Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The black bathroom

Mr Rai walked fast, hoping to avoid anybody he knew. It was a lot to ask for since he had walked down these streets every day for the last two decades, but he hoped that if he could find a taxi in front of the sweetshop then he could leave the area without having to answer any awkward questions.

‘There were no guarantees that the taxi would actually agree to go, of course,’ he reflected. Kolkata taxis were and continue to be notorious for idling down the road and tampering with the meter. They were not quite known for their courtesy or willingness to actually ferry people from one place to another.

As perhaps the exception that proved the rule, the taxi that was waiting in front of the sweetshop not only agreed to take Mr Rai to Hindustan Park but also appeared to have a meter that worked correctly. The driver was an old Sikh, a dying breed in these days of Bihari cabbies, and wished Mr Rai a happy Independence Day. Further conversation brought out that he came from a village that sent every second son to the army – not uncommon in the region – and that as the third brother he had come to Calcutta forty-eight years ago to seek his fortune.

They were engaged in a discussion on the merits of the sweetshops in Bhowanipore when the cab drew up in front of the swanky new apartment block. Mr Rai ended the conversation and with his gentle smile, tipped the driver an additional twenty rupees. Mrs Rai would have been horrified – taxi rates were already exorbitant – but Mr Rai was a man in love, eager to spread the happiness he felt himself.

He savoured the short walk into the building, nodded at the security guard as the man rose from his chair to intercept him and said, ‘Tapati Bose’ with a hitherto unsuspected coincidence. Indeed, his neighbours would have been surprised to see quiet Mr Rai so confidently affable, so clearly not in need of a rescuing word, striding into these admittedly posh surroundings.

He had memorised the flat number so he repeated it to the lift operator. As the newly installed box rose swiftly in the air the last of his doubts seemed to fall away. After all, it wasn’t as though he were doing something precisely wrong. Tapati had requested them to keep an eye on her flat while she was out of the country. It was only to be expected that he would drop in to check on the doors and windows, the taps and wiring. One never knew with unused flats. Look at what happened when the young couple on the third floor had gone to visit the young man’s mother in Bombay last summer. They were away only 10 days but came back to find a pigeon dead in their bathroom, partly eaten by ants. The smell was staggering and they had to have the whole third floor disinfected.

One didn’t expect pigeons in Tapati’s flat, of course. And she had arranged for her maid to come in once a week and clean the place thoroughly. Possibly it wasn’t necessary to visit the flat this very day. In fact, Mrs Rai had visited it only last Friday, and commented on the cost of the living room curtains too.

Mr Rai pushed away these niggling thoughts firmly and concentrated on what he was going for. The lift doors opened and he stepped out. For a moment he couldn’t remember whether to turn right or left, but then the potted palm in front of Tapati’s flat attracted his attention.

The key turned smoothly in the lock. Mr Rai stepped in, took his shoes off for he was fastidious in such matters, and started to methodically test all the electric switches. Conscientiously he checked every switch in the house, all the windows, and the kitchen sink for cockroaches. Then, his conscience as clear as it would ever be, he finally, hesitatingly, walked into the guest room. Took off his shirt, feeling rather decadent. He couldn’t remember ever before taking his clothes off outside the privacy of a bathroom.

In fact, so uncomfortable did he feel standing shirtless in the guest room that he quickly walked into the alcove, turned on the bathroom lights and stepped into the cool welcome of the black tiles.

Never had such a bathroom come Mr Rai’s way before. Gleaming black tiles from floor to ceiling, a gold trim at shoulder level and matching black commode. Even the hygiene shower had a black handle. The white and black shower curtain added to the glamour while the black and gold taps were sorely tempting. The matte black floor tiles were cool under the soles of his feet as he removed the rest of his clothes. There was even a fluffy white towel with a gold stripe hanging on the rail.

Mr Rai stepped into the shower, pulled the curtain closed, turned on the taps and gave himself up to the sensuality of the bathroom.

Note: This episode is for Maitra, with love and much laughter for the memories.