It all began with a knock on the door.
Koyel had been having slumbery days ever since winter vacation at school began. Christmas, and its following days until New Year, used to be the busiest days of the year for her. Used to be, that is, till she got a teaching position at the farthest and remotest possible school in the North 24 Paraganas. This was the time for those yearly fairs at Maidan- Handicrafts, Lexpo, Industrial Fair, Book Fair, not to mention the smaller and less visited ones. She lapped it all up with an eager desire for Culture; her Fair addiction had reached an extreme where her friends called her the "Fair Maniac". But not any more. For after her appointment at Dinabandhu Andrews School, and having to travel by bus and then by train and then by bus again to that venerable institution of learning everyday, she discovered that vacations are meant to be slept through and used as a means of forgetting one’s mortal woes.
Her mental world had automatically assorted itself conveniently into two halves. Getting a job and then getting "settled" was part of Ma and Baba’s plan for her future. But she was aggrieved at the loss of her most precious possession-freedom. Forever afterwards she saw her life arranged as "before the job" and "after the job" somewhat in the manner of the Pre-lapserian and Post-lapserian world of Paradise Lost. She saw herself bound to her routine like a bullock to its yoke. For her, all the imagined bliss of a teaching career faded with the onslaught of jaded reality.
Upamanyu’s visit had not made things better. Uncle and Auntie, Koyel felt, were the same as ever, but Upamnayu was a changed person. Oozing the air of confidence, in his Woodland boots and Nike jacket, he somehow seemed a thing of distance.
"Do you, even for a moment suffer from the illusion," Ma was heard saying to Baba over breakfast the following morning, " that Chatterjees came to see your new house?"
"No I do not," Baba commented over Newspaper and Tea.
Years of experience had taught him that the Everlasting Yea served very well for purposes of peace.
"They came to throw their son at your face and see if you regret your foolhardiness."
Koyel sat up expecting an argument. Years ago, as fond parents do, their parents, once colleagues at work, had agreed to have their children married and, like many hasty contracts, had broken it up again in no time.
But Koyel’s father was the last person on earth to suffer from a disproportionate mea culpa.
At this interesting turn of events, a knock on the door interrupted the hypothesis that her mother was about to formulate. "Don’t stir Ma, its for me," said Koyel and hastened to meet Gargi, whom she was expecting, from next door. Instead a group of young men, in their late twenties, surrounded her.
"Oh god, no, no donations please!" said she and was about to close the door when amongst the group, one stepped forward and planted a foot firmly on the threshold.
The implicit violence of the act rendered Koyel speechless. She opened her mouth to say something but words never came. The young man looked at her and a world of hatred, despair, hunger and desperation leaped out of those eyes. He was in a plain brown tee shirt and black trousers, with a beard of a week’s neglect. But Koyel noticed neither beard nor attire; she only noticed the eyes, which told tales of an ailing mother and hungry children at home. They were like a tragic peep show, a fast-forward of innumerable slides to give a glimpse of realms unknown, and frail.
Koyel stood shaking at the awe-inspiring spectacle of anguish; she had been touched by a nether world whose existence, to her, was only in newspaper articles about strikes and lockouts.
"Who is it?" Baba had come out of doors asking. Two or three of the group ventured inside.
"Sir, we are a group of youth rendered unemployed by the Bally bridge construction. Our factory had to relocate and we were handed discharge letters in no time. Sir, all of us are pass-graduates and have families and small children_"
"Yes, I am sure you do but there is nothing we householders can do about it, is there?" Baba told them. "You have to look for another job."
"Jobs are not had everyday!" the man with an eye contact with Koyel spoke up.
It clearly irritated Baba.
"Look young man, situations like these arise in everybody’s life. Instead of going around begging why don’t you set up a small shop of your own? Look at me. I retired three years ago but I keep working and earning to support my family."
"You shut up Pallab and let me speak," said a man who was perhaps the group leader.
"Sir, we are not here to beg. We have very good incense sticks from Shalimaar Industries. They have given us a sale target on fulfilling which we are likely to be absorbed at their Bangalore Factory. If only you will take these two packets, they come for a total of hundred and ten but ours is a concession rate of Rupees Hundred."
" God! Do you think we are going to take sticks worth a hundred rupees? Isn’t that outrageous?" By now it was Ma who had come out intending to drive away these crazy fellows neither father nor daughter were able to tackle.
" Ma you could easily do that if you make it a charitable act for your hungry sons. You see, we are trying to make an honest living. If we were driven to despair and went and looted a bank, we would amass a lot. But…" the speaker choked. A disturbing silence ensued. Both Koyel’s parents now had fear creeping up in their eyes.
"I will take it!" Koyel spoke up, knowing fully well that she was inviting both parents’ wrath. But that would be only after these men left. And when she handed over a well-earned hundred-rupee note to the group leader, she said, " You know I liked your calling my mother Ma. I never had a brother, and yours might have been a sale technique, but I read somewhere that no human being on this earth is more removed than a 52nd cousin of another. We all are related."
Koyel was usually a deep sleeper. She seldom dreamt and a week passed after this incident. She awoke one night, a terrified mother at her side. She couldn’t make head or tail of what she was being told and thought it a nightmare. A robbery was in progress, three houses in a row, all male members being tied hand to foot. What was it mother kept repeating? It went something like, "Don’t touch my daughter, don’t touch my daughter."
A few masked homogeneous faces around her made it clear that it was no dream. A hand grabbed the gold chain around her neck and pulled but it won’t come off.
A voice hissed, "Don’t you touch her!"
As the unknown hand released her, she looked up at the voice and met a pair of eyes long gone cold and out of humanity’s reach.
The two men stood face-to-face glaring menacingly at each other. Nothing registered on Koyel’s mind anymore. She remembered nothing from that traumatic night of robbery, when a few lakhs in cash and jewellery was looted from the three households in her Para including theirs.
"You can thank God that yours was the least affected house, Mr. Roy," the Police Inspector told Koyel’s father. "They were in a hurry to leave after looting your two neighbours."
" Miss, are you sure you remember nothing? Even the slightest hint on your part would go a long way in tracing the culprits, you know!" the Inspector took his leave with a frown.
But Koyel sat silently. It was not wholly untrue that she remembered nothing. Trauma is like that. But this trauma was slightly different. She only remembered two pairs of eyes that held the same narratives. Only she wasn’t sure which was which.
copy is posted as it was received. It has not been edited by TLM
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