Fragrance of the Night | Adwitiya Bhattacharya
“The little girl walked, her brunette hair sticking over her shoulder. Every bone in her body ached as if someone was incessantly hitting her with a hammer, pricking her with tiny needles. The blood within her flowed restlessly. Pain ignited as a flicker of burning match upon a dense layer of oil. She gasped for air, breathing louder than a stormy wind, her heart pounded heavier with each of her steps. Her eyes were blood red; she glanced at her trembling hands. Looked closely they were just the way they had always been, but she just couldn’t forget how her frail hands turned into vicious claws…”
The lamp above Hiya’s bed switched off, she slammed the book in her hands and looked up, “Why’d you do that?”
Her grandmother stood leaning by the door, wearing a violet housecoat, “It’s late Hiya.” She walked up towards her, pushed her glasses above her nose, and sat beside her. She touched Hiya’s hair, “And how many times have I told you not to read these at night?”
“These aren’t scary.” She tilted her head and smiled at her, “I’m not afraid.”
“I am.” She leaned in and kissed her forehead.
As she left, Hiya put down the book on the bedside table and turned towards the window. The crushed, indigo curtains were pushed aside and outside she could see the bare branches of the trees and a curved winter moon. It has been just a month since her parent’s divorce. She had shifted to her grandmother’s house after that. She sensed she couldn’t stand either of them. Her mother without batting her eye began living with a man and Hiya’s father was shattered in every possible way. At times Hiya thought about him, for she loved him more than anyone. And to him, Hiya was a streak of light amidst all the darkness. In this scrimmaging, and a prolonged blame game of years Hiya had lost a chunk of her heart. She used to cry, and beg them to resolve but as she grew up she curled it in. She didn’t ask them to listen to her, didn’t ask her mother to leave the man who she had started seeing. Hiya saw her father break, and she did not have anything left in her to go up to him and hold him. After three long years, he filed a divorce. And within a few days, Hiya’s life that she knew for 19 years flipped.
She sat up straight and walked towards the window. Below the street was empty and dark. A lamp post at the end of the road was flickering. Hiya stood looking at it for a while, then crouched and dragged a box from underneath her bed. Inside there were packs of cigarettes and a lighter. She lit a Classic strong, crowd of smoke rose above her head and perished outside in the wind. The soft shade of the moon fell on her perfect face, with perfect eyes, a perfect nose, and a full mouth. Her body stood lean by the curtains. She threw the half-burnt cigarette on the street and went back to bed.
Hiya’s alarm rang at 8 in the morning and she jumped up. A blasting light hit her eyes and she squinted. She slowly walked out of her room with half-opened eyes and sat down at the dining table outside. It was a small apartment, a hall with two bedrooms. But it was decked sweetly. The cushion covers, table cloths, and bedcovers were knitted by her grandmother. The extra knitting was hung all around the flat. It looked colorful.
“Oh, you’re up!” Her grandmother leaned out of the kitchen, “Wash your face, and I’ll bring your coffee in a minute.”
Hiya’s coffee waited for her, and her grandmother sat in front. She dropped on the chair and smiled. She unbuttoned the top buttons of her cardigan.
“It’s your Ma’s birthday.”
“Will you visit her?”
“No. I’ll send her a text maybe.”
Her grandmother stretched her arms and held Hiya’s hand, “Are you okay Hiya? You never talked about it.”
“I’m fine Nani. It’s…there’s not much to talk about anyway.”
“But she’s your mother. Just like I’m hers.”
“And when was the last time she talked to you? Maybe we aren’t wired that way. I cannot say I had ever felt that bond, not even when things were fine. She had always been distant and mean towards me. You know that. It hurt me. She hurt me for a very long period of my life. But I can’t let it keep on happening.”
“You’re still hurt. That’s why I want you to talk to me. Because I can understand.” She tilted her head and stared at Hiya. Her eyes were tearing Hiya could see.
