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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Strange Meeting

Let me tell you a story.
It was the first week of a new course I had joined. I was spending time every day with a room full of people I had never met before. Some younger than me, some much older. Some from backgrounds different from me, some who lived in far off cities or towns. Some who had chosen to lead a life dedicated to God, some who had lost faith in God.
All were there only for one thing. To get a degree and then to get a job.
 I was there after I had left a job. Left behind my family's expectations. Unsure whether I had made the right choice.
I got to know a few people in the first couple of days. Only remaining friendly enough to find a confirmed seat in a row, when I attended lectures. A known face to chat with on the commutes home.
All these people were girls mind you. I am a girl too. A girl who had studied at an all-girls school, then an all-girls college and worked briefly at another all-girls school. A girl who had only spent quality time with boys or men who were relatives; or other such formal relationships.
So when on the third or fourth day of joining this course I sat down to lunch with a fresh new batch of all-girl friends and found a boy taking the seat opposite me, I had only two thoughts. He will just be another name in my mental list of classmates from the batch of so-and-so course in the years so-and-so; and I will also only be a similar name to him.
A few seconds later, out of courtesy I offered him a bite of my lunch. He had been set a task by the principal and so he had not had time to open his own lunch box. The busy-looking boy, without even batting an eyelash looked up shortly from his work, opened his mouth and said, "Give me."
The missionary school girl inside me reeled with horror! Stiff, formal and 'correct' at all times; this was a social interaction which was almost on the verge of comical impossibility. "Am I actually supposed to be feeding this fellow?" I had always been a very self-dependent person who trembled at the prospect of any kind of physical dependency. My mother had narrated that as a child I started refusing to be fed as soon as I learnt to feed by myself. In my later years, I remember, I even got peevish at the prospect of holding an adult's hand while crossing the road. And here was this young man (whom I had earlier noticed as being pleasantly handsome, according to my taste in looks) asking me to do such an intimate thing, albeit mildly intimate, as feed him.
Of course I couldn't refuse. Although I had not even met the fellow properly! Of the many values inculcated (or rather drilled) in me, during my early childhood years; one which was in inextricable part of my identity, was to be polite and obedient at all times. To rebel only when some grievous wrong was being done.
So we shared lunch that day.
That was the day we became friends.
That was the day I noticed him, for real. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Well Wisher

Seems like ages, have passed, but I still wish you well.
Whisper a prayer then offer a coin to some wishing-well.

A wish belongs to every thousand billion star
Though make-believe, they build hope in hearts near and afar.

Sometimes a tiny little wish flounders in despair,
Often a stout and brave-hearted wish rises to dare.

Someday these very wishes may dim with defeat;
Till then leave them in peace to sparkle in dreams innocent and sweet.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Hidden World

There is a secret world within this world,
Where untold hurt and sorrow reign.
Where gusts of sighs blow like winds,
And unshed tears fall as rain.

The skies are dotted with broken shards,
Of million pieces of  countless shattered hearts,
Where words which lie unuttered for decades,
Pile higher and higher to erect citadels of grey facades.

This world we each carry hidden in deep recesses of our soul,
The world we discover more and more as these bones grow old.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Dark Chocolate

What do I miss about us?
I really have no clue.
Our love was never really complete
Our love was hardly true.

Yet every day when my mind wanders
Away from mundane thoughts and worries;
When I feel myself drifting away,
On a magic carpet from exotic fairy stories,
It is your voice that resonates in my ear,
The brush of your bristly cheek against mine
The way your fingers swept back my hair,
The way your soul, through your eyes, would shine.

Bittersweet memories,
Like dark chocolate on my tongue,
I thought it would last forever you know,
I though you were "the one".

