Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Independence Day

The flag hoisting was scheduled for 8 o’ clock. However the ‘pole’ (a long stick, mysteriously found on the roof last June) had warped with the rains this summer and the flag took a good twenty minutes to actually reach the top. Eventually, though, it went up and all the residents of 63/1/B/4, Lake Gardens, dutifully sang ‘Sare Jahan Se Achchha’ as well as ‘Jana Gana Mana’. Nandita and Rajib, that young couple from the third floor, sang a surprisingly moving version of ‘Ay mere pyaare watan’ from Kabuliwala. Mr Rai gave a little speech afterwards, speaking of how important it was to preserve our hard-won independence and sovereignity.

‘Who would suspect that quiet Mr Rai had such a lovely, deep voice?’ thought Mrs Singha. ‘Of course, it is difficult to know what he does or does not have, he is such a quiet man, never one to speak about himself. Indeed, if Rimidi didn’t talk about him one might almost forget he existed.’

‘I wonder why he never sings at home any more,’ thought Mrs Rai, ‘Rimidi’ to a select few. ‘It has been so long since we went to any of the Rabindrasangeet evenings at Tapati’s house… Now when did Tapati say she would be returning to India? It is not possible to keep track of people these days. All these old people running around the world just to meet sons and daughters. To think that my mother would not even leave the house in Keshtonagar, not even to go to the doctor. Mind you, you could still call the doctor over, in those parts. Here in Calcutta it doesn’t matter how ill you are, if you wait for the doctor to visit you will get better waiting…’

Mrs Singha’s two daughters were dressed in salwar-kameezes carefully coordinated for the occasion by her older daughter Meenakshi. In keeping with the latest celebrity trend of showing patriotism by 'colour-blocking' the national colours, she had badgered the dhobi into pressing their white chikan salwars and kameezes. She wore large green wooden bangles and navy blue hoops in her ears while the joyful bandhni work of her dupatta provided the saffron touch. Her younger sister Sona’s outfit was less glamorous, the tricolour touch being provided by saffron-white-green bangles hastily bought at Raju’s shop the previous evening. The sisters made a pretty pair and their father stood protectively beside them as they ran around serving sandesh and Limca on trays around the terrace.

Aniruddha from three houses down had joined the building residents, as had his sisters Paromita and Sinjini. He looked shyly at the Singha girls but dared not speak to Meenakshi as she handed him a fizzing glass of Limca. His sisters had found a piece of paper with ‘Dear Meenakshi’ written on the top last month and were even now looking for reasons to tease him. After all, it was not every day that their serious older brother showed an interest in girls, and him wanting to write to pretty, vivacious Minididi seemed rather ridiculous. Aniruddha glared at his sisters, desperately hoping that their sly grins would not expand into loud teasing and hastily went off to stand beside Mr Mookerjee.

At last the ceremony was over. Mrs Rai, Mrs Singha and Nandita put away the serving trays and the menfolk gathered up the litter. Sona, Paromita and Sinjini sucked on the obligatory toffees. Mr Mookerjee started his slow descent down the stairs, with Aniruddha to help him. In the melee of oranges and greens and sandesh crumbs and disposable plastic tumblers flying away in the light breeze, nobody noticed Mr Rai quietly leave. They watched the little Indian flag fly freely high up on the fourth floor and then noisily made their way down.