There is this particular saying about God being benevolence personified for allowing us to select friends as per our choice because with relatives, you are not left with many (rather, any) options. People might refuse to admit this statement outwardly with the apprehension that they might be ostracized by society… but then, you know what society is like. They ostracize because according to a certain unwritten decree, they are supposed to do so, and feel that they must carry out this contractual obligation rather dutifully. Inwardly, however, everyone quite agrees that relations might be peachy till one point of time, but that does not stop them from being pernickety otherwise. Neither does it nullify the fact that they are the principle raison d’êtres behind those moments in your life, when you felt that evaporating from the surface of the earth was probably the only option feasible. As far as my relations are concerned I am not at all ashamed to admit that they are quite an eccentric lot, be it paternal or maternal, and have generously supplied me with ample amounts of such ‘moments’ so that I might not feel left out during coffee table discussions with fellow-sufferers.
Choto Pi is so distantly related to me that I have so far abandoned all attempts of trying to figure out the kilometers that lie in between our bloodline. ‘Pi’ is short for ‘Pishi’, because seven years of seniority or ‘distantly related’ is not the pretext on which one can be denied the right of asserting the perennial position of a paternal aunt one is otherwise (and legally) entitled to. For her age, she was more like an elder sister, although I had to address her as ‘Choto Pi’, and she made sure I offered her all the reverence of an aunt which is preordained to be a step up than an elder sister.
Choto Pi had taken up fashion designing, going against the ancestral norm in a family of Professors who had been in the profession since it was probably invented. It was therefore, not at all surprising that Choto Pi’s choice of career had been looked down upon by the elders (for whom fashion designing was equal to brainlessness) with much consternation and for about a year or so, she was branded as the black sheep in the family. She cared little, which acted as a huge put off and with time, everyone decided that her ‘brainlessness’ ought to be forgiven. She was, therefore, treated with something of an underlying sympathy for not having been able to turn out as bright as either of her parents. The countenance was misread by Choto Pi, who thought it as an acceptance of her unconventionality and in turn, gave the others a sorry air for having to comply with her at last. This was again invariably misconstrued as her humbleness at having been accepted as an underachiever.
Thus, each happily got the wrong end of the stick, which is a perfect recipe for maintaining harmony in an inquisitive family like ours.
Although Choto Pi’s choice of career had raised questions from many quarters, I was not one of them. I knew her better, and had people taken any notice of how much of a fashionista she had been, the career choice would not have been such a shocker. However, her fashion often fluctuated from outrageous to outlandish, and at times ended up being altogether ridiculous. But no, I could not tell her that although her mother, my distantly-related Thammi, did not refrain from speaking her mind out loud. She had little patience with Choto Pi’s beaded and feathered accessories, not to mention the kaleidoscopic prints which complimented the asymmetric cuts of her clothes. Besides, there was this continuous experimentation with her lustrous mane – dyeing, straightening, and curling – which Thammi found irksome and cautioned her that over time, she would soon get bald. Choto Pi never paid much heed, and Thammi had to console herself with the satisfaction that she had done her bit by warning her as much as her dignity would permit. Nagging was not Thammi’s style, and Choto Pi was glad of it.
Although weddings mean being engulfed by the ‘relative brigade’ from all sides, I enjoy it relatively once in a while. The catch, however, is that Choto Pi’s company is a must! When you have cousins who are eons younger than you, it becomes tiresome to hopelessly try blending into their juvenile prattle. In exchange for that, witnessing a fashion faux pas once in a while seems a better option any day. Besides, Choto Pi was fun in her own way, and we normally managed to have a good time together.
For Chotka’s wedding, I was certain of Choto Pi’s presence. Having lived close by each other’s house since kids and being the only child of their parents, Chotka had been Choto Pi’s best bid for extorting gifts during Bhai Phonta, whereas the former had his full share by pulling the latter’s leg in innumerable innovative ways. Being thus sure of having an ally for the three-four days of the wedding, I had no reasons to object. So Baba applied for his leave, we packed our suitcases, and with no bane of an examination peeping from unsuspecting corners, I could not have been less cheery. I always looked forward to going to Kolkata, and Chotka’s bungalow was the chief reason.
The house is in one of those areas in Kolkata which has managed to retain its old world charm alongside the bustle of a present-day society, both of them having blended with such perfect equanimity. The para, with its cricketing gullies and people engaged in addas at all odd hours, seemed like something out of the old black and white Bangla movies Maa so ardently watched. The house was also a beauty, with its rooms big enough to easily house two rooms of our pigeon roost of a flat, and during festive and family occasions, the bustle was the one to look out for.
Choto Pi stayed barely two stops away and so, early morning found her giving a helping hand to everyone who needed any. With our arrival, there was fresh excitement and I decided to make myself scarce as soon as the formality of touching everyone’s feet and answering irritating questions pertaining to studies with a plastic smile was over. Looking around, I found Choto Pi giving me a flustered look for some reason, and desperately signaling to meet her in the adjoining room. I became wary at once, but trudged along anyway since I knew I would not gain anything useful by participating in the family chitchat about people I hardly knew, or gossips about them I could not have cared any less about.
