Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Boat Ride (A short story)

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Sir, why don’t you come?” the man said, standing near his boat, on the sloping mud bank.
Pritam and Antara looked at each other.
“Do you want to go?” Pritam asked.
“We don’t have anything else to do,” Antara said, “Ask him how much he wants?”
“Forty rupees for an hour,” was the reply.
“Too much,” Pritam said. “I’ll give you twenty.”
“Twenty-five,” said the boatman.
“Twenty,” Pritam repeated.
The boatman stared at Pritam wondering whether he should agree or not. But business at 3.30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in May near the church of Bandel would be slack for an hour. Reluctantly, he said, “Okay.”
Pritam held Antara’s hand as they walked with bent knees down the bank and got onto the boat, which swayed from side to side, its wooden joints making a creaking sound.
They sat side by side, in the low cabin made of matted coir sheets, and folded their legs as there was only a width of five feet. Outside, at one end, stood the boatman. He pushed the long black oar into the water and the boat moved forward, as if in slow motion.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, as they watched the languid movements of the boatman.
Pritam held Antara’s hand and whispered in her ears, “How about some hanky panky?”
“You only think of sex,” Antara said, jerking her face away from him. “We did it yesterday night and early this morning. Give me a break. It’s so stuffy in here. I am going to sit outside where I can get some breeze.”
Antara crawled on her hands and knees to the other end of the boat. Pritam stared at her posterior, covered by a maroon salwar kameez and said, in a sarcastic tone, “Your bum could easily win an entry into the Guinness Book Of World Records. Biggest bum in the Asian subcontinent.”
“Don’t be mean,” Antara said, turning around. “For a 28-year-old woman, I am quite slim. Wait for a few years and then you will also have a fat bum.”
Pritam shook his head, “No chance. I am naturally slim, plus I do exercises and go for a jog in the mornings.”
“With that budding paunch of yours, there is no way you can call yourself slim,” she said. She felt her face getting flushed and began breathing in quick, short bursts.
Pritam realised that she had got angry and became silent. Time passed. Antara gazed into the distance, trying to calm down. She did not enjoy Pritam’s obsession with sex. As if that was the only thing that mattered. Sometimes, she felt that he was using her body, and did not care for her as a person.
She leaned to the side and let her left hand slide into the water. It was cool and soothing and she watched the waves hit the boat in gentle slaps. She looked up and saw that, on one side of the bank, there were lush green paddy fields, with the usual mud partitions.
She heard Pritam ask the boatman, “What is your name?”
“Manik Das,” the boatman said, as he pulled on a beedi, and made an inhaling sound of pleasure.
“Manik Babu, why do you have such a low cabin?” Pritam asked. “It’s impossible to sit properly and to stand up is out of the question.”
“The cabin is not used for standing or sitting,” Manik said in a flat voice.
“So, what is it used for?”
“You can make a guess.”
“To make love. Is that what you are trying to say?”
“Yes Sir. Do you need to stand or sit for that?”
“How can people make love when you can see them clearly?” Pritam said.
The boatman gave a mocking smile, revealing pan stained red teeth. “I have a cane partition. When lovers ask me to close the entrance, I ask for money.”
“How much?”
“Well, I am a cunning fox,” Manik said, as he stroked a week’s grey stubble. “I wait for them to get excited. Because once a man gets excited, he is no longer in his senses and does not care for money. So, I ask for a hundred rupees to close the entrance.”
“A hundred rupees,” Pritam exclaimed. “You are fleecing them. They should refuse.”
Manik smiled and flicked the beedi into the river.
“Sir, why don’t you try? You will see how easily you will part with the money.”
Pritam wondered whether it was true. But first he had to get into the mood. He closed his eyes and visualised Antara nude, like she was yesterday evening in the hotel room that he had hired for three hours on Sudder Street. He felt a quickening of his heartbeat. Despite his sarcastic comment about her bum, she had big breasts, a narrow hip, and flawless skin. Her legs were smooth and muscular; she had thick calves. Overall, she had a voluptuousness that was addictive. And when she began licking his body from his face all the way down…he felt a shiver of excitement pass through his body. ‘What was Swati compared to this woman,’ he thought. ‘It is the difference between a desert and an ocean. Swati is dry, boring, dull while Antara is wet all over, all invitation and pleasure. What a mobile tongue she has.’
