Prasenjit Maiti
Salad Days: A Tale of Dispassion

I happened to realize during the utmost 29th year of my life that while I was busy planning and doing absolutely nothing I was also growing old. So I rushed to Roopsa and asked her about my age and she just smiled. There was a kind of silence about her laughter that made me uneasy and I left her place to blunder into the night.

I was newspapering in Calcutta about that time and my boss started calling me all sorts of names as I managed to land in the office a couple of hours later. I never did actually react but went to my desk instead. There was a pile of copies to be subbed. I checked the fax and there were so many other stories waiting for my attention, a girl attacked by the big bad wolf somewhere and an old man lost in a crowd.

The next day I decided that my affairs could not possibly be allowed to go on like this. Something had to be done to salvage my life and whatever remained of it. So I stopped the first man on the streets and took him out for a cup of tea somewhere in Calcutta.

This city of mine is famous for her teashops and I finally arrived at an old beloved establishment that boiled tears and tea leaves together to manage a wholesome brew. The devil of a shopkeeper was there perched on his chair and I asked him for that special cuppa of the house.

The tea was duly served and this man I ran into that morning insisted on paying and leaving even before I was ready to light up the first ever cigarette of the day. I almost broke down and finally managed to convince him that we should properly stick together for an hour or so, that we should all try to follow some ceremony in our daily lives.

Roopsa rang me up that evening for a concert. Some western classical performance it turned out to be, and she was engaged nearly all the while in explaining the finer points of music. The ins and the outs. I said such an expression tended to remind me of women and she was very angry and showed me her white teeth. That was a danger sign.

So I had to shut my trap. We went out for dinner and later went to her place. She was staying somewhere on Southern Avenue during that time. It was a huge building and I promptly reminded myself that I was supposed to write about something that was commonplace and cool. There was to be nothing very expensive about my art and my poverty, I whispered to myself, as Roopsa showered and prepared for our so very prosaic lovemaking.

I took her shrieks in both my hands and she started moaning like a cat in season. A pussy, fussy cat. Her whiskers tingled the roots of my tongue and all of her nine female lives began unfolding before the grumpy evening.

My entire body felt raw and weak the next morning. There were bites and tears all over the place. Claws and paws had haunted me in my dreams. So feline. Terribly so. There was a journey in the offing and I called up my boss to say I would not be available for some years now.

I next called Roopsa and the tea shop round the corner. I had to patiently explain why I was going away and that too for such a long while. Everyone appeared quite incredulous but I believe you cannot always give indiscriminate satisfaction.

I caught the afternoon flight to Mumbai, a city I had never ever visited, not even in my nightmares. A cab saw me off to my hotel and I called her even before I had my lunch. She was working with some Embassy or the other and promised to visit me that evening. I cat napped, went out to the terrace to watch children flying kites and doing nothing else.

The kite festival was going on and people were suffering like nobody’s business. The sun went down on the Arabian Sea and the dusky sky finally helped me relax. It was a long day. My telephone rang and she was calling from the Reception, urging me to join her downstairs for a couple of highballs.

The bar was the usual sick type. Dimmed lights. Painted women and a fat bartender to cheer up things a bit. I explained that I knew preciously nothing about cocktails, and that I ought to be so allowed to fall back upon the straight-laced whisky-and-soda. The drinks arrived and I could see that she was drinking a Bloody Mary even after sunset. I felt quite disgusted.

She was talking on and on like an idiot. I tried to run my fingers down her sticky, shiny cleavage. People were staring all over the place, bored and yet fascinated. Her skin felt just the same, like the summers we had hardly managed to live down in Delhi.

She had an apartment at Vasant Kunj. I used to visit her during unabashed weekends. One such Sunday evening I noticed a man selling balloons on her doorstep. Green and blue and red. Like her lips. Her bloody, swollen lips.

You know, Roopsa, I wrote about your lips in one of my poems, and the editor - a decent enough chap whom I did never meet - kicked me severely and patiently requested me to get lost. I asked him what the problem was all about. But he refused to answer.

But you used to be such a successful writer! All your books were sold like cold ham cuts, diamonds and women . . .

Yes, but this woman journalist interviewed me once and one thing led to another and I soon featured in gossip magazines everywhere. You know how it is: I’m supposed to be the heartless bloody Romeo, and how’d the little lady fend for herself now that she’s no more a virgin?

The room had become insufferably hot. I needed some air, and so carried my frozen tumbler outside. The sea was rumbling and some night flowers were beginning to come alive somewhere.

Her nails dug into the small of my back. It was painful but I excused myself and retired to my room to write. I fished out the laptop from under my skin and dipped it in my rich, frothy blood. That’s how they write tales in the East, I swore under my drunken breath. A night bird cried out suddenly.

I had to make a long distance call. It was finally put through around midnight. Her father was disturbed and not very pleased. He started becoming quite offensive. And, finally, I was almost forced to disconnect.

It was late in the afternoon when I managed to walk into the College Street campus of Calcutta University yet once again. Everything was blazing as I approached the Darbhanga Building, what with the April sun and her bright clothes. Her landscape happened to be outlined against the fragrant breeze.

I was meeting some absolutely impossible University official while she was visiting the Womens Studies Department, sacrificing her love life to write a rather seminal tale. She was both surprised and suspicious to find me there and then, but I suavely mouthed an escape route.

I finally led her to the car park without any extravagant murmur. Shelving my appointment for the nonce, we rambled into Park Street for some coffee and ice cream.

The bistro was called Roopsa Junction. It was quite a snug joint where you were allowed to let your hair down and relax like nobody’s business. She said she was soon going abroad and that fairly caught me off guard. I never had access to any such awful classified information.

