I glance at the wristwatch. The bus will leave in a minute. If I miss it, I’ll have to wait for another fifteen minutes which would mean missing the first class. I see the blue and yellow vehicle standing. The conductor gestures to me, assuring the bus won’t leave.
When I hop on the bus, the girl with the green file smiles at me. She’s sitting where she sits every day — on the aisle seat of the third row. When I ask her why she never occupies the window seat, she simply smiles.
“I keep it for you.”
I feel something in my heart but I can’t tell what. The closest feeling I have is to a child offering a lollipop when that’s all they have. The girl with the green file half-turns to her left to let me in.
“Any interviews today?” I ask.
“Nah, just submitting CVs,” she replies. I nod.
The girl with the office i-card climbs onto the bus. She adjusts her Bluetooth earphones and sits on the window seat of the first row. She gives the conductor a crisp 100 rupee note for tickets. The girl with the green file and I stare at her. We have never given a 100 rupee note to the conductor.
I get off the bus. Sapatarshi waits for me at the gate. I hurry across the road to him.
“Sorry, the driver is . . .” He turns around before I finish my sentence.
We enter college, where we’d met three years ago. I pretend to glance at the noticeboard. What I really see is the stubble on Saptarshi’s face. The rimless glasses he wears. I want to hold his hands. Entwine my fingers with his. A girl passes us by. Saptarshi mutters something under his breath, calling the girl shameless.
“Why shameless?” I ask.
“She’s wearing a sleeveless top.”
I cannot figure out how a sleeveless top translates to being shameless.
“It’s vulgar.” Saptarshi points to his white shirt. “A girl’s reputation is like a white shirt. You can spot a stain from the other corner of the room.”
I no longer feel an urge to hold his hand. While we’re on the stairs, my phone rings. It’s Ma.
“Get home by 4. Someone is coming to see you.”
“Who?” I stop on the landing.
“The groom’s side, who else?”
I cut the call and tell Saptarshi. He rolls his eyes.
I put the tray with two cups of tea on the table. Ma places the bone china plates with samosas and Kaju barfis beside the tray. I had last seen the plates six months ago when a loan shark had arrived unannounced to recover his money.
The man smiles. Scratches his bald head. Then leans over to pick a samosa even before I sit down.
“Marriages are a matter of destiny,” he says with a mouth full of samosas. The plastic chair creaks under his weight as he shifts on his seat. Baba nods.
“We’re modern people,” says the woman, “we’ll allow her to wear jeans. But she cannot work.”
“I want to work,” I say before I can stop myself. Baba clenches his jaw. Ma’s face turns crimson. The woman glares at me.
“Beta, our son works at an MNC. He’s out for 9 hours. Even when he comes home, his face is buried in the laptop. If you work too, who will take care of the house?” the man explains.
“Do you have her Kundali?” the man asks.
“Make one,” the woman orders.
They leave soon after that. The man says they will contact us. They never do.
This is the first time I’ve come to Saptarshi’s flat. Our classes were suspended to mourn a retired professor’s death. Saptarshi asked me to come with him and I agreed. I watch him as he presses the button to call the lift. He taps his feet on the floor. The sound of the lift door opening breaks my trance.
“Your parents?” I ask after we enter the lift.
“They’re both at work,” he replies. I understand what’s going to happen in the next hour. My ears turn hot. I lower my head and bite my lips.
When we arrive at his flat, he shuts the door, turns around, and kisses me. I smell cigarettes masked with mint. I like mint. Not the cigarette. He bites my lower lip. We move to the sofa. He removes my salwar. Touches the mole over my breast. A feather surrenders to the air.
“I love your mole.” He unhooks my bra and pauses.
“Your boobs are too small,” he says. The feather drops on the cold ground.
“I . . . I have moles on my thighs too.”
He smiles and grazes my nipples. I keep staring at the feather.
I rest my head against the window and glance at the sky. It has rained the whole day. Outside the window, a frog jumps in a puddle amidst the grass. The house behind ours is dark. Masi’s name flashes on the phone.
“Is your Ma there?” Masi asks when I answer the phone. I hand over the phone to Ma. Her face glows with each passing second.
“Two flats? That’s great,” Ma says. I hear footsteps and turn around. Baba stands on the doorframe. Ma signals him to hasten. He strides across the room, drags a chair, and sits close to Ma. He leans forward to decipher what Masi is saying.
“We will send the photograph. Details too.” Ma hangs up the phone. She glances over her shoulder. “Send 2-3 good photographs of yours to Masi.”
“Masi has found the perfect guy for you,” she replies. She turns to Baba who waits eagerly to hear about the perfect guy. The perfect guy works in a bank. Parents are retired government employees. They have two flats, both in South Kolkata.
“How do you know he’s ‘perfect’?” I ask.
Baba widens his eyes as if I asked whether the sun goes around the earth.
“He has two flats,” he says.
I try to find the moon in the sky. I cannot find it.
The girl with the green file smiles today. She waves at me as I climb onto the bus. She adjusts the blue dupatta over her white salwar. Brushes off a strand of hair from over her eyes. I plop on my seat.
“You seem happy. Is it a job?” I ask.
