It’s a small station. Swapna, in a frilled green frock, is seated on a heap of trunks and holdalls. A few locals, a tea stall and a wooden over bridge can be seen. Nepal-jyatha, in a dhoti and shirt and canvas shoes, is talking to Baba. Swapna’s sisters are trying to devise a new game with pebbles. She knows that Ma is somewhere near; Swapna turns her head but can’t find her. The train will arrive anytime now, they can hear the engine whistling. It is shrill and loud—her heart thumps—where’s Ma? Should they leave without her? Baba and Nepal-jyatha look unfazed. Her sisters are also missing from the view. She tries to scream—the platform suddenly appears deserted. She tries to jump up from the holdall and realizes that she had been panting on the bed. This is her own room. That was a dream.
An incident of childhood, remote past, at least fifty, no must be sixty, sixty-two or seventy years old. All the events disappeared in a moment. Only the whistle is playing loud in her head..
Swapna gently gets off the bed and goes to the kitchen. She had switched on the hot plate to heat water: some for tea and the rest for the hot-water bag. The machine gave out this blaring signal as its job was done. Every time she hears this piercing sound, she is reminded, consciously or subconsciously, of the quaint railway station in Hazaribagh. This was strangely accompanied by a dream today— in such a short time? Does this mean she fell asleep? It could be so. This is a new symptom—waking up in her sleep and sleeping during hours of wake.
Her kitchen is small, well-equipped and sparklingly clean. The wallpapers are tasteful; there is no soot or grime anywhere. The crockery and cutlery are pretty. A fridge, a cooking range, a table with two chairs. An ideal place for a single person to cook in comfort.
Swapna soaks the tea leaves in her blue teapot and follows it up with hot water. After pouring the remaining water in the hot-water bag, she settles herself on a chair in the balcony with the bag and the tea tray. It takes her some time to sit because of her painful hips and knees, swollen due to arthritis.
The balcony leads to a garden. Then comes the lawns skirted by quite a few identical cottages. Each unit has one room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a balcony. The lawns outside lead to a beautiful walking track, dotted with benches at intervals. You can use them when you get tired.
Right across Swapna’s unit, the administrative house stands out like a crown. Its ground floor has a dormitory, the matron’s apartment, a stationery shop and a spacious lounge, with board games and a library. There’s also a giant screened television and a scattering of plush sofas. A place to play with or watch anything colourful, in company. People who cannot walk or move anymore resort to the dorm. They wait there for their last days. A sweeper, a nanny, and a resident doctor are there too.
Forty cottages. Thirty nine lonely souls, who have been sentenced for life into a perpetual state of heaven.
The resident of Cottage 19, John Bower, passed away last week. Swapna wrapped a black stole over her white saree and saw him off till the big gate. A black car is also present for those who are not fit to walk. The owners of this place are very careful about their well-being and comfort. This ‘Halfway House’ on 7, Hall Street, a private home for the aged, is just perfect.
But no one calls it an old age home. It has a rich name—Halfway House—every cottage has a number—so that the residents feel they are in their own rented houses. The residents are indeed old and live in a home—but this place cannot be called an ‘old age home’ due to some complications. Those are cheap government arrangements. These cottages offer expensive five-star facilities.
Swapna chuckles at this silliness of people belonging to her age group. This is really halfway from lying beneath the grass forever. Not exactly halfway, but a brief pause before the road ends. A resting place before the ultimate rest.
It’s almost six. Summer is here. The light appears soon and does not leave before 9 or 10 pm. It’s exactly the opposite in winters when sunlight is rare and brief. Everything then becomes grey, nowhere a mere touch of green can be found.
The two squirrels hovering around her feet are as big as cats. They generally eat something from her hands, but today she does not have any food for them. Nor does she feel like going and getting it. Her body is stiff and her limbs ache. She is weary of movements nowadays.
She forgot to get the bowl of groundnuts which she keeps for them. Everything has been disoriented by that late evening dream of sleeping memories.
