Mitali Laha was late for work. Scribbling her name on the attendance register, she made her way to the confines of her cramped pigeonhole, switched on the gargantuan computer and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She looked up to see a mile-long queue in front of her. The monitor buzzed to life and emitted a ghoulish blue glow. She was a cashier at a public sector bank. She was late by 7 minutes today. The darned bus that brought her from her home in Bagbazar had broken down.
Mitali lived her life by the clock. Up by 7 am, she would finish her daily ablutions in the next 15 minutes, pray at the mandir in the corner of her courtyard, feast on the luchi and aloo dum cooked by her mother, sweep her eyes over the dailies and leave by 8:30 am. The bus would stop only for 107 seconds in front of her house that was right on the street. She never missed it. She almost missed it today.
She didn’t find a seat. The summer heat had made her sweat. Her modest cotton salwar kameez clung to her curves. She pulled her dupatta down and covered her bosom with her handbag. A quick look at her watch and she let out a sigh of relief. Just in time. But near Park Circus, the bus had lurched to a stop. So Mitali had to rush out and find a taxi not before counting the change she had managed to stash in her tiny purse. Just enough to take her to the bank.
Mitali had walked in at 10:07.
She opened the small tin trunk that was sitting near her feet beneath the desk. Neat rows of cash by the 1000, 500 and 100 – down to the smallest of the papery denomination still existing – 5 – sat in rows. Untouched, crisp notes. The motley colours looked muted under the fluorescent tube hanging low over Mitali’s head by prehistoric wires. The ACs were as good as dead so the four-bladed fan whirled noisily in one corner. Tiny beads of perspiration appeared on Mitali’s forehead. Her armpits were stained with sweat. Gulping some water, she turned the sign hanging by a chain over the counter. Open, it said.
Moumita Kundu collected her token from the electronic counter. Number 70. It meant a long wait till she reached the glass partition that separated her from laying her hands on the meagre 1700 bucks that she meant to draw. The weather was no good. Moumita was drenched in sweat. She used the tattered edge of her cotton sari to fan herself. There was an elderly gentleman in front of her who coughed up sputum with every shudder of his body and wiped it discreetly down his brown worn-out trousers. Behind her, was a lady in slacks with a wailing infant in the crook of her arm. Moumita clenched her teeth and watched as the queue inched ahead.
Moumita was in her mid forties. She had spent the last twenty odd years teaching history to a bunch of ruffled-haired boys in a public school in Birbhum. Patience was her virtue. Her peppery grey hair was cut short. She ran her sinewy fingers through them and eyed the token. Number 70. Not good.
Last evening Moumita had lost her purse while on her way from Birbhum to Kolkata. Immaculate at perfection, the loss had given her a sleepless night. She had to resort to her cheque book now. And it had just one leaf. Moumita had signed her name with trembling hands. She needed to purchase tickets for her return journey. She needed to return to the red soil the day after. The queue inched forward.
Moumita stayed in a ladies’ hostel in Birbhum. After her bitter divorce, she had gathered her belongings from her matrimonial home in Kolkata and swiftly crossed over to a new, frugal life – a life of freedom and little ties. The only tie she had was her septuagenarian mother and Lalu, the ten-year-old stray that had wandered into their tiny home in Baranagar one rainy afternoon as a puppy. It was May 7th. Moumita’s 17th anniversary. Her jute bag made her wily arm tremble.
The queue stopped moving suddenly. Mitali turned her back to it, picked up the water bottle and drank till there were only a few drops of water left in it. Her throat felt dry. The early morning rush still made her reel. She turned to face the queue and saw and elderly gentleman in dirty brown pants mutter something under his breath and followed it up with a nerve-wracking cough that was so loud that it made the glass partition shake. Mitali’s stomach lurched. Drops of virus-laden cough splattered on the partition. She needed a moment here. Turning back a second time, she wiped her face on her cotton handkerchief. In the 7 years that she worked in the bank, she’d never faced such a strange day. Something just not felt right.
