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Author :shoma chatterji
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Short Story
Shoma A. Chatterji
Free to read online
Taken from her collection of short stories:
© Shoma A. Chatterji 2011
Cover: courtesy Durga Kainthola, ‘The Kiss’, 2004


Sudipta never knew what it was to be in power, to be powerful, to hold power over someone, the power to control her life. She led a life overwhelmed by the power she was held by over 27 summers. When she found that small gun in that taxi while coming home from a matinee show, instead of handing it over to the cabbie, she tucked it into her purse. She carried a big, roomy bag instead of those fancy ones with ornate embroidery. Her hand fell over the small nozzle. She felt up along the sleek barrel, moved over the trigger, till she held the handle and just knew it was a gun. The skin on her arms broke in goose pimples. She felt strength surge from within. It was a feeling she had never experienced before.
She thanked herself for having discovered a way of escaping her movements monitored by running away to the movies. It gave her a sense of freedom, a happiness that was her private world. She persuaded Ritesh not to give her a cell phone. He wanted to give it to monitor her movements. She slunk out regularly after lunch, after she had cleaned up the table and washed the kitchen platform. She had a ready excuse – she had joined typing classes, a wish her dictatorial and masochist police commissioner father denied her because he felt girls who would in any case get married did not need to learn typing. It was beneath his dignity.
“Typing for God’s sake!” he exclaimed, rolling his eyes heavenwards in disgust when Sudipta expressed her desire. “Who would ever think of a police commissioner’s daughter taking typing lessons?” he asked, stomping off. Sudipta did not know what her father’s official designation had to do with his daughter wanting to learn typing, but was afraid to ask.
Ritesh raised his eyebrows as his mouth crinkled up in a smile of amused tolerance when Sudipta broached the subject. “So my wife wants to learn typing, does she?” he asked, as if to himself. He turned away to look at himself in the mirror. He looked at the mirror every five minutes if he was at home. What wrong notions people had about women flattering themselves with their reflections, she thought. Men were no less if Ritesh was an example. He did not say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but he took the money out of the vault and handed it to her. The duplicate key to the vault was with her mother-in-law. Sudipta spread out her hand, palm-side up, like she usually did when he handed her the money for the marketing. The gesture was identical to that of a beggar begging for alms but Sudipta was not aware of this.
So began her clandestine trips to the picture house two bus stops away from where they lived. She took ‘French leave’ from her typing class any one day of the week at random to slink off to the theatre. She purchased her ticket from the money she scrimped and saved out of the modest marketing ‘allowance’ Ritesh gave her every week. She had taught herself not to feel guilty about pocketing the money for the ticket. But the film did not hold much interest for her. She waited for the intimate scenes and those scenes of singing and dancing in skimpy outfits and did not bother about the story or the music or the acting. All she wanted was to be by herself within the darkened space of the theatre, relishing her “Me Time” for two hours, enjoying the cool of the air-conditioning that slipped over her, sometimes taking forty winks without knowing.
Back home, Ritesh kept the remote of the air conditioner inside the vault of the iron safe. Switching the air conditioner on in Ritesh’s absence was impossible. The complete lack of freedom to switch or not switch on the A.C. did not bother her. Everything in the house was in Ritesh’s power and in his absence it lay in his mother’s hands. Sudipta had no problems with either system. It suited her fine to be delegated work because it was something she had been conditioned to in her mother’s place. Her younger brother Sujoy enjoyed unquestioned power in that house in his father’s absence, not her mother. She would not know what to do with power if it was handed to her on a golden platter. In fact, she did not even know what the word power really meant. Like the mother she idolized all her life, Sudipta was content in her subservience, punctured from time to time with her secret trips to the movie house every week, a choice she exercised without realizing it.
She had no complaints about Ritesh or his mother. So what if she had to ask their permission to call up her parents who lived four stops away. They did let her use the phone, didn’t they? They even permitted her to visit them once a month. Ritesh, the thoughtful and considerate husband that he was, would escort her and bring her back each time she went. So what if her mother kept grumbling in the kitchen that they had no time for ‘private talk’? They did not allow her to read the newspaper until they had finished reading it. It was thoughtful of them, wasn’t it, since they did not wish her to come face-to-face with terrible headlines of terror and blood and death before they did? They censored her timing and hours of television watching. But they did it for her good, didn’t they, so that she would not get addicted to the idiot box and forget her daily chores? Thoughtfully, they had skipped a honeymoon because it was too expensive an affair. They censored her socializing with friends ‘because not all of them are good for you now that you are married’ they said. She surrendered, grateful because gratefulness was a way of life with her.
