By Rinita Banerjee
It was the rainy season. July, Some Year, Some Place.
Against the serenely cool breeze of the after-rains, Tuli’s little face stood still, warm, a throbbing circle of fire and smoke. She had a little round face, very big eyes, a pug-like nose set right in the centre of her face, and small lips — like one fine petal of a red tulip. Her eyelashes were wet. The before-tears had run their course. She breathed in rapid, short gasps – each lasting less than a second – the gasps, moving somewhere behind the throat and the nose. They came in groups of three and sometimes two. She blinked from time to time, looking out through the window facing which she sat, cross-legged, on the chair that Baaboo, her father, had built for her so that she could see the world outside the window of her room.
A wooden chair with tall legs and a round seating space with a pillow on it. On the lower portion of the chair was a small box-like structure with three steps carved into it. Baaboo had made it for Tuli to be able to climb to and down from the high chair.
The inside of the back-rest of the chair had an engraving that said ‘Baaboo’s Tuli’. Baaboo had engraved it for his little Tuli two years ago; she was six then. She had sat on it many a time. In fact, before she went to bed at night, most nights, Baaboo had read her stories while she would sit on that high chair dangling her legs, leaning a little on her Baaboo with her lips stuck into a small pout. The pout was the measure of Tuli’s concentration. Much before he finished reading her the stories, the dangling of the legs would stop, and the weight of her little body would gather on Baaboo like the many bubbles from the ‘bugbugi’ settling on one. The many flurries of bubble from soapy water blown through the circular ring on streetsides? Tuli called those bugbugi. Like she called her father ‘Baaboo’, not Baba or Papa or Dad or Daddy or Bapi.
There was something about the sound ‘oo’ that appealed to Tuli. No one knew why. Tuli herself didn’t either.
The rainy season had begun, it had been a few days, when Baaboo had left, suddenly. Tuli hadn’t come to know when though. Only that he had left for some urgent work. Ma had told Tuli, Baaboo would return in some time, that it could be long, that he would not be able to see her till winter came and went, perhaps even later. She had hugged Tuli tightly when telling her this, and smiled, and Tuli had cried and cried and cried. Ma had continued to hug her tightly and had gently held the small head with the silk-like light brown hair, close to her chest. Tuli had heard something behind that soft, warm wall, her Ma’s chest. She had stopped crying in time, the tears drying with every little gulp of air — to listen closely. It sounded a lot like the thud of a ball bouncing on the floor. She had heard this when seeing the neighbour’s son play with a large-sized ball in the park while on her way out with her Didoo (maternal grandmother). Who played with a ball behind the skin of Ma’s chest? Tuli had left the question for another day, when she would have no tears left to cry, perhaps.
Baaboo had left; he had left Tuli with Ma and Didoo. Ma too did not have her father with her, Tuli knew. He was in the sky, somewhere, Tuli had been told by Didoo. Tuli had not been able to find her Dadoo (grandfather) anywhere in the sky at night though. She had searched. Very hard. But while searching, she would fall asleep to the melodies her Didoo sang; sweet melodies of which only the tune would reach Tuli’s soul, not the words. She would not get to the words because sleep would interrupt Tuli’s reaching them. Awful, awful sleep! Next morning, when she would wake up and ask her Didoo if Dadoo had shown up, Didoo would tell her, yes, of course! But seeing her fast asleep, Dadoo had not had the heart to wake her. So he had left with a promise to come back in a few days’ time.
The days passed slowly.
Tuli thought of Baaboo often. What could bring him back earlier than after the winters? She often wondered. What could keep him near her in a way that he’d never leave? Even Ma did not mention Baaboo as often as Tuli would have liked her to. Tuli would, at times, sit on that high chair of hers and wonder where Baaboo had vanished, who would he be telling stories to at night now, while tears would adorn her very big eyes, weighing them down, making them smaller until she had to close them and let the tears flow and flow. She would cry and cry and cry. Afterwards, the tears would cease, reduced to those intermittent gasps.
