by Paromita Sen Mukherjee
Oindreela Banerjee got up from her Egyptian cotton covered bed in her new home in this beautiful corner of the world, Perth, Western Australia, to start a new day. But throughout the day, a fond memory came revisiting,
“I, Oindreela Banerjee, make this pinky promise to love and protect my best friend Tikli Basu from all the devils of the world, now and forever,” a confident 10-year-old Reela, (as she was fondly called) had said. “Now it’s your turn, Tikli”.
“Ok, but why do we have to make such promises and make this such a pompous affair,” said a reluctant Tikli, who was always giving in to Reela’s ever larger than life demands.
“We are best friends always and nobody can take it away from us, right?”
“So why such formal ceremonies, I don’t understand. Reela, you are such a drama queen.” Tikli meekly protested and yet performed the ritual.
Once all done, Reela gave Tikli an affectionate look, “It is because when a stupid boy steals your heart and takes you away, it is this promise that will keep you from forgetting me, you silly nut-head,” she teased. They burst into giggles and sweet nothings on a sultry summer afternoon of an ordinary day in Kolkata on the terrace of Reela’s regal ancestral home, which she visited with Tikli sporadically. Witnessing this secret ritual, the white, cotton-like clouds floated with sheer joy holding the moment for eternity.
Tikli and Reela danced to the tune of the same song, their friendship stood the test of time and they became more like siblings. They shared most of their feelings and emotions. A beautiful journey to be told and passed onto, perhaps, their next generations, or so they believed.
Many decades back in Kolkata, Reela’s great grandfather Sri Rakhaldas Banerjee was an eighth grade drop out. Due to the early demise of his own father, he had to take over the family’s iron ore business. The business gradually climbed new heights previously unseen. Unfortunately, in this journey to succeed, he gave up his most ardent dream of learning to read, write and speak English. Hence the inspiration to name his own son Madhusudhan, after the iconic namesake and thus fulfil his father’s desire of joining the elite league of English-educated bhadralok (gentleman), known for their wealth and erudition.
As destiny would have it, Madhusudhan joined the family business that continued to prosper. The family history proceeded in a traditional monochrome pattern until Madhusdhan’s son Adinath welcomed a daughter to their large joint family, a much-awaited break after three consecutive generations of male-only heirs to the Banerjee lineage.
Oindreela Banerjee was born into the illustrious Barujje (a colloquial version of the surname) family from North Kolkata amidst blowing of the shonkho, the tradition conch shell, and ulu dhoni, ululations by the women of the household to herald the auspicious occasion and honour the birth of a girl child. The Banerjees were now a happy lot, accepting and embracing this new addition to their traditional joint family.
Adinath was particularly committed to fulfilling his grandfather Rakhal Banerjee’s wishes and, hence, as Reela grew up, he took the difficult decision of leaving his ancestral home in North Kolkata, with its “narrow alleyways and even narrower mindsets.”, to a much more socio culturally sophisticated ambiance in Ballygunge, South Kolkata. It was much to the dislike of his septuagenarian mother who refused to part with her beloved granddaughter.
Reela was five years old when she sang the all-time favourite Robindra sangeet Megher Kole Rod Hesheche (sun plays with the cloud) at a concert organised by her school. While Reela was immersed in her rendition, another little girl performed her own impromptu dance much to her parents’ embarrassment. Her name was Tikli.
At eighteen, Reela had blossomed into a fine woman with big dark eyes set in a radiant and beautiful olive skin. The deepest of deep black wavy hair, uncaringly let loose, bounced like a cascade around her shoulders to the pronounced curve of her hips.
Reela had become her father’s daughter, fulfilling his every wish to be educated. She was pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University. She was also training in classical music. Her voice gave her an opportunity to perform at various events including the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata in winter.