“Nani. Maybe one day you’ll make cocoa for me, and we’ll talk for hours. But now I need to leave for college.” Hiya went into her room. Standing in front of her mirror naked, she glided her fingers over the two-inch scar under her left collar bone. It had been more than ten years but every time she closed her eyes, it played like a movie- the crashing noise; the sound of flooding rainfall and thunder now and then. She could feel her cheeks wetting from crying. She slipped into a grey checked shirt and her pair of blue jeans that she hadn’t washed for months. She grabbed her jacket and bag, glanced once at the mirror, and left.
Hiya sat at the second bench, listening to her professor scream about Chaucer’s life. After a while very slowly she took out her phone and texted her mother, which read, “Happy Birthday Ma. I won’t be able to drop by today but will see you soon. Have a nice day.” She tapped with her pen on the desk looking at the man who strolled from one side of the room to the other, with his hands moving like the blades of a fan. What he said did not reach into her ears, they were all gibberish, but her eyes followed him throughout.
Before the last class, she grabbed a classmate by his elbow and told him to give her attendance because she had to go somewhere with her grandmother. As she was out on the street, it was a little after 5. The sky was darkening. She crossed the hubbub of Park Circus, took a bus to Lake Market, and bought a bunch of Chatim. Then took another bus to another flower market, from where she bought the same. She roamed four more. She stopped under Chatim trees, hopping she plucked clusters of it. Her bag was packed and she walked with her hands on it. The evening was buzzing with the chattering of people. The tea stalls were jammed. All the blaring of horns, the cursing of drivers, went past her like hundreds of bullet trains. Within an hour she had almost roamed half the city. The flowers were for her mother, she was going to visit her after all.
Hiya’s mother’s new house was on Southern Avenue. The bus dropped her near Golpark and she walked the rest of the way. She knew the address and found it standing tall by the street. She sat down at the edge of the pavement across it. It was an emptier locality, without much noise. Now and then cars fled, their lights flashing. She sat shaking her legs. She tilted her head back; a gagging pain twisted her insides.
“I never wanted to live like this.” Her mother screamed from the living room. Hiya around the age of 8 heard all of it from sitting under the dining table. She pressed on her ears. But she still could hear everything in the next room– her father’s voice was deeper and quiet.
“I would find a way. Give me a little time Keya. I have gotten in contact with a good agent this time.” He said.
“A little time? It has been years. I’m hearing the same thing. Why do you even work? Why do you leave for your studio every morning? What do you even paint?” There was thudding and crashing. Hiya crawled out from under the table and softly walked towards the door. She peeped in. Her mother had pushed her father’s easel on the floor. He was crouched on his knees collecting his palette and brushes. There was oil spilled on the other side, and a glass bowl shattered. Her father turned towards Hiya.
“Chhutu, wait for me in your room. I’ll be there in a minute.” Hiya stood still looking at her father’s face. She was young and though she didn’t quite understand what the fuss was, she could see his eyes. They were red, and they held immense pain.
“No, wait. Hiya! Come here.” Her mother stepped towards her with a canvas in her hands. “Look, he has painted you.” Hiya stared at her painted self. It did look like her. If her father painted so well, then what was the problem? “Did you like it?” She was close to her and whispering. She looked like a maniac, her eyes, her face, her hair all scattered over her head. Hiya took a step back. Her mother held her by her shoulder and dragged her to the middle of the room. Her father put her arms around her waist and with dread in his eyes kept staring at his wife.
“I detest you Ayan, and I cannot take her. She looks at me like she doesn’t understand a thing.” She held Hiya by her cheeks, “Why are you so dumb Hiya? Do you realize that I never wanted you? That I don’t want to stay with your father? Do you get that?” She yelled.
Hiya was shaking and nodded her head, “Then why do you keep on begging me to stay, to make this work?” Keya picked up a piece of glass and scratched the canvas in half. Hiya’s face was slit. Her father stood up, but he couldn’t move. She threw the canvas at his feet and pulled Hiya, holding her by the back of her neck.
“Look at it. You looked perfect. Now you look exactly how you are. Broken.”
“Please Keya, leave her. Leave my daughter out of it. I will let you go. I will leave painting and find a proper job if you want.” Her father walked towards the two of them, stretching his hands towards Hiya.
“She is as much my daughter as she is yours.” She said.
“You said you never wanted her. Do you realize how that would make her feel?” His voice was so quiet that it was hardly heard.
