BY SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA
Plymouth, U.K.-based Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in India, which inspires and informs most of her short stories and poetry. Copyright is held by the author.
ANITA STEPPED OFF the train at Churchgate station, clutching her handbag tight against her body. I don’t believe I took the train into town, she thought, seeing the throngs of people spill out onto the platform. I’ve got my passport and cash … must be careful now.
She pushed along with the crowd, and then lunged out into the busy street. She looked around for a taxi, as it was quite a walk to the bank. The traffic stood still, honking and exhaling grey fumes, while the pedestrians trickled between the cars to the other side of the road.
If she got into a cab now, she wouldn’t reach the bank on time. She looked around, thinking of a solution. She had to get there before three o’clock to exchange her foreign currency. She couldn’t buy her lunch with pounds. From the corner of her eye, she saw the Oval Maidan. It was lush green, and the whites of the cricketers sparkled in the sun. She elbowed her way out of the crowd and walked towards the cricket ground. It was a 15 minute walk from there to the bank, Anita knew that very well. She used that route so often years ago, when Ashish and she would go to the art gallery every Wednesday, after class. And they would hold hands and sigh over the paintings. It was those moments she treasured: his warm body close to hers in the icy gallery, in the middle of the afternoon. His moist hand in hers. His breath in her ears as he explained the abstractness of Husain’s paintings to her. Then they’d have coffee at Samovar in silence, their fingers touching on the vinyl table, the fans whirring noisily above.
The lane bisecting the cricket ground was muddy from the sudden shower that morning. There was a match going on, the cricketers dotted the field, their foreheads creased with concentration. She slowed down to watch the batsman strike. He hooked the ball and it flew high above the fielders. She admired his confidence as he watched the ball fly over the boundary line. Anita jumped and shouted involuntarily, “Six!” The batsman smiled and acknowledged her with his bat. She blushed and hurried on.
Ashish used to play for the college team. He was their ace batsman, and hit sixes, just like this one. So many times she would be in the stands here, cheering the team on, praying for Ashish to get the winning runs. She glanced at her watch. It was on London time. As if in reply, the university clock chimed two. She stopped to reset her watch, and then hurried further on. Maybe, she could pop into the gallery to check it out, for old time’s sake.
But they always went in the afternoons. What if Ashish still did that? It was Wednesday, after all. Anita felt her heart beat faster, as she manoeuvred past the puddles in her way. He could be there, couldn’t he? Maybe, she could just peep in and have a quick look before going to the bank? Five minutes, no more. He wouldn’t be there, after 10 years, would he? And what if he was there? Then what? What would she say to him? What was there left to say, after all these years, of not seeing each other, of sleepless nights, but not wanting to pick up the phone and speak, of wanting to forget. What would she say to him?
She had left him that evening, as they stood watching the net practice right here. She had been accepted at Oxford, and so had he. But he had decided to stay back in India and study. To be close to his ailing father. She wanted him to come with her. He could always visit home every year. Was he going to sacrifice his life’s greatest opportunity for his father? He had listened quietly, not interrupting. She had talked and argued and justified, then realised she was justifying the move to herself, really. She had been so enraged that he was letting go of her so easily, without a fight, and then she had seen the tears in his eyes. It had rained suddenly, and the cricketers had hurriedly abandoned their practice. Ashish had shaken his head in disappointment. “The practice is ruined for tomorrow’s game,” he had said. And she had walked away, disappointed.
Anita stumbled to the end of the lane, where it joined the main road on the other side. The traffic was moving easily here. She stopped to take a breath by the trees. The cricketers were running and shouting. The cars zoomed past. The crows roused up a din on the branches above. But she stood still, breathing deeply. The sun was in her eyes and it was difficult to look ahead in the distance anymore.