By Jayshree M Tripathi*
“We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they
have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be
broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.” (T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party)
The phone rang and rang. I fumbled with the blinking icons on my screen. It was hard to see without my life-savers, but I couldn’t be bothered now.
“I just heard about Shiv – was away for some months –
“Who is this?”
“Pardon me, it’s Dheet, from college?”
“Dheet?” I pondered, then laughed “Dilip!”
“Yes. Look, I’m coming down to see you – its… its rather important.” Before I could respond, Dheet had hung up.
Odd. I felt uneasy. Queer feeling, after so many years.
What could be so important? Dheet had faded from our lives somewhere in the late 80’s – Shiv hardly ever spoke about him, except in a curtly dismissive tone.
“Not one of us,” was the cryptic answer each time I had asked, then had stopped asking.
Dheet and Shiv had been an odd couple – Shiv, tall,
handsome with his wavy hair and a brusque temperament no, he
couldn’t suffer fools but always broke into fits of laughter at the
silliest of improbable jokes.
Then there was Dheet, shy, with silky straight hair that fell over his eyebrows endearingly – always two steps behind Shiv in everything – academics, shooting, tennis and girls… the odd duo. Good friends. Until it was time to compete for a job at college. Dheet won, hands down – no arguing with the lecturers on dubious academic references, no questioning the veracity of their analyses, no derision at their often lack of substance. And
so, Shiv and Dheet parted ways until they landed up as batchmates at the Civil Services Institute, in Mussourie. The tide had turned. Shiv now in the elite foreign service, Dheet to be inducted into the Research and Analysis Wing. That’s where I had got involved, not by choice. Both had wanted to marry me I was duly informed by well-wishers, but only Dheet was going to propose.
I just refused to listen to him and decided against sitting for the ‘civils’ – the exams. Informed my parents I would teach, even register for an M.Phil.
“Scared, are we?”
Shiv’s words had angered me at the time. That was the time Julius came into my life and I was swept into a fantasy phase of unrequited longing for a true gentleman. Julius taught at University and had scandalised the faculty with his long- matted hair, his ginger-coloured drooping moustache, like
George Harrison’s, his very proper cotton shirt and tie, the dangly ear-rings and his strumming the guitar, like Dylan, with a harmonica during class, just to emphasize a point or issue. He made us all smile!
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me….”
I was rudely shaken out of my wistful day-dreaming one day by a furious Professor.
“This is a classroom, Durga – why are you smirking in your sleep?” The laughter still echoed in my ears, after all these decades, even now, as red-faced, I had murmured some inane response.
“Staff room, now”.
I had trotted dutifully behind him, cheeks still aflame while the class tittered. Bloody b…s.
Odd, that day, the humiliation I felt, the silly incident never ceased to annoy me. Even now. I suddenly dropped a pile of uneven-edged books and while stooping to pick them up felt a sharp, stinging sensation that brought me out of my reverie. I couldn’t help but fumble to pick
up the books I had carelessly dropped. A bee-sting? Then I saw a dark patch of blackish-red blood oozing through my jeans. I
realised a rusted nail from a wooden crate cover had cut my thigh. Shit. Through my pain, hazy recollections of going to
college over forty years ago weighed in and left me confused, even dizzy. There was a sickly odour in the air, cloying, repulsive. Something had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, holding it loosely in my palm.
It was the time of pot and political rallies. The 1970s. It was the time of the Beatles and Flower Power, of half-naked long-haired phirangis – the pale-coloured folks, roaming the streets of India in the sweltering heat – of hippies invading India’s beaches and huts, hill-stations and temple-peripherals.
