WE YOUNG men from rich families have a unique rhythm to our lives. Perhaps young women do, too, but we had no idea what kind of family the only young woman to appear in this menacing story belonged to. It was possible that she didn’t even belong to this world. Maybe dangerous young women such as these are created in winter from a blend of fog, smoke and black magic. The very thought made beads of perspiration appear on our skins even in the icy weather, while Malli kaka’s continuous laughter could be heard outside the blanket and the mosquito net.
We turned over on our stomachs in fear, burying our noses in pillows with floral covers. Our only hope was the scent of naphthalene balls that had eventually shrunk into oblivion. Our stomachs used to turn after we had eaten our pastries, cakes, cream rolls and sweets — washing them down with warm milk — on summer evenings. We had slight paunches. Rich men’s sons, bellies like buns, our maids would say. There were other reasons for feeling queasy too. We would be dressed in jackets, sweaters, caps, woollen socks, gloves, thermal vests and so on before being given our warm milk. It was the same routine in every home before our game of badminton. Then we’d go out with our badminton racquets. Stamping our feet clumsily. As each of our feet fell on the pavement or the road, our fat cheeks quivered. The queasiness would persist. This was the state in which we would arrive at our friends’ houses where the barking of dogs reverberated.
Often, we’d run into one another even earlier. In front of a big gate. Each of our houses included a garden and a lawn. The gardeners in each of the homes prepared badminton courts for winter evenings. We’d play by turn in different houses. Sometimes close by. Sometimes further away. When further away, we’d be chauffeured in cars. And chauffeured back, too. The badminton courts would be dazzlingly lit. The feather would go back and forth across the net, holding light beams in its beak. Sometimes it would be snared in the net. At times it would even disappear in low-hanging branches or amidst the leaves in the light and shade. We would see the feathers of the tattered shuttlecock beneath the tree. You could see similar sights these days at shops selling chicken in the market. White feathers scattered everywhere. As a matter of fact, this was nothing new.
Familiar images were being attached to unfamiliar scenes to befuddle us. They couldn’t be named. We were flustered. This was normal before the stomach started turning. But what if it was! Anyway, cars did not emit much smoke in Calcutta then. Most of the smoke came from ovens. Although our homes had piped gas or electric cooking ranges.
IT WAS on such a smoggy winter evening that we had gone to Sumitesh’s house for our game of badminton. Just as we had started playing, someone laughed like a barking jackal from the first floor balcony. Raju and Sumitesh were on one side of the net, Mohan and I on the other. The sound injected fear into our game, distracting us. We forgot to change courts when serving. We perspired more than we did on other evenings. We had not realised then that this was because of the weather. An unseasonal, mild, winter evening drizzle began. We rushed into the ground floor drawing room of Sumitesh’s house with our racquets, shuttlecocks and the cylindrical box for the shuttlecocks. The rain drenched the net and the lights. There were a few gusts of wind too. We sat on large rexine-covered chairs in the room. Slices of plum cake and warm Ovaltine were brought for us. We chatted as we ate and drank.
Who was that laughing that way from the first floor, Sumitesh?
Who was it, please tell us.
Oh that’s Malli kaka. He’s mad. He laughs this way now and then.
I thought he was laughing at us playing.
He laughs even when we don’t play.
Maybe he thinks of a funny story or a Laurel-Hardy movie or something.
I have no idea. But you know what — it was a girl for whom Malli kaka went mad.
How do you know?
You can get to know the same way that I did. It’s all in a movie. Without sound, though. Want to watch?
Of course. But what if someone comes?
Let them. I watch it quite often. But let me tell you something before we start. Before Malli kaka fell in love with this girl, he used to spend all his time with birds.
All kinds. There were entire rooms for birds on the roof, covered with nets. Pigeon coops too. Besides cages in all the balconies. Cockatoos, macaws, lovebirds, Nepalese parrots, budgerigars — lots and lots of birds. The girl had told Malli kaka that she would marry him only if he set all the birds free. He had just four budgerigars left. Three yellow and one blue. But you won’t be able to tell from the film. They’re all black and white. And I’ve lip-read them so many times I can provide the dialogue. You can easily put the whole story together.