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16/09/2011

Lexington Avenue

Buku Sarkar

From the street window he saw his wife sitting inside. Usha was wearing a plain burgundy sari. These days, she barely wore the nice ones anywhere. Mostly she just walked from their studio on 32nd Street to their boutique on 28th and back. With her bad hip, it took her a good fifteen minutes. Perhaps more if there was ice. The crimson tapestry on the wall bled into her sari, as if she were a part of its weave. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought she had been sitting there the entire month, gathering dust along with everything else.

She was looking for something in her purse, emptying out its contents onto the keyboard that was kept on the table in front of her. It was the only work table in the boutique, at the far end of the room, and when they’d purchased the computer, they placed it there, away from plain view of the customers. But the massive monitor took up half of the table, and ever since then his wife had been pushing it farther and farther back, to make room on it for herself. They’d had it for a few years now, and still, she hadn’t made peace with it.

The idea came to him one morning, while observing Usha taking a phone order, cradling the receiver on her shoulder, rummaging in the drawers for an order sheet and the credit card statement form.

‘Computer?’ Usha said. ‘I don’t know. They scare me. What do we need a computer for?’

‘It can do everything. You see this credit card terminal? We wouldn’t need one anymore. We can process them all on the computer.’

His wife was reluctant. It had taken her months to learn how to use the credit card terminal. She kept all their accounts hand-written in a book, which she meticulously lined in red ink with several columns: Payment Date, Date Received, Amount, Cheque Number, Cheque Date.

They were permanently engraved on the paper, and unless there was a big fire, such records could never be lost. Machines frightened her. She might accidently press a wrong button, and everything would be wiped out.

But the computer arrived, despite her misgivings and was placed at the far back, covered by a large tablecloth to keep the dust out. When Mohon saw their new acquisition, his eyes widened. He went over to the machine the way he gingerly approached Magan’s cat.

‘What can it do, Dada?’

‘Oh, everything.’

‘Everything?’ Mohon said, staring intently at the screen.

‘Whatever you want it to do. You see here? You click here, like this, and it takes you to the Internet. And if you go here, like this, you can check your email.’

Mohon pondered at the screen for a few minutes. ‘Dada,’ he said, ‘Can I come here and check my email also? I can send an email to my son. He’s always been telling me I should.’

Every few weeks, Mohon stopped by to send an email from Mr Munshi’s Yahoo account. He punched the keys with his index fingers and when he couldn’t find a letter, he hunched lower and his right finger circled the keyboard round and round.

If a response came for Mohon, Mr Munshi printed it out and took it over to his shop. Magan too stopped by sometimes to use their new fax/printer combo. Gopal always had another form to fill out. By that time, Mr Munshi had managed to pay a boy to make him a website listing most of the books that they carried. He hoped someday to add online shopping and perhaps the books could be directly shipped from Calcutta. If things progressed, he might very well be able to open that Soho branch one day, where he could finally concentrate on the higher end products.

He slipped the key into the door and gently pushed it forward, trying not to announce his presence. But the bamboo behind the door – a latticework they had installed – was coming undone and still rattled, despite his cautiousness. The two women stopped talking and looked up.

Nafisa was standing over to one side of the room. Usha sat by the table. She had removed the layers of coats and shawls that swaddled her thin frame and had folded them neatly in the corner on a small marble table. It was from an exclusive emporium in Agra with whom they had a special export agreement. The price tag had long fallen off and now Usha just used it as an extension of the larger table, which had no more room. As Mr Munshi walked in, she raised her head but didn’t say anything. He too just raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement of her presence. This is how they spoke after forty years of marriage – with signs and gestures. Lexington Avenue divided his life into two distinct halves. On one side was Mohon’s endless chatter, on the other, her infinite silence.

He hoped that with Nafisa there she might forget about the travel agent for now. He’d bring it up later at home and tell her it had slipped his mind. He didn’t understand how he’d gotten himself into this mess in the first place. He should have never agreed to go back to Calcutta. It had barely been six months since she’d last gone. He should have been firm and told her to wait until winter. And there was his check-up. He really shouldn’t be missing the check-up. There was a routine to these things that one shouldn’t mess with. But now it was too late. He’d made a commitment, and everything had been planned around it.

Nafisa, who was staring at the tapestries as if she’d never laid eyes on them before, looked a little embarrassed to see him and shuffled slightly, mumbling a few words. She carried a bag of plastic containers – leftovers from her restaurant, one of the several Indian restaurants on the avenue but the only one they ate from. It had begun as a neighbourly gesture when she started working there and had come into their boutique one day to browse.