She tightened the grip and before she could have been pulled away from her, Hiya felt a spark of pain, then a burning down her collar bone. Blood dripped and soaked her white frock. Her father snatched Hiya in his arms, while her mother stood holding the shred of glass, blood dripping from it.
“Don’t be afraid, Chhutu. It’s going to be fine.” He whispered into her ear, and his voice cracked. He broke down under her feet.
“Look what a damaged daughter we have.” Her mother threw the piece of glass to the corner of the room and walked out.
A cycle bell rang behind Hiya’s ears and she opened her eyes. She checked the time. It was 6:30. Her hand was resting over her collar bone. She stood up and walked towards the tall black gate. She pushed it and it opened onto a long passage by a small garden. Pots were hanging from the branches. There was a flower bed by the wall. She knelt and touched the grass, it was soft and wet. Yellow lights were placed surrounding the garden. She walked to the portico and rang the bell.
“I’m coming.” She heard her mother. Her voice was happy. And Hiya stood with a smile on her face. She opened the door and her face froze seeing her daughter. She was wearing a red sari, her hair straightened, kajal under her eyes. She looked beautiful Hiya thought.
“Hiya. I thought you weren’t coming.” She stepped aside as Hiya entered.
“My college ended early so I thought to just drop by. It’s your birthday after all.” She smiled at her mother as she closed the door.
Hiya stood in the living room. It was huge and had pretty chairs, tables, photographs hung on the walls. There were lamps of various sizes adorning the room. There was a Kashmiri carpet on the floor. She looked around,
“Sit.” Her mother said. But she stood looking around. There was a shelf of books covering the entire wall on her left.
“You want tea or anything?” She asked. Hiya shook her head. “The cake’s not here yet. He will bring it on the way back from his office.” She giggled. Why Hiya couldn’t understand.
“It’s a big house to live in,” Hiya said.
“My time just goes by taking care of it. Did you see the garden? I spend most of my days putting soil and fertilizers, trimming the grass. It’s a nice way of living, you know.”
“No, I won’t know. I don’t have a garden or a house to look after.” She smiled back.
Her mother was sitting on the leaning chair, and she shifted her eyes from Hiya towards the ground. For a couple of minutes, no one said a word. The silence was choking, and her mother bit on her polished nails. Hiya felt a chill run up and down her spine. It was cold, but she sweated.
“Your father’s out of station.”
“Yes. For his exhibition.” Hiya replied without looking at her. She kept staring at the books on the shelf.
Her mother stood up. Hiya turned, smiling towards her. She said, “It’s such a lovely house. Would you mind if I look around?”
Hiya climbed the stairs, they were cold. Hiya could feel the chill seeping through her socks. Her mother followed her. They walked through the corridor above. The balcony opened to the back of the house and it was dark. She peeped in all the rooms. There were many. She walked inside the bedroom. It had a huge bed with curtains hanging from the chhatris. There was a recorder. She asked her mother to put down the needle in the record. It spun for a while then played Raag Bhairavi. It was loud. There were two windows at the end of the room. Her mother sat on the bed and asked, “Did you like it?”
“Yes.” She opened her bag, “I brought flowers for you.” She took out the bundles of Chatim and held them out towards her. She leaned back a little,
“Hiya that’s lovely. But maybe you’ve forgotten that I can’t breathe with the smell of chatim around.” She was smiling. It was fake. It had been fake since the beginning, Hiya thought. Her mother was like a cosmetic magazine to her, she could read her. But she didn’t want to.
“No, I remember.” She stepped towards her. As she tried to stand up, Hiya held her by her shoulders and sat her down.
“What are you doing Hiya?”
“Happy Birthday Ma.” She held her by the back of her neck and jammed the flowers in her face. There was a muffled scream. Then Hiya pulled her head away. She gasped for air, and with a husky, low voice she said,
“I’m your mother Hiya.”
“And you never wanted me.” She pushed the flowers to her nose again. She shook her head frantically, but Hiya was strong. She kept her eyes locked on her mother, as she twisted for her life. Hiya didn’t blink, tears rolled down her eyes and hung at the edge of her jaw. It was rage, not sadness. She was so angry that she could feel her body shaking. Her mother coughed, and there was blood. Hiya stepped back a few steps and looked at her; blood oozing from her throat.
