Note from Ajesh: In a singular lack of care, I have made a mistake. Uma’s story was entitled Dusk. That was the filename I received. However, I’m a whole year older and thus failed to realize that simple fact. My deepest apologies for this grave and unseemly mistake! Mea Culpa!
Very little is known of Uma Majumdar. She prefers to remain in the shadows on social media, appearing at intervals to review my stories and, in one memorable instance, liken them to crisp fried okra. Which, as you can imagine, was immediately endearing and thought-provoking!
Here is a lovely story from her. It is contemporary in its setting, poignant and cuts home delicately, like an ultra-sharp chef’s knife.
The bell rang in the semi-darkness of the gathering dusk. The household went about its business as it did every evening. Baba had gone for a session of bridge to Kaku’s flat across the landing, as he did three days in a week. The bridge was accompanied by multiple cups of tea without milk or sugar.
Ma was gathering the folds of the Tassar sari she wore for her puja twice a day. Bouma, her daughter-in- law, was combing out her long hair. Dadabhai, the eldest of the family and Bouma’s husband, sat in front of the TV, watching the early news.
Chotu, younger brother to Dadabhai, had just got up for a stretch. He rolled his shoulders. Sitting hunched up two hours at a stretch for the online class was numbing – both for the body and mind. His mind was focused on a walk on the terrace and then a workout for an hour to ease the stiffness. But first tea was the need of the hour.
The unexpected ringing of the doorbell took everyone by surprise.
Ma paused with the folds of her sari in her hand until she heard the sound of the front door being opened and the voice of Chotu, speaking. She continued doing what she was doing.
Bouma stopped mid-stroke, until she, too, heard the door being opened and Chotu’s voice. She continued doing what she was doing.
Dadabhai lowered the sound of the TV and listened to the conversation at the front door. He tried to place the voice of the visitor and the mood of the conversation.
Chotu opened the door just a touch and peered around it. It took him some time to recognize the visitor. Such a surprise ! It was Tinumama ! A distant cousin of their mother, Tinumama used to be a frequent visitor. Chotus remembered him fondly as one who brought them gifts of marbles and taught them to fly kites . Once, he gave them a carom board for a birthday.
Old and unwell, he rarely visited now. Having no family of his own, he now stayed in an Old Age Home. Often, Ma asked Chotu to visit him. Chotus always said he would, when the lockdown lifted.
But how did he arrive here? Chotu held open the door as he debated whether he should ask Tinumama to come in or not. It was not quite the thing to do now.
His tentative suggestion was met with a shake of Tinumama’s head.
“No , I won’t come in, but could I have a glass of water?”, he asked in a husky voice .
Wondering, uncertain, Chotu dragged his way to the unfamiliar territory of the kitchen , in search of a glass and water. He didn’t quite like the idea of proffering a bottle.
Dadabhai, still sitting in front of the TV heard the conversation stop and the sound of Chotu’s rubber chappals flapping towards the kitchen. He switched off the TV and frowned in the sudden silence. From the open window behind him, he was started by the shrill call of a cuckoo – seemingly rising up in a crescendo. A lone car passed by, then all was quiet again.
There was a crash from the kitchen. Startled, Dadabhai jumped off the sofa.
Boudi called “I am in the bath, will you please take a look and see that nobody is hurt“.
Dadabhai signed and reflected for a moment on Chotu’s capabilities in the kitchen or lack thereof.
He was just going to call out and head to the kitchen when the sound of Chotu’s returning footsteps was heard. Dadabhai caught a glimpse of his face as he headed past him. Amazingly, Chotu had a glass of water in his hand. It was known to the family that Chotu would rather stay thirsty than fetch a glass of water for himself. Dadabhai had often commented on how Ma and, now, Boudi indulged him.
Dadabhai got off the couch and came to the door just as Chotu handed over the glass of water. Tinumama took it and started drinking thirstily.
The brothers watched in wonder as the water from the raised glass flowed into his open mouth leaked out of his throat and went down his chest. Tinumama lowered his hand and shook his head slowly in acknowledgement. His face wore a look of pain and bewilderment.
Dadabhai remembered the condolence letter from the Home. He put out his hand towards Tinumama and said- “ Mama, come with me“.
Tinumama accompanied Dadabhai him downstairs. Chotu started to go with them but Dadabahi motioned him to stay back .
Standing at the main gate downstairs , Dadabhai said, “ Tinumama, you have long way to go“ .
Tinumama slowly nodded his head and turning away, started walking.