They sit on the veranda every afternoon; an old man and an old woman. The man is in his seventies with white hair thinning in the middle. He wears a fatua with lungi on warm days and panjabi or full shirt on cooler days. The woman always wears sarees. They live in the apartment facing mine on the other side of my narrow lane in Dhanmondi. I feel I have known them for years, while in truth I do not even know their names. But I notice the way they look at each other, nod and smile. They seem like a couple that have walked a long way together and are now waiting patiently for the journey to end.
The man probably suffers from diabetes. I have seen the woman vehemently shaking her head on many occasions when he asks for a second spoonful of sugar, or a second helping of rosogolla. Their afternoon tea is an interesting affair. The woman pours tea for him and offers him sandwiches into which he bites gingerly. Obviously, he is not very fond of them. On rainy weekend afternoons, too, they sit there taking in the rain soaked neem tree right in front of their veranda. The crows sitting still on the wires watch them as do I from the window facing them. Sometimes the old man raises his feeble hands to tuck in the shawl around her. The woman coughs. She has lately developed this coughing fit and I wonder if it is mere cold, or something more serious.
One morning, I see the old man sitting by himself. Instead of the tea set he has a single cup placed on a saucer. He sits as still as a crow on electric wires.
After a few days the old woman is back in her chair. Their roles are reversed, however. The old man pours tea while the woman gazes into the distance. She seems pale and worn out; she does not wear sarees any more. Instead she wears long sleeved nightgowns. I wonder what ails her.
I was gone for a week. After a series of busy meetings and excursions in Bangkok I enter my apartment totally exhausted. On that golden afternoon, instead of my regular spot at the window, I choose to take a chair out in the small balcony right outside my bedroom. A whiff of sunlight and the slight chill of the autumnal air take me to my days of childhood when there was still time to enjoy, to reminisce and think. I bend down to look at the street from my fourth floor balcony and idly watch the passersby and street-vendors calling out.
That's when I see him sitting there. The old man is in his chair. There is no table in front of him. He is a little too far away for me to read his expressions. But he is slumped in his chair. His face is slightly upturned and his gaze fixed on something invisible hanging in the air. The cushioned chair beside him is empty; his companion nowhere to be seen. I am not sure if it is a figment of my imagination, but I think I hear a thin stream of an old tune playing somewhere, from a radio perhaps:
“Ami kaan pete roi/ O amar apon hridoy gahan daray baray baray kaan pete roi;
Kon gopon bashir kanna hashir gopon kotha shuni…”
(I strain to hear/ O I wait at the deepest core of my heart, yearning to hear;
The music of some secret flute that plays sad and happy tune…)
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at the ULAB. She is also the Deputy Editor of Star Literature & Review Pages.