Chapter 15: A Sense of Guilt

We have hardly been in Chelmsford for about four years. It may sound very enjoyable or cherishing for some, from certain cultural backgrounds to live amongst a joint family, but now, it is becoming a part of the history. With the changing time and values, one should adapt accordingly. For a long time, Bha ji Malkiat, had started advising us to buy a separate house. Bha ji has a good insight and always regards logic, whereas an emotional person like me, rarely takes things too seriously.

In India, Bha ji would perform plays during election times as he was a supporter of the Communist party. Bishan Singh who was a very dedicated and committed person, as well as a good actor, used to direct these plays. Bishan Singh is senior to Bha ji who lives near my elder son and keeps visiting us occasionally. I remember, once in India, I expressed my desire to work in films and Bishan Singh instructed me, “Young fellow, you are a sentimental person, merely a day dreamer. You have no experience and knowledge about films at all, hence where will you end up? Right in the gutter I tell you.”
Scratching his head, he further added, “Somebody’s dialogue comes to my mind. Yea, ambition without knowledge is like a boat on a dry land! And more importantly, knowledge without practice is always incomplete.”

Our house stands at the end of the road. Contiguous to our house, is the house of old Arni, who seldom comes out. The third house is occupied by Charlie Bates and his family. His wife Jeena is a very beautiful and charming, indeed.

Instead of Sukhbir, everybody here calls me Sukh. This evening, James and Barbra are coming to our house for dinner. They go to Indian restaurants, at least once a week. Learning it from my wife, now occasionally, they too, have started cooking Indian food at home. Some Indian fried food may be very tasty, but not healthy at all. I love a balanced and nutritious diet as well as tasty. I hate fatty and overcooked foods no matter how tasty they are.

There was a time once, when the white people had not even tasted the Indian meal. Due to inferiority complex or you can say, lack of self confidence, the Asians would eat their packed lunch hiding in some corner of the factory and I, too, was one of them. If ever, some white man passed beside us while eating, we would take a cover, as if we had been caught red handed doing something illegal. Bha ji too, was one among those people. But now, he is full of self confident. These days, contrary to this, now in the summer, we sit in our back garden and eat whatever we like, without any hesitation. Sometimes, white neighbours sitting in their own gardens often say, “Very nice smell! We can smell it from here.” Once, same was a stink for them.
Now Indian food is an acquired taste. These days, prominent personalities can be seen enjoying Indian food in restaurants, not only in London but throughout the whole country.

Like me, James also, loves sitting amidst greenery of trees, bushes and bloom of flowers.
It reminds me the words of Simon King, “Human rights are the rights of Nature, we are nature like the plants and rivers; its message is—Live and let live.” From my personal experience, I can say that people who spend most of their daily lives in open fresh air, harmonising with Nature, are much more friendly, compassionate and transparent than those, who spend most of their time indoors. And it’s a fact, anyone in doubt, is most welcome to challenge it. 

I have already laid the tables and chairs for them in our rear garden. Plastic tables and chairs, otherwise also, keep lying here outside. As the bell rings, my wife says, “The white people still are very punctual than us. We had invited them at seven and exactly at time, they have rung the bell.”
“What you mean by white people? Do you mean English?”
“Yes, I mean so.”
“What about Walsh, Scottish or Irish?” I only say jokingly.
“Yes, no doubt, majority of the indigenous British people are lot more punctual than us Indians.” replies Santosh.

As I open the door, James comes in and advances towards outside, and his wife, Barbra, stopped with my wife, Santosh, in the Kitchen. Perhaps, she is observing what type of food is being prepared. Seeing Barbra coming towards me, I say, “Barbee darling! As you come along, can you please bring the ice box from the freezer?”

We have filled our glasses with bear. James bringing his glass close to his lips says, “Cheers Sukh.” After a short while, putting the glass back on the table, he adds, “Nothing can be said of this life. Every moment should be cherished and enjoyed.”
“Don’t be a philosopher!” I say laughingly.

After taking a glass of bear, I have just poured the first peg of scotch, when Santosh brings the delicious chicken samosas and a Jamaican chillies souse saying, “If someone wants to have a sharper taste…!”
“Whatever may happen tomorrow, for the present, I will enjoy this hot stuff,” says James touching his samosa with souse.

