Maya squeezed her way through the sweaty passengers, deftly moving to the back of the bus on Route L14B. The busy streets were winding down as it hid passers by in a thin blanket of charcoal smoke wafting up slowly from the roadside vendors selling forbidden delicacies ranging from roasted corn brushed with lime, to deep fried aloo chops and begunis. Colorful fabrics and handbags danced merrily from the ceilings of fabric merchants aided by the noisy breeze coming from the aging Crompton ceiling fans.Maya picked up a roasted corn, gnawing hastily while walking to the nearby pharmacy.
Alok da the pharmacist, looked up. “How’s she doing ?”Maya smiled weakly, “A lot better now, the pacemaker has helped a lot, and the doctors have advised her to stay away from stress.” Alok da, a perennial cynic, dryly noted,“No stress? Doctors think whatever they prescribe is actually possible? Oh well! ” The prescription was ready by now, Maya threw the spent cob into a wayside bin, paid for the medication, darting expressly through the dimly lit narrow lanes adjoining Bidhan Sarani, North Kolkata.
10 PM at night was not a safe hour for unescorted ladies to be out and about on the unpredictable city streets. More often than not, the attackers were Roadside Romeo’s and jilted lovers than known criminals. Maya clutched her handbag firmly with the keys to her front door clasped firmly in her right palm forming a tight fist, with the key jutting out of her forefinger like a dagger, ready to strike if need be. There was a bag of chili powder in her purse coupled with her knowledge of martial arts gleaned from various texts with practice and guidance gained from her cousin Tapan in Bhowanipore, a Black Belt 6th Dan in Judo.
The regimen was clear. In case of an attack, a sharp kick to the groin, followed by a stab to the ears, the bag of chili powder dumped in the eyes, while blowing the whistle on her keychain and fleeing by foot. Surprise and speed was the key to survival. Tapan trained her over and over again. Full face frontal, look straight into the eyes, show no signs of fear, execute maneuver. All within five seconds, better if done faster. The enemy should have no time to realize or react.
She was almost home now and had just turned a narrow corner, when her heart froze. Bultu and Socket was sitting on a low wooden plank resting on bricks in Bappa’s tea stall sipping tea lazily from saucers, gleaning at the soiled newspaper on the nearby table. There was no one else in the stall or streets, it was closing time. They were rarely seen in public, and frequented dimly lit shops in the cover of dark as a matter of choice. Their reputation preceded the duo. Bultu, a nickname derived from the motorbike he rode,Bullet by Royal Enfield, and Socket, whose shoulder was blown off its socket while making a homemade bomb.
They were a pair of misguided youth from respectable middle class Bengali families sympathetic to Left Wing causes that scared many gentle folks. Bultu was a bard and a poet who loved carrying his guitar with him on his long journeys to the forest. Socket, an incorrigible daredevil still enjoyed his jaunts mountaineering and paragliding.
Maya looked inside the stall, Bappa was busy cleaning up.Only Bultu looked at Maya, their eyes meeting briefly before Bultu looked down seeing his own reflection in the saucer. It was an unshaven face with deep set eyes burning like charcoal. The long scar on his right cheek started below his eyes and ended at the chin which he called the “lover’s kiss”. Socket pretended to look at the picture of Ma Kali on the wall calendar as Maya took another good look at Bultu before speeding off.
Bultu and Socket, there were many stories about them. Still, Maya thought it was strange why people feared them if they always had to hide. At least she looked into Bultu’s eyes, and nothing happened. The eyes were burning, not at her, but at some unknown foe arising out of deep conviction. She remembered the last time the duo knocked on
their door when her father had just passed away. Maya’s mother opened the door and motioned them in.
“Mashima, hope everything is fine. Let us know if you ever need anything. Sorry to learn of Mesho’s passing.”Bultu was sincere in his utterance. Then it was Socket’s turn, “ Mashima, give us whatever you can for this year’s puja. If not, Ma Durga’s blessings will always be with you, we will make sure the priest gets your name.”
It was Durga Puja season, and Maya’s mother prided herself in being a regular contributor to the puja chandas ever since Maya’s father moved here. “I have paid for the pujas every year and will pay this year too. You boys don’t worry, I will manage somehow.” She handed a crisp Five Hundred rupee note to the pair taken out of her aanchal and led them out of the door. Maya heard everything from her bedroom behind the bright floral curtains and she felt a grudging respect for these outlaws. They fought pitched battles against the police and other goondas. Rumors about their capture or death circulated freely until they were sighted again at some dimly lit tea stall. But here they were, polite, decent and considerate with a widow whose husband had just passed away.
Maya was walking fast, almost running, the front door of 13B Raja Peary Mohan Lane gradually approaching closer. The dark green paint on the door was peeling off slowly. Two giant brass knockers came out of the lion heads landing heavily on each side of thesolid doubledoors. Maya retrieved the key from her own fist and shoved it forcefully into the keyholegiving it a sharp twist. She went in panting and closed the heavy door behind her with a bang, when her heart froze again. Maya’s mother was slumped in the red velvet couch,her face was turning blue and she was gasping for breath.
There was no time to waste. Maya went out on the streets and started blowing her whistle. Lights turned on and off as windows opened and closed on both sides of Peary Mohan Lane. Neighbors were irritated at the shrill nuisance of the whistle disturbing their leisure and approaching slumber. Moreover, there were rumors about Maya herself.Not many people wanted to get involved with the spinster daughter of a recent widow.
Suddenly, there was a roar in the distance. A thundering Bullet was approaching Peary Mohan Lane. Two familiar figures jumped off the smoking steel. Bultu looked at Maya, “Mother, doing fine?” Maya was hysterical, “Take her to the hospital now, she is turning blue.” Bultu nodded, Socket jumped back on the rider’s seat and they roared off
as noisily they had roared in. Moments later a taxi arrived, Socket holding a knife to thedriver’s throat.
Bultu and Socket carried Maya’s mother to the taxi and it sped off towards Calcutta Medical College and Hospital.
Bultu sat on the front seat his knife now loosely touching the driver’s belly. Maya was in the back seat with her mother while Bultu roared ahead in his Bullet clearing the way for the taxi.
DSP Haldar was heading back to Lalbazar in his police Jeep after escorting another intoxicated VIP to his residence in Salt Lake on a special request from the Home Minister, when he saw a speeding motorcycle followed by a wildly weaving taxi. He turned the red flasher on his roof and charged ahead giving chase. Suddenly, the Bullet
veered left and wobbled over the tram tracks into a narrow alley. The Ambassador taxi continued like a badly injured elephant. It was time to choose. Haldar decided to tail the Bullet. A few sharp turns and nasty maneuvers later the DSP lost sight of the bike and its rider.
Bultu hopped off the bike at the Emergency Ward of the hospital. He had the stretcher ready at the entrance accompanied by two custodians reeking of phenol. The weaving taxi lumbered in through the wide open cast iron gates of the hospital. Socket hopped out of the taxi folding the knife shut and tucked it in his boots. Together they laid “Mashima” on the stretcher as Bultu looked at Maya and yelled “Run inside, there is no time to lose.” The custodians ran with the stretcher, Maya running close behind.
Sirens wailed in the distance, as Bultu and Socket jumped onto the Bullet and roared away to sip yet another cup of tea in a dimly lit roadside stall in the outskirts of Peary Mohan Lane.