She drags the chair closer and explains to them… ‘Sorry babies—please go away. See I have a hot-water bottle. Can’t get up now. I can give you tea if you want.’ It was not satisfactory to the animals. They sauntered for a while and moved back to the other side of the park. Swapna speaks in Bengali with birds and beasts----there is no one who speaks this language here. There are two Gujrati women—one of them can converse in Hindi just a little---the other one cannot even do that. Her family had been in South Africa for three generations. She has become a British after her children moved to this country. Their lives are limited to prayers and events within their community. They get many visitors---relatives, old neighbours, in-laws---and guests from India and Africa. Their rooms are well-lit during those times. Naughty kids prance around in the garden lawns---- it looks very endearing. They are all religious folks, immersed in singing bhajans and kirtans and myriad other rituals.
Swapna does not even have all these. She used to offer water and sweet batasas to the Gods only till the time her mother-in-law was alive. She now has no religion, only memories. She keeps the cup back and slips into her woolens. A light shawl for her head and warm socks for her feet. She can hardly raise her feet or bend down anymore. Especially, below the waist—it is all pain.
She takes out her walking stick from the corner and goes for walk. She will now walk for thirty to forty minutes. These things are part of the routine here. Like clearing the area and digging out roots of the plants every morning in the little slice of a garden in the front. Limbs remain agile, the spirit remains active and cheerful. Every week they are visited by a psychiatrist, who checks their eyes, their smiles and their respective gardens—to check for and prevent any sign of depression. The psychiatrist must be reading a lot of books to diagnose these symptoms, and also is armed with ample degrees. Who else will understand psychology, old mothers and wives like Swapna?
Swapna turns left. She often meets her neighbours during her chores. Some chat as they walk or work in the gardens. Chatting generally means filling in each other on visitors and letters, but there are exceptions. The author in Cottage 16 is always at her desk. After her work is done, she comes out for a chat. People from various magazines and journals come for her work; publishers also drop in. Even during this cyber age, this lady refuses to use emails. ‘Let them come. It’s an outing for them, and for me too. You know Saapna, they talk about things. How else do you get to know about traffic jams? Or where to escape when your car breaks down—you do not get these fresh bites in the newspapers’. Swapna talks to this lively seventy year-old adolescent in the garden—she does not go inside her residence. There’s a sense of embarrassment. She heard that this lady has lived together with a woman all her life. She left everything and came to this House about five years ago when her partner died and left her a ‘widow’. These are all gossip. They should not bother Swapna, but still. The lady has survived a lot of diseases, including cancer, and is living happily, though with the help of a ton of medicines, even after getting rid of some of her organs.
‘It feels so light after throwing away those unnecessary things from your chest and stomach Saapna’—she said, laughing, under a tree…That day it was not only uncomfortable but also scary. As unsettled as you feel when a list of important objects, ingrained in you since childhood, gets confusing.
Swapna quickly checks the outskirts of her cottage. No, she is not there. Some visitor may have come to see her. Or, she must be waiting for one.
This short walk causes so much pain. Knees feel heavy. She slowly walks back into her cottage. She changes into her night gown, lights incense and switches on the music system. Then Swapna sinks into the armchair with a few magazines. Her daughter leaves them with Swapna on her visits from London, once every couple of months. Her younger sister-in-law still sends the yearly puja specials of Bengali magazines from Kolkata. The library has some light fiction after these are exhausted. You can spend a lot of days and nights with these. Though her cataracts have been removed, her eyes still hurt. Somehow her vision has not cleared up, her eyes water frequently. She uses a magnifying glass for smaller prints. Her eyes move with her hand. Everything has to be turned into a habit. Thus it happens.
It’s a bit chilly—a cup of tea would do. The hot water bag is now cold. The thought of warming water took her back to the sound of the whistle and her late afternoon dream. She tried to recall and collate the images for some time—the incident which she dreamed about.
