Category Archives: Fiction — English

Pure stories, part fictions based on personal memoirs, translations of Bengali and Japanese fiction.

Paradise Regained: A Hairy Tale

Part 1

“Roop Parivartan Saloon” is a barbershop that has recently come up across the street from my residence. As the name suggests in no uncertain terms, it is an outfit devoted to a noble cause, the uplifting of the look-wise deprived and downtrodden, of social outcasts if you will, by imparting to their indifferent personalities the magnetic charm of a Gregory Peck or a Richard Gere! To settle all doubts on this score moreover, there is a painting hanging above the glass paneled swing door at the entrance of the shop, depicting the consequence of undergoing the promised transformation: a bunch of shapely females gazing in admiration at a clean-shaven man of indeterminate age, in blue jeans and a red tee shirt, sporting a flamboyantly futuristic hair style and flashing a toothy smile.

Though I am not young any more, I am utterly inclined towards surrender, whenever the prospect of worldly pleasures rears its head. My days normally arrive promise-laden therefore, luring me, as I muse with half-closed eyes in the comfort of an abundantly cushioned chair on my balcony, to hop into a brightly painted glider aircraft and take off for the unknown. Across endless skies stretching over distant hills, where hoards of captivating wood nymphs dance and sing to the murmuring approval of glittering waterfalls solely for my entertainment.

There is, however, a fly in the very ointment of my existence, the embarrassing state of the top of my head, congenitally inclined as it is towards barrenness. A lonesome plot of land as it were, deprived of vegetation except of the most rudimentary variety. Awareness of that fact often keeps my burning enthusiasm on leash, even as I ogle at females passing in front of my strategically appointed corner on the balcony. Unlike my dreamy experiences with wood nymphs, I am painfully aware on these occasions that the attention I shower on the damsels remains woefully unreciprocated.

The injustice jars me to no end. If a wigless Yul Bryner could have paired with ravishing beauties like Deborah Kerr and Ingrid Bergman, if Mausumi swooned at the sight of Rakesh Roshan in full knowledge of his phoney crest, why can lesser mortals not entertain somewhat mediocre hopes at least? Not appointments at Madame Tussauds for sure. But why not bouts of mortal bliss once at least in a blue moon?

And then one day, my prayers appeared to reach their destination. Or else why should Roop Parivartan Saloon materialize out of nothingness like the palace Aladdin sprung on the Sultan to woo his daughter? It is hardly surprising that the Saloon cast a spell of sorts over me from the very day of its inauguration. It loomed large before me like an irresistible fruit, suspended from the branch of a forbidden tree. Throwing caution to the winds therefore, I walked past the swing door one lonely afternoon in November in pursuit of an appearance that would raise me to the rank of the man whose picture hung at the shop entrance and seated myself on a barber’s chair right next to the window facing the street, just in case Aishwariya Rai happened to be peeping in approval.

My burning enthusiasm, however, sustained an initial jolt. I appeared to be the monarch of all I surveyed in the shop, or, to add a sci-fi touch to the metaphor, a miserable robot in search of life forms in Martian wilderness. I peered with concern into the back of the shop, where dark shadows lurked over mounds of undefined forms. Silence, however, reigned supreme and after a few more moments of solitary confinement, I decided that Roop Parivartan Saloon was probably a shelter built by a worthy philanthropist for the rest of humanity to sit inside and ruminate over illusions of change in a changeless universe. Not exactly my cup of tea, I began to think, when I perceived a movement from the corner of my eye somewhere near the aforementioned back-of-the-shop. Turning around with alacrity, I detected a diminutive human form emerging out of one of the mounds located thither, like a Valmiki aroused from transcendental meditation.

He rubbed a pair of drowsy eyes with one hand while his other hand gesticulated behind him in search of an unoccupied sleeve of a greyish barber’s robe hanging listlessly from his shoulders. He tripped over a side table of sorts in the process, toppling a lump of alum lying on it and then jumped forward with a shriek to catch it back in midair with the hand so far occupied with sleeve exploring to prevent it from splintering on the floor. The impromptu athletic performance impressed me to no end, for I found myself wondering if his name should be recommended as a substitute fielder for cricket teams during hours of crisis.

Beaming therefore at the man with confidence, I felt that I might well be able, with his aid, to turn myself into an object of visual appeal. The man too, it seemed, had been sufficiently restored to life by the exercise, for a confident smile now spread across his lips, above which his welcoming eyes twinkled under an arched pair of bushy eyebrows, set against an abundant backdrop of long, dark hair. His head, in other words, was richly endowed, a man with a mane he was, a shiny dark stallion, a comrade to be relied upon by the drought-devastated cranium owners of the world.

He appeared to possess a voice too, and a melodious one at that, which he employed now to the best possible advantage. “Do sit down, sit down sir. Make yourself comfortable,” he sang out in a clear baritone, restoring me back to my seat and my mind to its peaceful state. With practised skill he produced a clean sheet to cover up my torso, which now was relaxing back in the chair, ready to witness the transformation of the ungainly burden it had supported all its life, namely, my head. And then he pirouetted back at the barber’s appointed place behind the customer’s chair and waited in respectful attention, as we watched each other in the mirror I faced.

And waited, … and waited. His eyes expressed query, but his body stood motionless. This total inaction, following hard upon a magnificent display of physical agility, was disconcerting, but I assumed for a while that he was collecting his thoughts, as God himself might have done, immediately prior to the big bang of creation.

The mirror, like the one that had gotten Snow White into trouble with the wicked queen, revealed all this quite faithfully: a petrified barber staring at the reflection of the mystified customer, a shrouded body, and an assortment of barber’s tools and pomades on the table. Excellent subject for a still life portrait, fit though for a painters’ salon more than a barber’s workshop.

After several moments of passive interlude, he found back his voice. “Is there any way I may help you sir?” he said somewhat uncertainly I thought. His tone of speech clearly suggested that the nature of service I sought appeared to him to be fraught with ambiguity. Confusion reared its head therefore between the barber and his customer, as I asked myself simultaneously if he truly believed that I had walked into his shop with the intention of posing as an artist’s model.

