The tiny museum across the field seemed ridiculous in this City of Palaces, Amitabh mused, looking out from his bedroom window.
His room was at the back of the house, facing a field, which overlooked the Police Headquarters in Northwest Calcutta, and a part of the building had been cordoned off as a tiny Police Museum, housing little bits of memorabilia the DC had deemed important. There had been a lot of fanfare in the unveiling last Tuesday, the Mayor had come down and given a speech, a famous actress had zoomed up all the way from the studios in Tollygunge to cut the red ribbon, and the locals had preened with glory when the film crew of half a dozen Bengali television channels had come scouting for some matter for the six-o-clock news. Amitabh had not been there, but he had no need to. Everyday, he could walk over to the window in his bedroom, look out across the field, and see the Museum.
His mother came into the room, gazed up at the poster of Rani Mukherjee that adorned his cupboard, and said, "I've kept the milk on the table. Will I pick you up around four today, after I finish, or will you come back yourself?"
He looked at her, and hoped she wouldn't note the slight catch in his voice. "No, no, I'll come back myself. I'll be back earlier - by two. So if you finish around four, that means you'll be back by - what, four-thirty?"
She smiled, and turned towards the full-length mirror in his room to make sure that the pleats of her sari were alright, and said, "It will probably be closer to five. Perhaps later. We may have a meeting today, after school, and if that happens then I'll have to stay late. I hope we don't have the meeting, though!"
He grinned and lifted his bag up, and walked over to the drawing room, while she followed. "If they have the meeting on a Saturday, then you'll grumble that it takes away a holiday. So you might as well have your meeting today!"
"God! That's another thing! No, I don't want it on a Saturday. There, the milk is on the right. Next to Baba's tiffin box."
Amitabh could hear the bell ringing from the family's puja-room, where his father would settle for the daily Lakshmi-puja. Mother and son exchanged a silent grin, and Amit rolled his eyes heavenwards. "I have my key," he said, gulping his milk down, "I'll see you later in the evening," and he came around to give her a quick peck on the cheek.
"Alright, darling," she kissed him, before he could move away, "Take care, and have fun."
For a so-called modern building, the damn place lacks a lift, he thought, shuttling down the steps, hurtling past doorways that were done up in various degrees and styles. There was the Moitras', on the third floor, two big brown doors, with a miniature Ganpati shrine on the right - they had relocated from Pune. The second floor had the two biggest flats, one with a terrace and one without, and here lived the Sens behind their tan wooden door, padlocked because they were on holiday in Shimla now, and the Senguptas, who had a massive iron grill in front of their blue door. The first floor was occupied by the fifty-year old widow Mrs Das, who had a modest brown door, with a big peephole in the centre, through which she surveyed all who knocked on her fiefdom.
The Chakraborty's own door, on the fourth floor, was a simple affair in black, with a brass name-plate proclaiming, in suitably diminishing sizes denoting the family hierarchy,
S N K CHAKRABORTY
That was him, he thought: the last little mention - A Chakraborty, Amitabh Chakraborty, Amitabh, Amit, different facets of an individual a part of him knew.
The ground floor was the garage.
The idea was simple, in theory at least. Economics was meant for the people, and it was up to people with common sense to derive the maximum out of it. Or something like that, some brilliant wit had said ages ago. It was time now for that brilliant wit to eat his words, however, as Amit and he frowned at the marks sheet put up on the front notice board, in front of the main college staircase.
"Well, I suppose this means you don't have much of common sense," Amit observed sagely, in a bad joke that he could not resist.
"Einstein," muttered Indranil through clenched teeth, checking the marks he had already jotted down in his notebook to see whether the collective score meant a passing grade in the entire discipline. After five minutes of intense number crunching, he came back with a frown and "I don't really know what to make of it. It all depends on what the Fourth Paper comes back with."
Tanu laughed, flicked her curly hair back, and said, "So, the verdict for now is: there is no verdict in the first place? How brilliant is that?!"