Hiya tilted her head, “I bled so much that night. You had no clue. You went to sleep locking the door. In the living room, Baba cleaned me up and put Dettol. It burnt. We were up all night sitting. We didn’t talk, we couldn’t. Baba couldn’t look at me. He was ashamed of what you’ve done. We lived through a night drowning under so much pain and you slept like a child. And in the morning he dropped me to school.” She walked around the bed sprinkling flowers on it. She was decking the room with the rest that was in her bag. All the while she talked, “I knew from a young age that you didn’t like me. I tried to please you. You remember I used to make fruit salad for you?”
She walked up to her mother, she looked up still gasping, clutching her neck with both of her hands, “You don’t remember. But I do. Then I realized that you would never like me. But still couldn’t believe it until that night.” She crouched in front of her, “I was a child Ma. Why did you do that?” She held her mother’s face by the cheeks and made her smell the flowers again. She had stopped fighting and was slowly losing her senses. Now and then she coughed blood. There was a lot of it. Hiya stood looking at her.
“I cannot talk to my father anymore. I don’t know why. I love him so much that maybe I cannot bring myself to watch his pain. You’ve hurt him a lot. You’ve hurt both of us. Now that I think about it all, I see the entire picture. And you know what bothers me the most? I love you even though the only thing I ever received from you was hatred and indifference. I couldn’t bear it anymore Ma.” She was unconscious. Hiya laid her on the bed and scattered the bundle over her body. She pressed on her neck to see whether she was breathing. She wasn’t. Raag Bhairavi still played; Hiya left and hopped down the stairs to the living room. She took out the pad from the shelf and a pen. She wrote a letter on behalf of her mother. She could copy her handwriting like she used to do when she was in school. She also used to write notes for her father pretending to be her, thinking maybe that would resolve things between them. For a while, her father did believe that those were from his wife.
The letter praised the man she was currently living with, in every possible way. But Hiya didn’t go into much detail for that would have been risky. She then blamed her father a lot, for half a page. And claimed that she had made up her mind to kill herself because her ex-husband had come to visit her with flowers, and he had again yelled at her for ruining his life. It ended with,
“This is to all of them, to hear, to listen that I was happy. But I was broken. Any tiny thing from my past life always pushed me towards an alley so dark, that I felt lost. My light is the man that I found, that I love. But I can’t anymore. I can’t bear the burden that my previous husband and my daughter haunt me with. I’m sorry. Love, Keke.”
Her mother’s lover called her Keke, which Hiya learned half an hour back, from a card that was peeping from the last shelf of the bedside table. She went upstairs again, putting the letter beside her body. She took out a piece of cloth from her bag and wiped all the things she had touched, and then she checked her mother’s breathing before leaving. She was indeed dead.
Hiya’s mind was working fast as lightning, she was sharp and before leaving she looked for anything that would’ve led back to her. There was none. Within twenty minutes she was in an entirely different locality from where she boarded her bus.
Hiya’s phone rang, it was her grandmother.
“Hiya, I forgot to tell you I had to go to the drug store. Are you coming home?”
“Yes Nani, I had a seminar after college. I will be there soon. Then we’ll go.”
Her bus dropped her at her bus stop. From afar she could see her grandmother waiting under the building. They walked to the shop. She had wrapped herself in a shawl and shivered now and then.
“Here take my jacket.” Hiya took it off and put it over her grandmother’s shoulders. Returning home at night after she was asleep, Hiya washed her bag and hung it in her room with her fan at full speed. It had to dry up before morning. She undressed, slipped into her pyjamas. While washing her face, she stared at her own reflection. She touched the mirror in the bathroom and whispered,
“I killed my mother.” She waited for a spurt of sadness to take over her face. But it was flat. She splashed a handful of water behind her neck and shoulders. Then before leaving she smiled at herself and switched off the light.
Hiya woke up shivering early in the morning. She touched the bag, it had almost dried. Then she switched off the fan and went out for a bottle of water. She found her grandmother sitting on the couch holding a newspaper. It didn’t strike her, though it should have. She walked up to her and asked,
“What are you looking at?”
