In the middle of any winter's day, when the sun had risen directly overhead, Shobhana would be carefully arranging the couple of Bengali newspapers, the copies of Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Chandi, and the spectacle case beside the bed on the red carpet on the long first-floor balcony facing west. In the meantime, her father-in-law, Shekharnath, would have finished his midday meal. Having rinsed his mouth and wiped his face with a towel, he would drag his unsteady, eighty-year-old body onto the balcony.
Reading his religious books and newspapers in the middle of the day had been Shekharnath's cherished habit for a long time, but in recent years he had become severely racked by arthritis. From time to time he had excruciating pain in his shoulders and hips and felt as though someone had thrust a burning hot blade into them. Physiotherapy and strong doses of medicine had had little effect. Nowadays, once his lunch had settled in his stomach, his eyelids would get heavy and any more reading of his books or newspapers would send him off to sleep.
When he went out on the first-floor balcony, the rays of the midday sun shone steadily across his legs, but as the sun tended towards the west, its warmth gradually spread over his entire body, providing a tonic that he badly needed. Today, as on other days, Shekharnath fell asleep almost as soon as he had lain down, and when he woke up, it was well into the afternoon. The sun had gradually moved behind the tall buildings and trees to the west.
Awake, Shekharnath continued to lie there. He took his round bifocal glasses from their velvet case and put them on. His whole body was bathed in the balm of the dim golden sunshine of the late afternoon. He knew that Shobhana would soon come with a cup of saccharine-sweetened tea and that no sooner would he finish it than the last of the day's light would start to fade. The winter evening would fall softly, and the temperature would suddenly drop a few degrees. Then Shobhana would not let her father-in-law stay a moment longer on the open balcony but would hurriedly take him inside. Shekharnath was waiting for that.
It was Sunday. [End Page 101]
At the other end of the balcony, a group of yellow-beaked blackbirds scampered about, now and then bursting into a joyous chirping, while from the ground floor came a tremendous racket, which meant that Sandip, Shobhana, Raja, and Ruku were engaged in a lively game of table tennis or carom.
Sandip, an executive of a leading multinational company, was Shekharnath's one and only son, and Raja and Ruku were his grandchildren. Raja was studying first-year English honours at St. Xavier's, and Ruku was in Class Eleven at Calcutta Girls'. Sandip and Shobhana were like friends to their children, spending their spare time with them in conversation, watching good videos, or playing such games as carom. No sound was coming from anywhere other than the frenzy of the blackbirds and the frivolity downstairs.
In front of the house was thirty-foot-wide Abhay Haldar Road, which ran straight to the tramline. On the other side of the road was a middling-size park. In Shekharnath's neighbourhood, most of the houses were of one or two storeys, though there were several of three storeys, while on the other side of the park there was a stretch of high-rise buildings.
There was hardly anyone on Abhay Haldar Road, and on the main road only one or two trams and a truck or a minibus were running, seemingly in no hurry and with no destination. Further on, in the park, countless children wearing various-coloured clothes ran all about, and groups of mothers or nurses watched over them. It was like a scene in a silent movie in Eastman colour.
Shekharnath was sitting up and looking out at the road. The blanket around him had come loose, and as he was slowly readjusting it, he noticed a taxi...