She sighed in exhaustion and threw the phone towards her bed. She paced anxiously around her bedroom. Bhromor had just called to tell her that the trip had to be cancelled for now. She was in the red zone and the infection cases had increased where she lived. Rune was irritated. It had been a month since she had gotten out of the house.
At first, it felt like a blessing in disguise. Working from home, away from her parents, catching up on her favourite shows and naps. Countless naps that nobody would object to.
But after a month of mastering her mother’s recipes, attending Zoom calls and picking up some chords on her otherwise neglected ukulele, the lockdown had started to get to her. Even though she had the apartment all to herself and cooked and cleaned as she pleased, the silence around her was getting deafening. She would sometimes blast music on her speakers and open all doors and windows just to feel a semblance of human presence. And now, the only thing she was looking forward to, the much needed girls’ trip to Bali had to be postponed!
Mentally exhausted, she lay down on her bed and looked outside her window. The sky outside, the same every day.
Cool blue to white hot to burnt orange to charred ink.
She looked at the walls around her. She had memorised the chipped sellotape marks there. There were 16 marks and the distance between each approximated to 4 rectangular posters put up by the previous inmate.
It was a sultry afternoon and the eerie silence inside her room was weirdly soporific. Rune felt like she had been trapped in Champa Kaki’s little room back at her father’s ancestral home.
As her eyes shut, the sky outside, emitting its warm, orange afterglow, slowly lifted her and took her away with it.
Her consciousness sped through the concrete roads and winding flyovers and zoomed past them. As they slowed down, the sky and her, she saw treetops. Tall, green canopies that outlined mud paths. They stopped atop their jamidarbari. A broad, ancient monstrosity that stood like a soldier, weathered by the ravages of war, time, generations, life and death. Rune walked past the main building and entered the tiny grilled annexe adjoining the main house. It was a narrow rectangular room, with rugged, granite flooring. A single, square window that trapped a little bit of the sky outside and the view of the road where wild greens grew. Some goats were grazing there and crickets buzzing. Chapu Kaki as Rune lovingly called her, sat by that window, intently staring outside.
The room was bare. A stringy, straw mat with a beaten down pillow and a bedsheet by the window upon which she sat, a small stove in the other corner with very little utensils and a ladle, a clay rounded water vessel with a steel glass on top of it and an aluminium box which was bigger that the mat on which Chapu Kaki sat.
Rune walked up to her and sat by her side. She did not notice her footsteps, nor the rustling of the sheet as she sat down next to her. Her face was pale, her eyes were two empty voids of brown and her hair parted in the middle was pulled back and tied into a limp bun. She wore a white sari made out of a coarse, white material.
Rune looked at Chapu Kaki. Ever since Rune had known her, she had looked exactly the same. The only difference now were the streaks of grey that had creeped into her head full of long, black hair.
“Why doesn’t Chapu Kaki have a colourful sari for Pujo, Ma?”
A 10 year old Rune asked her mother as kaki smoothened her new khadi white sari that Rune’s mother had given her for Pujo.
“She is not allowed to wear colourful saris, shona,” Ma whispered with a tinge of morose practicality in her voice.
In a house of bustling, vivacious married women, Chapu Kaki was the silent singleton. Rune’s mother and aunts, all married, would roam around the house in their colourful batik printed cotton saris, their bangles and anklets tinkling along the rhythm of their domestic chores, their vermillion filled foreheads securing their loud laughter and a marker of their fertile married lives. Each morning would be graced by a culmination of chopping, grinding, frying, and washing sounds. Peals of gossip over peeling potatoes would be the routine for the women of the Mitra clan. Amidst all these, Chapu Kaki would stand out like a drop of milk in a bowl full of red alta.
She would carry the heavy baltis of washed clothes, keep frying countless luchis for the entire family till everyone finished a hearty breakfast of luchi-ghugni and smile coyly at her sisters-in-law’s gossips, fresh out of the chulha. But no one could hear her sounds. No anklet-bangle, or her loud laughter, even the beating of her heart was to be kept in check.
As the day melted into an afternoon siesta and everyone retired to their respective rooms inside the jamidarbari mansion, Chapu Kaki quietly doled out the leftover rice, strained out whatever curry was left and raked the torkari bati clean for some well-earned but measly sides. She ate by the hand pump where a tower of curry-stained, fish-smelling, fly-buzzing utensils lay, waiting to be washed. She washed up, bathed the entire kitchen and courtyard with water and moped them spotless, collected the dry clothes, folded them neatly, laid them out and with her one weakling of a white sari slung on her arm, retired to her little annexe at the back of the mansion. She would lay down, straightening her back and feeling her muscles hurt the back of her stringed mat, close her eyes for an hour, counting the minutes till she’d have to wake up and repeat the evening edition of her washing-cooking-cleaning-folding routine. At night too, she came back to her dimly lit refuge and waited for sleep to finally grace her otherwise unremarkable day.
For 28 years, Rune had known Chapu Kaki to have led the exact same routine of a life. All because of an accident that had taken Ramen Kaku away from their lives and hers. Rune closed her eyes and remembered the time before Chapu Kaki became a widow. She clenched her jaw and tried to remember ever seeing her in a red sari, with little dangling earrings, red vermillion streaking the central parting of her hair. But she could not. She opened her eyes and looked at kaki again.
A shadow of a face. Like someone had peeled the life out of her and had left her with the remnants of a destiny she had no control over.
A widow was an afterthought, a mere leftover when someone just couldn’t have any more rice and curry.
She always used to tell Rune that she was lucky her family had been so accepting of her.
“What happened when God realised he had a little bit of life left on his plate after he had done distributing it equally between everyone? He chose a bidhoba to bestow it on!”
“But it is not your fault that Kaku died! Why are you not allowed to enjoy?”
“Little darling, everything in life is already decided. It was decided the day I was born that I must serve my sentence in this world. Maybe I did something terrible in my last birth. Maybe if I do my bit in this birth my next birth will be beautiful.”
“Maybe you will get to wear red saris? And play kitkit with me? And wear paayals with bells around your feet? And share a fish bhaja with me?”
“Yes, my darling. And maybe I will get to sing again!”
“Chapu Kaki, please sing to me! No one is here. No one will know!”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
Rune stared at the wall in her room. She had woken up in a pool of sweat. She could still hear Chapu Kaki’s strained, careful voice. A sliver of light that cut into the bleak darkness of that little room. As the sun had set on their little rendezvous, she sang…
Jibono moroner…sheemana chharaye…bondhu hey amar…royecho daraaye…
Rune felt tears cloud her eyes. She looked around at her room. A working study table, a dresser, a comfortable bed on which she lay. She almost forgot that only minutes ago, she was irritated at the prospect of spending two more weeks locked down. She forgot about the trip. The exciting new life she was supposed to step into that had been merely inconvenienced.
Not paused, not snatched away like a sick nightmare, suddenly one day, like a rude joke that she had no part in. She still had hope. That elusive thing, that mortal enemy that ran down the parting of a widow’s forehead, in droplets of vermillion. The red of life, of love, of death.
“But how will I find you in my next birth to see if you have these things? How will I know where you are?”
Chapu Kaki? How will you know?
As the sun set into the darkening sky with the slightest rumble of clouds Rune wondered if right now, she sat staring at the same sky, her hair grayer than before, eyes still vacant, humming that old, familiar tune…
Beyond the boundaries of life and death, a dear friend awaits for me…