Aniruddha Sen

She was laughing. So was he. Two gray haired kids were making merry of their amateurish effort at gardening, often by splashing mud and sprinkling water on each other.
“In a couple of years when our gallant efforts fructify –” She dreamily uttered.
“We’ll be back to square one – a barren tract and few odd goats grazing.” He quipped.
“Come on, dear! Don’t be that pessimistic, at this tender an age.” She feigned hurt. Then they once again giggled, as the setting sun reddened their jubilant faces.

Ravi and Anila – they had a chance meet a year ago. Anila, a middle aged rich widow as they say, was driving to a bank that she used to visit only occasionally. As she neared, she saw a bit of commotion around an elderly man who had apparently passed out. A Good Samaritan, she stepped out to inquire and was shocked to know it was Ravi Kumar, a Hindi screen idol of the yore.
“See how he’d destroyed himself, just by drug and booze!” A passer-by commented.
“Does anybody know where he stays?” Anila anxiously queried.
“Oh yeah, it’s just a few blocks away.”
“May be I can then drive him home. Will anybody please assist?”
By then Ravi had just barely recovered but was still in a daze. Bablu, a local boy helped him into the car and directed Anila to his house. It was a small bungalow that bore the sign of neglect all over. Near the entrance there was a stone pillar with ‘Twilight’ inscribed in it. The weather-worn letterings had become hazy.
Once they managed to escort tottering Ravi into his living room, she asked, “Who all are there in the house?”
“None, except my old servant Sambhu.”
“Your family –”
“His wife had left, with his daughter. Who’d withstand such a big loser forever?” Bablu uttered with disdain.
“Many thanks, Bablu. You may now make your move. I’ll settle him a bit and then go.” Saying so, she then handed over some money to the boy who left overjoyed.

Her heart was pounding. It would be an understatement to say that there was a time when Ravi Kumar was her crush. The truth was that whether a maid, a wife or a widow, her sole love and passion had always been this movie idol. And now the very same man, completely ruined and deserted, was sitting in front of her!
She took some spot decisions and summoned Sambhu who, it seemed, was not too unfamiliar with such situations except for the presence of a ‘decent madam’ in Ravi’s company.
“Is there a doctor nearby to examine Saab?”
“Yes, but his visits –” Sambhu eyed Ravi sheepishly.
“Well, my coffer is empty right now and that’s why I went to the bank. But then – anyway, I’m feeling better and don’t need any medication.” Ravi told falteringly.
Anila opened her purse and handed over some money to Sambhu who dialed a number. Soon the doctor arrived.
“The usual,” he said with despair, “Boozing and utter neglect. I’m giving something that’ll keep him up awhile – but how long? What he needs is strict vigil and sympathetic nursing. With none at home, that could’ve been arranged in my nursing home. But after frittering away most of his savings I’m not sure if he can afford that anymore.”
“Thanks doc, I’ll take care of him.” She smiled assuredly.
“But you –”
“A close relation who’d just bumped across him.”
After the doctor left, she handed over some more money to Sambhu and passed some instructions authoritatively, while Ravi meekly watched. Then she said in a firm note, “I’m leaving now, but will be back.”