Ritesh insisted on the condom for sex-making because he did not want children just yet. So what if she was dying to become pregnant? He referred to the sexual act as sex-making and not love-making because he said, “What has love got to do with it?” He was doing it for their collective welfare, wasn’t he, wanting to wait for his next promotion before deciding to begin a family?
He was regular in his sex habits, asking her to wear his favourite see-through pink nightie every Tuesday and Friday of the week, dab a perfume, put on some talcum powder and join him in bed for his regular quota of sex in the classical position, man up, woman down. He took care of his personal hygiene. He rinsed his mouth, dabbed himself with an after-shave, wore the whiter of the two kurta-pyjama suits he kept for these occasions, then sat on their large double bed, resting his head on his pillow. “It is good for your health,” he said about the classical position and her heart warmed towards him. The sex-making would last seven minutes, because Ritesh, the perfectionist, never wasted time on mundane foreplay like kissing, caressing, fondling and so on. Why, in the seven years of their married life, he had not once fondled her breasts, or stripped her naked, such a perfect gentleman he was! Sudipta’s heart warmed up to him even more! But she sometimes wished he would kiss and caress and fondle her, as she saw them do in the movies.
The gun changed everything. The three p.m. show that evening lasted three hours and she realized she would reach home much after her typing class was over. She fished in her bag for the cab fare and found a few tenners that would see her through. She waved at a flying cab and got in. The first few minutes were a bit of fluster. The driver asked her where she was headed. She told him, stretched out her hand to rest her head on the back of the seat to relax and found the gun.
Finding a hiding place was her next problem. Ritesh was not home yet. Her mother-in-law raised her brow and looked at the large wall-clock and back at her in silent rebuke for returning late. But Sudipta did not care. She rushed into the attached toilet, opened her purse, picked the gun out, and then hung her bag on the peg behind the closed door. She caressed the gun with hands that shook so badly in the sheer thrill of the moment that she carefully laid it down on the inner edge of the wash basin. She did not even know whether it was loaded or not.
In the light, she saw it was a .32 Browning automatic with a capacity of 6-12 rounds, self-loading and an ideal, self-defense weapon. As a police commissioner’s daughter, she knew quite a bit about firearms. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was killed with a Browning in 1914, triggering World War I. Adolf Hitler supposedly shot himself with a Browning in 1945. More recently, in India, Praveen Mahajan shot his older brother politician Pramod Mahajan to death with a .32 Browning. It was invented by John Browning in 1896 and was the first, self-loading automatic pistol. It is manufactured by Belgian Fabrique Nationale in Europe and by Colt in the US. Its current market price is around $650 which converts to Rs. 30,270 in India. The Indian Ordinance Factory produces a copy under the name of .32 IOF Ashani Pistol.
She looked up to see her face in the mirror and saw the flush on her cheeks, the shine in her eyes that sliced ten years off her age. She wiped her face with the end of her sari and picked up the gun as if she was picking up a baby from its crib. She kissed it fondly, caressingly, and then put the nozzle of the gun inside her mouth. It felt a bit strange at first. But as she rolled her tongue around the nozzle and along the barrel, she began to enjoy the slow exuberance that grew within her. She forgot the time till her mother-in-law came knocking. She rose as if from a trance, took the barrel out of her mouth and hid the gun quickly inside the flush tank as she had seen in gangster movies. She was still trembling from the shock of having made love to the gun! Was she a crazy woman to kiss and fondle and caress a gun for God’s sake? Or was she starved of sex the normal way? Not really, because her husband was quite a man in that area! Or, wondered Sudipta, was he?
He never made sex on a Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. He never penetrated her any time during the day except at night before going to sleep. He never pulled her into the bathroom, bending her supple body backwards to hold it against the border of the sink to make mad love to her like Priya’s husband did. He never pulled her close when she came out of the bath, all wet, drops of water dripping from her loose hair, fragrant with shampoo, the big white towel wrapped around her, revealing a pair of fair, smooth and rounded shoulders. He never rubbed his Grecian nose on the back of her slender neck or buried his face in her lustrous hair, ever. Sometimes, Sudipta caught him watching her hungrily. But not once did he quench his thirst with action. Perfect gentlemen do not reduce themselves to such indignities with their wives, do they? Priya’s husband was a gentleman too, though Sudipta was not aware of the degree of perfection he qualified to.
