I wish they would start a school that teaches you the art of wooing. I have been exercised over the idea ever since I watched Basu Chatterji’s movie ‘Chhoti si Baat’, starring the ever innocent Amol Palekar and the ravishing Vidya Sinha. I admit I fell head over heals in love with the latter the day I saw the earlier Basu-Amol-Vidya movie ‘Rajnigandha’. And ‘Chhoti si Baat’ merely added to my agony, for despite the tricks of the trade Ashok Kumar taught you in this movie, Ms Sinha remained as illusory to me as the blushing sky on a sea shore, bidding farewell to the setting sun.
These at least were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I stood on an evening on the deserted beach of Shankarpur, around half an hour’s drive from the congested landscape of the Digha sea beach. As evening approached, I watched the brilliant blue sea transform itself into a mass of frameless darkness, with nothing but the dimly visible white outlines of breakers lashing on the shore. It sounded like the muffled scream of eternity, held in chain by ever capricious nature.
And then, suddenly, without any warning at all, sweet nostalgia invaded. The dark curtain lifted, revealing a row of white washed cottages smiling in the late spring sunshine, somewhere close to where I stood. A handful of college mates hollered their way into one of these, away from home, determined to enjoy the mysterious pleasures of all that was forbidden in middle class families. All, except one, were students of Presidency College, Calcutta, when it was at the height of its glory. The odd one out was Buddhadev. His name metamorphosed to Buddhu soon enough, as was bound to happen in teenage company.
I had met Buddhu for the first time only a few days earlier at a friend’s residence and found him pleasant company. Of course, as was my wont, I didn’t spare him my Presidency snobbery and backed myself up further with a store of ammunition that I used to keep in reserve for the unwary, even at Presidency College. I had come into its possession by virtue of my somewhat precocious exposure to the gems of English literature at the hands of Utpal Dutt. I was lucky enough to have him as my English teacher for the last three years of high school.
Thanks to Mr. Dutt, we knew Coleridge, Chaucer or what have you by heart by the time we were students of Class X. Shakespeare too formed a part of our extra-curricular activities and this meant, amongst other things, that I had a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Western drama.
However shallow my understanding might have been at the time, or continues to be even today, I was no stranger to the three Aristotelian unities, of time, space and action, and the manner in which modern theatre, a la Shakespeare, broke out of that straitjacket. And these half digested pieces of information were the mighty AK-47s I employed with relish against Buddhu when the conversation veered around to the recently released Satyajit Ray film Kanchenjangha. Buddhu, poor chap, had found the movie quite unintelligible as well as boring and proceeded forth to blurt out this information in no uncertain terms. He had put his foot in his mouth it would seem, for snobs, alas, never let go of an opportunity to berate mediocrity!
Much to his astonishment as well as supreme embarrassment, I seized upon the opportunity to display my treasure trove of “divine knowledge” and proceeded to explain that Kanchenjangha was no boy-meets-girl film. It was, on the contrary, an experiment in abstract art, a transplantation of Greek stagecraft, Aristotle’s unity of space and time, to the modern cinema. I was at my pompous best and Buddhu stared at me in stupefaction as I tortured him relentlessly. He waited with humility and patience till I had reached the boundaries of my limited knowledge and stopped to find back my breath.
I had clearly won the utterly one sided battle, for he surrendered unconditionally as he mumbled, “Well, you see … umm … you know … the general run of cinema goers are probably not aware of these finer points of art … and I was not adequately trained either …” His voice trailed off as I secretly patted myself on my back and patronizingly allowed our discussions to descend to subjects that lesser mortals normally participate in.
But Buddhu was pleasant company as I observed earlier and I was happy to learn that he would be joining us for our planned trip to the newly coming up Digha sea resort in the not too distant future. And soon enough we arrived in full force to occupy a government managed tourist cottage, reserved for us by some magnanimous uncle or the other. Needless to say, it was an establishment that ran on subsidies, like most other business enterprises during India’s love affair with Fabian Socialism. As college students, we found the arrangement particularly advantageous of course, from the pocket money angle.
The first night passed off peacefully enough, though two of our friends, whose identities I cannot recall anymore, tried to keep us entertained till the small hours of the morning by singing Bade Ghulam Ali’s “Aaey na balam …”! They were totally out of tune and at one stage we threatened the duo with murder. After which, silence prevailed, not because the singers were unnerved by our threats, but on account of the fact that all of us succumbed to slumbers whose depth youth alone can appreciate.
I wonder how many days we spent there till the miracle happened, which took the shape of a young lady falling like manna from heaven with her parents into the cottage immediately adjacent to ours. And life could never be the same for us anymore. The cottage lay in full view of our curtain-less windows and we in turn tried with all diligence to present our own best views to our neighbours, absolutely free of charge. Our voices grew louder and louder and conversations more and more witty as we tried desperately to fill up inadequacies of sight by the power of our lungs. And finally, when nothing else worked, we fell back on Cupid’s ultimate gift to Bengali teenagers, romantic Rabindrasangeet numbers!