I realized that the man’s questioning mind needed to be attended to. I cleared my throat therefore and he cleared his in sympathy, without disturbing the afore-described composition. I raised my questioning eyebrows — he arched his even further in response. Then I twisted my lips into a smile, to which he reacted with equanimity. There being little room for further experiments with the pantomime, I proffered the first lead for a conversation.

“Shoot,” said I with suppressed impatience.

The man was startled out of his composure rather violently. “What?” he managed to utter, as he arrested himself a second time from falling flat on his face. And then stammered nervously, “Whom? I mean, why?”

“No one man. No one,” I guaranteed him. “Start the proceedings. Shoot, my dear fellow, shoot your skill at my skull”.

He heaved a clear sigh of relief and beamed back a happy smile. “Oh yes, yessir … but I am wondering …,” his voice trailed off.

“So am I good man, so am I. And what, may I ask, is it that you are wondering about?” I was at the peak of my leadership drive.

He considered in silence, but not for long. “I was wondering sir, whether you wanted to go for the German technology or the Korean. The latter would cost you less for sure, but the former is likely to be more dependable.”

Part 2

My poise was under siege once again! I looked up sharply at the mirror to study the man, and then turned around for confirmation. No, there was no illusion in this, the chap stood there as solidly as the Rock of Gibraltar. And upon being requested to repeat what he had said, he summarized in unmistakable terms what I thought he had said indeed. Did I wish it the German way or the Korean way? An innocent question that didn’t appear to admit any simple answer. Or any answer at all for that matter.

Armies of doubts invaded once again. Oh no, no, no. This is neither a barbershop nor a philanthropist’s gift to instill philosophical awareness amongst the masses! This is clearly a head shrink’s chamber, rather than a head-beautifier’s, a hideout for loonies to hibernate in. And a mad man in the guise of a barber is to be treated with apprehension and dread, for barbers are known to carry about them razors, scissors, and other implements invented solely for the delight of the homicidally inclined.

I knew, however, that my only hope of survival lay in keeping the maniac engaged in conversation. So I smiled again with admirable effort. I could have patted myself on the back for being able to smile in the face of impending annihilation, but was prevented from doing so, given the somewhat complicated yogic posture I was tied up into at the moment, torso facing mirror and face facing the diametrically opposite side of the room.

“I don’t really care, you know,” I winked with feigned mischief, “so long as you manage to give my hair a Gregory Peck like dress up.” And then added on second thoughts, “Or at least one like Harrison Ford’s. A few rupees here and there make little difference.”

The man looked disturbed. He considered my question for a long moment and then transforming his bushy eyebrows into  perfect semicircles, scratched the back of his head, hidden somewhere under its deep, dark, hairy cover. “Hari-son, sir?” he finally uttered in some bewilderment. And then, shaking his head vigorously, concluded with renewed confidence, “No, sir. No. I think you mean Behari-son, sir. My father was Beharilal.” To remove all doubts moreover, he declared with a happy smile, “And I, sir, am Pyarilal. Call me Pyari, sir. That’s the name they all call me by.”

A contorted human shape in a barber’s chair under the watchful glare of a lunatic climbing up a family tree, would be a reasonable artist’s impression of the state to which events had transpired now. Not being artistically disposed though, I decided to startle him and while his attention was diverted, run for freedom. I produced therefore a noise that came close to a snarl and then glowering at him I yelled, “To hell with Behar and Pyar! Concentrate instead on hair. Hair, you understand? Hair!” My voice rose to a deafening pitch as I uttered the last bit.

The words I had shouted seemed to have made an impression at last. I heard him mutter to himself, “Hair? Hair?” He looked to his left, then to his right, then behind him and finally, as though to leave nothing to chance, he looked up at the ceiling. If there was anything he was looking for, he did not discover it. Nothing but emptiness greeted him from all sides. Then he slowly turned his puzzled gaze at me. And said again, “Hair?”

“Do you mean your hair sir?” he mumbled on with studied politeness.

“Who else’s,” said I in irritation, “certainly not yours!”

“Please do not lose your cool sir,” he replied with assurance. “I have no intention of offending you.” Following which, he proceeded to make amends as it were by caressing my sparsely camouflaged scalp with something akin to motherly affection, an action mind you, which cannot possibly stimulate filial sentiments, unless of course it was your mom in person who was engaged in the job. He added patiently thereafter in a voice drenched with the milk of human kindness, “I can’t detect any hair at all on your head you see, and that is why I had suggested that you go for the new technology. Hair grafting I mean, though I admit that the German method is overpriced. But senior citizens normally prefer the Korean technology. Perhaps that’s what you ought to consider too … since, after all, you know, you are unlikely to …” His speech stuttered to a stop here, in a somewhat un-motherly manner I thought.

Insult over injury. He’s no loony at all. Quite to the contrary in fact. The chap’s not merely casting aspersions on my baldness; he seems also to be implying at the same time that I was on the wrong side of ninety-three. My assessment was accurate, for as I gaped back at him, the deferential look in his eyes slowly disappeared and the emotions on his face underwent a series of changes, from confusion through concern and compassion, and finally to what unmistakably looked like glee.

He proceeded with some satisfaction now. “You see sir, I attend to two classes of clients. Those with hair,” he said pointing at the profusion on his head, “and those without, such as …,” he was about to point at me, but sense appeared to prevail as he quickly withdrew the accusing finger. “Once again, please do not take offence sir,” he pleaded. “The first type asks for haircuts and the second invariably opts for grafting. Seeing the state of your scalp, I would certainly recommend grafting, cutting being a contradiction in terms.”

