She woke up to the loud smell of garlic and onions crackling away in a spoonful of mustard oil. Her mother was already at it, making the red lentil soup that she loved with almost every meal.
‘Ready to take on humanity?’ Alokanonda asked her groggy teenager, as Titas came up and gave her a well-practiced hug; the sort that mean I’m awake, sure, but still a little unsure so spare me.
‘Where’s the newspaper?’ Titas asked, ignoring her mother’s question. ‘Wondering what the final score was…you think they’re gonna have that in the papers?’
‘Not sure, I think it’s a little too early for that. But you, young lady, will be late if you don’t hurry. First day in college, you wanna make a roaring impression…don’t you?’
It suddenly struck Titas. Ma was right. Images of standing in long queues for college applications and then jostling to check out the final list filled her mind. She had made it to a top city college. Some of her friends hadn’t. But all the tears and the laughter was quite behind her now. She needed to make a fresh start, to something that meant the world to her right now.
‘Is traffic always so absurd in this part of the city?’ Alokanonda smiled a wry one. ‘Well yes, and you’d have to get used to it…so no more bourgeois comments, Titas. Youngsters your age don’t complain about mad traffic, sweltering heat, and the like. That’s more for people our age’.
‘Got it Ma…don’t start, please. I’ve got my mind full already.’
The B-Gees shrieked from the car stereo. Titas never understood her mother’s fascination for this rather odd band. If they are a bunch of men, why can’t they sing like one? But she had more important things to ponder over at that moment. Where would Neha be standing? Hadn’t she asked her to stand by the college back gate, so they could avoid getting ragged by seniors? Could Ma drop her at the back gate inconspicuously, so that nobody would notice their rickety brown fiat? Had she enough money on her to buy a diet coke and a sandwich for lunch? Ma wouldn’t approve of that lunch, but who gives a damn anyway. She was grown up at last.
‘Make sure you give me a call when you reach home. Go home with Neha…not alone…take the bus from the other side of the road, and be careful with pickpockets’, Alokanonda went on. Her last minute advice to a daughter who had grown up more quickly than she had imagined.
‘Ma, now you are being bourgeois. Give it a break.’
‘I like him. He’s kind of cute…don’t you think?’ Neha gushed, looking at a freshman in a bright blue shirt and black denim. ‘Neha, lay off, girl! It’s the first day…what are you thinking?’
‘Yes Miss Priss…’
‘Welcome, class. First day at South Remer’s and what do we have here? Ah! Let me see…a bunch of very colourful people…pretty ladies and handsome men. I’m Professor Bose…that’s my full name for you on the board. I’m going to be the head of your department here. So welcome once more.’
‘Nice…handsome prof too…Titas, nice huh?’
‘Neha, please. We’re going to be thrown out if he catches us having this idiotic conversation. I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot, please.’
‘You're not going to be thrown out, girls, relax.’ It was the guy in denim. Neha and Titas looked at him. ‘I’m Rudra. Bose likes female adulation. It’s my second year in his class, so I know.’
Professor Bose started with the attendance. He had carefully chosen his attire today. Soft brown corduroy with a pale lemon shirt. A pair of rough sneakers…salt and pepper at its best…a carefully careless stubble, and he had all their attention. The ladies in the classroom were drooling already, and the young men, hopelessly conscious of their lack. Titas noticed, he had an open shirt button. The man’s an obvious charmer.
The next class was taken by a rather odd looking gentleman. Ricardo Selva Raman. A Kerelite, with an almost footballer’s name, Titas thought. He would be teaching them Shakespeare. What a pity! With his Malayali accent and a conscious attempt to hide it, Ricardo was pretty much a joke.
Alokanonda had reached work within half-an-hour of dropping Titas in front of the college gates. And all the way, her mind was full of flashed snapshots…snapshots of Titas growing up. Actually, even more than that. Of herself getting married to Shamaresh. Ah that man! The passionate love affair, the eloped marriage…the blissful years in Vasco…Samaresh’s odd jobs in the city…his dedicated research in Pourtuguese literature…and then Titas!
Samaresh was so completely unprepared for parenthood. Was Alokanonda prepared? Well, maybe not. But the child was so pretty…quietly whining away in that old cradle, at times playing with a hanging piece of red toy…the following year, they parted ways. Samaresh, not ready for fatherhood. Alokanonda, fighting to stick on.
“Madam! Ki korchen ta ki? ‘L’ lagiye chollei to paren!” An irritated Bengali had yelled in the painful rush hours of the morning. Alokanonda’s reverie had then evaporated in the city smoke.
Late that autumn afternoon, her mobile buzzed. It was Samaresh Bose.
‘I was thinking of you. How did it go?’
‘I met her, which is to say, I glanced at her. She is so much like you! The same eyes!’
‘Did she suspect?’ There was caution in Alokanonda’s tone.
‘No, but as a student, I think she is rather enamoured by me. She came to see me in the staffroom…our daughter, with her friend in tow…in the pretext of a possible reading list on Restoration Comedy.’
‘Samaresh, I don’t wan’t her to get hurt’
‘So, how was the first day? Liked the college? Alokanonda tried to make casual conversation.
‘Ma, will have to go to College Street, and get a few books Professor Bose recommended. Oh! I have to tell you about Professor Bose. He is so completely mindblowing, Ma. I think I’ll really enjoy studying Comedy of Manners with this man.
‘Titas…I was thinking of taking a break next month’, Alokanonda decided to change the topic. Want to come along? Was thinking about the banks of Tiracol, Chapora, and Baga…and maybe some photography on the old ruins.
‘Ma…why are you so attracted to rivers…and Goa? Can’t it be something else this time?’
‘That’s because we are both rivers…Alokanonda and Titas…like these two sisters, running through life, picking up casual relationships along the way, meeting people…but flowing on…don’t you think?’
Titas didn’t know how to make sense of her mother’s words. Is she doped? Yes, ‘dope’ was the new thing that they had learnt in the last year of school. Was her mother into it? But she was sleepy, and her mind was quite full of what would happen the next day in college. They would get to know about Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence…
Ma didn’t know. She didn’t realize. What a waste!