GOWANUS Spring 2001
Footprints on the Wall
By Anjana Basu
Sinha Roy walked on the softest cushions of feet imaginable. The toes were
well formed, the big and small toe of an even height, with the others slanting
away, each in perfect proportion to the other. The arch under the foot
was as high as a ballet dancer’s or, as she preferred to say, as a Maharani’s,
even though many Maharanis were known to have carried their dignity on
the flattest of flat feet. The high arch ended in two cushioned pads of
flesh on either side, equally perfectly proportioned. People stopped
to admire her footprints in the dust on the stone flags of a courtyard,
or among a mash of marigold petals and milk left over from the puja. It
was as if the goddess Lakshmi had stepped out of her lotus flower and condescended
to bless those mundane steps. No wonder, people said, that she had been
so blessed in her life. The possessor of footprints like those was bound
to lead a fortunate existence.
Fortune--it had overflowed like the
pan of milk that had been set on the fire as she stepped over the threshold
in a flare of red and gold brocade. Good fortune had overflowed from the
three-storeyed roof into the green curve of the garden that held the house
in its embrace. Good fortune had covered Mrs. Sinha Roy’s plump white-and-black-
There had been a Mr. Sinha Roy once who had inherited the aforementioned three acres from his forefathers and who had husbanded them wisely. But Mr. Sinha Roy had been removed from his wife’s sphere long before he became inconvenient. Widowhood gave her a distinction that she had lacked in her creamy white youth. The promoters who, she sighed, bayed on the fringes of her life like hounds, were reduced to awed whispers in her presence. The Mataji was not to be disturbed with all this talk of filthy lucre. She was the goddess of wealth in person. If they could, they would have backed out of her presence like Queen Victoria’s courtiers. Of course, the whispers did not inhibit their offers. They walked into the green embrace of the house and breathed green cash--so much for the Mataji just to sign a paper, so much to sweeten the mouths of her children a little. They oozed chocolate and ghee on auspicious occasions, and Mataji was too elevated a person to refuse the offers. Mrs. Sinha Roy never mentioned their constant presence in her life at the little gatherings where she and her contemporary widows came together and arranged the lives of everyone around them. At those gatherings the fate of many a socialite was decided and sealed, alliances were made and family loyalties broken. They were a group of women as soft and as cushioned as Mrs. Sinha Roy herself and they all understood the power of filthy lucre. “How many today,” Mrs. Chatterjee would ask, while arranging her tatting- she was crocheting a blouse for her youngest granddaughter, a lace straitjacket of ruthless lines, “Such a sweet little thing, so hopelessly modern!”
“Three,” Mrs. Sinha Roy would sigh, picking up her nimboo pani as if the weight of all the world were on her shoulders. “Ayan should really help you a little.”
“Yes, but he’s so tied up with his studies. These intellectual boys! Now, my eldest daughter on the other hand... He spent so much on her education. Remember, all that problem we had…”
“Ah, yes, your eldest…” There was a universal sigh like a ripple that disturbed the placid surface of the circle for a second.
“Your eldest.” Noyonika, of course, was fast on her way to becoming a byword in society. It was only the power of the circle that kept her aberrations from becoming more widely known. After all, she was the daughter of one of them, no matter what her shortcomings were. If her mother was creamy white widowhood, placid unruffled milk, Noyonika was jagged green lightning, or at any rate a curdling influence in that hygienic dairy atmosphere.
She had returned braless from London long before it was the fashion, jiggling and wobbling through Customs under an inadequate broiderie anglais blouse. The whole of Dum Dum airport had turned to watch her wheel her luggage out. Her father, alive then, had not known whether to rejoice at his daughter’s return or groan at the spectacle she was so obviously making of herself. “When we get home,” said her mother crisply, cutting through the dilemma. There was nothing legal about Noyonika’s silhouette. When she bent to pick up the bag, her blouse gave an extra bounce and the servant wheeling the trolley started involuntarily and cannoned into the trolley in front of him and there was a suitcase crash right outside the International Arrivals Lounge. As an arrival, it was cataclysmic to say the least. It could have been worse, the suitcase could have crashed into a car, the car could have rolled into an old lady and the whole thing could have spun out of control like the House that Jack Built. Of course, it didn’t, but as far as her parents were concerned, it was already as bad as it could be. Whatever the Sinha Roys did, they didn’t do it in public.