He looked at Antara, sitting with her face resting on her knee, one hand still in the water.
“Antara,” he called out softly, “come in, let’s have some fun.”
“No,” she said, not looking at him. “I am not in the mood. Stop pestering me.”
Antara could be harsh, at times, and Pritam felt embarrassed by her show of exasperation in front of the boatman. He leaned back, as if trying to hide from her reproach. He cleared his throat and said, “Manik babu, my wife is not interested. So tell me, what sort of people come?”
“All sorts,” Manik said, the mocking smile firmly in place. “Most of them are college students having their first love affair. They have no place to go where they can get some privacy. So they come here for some fun.
“Nowadays, more people are having affairs. Women are getting bolder. But I have observed that when these lovers get married, it usually does not last very long.”
“So are you saying that arranged marriages are the best way?” Pritam said.
“Times have changed,” Manik replied. “When I was young, I could not imagine that I could disobey my father and marry somebody of my choice. But I am happy now. I have a wife and four children, two sons and two daughters, who are married. I have to admit I have problems with my sons. One is a school dropout and an idler while the other is a drug addict.”
“Were you very strict with them?” Pritam asked.
“Not at all. In fact, I was very tolerant. I did not scold them. Perhaps that was why they do not obey me.”
“Besides college students, who else comes?” Pritam said, changing the topic.
“Those who are having extra-marital affairs. Maybe, they are unhappy in their marriages, I don’t know. But you can spot them immediately. They have a guilty look on their faces and the woman tries to hide her face with one end of the pallu. I punish them by charging exorbitant rates. One hundred and fifty for a ride and hundred to close the entrance.”
“They don’t say the rate is too much,” Pritam said, smiling.
“They just want to have fun and don’t care. When the man returns after the fun is over, he might regret it but it is too late.”
“Do they go all the way?”
Manik smiled. “If you are paying two hundred and fifty rupees, won’t you go all the way? And these are married people, they have experienced sex before, they will not be satisfied with a little bit of kissing, holding hands and staring at the water and talking romantic nonsense.”
Pritam fell silent. He watched Manik push the oar into the water and pull it up in a mechanical manner. A steamer boat, with a viewing deck, went past, carrying a group of young men and women, in t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. They were laughing and singing songs, accompanied by clapping. A couple of the men were drinking beer from cans. Manik raised a palm of recognition to the other boatman.
They remained silent for a few minutes. Then Pritam said, “Tell me, Manik Babu, what is the secret of happiness?”
Manik did not reply at once. Instead, he pushed the oar a few times. Then he said, “Happiness is when you have a wife, who does not nag, who is understanding and kind-hearted. A wife makes a big difference to a man’s life. A good woman is a rare and great thing.”
“Do you not get bored with your wife?” Pritam said.
“To be honest, yes, at times, I do. Things change when the children come and your wife’s attention is diverted. Tell me, are you married?”
The question was abrupt and unexpected.
“Of course, I am,” Pritam said, his eyes widening in surprise, “why do you ask?”
“Just like that,” Manik said, staring at Antara sitting on the other end, “does your wife work?”
“No,” Pritam said, instinctively realising that Manik was looking for a negative answer.
“You must make sure that she does not work in an office,” Manik said, in a sotto voce. “Women get tempted easily. Young men are infatuated by these young married women, or boudis, as they are called in Bengali. They feel that the boudis are only interested in sex and not in sentimental talk. Boudis do go to bed with these young studs because they are bored with their ageing husbands, who are not as active as when they just got married. You have to be careful.”
Pritam looked at Antara but she seemed to be lost in a world of her own, with her face still on her knees.
“I agree,” Pritam said, “but how do you know all this?”