Hazaribagh Road station. Naresh Mukherjee’s farmhouse, about a mile away from the station. Trees bearing guava, custard apples, a big well nearby and a garden filled with grass and fallen leaves. Dhoniram’s quarter at the back. A carefree family with wife and four children. Couple of small rooms in a row; creepers , deer and birds painted on the wall. Cooking in a wood stove on the verandah. The field in front growing radish, potato, tomatoes, with beds of tender corianders and chilli and a few other vegetables. Two buffalos giving milk.
Swapna and her two sisters and Dhoniram’s children would play rannabati in clay pots. She can recall only one of the girls’ names, Raambatia. There was an out-house in the other corner—a small room fronted with a verandah, Nepal-jyatha lived there. He was like a caretaker. He had a sweet small grocery store of sorts near the station. Besides rice, dal, some stationery items and a few magazines, it also kept a couple of newspapers which came via the evening mail. Some would drop by in the evening. Some left after a brief chat and reading the newspaper. He did not earn much from this shop, but it was well-known.
Nepal-jyatha spent some years in jail in his youth, did Swadeshi and remained a bachelor. As usual, that resulted in him being involved in social work, running a free dispensary and counseling poor people—that is what he did with his life. Naresh Mukherjee knew him as an honest and active noble man. But Swapna’s father knew him for different reasons. Nepal-jyatha was the Hazaribagh correspondent for the newspaper for which Swapna’s father worked. He used to report on Hazaribagh and its outskirts. Some of them were published in the newspaper. If there was any really important news, a journalist from Kolkata covered it.
So many things come to mind with this dream, its only Nepal-jyatha’s face she can’t recall. Tall, bronze complexioned, thin hair—clothes—she can recall everything else about him. Swapna had a sudden urge to remember his face. She brought out two fat albums from the cupboard. One of them was deep green once, now it looks black. The other one is less old—has a rexine cover with floral prints. There was another huge envelope crammed with loose photographs—most of them were black and white. Some of them are big photos stuck to cream coloured boards, covered with tracing papers--group photos.
There’s another photo—taken in Chaibasa or Rajrappa—picnic on a river bank. Water flowing by black rocks—knee-deep and waist-deep. Food was cooked under a huge tree with sprawling branches. She can’t remember who cooked or who was in charge of supervision. But there was no salt in the mutton. Everybody expressed displeasure while taking this salt-less curry. Swapna pricked a thorn in her fingers. She cried a lot that day. It was Nepal-jyatha who brought it out by using a burnt safety pin, after which he recited a long mantra to soothe her pain. That was the day when this photograph was taken by Hasan-kaku. Everybody is scattered among the rocks. But where is the picture of Swapna standing with Nepal-jyatha, holding his hand?
It was in this packet. She saw it. May be five years back. The small photographs were kept in separate envelopes. These were taken in Benares, these in Sarnath, those are from Darjeeling— this one has the snaps taken in Ooty—but that came much later—right after her marriage. There are so many photographs of all these places but the ones taken in Hazaribagh. And that was the only set taken in Hazaribagh though Swapna’s family used to visit Hazaribagh every winter for a stretch of twelve to thirteen years.
By now, she has learnt the photos by heart. The sequence in which they were taken—small loose ones—so many—Tia’s wedding night—three sisters standing together in Massanjore—Bordi standing near a curtain with a stick of rajnigandha. Matrimonial photograph of Ma, wearing a saree with Balaka borders, holding paper-made flowers in hand. Specs with rolled gold frame—broach on her shoulder—Swapna memorized all these simply by listening. Bangles in metro pattern, Parsi style earstuds, jewellery made by the famous Anant-syakra of Chittagong, whose house was by the big Ranideeghi tank.