Noyonika had been sent so that she could dignify the family’s glorious legal past with an equally distinguished present. To date, she had shown no signs of doing that. She plummeted into the conversation about the promoters like a lead weight headed full fathom five. Fat cats, she called them, snapping her fingers in their faces and shattering the atmosphere of incense smoke and reverence that her mother had so carefully created. The old ladies knew all about that. Now if only Ayan would be less studious and a little more worldly wise, they sighed, but then, after all, a son was a son and Ayan was a precious gift after three daughters. “How much was it today,” Mrs. Khan enquired, orchestrating her maid’s movements with the tea.
“Five crores shown and seven unshown.” There was a moment’s pause followed by the tinkle of a cup put precisely down into a saucer. “Of course I told him that was impossible.” There was a little chorus of tinkles, as if of applause.
Shown, unshown--by now those words were familiar to the sandesh circle. All the plump, cushioned ladies were well aware of the distinctions. Shown money went into the bank to be counted by the tax man and the government. Unshown, on the other hand, went in its crisp stapled wads to tin boxes, there to pay for the purchase of new diamonds or gold, for trips to children in America and London, or for parties that demanded more than sandesh and singaras. Unshown was bliss for its sheer practicality. Quite a few of them had conveyed their sprawling houses into two or three adjoining pocket-handkerchief flats. “And they’re laughing all the way to the bank,” Noyonika declared because, per force, she handled some of their conveyancing.
It was the way she said things that grated on Mrs. Sinha Roy more than the way she dressed. The clothes could be handled--she had dragged Noyonika home from the airport and stuffed her into the tightest Maidenform bras she could find--but speech could not be muffled. “Can’t you speak English the way we’ve always spoken it?” she would demand. “Or Bengali for that matter? Did I send you all the way to England to forget everything you ever learnt?” Noyonika’s sisters were docile convent-bred girls who might dream of swinging down Soho but who never let a hint of their dreams stray into reality. They wore their sister’s cast off T-shirts demurely and lisped in Bengali. Mrs. Sinha Roy had found suitable husbands for them. But Noyonika? She had insisted on finding her own husband! A boy who didn’t believe in wedding presents or in dowry!
Tarun spoke Noyonika’s brand of jagged green lightning and wafted around in what seemed to be a perennial haze of incense. He had to be spoken to three times before he would lift his head out of the crow’s-nest tangle of his beard and answer. “My rabindric son in law,” was the way Mrs. Sinha Roy referred to him. ‘Rabindric’ was being kind. The only thing Tarun had in common with Rabindranath Tagore was the hooked nose and the beard.
He belonged to a crumbling red brick house in some mofussil that the Sinha Roys refused to recognise. When pressed, Mrs. Sinha Sinha Roy would admit that Tarun’s family was decent and his features worth notice, but that was as far as she would commit herself. Coincidentally, a month after the wedding, Mr. Sinha Roy suffered his fatal heart attack. It was all that was needed for Mrs. Sinha Roy to cast her son-in-law into Outer Mongolia or the Black Hole of Calcutta society or whichever place she considered blighting enough. That the fact of the widowhood was responsible for her triumphant transformation was tactfully ignored by everyone privileged to hear her confidences.
As everyone predicted, Noyonika found life in the mofussils intolerable and ran back home after a year. Court was the excuse. Noyonika was distinctly frayed at the edges, but she trailed her husband behind her like a slightly bedraggled victory standard, silencing any other comments Mrs. Sinha Roy’s friends might possibly have raised. It was widely whispered that Tarun was a drug addict, and that titillating fact made up for any disappointment that Noyonika’s failure to divorce might have caused.
The house had, according to Mr. Sinha Roy’s whim, been divided vertically, a floor for each child, according to age. Noyonika had the floor just below the roof, Ayan the floor below that and Noyona and Nayantara the last two floors, which they shared with their mother. The ground floor, with its public rooms, was Mrs. Sinha Roy’s territory. She had her office there, just off the verandah that curved with the green lawn. Most of the time the family was to be found sprawled in the ground-floor rooms, and there was much laughing talk of a lift, especially among Noyonika’s friends.
