Short Story: An Afternoon Encounter

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Painting: Tereza Strnad

By Anuradha Mazumder

Aakash was desperate for a cigarette, but not a single shop was open. The Chowrasta-bound auto-rickshaw stand was empty; no other vehicle was in sight; Kolkata had come to a standstill. After a frustrating forty-minute wait at Tollygunj Metro Station for some stray vehicle that would be willing to give him a lift, Aakash decided to walk, thanking his stars that at least the underground Metro was still plying. He couldn’t have travelled otherwise, from distant Shyambazar. The sun was pitiless, much like the virus that tyrannized the city. Aakash smiled wryly, thinking of human hubris and how it was duly decimated by a clever, rapidly-mutating, uncontainable virus that measured only about 0.14 microns at its largest. However, his immediate need for a cigarette was too overpowering to indulge further in serious contemplation. “God, give me a break, please! Let this shop be open,” he screamed silently, noticing a paan-and-cigarette shop at some distance ahead; but the downed shutter of the shop continued its pre-lunch nap, unyielding. It was almost noon and Aakash was sweating heavily under the scorching sun.

He had not been willing to travel that day… he had had another migraine attack the previous night and it was still bothering him. Besides, his bike had broken down on an errand a few days back and he hadn’t been able to get it repaired because of the lockdown. But this was an emergency service, his boss had said over phone, and an octogenarian was involved. Aakash didn’t have the heart to refuse. He was to carry a month’s supply of a special brand of insulin manufactured in Koikhali, for a certain Mr. Alok Mitra, a diabetic octogenarian who lived alone, just off Behala Chowrasta. Mr. Mitra’s local pharmacy had not stocked up on the vials before the sudden implementation of the lockdown; so the desperate Mr. Mitra, who could not survive without it, contacted Eldercare, the company that Aakash worked for. Eldercare came to the rescue – although it charged a stiff fee for its emergency services – but Mr. Mitra was financially well-off and willing to pay. Aakash was a ‘Care Manager’ with Eldercare; he carried police permission to travel during the lockdown on such emergency errands.

The young girl drawing water from the roadside tube well took a good look at Aakash when he enquired about Mr. Mitra’s address at Natunpara bus stand; then she pointed toward a gated house down the street and walked away with her bucket of water. A strikingly handsome old man opened the front door of Mr. Mitra’s sprawling two-storey house. On learning that Aakash was from Eldercare a smile of relief replaced the enquiring look on the kind face that eventually introduced itself as Alok Mitra. Aakash immediately noticed the pair of intelligent eyes that belied the unblemished silver on Mr. Mitra’s head and the numerous doodles that Time had etched on his forehead. He could not decline either the hand extended by Mr. Mitra for a hearty handshake or the glass of lassi that the old man offered; and the two men, separated by half a century between them, started chatting over glasses of cool Amul lassi.

To his pleasant surprise, Aakash learned that Mr. Mitra was a renowned archaeologist, a ‘Shera Bangali’ awardee, and the author of several books on Indian history and archaeology. He was a self-proclaimed bookworm and proudly pointed at the bookshelves covering his living room walls. “There’s a mini library on the first floor too!” he added, with child-like glee. Aakash reciprocated with genuine enthusiasm; he was already in awe of the grand old man. Besides, the large, cool living room and the cosy sofa were a relief after the exhausting half-hour walk under a scorching mid-day sun. The room, he noticed, was unusually cold even without the AC on. Mr. Mitra was a friendly, down-to-earth man. No haughtiness, no show-off, Aakash noticed admiringly, as they discussed a wide range of issues. The old man was at his animated best, however, when Aakash casually mentioned cricket; the two men instantly got busy defending their respective cricketing heroes over lassi and laughter.

 “Oh but I have another passion, young man,” said Mr. Mitra, “I read a lot of books on the paranormal… what about you?”

 “Well, I know nothing about such stuff… I mean, I don’t really believe in such hocus-pocus,” laughed Aakash.

Mr. Mitra smiled understandingly, and the discussion meandered to other topics.

 “Now I must take your leave, Mr. Mitra. You are already late for lunch,” Aakash said, rather apologetically, about an hour later.

 “Oh, stop being so formal, Aakash, you must be younger than my son… call me Meshomoshai!” said Mr. Mitra, cordially.

Mr. Mitra held him captive for another half hour or so. Aakash had no other work that day, and he understood that Mr. Mitra wanted company more than he wanted lunch; so he obliged, rather happily. He did not ordinarily forge personal relationships with his clients, but there was something about Mr. Mitra that really put him at ease. He felt alive in Mr. Mitra’s company, and voluntarily left his personal mobile number with the latter.

 “You know, Aakash, it was more than nice talking to you… my only son, Baban, was supposed to fly down from New Jersey last week… but this cursed lockdown… you know…”

Mr. Mitra’s voice trailed off.  Suddenly his eyes lost their sheen and his face looked much older. Aakash felt sorry for him.

“I’ll call you regularly till your son comes home, Meshomoshai… don’t worry, you’ll be fine. And I am just a phone call away in case you need anything … feel free to call, any time.”

An affable old face smiled back at him. Aakash felt a strange emptiness in his heart as he began his arduous walk back to the Metro Station.

On his way back to Shyambazar on a nearly-deserted Metro coach, Aakash reclined uncomfortably on the cold, hard backrest of the metal seat. He started scrolling the Facebook newsfeed on his cell phone aimlessly, still thinking about Mr. Mitra, when suddenly, a particular headline from two days back arrested his attention. His dark eyebrows knit themselves into a perplexed frown while he struggled to sit up. As he tried hard to make sense of what he read his tongue felt dry, and a chill ran down his spine.

‘RENOWNED ARCHAEOLOGIST ALOK MITRA DIES OF CARDIAC FAILURE,’ proclaimed the two-day old headline, underneath which Mr. Mitra’s benign face smiled at the world from an old photo.

Aakash felt himself asphyxiating as he continued to gape at his cell phone screen. How could the headline be true? Whom did he just deliver the vials of insulin then? His head began to swim, his eyes dimmed… suddenly, the train, the people, and the world around him started receding from him as the lonely coach hurtled through the dark entrails of the city at a breakneck speed.

Bio:
Anuradha Mazumder is Assistant Professor of English in Prafulla Chandra College, Kolkata. An alumnus of Presidency College, she did her Masters in English literature from the University of Calcutta and completed her M. Phil. in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her areas of academic interest include Victorian studies, Indian English writing and literature’s interface with cinema and popular culture. She is the author of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: With an Introduction and Explanatory Notes (2018), published by Authorspress, New Delhi. She enjoys writing poetry and short pieces of fiction and non-fiction. Contact: mazumder.anu@gmail.com

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