“I’m so glad you managed to come along, Titaan,” Choto Pi said, closing the door behind her. “I have this slight snag about something which you might help me about…”
There was something uncertain about Choto Pi’s demeanor and knowing her, nothing had ever come right out of her snags.
“Well…?” I said.
“It’s these…” and with that, she produced something out of a packet which made me take two steps backward. Considering how very against I am of any form of dramatic methodologies, taking two steps backward was huge coming from me.
“What do you think of them?” she asked.
The first word that came into my mind was ‘hideous’ when I laid eyes on the pair of stiletto pumps held out before me by an eager, outstretched hand. Haute pink in colour with red polka dots all over – and the heels painted black – I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to wear it, unless it was to make a complete fool out of themselves or to win some godforsaken bet. Jimmy Choo would probably have had a mini heart attack on beholding these ‘beauties’.
The skeptic eyes were boring into me, obviously expecting a reply, and definitely in the positive.
“They’re…well…different,” I opined, as actual opinions are supposed to remain with your own self in situations like these.
“I know! They’re unique in every way!” Choto Pi said fondly, having typically misread my hint as always. I debated for a while whether or not I should burst her bubble.
“The moment I set my eyes on these, I knew I must have them,” Choto Pi continued. The mousiness had been replaced with a renewed zeal at what she thought was my approval of her choice. “I mean, everyone buys black and golden, red and black, black and purple, even red and golden, but they are all so clichéd. Now, red and pink! That is some combination!”
‘A horrendous one’, I wanted to say.
“You wouldn’t believe how unkind Maa was about these” Choto Pi said sullenly.
It wasn’t hard to, either. But for the sake of appearing civil, I asked,
“Why? What did Thammi say?” Knowing Thammi, even ‘unkind’ would be an understatement where I was trying to control myself with great difficulty from saying something essentially mean.
“She said they looked like shoes borrowed from clowns with a mismatched heel attached carelessly on each of them,” Choto Pi said irately. “That generation will never understand what fashion is all about!”
For once (if not during the other occasions concerning Choto Pi), I was one with ‘that generation’, for Thammi appeared the opposite of unkind on this regard where I was bursting forth to say that the shoes looked like they had measles.
It was May 25, 2009, a date which everyone will remember as when the hurricane Ayla had hit Kolkata with disastrous consequences. The day, however, had an entirely different significance, since the tumult I faced that day was no less than an Ayla if not more. As the storm raged outside, the people within felt little of its repercussions. But that did not stop them from making bizarre speculations.
“The good thing about the storm is that it is taking place just before Khokon’s wedding,” some wiseacre Kakima was heard saying. “It signifies the end of everything inauspicious so that their married life begins with peace.”
“What if it is the other way round?” some other fatalist relative interjected in hushed tones. “What if it means that with this wedding, Khokon’s conjugal life will have a chaotic beginning?”
I was busy eavesdropping into this interesting bit of discourse when Maa came and announced that Choto Pi was looking for me.
“…And go get ready now!” she said. “The moment we see the storm showing signs of subsiding, we’ll leave immediately. Better leave early than at the last moment, that too on a day as such.”
“Has Chotka left?” I asked.
“Only a while ago. Now go quickly, Choto Pi is looking for you,” and with that, Maa went to join the gossip table.
I went into the room where many of the ladies of the house were applying the last strokes of the mascara and finishing dabs of compact. Choto Pi had managed to stand out even in that crowd, thanks to her sequenced red and pink sari which was claimed to have been bought especially for Chotka’s wedding. It practically hurt my eyes to withstand the glare of it, as Choto Pi looked like one of those fancy chandeliers you have at parties. Of course, this dear opinion was kept with me.
“Titaan! You look pretty,” Thammi said lovingly. I smiled. Choto Pi noticed me as this comment was made, and gave me a munificent look as if to say she approved of my style. I thought contemptuously that at least my turquoise sari wasn’t going to blind anyone at the wedding.
Someone hollered from outside that the storm was beginning to draw to a close, and that everyone should hurry up since the Tata Sumos were waiting to leave. All and sundry began crowding before the mirror to give ‘finishing touches’ for the umpteenth time, looking as if they were the ones going to sit by the fire, and a lot of elbowing took place because of this. Choto Pi was calmly curling her eyelashes with a funny looking instrument.
“How much longer are you going to take, Mishti?” Thammi asked tiredly. Choto Pi did not reply.
“Have you turned selectively deaf?” Thammi said again.
“Uff Maa!” Choto Pi said irritably, “Can’t you see I’m applying eye liner? If it gets smudged, it will be your entire fault!”
“Whatever you do, hurry up,” Thammi said. “Practically everyone is leaving, and we don’t want to get caught in another storm.”
“You all can leave. Titaan and I will presently be there,” Choto Pi said lightly.
The idea did not sound very encouraging when I honestly would have preferred going with the lot of them rather than being stranded alone with Choto Pi and her dolling up which was showing no signs of coming to an end.
“What do you mean…?” Thammi began.
“Let her be,” said Dadu as he suddenly entered through the door. “Let her take her own sweet time to get ready and come.” Raising his voice, he said, addressing Choto Pi, “Try to reach before dinner gets over.”
Choto Pi was still engrossed in beautifying herself. I looked about helplessly, not knowing what to do.
