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An Animal Attraction

Short Story - By Prema Sastri

Manasi moved among the guests, hoping she would not be noticed. This was not easy as she was the wife of Debashish Ghosh, director of the prestigious Hariyali agricultural institute outside Bangalore. He had recently received a Padma Bhushan from the government. The party was being held in his honour, by the chief administrator, Subroto Chatterjee.

At that moment the director was in a corner of the room, engaged in leaning over Lipika, Manasi’s cousin. Lipika was wearing a grass green sari with an off shoulder blouse, that revealed generous portions of her interior. They were oblivious to the presence of everyone around them.

Sunanda Chatterjee, in black georgette and a three tier pearl necklace, stopped to speak to her. She gave Deb and Lipika a brief glance, and faded away. She was replaced by her husband, Subroto. He had an affable smile. “It’s hot for Bangalore, this year.” “I think it will rain soon.” “I hope so, Sunanda is worried about the garden.” He avoided looking in Deb’s direction, as he announced that dinner was served. They moved in.

The table was laid with Bengalee delicacies. There was chicken biryani along with Macher Jhol, made from hilsa fish. It consisted of fish heads with eyes intact. There was a mixed vegetable–chorchori-luchis or purees, singaras.or spicy samosas ,vegetables in rich gravies, and salads arranged like flower petals. Dessert was rasogulla and rice kheer. The centre piece was a bowl with floating lilies. The diners picked up ceramic plates, embroidered serviettes and gleaming cutlery.

Manasi sought the refuge of food. It was not for long. Deb and Lipika entered. His hand was on her shoulder, like a lion pawing its mate. All heads turned towards them. Eyes gave her sidelong looks, to watch her reaction. Manasi worked up an animated conversation, with a surprised young research assistant, whom she had never seen before.She kept her eyes on her plate.

After the dinner, when they reached home, Manasi went to the bedroom. Earlier, Deb used to sneak out at night, thinking she was asleep. Of late, he had abandoned all pretences of joining her.

She looked at herself in the mirror. She saw a middle aged woman with grey in her hair. She was still slim, with the fair complexion that had been her pride. The reflection could not compete with Lipika, whose juicy skin was the colour of a ripe jamun berry. Her curves undulated like sand dunes. Lipika, at twenty five, was thirty years younger than Deb. She had come for a short holiday of a few days. She showed no sign of leaving. She responded to Manasi’s hints with a smile, and promises of an early departure. Deb brushed aside all comments.

Manasi’s family thought she was lucky when Deb agreed to marry her. He was the nephew of a famous scientist. With his connections he had access to the best laboratories in the world. He became the director of Hariyali at a young age. Honour upon honour followed, the Padma Bhushan being the latest. The director’s house was a beautifully designed building with a large garden. Manasi and Deb led a busy and fulfilling life, with frequent trips abroad. He was a kind husband,devoted to their son, Amulya, who was studying for his Ph.D in chemistry at Rutgers University in the U.S.A. Overnight, her pasture had been turned into a jungle, with a strange creature prowling in her territory.

She shrank at the picture of how foolish Deb must be looking before his peers. She tried to seem unconcerned and behave as usual. She prayed for strength to carry out her purpose.

The next day was the ninth, and final, day of the Durga Puja festival. The Bengalee association had decorated the community hall with marigold garlands and coloured bulbs. The idol of Durga was on a stage. She wore a red sari and held a sword, dripping with blood in her hand. She was riding a tiger. Strobe lights and the roll of drums added a mystical effect. All morning conch shells had sounded to herald the event. Sandesh was distributed to those in the hall.

There were long queues waiting to worship the Goddess. A volunteer led Manasi to the front. As she bent in obesiance, a red hibiscus fell from the idol’s hand, on to her head. She looked up to see flashing eyes and red lips. The lips seemed to curl in scorn.

Manasi realised she deserved the reproof. She had cringed, instead of giving battle. The flower had dropped on the sindur, or vermilion powder, in the parting of her hair; the sign of a married woman. It gave her rights.

