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DUST (DHULO)

Just as Pranab was about to get off the bus at the stop he was waiting for, a fattish woman scrambled aboard and treading on his feet, immediately grumbled for his benefit -- the crowd’s always at the gate, strange!

Blood rushed to his head but his first task, on getting off a bus, was to tap his feet. He tapped his feet, thap-thap, on the footpath cement and rid his sandals of dust. Then he caught hold of his panjabi across the chest with three of his fingers and gave it quite a shake. He swung his dhoti pleats around next. And pulling out a handkerchief from his pocket, he rubbed it across his face, neck and nape before shaking it around exactly five times and returning it to his pocket and wondering, how to redress such wrongs? I wasn’t standing at the bus-door to enjoy the breeze!

The lane to his house lay right next to the bazaar. The bazaar was really no more than people squatting with scales and potatoes-and-pumpkins. Seeing a lorry approach, Pranab turned quickly away and waited, clamping a hand over his mouth. The amount of dust these stirred up!

By the time he had reached the head of the lane, the year’s first nor’wester caught up with him. Bits of lying gravel stung his face. Pressing his hands across his eyes, Pranab stood terrified. Reaching home, his daily chore was to tweak the dust out off his clothes. Today he shook his clothes about for a full five minutes. Then went straight to the bathroom. Having stuck a finger into an ear-hole, he brought it up to his eyes and noticed the dust clinging to it. The water stood low in the tub. He had to bend low to wet his fingers and clean his nose. Running his wet hand across his head and through his hair, he did all he could to rid himself of the dust before entering the bedroom, only to discover that Rama wasn’t in. The neighbours had the radio playing on high and Pranab had to raise his voice as he called out, Nirmala!

She seemed to have disappeared since opening the door for him, and there was no sound. He called out again, Nirmala! Are you home or not?

Nirmala entered the room with a bowl of sweet porridge and tea, asking whether he wanted the tea here, or on the veranda.

--I’ve been calling and calling, couldn’t you hear? Any idea of your boudi’s whereabouts?

-- She went out in the afternoon. I was washing clothes in the bathroom. She told me to make you porridge if she’s late.

-- Dump it in the drain!

Nirmala knew it was best to ignore such outbursts. Her sister-in-law’s worn clothes lay on the table, along with her grimy bra. Placing the tea-cup, she removed the clothes with one hand. Putting down the porridge bowl, she left the room.

-- Listen! Did you shut the kitchen window when the storm came up?
-- No!
-- O good! Might as well have made me a porridge from dust! You’d have saved the suji .

He put a spoonful into his mouth despite his anger, but had to immediately spit it out, eeks! It was gritty with dust.

-- That’s from the sugar. The sugar we got as ration was filthy this time.

The five-minute storm had blown down long ago, yet the smell of dust hung heavy in the air. Pranab had the tea in the empty room, then lit a cigarette and began pacing about. The breath of dust came in through the window and oppressed his nostrils. The throng in the bus, then the storm, had made him forget the afternoon’s insult, but the stench of dust now reminded him of Dilip Kundu from the purchase department and his jaws tightened. He visualised himself as an incredibly powerful man facing Kundu sahib and his fat tie that he wore in all weathers, be it winter or summer. Almost as powerful as Netaji or someone comparable. His heart was burning from the insult. Pacing about, he ground out, son of a swine!

Rama was back at nine sharp. She sat down heavily almost as soon as she had entered the room. Her feet on the floor, she bent herself cautiously from the waist and lay on the bed, a hand pressing down against her forehead. Without raising her head, she asked, when did you get back?

Pranab lit a cigarette and began to pull hard. The absence of a response made Rama look up and her forehead creased as her eyes fell on the untouched bowl of porridge, what’s this? You haven’t taken it?

-- Where did you go?
-- To the doctor’s.
-- Was it scheduled?
-- No, I fell in the bathroom, didn’t get hurt badly but enough to frighten me, and then there was this mild, nagging pain in the belly --

-- You went alone?
-- There wasn’t anybody for me to take along, was there?