I distinctly perceived a grin now on his face, and then a noise emerged from a hidden recess in him that appeared to resemble a giggle. He was preparing too, I gathered, to recede back towards the darker background of the shop from where he had materialized half an hour ago. Facetious scoundrel I thought, as I stared back at him chalking out a course of action. And I was quick too, for emulating his own athletic dexterity I jumped out of the chair and caught him by the collar. Hairless persons get particularly sour when the conversation veers around to hair related matters. Jokes on baldness, in other words, are normally not tolerated in the vicinity of a baldy himself. The man tried to escape but in the tussle that followed I managed to reach for the luxuriant growth on his head. I shall pluck out every bit of hair from his head I decided and make him suffer the rest of his existence in hairless ignominy. And I pulled at his hair with all the strength I could muster.

But, to my total disbelief, the hair gave way without any struggle at all. I found myself holding the man by his collar with my left hand, while my right held on to the enchanting bouquet that decorated his head only a minute ago. And there stood before me a person that I was seeing for the first time in my life. With a head as bereft of flora as the Sahara desert. It took me a while to figure out that the object I held in my hand was a wig, and a magnificently crafted one at that, one that the most sought after Bollywood stars would proudly slip on.

The surprising course of events diverted my attention from the collar I held with one hand to the hairy mass in my other palm. Taking advantage of the distraction though, he managed to break loose and disappear into the darkness. And then there was complete silence once again. I was back, in other words, to where proceedings had started.

Despite the puzzlement, it was my turn now to snigger. I looked back at the mirror and admired myself. Roop Parivartan Saloon had indeed instilled in me a state of confidence that I had never experienced in the past when my hairlessness attracted public attention. In addition, I also understood now what had taken the fool so long to show up as I had waited for him in the chair after my initial entry in the shop. The miserable thing was obviously adjusting its wig prior to appearing on stage!

Which brings me, my friends, to the end of this hairy episode. Hamlet’s standing notwithstanding, as the Killjoy of the Millennium, and his hallucinations about regimented bands of sorrows conspiring to carry out flank attacks on mankind precisely when it was busy protecting its rear, I have turned into a staunch optimist. Never indeed shall I need to kneel in hairless disgrace! If Pyarilal the barber can disguise himself, so can others. Including the living beauties that treat me with disdain. True, I shall never pull at their hair and put my hypothesis to test. But henceforth I can afford to sit unembarrassed on my balcony chair whenever fancy dictates and dream of Rani Mukherjee whispering sweet nothings into my ear.

Contrary to received wisdom in other words, a bird in the bush, or a nymph in the wood, could well be worth a million at hand.

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

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Plutonic Love

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.

Waiting for Priya

Prologue

It was a typical winter evening in Kolkata. Velvety and mellow.

Yet Mrinal was sweating. He had been sweating since the previous day. Lovely Priya had promised to visit his home. She was a classmate in college.

Mrinal had been staring endlessly at her since college started. Inside as well as outside the college.

Nothing mattered. Except for Priya returning a smile. Except for her shining eyes and her fascinating face.

He had found the courage to visit her residence, but she lived with a sister and an aunt. He ended up entertaining the ladies with intelligent conversation. But Priya remained a distant dream.

Mrinal struggled more and finally managed to accomplish the impossible.

‘Say, why don’t you visit us one of these days?’ he uttered as casually as possible, keeping the quiver out of his voice. He was careful to use the word ‘us’ instead of ‘me’. Priya should know that he lived with his parents. There was a moat at least that Mrinal would need to cross even in his own house. But Priya didn’t appear to be overly worried.

‘Sure. Why don’t you draw me a map? I’d love to visit your home.’

Mrinal wrote down the address and drew the map, ensuring that his nervous fingers didn’t reveal instead the way into the hidden recess of his mind.

He bought two tickets for his parents to attend the latest Uttam Kumar movie. It was a craze and he knew they would love the trip.

‘I never buy you presents. It’s always the other way round,’ he said smiling. ‘This time I pay and you enjoy. See, I am not the spendthrift you always accuse me of being. I saved this money from the tuitions I give.’

The elderly couple found it hard to hide their tears of joy and by quarter past five in the afternoon, he had managed to pack them off. And then he waited, heart thumping.

Would she keep her word? He did not have enough confidence in himself to expect the impossible to happen. But it did. The door bell rang and she waited there as gorgeous as ever, in a cream saree and a soft grey cardigan. She wore no jewellery, but the warmth of her smile compensated.

He welcomed her into the empty house. She didn’t ask questions, but she looked around the living room expecting a voice or two from adjacent rooms. Nothing but silence greeted her. If she was surprised, she hid her reaction with ease.

Mrinal was well prepared. He had a recording of a Royal Shakespeare Company production and he asked her if she would care to listen to some of the greatest actors from England.

‘Which play?’ she asked.

‘You guess,’ said he in response. And then turned on the player. In tune with a soft piano in the background, a young man’s voice said:

‘Wouldst thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?’

And a woman’s charming voice whispered back:

‘But to be frank, and give it thee again.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. …’

Mrinal moved to a chair next to her. He knew it would be too melodramatic to tell her it was Romeo and Juliet that was playing. He leaned as far towards her as propriety allowed and asked, ‘Do you recognize the play?’

She frowned, trying to figure out. Mrinal didn’t know if she knew, but it was immaterial. The sensuous melody of the piano said all he wanted to say.

A sudden, harsh noise disturbed the scene. The doorbell. Mrinal almost jumped in alarm. It was too early for his parents to return. He waited, struggling not to lose his composure, when the bell rang again.

He sighed and went over to answer the door. An aunt stood there with her teenage daughter. They were regular visitors and did not need to keep anyone informed about their visits. Without waiting to be invited in, they came in and crashed on the couch. And then, noticing Priya, stared at her curiously for a while.

‘Where’s your mother,’ asked the aunt, suspicion plainly written on her face.

Mrinal stammered, ‘They have gone to see a movie …’

His answer must have sounded like a bombshell. The aunt and her daughter immediately transferred their attention to Priya, studying her with deep attention now.

Priya stood up. She was obviously uncomfortable. ‘I am getting late,’ she smiled with understanding. ‘Can I please borrow the book I came for?’

For a second, Mrinal was dumbfounded. ‘Book?’ he asked and then understanding dawned. Priya may not have known Romeo and Juliet by heart, but she certainly had better presence of mind than Mrinal.

