~ 1 ~
Walking though the drizzle in a raincoat, he kept stopping every now and then – to fill his lungs with oxygen, to swallow a few mouthfuls of light air. It was lovely – this drizzle, this fresh air which seemed newly-awakened, this quiet narrow serpentine lane, which – although a little uneven, paved with stones, a little too clean and desolate – still, it vaguely reminded him of Beltala Road. So… I’m going back? Yes, of course; my job, my family, my ‘Speech’ magazine, my linguistics society – all of them are in Calcutta, how will Calcutta survive unless I return? But there are still three days to go.
He chanced upon a street corner, on the right a mansion with Doric columns, in front of it Diana surrounded by her nymphs, a wide avenue bursting with the sound of scooters. This is Rome, I have arrived in Rome, the infinite city of memories and loveliness – I arrived this instant, for the first time… and now? The lane after the statue of Diana – wasn’t that what the girl at the hotel said? Looks like that street there… yes! Another narrow, paved lane, small shops on either side – furniture, silverware, clothes, books – behind the glass the latest books on four languages – I’m tempted to enter, but not now: first, the letter. The rain had almost let up, the sunlight became visible on the last few drops, the enormous square was lit up – crowds of people, taxis coming to a halt, two horse-drawn phaetons awaited the most sophisticated among the tourists – and a flight of steps began where the square ended; steep, wide, venerable, like a concentrated, silent welcome. So this was the Piazza di Spagnia. He didn’t stop for a look, he walked on quickly, a wall caught his eye – a deferential notice on a plaque: Keats-Shelley House. That second floor room – that window, through which a foreign young man would gaze occasionally, an unknown, dying poet, seeing nothing, understanding nothing. I will be in that room in a few minutes, from the same window I will look out on the Hispanic steps – the same I who had till the age of forty-two considered Delhi my western frontier. Excuse me for a few moments, Shelley-Keats: first, the letter.
After a single glance, he tore his eyes away from the fountain before him; American Express was just two buildings away.
It was summer, there was a crowd of American tourists, long queues snaked up to every counter. He was behind nine or ten people. He was looking at the letters arranged in their pigeonholes – envelopes of different colours, red blue yellow green airmail flags, stamps glittering as though they had been crowned – inside them, scores of languages, so much hope, happiness, comfort. Is it that light grey envelope there… no, that’s been given to someone else. Even after scouring the racks with his eyes he didn’t seem to spot the familiar grey envelope. Was it just an aerogramme then, or perhaps a picture postcard with a couple of paragraphs? Or was it actually possible that not one of those numerous envelopes had his name on it?
Suddenly he felt warm, taking off his raincoat he folded it over his arm.
Who was this distant friend for whose letter he was so distraught? Sadly, the answer was rather pedestrian. A woman, whom he had met – unexpectedly, unbearably – in a Midwest town in America, because of whom his days had become burdened for several weeks now and his nights tumultuous, whose absence accompanied him everywhere in Europe, from one city to another, from one country to another, continuously. And continuously the letters from this woman, in every country, in every city, while travelling on the train, while eating at the restaurant, on a bench by the river, on the steps before the museum; in the spaces between all he had seen on his travels, all the sights, all the paintings, all the palaces, all the old manuscripts, the letters ebbed and flowed like waves, a secret longing in his middle-aged veins, exciting and pleasurable like the beginning of an illness. Of course he had written back too – staying up nights in his hotel room after the exertions of the day, sometimes the moment he arrived at a new town, sometimes he had constructed sentences in his head while travelling, which he no longer remembered when it was time to write the letter. There were no significant developments to report, no questions that had to be answered, nothing new that needed to be said, but still – he had to write. He had to write in a language that was foreign to both of them; she could at least use her mother-tongue German from time to time, but although he could read five European languages he could write only in one, English, which he had once prided himself on knowing very well. But when he tried to write to a special person during a particular state of mind he discovered that what he had thought of as English was nothing but a tight, ill-fitting dress, which he could use to accommodate his research on linguistics, but in which it was impossible to express what was in his heart. It was a formidable obstacle – but still he had to write. Such a turmoil in his heart – he could not find the words to match it, he condemned his own fate because she did not understand Bengali, and then the very next moment he bowed in gratitude to his destiny, because his life – his humdrum Bengali life on which the shadow of old age had fallen already – had experienced something so astonishing.
Her last letter would reach him here in Rome. Last, for he was going directly to Calcutta from Rome, and to him Calcutta was synonymous with a well-defined, disciplined, clearly-articulated circle of life, which included many other people, and which had no room for anything purely personal. He would board the eastbound plane three days from now, and the woman of his desire on the other side of the ocean, living on an unknown longitude on a distant western continent, who had awakened him, who had aroused his sadness, would be lost at once. What had been alive in two chaotic hearts would be converted into a silent point on a lifeless atlas. That was why today’s letter was crucial.
From the other side of the counter came a voice: ‘Yes, sir?’
‘Ray, Birupaksh,’ he said, offering his passport; the handsome young clerk, as efficient as a machine, met his expectations at once. A strange sensation spread over him as soon as he saw the envelope, as though all distance had been banished for an instant, as though there was no such thing as separation in life. And to think I had imagined there would be no letter – how sceptical I am even though I’m so lucky!