Indranil looked at the two of them, sitting on the last two steps of the staircase, grinning up at him like jack-o-lanterns, and he shrugged. "I suppose so. Maybe I should talk with Sur about it?"
Tanu shook her head. "Not a good idea. Sur is a colossal pain-in-the-ass. He's just going to make a stupid face and give you some bullshit about how you never do anything in class but sleep. Didn't you see the crap he gave Amit this morning - and only because he came maybe five frikkin' seconds after Sur showed up for his lecture!"
Amit smiled lazily, and said, "Aaa, but babe- you forget that our man here is one of Sur's soft spots. He can smile like a crocodile and Sur-the-ass will probably purr like a kitten for him!"
Indranil grinned and said, "I know - he's got the hots for me, I think! Hehehehahaaa."
"I don't envy you one bit, you big lug," Tanu shot back, "That monster is downright nasty! And you can have him, if you want! Look at Mukherjee - now that man has absolutely no airs, and is always willing to help you out - even though he's the frikkin' HOD!"
"I think you have a chance," Amit said, after Tanu finished fuming, "It's worth a shot. Be extra-nice and sugary sweet with him - flatter him nice and good, and make a long face about the results so far, and then ask him, what he thinks you would get in the Essay paper. I hear, he hasn't started correcting that one as yet, and if you get your foot in now, it's worth a shot. "
Indranil agreed, and went towards the staff room, to find Sur, while Tanu and Amit strolled away from beneath the grand staircase. "So what are your plans now?" she asked, hunting for a hair-band in her bag, "Attending the next lecture?"
Amit looked at his watch, "That's the one with Dey on Developmental Eco, isn't it? I don't think so. It starts too late. I'm supposed to meet my mum at around two, and go to a relative's house for some silly talk-stuff. Think I'll take a ditch."
Tanu shrugged. "I have to attend. I bunked his last class. That stupid new rule on attendance will screw my happiness if I bunk again. You want to catch lunch?"
"A sandwich or something will do."
Amit looked at his watch. Five minutes were left to two. He was standing at the corner of Maniktala Main Road, under the canopy of the bus stop, leaning against a rail, painted a bright yellow. He wasn't far from his house, and in fact, could retrace the way quite simply even now, from where he stood: right at the crossing, then straight on, then another right at the fifth lane, walk in straight, then the first left, and the grey house on the right side of the road. Man Sadan. It wasn't nearly as complicated as it sounded, he knew, and smiled to himself at the security of his knowledge. Then he looked at the watch again, and stomped his left foot a mite impatiently. It was two minutes past two now. The person he had come to meet was late.
The intersection where he stood was a busy one. To the left, rearing its head like an archaic old monster was a clock tower from the old market, and bright red Coca Cola banners screamed from the clock. There was no chime, however, none that Amit could sense now, though lying in bed some times, he imagined he could hear the huge clock in the Maniktala intersection tick away his heartbeat. The market was on the opposite side of the road, teeming with people, buying fish, slippers, medicines, vegetables and fruits, household articles, pieces of cloth to wipe their household floors with: practically everything you would need to run your house with clockwork precision.
To the north, stretched away the main road towards an even busier intersection, an even busier market at Hatibagan, where Amit had seen the bird sellers and their gleaming white cockatoos and their jabbering green parrots lining the pavements. The road to the right rolled away to Kankurgancchi, surrounded by yet another jamboree of shops, mechanical goods, cheap clothes, electrical repairs, which clustered on the sidewalk and threatened to spill out on to the road, already crammed with cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, hooting and fighting for their right of way. In the middle of it all, loomed like a king, the traffic policeman, an insistent whistle between his lips, the traffic lights at the intersection blinking and changing allegiance at his command.
"Ummmm, excuse me... are you Amit?"
