Shifting: n. To move from one position to another.
“Oh no, not now!”, Mrs. Pandey exclaimed as rain splattered heavily on the kitchen’s window-panes on a cloudy day. She hurried upstairs to the terrace after reducing the stove’s flame. The rain had just begun but the damage was already done. She had just come barely a few minutes before to check if the clothes had dried. They had still been a bit damp. A couple of more minutes in the sun would have been enough. The sky was overcast at that time too. But it was normal for Bhadav month and even more normal for Kolkata. Instead of taking clothes safely back with her to dry them under the fan, she changed the clothes’ sides exposed to sun and decided to come back after cooking the spinach. She was then feeling a bit confident in her decision due to the high winds blowing. And now her clothes, with water dripping from them, lay loose and damp on the ropes. She stared at them cursing the winds which had deserted her and calculating how much work had increased. She would have to now spread them inside her home under the fan on chairs and tables during the night so that they could dry before tomorrow morning.
Her husband was in a government service. Due to his frequent transfers, they never lived at any place for more than four years. Many a times they even shifted within the same city from one rented house to another. Each shifting took the same effort as it took for a tree when re-planted at a place different from where it had germinated. She was supposed to be good at it and making new friends quickly. But with age, her willingness and ability at this were reducing gradually.
Kolkata didn’t suit her much. With incessant rains, not only the weather remained damp but her mood as well. Part of it could be attributed to her loneliness. In the mornings, it was busy like hell. After her morning chores were done, with her daughter and husband on their way to school and office respectively, solitude embraced her like an old friend. Kolkata being still new to her offered no other friend. Everything -neighbours, Bengali language, her house, the trees around- appeared alien. But strangely enough, outside the government colony, some parts of Kolkata appeared familiar. No, not the parts of Kolkata such as places around City Mall which had been invaded by the forces of the thing called modernity. These places could have belonged to any city. They were impersonal, nothing humane.
Roadside stalls selling food; wet roads where buildings (some of which had been painted red to hide their age) came quite close, standing just next to the pavements; hand-pulled rickshaws running past. For her, they looked like the pieces of original Kolkata peeking from the folds of the past. She felt quite close and distant to them, both at the same time. Close because she sensed she had been to those streets, walking amidst those slow-moving yellow taxis, although she was quite sure she had never been to Kolkata before. And distant because she was quite sure these things no longer belonged to her. Somebody had snatched those things away from her.
“They are on the top rack near the bed”, she almost shouted spreading clothes on ropes tied just outside her door. Her home was on the first-floor of a two-storied government building, situated next to the road. The building was sub-divided into two parts — each part housing the four families on the two floors. On the first floor, there was a passage connecting these two parts. The same passage also served as the common balcony for the four families staying on the first floor. It was a bit open there, where its one side faced road and the other faced the pavement which connected with other buildings nearby. Below the former side, there were stairs that led to the first floor. While on the latter side, there were ropes tied for the clothes, where they were safe, at least, from the drizzles. After her previous experience with Kolkata rain-gods, she had started using them. Though she didn’t prefer them to the terrace, where she could run her eyes all over the neighbourhood in the open air when she went there for drying clothes, her clothes were safer on the balcony. She could also keep an eye on her clothes from her kitchen window.
It was morning. Her husband had left for duty leaving her alone for her day’s most difficult assignment – preparing her daughter for school in time. After hurriedly putting clips on her clothes, she went inside to find her daughter, Bubly, still struggling to locate her socks. She quickly retrieved the socks for her and making her sit on the bed, she pulled out her shoes from below the bed and helped her in wearing them. Then she fed her breakfast and taking her bag and an umbrella, escorted her to the school.
On her way back, she was accompanied by other women who had also gone to drop their children to the school. She had gradually started exchanging smiles and a bit of gossip with them. The sky was today clear with breeze blowing. On the neem tree near her home, a flock of crows was cawing happily.
Unlocking her door, she found her home as if they had shifted to this house today. Wet towel thrown on the bed, empty plates left over on the table and newspaper spread flat on the chair. The scene robbed her off any sense of accomplishment for the day. There was only one difference compared to early morning when she was busy getting her daughter and husband ready. There was not much urgency now. She could catch some rest. But she knew better than to let herself indulge. When she was young, she never had to fight these compulsions. Then neighbors around her forced her to be always on her toes, lest they finish their work before she. As she had matured, she stopped bothering about this petty competition and had tried taking some break after sending off her spouse and child. However, on those days, house-work appeared more boring, excruciatingly long. Thinking about those days, she sighed and tucked her pallu in the sari preparing herself for the assault After about an hour, she was ready to go to the kitchen. Today she was going to prepare masala dosa. She checked the paste kept in the aluminium vessel. It wasn’t ready yet. She added some baking powder to it so it would ferment before noon. She took the utensil outside. Shooing away a crow sitting on the rope, she kept it on the parapet. The sky was still clear. Hopefully it would be sufficient for the dosa paste. Then she went back to clear off her morning mess from the kitchen.