Birupaksha walked away, leaning against the wall in a quiet corner. He slit the envelope open carefully with his nails. A large sheet of ivory paper, stiff and crackling – but a little too white, unbelievably colourless. Nothing written on it, not a single ink-mark or pen-stroke – from top to bottom, from left to right, on both sides… white, silent, virginal. But what did the words top and bottom, left and right mean anyway, since nothing was written he didn’t even know whether he was holding the letter the right way up. Yet the handwriting on the envelope was flawless, the postal mark on the stamp featuring Abraham Lincoln was immaculate – and the envelope, light grey, with the watermark of aeroplanes all over it, made in France, was indubitably from Esha too… Then?
Out on the road, Birupaksha wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, slinging his suddenly heavy raincoat over his shoulder he stopped on the pavement. There’s a newspaper kiosk – I haven’t kept touch with the world for a long time, let’s see how things are. Carefully crossing the road made dangerous by speeding cars, he bought a New York Herald Tribune published in Paris, a Le Monde, a Frankfurter Zeitung, and, at the last moment, a slim guide to tourist attractions in Rome – immediately after buying them he regretted burdening himself with these papers, to tell the truth, am I really curious about the world right now? Crossing the road again and passing the Hispanic steps, he paused suddenly before a signboard: Babbington Tea House. No sooner did he read the name in this unexpected display of the English language than his Bengali throat felt parched for the taste of tea – although many things on the Continent were magnificent, no one understood tea there, now he might be able to quench his thirst in real tannin juice in this tea shop with an English name. He liked the place the moment he entered – its tranquil settings were quiet and dark, with just two customers sitting silently and dimly in two corners – that table by the window, tasting the news of the world with tea for a restful half hour – the possibility seemed delightful. He leaned back on the padded bench, ran his eyes over the headlines in each of the newspapers in turn, but it appeared that nothing was happening in the world, nothing new, at any rate – a minister’s resignation, trouble at an election, countries at odds with one another, conflicts, pretended alliances – for ages, ages, he had been seeing these same things in the papers, the same news under different names and different dates. Birupaksha sighed, pushing aside the newspapers in exhaustion. A short Italian girl with pink cheeks brought his tea in a silver pot, Birupaksha’s heart quickened a little at the sight of her milk-white, ironed uniform.
Was that what it really was? A virginal white? I didn’t make a mistake, did I? Making sure no one was watching, he surreptitiously pulled the grey envelope out of his pocket – this time too, an unmarked sheet of paper emerged. Holding it up to his nose briefly, he thought he sensed a faint fragrance – familiar – like the perfume Esha used. What, what could it be? … What could it be? Had she written a letter on both sides of a different sheet of paper and then absent-mindedly inserted a blank sheet in the envelope? No, it wasn’t possible, there wasn’t even a chance in a million of such a mistake – especially for someone like Esha, whom I have never seen losing her composure even under the strongest emotional pressure. But what if that one-in-a-million chance has come true in my case? Who can say with certainty that what doesn’t usually happen will never actually happen? But if the mistake did occur, it must have been caught at once, and the real letter also posted?… But… then… why didn’t the other one reach?
Birupaksha drank half a cup of tea out of good manners, left a fat tip for the short, pink-cheeked waitress, abandoned the newspapers, and returned to American Express in two minutes.
‘Can you please check whether there’s another letter for me?’
Checking the pigeon-hole patiently, the clerk said, ‘Sorry, sir.’
Glancing at his yellow tie, Birupaksha swallowed.
‘Will there be another delivery in the evening?’
‘The evening delivery doesn’t contain overseas letters. Besides, we’re only open till three. You can check again tomorrow morning.’
For the first time, Birupaksha realized that, like other things in life, letters also depended on chance. How easily we assume that any letter that’s been written is bound to be posted, and that if it has been posted it is certain to reach its destination at the right time. It was true that the majority of letters did arrive at their destination, but don’t we hear of letters being lost at times? And this postal network spanning the entire world – international, intercontinental, interoceanic – this highly complicated and superbly controlled system, the finest example of human cooperation, which ensured that a letter extracted from a post-box in an Alaskan village was inevitably delivered five days later to a dilapidated building in a Bangkok lane with its address obliterated – was this too not a wonder, terming which a miracle would not be an exaggeration? So many yawning traps stood in its way – a clerk’s exhaustion, a postman’s inattention; floods, storms, fire, transport mishaps. Come to think of it, receiving a letter was just as unlikely as living healthily for many years; any letter could be lost, we could die or fall hopelessly ill at any time – and yet we have not learnt to be grateful for being able to live with our organs intact, or for having received all our letters all this time.
- But perhaps I’m overdoing it; a wider world exists beyond the circle I am going round and round in over an expected letter – not the bubble-like world of the newspapers, but a different, magical world, in which even ruins shine forth as examples of beauty, and the perturbation of existence has a dappled covering which we mistake for permanence. This is Rome, I am in Rome, for the first time, I’ll be here only for two days, and yet I’ve seen none of the sights although it’s 10.30 am already.
