“Ei re uth. Jaabi na?”
“Wake up will you. It’s already daybreak and the boys will be there before us, if we are not careful. Just get up,” Jagan nudged Anirban, who was still in a deep sleep.
It was nearing five-o-clock and the sun was inching towards the horizon across the Daman Ganga Sea, shooting streaks of faded red across the sky.
“Oh will you just get up.” Jagan continued to berate at Anirban, who was slowly coming out of his dreamy stupor.
“Arre dada, don’t get so hyper. It’s fine. We won’t be so far behind in the line,” he mumbled, as he trudged out of the room and headed towards the common bathroom at the end of the corridor.
“Yeah, easy for you to say,” Jagan hissed under his breath. A migrant worker, Jagan had been in Daman since the past four years. Living in a bachelors’ migrant colony had taught him some of life’s hard lessons, and he did not want a young blooded boy of only twenty three, with years left ahead of him, telling him to take life easy. Because it was not.
With an angry huff, he slammed the teapot onto the stove. He shoved the tiny rod of the kerosene holder back and forth, working up a sweat. Cardboard sheets ripped off boxes formed a boundary to the makeshift kitchen that huddled in a corner of their small squarish room. Tiny bottles of tea leaves, sugar and other common spices were lined up on a low level shelf, like broken down warriors after losing in battle.
Jagan, who was still miffed with Anirban’s careless attitude, continued to slam things on the floor loudly. What does Anirban think of himself, Jagan raged on inside. He’s been here only five weeks and he thinks he can get his way all the time? When will he learn?
Just then Anirban entered their room, with a deep red shorts hanging low from his waist, and furiously drying his hair with the towel wrapped around his muscular arms.
Hmf, Mr Show Off is here finally, and with that thought trailing in his head, Jagan stormed out of the room, armed with a bucket in each hand, shoving Anirban on the way.
“Hey!” Man, Jagan really needs to learn to cool down, thought Anirban. He was not like this when we were kids, playing in the fields in Krishna Nagar, a small town ninety eight kilometres away from Kolkata, the bustling capital of the East. The poor guy must be worried sick about his wedding; Anirban shook his head as he quickly slipped out of his shorts.
Anirban and Jagan had been friends since the day they met each other at the bus stop on their way to school. Jagan, who is four years older to Anirban, had taken him under his wings, and before they knew it, they were inseparable. But their friendship waned later as they grew, and before Anirban knew what was the problem, Jagan had packed his bags and left for Daman, where jobs were available aplenty.
And now three years later, Anirban joined his friend in the port city on the opposite coast of the nation. But things had already started to sour.
Jagan was back in the room, huffing with the weight of the water sloshing about in the buckets. Other occupants of the neighbouring rooms were beginning to stir, getting ready for their morning shifts.
“Already up huh, Jagan,” said Partho, a fellow Bengali who also worked at the nearby factory.
“Yeah. You know me to be an early riser,” Jagan replied.
“Hope you are coming to the little get together we have planned for Soumitra tonight. He is lucky to have found a job near home.”
“Na re. I am not one for these parties,” Jagan said, shaking his head.
“Oh c’mon. Ei Anirban, please make sure you drag this old man there. He will find new ways to disappoint us, but you must insist.”
Anirban laughed and said, “Sure. No problem. Just tell me when and where.”
“Daman Delight at eight sharp. It is the small shack just near the docks. You will recognise it, don’t worry.” And when Partho and his buddies left to stand in line for water, Jagan turned around to glare at Anirban.
“You did not need to do that you know.”
“Why are you being such a stuck up? Its okay to relax sometimes.”
“Oh really? So you know everything about this world huh? You better stop meddling in my business, you hear! Or the consequences won’t be good.”
“Consequences? What consequences? I have no clue what you are talking about? Even back home in Krishna Nagar, you told me that you were leaving just a day before your departure. I mean what is it with you? I don’t understand you? Why do you have to act as if the entire world’s weight is on your shoulders? And even if it is, you can learn to grin and bear it.”
