The Masquerade

The

Special 100

Irregular Sloword BirthMonth Festival

2021

Featured Guest - Indrani Ganguli

Indrani Ganguli is an interpreter of languages. She’s as adept at staring down recalcitrant witnesses in court while taking down their depositions as she is compassionate with those who clearly are devastated at being there at all.

Her stories are rich in classical allusions even as they explore the social consciousness (or lack thereof) of the times we live in. (And here she is again with a very different poem!)

Check out the links at right to see more of her work.

Previous Entries for the Irregular SloWord BirthMonth Festival:

 Peacock Feather

Yes, I said so

Feature

Presentation

Ira didn't notice him at first, but she had that uncanny feeling of being looked at.

Like every evening, she was at the Cafe Coffee Day,  on the ground floor of the house opposite her own house,  nursing an Irish coffee, and knowing that she would end up with a shot of pure black before she left.

Yes, there was a man, at the single chair at the table on her left. She could see him through the fancy mirror in the door, looking at her. Not staring. Just looking. Ira was used to looks, in her profession you were to be looked at and looked over, by clients, seniors and judges. She banished him from her mind.

That face face greeted her in court no. 14, a few days later, in the course of the same week.

She thought, "So, he was in the same profession, was he?"

He wore a well starched white shirt and dark trousers, but, no, no band.

And then again at the coffee shop. There he was.  Not staring.  Just looking. Nothing offensive about the look. She gave a mental shrug. Life was too difficult without bothering about all this.

The preliminary problem was solved after 2pm in court no. 37. The affable senior advocate, Pinakeshda, who was appearing against her client called on the young man. So he was  clearly the advocate's muhuri, or clerk, as they prefer to be called these days.

Ira's curiosity was piqued enough to ask Pinakeshda, "New clerk, Dada?"

"Who? Oh, Sarasij, arre bolo na, such a sad story. Son of my client. The man wasn't nice at all, embezzlement of funds of family business. Thrown out, proceeded against, thrown out of family house, wife walked off, and son's studies stalled. Sarasij came to meet me last month after years. Father dead, mother wants nothing to do with him, he graduated. I didn't ask but it must have been tough. Always liked the boy,  so took him on."

That evening, in the coffee shop, Ira walked up to the table. The man got to his feet warily, awkwardly.

"Sarasij Dasgupta?"

"Yes."

"I always thought you had gone off to Bombay to try your luck at playback singing. Come to my table, let's talk."

"I'd rather not talk. There's nothing to say. And there's no such thing as luck. Just misfortune and evil."

"But you’re back home. This building is still your ancestral residence. Come, please."

Sarasij followed her two steps to her table. Ira ordered sandwiches refusing to listen to any protests, she recognised a hungry face when she saw one.

"Jethamoshai asked me to come, after baba died. Ma remarried, you know”

“I didn’t know”, Ira said.

“Oh you didn't? Oh, well, I have a free shelter for as long as Jethamoshai is alive. And Pinakeshda is a debdut, although he's so forbidding. "

"Same room? And what about meals?"

"Not at all. The mezzanine on top of the garage. I have a rice cooker. But meals at the rice hotels."

There was a perceptible pause before he continued, And then he said, “I didn't think you would remember me. Not after ten years. "

"You have changed a little, become thinner and the expression in your eyes, what happened to your dimples? All my female cousins would die for those and that smile!"

There was no smile on that chiselled but gaunt face.

"Dimples die when starved of smiles. Thank you for condescending to me."

"Don't talk rubbish. Need I call you Tubluda from now ?"

"Sarasij will do."

The ghost  of an emotion flitted by his face.

Six months drifted by.  Ira had laid down some ground rules. He was to have dinner with her, in her portion of the house,  no excuses. And he was to feel free to keep his tanpura and guitar in her drawing room.  He was not to be stupidly proud and stalk off.

Sarasij complied. He no longer seemed to have  any fight in him. Not against kindness. Nor against companionship.

He would have been rather heartened if he had seen, he could have, for she stayed just across the not so wide road, Ira caressing the guitar, just where his fingers strum.

She waited until he had settled down opposite her at their usual meeting place, the Café Coffee Day.

"I have a propsition and you may say no, but I hope you won't."

She turned to the young waiter with “Irish coffee first, as usual!".

She  gave him the blinding smile which had made her his dearest customer.

"It's unfair,  you know, " said Sarasij, "there ought to be a law against that smile, it makes people ready to do anything and everything for you."

"You're a one for talking! The dimples do peep out these days, and oh my, the reaction in the court circle!"

"What proposition?"

"Sumidi is coming with her American husband,  I mean the NRI husband,  he's a louse and she, you remember how she was? And then there will be the others coming, rooms opened, cleaned and made ready. And there will be gossip. I want to introduce you as my intended."

"What? Why?"

"It will stop them from asking about Ratul."

"I thought you were divorced?"

"I would have, if I knew where he is, where he went after he walked out on me that day to go to his girlfriend. And ma still talks of him as her jamai, she says I didn't know how to hold a man. So, will you?"

"A down and out man? Who cadges meals off you? You can do better than that, ask Parashar,  or Chayan, or Kanad, or..."

"You needn't reel off the list of all the chamber juniors. If I wanted any one of them I would have asked. Question is,  do you or don't you want to help?"