Birupaksha made up his mind and took a taxi; saw many sights, spent a great deal of money, drank a glass and a half of Chianti with dinner so that he could sleep well – and returned to the hotel at nearly 11 pm, suitably tired, a little unsteady from the wine that he was unused to drinking. He was sleepy on his way upstairs in the lift, but the moment he unlocked his door and entered, switching on the light to see a neatly made bed, maroon curtains on the window, a bottle of mineral water on the table near the head of the bed – all the routine arrangements for comfort which were available for a price in any country – he was overcome by the kind of fatigue that can almost be called hopelessness, under whose effect he could suddenly fall ill one night while on his travels, switching on the light at his head now and then, tired of trying to sleep, and then switching it off immediately afterwards and turning on his side, and, half-asleep, feeling in the dim darkness that he was in his usual bed in his own home, that someone would respond if he were to call, someone dear to him would come running if he were to scream, when his imagination persuaded him that his country was the best, that the most comfortable bed was the one the maid Haridasi made for him every night, and that the most beautiful sight was the three-storied house with the plaster flaking off the walls he set his eyes on first thing every morning – and remember the very next instant that he was now far away in another country, even if he tossed and turned all night in his sleep no one would come to him. Just like the child whose heart ached (Birupaksha was reminded of the term pawran porey, which he had learnt as a young boy in east Bengal) if his mother went away for even a single day, Birupaksha was overcome by unhappiness – he had never felt this way anywhere else – as though he wanted to go back, to do nothing but go back to his own house where his family was, the only place that offered him happiness, offered him security. But the question was: which was his own country, where was his home, and who was his family?
Birupaksha prepared for bed mechanically; taking off his watch, he piled everything in his pocket on the table, wrapping his dressing gown around his pajamas, he sat down in the chair. He tried to keep alive in his mind all that he had seen that day… an unwavering radiance, another free spirit with the same bent of mind, beyond our momentary pains and pleasures – ultimately, was this not what brought comfort to humans – such as his linguistics, or like Michelangelo, Rafael or Donatello, who obliterated the memories of the heinous crimes of the Renaissance, the poison, the dagger, the agony of thousands of people burnt alive… But I am only reeling off names, quoting from books, I have not seen anything. My mind is estranged from my eyes, my soul is battling with my body, I am not where I am. Say something, Esha, say something to me – let me see Rome. This is my first time here, I may never come back.
Seemingly disobeying his will, his hand reached out amidst the pile of light, glittering and valueless Italian coins, the wallet swollen with Italian currency notes, the address book, the passport, and the useless scraps of paper. Again that white sheet of paper, turned bluish by the light from the table-lamp with the green shade. As though they were there, words, hidden in it, like pomegranate seeds beneath the hard shell – or like the emptiness of the mirror in an empty room, which can be filled any moment if a door were to be opened, if a curtain were to be drawn. Birupaksha held the sheet of paper up to the light, it appeared yellowish white, like the yolk within the eggshell. Stretching it out flat on the table, he examined it more carefully, for better illumination he bent the neck of the lamp much closer to the paper. After a few moments he thought a few letters were dimly visible here and there. Birupaksha rubbed his eyes, concentrating all the power in his eyes, trained by years of reading ancient manuscripts, on those spots; a few more letters became visible.
Suddenly he remembered reading about invisible ink in a detective story a long time ago, the letters appeared as soon as the paper was warmed. Even earlier, when he was in school, someone had said that the same effect could be achieved by writing with a nib dipped in lemon juice, he had tested this and found it correct… Then… that’s what it was! Very carefully, he held the paper with both his hands just below the bulb; before his eyes, just like corn popping, or like the blooming of buds into flowers under the touch of sunlight at dawn, the black letters began to appear against the white of the paper – one side was filled entirely. Now for the other side – that didn’t take long. And now, the message, the words, the assurance, the drops exuded by the heart of the woman who lived far away, a glass filled to the brim… before him, awaiting the touch of his lips. Birupaksha was not the least bit surprised, he felt no excitement – on the contrary, he considered it natural and appropriate, blamed himself for not having caught on straightaway to this small, innocent trick of Esha’s. But soon thick creases appeared on his forehead, his breath quickened, he had momentary doubts about his own equilibrium.
The letter was written in a language he did not know.
It was a long letter, filled with letters on both sides, nothing scratched out, no white spaces except between the lines, but even he – an expert in Indo-European languages, someone who worked all the time with several Indian and European languages – could not lift the veil off a single word on the sheet of paper spread out before him. After scanning it for some time, he was convinced that the letter was in code, written in the form of a puzzle, for in it he could see many different scripts – Greek letters between the Roman ones, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Gothic, Devnagari, he suspected some of them of being in Brahmi, in fact there were even Chinese characters, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Bengali letters too, and some symbols that eluded Birupaksha’s guesswork. Only at the bottom right of the reverse side, close to the margin, was the name ‘Esha’ written in large letters (Birupaksha had made her practise this), and only this made it possible to identify where the letter started and where it ended, and only this one word could be read.