Moumita turned impatient. She was in a great deal of hurry and the sight of the lady sitting with her back to the counter irked her even more. “This is the problem,” she thought to herself. “All they do is sit in a glass cubicle and count notes while needy people like us are left at their mercy. Nonsense.” The man in front of her turned. It was almost as if she had said it aloud. “I can’t tolerate such slow people behind the counter,” he replied to her thoughts. “Just look at her – she’s in her own sweet world taking her own sweet time. Jotto shob.” “Aar bolben na dada,” Moumita joined in the chat with renewed enthusiasm, overjoyed to see the sputum-spewing man could also spit venom. “I’m standing here for an hour and she just decides to turn the other way! We should report to the branch manager. Right away.”
Outside, the molten heat was slowly turning the air into a fireball which was now making its way up to the blue beyond. The traffic was a standstill outside the bank. Windscreen glares and smouldering rubber made the dark grey asphalt sweat. Harried shoppers with dripping handkerchiefs tied around their necks walked in slow-mo. Their gaze on the wares on both sides of the street were blank. Sweaty hands clutched notes by the hundreds. Vermilion ran in lines on the women’s foreheads and settled in the creases.
The young boy in the corner chai shop loosened his gamcha. From the corner of his eye, he saw a hint of grey on the steel-white sky. A gust of moisture-laden wind rattled the earthen cups in on the counter of his stall. Pavement dust swirled in giant loops. They gathered speed. One hawker rushed out of his shop to pull out the tarpaulin cover. In two minutes, the white heat turned to an ominous sheet of cumulo-nimbus. In the silence of the static traffic, somewhere, the thunder cloud let out a stifled growl.
Mitali heard it. Moumita heard it too. Large drops of rain pattered on the parapet. The bank employees stared out of the blue blinds into the rainy haze. The heat from the streets rose in giant pillars of smoke. The hush inside the bank was followed by a loud clamour of soggy pedestrians caught unawares in the rain who now jostled for some shade near the entrance. The peon turned his bored bland face towards them. “Aha re…”
Mitali awoke from her momentary reverie. She realized that she was holding the queue because of her own darned selfish mood swings. She beckoned to the old man and pushed aside her feelings for the time being. They trickled down into the tin trunk and nestled on to the papery bed.
The elderly gentleman gathered his cash and shuffled out into the rain. He let out a cough of relief – his patience had paid off. Mitali looked up and into Moumita’s deeply-lined thin face. For a very brief moment they held each others’ gaze. The rain had by now mellowed down – from slick silver arrows piercing the streets to a gentle powdery curtain that swished and caressed them. There was intermittent lightning that lit up the interiors of the bank followed by a roll of thunder. “Oh no,” thought Mitali, “Soon the servers would crash.” She intended to release the angry-looking lady on priority. “Yes ma’am?” – Mitali tried to sound courteous. Moumita pushed the crumpled cheque through the semi-circular opening in the glass panel. “Cash withdrawal.”
In the soft drizzle outside, there was a brilliant flash that was brighter than the lightning that ripped the sky. It was steel and chrome. The sound that followed was sharper and more jarring than that of the deep baritone of thunder. Mitali Heard it. Moumita heard it too. The pedestrians who’d taken shelter rushed out to witness something that was nothing short of a spectacle. It was a grey Maruti Esteem that lay like scrap metal in the middle of the road. The tyres had burst and there was smoke coming out from the carburetor. A sharp stench of fuel, gas and burnt tyres stung the bleak air.
Mitali pushed off from her chair in a reflex. “E baba, money hoche accident.” The bank staff inside tried to pinpoint a guess half knowing they were right. The 1700 bucks were still in her hand. Moumita was confused. She needed the money, accident or no accident. She rushed outside behind Mitali.
The grey sedan looked familiar. And so did the face that was behind the wheel, now pinned to it with the head turned in an awkward direction. Moumita saw the face. Mitali saw it too. Soumitra had a thing for this Maruti Esteem. It was no longer in production. Soumitra maintained that it was probably the best sedan from the Maruti umbrella. He had always refused to let it go. When Mitali had first met Soumitra – a married man in his forties, she loved to climb in beside him and be whisked away towards Gangar ghaat on autumn evenings. The colour was Moumita’s choice, of course. She had reasoned with her husband that the dust would not look prominent on the steel grey. Scratches would not be visible. Both Moumita and Mitali walked towards the metal wreck. Their steps wobbly, their eyes wild. Mitali loosened her fist. A gust of wind scattered the moist notes in the heavy air. Moumita scurried across the street to gather them back.