Noyonika’s floor, like Noyonika, was a kaleidescope, a chaos, a mishmash of Op, Pop and mahogany. Mr. Sinha Roy’s maids wandered among the confusion like lost souls, startling at the mannequin-supported glass topped tables. “We’ve never seen a room like this before,” they declared with bewildered pride. Noyonika had a collapsible iron gate added to her part of the stairs so that no one could wander up when she was out. A shiny Navtal padlock dangled prominently on its hasp. “It was the wisest thing my husband ever did, secluding her up there,” Mrs. Sinha Roy declared, wincing whenever the hard beat of rock shook her meetings with the promoters. Ayan and the others were Beatles fans at their most extreme.
Noyonika was against the sale of the house. She had made her stand clear from the beginning. “I’m not giving any money to those fat cats. And I’m perfectly comfortable with the house as it is.” She paraded her attitude in front of them, even while she went into the nitty gritties of conveyances and agreements. “I can’t help feeling that my daughter is just a tiny bit unprofessional,” Mrs. Sinha Roy confessed to her circle. “Oh, not that she’s a bad lawyer--Lily, I must say she handled your probate rather well. Just, well…you know.” The circle did know. It was all part and parcel of her braless return. “Such a nice child she used to be, so sweet, so friendly.” The inference was that the grown-up Noyonika was far from nice. They tinkled and bustled around her, wondering how such a deviation was possible in their sedate ranks.
Perhaps it was the precision of her cushioned white mother that irritated Noyonika, she who was so imprecise in her movements. No one would have compared the print of Noyonika’s feet to that of a goddess--she had large flat feet, Bata size eights that refused to be crammed into dainty slippers or elegant stilettos. Her pedestrian chappals sat uncomfortably next to her mother’s Cinderella ones in the rows outside a wedding reception room. As Noyonika scrabbled into her slippers, her mother would seem to look down and sniff. Perhaps Mrs Sinha Roy never did look down. Perhaps Noyonika imagined it, but the imagined sniff was part of the wall that mother and daughter had built between themselves. Did the wall start on that braless day at the airport? Neither of them was really sure. As people, they would never have been friends, would never even have cared to know each other. Tarun would observe, dreamily through the clouds of his reefer, “Whoever said women grew into their mothers couldn’t have known you.”
The two women, mother and daughter were ranged on either side of a wall with the other family members as hostages, but no one talked of or even acknowledged the state of war. Hostages were frequently exchanged and peace treaties contemplated under the guise of family dinner conversation. Ayan, the only man apart from Tarun, frequently shrugged out of it. “You and Ma sort it out.” But, with a hasty brown flicker at his mother, “I’m sure Ma’s right. She usually is.”
“How can she be right? She’s got no legal background at all.” The fights were normally legal one--the presence of the complacent promoters with their shiny blue packets of pann masala. Mrs. Sinha Roy would sigh heavily, “You must have got the acumen from somewhere. Now, your father always said...” and she would retire into graceful reminiscence. Mrs. Sinha Roy always retired gracefully from any field of battle--it was her strongest weapon. Where the enemy looked for confrontation, she would give way, only to resume hostilities from the rear at the most unexpected of moments. “I don't like the promoters any more than you do, dear, but I don't see the point of antagonizing them.” One of them had just presented her that morning with a moth’s-wing sweep of crinkled tussore, discreetly black-and-brown bordered. “You must admit, for a person like that, the man has exquisite taste.”
“Bribery,” Noyonika mumbled, though not too loudly.
Mrs. Sinha Roy raised a finely plucked eyebrow. “But I didn’t promise him anything. He said it was from his mother to the only other woman he called ‘mother’. How could I possibly refuse?” Certainly no woman with her heart in the right place could refute the sentiments.
“You had better give up, Nika,” Tarun sniggered. “You’ll never get the better of Ma.” He was at the table, quite obviously a little high.
