Masked People by Rimli Bhattacharya




We all are seated in a room. We are masked. Our hands hidden in latex gloves. Our head covered in a scarf, pardon me I do not remember the color though. We all are black and white pictures, so I guess my head scarf is black. And I am being logical. My hair is black since I dye and hence I know my head scarf is also black. But why am I discussing about my head? Last few days I haven’t even bathed. Someone has kept a bouquet of flowers to trounce the smell. At last, the smell of roses has meandered its smell through its pathway amongst the leaves and shoots. The condition is similar with the two people sitting on both my sides. I guess we are into some round table conference. I remember I had bagged a prize and I had received the letter from Nazrul Tirtha that they will be felicitating me as I had won a first prize in the short story category written on the ongoing pandemic COVID. Thus I conclude that the flowers are meant for me and the ceremony shall commence shortly. 


But why this sinister silence? It’s a bad omen. Most important what am I doing in this room? Firstly the room needs renovation. I will protest by writing to the president of this building for allocating such a forsaken room like this for a felicitation ceremony. I am confident that the building housed no good memories in its floorboards and walls. It looked as if it needs sunshine to sing to the melodies of the birds. But let me first talk to these masked people.


I looked on my right. A man. He doesn’t even look at me. I beckon “Hello Sir.” He returns my pleasantry without looking at me. I try to initiate a conversation.


“Can you kindly tell me why we all are here?”


***

I have been writing a lot these days. It seems I am under a spell so once I sit to write I won’t get up unless I finish. No, I am neither a professional writer nor have I done a course in creative writing but the secret of my writing skill is my constant reading habit, at least I thought so. And maybe I am simply bored, a fact I cannot deny.


“What do you do sitting almost 3 hours every day with the laptop?” Moinak, my husband had asked once.


“I read and then I write”, I had replied.


“You mean to say that you read someone else’s work and then memorize and write down your stories, hahaha.”


“Crap, poor one.”


***


“Can I help you madam?”


With that I conclude the story that we got married. My mother wept, and my father embraced a stoic silence. But father was angry, I knew. While my mother gave her diamond earrings the only prized possession she had, my father wrote something and handed me in a gold plated, I mean not real gold but a false one, I mean we call them 1 gm gold, envelope, and asked me to open when I would sleep with my old man in the night.


In the night Moinak was interested in exploring me but I wanted to see what was in the envelope. I thought it to be precious gift. It was indeed. A poem we had learnt in our nursery. It read:


Once upon a time we had a little lamb

Her fleece was black as coal, yeah

Everywhere we went

That little lamb was sure to go 

She followed an old man in book fair one day

And chose the pervert as her man

What a time I know they will have

A doomed married life.


Curse


While I wept, Moinak ignored and removed my clothes. Explore. But something in me said my father’s words would come true.


Moinak worked in a book stall in College Road. An avid reader myself I would ask him to take me to his shop and he would always say “Next time.” Ultimately I got fed up and started reading stories on my laptop itself. But I had a problem. I had a monkey mind. Concentration on things one at a time posed a threat to me. And now I wanted to write.


“Write what?”


“Will write stories and by year end will write a book.”


“And we would have spirits to read your books”


“Leave me alone.”


Irrespective of his leg pulling I knew how much he loved me. Sometimes he would remind me of Humbert Humbert from the novel Lolita. Neither he was of Humbert’s age nor me Lolita but yes we had a vast difference of 20 years between our ages. I had met him at a book fair where he was selling books. I was an addled buyer and he could quickly sense my nerves. 


Moinak treated me as a queen and gave in to my demand. I started writing. Not writing, but stealing. I stole material from other writers. I compiled them, wrote blog posts and started submitting them to the literary magazines. While I could get away with most of them, but there was one who caught me. 


“Cheater, why try writing when you don’t know the basics?”


“One last chance sir, I promise I will write an original one for you.”


They did give me a chance and this time I submitted the story of the hare and the turtle by converting the animals into humans. That is the eternal truth. There is an animal hidden inside all humans and that is what I wanted to prove. They never understood. They never understood. 


I was blocked. I cried. But Moinak ignored. He continued exploring. Wish he understood that I was in possession of a sadness card and it poured in the form of tears.


A year passed. My baby bump is now visible. But Moinak would still continue with his survey. I just said there is an animal hidden inside all humans. Moinak was no longer a human. I could see his fangs each night when he climbed up on my hillock. 


Then one day there was blood. I was in excruciating pain. I lost my baby bump and Moinak his title of a husband. I called the cops. They came. I pointed them towards Moinak. Instead I was taken away. 


Shocks, hallucinations, somnolence coupled with insomnia. Moinak would come to see me every day. On my day of discharge he came to take me home. I spat on him. He ignored, he blushed, he almost broke down, he washed his face but he stopped exploring forever.


Doomed motherhood. Doomed sex life. 


The need to write resurfaced. I would read books throughout the night. I was under a spell. I wrote and wrote and wrote. 


“What do you sitting almost 3 hours every day with the laptop?” 


“I read and then I write”


“You mean to say that you read someone else’s work and then memorize and write down your stories, hahaha.”

“Crap, poor one.”


One night he came home shivering with a temperature coupled with aches. A new virus has come to planet earth. Coronavirus. He asked me to take him to the hospital. I remembered his fangs and how it had killed my baby.


“If you can come home alone you can also go to the hospital. I cannot.”


“Then you go back to your parents place and don’t come unless I call.”


“No, they won’t accept me.”


Moinak left.


Next morning there was a call from city hospital that he is no more and I cannot claim the body.


“Do whatever you like, I don’t want him either.”


“Are you out of your mind? He died of Corona. At least show some sympathy. Whole night he was calling your name.”


I started crying. I cried all kind of tears. The one meant for higher joy as well. My father had cursed me only to receive his greatest blessing in full measure. Oh father, oh father, why curse the unborn. This man deserved this death. And I cry today for the biggest joy I have now received in my life.


I did nothing for Moinak. No dead body as the hospital authorities said they won’t hand it over to any relative, no matter how close they may be. So no ritual either. I was relieved.


Doomed marriage


This time I wrote a short story on COVID and won a competition. I wrote in my words. No plagiarism. I received a letter from Nazrul Tirtha. 


Before I can open my world went blank.


***

I was waiting for an answer from the man on my right whom I had posed the question. Why is he taking such a long time to answer me? 


“Is this Nazrul Tirtha? Are these flowers for me?”


Some weird hunched masked man approached me.


“What makes you talk so much when you find there is absolute silence in the room?”


 “My award, my award.”


This time the man on my right turned towards me. He removed his mask. I could see his decaying tooth and insect infested eyes, nose and lips. He opened his mouth. There was nothing left except the fangs.

 

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