hosting such parties himself about a year back, as Mansura started just detesting all the energizing and frolicking at last. Since he realizes it very well that going around his pals' places all the time, seeking selfish fun should be utterly unbecoming on his part—these days, Manzar finds it difficult to join them as freely as he would otherwise. Yet this evening, it was an altogether different occasion, a most rare event—they had all gathered on the rooftop of Shirajee's house in Motimandi satellite town. Manzar's boyhood pal Shirajee, the poet had invited his friends to celebrate the silver jubilee of his first publication 'An ethereal sojourn'.
Luxury grade Scotch flowed freely from large flagons branded The Blue Label and The Black Dog; a bottle of 'Gold Reserve' was kept separately for the special palate of Manzar the connoisseur. Huddled in a corner, he was enjoying the recital of the vintage verses composed by Shirajee thirty-five years back, with his eyes closed under the spirit-heavy lids, he was mentally journeying back, he could visualize the other Manzar, thirty-five years younger, zealously carrying the freshly printed volume, right from Shandhani's printing shop to Ramna Restaurant, and from there, to Amir Bhai's joint, en masse. Oh, oh my years, I should really have retired by now, having traversed for so long, heaving a long sigh, he trembled, opened his eyes and tried to raise himself.
On his way back home, half-lying in the back seat of a taxi, Manzar could feel that he had imbibed a little too much that evening. As they were passing by that grotesque statue placed about the mid-section of the Visva Road stretch, he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his profusely perspiring face and then, suddenly, he could see, reflected in the rear-view mirror that a huge ballish demon of a full moon was chasing them! It reminded him of the demon Tarhaka Rakshashi, who is scary and believed to be causing riots and massacres all over the places.
While counting the change handed by the taxi-driver, Manzar realized that he was breathing with difficulty. He proceeded nonetheless, but soon he found himself leaning against the closed shutters of the general store opposite their house….I used to buy chocolate bars for Jiji, cigarettes for myself from this place, he thought and slid down unawares into a sitting position. Was that a cardiac attack? He wondered, no, no, he shook his head again, negating the suggestion himself. He convinced himself of his toughness and that he wouldn't be going away just like that, without a fight, no, it shouldn't be so bland, so colourless an affair, and then, he saw Jiji standing there, sporting her snow-white round-neck tee-shirt. With her head slightly leaning on one side, she was smiling and saying, Azzu is greater than your Lara, Babu and again, and again… Hey, what's happening here? Manzar made his best efforts to control his wits, to grasp the situation and he desperately struggled to rise from his throne of dust. But the hapless expanse of space in front, cradling the brazen moon embedded in it, swooped down upon him at that most opportune moment and dashed past his forehead and eyes, in a meteoric motion.
And, coincidentally, on the top of the block of flats known as 'Akash Moni' which looms high on the opposite side of the street, front to front with the store, Molla, the newly married caretaker of the building was busy orientating his wife with the skyline and the environs of his place of posting at that very juncture of time and space, about when and where the fall of Manzar occurred. The caretaker was trying his best to impress the village belle-turned-wife, a newcomer in the city, with the free show of the skyscrapers surrounding them and the young woman from Allardihi seemed moonstruck as she was slowly savouring and absorbing the motion-picture like scenario. Suddenly, her eyes fell on the supine and inert form of Manzar resting on the pavement opposite theirs, and touching her husband in the waist, she showed him the seemingly out of tune spectacle. Molla looked down upon Manzar and smiled nonchalantly. Then he said, oh, that's our Manzar Shaab, must have boozed a trifle overly tonight. Don't you worry, he'll be all right soon and queried, hey, darling, did you ever behold such a large round dish of a moon in Allardihi? The bemused bride looked again at the unearthly silhouettes of the tall buildings around and the brazen platter of the moon in the background and realized that she had never witnessed that diabolical a moon before in her village; everything about this night of the full moon gratified her.
15 December 2007