On a hot summer afternoon two men circled around the front of Nina’s house. From her vantage point on the terrace, it appeared to Nina that they were observing the house intently. Moments later, a swanky car pulled up and the men hurriedly got in. One of them pointed to her house, and gesticulated animatedly before driving away.
Nina wondered why strange people often loitered around the house these days. She decided to ask her father after his Sunday afternoon siesta.
“Nina! Nina! Where are you, my child?” Her father’s voice suddenly rang out as he climbed the stairs leading to the terrace.
Nina quickly hid beneath the cot, her hands clutching on to raw mango slices that her mother had seasoned with spices and laid out in the sun. She loved the way the zesty spices melted in her mouth, and the juice of the fibrous mango tickled her tongue, as she bit into the tangy pieces.
Instinctively, her father looked below the cot – Nina was smiling with pickle smeared all over her lips.
“Nina, you will fall sick in this sweltering heat,” her father said, worried.
“I was just taking a nap, Baba. I went under the cot to protect myself from the sun.” With an air of injured innocence, Nina solemnly handed over the mango pieces to her father.
Her father was in his early 50s. His lean, athletic physique belied his years. His eyes, the colour of dark chocolate, radiated happiness and an inner peace. Nina shared a strong bond with her father. He loved her effervescent and naughty spontaneity, and handled her moods and tantrums with rare tact and humour. She always responded with a hug, and a hearty and generous approval, “Baba, you are the best!”
“What do you think you are doing here, Nina?” her mother’s shrill voice resounded from behind her. “You are nine years old, but still behave like a kindergarten kid! When will you ever grow up? No wonder I dread your summer holidays!”
Nina’s olive complexion glistened in the sun, and her long hair was pulled back and tied off in a ponytail. Much like Nina herself, her flyaway hair refused to be tamed in spite of her mother’s best efforts.
“I was just playing on the terrace, Ma.” Nina’s wide smile deepened the large dimples on her chubby cheeks. She could never understand how her mother always appeared whenever she was having the most fun.
“Come on, we will play downstairs,” Nina’s father said laughingly, as he held her hand and skipped downstairs.
The two-storied house with its lovely architecture was testimony to her father’s wonderful aesthetic taste – every room boasted of artefacts chosen by a true connoisseur. Relatives and neighbours identified ‘Majumdar house’ as possessing a unique grandeur of its own – imposing, strong and confident.
Later that night, when it was nearly bedtime, the lights suddenly went out; plunging the entire neighbourhood into darkness.
The sultry night wore a desolate countenance. The crescent moon cradled in the dark summer sky, lent a silvery hue to the atmosphere. A thin, squeaky laugh pierced the air. The flickering light from the candle highlighted the silhouette of a man wearing a black hood, with a pale ashen face, and flashing Dracula-like teeth, staring back through deep-sunken eyes. Nina started screaming and running helter-skelter in the darkness.
Her father flipped on the flashlight. His stern voice cut across the din, “Enough Chinmoy, do not scare Nina like that. She might get hurt.”
“You are such a spoilsport, Ratanda!” Chinmoy took off his hood and slowly pulled off the mask, revealing his disappointed face.
The Dracula in question was Nina’s uncle, her father’s younger brother, whose innate artistic sense of make-up enabled him to slip into any role with effortless ease.
He always took great pride in scaring Nina out of her wits, and her frenzied childish behaviour left him rubbing his hands in glee.
Nina decided to stay huddled in the kitchen till the lights came on. She could hear snatches of conversation from the adjacent room.
“Ratanda, why do you always get so upset when I scare Nina? It is just plain fun. After all, we all wear masks, dowe not?” Chinmoy’s cool voice sounded unconcerned.
“It hurts when you speak like that, Chinmoy. You know I love you, right?” Nina’s father put an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Never lose your integrity, Chinmoy. It is one of the greatest treasures.”
“C’mon!” Chinmoy said dismissively. “By the way, I wanted to ask you a forfavour.”
“What is it, Chinmoy? Hope you have not got yourself in any kind of trouble again.”
“No, Ratanda, it is about this house. Let us just sell it off. The real estate agents have made a very generous offer after you refused their earlier proposal. We can always shift to a flat which they have promised to provide. No point in living in a house with so many rooms, when there are only four of us. You could even pay off the loan you took for building it,” Chinmoy said, with concern resounding in his voice. “How far can your government job take you, anyway?”
“That is for to me decide, Chinmoy. Did I not tell you not to bring up this issue ever again?” Nina’s father sighed. “Please do not forget the sacrifices I made to build this house in memory of our parents, who always dreamed of their own home, but had to live in a small, rented room all their lives. That is how we grew up, remember? You should be glad I was able to build this house for us and our future generations.”
“Yeah, yeah, you said that before,” Chinmoy’s voice was rising. “But who cares for all that now? I am desperately in need of money, and I want my share without any legal hassles. As a joint owner, I have equal rights.”
"I made you the joint owner, Chinmoy.” Nina’s father sounded distraught. “I thought it would help you to ultimately give up your insecurities, take up a steady job, get married, and settle down. But I made a dreadful mistake.
I realised much too late that you only love to squander away all the money you can lay your hands on. You can forget about your foolish ideas.”
“But the realtors have already acquired most of the land surrounding this house. They are planning a hotel here. How long will they wait for us?” A cold smile crept across Chinmoy’s lips. “Moreover, they are influential people, and often hang around this area. Hope they do not try anything dangerous. You do not know what the consequences can be, do you?”
“Don’t you dare threaten me! You can very well go and tell them we are not interested in selling.”
The two brothers stood in silence for a minute, staring into the darkness.