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Moni Didi



Manasi heaved her over-sized laptop bag onto her left shoulder and got out of the Uber cab. Entering her building she crossed the lobby and pressed the flickering “up” button of the elevator. As she heard the distant whir of the lift making its slow descent to the ground floor, Manasi Sengupta checked her watch. It was 10.50pm.
Keya opened the door within seconds of Manasi ringing the doorbell.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Keya said in her familiar tone of motherly admonition.
Manasi was too tired to respond, but Keya continued, “It’s nearly 11pm! What would your parents say if they knew?”
As she passed the dining table on her way to her bedroom Manasi saw how neatly everything had been laid for dinner. There was a vegetable curry, light chicken stew garnished with tiny sprigs of coriander and piping hot rice. Everything looked delectable in their gleaming bowls and casseroles.
No matter how cross she might be, Keya never neglected her duties.
                                                           *******************************
Keya was no less than a member of the Sengupta family. The close knit family, comprising of Manasi, her elder brother Mihir and their doting parents, were originally from Ballygunge in Kolkata. But like most other well educated promising professionals of urban Kolkata, the children had moved away, and the family ties were now long distance.
Mihir, a brilliant graphics designer had relocated to Mumbai, while Manasi, armed with a postgraduate degree in Economics from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics, shifted to Bangalore.
Mr. Sengupta’s business commitments kept him shuttling between Delhi and his family house in Ballygunge, so Mrs. Sengupta divided her time between staying with her two children.
Keya came to live with the family as a cheeky young girl of three or four years of age. Her mother had only recently died of malaria. Keya’s mother Parul had worked as a nurse for Mrs. Sengupta’s aged mother for nearly 8 years.
Neither Keya, nor the Senguptas, had ever known who her father was. Parul had been reluctant to talk about him, and so no one ever pressed her for details. All they knew was that Parul had been a devoted helper and companion to her elderly employer and so Keya would be given a roof over her head, food and clothing till she became old enough to stand on her own two feet.
Keya was even sent to a nearby Corporation school. But after the 7th standard she stopped showing any inclination towards academics and begged to be allowed to discontinue her studies. She was happiest when engaged in housework. She had a natural flair for cooking, and was a strong and steady worker.
 Manasi and Keya were about the same age, thus inevitably they had been lifelong friends and inseparable companions.  As kids they had shared toys, clothes and feminine secrets. Keya had always been Manasi’s steadfast supporter in her stormy fights with Mihir. Likewise, Manasi was the first person Keya presented her latest kitchen experiments with.
Manasi, a quiet and meritorious student as a child, grew up to become a woman of fiery ambition. She ate slept and dreamt finance and was consequently indifferent to cooking and housework even for her own sustenance.
While a student at DSE, she didn’t have to bother about meals and laundry as such services were provided by her hostel, but when she rented a flat after landing her job, her mother knew that there was only one solution.
So Keya packed her belongings and joined her “Moni didi” in Bangalore, and the two lived alone in peaceful coexistence, with occasional month long visits paid by Mrs. Sengupta. 
Manasi’s friends, who spent their weekends toiling over buckets of soapy water and waging battles in the kitchen, listened to tales of Keya’s culinary expertise and meticulous home management with bitter envy. Manasi knew that she was very fortunate and heaved a sigh of relief every time she thought about how a few years back Keya had nearly left them for good.
                                                          ******************************
 When Keya was about 18 years of age Mrs. Sengupta felt a prick of conscience. Keya was a healthy, vivacious girl, and not at all bad to look at. Mrs Sengupta felt it would be unfair towards her if she did not assist in finding her someone to raise her own family with.
Finally, they had narrowed down their choices to a young grocer’s assistant who lived in Baruipur, a few hours away from the main city of Kolkata. The match had been suggested by their driver Srikanto who lived in the same neighbourhood as the grocer boy Gourango.
Being liberal in their views, the Senguptas had even arranged for Keya and Gour to meet quite a few times before their marriage. Finally after two months of courtship Mr. Sengupta summoned them both to his study and asked them if they were happy with the idea of marrying each other. A discomfited but excited Gour had stuttered, grinned widely and then nodded his head in affirmation, while Keya, her head bowed down deeply in embarrassment gave a short nod.