“Not yet. I’ll treat you to papri chaat the day it happens.” She never stops smiling. “I received the tuition fees from my students today.”
The bus conductor balances his way to our seats and asks for the ticket. The girl with the green file hands him a hundred rupee note. Not as crisp as the girl with the office i-card gives but it’s still a hundred rupee note. Our eyes meet and we grin.
I’m on another bus. This one isn’t heading towards my home. I’m with my college friends, headed to a park on the other end of town. The park is a hangout spot for couples. They do more than just “hanging out” there. Yet none of us are going with our partners.
“Missing your boyfriend?” Bipasha elbows me. I smile and say no.
When the bus arrives at the spot, I’m the last one to get down. I fear what Saptarshi will say if he finds out I’m here. He hates these parks. But it’s too late to think about it.
A brick road runs through the middle of the park. We stroll on the path for the first couple of minutes but then step onto the grass. We plop ourselves on a bench. The sun sparkles on the river beside the park. On the boundary wall to our left, a boy has pinned a girl, kissing her neck furiously.
“He’s going to eat her alive.” Bipasha giggles. The boy turns his face. “Isn’t that —”
I don’t reply. I simply stare at the breasts of the girl that are twice the size of mine.
I don’t answer Saptarshi’s texts. In the beginning, his texts were apologetic. Soon the tone changed to one of accusation. He blames me for insulting his feelings. He accuses me of humiliating him in front of our friends. I read the messages and tears trickled down my cheek. He starts calling. I don’t receive his calls. I don’t receive anyone’s calls. Baba asks me what has happened. Ma prepares my favourite sorshe ilish — ilish fish in a mustard paste. It tastes like nothing as if a fever has stripped away my sense of taste. All I do is rest my head against the window and stare at the sky.
I skip college for a week. When I get on the bus again, the girl with the green file waves at me but our eyes don’t meet. I walk across with my head lowered and drop myself on the seat. We stay silent. Then she gently places her hand over mine. Perhaps that was all I needed. I bury my head on her bosom and weep. I feel people staring at me but I don’t care. I weep till I cannot breathe.
The perfect guy Masi has found for me sits across the table. He runs his hand through his hair every couple of minutes. He blabbers on about his life. The colleagues in his bank. The new iPhone he has bought. The businessman Gary who he adores.
I nod every five minutes. I’m more interested, however, in the Satyajit Ray portrait hung on the wall behind the perfect guy. In the portrait, the director looks through a camera. Did he ever see girls like me through his lens? What did he think of us?
Suddenly, the perfect guy leans forward.
“Can we go somewhere else? I want to know you.”
“Tell me what you want to know. I’m here to answer,” I reply.
“What answers can you give to formal questions? What I want to know is much deeper. If we moved past the questions, if we shed your clothes, who would you be?”
“Only a pair of small breasts.”
I push the chair back and stride out of the café.
When I reach home, Ma yells at me. The perfect guy told Masi how rude I was. Masi called Ma and reproached her for not teaching me any manners. I reiterate the meeting to Ma. She hugs me tight.
Prospective grooms scrutinize me every day. They ask about my height. They want me to sing. They want me to leave my studies. They want me to never work in my life. I listen to what they say and I wonder. I wonder if they are measuring my breasts. Do they find them too small? Why doesn’t anyone say anything about them? I ponder whether they know about the mole on my cleavage. Or the ones on my thighs. Do they like moles?
The girl with the green file wipes the tears off her cheeks. She sniffs. I fidget on the seat trying to decide what to do.
“Why are you crying?”
The girl says her family cannot find suitors for her. Yesterday, a potential groom demanded 12 lakhs, an amount the girl’s family has never seen in their lives. Every other suitor says she’s too old for marriage.
“What’s your age?” She asks me after she stops crying.
“Then you still have time,” she says. Her tone sounds like she’s consoling herself.
“To do what?”
“To get a job. To marry. To have children.”
“So do you,” I reply.
“No. Women come with expiry dates. Cross 30 and it’s all over for you.”
“You can still have a job,” I say in a voice that’s barely audible. My words sting my ears. Did I just acknowledge she can never do those other things?
She manages a smile.
“People won’t marry me because I’m too old. Companies won’t give me jobs because they think I’ll marry and get pregnant and leave the job within a year. Is that all about us ― marriages and kids?”
My eyes turn to the window seat of the first row. The girl with the office i-card taps her forefinger on her thighs. The Bluetooth earphones plugged into her ears. She is wearing a white shirt today. I look long and hard but cannot find a single stain on that shirt. Does she come with an expiry date too? The girl with the green file gets off her seat ten minutes later.
“See you tomorrow,” she says.
She gets off the bus and vanishes inside an alley before the bus takes a turn. My phone buzzes. A text from Ma.
Come home by 2. Masi sending another boy.
I let the phone slip into my bag.
Sayanta is the author of Land of the Lonely and The Night When the Books Float. His short stories have appeared in The Blahcksheep, Remington Review, Verse of Silence, and The Kolkata Review, among others. When not writing, he tries to speak cat language or imagines himself as the protagonist of the last movie/series he watched. He’s currently working on his new novel.