“Titaan, do you want to leave with us?” Dadu asked kindly, getting some inkling of my plight. Choto Pi flashed a look which said it all.
“No Dadu… I think I’ll wait for Choto Pi,” I mumbled nervously, fully conscious of the gamble I had just played.
“Very well then,” said Dadu. “We’ll leave one Sumo for you two, see that you don’t delay. Mishti, I hope you know the wedding starts at nine. Khokon will be disappointed if you don’t show up on time. And don’t forget you have Titaan with you. That is an added responsibility.”
I don’t know how much of what Choto Pi heard, because I felt she gave a slight nod. From within, I was deliberating whether or not I should leave with Dadu and Thammi when there still was time, since I gathered Maa and Baba had left already. In spite of the forebodings from within, I decided otherwise, a decision I knew I was going to regret very soon.
Time snailed on, and yet Choto Pi was not done with.
“How much more longer will you take, Choto Pi? It’s almost eight,” I asked tiredly.
“Just a few minutes,” said she, like she had been for the past half an hour or so.
I sadly thought of the delicious starters that were probably being served – the chicken tikkas, and paneer pakoras, and cheese balls – all of which I was going to miss, thanks to Choto Pi. I thought I would count myself lucky if we managed to reach in time for the dinner and not have to console ourselves with the leftovers.
Just as when I had almost made up my mind that I had had enough of Choto Pi’s dawdling, and was about to threaten her that I was leaving, she said,
“Now for the shoes, and I’ll be done.”
The words sounded like music to my ears as I hastily got up from the stool I was sitting on, smartened my hair up a bit and checked if the kohl had smeared or not.
“How do I look?” she asked, flashing a wide smile.
“Gorgeous!” I lied, for there is nothing I detest more than overdoing, which is exactly what Choto Pi had done. “Now can we leave?”
With her red and pink sari and matching polka dotted shoes, Choto Pi’s look was no less theatrical, and I certainly don’t mean it as a compliment. Added to that, she had a golden sequenced clutch. Granted, weddings are about bling to some extent, but this gloss was too much to handle! I flashed a look at my wristwatch. It was eight, and the wedding would start exactly in an hour.
The Tata Sumo whizzed down the desolated roads at top speed, since even the driver was aware that we were running late. Looking about, I realized that the roads were unusually empty for eight in the evening. Uprooted trees and electric poles lay like some gigantic paralyzed beast, looking even more ominous in the faint street lights. The sky was surprisingly cloudless, but the slush and puddles everywhere bore testimony of what the city had witnessed that evening. Choto Pi was unusually quiet, which is never the case. Maybe, realization had dawned that she would miss out on the lip-smacking starters and thus the regret at having taken up so much time.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes or so when the Sumo’s engine began to groan in a peculiar way, and before we could comprehend, it stopped altogether. We exchanged anxious looks, as the driver groaned sourly from the front seat. Choto Pi mustered some courage and asked as casually as she could,
“Is something the matter, Dada?”
The man grunted and said no more, which wasn’t exactly very helpful because it conveyed nothing. The fellow could have either meant that we don’t need to worry, or that we definitely needed to! But how was that to be gathered unless he opened his precious mouth which, it seemed, he had little inclination to? Presently he got down and opened the Sumo’s bonnet. His head disappeared underneath it as we heard him tinkering about with the machinery. Inside the car, Choto Pi and I sat with bated breath. Even for the air conditioning, I was conscious of sweat gathering on my forehead which I dabbed away as gently as I could.
The driver’s head resurfaced in a while.
“There seems to be some problem with the engine,” he said curtly with a look as if it was our fault. “I’ll have to get some mechanic to repair, but that will take a while. The nearest garage is a few kilometers away, so I’ll leave in a taxi. Should I stop a taxi for you then, ma’am?”
“There will be no need for that, Dada,” said Choto Pi with a toss of her head. “We can manage that, I’m sure.”
“But Choto Pi…” I began.
“Meanwhile, I think you should get the mechanic. Don’t worry, I’ll tell Baba what the matter was, and that it wasn’t your fault,” Choto Pi said.
Fault, in deed. If anyone was at fault then it was Choto Pi. Had she not gone piling makeup for hours, we could have left long back with the others. And of course, I was at fault too. WHY did I not have the good sense of leaving with Thammi and Dadu when the latter had asked me?
I could not be sure, but in all likelihood even the driver was irritated with Choto Pi’s patronizing ways. That was probably the reason he did not persist as one would have otherwise, and after locking the door of the Sumo from outside, got on the first taxi that stopped and left us abandoned to our devices. In the light of the street lamps, my watch showed eight twenty. With my limited knowledge regarding the streets of Kolkata, I could not tell where exactly we were. I did not think even Choto Pi knew, because she nearly jumped when I said,
“I think we should stop a taxi. We don’t have much time, and the frequency of taxis isn’t that good, either. What do you say, Choto Pi?”
“Yes, but before that I need to call up Baba and ask him where the venue is,” Choto Pi said briskly. “I don’t know much about the roads or areas. One seldom does when one always goes everywhere in a car…”
There was a marked pride even in this, but I was too worried to bother myself with that. Before I could say anything, Choto Pi let out a little gasp.
“Titaan, where is my clutch?!”