But destiny had other plans for Keya. One day, two weeks before the marriage date, Srikanto requested to be allowed to talk with Mr. Sengupta in private. No one else heard the actual conversation but it resulted in the marriage being broken off.
Manasi later learned from her mother that Srikanto had discovered Gour was already married and had a wife and children in his native village near Purulia.
Keya cried profusely for three days continuously. On the fourth day she threw herself at Mrs. Sengupta’s feet.
“Mashimoni”, she wailed, her eyes blood-red, like that of some wild animal; her long hair rough and dishevelled. “Please don’t put me through such heart break again. I don’t want to get married. If something like this happens again, I will take my life.”
Mrs. Sengupta pulled Keya to her lap and lovingly caressed her head. The Senguptas never raised the subject again.
                                                        ***********************************
Keya did not utter a word of protest when she was asked to move to Bangalore to help out her Moni didi. Keya’s happiest hours were at night and on weekends, when the two young women would watch their favourite Hindi television serials or Bollywood ‘Masala’ movies. This had been their lifelong habit and they still enjoyed giggling over the handsome male protagonists and gasping over the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot, just like when they had been little girls.
When Manasi occasionally went out to meet old college friends and office colleagues or left for short weekend trips, she felt a twinge of guilt for leaving behind Keya all alone in a strange city. Keya would not show any overt signs of disappointment but she would just go quiet for a few days. So Manasi tried to avoid such plans unless they coincided with her mother’s visits.
                                       ******************************************
It was the second day after ‘Bijoya Dashami’, the last day of the five day long Durga Pujas.
 After several months the Sengupta family were once again gathered under one roof.
Both Manasi and Mihir had taken two weeks leave from their work for the Puja holidays. This time, there was another reason behind the family get-together. Manasi’s father had decided to look seriously into the matter of arranging a matrimonial alliance for his daughter.
While the siblings and their father sat in the living room, Mrs. Sengupta supervised Keya and Raghu, their caretaker-cum-domestic help, as they rushed in and out of the kitchen bringing in tray after tray of sweets and savoury snacks. There were ‘singara’s, some special ‘Bijoya sandesh’ and hot and crispy ‘jalebi’s and ‘gulab jamun’s.
 Manasi had been instructed to sit still so her beautiful new chiffon sari with intricate zardozi embroidery, a Puja gift from her mother, would not get crumpled. She and Mihir were exchanging news and describing the various ‘pandals’ they had visited with their old friends over the Pujas. Mr. Sengupta sat with the newspapers, periodically checking his watch.
“You are so lucky that you don’t have to through all this, Mihir”, Manasi said ruefully. “You found the love of your life in Mumbai. I wish I had such a thriving social life as yours then I wouldn’t have to be subjected to such banal traditions.”
“You have only yourself to blame Baby sis. You should go out more, meet people, have fun, hop some clubs, try some pubs”, said Mihir, with a mischievous wink.
“That’s enough Mihir”, Mr. Sengupta’s grave voice was heard from behind the newspaper, “You need not make your sister a follower down your path of decadence. It’s a wonder how such a lovely girl like Dwitipriya agreed to marry you!”
Just then, their doorbell rang, cutting short the playful jibes of the bickering family. Mrs. Sengupta straightened her sari while Mr. Sengupta went to welcome the guests inside.
Mr and Mrs Banerjee, with their son Rohan, a budding entrepreneur of the hospitality industry, had come to meet Manasi and her family. Mr. Banerjee was an old colleague of Mr. Sengupta’s elder brother.
The Senguptas and the Bannerjees had a pleasant evening chatting about their families and their children. Rohan and Manasi talked a bit as well. Manasi found Rohan to be suitably well mannered and witty, and they even found that they shared some common interests like movies, exotic cuisine, extreme sports and travelling to remote places.
Two and a half hours later when the Senguptas bid goodbye to the Banerjees, the atmosphere in the house was palpably light and hopeful. Manasi and Rohan had exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch, while the parents had decided to let the young people to get to know each other at their own pace.
“Phew”, Mrs. Sengupta heaved a sigh of relief, “That seemed to have gone well.”
From the corner of her eye she noticed with a half smile that Manasi had already slipped away to her room. Her thumbs flew rapidly over the screen of her smartphone and she had a glowing expression on her face.
                                                     **************************************
Around 2.15 pm the next day, the Senguptas’ doorbell rang again. Mrs. Sengupta walked out of her bedroom to answer the bell. It was the holiday season so none of their friends would abandon their afternoon siesta to call at that hour.
