"GET OUT OF YOUR SMELLY ROOMS! BLOODY MEAT-EATERS!," the aggressive yell near his window woke up Mr. Rai who had been dreaming of his deceased wife.
Snug in his comforters he tried to hold on to her face in his dreams, concentrating on her wrinkled cheeks, her gentle dark eyes and the mole just above her lips.
"COME OUT! OR I'LL CALL THE POLICE." This loud yell finally shattered his fantasy making Mrs. Rai stuck her tongue at Mr. Rai and disappear with a wink.
He left his bed and went out to his balcony, to his no surprise there was Mr. Sharma.
Mr. Sharma worked for the government in the Department of Electricity. He lived on the first floor in the Begonia Apartments where Mr. Rai had moved in on the second floor. He was also a very strict vegetarian. Onions and garlic were also banned from his kitchen as he considered them non-vegetarian as they often accompanied in preparation of meat dishes. And his most beloved enemy was Mr. Khan who also lived on the second floor. Mr. Khan was a professor of Urdu language in a highly reputed university.
Once a week there would be loud arguments be it early in the mornings or late at nights. The topics of arguments varied from the smell of garlic and onion being cooked in Mr. Khan's kitchen to the Gita Chantings being played on loudspeaker the whole day at Mr. Sharma's, disturbing the studies of Mr. Khan's children.
Mr. Rai had just moved two weeks ago to the apartment. Willing to live alone at the age of eighty with only his friend for company.
"Ravi! Quickly bring me my glasses!," not willing to lose even a second of drama taking place downstairs he urgently demanded.
Downstairs Mr. Sharma's mouth was spewing vitriol on the balcony of Mr. Khan to which no replies had come yet.
Mr. Rai looked up in the sky and seeing the sun low to the east he deemed it to be after six o'clock. Maybe the Khan family was in deep sleep at this hour.
Other neighbours had too popped out in their own balconies to watch the weekly drama unfold with some holding nuts and crackers in their hands to enjoy it fully.
After waiting for another five minutes nothing seemed to happen, so one after one they went to sleep or get started with their daily chores.
One of them informed others that he saw Mrs. Khan left with their children yesterday so maybe Mr. Khan had taken a leave to sleep peacefully.
Sounds of utensils being moved, cartoons playing on television and the Gita Chantings started in a tandem from every corner of the apartment. Only the Khan's apartment retained it's stillness.
Mr. Rai felt deeply disappointed. He walked back to his bedside, keeping down his glasses neatly, he asked Ravi to fetch him warm water to brush his teeth.
Performing his daily chores he remembered the time he used to live in Kolkata and met Ravi there.
He lived in the city for two years, the period between 1963 to 1965.
He was then a young man of twenty four who after passing the government exam had gotten the post of Ticket Collector in the Department of Railways.
His service was assigned at the Sealdah Station which was four kilometers away from Kolkata. So he packed his belongings and moved into a small colony in Belgachia. Towing him with their own belongings were his young wife and their two children.
The colony was filled with residents of different cultures and religions. There lived a french couple, a Muslim family of four, a family of Bengali Hindus migrated from East Pakistan a year ago, an Armenian family and couple of native Hindu families.
When Mr. Rai arrived, he was allotted a house by the government. He was born in the state of Bihar and his humble means didn't allow him to despice the one bedroom-kitchen house with an in-built well inside the courtyard. His children were young, where the elder one had just started school so he didn't have to worry about the lack of space.
Getting a job in government in postcolonial India was a huge brag already.
In less than a year they had started to acclimatise in this new city with its different culture and language.
Mr. Rai had always been the man of books. In the early days in Kolkata in his free time you could see him frequently using Bengali to English dictionary, trying to learn the new language. He also started listening to Tagore music played on Radio every evening. Even Mrs. Rai began to speak broken Bengali after sitting down with other women in the neighbourhood. They spent their day gossiping about the happening night life of the elites and rich at Park Street, the live music bands at Blue Fox, Mocambo and Moulin Rouge while they chewed betel leaf with areca nuts.
Mr. Rai's work at Sealdah Station was far from easy.
Sealdah Station was the terminal station that connected East Pakistan with Calcutta by the rail route. Between the 1950s and 1960s, it was the dwelling site of refugees who migrated from East Pakistan.
The Government made many efforts to clear the area as they interrupted urban life by crowding the station but were unable to.
In the winter of 1950s the Bengali Hindu family in their neighbourhood got two new members to reside in their two bedroom house making it a space shared by ten people. The patriarch of the family had a brother who refused to leave his land and house in Dhaka and move to India. In one of his letters he had written to him, "Someone else's place, Someone else's land, I reside making my house, i don't own that house."
The undercurrent problems of a partitioned country had begun to boil to surface in the recent years. East Pakistan had been rebelling more and more towards West Pakistan so his brother had sent both of his sons to India to study peacefully and decided himself to stay back.
That was the time when severe power shortages, strikes and Naxalites were damaging the infrastructure in Kolkata and the economy was going down.
Every penny spent felt like skinning their flesh so the neighbours who were doing well provided the less fortunate with food for dinner everyday.
The unrest outside had yet to touch their peaceful colony.
The families would collectively sit down together everyday for dinner and listen to news broadcasted on a radio.
All of their children played in the park outside without any awareness of their situation or difference in skin colour or their language or the gods they prayed to. All day long they sat underneath the big Mango tree, enjoying it's ripened fruit and played games or went to school donning their uniforms singing patriotic songs loudly.
The scalding hot water boiled over in the month of January of 1964 burning everyone regardless of their religion.
The morning of January 3rd, it was announced on the radio about the theft of a strand of hair of the Prophet Mohammed from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar,Kashmir.
