At last came the time to say goodbye to my little granddaughter. And so, before Rhea woke up, we tiptoed out of the house with our bags, though a tad too early for our bus. A little later, and she would wake up, trudge with her doll to my bed. Nudging me awake, she would ask, “Grandpa, will you play with me?”
In the bus, we sat in silence. The cold seeped in with the fog through the chinks in the door and windows. The fog thickened and bleached everything out of colour. Through the grimy windows the outside looked like grey photographs faded with time. A few at a time, somnambulant passengers entered and waded to their seats in the silent, fog-filled bus. They sat down and stared ahead, numbed with the thoughts of departing. A while later the driver got in, sat down and started dozing. The bus gradually filled up with more passengers, arriving late like reluctant mourners at a funeral.
Long after the bus got filled up with cold passengers entombed in silence, the driver stirred and started humming. An obscure tune rose from the deeps of his chest, like fume rising from dead embers. Shuffling and fiddling, he started the bus and revved the grudging engine with a misplaced hope for warmth.
When the bus left, sunlight had started filtering in through the haze, and a glint or two could be caught on the wet leaves of the trees. But not a breeze, nor a bird anywhere; the sun valiantly tried to bring to life the sleeping earth with its levitating warmth. The passengers sat in silence, gripping the warmth in their close fists lying in the folds of heavy woollen clothes. The curvaceous road, draped in dew, frigidly yielded itself under the bus. The bus rumbled along groaning and squeaking around the bends. The driver hummed on and on, a tune half-remembered from his forgotten childhood resonating with the wailing of the labouring engine.
Buns slept by my side, leaning a little against me. The seeping warmth of her body spread into mine like the tingle of sparse liquor trickling down a perched gullet. I dozed off. I let the stupor claim me and make me dream of Rhea. I felt she sat pressing against me, soft and warm, dangling her doll from her tender grip. I expected her to stare up at my face and ask, “Grandpa, will you play with me?”
But Rhea just sat with her immobilising warmth by my side.
I woke up with a start. The bus was still rolling down the road snaking ahead. Trees lining the road blocked the sun that had risen up. The fog was gone. The passengers slept quietly. Outside this cocoon of silence the bus raged and moaned, its sound muffled by the closed windows. Buns slept lifelessly. In my half-sleep I thought that if Rhea spoke her voice would be drowned by the noise. And in this way I slept, off and on, the bus enduring on its journey, and Buns and Rhea getting mixed-up.
All of a sudden a jolt jerked me out of my sleep. I found Buns sitting up and gripping me. The bus had abruptly braked to a stop. Some passengers craned forward to see ahead. There was a man on a bicycle just before the bus. The driver had stopped humming and was blowing the horn on him. The cyclist came over to the driver’s side and shouted something to the driver. The driver nodded his head. Then turning to us he yelled, “He says a cat has just crossed the road. He says to wait, till someone passes.”
But no traffic came for some time. One more bus pulled up behind us and switched off its engine. Everyone waited. After a long time, a shepherd appeared from around the bend ahead. Driving a few sheep he passed by staring at the buses. After he had passed, the cyclist pushed on. Our driver regained his tune and began to hum. The bus resumed its journey.
“Margarine!” exclaimed Buns. “I wonder what the cat has been up to!”
“We will know when we reach home” I replied reassuringly.
About a year back strange things started appearing at home. One morning I found a good woollen sock on the kitchen floor. After a few days, it was a tea strainer, and then a small pacifier. The next morning I narrated the incidents to my morning-walk pals. After the walk we would sit on our favourite bench in the park and exchange the diminishing excitements of our lives. Well, it turned out that some of them too had found some strange stuff appearing at their homes. And the professor said some stuff had mysteriously disappeared from his house. No one knew how this happened, except that it seemed to happen at night, and only small things were involved.
Then the professor came with exciting news. He had got up the previous night and gone to the kitchen for water. He had seen a cat about to leave through the kitchen window. Startled, it had dropped a plastic spoon it was carrying in its mouth and fled.
So we knew – it was a cat that had been going from house to house, picking up and dropping things!
However, why the cat did this remained a mystery. For quite some time this became a topic of the morning – each of us faithfully reporting what the cat had taken, or left behind. We tried to find if there was a pattern. But the riddle persisted. One of us theorized that the cat stole from a house where it found no food, and dropped stuff where it found food. But we discarded this after careful analysis of the incidents.
One day the professor proposed we call the cat Margarine. He taught Bengali, and sometimes told us Bengali jokes in English that we did not understand. “Why Margarine?” we asked. He said, “You see, ‘margarine’ without the last syllable used to be the word for cat in old Bengali. Hence, Margarine, for the cat that comes in.” The professor smiled gratuitously, inviting us to see his tricks with language. We thumped our knees and gravely agitated our heads in various ways, disallowing him to conclude about the appropriateness of the name.
Nevertheless, that is how “the cat” came to be known as Margarine.
To me, most of my morning-walk pals seemed unaffected by the escapades of Margarine. There were also those whose houses Margarine never visited for some strange reason. I, on the other hand, being averse to discarding objects I could not keep, felt most affected, often with a touch of irritation. For the pacifier, particularly, I felt a sense of guilt that I had not gone around the neighbourhood asking if anyone had missed it. I knew nobody would want back anything that a cat had carried away, least of all a pacifier. Yet, I thought, at least people would have known what had happened to their disappearing items. One day I found a small exquisite papier-mâché jewel box, probably for a gift ring. On its back were scribbled the words, “With love, from Tiramisu.” I wondered about the person for whom the words would have evoked reminiscences of a cherished moment. But, I asked myself, what if it were a relic of a secretly treasured unrequited love?