“What do you mean? It’s supposed to be with you,” I said mildly, with the intuition of something ominous looming directly over our heads.
“No it isn’t! My cellphone, cash, lip-gloss, wet wipes…everything is in it!”
“Did you drop it somewhere? Or did you leave it at home? Or…?” something struck me as I ran towards the parked Sumo. Choto Pi followed as hastily as her stilettos would permit.
Through the glass of the Sumo’s window, both of us saw Choto Pi’s golden clutch lying in the backseat. There was no way we could open the door; the only keys were with the driver, and he had left a few minutes back.
“You really have NO clue about where we possibly might be?” I asked again, incredulity layered with resentment.
“Look about you, Titaan. Do you see anything which might give me a hint whatsoever? No signboards, no people, even the traffic has began to wilt,” said Choto Pi throwing up her hands dramatically. “And nighttime always makes it difficult to understand where…”
“Do you, at least, remember the venue’s name? Some club it was…”
“The Calcutta Club, Titaan!” Choto Pi said reproachfully. “You’re talking like its some ordinary, inexpensive club.”
“Whether it’s expensive or otherwise isn’t consequential right now, Choto Pi,” I said desperately. “What matters is that we get a hint, or better still, directions to reach there well in time.”
“There’s something we can do!” Choto Pi said, her face turning bright. “We can halt a taxi, get on it, ask for the driver’s cell phone (I’m sure he’ll have one), call up Baba, and ask for the directions! Besides, any driver will be able to tell Baba where we are right now, and he can accordingly tell him where Calcutta Club is.”
“And pray who is going to give us a free ride?” I asked sarcastically.
“We’ll pay him once we reach the venue.”
For once, Choto Pi’s idea sounded commendable enough to give a shot. The only thing left was to halt a taxi.
“Leave everything to me,” Choto Pi said pompously, “I’ll manage that well enough.”
I was not very keen on the idea of her taking the center stage, because that sounded like the perfect recipe for further catastrophes. But even for my eighteen year old self, I knew that in our present position, I had only two things to rely on – my luck and (unfortunately) Choto Pi. With the unassuming number of taxis operating, had Choto Pi not stood on the middle of the road waving her hands like a windmill, I doubt that even the one that cared to halt would have.
The moment it did, Choto Pi rushed towards the window and tersely knocked on the drawn up glass with her knuckles. The driver drew it down with a quizzical expression.
“Dada, do you have a cellphone?” Choto Pi asked cloaking her anxiety with a certain straightforwardness.
“Cellphone…?” the man looked as confused as one could be. Here was someone asking him for his cellphone and not for a ride to Alipore!
“Yes, yes…mobile phone,” rephrased Choto Pi, “Do you have one?”
“Yes I have. But…” the driver still looked uncertain.
“Here, give it to me! Quick!” Choto Pi said eagerly.
“I have to make an urgent call…can’t you just give it to me?!”
Choto Pi’s snappiness has its way, and soon the driver unwillingly handed out his phone with a crumpled look. She snatched it as her bangles jingled noisily, but her face fell within seconds.
“What! Low battery!” she cried hollowly. “Couldn’t you have just told me…?”
“How could I when you wouldn’t even let me speak!” the driver muttered sullenly. Choto Pi went on grumbling without paying the slightest heed.
“I could have stopped another taxi and asked for a cellphone instead of…”
“I think going to a telephone booth would be helpful, madam,” he returned sardonically. “You won’t get many taxis to stop to take you anywhere at this hour, forget lending you their phones…”
Any further argument would have only added on to our exasperation, and so we reluctantly let him leave.
“Now what?” I asked, gulping down some spittle to control my voice from quivering.
“Let’s start walking,” Choto Pi said.
“Walking? What good will that do?” I asked hollowly. “We can’t go on walking aimlessly like this, can we? We don’t even have a clue where we are!”
“Stop grumbling will you, Titaan?” Choto Pi gave me one of her famous snaps. “It’s bad enough being in the situation we are in without you rubbing it even more on my face!”
“But I was only…” I began.
“Start walking,” Choto Pi commanded shortly. “I’m sure someone will notice we have not yet reached the venue and try calling us on my phone. So when I don’t answer it, they will call up the driver. He will definitely tell them what happened.”
“What if they thought we got a taxi and are en route?” I asked.
“What if they thought we haven’t got one and are marooned, which is why we are late?” countered Choto Pi.
“So…you suggest we go and wait by the Sumo then?” I asked timidly.
“We can just start walking,” said Choto Pi. “Of what use will it be to wait unnecessarily? Besides,” Choto Pi lowered her voice, “we might attract unwanted attention.”
I had almost forgotten that both Choto Pi and I were wearing jewelry which did call for a reason to be concerned. Besides, there had been a lot of kidnappings going on of late in the city. At least if we walked, I reasoned, people would not get suspicious that we were lost. So, albeit unwilling, we set off on our journey on foot. I was past caring now to glance at my wristwatch and in fact, avoided looking at it on purpose so that I might not panic. As we kept walking, trying to manage our saris to the best of our abilities, I could hear Choto Pi’s heels go clippity-clop like a horse. She couldn’t walk as briskly as she would have wanted to; there was a possibility of twisting an ankle or both! So she kept wincing after the preliminary attempts to trying to avoid the jabs of pain, and looked like a clumsy artiste on stilts (and in deed, they were no better). Soon, she began to lag behind and I had to turn my head once in a while to check if she was lumbering along. People walking past us shot more than one glance with such furrowed eyebrows and judgmental eyes that walking up to them and asking for help was out of the question.
