Bilet by Pia Ghosh Roy

On top of the old almirah sat a brown-skinned, thick-skinned suitcase like a durwan guarding an old door. Its leather was creased, but well-oiled. Its handle attached to its body with brass clasps. The clasps were wrapped in thin strips of yellowed tissue paper. A dull brass zipper ran around its sides like a long, empty road. The suitcase had no wheels, it wasn’t going anywhere.

It was the early seventies when Dr. Bose had heaved it off the conveyer belt at Dumdum International Airport in Calcutta. It had travelled with him all the way from London, bulging with English things; gifts for Bula, his wife, and other relatives and friends. Its soft top hinted at biscuit tins and toiletries. And between the layers of clothes were jars of jam wrapped in woollen socks, and a Chivas Regal wrapped in raincoat. The Customs Officer, a certain Sanyal, had been a friendly, helpful man with mild demands. While checking the contents of the suitcase, he had only asked to keep the Yardley talcum powder for his wife and the Boots shampoo for his own thinning hair. Luckily for Dr. Bose, Sanyal did not have a taste for expensive Scotch. Nor an eye on unconverted pound notes.

In Ballygunge Place, where Dr. Bose lived, he was often referred to as Bilet Bose; Bilet being the Bengali word for England, and for that matter, anything foreign. Bilet Bose had left Calcutta, in the winter of 1972, on a six-month research grant to University College London when he was halfway into his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. Those six months, thirty years ago, had been enough to earn him his new name. Mrs. Bose and he had been married for only two years then.

The marriage had been arranged through a common family friend. Mrs. Bose had just completed her Bachelor’s degree from Calcutta University, while Bilet Bose had started on his Ph.D. His parents lived in Jamshedpur, and they had not wanted their only son living by himself in Calcutta. Like all Bengali parents, they were concerned about his meals more than anything else. A man should not eat like a bachelor for too long, they said; a good Bengali wife would mean a hot meal of fish and rice every day, if nothing else. The fact that Dr. Bose was still a student, and had not started earning, did not perturb either family. He was academically bright and obviously set for great things. Till then, it was understood that finances would be taken care of by his father, a well-known doctor whose chamber in Sonari boasted long queues of fevers, whooping coughs and gout.

Two weeks before the wedding, the bride and groom were allowed to meet unchaperoned in a tearoom on Park Street. Everyone agreed that it was highly progressive of the families; a proof of their liberal education. The couple spent an hour in the tearoom, hiding their discomfiture in the folds of starched linen napkins; stirring their teas even after the sugar had dissolved; aware that they would be spending their lives together, but unable to talk about anything that mattered. They used the time instead in acquainting each other with their family trees, explaining relations, exchanging names of aunts, uncles and cousins. The wedding progressed as planned, and after the ceremony the young couple moved in to the house in Ballygunge Place, which had been built by Dr. Bose’s grandfather.

These days, what remains of Bilet Bose in that house is a large, framed photograph on Mrs. Bose’s bedroom wall, next to the old almirah with the old suitcase. In the photo, Bilet Bose is standing in Piccadilly Circus in a tweed jacket, a silk scarf tied around his neck and tucked into his shirt, a pair of sunglasses forgotten in his dark windblown hair. He had a sharp, intelligent face full of sudden angles, and eyes that were unnervingly honest; like a diary that has been left splayed open, but on a page you weren’t clever enough to understand. Hanging from the corners of the varnished frame was a white garland of fresh tuberose, broken by a red rose in the middle. Mrs. Bose, now in her eighties, is beginning to forget things – the names of her neighbours, the details of her day – but she never forgets to change the garland every Tuesday. The solemnity of the white garland seems at odds with the quiet laughter in Bilet Bose’s eyes; as if he thought that whoever put the garland there had a strange sense of humour.

Mrs. Bose had refused to accompany her husband to London, preferring to spend that time in her parents’ house in Maniktala in Central Calcutta. Bilet Bose had tried his best to convince her, showing her pictures of Trafalgar Square, of picnics in Hyde Park, of beautifully dressed men and women drinking tea at the Ritz. He had even planned a weekend for them in Paris, but nothing had tempted her out of her decision. Mrs. Bose had never been much of a traveller; she had never felt the urge to see an unfamiliar place with foreign manners. And the thought that she might miss her husband did not occur to her.

Oof, it’s too cold there. You know how my sinus bothers me,” she said.

“But there’ll be heaters everywhere you go, Bula. And a fireplace for you to sit beside,” he reasoned, even though he knew he was fighting a losing battle. His wife was not an easy woman to convince.

