Tania had been walking back from her school when she noticed those clothes hung from the ropes near her house. Her excitement grew as her eyes stayed fixed on the sight of those four white t-shirts with black stripes amidst a bunch of other clothes on the ropes. They were exactly the same – one with long sleeves, one with half sleeves and two sleeveless ones. She ran towards the house.
The one-roomed brick house covered felt like a burning furnace. Her parents had just finished washing and hanging the set bundle of clothes and were about to sit for lunch. Tania ran towards her father, “Baba, I saw the set of four t-shirts outside. Did you check why they were not sent for the past six months?” Sahadev Halder, the washer-man also referred to as Dhopa in colloquial Bengali smiled at his thirteen year old. His wife Rama went about getting the food ready.
“How do you know that it is the same set of four t-shirts?” he sounded indifferent.
“I could spot that big deer symbol from a distance. Did you ask Afroz uncle about it?”
Kashpukur area in Kolkata was known as the lane of washer-men. Small one-roomed houses filled the narrow lanes and by-lanes amidst old house buildings. This was one of the oldest areas in Kolkata. The washer-men and women used the nearby pond to clean the laundry and the clothes were hung on multiple ropes tied around the available poles, balconies and window grills. One could never walk through this area without a piece of cloth touching him. However recently, big laundry houses had started operating their branches in the city. They had soon become a favourite with the urban population.
Clothes-box driers and cleaners was one such upscale outlet that opened three years ago with a range of laundry offerings. While they claimed highest standards in their methods of washing and drying, truth was that the clothes were given to the washer-men on the lanes behind the shop. It was a win-win situation for the washer-men who earned some extra bucks while Clothes-box earned reputation and money with minimum effort and manpower.
Two years back, the eleven year old Tania had started noticing the set of four t-shirts with the alphabet ‘K’ embroidered on them that arrived every month in the last week. She was assigned the responsibility of sorting out the clothes before washing and packing them after ironing in respective packages labelled with a name. Tania ensured that the clothes were never mixed up. She knew that this set went to a certain Mrs. B Biswas . What surprised her about the package was that the clothes hardly looked worn. In fact most of the times, it was evident that they hadn’t even been unfolded.
Six months back, the package had suddenly stopped coming. She had tried checking with Afroz but all he could say was that a short and fair lady in mid fifties came every month in the last week to drop it. She came to collect it personally later.
The Halder family had eventually forgotten about this package until today. Tania had noticed that the name tag on the packet read Ms. K Biswas this time. She kept thinking about the previous lady and guessing about the identity of the new one.
Tania chose to personally drop the packages at Afroz’s shop after two days. The entry door for the washer-men was through the back so that the clients never had a whiff about the internal arrangements. Tania had been waiting in the adjacent room when Afroz walked in.
“Tania it’s good to see you after so long. How’s school going?” After the customary pleasantries, Tania spoke with conviction,
“Uncle, isn’t this the same package that used to regularly come until six months back? ” Afroz looked at the t-shirts closely and thought hard.
“I didn’t realize that when the bundle came this month. The old Mrs. Biswas hadn’t been coming for a long time. She barely spoke except for the usual pleasantries. All I knew was that she stayed nearby and the clothes belonged to her son. She never told me why the package always had 4 tees and that too of the same type. But I can’t recollect who brought it this month. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and take a look yourself?” Tania decided to return the following day.
By the time she reached the shop next day, the parcel had already been picked up by a young woman in her twenties. Afroz had enquired about the old lady and the young one had mumbled some inaudible excuse for not prolonged absence.
Tania kept thinking about the new lady overnight. Something didn’t feel right to her. Why would it take six months for the young lady to come back with the laundry? Besides her father had said that the t-shirts looked like they had been used unlike the previous instances. She decided to wait and see what happened the next month.
She was home when Sahadev came with the bundle of clothes next month. The set of 4 tees was there and they looked used. When she delivered the washed and ironed set after five days, she requested Afroz to let her stay in the shop the whole of next day until the young lady arrived to pick up the package.
The young lady came around 1 pm dressed in a long top and jeans with black shades over her eyes. Tania had spotted her getting down from a bus. She stayed in the next room while Afroz handed over the package. Tania decided to follow her on the sly. She stealthily took out a thin package from the shop and walked towards the bus stop, while carefully hiding from the young lady. Tania chose to stay as part of the crowd inside the bus and continued trailing the lady from a distance after she alighted three stops later. As she stood at the gates of an apartment complex where the lady had entered, the guard approached Tania.
In less than five minutes, the guard had escorted her to the second floor apartment. The name board read ‘Kinjalkini Biswas’. On ringing the bell, Ms. Biswas opened the door.
The guard spoke, “Ma’am, this girl has come from the laundry shop with a package that you forgot there.”
