On a misty December morning Sandeep babu woke up earlier than most; owing to his unusual affair with sunrises and discipline. He tossed and turned on his bed for the last of the warmth, and then got ready for the day in systematic movements. He swiftly climbed onto the terrace to pick flowers for the daily puja only to find most of them wilted and dry. Being a man of habits and preferences, even a slight shift from his routine could tip Sandeep babu’s lid.
“Palash never tends the plants well…I'll teach him a lesson when he comes asking for his next month's salary. Now I need to walk all the way to the market. Irritating. Breaks my concentration”, Sandeep babu muttered to himself as he left his house with crouched eyebrows.
December mornings are a lazy lot for most cities. But Kolkata wakes up at its tea stalls and in its old markets. They start getting decked up minutes before sunrise, the milk boils, shutters fly open and dutiful patrons gather to engage in the most intense morning discourses over the vintage-like sound of trains from the distant stations of Howrah and Sealdah.
Sandeep babu, therefore, was greeted by a queue at Kusum’s flower stall. He could walk a few steps and buy them elsewhere, but he decided to wait. Kusum was a married girl in her mid twenties. She set up her stall at the corner of the footpath near Amherst street every day. Most of the people in Central Kolkata preferred buying flowers from her— she was sweet and polite, she hardly argued or bargained, and she was always full of energy. Her relationship with all her buyers was quite amicable. She laughed and threw witty punches, and always welcomed her customers, new and old, with a smile on her face.
However, she regularly faced abuse at the hands of her husband and had to put up with his affairs with other women; it was something known to one and all. Kusum never intended to keep it private. It was a joke for her, she made fun of her situation, her cock-eyed face and the colour of her skin, her husband and the other women, “She sits on fish, she smells of fish! How can my husband be aroused by that? Chi..chi..devil's minion.”
She was always very cordial with Sandeep babu, always asked about his health and family. This morning was no different except for a purple blotch on her left eye that had everyone convinced that things were spinning out of hand at home. Sandeep babu did not bother to ask much, he thought it is always best to stay away from interfering in the lives of other people, especially those belonging to the class of maid-servants. He felt they were highly unreliable and not worth anyone’s trust. He bought the flowers pretending to attend a call on his phone and rushed home to complete his practice.
At breakfast, he narrated the incident to his wife. “Sudha, do you know that Kusum was beaten up by her husband again?”
“Not surprising at all. What else do you expect from that alcoholic bastard?”, she said without looking away from the TV.
“How shamelessly has he been roaming around with that other woman, Ratan was telling me today.”, Sandeep babu said while hurrying through his food. Ratan was the coconut stall owner in the market.
“Huh! The poor are innocent? Pure? Simple? Ha..ha..such innocence..chi..chi..such a shame.”, his wife had her tongue stick out for the effect.
“She is hiding a lot behind her smile. I wanted to ask her and get some help for her...but then again…”
“Na baba na...thaak (leave it). What if they blame you later?”
Months passed by, and Sandeep babu never saw Kusum's stall open again. He asked the other vendors, but no one knew a thing. Life in a metro. No one cares. No one asks. After almost seven months, he found the stall open again. He was delighted but astonished: there wasn't any crowd or a queue; there was only a young bald boy selling flowers along with an old lady. The boy's eyes stated that he was Kusum's son. Sandeep babu asked him about his mother and learned that she was dead. With nothing more to say, he clutched the plastic pouch with flowers and went to Ratan's stall. The coconut seller stood there morose and depressed.
"How did it happen Ratan?”, Sandeep babu asked with concern in his eyes.
"Suicide. She spilled kerosene over herself and set herself on fire."
Sandeep babu was horrified, “But why?!”
"She found Shyam with that bitch in their room the last evening before she committed suicide. She couldn't take it anymore Sandeep da...my sister is gone now...she is no more..and…and that bastard...that bastard is roaming free, that swine.”, Ratan was sobbing now. Sandeep babu left the stall.
Sketch By: Savni Panandiker