The gun inside her mouth, her tongue lolling around it, savouring it, saliva covering it, drew an ecstasy she had never known. It made her re-think ideas drilled into her about life, about love and more importantly, about the act of love-making. It was love-making and not sex-making, she realized with new awareness. The memory triggered questions; questions she never dared ask herself or anyone else; questions she did not even know existed. This experience infused her with an inner strength she did not know she possessed. By some magic pull, she rushed into the bathroom again and again, especially when Ritesh was away at work. She bunked her typing classes. Her clandestine trips to the theatre faded away. Her passionate obsession for the gun and all that it held for her became the sole focus of her existence.
Her mother-in-law did not quite like this sudden change in her toilet habits. But the look in Sudipta’s eyes stopped her from expressing her displeasure. In the bathroom, Sudipta would pick the gun from inside the flush tank, wet with water, and kiss all over it with a passion she learnt to accept as natural, as compensation for what she had missed and was still missing in her sex life with Ritesh. She would slide it inside her mouth, cover it with saliva and roll her tongue around it slowly, savouring in the sheer excitement of the touch and the secrecy of the moment. Once, she took courage in her hands to lift her petticoat and push the nozzle inside her till her wild screams of delight rent the claustrophobic air inside. This became a poetic routine, indulged any time, without rhyme or reason, defying logic and defining a new relationship between a young, sex-starved, powerless, suppressed woman and an inanimate, lifeless, but potent gun. It was a relationship where she called the shots and the gun obeyed silently. It was a relationship where power lay in her hands, to be wielded at her will, as and when she wished. The gun did not wear a condom. It could neither dictate the terms of her sex life nor could it restrict the act within fixed days of the week, Tuesdays and Fridays.
That Tuesday night, when Ritesh waited for their sex-making routine, she said she was not interested. He looked at her, dumbstruck, to see a gun pointing straight at his forehead. His gentle, soft, beautiful wife held the gun firmly in her grip, eyes breathing a fire he had never seen before. Quietly, and in deliberate slow motion, in full view of her husband, looking into his eyes directly, Sudipta pulled up the hemline of her nightie to push the nozzle of the gun inside her, till he squirmed and looked away. She threw back her head and laughed and laughed till tears came out of her eyes. She laughed at his embarrassment, at his failure to satisfy her. The perfect gentleman that he was, he could not do what a .32 Browning automatic could.
No. Ritesh did not die of a heart attack. Nor did Sudipta pull the trigger. He went on living as Sudipta’s husband, sharing his impotent life with his wife’s lover, the gun. At work, during his free time, during sleepless nights beside Sudipta and her .32 Browning automatic, he tried to understand how power flew from its barrel to spill over into his subservient, obedient, gentle wife. He wondered how this simple young woman could reduce him to a spineless being, wrapping him effortlessly around her frightening finger, sometimes pressed literally, sometimes figuratively, but most of the time - invisibly, to the gun’s trigger.
Only Sudipta knew that the gun was only a catalytic agent in her life. It no longer gave her the physical thrill it once did. She was faking it now. It vested her with a power she never imagined she would acquire. It functioned as a weapon of self defence, defending her from being exploited in any way at all, by the power others wielded over her. It gave her strength. It gave her happiness. Above everything else, it gave her a personality she could live with for the rest of her life, with or without Ritesh. She knew that she would hold on to the gun to tease and taunt Ritesh and his ‘manufactured’ manliness with only so long as it took him to understand that she would not bear with his patronizing behaviour of looking down at a wife he did not deserve. She would then throw it away, or perhaps ‘forget’ it in a taxi ride to the movie hall for some other Sudipta to discover.
Shoma A. Chatterji, film critic, journalist and author, won the National Award (1991) for Best Film Critic and the Best Film Critic Award from the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (1998.) Her book Parama and Other Outsiders – The Cinema of Aparna Sen, won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 2003. She won a research fellowship from the National Film Archive Pune in 2003-2004 and a Senior Research Fellowship from PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) Delhi. She won the second prize in the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Short Story Translation Contest in 2007. She has done her Ph.D. in History. The title of the thesis is Men Directors – Women’s Voice. She writes extensively on cinema and gender issues. She also covers media, human rights, development, child rights and contemporary issues in several print and electronic media publications across India. She has been on the panel of several Film Juries at International Film Festivals such as Mannheim-Heidelberg, St. Petersburg, Dona San Sebastian, etc. She has presented papers on television and cinema at Thessaloniki, Greece, Mannheim, Stuttgart and University of Heidelberg, Germany, School of Sound, London, and Asian Film Centre, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Besides contributing to many edited compilations on Indian cinema, she has singly authored 17 published books on cinema, gender issues, short fiction and urban history. She currently contributes to The Statesman, The Tribune, Screen, Trans World Features, South Asian Cinema and Free Press Journal. She has been writing for 30 years and is based in Kolkata.