Today was her birthday. She remembered it just now, looking at the calendar. On observing that date she asked herself, was it her birthday? Had she forgot her own birthday? Suprisingly she did not feel bad for it. She turned her eyes at the doomed date, blankly, stared at the letters like a statue, something told her that the date was known from before. She tried to think. What riddle did the letter contain? Her eyes moistened as she found it out. She breathed out heavily, almost erotically. A strange calm settled upon her, she stood there, staring at those letters, as if they resembled something dead. Something lifeless, like her mother. She didn’t know how she came to think about her mother.
It has been a long time.
She fought back tears, as the faint picture arose in her sensations. She felt two strands of moistness trickle down her cheeks. Her eyes seemed to drown. Her vision seemed to fade, and in the next instant she found herself crying. Cupping her face with her pale palms, she opened her dimmed eyes to a burning sensation. She rubbed her cheeks, but tears emerged and rolled down, breaking all forces. She looked at her palms. Now it dawned upon her that she possessed a very ugly palm, crooked and rough. Oh, she thought then, she had an old woman’s palm. Naturally.
She was old. Seventy-nine years old.
How old, helpless and weak she had become; it zoomed upon her now. She is old and dying. She will die soon then, she thought, as if comforting herself. Again, she looked at her palms. She checked her left palm sincerely now, the lines upon it. Which one was known as the life-line? Oh well, how could she forget? Her age allowed her to forget things, but she clinged on to them, fearing they would abandon her forever, like everyone else. Okay, the topmost line was the one, she recollected. On her left hand, the line stretched itself like a stream, stopping just beneath the forefinger, vanishing off like a trickle. What does it signify then, she thought, bewildered. How many more years to spend over here, she wanted to know.
She paused her thoughts to find herself still standing there. Turning around, she found herself staring at the mirror, at herself. The mirror, ‘aayna’ she called it in Bengali, was long and narrow, exposing her body from top to toe. Though she looked at herself daily at regular intervals—after her morning bath, past her evening prayers, at night for braiding her loose hair–but still she felt a bit shocked now, examining her very own presence, unmoved and unblinking. What was so striking about her now? Her swollen feet, the crumpled white sari, the protesting collarbones, the long striking neck and then her face, she observed herself. She saw something in those eyes, which shocked her. It was pity, plain simple pity. Pity at herself, on her state, on everything around her for which she had moulded all her life. Pity on her existence, seventy-eight years of existence. A tough player, she thought.
She knew where she was. In her son’s room. Her son-Subodh, was out with his wife and daughter. Subodh was an artist, he loves arts and literature. It was she, alone, who had always encouraged Subodh to take up art. That night, they went to the birthday party of his daughter’s friend. Sumona, her grand-daughter, had told her friend Kaushiki to invite her parents only.
‘You won’t feel comfortable there, Dida.’ Sumona had told her that evening only, asking her if the new skirt suited her.
She looked at the walls, painted in shocking yellow. The room seemed to shine upon her like the sun, dazzling her eyes. She sat on the wooden stool in front of the mirror. Somehow she felt elevated now, and she straightened her backbone, widened her shrunken shoulders. Amused at her foolishness, she thought, ‘What an ugly queen!’
She found herself inspecting the accessories on the small wooden space in front of the mirror. She saw a deodrant, a white squarish box beside it, a lipstick, some bangles and a hair-pin. She picked up the lipstick, held it with her palms, like a precious little gem. She opened the shiny tip, revolving the flat base curiously. A small red circle appeared and its narrow length increased. How harmful, she grimaced. All the harmful colour and chemicals entering the mouth and then transporting to the stomach. Boroline is far better than this, she made her point. Although deliberating about its uselessness, she could not stop herself from bringing it near her lips, to try it once. She succumbed to her temptation, dabbing the red stain on her lower lip and then keeping the precious thing in its place with guilt. She looked now, touching her lower lip with her fingers, slowly. How soft and desirable! Well, she had to admit now that she looked beautiful, smiling to herself.
For the first time she noticed a red bindi on the extreme left on the mirror. Subodh’s wife detested the bindi, which according to her, did not suit her personality. Maybe Sumona had tried it and then finding it out-dated, discarded it there. The next moment she found her fingers etching towards it, with a gasp. Scratching it, she clung the red dot on the tip of her forefinger, breathing tensely. She knew her limits, that of a widow’s. She closed her eyes for reminding herself that she was commiting a sin. Vaguely yet suddenly, she imagined herself as a bride, ashamed. She discovered her face, brightened with bridal charm; her forehead adorned with white patterns, the red bindi between her eyebrows—dignified. She opened her eyes, aghast. Still, she found the courage to put the red dot on her forehead. She looked down, closing her eyes. Again she saw herself as a bride there, amidst all the darkness. Her forehead seemed heavy with the unaccustomed weight of the bindi, but still she withstood all the pain, clutching her sari in despair, astonished at her own courage yet somehow proud of her dignity.
She heard a knock outside, the sound of the main-door lock. She froze. They had come back. If she was found in his room it would be disastrous. She rushed to the door, limping as fast as she could, her backbone bent perenially. She switched off the lights. Downstairs she could hear their footsteps, Sumona’s childish voice. She hurried off the room, closing the door behind her, lapsing the room into darkness.
‘Maa…?’ Subodh shouted suddenly.
Resembling a mourning wail, she managed to whisper loud enough. ‘Hain..?’ She felt pricked from inside.
Not wasting another second, she rushed to the bathroom. Shutting the door from inside, she gasped for breath as she crouched down, sobbing and trembling. The footsteps reached upstairs, stopping outside the door. ‘What are you doing inide the bathroom?’ Subodh demanded.
She found the question unanswerable. She breathed heavily, asking the same question to herself.
‘Nothing’, her voice choked. ‘Just washing my face.’
‘Oh, okay. Come out fast and have your dinner.’ He said huskily, his footsteps treading downstairs.
She crouched there, inside the hollow bathroom, clutching her face, sobbing hysterically yet slowly, lest her trembles would reach downstairs.
She opened the tap of the wash-basin and washed her face frantically, splashings of water colliding her rough face, scattering away. The bindi slipped off and went into the sink. Rubbing her lips, she managed to get the colour off. She splashed water until she was satisfied that she was cleansed. Yes, now she looked like herself, she felt satisfied.
She went downstairs, drying her face with the end of her sari. She entered the room and made herself sit on the kitchen floor, cross-legged, her hands still shaking mildly.
‘Oh Dida’, exclaimed Sumona. ‘The birthday cake was so huge, and so tasty! We danced and played for so long. We should have brought one piece for you…’ she paused, ‘Well, leave it. We can order it someday…’ her eyes zoomed in delight, ‘Why, on your birthday itself!’
Santanu Das completed his Masters in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His works can be found in LiveWire, Film Companion, Line Rider Press, Cognitive Quotient and Queen Mobs Tea House. He stays in Chandannagar, Hooghly.