‘Oh yes, the book …’ Mrinal disappeared inside the house and came out with a copy of David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and handed it over to Priya. She looked at the book and her eyes twinkled. She was not an Economics major!

‘Thanks a lot,’ she said and disappeared through the front door into the foggy darkness of the Kolkata winter. Mrinal, swearing under his breath, came back and sat down to entertain the guests.

They conversed idly for a while, Mrinal keeping up the show in monosyllables. The aunt and the cousin were bored soon and decided to leave. But Mrinal knew that Priya was now at least halfway back to her home.

He recalled the aunt at Priya’s home too and uttered viciously to himself in a stage whisper, ‘Nephews and nieces of the world, UNITE!’

Something like a response greeted him from the corner of the empty room. He stared at the audio player with impotent rage. It was still on.

The play had progressed in the meantime he realized, for he heard a dying Mercutio deliver his immortal line:

‘Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, it’s enough.’

A Conversation

dd: Hi Mrinal! Long time no see …

Mrinal (somewhat surprised): Umm … yes … umm … I mean … Sorry, I don’t wish to offend you … but do I know you?

dd (smiling): Good question and thanks for being so frank. I wish I didn’t have to embarrass you this way, but the problem is that I need to ask you a question. So, I had to intrude into the privacy of your mind …

Mrinal (dumbfounded): Intrude into my mind? Goodness gracious me!! Who the hell are you? And how dare you intrude into my privacy!! Vanish, I say. Leave me alone.

dd (distinctly disturbed): But that’s impossible Mrinal. Even if I could perform the vanishing trick, your mind is one place I simply cannot vanish from. It’s where I live. Frankly, I was not really intruding. I was simply reminding you that I have been a permanent tenant of your mind. Only I never paid you any rent! Awfully sorry … I have lived there all my life. And that means all your life too, doesn’t it?

Mrinal (gaping stupidly): I am not sure I understand you. Are you telling me who I am? Am I you?

dd (relieved): Ah! I knew you would finally understand. You’ve never been insensitive. Yes friend, I am no one else but you yourself. And I am simply asking you to dig into the depths of your soul and recall an incident that took place many years ago on a soft, velvety winter evening in Kolkata.

Mrinal (smiling at last): Which incident? There were so many evenings and yet many more incidents. Which one do you mean?

dd (eyes twinkling): The evening you waited for Priya.

Mrinal (mirthfully): Ah yes! That was a cruel evening indeed!

dd: Remember the book she borrowed? What did she tell you when she returned it back to you?

Mrinal (sighing): Nothing, nothing at all. She never returned it …

dd (perturbed): No? You never asked her for the book?

Mrinal (sadly smiling): There were more important things that happened and I simply forgot to ask her. And now it’s too late.

dd (curious): Oh really? But what happened? Won’t you tell me?

Mrinal (irritated): Why do I need to tell you all this? You said you are me! You of all people should know what happened. Every single detail of the happenings. Why are you pulling my leg?

dd (compassionately): No, not at all my friend. Telling me is just a way of telling others. Do you want to share your answer to the “What happened?” question with others?

Mrinal (sighing again): Others? Is anyone interested? Do you know anyone who wants to hear what happened?

dd: Surprisingly enough, I do.

Mrinal: Really? Who are they? Do they have names?

dd: They do. But what’s in a name? They want to know. They are nice kids you know. Why don’t you comply? I too want to listen. Wait, don’t begin yet. I want to make myself comfortable. The couch sitting next to the window looks most inviting and cosy. Let me settle there first … Right. I am ready to listen now. Go ahead. No, no, I don’t need a drink. You know, don’t you, that alcohol’s not my cup of tea? Hee, hee, … stupid joke.

Mrinal: Yes, that was a stupid joke. Anyway, I think I want to assign a title to my story first. Do you know what I want to call it? I want to call it “Adulterous Thoughts”.

dd (visibly taken aback): Ohhhhhhh … Well so long as you keep it confined to thoughts, it’s OK I guess. Anyway, proceed …

Adulterous Thoughts

Mrinal (half reclining, sideways, on a divan, left elbow digging into the pillow): A century seems to have gone by since the day I saw Priya for the first time in my life. I must have bunked a class and strolled into the first floor of the College Street Coffee House. She was sitting with my class mate Animesh at the table closest to the swing door that separated the restaurant from a mysterious, poorly lit interior that Coffee House regulars referred to as a kitchen. In hindsight, the standards of hygiene maintained there must have fallen short of pristine purity, but our minds were too preoccupied with members of the opposite sex outside the kitchen to be overly bothered by rules of cleanliness observed inside.

Priya was undoubtedly the prettiest woman I had seen during the entire course of my youth and she continued to retain her beauty for the best part of her life. She never wore any make up and kept radiating the beauty nature had profusely endowed her with. She was always simply dressed in her plain cotton sarees, behaved as friendly as the girl next door and never failed to appear as innocently attractive as a newly born puppy. Her skin was the colour of gold, her features sharp yet soft, her smile angelic yet devastating and her male admirers as numerous as sand grains on a sea beach.

My first encounter with her in Animesh’s company was relatively eventless. But I was struck by her good looks and used the occasion to employ all the fishing tricks at my disposal to attract her attention. The meeting, however, was short, for Animesh, sensing my intentions, quickly disappeared in her company in Kolkata’s crowded streets.

Perhaps that’s where the curtain would have fallen too, if I did not see her in the college precincts soon afterwards, not once but almost everyday that followed. Our friendship grew and I discovered tid bits of her personal life. Her parents lived elsewhere, her father being a successful lawyer in her hometown, while she lived in Kolkata with her sister and aunt, to continue with her education. She attracted me inexorably, like a flame attracting a fly. Yet, naturally inclined though I was to run after every other girl I came across, I never found the courage to proceed much further.