Durga, Dee to all and sundry, had never imagined her parents would so easily give in to her wish to travel over a thousand miles to Delhi – to study at University. After casing the grounds of a safer and undeniably more suitable environment under the strict supervision of spirituals, in the southern region of the country – much touted by well-wishers and relatives in my sleepy-hometown, I had quietly sidled up to my father and whispered, “Not here, Dad!” It was in joyful anticipation that I chewed at my lower lip as he meticulously filled in application forms for the study of English Literature at the three top women’s colleges of Delhi University. It hadn’t struck me to fill in the forms myself. St. Stephens, much to my chagrin, was no
longer co-ed. My heart had been set on Economics, but as the Convent I had studied in for the past two years had not hired a qualified teacher for statistics, that option was out.
Delhi School of Economics and the London School of Economics were struck off my list of “One day, I will work with The World Bank.” My eyes began to mist.
Sad, Shiv didn’t ever have the time to listen to how it all had been during my childhood, my issues, the constraints on my movements and in life in general. Just forty years ago – well, a lifetime in perception. It hurt, though, this total disregard for what I may have also yearned for – some independence, free thought, free will.
Then the miscarriages, two of them, I stopped wishing for a child after that. Worked with children. Made a difference. Still.
An uneven piece of paper jutted out from the book I was mindlessly dusting to place on the bookshelf. I pushed on, the sooner it was done, I could move on. There was very little time
left and all the trusts had to be legally in place before… hah…
The Reaper came to my rescue!
Out of a lifetime habit of placing things in order – ‘Dee’s disorder’ – we had both laughed together – he sometimes unkindly – to my retort of ‘I don’t like non-aligned things’. I opened the book. There was a smudge of ink on the back where it had seeped through over the years and the paper seemed to have been hastily folded. Unfolding it now would only slow me down, so I kept it aside on the mahogany desk. Something prompted me to put it in my pocket and the object that I had picked up from the floor. Then, on second thoughts, I felt them both again, to make sure they were in my pocket. Silly. Why was I feeling queer? Mechanically, I carried on removing books from the dusty cartons, instinctively checking for silverfish and
placing them on shelves according to their size. Shiv had shelves of various breadths and lengths to accommodate all his precious
thumbed-through books. Over two thousands of them here.
Now why had Shiv resented that? Her tidying up, that is, straightening books heaped in an uneven pile, “Look here, Dee, there is order in my disorder”, he would frown in annoyance, “leave my bloody stuff alone!” It had hurt at first. Then it became less of an irritant as the years together took their toll.
“Convent-Educated Prefect” had sounded far worse than the actual duties it entailed. Sudden tears welled, as I sorted out titles, thinking this could take more than 100 days – trust Shiv to bring in the nuance of Marquez to pique my curiosity – but it was something I would have to do alone, as Shiv’s letter and will had stated – besides, Maya, my oldest friend, fiercely independent, now single (“Sounds better than divorced”) was
always so busy with her just causes. I didn’t want to trespass on her time. Why do eyes tend to quickly well up with tears as you grow older? So vulnerable, why so emotional? I smiled inwardly at the Hinglish phrases. Damn, control the wobbly lips that accompany crying – baah! Love hurts. Love dies only from negligence. Life is hard, harder for some than most. For me.
Sudden memories of a huge bouquet out of the blue, for no special reason, a book I had mentioned I needed to read arriving magically on top of the cookbooks in the kitchen, a sudden decision for ordering-in when I was down in the dumps about cooking, yet again and again!
Love remains long after the passion is spent. The image of Shiv’s eyes broke my reverie – “Trust me,” his light brown eyes said, chilla akhi, as the locals said, like the eyes of a hawk! The quiet after the storm – this too, is Love? Distance, Death… do they matter? You can wait.
Without any sense of alarm. But this 100 days stuff, like Marquez… so typical of Shiv to get her pinned down, yet again, like a cockroach for dissection. Damn Shiv.
Here I am, an educated, well-read, well-travelled woman, unwillingly brought back to my roots by the sudden demise of my diplomat-husband, killed in a bomb explosion at a safehouse in Somalia, a few months prior to his retirement. My husband’s strangely worded letter, with a lawyer, states that unless I spend three months here alone – 100 days, the will stipulated, our savings would not go to any charities of my choice. No children
to bequeath our modest savings to. I had sworn never to return to my hometown. Surprisingly, it was this strangely worded will that bothered me. Coded Will. Yes. What are you saying, Shiv?