“My daughter killed herself yesterday.” Hiya stood still for a moment. The trance of sleep left her with a jolt and she sat down on the floor.
“What are you talking about?” She asked very quietly. Her grandmother handed her the paper. It read, “Woman kills herself in a Southern Avenue house.”
“This can’t be,” Hiya said, looking at the ground.
“Your mother’s dead Hiya.” Her eyes were shining. Hiya crawled towards her and hugged her.
“I don’t know what I should be saying to you, Nani. I’m so sorry. I never thought she would do something like this.”
“It’s fine. Apparently, she suffocated herself with Chatim.”
“That must have been painful.”
Her grandmother looked at Hiya, “I should not be saying this about your mother, but maybe she did the right thing. And whatever pain she felt, I think she deserved it.” The emotion that topped all the other was her feeling of utter joy. Hearing her grandmother talk this way only made her happier. She kissed her forehead and then sat down beside her on the couch. There was a heap of newspapers; she checked all of them one by one. Another headline caught her eyes, “Suicide or a well-chalked murder?” It was in red and the news covered half the page. The land phone rang and her grandmother got up to get it. Hiya leaned back, crossed her leg, and read the news. They were calling it a ‘well-staged murder’ that did amuse her. On another paper, the suicide note was also printed. She read it and realized it did feel like her mother, the way she talked, the terms she used, even the nagging tone in her voice were reflected in that letter. She noticed from above the paper that her grandmother held a stern face as she talked on the phone. Then after a while, she put it down.
“Who was it?” Hiya asked.
“The police.” She stood with her hands resting at her waist, “They want us to go down to the house for inquiry. I said I won’t be able to.”
“I’ll go. You don’t need to worry.” Hiya said, folding the newspaper.
There were three police vans and a huge crowd in front of the gate. Hiya pushed herself in. Close to twenty police officers walked around. Hiya gingerly walked up to one and said,
“I’m the daughter, Hiya Chatterjee.” She held a face that was not on the verge of breaking down but pretty close to it.
“You brought any identification?”
“Yes, my passport.” Her voice sounded cracked and low. The man waved at a young officer and he escorted her to wait in the living room. Across her sat the man, the lover, Hiya’s ‘would’ve been’ stepfather. Hiya kept her puzzled face, now and then pushed at her forehead with both of her hands. The house smelled of Chatim. She checked the time in the wooden wall clock, it was a little after 10. It had been more than 12 hours but still, the fragrance lingered. Or was it in her head? She thought. She leaned back and stared at the man in front. He had a broad forehead, hairline had receded, and he had rectangular glasses. He wore a peacock blue shirt, it was crushed. He rested his elbows on his knees and played with his fingers. There was a shadow of dread in his eyes. Hiya could guess she was awake the entire night. It had been a long day for him, she thought.
She didn’t remember how long she sat there. But a while later a young man rushed into the room, whispered something in the man’s ear sitting across Hiya. He was tall and lean, had unkempt hair, a sharp nose, and clever eyes. He then looked at Hiya and walked up to her.
“Are you Hiya?” She nodded. He shook her hand, “I’m Neel” then dropped beside her. Hiya knew who he was, still, she asked,
“Who are you?”
“I was about to be your stepbrother.” He sighed, “I liked your mother. She was nice to me. A good woman.” Hiya felt this urge to burst into laughter. Instead, she covered her face with her hands then looked away from him.
“I’m sorry.” He said.
“Do you know whether I would be able to see her?”
“No. Her body was taken at night yesterday. It’s gone for autopsy.”
“Do you know what happened? I’m just so much at loss right now. I read the paper in the morning, and then I was called in.”
“We don’t know either Hiya. The suicide note that she left has also been taken as evidence, maybe they’re going to look into it, whether it was actually written by her or someone else.” Hiya nodded her head then sat looking at the ground; she glided her feet over the Kashmiri carpet. Neel’s father sat still, he moved very little. Hiya looked up when two officers entered and took him out. Neel leaned in and whispered in Hiya’s ear,
“You know what bothers me and the police as well? The letter stated that your father came to visit her, apparently, he brought the flowers. But when the police contacted him, they found that he wasn’t here at all. He had been out of station for over a week. So the police’s prime suspect had shifted to someone else, and I too think it is that person.” He got up, rested his hand once on Hiya’s shoulder then left.