“All they eat are cold sandwiches and tasteless soups. Do you expect me to eat that for six months?” she continued, ignoring the detail about heaters.

“You don’t have to. You can cook whatever you want – dal, bhaath, machher jhol. There are Indian grocery shops, you know.”

Baba! What’s the use of going to London and cooking all day long?”

No one had ever won an argument with her, and finally, one passport was applied for. Mrs. Bose had packed her husband’s suitcase as meticulously as she did everything else. Woollens in one pile, cottons in another. Shirts and trousers for going out, kurta-pyjama for staying in. A pair of new rubber slippers from Bata. His shaving kit. Narrow glass bottles of homeopathic globules for colds, fevers and a nervous stomach. Three packets of Thin Arrowroot Biscuit, a plastic jar of loose Darjeeling tea. A few Bengali novels. Hair oil. A packet of Isabgol. And tucked discreetly at the bottom, a plastic mug for the bathroom.

She had packed a smaller suitcase for herself, less mindful of details; she knew her parents’ house still had a wardrobe full of her old clothes. The packing done, she wrote down a few important details on a piece of paper and slipped it into her purse – her husband’s Air India flight number, his arrival time in Heathrow, his address in Euston, and a telephone number where she could reach him in case of emergencies.

When the day arrived, the house was locked up, and two taxies brought to the front door – one for Dumdum Airport, another for Maniktala. Their goodbye was unremarkable, held back like a dog on a short leash.

For the next six months, they had much more than distance separating them. When Dr. Bose woke up in his room in London next to the growing pile of dissertation papers, his wife would be taking her afternoon nap next to the day’s edition of Anandabazar Patrika. While she sat by an open window on slivers of warm winter sun, he fiddled with the cold knobs of old heaters that clanged through the night. While he looked out at a quiet street lined with stoic Victorian houses and bald trees, she looked down at a loud road with people hanging off bloated buses.

But then, they had always looked at different things. At things differently. They had very little in common, and had rarely ever agreed on how to spend a Sunday. Bilet Bose enjoyed English films that his wife could barely sit through, or films in German and French, which put her to sleep long before the interval. He often wanted to spend an evening reading out passages from a book to his wife, seeking out opinions she did not care to have. All she wanted was a less esoteric day; Sundays spent visiting her parents in Maniktala, or at home cooking large lunches for friends who would stay until dinner.

Finally, one would give in to the other. It was always a silent, polite giving-in, for even though they shared a bed, and knew the curves and dents in each other’s bodies, they weren’t close enough to have a fight.

In a way, Dr. Bose’s stay in London had finally given them something in common. A feeling of walking backwards; like children do sometimes. He had gone back to living the frugal days of his bachelor life: sharing a house with two other Indian students from the University, spending his weekends in libraries and museums, keeping a written account of daily expenses, cooking khichuri for himself in the tiny, cold kitchen. While she had settled back in her parents’ home like she had never been away. Sharing a room with her sister who was in college, meeting old neighbourhood friends, taking her mother to the cinema for Sunday matinee shows, making sure her father had his blood-pressure medicine on time.

When Dr. Bose had called on Sundays, they’d had loud, hurried conversations, the staple of all trunk-calls. The lack of privacy at having to shout into the cold, black receiver had made sure they never strayed beyond a few topics – health, food and weather. Sometimes, she would cut her conversation shorter and pass the phone to her parents. “Yes, yes, they’re right here,” she would say into the receiver, answering a question Dr. Bose had not asked; it was important to her that her parents thought well of their Jamai. Following his wife’s prompt, Dr. Bose would dutifully ask his father-in-law about his arthritis, or about the price of fish at the market. He would tell his mother-in-law to spend less time in the kitchen, and remind her to go for a walk every day.

The only time Mrs. Bose had called her husband in London was on February 12, at 6.30 am, too early for a Saturday morning. “Listen, make yourself some payesh today,” she said. “Get a pen and paper; the recipe’s very simple.”

With his eyes still sticky with sleep, Dr. Bose had written down the recipe for a thick, sweet rice pudding. Mrs. Bose had told him how to thicken the milk, stirring so that it didn’t stick to the bottom. She told him when to add the rice, and the cinnamon and cardamom and clove. She told him how much sugar to pour in, and when to sprinkle in the cashew nuts and raisins. She didn’t say ‘Happy Birthday’. But then, there was so much they didn’t say.