Just what do you want me to know??
I began to unpack the book cartons and placed the books on the wooden shelves he had made in his spare time, over the decades, sanded and lightly lacquered – to ensure the grains of wood showed their natural colours. He had loved carpentry, creating wooden toys for their unborn child, always keen to work with his hands, waiting and waiting to retire to do what he pleased. To garden, to travel, to read and read. That would never happen now.
Another sharp stinging sensation made her gasp and drop the few books she was holding. Again? What now? A bloody bee? Oh God. The sting shot her nerves as she walked towards her handbag to get out some antiseptic cream. Hell. Some strong coffee would get her going again. Back on track. Gazing out of the large windows overlooking a small lawn with a delirium – yes, one could only describe the riot of colours, painstakingly and lovingly tended to by Shiv… a delirium of colours – Dee’s thoughts began to wander. The sting subsided as she fell into an afternoon trance.
“So. Fresher. Where the heck are you from?” A sea of dark brown-to-white faces giggled from the steps of the podium, where about fifty first year students kneeled in obeisance. “Orissa.”
“Oh, so you speak Orissi?”
Dee should have known that was a trick question or perhaps not.
“I speak Oriya. Orissi is the dance form.”
“Think we’re stupid, Fresher? Dumb eh? Behenji.” Sister, in a derogatory tone.
Dee looked at the girls around her – most were teary-eyed.
“Look at ME, you dumbo”. Another senior piped in.
“Where’s the accent from, Fresher? Cut it out.”
Accent? “Perhaps because I used to live overseas?” Dee muttered to a crescendo of hysterical giggles.
“You were abroad?” asked a slightly dour-faced senior, dissecting the word into two syllables, dumb charades, indeed – emphasizing the last syllable.
“Yes,” I nodded, “During my childhood.”
“Say it – say I lived a-broad… say I was a-broad.”
“I lived abroad.”
“No, no – break up the syllables…”
More hysterical laughter. Who were these people? Dee solemnly repeated their words to more merriment and giggles as it finally dawned on her what they were trying to call her. “Such a dhuh, I was, such a dheet, foolish.” Dee smiled. “Spit out that smile. You,” yelled another senior.
Dee froze – till she realised it was directed at the pretty girl beside her.
“So what if you’re from Tara Hall, say it like an Indian, like the word for star in apna language, not ‘Tara’ like a phirangi.” Gutsy girl spit right at the senior’s foot but before mayhem broke loose, Matron came up and barked her orders to get back inside and no more ragging.
After dinner we were sent to rooms that were three – seaters and shyly introduced ourselves. Sudden noise and footsteps outside their door that evening caused rapid heartbeats.
There was a loud knock on the door. Then a few more solid knocks.
We had to open up, even though we had switched off the light and a senior walked in.
“Okay kids don’t feel too bad, we all go through this. It’s for a week and then on Hostel Night, all of you will be welcomed and the ragging stops. Till then do as you’re told.”
Then in a quieter tone, she added in a cold voice that left us breathing hard – “or just hide.”
Dee woke with a start. Her thigh ached, still sore from the rusty nail, but there was so much left to do. Her mouth ached too – those damn apthous ulcers, so painful.
As she began to unpack and sort out the cartons, memories unravelled. This enforced stay takes her back to the days of her childhood in this city, after growing up in London, trying hard to fit-in but never quite-accepted, by peers in school and even close relatives, to their days at Delhi
University in the 70’s, where they had become friends and later, the phase during the Emergency, when a few friends had been taken away, one of whom never returned. Stream of consciousness thoughts coupled with errata, straddling decades at random – undefined disorder.
Past tense. Present tense. No order.
Struggling to pick up the books she had dropped, she saw some more scraps of paper on the floor, with ink blots. Shiv had always written with a fountain pen, since school. She picked up the scraps, but the sentences made no sense, no real sense, strange diagrams, Dee smiled at the recollection of Shiv’s wry humour – dry laughter always accompanied by a sharp sting!