Her brows were furrowed. She was having a bad day. Manasi was acting petulant and was in a foul mood for some reason. Mother and daughter had squabbled over trivial issues all morning.
Mrs. Sengupta asked Mihir if he knew what was bothering his sister.
Her son dismissed the matter. “Oh, stop fussing Ma! Moni said something about Rohan not replying her texts. She’ll come around.”                                                                                                                      
But his mother wasn’t pacified and in a distracted frame of mind she opened the door to find two policemen. Looking at the uniforms she could make out that one was a higher official, possibly an Inspector or Sub-inspector and the other was a Constable.
“Yes? May I help you?” asked Mrs. Sengupta, trying to maintain her composure as an inexplicable cold shiver ran down her spine.
“I am Inspector Raha. Is Mr. Raktim Sengupta home?”
“He... yes he’s home. But why? Is there a problem?” By now Mrs. Sengupta could hardly string two words together. A thousand questions were speeding through her mind and she felt a strange premonition that something really bad had happened.
“It’s just a routine enquiry Madam. We need to ask your husband some questions. We have come to take him down to the Lalbazar Police Station.” The Inspector’s impassive face tried to betray no emotions while he parroted the words which he had clearly uttered innumerable times before.
Mr. Sengupta had now come out from his bedroom, hearing the voices at the door. He gently moved his wife aside and said, “Yes, of course, I’ll come with you. But what is it about? What has happened?’
The Inspector’s stony reserve thawed a bit. Mr. Sengupta clearly seemed like a man who could take anything in his stride. “A strange thing has happened, Sir.” Inspector Raha said, in a tone mingled with bafflement and worry. “Three people have died an unnatural death, all around the same time, early today morning at their house near Desapriya Park. They were a husband and wife and their son by the name of Banerjee. We think they have been poisoned.”
                                                       **********************************
“Why is Moni didi late again today?”, Keya thought, clenching and unclenching her fingers as she sat by herself on the soft carpet in the small living-cum-dining room of Manasi’s apartment. “Doesn’t she realize that there are so many bad men out there preying on beautiful young girls like her?”
Keya continued muttering under her breath, “I have cooked her favourite today, ‘Palang Paneer’ and ‘Rumali roti’. Now I have to reheat it when she comes, or it will get cold. Maybe I will serve it cold to her. Why did she go to watch the new Hrithik Roshan movie yesterday with her colleagues? She was supposed to watch it with me.”
But the minute Manasi entered just before 11pm Keya’s anger evaporated. She rushed to help Moni didi take off her bag then waited patiently outside the bathroom while Manasi began to run her bath. Manasi poked out one hand through the edge of the door and handed over her clothes to Keya, who took them quickly with a practiced hand.
Keya caught a glimpse of an exposed shoulder and soft wet arms and a thrill of pleasure charged her skin breaking into ripples of goose bumps.
                                                      **********************************
6 years ago.
 Keya had saved a good chunk of money over the years from the ‘bakshish’ or tips she got from the family now and again. Two weeks before her marriage to that simpering fool Gour, she thrust a handful of notes in Srikanto.  Pocketing the money Srikanto went to his employer and readily spouted the rehearsed lies.
Srikanto probably thought Keya had become too accustomed to living with the wealthy Senguptas to have any desire to change her circumstances.
Little did he know...
                                              **************************************
A few days before Keya, Manasi, and Mrs. Sengupta were supposed to be travelling back to Kolkata to spend the Puja holiday, Keya was setting the table for dinner. She could make out that Manasi and Mrs. Sengupta were engaged in a mock verbal sparring match in Manasi’s room. Sometimes they lapsed in English; Moni didi always spoke English when she was angry, so Keya couldn’t follow the conversation entirely. But she gathered a gist of it. They were planning to start looking for a groom for Moni di.                              
Keya pursed her lips and tried to ignore the sensation of hot fury coursing through her body like warm blood. She clenched her teeth and exhaled deeply.
“When we return to Kolkata”, Keya decided, “I’ll ask Mashimoni to let me cook my special ‘singara’s for my new ‘Jamai Babu’-to-be and his family. They always say that no one can make homemade ‘singara’s like I do.”
 Slowly her almond shaped black eyes changed to two glistening pools of darkness.
                                              ***************************************
                                                    


Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mark

7.12 am. Yet a dull bulb flickers weakly on the shadowy doorway of a neighbour's balcony. Mosquitoes flit by gaily, indifferent to the angry swatting movements of irritable hands. A few leaves flutter hesitantly and then become still. Will it rain? I wonder.
As I stepped back inside the house after my usual morning jog, my eyes inevitably drifted towards the window sill at the far left corner of our oddly shaped sitting room. The mark was still there, clear as daylight to me, but apparently overlooked by everyone else in my house. I was thankful for that. If spotted, my zealous father would not rest till it was removed. It was now exactly 17 days old, as old as I am in years.
A few hours later, the rest of my family had just finished their breakfast and settled down to their respective Sunday morning activities, when my father let out an exclamation of surprise. My father, my elder sister Shruti and I were all seated in that same room; each of us reading different sections of the three newspapers that we subscribed to. The sitting room was flooded with the dazzling sun’s rays which had now broken out from their early morning cloudy bondage. Both Shruti and I looked up questioningly at our father.
“Trinaaa!” he called out, in the direction of the inside of our house, to where my mother was preparing lunch in the kitchen. My mother rushed to the room and asked, “What is it?”
“Remember that boy who came to our house last month? You know, the research scholar, who was pursuing post-doctoral studies in Colorado?” 
“I think so. The one whose parents live in Cornfield Road?”
“Yes”, my father thrust the newspaper in his hands towards my mother. “Look. Read this.”
“Do you mean Niladri Sengupta, Baba?” Shruti asked, getting up from her curled position on the sofa. She went to stand beside Ma to read the article.
“No, Shruti. His name was Niladri Chakraborty. Don’t you remember?” replied Baba.
I was stunned. “What happened to him, Baba?” I asked.
While my father gave me a gist of the newspaper article, the events of that day came flooding back to me.
                                  ***************************************************
My sister, my greatest friend and worst enemy; as the cliché goes, is seven years older than me. The apple of our parents’ eyes, this arch nemesis of mine, the brilliant and only engineer of our family had kick started her career more than a year back. A hard worker, intelligent and dedicated, she was already paving her path towards great future prospects. Thus, naturally, adhering to the usual social norms it was now time to launch the search for a “suitable” boy for her.
The glitz and glamour, excitement and frenzy, of the marriages of several of her childhood friends over the last year, had managed to break down her initial coy reserve. She had soon overcome her I-am-a-working-woman-and-don’t-need-a-man-to-complete-me viewpoint. Besides, she never passed up a chance to be the centre of attention and this was the limelight of a lifetime!
So began the hullabaloo. The information that Shruti is “ready” was leaked in the family circles on both our maternal and paternal sides. Amateur matchmakers, bored aunts and uncles started thumbing through their little black books and jotting down names. Even some close friends began suggesting names and mentally reviewing contacts. But for all the gossiping, joking and concoction of wild “what-if” situations, no concrete steps were taken or actual people introduced.
So Baba put in advertisements in the papers. He also created an online matrimonial profile. That was when pandemonium broke out. All day long calls were received and made. Conversations on phone sometimes trailed on for more than an hour. Even Shruti was not spared, much to my impish glee. After a hard day’s work, she had to receive calls or exchange emails. She even had to meet a few prospective grooms on weekends. But as luck would have had it, something always cropped up and none of the possible alliances culminated into anything worthwhile. Nevertheless, with commendable tenacity, my parents continued their search.
                                                                       *******************
Mr. and Mrs. Chakraborty, along with their 27-year-old son Niladri had visited our house on a chilly evening near the end of last month. Winter was running its last lap, but it was cold enough for light woolens, hot ‘singaras’ and strong coffee.
It was a Saturday so I wasn’t home that evening. Saturdays are when I walk four blocks to my Math tutor’s house about 15 minutes away from my house. My final exams were only two and a half months away. Classes were on in full swing.
Around 7.45pm, as I neared my house I could make out through the frosted glass of our front door that there were several people in our sitting room. Normally in the evenings the room remains empty, with the windows shut to keep away mosquitoes. But today the bright yellow light of the chandelier illuminated the laughing, talking forms of a handful of unfamiliar shapes. All the windows were thrown open. Through the two windows facing the road I could make out two distinct forms. One was that of my father, animatedly talking to someone sitting opposite him. Baba’s deep voice could be heard in snatches even from my position on the road, still about a minute away from my house.