Birupaksha laughed in a low, soft voice. She’s testing me to find out how good a linguist I am. She used to laugh at me gently when out of sheer bad habit I tried to explain the etymology of words to her, when I tried to teach her Bengali and Sanskrit. ‘Even after twelve years in America I haven’t mastered English,’ she would say, ‘and other languages on top of that! Spare me!’ Her logic was that learning more than one language meant learning none of them, and even after learning several many more would still be left. I would say, whatever is learnt is valuable. Maybe, but you have to accept that man’s ignorance is infinite anyway! The argument would end in amused laughter – but now, she seemed to have written this letter to me just to prove her point, she seemed to be challenging me with bolts of lightning from her lips and eyes – well? Read this if you can!… Give me a little time, a little time – look, I’ve understood your game now.
But could she – whom I had named Esha, who had learnt a few Hebrew and Yiddish words from her grandmother as a child, and a little Russian from the time she had spent with her former husband, but who, to tell the truth, didn’t know any other language besides German or Russian – possibly compose such a global puzzle? But then how can I say she could not, for many ordinary dictionaries do include the Hebrew, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, she could have picked up a few Devnagari and Bengali letters from books that I had left behind, and what I thought of as Chinese, Egyptian or Brahmi scripts might well be her own improvisations – maybe they had only been used to embellish the manuscript, the way many people doodle in the margin while thinking of the next sentence… But what if it turns out that the entire letter is meaningless, merely an artistically assembled chest with nothing inside? Just look – the handwriting appears synthetic too, the Roman letters are like printed text, interspersed with capitals – not quite recognizable although similar to Esha’s script. It seems this letter’s taken a long time, a great deal of patience, to be written or drawn – but how did she get so much time, how did she manage to be so patient when she knew how much I yearn to hear her voice?
Why do you mock me, Esha?
- Mock? Did she then not really give all of herself to me, did she hold something back? Is she then trying to take herself back at this final hour, before the last farewell, to reject her relationship with me – she, who’s the torrent in my heart?… No, it isn’t possible, it just isn’t possible. I must believe. There’s her signature – clear, my most favourite letters in the language most familiar to me – am I so weak as to ask for more proof? She’s not lying, she’s not mocking me, I will decipher the meaning – I have to.
An hour passed, but still the lines on Birupaksha’s brow didn’t smoothen out, his eyes began to ache from glaring constantly at the letter. Despair crowded around him again, his body was ready to collapse with fatigue, but there was no sleep, it was impossible to sleep in this state of mind. Tell me, Esha, explain what this means – if it’s rejection, tell me that too. In two days the distance between us will become immense – tell me your final word before that – tell me, is this agonizing vigil of mine real? Is it not real?
The telephone on the table caught his eye. His watch showed one-thirty. Eight-thirty in the evening in the Midwest in USA – she was probably at home now, after dinner, the dishes done, she was flipping through Life magazine by herself, or listening to the news on television – what else did Americans who lived in the suburbs have to do in the evening? After a few moments, Birupaksha placed a long-distance phone call.
Successive female voices wafted over the ether – Rome, New York, Chicago – a wave travelling at the speed of thought – a few moments of silence, and then, he heard clearly, ‘Hello.’
For an instant, Birupaksha could not breathe. Esha’s voice – exactly like hers, a little deep, as though she’s standing before me, as though I’ll see her face in a moment. It took a little time for the echo of the impersonal ‘Hello’ to die in his ears.
Again from the other end, ‘Hello.’
‘It’s Birupaksha, from Rome.’
‘Oh, it’s you! How strange – I was thinking of you. How are you?’
‘Did you write to me – in Rome?’
‘Yes, of course I did. Didn’t you get it?’
‘I did – but I cannot understand whether it’s a letter.’
‘ Cannot understand?’ A gust of laughter.
‘I cannot understand a word, Esha. What have you done?’
‘I am writing a letter to you, all the time.’
‘All the time?’
‘All the time. In my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’
‘But this letter – listen – what did you write in it? Which language is it in? Tell me, Esha, answer me – what did you write? Which language?’
‘You’re asking me what I wrote? In which language? You, of all people.’ That drizzle of laughter again.
‘Esha – I beg of you – tell me what you wrote.’
‘I wrote…’ a strange sound followed, as though it wasn’t Esha’s voice anymore, but impotent, half-spoken gobbledygook from the throat of someone being strangled.
Birupaksha heard himself shout, ‘Tell me! Tell me! What did you write?’
‘I wrote…’ Again those peculiar, distorted sounds. As though the sentence was being bent and mangled the moment it was begun, the shriek of a broken record on an old-fashioned wind-up gramophone, or a monkey trying to imitate a human voice. Every time Birupaksha called out, ‘Esha! Esha! Can you hear me?’ he heard the same sounds.
Then the line was disconnected. After a few moments Birupaksha placed another call to the same number, after several attempts the operator told him there was a storm on the Atlantic, she wouldn’t be able to get through till the next morning.
Birupaksha realized he was trembling, sweat was pouring down his face. Drawing the curtains, he opened a window pane, after several gulps of mineral water he sat down with the letter again.
