Short Story: Shantanu’s Predicament
By Chirantana Mathkari
Gandhawati stood stunned looking at the dead salmon in her kitchen sink. With its neck twisted at the edge of the sink and its eye staring at her, it had quite an appalling effect on the vegetarian!
She looked away and took a deep breath — but she just got a strong fishy odour in her nostrils. She rubbed her nose, and convinced herself by saying: “It’s someone’s food, it’s someone’s food and you need to respect that.” She brisked to the kitchen door and opened it. She inhaled the air in the garden. It was snowing.
Wondering where her husband was, she went upstairs to his study. The room smelt of masala chai (Indian tea with spices). She stood at the door, her arms crossed. Shantanu was too lost in his thoughts to notice her.
“Morning,” she said.
As if woken from a dream, Shantanu was startled. He looked at her and blinked his eyes rapidly.
“Are you okay?” she asked a bit awkwardly.
“Yes, of course,” he replied, taking his tea cup near his face, hoping the vapours would hide his tears. He took a deep breath slowly. The spicy fragrance of the tea still reminded him of Ganga. He looked away from his wife.
As he sipped the tea again, the aroma took him back to the Brahmaputra ghat (banks).
A year ago, that is where he was — the ghat— the place where he had seen Ganga for the very first time. The smell of the incense sticks in the temple, the mild essence of the flowers offered to the Goddess, the redolence of the sweet prasad (oblations)), the typically fishy odour of the river, the whiff of the hot masala chai held in his palms and the weird smell of those dogs!
He smiled to himself momentarily and then let out a sigh. The masala chai in his cup continued to steam.
With her chai cup kept on the ghat steps, a girl was feeding the stray dogs. Shantanu rested his arms on his thighs and clasped the chai cup between his palms. With her dark brown hair curled at the nape of her neck and her skin reflecting the sunrays mildly, the girl looked like a dream. But Shantanu wasn’t brave enough to risk rabies for her! He decided to concentrate on the sunrise instead.
To his misfortune, he couldn’t resist the temptation of looking at her again. “Would her skin reflect the sunrays differently each minute, as the sun changed its position?” he wondered. As he caught a glimpse of her pink cheek, he felt her look at him. A bit ashamed, he got up to leave.
“Hey! Are you new here?” he heard her speak.
He looked back, surprised. “No, I have been raised in this city. Why? Are you new here?” His male ego bristled.
She smiled, “I am.” Then pointing to the small island in front of them, she added, “but I usually make it a point to see the sun rise from the island. It’s picturesque.”
Shantanu climbed down a few steps and sat down. A child jumped into the river, splashing some water on Shantanu’s body.
The girl laughed. Shantanu avoided looking at her. Instead, he shrugged the water off his arms. He slowly looked at the girl when he thought she would not notice. She was alluring. He took a deep breath and looked at the sun rising from the small island. The sun, as if playing a game of hide and seek, hid behind a tree momentarily and then dawned up from the top of another. Shantanu smiled at his luck.
When the sun was shining well above the trees and the small boats that had tried to catch its rays earlier, the girl got up and dusted her buttocks. She picked up her tea cup and was about to leave when Shantanu gathered courage and called out to her.
“Hey! Shantanu,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand.
She came down to shake his hand. She smelt like the Parle G biscuits she had just fed her canine troop.
Just then the study door creaked. Gandhawati came in with some Parle G biscuits in a plate.
“I thought you’d enjoy them with your tea.”
“Thank you,” Shantanu replied without looking at her.
She sighed and went down to the kitchen. She sat by herself on the dining table and dipped a Parle G in her tea cup. It softened and dissolved in her tea before she could take it out.
Shantanu looked at the biscuits in the plate, put his neck back on his chair and closed his eyes.
“Ganga,” the girl had said as she shook Shantanu’s hand.
“This is Brahmaputra,” he had tried to crack a joke.
“Do you expect me to laugh at this?”
“That’s your choice,” he said as he looked into her eyes and smiled.
She looked into his eyes and came a bit closer.
She sniffed, crinkling her nose momentarily, and said, “You smell like a river fish.”
The comment came so suddenly for Shantanu that he felt too mesmerised to respond.
She laughed and left.
“That was rude!” he shouted.
“I know,” came the reply.
The next week while he was shopping for fish, Shantanu smelled it. He was still surprised by the fact that someone felt that he smelt like one. Just then he heard a familiar voice.
“Ooh. This explains it all,” Ganga said pointing at Shantanu’s new purchase.
This time, he had his comeback ready.
“Oh, hello Brahamaputra! Yes, that is what they say — this one came out from you!” he said as he held the fish.
“Oh come on! I don’t stink!” she said as she looked at him admiringly.
“Yes, of course! You smell like Parle G! How could I forget!”