“I am not talking from direct experience,” Manik admitted. “I have friends who work in offices in Calcutta and they tell me many stories.”
Pritam nodded. Again, there was a silence.
Then Manik suddenly said, “Young man, you should lead a clean life. Love your wife and children. Look after them properly. By looking at you, I know that you are a serious person. Your wife also looks very serious and quiet. Is she always like this?”
“She is a serious type,” Pritam agreed. “But she is a good person.”
“Then you are lucky,” Manik said. “A world without nagging woman, that is the only way there will be peace on earth. But your wife looks far younger than you.”
“Yes I agree,” Pritam said, licking his lower lip with the tip of his tongue. “People tell me that all the time, and I take it as a compliment.”
Manik had a half smile on his face.
Some time later, Pritam asked Antara, “Are you enjoying the ride?”
“It’s much cooler outside,” Antara said, shading her eyes. “You can come out.”
“It’s okay, the hour is almost over,” Pritam said, happy to hear the conciliatory note in her voice.
Once again, there was a silence. The boat was now heading towards the direction of the shore and, within a matter of minutes, they reached the bank. Manik tied a wet brown rope around a bamboo shaft that was embedded in the ground. Pritam took out his purse and gave the boatman three crisp ten rupee notes.
“Thanks for an interesting conversation,” Pritam said, as they stood on the bank, “you are wise. I have learnt something about life from you.”
“Thank you,” Manik said, raising the notes and pressing it to his forehead, “we are always learning something new every day.”
A couple arrived, the woman fluttering her eyelids, the man smiling bashfully and the haggling began. A price was finally fixed and they got into the boat. Manik turned towards Pritam and said, “Goodbye, have a good marriage.”
Pritam waved and the boat began to move towards the middle of the river. Pritam and Antara climbed up the bank and walked through a deserted field, besides the Bandel church.
“You are a bloody hypocrite,” Antara said, suddenly, her eyes filled with venom.
“What do you mean?” Pritam said.
“How can you pretend all along that I am your wife? I was listening to the conversation that you had with that boatman. He is a lecherous guy. All the time, he was staring at my breasts.”
“I didn’t notice that he was letching at you,” Pritam said defensively. “But he said some good stuff. Antara, how else can I introduce you except as my wife? You don’t expect me to walk around with a sign saying, ‘We are committing adultery. Please look at us.’”
“Then, don’t say anything,” Antara said. “Say that I am a friend. What’s wrong with that?”
“There is nothing wrong. But people are not broad-minded in these rural parts, they will come to all sorts of conclusions,” he said.
Antara realised that what he said was right. Yet, an anger smouldered within her. Perhaps she was feeling frustrated at the position she was in. They saw a priest in a white cassock and with curly black hair coming towards them.
As the priest came abreast, Pritam said, “Hello father, going for a walk?”
“Yes,” the priest replied, stopping suddenly. “I like to go to the bank in the evenings. You get a good breeze.”
“We have just returned from a boat ride. My name is Pritam Ghosh and this is my wife Antara.”
“Hello,” the priest said, looking at Antara, “I am Fr. George Joseph. I am the parish priest.”
“Father, tell me something, do you know the boatmen well?”
“I know some of them,” Fr. George replied.
“Do you know of a boatman called Manik Das?”
“Yes, yes, I know Manik,” Fr. George said. “He is famous in these parts. He has a wife and family, also two mistresses, and all have children by him. I have no idea how he maintains them. His wife comes regularly to the church to pray, although she is a Hindu. She is a simple person. Don’t be misled by Manik’s smooth tongue.”
“He didn’t look the type to me,” Pritam said, biting his lower lip, puzzled by this new facet of the boatman. “He seemed like a wise person. He gave me some good advise about life.”
“Everybody can give lectures about life and how we should all live,” Fr. George said, “but how many of us practise what we preach?”
“You are right,” Pritam said, smiling. He was finding it difficult to believe that Manik had a rakish past.
“Where are you from?” asked Fr. George.