It was still the rainy season.
One day, Tuli, hearing a bustle in Didoo’s room, went to see what had passed there. Entering the room, she saw her Ma keeping a small bucket near one of the windows. When she turned around to see Tuli with her pout, this time reflecting curiosity, Ma explained how wafts of rain were spilling on to Didoo’s room through the window because the shade on the outside of the window had broken. Thus, until it was fixed, she would have to keep a bucket to hold the water, so that the rain couldn’t wet the room floor.
By the time Ma had finished explaining to Tuli about why the bucket had to be kept in Didoo’s room, her pout had long gone. She suddenly felt the ball dribble in her own ears, but this time, it came from behind the wall of her own chest. Her very big eyes widened even further as she turned and rushed to the dining table. She looked around to find herself alone first, before grabbing hold of the small silver box in which her Didoo used to keep betel nuts. A small, square silver box, the size of Tuli’s palm, that had a lid and could be closed. It also had a peacock carved on top of it. She recognized that bird with the long beautiful tail. But why wasn’t the tail coloured like she had seen them in the pictures Baaboo had shown her? The sound of the dribble in her ears got louder than ever now. What was she doing standing there? Never mind the peacock, she seemed to have chanced upon an answer to how she could bring Baaboo back for good! Unbeknownst to her, the pout had given way to a wide, bright smile while Tuli ran to her chair, holding the box. What was this clever idea that had come to her?
Just like the bucket holding the rain water, Tuli had decided to hold her tears in the silver box! Once Baaboo was back this time, after the winters came and went — just like Ma had said — Tuli would show how much she had cried for him, how much she had thought of him, every hour of every day, and seeing the after-tears, could Baaboo leave again? She thought not, thought not, thought not! After he saw the after-tears, he would never leave again. Never again, never again, never again. The very thought of her Baaboo having left at all, now suddenly ushered tears to Tuli’s eyes. The shoulders, once enlivened, drooped, tears clinging to her cheeks like wet cloth. But then she quickly opened the box and let a few drops fall into it.
The spate over, Tuli closed the box very slowly. Then holding it very carefully between the palms of her hands, she walked over to her small cupboard — lilac-coloured — and kept it in the drawer that held, among other things, a small broken umbrella, a cloth doll whose plastic eyes no longer opened even when she was made to sit upright, two plastic cups and saucers — the size of Tuli’s lips, and a pair of yellow pumps. One from the pair had lost the plastic butterfly from atop the portion covering the toe. It had belonged to Tuli, once.
The rainy season continued. Days passed, as days do.
Why not urge Ma to take the box to her Baaboo and not wait until after the winters departed? Tuli thought. But there was a problem. As much as she wanted to hurry, it was taking her a really long time to fill the box up. She had cried almost four times until now but the box seemed to hardly have any trace of what she had stored. Seemed like the more the delay between one after-tear and another, the less there was to find in the box! There had to be a way to fill it up faster! There had to be! But alas, she might have to make do with whatever little the box would hold. But alas, but alas. Tuli would wait a few more days before speaking to Ma.
That evening, Tuli rushed towards her Ma’s room to request her to make Tuli some noodles since she was noodle-hungry. But before she could enter the room and speak, she saw her Ma huddled over, crying, noiselessly, holding her Baaboo’s photograph. Tuli did not enter the room to comfort her. She remained standing, regarding her Ma with a pout — this time, a measure of Tuli’s suddenly, acutely realizing that Baaboo had also left Ma, and that Ma, like Tuli, was also very sad. Then why had Ma told Tuli, Baba will come back in some time, that it might be long, that he won’t be able to see her till winter came and went? And that too with a smile?