We dated only once as I remember, during my entire college life, when we went together to watch a popular Utpal Dutt play at Minerva Theatre in North Kolkata. It was a purely friendly excursion, bearing no semblance of a secret meeting of love birds. Despite her beatific smile, she had by this time acquired reputation as the most notorious of men killers in town. Consequently, the pressure of competition forced me to suppress the quivers I felt in my heart and play the role of a “good friend and nothing more”. There was no miasmal mystery therefore that accompanied our dating.

As Priya moved from conquest to conquest, leaving behind her a trail of corpses of multifarious shapes and sizes, I too kept myself engaged in chasing a variety of women. Each one of my chases though ended up in disaster. And Priya remained the only woman amongst the ones I fell for, who, despite occasional disappearances for varying lengths of time, never vanished completely out of my life. We continued to be in the best of terms and she was always ready to lend me a sympathetic shoulder to weep on after the tragic denouement of each of my romantic adventures.

Then one day, Sandipan arrived in her life. I knew him from the past and liked his approach to the world at large. He was a tall, handsome person, plucky when circumstances demanded. And when circumstances didn’t demand, he was tension free, ever smiling, and full of humour. He was certainly a gentleman worth cultivating. It was a most interesting development from my point of view. There was a time when every new paramour Priya acquired would make me turn green with jealousy. With time, jealousy had turned to indifference. But upon Sandipan’s arrival, I felt, paradoxically enough, truly happy for the couple. They were two great friends I had and I came pretty close to singing loud hosannas in praise of their relationship, which culminated in marriage.

We were not too regularly in touch after this event took place. I moved away to different parts of the world and they settled in a small town, both taking up teaching positions, one in a college and the other in the post graduate department of a university. After a few months, we lost touch quite completely.

Till that is, two years or so ago, almost fifteen years since our last encounter. My work required me to travel to the town where I heard they were located and I used my contacts to dig out their phone number to call them up before I travelled. It was Sandipan who answered the phone. Needless to say, he was surprised to hear from me and even more so to know that I intended to visit them. Of course, he did welcome me and gave me directions to his residence.

How was Priya though? On being asked, he informed me that she was not particularly well, having been a victim of breast cancer in the recent past. She had undergone mastectomy I learned, followed by a course of chemotherapy. The news came as a shock and I braced myself for an encounter with a metamorphosed Priya.

Fortunately though, her appearance was reasonably normal when I saw her finally at her residence. Chemotherapy had done some damage to her hair, but she was simply an aged Priya in every other way. Memories flooded back with a rush and the rusty gates that kept us separated for a long many years gave way without much effort on either side.

Our contacts resumed and they started to visit us every time they were in Kolkata and we even called each other over the phone just for a chat. During one of these occasions, Priya told me that she was visiting alone to attend an academic meeting.

As always, I was delighted and my wife and I hoped she would be able to come over for dinner during her stay. “Oh yes, of course, I will. Let’s fix a day after I arrive,” she said. And call she did during her stay in Kolkata. “Say, will it be too much of a trouble if I dropped in at short notice?” “Of course not,” I said. “Just keep me informed, or else I may be away from home.” “How about this evening?” she said. I checked with my wife and gave her the green signal.

She kept her appointment and spent the entire evening with us. There was nothing really new about the subjects we confabulated on. Except for one piece of information. She had suffered from other illnesses too and one of them required her to undergo hysterectomy, she informed us smilingly. I watched her in silence as I absorbed this piece of intelligence. The person who sat before me was the same Priya, who conquered a thousand hearts with her female charm. But she was not just aged now. She retained few physiological characteristics that would qualify her as a woman!

Yet, she continued to appear to me the eternal woman she had always been in my eyes. What, I asked myself deep inside my heart, is a woman? Isn’t there something far beyond physiology that defines the quintessence of womanhood? And, I found myself answering my question in the affirmative. Priya was still the same woman I had known and loved when I was too young to imagine that I would ever be facing the person I faced now.

It was late when she left and I told her that it wouldn’t be safe for her to go back alone. She protested, but I insisted on dropping her back where she had put up. We went out into the street and hailed a passing cab. I opened the door for her and then followed her in. Inside the cab though, a surprise awaited me. She had seated herself in a way that left me little room except to squeeze myself in. Yet there was ample space for her to shift and let me sit more comfortably. It would be rude to ask her to move to the other side of the seat and I accepted the space she had allotted me without protest.

We had a long way to go and we covered the distance in close physical proximity. I soon realised that she would let me hold her hand if I wanted to. She would let me move closer and perhaps even plant a kiss on her age worn face. This was the only time during our long acquaintance that Priya revealed herself to me, when she had nothing left in her that would diagnose her clinically as a female. Yet the most fascinating of God’s creations, the woman, had managed to survive.

It was the closest she ever came to returning my love. On my way back, I wondered if I would have committed adultery to hold her hand in the darkness of the cab or exchange a kiss. I thought hard but no easy answer presented itself. I could not solve the problem, ending up in utter confusion. I spent a sleepless night and, with the arrival of dawn, sat down paper and pencil in hand to write the only poem I ever composed in my life:

Her lovely face
In a smoke filled coffee house
Etched in my heart, forever.

What Happened Next

Mrinal was due to leave India for an academic assignment abroad. He had told Priya about his date of departure on the night he saw her off in the taxi. She called him up the evening immediately preceeding the day he would be leaving. The call came through in a shopping mall where he was making last minute purchases for the trip.

He was pleasantly surprised.

“Hi! How are you? You gave me a surprise!” said Mrinal.

She responded, “Why, are you unhappy to hear from me?”

“Of course not! Do I sound unhappy?”

“I called up to say Bon Voyage,” she said.

“Now this is a true surprise. You remembered the date? Thank you so much.”

There was silence at the other end. He waited for a minute or two and then said, “Hello, are you still there?”

“Yes,” Priya’s voice answered.

“I see, I thought we had been disconnected.”

“No, we are not disconnected. At least I am not disconnected. Don’t know about you …,” the voice at the other end said slowly. Mrinal listened intently and sighed silently.

“How is Sandipan?” he asked trying desperately to change the subject.

There was a short silence again.

