I was going back to Bombay.
This journey was reminiscent of 1999, when as a fresh Economics graduate, I had left the city for greener pastures. I fled the stagnation that awaited me in the city. Fled the horror stories of joblessness and underemployment in the state. We produced academically qualified menial labourers, they said. We had education, they said, but no jobs. We had frustration they said, but no answers. They said this at every street corner rally, in newspapers, on TV. And we believed them. We believed that this city had a great past, a dissolving present and absolutely no future. It was three hundred years old. And it was dying. And I refused to die with it. So I, like many others had moved on. However the city did not let me go. My folks had lived there, Amrita lived there, I had grown up there. So I kept going back.
I dared not look out when the train started, lest I see all the familiar faces that ever bid me goodbye at the station on various occasions since 1999. All the faces? That would be bending the truth. I feared one face. I feared, if I looked out, I would see Amrita waving at me. I shut my eyes as I heard the train whistle signaling departure, and I fought with myself to not look out. It was only after 5 hours, when I was sure, the face was no longer waiting for me at the station, and the station was far far away, that I opened my eyes. I slowly looked out at the passing electric poles. The soil was an unfamiliar brick red. No lush light green of paddy fields or the dark green of banana groves of West Bengal was visible anymore. Again I checked. No, her face wasn't there outside the window. Only a few stray cattle, mostly small black goats. Nothing impressive. Nothing worth remembering.
I was able to escape her gaze. Her vacant, moist gaze that haunted me every time I left her. At bus stops, at airports, at railway platforms. But I never did anything about it. Never not left her. She tried to hold me hard, hold me close, hold me back. But I always left. In a way, I was glad that this time I had escaped that gaze. And somehow this made me sad. This leaving without a fuss. This leaving without being asked to not leave. The absence of her face bothered me as much as its presence would have. It had been six years since Amrita had been married and no longer lived in Kolkata. In fact, luckily, she didn't live in any other Indian city either. That made it easier for me to travel at will without the care of having to come face to face with my ghosts.
I looked back into the compartment. Vague unrelated bits of the last three days kept coming back to my mind. Three days back when I had landed in Kolkata after a two year gap, a whole new city had engulfed me. Yellow taxis. New black stripes. No more the half 'n half, split horizontally through the centre, black and yellow ones. The tin-can buses now a hideous blue. Familiar streets with unfamiliar one-way rules. A jumble of flyovers everywhere. Old majestic residential buildings replaced by new shiny malls. The trams gone from half the places. Everything seemed alien.
The rain, the minute I had stepped onto the tarmac, was probably the only thing that had not changed. It rained every time I came to Kolkata. Season, off-season, it made no difference. This time was no exception. So when the first drops fell on my eyelids I thought there was still hope of befriending the city again.
When I had reached home, I had felt the urgent need for a hot water bath. A terrible nose congestion blocked my brains numb. I switched the geyser on. It was one of those small geysers which could hold and heat only so much water at a time. Once the geyser was on for a while, I ran the tap till it spewed hot water no more. Then I let the geyser fill up and heat the next round, while I lay there like a frog on a dissection table, examining with dismay my rapidly growing paunch.
As the train picked up speed and the trees ran along with us in the distance, I could not help but think of Jyoti again. On the third day of my visit, I had gone to meet Jyoti. Unlike in most other Indian languages where a name ending with an 'a' or an 'i' is invariably feminine, Jyoti in Bengali was the name of a man. Although, when I had last met him three years back, he was not quite a man. Well, he was a man in some ways; he was all of 26 and had a sex life and all that, but he wasn't a man in the sense that he hadn't earned his financial independence. Neither had I then. My life revolved around the twelve thousand rupees my father used to send me every month. We were all parasites. But that was then. Now, that my folks were dead and gone and I had a steady job, I was finally a man. I was earning six times what my folks used to send and I figured, anything more than twelve thousand was an extra. A bonus. Hence my material possessions had begun to surge. An expensive car. An expensive business phone. An expensive laptop. Expensive perfumes. An expensive attitude. However, I made sure to keep all these behind and took a three and a half Rupees share-auto when I went to meet Jyoti after three years. Not knowing if my new accessories will trigger rejection, approval, jealousy, or plain sadness.
