More winters to pass
By Gauarv Deka
It’s the last winter Arko visits me. He calls me up and asks about the weather; says he doesn’t have more than two sweaters. Dida died last month and couldn’t knit a new one. The one I had sent for his birthday has been rat-holed. “We’ll get you two more, the best brands,” I tell him over the phone, pacifying his impatience. He’s always been a bit hasty. “Tch. Tch. I only wear the hand-knit ones. How could you forget?” He asks with a grunt. “I do. I do. You just come over. We’ll get everything.” I remember Maa sending me a sweater for Pujo. That must do. Last time it was a muffler and before that, a pair of socks.
I haven’t unpacked that stuff yet. But then as she writes to me, it must be V-necked, blue-striped in white. Malobika too had sent a pair of gloves. As promised, she visits Maa-Baba once every month. She carries her laptop and opens up my world for them. They are happy to see me. Malobika tells me that Maa at times comes closer to the screen and kisses it. Baba is too embarrassed and rebukes her for behaving indecently in front of their lawyer daughter-in-law. He isn’t aware of our separation. What he knows is she must stay in Midnapore for her practice. Maa doesn’t tell him of what has gone wrong. She cannot and asks her to come more often. Baba does not write to me or calls me up but stands near the receiver silently, craning his neck close to Maa’s whenever I call her up.
The ice sheets have still not been cleared. The roads are smooth as white gold, and shoe marks of various sizes meander like empty streams studded with pebbles. Just across Balzac Coffee House is a small park. In the evening, small children visiting with their mothers are seen perched on swings. In a premonitory afterglow, the air is filled with laughter that flows into space. I walk back to home at 9:30 p.m. The sun has just slipped into the other side of the world, and I see no children with their mothers walking back. My shoes do not click against the concrete; they squash into the snow.
The silence of winter is redolent in the air and the condescending sky overhead. Near the line of oaks at Motzstrasse 19-20, a group of snow-diggers are hunched over with their shovels. The lamp-posts have lit up for the night in a row, lone and tall like sentinels. Tobasco’s bar is as empty as the air, devoid of fume or mist. We do not see mist here in Berlin, even when it snows. The boys waiting outside are slim as steel. Two of them look at me; a single glance is enough to tell a prospective client from a curios voyeur. Men in cars are bargaining from their seats, leaning on the window-glass in cold, clinical voices. I think of Arko and the nights to come. I have lost weight considerably. He won’t be disappointed this time for sure. Last year, he had complained that my face looked swollen; I must exercise and not have too many chicken Doners for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the Doner shop round the Nollendorfplatz square where I have my regular meals, Kaiser, the owner, has been upset. I haven’t visited him for the last one month. He sees me as I walk past his shop, turns his head away and doesn’t greet, the way he usually does – Guten Abend! Ihr Huhn Döner wartet. Your chicken Doner is waiting. No, Thanks! My beloved wouldn’t like it.
The Bahn mustn’t be running today. The station is abandoned as I cross it over to my lane, Bulowstrasse 16-21. But I retrace my steps and find Juliette still sitting on one of the cold benches. She has her head hung forward like that of a decapitated corpse, her hair let loose, touching the floor. I recognise her from her shoes. She had been complaining about the soles and had asked me to get her a new pair. I had agreed on taking her out this Saturday. She is drunk. On such days, I would often take her home without her knowledge since we first met. She had thought me to be one of those lost Indian men seeking love in alien lands. We had become good friends once she knew that I had nothing to do with women when it came to romance or sex. She’s the only person who has known about Arko as well as the fact that I was divorced before coming to Berlin from the very beginning. She had once seen Malobika’s picture on the mantelpiece of my bed and had asked if I love her. I had said, I do and I always will. But then we belonged to two different worlds. That night, however, I decide to walk away and not take her home. She would eventually find someone for the night or wake up by morning. It would be difficult to set the house in order early morning before I board the bus to the Airport. Arko’s flight should arrive by 10:45 am sharp.
I reach home and take a shower. I think of calling up Maa but it must be too late. I’ll call her the next day. Arko will also be here by then. She had known of him as my closest friend, until I told Malobika the truth after eight months of our marriage. She had to reason herself out for the divorce and said she couldn’t lie to Maa. I had a single request—that she tell Maa anything after I fly off to Berlin. She had been quite co-operative. I couldn’t have expected more from an understanding wife. Now, whatever Maa knows of Arko is like an inherent family secret that mustn’t be passed on to the next generation. She thinks of my return and perhaps wishes that I never do. She doesn’t complain of my absence in pujo, though it’s been the third consecutive year that I have missed the festivities. She only sends mufflers, socks and sweaters and asks about my falling hair. Tells me that I must not have beef and alcohol, however cold it might get. This time, she had once mentioned Arko over the phone to check if he was visiting me and if she could send something with him. I had told her that Arko’s Dida has passed away recently and it wouldn’t look good if she visited him only so he could carry things for me. She had agreed, silently. So both of us knew that I would meet him this year too, maybe for the last time.
I took the first bus from Tiergarten and then the Bahn from Ruhlbehn. Arko had not called up. I had assumed he would be at the airport, already. It had snowed again early morning. The Bahn was running late. The tracks were jammed somewhere in Spandau. One of the passengers was complaining loudly.
Between anxiety and impatience, snatches of the days to come were already taking shape in my head. I will see him at the airport, and as always, he would not smile. His ever cynical face would ask me if I carried something to eat. By nightfall he would be at ease. That is usually the time when he complains about the journey and finally settles down on me, asking me for warm-wears like a sweater.
We will pass the days without the knowledge of time’s linearity—roaming, wasting our evenings in the cafes he loves most – Blue Boy, Pinocchio, Scheune and the exorbitantly priced Connexion at Fergusstrasse – eyeing the gigolos and whores. We will walk down to Mitte and buy street-side accessories. At Kaiser’s he would enjoy his Doners and I would look at him gulping down empty swallows, fretting over how having a single Doner would make me look obese in bed at night. He would tell me of the sea at Diamond Harbour, still the same and of the remembered smell of burnt jasmine lingering on his way to Malik Ghat. He will tell me of his plans to settle down soon and that I must come back as well if possible. On the last day, he would shed light on what he had written to me in his last mail. That his parents have asked him to get married and they cannot wait.
I would say nothing and sleep with the comfort of having him in my arms one last time, the sweater pressing on my face. After he leaves, I would think of return for once, ponder on an alternative relentlessly and, finally, bring Juliette back home and not think of ‘home’ for a few days. Or maybe it’s too far.
Photo: Gaurav Deka
Gaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fiction, poetry and essays have been published in The Open Road Review, The Tenement Block Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Four Quarter Magazine, Fearless [poetry zine], The Northeast Review, and The Solstice Initiative, among others.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.