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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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