A squall signals the arrival of rain. It is a typical monsoon afternoon in Kolkata. Torrents of water begin to stream down the facades of grey buildings lined along Mahatma Gandhi Road. Automobiles honk at each other in vain. Traffic coagulates.
Crowds of people jostle against one another under porticos. Searching in vain for elbow room, I catch sight of the entrance to the subway station a few feet across and run through it.
I have no destination to seek whatsoever. Yet, I purchase a full three zone ticket, walk past the turnstile and take a flight of stairs down to the platform. To embark, as it turns out, upon a journey to the Kingdom of Pluto, deep inside the bowels of the earth. Like Orpheus in search of Eurydice.
I spot her as soon as I walk into the carriage, sitting primly between a fat schoolboy and a thin, nondescript man of indeterminate age. I stare at her in stupefaction. She hasn’t changed at all. The same captivating eyes, the same pair of specs, the same black mole on the right cheek, the same blue saree with black stripes. All reminiscent of the day many years ago, when we walked together along the narrow lanes that bordered our college compound.
We had been introduced, at my own request, near a bus stop of all places, a walking distance from the station where I boarded this train. It was too congested a place to even whisper to her my happiness at seeing her at close quarters. She was considerate though and suggested a walk to speak to each other for the first time in our lives. It was a walk that memory will never spare me of.
I don’t remember what we spoke of, for I descended into a trance, not believing my good fortune. She was the one in command though and soon enough glanced politely at the watch that wound her smooth womanly wrist, telling me softly, yet firmly, that it was time she retraced her steps. I took a peep at my watch too and realized that out of an eternity at her disposal, she had spared me a stingy half an hour at best. Inconsequential as I was, I couldn’t plead for a minute more and walked docilely back with her to the bus stop where our journey had commenced.
The bus arrived and we boarded the upper deck, where, fortunately, I found a seat next to her. “There will be time, there will be time”, I assured myself pathetically, and desperately searched for a clue to resume conversation. I had twenty minutes left in all. To tell her how much I enjoyed her proximity. But I failed to convey the message. Instead, in my confusion, I merely managed to utter my silly address. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled that curious unrevealing smile that women alone are capable of. The small golden earring she wore flickered as she quickly turned her eyes away. Twenty precious minutes thrown away in stupid indiscretion!
The bus jolted past Sealdah, Maulali and then the winding CIT Road, reaching the stop in front of her hostel. I had made no mistake at all in judging the time left to me. Twenty minutes — to travel through eternity in her company.
My thirst increased on that dying autumn evening, but not my courage. I could ask her nothing, nothing at all that was worth asking. I could not make her hear the drums beating inside my chest.
There are moments in life that are truly momentous. They leave scenes immortally etched in one’s mind. One such was the moment I had my first view of Sraboni. She stood on the balcony on the second floor of the college. Small and demure, just like today, looking down the imposing staircase leading to the Staff Room on the first floor, waiting for her professor no doubt to emerge for his class. She held her books in one hand, the other resting aimlessly on the railing she stood against. The afternoon sun had used up all the tricks at its disposal to light up her pretty little face. There was a crimson glow on her right cheek with that little black mole that threatened to launch all the seaworthy vessels on earth.
Only mine wasn’t ready to set sail. I floated paper boats at best on the dirty waters that flooded my street every time it rained. I didn’t know where they went, though I had hoped they would reach someone precisely like her. But her mysterious smile told me that my boats had probably reached the municipal dump instead.
Day after day, I kept going back to the College Street bus stop for her to show up just one more time, only to come back home in disappointment. And then, one day, I gave up. Time, compassionate time, took charge and opened up other nameless streets for investigation.
And I had kept walking along those streets, the “muttering retreats”, till this day, when all hell had to break loose and reveal her before me as though I was riding a time machine on reverse gear. Yes, she looks just the way she did that day. Her eyes still light up the heavens.
But unlike the previous occasion, when she smiled strangely at me to hear my address, she stares through me now without expression, in complete indifference. The carriage thunders through the darkness of the tunnel and the noise is too deafening for me to ask the priceless question I had reserved for her alone.
Sraboni, I want to ask you, did you really make a note of my humble address? Did you tell me through your wondrous smile that I could keep on hoping? For, you know Sraboni, in case you really wanted to find out too, the post did bring me a printed invitation card to the annual social of Lady Brabourne College, not long after I saw you off from the bus.
And I have wanted to believe all through that it was you who had asked your friends for the card and sent it to me to test out my courage to go alone to an all girls’ college. To assess my craving for the unknown.
If you did send that card, then you know perhaps that I failed to show up. What you don’t know though is that I had tried desperately instead to read the few words the sender had written in small blue inked letters, only to scratch them out as an afterthought. Like an inexpert detective, I scraped the card with a razor, but it revealed nothing that was legible anymore!
Perhaps, you had waited for me on that balmy evening, perhaps you went back to your dormitory in mild despair. Did you Sraboni, did you?
I follow you out of the train at Tollygunge, a few steps behind you. As we come out into the street, I see that the sky has cleared and the sun is glowing softly, once more in late afternoon glory.
I even manage to catch up with you and feign a cough to draw your attention. You look up sideways and I know immediately that I should not have disturbed the universe. They are not the same eyes anymore, nor the same specs. Nor are you wearing the same striped saree. Your hair has thinned and what remains is greying. The mole is still sitting on your cheek. But it will not attract even a small dinghy. You stare back at me. No smile, no recognition. Perhaps even a trace of irritation.
I stop dead in my tracks. The last vestige of hope explodes in my mind as realization dawns on me. The question I had carried foolishly in the deepest recess of my mind will remain unanswered forever!
And then I hear a young voice. “Ma, what took you so long? Baba and I have been waiting here for almost half an hour!” The irritation on your face slowly melts, the mouth opening up in a smile revealing your unmistakable dentures. The smile is directed to a young beauty, wearing jeans and a bright yellow Tee shirt. You stroke her lush, dark hair and walk off towards a waiting car, with a stranger at the wheels.
I watch the scene with half-hearted interest and slowly turn around, only to be taken once again by surprise. A man stares at me from the glass showcase of a toy shop. He has lost most of his hair, his face marked by the deep scars of time. And I recall with a shudder that Orpheus had been warned against looking at Eurydice before they emerged from the caverns of Pluto’s empire.
Coincidences, like sorrows, often arrive in battalions. And the last of these awaits me back at home. I discover there a letter for me on my desk. I open it up carelessly, but my pulse rate begins to gallop as I read its contents. It is an invitation for Professor Ghosh to deliver a special lecture at an academic conference hosted by Lady Brabourne College!
I laugh out aloud in my empty study in rhythm with the throbbing pain in my heart. But I decide without hesitation to accept the invitation.
Forty years too late, and that too for the wrong reason.