“We are from Calcutta,” Pritam said. “I work in a software firm. Antara works as a receptionist. We came here for a day, to get away from the pollution.”
“Yes, Calcutta is very polluted,” the priest said, “that is why I rarely go to the city.”
“But if you need a good job you have to stay in the city, pollution or no pollution,” Pritam said.
“I agree,” Fr. George replied.
“Tell me Father,” Pritam said, as he looked at his watch, “it’s 4.50 now. At what time can we get a train to go back?”
“If you hurry, you can catch the next local at 5.28,” Fr. George said.
They wished each other goodbye and moved off.
“How innocently you behave,” Antara said, as they walked towards the cycle rickshaw stand, “I wonder what Fr. George would have felt if he knew that we are not married to each other and that you are married to somebody else.”
“He would have said that Casanova is not dead, long live Casanova,” Pritam said, breaking out into a smile.
“You take everything as a joke,” Antara said, giving an irritated slap to Pritam’s shoulder, “including our affair.”
“What you expect me to do?” he said, as he stopped smiling suddenly. “Be practical, Antara. I can’t understand why you are so pissed off today. You have been in a complaining mood the whole day, what’s the problem?”
For some time, Antara did not say anything. They got onto a cycle rickshaw and then Antara said, “I am tired of being your mistress. I want to be married to you.”
“What can I do?” Pritam said, looking at her. “You know how stubborn and vindictive Swati can be. What can I do if she refuses to give me a divorce? You tell me, what should I do?”
“I hate her,” Antara said, with sudden venom in her voice. “She is so jealous and a total bitch. I don’t know how you tolerated her for ten years.”
“Man is an adaptable asshole,” Pritam said, waving his hands in front of him to blow away the dust raised by a passing bus. “He can adapt to shrews and nagging women.”
“But then I saved your life,” Antara said.
“Oh no, you haven’t,” Pritam said, shaking his forefinger from side to side. “Not until I have got my divorce. And you know that she has so many demands. So much for alimony, so much for child support. One would think I am a millionaire.”
“Why don’t we threaten her?” Antara suggested.
“Like how?”
“You know, hire a hoodlum, and make him go to the house and threaten her.”
“You think the bitch is going to be scared. She is going to run to the cops and then she will run to all the neighbours and say that Pritam probably arranged all this. You know what I mean. I have to live in that area, Antara. I cannot leave. I have a building with eight flats in my name. I need the money from the rents. No, no, it is not practical at all. You know her better than me. Do you think it is a feasible plan?”
“We could get her killed,” Antara suggested.
Pritam stared at Antara, with his mouth open. “Are you out of your mind? You are talking murder, here, of your own sister. It is not a joke, to say that we can kill her. And how do you know that we won’t get caught? The police will investigate. Some clues may be left behind. The murderer could be caught and then be traced to us.”
“Not if you do a supari. We can get in touch with the underworld. For Rs. 5000, you can get somebody bumped off. The killer will be from out of the state. Probably from a village in Uttar Pradesh. There is no way that he is going to get caught.”
“You are talking out of your hat, Antara. The moment she is killed, suspicion will fall on me, and maybe you. Who knows how the cops think? We will be hauled in for questioning. They might use torture to get the truth out of us. You understand? We might spill the truth, against our will.”
Antara stared at Pritam and suddenly realisation seemed to strike her. She nodded and said, “You are right. It was a bad idea. Forgive me, I am feeling very frustrated.”
“You have to keep your nerve,” Pritam said, holding her hand. “If we have to win, we have to remain calm. And be patient. If we make one wrong move, we will end up regretting it for the rest of our life.”
“But what do we do, if she does not agree to a divorce?” Antara asked.
They reached the station and Pritam gave Rs 10 to the driver. As they walked towards the platform, after buying the tickets, Pritam said, “We have to find an intelligent way out.”
“So give me some ideas, Mister Smart,” she said.
“I don’t know Antara. It is a complicated situation. I have my two daughters to think about. As a father, I am responsible. I mean, I have no problem in paying child support, but I would also like to guide their lives.”