Swapna goes back into the world of memories and forgets about her initial objective, finding her picture with Nepal-jyatha. How come her wedding pictures are a part of these loose photographs? They must have slipped from the album; she kept them in an envelope instead of pasting them back. Here’s Swapna, the new bride, in front of their house at Jatin Das Road. She is getting out of the car while her husband Sushil is standing shyly in the background with his topor on his head. The next photograph shows them exchanging garlands. Sushil’s eyes are closed. Someones’s hands, someone's ears. She could spot Milon-mashi’s trademark ears, adorned with red and off white earrings. Swapna is enjoying herself—it’s quite a journey—big stories behind small and fading photographs.
One more reddish brown envelope—some musty pale photographs here—most colours have faded, only pink and blue are prominent. But they are not as clear as the black and white ones.
A cottage skirted with a garden, wooden railings, lawns with flower beds—a white cast iron bench with filigree patterns. A pretty picture of a glass covered verandah, tiled roofs and lace curtains. A tiny garage and a tiny car is peeking from the corner. Swapna is seen smilingly standing near the main gate.
This is a kitchen—chic curtains with frills, dainty crockery. Sawpna is seen sitting at a small table and smiling again. In front of her is a bowl with cake batter.
Seated on a plush chair, here she can be seen knitting. A cat standing near a ball of wool is staring at her. Her name was Cola. Swapna used to call her Kalu. Her complexion was a strange kind of brown, cats of that colour are rare . The other side of the room is not a part of the picture, but Swapna can recall everything—a big window—a vegetable garden at the back—a small television and a sofa set at the corner—a bay window—this place is generally empty—so that one could sit on the rocking chair and read.
This is the picture of a red beetle car. Aah..here is that picture—its headlights are on. Swapna is shutting the car door—her hands are filled with shopping bags. This one is at St Alban’s church. She is feeding bread to the ducks near the lake while turning her head and smiling towards the photographer.
All photographs are filled with smiles. Smiles, smiles and more smiles. Slim Swapna in silk sarees. Wrapped in shawl or wearing a coat—hair tied in a plait or a bun with flowers, her face filled with happiness.
But things here are not her own; they are borrowed. It’s the get-up that is hers, not the background. As if she is putting an act on a stage in her own clothes. It was a wish-fulfillment; creating through photographs of a life she wished for.
The photos had been clicked by Dorothy—in her garden, her car, her kitchen—. They are now sticking to each other and producing odd sounds as Swapna is trying to disentangle them.
This is Dorothy’s picture. Seated alone on a small chair in the backyard, she has her hands on her cheeks. Swapna has taken this picture. Dorothy has explained how to operate it, she just clicked the shutter. But Dorothy is not seen smiling here; she is looking at the camera in a listless and tired manner.
Swapna takes off her glasses and rubs them for clearer vision; it’s been ages since she has looked at these pictures. Ten - twenty years, maybe more than that. Memories of Dorothy always come back, especially after she moved to this Halfway House. Dorothy’s address was also with her for a long time, till it was lost. But she does not need it on paper, Swapnas’ was house number 40, Dorothy’s 41. Her brain still functions well. She remembers—41, Second Road, Grainfield, Off Dunstable, Lutton. She can’t recall the phone number though, must have changed by now. Thoughts of Dorothy would never leave her—especially towards the end in Kolkata. It was scary. All people known to her were dying. Her circle was diminishing. Letters, newspapers and television all bore news of people’s death---- he went and she went. She could not gather courage or will to find out about people’s whereabouts.
May be she could write to her. There’s no guarantee of a response. She might have sold off her house. But Swapna’s daughter could find Dorothy’s current whereabout from the phone directory, post office or some other means. Munia is a very capable girl. Then she thought ‘no’, this would aggravate her sorrow, if she finds out Dorothy is no more. Even her own life could be as unpleasant as Swapna’s. Dorothy was older than Swapna—must be close to eighty now. Cheerful, active, fearless and full of adolescent energy she was—no she does not want to see her now.
But today… after all these years, Dorothy’s picture looks different. Swapna does not find her cheerful, where are those happy eyes? She brightened the light through her remote, took the magnifying glass and kept scanning Dorothy’s face and body language. Yes, she looks sad here—did some incident sadden her? Swapna cannot recall now.