She liked to have some tea after her morning chores; it acted as a break, getting her ready for lunch preparation While keeping the tea-pan on the flame, she reminisced on how she used to struggle while preparing masala dosa. Her South Indian neighbour at Chandigarh helped her in learning what was the right mixture for the paste. But the tricky part was something else, which could not be simply told. It was to turn over the dosa on the pan without breaking it, when its one side was done. In her over-earnest attempt to do it right, all – the walls, her saree, utensils around – used to taste the paste when she turned over the dosa in a jiffy. She smiled and her eyes strayed through the kitchen window to look at the dosa paste container. The crow was still sitting over her clothes. An insolent crow! Apparently it was its favorite spot. Realising that she was seeing, it bent forward, ready for flight anytime. Both were looking straight, unblinking, as if playing who-would-blink-first. Then she said,”Shoo!” and it flew away.
Today she was feeling a bit cheerful. It looked as if for a few days the rain-clouds had gone on a vacation. She was not complaining. Her work got completed a little earlier. She chose to wear her Bengali cotton black saree with traditional circular red bindi. Combing her hair, she looked in the mirror at herself. She was looking good. Her mother-in-law had disliked the black color but she had shrugged off her opinion.
She shouted, “Baba, wait.”
There was an old man who used to come in the campus every alternate day to sell sweets and curd. His style of carrying his stuff was like that of Shravan Kumar carrying his parents. On his shoulder, he carried a stick with containers kept safely in the knotted ropes hanging from each side.
She planned to surprise Bubly by giving her sweets in lunch. She found her money-bag and bolted her door. As she was passing through the balcony, somebody landed on her head and flew away the very next instant. She looked at it to find it was a crow flying towards the neem. She kept looking in that direction. She didn’t understand. ” Ma’am! Come faster.” “Yes, coming”. She got down hurriedly pushing her questions away.
With one hand holding the bedsheet, she was extending her broom-hand as much as possible to reach the dust sitting lazily beneath the bed. It had gone dark. She believed it inauspicious to use the broom after sunset. If it were not for the guests coming home shortly, she would have postponed it to the morrow. Usually, she completed this before she went to bring milk from the tabela. But today she got a bit late and had to hurry off because of the milkman’s habit of mixing water into milk. Seeing her running for milk in the evenings, her husband had asked her so many times to start taking milk-packets instead. However, she never got used to taking milk-packets. Wherever she shifted throughout the country, she always found locales selling fresh milk of cow or buffalo. It was an excuse for her to get some outside air during the evenings. Along with it, she used to get good-quality milk. Tezpur got her used to buffalo milk as a lot more ghee, could be extracted from it, compared to that of a cow.
“Bubly! bring the new bedsheet and how many times do I have to tell you to hide this rag behind the almirah? Be fast. They will arrive any minute.”
And surely enough as she put on the new bedsheet, somebody knocked on the door.
“Pandeyji! Now, it’s too late for you to run and hide in someone else’s home.”
“Yes, Mishraji. Now I have no option but to be your host for the evening. I had banked upon the rain-gods to ruin your plans but I should have known better”, Mr. Pandey replied, opening the door with his family standing behind him.
Both of them started laughing. Mr. Mishra followed by his wife and daughter entered the home.
After greetings were exchanged, the children went to the bedroom for playing their games, while the elders cracked jokes and laughed loudly in the drawing room. After some time, the ladies went to the kitchen to prepare pakoda and tea.
“So, how’s life out there among the civilians?”, Mrs.Pandey asked. The Mishras lived outside the campus. They had not been given government quarters as they had just arrived at Kolkata. Only after waiting for six months, would they be allotted one.
“It’s not that bad. After the usual initial hiccups, it has gotten fine. But they charge you for everything, even for bricks.”
“What? Seriously, for bricks?”
“You would not believe it. We needed some for keeping them under boxes. There were some bricks in the park in front of our home. But the land-lady didn’t allow me to take them when I asked her. She said she might have use for them in the future.”
“Hmmm…I have an idea. When it’s dark, go out with a empty bag pretending that you are going outside for shopping. And then come back with the bricks in those bags.”
“Nice, dear. Never in my life, have I gone shopping for bricks!”
Their laughter was disrupted when Mr. Pandey called his wife from the drawing room, “Arre! Bubly’s mother, are you planning on serving tea only after dinner is done?”
“Uff..I meant, no! it is almost ready.”
The ladies lighted the stove and put the tea pan on it hurriedly. Mrs. Pandey said, “Mrs. Mishra! Why don’t you go and chat there? At least, enjoy some rest while you are a guest”
Even though Mrs. Mishra would have complained of not getting enough rest back at her home a countless number of times, she said, “Come on! How much effort would it take? Let’s do it together.”
Because of their combined effort, within minutes tea and hot crispy pakoda entered the drawing room. Kids were called and asked to join in. After half-an-hour, Mr. Mishra begged leave of Mr. Pandey, which was promptly refused.
