The Autumn Tree

Anjanaa Chattopadhyay



Rupa stood at her balcony watching the lazy Sunday afternoon and wondering what to do with the rest of the day. Summer vacations are boring. She follows the solitary kite circling high up in the sky. It is as lonely as me, she thinks.
Just then the phone rings. Seeing an unknown number, she disconnects. Immediately it rings back. She answers it angrily. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello Ru!’
‘Helloooo Indro!’ she screams excitedly into the phone. ’What happened to your other number?’
‘This is my new number.’
‘When did you come?’
‘This morning.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Wanted to hear you scream my name!’
‘Stop it!’ she says laughs good humouredly. ‘How’s life?’
‘Lonely.’
‘Mr. Casanova lonely?’ Rupa chuckles into the phone.
‘Movie with Casanova? Today matinee?’
‘You are a darling!’ In her mind she was already before the wardrobe picking an outfit for the day.
‘Hey listen, call up some more friends, ok? We need eighteen in all.’
‘Whatt?’ she asks puzzled.
‘Because it’s written, ‘below eighteen not allowed’!’
‘Uff, Indro!’ she giggles adoringly.
They saw ‘Bitter Moon’.
‘Oh what a butt!’
‘Disgusting! All you notice in a Roman Polanski film is her butt?’
‘No! I saw her legs too. Wow!’
‘Can’t believe it, Indro! ‘Bitter Moon’ is just about Mimi’s body to you?
Ok tell me. What is it about?
‘Love, exploitation…. life.’
‘What’s so special about their life? A sadist living with a masochist.’
‘And the way he exploited her?’
‘Don’t say he exploited her. She let herself be exploited. Why didn’t she leave him?’
‘Because she loved him. It made her vulnerable. Is that a fault?’
‘If love makes you vulnerable, it is a fault.’
‘How she craved for his support.’
‘Well he didn’t give a damn. So leave him, girl!’
‘It’s that easy to leave the person you love?’
‘If the person I love tries to exploit me, I’ll divorce her. Pronto. En seguida!’
‘With all your Spanish garnishing, ‘divorce’ still remains an ugly word!’
‘Life is both beautiful and ugly. If you can’t handle the ugly, you suffer. Why blame others?
‘You are so uncaring Indro!’ It was almost a reproach.
‘Me, uncaring?’ Indro stops in the middle of the road in profound shock. ‘Look at me, Ru! Here stands the most tender-hearted person on earth!’
‘You speak so casually about divorce.’ She refuses to be diverted.
‘I am serious about marriage! Marry me! See for yourself!’ Indro flashes his charming smile and spreads both arms on either side dramatically.
Rupa ignores his playfulness and continues gravely. ‘How can you not sympathize with Mimi?’
‘Of course, I sympathize. You have no idea what an extremely soft-hearted, domesticated person I am!’
‘Who says?’
‘Astrology.’
‘Aha, now you bring in astrology?’
‘I am not bringing in Astrology Ru, right now I am INTO astrology. Whooo …what a subject! Want to see my books?’
‘Not today. It’s late.’
‘Then tomorrow? I have news for you.’
‘What? Tell me!’ Rupa asks eagerly.
‘Come home. I’ll tell you then.’
‘This is not fair! Too much suspension!’ she grumbles. She thinks for a moment. ‘Ok, tomorrow.’
Indro gives her hand a joyous squeeze.
‘See you tomorrow!’
He reminds her of Kishanji on ma’s puja altar. The one with a ball of kheer in his hand. Mischievous, charming, adorable.