What had they talked about on the telephone? Nothing at all, all he had found out was that Esha did indeed write him a letter. But… even that was a lot. Yes, she did write, but what proof did he have that this was the letter? ‘Cannot understand?… You’re asking me what I wrote? You, of all people!’ Faint laughter, affectionate, but blended with a touch of amusement, as though she was surprised that I cannot understand, as though she has reposed enormous faith in me, but I am proving myself unworthy of her. If only I had been able to talk a little longer, if only that mechanical failure hadn’t swamped us suddenly, if only nature’s whim had not cut us off! But she had said, ‘I am writing a letter to you all the time – in my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’ What could be clearer? Not everything can be written down, since there there’s no end of things to say. And besides (this might be the real reason), how much can language achieve? A tight, ill-fitting outfit – does that describe only a foreign language, as English is for me or Russian, for Esha? Isn’t the concept of language itself constrained, a sort of guesswork – even if it’s what we refer to as our mother tongue? The only difference is that we are more at ease in some languages than in others. Consider the nations that speak English, or Spanish, or Bengali or Hindi or Tamil – how many of their people can really speak it in a way that you can talk about? Instead, language is being eroded by their usage, it is their thousands of newspapers that are becoming filthier by the day, the adjectives are crumbling, the proverbs and humour and apt phrases are being converted to clichés. Does none of those acclaimed pieces that are acknowledged as the best examples of a language reveal the occasional stitch of a blunt needle, a strand of loose thread, or passages held together by a pin – which we do not notice because of the gems that sparkle in between? What is perfect and dazzling and complete in itself in the mind shrinks – or swells, bursting and losing its intensity – to become a compromise when it is put into the mould of language – no longer absolute, but relative to place, time and situation. Yes, relative, but language changes continuously over time – even the flesh-and-blood Shakespeare can no longer be read without notes now, eighteenth century Bengali prose is incomprehensible to the everyday reader. Consider two contemporary individuals from Chittagong and Bankura – both places situated in what was once the single state of Bengal, both the individuals speaking ‘Bengali’ – but bridging the linguistic gap between them is almost impossible. Texts change so much in translation – they have to, for not all languages are equally endowed, every language has its subtleties, compound words, pulses and rhythms, light and darkness, which are unique to it, beyond the reach of any other language. And what we refer to as original writing, that is translation too – from thought to language, from imagination to embodiment; this translation is the most difficult and arduous – and perhaps the least successful. How wonderful it would have been if we could have woven several languages on the same loom, if there were a retort flask in which we could have distilled the different qualities of different languages! Perhaps in this might grow, not this language or that, but just language, the long awaited language in which everything can be said. And perhaps that is what Esha is trying to do – on a small scale, on her own initiative, she wants to create just for me a special, secret, assimilated, symbolic language that no one else may understand, but that I will easily be able to get to the bottom of – at least, that’s what she assumes – since I am a linguist, and since I love her. Then… what I had thought at first is right, after all.
- But how is that possible? Esha isn’t a book-eating creature like me (thank goodness!) – how would such an plan occur to her? The doubt rose in Birupaksha’s mind for the second time, but this time he dismissed it deliberately, the proposition that it was impossible for Esha to create such a script no longer seemed worthy of consideration. He viewed the whole thing from a different perspective now, he asked himself: how much do you know about Esha anyway? No, do not protest; you have to admit that you were busy with her in another way – choked by the constraints of the body and of time, the days and nights growing more passionate under the threat of your imminent parting, you had neither the time nor the inclination to look for anything beyond this. You tried to hold her in arms too eager, far too impatiently, that is why she slipped through them, when you think of Esha you recall her laughing eyes, the scent of her hair, the trembling you felt at her touch – nothing else, just these. You have to admit that you could not accommodate anything larger in this love of yours, you only nibbled at the corners with your small appetite.
- But now this error would be corrected. This letter was the means.
Birupaksha trained his eyes again on the coded sheet of paper; he did not realise when his head fell back against, when his thoughts dimmed and disappeared in the darkness. He woke up with a start to realise that he was sleeping in his chair, his neck ached, and the glow from the table-lamp had paled in the glow of the sunlight reddened by the maroon curtain.
~ 2 ~
He didn’t receive a letter at American Express that day, but then he hadn’t expected to. He spent the day wandering about the streets – dishevelled, aimless, desultory. Numerous lanes, several piazzas, many statues and palaces and churches and fountains and gardens; but all his other curiosity was dead, he had eyes for nothing else. The thought that he was in Rome did not disturb him anymore; he didn’t even remember that on the plane he had decided that he simply had to see Bernini’s sculpture Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona (because one of the rivers was the Ganga); indeed, he didn’t even feel the urge to visit the graves or the memorials of the two poets from his childhood whose lines had still not been squashed under the weight of his linguistics studies. A different task, one specific task, seemed to have captured all his attention, he could have no respite until it was complete.