Charlie, living in the third house, was also peeping towards us. At length, while praising the sunny evening, he raises his hand towards James and says, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Yeh very nice,” replies James.
“Hi Jeena,” Barbra also enquires of the well being of Jeena, standing next to Charlie. Then they address me.

Santosh calls me in the Kitchen and says, “I think they also wish to eat chicken samosas. Call them also in. Never mind if they consume some liquor or beer too. What difference does it make? After all, they are our neighbours, a part of our fraternity here, in our local society”
“Why doesn’t it make a difference? It does,” I just tell her but, I am happy though in my heart of hearts to enjoy the company of Jeena. She is a very pretty, attractive, cheerful and a loveable woman. Many a time, in the summer when I add ice to my scotch, sitting in my garden, my eyes are always focussed towards Jeena’s kitchen door.
Without meaning it, I begin to harangue Santosh, “After all, it costs money and it is earned through hard labour. Secondly, however you may try to mix up with these people, they always, try to keep you at a distance. Somewhere or else, a sense of superiority complex embedded in their minds, does get expressed. However, if you wish, I will call them.”
“I think, may be they had this sort of sense, but now most of them, through integration, do believe in social equality.” Santosh expresses her own thinking.

I cast a glance towards Charlie’s house over the garden fence. Jeena is watering the plants. I advanced a little towards her over the broken plank. James and Barbra are observing my movements, carefully; perhaps, they are aware of my inner intentions.

“Hi Jeena, where is the other half of yours?” I jokingly ask her.
“He has just gone to toilet,” she replies.
“I don’t know, whether you are really so pretty or appears to me so!”
“Thanks,” saying this, she smiles and her face becomes ruddier.
“If you are not planning to go anywhere then, please come along and join us. Let us drink, eat and enjoy together,” I extend the conversation.
“No, we are going nowhere. Sooner Charlie comes down, I ask him.”

After a while, they come and join us. During conversation, James looks around as if poking for something. Whenever he looks towards me, his eyes have a mischievous look.
Santosh, sometimes, goes to the kitchen and then comes and sits with us. Sometimes, she begins to sort out the problems of the children. When she returns after stirring the ladle in the cooking pan, Jeena says, May I help?”
“No, nothing is to be done. Everything is ready. Just let me know when you people want to eat. I shall cook the chapattis within few minutes, “Santosh says to Jeena.
“Well, when we have to eat, all depends on the will and mood of Sukh.” says James.
These words of James seem to be full of great irony and true as well. I understand his hint that in Indian families, it is the husband’s will more than of the wife that has its sway. Secondly, he may have noticed that after drinking, I want to adapt everything accordingly to my own wish. Both ways, he is somewhat right.

We did not notice while drinking that it was ten o’clock. Santosh again, got busy in the kitchen. James and Charlie are rearing dreams of purchasing bungalows in Spain after winning the national lottery. Jeena and Barbra are planning to spend their holidays next year either in Goa or Dubai. It is all due to intoxication caused by whiskey and bear. By the morning, next day, they will have forgotten all this.

The fragrance of flowers is getting dissolved in the environment and making it more charming.
“The food is ready. Shall I put on the table inside?” Santosh calls out from the kitchen.
“Why inside? Let it be here.” I shout from outside, staring at the other four faces in search of their opinion and assent.  
Santosh starts bringing and laying the food on the table. On seeing the boneless spiced chicken, Barbra says, “Today, I too, will not eat rice. Like Sukh, I shall eat wholemeal chapattis and chicken.

I pick up a chapatti, roll it with chicken and red onion, and begin to eat. Imitating me, all of them follow the suit. After finishing my last peg, I pull the plate before me. They also know my habit that while eating the food or after, I don’t drink at all.
“I very much like the smell of green chillies, green coriander and cumin seeds,” says Barbra putting chicken in her plate.
“I too,” Jeena expressed the agreement.
After finishing the food, Jeena says, “We should be departing now. Sukh does go to sleep immediately after eating.”
“I keep telling him that he should move about a little and sleep after lightening his stomach. But he goes straight in to the bed. That’s why his stomach goes on swelling, “Santosh tries to expose my habit even further.