Ms. Biswas took a long look at Tania before announcing ” I have already collected my package. This is not mine.”
Tania pretended to be confused “I ran in the sun to hand this over to you. I kept calling you but you didn’t even turn behind. The owner of Clothes-box also said the same.”
Ms. Biswas looked at the lanky girl who was sweating profusely. She felt sad for her and asked her to come inside for a glass of water.
The small apartment had been tastefully done. It had paintings and small plants all over the place. Tania sat on the chair. Kinjalkini returned with a glass of water and a plate of sandesh (sweets).
As Tania gulped down the water, she asked “Is that your painting Ma’am?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Tania Halder. My class teacher Ganga Didi says that I sketch very well. I want to be an artist when I grow up but Ma says that I also need to study hard and get a Government job so that Baba doesn’t have to work day and night to run the family. But Baba says I can become whatever I want to.”
Kinjalkini was smiling, “You are lucky that you have such supportive parents, specially a father who believes in you and your dreams. Not everyone has the same fortune.”
“Doesn’t your father like the fact that you paint? Does he want you to work in the office?” the innocent questions from this girl was enough to open the floodgate of memories. It’s been so long that someone had spoken to Kinjalkini about her personal life.
“No, he didn’t really care about my career. He was rich enough for sustaining the next two generations at least.”
“Then why do you look so sad? I know that your mother loves you a lot.” Tania sounded confident.
“And how are you so sure about that?” Kinjalkini sounded surprised.
“Because she always gave your unused clothes for laundry every month.” She spoke at length about her observation related to those four striped t-shirts.
“You surprise me, young one. This was a well-kept secret between Mummy and me. She would buy a set of three or four tees of the same type for me. I would generally wear the sleeveless ones at home. Dad had strict rules about returning home early in the night. My elder brother was the obedient son. But I loved living life on my own terms Whenever I came late , I returned wearing any of the other two tees so that even if I was caught, I could pretend like I had been indoors. That house had become suffocating for me and the escapades grew frequent. Last few years I had been going through a lot of stress and the only colors I liked were black and white. Strangely, the set of four tees is the only memory that she could retain in that house.” Kinjalkini smiled sadly.
“Why are saying memories? Did you fight with your father? Was he angry because you didn’t do well in exams?” Tania was now quite at ease with this warm lady.
“How I wish it was that simple! I don’t think you would really understand what I am going to tell you but I am sure that you would also not be in a position to judge me unlike most of the people. My father was angry with me because I was not ready to be a man anymore. I was born as Kinjal to my parents. As I grew up, I realized that I was a woman trapped in the body of a man. When I couldn’t bear the anxiety attacks anymore, I started my counselling sessions. I confided in my mother about my internal struggles. While she couldn’t do much to help, she supported my decision to undergo sex change. But as we broke the news to my father and my elder brother, all hell broke loose. They thought that I had lost the plot. My brother even threatened to put me in a mental asylum.
I ran away from home to Delhi where my widowed maternal aunt stayed. I was told that Dad had thrown out all my belongings from the house. I was considered dead to the family except for Mummy. She was aware of my location and frequently spoke to my aunt to check on me. I underwent sex change eventually and became Kinjalkini. No one knew how I looked except my aunt and Mummy who saw some pics that my aunt had sent her.
I came back to the city with a new identity and a new job as a painter in the city art college. I never tried contacting my family except for Mummy. I would call her once every month when she came out of the house on the pretext of giving the laundry. I never tried meeting her for her own safety. Six months back, she had a major heart attack. She passed away even before they could take her to the hospital. My aunt couldn’t make it to the funeral because of her deteriorating health conditions. But she came to meet the family two months back. While staying in the same room as Mummy, she discovered this parcel inside my mother’s wardrobe that had an instruction to pass it on to ‘Kini’. Mummy knew no one would understand who Kini was except my aunt. She gave it to me.
My mother had preserved this set hoping that someday I will be welcomed back in the family. They were my only memories that she could preserve. Now that she is gone, I sleep in these tees every night to feel engulfed by the warmth and love of my Mummy. For the world it might only be a set of four tees. But for us, they have been the bearers of emotions and memories.” Tears flew down her cheeks as Kinjalkini choked on the last words.
Tania was too stunned to speak. Her thirteen-year old brain could not fathom all the incident that Kinjalkini narrated but her empathetic heart had sensed the pain of separation of mother and her child. She wanted to help her.
“Will you teach me painting? I want to be a painter like you.” Kinjalkini smiled at the question while Tania felt proud of her quick thinking on the spot to come out with an excuse to return.
Ganga Didi would have felt proud of her compassionate student at that moment.
This post is the second entry to the Write Tribe festival of words (24-30 Jun 2018) #write bravely. You can read the first one here.