And while she was embarrassed, she gracefully drowned her embarrassment in her laughter. She laughed till her eyes watered. He laughed along with her.
Sitting in his home now, he wondered how her laughter had made him forget the surroundings, just as her memories did now. A cat who had probably smelt the salmon in his kitchen, meowed. He peeped out of the window to see where it was.
And the cats in the farmer’s market had rubbed themselves against his calves and she had fed them some fish pieces and then they had walked around the market together. He had smelled those frangipani flowers and picked up a bunch for her. Their scent had lingered on her body till they parted that evening.
They had met frequently, explored the city of Guwahati together, seen the sun rise over the ghat, seen it set down the hill, attended aartis (benediction), attended workshops, fed strays, cooked for the poor, and so on and so forth, until that fateful day.
Shantanu’s US visa had gone through and he thought it’d be the perfect day to ask Ganga if she’d be kind enough to spend the rest of her life with him. He was sure of the answer and had planned to wed her and take her along as a dependent.
And so, he met her that evening. The flame of the scented candle flickered between their faces as they sat on the table to dine.
“I need to tell you something,” she said before he could.
“And I need you to promise me that you won’t ask me why,” she added.
He made a face at her and smiled.
“Shoot!” he said without giving it a second thought.
“I know this is hard. But trust me, it’s equally hard for me. I am ending it here. This is it.”
Gandhawati decided to sit with her husband. She was bored of doing everything alone. She came in and plucked out a random book she from the shelf. She made herself comfortable on the couch. Without realising, she had held the book upside down. She smelt differently, Shantanu thought.
“Is it a new perfume that you bought?”he asked, ignoring the upside down held book.
She felt better. “It’s the one that my cousin gifted me. I had told you, remember?”
Shantanu clearly didn’t. But he felt the scent so familiar. Just like the one Ganga was wearing the last time he saw her.
And so, she had just walked off.
“But Ganga…, ” Shantanu had managed to mutter from his dried throat.
He wanted answers. He had searched for her helter-skelter: from her home, to the ghat; from the stray shelter to the markets. He even tried to use all the types of social media he could! All in vain! He failed to understand how she had disappeared. Vanished into thin air!
He had finally come to the conclusion that Ganga had never existed — that he had just lived a dream with her. He had packed his bags and left for the United States.
A year later, this perfume made him question her existence. Maybe — just maybe, she was for real. Maybe she was somewhere around…
“Shantanu, do you want to talk it out?” Gandhawati interrupted his thought process.
“It’s been a month since our wedding. We have hardly had a conversation. Is there anything bothering you? Maybe you’ll feel better if you share it? We could find a solution together?”
Shantanu peeped at his wife over the rim of his spectacles. He tried to lighten the atmosphere.
“You are holding the book upside down.”
Gandhawati quickly placed the book down.
“And do you know Assamese?”
“No, but if you speak in English, I am sure I’ll understand.”
Shantanu smiled back. He took a deep breath. Gandhawati’s perfume stung his nostrils. He closed his eyes and exhaled.
“Gandhawati, I really don’t know how to elaborate upon things but what I can tell you is that there are things — or rather memories which I am trying to forget. The kind of memories which my brain cannot relate to the present, but my mind insists on preserving them. It’s as if it hides them, deep in a corner; and just when I feel I have got rid of them, they resurface. And you know what the funniest part is about this?”
Gandhawati rested her chin on her palm and bent forward.
“I remember them when I smell certain things. Like the biscuits. Like the fish. Or your perfume for that matter!”
“Is that it?” Gandhawati asked him.
Then as if a novel idea had struck her, she said, “Have you ever tried the snow?”
“What do you mean? How is that related?”
“Come with me, I’ll tell you what I mean,” she held Shantanu’s hand and got him out in the garden.
Then she simply did what she had done to get rid of the fish odour a while ago. She inhaled and then slowly exhaled.
Shantanu smelled the snow. He couldn’t smell anything. And so, he tried again. And there was no odour again. And as he started enjoying it, he inhaled and exhaled several times until he sneezed. Gandhawati laughed as she said, “Bless you.” Shantanu looked at his wife and smiled. Maybe she was right.
“It’s the snow. It teaches you to let go off somethings,” she said as she patted her husband on his back lovingly.
Shantanu wanted to hug his wife and cry. After all, maybe Ganga was just an accident.
Just then Gandhawati’s phone rang. She got it out and exclaimed, “Oh my God! It’s Ganga! Remember, the cousin who couldn’t make it to our wedding, but sent me the perfume?” she said as she showed Shantanu Ganga’s photo flashing on her phone.
Chirantana Mathkari is a US based veterinarian turned animal behaviourist, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her love for animals is altruistic and is often reflected in her writings. Literature caught her fancy at an early age and she loves intertwining her profession with her passion, offering the reader a brief , lucid and yet a delightful tale!
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