“You can’t have everything,” Antara said. “You have to compromise a bit. You are thinking about the feelings of everybody else except me.”
“That is not true,” Pritam said, as he saw tears well up in Antara’s eyes. “To be frank, I don’t know what to do.”
“Which is why I suggested bumping Swati off.”
“No, I don’t want to commit murder, nothing is that important,” he said, as the train arrived and they got in into an empty bogie and sat down at two window seats.
“I think the train is empty today because it is a holiday,” Pritam said, as he looked around.
They were silent. Pritam could feel a sense of claustrophobia assail him. He was being hemmed in from all sides. His wife’s constant nagging, his daughters’ never ending demands for clothes, cassettes, pocket-money, and what have you. The stresses in the office, and Antara’s frustration. Sometimes, he wished that he had not initiated this affair with Antara, which had complicated his life.
Antara began living with them when she began studying for a literature degree from Lady Brabourne College. For a long time, Pritam had been unhappy with his sex life with Swati. She was unresponsive and uninterested. Antara was the opposite of Swati, always laughing, vivacious, fun loving and outgoing. In short, she seemed to enjoy life.
One Saturday night, almost a year after she had come to live with them, they were alone together. Swati and the children had gone to her parents’ place in Shibpur. Antara said she did not want to go, as she had wanted to prepare for her mid-term examinations. Pritam told Swati he would come on Sunday morning, as he did not enjoy spending the night at his in-laws place.
That night, Pritam and Antara had watched an English film on Star movies and had dinner together. Pritam, for the first time, wondered how good Antara would be in bed. He had not thought about this earlier because as his sister-in-law, he knew it was forbidden territory. But that night, he felt frustrated and was enjoying her company. She was wearing a pink sleeveless nightie and he noticed that she had smooth arms. The nightie came up to her knees and he observed that her legs were also smooth and clean-shaven. Quite unlike Swati, who rarely shaved her legs despite repeated requests by Pritam. He told his wife that there was nothing more ugly than hairy legs and arms and even underarms, but she was too lazy to do anything and felt there was no need to excite her husband. Definitely not after ten years of marriage.
Swati did not like to so many things. She did not like to see movies or read books or have an intelligent conversation. She rarely dressed well and was always shouting at the children. The only thing she enjoyed doing was to gossip with the neighbourhood wives.
After dinner, Pritam and Antara repaired to their own bedrooms. He closed his eyes and immediately he was assailed by images of Antara with her smooth legs and arms. He masturbated silently but decided not to come. He wondered whether he should go to her room. There was always a possibility that she could slap him since she was his sister-in-law. But he had an intuition that she might not.
He tossed and turned about, wondering what to do.
Finally, at midnight, he mustered the courage to go to her room. ‘Fortune favours the bold,’ he thought. ‘Might as well give it a try. Either she will slap me or I will seduce her. There is no way of knowing the answer unless I give it a shot.’
He went to her room, stunning her for a brief while when he lay down beside him. Then he leaned sideways and hugged her. She lay stiff as a statue. Then he kissed her in the mouth and kneaded her breasts. Within a few moments, the swiftness vanished from her body and she began to respond with her tongue, which was soft and very wet, as all tongues are. But he felt that Antara’s tongue was wetter than Swati’s.
She was a natural in bed and took him in the mouth that first time. This was something which Swati had never done in their many years of marriage because she found it distasteful. But Antara had no such problems. And she was so good at it, that he easily climbed the peaks of ecstasy and he wondered, not for the first time, whether she had any prior experience. She knew a lot of things about lovemaking and when he did enter her, on another night, she did not stain the sheets with her blood. So, Antara, clearly, was not a virgin.
It was the start of their relationship. They managed to keep it secret from Swati and the daughters. They ensured that there was never any show of affection when they were around. Since Antara had the excuse of having to go to college every day, they would arrange to meet at a hotel room and spend a few hours there.