Hiya thought for a while about what he meant. Then she sat alone waiting for someone to let her know anything. It was not until 1 in the afternoon that an old officer entered holding a board; a pen was tied to it. He had a recorder too. He dragged a chair from the corner of the room and placed it across Hiya. He pushed the red record button and began asking questions. They were simply what her name was, where she lived, how old she was.
“When did your parents get their divorce?”
“A month ago.” Her voice was flat and had a tinge of despair.
“Can you mention the exact date?”
Even though the conversation was recorded, he scribbled points in his notepad.
“Before the divorce where did you live?”
“That’s your father, Ayan Chatterjee’s house?”
“How was their relationship?”
“Who was the one initiating the fight generally?”
“What was it about?”
“Before it was about money. Then it was about her lover.”
“Your father’s a painter?”
“When was the last time you talked to your mother?”
“I texted her yesterday. It was her birthday.”
“The last time you saw her?”
“The day she left home.”
“You talk to your father?”
He paused and nodded for a while. “Where were you yesterday from 4 to 7 in the evening?”
“I was at my college, and left around 5:30. Then I walked home.”
“Where is your college?”
“Why did you walk home?”
“I do it often.”
“Was there anyone with you?”
“Where was your grandmother during that time?”
“She did not leave?”
“Not before I came back. Then we went down to buy some of her medicines.”
“How old is she?”
“Seventy-one.” He pushed the stop button, stood up, and walked out. Hiya asked with her voice raised, “What am I supposed to do now?”
Without turning he said, “Don’t go anywhere until we say.”
Hiya didn’t leave; she didn’t even stand for a moment. She realized she wasn’t feeling anything at all. Now and then her stomach churned. It had been hours since she had scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. After waiting for a couple of hours more, a new officer entered and told her she could leave. Outside on the portico, there was still a cluster of people. But it had lessened. A woman handed her phone back to her. Hiya slowly walked listening to the discussions which were held in a very low voice. She couldn’t manage anything. At the gate, Neil stood smoking. Seeing Hiya he threw the cigarette away. Hiya did not look at him but noticed him from the corner of her eyes.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
Hiya loved how he was trying to be the knight in white armor finding her vulnerable. What made her smirk was that neither of those two was true. Hiya turned and nodded her head.
“Do you want a ride home?”
“No. It’s fine Neil. I can manage.” It was close to evening. Hiya walked towards the main street near Golpark to wait for her bus. Neil accompanied her. The evenings were turning colder each day. By the side of the pavements, families from the street sat around burning fires. They burnt leaves, plastics, tires, whatever waste they could lay their hands on. The smell made Hiya nauseous.
“It must be tough for you.”
“Look, I cannot say that I was very close to her. I wasn’t, to be true. But when you hear something like this, it does disturb you.”
Nodding he said, “I know.”
“It’s so ultimate. As if a door is closed forever. How much you try to take it down, nothing happens.”
“I’m also not very close to my father. The same problem you know. I miss my mother at times. And for days I couldn’t accept that he was ready to move on.”
“What happened to your mother, if you don’t mind?”
“Took a whole lot of sleeping pills, never woke up.”
Bingo! Hiya was thrilled. How would it appear to the police that every woman the man loves ends up killing themselves? Such a tragedy! Hiya kept her face straight and sighed looking at Neil.
“I’m so sorry.”
“That’s why I am trying so much to be with you. I know how it feels.” He took out a cigarette and then put it back.
“I don’t mind,” Hiya said. He then lit it and let out a heap of smoke.
“The police are coming up with weird facts.” Hiya looked at him as they stood at the bus stop. Keep talking, keep talking.
“They have taken my father in. I don’t know when he’ll be back.” Hiya’s heart pounded louder, she was afraid that it might be audible to Neil. It was so loud. Her bus took a turn and the hanging conductor yelled the stops, Hiya held Neil’s hand tightly then hopped in the bus. From the window, she waved at him standing by the pavement.