“He has been admitted to the hospital,” she said falteringly. Mrinal thought he heard tears in her voice.

“Hospital! Why? I mean what do you mean? What happened?” he stammered.

“He was coughing blood and the tests revealed a shadow in the lungs. The final reports are yet to come in. It will take a few days. One needs to rule out malignancy.”

“Mal – ig – nan …!” Mrinal found it hard to finish the word. His vocabulary had come to an end. He couldn’t help recalling what Priya had told about herself the last time they had seen each other. This was too horrifying a coincidence. Both of them afflicted by the same disease! Who’s going to look after whom?

Her voice returned back. “Well, have a nice trip. And … keep in touch if you can …”

“Sure, sure enough. And you too take care of yourself … Take care of both of yourselves … I will call you soon.”

The “soon” arrived more than a month later. Mrinal’s pre-commitments to his foreign host left him little time to get back in touch with Priya. Worse, his wife was diagnosed with a gallstone problem that called for surgery. She had to be hospitalized too and Mrinal spent most of the nights in the hospital in the private cabin assigned to his wife. He travelled from the hospital directly to the university for his lectures and spent very little time at home.

It was nearly two months later that he found the opportunity to call up Priya. A woman’s voice answered the phone. No, Priya was not home, nor her husband, Mrinal was told. She was the maid in whose charge they had left the house. “Where are they?” he asked.

“They have gone to Mumbai,” she answered. “The master needed a medical check up.”

Mrinal missed a heartbeat. Mumbai! Not to the Tata Memorial Hospital he hoped. He tried her mobile number, but it was switched off. He sat in his office and worried. Isn’t there a way he could contact them?

Well, where there is a will, there always is a way. He recalled suddenly that Priya and Sandipan had a daughter living in Delhi and that she might be able to give him more information. He spoke to the maid again and asked her if she knew the daughter’s phone number. Fortunately she knew. She was marginally literate. Mrinal copied down the number and called Priya’s daughter Shyamali immediately. Once again a maid intervened. The mistress was not home, but she would be back by the evening. Mrinal checked his watch. Given the time difference, he would need to call at 2 AM in the morning to speak to Shyamali.

It was a long wait, but he was able to speak to Shyamali at last. Yes, she had Priya’s mobile number in Mumbai, but the news was not too cheerful. Sandipan had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was undergoing treatment at the Tata Hospital.

Mrinal couldn’t help remembering Sandipan’s ever cheerful face, his humorous demeanour and never compromising attitude. Mrinal lacked the courage to call Priya up, but he knew he had to go through with it. His heart wouldn’t allow him to remain silent.

Priya told him the details of the treatment. Apparently Sandipan was responding to the therapy, but one never knew how long the improvement would last. They would be leaving for home in a day or two. “Call my home next time,” she said.

~*~

Mrinal didn’t call for the next four months, after which his assignment was over and he was back in Kolkata. His wife had recuperated and their household was back to normal. Mrinal too was soon absorbed in the everyday activities that kept him engaged. One of these happened to be the role he played as a TV commentator on economic events of importance. At the time the burning issue was the stalled industrialization programme at Singur, West Bengal. One of the channels where he normally appeared arranged to hold a programme in the very town where Priya lived.

Mrinal’s heart thumped when he received the invitation from the channel. “Call my home next time,” Priya had said. Mrinal prepared himself for the journey without any persuasion from the organizers at all.

It was a short flight and the team arrived on time around 11 AM in the morning. The programme though was fixed for 4 PM in the afternoon. Mrinal checked into the hotel and called up Priya almost immediately. It was she herself who answered the phone.

“Hello Priya, this is Mrinal.”

“Of course that’s who you are. I can recognize your voice.”

“Priya, you know what … can I come and see Sandipan and you today?”

It was she who sounded surprised this time.

“Where are you? Are you here in town?”

“Exactly. Can I come over?”

She sounded more than pleased. “Of course, but you will lose your way if you try to reach our residence by yourself. You don’t know the town that well. Let me speak to a local person from your TV team and give him directions.”

Mrinal handed the phone over to a team member and he had no difficulty figuring out the location of Priya’s residence. Mrinal borrowed a car and left after lunch was over. He knew he would have to be back for the programme before 4 PM.

The driver had been given instructions about the route to take. But when the car reached the area, the driver was somewhat confused about the exact lane leading to Priya’s house. Mrinal told him to remain seated in the car and searched around by himself on foot. Soon he was there.

He rang the doorbell wondering who would be answering the door. He recalled the soft, velvety evening in Kolkata hundreds of years ago when it was Priya who had rung the bell and he had himself opened the door for her. The roles had changed indeed, for it was she who stood on the other side of the door this time. Mrinal felt his pulse beat rise as she smiled at him and led him into the living room.

“Look Priya,” said Mrinal in jest, “I was able to find your home on my own. This person you gave directions to was able to send me only half the distance. He lost his way and I had to do the excavation job myself! I arrived on foot and I don’t know anymore exactly where he parked his car.”

“I can find you wherever you choose to hide,” he added laughing.

Priya smiled sadly in response. Sandipan was seated on the couch and he too smiled. He had visibly thinned, but his charming face glowed. They were engaged in small talk for about an hour or so over tea and snacks. And then it was time to leave.

“Get well soon, Sandipan,” Mrinal said softly.

“I will try,” said Sandipan, “but I think this time I will have to accept defeat!”

“Oh come on, Sandipan, don’t talk that way. Be your usual self. Nothing can go wrong with you. I am sure you are watching European Football every evening.”

“Of course I am …How can I give that up?”

“See,” said Mrinal, “you will never lose your lust for life.”

He looked around but Priya was nowhere to be seen. Yet he had to leave. It was already 3.30 PM. He waited uncertainly for a few minutes and left through the front door finally in disappointment. Sandipan’s eyes followed him in silence.

Once out on the street, he began to search for the car and found that it was parked right in front of Priya’s home. The driver had obviously followed him as he walked to his destination. He began walking towards the car, wondering why Priya had disappeared. And it was then that he noticed her, standing in front of her neighbour’s house only a few yards away. Quite clearly, she was waiting for him.

