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Before

A Short Story by Puja Chakraborty


The morning air seemed laced with a somber thoughtfulness as Jita settled on the balcony of her eighth-floor apartment and gazed at the view in front of her. An abundant emptiness. She surmised. A gently dying community ground with a handful of trees stood side by side with a triangular slum covered in dust. When she moved to the suburbs of Mumbai two years back she had hoped not to live near a slum. Now, watching the blue begrimed roofs in front of her that matched the blue Meenakari on the vintage wrought iron chair she was sitting on, Jita couldn't help but ponder over the juxtaposition of life in the city. No matter where one lived, the concrete structures always came with the slums that made them. Jita felt a certain emotion, perhaps guilt, clench at her throat. She washed it down with her morning elixir: a glass of warm lemon water.

Lying on the right-hand side of the slum was a lake. Blue sheets of heavy duty industrial tin placed over a dwarf wall served as the boundary between the lake and the slum. A siege of great white egrets sat on the trunk of a half-submerged tree at one end of the lake. Each year, in the month of January, the presence of these birds transformed the lake into an exotic water body even though piles of garbage rested in its vicinity. Jita wondered where the birds had come from. She found an odd similarity with them. Are they far away from home like I am?

The white birds took her mind to a childhood memory of Bogoli, as egrets were called in Assamese, her mother tongue. Her Koka, grandfather, had a pond in his backyard in Sadiya. Every time she visited him she watched egrets fly in, in large numbers to eat fish from the pond. Her Koka never did anything to chase the birds away. He would smile and hold her hand as she eyed them from a distance. Her ten-year-old mind was awestruck by their beauty and elegance.

The memory made her think of home. She hasn’t been home since her Koka’s funeral three years ago. He was her favorite person growing up. A sadness resurfaced. She quivered.

Jita pushed the memory back into the tiny rusted box in her head labeled “Koka” and turned her attention to the scenery. Beyond the lake, the slum and the  ground, were sprawling masses of greenery and ultimately, the waters of the Arabian sea. A golden pagoda stood somewhere amidst this chaos. The sight of the pagoda made Jita calm even on the most tempestuous days. However, she never made an effort to visit it. She would sit on her semi-circular space fantasizing it as a symbol of peace and stability.

Jita moved her gaze from the pagoda to the men and women from the slum making their way to the building next to hers. They wore yellow hats and neon green vests over their worn out clothes to build luxury homes. In the evening, they would use these same hats to draw water from the concrete tank in the slum to wash their bodies. Jita writhed in displeasure at the thought. Minutes later the noise from the construction work started to pierce a hole in the serenity of the morning she so cherished. It was deafening. Nonetheless, it was how Jita kept track of time in the morning hours without ever having to look at a watch. It was time for her morning stroll.

Jita went inside, sliding the  glass door to her bedroom. Yug, her boyfriend, was slumbering away on the double mattress laid out on the floor in the middle of the room. She paused and observed the shirtless creature curled up on the bed. The sheets were out of the mattress on the side he slept. One pillow rested near his legs and the other near his chest. He didn’t have a pillow under his head. He was sleeping on the comforter. Her side of the bed, on the other hand, was as neat as though no one had ever slept on it. She wanted to tidy up the mess her beloved had managed to create on his side. It stood in stark contrast to everything in the room. Low raised wooden furniture supporting books, lamps and vintage items stood symmetrically on both sides of the square structure. Even the tiniest of objects remained in their assigned spot. Always.

The neatly arranged furniture along with the sliding doors gave the room an almost Japanese appearance. Even though they didn’t have many visitors, the few they had would always point it out. Jita would smile and humbly deny it stating that it was in no way what they had intended. However, standing in the middle of the room now she was compelled by the thoughtfulness that had followed her in, to acknowledge the ‘almost Japanese’ décor of her bedroom. It is kind of Japanese. Alop nuhua nohoi. Perhaps, her lifelong desire to visit Japan was to be blamed for such an ornamentation of their bedroom. She found it as strange as the one sleeping on the bed. She sighed and walked out of the room to the corridor with an ineluctable disconcertment slowly catching up on her.

The corridor was spacious than most apartment corridors and had decent natural light pouring in from the adjacent rooms. The empty white walls made the corridor seem brighter than it was. The owner of their apartment had warned them against any form of drilling and tapping. Initially, Jita had considered using stick-on hooks to put up pictures on the walls. But since they might chip off the paint she scrapped the idea and never thought of an alternative.

Walking through the corridor, she found it dreary and insipid. There has to be an alternative to this dullness. She thought.

Jita took out her walking shoes from the shoe rack on the corridor. They were blue in color and complimented her off-white rayon overalls. Her blue shoes were the slip-on kind. She hated wearing shoes with laces. She considered them time-consuming. So, she swiftly slipped into her blue shoes and grabbed the house keys from the porcelain pot kept on the table by the front door. She adjusted her long bob in the round Victorian-style table mirror. It was one of her precious finds from Chor Bazaar. Yug wasn't fond of the mirror. He was of the opinion that it made everyone look “a little off”. His comment echoed in Jita’s head as she noticed a few wrinkles on her reflection. Her brown eyes were surrounded with dark circles. They weren’t black but had a tint of maroon in them. Her fair skin only made them more prominent. Nonetheless, not wasting another minute or thought over how she looked, Jita was out on her morning ritual.