It was August, as the day progressed the sun grew stronger, at one-thirty in the afternoon he took refuge in a cafe. First a glass of Campari with plenty of ice, moistening his parched throat he spread the puzzle out again – for the first time that day. Something unexpected happened. As soon as he glanced at the paper three words leapt out of it to lodge themselves in his brain: ‘fern’ (‘distant’ in German) in Gothic letters, in the next line the Greek ‘oyaks’ (‘home’), and, a few words later, the word ‘alo’ (Bengali for ‘light’) – surely it was Bengali? – in Cyrillic script… so simple? He almost laughed aloud, but because of his familiarity with the rigorous techniques of research, he controlled himself at once, exercising caution… Where were the verbs hidden? Which of the words were prepositions and conjunctions? What kind of grammar linked the words? Nothing could be conjectured, an entire sentence had not revealed itself yet… Still, a start had been made, three holes discovered in the wall, like the false dawn before sunrise, the sky would soon be filled with light. That one of the three identified words was ‘light’ also seemed a good omen; ‘distant’, ‘house’, ‘light’ – perhaps she had written, ‘A light shines for me in that distant house’ – in other words, ‘Your absence is making me unhappy’… But it could also be ‘I want to return home from that distant light’. In which case the meaning would change entirely. These three words could be part of hundreds of different sentences – which of them was it? And besides, what was the certainty that they were part of the same sentence? The punctuation is unclear, and I’m not used to reading handwritten Greek or Gothic or Cyrillic, could I be getting confused, the way Bengali children confuse compound letters? If only I could get some help, if only a multilingual dictionary were at hand, an expert or two… is there anyone in Rome? He remembered Enrico Carducci – Italy’s finest linguist, but the field of his research is Mongolian, my problem doesn’t exactly belong to his area… Should I go to Geneva, home of Charles Dubois, whose huge accomplishment is the compilation of a ten-volume comparative dictionary of the ancient Indo-European languages? Birupaksha toyed with the idea – I met Dubois just a few months ago at the international conference in New York, he had expressed his approval for my short monograph on ‘The Evolution of Nasal Words in North Indian Languages’ – I don’t think he will turn me down. But… what shall I tell him? This letter… so personal, intimate – how can I show it to anyone? But… I could pretend amusement and say, ‘One of my American students has sent me a riddle – can you tell me whether it makes any sense, or whether it’s a hoax?’… And besides, to a scholar it’s all a question of knowledge, and knowledge is never personal; an authority like Charles Dubois or Joachim Tsin from Tubingen will analyse this letter with the same detachment with which a surgeon uses his scalpel on an unconscious and naked beautiful woman. Moreover, their probing skill will only reveal the literal meaning, the implied message will remain a virgin just for me. The more he pondered, the more Birupaksha found himself drawn to this idea, he felt that before he returned home he had to somehow shed this burden of disquiet that had taken over his mind. There was no difficulty, his holidays had not run out, the return ticket was valid for three weeks more, he had some money too. Nothing would go wrong if he were to delay his return…
He rose with his ravioli half-eaten, took a taxi to the airline office, cancelling the next day’s ticket, and sending a telegram to Calcutta, he took the train to Geneva in the evening.
But Charles Dubois was in hospital, ill. At Tubingen he was told that Joachim Tsin was in Portugal for his summer vacation. From Tubingen to Hamburg, where everyone was surprised when he enquired about professor Helmut Schnell, for the octogenarian scholar had been buried a year earlier. He went to Paris, but Henri Pere from the Sorbonne was in Quebec, and not due to return before October. For a moment, Birupaksha gave up in disappointment, he felt as though ill luck was dogging his footsteps, perhaps he would have to spend the rest of his life burdened by this turmoil.
His last night in Europe passed in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank in Paris. Before going to bed he counted his remaining foreign exchange – he had been travelling Third Class on trains all these days, had not taken a taxi in any circumstances, eaten frugally, travelled through the night wherever possible to save on hotel bills – but what he had still managed to spend was by no means insignificant in Indian terms. He was a good husband, a good father, dutiful, he was taking back for his family whatever money he had saved from his income as a teacher in the United States – he did not consider the money his own; which was why he felt a stab of remorse at this whimsical and speculative expense on the last leg of his journey. And it had come to nothing. Perhaps I should forget this letter, or conundrum, or joke, or whatever it is, it’s not as though I have nothing else to do and can devote all my time to such a trifle.
He had almost fallen asleep when a new thought suddenly set his mind ticking. That he had not found anyone to help him despite so much effort might also be intended, planned; she does not want me to seek anyone’s help; her demand of me is that I should pass this text alone and unaided. As soon as the thought occurred to him a wave of pleasure washed over his heart, sleep made his eyes heavier, he felt he had discovered the vital clue in this complex game. Slowly, he drifted off.
When he awoke, he found it was not light yet. His plane was to leave at ten, he had plenty of time. He had slept barely three hours – but still he felt light on his feet, without a sign of exhaustion from all the travelling. Switching on the lamp, he sat down with the letter again; after a couple of hours he arrived at a certain conclusion. The first three letters were in medieval pig Latin, possibly they said, ‘After you left…’
He returned to Calcutta ten days later than scheduled, rejoined his job, began to shoulder all his responsibilities again. He repaired his ancestral house with the money had managed to save and bring back, bought his wife a refrigerator, a radiogram, and new furniture; he re-entered the orbit of his old, familiar life – easily, without resistance.