It was all so exciting. And Antara had a friend, Mallika, whose sister lived in America and she would send her the latest lingerie. Once or twice, Mallika had gifted black thongs to Antara and when she wore it in the hotel room, with black high heels, Pritam felt so excited that he almost came, just by looking at her. Antara looked like the women he saw on the porn sites at the cyber café in Park Circus that he frequented on most weekends.
But frustration was creeping into Antara. She did not like this second-class situation that she was in. She wanted legitimacy. She had no real feelings for Swati, who was ten years older than her. By the time she was a teenager, Swati had already been married and had left the house.
“I have another idea,” she whispered.
“Tell me,” Pritam said.
“We can arrange for her to have an accident. You know, when she is crossing the road and somebody runs her over,” she said.
Pritam looked outside the window. The sun was setting. It was a cool December evening. Again, the paddy fields stretched out as far as the eye could see. There was something wondrous about the scene and here in a train, he was sitting and discussing how to kill his wife, with his sister-in-law. A year earlier, if somebody had predicted this would happen, he would have laughed out aloud, thinking about the improbability of it all. ‘But life is strange,’ he thought, as he saw Antara look at him with an expectant look.
‘The problem with women,’ he thought, ‘was that they do not know how to compartmentalise sex, the way men do. It has to get mixed up with their emotions and then reason and logic does not work.’ That was what was happening to Antara, he realised. Basically, he just enjoyed the sex and did not want to complicate his life. But she wanted some semblance of permanence to the relationship.
“It seems like a good idea,” he said and saw a gleam in her eyes. A few moments later, he had a revelation. The look was one of greed and he suddenly realised that if he married her, his own life could be in danger. If Antara had no problems in killing off her sister, then she could easily bump off her husband and get the property for herself. A shiver ran through Pritam but he ensured that his face revealed nothing.
“Do you know of anybody who can do it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she nodded her head vigorously. “Do you know of my friend Mallika, the one who gave me the thongs?”
“Yes, I remember the name.”
Antara looked around and then leaned forward and said in a whisper, “Her father is a politician, with lots of contacts. He can get this done easily.”
“But then he will come to know about it,” Pritam said. “And that is risky. The news can get leaked. We will be beholden to them.”
For some moments, Antara frowned. Then she said, “I can go through Mallika. She will not betray me.”
“How can you be so sure? She is just a friend of yours,” Pritam said, sounding skeptical.
Again, Antara paused and looked around. The bogie remained empty as before. The rattling sound of the wheels hitting the tracks made it difficult for anybody to hear their conversation, even if they were around.
“Look, I am going to tell you a secret, but don’t be shocked by it.”
“What is it?” Pritam said, feeling his heart suddenly go thud thud.
“We are lovers,” Antara said.
“What do you mean?” Pritam asked, not understanding what Antara was trying to say.
“I am a bisexual, Pritam,” Antara said. “Mallika and I are lovers.”
Pritam opened and closed his mouth a few times. He was unable to say anything.
“Relax Pritam, if you keep opening and closing your mouth, flies will rush in,” she said, smiling a little.
“Amazing,” he finally said, shaking his head from side to side.
“Relax, at least I have been honest about it.”
“How long has this affair being going on?”
“Maybe, a year or less, I cannot say exactly. She is a very beautiful girl, I couldn’t resist.”
“No wonder she presented you with the thongs, she wanted to see you wearing it herself,” Pritam said.
“Exactly,” Antara said.
Pritam suddenly felt his throat go dry. He wondered whether all this was an elaborate plan by Antara. To start an affair and then get married to him, by bumping off the sister, and then probably kill him off. But then he realised that it was he who made the first move although she made sure that she was at home when Swati wasn’t.
“Excuse me, I want to go to the toilet,” he said.
