This month the life beyond doctors section gives you an engrossing fascinating short story written by our very own senior colleague Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh.
A special story for the new year.
Happy New Year!
“Hi Sooraj, ’’ a voice rang out, clear as a bell, from my vicinity.
That was not my name, yet I looked back. It did not sound like a human voice. I thought it came from a parakeet.
“Hi Sushma,’’ The high-pitched voice chirped again.
Then I saw the bird, a budgerigar, budgie for short. It was in a cage, dangling on the porch of a quiet middle-class home in Ballygunge, Kolkata, which looked uninhabited. Someone had left a cup of water and a few nuts beside the bird. It looked lonely, perhaps missing human companionship.
I wondered if there was a story there for me to write, hopefully romantic. I was an aspiring writer who the family and friends considered incapable of making a living out of it. Yet I was determined to be a story teller. I was out there, walking the streets of Kolkata, looking for a story to tell.
I walked up to the bird. I think it sensed my interest.
“Sooraj, who are you?’’, it chirped again. It went on’’ I don’t know you.”
I was amused, but also excited, I was definitely sensing a story.
The words the bird spoke found their way into my heart and mind, also giving me the characters in the story.
I was happy to let the characters, who were just shadows so far, take their time to develop. At that moment I was more interested in the bird; I considered myself a minor expert on birds.
Budgies are smart and inquisitive birds. They can be taught to talk. They are born imitators and, with repetition, can start speaking our language right back to us. Often male budgies learn to talk better than the female.
The sound of a well-trained budgie saying “good morning" may sound almost human, but he does not have vocal chords. He speaks by directing the airflow to go through the muscles in his throat, recreating pitches and sounds that he hears in everyday life.
But birds do not talk just because you want them to. You need to first create the right atmosphere to get their cooperation. You need to bond with them. Offering a hand and then a shoulder to sit upon often helps; it is all about friendship, bonding, and practice.
They love to speak in the language of those who they are in contact with most of the time, who seemed most likely to be Sushma and Sooraj.
I visited the budgie the following day, carrying some fruits and nuts for my newfound friend. Just as I turned to leave he suddenly said ” Happy New Year”. My writer’s heart leaped with joy, I felt he was ready to help me write the story of Sushma and Sooraj.
On that day I decided to call him Satyajit, in honour of the legendary story teller and movie maker from Bengal who became world-renowned.
I also decided to tell the story through the characters’ own words.
The traffic jam was terrible; the roads were choked so I decided to take the Metro. I walked to Dum Dum station, hoping to take the train to Esplanade, the heart of Kolkata city.
Most of the crowd stranded on the road seemed to have made the same decision, so the platform was packed. I saw the train coming at the distance and moved forward, to be in the front of the wave of the sea of humanity that was ready to pour into the train. I could sense the impatient surge building up behind me. I reminded myself to be careful but I was caught off guard by a sudden push and I was falling onto the rails, in the way of the oncoming train. In a flash I saw that I would be smashed and crushed in seconds.
That was when I was yanked back by a determined hand that pulled me to safety.
I turned back expecting a muscular male but was surprised to see a beautiful young woman with deep set eyes ringed by dark lashes. She had an alabaster complexion that was toned to perfection, a determined chin and a trim and compact figure that spoke of athletic energy and strength. Softening all that vigour and vitality was her attire- a mellow Bengal cotton sari that wove a dream like cloud around her. She was the archetype of the articulate, confident and resourceful Bengali woman I had begun to admire ever since I began visiting Kolkata. I made a promise to myself that I shall never lose her and shall follow her to the end of the earth to win her hand.
It was another hard day. Nothing seemed to go right in my life or work anymore, both were falling apart. I was till recently an accomplished track and field athlete at the national level. Now I was in difficult, demanding and draining times. Father was getting sicker by the day. Mother was long gone. My sister fought with me all the time. My kid brother, who once used to eat off my hand and sleep on my shoulder, had become a sullen and distant adolescent. Work that I loved to do at the office had become mean and meaningless as nothing that I do seemed to please the bosses. Corporate Kolkata had become a hysterical and treacherous mine field where you never knew where to put down your foot next to avoid getting hurt from an explosion.
I had work at Dum Dum and was not surprised when I encountered at the Metro station an ocean of humanity. I waded through them effortlessly thanks to my training in sports and games. When I reached the front I instantly noticed this young man ahead of me, obviously an out-of- towner, who was dangerously unbalanced at the very edge of the platform. I thought he would fall any moment on the rails and in the path of the train that was rushing in, which was exactly what happened a second later. I leapt forward, grabbed his hand and pulled him back.
