The morning air seemed laced with a somber thoughtfulness as Jita sat on the balcony of her eighth-floor apartment and gazed at the view in front of her. An abundant emptiness. A gently dying community ground with a handful of trees stood side by side with a triangular slum covered in dust. When she moved to the suburbs of Mumbai two years back she had hoped not to live near a slum. However, grimy roofs stared at her now every time she stepped out on her balcony to get some air. No matter where one lived, the concrete structures always came with the slums that made them. Or is it the other way round? Jita felt a certain emotion, perhaps guilt, clench at her throat. Nonetheless, a glass of warm water with a piece of lemon almost always helped Jita endure such moments of early morning contrition. She finished her glass and scanned the scenery as if to find some meaning in the mundanity of it.
Lying on the right-hand side of the slum was a lake. Blue sheets of heavy duty industrial tin placed over a dwarf wall served as the boundary between the lake and the slum. A siege of great white egrets sat on the trunk of a half-submerged tree at one end of the lake. Each year, in the month of January, the presence of these birds transformed the lake into an exotic water body even though piles of garbage rested in its vicinity. Jita wondered where the birds had come from. She found an odd similarity with them. Are they far away from home like I am?
The white birds took her mind to a childhood memory of Bogoli or as egrets were called in Assamese, her mother tongue. Her Koka, grandfather, had a pond in his backyard in Sadiya. Every time she visited him she watched egrets fly in, in large numbers to eat fish from the pond. Her Koka never did anything to chase the birds away. He would smile and hold her hand as she eyed the birds devouring their prey. Her ten-year-old mind was awestruck by their fierce elegance.
The memory made Jita think of home. She hasn’t been home since her Koka’s funeral three years ago. A sadness resurfaced. She quivered.
Jita turned her attention to the landscape, once again. Beyond the lake, the slum and the ground, were sprawling masses of greenery and ultimately, the waters of the Arabian sea. A golden pagoda stood somewhere amidst this chaos. The sight of the pagoda made Jita calm even on the most tempestuous days. However, she never made an effort to visit it. She would sit in her semi-circular space fantasizing it as a symbol of peace and stability.
Jita moved her gaze from the pagoda to the men and women from the slum making their way to the building next to hers. They wore yellow hats and neon green vests over their tattered clothes. In the evening, they used these same hats to draw water from the concrete tank in the middle of the slum to wash their bodies while people invaded their privacy from the heights of their luxury laden homes. Jita writhed in displeasure at the thought. Minutes later, the noise from the construction work started to pierce a hole in the serenity of the morning she so cherished. It was deafening. But it was how she kept track of time in the morning hours without ever having to look at a watch. It was time for her morning stroll.
Jita went inside, sliding the glass door to her bedroom. Yug, her boyfriend, was slumbering away on the double mattress laid out on the floor in the middle of the room. She paused and observed the shirtless creature curled up on the bed. The sheets were out of the mattress on the side he slept. One pillow rested near his legs and the other near his chest. He didn’t have a pillow under his head. He was sleeping on the comforter. Her side of the bed, on the other hand, was as neat as though no one had ever slept on it. She wanted to tidy up the mess her beloved had managed to create on his side. It was a blatant contradiction to everything in the room. Low raised wooden furniture supporting books, lamps and vintage items stood symmetrically on both sides of the square structure. Even the tiniest of objects remained in their assigned spot. Always.
The neatly arranged furniture along with the sliding doors gave the room a somewhat Japanese appearance. Even though they didn’t have many visitors, the few they had would always point it out. Jita would smile and humbly deny it stating that it was in no way what they had intended. However, standing in the middle of the room she was compelled by the thoughtfulness that had followed her in, to acknowledge the ‘almost Japanese’ decor of her bedroom. It is kind of Japanese. Alop nuhua nohoi. Perhaps, her profound desire to visit Japan was to be blamed for such an ornamentation of their bedroom. She found it as strange as the one sleeping on the bed. She sighed and walked out of the room to the corridor in faint disconcertment.
The corridor was more spacious than most apartment corridors and had decent natural light pouring in from the adjacent rooms. The empty white walls made the corridor seem brighter than it was. The owner of their apartment had warned them against any form of drilling and tapping. Initially, Jita had considered using stick-on hooks to put up pictures on the walls. But since they might chip off the paint she scrapped the idea and never thought of an alternative.
Walking through the corridor now, she found it deary and insipid. There has to be an alternative to this dullness.