************************************

Rupa sat on the bed absorbed in thought. The big fat book on Cheiro lay open on her lap. She is yet to recover from the sudden jolt. Indro is leaving for Italy to study, in just two weeks! That’s his big news! She feels something tug inside. She knows she should be happy for him but all she can feel is an unusual void. It was okay for him to be in Chandigarh but Italy that's too far away! She looks at Indro, sitting a little away at his desk browsing through Linda Goodman. After going through Rupa’s birth chart, he deciphered her future just sometime back: she was going to marry a rich guy very soon and settle abroad. Rupa dismissed him with a scowl. She was in no mood for such trifles. Her heart was heavy with Indro’s thoughts. She couldn’t bear to think how much she’ll miss his craziness.
‘How could you keep it from me all these days, Indro?’ There’s hurt in her voice.
‘Things were uncertain. Didn’t want to talk about it until confirmed…you know I’m a little superstitious.’
‘A little?’ Even in her sadness, she laughs out.
‘But you will be going abroad too, won’t you? Soon?’ there's a quiet sting in his voice.
‘You don’t mean that prediction of yours?’ She asks quizzically.
‘Why not?’ he retorts. ‘What’s wrong with my prediction?’
She can’t believe Indro is serious about it.
‘These are speculations, Indro, not real.’
‘These are mathematical calculations based on science.’
‘I have no faith in them.’
‘I have.’
Outside, the brazen summer wind carried the dry drifted flowers of the yellow Gulmohor tree and scattered them on the pavement. The plants in the balcony crisped and withered in the scorching sun. An ardent koel kept calling its mate; its relentless cries reverberated through the still mufassil afternoon. The thickly drawn curtains made the room dark and mysterious.
‘It’s dark! Put on the light.’
Instead of reaching for the switch, Indro abruptly leaves his chair and reaches the bed. With one sweep of his arm, he lifts Rupa onto the bed and pitches her down with both hands. The sudden pace of events takes Rupa by surprise and before she can think, she feels Indro’s warm mouth on her bewildered lips. She tries to resist but goes limp at his wanton kiss. She responds in reflex. Her whole body responds! She lets him suck her lips into a pulp.
Bending over her face, Indro hisses, ‘Tell me you won’t leave me! Tell me you’ll marry me!’
Coming to her senses, Rupa pushes him with both hands. He has heavy shoulders.
‘You’re crazy!’
‘Tell me you enjoyed the kiss!’
She looks away to hide her blush. An acute pleasure races through her body. She tries to sit up.
Indro holds her firmly by the shoulders. His intensity scares her.
‘Tell me you enjoyed my kiss!’
‘No I didn’t.’
‘Liar!’ Indro hisses again.
‘Just because girls swoon on you, must I too?’
‘You’re jealous.’
‘Why will I be jealous?’
‘Because you love me.’
‘I don’t love you!’
Indro leaves the bed and goes to the window. With a restless gesture, he pulls the curtains aside. The room surges forth with warm brightness. A woman was standing at her balcony in the adjacent building. Can she see her? Can she feel the sizzling heat of the room?
The woman moves away. Rupa looks at her crumpled kurta. It takes her a while to regain composure. She places the dupatta on her shoulders and stands up. ‘Can’t we be friends?’ she says, almost to herself, ‘Just good friends?’ And kiss!
Indro sat dejectedly holding his head in his palms. She could hear his heart break into a thousand pieces. When he looked up, his eyes glistened with emotion. ‘Don’t be hasty, Ru. You’re young. Maybe you’ll change your mind...’
‘Or maybe you’ll change your mind Indro! You’re as young as me!’
She could see his adam’s apple bobbing up and down, a vein throbbing at his temple, his face tense with pent up emotions. The room was charged with their wants and desires.
‘I don’t want to marry you and I don’t want to lie to you.’
He bent his head to stare at his hands. A wave of hair fell over his forehead. He looked forlorn, sapped. The soulful sight flooded Rupa with tenderness, affection, warmth. She wanted to hold him in her arms and cover him with kisses. She wanted to take back all the harsh words she said. But she also knew that she didn’t want to marry him. Why does it have to be so complicated?

She leaves him in the room and saunters downstairs. Maashi was sitting in the hall, knitting.
‘Hello maashi!’ her voice betrays little enthusiasm.
Maashi looks up. ‘What happened? You two fighting again?’ her voice is warm and affectionate.
‘What else!‘ Rupa quips, glad to get a cue. ‘Why is he so crazy?’ She adds a fond smile.
‘He is an only child and over-pampered. I know. He does act unreasonable at times, but his heart is pure gold.’
Rupa knows the undertones behind maashi’s words. She chooses to overlook.
Suddenly she longed to be somewhere else, somewhere far away. She needed to calm the mind, quieten her body, reclaim herself.
‘Wait, I’ll fry you some crispy fritters.’
‘Not today Maashi, got to run. I’m already late!’
Maashi looks at her and then at the room upstairs.
‘Indro!’ She calls out. ‘Rupa says she’s leaving!’
The tall lean figure of Indro emerges at the door of his room. He looks composed.
‘Go see her off till the bus stop!’
‘Give me a minute!’ He goes into the room to put on his crocs and ambles down the stairs.
Once out, she takes a deep breath. The warm clammy sweat spreading under her arms and trickling down her back felt cool where the breeze touched. The store round the corner stood shut. The whole area was empty; only an old man pushed his ice cream cart along the deserted mufassil street oblivious of the blazing heat. He knows there are eager young children behind the closed windows waiting for his call. I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M!! The thought of ice cream sent a new rush of heat through her body. ‘Tell me you enjoyed the kiss!’ She moves her tongue over her lips. They feel bruised. The tingling sensation excites her once again. She goes back to the dark cool room to relive that reckless moment of pleasure. The kiss has stirred up myriad of pleasures, setting her body on fire. But Indro will never know. It will merely fuel his obsession. Why, Indro? You are just a boy of twenty! What do you know of marriage?
They walk in silence. Will this be their last walk together? Will she never see him again? Why is she feeling this hollow inside? Was Indro right? Is she in love with him?

At the bust stop, Indro takes her hand. ‘Won’t we meet again?
Rupa looks into his mournful eyes. I want to marry a man, Indro, not a boy. She says nothing.
He looks at her with longing. She looks at him with tenderness.
Why does it hurt so much?
She turns away abruptly and walks towards an approaching bus. From the window she sees Indro’s tall figure standing in the distance like a lonely autumn tree - dried out, leafless, drained.
May spring come and blossom him. She prays silently.
And what about you? A voice whispers within.
She looks away. She feels equally drained.
The bus takes her away like a giant wave, into the deep sea. She stares hard through her tears.
They say the sea returns whatever it carries away.

Photo: Partha Pratim Chattopadhyay

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