His English was a bit slurred with the heavy non-Bengali accent, but then Amit knew that his name was Aniruddh, and he was Marwari. Aniruddh was wearing a checked half-sleeve shirt, in blue and black, over grey stone-washed jeans that seemed to hang from his narrow waist. His hair was combed back onto his scalp, and there was a tiny glint of imitation gold on his left ear. His feet were shorn in sandals of some kind - Amit could not tell, as his jeans were too long. He had a tentative grin on his face, as if he were not sure that this was the right person to address, though Amit had informed him precisely how he would be dressed, the night before - white t-shirt, blue jeans, red bag. And Amit, while extending his own hand to shake Aniruddh's, reeled off the facts the latter had told him, in his mind - 21 years old, 5'8'' height, 28 waist, 60 kg weight, clean shaven, fair, handsome, blue and black checked shirt, grey jeans - "Hi, yea, it's me, Amit. You're Aniruddh?" (aka, email@example.com)
"I'm sorry, I got a bit delayed. I hope you weren't waiting for long...?"
Amit smiled, knew that Aniruddh's eyes were scanning him as meticulously as he had examined him, and replied, "No problem. I was okay. Just watching the road," and they laughed for some reason at that. Not a full-blown laugh, more like a chuckle, and Amit wondered whether Aniruddh would turn him down now. Would it be all this grand wait had led up to? Getting dumped in front of the crowded Bata showroom on Maniktala Main Road? - and so he said, "So, what would you like to do?"
Aniruddh had finished his perusal, and made up his mind, "You live somewhere here?"
So it was going to happen. "Close by, yes. Do you want to go there?"
Aniruddh flashed a nervous grin now, "It's okay? No one will be there?"
"My parents are both out to work, and I'm an only child. No problems. We can leave now, if you want."
Aniruddh nodded, and they were off. Right at the crossing, then straight on, then another right at the fifth lane, walk in straight, then the first left, and the grey house on the right side of the road, Amit relayed the way over again in his mind as he set out, trailed by a wondering Aniruddh, who looked around him with the slight awe people have when they venture into unexplored territory. Amit stepped over a puddle that had formed from the drizzle ten minutes ago, which had forced him to get under the canopy at the bus stop, and looked back with a fleeting smile at the boy following him. "Have you been this side, earlier?", and Aniruddh shook his head in a way that signified clearly, the place held little charm for him as it stood, and that sent a tiny frisson of resentment through Amit. Thoroughly unreasonable, he deplored to himself, shaking his head, and decided to try a new tactic - "So what do you study in college?"
No help. Three-fourths of the youngsters from the Marwari community in Calcutta were in to B.Com. Amit tried again, "Which college?"
The Bhawanipur Gujarati Educational College, more noted for fashion shows and speed racing than any academic achievements, the snob in Amit snorted, and he replied in a somewhat lofty tone, "I'm doing Economics in St Xaviers", but this seemed to have little effect on Aniruddh, who gave a half-smile and dodged puddles on the road.
The next question, however, came from him: "Do you go to the site a lot?" he asked Amit, who grinned a bit self-consciously. There seemed to be no easy way to answer this, but Amit had tried to perfect the answer as best as he could. "I go over there when I have the time." There - it didn't seem as if he was a perverted sex maniac who was always in gay chat rooms to find new men, nor did it make him look like a green thumb. "How about you?"
"The same," Aniruddh shrugged, and then - "Is it far from here?"
Amit turned around now, "Why? Are you getting tired?" he grinned a bit then, and "You're not in the habit of walking, are you? It's quite near, really. Just a little bit away."
Aniruddh nodded, and kept on walking, pulling his head down, and Amit wondered suddenly whether his reply had smacked of poor-Bengali-who-has-no-car-and-must-walk-a-lot, and what he could do to rectify the situation. After a couple of minutes of trying to search for the perfect rejoinder, and a couple of minutes' pause from Aniruddh's side, Amit decided that it was all too much trouble, and he should let sleeping dogs lie, as they were.
Man Sadan. "We're here." And Aniruddh gave another half-smile.
"Come behind me," Amit instructed him, and walked in, past the empty gatekeeper's stool, into the compound, and started climbing the stairs. Then, reminded that his companion wasn't exactly a star runner, he turned and said a in a partly apologetic tone, "You'll have to climb some stairs, I'm afraid. It's the fourth floor," but Aniruddh smiled gamely.