And that she did. She came back the next day, the next to next day and then kept on coming. Slowly she took over the management of the hitherto uncared for household and its master. Initially confused, Sambhu finally reconciled to this changed scenario rather gladly, as now there was a semblance of order in the wretched house and no more he had to play a magician to make both ends meet. Sambhu’s master was less confused, probably because he no more possessed the mental ability to get confused. Only once he asked Anila, “Why are you doing all these for me?”
“Just as I please”, was her curt reply.
It was then a matter of time that she would bring her essentials and lodge at ‘Twilight’ permanently. Initially she was staying in the guest room. But one night after doing Ravi’s bed she quietly stepped on it.
In her hot embrace Ravi fumbled and said, “Sorry dear – I mean – I’ve lost it. I used to take substances, you know.”
“Never mind”, she comforted her, “I just want to be in bed with Ravi Kumar, the man who has always been my sole love and passion.”
That night onwards, she was no more ‘Anila ma’am’ but ‘Memsaab’ to Sambhu. And he was glad to address her so, as he saw things changing and changing for the better in that goddamned place. The house was cleaned, the junks discarded, new furniture bought and the walls repaired and painted. The small turf outside was cleaned too and prepared for gardening. And all the while, she managed to drag reluctant Ravi in.
“Why are you doing as much? He would occasionally protest, “I’m no more in money and you shouldn’t force me to change my lifestyle like this.”
“It’s no extravagance. I’ve just tidied up your habits and believe me, you can still afford that. I’ve neatened up your financial instruments too. Do you remember you’ve invested in some shares long back? Well, you don’t. Now some of those forgotten assets aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. But there are few others which had hit the moon. With a decent portfolio management, you can live a comfortable life.”
“But I’m no more capable of putting myself together to do that sort of work.”
“Well, leave that to me.” She said assuredly.

Then the flowers they’d planted started to bloom and shoots came out of the mango and guava trees. One evening when they were watching that in childlike enthusiasm, Anila asked, “Why did you name the house ‘Twilight’? Isn’t that gloomy? Don’t you think Dawn or Sunrise would have been better?”
Gazing at the distant horizon Ravi said, “I love twilight. It’s when the real is slowly getting fudged by the unreal. It reminds me of my days in front of the artificial lights. A bright morning is too stark dear, too stark for my comfort.”
In his dreamy eyes Anila could find a trace of that famous stare of the bygone that would send thousands of damsels in reel. The artist and the romantic in the man hadn’t completely died!
But try as she might, she always had the nagging feeling that she was fighting a lost cause. She had arrived wee bit too late. The man was physically or psychologically beyond salvage and they were just biding time. But then isn’t that true for life as such? Isn’t it an endless struggle against the ultimate inevitable, punctuated by a series of reprieves that we so much cherish?
“People tell things about our relationship.” He once lamented, “But I’m sorry that for all that you’re doing to me, I can’t give you the minimum dignity you deserve. That bitch, you know, had walked out on me, but didn’t give me divorce.”
“Never mind” she consoled him, “and no expletive please for your wife.”

It was coming. She knew it. He knew it too. Even the doctor who was happy that finally Ravi was being cared for, had cautioned Anila, “But don’t be too optimistic. The long abuse and neglect had already done it to his system and anything can happen any day.”
And it did happen. One night he collapsed while visiting washroom. She immediately raised an alarm and managed to admit him to a decent nursing home without delay. But he didn’t regain consciousness. The doctors diagnosed it as heart attack. But the standard procedures didn’t revive him completely. Anila urged the doctors to do everything possible without bothering about the expenditures, although she knew it would stretch her resources to the limit. But the doctors were afraid that he was heading for a multiple organ failure.
Throughout the night, Anila sat there. Then the news somehow leaked through. From morning the media people started thronging in and the news that Ravi Kumar, the famous movie icon of the yore was mortally sick was flashed in all news channels. Amid the commotion and at the receiving end of uncomfortable questions, Anila remained composed and stayed put.
Then she came. When Ravi Kumar had married Delilah, she was just an aspiring starlet. The marriage catapulted her to stardom, albeit in second rate movies. But with the falling fortune of Ravi Kumar, she anchored herself to safer harbors and settled for steady but less glamorous roles in small and big screens. She glanced at comatose Ravi awhile. Then glaring at Anila who was sitting beside him, she hissed, “I hope you appreciate that our family has an honor to defend. With media around, it won’t look nice to find him in the company of a woman of suspicious character.”
Widowed while young and with a substantial amount of property to defend, Anila was inure to stand her ground against adversities and slanders. But now she remained quiet in the face of Delilah’s rap and merely requested the nurse to call the doctor. When he arrived, she told her, “Meet the patient’s wife.”
“Glad to meet you, Delilah madam.” The doctor bowed, “Anila madam had done the needful and paid the deposit. Don’t worry – he’s being looked after.”
“Now onwards it’ll be my responsibility. This is my card. Please feel free to contact me anytime you wish.” Delilah said. Once the doctor departed, she turned to Anila and said, “Thank you Ms. whatsoever, now you may ease yourself off. And yes, I’ve heard you’re permanently camping at our house. I’m not being rude, but I’ll be obliged if you please –”
A man in black interrupted at this point and told her in a low voice, “Not now, madam. The bungalow is in his name. Don’t create legal complications now. Just wait till he –”
So far Anila accepted everything heaped on her with stoic composure. But now the mere suggestion of Ravi’s demise by these unkind creatures made her blood boil. Advancing forward she glared hard at them like a tigress on prowl. For awhile she saw panic in Delilah’s eyes. But the next moment Anila regained poise. Packing her overnight bag she had a long look at his man, possibly for the last time and then slowly departed.

