Prose | Uttaran Das Gupta | Part 2/2

Photo : LeeLa

Lunch at Mocambo*(continued) 

When it was nearly half an hour to midnight, Prabuddha agreed to drive us to St Paul’s Cathedral. Adhiraj, his girlfriend Ecaterina (a Romanian student of Bengali at the university), and I, along with Kanishka, a serious-faced guy who was completely drunk, got into the back of the blue Esteem. Sankalita sat in front. Kanishka sang “Silent Night” all the way.
It was foolhardy of us to imagine that we would be able to get in arriving so late. There was already a large and boisterous crowd at the church. Serpentine queues made their way from the enormous wooden doors of the 19th century gothic edifice, through the large grounds and gardens, nearly up to the iron gates on Cathedral Road. Almost everyone seemed to be wearing red and white or some shade of either colour; we were conspicuous in black and grey. The cold wind did not seem to bother anyone, most of whom were anyway drunk. Those interested in the religious proceedings had arrived early and taken their seats in the church. The larger crowd of latecomers comprised mostly revellers, most of whom were not Christian. A group of schoolgirls sang “Joy to the World” and “Rudolph”.
“Can’t we go somewhere else?” said Ecaterina when it became obvious that we wouldn’t reach the altar before dawn.
“But Manish said he would come here,” protested Sankalita.
“I want to light a candle and pray.”
“You can do that at the manger,” suggested Adhiraj.
The manger was quite elaborate, with coconut trees and camels of the Magi in the background of the stables where Mary sat cradled with the Babe, guarded by a hawkish Jacob. Too many candles had been lit in front of it and a sea of molten wax separated it from the gravel path where we stood.
“How quaint!” said Ecaterina.
“Jacob and Mary and Jesus look more Arab than I have ever seen them. And look at the Magi: isn’t one of them Chinese?”
“But they were Arabs,” said Prabuddha. “There’s hardly any difference between the native Israelites and Arabs. And the Magi were eastern wise men.”
Ecaterina laughed, kneeled down and started to mumble a prayer.
“I never understood why the fuck was Jesus born in a stable,” said Adhiraj.
“They — Mary and Jacob — had to travel to Bethlehem, and since she was pregnant, they kept postponing their travel plans till it was absolutely necessary to do it,” replied Kanishka, slurring all the while.
“But why did they have to travel to Bethlehem?”
“Israel was a part of the Roman Empire, and the Emperor — Augustus Octavious Caesar — wanted to conduct a census. So he ordered all his subjects to return to their native places. Jacob lived in Nazareth but he was from Bethlehem.”
“Wow!” said Adhiraj, slapping Kanishka on the back. “Where did you learn all this?”
“Ben Hur.”
After Ecaterina finished praying, we returned to the car to find Manish leaning against it, smoking. When Sankalita saw him, she squealed in delight, ran to him, put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him passionately on the mouth. Manish reciprocated with equal passion.
Prabuddha coolly lit a cigarette and waited for them to disengage.
“I’ve got some news,” said Manish, “about The Derozio Project.”
No one said anything. Only Kanishka stumbled to the edge of the pavement, got down on his hunches, and started to throw up violently, punctuating his ejaculations with abuses hurled at Adhiraj for having slapped his back so hard.
Blowing a ring of smoke, Manish uttered almost inaudibly: “Rohini.”
Prabuddha and he looked at each other for a minute and then started laughing.