This incident in Srinagar being the part of Indian held disputed part of Jammu & Kashmir was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
A member of the Advisory committee of the Islamic Board declared 'Fight For Islam' against all non-muslims and Hindus of East Pakistan.
More than twenty Hindus were killed over there in the next week.
The refugees of Sealdah station refused to leave the premises and more and more people began to migrate from East Pakistan looking for safety.
They all would huddle up together in the cold forming small groups, worrying about the news of killings and their relatives who still resided there while drinking hot tea from unglazed cheap clay cups held between their palms.
Mr. Rai whenver looked at their thin backs with tattered sweaters and coats he would feel his heart ache. They all had once lived in their own houses with comfort and luxury but the war had reduced them to flee, leaving all of it behind and living in cold refugee camps with nothing to their name.
They had to look for menial jobs at the station or nearby to provide for their family.
"Sir, do you have any work in your office, if you could help my son get a job even if it's for fetching tea and water, I shall be highly obliged?," One day a middle aged man had brought over his ten year old son to Mr. Rai to ask for work. His name was Ravi. His bright innocent eyes looked between his father and Mr. Rai with cleverness unlike his age.
"I'm sorry sir, I'm in no need for his services but I'll be sure to ask around if any suitable job is available. Please be patient till then." The old man said a perfunctory thank you and led his son away.
Days later he got to know there was a need for an assistant in a bookshop nearby so he recommended the boy. The boy started working soon. Whenever Mr. Rai would pass by, he would peer inside the shop on his way to check on the boy who would be busy reading books or cleaning the bookshelves.
Curfew was announced a few weeks later when the naxalites of Calcutta began looting and burning factories and houses of Muslims in retaliation to the killings of Hindus of East Pakistan.
The Government issued an order of 'shoot to kill' against people harming Muslims. The plan backfired when three policemen died protecting a group of Muslims.
More than a hundred people died in the city and over 7000 people were arrested for arson or looting.
The situation was curbed for a month when in the month of March a mill consisting of 100 Muslim workers was attacked and 21 people died.
Mr. Rai heard this news over the radio while he ate his lunch in his office. As soon as the news was over, a flurry of steps outside of his office was heard and in the next movement a crying and dishevelled Ravi burst inside. Mr. Rai was shocked and surprised. The boy got on his knees made a pitiful attempt of controlling his tears. Before he could say anything Mr. Rai pulled him up and made the little boy sit on his chair and asked what happened. The smell of charcoal and burns were coming off his skin and his face had darkened with traces of ash.
"My father….my father died, Sir. He went to that mill along with the protesters to burn it and died in the stampede. I've brought his body back. I've no utensils or belonging I can sell for his last rites. The owner of the bookshop also refused to aid after hearing the cause of death. Sir, please help me!"
Mr. Rai went along with the boy and paid the priest to perform the last rites and pray for his departed soul. Ravi deposited his father's ashes in the Hooghly River that evening.
In the summer of 1965, Mr. Rai got a letter of transfer back to his native place and decided to go back with his family.
Ravi came to see him off. He still worked at the bookshop. Mr. Rai would always send some money to him over the next few years.
When his wife died ten year ago, he wrote a letter to Ravi to come live with him. Ravi left everything and came to accompany Mr. Rai.
Right now at the age of sixty-six Ravi was far from his young self but you could still see the cleverness in eyes that had their lustre dulled with age. He never married a wife just silently worked in the bookshop and later purchased it with his saving collected over the years.
The sun outside had risen up high on top indicating how much time passed while he was reminiscing of his young days.
He decided to go in and bring out the old chess set to play a few rounds with Ravi when another loud yell was heard. No surprise, it was the downstairs' Mr. Sharma again, now knocking against Mr. Khan's door on their floor.
Looking through the peephole, he spied on Mr. Sharma who was trying to spy inside Mr. Khan's house through his peephole. Ravi beside him was shaking with laughter after this sight but Mr. Rai felt ashamed. He drank his shame away and opened the door to give some elderly advice to Mr. Sharma.
Mr. Sharma's face turned bright red after getting caught and coughed out, "Hello..I was just checking on him. He hasn't responded to my calls and messages all day so I decided to come upstairs."
There's a Chinese saying,'old ginger is more spicy'.
"I see, but you shouldn't disturb the residents and I heard you calling him foul names early in the morning now you come up to check on him?," Mr. Rai fired back.
"No no sir! We are old college enem-...I mean friends and this is the way we interact. Sorry for disturbing your sleep earlier."
Mr. Sharma was seriously knocking on the door now. Even though he disliked Mr. Khan, he felt concerned at the quietness from his apartment.
Mr. Rai felt it was strange too. Every morning Mr. Khan would come to his house to enjoy tea. As they lived in front of each other they had bonded only after a few days.
Ravi called the security downstairs immediately and asked if he had seen Mr. Khan, whether he left earlier and got a negative response back. He called him upstairs to unlock the door.
Half an hour later a locksmith arrived carrying his heavy toolbox and started working on the door. The door opened a few minutes later.
Mr. Sharma decided to go inside to check only to find Mr. Khan unconscious with a burning fever. He lifted him up and rushed downstairs to his car. Ravi took his car keys from Mrs. Sharma and drove the both of them to the hospital.
When Mr. Khan woke up hours later he was informed of the concern of Mr. Sharma and his following heroic service of saving his life.
Mr. Khan looked at Mr. Sharma with gratitude in his eyes as they started to blur with tears.
Mr. Sharma snorted at him in response then rubbing his nose he replied, "We are neighbours. If you had died I'd too have died of the smell of your decaying corpse."
Everybody decided to just ignore him.
Mr. Sharma had saved his beloved enemy from death. He noticed his absence while everyone walked away. Ravi looked at Mr. Rai who was snickering at the duo and thought, "The misfortunate Mr. Khan had a friend too."