Jita took out her walking shoes from the shoe rack in the corridor. They were blue in color and complimented her off-white rayon overalls. Her shoes were the slip-on kind. She hated wearing shoes with laces as she considered them time-consuming. So, swiftly slipping into her blue shoes, Jita grabbed the house keys from the porcelain pot kept on the table by the front door in a matter of seconds. She adjusted her long bob in the round Victorian-style table mirror. It was one of her precious finds from Chor Bazaar.
Yug was not fond of the mirror. He was of the opinion that it made everyone look “a little off”. His comment echoed in Jita’s head as she noticed a few wrinkles on her reflection. Her brown eyes were surrounded with dark circles. They weren’t black but had a tint of maroon in them. Her pale skin only made them more prominent. Nonetheless, not wasting another minute or a thought over how she looked, Jita was out on her morning ritual.
The sky was overcast and brought a kind of brooding dismality to the morning. Jita saw a couple of joggers and an ederly couple entering their locality park. It was starting to get crowded. She always preferred the streets for her morning walk. Everyday, she would cover a distance of 2.5 kilometers walking through the shaded lanes of her locality upto the tea stall at the Chowki and back home. She had formed some sort of a peculiar familial bond with the tea seller, Anjum, and her eight-year-old son, Vijesh. Sometimes she wondered if it was the morning walk which necessitated the tea or the tea that necessitated the morning walk. Whatever it was, Jita made sure she missed neither.
By the time she reached the tea stall, Anjum had already begun her day's activities. Her kohl smeared eyes gleamed as she chatted with her customers. Vijesh stood coyly next to her in a green t-shirt with her green saree almost camouflaging him. A rotund old man noticed Vijesh and pulled him close to him. Startled by the sudden gesture, Vijesh began to cry. The man’s hysterical laughter made the other customers search for the source. Vijesh’s cheeks flushed as the crowd snickered. Anjum, missing the act which led her son to break out into tears, looked at Vijesh angrily. He was creating a scene as far as his mother was concerned. The crying intensified. The man stopped laughing and asked Vijesh about his school. Jita, observing the entire episode, intervened. She pressed Anjum into bringing her a tumbler of tea in an attempt to shield Vijesh from his mother’s temper. Anjum told her that her son began crying for no reason.
Bhaiyya was asking about his school. That’s all. She stated as she poured a caramelized liquor effusing the aroma of ginger and cardamom into a cutting chai glass. The man smirked, handing Anjum ten rupees for his tea and amusement.
Jita tried to cheer up Vijesh. He was fond of her. She got him a candy or two sometimes and asked him about his friends. She listened to everything he had to say without ever questioning the reality of his exploits. She understood his need to be heard.
Anjum handed Jita the steaming glass tumbler and informed her that she would be closing the tea stall the coming week. Jita took a sip of the milky beverage as the nebulousness of Anjum’s sentence slowly registered.
There is a small shop next to the big offices a few kilometers from where I stay. Anjum said juggling between sweetened and unsweetened tea requests. The owner has agreed to give it to me for a small deposit. She added proudly.
Anjum confided in Jita that she was lucky enough to find a shop. She could keep it open for the entire day and serve a few other items as well. Vijesh’s school will also be much closer and they would no longer have to close their shop and rush like they did now. Anjum in her usual jovial nature invited Jita to come visit them once the shop opened. First cup free for regular customers! She advertised.
As glad as Jita was for Anjum, something inside her shrieked. Most days, Anjum and Vijesh would be the only people she had any sort of interaction with. Yug would be out of town for work and she didn’t have many friends. When Jita shared this with Anjum, it was too strange for her to comprehend. All she managed to tell Jita was that she and her son were only a rickshaw ride away.
Come by, anytime you want!
Jita thanked Anjum and wondered if she had judged her. Perhaps, she would look at her differently now. Jita paid for her tea and congratulated Anjum on her new business venture. She wished her luck and left. On her way back home, Jita was in an elaborate discussion with herself. Anjum’s decision to leave the Chowki made Jita unsettled. She had left her corporate job a year back to start an online business. However, she had not been as sincere as she would like herself to be. Taking a break from work after five years brought an absurd amount of laziness to her life. She was reconsidering her business prospects and settling for high paying freelance work. The walk back to her apartment had stirred up a storm inside her head. Ki kori asu moi? What am I doing?
Yug was still asleep when Jita got back home after picking up some groceries from the farmer’s shop. She kept the groceries in the kitchen and remembered the empty glass she had left on the balcony. She sighed and went to get it. The clouds had cleared and the sun was shining brightly on the pagoda. Jita sat down admiring its enhanced appearance with the embrace of the sun. Ah, how beautiful it is. But a noise from behind her interrupted her thoughts. A lanky figure slided the glass door, stretched and sauntered towards her. He pulled up a chair and plopped down in front of her blocking the view. There were comforter marks on his face. His hair was dry and unruly like the potted fern Jita had on the balcony railing. His eyes were the color of the sea. His nose was sharp and his jawline sharper. There was a time when this face triggered a whirlwind of emotions in Jita’s heart.