With her head bowed low over a plate of unfinished food, Rohini whispered to me: “I didn’t know. I didn’t know till the next morning when I read it in The Nation.”
I held her hand. “I was furious,” she said. “I was so angry that I kept crying the whole day.”
“Was it then that you…?” I didn’t know how to complete the sentence.
“Yes, that afternoon: No one was at home. I asked Melagrinia — you remember her? — to prepare a hot bath for me. Then, I took a bottle of wine and a blade, and got into the bathtub.”
Suddenly, it seemed to me that the bulwark of Mocambo’s acoustics had collapsed and we were exposed to the unbearable noise of cutlery and conversation. We finished our drinks hurriedly, and left.
Out on the pavement, the glaring sunlight reflecting off every available surface assaulted us, forcing us to seek shelter under a hanging veranda and put on our shades. Rohini lit a cigarette as we were not quite done with our conversation.
“I have often wondered what prompted you,” I said.
Rohini considered my question for a full minute before answering. “Are you familiar with the works of James C. Kaufmann?”
I was not; she explained: “He is a psychologist. In 2001, he coined a term you may be familiar with: The Sylvia Plath effect.”
The term was familiar. It referred to the propensity among female poets — more that artists and prose writers — to succumb to depression, mental illness and suicide.
“You mean to say that you had a case of the Sylvia Plath effect?” My tone must have been a tad incredulous because Rohini laughed.
“How can I tell?” she said. “The jury on whether such a thing exists or not is still out. But I have been reading up on it, and Kaufman, I must say, makes a compelling case.”
Before I could respond, something rather strange occurred; so strange, in fact, that it threw our conversation completely off track.
A woman who was passing by, approached us, and said: “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Can I talk to you for a few minutes? Thank you. You see, I run a shelter for stray dogs and cats…”
As the woman tried to explain to me how she found it embarrassing to solicit help from absolute strangers for her noble enterprise, I took a close look at her: she was short and lean, with dirty hair and bad teeth. From her accent, it was obvious that she was Anglo-Indian but her English was not too good. She had nervous eyes and her uneasy fingers were caked with dirt. The blouse and skirt she was wearing were unwashed and gave off a musty smell.
Even before she had finished speaking, Rohini started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” said the woman, making no attempt to conceal that she was offended.
“You’ve got very bad memory,” said Rohini. “We’ve run into each other before. Don’t you remember?”
 The woman didn’t say anything. She just stood there staring at me.
Rohini said: “Get lost before I call the police.”
Our curious interloper stood for a few seconds, considering the situation. When she realised there was no profit in it, she walked away, muttering abuses.
“What was that?” I inquired.
“She is a regular feature on Park Street. A junkie, a cokehead, she usually tries to dupe schoolchildren. I’ve come across her before. When I challenged her to take me to the shelter, she bailed out. Anyway, where were we?”
I tried to gather my thoughts. “I was wondering: Did you ever talk to Manik Sarkar about the results?”
“No, what was there to talk about? It was obvious why I had been given the prize. Bloody insulting! I cut all communication with him.”
“Didn’t he try to communicate with you?”
“Of course he did. When I stopped replying to his calls and texts, he started sending me messages through my father. That’s when I moved out of home.”
Our conversation was interrupted yet again by the cat woman. This time, she was accompanied by a police officer.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he said, addressing Rohini. “I’ve a complaint against you.”
“This lady here…”
“She is a con. She claims to take money for ailing animals, but…”
“It’s not about that,” said the officer, holding up a palm. “This lady has complained about you smoking.”
Flabbergasted, Rohini stared at him. “I don’t understand.”
The officer explained, patiently: “Don’t you know it’s illegal to smoke in public? Also, it is rather indecent for a woman to smoke at all.”
My friend blushed in fury. “How dare you!”
“I’ll request you not to scream…”
“I’ll do exactly as I feel like! Who the fuck do you think you are to tell me what’s decent and what’s not?”
Ignoring her outburst, the officer turned to me: “Please restrain your wife.”
“She’s not my wife.” My voice was choked with indignation.
A small crowd had gathered around us, drawn by the shouting.
“What’s the matter?” asked an elderly gentleman.
“You see,” said the police officer, “this young lady was smoking in public, and when I tried to tell her it was indecent to do so, she started abusing me.”
“Look at her,” cried the cat woman, “drunk in the afternoon, making a nuisance on the road!”
“I drink with my money, not by conning others.” Rohini’s voice was also hoarse.
The elderly gentleman, in an attempt to placate her, said: “The officer is right. It is indecent for sons and daughters of good homes to behave like this.”
“I’m not going to listen to your lecture now!”
“Listen to me: I am like your father.”
“No!” cried Rohini, angry tears streaming down her face. “You are not like my father. You can never be like him.”
“Who is your father?”
She declared his name. It had an amazing effect on the crowd. A hush seemed to descend on it, the muttering stopped. The curious onlookers started melting away in twos and threes.
Rohini turned towards the police officer. “Arrest me, why don’t you?”
The officer seemed unsure. “I’ll not arrest you,” he said, “but I’ll give you a warning.”
“Okay, warning taken. Now get lost.”
The crowd had dissolved, the cat woman had disappeared. The police officer, too, hurried away.
“Are you okay?” I asked Rohini.
She was laughing. “It’s becoming impossible to live in this city. When did it become so moralistic? Anyway, I must go now.”
Rohini put her arms around my neck and hugged me. “I love you.”
We started walking towards our cars. 
“Did you get a call from one Inspector Arijit Sen?” she asked.
“Who’s that?”
“He is the investigating officer in Manish’s case.”
“What’s there to investigate?”
“The police have to ascertain whether it was a suicide or not. Inspector Sen interviewed me the day before yesterday. He took your number from me. I guess he will call you.”

The prospect of meeting a police inspector about Manish’s death did not please me in the least, but I guess it was inevitable.

This is the second part of the two part extract we published at TSC.You may read the first part here.

*An extract from Uttaran Das Gupta's Novel 'Hungry', or 'In This Inclement Clime of Human Life', first published in TSC.  First published in TSC

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