Shrabani was getting late for office. She worried that she would miss the 8 am bus that was pulling out of the bus depot. She rushed to board the bus. She waved her hand at the conductor of the bus. The conductor banged on the outer wall of the tin bus and screamed “aste, ladies ache” (slow, ladies coming) to indicate the driver to stop the bus. Calcutta is one of those cities where a passenger can board the bus from anywhere without bothering to go to the bus stop. The bus stopped and Shrabani hurriedly boarded the bus. She went near the women’s seat and sat down. She settled down, pulled her dupatta, held her bag and tried to sit comfortably on the rexine seat.
A pair of old eyes was staring at her. She didn’t notice the man immediately however after a squinted close glance she knew who he was. This has become a routine. Every single day the old man boards the bus that Shrabani takes to her office in the morning. At times Shrabani feels angry however most of the times she feels pity. There was a strange appeal in the eyes of the old man, an appeal to Shrabani to come back to his house, the house she left almost a year back.
She looked at him and a small sigh came out. A warm smile was scattered all over his face. Shrabani couldn’t ignore the smile and had to reluctantly smile back. The old man left his seat and came and stood in front of Shrabani. She felt awkward to stay seated while he was standing. With a smile the old man said “I thought today you missed the bus, but thank god you didn’t or else you would have got late for office.” Shrabani didn’t say anything and just nodded. Most of the days she is clueless on how to continue the conversation with him. So many times she had asked him not to come to meet her but the old man never listens. Meeting her every day morning has become a part of his daily ritual.
The conductor came near them and screeched in a creaky voice “tickyat, tickyat”. Shrabani was about to take out her wallet but before that the old man gave a rupee 10 note to the conductor and said “duto” (two). The conductor took the money and gave him two tickets. He took the tickets and gave one to Shrabani and kept the other in his chest pocket. Shrabani felt embarrassed once again and said in a hushed tone “why do you do this every day?”
He replied “what did I do?”
Shrabani said in a firm tone now “Please don’t buy my tickets every day.”
He said immediately “You are my daughter and a father is supposed to buy tickets for his child.”
Shrabani wanted to say that she was not his daughter but kept quiet and looked aside.
He continued “Yesterday, I found a pair of your slippers under your bed, pink colour. Do you want it? I can get it for you tomorrow.”
Shrabani felt irritated now, what would she do with a pair of slippers when she left a part of her being in that house. She replied in a harsh tone “No, I don’t want them and you please don’t carry my slipper, it is disrespectful.”
He protested “What disrespectful? A father can always carry a daughter’s slippers.” He smiled and his eyes brightened up.
Shrabani now wanted to scream that she was fed up hearing that she was his daughter. However she kept quite. A part of her didn’t want to hurt the old man. He continued “What did you eat for breakfast?”
She said “Bread and scrambled egg.”
He said “Today again, bread? Why don’t you ask your maid make you something nice. Remember how you loved the aloo paratha or luchi, cholar dal.”
Shrabani once again didn’t reply and just nodded. Like a flashback she remembered those mornings when Suchetana used to serve her hot aloo paratha or luchi for breakfast. A part of her missed that home but another part despised it.
Shrabani said ‘Baba, I think you should get down here. You are already quite far from your house. Mrs Sarkar would get worried.’ Shrabani still calls him Baba but always refers to Suchetana as Mrs Sarkar. She never met Suchetana or Abhrajyoti ever since she left their house.
‘No, Suchetana will not get worried. I told her I would be late.’ He smiled.
When the bus pulled near Shrabani’s office, she got up to get down. Baba also got up. While getting down from the bus Shrabani held his hands as his arthritis made it difficult for him to step down the stairs. They started walking towards her office. He said in a sombre and rather sad tone ‘Tui Janis Abhra biye korche. (Do you know Abhra is getting married?)’ Shrabani nodded her head yes. He promptly asked ‘how did you come to know?’
‘How does that matter, Baba?’ she added ‘I am happy for him.’
‘You should also get married.’
‘No, am fine’ she wanted to stop this meaningless conversation but Baba continued ‘Why don’t you get married to Arnab, that friend of yours.’ There was excitement in his voice. ‘He will keep you very happy.’ He said with happiness in his voice, happy with his own suggestion.
Shrabani stopped walking and turned towards him. She said ‘Baba, Arnab is my friend. I do not want to marry again.’ Irritation was evident in her voice.
Sadness spread across his face, he said in an almost inaudible tone ‘A good friend can be the best husband.’ He paused and said ‘I want to see you happy again. I want to see you smiling again.’
‘I am happy, please don’t worry Baba.’ She said ‘marriage is not the only thing for happiness.’
‘A good marriage’ he said after clearing his throat. Both of them were silent for a moment and then Baba said ‘please marry again, don’t punish me.’
‘I am not punishing you; it was I who got punished’
Baba was silent, a drop of tear gathered at the corner of his eye. He kept quiet, his head hung in shame. Shrabani felt bad looking at him. She touched his hand tenderly and said ‘Baba, I think you should stop meeting me.’
‘What is the point Baba? Nobody likes you meeting me. I know you come secretly.’ She paused and took a deep breath and said ‘I am no more family, Baba.’
‘You will always remain family.’ he paused for a moment and said ‘signing a paper doesn’t end everything.’
Shrabani kept quiet and was looking towards her toe. She was not saying as she knew that the moment she tries to say something tears will choke her words. Baba understood that and he said ‘For me you will always remain my family, the day you entered my house as a new bride, you also entered my heart as my youngest child and you will always remain so.’ They both were silent for some time and then he said ‘Abhra can have a new wife, I won’t disrespect her as a daughter-in-law, but you will always remain my bouma (daughter-in-law) my Laxmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity).’