I don’t understand how you manage to wake up so early everyday. Yug remarked with childlike amusement.
Jita scoffed. She had been having difficulty falling asleep at night. It wasn’t surprising to her that Yug did not notice that. She always felt that he had a talent for not noticing things. It was probably one of the reasons they fell out of love.
I think I will go to the pagoda today. Jita announced in her usual distant way. He looked at her in bewilderment as if he was unaware of the golden shrine standing prominently behind him. She explained that their watchman had shared with her a possible route via the nearest jetty.
He yawned. Why go there? What is in that pagoda? Peace? A stillness I cannot find here?
It’s a meditation center of some kind. Jita retorted. Yug didn’t inquire further but asked if he could accompany her. She agreed reluctantly.
It was late afternoon by the time Jita and Yug started off on their day trip. Fortunately, it was a twenty-minute drive to the jetty. As soon as they reached the jetty, Jita rushed out of the driver’s seat to get the tickets while Yug, still somewhat sleepy, took the wheel and searched for a parking spot. It was in the ticket counter that Jita learned about a roadway to the pagoda.
But this is the shortest route. The man behind the counter assured her.
Jita paid for the tickets and waited by a shaded area near the ticket counter for Yug. She watched a group of tourists in overly decorative hats entering the ticketing area. The adults in the group collected the tickets while the children waited impatiently to get to the ferry. Jita was relishing the usual touristy confusion and chaos when her eyes fell on a small sign at the counter which she had previously missed. The sign stated in bold hand painted red letters that tickets to the water parks could be availed there. Heikarone eman manuh! That explains the crowd.
In the meantime, Yug joined her and they made their way to where the rest of the crowd was waiting for the ferry to arrive. It was a motley assortment of people. Jita traced through the mix while her companion checked notifications on his phone. He seemed to be completely unaffected by his surroundings. She was repulsed by his indifference to things. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t be like that. How could she not look up to investigate as a strong smell of jasmine crept in between them? Nonetheless, she failed to locate the perennial flowers whose smell she detested.
The sudden gaiety of the tourists signalled the arrival of the ferry. Everyone waited as two wooden planks were laid down by the ferry crew as a passageway. The arriving passengers got down one and the departing passengers got up the other. There was no pushing or shouting. It was a well thought of and followed system. But as soon as people stepped on the ferry they rushed to grab a seat on the blue iron benches as if it were a game of musical chairs. Luckily, Jita managed to get a seat on the side by the fencing while Yug stood eliminated and decided to stand by a motorbike parked in the middle of the ferry. After a while everyone was onboard the blue and white vessel with rusted iron bars and muddy floor.
A young woman in a yellow saree with jasmine in her hair sat in front of Jita. The pungent smell hit Jita again. She felt nauseated by it. To divert her mind she turned her attention to the seagulls. One caught a fish and flew away while a few others sat casually on the waters. As strangely satisfying it was to watch them, her mind wandered off to familiar waters. She recalled her first boat ride back home in Assam when she was a child. It was a slim, elongated wooden dinghy barely keeping the waters of the Brahmaputra from coming on board. It was not a joy ride but a necessity since the bridge connecting their village to the town was washed away by floods. She remembers the boat being packed with people like the pickled olives in her Aitamaa’s glass jar. Aitamaa was her maternal grandmother and someone who had told her not to be afraid of the river. It carries our stories and memories. Noi khonei amar logori. It is our closest friend. She would elucidate.
However, as Jita sat on the boat, her naive heart thumped and she couldn’t remember Aitamaa’s words. All she did was hold on tightly to her mother's Mekhela chador, terrified of the river. She was certain that they were going to drown.
Jita squirmed in her seat at the memory.
The ferry ride to the pagoda lasted around six minutes.
We’re here already? They should just build a bridge. Yug remarked with a laugh.
As they got down from the ferry, the bright hoardings of the water parks welcomed them without much charm. For a moment, Jita thought that they had come to the wrong place. When Yug spotted a tiny sign pointing towards the pagoda, she was thoroughly relieved. The majority of the passengers accompanying them made their way to the fun fair of the water parks. Only five of them including the woman with jasmine in her hair made their way to the pagoda. They walked up a muddy passage and then a concrete passage and finally arrived at the magnificent golden structure. The main gate was still a few meters away. Jita’s body was fidgeting with a nervousness she didn't understand. She took a deep breath and tried to contain her excitement as they ambled towards the entrance.