Swapna is puzzled. Was Dorothy always like this? She did not understand. Just gazed at her free, independent single life and sighed secretly with envy. What lack of foresight? How foolish of her? She was jealous of a lonely person. God must have smirked at the idea.
‘The grass is always greener on the other side’ Dorothy used to say some times. Swapna, blind with envy, thought Dorothy was joking. She tried to sing the lines now. Her heart felt heavy. She started feeling unwell.
She ambled slowly to the kitchen, heated some instant soup, sprinkled some leftover rice in it, arranged a spoon and napkin and sat down for dinner. She does not feel hungry but takes her meals to avoid a stomachache. Also, she has to take so many pills which cannot be digested on an empty stomach—it will cause acidity. She opened the fridge to look for dessert, if there was a slice of cake or some custard.
Thus, seated for her solitary supper at a well-laid table of a sparkling kitchen, was Shrimati Swapna Palit: educated in a convent and armed with a degree in comparative literature, wife of late engineer Sri Sushil Palit, also talented in music, cooking and embroidery. She apprehends that she will complete 74 years this August, 75 next August and drag herself to 76 in the next one. Three hundred and sixty-five days and three hundred and sixty-five nights to go in between.
Swapna got married almost fifty-one years ago. Last year was their fiftieth marriage anniversary. She does not keep count any more—how does it matter? It’s been thirteen years since Sushil passed away. And her arrival abroad, her new home, new friends, seems like her previous incarnation.
Sushil Kumar Palit, Swapna’s husband, used to work with a British company. He had to visit the UK quite often. Swapna knew before marriage that the bridegroom visited abroad frequently, twice a year or more. He would put up in a hotel or guest house, meet friends, relatives and come back. After a few years, he was suddenly posted to this country, not for long but a few years. Sushil came first. Swapna and the kids joined him after their daughter’s annual exams got over. Their five-year old son had not started attending school then.
A few hours away from London, the small town of Dunstable offered all the comforts of a city without its unattractive trappings. With a picturesque bungalow near the office, Swapna was thrilled to have her own set-up.
Her in-laws’ house in Jatin Das Road, Kolkata, was always filled with people. Sisters and brothers-in-law, father and mother-in-law and other uncles and aunts. Apart from them, there were six to seven domestic helps. Everyone was polite and civil, there was no dearth of freedom. Children played with their grandfather, did their homework under the supervision of one of their aunts and had their meals with another. Swapna had considerable time on her hands, though not of her own. She didn’t have any idea how it passed. That was how everything went. Her idea of time changed after coming to this country.
That’s when she met and befriended Dorothy, their next-door neighbor. Their bungalows were similar. Plus Dorothy had a tiny car and an amazing solitary life of her own. Gardening, washing her car, knitting while watching television, preparing quick meals only when she was hungry or playing with Cola. She received government grants, inherited some ancestral property, did not have any financial worries and had a lot of time for social work. Her family was scattered elsewhere. Swapna did not get to know about her relatives. Dorothy got married once—before her youth blossomed fully—it did not last for long. Swapna did not know about her ex-husband, may be Dorothy did not know that either. She also did something almost impossible in UK . She would detour into their house via the garden or get in by jumping over the boundary wall between their houses. She played with Bubun and narrated stories to Munia, took out Swapna in her Beetle and went for shopping or random long drives.
They became very close friends in a few days. Soul-mates. Someone with whom you could open your heart. Sushil laughed, he pointed out that parting from each other would be difficult when their stay in this country ends.