Mrs Das' flat was open, on the first floor, but there was nobody there, and Amit scampered up past her door to the second floor, gratified to note that Aniruddh had also quickened his pace behind him. Obviously, he was used to this game, he told himself. The second floor was empty, both apartments had their doors shut, and they climbed a bit leisurely. But Smita Moitra was standing at her door, waiting for the maid to let her in, on the third floor, and the two of them could not sneak past her.
"Hello, Amitabh," she said with the excessive cheer in her voice that she reserved for people she never felt completely comfortable around, "Back home early from college?" And she looked keenly at Aniruddh, behind him.
Amit smiled, gratified to note that Aniruddh had remained silent, and moved up the landing where the stairs left the third floor, and continued up to the fourth. "Yes, Aunty. My Friend and I decided to do some study-sessions at home, you see."
"O, that's very good. In fact, you should take my Piyali to study with you boys also, you know. God knows, she doesn't do anything all day, just sits at home all day, or goes out with her friends, no studies at all -" as the door opened - "Piyali! There you are, dear! I was just telling Amit that - "
But Amit had not waited for the rest, and clambered up the stairs, as soon as she saw the door opening and Piyali's scrawny frame, with her bush of short curly hair, standing with her hand on her hips. Aniruddh was waiting on the other side, with a sour smile on his face, as if he knew that neighbours could be very pesky indeed!
"Sorry," Amit whispered, and started fumbling with the door, to let them both in the Chakraborty flat. "Most of the time, I usually miss them," he explained, letting Aniruddh enter first, "Most of the time, I have the place all to myself," and he grinned, while fixing the bolt on the door from the inside.
Aniruddh walked in the flat, and sat on the expansive sofa that faced the television set, covered by a lace cloth. "It's okay, I have neighbours too," he grinned, and then, "can I have some water, please?"
"O, sure! Sorry, I forgot to ask you, myself, just a second," and Amit disappeared into the kitchen that projected from a corner of the big sitting room. He switched on the Aqua-guard, and waited for the light to turn green, suddenly becoming conscious that Aniruddh was alone outside, and feeling strangely nervous at the thought. What could he do, steal the TV? and he grinned to himself, collecting cool water in a glass from the machine, but then stopped chuckling when he remembered that he barely knew Aniruddh at all.
"Here's your water!" Did I sound shrill?
Aniruddh was standing at the mantelpiece, in front of the television, looking at the family pictures arranged delicately by Amit's mother, and he accepted the glass with a smile, while Amit looked at him, feeling slightly relieved and quite foolish at the same time. When he handed the glass back, he said, "Didn't you say you're an only child? Who's that?" and he pointed towards a picture of Roshni beaming in her orange graduation robes from Jadavpur University.
Amit felt like drinking some water now, his throat felt parched, but he smiled and recovered fast, "A cousin. She graduated recently." My elder sister. She's now in Bangalore.
Aniruddh nodded, and Amit placed the glass on the dining table. "So, would you like to come to my room?"
"Sure. Lead the way."
Amit looked out the window out of habit, as he entered his room, at the field below, and the police headquarters across, the ridiculous little museum that housed bits and pieces of Calcutta's law-and-order heritage. He looked back at the bed, and saw that it was all made up, set prim and proper, since the morning, and he felt a single pang of guilt and fear. That disappeared, when Aniruddh said, "Nice room" behind him, and sat down near the head.
Amit smiled and sat down beside him. "So, when do you have to go back home?" Do I sound nervous? Ridiculous. This is just one more time...
Aniruddh smiled, "About an hour or so. I think it will be enough time, don't you think?"
Amit smiled again, or rather he let his face muscles remain in that position now, and moved his left hand on to Aniruddh's thighs, and stroked gingerly - rough fabric, he thought - "More than enough... time..."
