The luxury of watching movies at the Lighthouse Cinema was heightened by its box seats; a hidden charm of private seating in the play of light and shadow. Over the decades it had lost its charm and eventually became the cozy spot for couples who wanted to make the most of the movie hall. To Amrita it seemed more like a hell-hole, if there was one, other than the place she called ‘home’. The old movie hall had been converted from a drama theatre that still bore vestiges of its former role with quaint balconies and its English bar. The dark wooden paneling and ripped away wall paper teamed with the musty smell started to choke her.
Amrita hated being dragged into watching movies with her husband’s rowdy gang of friends. In front of them she was his prized possession and he enjoyed being in control of her life; he loved to show off, humiliate and exercise his ownership over his dear wife. Her in-laws never quite encouraged any late night rendezvous even if she was accompanied by her husband. Going out alone was simply unheard of. ‘The lady of the house should not be walking the streets after dark like a tart’, was the sealing statement that often came from her mother-in-law. A sick feeling rose from the pit of her stomach every time he pulled out movie tickets from his wallet for a night show movie, expecting her to be ecstatic. There was no way that she could decline the offer as the aftereffects would be worse than the movie-watching torture.
Amrita thought about her daily chores, the tiff at home with her sister-in-law, the servant issues and her sister’s wedding. She had not yet discussed about the wedding present with her husband, stalling it for the right time. Her mind was all over the place and she barely watched the B-grade Bollywood trash. She sat up with a start and took a full minute to figure out that it was already interval and the pop-corn vendor was asking her if she wanted to munch something or perhaps drink a cola. It had already been over half an hour that Alokesh had stepped out to grab a mug of beer. Amrita glanced at the couple behind her, entangled in an enrapturing embrace. She quickly looked away, embarrassed at the man catching her eye. The lights dimmed after ten long minutes and the silver screen came alive with a mob shooting out and sounds of deafening gunshots and screams. She covered her ears and ran out of the hall.
She walked up to the bar, her eyes searching for her husband Alokesh. There were a few men at the bar blowing puffs of smoke and talking loudly and some were sprawled on the green velvet couches to the left. Amrita leaned against the ten feet long bar made from a single log of wood, a reminiscent of the British times and felt as dead as the piece of wood. She was tired and the fatigue showed on her face.
“Alok just stepped out with Ravi for fresh air. He’ll be back soon. I think you should not worry. Why don’t you go back and watch the movie?” that was loudmouth Rajeev from the so-called friend circle. He took a large swig and leaned against the wall.
Amrita did not care to answer. She pulled up a bar stool and sat facing the old stand fan. “Drinks, Madam?” asked the waiter. She nodded her head and asked for a glass of water.
“Amy, hey…Amrita!” called out a gruff voice from behind her.
“Oh my God, Oliver! What a surprise.” She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Yeah. Look at you man! The quintessential beautiful Bengali lady”, smiled a very handsome Oliver.
“Well, yes I am married. What about you? Have you settled down or are you still the footloose fancy free philanderer?” she laughed softly.
“I am not going to answer that one.” He smiled sheepishly. “I am in Germany these days. Mom’s family got me over and that’s home now. As it is I was no good here. Don’t think we Anglo-Indians have much of a chance.”
“That’s not true.’’ She was defensive. “Calcutta is not all that bad and people do manage to get good jobs here.”
“Where? ITC or TISCO?” he laughed out loud and the smug lot at the bar stared at them Oliver was happy to see her and spoke a dozen words. He stopped to drink straight from the beer bottle and looked at her without any awkwardness, admiring her and smiling away. Amrita smiled back at him. He still had those sparkling naughty eyes. He looked at his watch and realized that it was pretty late. He wondered why she was hanging out all by herself. He didn’t want to sound curious about her whereabouts, “It is late you know. The bar is going to shut down, what are doing here alone?” He tried not to alarm her.
Before she could answer Rajeev looked up and waved his hand, “She is not alone. She is with us. Who the hell are you? Get the fuck out of here before Alok sees you. You got me, bro?”He slurred and watched him in a disgusting manner. His bloodshot eyes had a menacing look.
Oliver stared at him for a minute trying to figure out what just transpired. He whispered to Amrita,” Who is this idiot? The man is drunk and where’s your husband?”
“Oye oye…who are you calling idiot? You think I am fucking deaf. I’ll kill you. White skin half-blood……” he tried getting up from his seat.