Their six months had passed as six months often do – sometimes slowly, sometimes hurriedly. The days lengthening and shortening like an accordion, its note happy or pensive, depending on who was playing. In early June, Dr. Bose’s time in London had come to an end. While he packed his bags, the magnolia tree outside his bay window had breathed out white blossoms like the final flourish of an expensive West End show. But in his eagerness to get back home, Dr. Bose hadn’t noticed. He had returned the last of his library books at the university, handed over his room keys and made his way to King’s Cross Station. He had hauled his suitcases onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and headed back where he came from.

After his short wait at Calcutta Customs, Dr. Bose had loaded himself and his luggage into one of the waiting taxies, feeling his body relax into its lumpy, maroon, rexine seat. There had been half a shingara lying on the floor of the car, filling it with the smell of fried dough, turmeric and slightly stale potato. He imagined it dropping off a passenger’s hand as the taxi bounced over a pothole. He was home. He rolled down the windows, and let the streets rush in. His ears no longer strained to understand words swathed in the fog of an unfamiliar accent. His right leg could jiggle up and down, unmindful of manners. The fast, rhythmic movement used to help him to think clearly, as if a part of his body had to be in constant motion in order for his mind to be utterly still. Sitting in that taxi, he had remembered how Bula would sometimes place a hand on his knee to make its dance stop – she said it made her feel anxious; as if they were running late for something important.

Bula. He had missed her every day for six months, till the missing had become a steady, unintrusive part of his day. He had missed her sudden, sharp laughs. Her gentle chiding. Her eyes, which were more outspoken than she was. He had missed watching her face while she slept, all slopes and shadows, all its defences tucked under the pillow next to her thin black hairclips. Sitting in his cold room in London, he had written her many letters, none of which he had posted. He had brought them back for her, packed in the suitcase along with all her gifts, which he had chosen painstakingly, fumblingly.

He’d even brought back bits of London to share with her – a packet of autumn leaves, the ticket from his first ride on the London underground, his first penny, sprigs of dried lavender from the apartment’s window box, a mistletoe from his first English Christmas. A dark-skinned suitcase of things to woo her with. For he had fallen in love with his wife of two years for the first time, five thousand miles away.

While his taxi had toiled its way through traffic, Mrs. Bose made sure that his bath water was heated, a fresh towel kept on the bed, and the table laid with lunch. She had returned from Maniktala a day before with her small suitcase, and a bag full of groceries. After unlocking the door, she had stood in the centre of the living room for several minutes. Very still, her eyes narrowed, feeling the empty weight of the room pushing down on her shoulders. Her eyes had focussed on the nail in the wall where she’d been planning to hang a Jamini Roy print. Without a picture, the nail looked ugly; angry against the whiteness of the wall. The walls were quiet apart from that one angry nail. They looked like other walls, not the beginnings and endings of a room she knew well. On the window sill stood their framed wedding photograph – two strangers with the ends of their clothes tied in a knot; walking around a fire that hissed with ghee; stepping along the thin edge of a long promise. They had been more bride-and-groom than man-and-wife.

Standing in that room, Mrs. Bose had realised that she couldn’t remember his eyes. Nor the shape of his hands, or the heat of its touch. Over the last six months, her husband had begun to fade like an old photograph. First the eyes, then the mouth, then the rest of his face, the curve of his neck. Till all that remained above the shoulders was a voice. A cold reminder that coiled its way through the telephone cord on Sunday evenings.

She had looked away from her thoughts and down at the film of dust that covered the tiled floor. She realised that she hadn’t been standing still at all. Her feet had cut a measured pattern on the floor, from sofa to armchair to coffee table to sideboard. And the dust sheets that had covered the furniture lay in a neat pile on the floor next to her. Her arms, it seemed, had already settled back to the chores of its old life.

She had walked to the end of the room, throwing open the wooden shutters to air away the mustiness. She had wiped the dust off the wedding photograph with the end of her saree, and put it back on the window sill where it belonged. The photo had instantly blocked out a rectangle of daylight, spilling a shadow much larger than itself; the shadow didn’t hum with dust as the rest of the room did. She had stepped over the shadow and walked into the bedroom. She had changed the bedsheets, unpacked her suitcase. Then, she had gone into the kitchen and cried into the dal as it simmered on a slow fire.

Pia Ghosh Roy grew up in India, and now lives in Cambridge, England. She has worked in advertising as a writer, in cities like Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. She currently splits her time being mother to her young daughter, teaching English, writing her blog ‘Peppercorns in my Pocket’, and working as an artist and crafter. Pia forayed into fiction very recently. Her debut story has appeared in Litro Magazine, and another has been commended in the Words And Women Competition, 2014.