He came across to her and before he could open his mouth, she said, “Let me walk you to your car. You said you had parked it elsewhere. You may have difficulty finding it and you could then be late for your programme.”

“Thank you Priya,” he said, “but the driver was smarter than I thought. He is parked right in front of your house. He followed me.”

For the first time in their long acquaintance, Mrinal saw a trace of disappointment in Priya’s eyes. “I see,” she uttered almost inaudibly, “he is here already is he?”

Mrinal stood facing her and she looked straight into his eyes. He wanted to give her a tight hug and whisper some sweet nonsense into her ears. But it was broad daylight. Besides, the driver in the car was watching.

Yet Mrinal couldn’t hold himself back from touching her. Without getting too close to her, he raised his right hand and stroked her hair. “Keep well, Priya. We’ll be in touch.”

She said nothing at all but did not remove her eyes from his face even once. He too had nothing more to add. The chauffeur had opened the door and was waiting for him to board the car.

~*~

Two months later.

The phone was ringing and Mrinal, a late riser, was too lazy to respond. But the caller was patient and let the phone keep on ringing till Mrinal counld’t ignore it anymore.

“Hello,” said he groggily and somewhat annoyed too.

A young woman’s voice spoke from the other end.

“This is Shyamali calling from Delhi,” said the girl, voice choked with tears.

It took Mrinal a while to recognize the name. It was Priya’s daughter he realized finally. He was all attention now.

“Oh, Shyamali, yes of course, … tell me …,” Mrinal’s voice trailed off into silence, anxiety having taken charge of the situation.

“Baba is no more,” she said. “Ma asked me to inform you. They had come to Delhi for treatment and now all’s over.” Shyamali was not capable of continuing any further.

Mrinal too didn’t know how to proceed. Then, finally, he asked, “Where’s Ma?”

“She’s inside the hospital. But she wanted me to let you know.”

“I see,” said Mrinal. “I am so sorry to hear about this.” His words sounded far too
cliché. So he added quickly, “Tell her that I shall contact her later, will you please?”

“Yes, later please … call her later,” said Shyamali and hung up.

Mrinal tottered over to his study and stared blankly at the empty computer screen.

He was waiting for Priya.

A Flat atop the New Market

New Market

Connaught Place

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kuntal had an appointment with an insurance agent in Connaught Place in Delhi, but just as he was about to walk into the well-appointed office, he noticed Mr. Sharma’s name on a plain wooden door adjacent to the glass paneled office entrance. And, to leave nothing to doubt, the word ‘Residence’ stood out in bold letters on the door, defining clearly the boundary between agent Sharma’s private and public life.

Neither Mr. Sharma nor the door will have a role in this story however. They were catalysts at best in the chemical laboratory of our hero’s life history. Especially the door. Had Kuntal missed it, the story we are about to hear would have remained untold.

Kuntal was impressed. An apartment in CP, only a block away from the famed Regal theatre, an age-old landmark in Delhi, belonged to the same category as a dwelling in Times Square in New York or Oxford Street in London. Or, for that matter, a flat he had often been to on top of the New Market, in the Calcutta of yore.

Memories invaded like space ships in search of lost galaxies. Kuntal stood transfixed on the pavement in front of the agent’s office as his mind flew back to his youth. The Regal faded away slowly. So did Delhi. His thoughts travelled back to an evening thirty springs ago and he found himself in the company of Manasi and her older sister, Smita, in their parents’ apartment above the New Market in the posh Chowringhee locality.

He had not gone to visit Manasi, he remembered, because it was Smita whom he knew. She had been Kuntal’s contemporary in the university and lived with her parents. The spacious living quarters opened out into the terrace of the New Market, which served as an outsized balcony, large enough to hold a soccer tournament. The Globe theatre dazzled proudly across the street and the Lighthouse and New Empire theatres, the glory of old Calcutta, were a mere five minutes’ walk from the flat.

Smita and Kuntal talked aimlessly on the terrace, watching the brilliantly lit buildings of the pre-power cut days that surrounded them, when Manasi arrived out of nowhere as it were and pulled up a chair to join the conversation, quite uninvited.

Kuntal was unaware of Manasi’s existence till then, but the moment she showed up, he knew she was an attractive young woman, whose eyes sparkled like freshly poured champagne in a crystal wine glass. She spoke without inhibitions, though pleasantly so, and her beautifully chiselled, yet soft featured face reflected the colours of the sky set aglow by the setting sun. Her sister appeared in fact somewhat plain by comparison.

Kuntal’s whole being experienced a wondrous thirst in Manasi’s presence, a thirst he had never known before.

It had taken her less than a half hour to tell Kuntal, ‘You have a lovely voice you know. Do you sing?’

And then she persisted, ‘Come on, you’ve got to sing for us!’

Kuntal was pleasantly embarrassed. He was not a trained singer, but did manage to pick up songs played on record players. He was dying to oblige the young lady, but feigned unwillingness as custom demanded, only long enough to ensure of course that the topic did not change. And then he sang at the strangest of venues, a patio located above the New Market.

The accolades he received were far out of proportion to the quality of his rendition. He felt bolder.

‘Manasi, you have a wonderful voice too. Won’t you sing one for me?’ Kuntal asked, carefully avoiding the word ‘us’.

Manasi wasn’t shy. She came out with a full-throated performance of a Tagore composition. Kuntal still remembered what she sang: ‘monē holo jyano pēriē elēm ontobihin poth āshitē tomār dwārē …’ (It seems to me that I have travelled an endlessly long way to reach your door …) She had obviously gone through rigorous schooling and her vocal performance, like the rest of her, was nothing less than exquisite.

The lyric was loaded and his defences against her magnetic attraction were weak. Was it conceivable that he, a temporary lecturer in a Calcutta college, had charmed this fascinating woman? A wave of emotions crossed through his mind as they sat quietly after Manasi had finished. Her recital was so moving that silence was the only tribute one could offer.