Tuli went back to her room and thought and thought and thought. She had now an added responsibility. She must gather for her Baaboo the measure of her Ma’s unhappiness too. She would gather not only her tears but those of her Ma. And that way, the box would fill up more quickly, wouldn’t it? Just like she’d wanted! But what if her mother did not agree to this plan? Besides, asking her to participate would also mean telling Ma Tuli’s secret, wouldn’t it? What if Ma disapproved of it all? Oh no, she couldn’t risk that. She would have to find another way to fill the box up faster. Oh she must! She must! So what if … what if … the rain! Raindrops! Just outside the window! So close was the answer and here Tuli was drowning in a frown of worry.
Yes, she would add to the meagre sum of her tears, the raindrops!
The box would fill up in no time and then she would take it to her mother who would have no choice but to call her Baaboo to show him the measure of their unhappiness.
The clouds had gathered. The raindrops had heard the sound of the dribble from behind Tuli’s chest and learnt that a troubled heart lived near. They knew their tears would help soothe the pain. Somehow, somehow. So they had cried too, along with Tuli.
Tuli held her hands out of the window holding the box. Her hands, now wet, her cheeks, all wet, she brought the box inside, closed the lid, climbed down her high chair and decided that she would take it to her Ma then and there. No more delay. What if the water in the box dried again? No, she wouldn’t let that happen!
But no sooner had she stepped outside her room, than she banged against her Didoo who was about to enter her room with a glass of milk for her – like she always did, every day at that hour. Around six, every evening. The silver box, its lid wide open, fell on the floor with a muted clank, the after-tears, too, joining it! The sound, so hollow, so jarring, so short-lived, so endless. The glass, now mere shards, big and small, lay like thick thorns over petals of a rose. Tuli’s precious after-tears had now turned to white, milk, useless, lost, lost, lost, never to return, never to return, never to be gathered anymore. Tuli wasn’t crying any more. Her pout — a measure of despair.
Didoo’s voice, concerned, if Tuli had been hurt anywhere, seemed to be at a distance. Somewhere through the corner of her eyes, Ma too had appeared and then rushed towards her. Tuli had suddenly felt her cold nose pressed against her Ma’s warm bosom, and found herself lost amidst the familiar smell of that soft place, the no-hurt place, the all-would-be-okay place, the place that smelt too of his Baaboo’s voice, the voice she was trying to hear through the ball that dribbled very hard and very fast behind the wall of her Ma’s chest today – but could not.
That evening passed, as evenings do.
The next day, it was four in the evening. It hadn’t rained all day but the sky was grey, pale and stale. The clouds seemed to be wearing a deep frown. What was a secret if it wasn’t a secret anymore? Tut, tut.
Tuli’s little face was still, warm, a throbbing circle of fire and smoke. But today, her eyelashes were dry as the grey, pale and stale sky above. She didn’t blink much; only stared outside the window sitting as she did, cross-legged on the chair that Baaboo — her father — had made for her. Winter seemed a long way away. A very, very, long, long way away. Like Baaboo, the rains seemed to have left too.
She would wait though. She would await the rain. She must, she must. Wouldn’t it return after winter came and went? It will, it will. Wouldn’t Baaboo? He must, he must.
Until then. Until rain.
Rinita Banerjee is an editor, writer and translator based in India. Her previous publications (online) include: ‘The Betrayal’ (published by Juggernaut on their digital platform; April 2019); ‘Black Flood’ (October Hill Magazine, Winter 2017); ‘Upon the Hour of Return’ (The Punch Magazine, 2017); and ‘The Door’ and ‘Keeping’ (Tuck Magazine, 2016). She has also had two published translations (from English to Bengali) with Tulika Books (India) in 2017: Opore Dekh from Look Up! (by Kavitha Punniyamurthi)and Ekta aar Onekgulo from One and Many (by Indu Sreekumar). She has an MA in English (American and British Literature) from the North Carolina State University (USA). Well-versed in Bengali, Hindi and French, she is presently working on being ambidextrous.
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