Actually, Sushil did not realize that more than sympathy , it was envy which Swapna had for Dorothy. She was envious of her independent and relaxed life. Though Swapna had found her own doll’s house, she did not find the time to play. She was fraught with responsibilities. Young children. One used to wake up early, the other would fall asleep in the evening. Munia was in her fourth standard. Her study hours had to be monitored so that she could adjust to the system after returning to India. Sushil would not eat properly if he was not served a proper Bengali meal. Then there were visits from her in-laws, her brother and sister-in-law. Sushil’s relatives and friends from this country kept visiting them. Swapna’s days had to match to be in sync. Dorothy was her only source of freedom amidst all these. She had her own kitchen with lace curtains and a small table and beautiful wall papers. Whenever Swapna visited her, she prepared dinner while sipping cups of tea . She chatted enthusiastically and laughed. She worked on the garden and washed her car herself. Swapna would enviously keep looking at Dorothy’s red Beetle. A free life of one’s own choices.
She had said this to that restless and lively Dorothy a number of times. Dorothy would smile and laugh and ask for an exchange of roles. She suggested that they could go to the church and pray for it—in pure hearts—on any one of the holy days. She assured Swapna about this effort, that this will be the key to the realization of the life she coveted.
She was thirty-four then; her husband was forty and Dorothy was slightly older than she was. Swapna was foolish, inexperienced and myopic. She never tried to delve into the unhappy, empty side of this middle-aged woman who was doomed to a life of loneliness.
Had she met Dorothy now, Swapna could tell her that she did not need to go to the church and pray on an auspicious occasion. Dunstable must have been a blessed place. Jesus heeded and granted the wish to that stupid, greedy girl who lacked foresight. But he did not do it in time at all; he took a full thirty-five years to do that.
Now Swapna understands that though Dorothy laughed and joked about it, she did not like the idea of their ‘exchange’. She could not have been so heartless. Only God can be like that. Who would curse a friend?
It’s been so many years since Sushil left. Swapna’s daughter is in London, her son is in Holland. Who will be there with Swapna at this age and where should Swapna live? She can’t be left alone in Kolkata. No one has the time to look after her in that big house. The huge building lies deserted all the time. Her elders and contemporaries have left one by one. Their children, all over the world, are busy with their own lives. Relatives and friends who are alive share the same fate. Who will look after whom?
Both her children are highly successful—that makes them busy. Her daughter and son-in-law earn a lot even in this country’s standards; they are doctors. Her son is a well known diplomat; he has an American wife.
People rightly call her ratnagarbha, one who delivers gems from her wombs. Must be true. Swapna grinned to herself.
It’s well into the night and the room is pretty warm now.
Munia, her daughter, has arranged this ‘house’. This is close to her place but gives Swapna one hundred percent of her own space. Nothing can be better. Swapna is familiar with this country and is fluent in English. Such a pretty and hygienic surrounding is rare in this country also.
Right. The cottages look right out of a picture. Roofs of red tiles, squeaky clean kitchens, furniture, plush sofas—everything is arranged with great precision—just for one person. She did not need to buy anything new, nor did she need to bring along anything old. Where would she keep them and what is the utility for such things? Those things are kept in Jatin Das Road, under layers of dust. They will be there till the three-storied mansion is razed and converted into a multistoried apartment building.
Her son visits her once a year; sometimes twice. Her daughter comes twice a month, sometimes more than that. Swapna tends plants for healthier muscles and effective blood circulation and listens to music for peace and happiness. The home is a weekly outing for her children.
The residents here can go to the market and buy what they like. Plus there are monthly getaways in luxury cars, to old abbeys, lakes, valleys or a museum—you may spend your day as you like. She got exactly the same life which she wished for forty years ago. But what kind of wish fulfillment is this? She didn’t want it this way! There’s no lust left for life, no envy either. She got everything she sought and coveted; no craving is left unfulfilled.
Her daughter might come tomorrow or next week. Her son could call on Sunday morning. Her daughter-in-law will call if her son does not find time. She would enquire about minute details regarding her health and the service provided here.
Swapna put the pictures away. She does not need the hot-water bag today; she will take a light painkiller and of course her routine sedative. She gets into the bed and settles under the blanket with a book. She would keep reading until she falls asleep.
Nights are too long and so are the days.