The minute I had spoken with him over the phone I had known something was wrong. Both times, his father picked up the phone. On Sunday, and again on Monday. Had his father retired? Why was he home during the day on a Monday? Was something terribly wrong? When Jyoti finally took the receiver, he sounded like a man in mourning. It was the plain, simple, sad, matter of fact, the 'nothing really matters anymore' voice of someone bereaved. I had spoken to him earlier as well and even though there was this strain of melancholy in the voice, this weakness, this giving up, was new. But I still harbored hopes. Maybe I was reading too much into the situation, I thought. Maybe it was just general malaise, I hoped. Although it was common knowledge that he was put on treatment before for mental illnesses, it had never coincided with my being in Kolkata. He was over-educated and underemployed. Over-intelligent and under-utilized. Wasted. Mostly ill understood, sometimes not at all.
He wasn't even my friend. He was Amrita's friend.
After Amrita got married and moved out of Kolkata, he was my last link to her in this city. So I held on to him. And whenever I came to Kolkata, he was always the first one I'd call. I have no idea if at all he appreciated that or saw through my dishonesty of purpose. He was the last of the old timers.
He was the only man who instigated me to revolt against Amrita's marriage. A marriage I had done nothing to prevent, for reasons I myself was no more convinced of. Later I had heard, he had confessed, to her of all the people, that he had no interest in me marrying her. He confessed that this provocation, an email to me, so venomous and challenging my manhood, was his last hope of holding her back in Kolkata. He loved her.
I never felt anger against him for that. Don't know why. Maybe because he was already so hopeless. He was a frustrated under-achiever by circumstance, due to lethargy, or possibly through plain self-pity. Frustrated because he was still not a man, and perhaps would never be. An unstable professional life. Bouts of mental illness. What future had he? No, I did not feel wrath, nor remorse. Neither pity. Actually I felt nothing for him. My interest in him lay in his surviving, his living. If he went, I'd lose her forever. And Kolkata would lose all meaning.
Having fixed an appointment over the phone I had gone to his place, hoping against hope that everything was alright.
Jyoti had come to the door and called me in. His room was also different. The curtains were pulled. No sunlight was coming in, although I remembered this as a very bright room. The fan was throwing down cool breeze. Jyoti lay down and declared that he had a fever and had hence not gone to the college. He taught part time in a prestigious college that paid him an apology of a salary that hardly covered his cigarette expenses. I put my hand on his forehead. No temperature. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a shirt. Not the usual clothes he wore at home. Was he lying? Was he about to leave for work when something drastic happened? He looked drugged. He was not looking me in the eye. He seemed far away. Far far away. I asked if he had college the next day. He did not reply.
Long uncomfortable pauses followed throughout the rest of our chat. He did not offer me water. He made an effort to ask relevant, topical questions about my work and me. I answered them one by one but didn't ask any in return, afraid of the answers that might be thrown up. When I said that he better rest and recuperate quickly from his fever and that I had to leave, within fifteen minutes of my arrival, he didn't protest. It was clear he didn't want me there. Was he afraid? Was he afraid that I came to beat him up because he sensed I knew what he had said to Amrita? No, it couldn't be. It wasn't me he was afraid of. He was afraid of himself. Something was troubling him. His eyes were watering, but I don't think he was crying. Maybe it was the medicines. The incident, whatever it was, seemed fairly recent. Despite the general despair in his life, there seemed to be some other immediate trigger compounding the staleness in the air. Something had happened that very day. Or the day before. And the whole household was caught in that event. The air hung low and dense and sad. I left.
I never got to know.
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