“Alright, let’s see the next one- if ten pencils cost 100 rupees, what is the cost of one pencil? Say, Mukul, rack your brains for once!” The haggard looking father tried hard to grasp his 10 year-old son’s attention. He was using the torn face of a carton to carry out the calculations. His filthy shirt almost fell off him, yet the spine chilling cold of January didn’t seem to bother him much. He was heavily engrossed in Mukul’s sums.
Mukul was least bothered about his father’s ceaseless efforts. He lay there grinning at his mother’s customers, a big bowl of puffed rice in his hands. He was in the fifth standard of the nearby government school. It was Saturday and school got over at 11.30. The sun was overhead and the quaint village by the river glistened peacefully. This was bliss and his father’s incessant questions were non-existent. Inaudible.
Mr. Chakraborty was Mukul’s mother’s customer. She was renowned for her priceless guavas, from her own tree. She felt gratified to have customers like Mr. Chakraborty who had come all the way from Kolkata. She always ensured not to disappoint them. Mukul’s father’s plight amused Mr. Chakraborty as well as his son.
“Why, Mukul? Don’t you like studying?” Mr. Chakraborty ridiculed, with a loving smile.
“Arey, Dada! You don’t know him. He is grasped by all the diseases of the world simply at the name of studies. Either his stomach aches or he feels giddy, or feels too weak to even open his eyes, or any other ailment under the sun.” Mukul’s mother said complainingly.
“I haven’t asked him to do a single sum. I just asked him to watch me. Even that doesn’t satisfy him,” Mukul’s father laughed. Mr. Chakraborty noticed how clearly Mukul resembled his father. Their grins were hard to distinguish. He caught Mukul’s father pass a covert smile to his wife, a smile that radiated their love for their son in spite of all odds.
Mr. Chakraborty couldn’t help but remember his wife, Sujata. Her gentle comportment, her mild and loving ways, her ever supportive nature , the aura of beauty and humanity which always surrounded her, her infinite, inexplicable love for their son -everything flashed across his mind. But, the thought of that night lingered on. That pit, the shattered car, the dark, lonesome surroundings, her scream, his escape, her death. The days when he was convinced he could no longer go on. The emptiness that had engulfed his life, his being. Yet, his son’s innocent, loving face had given him the courage, the motivation. His son played the double-role for him from then on.
Now Sushanta, his son, was 14. On the verge of becoming a man, Sushanta loved his father dearly. He knew what his onus really was. And he lived up to it.
“That will be 30, Dada,” Mukul’s mother’s voice brought him back. Just as he was about to take out the money from his purse, he was startled by the helpless yells of a woman behind him.
“My son! Oh, my son! They have robbed me of my son! My son!” a shabbily dressed middle-aged woman with the dirtiest hair was groping around, tears streaming across her unclean face, her eyes nearly smoldering with anxiety. Most of the villagers around were grinning knowingly.
“She’s a madwoman, dada. Don’t bother about her cries,” Mukul’s mother said, reading the puzzled expression on Mr. Chakraborty’s face, “They are only trying to test her. She lost her mind few years back, some say it was because her husband left her. They’ll return her boy soon.”
“See, I told you! She may have lost her mind, but she never lost her love for that kid,” one of the women remarked knowledgably.
“A mother’s love never dies. The world would have died if that happened,” said another.
“Even if the world goes upside down, a mother never stops loving her child,” Mukul’s father added, with the same grin on his drawn face.
The madwoman walked back with her child, holding on to him tightly, as if no force could snatch him away from her.
Mr. Chakraborty paid for the guavas and walked towards the bank of the river. Sushanta clasped his hands as they stood by the river. The river reddened as it prepared itself to devour the bright sun.
The silhouettes of the father and son stood there for a long time. Together.