At times, when angry, Pranab had trouble remembering his sister’s name, all he remembered was that it was a bit outdated, and elegant, and the absence of a nick name made him call her Kalyani at times, quite unashamedly, or Aparna, or any other name that came to his mind. He shook off the cigarette ash and said, you could’ve taken Shyamali with you.

-- And you would have waited on the street on returning home?
-- Or you could have waited for me;
-- Have you ever come with me to the doctor? Have you ever taken me to a proper doctor, ever?

An irritated ‘ooh’ escaped her as she lowered her head to her palms. She pressed down hard on her temples.
-- Was it a cursory look, or was your saree ...

Rama didn’t look up. His rage shot up. Shoving back his chair, he rose to his feet and began pacing, again. You women are capable of anything, he growled.

About ten minutes later, Rama rose to her feet. Returning from a quick trip to the kitchen, she pushed the bowl towards him a little and said softly, ‘Have it. Dinner will be late.’

Pranab came to a stop right behind her back and declared, I am not going to eat that lump of dust.

Rama blazed up, suddenly, ‘All you’ve ever cared about is dust!’

Pranab intoned cruelly, as if mimicking, ‘No – lick the dust with my tongue, lie in the dust proudly! As if rubbing soap on the face is enough, huh!

The taunt had made the blood rush to his head. Who wouldn’t make a mistake of thirty-eight paisa when reckoning for eighty-six lakhs seventy thousand three hundred and eleven rupees and that too without an adding machine! That Kundu had the nerve to insult him in front of a roomful of people for such a minor error, ‘It’ll suit you better if you leave accounting and take up sweeping, instead. All I see you doing is sweeping off dust.’

Whether he cleaned his desk two hundred times instead of the usual two, how did that affect that Kundu’s dad! Driving around in a car, raining dust on people’s faces, didn’t make you human. Anybody who was good at licking dust from seniors’ shoes could become an officer like him.

Going out of the room, Pranab began pacing up and down the dark veranda. Seeing Rama come out of the bathroom and walk towards the bedroom, he asked, ‘Was there even a nurse present, or did the doctor check you alone?’

Rama writhed in anger as she went into the room. She came out again and going into the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of water from the earthen water-pot and told Nirmala, ‘I won’t be eating tonight. Serve it to your brother once the food is done, and eat for yourself.’

She gulped the water down and returning to the room, she switched off the light.

But Pranab’s mood was worsening. He would be glad to have a showdown. The radio was blaring a request programme of rabindrasangeet . Into your endlessness I race with my soul and mind. He heard a couple of lines through, despite his rising wrath. Such songs weren’t suited to this ambience. Kolkata was a poisoned city. Its very air was fraught with dust. A raging poison!

The light came on with a snap. Nirmala had pulled back her hair tightly and tied it up, sweat glistened on her face. She was wiping her hand on her saree-end, ‘Should I serve you dinner?’

-- You are wiping your hand on your saree again? Go, wash it with soap.

Pacing the veranda from end to end for another six-seven times, Pranab grew tired and wondered whether it was possible to live on with so much anger bottled inside! Everyday was a repetition of rage and burning and exhaustion. The same dust and insults. Life flowing along the sameness of all twelve months and thirty days.

As he reached the end of the veranda, his eyes fell upon a star-studded sky for the first time.

He looked on, distracted, trying to shake himself out of the loop, no, it was becoming impossible to carry on in this state of extreme irritation, he’d have to go and watch a Hindi film tomorrow. And play bridge with his friends everyday. And if he could make money out of flash, nothing like it. Couldn’t he arrange for Rama to be admitted to a smallish nursing home? Would that take a lot of money? Maybe he could get a loan from the office? They still had four months to go.

When the strains of your feet in dust reached his ears, Pranab thought quietly, that’s dust of a different kind. Rabindranath was completely out of place in Kolkata. It was a wonder that babies were being born in this city even now.

Pushing open the half-closed door, Pranab entered the bedroom. Darkness. As his eyes got used to the dark, he noticed that Rama was lying in her place on the bed. He placed his hand on her forehead in the dark, and called softly, Rama.

No response.