The ‘clippity-clop’-ing stopped abruptly. I turned around and saw Choto Pi standing about ten paces away by the sidewalk, her face distorted with pain.
“I can’t continue this way, Titaan. It’s out of the question!” she said, brushing aside a stray lock of hair that had come loose and was sticking limply on her forehead.
“I know Choto Pi, but we don’t have much of a choice,” I said, walking over to her side.
“Of course we have! We can open our shoes!”
“I mean, open my shoes.”
“You can’t be serious!” I said incredulously.
“It’s impossible, Titaan. My heels have turned sore, and I have got a shoe bite I think.”
With that, Choto Pi wrenched out her pumps before I could fully get a grip of the situation. In the neon streetlights, I could see her feet quivering and a small part of the skin of her ankle had been scraped out so badly that you could clearly glimpse the pink layer underneath. Seeing that, Choto Pi made a low hissing sound like steam releasing from a pressure cooker.
“I’m not putting these back,” she said with a voice of finality.
“What do you mean…?”
“I’ll walk like this, barefoot. It’s better than walking with these beastly heels on!”
Choto Pi had already opened her stilettos and was standing on the wet, muddy pitch road with the air of one standing on a woolen carpet. I looked about nervously, hoping no one had seen Choto Pi do what she had just done…
…Except that everyone had. Even those who were not previously, were staring unabashedly now. Some teenaged boys on the other foot were looking at our direction, not even attempting to hide their sniggers as they openly eyed Choto Pi’s bare feet and the pumps lying by her. I kept fidgeting uncomfortably, but Choto Pi looked positively unconcerned.
“It’s such a delight to be able to stand normally again,” she said dreamily. “To feel the damp roads, the kiss of the wet, soft mud on my feet…”
This certainly was the most ill-timed poetic fervor.
“Choto Pi…do we…start walking?” I asked, venturing to curb the passionate bard in her.
“Yes, but what of my stilettos?” Choto Pi asked with a distressed look.
“Well…you can take them along or leave…”
“LEAVE?!” Choto Pi cried faintly even before I could complete my sentence. “Titaan, they cost me four thousand rupees! How can I leave them here?!”
Too fat a sum of money for a pair of repulsive stilettos as that, I thought. Choto Pi, meanwhile, nimbly picked up her stilettos with an air feigned apathy and walked ahead without further ado. There was something nonplussing in the ennui of her stride, which called for some reason to be concerned. How long were we to keep walking this way? I wondered, trying my best to avoid the insufferable looks and sneers of the pedestrians. Choto Pi looked like she could not have cared less, and walked on confidently, barefoot on the one hand, and carrying the pair of stilettos on the other. I swear I would have died of shame had I been in Choto Pi’s shoes…er…bare feet!
“Maa, why is that woman not wearing her shoes?”
I had my eyes fixed on the ground as I walked, not daring to look anywhere else out of fear that the people on the road would swallow me with their stares. But at this comment, coming clearly from a shrilly voice with a lisp, I could not help but look up. The woman whose child had made that defiant statement was trying her best to avoid my eyes.
“Are her shoes torn?” the child asked inquisitively.
“Babu…keep quite! Didn’t I ask you…” the mother tried her best to silence the chatterbox, but to no avail.
“Maa, remember the dwarf clown at the circus?” the child continued excitedly, much to my chagrin. “His shoes were dotted like this!”
The mother gave an anxious look to check if I had heard or not. When our eyes met, she hastily rebuked the child, although her furtive smirk was not condoned by me. They hastened their steps and walked past us. I ventured to steal a glance at Choto Pi to mark her reaction. She seemed surprisingly unconcerned, although the faint pink of her ears said something else.
My legs were aching with pain, but I did not dare to say anything out loud. Judging by Choto Pi’s features, she did not look very benign at the moment. We were still not very sure where we were heading for; could it be that no one had still noticed that we were missing? I looked at my wristwatch unwillingly – five minutes to nine. In another five minutes the wedding was to start. Amidst that entire bustle, they might have overlooked. But Maa? And Thammi?
My thoughts were interrupted by an exasperating clanging of coins in a metal bowl. A beggar of the worst sort with his scruffy beard, deplorable features and dressed in the filthiest clothes imaginable, was sitting by the corner of the street. Judging by the rain and all, it was easy to tell that his ‘business’ was not going too well this evening. Maybe that was why the whining was laced with an extra dollop of wretchedness, which increased further as we tried to walk past as briskly as possible.
“Maa, give this poor man something,” he moaned pathetically. “I did not get to eat anything for the whole day. Give this poor man something, and God will bless you.”
“Bless me, in deed!” Choto Pi hissed in an undertone. “If God could have, he would have spared us this torture. But since he hasn’t, He clearly doesn’t want to!”
“De na, Maa…de, na,” the voice griped on.
“Ah! Stop nagging, will you? I don’t have anything to give!” Choto Pi barked. I tactfully ignored looking at the chap, fearing that I might be the next target.