After finishing university today, Reela felt particularly annoyed as Tikli had again failed to turn up and missed the second day of classes. As common in the month of May in Kolkata, Reela felt clammy and sweaty and worst of all she hated the stink that crowds carry around in this weather. Battling the merciless sun and devilish high humidity, Reela was tempted to visit Tikli at her home, a five-minute walk from the university. Many a times they had walked back to Tikli’s place together. But Reela had her musical training in the evening so she decided against visiting Tikli.
However, something else bothered Reela about Tikli’s home. Unable to explain, she felt uncomfortable bringing it up with Tikli. Having known her for years, Reela found it very interesting that Tikli hailed from a joint family with grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins all living under the same roof. But recently, Reela had sensed that she didn’t seem happy. Tikli seemed always preoccupied and irritable. As if laughter had left her for good.
Reela herself felt apprehensive about living in a home without her own room, without her own privacy. Tikli never seemed to have any space for herself! These days every time she met Tikli, there was this nagging and unsettling feeling of something not being right with Tikli.
The other day when Tikli looked pale and tired, Reela had asked her what was bothering her and Tikli had replied, “Nothing, just the usual chaos at home between my uncles, parents, as was common in joint family cohabitants. No peace.” Reela believed her and let it go.
The following week, Reela caught up with Shambit and his rock band that Reela had joined secretly without her father’s knowledge. While Shambit kept explaining about the band and its history, Reela was preoccupied by Tikli’s absence.
“We are a rock band. Bengali Rock first originated in Kolkata in 1975 when the first band Moheener Ghoraguli was formed,” continued Shambit. As he talked about his inspirations from Bob Dylan, Baul and other Bengal folk music, Reela did not hear a thing.
She desperately looked forward to talking to Tikli who had not turned up at the university that day again. Reela decided to pay her a visit the next day.
Opening the door to Reela, Tikli said, “Come, I was expecting you”.
“What happened to you, why are you missing your classes?”
“Nothing much, I am just a bit under the weather, I will go tomorrow.”
Realising Tikli was unwell, Reela felt it was best to let her rest. Also, there was some commotion in the neighbouring room and Reela felt the situation was not conducive to a conversation. She expedited her departure to attend her music lessons.
During her music lesson, her guruji (teacher) introduced Reela to Aman Ali Rahman. “Remember I told you about this poet. Aman is a budding Shayar (lyricist) who will soon take the poetry world by storm, mark my words,” said guruji.
Reela nodded and said hello. Aman Ali smiled. Reela had indeed read his poetry and found them to be of huge merit. At the time, Reela was consumed by thoughts of Tikli. A vague uneasiness bothered her, though she was unable to put a finger on the cause. Something was wrong with Tikli. Reela just could not quite fathom it.
But later, as she remembered Aman’s smile that would put a thousand stars to shame, she realised she was in love with Aman Ali Rahman.
On her way back, for the first time in her life, her memory completely consumed by someone, she forgot about everything else: Tikli, her best friend, her overpowering father and her Bengali Rock band alpha male Shambit.
Months went by, summer paved the way for the monsoons with the incessant rains turning stifling surrounds into bearable days and nights. October brought joy in a flurry of festivals and religious events.
But for Reela it was the best month of the year as it marked the date of her birthday. This year Reela found a special gift from a special person in her life. Aman Ali had made her a beautiful card with the picture of Arjun and Shubhadra (from the Mahabharat) and the poem, sonnet 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, How will I love thee!
Reela put the card in a red box along with all her treasures from Aman.
While waiting for Tikli, Reela was getting impatient. Tikli had not turned up yet, even though she was supposed to spend the night with Reela on her birthday. Reela did not want to spoil her day with any ill feelings and looked forward to the sumptuous meal that her mother would have cooked. Her grandmother had also sent her gifts and food that she liked.
During dinner, her father said in a decisive voice, “Reela, now that you are nineteen years old, we are looking for a suitable marriage alliance for you. We have found a particularly good match. The boy is a doctor and graduated from the University of Western Australia. He is practising as a GP in Albany, a rural coastal town south of Perth. We want you to know that by the time you finish your degree we will finalise the date of your marriage”. Reela’s mother nodded in approval.
