Yet, two decades had dissolved away like ice in lukewarm drinks. They hadn’t gone anywhere.
His debts had piled so high, he could no longer think of leaving. And now, with his heart condition, who knew what sort of treatment was available in Calcutta, where there were no health plans.
Once in a while, when he would look around his decrepit store—at the cracked linoleum floor, the creaking door that didn’t close unless properly, the dirty curtains whose colour had faded to an indistinguishable cream––the possibility of going back home flickered in his mind like a wavering flame. But he’d look up and down Lexington and realize that once he left, Gopal would die of diabetes, Nafisa, who was still stuck on her citizenship process, may wind up deported and Mohon like a crumbling terracotta statue would turn to dust in his store.
Twenty years. Washed away by the monsoon rain; had drifted far across the continents. But instead of being lifted into the endless skies he had landed somewhere in the rough. Even now he could picture his young self in the same blue blazer with gold buttons––one hand tucked smartly inside grey trouser pockets, sifting through the crowd at a party at the club, a glass of whisky in his right. And the women. Oh the women. He would ease the empty drinks from their hands, fill them at the bar and take a turn with them around the far end of the garden where few guests strayed. They talked about their lonely lives at home. He told them he understood.
How differently his mornings had begun in Calcutta––a walk around Victoria Memorial after which Bhaskar used to drive him to the club, that wonderful chilli cheese toast he had for breakfast. Invariably he bumped into a golf buddy, or a colleague, who pulled up a chair. And if no one came, he sat underneath the shamianah on his own, feeding the stray dogs, watching a ball that had just teed off; following its course till he couldn’t find it anymore; till the wind carried it away. In twenty years, Calcutta had been reduced to a fond memory. Usha still considered it her other life.
As he walked in, she raised her head but didn’t say anything. He too raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement of her presence. This is how they spoke after forty years of marriage––with signs and gestures. Lexington Avenue divided Mr Munshi’s life into two distinct halves. On one side was Mohon’s endless chatter, on the other, his wife’s infinite silence.
Usha went home too often– every year, sometimes twice. She never told anyone in Calcutta they owned a shop on Lexington. She called it, “our business.” She told them stories about the conventions and the Pujas and their clients from California and Texas; how Mimi was receiving top marks and writing beautifully. She was sure to become a poet one day.
At first it used to annoy Mr Munshi but not anymore. Nowadays he looked forward to December. When she was gone his teatime with Mohon extended till ten. Sometimes, the shopkeeper came by to share with Mr Munshi packed lunches he brought from home. His wife made a delicious cauliflower dish.
He put his hand in his breast pocket to feel for his credit card. It was still there––tucked inside a folded post-it note, which contained a list of errands he had to run that morning. Mr Munshi suddenly remembered that he had promised Usha he would buy a present for her niece. She had asked him this almost a week ago, when she had already collected most of the other gifts for the family—soaps, lotions, chocolates, baby clothes. Of course he had forgotten. But his wife would surely remember today. The thing with Usha, he had learned over these years, was that when she found one problem, she suddenly remembered twenty other things to complain about.
He turned back and walked down to the pharmacy, which was thankfully open. He looked up and down the shampoo aisle, the soap aisle and finally lingered by the creams. Mr Munshi stared at the fancy labels and pictures and high price-tags and decided this would please his wife, who insisted that the gifts couldn’t be anything ordinary and a certain amount had to be spent in order to appear generous.
Today, Mr Munshi feared, she was likely to complain to him again. She was sure to say that she didn’t like her breakfast or, that had he gone to the travel agent’s earlier, they could have chosen better seats, an earlier flight, received a better deal. After forty years, he could smell her discontentment like the stale oil that hung from the air and the tattered awnings of the stores around him; that settled between the cracks in the sidewalks and the potholes on the streets and the rusted chairs that were placed outside the dhaba. Perhaps, he thought, he could hang around Mohon’s a little longer. He could tell Usha he was helping him with some accounting. But Mohon just didn’t know when to keep quiet. Twenty years on Lexington and Mr Munshi felt he had nowhere to go.