“Choto Pi, let’s go further off and stand for a while, shall we? My feet are aching badly,” I mumbled cautiously. By now, I think even Choto Pi had worn out considerably and so agreed to my proposal without any further grimaces.
“Saw the girl?” a voice trailed spitefully after us. We had walked a few steps away from the beggar and were standing, exhausted, when I turned around and saw that another beggar had joined our friend at the corner of the road.
“That one…the one holding her shoes in her hand,” continued our friend, loudly enough for us to hear. “Did you see? She’s not wearing her shoes, but carrying them on her hand!”
“Is that so?” the other fellow asked, surprised.
“What else?” our friend mocked. “Here she is, blessed with shoes to wear. And she prefers walking barefoot! Don’t I know? She is afraid her shoes will be spoiled in the mud! But aren’t shoes meant for walking on the roads? Or do they wear shoes now and walk on their beds?”
“Ah brother, the city is filled with misers!” said the other fellow somberly. “Take our plight, for instance. Gone are the times when people were generous with us. Just the other day, a man approached while I was sitting. Look here, said he, I don’t have a two rupee change. Would you mind if I gave you a ten rupee note and took eight rupees from you, instead? That way, both of us will have our way.”
“Recession, brother, recession,” consoled our friend. “Everyone is having a tough time, but do they all shirk from their responsibilities? Except this girl… Never! Never, in my life and in the city of Kolkata will you come across a miser of this degree!”
The conversation had left me awed for as long as it continued, but at the last words, I fearfully turned towards Choto Pi and found her trying her best to ignore. When she saw me looking at her, she snapped,
“What? Had your breather? Now if Madame desires can we start walking again?”
That was the most unfair, lashing out her anger at me as if I had encouraged the beggars to talk mean about her. But by now, even I was too tired to retort, and so nodded my head as a sign of readiness to continue on our quest for the Holy Grail, or precisely the venue, which was no short of it.
There seemed to be no end to this torture. I even looked up hopefully once or twice when any taxi appeared from the opposite direction in the hope of it stopping and glimpsing a familiar face emerging out of it. Nothing of the sort happened, except for taxi drivers craning their heads outside the windows giving anticipating looks, which we cautiously avoided.
“O Didi! Why not hire a taxi?” a cheeky voice called out. “It would save your sandals from getting spoiled.”
I knew from which quarter that callous remark had been made; to be sure it was one of the taxi drivers from the nearby stand. But speaking of soiled sandals, my eyes darted somewhat concernedly towards Choto Pi’s feet, which lay exposed to the worst of all elements. They were caked with mud and the crimson nails which had been coated with delicate care, using the most expensive of nail polish had long disappeared under layers and layers of sludge. Bits of leaves, toffee wrappers and the like stuck to her feet like a host of flies fixated on sweetmeats. Choto Pi, otherwise finicky about appearances and cleanliness, seemed least bothered at the damage done to her feet and walked on with the same confident stride as before. I tried my best to avoid the small puddles although I was aware that the hem of my sari had got spattered with mud.
A low moan.
Had I misheard, or was there something that moved in the dark alley to our right? I could not tell if Choto Pi had heard it or not because she kept on walking without a word.
The moan now took the form of deep throated growls which was enough to make my skin creep as I hastily clung on to Choto Pi’s arm in panic.
“What…was that?” I asked shakily.
Before Choto Pi could venture to reply, a few pairs of eyes blazed at us from the dark corners. My feet felt like they had turned into blocks of ice and a shiver ran right down my spine as I realized what those smoldering charcoals indicated.
“Dogs…Choto Pi…” I whispered hoarsely.
As they emerged from the shadows I did not see them as they were, six menacing fiends, scrofulous with bared fangs, but as fat injections with thick syringes in them. The very image made my insides churn like a washing machine does as it gathers speed.
Choto Pi did not exactly look very brazen, but a curious gaze hovered in her eyes. That element, which goes by the name of ‘fear’, was nowhere to be seen!
“Choto Pi!” I whispered urgently. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Yes… look at their eyes,” Choto Pi said somewhat absently.
“Eyes? What eyes? Have you seen their appearance? They look like reincarnations of Cerberus!”
“What is cerb…?” Choto Pi gave a confused look.
“Never mind,” I said briefly.
I was clearly in no mood to explain my Grecian allusions to her at that moment! Not with these hell-hounds right before us, ready to tear us apart or so it seemed. I am not exactly the sort who gets unnerved seeing common stray dogs, but these looked far from those heaps of bones one usually comes across.
“Look into their eyes, Titaan!” Choto Pi muttered again.
“What for? I’m not love stuck that…”
“Don’t be a dimwit! If you look into the eyes of an animal, they get hypnotized…”
“Whoever told you that?”
I wanted to ask as to how was I supposed to look into six pairs of eyes all at once, but clearly, either I was not a very good hypnotist, or these dogs belonged to that rare breed which defied all laws of animal psychology. They kept on advancing their steps, and the growls turned into full-throated, blood-curdling barks.
Loosing all sense of mental balance, Choto Pi did something very brave… and stupid… at the same time. In an attempt to scare the dogs away, she flung her stilettos one after the other in confused agitation. I opened and closed my mouth, wanting to say something but not managing to anyhow. And as for the damage, it had already been done.