‘I work over there,’ she had said, pointing down Lexington Avenue.

‘Anytime you want anything, please don’t hesitate to call. It’s really a pleasure to meet you, Didi. I heard a lot about you from Mohon. He said you were from Calcutta. That there was no one like Dada and Didi in this neighbourhood.’

She spoke in Bengali, but it sounded as if he was listening to a foreign language. Hers was a different dialect, littered with vocabulary they never used in Calcutta. Nafisa said pani instead of jol and basha for bari. At first he didn’t like that word – basha, nest – the softness of ‘home’ was lost in its crudeness. But over the years, she, like Mohon’s shop and the dirty sidewalk, had grown on him. There came a time he rather liked her lisping speech.

She began to stop by daily, just dropping in for a few minutes when she had time off. She never came empty-handed. Sometimes with a few sweets, at other times with samosas. Eventually, Usha began to expect her every day. Then she told her sister over the phone that she had a part-time helper.

‘That’s good,’ Jaya said. ‘I don’t care what you say about New York. It can’t be easy living there all by yourself. It’s good that you have someone coming by now and then. She can do the dusting and cleaning, even if she can’t cook properly. Not that our girl here can cook much either. It’s just so hard to find proper help these days. And make sure you get her to clean the bathroom regularly. At least then you won’t have to do it.’

Nothing inside the boutique resembled his original vision any longer: the tapestries they had taken such care to hang up made the small space look narrower; the light dimmers made shadows flicker on the walls; the old shelves rattled; the books looked grey; the entire store felt as if it would cave in on him any moment. Usha picked up the phone to check the voicemail. She always wrote the messages down in her notebook under the heading of the day. She would call back those with inquiries first – usually new clients who spent a lot of money at one go. But no sooner had she hung up, the phone began to ring again. Usha let it ring twice with her hand resting on the receiver before she answered. She waved in his direction and mouthed her sister’s name. Jaya.

‘I know. Can you believe I’ve managed to make him come this time? Normally things are so hectic, we both can’t get away you know,’ he heard his wife say. Ever since they’d planned this trip, Jaya was calling every day asking for this and that. The shopping list was growing longer and longer.

‘Yes, of course we have someone working for us but he has to travel so often. What with all the clients on the west coast.’ She said this in a hushed tone, with her face turned away from Nafisa.

‘No, Mimi can’t make it. She has her exams, and she’s so busy applying for jobs. There are three universities that want her. Can you imagine?’

Then Usha told her sister about the new contract her husband had gotten and how the Indian High Commission did all their purchasing from them. ‘He’s worked so hard for this. Poor man. How many nights has he come home after midnight, without having eaten anything all evening?’ she said.

It was just a store in Chicago. They bought in small quantities. It added up to no more than a few hundred. The High Commission had called to make some inquiries but nothing had come of it yet. And Mimi? It had taken her six years to finish college and now she was temping through some agency and sharing an apartment in Woodside where Usha refused to visit. The girl couldn’t even be bothered to come more than once a month to see her own mother. It made Mr Munshi nervous to overhear his wife’s conversations. He couldn’t keep track of her lies anymore.

He shouldn’t have come to the shop at all. He should have just left Mohon’s and gone for a walk by the riverside instead – another of his favourites when he didn’t feel like the long hike to Central Park. He used to sit on a bench and watch men throw down their fishing lines, the bicyclists and female joggers whizz by, admire their fine form, think of the time when he could run like that. Sometimes in summer he went early in the morning and saw the sun rise over the East River. He sat for an hour, perhaps two, watching the sky change colours. Behind him, only one avenue over, traffic would begin to build. The delivery vans would clog the roads. But there would be nothing obstructing his view, this shimmering gold water.

Usha was making plans with Jaya now. She was talking about meals at five-star hotels and whom she would visit first. ‘We’ll see you that afternoon of course, but after that, maybe we should call on his brother, then Mithun. And that evening, you and Amar and the children will come by for dinner. But it can’t be too late. He’ll be tired you see.’ Mr Munshi was quite sure he heard something about a trip to Orissa. She might as well have been making plans for the Riviera.

When his wife was away, it was different. Then it was she who called, at exactly nine. If he didn’t answer for some reason, she’d ask, ‘Where were you? Why weren’t you here? Did you have your tea? Are you feeling all right?’ He didn’t mind. He actually liked hearing her voice from a distance. After four decades of marriage, the idea of her was soothing.

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