Reela could feel her stomach churning and nausea swelled up inside. Reela looked at her father in disbelief and utter bewilderment. This birthday did not turn out as she had hoped. She felt suffocated. She was now very annoyed with Tikli. “Where is she, when I need her the most,” Reela cried out in frustration.
Shambit was standing at the tea stall and called Reela to give the news about the Durgapur music show. For Reela it was another worry to deal with.
Reela was feeling overwhelmed with a marriage proposal, an overnight concert in Durgapur and Tikli’s no-show. Her desperation grew stronger. She needed to speak to Tikli. Determined not to put up with any useless excuses, Reela made Tikli meet up with her at Prema Villas at Rash Behari Avenue for Dosa, a favourite of Tikli’s. But alas, even comfort food did not alleviate the circumstances that Reela wanted to share. After pouring out all her worries to Tikli, she realised, Tikli wanted to say something.
Tikli smiled and said, “Another day.”
Reela had noticed a strange mark on Tikli’s neck, she wondered if it was a bruise and reminded herself to ask Tikli next time for sure.
A few weeks later, Reela knocked on the door at Tikli’s house. It was late at night. It was the only night she finished university at 9pm. Tikli’s youngest uncle’s friend Samir opened the door and Reela asked, “where is Tikli?”
She had seen him in her house many times. Being a joint family, people were regularly arriving and departing the property. Reela did not wait for an answer and walked in to Tikli’s room. Tikli wasn’t wearing any makeup, no eyeliner or lipstick. Reela realised that Tikli had dark circles under her eyes and she had lost quite a bit of weight.
“Are you sick, do you have any serious illness?”, Reela blurted out.
Tikli beamed her signature cute smile and said, ‘No, I am fine. Just under the weather. Do you remember, Reela, how we used to sing this song ‘Ei chotto paye cholte cholte thik pouche jabo, shei chaander pahar dekhte pabo. (travelling with tiny, tiny feet, we shall definitely reach our destination, to the moon and the mountains …)? You would correct me and say, “no we will fly very high with our little wings!” Reela, what if I fly away forever with my little wings?” said Tikli.
Reela scolded her, “Have you forgotten your promise? You are not going anywhere without me, remember.’ Reela gave Tikli a hug and knew that Tikli would only talk when she was ready. While letting her go, Reela noticed another bruise mark on Tikli’s back and was about to ask her what it was when Tikli’s uncle and his friend walked into the room.
“Hello Reela, how are you?” asked Tikli’s uncle.
Reela brushed off with a simple “I am well” and left the place. A storm brewed inside Reela, she knew for sure now that Tikli was in trouble.
Later that night, Reela brought her parents together and told them the truth about Shambit and his rock band. An eerie silence followed.
Reela’s father said, “You will tell Shambit tomorrow that you will never sing with them ever again. I did not leave my ancestral joint family home for you to indulge in such uncultured, and unintellectual acts.”
Reela protested, “But Baba, you should listen to those songs.”
Her father walked out of the room and her mother blamed her father for having given Reela so much freedom. The room reeled around Reela. She stumbled upon the chair before realising that the world around her was falling apart and she had not even raised the topic of Aman Ali yet.
Reela stayed awake all night, tossing and turning. She desperately needed to deliberate these issues with Tikli.
The next day at university canteen, sitting with two cups of tea and two egg rolls, Reela was reflecting on her ongoing problems, yet kept her thoughts to herself. Tikli took a deep breath and started to speak. “You remember Samir kaku (uncle)? He is my uncle’s best friend and almost grew up at our place”.
To this Reela nodded and said, “Of course, I saw him the other day at your place, you used to tell me about him, that he is a wonderful singer, and how he teaches you to make your dance moves more beautiful, how he understands you. But Tikli that was quite some time back when we were in school. You have not talked about him lately at all”.