“Let us have a bit of music. Our food will be digested. I couldn’t help it. The food was so delicious that I have eaten three times more,” suggests Jeena.
“Well, today again, I propose to dance with my neighbouring lady,” saying this, Charlie holds of my wife’s hand. After a short time, Santosh gets her hand released saying, “I am not very good at this dance.”
“Charlie is really a fortunate man that he has got such a beautiful wife,” James looks towards me and winks.
“So far as I am concerned, I like Sukh’s wife the best,” Charlie speaks from the core of his heart.

It is about midnight. I felt somewhat guilty. It does not make sense to disturb neighbours after ten or eleven. Deep down somewhere within myself, I have a hate for anti-social behaviour. One’s entertainment must not become harassment for others. I think within myself.

I have seen the round plate of the moon in the sky, after a long time. Our garden is agog like a rural wedding, back home in India. It appears as if we were sitting among our own fraternity. Initially, we wasted years in this country feeling depressed, for nothing. We were confined to ourselves thinking everyone to be an alien. All these were misconceptions due to different language and lifestyle. One may call it a culture!
And where are those, today, who used to be our own? Every Asian settler is looking for the answer to this question!
Another question knocks at the door of my mind. Who is to blame? Perhaps no body!
I remember when we wanted to organise a festival of diverse cultures. We approached some African, Caribbean, Sri Lankan, South Indian and Bengali communities to participate with equal access, but none of them showed any interest. They all wanted to beat their own drums, individually not cohesively, may be for some individual interests!
God knows! Why don’t we want to come out of our communal cocoons?

Time demands transformation, globally, but we are still living in the past. This country offers us so much and we also contribute as much as we can, but nothing mentionable in this context. Strolling in my garden, I am talking to myself. Under the influence of alcohol, my thinking may be staggering; irrelevant or unreal!

……At night, while I was in my bed, my thoughts were centred on Jeena. Then a sudden diversion, Jeena’s being changed into Jeeti, the same footpath going towards the farm house visualizes towards the east, lush green fields of wheat and in the west side, sugarcane crops.
Soft cool of the advancing winter seems very romantic, both in the evening and in the morning. During the day, a warm cosy sunshine! In the sugarcane field stealthily, meeting of Jeeti. Diverting the water into a new crop bed, when Jeeti’s uncle struck the spade upside down, forcefully on the bank, to clear earth out of it, I was almost missed my heart beat.
“What has happened?” my wife shook me and ask.
“Nothing, keep sleeping,” I reply to her trembling.
“You always dream of horrible things! Have you ever seen some pleasant dream?” Santosh asks.
“It was a very pleasant one but towards the end, the dammed thing became dreadful,” I say spontaneously.

At night, this dream had put an end to my slumber. I started thinking that however, one might try to forget the past, it returns to him, somewhere, in some form or the other. The past can’t be thrown away like an old shirt! Those footpaths from the road to the farm houses and that very same village are nowhere there. Their existence has been blotted out. Their place has been occupied by new houses and other people. Still, they can’t be obliterated from one’s memories! Many a time, rather it seems as if these memories of the past had some hidden meaning and beauty in themselves and should not be unacceptable.

Next morning, going to the library, I have scarcely approached the High Road when I see Jeena coming from the school side. Wearing a light yellow coloured sleeveless blouse, she is looking like a mustard flower. A strange glitter in her eyes grows deeper and she looks more attractive, and fascinating as she smiles. After exchanging greetings, she says, “Sukh if you are free, please do a little favour for me.”
“Who will refuse for such a beautiful lady? What is the task?”
“A pipe of my washing machine leaks a little.”
“OK, after returning from the library, first of all, I will do that,” I start crossing the road.

Reaching home, I looked out of the window of the bathroom and saw Jeena lying on a sheet in the lawn. The round and fleshy thighs of her seem to be packed tightly in her small shorts. Her soft smooth body looks prettier in the black underwear. I made a noise by striking wrench against the window and that made her look towards me. I make a gesture to tell her that I am about to leave for her home. My heart begins to beat faster with a feeling of sort of joy and enthusiasm. I think that after all, I have prevailed upon such a beauty. With a sense of proud, I set out towards her house.

I was not obliged even to ring the bell. She was already standing behind the door. As soon as she opens the door, I enter. She had put on a shirt of transparent linen and had used only one button in the middle. I felt that she had only made an excuse to call me in.