I started stowing the things the cat brought in a box of shoes I had once bought for Rhea – just in case someone came asking. I did not tell my pals about this. But, hearing them discuss Margarine I felt a secret satisfaction that I had been able to preserve my conscience, in however weird way it may be.
Soon Buns started objecting to my curious collection. She thought I was being impractical and childish. Impractical, she said, because nobody would ever come to reclaim anything; and childish, because I had taken to looking at my collection from time to time. True, I had given in to my queer curiosity to look at those things, and would somewhat lustily wonder about the emotional bond their owners might have had with them. I defended myself by suggesting that when Rhea came to visit us she could play with the things. Buns retorted, “You expect her to play with an old pacifier? If you want toys for her, please buy some!”
One day we had a newcomer in our group. He listened to the escapades of Margarine with a grin of amusement. Then he said, “You know, when I was a kid, a cat used to come in looking for food. Often in the morning, I would not get any milk because the cat had had it the previous night. One day Dad said he would catch it and teach it a lesson. Mom told Dad not to be cruel to the cat. Dad explained that he had thought of a way to trap the cat. He was going to close all the windows, and leave only the bedroom window slightly ajar, making the cat to come in through it. To the window handle he would tie a rope, and tie its other end to the bed-post near his head. He would leave just enough slack for the cat to squeeze through the gap. He hoped he would wake up as the cat struggled through the window, and then bag it in a sack.
“Dad was a light sleeper. Still, for some nights the trap did not work. Either, the slack was too much, and the cat visited without a struggle while Dad slept through. Or, the slack was too little and prevented the cat from entering. But, Dad got it right one night and woke up when the cat entered. He lay in wait. Just as the cat was leaving, he pulled hard on the rope, trapping the cat. We put it in a sack, which was tough – a trapped cat is very ferocious. Next morning Dad took the sack to a far off place and let the cat out. Dad said it should not be able to find its way back.”
“Did it work? I mean, did you get rid of the cat?” I asked.
“No”, he said, “the cat found its way back. Dad caught and banished it a couple more times. Finally the cat learned to avoid our house. “
Back at home I told Buns the story. I said I was going to try it. She retorted, “I don’t think you can. The cat knows you snore! It will notice if you lie awake.”
I still did try. And the snare worked, sort of, just the night before we left for Ooty. We had packed till late in the night. I was unable to sleep after all the excitement. Also, I was afraid of not waking up in time for the early-morning bus. As I lay awake tense in the darkness, I felt a slight increase in the light coming from a streetlamp through the window opening. Something was causing the window to open out. I could not see what, because of the half-height curtain at the bottom of the window. But, the thing was pushing against the curtain to form a bulge. I caught the rope tied to the window and pulled hard. The bulge froze. I had trapped Margarine! Strangely, it did not struggle or whimper. Puzzled, I tied the rope taut and got up. I lifted the curtain and found a doll wedged between the window panes. When I switched on the light it was a rag-tag doll that the cat was bringing in. I went and put it in Rhea’s shoe-box and tried to catch some sleep.
All that seemed to have happened a long time back! Reaching home in the evening, I called up my daughter. “Gumli, how is Rhea doing? Did she cry or miss us?” I asked. Gumli said, “Rhea is here, wants to talk to you.” I waited for her feeble hello and replied, “Hello, Rhea!” She asked thinly, sounding a little alienated, “Grandpa, are you not going to play with me anymore?” I said I would and soon, trying to control my emotions. I felt silly and false. I never did really play with her. I just lazed on the sofa and stared at the newspaper or the TV. Rhea sat leaning against me and played with her favourite doll. Once in a while, she mumbled something and, if I did not respond, nudged me with her free elbow. All through, her cotton-candy softness and warmth induced a certain laziness and levity of mind in me. Yes, I had to admit to myself that I was going to miss playing with her.
Buns cleaned up the kitchen and made tea. I unpacked a few things. We washed and had tea. Just as we finished the tea, the doorbell rang. Buns got up and opened the door. A young woman stood at the door, with a little girl furtively peeping from behind. The woman said with an apologetic smile, “I am Anjali, your new neighbour. We had moved in just a few days before you went away.”
“Oh! Please come in.”, Buns invited.
“No, no.”, she said, “You must be tired from travelling. … I just came to ask something.”
“Yes?” asked Buns.
“Have you … did you … did the cat bring my daughter’s doll to your house?” she asked hesitantly. “I know it is silly of me. But the cat had been taking away things, and it took away my daughter’s doll just the night before you left.”
I went and fetched Rhea’s shoe-box on top of which lay the rag-tag doll. I extended the box to the little girl and asked, “Is this your doll?” She nodded, leaning forward a little.
“Come on, take it”, I beckoned.
Anjali nudged the child, “Go, take it from Grandpa.”
She took a step toward me, hesitated, and stared back at her mother. Anjali prodded her with an encouraging nod. She then walked up to me and took the doll.
“Don’t you like anything else?” I asked, still holding out the shoe-box. She gravely shook her head.
“Ok. Go and play.” I said, putting away the box.
She went and sat on the sofa and looked back at me. A faint smile broke out on her grave face, and she asked, “Grandpa, will you play with me?”
Indroneer / 29 July 2013