As soon as she entered, her grandmother held her by the shoulder. The television in the living room screamed the daily news.
“What happened? Did the police say anything?”
“No, I don’t know much, Nani. They have sent the note for further examination. They think it might not be written by her.”
“It’s definitely not written by her.” She turned around and dropped on the chair. “I don’t understand these media people, why on earth did they publish the letter? What is even wrong with them?”
“Hunger for success and attention, they forget that the victim is a human or that they have a family. It’s just a hot story to them.”
That night Hiya slept with her grandmother. She was restless and talked about Hiya’s mother for hours. Then she slowly drifted off to sleep. Beside Hiya lay awake staring at the ceiling above.
The next few days were quiet for both of them. They read the newspapers and they didn’t say anything that they already didn’t know. The television was kept on every day. Now and then when the news came up Hiya and her grandmother sat down. Hiya kept on with her life; she went to college, stayed back with her friends, and attended seminars. As days went by, she rarely looked over her shoulder. On Saturday the police visited their house and asked the same questions. Hiya’s grandmother was reserved for the entire investigation. As soon as they left, she broke down near the kitchen counter. Hiya rushed to hold her up,
“It’s alright Nani.”
“I can’t Hiya. I never thought such a day would ever come.”
Hiya made her tea and calmed her down. She shook for almost an hour, her words were jumbled. When she stopped, Hiya laid her down and played some music for her on the radio. It buzzed.
A couple of weeks went by bringing their life back to normal. One morning like any other, Hiya woke up as her alarm buzzed beside her pillow. She scrambled for the sweater she kept at the end of the bed, put that on, and went out. Outside her father was sitting with her grandmother. Hiya froze, and a stabbing pain took over her entire body seeing him. It was more than a month. But it appeared it had been years since the last time she saw him. She didn’t know what to say to him. He got up and held her by the shoulders smiling. Hiya’s eyes were flooded, and she rushed to the bathroom.
When Hiya returned, she sat down beside her father.
“How have you been, Chhutu?”
Chhutu, no one has called her that for so long. As if the name was lost forever.
He smiled, “I hear your college is going fine.”
She nodded. Nani was fanning herself with a newspaper and she handed it to Hiya. It read, “Killer Arrested. Another read “Found Guilty.” Hiya brought it close to her eyes and read. It said that it had been the lover. The letter which was apparently written by the woman wasn’t actually hers. The handwriting experts claimed that it was the man. His past was brought up, old wounds were opened. What gave it away was that the fault was fully pushed towards her ex-husband and daughter. And it was mentioned that the ex-husband visited her, which was an absolute lie. As Hiya read, the only thing she could think of was how smart she had been in this. How she had walked away from under their noses. The report also talked about how Neil, the son, had also supported the decision of the officers, stating that he suspected his father from the beginning. Hiya put down the paper and sighed. It was a relief. Suddenly a dull winter morning had become a pool of emotions for her.
“I had thought about this too. Never knew this man. But somehow I felt something was not right.” Nani said.
Hiya switched on the television. There was news of his arrest all over. They watched it for a while. Then Hiya’s father left. Hiya didn’t leave for college that day. She stayed in with her grandmother, who made caramel pudding in the afternoon. All-day long the news on their television played on mute.
As they both ate quietly at night, Hiya thought about what she had turned into. What her mother had made her do. Her eyes were stuck on the television screen. But she didn’t see anything. How funny it was, that she lived, but it was hardly a living. It appeared she lived a shadow of a life. What she did, didn’t change much in her life. All the hurt she had carried for so long did not vanish all of a sudden. They were still there pricking her, paining her now more than ever. Added to them was the truth that she had killed a human being, and had taken a life from this earth. At times it made Hiya feel powerful, the other times she felt so small that she couldn’t even see herself anymore. But not for once did she feel sorry for the man who was wrongly arrested. She had despised him since the start and she still did.