Inside the toilet, as he pissed, he realised that Antara was far more complicated than he had realised. He felt that he could be playing with fire now. Things could really backfire and he could end up losing his life. But he wondered what to do now. Clearly, he had to finish the relationship but he did not know how to go about it. What a revelation this outing had been. Once again, his wife was at her parents’ place in Shibpur, while Antara told Swati that she was going for a picnic with her friends. And he had told Swati that he had some urgent project to finish and hence had to go to office. Maybe these lies were all for the good. He understood what he was up against. He took a deep breath and as he stepped out, instead of sitting next to her, he stood at the doorway, allowing the breeze to cool down his flushed face. After a while, Antara joined him at the door and held on to the rod in the middle of the entrance.
“So what do you think?” she asked.
“It seems like a good idea, but I have to think about it,” he said.
“Think fast, there is not much time,” Antara said.
“What do you mean?” he asked, looking intently at her.
Antara stared at him and her eyes widened.
“I don’t know what I meant by that,” she said, shaking her head.
Pritam realised that he was in trouble. There was no way that she would just allow him to give up on the relationship.
“Will you also kill me after we get married?” he asked.
“What are you talking about? I love you!” she exclaimed.
“Then what about Mallika? Do you also love her?”
“Yes, I love both of you.”
“You will have to make a choice,” he said.
“Why should I? We can have a menage a trois. It can be fun.”
He experienced a sudden hard on when she said that. For a few moments, he visualised two women in bed with him. It was exciting but in the sort of situation he was in, it could become very complicated and dangerous.
“I am not sure. It can also be a mess. Mallika could get jealous. She might not want to share you with me.”
She stared at him for a few moments and then said, “You are right. She is a lesbian and is mad about me.”
At that moment, he was sure that they were planning to kill him. It was an intuition and Pritam realised suddenly that his life was in danger. ‘What do I do now?’ he thought.
As he gripped the rod and leaned outside, he saw a train bearing down on the other track, and before he knew what was happening, he had stepped back and pushed Antara into the path of the oncoming train. Later, he would remember the image. Antara, her hands and legs outstretched, in a desperate bid to fall backwards and then her falling on to the track in slow motion and the engine rushing over her. There was a wild cry that was quickly smothered by the rattle of the wheels on the tracks as the train whizzed past.
With a thudding heartbeat, Pritam stepped back in shock and horror, holding his hands in front of his face, trying to ward off the fear that arose in him like a tidal wave. He rushed into another compartment. He wanted to be where other people were. He was afraid to be alone, to confront the horrible action that he had done, on the spur of the moment.
There was an aged couple sitting at a window and a groundnut vendor, in white shirt and pyjamas, sitting cross-legged on the floor, near the entrance, his basket in front of him. He was counting currency notes with the rapt concentration of a chess player.
Pritam sat at an empty window seat and felt a trembling in his hands and legs. Everything happened so suddenly and it was clear that she was dead. There was no way that she could have survived. After a few moments, he looked out of the window and saw that the red light at the back of the last carriage of the other train had become still. In other words, the train had come to a stop.
He wondered whether he would be caught. Two people knew that he had gone to Bandel with Antara: the boatman and the priest. But would they connect him to the girl? It depended on what the police did. If they regard the case as one of suicide, they might wait for a few days and then dispose of the body. She had no id cards with her. In fact, she had not carried any bag with her. But if there is an alert in all the stations about a missing girl, then things could get heated up.
Even though nobody knew that he had gone to Bandel with her. Unless, of course, Antara told Mallika. Even if she had, there was no way that it could be proved that they were together. Unless, of course, the police interrogated the boatman and the priest. And it was not impossible for that to happen.
If Mallika told the police that Antara and Pritam were having an affair and that they had gone to Bandel church, it would be easy to prove that they had been together. Manik Das and Fr. George could put the knife into him. God, there were so many imponderables. Either, he would come through cleanly or his life was going to become a mess.
His one option was to meet Mallika and then try to prove to her that they had not gone to Bandel, provided, of course, that Antara did tell her that they were going to Bandel. If she had not, that would complicate the matter further. He decided to do nothing but to keep his fingers crossed and hope for the best. He vowed that he would never get involved with women any more. ‘It is better to go to a high class prostitute in Sonagachi,’ he thought, as darkness gathered like a thick blanket outside the window.

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