Her Nina Ricci cologne was ever so reassuring as I skipped the milk and sugar to dive headlong into my cup. The poison somehow made me come alive once more. I felt so horny simply staring at her, my tongue hanging loose like a dog’s, and my erection beginning to build up like the silly tower they have at Pisa.

She coyly stirred the cherry topping of her sundae, her smile apologetic and her black eyes heavy and wet like all those clouds that had threatened us with the prospect of a rainy evening since we had escaped from the University and from Mumbai.

All the above happened last summer. And now for some latest info: the last time I had blundered into her place, I had been playacting and she was rather silent, cold and furious. I was talking distantly, like Camus’ stranger, frisking a lot and airing cheap philosophies.

She was so aloof and bally distant that I didn’t even have heart enough to fantasize about her peach and full lips. She was reclining like Henry Moore’s sculpture against the lush upholstery that was like the softness of her quite expensive body. So I had to return to my tiresome newspapering, forlorn.

The nights came and went away mocking as I kept tossing without a merciful wink or two. All my ripe moments now appeared from nowhere like a forlorn comedy.

It was during this time that I was invited to attend a funeral of sorts. An anniversary, to be more precise. The traditional kirtan was in full swing as I stumbled in, almost dead drunk and abusive. The lady who was performing centerstage was decent to look at, and this calmed me down a bit.

She was singing about the saga of Radha and Krishna in rather an involved manner. Her breasts were noble and swinging. I had taken along one of my Canadian friends, Sherry, and so had to translate every bloody detail for her. She was rather fascinated.

Now here is Radha who is somebody else’s wife but she goes and gets stuck on Krishna who actually happens to be her nephew! I felt sorry that Radha’s hubby was impotent, but that really didn’t help straighten things out one bit. This Krishna fellow next leaves for Vrindavan for Mathura to claim his grandpa’s throne and accordingly leaves his girl in the lurch. They never meet again.

A heart-rending tale if there ever was one, but I don’t really see the point in Indians going gaga over such a mundane affair. After all, this is no great shakes when compared to some other yarns of some other lands. Roopsa often describes me as a sentimental fool, but even I’m not that kind of a certified sissy to cry buckets - like nearly all the others in the room - after the show was over.

The next day I had a splitting hangover but had to go down the Russel Street way to convince some Australians about funding some absolutely stupid postcolonial (literary) workshop we were about to organize in the city.

I ran into a student of mine there, a girl who had large and expressive eyes and who was rather exciting. She was silent throughout the proceedings, although I had a distinctly uncomfortable feeling that she was giving me the eye now and then!

My cousin called me a year later and said the girl was called Pretty and that she had coyly asked around about me. One of her discreet inquiries had been whether I was a virgin or not. I could hardly manage myself, and blurted out in sick desperation:

What did you say in reply? Did she sound interested?

How are her breasts like? Full? Young and tender?

She rebuked me and said she couldn’t possibly answer such rustic questions. After all, Bengali bhadralok girls don’t often come across such remarkable stuff as I had just dished out.

I was still holding my cheap whisky in my clammy hands when she came up to the terrace and joined me to watch the death of yet another day.

I asked her why I couldn’t write simple narratives. She just shrugged and said nothing. Later we went out for dinner somewhere. The food was hot. The steak was sizzling. She looked ravishing. I squeezed her breasts one by one as if I was handling religion or something. She was almost like a fascinating prayer wheel suspended suddenly in motion in midair:

Om manipadme hum! Om manipadme hum!

The waiter was hanging nearby like the precious fool that he was. I tipped him like nobody’s business and asked him rather decently to go get lost. He returned almost immediately, carrying some absolutely ghastly cigars that I happened to abhor. Still, I accepted those with lustful tears in my bloody eyes and lit up. The smoke was acrid and sweet.

Her lips were acrid and sweet. I laid the flat of my wet palm to rest on her wet tongue. Her teeth were so ambitious. They tore down my trees and skies.

A lonely female was walking in my dreams all by herself to a nearby watering hole when suddenly she came alive and we had the following conversation:

Don’t you know that it’s strictly against rules to have sex in the Savannah?

So? Who cares?!

Do you always have to act that bitchy? Or is it just a knack? A what not?

God only knows, if at all . . .

And so it happened that I finally managed to return from Switzerland, the land of fondue and not-so-fond memories. I almost missed the Zurich-Moscow flight, and tried to strike one of those famous friendships you read about in tales with a Bengali family that was flying to Calcutta, economy class, with a sardonic, pretty daughter. I failed, as usual and spent the long hours of this night flight chatting up an old Bengali couple returning to Mother India after a stint (sentimental perhaps) with their son in London.

The next day Dumdum was very decent and I found Ru waiting for me with quite forlorn eyes. She was not well and to be honest I was concerned like hell. I tried to make superficial love to her after lunch that afternoon, but she said nothing doing and exposed her great epic-like breasts.

I was so lost I didn’t really know what to do, how really to cope with the situation. For perhaps the first time in my infamous life I was feeling guilty. I shed some crocodile tears and said look honey I’m sorry but all that she did was to weep in a manner that brought back memories of Foucault’s knowledge-power discourse.

I thought I’d be sailing on cloud nine after my return from Fribourg, Switzerland but all that ever happened to me a closing of doors and a clash of cymbals. I was aghast. All my beautiful dreams of richness and what not had turned to ashes and I was humiliated like never ever before in my life.

I planned to leave everything behind and go get lost in the obscurity of the Himalayas and meditation, watching young, nubile Brahmin girls go and fetch water from the rivers of the gods in their see through saris. But all that ever happened was Calcutta and Burdwan, the University drab and the city without any appeal whatsoever. And of late let me confess in this tale of mine that my dreams are being laced with a certain kind of helplessness I’d never once experienced before.