I think, merely it may be my misunderstanding! Then something in my mind suggests me to think vice versa.

The children of both of us are at school and spouses at work; what a suitable opportunity she has created, I think within myself!

The water was leaking just because a nut had been loosened. I tightened it and the leakage stopped.
“Would you like to have a cup tea?” she asks.
“Not anything else?” I ask mischievously
“What else?” she tries to know the unknown secret in my eyes and style.
“A hot kiss, instead of hot tea!” saying this I put my hands on her shoulders. Trying to find the hint of yes or no in her eyes, I take her in a tight embrace.
“May I ask something?” I whisper.
“What?” she asks in a quivering voice.
“Jeena, I find you very likeable. You are so fascinating, I love you really. And I mean it.”
“Sukh, please don’t be silly,” with these words she tries to free herself from my fold and slips away.
“Let us sit here outside in the sun,” saying this, she proceeds towards the back garden.

After exchanging a few words, I feel somewhat peeved and return home. I think that it is very difficult to understand a woman. Whenever she meets me, I always find a mischief and a smile of invitation in her eyes! She had, herself, called me in and then, so much of physical exposé and coquetry. After all, what must she be wishing?

Preparing a cup of tea in my kitchen at home, I keep thinking. However, whatever she has done, she has done right. She has given a right direction to my wavering feet.

I have got holidays for a week. I spend sometime in the kitchen as cooking is one of my hobbies and sometime, in the local library. Occasionally, I read something and then switch on tv. Today, it is Friday and sitting in the front room, I am reading a book. Suddenly, the door bell rings and I get up to open the door. I am amazed to see Jeena at the door. Immediately, on entering she asks, “Sukh, if you are not going anywhere, I need your car as m o t of my car has expired and I have to go to hospital to see my mother.”
Without saying a word, I hand over a bunch of keys to her.
“Thank you, you are so kind,” with these words she steps out and then, somewhat in hesitation, she turns back and speaks as if she wanted a promise from me.
“May I tell you something, only if you keep it to yourself, don’t pass it on to your wife and also never mention to Charlie either.”
“After all, what is it?” I ask.
“It could have been said as a joke or may be, seriously from the heart.”
“But do tell me now. Well, I shall not tell it to my wife,” I assure her.
“Charlie had one day, gone to drop children at school and met your wife on the road. She seemed to him very attractive and he seemed crazy about her. He said that no one can believe she has grandchildren. He felt like kissing and embracing her. Sukh is very lucky to have such an Indian woman, he expressed.”
“Why should Santosh take it ill? Rather she would feel proud and happy. Every woman feels pleased when her beauty is admired,” I tell her.
“But some Indian ladies do feel offended,” she says gently and then smiles.
“They only do so for show. Just to rise in the estimation of their husbands or others in the family,” I say laughingly and shut the door behind her.

It is very pleasant and sunny day today. The blue sky is visible. Last night, it had rained heavily. The quality of air is full of life. Perhaps heavy rains have washed away the pollution in the air, down to the drains and to the rivers.

Going to the post office to get an important letter registered, I see Jeena struggling with her car wheel.
“Oh! It is good, Sukh, that you have come. I can’t loosen this bloody nut. I want to replace this wheel with the spare one in the boot, which is as good as new. By the time, Charlie returns from work, the garage will be closed, I must need m o t today and this dammed nut is not getting loosened.”
I change the wheel for her and go to her kitchen to wash my hands. Jeena brings a towel for me to wipe hands.
“How about a cup of coffee or any other hot thing instead?” she asks.
“Well, let it be some other time,” saying this much, I am about to open the front door.
“Please do listen to me, Sukh,” then enfolding me, she takes me towards the lounge and without hesitation puts her arms around me. Bringing her face closer to mine, she whispers, “Sukh, believe me, I love you. I like you and I need you as a sincere friend,” There is craving in her words, a tremor in physical touch and a severe thirst in her eyes.
Suddenly, I do not know how, I am reminded of the words uttered by Charlie, “Sukh’s wife Santosh …….”
I do not know what Jeena may be thinking of me, I shut the door behind me and start walking towards my house a bit ashamed. A sense of guilt was creeping inside me.


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