A boot of one’s own
By Ritushree Sengupta
I had a pair of blue boots. They were sturdy and once belonged to a lady who had inherited a tannery that smelled of vengeance which she passed off as stench of raw leather. I had received them from her on a strange occasion. My uncle, who was born to fall in love had finally given up on his great love, a girl fifteen years younger to him, and while enjoying a well-meaning siesta, died. Love is common, so are the lovers, but the loss of both timelessly looms over the heavy hearts of many alike. So, when my entire family rose to the occasion of a grand mourning, they sat with a never-ending list of funeral guests who needed to be invited for his final rites. We had an old ambassador car and an even older chauffer, who took us in turns to deliver the invitation cards. The twenty-second name in my list took me to a strange house with a huge gate and a guard in a blue uniform. After waiting for a while, I finally saw her. She walked slowly towards me. Before I could say anything, she held my face in her hand and sternly asked me to leave. I was a little taken aback and tried to explain to her my purpose of visit. She chose to ignore and sat beside a mulberry chest. I left the invitation card and never saw her again.
Three days after the funeral, there came a small red car and a huge man to deliver a parcel. As the festival of mourning was still on, nobody cared about it and I received it. A week later, I opened it and found a few things neatly packed inside it. There was a journal with a few pages missing, an old photograph of my uncle from his college days and the pair of blue boots which I could not resist myself from borrowing. I never wore them, but to have them in my possession gave me a sense of immense joy, a kind of happiness that comes from hiding a loved secret and then feeling the butterflies in one’s stomach, though in my case it was my feet that felt the fluttering of the blue leathery wings. Yes, I was young and did not know that butterflies find it difficult to live with people who are no longer young.
To have been young once and then made to tolerate an elderly face in the mirror is harsh. My secrets were dying, just like my black curls. My hair was growing weaker just like my confidence. Lovers like months were disappearing from calendars, and I was no longer looking forward to the year ending. It was a Tuesday when I got an evacuation notice from my landlord. He was planning to sell off his apartment and move to Chicago. I had not cleaned my shelves in months. My study table reminded me of nothing. There was an old photograph of my convocation on the wall which I wanted to remove but never found the energy to do so. All my plants had died, and I was convinced that I too would die very soon. On the next day, I got a call from my landlord that I chose to ignore. It continued for a few days and then he appeared on my door. I offered him tea and we chatted for a while but I hopelessly failed to explain to him that I desperately needed some time. Before leaving, he patted on my shoulder and said that he misses my concerts at times. I closed the door.
Time had come to box the belongings and find a new place. It was not very difficult to look for a new apartment but again, I failed to find in me the zest to do so. After a few phone calls, I found out that my Uncle’s studio apartment which was long uninhabited needed some refurbishment before it could be put on sale. Although I did not have enough money to buy the property at that moment, I thought of renting it for some time. So, in three weeks, I paid an agency to pack my things and move them to my new habitat. It was early evening when I walked inside the apartment with a box of tea, a jar of marmalade and a loaf of bread. I realised that my phone despite being fully charged had not vibrated throughout the day. I tried to come to terms with the idea that one can find solace in the silence of a cell phone, as they grow old.
I had always been scared of growing old. In fact, I have never wanted to look a day older. I was in love with the idea of being free and irresponsible, irresponsible and free, swimming away from the mundane toxicities of life with every passing day. I do not exactly remember from whom I had inherited such a strong distaste for fine lines but I faintly recall a few women in my family spending hours in front of the mirror and then criticising each other for buying make ups unnecessarily. I somehow did not like the taste of lipstick which many a times had been applied to my lips forcefully. But I would always hide behind the large doors in our mansion like house and see the women ageing painfully. They could not see their pains, so carefully hidden behind their puff boxes and pancakes. In their vain attempts to hide their wrinkles, I found their desire to conceal their pain of becoming unattractive and then probably unwanted. It took me years to accept that mirror is not the appropriate device to gauge beauty and also that too much of mirror reading can make the butterflies abandon one.
