Knowing people through their eyes, remembering them, loving them…. because, the eyes tell you all.
Never seen her face clear. There was always the rusty iron grid between her and us, with upturned ‘u’ hole to exchange the coins and the cans. Her hands were frail but oh! the voice was sharp. It always carried an irritated urgency, as if she was in a dire need to use the toilet and we, the tiring queue of customers in front, purposely delaying her from the relief.
She hurried every single one of different sizes, shapes and gender, but only when it came to our turn, ‘dadu-natni’, an early morning pair, which was quite frequent on the roads of Calcutta during the 70’s and 80’s, she mellowed. Her voice, which had pathetically forgotten to play the softer notes, tried it’s best to scrub off the sharp edges.
“কি!! আজ কাক কে পাউরুটি খাওয়ান হবে না?”
“Planning to feed the crows today? Uh?!”
She collected the bottles from my hand. The pair of empty glass bottles making a tinkling sound, joyous to be refilled again with the frothing sweet milk of Haringhata and maybe, who knows, would land up again tomorrow at our breakfast table. Her voice echoed the same ringtone of faint joy.
I felt shy and clutched my ‘dadu’s’ small finger. That’s the age, I suppose, when the same routine asks, could somehow manage to embarrass one, almost every day. I neither nodded nor looked up through the iron net towards her face. I knew her too less to like or to dislike, but the fact that her voice that lashed and whipped others a few seconds earlier could soften to coax small talks, made me feel uncomfortable.
Dadu was amazing. Always! He never pushed me to respond. Unlike many, he never felt humiliated when I failed to react the way a regular eight years should. He knew I was more comfortable with the four legged strays and the ever-hungry flying charcoal feathers. A small quarter bread, wrapped in butter wax paper, soft and warm was my treat at the end of the morning chore. I nibbled but fed in chunks. Some flew around me, perched and the rest wagged their tails, ears pointed high. So much attention in exchange for a slice of fermented dough!
I enjoyed that attention but not the one from behind the net from her tiny cabin which looked more like a coffin than a milk distribution booth.
“One has to be extremely skinny, right dadu, to fit in there?” I pointed to the ugly box standing at the corner of the side road.
“You can work there as well!” He didn’t laugh but I saw it in his eyes.
Even an six years old can figure out if she is humiliated. He saw my brows getting parallel to each other like the spiky caterpillars hurrying to get cover in rain.
“But then you can get to collect all the shiny bottle caps!!” His eyes twinkled. Mine too. But only for a second. Haringhata bottles, toned and full milk were corked tight with shiny red or yellow tin foils. I nodded in disagreement…or maybe, disapproval. I hated milk but treasured the caps.
“She can be a witch dadu!”
He stopped all of a sudden. He never stopped like that ever. He looked down at me and his eyes looked surprised or maybe disappointed and then a sadness settled around them. He didn’t ask and I was wise enough to know when to answer.
“That box is so dark and her nails are so battered. Have you seen the dark marks on her hand? I get scared dadu!”
He held my hand tightly. Is she a ghost of herself?
“Those are blood clots my child. When someone hits you hard, you get marks.” I froze this time. I stopped. I remember even today, where I stopped.
“Don’t see the marks Piu, see the eyes. The eyes tell you all.”
That’s all he said that day. Even today, after so many years, I still follow that. I see people through their eyes. I remember them, love them and sometimes resent one or two from what I see there, their eyes!
(Artwork: Piu Mahapatra)
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