“I thought this was a family matter,” Mrs. Sinha Roy observed with an exquisite emphasis on the word ‘family’ and a pointed arch of the eyebrow at her son-in-law. Tarun, flying higher than a kite and impervious to the delicacy of the rebuke, guffawed long and loud while a dreadful hush fell on everyone else present. The incident should never have occurred at all. It showed how deplorably Noyonika’s standards had fallen. “I mean, to accuse her own mother of accepting bribes!” The ladies’ circle cooed in sympathy, and Mrs. Sinha Roy’s daughters ran backwards and forwards with balm all that morning to soothe away her tension headache.
Noyonika tiptoed on the fringes of her mother’s migraine with anger heightened by guilt. She had never meant to say ‘bribery’, and she was aware that Tarun should never have been at the table after a sustained hour of joints. She consoled herself by flinging herself into his drawers and throwing out all his joints so that he flung out of the house with a bulging Shan bag dangling from his shoulder. Her mother rose slightly rumpled from her migraine to be informed by the servants that Borda had taken a taxi to Howrah Station.
The ladies’ circle was perfectly in sympathy with all this. The Sinha Roy house was in some senses a microcosm of their own. If they didn’t have recalcitrant sons-in-law, they definitely had feuding daughters-in-law who instructed their maids not to remove the rest of the family washing from the clothesline if it rained. “And you can’t get pettier than that.” However, something must have shifted in the balance of the relationship between Mrs. Sinha Roy and her daughter --at least everyone said later that something must have shifted, how could one put up with being accused of bribery by one’s own daughter! For a while the subject replaced the shown/unshown discussions among the starched napkins. But what was even more distressing was the fact that Tarun and his Shan bag showed no signs of returning.
This state of affairs persisted for over a month until it was no longer possible for Mrs. Sinha Roy to hide it from her circle. “I didn’t tell you before,” she said, “because I thought it would blow over but...” He was not back and Noyonika was defiantly silent on the subject or, what was worse, maintained she had done it because he had upset Mrs. Sinha Roy. “What can you say to these girls? To have a son-in-law who takes drugs is bad enough...”
“It’s surprising that it didn’t happen before. I mean, considering that Nika is your daughter...”
“Yes, but to happen like this...”
Noyonika flung in and out of her apartment. No one knew when she came or went except for the gatekeeper, and even he couldn’t be sure in the afternoons because he was sleeping off his spiked tobacco. She was not to be found when the promoters demanded her presence, and her behaviour held up the proposed sale of the house even further. “The rest of us are all agreed on the sale. Now, if Noyonika would just draw up the agreement.” Tinkles of cups and a soft scrunching of lemon tarts. “Two flats each, my dears. It would even take care of the Tarun problem.”
“Which promoter was this, Sabita?”
“Oh, Motiram Bhai, the one who gave me the sari. I must confess, he has exquisite taste. It quite reassures me about the flat detailing. He’s bound to look into things like bathrooms.”
“And your son-in-law?”
“She refuses to talk about him.”
The ladies ran their soft hands up and down Mrs. Sinha Roy’s white sleeve. “It must be hard for you. It must be so hard....” She was like a child under the touch of their fingers, soft, yielding and plaintive. “Why she had to marry that man. Thanks to him, she won't let us sell the house....” All at once she stiffened under their fingers. “Why, look at the time! Thank you so much for your sympathy. I don't know what I would do without friends like you.” That moment of soft confidence was never to happen again, but the ladies realised they had been privileged--Sabita was normally so brave, she struggled on despite the odds, Ayan was too young to be a help, and as for Noyonika, well, we all have our crosses to bear. Yes, they told each other, we have been good friends to her.
The atmosphere in the house soon became so tense that a hair would break if dropped. The tension centred around Noyonika. She snapped at the maids when they came to dust her rooms, she forgot to leave the key behind when she went out, and she squabbled with her brother and sisters if they even said hello to her. Soon, they said, she would be reduced to fighting with shadows. The comfortable, cushioned world that Mrs. Sinha Roy had created began to acquire a jagged edge- as if a spring had worked its way through the foam to attack the unwary. Everyone in the house was aware of the sharpness, but no one knew what to do about it. If it had been a real cushion, an upholsterer could have been called in, but this had nothing to do with Dunlopillo.
