One of our cats has been missing for about a fortnight. She is the eldest one in the clan: this April marking the completion of her tenth year in our household. She had arrived a decade back, nubile-white and with two tabby cats in her entourage. All three took permanent residence in our backyard; they were delighted with the smells of various kinds of fish emanating from our kitchen on several days of the week.
When a cat goes missing in our locality, the assumptions are none too tame. Various suggestions drop in from various quarters and no one suggests the kitty losing her way on an evening stroll or falling asleep under a rock. “Perhaps she was picked up? By those rowdy corporation school kids?” said a neighbour with a clothes dryer in hand.“
She could have been run over by a truck you know…” grimly announced a morning-walker-friend of my grandfather.“I am sure I saw a carcass under that Jal Board truck the other day.” I however doubt the truth in all such helpful curiosities. I have a feeling she has lurked into the night-life of the infamous Mother Dairy Park – and got into bad company.
We call it the Mother Dairy Park for obvious reasons: I see it everyday when I walk home with vegetables and packets of milk in my hands. When I was in school, I distinctly remember a large signboard in front of the park-gate. “Anondo Mela” it read, loosely translated to “Enjoyment Fair” – a neat red and yellow affair done up in pastel colours. The park wasn’t much of a fair, to be honest, but it did have some nice rides and swings. There was a caterpillar “slip”, with the nymph an emerald-green and an apple see-saw that had deep-carmine apple seats to lift kids up and down, up and down. But the part that excited me the most was the hatched-brown mud-house. Placed at one end of Anondo Mela, this was the refuge of several kids when they played hide-and-seek. A quiet child not inclined to join any group game, I would simply go in and out and tug at the golden-bell imaginatively hung at the door.
That morning Grandpa and I were busy with a new digital camera. It was Dad’s anniversary gift to Mom but as gifts always had a (not always legal) duty-free stay in my possession, the two of us had sneaked out with the camera hidden in a clothes-bag. I posed for a picture by the signboard, the park in the background unnaturally quiet.
“Bhattacharjee sahib, you better not bring mamoni here any more.” Gupta Uncle, a friend of my father, walked up behind Grandpa. He always called me mamoni – a Bengali endearment meaning little girl. I looked up at him questioningly. Why was this fellow ruining my mud-house trips?
Gupta Uncle had then whispered. “They say there was blood everywhere and the body slept away in pools of red all night. When a housemaid screamed this morning – she would use the park as a short cut you see… I can’t tell you what a sight it was.” He shuddered in the watery December sunlight.
“Was it anyone we know?”
“Very well.” Gupta Uncle shook his head sadly. “One of the Basu brothers. The one I met at the chicken-shop last afternoon.” He lowered his voice further, afraid of ruffling me. “They were fighting out on the road. All of us heard them shouting at each other. Rage must have led to the killing.”
Though I was too little to make much of the hushed conversation, our trips to Anondo Mela came to an end. I fretted about my mud-house and would look doe-eyed at the red and yellow signboard every time we went that way. The sole photograph I had of the park stood proudly taped at my bookshelf, Dad being sweet enough to order me a coloured print-out. Shortly after, Mom discovered a park in another block, some ten minutes from our house. The much-loved Anondo Mela was replaced in my heart.
The years have gone relentlessly by and today, Anondo Mela paints a very sad picture. The emerald-green is now a jaded dust, the apple-red seats broken with lack of maintenance. The signboard lies tattered and grey in a corner of the park – now resigned to the anonymity. The mud-house is the abode of the ugliest cats of the locality: black ones with green eyes, tiger-prints with queer, shrilly voices. The cats here could well belong to the witches of the Middle Ages, if at all the poor things ever existed. It is here that I fear our dear cat is trapped, lured by the other creatures that walk the blackest of darks.
It troubles me, the forlorn state of the haven of my days of yore. The fencing has been tightened and residents of the area have started using a section as a dump for their white elephants.
As I walked home today, carrying a weekend’s worth of vegetables from Mother Dairy, the Anondo Mela of my childhood came back to me. The greyed signboard returned to its spot near the gate, the washed-out reds and yellows came rushing back. The caterpillar “slip” once again adorned a sparkling green; the apple-red seats complete with their aquamarine fruit-plate. As the black and white world of Mother Dairy Park returned to its former resplendent splendour, my mud-house came alive with a gentle jingling of a golden bell.
The photo on my bookshelf has faded with time…the colours evaporating bit by bit to resemble the present-day truth with more precision. If I could indeed take flight with colour, I would bring back to Anondo Mela all her glorious greens and blues, her fiery autumnal shades of reds, yellows and oranges, her burgundy dusks laced with laughing and squabbling kids, and her shimmering, starlit nights.
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