Brows creased, ganjees soaked in sweat and muscles tensed, the two men stood facing each other with anger pounding their chests. Anirban’s lengthy outburst seemed to have an effect on Jagan, and his anger ebbed.
“I’m sorry. It’s my… it’s the marriage and all. I am just stressed about it, and worried about ma, who is handling everything at home, alone,” he said in an apologetic tone.
“I know your marriage is weighing heavily on your mind, friend, but I also know that there is more than that which is troubling you.”
This time, Jagan could not control his emotions, which his face gave away quite clearly. He sat down on the mora (stool made of jute). Anirban sat beside his troubled friend, a hand on his shoulder.
“Tell me what troubles you dada.”
“I have never been with a woman,” Jagan said, in a resigned note.
Anirban’s face contorted to a degree Jagan could not understand. He was taken aback, to the extent he nearly fell on his back, but he roared with laughter and sprang up again.
“What! Haven’t ever been with a girl? That’s it? That is all that has been bothering you?”
“I mean, look at you. You are so muscular and handsome. Women flock to you like you exert an invisible magnetic pull of some sort. And I feel like such a dump. About to get married. I’m so… so nervous.”
Jagan felt relieved after unburdening himself and looked to his childhood buddy for assurance.
Anirban by now had composed himself. His grip around his friend’s slim shoulders tightened, and he said, “You should be going today evening, and then I will show you the real fun you can have, as and when you like. But you must promise to do as I say.”
And with that they dipped their bread in chai, and left for the day’s work. Jagan headed towards Cusrow Road, where the factory belted out near 34,000 bottles of shampoo every hour, and Anirban made his way to the local brewery, where cheap liquor saw the light of day and lips of adventurous tourists and locals.
Throughout the day, Jagan could not contain his excitement, of the unknown and the irrational. He might have even dropped a bottle or two and spilled the soapy fluid all over, but not even a blast from his manager could lessen the bubble of anticipation arising in him. Anirban, on the other hand, was pretty much in his own world, oblivious of the effect his morning chat had on Jagan. He hummed to himself as he lugged the enormous bear crates around the brewery floor.
As the evening crept upon the Indian Union Territory, the sea breeze grew stronger and the smell of salt and fish hung heavy in the air. The colours of the crimson sky danced in merriment, and Jagan realised how even nature today seemed joyous, giddy with fun.
A group of Jagan’s co-workers walked slowly towards the little shanty on the beachside. Daman Delight – a popular place for the workers to unwind after a hot day at the factory. It was a little way off from that part of the beach where the regular tourists visit, hidden from plain view by coconut trees clumped together, and a huge boat parked on the sand. The wooden stripes look worn out, but the textured effect looks sublime. The cyclone of ’95 left the poor boat aground on the sand dune, and the fisherman lost at sea forever. His family never recovered his body, but his boat – his Jal Pari – stands on the beach, proud as ever.
The music greeted people even before they could lay their eyes on the shabby bar. With the sun hovering inches above the horizon, Jagan had his hands warming a chilled beer can and sitting with a close knit group of friends, chatting about their ‘home’, their ‘Sonar Bangla’; reminiscing about the times that slipped by so quickly on the sands of Daman. The kitchen was hot and a flurry of activities were taking place there. Chefs clad in sweat soaked vests and a red towel tied around their waists, ladled the ‘pakoda’ batter into the bubbling hot oil. Others were busy frying the chicken, and the waiters rushed from table to table serving the ketchup, uncorking the soda water and handing out plates like automated servers.
Anirban entered the shack with his group of friends. Dressed in oversized shorts and a Tropical Caribbean t-shirt, he joined Jagan and his circle of friends. Soumitra sat in the centre, his buddies cheering all around him. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Anirban pulled a chair next to his friend and sat. Soumitra and Partho introduced him to their small gang of bachelors.