Sambhu was anxiously waiting. “How is Saab?” He asked with bated breath.
“Not well, not at all.” She shook her head. He looked at her in utter disbelieve and mumbled, “But Memsaab – is he alone there?”
“He is in good care. I’m no more required.” Startled Sambhu looked at her face and for the first time found the eyes of that iron lady moist.
She spent the day just lazing and ambling. She was being torn by indecisions. She was dying to rush to the nursing home but was sure that with Delilah in charge, she won’t even have a glimpse of him. And wasn’t it time to pack off from this damn place as well and go back to where she came from? But looking at the freshly painted walls, the blossoming flowers in the garden and the art objects meticulously collected by them, she couldn’t somehow reconcile to the idea. This is where I belong, she thought. Well, everything is not yet lost. The doctors said he was bad, but never said he was hopeless. Suppose he recovers and walks back one day and not find me? How can I ditch him when he needs me the most?
In the evening she sat on the garden bench where they used to sit together to watch the sunset. Twilight was descending in its most mystifying aura. She remained engrossed at the horizon where the red globe was slowly disappearing, leaving the earth to the care of the artificial. When it was night, she turned the TV on and surfed the channels aimlessly. After nibbling a bit of food she went to the bed that was laid the day before but remained untouched. She had a very disturbed sleep and woke up several times in confused state.
Throughout the night, she was waiting for the morning. But daylight hardly brought any relief to her restlessness. She spent the day without doing anything meaningful. Again the night came followed by another day and the two inmates continued to bide time in the very same nothingness.
It finally happened on the fifth day. In the evening bulletin she heard that Ravi Kumar Sharma, the veteran superstar of Hindi screen had passed away following brief illness. Homage was showered. The tearful close-ups of his wife and daughter were repeatedly focused. The movie channels started airing his oldies.
It was strange that she didn’t react. Her mind was vacant. Sambhu rushed in and saw ‘Memsaab’ sitting in stony silence. “Aren’t you – going there, Memsaab?” He stuttered.
“No Sambhu, your Saab has an honor to defend.” She whispered, as tears finally trickled down her cheeks.
There was a knock at the door. Sambhu opened. It was that man in black she saw at the nursing home.
“I’m the attorney of Mrs. Delilah Sharma. You must be aware that after the demise of her husband, she and her daughter are the lawful inheritors of this property. She wouldn’t have bothered, but for the nostalgia –”
Nostalgia, my foot! – She mused – Land is gold here! But aloud she said, “Tell your client that there’ll be no problem to that effect. But considering that the great actor had spent his last years here, my earnest plea is that as a tribute to him please don’t give the property for redevelopment. Please keep it as it is.”
“Thank you ma’am, I’ll convey your feeling to my client.” The man bowed and departed.
That night when she went to bed, she was no more restless. There was a kind of numbness but hardly any anxiety or pain.

It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And soon this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
She came out and looked at the shining sun. It was too stark. Unable to stand, she covered her eyes. Well, the earth is round. If it’s morning here, it must be twilight somewhere else. In sync with the revolving orb, Anila’s mind was ambling through the endless sky towards that zone where the imaginary was taking over from the real.

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