Manik-Da by Salini Vineeth
On a foggy Kolkata morning, Piyali found herself lost in a labyrinth of murky streets. She had been following a rectangular piece of paper as the wind carried it off farther and farther. Her eyes were fixed on a number in the right-hand corner of the paper. It read ₹500. The benevolent Mahatma smiled at her while the currency note floated around in a tantalizing rhythm. Piyali had almost grabbed it when she heard a siren in the distance.
“Nee-nooo, nee-nooo, neee-nooo...”
‘Is it the police? Why are they following me?’ Piyali stood rooted to the ground as the five hundred rupees note floated away. Suddenly everything vanished into thin air — the currency note and the little streets. Only the siren remained. No, not vanished into thin air. It’s a cliché. Never use that!
“Nee-nooo, nee-nooo, neee-nooo...” The exasperating noise disrupted her dream. Piyali tried to spring out of bed and hit her head on the ceiling. It was three in the morning, and it took her a few seconds to come to her senses. She groped under her pillow and got hold of her mobile phone.
She wondered why her phone was making such a weird noise. Then, images flashed in her mind—the glittery Quest mall, her window-shopping trip the previous evening, that marketing stall with a white canopy, and the sales rep in a blue shirt. Don’t just say a sales rep in a blue shirt. Tell something interesting about him.
Hmm.. ok. The man had an assortment of strings around his wrist – black, orange, and red. He had a silver ring on his little finger. His fingertips were square, and the sides of his nails were chipped. Probably he worked in construction and was moonlighting as a sales rep. Now, that’s a good characterization. Nobody gives a damn about the color of his shirt.
“Hello, madam. Good evening,” the thread-wearing man said, flashing his tobacco-stained teeth. Piyali squirmed. She was no ‘madam.’ She was just a broke writer, prowling around the malls to observe people and drool at clothes she couldn’t afford. You need to strike that last part. I am a communist, not a consumerist. I am a writer, I am broke, and I love to observe people. That can stay.
Alright, so the sales rep said, “Madam, try this new security app. If you install, you will get hundred rupees cashback on your Paytm.” His breath smelt like onions.
“May I Install?” He waited for Piyali’s permission. Suddenly, Piyali felt all generous and decided to help the rep fill his sales quota. She anyway didn’t give a damn about her phone’s security. Nothing, not even a virus, could live on her battered smartphone. Also, she could really use that hundred rupees. Hey, hey, why don’t you come to the point? It was three in the morning, and my phone was ringing.
Ok, anyway, coming to the point, that rogue app had changed Piyali’s ringtone. That’s why she couldn’t recognize it when it blared for the first time at an ungodly hour.
“Nee-nooo, nee-nooo, neee-nooo...” The siren continued.
“Will you get that damn phone?” One of her roommates shouted from the lower bunk. Piyali’s fingers hovered over the accept button for a few seconds as she stared at the unknown number. She was always wary of perverts getting her number. She wondered if it was that onion-smelling, thread-wearing, chipped-nailed sales rep. But as usual, Piyali couldn’t curb her curiosity. Curiosity—that’s how she ended up in problems. Oh, come on, I have never regretted them. I am collecting experiences so that I can write great stories someday.
Piyali accepted the call.
“I can’t sleep.” She heard a fragile voice. Piyali’s heart missed a beat. It was Kamalini Māsi
“Māsi, what happened? Where are you calling from?”
“I can’t find my Feluda,” Māsi mumbled.
Piyali’s heart started palpitating. Where was Māsi? How did she get out of her room at three in the morning?
Six months ago, when Kamalini Māsi was first moved to the dementia care home, she had clutched onto Piyali like a toddler. “I want to go home.” Her nails dug deep into Piyali’s lanky forearm. Piyali bit her lips as she tried to gulp the lump in her throat.
“Don’t worry, we will take good care of her. I know it’s painful. Getting dementia at the age of fifty is very rare. At this advanced stage, she needs full-time medical attention.” The doctor had tried to reassure Piyali. She nodded, trying to hide her tears. She hadn’t dared look back as she left the whimpering Māsi at the care home.
“Whose phone is this? Where’s your nurse, Māsi?” Piyali’s voice rose in alarm. There was no answer, only the delicate breathing of Māsi. Piyali trembled as she picturized Kamalini Māsi standing on a desolate road, totally oblivious of her whereabouts. What if she had wandered off? Māsi was delusional and had lost the sense of time and place. Sometimes she assumed that she lived in their little cottage in Chuikhim, and Piyali was still a teenager.
“Madam, I am sorry. Your aunt was making so much fuss. I had to let her call you from my phone.” The nurse suddenly took over. Piyali sighed in relief.
“Feluda, my book. Do you have it? Manik Da had given it to me.” Māsi’s voice rang in the background. Piyali recognized its resolve, and it reminded her of the young Māsi. Then the call got disconnected.
It took Piyali a few seconds to make sense of everything. Māsi wasn’t being delusional. She was perfectly lucid after a very long time. As the realization dawned upon her, Piyali’s sleep evaporated. Her fingers trembled, and the phone slipped out of her hands. She hadn’t expected that Māsi would ask her book back. Can you blame me? The only thing Māsi remembers is my name, not even hers. Then why that book, and precisely when I had found a buyer for it?