-- Rama! Wake up! Won’t you eat? Rama, hey Rama –

Rama woke with an ‘oof!’, then said drowsily, let me sleep a little.

-- I will, I will. And he dropped a kiss on her forehead without thinking. Clasping her head in his two hands, he began to rain mad kisses on her forehead, cheeks, nose, neck.

-- Aah! What are you doing? Let me go.

Pranab snatched his hands away and sat still at the sound of her irritated voice. He sat without moving for a while, then asked, ‘What did the doctor say? Was there any damage?’

Rama didn’t move her arm from where it lay across her eyes as she replied, ‘Would’ve been glad if there was.’

-- But why! Don’t you want a son?

Rama stayed quiet. Pranab sounded completely hopeless as he beseeched, ‘Rama, don’t stay angry. I go around like a mad dog all day. On top of that if you –’

He had always had this habit, ever since childhood, of finishing every sentence he started. That capacity was dwindling with age and yet Pranab kept trying all the time. But he didn’t finish this sentence today, he went and sat in a chair instead. Stretching, he switched the light on and lit a cigarette.

The light hit her eyelids and Rama turned to face the wall.

She looked beautiful from the back as she lay there. Like a wave. Her knees were folded together. Pranab looked on softly, pulling in the smoke. The saree had moved up a little, revealing a calf. Suddenly, his eyes glittered. She had changed her saree, but not the petticoat. The rim was black with dirt.

Pranab tried to restrain his wrath, ‘Hey! You’re lying on the bed in a petticoat you’ve worn on the street!’

She might have fallen asleep, or didn’t reply.

Pranab exerted all his restraint, trying to hold his anger in check, ‘Rama, get up, take that petticoat off. The dirt is gnawing at it.’

Rama didn’t move. Pranab leapt to the bed and growled menacingly, ‘Get up! Get up! Aren’t you ever satisfied until the streets’ dirt is smeared all over the bed, are you?’ Pranab raised his hand, about to hit her.

Rama sprung up from the bed and shot to a corner. She stood still, panting lightly.

Fixing his eyes on the white sheet, Pranab grumbled, ‘Can’t you remember that a baby will be sleeping on this bed only days from now? It’s quite impossible to avoid the dust as it is, the whole city is wallowing in dust, it’s like a virulent poison.’

Rama hissed from her corner, ‘All you do is worry about the dust! A baby will be sleeping? Have you any idea of what you’ll be feeding it when you can’t even afford a doctor for me? But you are so good at dancing about, mourning the dust! You’ve even made a maid out of your own sister!’

Pranab ignored the extreme provocation. He’d have to clean the bed first. He would never get on the bed even in clothes he wore at home. He was used to sleeping naked except for his underwear. He pulled off his dhoti roughly. Kneeling on the bed, he circled round, cleaning the sheet with his hands and murmuring, ‘Unless that bribe-taker Kundu dies, there’s no hope for a promotion.’

His two palms were gritty with dust. A shiver coursed through his flesh. Afraid of touching himself, he went towards the bathroom, holding his hands out in front. He stopped suddenly and turned to face Rama, ‘What do you mean by my not affording a doctor for you? Didn’t you go visit one today?’

-- Did you give me any money for the visit? Did you give me any money for the three times I’ve been to him?

Rama fell onto the bed with a thump, her face turned away from him, and broke into sobs. Her body heaved helplessly as she said, ‘He checks me for free, and on the pretext of examination – for hours and hours –’

The bed rattled with her sobs.

Forgetting the dust on his hand, Pranab rushed to her side and laying a hand on her back, sat like a mute. His hands shook with the tremor of her sobs. Having sat awhile, he suddenly dropped his face into his dusty palms and released a heavy sigh.

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Panjabi : a loose shirt with an open-neck;
Dhoti : a length of cloth worn by men around their waist, often in pleats;
Boudi : an elder sister-in-law;
Suji : a coarse wheat flour
Sahib : an appellation affixed to the name of a ‘gentleman’;
Netaji : a national hero and freedom fighter, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose;
Saree : a length of cloth wrapped around the body, worn by women;
Rabindrasangeet : songs written by the poet Rabindranath Tagore.

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