"Acting a role?" he looked at her straight.

"Making it believable.  The besotted bf. You were always a good actor, so, would you?"

“I don't have to act", thought Sarasij

Aloud, he said, "Yes."

"Good, so, new wardrobe, shoes, haircut, the works."

Sarasij opened his mouth to protest and shut it.

Then he said, "A divorce would have helped you. There would be no need for this masquerade then."

That night, as she closed her laptop for the day, she said to the old photograph in her top right drawer, "I wish it wasn't a masquerade. But one must make do with the crust if one couldn't get the slices."

As for Sarasij,  there was no sleep for him that night.

The role playing was a resounding sucess. It helped that Sarasij had got into a well known band, and had sung a couple of songs for the OTT stories.

The year and more since Sarasij had sat looking at her at the CCD was a year full of the most confusing emotions for Ira. She was happy that Sarasij was getting back into his niche, but she was scared, scared that  his success would also mean that he would leave Pinakeshda, and by extension,  leave the court, and leave her.

Already he had absented himself for a couple  of weeks on what he told her was extremely important business.

"At least, it is extremely important for me", he said, the second time when he came to tell her he was off.

She squeezed out a passably normal smile and replied, "I hope you get what you want."

Sarasij, the ever taciturn,  looked at her with inscrutable eyes and said, "So do I."

It was a Sunday when the sound of the bell made her mother querulously demand," Who sent a courier for you this early?"

Ira brought in the official looking A4 sized pale green envelope that had her name and address neatly printed on it, but there was no forwarding address and as she was still half asleep,  she hadn't even looked at the sheet on which she had signed.

Deciding that she was too insignificant in the scheme of things to be sent a letter bomb, she took the envelope to her worktable and neatly slit the mouth with her paper knife, which was really an antique knife that Sarasij had put on her table one evening, saying "it's yours now". This time however she forgot to revel in the pleasure of the gift because of the nature of the documents that slid out.

Breathless with excitement, she swiped a number on her speed dial.

"You won't believe what came for me just now, Ratul has sent me a signed application for divorce with mutual consent and the other papers. This is a miracle."

"I'm glad for you", said Sarasij in a colourless voice.

"You're my lucky charm, you are making all good things happen in my life, imagine, no snide remarks from Sumidi and now, this. We have to celebrate. Where are you?"

But before Sarasij could answer she said, "I'll talk to you later, Ma is having a  hundred fits."

She disconnected, and Sarasij sat back on the wooden cot in the mezzanine and allowed his mind to go back into the immediate past.

There was a client who had come to Pinakeshda with an odd problem. Her great grandfather had made a will, in Bangla which no one  in modern times could read, let alone the family who were Punjabis domiciled in Bengal for five generations. There were warring co-sharers who wanted to sell off most of the very valuable property and there was one branch who held firmly to the belief that it was a trust in the form of a will where the beneficiaries had no right of sale. Pinakeshda was at his wit's end when Sarasij had come to the rescue.

"I know a lady who can read the most illegible stuff", he had said.

The lady had duly lived up to his promise and Harshdip was fulsome in her praise. She had not only insisted on paying a hefty amount to Sarasij but had also told him about her talent. She was an ethical hacker, who could trace anyone anywhere.

He saw again that fleshy face, the good looks gone, the flacid mouth, the pouches under the eyes. He could still feel the clammy hand clasp, and was repulsed again.

It wasn't difficult. Not when he put it mind to it.

What had Ira said ? "you were always a good actor".

It was a pity that she would never know just how good. No, no, what was he thinking. It was perfect that she would never know.

It took every ounce of his determination to sit and listen to vainglory and as the cheap whisky kicked in, the maudlin self pity.

He never touched the Royal Challenge, Royal Stag and sundry other royalists. He just provided the bottles so avidly accepted.

Yes, he saw the pen scratching out signatures on page after page.

He heard again, the screams muffled by the plastic bag, the one that had contained his last offering of the bottle that had been emptied in an evening. He heard the screams, saw the ineffective hands trying to remove it.

And for the first time he had a real smile on his face. Evil needs to be fought with greater evil, he thought. Or innocent lives will be snuffed out.

As he thought that, he also saw the man who was his father, and the woman who was his mother. But he refused to rewind that particular spool of memory again.

This time there would be time, he told himself,  enough time to carry on the "masquerade " till she realised that it was not an act anymore.

And just across the road, Ira having weathered her mother's latest tantrum, walked into her drawing room and sat down on the divan that housed his tanpura. She caressed the strings, a dreamy smile on her face. Then she walked up to the window that faced the coffee shop. She could see the mezzanine, the window was open, so he was back from whatever important trip that was.

"Good", she said to herself, "This time, I'll make him realise that it's never been a masquerade. Just you wait Sarasij DasGupta,  see what I do to you for reeling off all those names that day."

The radiance of her smile would have served him right, if only he was standing at his window.

He was going to get his "just desserts" though, for instead of being at the window, he was at her door.

Thank you for reading. Please do leave a comment for our guest!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Shalomi Basu

    I am pleasantly surprised reading this story. There is an ultimate effectiveness in it’s simplicity when the mother says that she didn’t know how to hold a man.The name “Sarosij Dasgupta, band , uniform and court rooms”, were so familiar. Such a quick read at night after ages it seem. I hope Ira is happy!

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