To Reela’s utter shock and dismay, Tikli broke down in tears unable to say anything. Reela was confused and did not understand what to do. All she did was put her arms around Tikli and console her, still oblivious to what was happening.
A few moments passed and when Reela felt that Tikli was calmer and trying to compose herself, she let go of her and asked her, “Now you tell me what exactly has happened?”
Tikli was about to open her mouth when a hand dropped on Reela’s shoulder and when she looked back, a chill ran through her spine as she saw her father standing there.
Adinath had come to pick up Reela. In the car, he said, “Shambit had come looking for you. I could not resist asking him if there was anything amorous between the two of you. To this he said that you did not give him that chance. However, he was eager to add about a certain guy in your life, Aman Ali Rahman who you knew through your guruji. I called your guruji to ask for his phone number. But before that I searched your room. I found your red box full of treasures. I decided to visit Aman Ali. He is leaving for Bangalore tonight, as you are perhaps aware, but what you do not know is that he is not going to be back anytime soon. I have told him that you come from a Bengali Brahmin family. What on earth was he doing with my daughter, being a Muslim?”
Adinath had spoken continuously for five minutes almost without a pause. Reela could not even see her father sitting next to her as a blanket of salty liquid covered her eyes that prevented her from even imagining Aman, his smiles, his touches, his innocent demands, his beautiful poetry, his ever so determined positivity. Reela could see nothing and the evening became darker.
The exams were close and Reela wanted to disappear from the world of worries. She hoped to see Tikli in the evening when she bid a temporary goodbye to her guruji to take a break from her music and finish her exams. As Reela waited for Tikli at the bus stand, a restless feeling clouded her mind. She had not seen Tikli after that day and their conversation remained unfinished. Reela felt a deep discomfort pressing on her and an invisible force dragging her to Tikli. In an impulse Reela left the bus stand and walked towards Tikli’s house.
When she approached the house, she saw a big crowd, people gathered in numbers in front of the door which was completely wide open. As Reela entered through the door a few policemen stopped her from going any further suggesting the “body” was still there. The last thing Reela remembered before losing her consciousness was Tikli’s legs swinging in the air like a pair of pendulums.
Winter nights in Perth, Western Australia, are not usually quiet. In a city closer to Singapore than Sydney, Reela was yet to acclimatise as a newlywed in this isolated part of the world. Even as she struggled to cope with the unwelcoming coldness of the nights, the unforgiving storms left her nervous and anxious.
Tonight was no different. Mother nature seemed to have unleashed all her fury. The wind howled and the sky threatened to come crashing down and obliterate everything that dared to stand in its path.
“It’s only a storm.” Reela tried to reassure herself. But quickly realised it was not the tornado raging outside that was bothering her. It was the tempest within. Her temples seemed to be throbbing in rhythm to the pounding of her heart.
Suddenly, she heard a knock. It grew louder and louder, drowning out the sound of the storm outside. She could feel a presence in the room. There was something or someone other than her and her husband Avi. Shadows danced on the walls of her bedroom as the enveloping blackness of the night contended with the sudden blinding flashes of lightning. As darkness battled light, Reela caught sight of a figure at her window. It was desperately seeking a way out. Finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, Reela bursts out, “Tikli, is that you?”
As the morning sun broke in through the curtains, Tikli disappeared.
Paromita Sen-Mukherjee, Cultural Ambassador, WA, lives in Perth with her family far away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkata and London. She loves writing. After finishing her post graduate degree in Mass Communication, she joined the Economic Times – the national financial daily in India. She also did writing in a few other magazines but eventually she ventured into her first entrepreneurial endeavour. She dreamed to continue her journey as a cultural ambassador to amalgamate her Indian and Bengali values into the wider section of the Australian community through performances, writing, and communications in fashion, food and sports. With persistence, determination, fierceness, she wants to create a proud platform connecting Bengalis to next generations with Australia and broader multicultural society.