It was a Saturday evening and standing near the balcony I was trying to count the number of black cars. I often try to count my grey hairs too. I keep telling myself to unpack the things in the apartment but then carefully pretend to have forgotten about them totally. I have a neighbour with a dog. I often see them taking the lift together. He wears brown shoes. He is bald and has the smile of an old friend. Nothing seems to affect me these days as I try to measure happiness in mason jars. Women they say are usually good with jars and bowls, mostly because kitchen is where they find true happiness; serving is said to be their moral and mortal call while they smell of domestic sacrifice that fills their houses with perfect bliss. Although I am quite good with mason jars that I have hoarded over the years; that is where I keep my half eaten biscuits, rolling papers and even sticky notes. My house only smells of me, a complaint that all my lovers had in common. Like them, the stench of one’s own sweat does not disappear, I suppose.
My uncle’s former apartment was now trying hard to not look like a habitable place. It had marks of cigar on the balcony walls, the rooms were impish and damp and one could not help but feel exhausted just by the idea of a repainting done. The kitchen, however I realised was one isolated corner in the house which was probably not much used by the former boarder. I slowly recalled how my uncle was always found on the large family dining table, gulping down his dinner with a large glass of chilled milk. The women folk of our house would always look at his overfilled plate and complain that he was not eating well enough. Such remarks nevertheless were never showered on any of their own kind who took serious pride in underfeeding themselves over the years. I remember being called a glutton on an occasion or two for no particular reason, or at least that is what I thought. Later, I was told that there is a particular way in which women should eat or else be shamed for her eating habits. Then affected and now quite the opposite, I abandoned that mansion which loved its men and nobody else. As a prospective member of the kitchen association, I learnt at a very young age that I must make my own kitchen where if not anything else, one would discover several good reasons to Eat.
Late at night, I finally found the courage to scare away a gecko from the top of a brown box which had shoes written on them with a red marker. I opened the box but to my surprise found another box inside, that carefully preserved the pair of my once borrowed blue boots. I lifted the shoes and discovered that there was a small note attached at the bottom of the box which I had failed to notice before, and which read: “I chose the blue boots over you. I chose to see myself on roads unknown. The boots chose me back.”
This I always thought was a song that my uncle had composed which always came along with a story about a girl who had wings of peppermint colour and fins that changed their shapes. I also faintly remembered that once I had found my uncle sobbing like a child in front of an aquarium which had been delivered to him by a man on a Sunday morning. To look at him at that moment was painful because it is always a matter of confusion to find someone sobbing and that too without the slightest chance of any kind of explanation. It seem to have become a habit that I no longer remember things in blocks or paragraphs but only in half-finished sentences with major historical and minor grammatical discrepancies.
Midnight lunacy is more of an addiction than anything else. Realising that I had never really used those boots, it struck me that it was tonight that I must do what need not be undone by any means. Naked in the room with those boots adorning my feet, I used my binoculars to peep into an apartment across the balcony, and yes, I must confess it did not give me an extra ounce of liberty or self-empowering moment or whatever they call it. But sitting on a pile of boxes, I did realise something, what those boots stood for was much more complex than what I could understand. The maker of the boots had chosen them over a sobbing lover probably because she knew the value of freedom which one has to earn over the wise and silly, silly and wise years of experiences. I might be wrong but I did imagine that the boots had travelled miles before it had finally found some rest in my storage box.
The boots knew magic; my butterflies were slowly coming back with a flashback from an old green leathered book which kept on claiming for a personal room and a bare minimum amount of five hundred pounds a year to keep a woman basking in her creative finesse and expertise. The boots made an untimely philosopher out of me and compelled me to add one more thing which was the means and urge to travel, an equally needed force to let loose one’s personal demons and celebrate the havoc born out of it.
I had stopped being introspective. I was not doing any concerts either. My hair grew backwards, an inch smaller every three months. I was seen reading maps all over the city. In my solicited search of urban spaces that smells of tannery, I found some old houses where I am practicing the art of time travelling these days. And yes, I still smell of me.
Photo: Times Now
Dr. Ritushree Sengupta works as an Assistant Professor of English in Patrasayer Mahavidyalaya, Bankura. Her area of expertise includes Victorian Studies and Children’s Literature. She has been a mother to street animals and plants since her days in Visva Bharati, Santiniketan.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.