(I envy those who can solidify in ink what they are actually living through – pain, ecstasy, frolic or angst. I call it penning the moment. But am unadapt enough to let the sediments settle on the riverbed of life for me to gather them on the trough of my palm one after the other and shape them into a tale of pearl and oyster)
The train chugged in slowly but steadily…..it was six to seven hours late. The scheduled time was around tennish in the morning. But we were actually entering the station close to evening. The platform was well lit as the Railways would have it. Yet what rolled out was a dismal kaleidoscope of varied shades of grey. The only rush of colour was the bright red contrasted against the soiled white and the loosened grip of the brass badge desperately trying to stay still on the thin, sinewy arms. A yellow grin…a pair of greedy myopic eyes….”Didi, coolie?” A harmless enquiry which left me parched at the throat and sent a shiver down my spine. I shook my head vigorously. He shrugged and left in search of another prey.
If only I could go back………..that sudden thought volcanized despair which was dormant somewhere in the pit of my stomach. Fervently eyes sought for a known and empathetic face. But the deep frown that appeared to have marred the soft contours was unexpected. “So! At last! You made it. Why did you resist the invariable?” In response my garbled excuses could hardly find merit in his cynical sight. Soon I discarded all hopes of a winning rationale as the deluge of humanity engulfed me into their clammy vortex….
Oh! The cavernous hollows of the City of Joy….
I was not welcome. It was apparent in her forced gaiety and his guarded queries. Yet, I was supposed to make this my home for an indefinite forever. I tried to be of help. Thwarted I wormed into my cocoon – the only defense post of an armless soldier.
The job was an undisguised blessing. Countering ill-restrained skepticism I accepted it. God had always lent me support to put up a brave front when I was least up to it. The first day to work was as much as His test as was mine.
The brightly lit interiors belied the façade of ageless antiquity wrapped around the somber monoliths. An overcrowded fish market bustling with aimless activity – that was the first impression of the workplace where I was destined to spend the better part of my life. Soon I would learn to inhale the stench of what lay rotten underneath the haloed externals.
What I exhaled out was my initiation into unlearning…..
It was a slit of a room dominated by two ill-placed, over-sized telex machines. I would soon learn that it also doubled for a very interesting and cozy getaway, the Ladies Washroom being annexed to it.
If I were expecting a long waiting it wasn’t to be. The door to the cabin burst open and breezed in an imposing figure straight out of some glossy tabloid! From her well set curls to shining nail paints to powdered feet – her perfumed persona in its entirety was a complete antithesis to the pale yellow plastered walls, the noisy pedestal fan sticking out stubbornly next to the wooden cabinets, the steel top table, the old fashioned, high backed wooden chair and the dwarf revolving stool – in short, it was as though a swirl of glittering colour had just spiraled its way onto a monochrome canvas rooting a flabbergasted painter in awe and inaction.
She sized me up with shrewd chink eyes. At the same time, her “Hullo dear!” was a full-throated address laced with gurgles of laughter, “You new here?” and to my affirmation she extended a plump well-manicured hand, “I am Oddie…” and my emaciated palm was grabbed into a warm clasp….
Which translated into an indescribably beautiful bond to outlast piddle grievances of mortal existence…
It was a difficult season – neither spring nor autumn – an edge-of-the-sword-survival which left both of us gasping for more. We picked up shards of laughter and morsels of gaiety sieving dunes of dust. Humour was a scarce commodity, steeply priced, yet we traded it for hard pressed sanity.
We had our hideouts of secret amusements and disastrous rebellions. The sleazy Limelight Hotel at Dalhousie Square where we gorged on new found delicacies and burped in delight. Nahoum’s rich Jewish patisserie at New Market where our frenzied overeating was levels beyond culinary ventures. Nitai Babu’s sleek shop on Bowbazaar Street wherein we were suavely persuaded to give in to thoughtless extravaganza. The laughter parades outside the immaculate sanctums of Meghalaya House. Exploring the infamous maze-like gullies of China Town where even Laal Bazaar would think twice to invade. The sudden expose to the impermissible world of Rai Chaand Boral Street in the half lights of dusk which culminated in sleepless nights. The invisible Carmelite nuns and their electrifying hymns which momentarily moulded our malleable souls to curve towards the inevitable surrender. The stolen matinee hours on Esplanade! The languorous tram journeys….the hilarious rickshaw rides….the adventurous street hunts….we did it all which sometimes bordered on the forbidden and dangerous fun.