***

The sky was overcast and brought a kind of brooding dismality to the morning. Jita saw a couple of joggers and an elderly couple entering their locality park. It was starting to get crowded. She always preferred the streets for her morning walk. She would cover a distance of 2.5 kilometers walking through the shaded lanes of her locality up to the tea stall at the Chowki and back home. She had formed some sort of a peculiar familial bond with the tea seller, Anjum, and her eight-year-old son, Vijesh. Sometimes she wondered if it was the morning walk which necessitated the tea or the tea that necessitated the morning walk. Whatever it was, Jita made sure she missed neither.

By the time she reached the tea stall, Anjum had already begun her day's activities. Her big kohl smeared eyes gleamed as she chatted with her customers. Vijesh stood coyly next to her in a green t-shirt with her green saree almost camouflaging him. A rotund old man noticed Vijesh and pulled him close to him. Startled by the sudden gesture, Vijesh began to cry. The man’s hysterical laughter made the other customers search for the source. Vijesh’s cheeks flushed as the crowd snickered. Anjum, missing the act which led her son to break out into tears, looked at Vijesh angrily. He was creating a scene. The crying intensified. The man stopped laughing and asked Vijesh about his school. Jita, observing the entire episode, intervened. She pressed Anjum into bringing her a glass of tea in an attempt to shield Vijesh from his mother’s temper. Anjum told her that her son began crying for no reason.

Bhaiyya was asking about his school. That’s all. She stated as she filled a glass tumbler with a caramelized liquor effusing the aroma of ginger and cardamom. The man smirked, handing Anjum ten rupees for his tea and amusement.

Jita tried to cheer up Vijesh. He was fond of her. She got him a candy or two sometimes and asked him about his friends. She listened to everything he had to say without ever questioning whether it was pure fantasy woven nicely into reality. Jita saw a bit of her in him. She understood his need to be heard.

Anjum handed Jita her tumbler of tea. She then informed her that she will be closing the tea stall the coming week. Jita took a sip of the milky beverage as the nebulousness of Anjum’s sentence slowly registered in.

There is a small shop next to the big offices a few kilometers from where I stay. Anjum said juggling between sweetened and unsweetened tea requests. The owner has agreed to give it to me for a small deposit. She added proudly.

Anjum confided in Jita that she was lucky enough to find a shop. She could keep it open for the entire day and serve a few other items as well. Vijesh’s school will also be much closer and they would no longer have to close their  shop and rush like they did now. Anjum in her usual jovial nature invited Jita to come visit them once the shop opened. 

First cup free for regular customers! She advertised.

As glad as Jita was for Anjum, something inside her shrieked. Most days, Anjum and Vijesh would be the only people she had any sort of interaction with. Yug would be out of town for work and she didn’t have many friends. When Jita shared this with Anjum, it was too strange for her to comprehend. All she managed to tell Jita was that she and her son were only a rickshaw ride away.

Come by, anytime you want! 

Jita thanked Anjum and wondered if she had judged her. Perhaps, she would look at her differently now. Jita paid for her tea and congratulated Anjum on her new business venture. She wished her luck and left. On her way back home, Jita was in an elaborate discussion with her inner voices. Anjum’s decision to leave the Chowki made Jita question herself. She had left her corporate job a year back to start an online business. However, she had not been as sincere as she would like herself to be. Taking a break from work after five years brought an absurd amount of laziness to her life. She was reconsidering her business prospects and settling for high paying freelance work. The walk back to her apartment had stirred up a storm inside her head. Ki kori asu moi? What am I doing? Jita perpended.

***

Yug was still asleep when Jita got back home after picking up some groceries from the farmer’s market. She kept the groceries in the kitchen and  remembered the empty glass she had left on the balcony. She sighed and went to pick it up. The clouds had cleared and the sun was shining brightly on the pagoda. Jita sat down admiring its enhanced appearance with the embrace of the sun. Ah, how beautiful it is. A noise from behind her interrupted her thoughts. A lanky figure slided the glass door, stretched and sauntered towards her. He landed a kiss on her pale cheek out of habit as she remained placidly in her seat. He pulled up a chair opposite to her and plopped down blocking her view. There were comforter marks on his face. His hair was dry and unruly like the potted fern Jita had on the balcony railing. His eyes were the color of the sea. His nose was sharp and his jawline sharper. There was a time when this face ignited a million desires in Jita. But now, she felt nothing.

I don’t understand how you manage to wake up so early everyday. He remarked with a childlike amusement.

Jita sighed. She had been having difficulty falling asleep at night. But Yug did not notice any of it. Even if he did, he turned a blind eye to it. She always felt that he had a talent for not noticing things. It was probably one of the reasons they fell out of love.

I think I will  go to the pagoda today. Jita announced in her usual distant way. 

The Short Story continued here