The loadshedding was unexpected and, in most ways, unwelcome, especially at this part of the day. It was not uncommon for the locality to collapse into darkness, of course, and the darkness had been becoming something of a regular, unwanted house guest over the last year. Yet surrounded by the placental darkness that dropped as abruptly over this South Kolkata locality as a tangled mess of cobwebs at Phutka’s tea shop could come loose at the slightest hint of carelessness, somehow the shadows seemed longer, and the silence, desperate for air.
“Are we out of candles?”
“I think we might have some left. But I’ll have to look for them. Don’t you have a flashlight lying around somewhere?”
There was a sound of feet shuffling away towards the other end of the room. A few books were moved. Something fell out, and the perpetrator could be heard bending over to pick it up, the folds of a starched shirt crackled slightly into wrinkles. A drawer opened with a loud creak, and after moving around a few of its inhabitants, the candle was withdrawn.
“I found one. Where do you keep the matchsticks?”
“On the shelf above the cabinet. Towards the edge.”
A frantic hand felt blindly along the shelf. Then a matchstick flared up with its characteristic crisp crackle, dim and yellow light slowly spreading over the room like a winter fever.
“At least there’s some light now.”
“How long do you think this’ll last?”
The other voice waited, measuring the seconds, as if not sure what context the question followed, or exactly how precise the answer should be.
Then, as if it had made up its mind, the voice coughed a little.
“Maybe an hour. Maybe two. Who knows?”
That seemed to the speaker a perfect sentence, deliberate and slow, offering no promises, no hopes, but soothing all the same. The deniability of knowledge had always been a saviour of such conversations.
But the one who had asked the question seemed to grow even more restless at this prospect.
“I wonder why they keep doing this to us?
“Imagine how hard it’ll be on everyone, to be sitting in this absolute darkness, with the hoards of summer mosquitoes from the South Kolkata drains hungry for our blood.”
As if in punctuation, a loud resounding slap on one’s thigh notified of the forgotten fact that the mosquitoes were a true menace, and more so in this godforsaken darkness.
“I was just talking to Mr. Choudhury in the morning, and he says his son recently went to the electric department office to submit an application. And the clerk there told him these power cuts will only get worse as the summer advances. Mrs. Choudhury was worried about it too. Her daughter is appearing for her boards this year, and she told me that it’s impossible to study with these power cuts.”
The other person seemed to have not heard the story, or maybe heard, but found it easier to ignore.
Instead, a strange worry suddenly wriggled uneasily through the whole conversation.
“Mr. Choudhury talked to you today morning? Did he ask anything about us?”
“No, he didn’t. Too busy talking about this postgraduate course his son is doing.” The voice sounded comforting. “And even if he does, everyone in this locality knows we are colleagues. That is enough for their curiosity.”
The other person let out an audible sigh.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this.”
“Me too. But we don’t have a lot of options. And nothing else matters, besides this house and us living together under its roof.”
“Talking about living together, did you catch the news today? I think I heard someone mentioning us somewhere. In passing, of course.”
“They always do. I’m tired of hearing it over and over again. I guess we have to learn to just live with it now.”
With that, their voices trailed into silence again. The humming mosquitoes kept getting louder. The candle flickered at times, and there was a slight crackling when the flame encountered molten wax that had solidified on the body of the candle itself.
The candle had almost burnt till midway when the voices started talking again.
“You know, I met Professor Sen on the way to work today. Wedged in between two pudgy ladies, sweating profusely as always. Brought back memories of our college days.”
The other person smiled and, in the flickering light, the smile looked tinged with sadness.
“College life was good. Especially after I met you. Remember our first meeting, the waiter had served you my coffee, and you had already drunk half of it when he realized his mistake and pointed it out to a furious me.”
This time heavier. And almost foreboding.
“Back then, we never would’ve thought we’d end up like this.”
“Oh, but I did. The moment I saw you walk over to my table and apologize, I knew we’d end up this way somehow.”
The other voice sounded cautious now.
“Do you think we are doing something wrong? Our parents don’t talk to us anymore, you know. And your brother, who used to fight with people who bullied you, doesn’t even ask if you’re doing okay. Sometimes, it scares me. The enormity of our situation.”
The end seemed abrupt. As if dipped into silence by the repercussions of the words that had just escaped the lips.
“I love you,” the first voice said.
As if all answers to their fears, their forbiddance lies in those three words.
Like Jesus Christ, walking over the water, while his disciples in a rudimentary fishing boat stare with awe at the myth being born right in front of their eyes.
Was it hope?
Or was it desperation?
Was Jesus their saviour, or the physical representation of their collective voices, promising them salvation, but more than that, the choice of freedom?
Were these three words, clinging to each other, breathless, caught in the darkness of an old Kolkata apartment like a baby deer gets caught in front of the fast approaching circle of lights from the headlights of a rickety car, all they had hoped for, to save them from their fears and inhibitions and the warring society at large?
Both voices seemed strangely uninformed.
“I love you too. Yes. That’s all that matters.” The replying voice had finality to it.
In the floor below, Mr. Choudhury warily wiped off sweat from his neck and balding head as he talked to his wife.
“You know I met that fellow who lives upstairs today. Nice guy. Gave me a few tips about our daughter’s career choices as well.
“Dev, isn’t that his name? And the other one is Boddhi. Such a pair of handsome guys. I wonder if we’ll get invited to their wedding though. Two feasts, eh?”
And with that, he laughed, as the electricity finally came back on, and the television set crackled to life.
NILESH MONDAL, 22, is an undergraduate in engineering by choice, and a poet and writer by chance. His works have been published in magazines and ejournals like In Plainspeak, Cafe Dissensus, Textploit, ArtRefurbish, Fiction Magazine, The Hans India, etc. He works at Terribly Tiny Tales, an online storytelling platform.