Oddie knew Kolkata like the back of her palm and she made it a point that the city grew on me….
There were times when we just bitched and made fun of those who were unreachable. There were times when we peered into the deep recesses to find our own selves afresh. There were those very precious moments when we let our eyes cloud and tears well. And then there were times when we wished we would never have to say goodbye in this lifetime.
She was fond of life and I had just started learning my lessons. An odd combo of a snarling bear and a doting mother hen, the brood of greedy eyes and suggestive smiles, knew better not to rub her the wrong way. A safe anchor for a rocking boat. A stream of sunshine at the end of a pitch dark tunnel. She was an oddity in my life which was stranger than fiction. My mentor! My friend! My sister! My guide! She taught me to be meticulous in work, scrupulous in ethics and bold in stance. In short, she taught me the basic rudiments of conduct. She would call me the unconscious comedian. And I laughingly nicknamed her the Lady with an Oxford Bengali.
Life took its undulating course. Soon we swung back to reality. It was time to bid Au Revoire. She kissed me goodbye. I hastily suppressed my inner turbulence.
And then that long dreary stretch of isolation which I took in my stride. Sometimes, a lone telephone call, a chance missive, a casual reference would invoke nostalgia to be overtaken again by a dry spell of unmindfulness.
It took a little more than a decade for us to reunite but the joy of union proved to be short lived…
Kolkata after twelve long years – a distinctly modified vista! A pleasant surprise indeed! It was a hurricane trip. Familial duties….obligations….and a golden opportunity to reignite old flames….flames that were simmering under the ashen heap of time…
I had heard that she had not been keeping well. She looked pale and yes, the years of struggle she had to put in to survive in a mammoth organization showed in her exhausted bearing. We hugged and kissed and spoke of the days of sunshine and shadows, the days of togetherness and separation, the days of playfulness and forgiveness, we shared all that was pent up and sizzling within.
While taking each other’s leave, she embraced me once more and promised to keep in touch on the virtualscape – FB and WhatsApp, “I always knew I had a sister in Delhi who was ready to be with me whenever I would need her”. I smiled. “We’d now keep in touch..” and I nodded my head robustly in acquiescence. As I moved towards the door she called out,” Don’t mind Geetu, I wouldn’t be able to see you off. Doctor has told me not to stand for long on my feet.” I looked down at her feet encased in house slippers. Feets, as light as feather, which had traipsed the drawing hall of Hastings House in quite a number of merry jigs. I left in a hurry without looking back traversing the length of the corridor towards the lift…
Odette Rita Piperno died of multiple organ failure in October 2014 while I kept on wondering why I was not receiving her regular Good Morning Messages on WhatsApp of late…
It was a chance conversation with one of my senior colleagues that the heartbreaking news was offhandedly passed on. It took a few more days and a substantial ounce of mustered courage before I could dial her residential number. Dear Alby, whom we fondly called The Celebrity, a veritable package of energy and die-hard spirit strapped on to wheel chair since childhood! I wanted to reach out to him in his loss and mourning but he seemed to be worried about his days of severed companionship, “She was good to me. She provided me with the best of medical facility.” Did he speak of estranged love? I thought I had heard wrong. This was a man for whom Oddie had given up on everything that was good in life. Dear old Alby sounded like a man hounded by loneliness and an immediacy to jump into renewed relationship. The call ended in de-spirited silence. I failed to contemplate an apt epitaph which could justify such an abrupt end.
Looking up to the azure bedspread with sparkling white downy pillows of cloud, I thought God must be having a tough time biting a giggle here and a chuckle there with Oddie around – her infectious bonhomie and rib tickling humour gathering ripples on the tranquil premises of heavenly abode wherever located that must be. Wait on Oddie….When time comes for me to join in we’d throw open one another gala fest of afterlife…..up there!!