I went back to Satyajit to find out where do we go from Dum Dum with our story. I carried the goodies he liked best which were sprouted seeds, carrots, apple and orange.
One day he examined what I brought most carefully and was not happy. He looked up at me and intoned’’ Cham, Cham ‘’ twice, making sure that I did not miss what he said first time. As an afterthought, he added “ Sushma” and “ Sooraj”. I got the message! I went out to get his favourite “mishti”!
I quickly learnt the important role played by Kolkata’s sweets and savouries in the life of a young man and woman who were getting acquainted while going about town. Whenever I was in the city I would seek out Sushma and she would pull me straight into K.C. Das to dig into Rasgulla, Mishti Doi or Malai Cham Cham, never forgetting to pack a few of the last to please the budgie which presided over the porch of her home. There was no way we could get past him without offering him his favourite delicacy. The calorie counts never seemed to bother Sushma who never gained a gram from whatever she relished. In my job I had to be careful, so more often I pecked at the food while she demolished them with gusto.
Yet, she had appetite on the way back home to again patronize the carts on the road that dished out Gol Gappa, Gugni, Chana Chur and Jhal Muri, the latter piercingly pungent with liberal splashes of Mustard oil.
The third inevitable ingredient of this excursion was always shopping- at either New Market, AC Market or the street market of Goriahat. They bustled and crackled all the time with the vigorous salesmanship of the vendors who never tire of the bargaining tactics of their lady customers; both parties excelled in this favourite sport and pastime. I noticed that she did not buy much for herself, it was always for the family.
To me it was a novelty, never having shopped seriously in my life as I had nobody to shop for; I had no family, and I never came to know my roots. I was born somehow, somewhere, to somebody who surrendered my fate to the surroundings. My life had begun in darkness at high noon but I had survived.
As the evening drew to a close, we would walk, close together, along the parks on the banks of the Hooghly river, never tiring of looking at the Howrah Bridge. As the sun went down, and darkness crept over the river, we would hire a boat for a ride. We held hands and were happy together. Often the Police boats that patrolled the river would check you out with a torch the beam of which hit you on the face. Once we got pulled up by them who wanted to check our ID. Sushma was amused but not angry. While she was not looking I showed him my ID; he mumbled some cautionary warning, deftly pocketed the money I slipped into his hand and let us leave.
‘Puja’ was the ultimate festival time in Kolkata, when the city became vibrant and pulsating, bright and beautiful. Durga was the deity who prevailed in commanding majesty not only over the body of her consort, Siva, but also over the city. Sushma would drag me to pandal after pandal till I was so exhausted that I would be fast asleep standing!
I sensed early in our association that her exuberance at these excursions of ours was a catharsis. As our time together that day was coming to an end, and as we headed towards her home, a great melancholy would begin to envelop her, suffocating her. Every time we entered her porch, the budgie would try very hard to cheer her up but fail miserably. She would open the door, turn to look at me through eyes sunk in deep misery, and slowly shut the door on me. Every time I would resist the temptation to push that door open, step into the darkness, find her hand and pull her out. But an inner voice always whispered’’ Wait, give her time’’.
That day Satyajit fluttered his wings in a most dramatic fashion and chortled ‘’Red Rose’’, ‘’ Red Rose’’. It was time for roses to enter our story to set things right for Sushma and Sooraj, and to bring both colour and fragrance to their lives.
I had given Sooraj my hand just once at Dum Dum but he extended his to me every time I needed in the days, months and years that passed in our lives.
But I never learned anything about him. He would be gone for days and would quietly and suddenly reappear just when I needed his hand. He would never be there for more than a day, and on some days, not for more than a few hours. I asked him ‘’ Sooraj, who are you?” and complain ‘‘I don’t know you’’ so often that the budgie began to imitate that to tease me. On occasions I did not raise that issue the budgie would unhesitatingly pop the question. Sooraj would just smile and be quiet.
He was there to make sure that my sick father passed away painlessly and peacefully. He had a flair for drawing my rebellious sister into conversation. He discovered a creative streak in her and fanned that spark into a fire that began to burn brightly as she found a secure niche in the television industry. He turned up just in time to wave her off to Mumbai, to become a producer in a major TV serial.