And as the night crept up, the revelry escalated, with clinking of glasses and Sosyo bottles, cheap rum and whisky in free flow, and the chicken wings and assorted fries lying forgotten. Soon, the music turned a decibel higher, and the men started to abandon their chairs. In perfect sync with the rhythm, the group of 15 odd men hitched up their lungis higher, and spread their hands in the air as they danced in an alcoholic revelry. Even Jagan, who usually sat out during these moments, had a glass in his hand and the other waved about as he hopped from one leg to the other.
Most of the tables were empty now, and the party was trooping out of the shack slowly. The waiters were busy cleaning the mess.
“Soumitra! God bless you. Baari jaacheesh, aamader bhoolbi na, hic!” Said Partho, leaning against a coconut tree.
“Yes, yes,” the others shouted. And after the final goodbyes and good lucks had been sent, Anirban and Jagan walked along the beach. A little tipsy, Jagan had trouble walking in a straight line, but his friend who walked near, gave him direction.
“Where are we going?”
“Just keep walking, you will see for yourself.”
“B…but, say nah. Whar arr you taking me?”
“Shh, Jagan please, just keep walking.”
Gradually, the pristine light coloured sand that shone in the moonlight, turned dull and grey. Small bits of dirt poked its ugly head from the gravelly bits at their feet. Stripped rags, plastic and filth peppered the beach. The waves lashed the land quietly, a soft and constant whooshing sound, like a lullaby, a sound that is not noise for the fisherfolk, whose heartbeats thump with the waves. A sound of reassurance and pleasant wonder, the waves lashed on without a pause.
Ahead, as the dirt had started to pile on, were a row of jhuggis. Aluminium sheets covered the wooden and palm leaf structures. Bits of cloth and plastic were used to fortify the walls, the plastic lining the exterior. Eerie dim lights emanated from the shabby unkempt windows of the structures that stood side by side. Built on a rocky foundation, they stood a safe distance from the incessant battering of the foamy waves. Garish music belted out into the night, punctuating the soft roar of the waves.
Anirban walked up to a large rock that stood close to the stump of a tree, and looked over his shoulder, beckoning Jagan to come along. A shadowed man approached the stump, a bandana covering his head. Draped in a tattered tan coat and vest, he put his hand out to Anirban.
“One hour, make it deluxe,” Anirban said, as he stuffed five notes of hundred in the man’s palm.
“Extra will be charged for the curtains to fall,” the stranger said in his husky voice. A thick gold bracelet gleamed under the moonlight, as he stuffed the notes away.
As this entire money transaction was taking place, Jagan had slumped onto the sand. The cool waves swept upto his feet, washing them of the grime that collected through out the day. He dipped his hands into the wet soil, creating patterns that were soon washed away. The melodic sound of the waves, left him blissfully unaware of the dealings Anirban was into, as the heavy stupor brought on by liquor slipped away slowly, as the sea breeze hit him straight in the face.
“Hey, Jagan, come one.” And silently Jagan was pushed towards the shed farthest of all. The structure atleast looked more decent than the others. A dark blue cloth draped across the door, fluttering in the air. Red-pinkish light shone onto the sand.
Blinking at the light with his arms outstretched in front of him, Jagan slowly entered the room. His feet hit the cold stone floor, waking him a trifle. He looked around, drinking in the ambience. The room was warmer, with a fan stirring slowly, barely able to swirl the humid air.
A single painting dressed the wall that faced him. It was of the mountains, with their oddly shaped peaks covered in snow. The sky was dark and had a deadly look towards the upper frayed edges, pierced in the middle by tiny red rays of the morning sun. Thick clumps of trees crowded around the fields, leaving small bare spaces for fields. A frothy-foamy river slipped between the peaks, gushing down the valleys, easing itself through the fields. At a glance, there did not seem anything special about the painting. One might even suppose it to be the artwork of a child. But upon closer scrutiny, the common landscape had a hypnotic effect on the eyes.
Jagan had slowly started to sway back and forth as he stood transfixed in front of the painting. The alcohol drumming throughout his body did little to help his state. His eyes seem to steal away from him as his face inched closer it. His nose would have nearly flattened against the glass, when….
