It was a stormy afternoon when Chitra knocked at my door. I was home alone and quite startled to hear the loud bangs on the door instead of the usual innocuous trings of our doorbell. The peephole revealed a short pale woman blankly staring back at the hole and pummeling at the front door all the while. Hair unkempt and her Sari dishevelled from either the storm or from terror writ large on her dilated pupil. I opened the door immediately, welcomed by a tangible swarm of storm dusts rushing inside the room I just cleaned, her expressions still vacuous.
“Chitra? What happened?” (ki hoyechhe?)
I upped the decibel, it must be the storm for I have never seen Chitra so preoccupied.
A visible shiver ran through her bony skeleton rousing her to the present, “didi……mmoni help” (didimoni, bachao)
“come inside, Makhan-dadu alright?”
I had to touch her shoulder to make her come in as she was rooted still on the outside stair, oblivious of the busy fluttering tail-end of her sari or the thunder-sparks even. She was trembling still.
“didimoni save me” and there she started sobbing, covering her face with her palms.
I sat down beside her, patient, allowing her the time to gather herself together. I have known Chitra since my teenage years. She is a house-maid at Makhan-Dadu’s place, just a house apart from our place in South Kolkata. Makhan Dadu aka Mahendranath Sarkar is an 80 something senile widower, a renowned miser, match-maker and an eminent gossip-monger even at this ripe old age. He lives alone in a 2 roomed damp one-storied house he owned since he retired from police service. It has a garden inside but strangely it has got no stairs to the terrace. We used to climb up when we trespassed at his shabby territory while playing hide and seek as a kid. I remember nobody used to like Makhan Dadu quite, his children had abandoned him long, elders used to mumble ‘dirtbag’ whenever his topic came up and there were rumors of his wife dying out of malnutrition. Ironically, Chitra got along with the neighborhood women pretty well for a maid. Although, I’m unaware of the commiseration part and I forget unless reminded that Makhan-dadu is still alive!
I must have been thinking aloud for she snuffled the awaited reply finally “Dadu is fine but I’m in great danger”
“yes? What danger?”
“didimoni…nobody knows anything. I’ve been lying all this time but not anymore…no one can help me”.
I’m writing her story here in brief and I know you guys will be wondering why is this relevant to the Kolkata Graphics series? A personal sob-story of some provincial maid-woman cannot have a possible link with the joyful ethos or intellect which defines Kolkata, right?
[ Have patience and read on before being ignorantly presumptuous! (I don’t care though)]
Chitra is an illegal immigrant from B-desh. She came to the city when she was 30years old along with another male vagabond who helped her get through the initial weeks, until he left her at Makhan Sarkar’s place one fine morning. He introduced her as Chitra Das, his widow sister from Sundarban, to Makhan dadu’s daughter who couldn’t care any less to inquire beyond the relief of paying her a smidgen. Shahnaz Amin Khatoon alias Chitra never looked like a conventional Bangali maid from West Bengal’s far-off villages. She was quite fair for a maid and used to be a little less bony than she’s now, had a long thick braid tied in together with red ribbons and neatly dressed always. This I heard from my aunt later.
She hailed from a poor working-class family until her parents got her married to Ferdous Ali Khan in MaymaYsingha, B-desh. Ali worked at a Bank as a peon and lived with his overly proud foster mother, Zaheeba. Two years of connubial bliss went by and there came a time when Zaheeba had to plan for their future, the family legacy. Zaheeba could no longer bear to see Ali becoming increasingly affectionate of his charming wife, being less attentive to his mother. Less obedient to not his own but foster mother. Fights and blame games used to dominate every evening for months at the Khan household when Ferdous Ali came back from office, followed by an eerie silence in the mornings. Chitra tried to understand what her mother-in-law wanted to express and stayed silent most of the time, carrying out orders respectfully but she couldn’t understand what this new routine was about. Then one day Zaheeba had to reach for a solution. She said it was too hasty of her to leave the kitchen responsibilities all at Chitra’s shoulders and soon she began cooking the evening meals herself. After a month and few days Ferdous Ali Khan went missing. He just disappeared into the blue and believed dead after a year went by since. Chitra used to cry aloud every night and never could fathom the extreme for his loving husband, listless all the more. Zaheeba became terminally ill too and she conceded about her arranged solution before passing away within a year of Ali’s disappearance. Shahnaz soon after started on her quest to find Ali, in and outside her country, more zealous with every disappointing failure. Ali always wanted to take his wife to Kolkata, show her a proper city where Bengalis live cheerfully with plenty of people of different religious faiths, the famous cauldron of faceless liberal culture. He had heard of New Market and Indian Museum and that Shantiniketan is only a 5 hours journey from Kolkata.
In the end, Chitra had to come to Kolkata.
Chitra could read and write in Bengali pretty well. Every time in street she’d see a pamphlet, ad or hoarding that said of tantric ‘babas’, ‘shastris’, ‘Jyotish’(astrologer) bragging solutions to tame an infidel spouse/enemy( in astro jargon ‘vashikaran’), dark magic to achieve success faster, dreams attainable and facile, avenge injustice and what not- She’d shudder to relate them with Zaheeba’s going to one such vicious place and feeding Ferdous Ali with the potion evenly mixed in Ali’s curry. Zaheeba was guaranteed a return of her obedient son from her daughter in law’s vile clutches. She had spent days only wondering how the solution worked for them, for Ali was as blank and insensate as a stone in the final month before he went away. He wasn’t this impassive the initial few months though, he’d do whatever Zaheeba would order him, although distancing himself from others including Chitra. The medicine was for 5 months and in the 7th month he vanished.
But Chitra was unsettled today after all these resolved years, because T.V news showed police cracking down on a certain B-deshi infiltrator on charges of contraband practice, it was her former abettor in crossing the border illegally. She feared he would spill her name and their former unlawful escapade from B-desh among many other things. She thought of coming to me because I had helped her once by taking her to a hospital when she was suffering from malaria. I tried to assuage her anxiety saying that such a confession from a man who had helped Chitra in lieu of nothing is highly unlikely. Judging her for 12 years, everybody at our neighborhood would vouch for Chitra’s honesty and kind demeanor, without a doubt.
Her husband’s behavior indicated a typical case of drug addiction and its similar withdrawal symptoms, I thought better not to inform her about it right then. Although I wanted to end her fear of those orbed impostors, disclose the dirty tricks of such inhuman thugs and release at once many of my fellow Kolkatans- naïve and troubled enough to fall prey to their intangible gossamer of deception carefully woven around them.