The effect was admirable. The dogs turned their backs and disappeared into the darkness of the alley with their tails in between their hind legs. But in the stampede, one of the heels of Choto Pi’s stilettos broke with a snap!
“MY FOUR THOUSAND RUPEES WORTH STILETTOS!” cried Choto Pi with the anguish of a hero’s mother whose son has just received a bullet from one of the baddies of some typically, corny Hindi movie of the seventies.
Had the situation been otherwise, I would have definitely rejoiced at the martyrdom of the obnoxious pair of stilettos, martyred as they had been for a good cause. But now, I could not help feeling sorry for poor Choto Pi, maybe even a tad guilty. Probably my constant loathing for the shoes had led to this. Besides, she had been walking for quite a long time without them and was possibly thinking of putting them on, but now, that would not happen.
In a ‘Nirupa Roy’-esque fashion, Choto Pi hurtled towards the shoes whereas I was rooted at my position with a mass of confused emotions bubbling within me like some potion simmering inside a cauldron. Before I could collect myself, I saw Choto Pi kneel on the road beside her broken stiletto with a vacant look. The next moment, silent tears were streaming down her face like a leaky tap which refused to stop.
After the encounter with the dogs, we decided to keep strictly to the main roads, not even daring to venture anywhere close to an alley. It was nine thirty, as I unwillingly glanced at my watch and could not help imagining what the situation was like at the wedding. Had they still not noticed that we were missing? Not even Maa or Thammi? I looked about to see if there was a police station nearby from where we might call up someone. There were a few people on the road, and even fewer public transports.
Choto Pi was lagging behind with the same vacant look, carrying her stilettos on one hand. She had refused to leave them on the road, and was probably taking it with her as a souvenir of our misadventures. I did not have the courage to tell her that she was not looking very…normal. There was nothing left of her acutely done makeup, and she had resorted to muttering inaudibly to herself which was further reason to panic. I wanted to stop very badly for my feet felt like lead, but my better judgment prevented me from pronouncing my desire out loud.
A strangled cry came from behind me, and before I could turn around, to my horror, I saw a group of urchins run past me and hotly on their pursuit was…Choto Pi! Not understanding what had happened, I broke into a run as well, tucking the aanchal of my sari on my waist.
“Choto Pi! What’s the matter?” I shouted my lungs out. My shrill voice grabbed the attention of some by-standers.
“Thief! Thief!” Choto Pi shrieked like a maniac. “They’ve stolen my expensive stilettos! Snatched them from my hands!”
The damned stilettos again! What good would it do to the urchins to make away with a broken pair of stilettos? I gathered that they had probably not realized that those were shoes, after all. Maybe from a distance, the polka-dots had given out the wrong impression of being a fancy handbag or something similar. Otherwise, who in their right minds would care to steal a pair of battered shoes?
As far as typical mob-mentality went, we soon had a train of people running without the slightest inkling about what the fuss was all about. To be sure, they had thought some valuables had been stolen. I wished I could tell the people to get back to their more important works rather than run after a broken shoe, but at that moment, stopping Choto Pi’s mad chase was more important. I prayed fervently that the urchins made away with the stilettos; that was the only way to spare us from mortal humiliation which lay before us if the offenders were caught.
“Choto Pi! Stop running! Those shoes…they are past repair, anyway.”
“I am NOT letting them have my four thousand rupees worth stilettos!” Choto Pi’s stubborn voice could clearly be heard above the voice of the mob hurling abuses behind me.
Hang the four thousand rupees! Had she still not had enough of those miserable stilettos? I could see a few men run past me and almost on the verge of catching hold of the culprits. This was the end, I thought hollowly. We would now become an official laughing stock to add on to our miseries. I made one last attempt to discourage Choto Pi.
“CHOTO PI!!! STOP!!!”
Mercifully, my final effort did not go in vain. Choto Pi halted like a toy whose battery has just been taken out, and like a toy, the next thing I knew was that she had collapsed! I frantically ran by her side, as did the other people who had been running all this while. Everyone encircled us, asking, speaking and suggesting all at once, and the confusion left me dizzy and unnerved. I lifted her head and lay it on my lap, my composure finally giving way in the form of tears running down my cheek.
“What happened? Is she hurt?”
“Low blood pressure…?”
“Move aside! Move aside! Let fresh air come in!”
“Don’t cry, child. Your sister will come around in a while…”
“Oh Dada! We need to see how we can bring back her consciousness…”
“Does anyone have a bottle of water?!”
I took a small bottle of water that was handed to me by someone in the crowd and sprinkled some on Choto Pi’s face, shaking her gently and trying my best to revive. In a few seconds, she stirred unconsciously, and I could see her lips move faintly.
“Yes, yes, Choto Pi…what is it? Do you want some water?” I asked sanguinely.
Gracious! She was still after those wretched stilettos! I debated whether or not I should break the sad news to her, but before that, a volley of questions was shot at me.
“What is she saying?”
Which meant the mention of the stilettos had escaped their ears? I exhaled weakly. While there was time, I could cook up some story before Choto Pi could gain her full consciousness and start mourning about the shoes out loud.
“Does she need anything?”