“Well, well. Are you going to stand there all night?”
Jagan snapped out of his reverie, and whipped around. A young, nubile, dusky woman sat perk upright on a bed. Clad in a sari, her legs hung from the side of the bed. The sari might have been red, or even orange. It was difficult to tell in the red-pinkish light that beamed from a bulb covered in flourescent paper.
“Wh..who are you?” mumbled Jagan, obviously now very confused by the liquor. He strained his eyes, trying to stop the flurry of motions in them.
“Hahaha…I am the reason you are here,” she said, running her nimble fingers through her thick black hair.
“Oh! But..but you see, I have never done this bef..before,” Jagan said, as he took a step back, with a frightened look on his face.
“Well then, why don’t you come sit next to me. I have the perfect medicine.” Jagan sat down at the very corner of the wooden bed, petting the checkered bed cover with nervousness. She sat crouched on her haunches, placing her legs far apart, and stretched her hands underneath the bed. She pulled out a small metal trunk, that clanked on the way out. As she busied herself with it, Jagan could not help but stare at her. Her long loose hair had been gathered onto her right shoulder, as her neck craned towards the right. The chunky earring sat pretty against her jaw, its ends trickling down her taut neck. The kohl-lined eyes had a magical look, and Jagan thought that he was in paradise. And then he travelled down.
His eyes skirted the neckline of the blouse. It was a light-coloured one, that much you could tell, nothing fancy. It was tight and even the top hook was missing, revealing the smooth bumps that sent a spark through Jagan’s insides. Her heavy bosom rose and fell, in sync with her rhythmic breathing, slow and sure. The sari, draped over her left shoulder fell casually at her heels.
“Here it is,” she said, unwrapping an Old Monk from the swaddles of an old sari. She poured the wicked liquid into a glass and handed it to Jagan. He took it, and looked at it a little incredulously. At this point, she shut the door. This made him even more nervous, and he nearly buried his nose in the glass. She hitched her sari higher, climbed the bed and kneeled behind him. Jagan could feel her toned stomach against the thin cloth of his t-shirt, her nipples poking his back through her blouse.
He downs the rum in one swift go, and the glass is deftly put away. And then he turns to face her, as her blouse slips off, and she takes him into her arms.
Three years and four months have gone by since that enchanting night on the beach front. Jagan had found work closer home, in Kolkata, where he worked in the printing press of a local newspaper. His wife, Shanta and one and a half year old daughter, Komolini, stayed with him in a two room house in the bylanes of Taltala. Though they yet had to struggle through day to day, the economy was looking up.
“Ei je, shuno to. She has fever. The temperature just isn’t coming down. We may have to visit the nursing home again. Even the report is supposed to come today.”
A worried look gathered on Jagan’s face. It would be difficult this month, he thought to himself. Though work was going good, his daughter’s recurrent illness was draining his savings. If this went on….he shuddered at the very thought.
“You call a rickshaw and go ahead, I’ll come,” he said, grabbing the various medical files and putting them into a plastic folder. As his wife left with Komolini, his little star, he preferred to call her, Jagan opened the tiny locker of the steel almirah and took out a small red bag. He carefully counted four notes of five hundred, and folded them away in the hidden pocket inside his shirt. He put the bag back and then hurriedly left for the nursing home.
The sky was bright, but clumps of grey clouds were visible. It was the end of March, and Kal Baisakhi was on its way. After a bit of healthy bickering with the rickshaw-puller, Jagan reached Lifeline Nursing Home, barely fifteen minutes from his home. Just as he got off, the sky trembled and clouds gave in. Rain came pouring, and within the five minutes that took Jagan to pay, he was soaked to his skin.
He rushed into the lobby, his clothes dripping wet and his arms clutched tightly around the plastic folder, bending a little as he tried to prevent it from getting wet. A number of people had crowded near the entrance, and the staff was laying out jute sacks to prevent muddy floors. A child slipped near the stairs, its loud bawl sending her mother flying from the line in front of the counter.