Jita’s heart sank at the sight.
Holy…! Yug exclaimed.
A swarm of tourists were inside the pagoda taking selfies and walking around in total contrast to what the place stood for. Jita reluctantly made her way up the numerous stairs inside, hoping that the main sanctorum would be the way she had imagined - peaceful and without inhibitions. But everywhere she looked she only saw people polluting the landscape. This was in no way the place she would turn to from a distance seeking peace. It was almost like knowing a person with their secrets and limitations waiting to be discovered. Her pagoda was adulterated just like everything else.
Jita sat on one of the stairs sulking in the evening sun. She watched Yug shoot a video of the place in all its crowdedness. She found it maddening only to realize that this was the reason she fell in love with him – his excitement in oddity. He turned to her and started filming her. He asked her about enlightenment and how she felt to be there. They burst out laughing. Yug embraced her, consoled her and with her fingers between his, he walked her down to the jetty. Jita was surprised. She had forgotten what it felt like to laugh at things beyond their control and to not blame each other for their unhappiness. She beamed at him with admiration and when the ferry arrived, he remarked in his usual air of dispassion. Maybe that’s all we need. A couple of bad trips and a few good laughs.
Even so, the storm inside her subsided. She cozied on his arms and they went back home with the smell of dried fish hitting them occasionally. The calmness that she felt inside was unusual and the love that suddenly resurfaced seemed almost impossible to comprehend. Perhaps, her decision to leave him could wait for a while.
Maybe we can live together, afterall. Maybe this new year will change things for us.
That evening the pagoda no longer had her attention when they were on the balcony savoring the evening breeze. Yug opened a bottle of wine and made a toast to the pagoda. It was gleaming despite the hovering darkness that enveloped the rest of the scenery. The floodlights shooting on it now from it’s base turned the sky around it golden. It was spectacular. Yug turned on a song and ensconced himself on his favorite piece of furniture – a woven seagrass bench. Jita sat back, sipped her wine and watched Yug check his phone as he hummed along to the song. She chuckled as she reflected on her absurdness. She was so invested in a far off object to find peace that she had failed to see the peace that had always existed with her but got rusted with time. Yug looked at her puzzled when she spoke about it after finishing her glass of wine.
Where is it then? He asked.
She placed her hand on her chest. Yat. It's all right here and in all the little things we do to keep it from rusting.
Like right now. Yug smiled and raised his glass.
She admired as well as envied Yug for never dwelling on things deeper than they were meant to, no matter where he was or with whom. He embraced moments without ever thinking of what came before or followed after. Jita felt a certain longing for this quality in him. However, sadness flooded in. Her mind drifted away to the morning. Anjum was leaving. Maybe this time Yug would replace her as a friend.
Yug looked up from his phone and checked if she had said anything. She shook her head in denial. He stretched his arms and stood up. The music had stopped. Jita was urged by the moment to tell him about Anjum.
Anjum is leaving. She shared her grief. Who is Anjum? He asked, peering into his phone. And before Jita could answer, Yug started talking about a news article. The virus in China is getting worse… Jita sighed. It’s always the same. He had lost her attention. She was starting to see that there is no replacement but only acceptance in the impermanence of things. She turned her eyes to the golden beauty standing majestically bringing the much needed luster to a starless sky. She poured herself another glass of wine as Yug blabbered about a virus in a different time zone. She wondered where the egrets had gone to rest for the night. Had they nested closeby or many kilometers away? The birds made her think of home. Again. Her heart swelled with a homesickness she had never felt before. She closed her eyes as she inhaled the disappointment in the air. She saw a Bogoli.
Come, fly with me. The egret whispered to her. Her lips curved. She soared above her diffidence. There, the air smelled familiar. It was the damp yet refreshingly evocative fragrance of life by the river. Home was calling out to her. Jita had been at sea for far too long.
Puja Chakraborty is a freelance writer, video editor and filmmaker from Assam. Monsoon Boats (2021), a short story written by her, was published in the English newspaper Assam Tribune's Sunday Reading in a two-part series. Her short story, Aperture (2013), was one of the finalists in the 6th Junior Authors Short Story Competition held in Vancouver, Canada. She also worked as a regular contributor to the music magazine, Eclectic Vibes, and has had numerous bylines to her credit. Daybreak (short film), written and directed by her, has been screened at numerous short film festivals. Some of the notable ones include the Academy Award qualifying short film festival - Bengaluru International Short Film Festival, Chennai International Short Film Festival, Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival and Pune International Short Film Festival. Puja is currently working on her short story collection.