We sat as close as we could to the window seats and began to sing ‘Path diyey ke jaaey go choley, daak diyey shey jaaey …’ (Who is it that keeps calling out to me as s/he strolls along the path…?). Buddhu was a good singer I remember and he took the lead, swinging his arms much in the fashion of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The only problem of course was that he had brought a single pair of trousers with him and had washed it late in the afternoon. It hung on the clothes line somewhere and was still too wet for him to wear. He had nothing but his underpants to protect his modesty and by common consent therefore, the lights were turned off. Buddhu did the Zubin Mehta act in a state of semi-nudity while we poured out our hearts, following the lead of his invisible baton with rapt attention.
Love’s labour was totally lost however.
The adjacent building, but for the lights that lit the rooms, remained as silent as a haunted cabin. No one registered the slightest recognition of our presence. Leave alone the girl, not a single person belonging to her family appeared to be interested in our musical soiree. We sighed deeply and finally found solace in sleep once again, accompanied, perchance, by dreams.
By the time we were up and about next morning, the sun shone brightly, a pleasing breeze greeted us from the sea, the tall evergreen trees lined up along the shore gently swayed back and forth. All nature conspired against the lovelorn lot. But none of us was man enough to start a conversation with the girl. A mere morsel of a girl defying the towering snobbery of a Presidency crowd!
We sat glum faced in death like silence in our rooms. What on earth does she think of herself that she wouldn’t even appear on the balcony? She was no Anna Pavlova, not by any stretch of imagination. We did have a glimpse of her when they arrived two days ago. Not even pretty, man, just a homely girl. Whereas look at us! Each face brimming with unmistakable sign of genius. A mere look at us should tell her who we were, each one a potential Nobel Laureate. How stupid can a female be?
We did not speak out our thoughts audibly of course, but wavelengths matched and one by one we congregated to our balcony to stare at the sea and ruminate over God’s injustice.
And then, suddenly, what’s this we see yaar? Isn’t that Buddhu, the very same Buddhu who sang with nothing but his underpants on last evening? Or, probably not even that? What’s Buddhu up to? No good surely.
We watched him wide eyed and in total disbelief. Freshly showered, wearing his Sahara dry trousers, the rascal was walking up the path leading to the cottage of our fantasies. It was hard to believe what we saw. He was actually there, knocking on the door. Traitor! Did we not turn off the lights for his sake alone? Did we not sacrifice all we possessed merely to prevent his exposure to the world at large in a state of undress?
And then, lo and behold, the door is opened by the very damsel who had been eluding us all through. We stand there all ears listening to the conversation.
‘Hi! I wonder if you could help me,’ said Buddhu the dirty swine.
‘Yes, sure, what can I do for you? Won’t you come in please?’ spoke out the lovely voice that only a freshly blossomed woman can possess.
‘No, no,’ Buddhu was clearly on his guard now. ‘No need for me to come in. Actually, I seem to have lost my comb, can I borrow one please?’
‘Oh, is that it? Give me a minute please.’ She was back as promised with a comb and Buddhu started to comb his luxuriant hair as she watched him from a distance of two feet. So did we, only from miles away so to speak.
‘Lost his comb, my foot!’ each one of us recited in silence as we gnashed our teeth. Some excuse man! But he stood there, the scoundrel, combing his miserable hair for what appeared to be an eternity and exchanged pleasantries with her. His voice slowly descended to scarcely audible sounds and we did not know what confidences they exchanged, but prayed to God Almighty that her father would show up with a stick or a broom at least and get rid of the trespasser. But God preferred to remain deaf on that morning.
Buddhu finally returned the comb to her and began to retrace his path back towards our cottage. He swaggered, needless to say, and, if I remember correctly, even winked back at the flabbergasted lot that growled as it awaited his glorious return to pavilion after scoring his century. Should we try and find out the details of the fate that greeted Buddhu when he stepped into the cottage? That would be unnecessary waste of space wouldn’t it?
But there was a clear message that I did not fail to absorb on that distant morning. Buddhu the mediocre, Buddhu the pedestrian, Buddhu the commonplace, Buddhu, who had failed to appreciate the artistry of Satyajit Ray, had nonetheless managed to win the battle that the Presidency cum Utpal Dutt led Aristotle school had lost!
What is it that women admire in men? Wit or chutzpah? I haven’t discovered the answer, but I can afford to smile at my ignorance now. As Belafonte would have sung: “Now that I am ninety three, I don’t give a damn you see!”
I looked up at the sky where the silent stars glittered. They must have been merry spectators of the event four decades ago, but I did not think they would ever testify to the veracity of this simple tale. Nor would any of my mates, at least one of whom had even ceased to exist. And I did not know where most of the others were.
I was completely immersed in thought and did not notice that the black curtain had quietly fallen, cutting off the brightly lit stage where the magic show of innocence had been in progress. I knew only too well that this was one show that would fail to engender encore calls from an audience.
I heaved a sigh in the dense darkness as I remembered my own countlessly many ”Chhoti si Baat-s”. Ashok Kumar, alas, wound up his school soon after Amol graduated. And Vidya Sinha’s tribe proved to be no more than a chimera all through my life.
I began walking my lonely way back to the hotel while the sea kept roaring behind me in eternal indifference.