‘Is this love at first sight?’ he asked himself. ‘But no, that’s foolish thought.’ Kuntal was struggling, when Manasi broke the silence with a bomb shell. ‘You will be a great teacher someday, a most popular teacher, I am sure! I can make it out from the way you speak.’ she announced glowing with confidence.

Smita was unimpressed by Manasi’s prophecies and reacted in a tone full of rebuke. ‘What’s wrong with you today Manasi? Gone gaga, have you?’ The elder sister was feeling awkward, Kuntal saw.

Manasi had received a jolt. She was about to proceed, but halted abruptly to scrutinize alternately the expressions on the two faces she faced, trying probably to judge if she was the celebrated third person who transforms company to crowd. The charm, quite obviously, was broken. She got up slowly and disappeared into the apartment, under the lame excuse that she had pending work to finish.

She left Kuntal burning with desire, but he was too shy to ask Smita if he might see her younger sibling just one more time before he left.

He spent an uneasy night, for he felt there had been love in the air, however incongruous, and he visited the apartment week after week to correct Manasi’s misconception about the nature of his relationship with Smita. Only, she never showed up again. The weeks ran into months and the months to years. Three long years went by, during which life took irreversible twists and turns and Manasi disappeared slowly into the depth of the subconscious.

* * *

Kuntal had a hobby, stage acting. And amongst his friends was the family physician, not much older than him. To his surprise, the doctor revealed to him one day his own weakness for the stage. There was a Doctors’ Club, Kuntal learnt, that held an annual stage show. The performance this year, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was only a week away. But the doctor playing Banquo had disappeared without warning, in full knowledge of the fact that invitation cards had already been distributed!

‘This is short notice I know, but it is a short role too and you can surely fill in,’ the doctor pleaded. Kuntal could not refuse his friend, seeing how piqued he was by his fellow professional’s irresponsible conduct.

But his heart thumped as the physician gave him directions to the rehearsal room. He realized he did not need to be shown the way. It led quite unmistakably to the dream apartment. Till that day, he had no idea what the sisters’ parents did for a living. Despite his many visits to the apartment, he had never had an opportunity to meet them. He discovered now from his doctor friend the reason why the parents had not been around on earlier occasions. Both were busy medical practitioners!

He arrived on time and climbed up the imposing wooden staircase leading to the flat. This time he found himself in a large room bereft of furniture except for a few hard backed wooden chairs. The room was tailor made for rehearsing a play. He was introduced to the parents this time by his doctor friend. But there was no sign of either sister. He exchanged pleasantries with both parents, refraining with enormous self-control from drawing their attention to the fact that he was no stranger to the flat, especially the sprawling balcony it must have been well known for. Consequently, he couldn’t find any excuse to bring up the sisters, about whom he was dying to find out. What were they doing? Or, at least, where was Manasi now?

Soon the rehearsal was on and he was called upon to deliver almost immediately, since Banquo arrives and disappears towards the earlier part of the play. He got up and addressed the three witches in a theatrical quiver:

‘ … If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me …’

Strangely, however, the witches responded with highly un-witchlike expressions on their faces. They beamed with human warmth and smiled at the door behind him that led into the room. He was forced to stop midway, realizing to his annoyance that the rest of the room’s occupants had their smiling faces turned in the same direction too. No one, including the director, appeared to be interested in the rehearsal anymore. They had obviously been interrupted. Kuntal, still irritated, looked behind to identify the cause of the break and barely managed to sustain a breakdown himself. Manasi stood at the door, smiling elegantly in a black silk saree with a bright gold border, a matching blouse, a thin gold necklace and a pair of small, but glittering gold ear rings. Her social status had changed as the red vermillion mark on the parting of her hair indicated.

‘What a surprise!’ someone said. ‘When did you arrive? Your mom never mentioned you would be coming over. Come in, won’t you. Watching a rehearsal could be more fun than watching the play itself you know.’

‘I was passing by and thought of dropping in to say hello. Are you sure you don’t mind people butting in?’

‘Of course not, you are still one of us. And bring in your hubby too, where’s he hiding?’

‘He’s gone to examine a patient. I came alone,’ she smiled. Her eyes still lit up all the thousand and one Arabian Nights.

Kuntal felt uncomfortable for a reason he was hard put to explain even to himself as she moved in and occupied a chair, preparing herself to witness the play’s progress. It had become immensely difficult for him to concentrate on the role now. Yet, upon hearing the director’s signal, ‘OK, let’s get on with the rehearsal,’ he limped back from the ruins of destiny as it were and resumed in a hollow, mechanical voice:

‘If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear …’

The rehearsal progressed. Once the scene was over, Kuntal moved to a corner facing away from Manasi, though he was desperate to study her lovely face again and again. After the Banquo murder scene, however, he knew that it was pointless for him to linger on and he asked for the director’s permission to leave.

‘Sure,’ said the gentleman, ‘and do remember please, it’s same time tomorrow. ’ Then he added in some embarrassment, ‘Oh yes, thank you so much for agreeing to substitute.’

As he was leaving, he finally found the courage to look back at Manasi from the door. Her luminous eyes met his eyes immediately. The black silk provided a classic contrast to her fair and radiant face and bewitched him all over again, though, unlike Macbeth’s witches, she had no need to resort to witchcraft.

He forced himself to smile at her, but her ever smiling face failed to reveal if she was smiling back at him. He realized he would never find out if he resided anymore in her consciousness and asked himself miserably, as he descended down the wide staircase, if she remembered that she had treated him once to her view into the seeds of time? And, unfairly enough, his mind presented him with no queries at all about Smita. She had long ceased to exist for him anyway!

* * *

Like a patient coming out of a coma, Kuntal heard the Connaught Place traffic begin to hum and the signal went down for Time train to resume its forward journey from Station Past. The Globe theatre disappeared into the dense blackness of history and the Regal theatre stood in its place.

He walked into Mr. Sharma’s office to sign the documents, wondering if there were insurance policies that covered the scars of memory.

His lips stretched into a barely perceptible smile.