Now? Now? Should I do something now? And then, when he saw Aniruddh's face also slowly nod and move forwards, the decision was made. They kissed slightly, both tremulously, and then slowly opened their lips to let the others' tongue in. Amit moved his hand up to Aniruddh's face now, but he felt Aniruddh's hands touch him now on his legs, between his legs. His lips were making the sloshing sounds of a wet kiss, and he hoped that he wasn't turning Aniruddh off, but then a sharp squeeze from the latter dispelled his doubts. Aniruddh pushed him slightly, and he allowed himself to fall back on the bed, with Aniruddh on top of him.
"The phone bill is getting a bit too much, Amitabh. I want you to cut down on your internet browsing. If you want to browse, you should go to a cyber café. It's much less expensive, in the long run," Surendra Nath Kanti Chakraborty declared, helping himself to three big spoonfuls of mutton curry.
Amitabh looked up from his food, and said, "It's not the same thing, Baba. There are hassles in going to a cyber café. They don't allow you to download stuff and they don't want you to use floppy discs. It's a big hassle." Plus, no porn.
"Be that as it may, the bill is too much," his father pronounced, "Maya, the mutton is excellent. What's gotten into our madam, that she is cooking so well these days?"
Amitabh kept his silence, hoping that the new flow of conversation would stem the anti-internet diktat, as his mother replied, with a smile that accentuated her dimples, "She wanted a new sari for Puja, and I gave her one of my old taant ones. So, she's pleased as punch these days, and goes about as if she's on cloud 9! It's quite funny, really! Amit - would you like some more?"
He shook his head, "No thanks, I'm done. I've had quite a lot, already. I'm just going to wash my hands and go inside, ok?"
"Don't get on the internet again," his father's voice boomed from the dining table, as he headed into his room.
There was the bed, and Amit sat gingerly, watching the headboard, recreating the scene from earlier that afternoon in his head. It had been a rapid two hours - Aniruddh's initial stingy limit of one hour had been discarded, at the end - and when he had finally left, Amit had roamed the confines of the flat in a giddy high, not sure where he was going, not sure where he was coming from, but glad to be here, nonetheless. How does one explain a thing like that, a part of him wondered, and he settled for a grin and shake of his head.
He lay back down on the bed, put an arm under his head, and looked up at the ceiling. He wondered whether he should give Aniruddh a call tomorrow on his cell phone, but thought better of it. Give it more time, if you call him now, he'll think you're desperate, and that was the last thing he wanted. It was important to play these silly little games, he realized, even if you didn't exactly believe in them. He looked at Aniruddh's name and number on his cell phone display and smiled, and jumped up, when the phone actually started blinking and buzzing, playing Beethoven's Symphony Number Six as if its very life depended on it.
Amit quickly switched it on - "Hullo? - hey Tanu, what you up to?"
"Yea, sure, I remember the MBA class tomorrow. I'll be there. Yea, that's great, I don't mind coffee afterwards. Barista should be great - "
"No, I was just lying in bed and dreaming - no, not asleep, yet - nope, I can't come online to chat with you now - dad's told me to cut down again - (snigger) - yea, cool, I'll see you tomorrow then at college - "
"Take care, babe. B'bye"
Amit switched off the cell, to see that Maya was entering the room with a pile of ironed clothes, which she placed on the low table next to his computer table. "Are you going to sleep now, baba? Will you put your mosquito net up, before you fall asleep?"
"Yes, ma," he yawned, "I'll just read a book for awhile. I'll put the net up, don't worry. Goodnight."
Maya smiled, and her dimples appeared again, "Goodnight, and don't forget to put the clothes in your cupboard in the morning," and she left, shutting the door behind her.
Amit sighed. I'll ditch the book tonight, he thought, too tired for that, and he patted the bed again. It wasn't too late, but the single light bulb in the field outside the window was already on, and he could see the police constable on the other end, closer to the Museum's edge. Ridiculous museum, he thought, and made a mental note to himself to visit the Indian Museum sometime soon: haven't been there in a while. Maybe Indranil will come along; I don't think Tanu will be interested.
He settled back into bed, pulling the thin cotton sheet up to his chin, and yawned in the darkness, which was punctuated by the lone light bulb in the field outside and the clear moonshine streaming in through the windows, and his last waking thought was - I wonder if Aniruddh would like to come.