“Wasn’t something stolen? I heard her call out ‘thief! thief!’”
“No… I mean, yes!” I said hastily. “Her handbag…”
I HAD to lie.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” said a feisty young college student. “An FIR ought to be lodged…”
“No, no Dada…” I said rapidly, and added in an undertone, “FIR for a pair of stilettos?”
“No?” the boy sounded surprised. “You are not getting it…these things need to be…”
What was wrong with the fellow? Couldn’t he just drop the idea of dragging in the police? Thankfully, the other people thought the same.
“What good will calling the police do now?”
“In deed! Look at her condition…” Choto Pi had, meanwhile, relapsed into what I thought was a deep slumber.
“Should we hospitalize her?”
My eyes darted unconsciously towards her feet and I was aghast to find them bleeding profusely. How had she managed to do that?
“Wait…where are her slippers?”
The dreaded question! I was thinking of cooking up some new story all over again when a light flashed directly on my face. A taxi headlight. Minutes later, the door opened and two people came out, seeing whom I could have cried with happiness – Bimal Kaku and Ranjana Kakima, Chotka’s colleagues and friends! It was as if my guardian angels had come down on earth in person!
“Is it them?” I heard Ranjana Kakima’s concerned voice call out from behind Bimal Kaku, who was trying to get past the crowd around us.
“Yes, it is,” he called out reassuringly before continuing with a dazed voice, “Titaan! What happened to Mishti?”
“Kaku…” was all I could say, as Choto Pi finally showed some signs of reviving.
“Where are her shoes?” echoed Ranjana Kakima.
I was in no mood to narrate the ill-fated stiletto saga before a bunch of strangers gawking at me with the unmistakable interest of an audience waiting for the climax of a whodunit. Bimal Kaku sensed my unwillingness and quickly said,
“Now, now…we ought to take the two of them back. But before that, we need to take Mishti to see a doctor. Meanwhile,” he said, turning towards Ranjana Kakima, “call up Khokon and tell him we’ve found them. And ask him to inform Mashima as well…”
“Is…Maa alright, Bimal Da?” Choto Pi had fully gained her consciousness by now.
“Alright? You should be glad she has still not fainted!” said Ranjana Kakima, dialing her cellphone and walking towards the waiting taxi.
Bimal Kaku and I helped Choto Pi to stand between us. She was still wobbly at her feet and looked positively exhausted. My own body was paining so badly that I knew I could neither eat nor sleep that night.
“Carefully, dear, carefully,” Ranjana Kakima said kindly as Choto Pi limped in.
“Calcutta Club,” said Bimal Kaku, turning towards the driver.
As the motor started, I looked out of the window and saw the taxi pull out from amidst the confused crowd who appeared rather crestfallen for not getting out the entire story.
What happened when we reached the venue at eleven, is a different chapter altogether. Choto Pi hobbled out of the taxi, her feet bandaged, and I followed with an uncomfortable air. It was no secret that we had become the stars of the evening much more than Chotka’s bride was, and the celebrity status was, for once, not very agreeable at that moment. Thammi was not very sure if she was to censure or cry, but seeing Choto Pi’s condition, the former consideration was dropped. Quite a few people praised me for being brave on the face of peril (or specifically, Choto Pi’s stupidity), but I was so worn out that nothing seemed to register properly in my head.
“The driver had called us right after he left you two,” said Chotka. “He said you will be coming presently in a taxi, and although I should have known Mishti better…” and here, a condescending look was given to an unconcerned Choto Pi “… I thought both of you would reach in no time.”
“But time passed on and there were no signs,” said Baba. “So we tried calling Mishti on her phone. No one answered.”
“So we finally decided to go searching for you,” said Ranjana Kakima, “and decided that the last resort would be going to the police…”
“It is all her fault!” said Thammi amidst her sobs. “Makeup and more of makeup…!”
Ironically, nothing remained of Choto Pi’s makeup for which everything started in the first place. She was mutely eating off her plate and for once had nothing to say in her defense.
“But what happened to those hideous shoes of yours?” said Thammi without any pretensions about her obvious loathing.
Choto Pi looked at me, and I narrated the chain of events, trying my best not to portray her in her comic glory. However, the stolen sniggers punctured every now and then indicated that I was not being very successful at it. In fact, my own superciliousness was so intense that try as I may, I could not bring myself to be neutral in this aspect.
“Come now…let us not be too harsh on her,” said Maa sympathetically. “It was as hard on her as it was on us, and none of us had dreamt that something…of this sort…would happen.” There was no hiding Maa’s amusement although she was trying hard to keep a straight face.
And as far as Choto Pi was concerned, she had learnt her lesson well enough.
“No more stilettos for me,” she declared, “for as long as I live. And here I pronounce this before you so that you all may stand as witnesses to my claim.”
‘Amen to that,’ I thought with a sigh of relief.
Although the statement had been made clearly, it had probably not quite reached Fate’s ears…
Or maybe Fate decided to have the last laugh…
Either way, imagine Choto Pi’s anguish when she was eagerly waiting for her share of the tatya, and that being handed out, was almost dropped with a faint shriek.
For inside the carefully cellophane-wrapped tray, amidst the sari and cosmetics, lay a pair of exquisite jet black stilettos!