Despite the tension, sleep still wrapped the house in its cotton folds every afternoon, swathing it from the topmost floor to the gatehouse at the outer edge of the lawn. Visitors were actively discouraged between one and five, and those unfortunate TV repair men and couriers who strayed into the gate found themselves confronted by an unflinching sweep of teak door that was impervious to all their persistent ringings. It was not that Mrs. Sinha Roy’s house boasted a discreet bell that clucked like a koel. Instead, it had a brass monstrosity handed down from the Raj that bonged up and down the marble walls and staircase. However, the stentorian brass was less insistent than the summons of sleep. Outsiders could not understand the weight that the siesta hour laid on grand zamindari houses: it was like the spell of the Sleeping Beauty. Noyonika herself claimed not to understand it after her return from London, but Mrs. Sinha Roy indulgently told the world that her Nika was to be found sleeping like a baby at three-thirty, despite all her claims to liberation. Later, the other girls maintained that afternoon sleep was a strangler with soft hands, a kind murderer, but people always said that that was imaginative hindsight.
That afternoon, Mrs. Sinha Roy rose with a slight headache and rang indignantly for her tea. The maid was clumsy with the tray, and one of the old bone china cups splintered on the dark red stone of the floor. “I should have seen it as an omen,” Mrs. Sinha Roy declared impressively to her ladies, her reflection distorting on the side of the fat silver teapot. It was only the pot that was disturbed, because the tranquil pool of Mrs. Sinha Roy’s outward life never seemed to be so. She sent the maid for a mop and newspaper, and while the wiping was in progress the girls appeared in their dressing gowns yawning and rubbing their eyes.
They sat and compared sleep notes: the youngest had been reading by shutter light again, her sister complained, the stripes of sunlight hurt her eyes. Ayan knocked and walked in, saying he had slept like a log for four hours and the servant hadn’t woken him even when an important phone call came. It was the whining of a normal family afternoon before their muscles tautened into evening. Noyonika wasn’t there, but Nika had never been part of it ever since her return from London.
It was only when the mellow sunlight had bled away into darkness that the maid came to complain that she couldn’t get upstairs to sweep the baro didi’s room. No one was opening the padlock. “It will soon be late and I won’t have finished. I don't want to wipe the floors after dark.” She was prone to coughs and colds and had a doctor’s certificate excusing her from contact with water at night, even on the hottest of summer nights.
“She must have gone out,” was the general opinion. Mrs. Sinha Roy told the maid to do the rest of her work and go home. No one was alarmed or even moved to call the gatekeeper up to ask him if Noyonika had indeed gone out. In any case, his testimony to anyone’s whereabouts in the afternoon was suspect.
Night proceeded without Noyonika. Her place setting was removed from the dining table and carried away in a gleam of ominous ceremony. Mrs. Sinha Roy sat at the head of the table, rubbing her aching temples and grumbling about the inconsiderateness of people who vanished without letting the rest of the house know where they were going. It was an angry grumbling evening like a hundred others before it, remarkable more for Mrs. Sinha Roy’s headache than for Noyonika’s non-appearance.
The next morning, the brass padlock was still on the gate and the maid was whining again about her work. “So, let it get dirty,” Mrs. Sinha Roy said. “If she goes off without telling us, that’s all she can expect. My other daughters aren’t like this.” Ayan claimed that he suggested phoning Tarun, but everyone was full of claims afterwards and no one knew who to believe. Mrs. Sinha Roy had a meeting with her promoter and had no time to spare on her son-in-law. “Half the time Tarun doesn’t know where he is. I’m certain he won’t know where Nika is. I have a bad feeling about this meeting. With my mood the way it is…” But she was all smiles when she walked in and all smiles when she walked out. “As soon as Nika comes back we’ll draw out the agreement. Motiram Bhai is ready to sign. I knew that sari meant he was softening.”
“I thought Nika was against selling the house?” one of her friends pointed out.
Mrs. Sinha Roy shrugged. “She’ll do what’s good for her. I can’t see her sitting on the top floor of this building without the money to maintain it. Sometimes I think I should have been the lawyer instead of her.” Everyone at that tea agreed, though not one of them knew about Noyonika’s disappearance from the house. “Why should I say anything to anyone? My daughter has humiliated me quite enough.” Mrs. Sinha Roy told the police, and no one could dispute that with her.