“Brilliant scholar, scathing wit” a senior officer had once remarked, only half in jest. Funny coincidence that, just having been impaled by a bloody nail. Honestly, this crap about 100 days ‘in house’ to be endowed with monies for charities… typical of Shiv. He knew she detested living here, not the house, but the surroundings always made her uneasy, as if she was living on borrowed time.
Tantra mantra, maybe… the place was full of wicans. “No,” her wise paternal grandfather had once admonished her, “Tantra for evil begets evil on the doer so most tantrics refrain from absolute rituals.”
The crate cover jutted across some celadon vases wrapped in bubble paper and straw.
Indigo stains covered one corner of the packing. I carefully pulled out the package, even as my bleeding thigh began to throb and as if on cue, the bee sting began to itch. I carried the package through into the drawing room and onto the nearest sofa.
Changing into a wrap-skirt and after rubbing some Boro Plus antiseptic cream, the favoured brand in the now-called states of Odisha and West Bengal, onto the wound, I sat down to check the package.
The straw – raffia opened out easily with its parchment paper, that showed faint marks on it, but it peeled off easily. Just out of sheer nostalgia, I held up the parchment against the sunlight filtering through the French windows overlooking the garden. Was that ‘Dee’ I could see written illegibly or just my heightened imagination? A sudden movement in the garden broke the spell – no, there was no-one there. Silly nerves. This place gave me the creeps. I placed the parchment on the desk to look at later. Then hastily stuffed it into my pocket. Why? The sudden sounds.
A sudden screech of tyres from the road in front of the lawn disrupted my disjointed thoughts. I knew instinctively coming down here and doing all this would not be easy. Irritated, I walked to the front door, unlatched it and stepped into the front yard. The gardener raised his hand in greeting,
while bolting the main gate.
“A hit and run, Madam,” he paused, “I worry – our gate open, no?”
Raju had grown up on this plot and studied English at school – spoke it rather well, too, with our own brand of English – accent oddity.
I wondered if I had, indeed, seen the shadow of an intruder? A stranger walked over my grave. Before I could think this through, the main gate bell rang shrilly. Raju spoke through the intercom and said: “Madam, one Mr. Dilip?” I nodded, surprised at his being here so soon or had
he come to Bhubaneswar earlier?
“Dee.” Dilip had always called out her name in a soft, tenuous way. I smiled. His voice calmed me, and my thigh stopped throbbing, it seemed, with just the hint of a hollow ache. “Come inside.” I held out my hand, after a long Namaskar. Now why did the Emergency rear its ugly head? Forty years had lapsed, but vague memories tugged at my chest. Betrayals. Yes. Shocking betrayals. Friends picked up from Coffee House, missing for days, then back with bruises and swollen faces. Beaten to pulp. Some silenced. Some not. Picked up again. Some returned, some did not. Julius did not.
Someone just walked over my grave. Julius. Shiv. Shaking my shoulders in annoyance, I walked into the parlour and sat down on the sofa.
Through a narrow slit in the corner of the connecting room, a sliver of light shone on Dee’s eyes, or so she thought, as she struggled to sit up. The whispers troubled her. The weight of her shoulders being pinned down overcame her and she just gave up and closed her eyes. And clenched her fists. Tightly. To sleep. And dream.
“Shh… she needs to sleep first; else the chants will not appease the demon spirits I have summoned to end her life.” “But have you found anything; does she even know?” “You can search now.” Raju, the gardener, slid open a door, that opened into a walk-in clothes cupboard. Dilip entered Shiv
and Dee’s bedroom and headed for the desk.
And in the end….