Hiya’s father’s life took a turn; he was receiving invitations for exhibiting, for attending exhibitions to other cities. He expected the news to take a toll on his professional life. But luckily for him, it didn’t. The last day before he was again gone for weeks, he called Hiya for dinner. After college Hiya jostled on the bus. Everyone in jackets, sweaters, and hoodies made her claustrophobic. But she loved the winters of Kolkata. Though this time, it was way different than the ones she had lived. It still was sweet. When her bus dropped her off, she was shivering. The streets were empty. The last time she had walked through these streets was when she left for her grandmother’s home. She had never been here after that. And that made her shiver even more. Her knees felt weak. Despite the death of her mother being almost two months, she still at times couldn’t fathom that she was dead, wiped off from this world. The next thing that came to her mind was that she did it. That too was something that probably did not percolate within her. She kept it at bay for her well-being.
She walked through the pavement. The trees were bare, few leaves were crushed on the road. It was greener when she left. It was warmer. She felt like another person. And all the memories that came rushing towards her were stories of someone else’s life altogether. She couldn’t fit them to her anymore. She stood in front of the small garage door then pushed it. It creaked open. The garage was empty and dark; she switched on the torch in her phone. She remembered every step, every turn. Still, she did. Near the stairs, she pulled the black collapsible gate and walked up to the first apartment on her right. She pressed on the bell. She had done that a thousand times before, but it felt different again. Her father opened the door wearing an apron. He smiled, and Hiya noticed that he had trimmed his beard. She entered and she saw the house, which barely looked like one. The rooms were cleared out. A divan was kept at the corner of the room, and there was a huge table below the window. A rope hung from one end of the room to the other, and there were small pieces of papers hanging from it. She looked around; it smelled of oil, cigarettes, and paint. There were cans of paint kept under the table. Canvases stacked at one side.
“You changed it.” Hiya said, “You changed all of it.”
“Yes.” He nodded, “Sit.” Hiya sat down on the divan. It was hard. She then stood up and looked at the other rooms. Hiya’s room was kept intact. Her bed, the posters on the wall, her desk, the bookshelf all were just the way she left them. The bottles of beer were there by the cupboard. She noticed that it wasn’t even cleaned. The scraps of paper she had thrown, the dirt on her bed cover was still there. She breathed in. It smelled like her. But the other two rooms were turned into studios. The room where her mother hurt her was empty. Nothing was there. Her father was in the kitchen. She could smell he had made Polao for her. She then went back and dropped on the divan.
At dinner, they didn’t talk much at first, he asked while pouring water in her glass,
“Is it okay?”
“Yes. Just as you used to make.” She smiled.
In winters noise travels faster and with greater intensity. They could hear each other chew, their breathing, and the cluttering of their cutleries. Putting down his spoon he said,
“I’m sorry Hiya. I couldn’t muster the courage to contact you.”
“Neither could I Baba.”
“And whatever my relationship had been with your mother, it was tough for me to believe what had happened.”
“This time I will try Hiya. I won’t leave you alone.” Hiya threw a faint smile. She had ice cream for dessert and just before leaving she walked around the house again, touching the walls, doors and rubbing her feet on the floor. She hugged her father. He tried to say a lot of things, but his throat was heavy and choked. He patted her back and she left.
It was close to midnight when she returned home. Seeing her grandmother up and sitting at the sofa she asked,
“Why are you awake Nani? Are you alright?” Her face was flat and she said, “Sit.” Hiya took off her bag and dropped it on the floor. Then she sat down across her. There was a cup kept on the coaster between them. Her grandmother placed a photograph on the table and pushed it towards her. It was of her mother. She was young and it was taken in Darjeeling.
“I gave this to her when she was married to your father.” She sighed, her eyes fixed at Hiya, “She used to keep it in her purse since then. Never took it out. Probably forgot about it, but never took it out.” Hiya too was staring at her grandmother.
“Now I find this from the pocket of your jeans Hiya. I was taking it for a wash. But you already washed it. Something that you never do. Why did you wash your pants?”
Hiya was looking at her. Her mind was blank, not a word came up.
“The smell’s so strong that it doesn’t easily wear off, you know.”
Hiya whispered, “You wouldn’t.”
Her grandmother pushed the cup of hot cocoa towards her. Smoke rose from it.
“Drink. It’s going to be a long night honey.”