No one was sure when the first footprint materialised. Three days after Noyonika walked out in the afternoon? Or as much as a week? It appeared on the wall of Ayan’s room and was found by the maid brandishing her duster at incipient cobwebs. The stain looked like paan smears, and she sent angrily for the bearer and accused him of spitting betel juice on the babu’s wall. The squabble brought Ayan erupting out of his bath, demanding to know what the matter was. “It certainly looks like paan, “ he agreed, staring dubiously at the wall, but he didn’t believe the bearer was responsible. He also thought it looked like the splotch of a bare foot. Not that it alarmed him--he mentioned the matter idly at lunch, only to have his mother laugh at him and tell him to concentrate on his studies.
The second footprint appeared the next morning, in the dust outside the prayer couryard, defined this time in an ominous shade of rusty brown that looked more like blood than paan. This time Mrs. Sinha Roy found it. She saw it as she was about to step onto the first of the treads leading up to her puja room, and she stood there frozen for a moment in mid-air before recovering her equilibrium again. The servants and the priest gathered at the steps, all thoughts of puja forgotten. Mrs. Sinha Roy was as white as a leper, and there was no way that the blotch in the dust could be transformed into an auspicious symbol. And, because it was the second time it had happened in the house, word spread like wildfire.
Soon there was a muttering, murmuring crowd outside the gates, straining to look inside. Half of them were convinced it was a miracle. The other half were in favour of a murder. Shortly afterwards the police arrived, alerted more by the murder than by the miracle. Mrs. Sinha Roy had been borne by her faithful retainers to the verandah and collapsed there in her reclining chair. Ayan was raising a teaspoon of brandy to her lips when the Inspector walked in.
He asked if anyone was missing and, when told about Noyonika, wanted to know if anyone had spoken to her since her disappearance. Mrs. Sinha Roy feebly complained about undutiful daughters and their inconsiderateness. The policeman agreed politely but suggested a call to Tarun was imperative. “Just to allay this suspicion of a murder, you understand. And is there another key to the upstairs quarters?”
So, after all, Mrs. Sinha Roy was forced to make the call. Tarun was not at home, but his servant said that boudi had not been seen at the house. There was a duplicate key, oiled and wrapped in cloth. Mrs. Sinha Roy produced it from a bundle in her Godrej. “I don't know if this will fit,” she said. It did, and it seemed stupid to say that no, she had not wanted to set foot in Noyonika’s apartments because she and her daughter had not seen eye to eye. “The police won’t sympathise with that, Sabita,” the confectionery circle reminded her with equanimity.
Noyonika’s rooms were coated with week-old dust. Mrs. Sinha Roy ran her finger disdainfully over the glass of the kneeling-girl table and was about to say something by way of condescending apology to the Inspector--he was a Communist, after all--when a reflection in the glass top choked her words off. She looked up, and the warm ivory of her cheeks drained to chalk white. The others looked up with her. The footprints were splashed across the ceiling of Noyonika’s drawing room as if they had bled through the whitewash.
“What was I to say to that man? A policeman in my house? And those on my ceiling!” Mrs. Sinha Roy said that in her shame she instinctively bent down and found one of Noyonika’s slippers under the table. “Nika leaves her slippers all over the place. You can imagine the state--one week of dust, little cockroaches breeding!” The Inspector claimed he found it. Whoever found the slipper, there was little doubt once the proof was in their hands that the footprints were Noyonika’s. No one wanted to speculate on how they got wherever they were: her presence was blowing like a cold wind through everyone’s bones. She was there on the stairs; she was stamped indelibly on the foundations of the house.
“The house should be searched,” the Inspector said.
The gatekeeper maintained that no one had passed him on that fateful afternoon. “I sleep stretched out across the threshold. Even a shadow would wake me.”
“She has to be in the house,” Ayan muttered reluctantly, not looking at his mother. “Those footprints…”
Soon the house echoed with slamming doors. The noise rolled down the marble staircase and out to the gatekeeper’s lodge where the crowd still waited, debating the miracle or murder. “There must be a body under one of those marble statues.”