Piyali climbed down from the top bunk and picked up the first Bengali edition of The Adventures of Feluda from her handbag. It wasn’t just a first edition, but a rare book with Satyajit Ray’s autograph. It was worth a fortune in the collector’s market. Piyali had chanced upon it in a box of old books Kamalini Māsi had given her.
Piyali’s cheeks burned with guilt as she ran her fingers across the front cover of the book. Come on; I hadn’t stolen it or anything! I thought it was a gift. She has never gifted me anything other than books, you know. Ah… and there is one more thing — this useless urge to write. If she had forced me to study engineering or business instead of literature, I would have got a decent job by now.
With the book in her hands, Piyali climbed back to her bed. She couldn’t understand how Māsi remembered that particular book, and precisely the night before the deal. Why was this book so special for her? The pale light of the dawn started seeping in through the air vent across her bed. As she lay staring at it, a crazy thought flashed in her mind — what if Māsi had a crush on Ray? What if she was a secret admirer of him? Kamalini Māsi had never married. She was thirty-five when she took in the orphaned Piyali. I had always assumed that Māsi wasn’t interested in men. She was a fierce feminist, if not a misandrist. It never occurred to me to ask, but I should have. Could it be an unrequited love that prompted Māsi to live a life of solitude?
Piyali tried to piece together the bits of her memories as a teenager. Māsi often talked about her younger days working for the Anandabazar Patrika in Calcutta. It was the 1970’s, the time when India was broiled in political unrest. She was a part of an intelligentsia that fiercely fought against the totalitarian government. The College Street coffee house was their adda. Piyali didn’t know if Ray was a part of their group, but Māsi always talked about him with affection and admiration. She called him Manik-Da, like his close friends did. Piyali remembered Māsi speaking fervently about Apur Sansar and Sonar Kella, Ray’s famous works.
A tingling sensation passed through Piyali’s body — a wave of inspiration. Like a crazy spider, her brain started spinning a story — a journalist’s admiration for a legendary filmmaker, her slow and secret suffocation for love, her inability to express those feelings, her withdrawal from Calcutta, and her lonely life in a cottage in the hills.
Piyali had an itch to write the first draft. But she had to make an important decision — whether to sell that rare book or return it to Māsi. She squirmed as if she was lying on a bed of thrones. Until the previous evening, she was confident. She had been counting on that handsome sum to replenish her dwindling bank balance. She hoped that it would pay bills for at least a few months till she found a regular job. See, you need to understand that I am not greedy or anything. In fact, money has always confused me. Māsi had taught me never to attach too much importance to money. It’s easy to say when you are well-off, but not a stylish line when you are broke. Once you have tasted poverty, you are a slave of money forever.
One part of Piyali’s brain bashed her for being so selfish. The book seemed Māsi’s only connection with her past. Then, the other part of her brain argued that it was stupid to let go of a huge sum just based on her wild imagination. Maybe Māsi was a mere fan, and more importantly, her memory was fading. The pragmatic side of Piyali’s brain (which paid the bills and kept her alive) told her that Māsi would soon forget everything—Manik-Da, the book, and even Piyali. She lay on her scanty bunk bed, with The Adventures of Feluda close to her heart.
A flood of memories deluged the other part of her brain—fifteen years ago, the stony causality of Asansol district hospital. On that rainy evening, Piyali met Kamalini Māsi, her mother’s elder sister, after a long gap. The next day, when the pyres of Piyali’s parents burned off, Māsi took Piyali’s frozen hands in hers. Both didn’t talk during the long, winding journey from the plains of Asansol to the hills of Chuikhim. For many weeks, they lived like two gloomy islands floating above the sea of sorrow. Yet, Māsi sat next to Piyali’s bed whenever she had a violent dream. “I am here,” Māsi would reassure Piyali in her firm voice.
Then one day, Piyali strayed into Māsi’s huge library. She picked up a book, its title read ‘Coraline.’ The next few days, Piyali spent her afternoons, lost in the fantasy world of Coraline Jones. When she finished the book, Māsi placed another one in her hands, and then another and another. The gloomy islands slowly floated towards each other. They spend many chilly afternoons in that library, eating partially burnt beguni and sipping black tea. Māsi wasn’t a great cook, you know. She wasn’t even a parent material. But she taught me to dream and write. Maybe it has failed to fetch me a job, but without my writing, I wouldn’t have survived my loss. If dementia hadn’t attacked Māsi and took away everything she had, she would still be taking care of me.
Suddenly the reality dawned upon Piyali. Maybe it wasn’t Ray; it was her. Kamalini Māsi remained a spinster so that she could look after Piyali. Maybe she was worried that a man in her life might affect the teenaged Piyali. She felt saltiness on her lips. “I can’t sleep,” Māsi’s fragile voice rang in her ears. A strange sense of warmth filled her body. Holding the book close to her heart, she slept, basked in the morning sun.
“Nee-nooo, nee-nooo, neee-nooo...” Her phone rang a few hours later. It was the book collector. They had agreed to meet near the Writers Building later that day. Piyali picked up the phone and called the meeting off. She saw the wind carrying away a large chunk of money — her rent, food, and maybe a nice dress. No, not the nice dress. I have already told you; I am a communist, not a consumerist. You’ve got the story, right? Now scoot!
Looking forward to reading more of your short stories.