“Hey! Just take it easy man. What the hell is wrong with you? You want me to call the cops?” Oliver stepped in front of Amrita instinctively as if shielding her and moved towards Rajeev.
Rajeev stood up unsteadily. His eyes rolling, his mouth frothing and taking a few unsteady steps he tumbled on a bar stool in front of him. A waiter came forward to steady him. He pushed the waiter and started abusing him. Suddenly all eyes were drawn towards them.
“You’d better go. Alok will be back soon. I don’t want any scene.” Amrita nudged a red faced angry Oliver, slowly pushing him away.
“And leave you alone with this drunkard. Come on. I’ll wait till your husband’s back.”
“Go, please. My husband is drunk somewhere. I don’t know when he’ll be back. I will have to wait here with this friend of his. Just let me handle this mess.”
“Get out, you bastard before I break your leg” shouted Rajeev, slumped on a chair. He waved an empty glass at the waiter. “Refill, you bugger…refill.”
“Oh man! I swear I will box his ears. This is utter bullshit. You actually put up with such crap…” he reached out for her.
“Come on now, go. I will be fine. Believe me.” She had a flabbergasted look on her face as she clutched his shirt sleeve with all her might and started pushing him away. He held her hands instinctively and looked into her eyes searching for the young girl he had once known. The spirit that he loved so much seemed to have died and there rose a grim barrier that he couldn’t break through.
She looked up at Oliver and saw a composed and mature man. This was not the gawky teenager she had once known. He stood very tall and reminded her of a movie star from the English classics. He was now a complete stranger to her and she desperately tried to find him in her memory track. He had been her old friend and she had spent so many lovely evenings dancing away to Beatles and Dylan with his friends at his Free School Street flat. His Aunt Mary baked the best walnut cakes that she had ever tasted and memories of school days started flooding in. She remembered the Christmas lunch that she had once enjoyed with his family and the fantastic story of Uncle Jimmy, whose great-grandfather had shot a Royal Bengal tiger and the fate of its skin that was an epic in itself. Suddenly she was traversing the forgotten chapters of her life. A wild thought came to her mind. What if she could just run away with this man to a distant land? Her heart was beating fast and adrenaline rushed through her veins. She wanted to pull him close and bury her head on his chest. Perhaps, in his arms she would find redemption.
He looked at her for a long time and as if reading her mind said softly, “You have a choice. Deals can be reversed. You know that.”
She let go of his sleeve and looked at him, as if waking from a deep slumber, “Not in our part of the world. I cannot wish away my responsibilities. There are families on both sides and I cannot afford to hurt them. There is a commitment that I have to fulfill.”
“Times are changing. We are in the nineties now and soon will be heading for the twenty-first century. Just listen to yourself. You are sounding like you belong to the middle ages. For heaven’s sake, you can choose to live your life the way you want to. Make your choice now before it is too late.” He made a last attempt.
“I am going to be fine.” She pulled away, her voice cold and distant. “It was good to see you Oliver.”
“I wish I could say the same,’’ he said slowly. “I don’t know when I will be coming to India next. My brother Andy and I are here to sell off the Free School Street flat. We have no roots here anymore except for a few school pals. I sincerely hope against hopes that there will a next time when we meet under happier circumstances. You deserve to be better off than this. Take care my Amy.’ He gave her a long look and their eyes locked for a few seconds. Then she heard him sigh as he turned around and walked away, a stranger who touched her life in a flash of a second and turned her world upside down. Her eyes hazed and she saw him fading away as the tears rolled down her cheeks. She stood quietly for a moment, then turned around and stepped back into her chaotic world.
There are names that surface from a long forgotten past and then there are faces that fade away into the nameless pit of time. Long ago, there was Oliver, her teenage friend. She laughed at his jokes, shared his comic books and enjoyed spending hours with him. He never came back to India, not that she ever heard of him. But, somewhere there was a burning desire to let him know that she did eventually make a choice and moved on in life. A Christmas lunch, familiar music, a smell of fresh cologne brought in some dusty memories that flitted away as soon as they surfaced. Lighthouse cinema was eventually upgraded to a multiplex complete with a shopping mall with contemporary brands. She often wondered what happened to the old British furniture. The timeless wooden bar that too was gone.
All that remained of Oliver and her, were those days of innocence that he held in every swing and every move of the waltz, as they floated around in the incandescent light of the Free School Street Flat; a sweet melody of yesterday!