The six thirty mornings of approaching winter were strange in Calcutta. Later in the day, it became happier and then towards evening, cheerful, but the early mornings were sad. The sky seemed like a longing palette, awaiting colours, a fresh water fish awaiting a mustard rub. Shalini Kuber sat on the porch, beside the huge windows, the rich curtains innocuously lurking at the sides. She looked outside and cupped the rim of her fine china cup holding the queen’s tea. She could look into the terraces of a line of old buildings on the lane behind. Old terraces on old lanes housing old people.
On the first terrace, a woman in her late sixties, was busy circling a tulsi with an incense stick. She had had her bath. On the next, a woman was just done putting all the washed clothes on the line. The empty bucket stood beside her, limp, devoid of any purpose, as she forayed into spending sometime on the terrace without any — looking up in the sky, down on the lane, into the other terrace — and for a while Shalini believed she could even hear her heave a sigh, before the woman, not more than forty, took charge of the bucket and walked out of her purview into a door. A flight of stairs on one building led from the terrace to a single room, the door of which was always locked. Today too. A crow flew into its perch. Everything seemed a shade lighter than its original colour. She took a sip. “Narayan! Paper!”
What did they say I was? Yes, gorgeous! Last evening she was called for a special meeting with the Editorial Head of The Daily Dawn. For the last twenty five years, or may be more, as far as she could recollect, she was the columnist in the Sunday Edition. An all-knowing, complacent and peaceful looking passport size photograph of hers accompanied her page, Living Life. She was the in-house Agony Aunt. She always had solutions — then, or even new-age ones. Earlier it used to be ‘Should I wear a sleeveless to surprise him?’. Now it was the more radical, ‘My father caught me sexting with my boyfriend.’ I have always solved them, listened and answered. Yet, the Ed-Head had gone to on part ways with her saying they would no longer feature her page. “Mrs Kuber. We are sure this will never stand to compensate what you mean to us, but, you know, online and all…” She looked at the cheque. Even for the Kuber standard, which was mighty renowned, her husband, a retired gynecologist, and now the owner of The Kuber Mother & Child Institute, the retirement amount handed over to Shalini was commendable.
The tea had turned cold. She shuddered to think of how the paper would look without her column. “Narayan! Another tea, please. And Vivek Dada will come tonight. Tandoori chicken and feta cheese salad. Make a list and get the required things from the market.” She turned the front page. The second and third pages covered her. They were full of problems she had sorted. Jamini Das, Aniket Saha, Mrinal Hazra, Nivedita Basu, Sandip Sen, Prabuddha Guin, Ria Majumdar, Anonymous, Debashish Sarkar, Priyanka Banerjee, Mahua Roy, Anonymous, Alka Jaiswal, Geeta Rai, Sayantan Sengupta. It went on. Each name followed by the solution Shalini had week after week provided. Consult a psychiatrist immediately. Come for counseling. Alcohol is an escape. Smoking kills. Studying is a choice. Marriage is a lifetime process. Be careful of joint investments. Change can be traumatic. Spirituality and religious fanaticism are two diverse things. She called out for her husband, elated. “Vir! Vir! Wake up, Vir! See what the Daily has done as a surprise for me! Vir, come on!”
She upset the quilt and handed him the newspaper. Ruffled, Dr Vir Kuber fished for his glasses from his bedside table. “Surprise? Who wrote the tribute?”
“Just see!” Shalini sounded as excited as a bird. “They cannot do without Agony Aunt, can they?” She pushed up her glasses on to her head, a crop of silver slicker escaping through the Prada frame and sitting over her eyebrow, decidedly. She let it be.
Dr Kuber smiled as he turned to page two. It covered the Beirut attack in details, with a rectangle devoted to the suspected mastermind. Tiny boxes across the length of the paper, screamed TENDER. The page alongside looked much the same. He saw it coming, but didn’t know it would greet him at his bedside on such a sudden morning. “Come, Shalini” and he put his arms on her shoulders. He recalled the consulting psychiatrist’s remarks, who had a thing for words, “Too much agony is bad for the nerves!”
The demise of the Agony Aunt column was later explained by the newspapers “to dismiss all kinds of sad disturbances that surround us already.” They had also begun to observe age creeping into Mrs Kuber. In that geometrically aligned Beirut Page, Dr Kuber saw another fate sealing. He wished there was an Agony Aunt to listen to him as he softly placed a kiss on Shalini’s forehead.