He quietly anchored my distant, dreamy and drifting kid brother who transformed into an aggressive and ambitious gaming designer who became a much sought after virtual reality professional. He simply disappeared into an info-tech world of his own and I never saw him for months on end. One day he popped out of his shell, with a backpack slung over his shoulder and a passport in hand and announced ‘’Didi, I am off’. He did not tell me where to.
That day was 31 December. The year was ending, and I felt that my life was too. I came back by noon to an empty home, save for the bird on the porch. Even he was uncharacteristically quiet when I walked past him and I felt that even he might force open his cage and fly away any moment. A faded photograph of my parents on the wall, my sister’s broken guitar leaning against the wall and my brother’s worn out shoes chucked on to the floor were all that was left to remind me of my family. Utter loneliness stabbed me to the core of my heart and I began to cry.
The telephone rang.
“Are you ready?” asked Sooraj. I knew what he meant. I said ‘‘Yes.’’
‘‘Walk out just as you are, take the metro to Dum Dum, go to the Vistara Airlines booking office at the airport, quote the PNR ‘’SU12SO’’, collect your ticket, and check in for their flight 002 to Delhi at 5 pm today. I will meet up with you some time before you land at Delhi’’
Bengali girls do not say ‘‘yes’’ straightaway to any suggestion. I never did in the past, I always raised questions. But I said “Yes’’ to Sooraj.
As I was rushing out of the door, the budgie chirped” Sushma”. A pang of guilt struck me. I turned back and wished him “Happy New Year”. Promptly he echoed” Happy New Year!”. I was touched. I told him” Be good”. I added ‘’Shankar next door would fetch you your nuts and water, I shall see you soon”. He chirped “Be good”.
It was already past noon; I rushed to Vistara’s airport office which I reached at 3 pm.
At the desk, they were efficient and helpful ‘‘Yes. Ms Sushma Roy Choudhury, we were expecting you’’. ‘’Here is your business class ticket for Delhi on our 5 pm flight, Victor here will take your bag and escort you to check –in.”
Victor walked me to check –in and introduced me to the supervisor ‘’Madam Miranda, this is Miss Sushma Roy Chowdhury, checking in for flight 002, priority.”
Victor continued to escort me through security to the business class lounge. I was restless. He said’’ Madam, enjoy your coffee and muffin; I shall be back in ten minutes to escort you to boarding.’’
I boarded 15 minutes later. I was welcomed’’ Welcome to Vistara, Ms. Roy Chowdhury, your seat in the business class cabin is 5 C, at the back, so that you can exit first at Delhi.’’
A minute after I sat, almost breathless, a bouquet of red roses, fresh and fragrant, appeared beside my elbow; I was informed ‘‘Ms Roy Chowdhury, these roses arrived for you few minutes back.’’
I looked around for Sooraj, there was no sign of him.
The doors closed and the aircraft began to roll. I was tense and I felt soft taps on my shoulder. That was a member of the cabin crew.
She smiled and said ‘’ Relax, enjoy your flight.’’
Every time I felt a surge of anxiety rising in me, one or other member of the cabin crew would magically appear beside me with a reassuring smile.
The aircraft landed, taxied to terminal and opened doors. Every time I rose, some helpful hand will seat me again with a smile ‘’Wait.’’
My fellow passengers in the business class cabin left first and the economy cabins soon emptied.
‘‘Where are you Sooraj? ‘’, panic rose steadily in me ‘’This is the time I need your hand the most, where are you?’’.
I stepped out of the cockpit. She was sitting half-turned facing the open exit, tense and taut.
I put my hand on her shoulder, as I always did, just before giving her a hug.
She turned to see the hand on her shoulder, and saw the four gold stripes at the wrist, on the sleeve of the jacket.
Her eyes travelled up the hand to the wings pinned on my lapel, on to the gold braids on my captain’s cap, and then came to rest on my face
“Happy New Year, Sushma! Shall we go home to ring the New Year in?” I asked her.
Some days later, I was walking along the banks of Hooghly when I suddenly heard Satyajit again, demanding ‘’Cham Cham, Cham Cham”. He was in his cage, dangling in the hand of a young lady whose other hand was held by a young man. They stopped beside the Hooghly, raised the cage and together opened its door. He flew out, soared, cruised around them in circles, made a smart steep turn, flew towards me and settled on my shoulder. The couple turned back and looked surprised but pleased that Satyajit had found a new friend in the city. He took a last look at them, said ‘‘Be good’’ and looked away.
We turned away and went looking for Cham Cham.
Article by Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh
Group Medical Director