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Updated: March 26, 2014 14:38 IST

Short Story: Banter

TANUSHREE KAR
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Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu Illustration: Satwik Gade

Sushmita brought down the heavy photo album from the top corner of the cupboard and put it on the bed. She settled down comfortably and opened the first page. There she was standing sideways, smiling nervously, resplendent in her bridal finery. The jewellery had been acquired over the years by her mother. Every birthday, instead of toys or clothes of her choice, her mother bought a gold ornament — a tikli, a necklace, a pair of kangans. Sushmita’s hand fanned lovingly over the photographs. The first three pages had her in various poses — with the veil, without the veil, some with the eyes downcast, some looking directly at the camera. When she looked at herself — she marvelled at how slim she was — she barely weighed 45 kg — and look at the knee-length hair! Just as her mother gathered gold over the years, she seemed to have gathered weight. She weighed 85 kg today and she seemed to have lost both her liveliness and her hair. She smiled wryly and closed the album. She was not interested in looking back at the photographs of the wedding ceremony.

The Roy Chowdhury family had come to meet her 26 years ago. A family friend was the matchmaker. Everything happened in such a whirlwind fashion that she could hardly recall it. Partha Roy Chowdhury was an engineer, he would be completing his MBA shortly, his parents had announced with pride. Sushmita had done Political Science and History for her graduation. She did not consider herself a scholar; she was relieved that she could actually finish college. She was a diehard romantic — William Darcy of Pride and Prejudice was her hero.

Partha as Darcy? Sushmita laughed cynically. The first five years she tried to make friends with him. Then she stopped trying. He was a recluse; he neither listened nor talked. For the first two years, there was an excuse that he was working for his MBA, but 26 years later, he still did not have the degree.

On most Saturdays, he had a group of three friends come over for dinner. Partha groomed himself with great care on those days. He wore a spotless white kurta, an expensive watch and a splash of his best after-shave cologne. Sometimes he left a book by Amartya Sen or Stephen Hawking deliberately on the centre table in a careless fashion, as if he was just reading it. He even put a bookmark in the middle. Sushmita watched all of this with great interest. She did not mind cooking or looking after the guests, but she disliked the way he spoke to her in front of those three friends. All three were big shots in multinational companies. They were MBAs, so they had gone ahead in their careers and Partha had been left behind.

Sometimes when she was about to serve the starters, from the kitchen she would hear Partha’s voice. “I think the ship is about to sail folks! Food will be on board.” Loud laughter would follow the comment.

Once after they left, Sushmita asked Partha, “Why do you insult me in front of your fancy friends?”

“Insult?” Partha looked surprised. “I was not insulting you, I was just bantering.”

Unlike Partha, Sushmita was from a vernacular medium school and sometimes her pronunciation and choice of words were a source of great mirth for Partha. Sushmita was frequently asked about the number of children she had and she usually replied that she had no ‘issue’. On Saturdays, Partha would tell his friends, “We have no ‘issue’, but we have a number of issues.” Amid drunken laughter, he would announce, “Let us play a game of ‘curd’.” Sushmita pronounced card as ‘curd’.

One night Partha announced to his friends that Bhaskar had called him up and that he would like to join the Saturday night revelry.

“Bhaskar? You mean the fatso?” one of them exclaimed.

“Yes, how can anyone forget fatso; that duffer. He is now the assistant general manager at the Indian Railways.”

“Probably filling his pocket with bribes, you know what the Indian government employees are like,” one of them chortled.

The following Saturday, Bhaskar arrived, or rather, rolled in. He was like a Pilates ball — completely round. But when he smiled, it was like radiant sunshine; he spread joy and happiness. The first week, Bhaskar took all their jibes and bantering in good humour. The card game required only four people; so he was the observer. The following week he told Partha, “Since I have nothing to do, let me get useful and help your Mrs.”

From then onwards, every Saturday, Bhaskar was in the kitchen with Sushmita. In the beginning they shared recipes. Bhaskar loved cooking and his favourite television programmes were the cookery shows. Gradually they started talking about their childhood, their youth, their preferences and, above all, their love for old Hindi film songs. Sushmita learnt that Bhaskar was a widower. He had lost his wife to cancer more than 10 years back. “Why didn’t you re-marry?” she asked.

“Maybe I was waiting for someone special,” he replied. She blushed, as an unusual feeling of happiness filled her. Now she looked forward to her Saturdays. Bhaskar was labelled ‘the Mrs. helper’ by Partha’s friends.

One Saturday Bhaskar told Sushmita, “I have been transferred to Nagpur, I have to leave on Wednesday.” Sushmita felt her eyes filling with tears as she turned her face away.

On Wednesday, Partha woke up and called out loudly for his tea. “What is wrong with that woman,” he thought, “she is not even answering.”

He walked into the desolate kitchen and found the picture post card on the counter. It had a vibrant picture of a beautiful sunrise. The note was crisp and short.

Dear Partha,

I had some ‘issues’ with you. So I am writing this picture post ‘curd’. I am leaving. Don’t get alarmed if you find the locker empty. I have taken all my jewellery.

Warm regards,

Sushmita Sen

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