Over the next ten years, he published several slim volumes of research in linguistics, inducing active interest among international scholars. But what was normally discussed only by experts abroad made an astonishing impact on people at home. Needless to say, issues such as the influence of Sanskrit on conjugation in Tibetan, or which Hebrew and Greek words had been imported from ancient Persian, or how closely the Tagalog language was related to Tamil and Sinhalese, and how much of Pali and Magadhi-Prakrit featured in it, were equally irrelevant to the daily life of people anywhere in the world; but since incomprehensible issues can also provide the ingredients for excitement, and because the incitement of patriotism and the possibility of compensating for our inconsequentiality makes us Indians exaggerate assumptions of genius, one morning – as a result of two long and admiring discussions in ‘The Philologist’ from Oxford, England and ‘The Journal of Linguistic Studies’ from Cambridge, which some people chanced upon – one of Calcutta’s highly circulated newspaper ran a special article on Birupaksha Ray, the other newspapers followed up with a number of reports – journalists bestowed such flowery appellations on him as ‘Mr Eloquence’, ‘Born Under the Star of the God of Speech’, and ‘Twentieth-Century Mithridates’, in an unguarded moment a harmless-looking but cunning young man took a photograph of him reading and had it published in an illustrated magazine from Bombay. Things became more convoluted after this, suddenly becoming aware of his existence, the gods of Delhi conferred the title of Padmavibhushan on him; the following year, competing with Delhi, the leaders of West Bengal awarded him the highest honorary title of the university, which was normally preserved for highly-ranked scholars on the verge of death.
Birupaksha was considerably disturbed by these unexpected and, for him, completely unnecessary events. Crowds of uninvited socially-conscious men and women at home and in the workplace; appeals from many unknown and, occasionally, a few famous people through the post and over the phone, requests for interviews from one magazine after another; he was asked to participate in myriad agitations, to become the president or vice-president of – or advisor to – a variety of organisations, to sign a multitude of petitions and address a host of meetings; he was immensely surprised at his opinion being sought on such diverse subjects as the Suez crisis, spaceflight. Sino-Indian relations, artistic freedom, and even the architecture of a proposed temple and the desirability of displaying kissing in Indian cinema. For some time attempts were made to drag him into the centre of the debate on the national language of India; north Indians assumed that he would support Hindi by virtue of being an expert in Sanskrit, and south Indians were hopeful that no Bengali could be anything but anti-Hindi; as a result, flattering statements began to be showered on him from both sides. Invitations piled up from foreign embassies; requests to join different programmes in Delhi and Bombay and Jullundhar and Ernakulam, or to head cultural delegations despatched by the Indian government to east Europe or southeast Asia. How was he to cope with all this, what would he do with them? Birupaksha felt helpless at the first onslaught – confused, beleaguered, powerless, and because of this, as though unable to maintain his balance, did one or two things which were both inappropriate and unbeneficial. He signed a couple of petitions (simply to get rid of strangers quickly, without properly reading what they said); responded to repeated requests (since refusing over and over again was a waste of energy) by delivering pedestrian speeches at one or two meetings – but a trivial incident amidst all these developments made him determined to exercise self-defence. One day, one of his colleagues (older than him) told him, ‘Let me tell you something Birupaksha-babu, you’re in the good books of the bosses now – why don’t you take the opportunity to grab a fat grant for ‘Speech’ magazine, in fact if you make an effort you might even be able to get your hands on a plot of land for our linguistics society.’ Each of the words and phrases like ‘good books’, ‘opportunity’, ‘grab’ and ‘get your hands on’ seemed to make Birupaksha quiver inside, but his senior colleague used precisely this language, and in a tone, accompanied by movements of the eye, which suggested that it would be foolish of Birupaksha not to accept his advice. And at once Birupaksha knew what he should do in this situation; he realized that the only way to survive was passive resistance, like a vulnerable insect he would have to hide in his hole, withdraw into a shell like an immobile snail. After this he began to reject each and every proposal indiscriminately – gently, firmly, deferentially, sometimes a trifle rudely, even evoking the ire of ministers and popular leaders. The harsh glare of publicity, which had fallen on him unexpectedly, moved away smoothly, no one could see Birupaksha Ray at meetings anymore, he was not the member of any committee in Delhi or Calcutta, because of his silence on all manner of topical affairs, his name never appeared in newspapers or magazines. For some time, he was criticised in some quarters for his unsocial behaviour; but because candidates always outnumbered posts, his absence was not felt anywhere (some people breathed a sigh of relief at his exit); influential men shunned him, the public forgot his name; Birupaksha was freed of the demon.
Meanwhile, there were some changes in his family life too. His daughter married a young artist of her own choice; his son moved to Ranchi with a job in the government’s geology department; and his wife Suhasini created a happy and independent life for herself. After the initial passion of youth had been spent, Birupaksha’s relationship with his wife had begun to sag – the reason could be his excessive fondness for linguistics, or an unconscious aversion on the part of his wife; for many years (barring the weeks with Esha) his life had been devoid of physical relations with women, and that was what he had become used to. So he was not upset when, shortly after his return from Europe, his wife reached her menopause, though somewhat early. And now, when there were virtually no inhabitants at home other than the husband and the wife, they grew distant from each other, with almost nothing in common. Under the influence of her daughter (or of her son-in-law, via her daughter), Suhasini began to consider herself an art expert; she visited exhibitions with them, entertained young artists at home. In addition, her South Calcutta Women’s Organisation kept her busy too, as its secretary she was invited to the Governor’s residence on Independence Day and Republic Day, she discussed issues of women’s welfare on the radio sometimes. Then there were visits to her son twice a year, motoring around the beautiful hilly tracts of Manbhooom-Chotanagpur, the unmixed pleasure of becoming friends with her grandchildren. And since Birupaksha did not participate in any of this, his distance – not just with his wife but also with the rest of his family – kept growing.