It was a small nursing home that catered to the people who lived near the wholesale market of Taltala. From the butcher to the fish monger, everyone of them came here. The nurses always seemed preoccupied. Very few of them even bothered to answer when stopped to question. The dull interiors with the paint peeling off the walls made the atmosphere gloomy. The pounding rain did not help brighten Jagan’s mood, as he spotted his wife and doctor on a bench near the doctor’s cabin.
Shanta, who nestled the tired child in her arms looked grave, but a smile sprung forth on her face as she saw her husband.
“What did the doctor say?” Jagan asked.
“Oh, we have not even met him yet. The nurse says we are up next. Did you know, there were so many people standing at the counter, but the minute I put in Komolini name, they asked me to to sit here. I just hope everything is fine.”
“Oh don’t you worry. Our little one is perfect. Think how proud you will be when she becomes a doctor herself.”
“Uff, there you go. She will not become a doctor. Bole diyechi. She will be an IAS officer, complete with the ‘lal batti gadi’,” she said proudly.
Just then the nurse came and ushered them inside. As they entered the dingy cabin, the nurse shut the door behind her. Shanta, still holding her daughter close sat on the rickety wooden chair, as Jagan took out file after file from the folder.
Dr Ghosh was a simple sort of doctor, but like all the others he had a massive ego. He hated when parents kept questioning, and preferred to check the patient quickly, asking only the most necessary questions. Short and plump with a small moustache on his face, Dr Ghosh had a file open in front of him. He had been reading the file, but as he saw them enter, he took of his glasses and greeted them.
“Kemon acho? How is Komolini keeping up?”
“Uhm, doctor,” said Shanta, “She has temperature even today. I don’t know what to do.”
“This has been going on for a month, doctor. You even took that expensive test two weeks ago, but whatever medicines she takes it just doesn’t seem to help her,” Jagan said, frustration seeping in. Even making a trip to the nearby nursing home is time consuming, he thought, an entire day’s pay lost.
“Well, that is exactly what I wanted to talk to the two of you today. But first, lay the child on the bed, and let me examine her,” he said.
After a quick examination, where Dr Ghosh poked and prodded her with the stethoscope, he resumed his seat. He handed over a file to Jagan that had been sitting open in front of him and said, “Our concerns have proven true when we took the test a fortnight ago. I am sorry, but both of you will have to undergo certain tests to determine who is the carrier of the virus.”
Jagan’s hands shook as he stared at the file in front of him. The doctor’s words were just floating through his ear, and messing around his mind. But his eyes could not fail him, and in big bold red letters it was written: HIV positive. A thousand questions came up in his head, and tens of thousands of others he suppressed. Shanta broke into tears next to him, grabbing at her sari as she patted her eyes, and Komolini only kept fiddling with the hanky in her hand, deep in a world of her own.
The doctor continued, “I am sorry. I will need both of you to get certain blood tests done to confirm if the virus has been passed on from one or both parents.”
Hearing this, Shanta cried even harder, hugging her daughter tightly to her chest. Jagan’s eyes moved from the paper in front of him and stared hard at the faded checkered curtain that hung from the window. It was a pattern he had seen before, a pattern that his eyes were staring fixedly at now. Where had he seen it before? And before he knew it, the answer came back. It was the same checkered cloth that had draped the bed of a certain woman, a woman he visited on a hot sultry night in Daman.
In the height of Indian summer, youth and madness of college life, which I dearly miss, I set off for a three week internship in Daman, with a friend. We interned at Swami Vivekanand Yuvak Mandal, working as part of project under Daman and Diu State Aids Control Society. There we learned the many ways HIV may be contracted, whom to turn to for help, salient features of basic medical procedures, and even disseminating such information to the wives of the many migrant workers who stay in the ‘chawls’ (communal homes). The peak point in the internship was learning how to use a condom, and even demonstrating it before the women. Boy, did that take courage.