“I will definitely sell this house, no matter what it takes,” Chinmoy hissed. He then walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Nina was up early the next morning. She rushed to her father’s room, but it was empty. She decided to wait.
On returning from his morning walk, her father’s handsome face immediately broke into a smile. “What brings you here so early, my little princess?”
“Last night I heard that Chinmoyuncle wants to sell this house. I do not want to go from here, Baba,” Nina said, with wide, anxious eyes.
Her father gently put his hand on her head and kissed her forehead. “Please don’t worry yourself over all this. Chinmoyuncle was only joking. This house will never be sold, Nina.”
There was no way Nina’s father could have known that he was mistaken.
Her fears assuaged, Nina bounded off to the verandah which offered a breathtaking view of the river Hooghly. It seemed to be shrouded in a mysterious beauty, as the water gently lapped up the banks. Nina was always mesmerised by the sparkling water; and the way it turned golden after being caressed by the first rays of the morning sun.
While riding her bicycle, Nina noticed a short, stout man, with a pockmarked face, and thick oily hair slicked over his scalp, peering over the hedge, and curiously looking towards the driveway. He waved at Nina. Since her mother had told her not to acknowledge strangers, Nina looked the other way, and then, cycled to the end of the driveway and shut the gate.
One Sunday morning, Nina’s father was tending to the plants in the small picturesque garden. The garden was Nina’s idyllic retreat. Her father had converted a tiny strip of land into deep green foliage with beautiful blooms, alongside the old hibiscus tree which he was so fond of. Nina loved spending time with him in the garden; helping him in whatever way she could.
She teasingly pulled his sticky hair. “You really adore this house, don’t you, Baba?”
“Yes, Nina. It saddens me to think that my parents passed away before I could build it for them. Your grandmother always dreamed of a house like this,” Nina’s father said, emotion choking his voice. He looked at her with intense eyes. “This home is my life’s dream. I have given a great deal of time, money and energy in making this house unique. It is very special, Nina. I have plans of converting the top floor into a tutorial, where your mother wants to teach poor children for free.”
Nina took her father’s hand and nodded her head, as though she understood perfectly well. “Yes, Baba, this house is very special to all of us,” she said, hugging him endearingly.
It was Nina’s 10th birthday. She wore her new pink dress in the evening, and waited for her father to return from work. Giddy with excitement, she pranced and skipped her way through the long corridor, which had been decorated with balloons and streamers. “Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo! It’s my birthday!!”
Just then the house phone rang.
“Keep quiet, Nina,” her mother scolded. “I can’t hear what the person on the other end of the phone is saying.”
“Hello, I am calling from City Hospital. MrRatanMajumdar has had an accident,” the grim voice said. “His car crashed into a speeding van on Strand Road. I am very sorry to inform that he is no more.”
Outside, everything was wrapped in darkness. The slow drizzle gained momentum, and the tremulous, rain-soaked flowers were bent and solemn. The leaves of the giant coconut trees in the neighbourhood rustled and gently swayed in the wind, as though bidding Nina’s father adieu for the last time.
After a fortnight of her father’s passing away, Nina heard acrimonious and agitated voices coming from the verandah. Her mother’s voice was full of painful consternation.
“But why do you have to sell this house, Chinmoy? It was your brother’s dream home. Could you even mention this if he had been alive today?”
Nina could hear her uncle’s voice snapping back. “Boudi, I had discussed this issue with Ratanda several times. But there is no point in all that now. I am getting a terrific offer from some real estate developers. They want to build a hotel here. Moreover, I am moving to New York soon. I have decided to sell this house. Please do not make things difficult.”
The note of finality in her uncle’s voice made Nina shudder. A sense of foreboding swept over her.
Looking skyward, Nina made a silent prayer, “Baba, please help me to dispel this overwhelming darkness that seems to shut out the slightest light in me.”
One afternoon, nearly three months since her father’s demise, Nina tiptoed out of the ground floor flat, where she now lived. It was at the west end of the same neighbourhood, in an old grey building. She walked the two blocks to her father’s house – the only home she had ever known and loved.
She was struck at how the landscape of the place had undergone a drastic transformation. The house she had so lovingly cherished, her father’s sweat and toil, dreams and aspirations, had been demolished beyond recognition – it lay in ruins; broken and defeated – pieces of its former glory lying amongst the wreckage.
Beads of perspiration trickled down her neck, as she surveyed the devastation all around her. A feeling of utter helplessness and loss gripped her, and penetrated the very core of her being – slicing her senses into a million fragments.
Tears freely flowing down her cheeks, Nina gingerly made her way through the muck and debris. The garden was devoid of any colour. Flowers no longer bloomed here, and the grass was coarse and brownish in patches. A tiny sapling struggled to make its way out of a broken concrete slab, stretching out to her beseechingly.
The river Hooghly spread out before her – lacklustre and insipid. Even the rays of the sun that caressed the water, failed to arouse its sensuality, as it flowed along – forlorn and empty. A lone boatman hummed a sad tune, perhaps in memory of his lost love.
Almost trance-like, Nina sat down on the ground, drawing her knees close to her chest. Suddenly, her eyes settled on broken red marble pieces, which were unmistakably from the altar of the prayer room. She tentatively kneeled to pick them up. She could almost hear her father whisper in her ears, “Take them with you, my princess; they are pieces of my broken dreams.”
With one last lingering look at the wreckage, she started walking away; hugging the marble pieces from the altar close to her heart. Fighting back tears, Nina came back to the ground floor flat and ran into her mother’s comforting arms.
"So who took care of your house while you were gone?”.....Read Detail
On a hot summer afternoon two men circled around the front of .......Read Detail