Monday, 24 September 2012

The Lotus Pond

Note: It is a fictional love story. Any similarity to actual people or events is purely coincidental.

“Did you pay 500 bucks to varnish my toe nails”? Shabana cavilled at Ajit who continued painting her nails in crimson---blissfully unaware of the precious time passing by. Or the noise that Shabana created each time she changed positions on her rickety bed. The sound was jarring but not discomforting, as compared to the moaning music from the nights when the bed rocked and groaned.

Ajit’s warm stroking and playful precision while painting her nails amused Shabana. But as a mechanic, did he also fix those expensive cars with so much pain? Perhaps, it was Ajit’s nature to get submerged in each job he undertook. From toiling at Al Jawahar’s car workshop for a paltry daily wage of Rs 350 to splurging his money on the doe-eyed Shabana---Jamilabai’s most sensual, saleable commodity, Ajit was living and lusting for Shabana, all the time.

It was in this ramshackle room that the love story of Shabana and Ajit blossomed. In this cubbyhole – he wove many rose-tinted dreams. He talked conversion to marry her; she hushed him up fearing Jalal – the beefy pimp of the Sheesha brothel. Jalal only knew one relationship between man and woman and that was not of a man and wife. It was in this room that Ajit ran his scabrous fingers through Shabana’s wavy hair – stopping occasionally to unravel her knots. He loved dabbing gulab ittar on her nape – perhaps as a frustrated desire to stub out the heady odour in the room, of burnt cigarettes, cheap liquor and sweaty secretions.

As usual, the clock would continue to tick. And exactly after two hours, Jalal would come knocking. It would not just be a mild ‘time-out’ reminder – it would be a thunderous warning teamed with constant door slapping and throaty abuses. Jalal was wary of love-struck Ajit. He could foresee that he wanted to free Jamila’s prettiest bird. But more than often, Jamila had declared that she could clip the wings of her caged bird, if things got out of hand.

Ajit would always get his beloved a gift – a string of mogra flowers, tinkling anklets or a garish nail paint. The fact that he was 26 and she was two years elder did not lend any maturity to their romance. He was smitten, she was practical! Both deeply craved a home near that lotus pond in Raiganj, Kolkata, where they hailed from.

It was by a quirk of fate that Shabana’s mother was pushed into the rough sex trade thriving in Sonagachi -- the largest red light district in Kolkata.  At 12, Shabana only dreamt of sharpened school pencils, neat kurtas and a gleaming future. But the agent promised more than all this to Shabana’s widowed mother. She desperately packed dhotis, left her sons with the grandmother and arrived in the ironic City of Joy. Back in Raiganj, few huts away, Ajit’s brother had also planned to rope him in odd jobs in Kolkata. Boys in the family always meant more working hands. So it was no wonder, Ajit dropped out of class five and joined hands to make ends meet.

Despite being hand to mouth, Ajit scrimped and saved to pay Jamilabai for his meetings with Shabana. They would sip cola, savour hot jalebis and sometimes make love. Often, they would share a joke about how his grease paint stained her slender thighs, and how he smelt of her coconut hair oil. This was their world – quiet and pure -- away from the teeming client-sex worker life of Sonagachi. Police raids, NGO activists and trips to abortion clinics – Shabana had seen it all at an early age. But this new breeze of love made her forget who she was, at least temporarily.

There was something ominous about that morning. To begin with, Shabana received the news of Shamsher’s death. Shamsher was a street dog that lived like a family member in Gali no. 13, near Jamila’s den. Last night, it got crushed under a speeding tempo. Secondly, in the morning Jamila introduced Shabana to Choti – the new girl who would stay at the Sheesha and become a brothel blossom, like her. Clad in a worn-our polka-dotted frock, Choti looked every inch a plastic doll with blank, wide eyes. She looked not more than eight. Devastated by the death of the dog and the introduction of this new kid, Shabana fought back her tears. Helplessly, she teetered her way out of the house on the pretext of buying vegetables.
The streets wore a festive look ahead of Durga Puja. The varied hues of vermillion made her forget the blood she had seen in the morning. At the junction, where hawkers laid out their vegetable carts, Shabana met Pooja -- the most desirable girl of Gali no 4. Soon the girls began discussing Puja Melas, the soaring Rohu prices and new Bengali movies.

On their way back, they joked about how Pooja had always spurned advances of Jalal and how he never relented. Since the skies were turning overcast, Shabana told herself that even if she got drenched, she wouldn’t mind it. As she continued to think of the oncoming downpour, Pooja rattled off on the phone to a distant aunt. But suddenly, the motor-mouth felt a stinging pain in her arm. It took her a moment to realise that the vegetables were strewn about and Shabana was sitting on her knees, cupping her face and screaming in pain – loud enough to jolt the sky.