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.” The Buddha. Bhaddekaratta Sutta. Maya’s eyes misted over as recent events blended in slow motion with her reminisces – a delicate conference in a safe house, armed guards, still terrorists succeed with their targets…
why, why did Shiv have to be one of the victims? The harsh reality of Shiv’s horrific demise had only now begun to sink in. And now Dee. Maya found Dee wrapped in a white sheet as she was a widow and had died after her beloved husband. She would have been wrapped in red if she had died
before him. Surreal. Sinister. Maya collapsed beside her and held her hand, it was tightly clenched. She tried to straighten her fingers, afraid the bones would snap, till reluctantly, the fingers loosened up and Maya prised her own fingers into the curve of her palm. “I am so sorry, so deeply sorry, Dee…”
Maya clenched her own fist. She and Dee had come to terms with their husbands’ falling out and were determined to remain friends. And they were. Dee had once hesitatingly told her about Dilip, the “not one of us”…
Dilip, as Shiv had called him. Deep inside, Maya had also felt something was amiss. Well. Given the nature of his job, she did not pry, but they grew farther and farther apart. Their divorce was uncomplicated. They remained fair-weather friends on the surface. Dilip had reached there before her. She just gave him a look and nodded. Time for him later. Dilip was in shock too, even though the two friends had fallen out decades ago.
There was the cremation she was needed for. And no, no male relative would light up her dearest friend. She would.
Hours later. Tears kept flowing. She had locked herself in Dee’s room after gently asking the relatives, rather outsiders – everyone, to leave. Glancing at Dee’s crumpled jeans on the floor, she stooped and without thinking, went through the pockets. A few pieces of folded papers.
Ink and in Code. Ink and in Code. Double whammy. One word.
Five Letters. Five. The Sign of Five. No. Maya shivered. A vein in her temple throbbed. Staring at the small pen-drive and the folded note, Maya decided. Tomorrow. This would be done tomorrow. Or back in Delhi. The days passed in melancholic stupor. Back in Delhi, Maya had still not checked the pen drive. Dilip called once asking if there were any official papers that needed to be handed over to the ministry, that he could help sort out. “He never brought important documents home, you should know that, if you really knew him,” Maya had snapped back at the insidious undercurrent of the question. That was the trigger for the final epiphany. The pen-drive. The papers in code. It was Dilip. The Traitor. Over and Out.
Q.E.D. One cannot mouth such matters over a mobile phone, nor may these words be spoken about in public, so Maya booked a flight to Delhi.
Naturally, the scandal was hushed up. Dilip took voluntary retirement or so the press said. March and the advent of Spring. Maya walked around Dee
and Shiv’s garden, with its riot of colours. Yes, this would be a good place to begin her story. Two stories. She smiled at the new gardener as she walked into the house. Dee had willed it to her and requested that she run a shelter for abandoned children, home-school them too, if need be, until they were strong enough to attend a regular school. Maya smiled. She had come home. There was Shiv with two steaming cups of coffee. It had worked. His plan. The official brief was that the pirates had captured him but welcomed his ideas on maritime policy. They released him
without a ransom or a scratch on his body! Dee’s death weighed heavily on his heart. But the Mole had been smoked out – Dilip.
He had stated he had nothing to do with Dee’s death, but the gardener’s testimony put a full-stop to that. Dee, dearest Dee was the fatal pawn in Dilip’s quest for covering his tracks, but he fell prey to Shakespeare’s ‘Truth Will Out.’
Each day would bring a new beginning.
* A foreign service officer chosen to represent India as its Ambassador or High Commissioner, is described as a Distinguished Citizen of India, by the President of India, in the credentials that are presented to a foreign President or Head of State… aka… DC.
This is a part of the collection entitled What Not Words, written by Jayshree Misra Tripathi.
About the author:
Jayshree Misra Tripathi has been a consultant, educator and examiner in English Language and Literature, for the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate Organization. She worked in print media in the late ’70s and ’80s in India. Having lived in diverse cultures for over thirty years with her late husband, a career diplomat in the Indian Civil Service, her short fiction and narrative verse dwell upon journeys through the diaspora, highlighting women and their voices, and cross-cultural conversations.