Framed against the other window was a taller and lankier form. I could make out a sharp nose, conventional hair cut and thin rimless spectacles. He held an oversized coffee mug in his hand and sipped it occasionally, nodding politely at short intervals.
Immediately my pace slowed a bit. Being very reserved I generally avoid meeting new people, unless it is an absolute necessity. Furthermore, after a 3 hour long class of grueling mathematical problems and baffling concepts, I just did not have the energy to engage in the pointless small talk which I knew could not be avoided. Nevertheless, I had to enter my house. So clearing my throat, smoothing my hair and straightening my shirt I pushed open our front gate. Hearing the creaking metallic sound the bespectacled boy looked out of the window. Everyone else in the room, deep in conversation, had still not noticed my arrival. The boy smiled at me in a good-natured friendly way, as if he knew exactly who I was. The wide toothy smile completely threw me off, the blood rushed to my face. In utter confusion I dropped my gaze, strode on quickly and rang the doorbell. My mother opened the door, introduced me to the guests as “Our younger daughter, Sneha”. I muttered a “Good evening”, and asking for permission to put away my backpack and freshen up, I rushed out of the room without meeting the boy’s gaze again.
A few minutes later I was called back again. Despite my pleas to my mother to spare me the social niceties that I so abhor I was marched back into our sitting room. I sat down beside Shruti on a low wicker chair. The boy, Niladri, as I learnt later, was seated diagonally opposite me. I kept sneaking glances at him every time I felt that he would be looking in another direction. Once again we made eye contact and again he shot me a kind elder-brotherly smile.  After that I firmly kept my gaze averted and instead focused on the coffee mug in his hand. Finding the table too far out of his reach he had kept the mug on the window sill close by. I saw a deep brown coffee ring steadily deepening in form on the mosaic finish granite of the window sill. I remember thinking to myself that my extremely particular father would be furious. He always insisted that we use coasters and table mats. But on second thoughts I realized that being a guest Niladri would be spared our father’s wrath.
                                    ************************************************
The next morning I overheard my parents and sister discussing their latest choice. Despite the immense amount of workload that I had to attend to, I couldn’t help eavesdropping. I gathered that although they had liked Niladri, my sister was reluctant to move to Colorado anytime soon. She enjoyed working and she could foresee great things in her future in the organization she currently worked in. I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or disappointed.
Over the next few days I found my thoughts drifting towards that boyish smile once in a while. I had also sneaked open his Facebook profile a few times, using my secret incognito profile; while pretending to be researching online. Looking at pictures of Niladri from various moments of his life brought me an inexplicable joy. I never dared to breathe a word of this to my sister of course, not even my closest friends.
                                      ************************************************
The same smile that had become imprinted in my mind lay in front of me in a badly printed black and white snapshot in today’s newspaper. “7 Students Killed and 19 Injured in Campus Shooting. 1 Indian Dead”, the stark title of the report announced in grim inky fonts.
The report was a topic of discussion all day. Nothing can be more shocking than the news of a premature death. By evening the news was exhausted. My sister was on the phone with her latest possible beau. We were all hopeful that this one would work out; she had been speaking to him for more than a week.
The steel coloured clouds I had spotted in the morning finally carried out its threat around 6 o’clock in the evening. A short spell of unpleasant rain made everything dank and wet. Shruti and Ma wrapped themselves with the light shawls that they had stowed away nearby, thinking that winter was retreating. As is my custom, I stepped out into the narrow verandah attached to our front entrance, to watch the raindrops falling from the edges of leaves. A few hot drops also travelled down my cheeks. As I turned back and reentered my house I looked at the window sill. The coffee ring mark was completely gone.
                                                         --------------------------------

Saturday, February 7, 2015

An Epitaph

"Here lies a heart which stopped beating/
When it never learnt to skip a beat./
Here lie the cold fingers which were never encircled/
In the links of other fingers, protective and strong./
Here lies the eyes which never cast down in confused happiness/
When another pair gazed into them steady and deep./
Here lie the cheeks which never blushed under the touch of loving lips/
Only gathered the years of flowing teardrops, of shattered hopes and broken reveries./
Now heart and eyes and fingers and cheeks,/
The stars have taken mercy on you./
Now foolish human blood and bones are surrendering to dust/
So that your weak soul, it may rest in peace."