“No, Mishraji. You have come with your choice but you will leave by mine.”
The ladies went to the kitchen for the second time to prepare dinner while the men switched on the TV for some news.
Mrs. Pandey gave Mrs.Mishra some vegetables to chop while she herself washed the utensils.
“Mrs. Pandey! What happened to that crow you were talking about?”
“Mrs. Mishra! it’s a raven. I had mistaken it for an innocent crow. It often comes from nowhere, lands on my head for a moment before flying away.”
“Oh, does it do this to everyone?”
“No, strange enough it does this only to me. The first time this happened, I thought it targeted me because on that particular day, I was wearing a black saree. But no, it teases me everyday, no matter what is the colour of my clothes. As it stands, it’s not much of a problem. But you know Mrs. Mishra, how irritating it can get when this happens to you everyday.”
“Mrs. Pandey, I feel it is not a simple problem. Arrey, don’t you read newspaper? It was in the news last week I remember. There was a South Indian with whom similar incident happened. A raven always dropped shit on his head whenever he left for work. You won’t believe, Mrs. pandey, but this gentleman became so distressed at it that he committed suicide. Ravens don’t bring good luck. So, you better do something about it.”
“Oh, that’s too much! These South Indians are like this only. Very superstitious It’s nothing serious over here. I think it likes to play with me. For me the only problem is, it always wins.”
As soon as the school-bell rang to mark the end of the day, Bubly ran with the other kids to be among the first one to get outside the school compound. Parents thronged the gate waiting for their children. Stalls selling ice-cream and gol-guppa were attempting hard to get the kids’ attention. Bubly’s father had told her that he might get late today. She was waiting for him under the Peepal tree, which stood just outside the gate. With nothing interesting happening around she looked up towards its trunk. There were some monkeys resting on the branches. A few of them, especially young ones, were in no mood to allow the adults any rest. They chased around one another and created quite a ruckus in the process. She was looking at their world and tried to see the similarity with her own family.
As she was busy staring at the monkeys playing, somebody from the other side threw a stone up towards them. The stone flew towards the top of the tree, missed it’s target and landed directly on her left eye with a soft sound. Everything went dark. She didn’t feel anything. It simply got numb. Everything seemed alright except the people surrounding her. She thought she might still somehow get away with it without telling anything to her mom. She opened her left eye to see how bad it was.
“I am not able to see anything”, she cried out loud and then dejectedly sat on the road.
Bubly lay in bed, with her left eye bandaged. Distant sounds from her mother were reaching her ears. Her mother was in the kitchen. While preparing tea, she was talking to the ladies who had come to see Bubly.
She didn’t feel like sleeping but still she closed her eyes. She had become impatient with all the people turning up at home recently. All asked her the same question – how you are feeling, Beta? Quite unlike the uncle who had taken her to the hospital. He didn’t ask any question. He simply pulled her up and forced her to sit on the scooter. A few minutes later, she found herself being attended by a doctor. By the time her parents reached there, she had gotten her injured eye bandaged heavily. When they saw her first, they thought their daughter had lost one of her eyes. Now they would have to live with that forever. Her mother held her tightly and wouldn’t stop crying. The doctor asked her not to worry much and wait for the results of her Reading Test. After half an hour or so, Bubly was asked by the doctor to slowly open her eyes. Everything appeared hazy at first but it wasn’t that bad. After a while, she was well enough to actually pass the tests!
After all the visitors left, Mrs. Pandey tidied the chairs and took the plates and cups to the sink. Then she lay next to Bubly who was asleep again. She brought her close and stroked her forehead softly with her hand. The doctor had said it would take at least fifteen more days before her bandage could be taken away permanently.
She looked up at the window but couldn’t locate the source. She thought it must be the raven, who must be watching them now and gloating. She looked back at Bubly and her muscles tightened.
She couldn’t understand how she convinced herself for doing it. She decided against telling her husband. She was sure he wouldn’t understand. At around 10 o’clock, with her husband and Bubly sent off, she got ready in her black saree. Then she took out the roti. While holding it in one hand, she locked the door with her other hand. As she passed through the balcony, she saw the flock of crows cawing and sitting on the neem tree. ‘It must be there.’ She went down the building and approached the tree. The birds became silent on seeing her. All of them were looking at her as if they knew. She too was staring at them. She had planned to keep the roti and come back. But the crows were not that dumb. She waved her roti expecting for some response. She did get one. One of them took a flight towards her. This time she was prepared for it. As the raven neared her head, she ducked down at the right time. On looking back, she was surprised to see it continuing on its original trajectory. Apparently, it had taken a bad aim. She needn’t even have ducked to save herself. It went on flying till it got dangerously close to the surface. It didn’t stop before it hit the ground. It lay there, crumpled in a heap.
She decided to go closer to have a look at the dead raven. Its wings were spread flat with its beak open and black plumage shining in the sunlight.
She threw the roti away in a drain, and took the raven tenderly and deposited it near the trunk. She did turn back once to look there from the balcony before she entered her home.