It was not established why Shabana was attacked with acid. Onlookers who rushed her to the hospital murmured that it was Bilal, the notorious petty thief who hurled a vial of acid on her. Later, it was understood that Shabana paid for a case of mistaken identity. Pooja was his target. But she escaped with minor burns. Soon after, cops investigated to reveal that Bilal was hired by Chandan, Pooja’s jilted lover. She had not only turned down his proposal but had also once derided his tailoring shop.

Forty days passed by and if pain could be measured – only Shabana could tell if it had subsided. On the government hospital bed, a sedated Shabana continued to suffer in pain – with her faint voice choking at long intervals. The two surgeries restructured her seared face to some extent but the event scarred her soul for life. The attack turned her imperfect world upside down. Her wavy hair was now a patchy scalp, long eyelashes reduced to ashes and her radiant face resembled beaten, burnt over-dyed hide.

Ten days after the horrific attack, Jamilabai had thrown up outside the hospital on seeing Shabana. Pooja was too numb to step out of Gali no 4. And Ajit’s dreams of a tranquil marital life with Shabana near the lotus pond had been charred. When he first heard the shocking news, he felt as if someone had set him on fire. Rage, exasperation and helplessness – the demons of hell gripped and consumed him.

Ajit didn’t leave Shabana’s side even for a minute. He would gaze at her traumatic condition from the glass in the burns unit. Though visitors were not allowed in the room, Mrs Kaura, chairman of the Acid Survivors Foundation, an advocacy group for victims came visiting. She consoled Shabana like a mother, and promised her medical support, rehabilitation and employment at a small organized sector. Her comforting words were balmy for Shabana. She suddenly saw a gleam of hope from the crack of her right eye, which still had some vision left.

It was a long wait of forty days before Ajit was allowed to take charge of Shabana. As a ritual he would change her clothes, clean her with anti-bacterial swabs and feed her semi-solids, all this with the same patience he fondled her, when the days were bright and happy.

Ajit married Shabana in a quiet Hindu-Bengali ceremony. The bride wore a jasper red saree and tightly held on to her pallu. She didn’t want to frighten his relatives. He had already taken a big decision to marry her and Shabana was obviously apprehensive. She had said, “My life has an ugly past and it will only give you an ugly future.” To this, Ajit had replied, “Your past gives me courage and the prospects of a future with you give me hope. I want a life where we can savour jalebis and make babies – your face has nothing to do with this.”

Normal life was limping back. Shabana found solace in cooking for her husband and taking care of the house. Ajit worked doubly hard to save for his wife. They again found happiness – in midnight radio, fish curry and in each other. Shabana shirked crowded places and Ajit ensured he got her vegetables and groceries. The bright sun of hope was shining again till one afternoon Shridhar came knocking. “Boudi, boudi… open the door….”. “What is it?” Shabana asked, tightly holding the edge of her dupatta covering her burnt face. “Boudi…Dada…Dada….Dada has killed Bilal”, Shridhar said in a deafening voice.

Shabana stood there lifeless. A part of her died instantly on hearing the news. Police had already arrested Ajit with the weapon of crime. Bilal had gone underground after the attack and Chandan had been imprisoned. It was on this fateful day when Bilal come out of his hole only to be spotted by Ajit.
He didn’t even bat an eyelid before hammering Bilal’s head with a spanner he used to fix a client’s car.

Behind bars, Ajit confessed to Shabana, “If I had my way, I would have emptied pails of sulphuric acid on Bilal. How could I spare that bast**** who ruined your life.” Shabana shuddered at his tirade. She sobbed and sobbed till her eyes burnt. She clasped his hands tightly. She could not afford to lose him now at this juncture of life. Ajit calmed her down and said, “Meet Kaura ma’am. She will give you employment and a future.” “But why did you have to kill him Ajit --- now…now…..why.” Shabana’s voice choked again.

Shabana’s new life was as banal as her new job. Rolling hundreds of papads every day gave her a living but not a reason to laugh. The fact that everybody stared at her disfigured face didn’t bother her anymore. Endlessly, she dreamt of Ajit’s return. She hoped to build a small concrete house near the lotus pond in Raiganj. She stroked her abdomen to calm down the distressed small life quivering inside her. She hoped to savour jalebis and make babies with Ajit. She decided to live again.


  1. Good Work...loved the first part(till the marriage)...simply awesome....second part although reasonably good, doesn't do justice with the awesomeness of first part, and it is reduced to merely "good work".

  2. Thanks Raghav...Glad you liked the first part! Really appreciate your comments.