She found an opportunity, when Lipika was out shopping. Deb was in his study. She walked in. He raised his head from his papers. “We can’t go on like this.” “Like what?” “Your affair with Lipika is the talk of the town.” “It’s nobody’s business, but mine.” “And mine, or have you forgotten me?” “Nothing has changed. You are still my wife, the mistress of this house.” “How can I be a wife, when you have another woman in your bed?” Deb’s voice was sad. “I’m sorry. I am helpless.” He bent his head over his papers.

That afternoon Manasi had Deb’s cot moved to the garage. She brought the television and music system into her room. She began spending her time outside the house. She caught up with old friends. Under their influence she restyled and coloured her hair. She made changes in her wardrobe. Magenta red, and peacock blues hung next to pastel Bengalee saris. She joined a women’s organisation, which ran an orphanage. There, she spent many fulfilling hours. In the mornings she took her tea and newspaper into the back garden. She saw laburnum blossoms dropping on the grass. The tailor birds, red whiskered bulbuls and sun birds cried in chorus. Squirrels became used to her presence and nibbled grass seeds near her feet. She was no longer playing a role as the wife of a famous man, to whom she had been a mere counterpart. Manasi stretched bare feet on the grass. Deb and Lipika were a sphere away.

Deb came home one evening to find Manasi out. Lipika greeted him with a passionate kiss. He returned it with interest, then looked round. “Where’s Manasi?” She`s out for the day. I don’t know where.” He called Manasi on her cell phone. “We’re expecting the Australian delegation for dinner tonight.” “Really! Have a good time.” “Won’t you be here?” “Sorry I can’t make it.” The phone was switched off. Deb called Lipika. “The Australian delegation is coming for dinner. Do something.” “What can I do?” The help can’t manage the simplest meal without Manasi. No caterer will come this far out at short notice.”

Lipika sat on a chair and burst into tears. Deb made phone calls, cancelling the invitation.

Deb’s colleagues gradually stopped inviting him to their houses. Manasi was not at his side. They found it awkward to face Lipika, instead. Lack of domestic resources prevented Deb from entertaining at home. The house took on an air of neglect. Often, Manasi heard Deb and Lipika quarrel through the night. Afterwards, there was the sound of Lipika sobbing.

Meanwhile, Manasi had an unexpected visitor. She answered the doorbell to see Ashutosh, the young man she had met at the Chatterjee`s party. He had a notebook in his hand. “The director is not at home.He has gone to Calcutta.” “I know. It is you I have come to see.’ Manasi invited him in. ‘What can I do for you?.” Ashutosh held out the notebook. “You said you were interested in Bengalee poetry. I brought you some of my poems. I will be honoured if you can look them over, and give me your opinion.” “I remember we were discussing poetry. Do sit down.”I will go through your book, and let you know what I think. I warn you I am not a good judge.” “Take your time.I will be back next week.” He was back in seven days. “I have gone through your poems. They are good. There is more you can do with them.” she explained where she thought the writing could be improved.

After that Ashutosh became a frequent visitor. Over tea and snacks they discussed his poetry.Mainly they were abstract, and philosophical. Manasi felt they should have more heart.She showed him the sketches she had done in spare moments.They were scenes from Dinajpur, her childhood home, now in East Bengal. She spoke to him of flowering mango trees, baer fruits, overflowing rivers, and large maidans. Ashutosh had lived in Calcutta, all his life, and listened enthralled to her descriptions. One day, as they bent over his notebook,she found Ashutosh`s arm around her shoulders. There was a pleading look in his eyes.She could feel his warm breath, and heart beat. She put an arm around his neck. She recognized that she was starving.She had faced her loveless situation,and told herself that nothing mattered. Yet, she could not fill the huge empty spaces in her being. They took over,killing all possibility of happiness. She saw the same craving in Ashutosh. They could fulfil one another. She murmured his name, and pulled him towards her. As she did so pictures ran across her mind. Furtive meetings,knowing glances from those around them. Ashutosh tiring of her; his inevitable marriage to a young girl;fear of what he may say or do before others. She pulled herself up, and drew her sari around her.She pushed him away.

“Ashutosh. Please go.Don`t return.”

He became rigid,and stared at her in disbelief.He stood up like a wounded man raising himself after an accident.picked up his book and left. Shortly afterwards Manasi heard he had left the institute.

.........Story- An Animal Attraction - to be continued

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