“Hanh, zamindari baritey these things happen all the time. I remember once in Barisha…” and the speaker launched into a long complicated tale of adultery and ground glass in a sweet. “We are so vulnerable,” Mrs. Sinha Roy told her friends. “Thanks to what the state has become, a good family has no standing any more.” Not that anyone noticed, because most people were overawed by her stately presence. The Police Inspector was not a Communist, but he didn’t come from the landed classes that Mrs. Sinha Roy recognized. “What a house, “ he told his colleagues at the Station. “It was exactly like a museum. And then those footprints. I thought ekkhuni dracula tacula bariyeh aashbey.” But he held his ground. The house had to be searched from top to bottom, from the cabin trunks to the Godrej almirahs.
They found what they were looking for on the roof. A black sludge with a fur of flies. The roof buzzed and whined, and the wings caught the light, sprouting like so much fungus. Crows dotted the TV aerial, adding their own wing-flapping accusation. “It’s a wonder no one noticed the crows,” the Inspector said, “but then, there is a rubbish dump in the vicinity.” Fresh garbage was dumped every morning, and every day the crows and the flies assembled in their wing-flapping hordes. It had been one of Mrs. Sinha Roy’s greatest afflictions--“The neighbourhood is getting so bad. I don’t know where all these people come from.” The garbage of three restaurants added their richness to Mrs. Sinha Roy’s normally perfumed atmosphere when the wind blew fresh from the east in the morning. At the end of the black sludge was a pair of feet.
She had to identify the feet--the maids turned up the whites of their eyes, and Ayan was obviously in no shape. Large flat size-eight feet that were an embarrassment at weddings. “Could any daughter of mine have such indelicate feet? Once, you could tell a gentlewoman by her high arches.” Arched cushioned feet rouged softly pink with alta. Milk-and-roses feet treading goddess prints--Noyonika’s feet had embarrassed her since the day she was born. Ayan was sick in the tomato plants that the mali insisted on secreting in their feathery profusion all along the terrace.
Murder? Suicide? Everyone recollected they had felt a strange atmosphere about the house when, in reality, no one had felt anything at all. “It was obvious to me that the mother had done it,” the Inspector wrote in his official report. “She was as cool as milk, as cool as a wet cat.” She was also well-connected--half the politicians and judges in Calcutta ran along her bloodlines. She didn’t even have to make a court appearance--and everyone could vouch that she had awoken with a headache that fatal afternoon--if the death had occurred that fatal afternoon. The sludge was so old and so evil that Forensics could make nothing of it beyond identifying the feet. Mrs. Sinha Roy wrapped herself in the sanctity of her white tussore and seemed as unruffled as ever. She gave sympathetic audience in her cane chair with attendant maids bearing trays of cold drinks. No one noticed that the maids changed far more frequently than they used to and that the new ones were so uncertain with the trays that they occasionally dropped them. But then, the ladies were far too shaken in their loyalty to make such distinctions.
The footprints? Motiram Bhai came to hold his ‘mother’s’ hand and enquire delicately as to the truth of the footprints. “Paan stains,” she tinkled, and showed him one on the wall. He left not as convinced as anyone would like, with a five crore cash deposit hanging in the balance. “Two flats each,” he had said, “five crores unshown, and may the Income Tax Department bury themselves in their mounds of paper chasing it. I promise you clean money, Mataji, for your pleasure.” And they had multiplied it into diamonds, trips to New York and all the other things their kind of people didn’t normally do. All except Noyonika. “I won’t be bribed by a dinner at Taj Bengal,” she had sniffed.
Mrs. Sinha Roy did not believe in ghosts. “I believe that we are punished for our sins here.” To the end of her days--and there were many of them--she would repeat that statement. She even ordered down an expert from the Horticultural Gardens who inspected the stains and diagnosed them as a rare form of fungus. As an explanation, it sounded more scientific than paan stains.
But the house was never sold. It hung about their ears with a taint of something evil about it--whether ghosts or garbage was left to the imagination of the person concerned--the maids insisted the footprints on Noyonika’s walls bled through six coats of the most expensive lacquer wall finish. Mrs. Sinha Roy padlocked the flat permanently, but the promoters did not return. “Garbage,” she averred, when the wind was blowing high and ripe from the east. “Nothing but garbage--people have delicate noses these days.” And she stretched her white arched feet out in front of her on the marble tiled floor and took comfort from the green embrace of the lawn.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)