It wasn’t as though there were no conflicts over this at first. Soon after her daughter’s wedding, Suhasini had made a strong accusation to the effect that since Birupaksha was a learned man, whose opinion might be considered valuable, he should not be silent about Asit Samanta’s paintings. ‘I’m not saying this because he’s our son-in-law, but really, his work is very good – extraordinary!’ Now, to Birupaksha, paintings referred to creations in which the subjects could be identified clearly, where the water, the mountain, the animals, the people, the gods and goddesses all revealed themselves at a single glance, all told it was like a narrative – viewing some samples of which on his visit abroad had made him feel as Duryodhana did in the demon architect Moy’s Indraprastha – he was about to pull out his handkerchief to wipe away the fresh blood oozing from the wounded soldier’s chest, it had taken him some time to realise that the flash of bright sunlight was not a natural phenomenon but the result of applying colours. Of course, he wasn’t indifferent to the depiction of Radha’s tryst or to Holi as seen in Mughal or Rajput miniatures, although the figures looked like dolls you could tell immediately what was going on – but Asit’s work, he felt, could easily have been the work of a child; broken, straggling brushstrokes, arbitrary splashes of colour, on the whole nothing like the things we know – in fact it wasn’t even possible to tell whether the painting was upside down or not. His intellect tried to convince him that this was the new style (for he had seen similar work abroad) – but be that as it may, none of this made any difference to him, all this was a thousands miles away from his life. That was why he preferred silence; lest his wife or daughter or his artist son-in-law himself tried to explain the mysteries of these paintings, the fear of which prevented him from speaking his mind. At this time, Suhasini and he might have had private conversations such as this one:
‘Asit’s exhibition opens at the art centre on Saturday. You’re going, aren’t you?’
‘What do you mean let’s see. Asit’s first solo exhibition – how can you not be there?’
‘I don’t understand art.’
‘Art is to be seen, not understood.’ (Suhasini said this a little self-consciously, and Birupaksha told himself, ‘Khuku’s words, Khuku heard Asit says this, and Asit must have read it somewhere.’)
‘I… er… I’m busy, you know.’
‘Everyone’s busy. That doesn’t mean they have no diversions.’
‘Very well, I’ll go.’
‘Can you tell me why you aren’t interested? Do you know what ‘Abhijan’ said about Asit this week?’
‘They wrote, we congratulate Asit Samanta wholeheartedly for his painting ‘Starry World’.’
‘I’ll show you Asit’s file.’
‘File? What file?’
‘Clippings of all his reviews, that’s all. You’ll see how much praise he’s getting.’
‘Lady Pramila Chatterjee is coming to the exhibition on Saturday. Do you know who’s inaugurating the show? Shankarananda Sinha Roy!’
The name sounded vaguely familiar to Birupaksha.
‘Just imagine, such a great film-director, so famous all over the world – he’s inaugurating the exhibition! Asit is hoping to do some work in cinema – paintings don’t sell in this benighted country, but there’s money in films – if Asit can be the art director in Sinha Roy’s next film…’
‘Of course! Of course!’ Birupaksha interrupted. ‘That would be wonderful.’
‘Everyone admires his work so much – but you don’t say anything even though he’s part of the family – do you think that’s appropriate?’
‘What do you think I should say?’
‘You want me to tell you that too!’ Suhasini said acerbically. ‘They’re your own daughter and son-in-law – you don’t have the slightest feeling for them. You’re not just his father-in-law, you’re an important person too, don’t you understand how delighted Asit would be if you were to encourage him?’
Suhasini continued her lament for some more time, but Birupaksha didn’t say a word.
Or, a few years later:
‘So you aren’t going?’
‘I told you…’
‘Leela requested you so fervently, she wrote…’
‘I have things to do here.’
‘Very well, take your books along. Debu’s got a huge bungalow – you’ll get a room to yourself just like you do here, no one will disturb you.’
After some thought Birupaksha said, ‘But I cannot tell beforehand just which books I might need.’
‘Don’t you even want to meet them at least?’
‘But I do. They visit from time to time.’
‘It’s not the same thing. Just think how happy they’d be if you went. You’re becoming more and more peculiar by the day – we have a lovely granddaughter, you haven’t even bothered to play with her.’
‘There’s no dearth of people to play with her.’ Absently, Birupaksha made an unwise statement.’
‘Incredible! Are you even a human being!’ Suhasini hissed a rebuke, her eyes furious.
But even this sort of bickering was now a thing of the past. He was selfish, he was self-centred, he was stuck in his own little world, he did not care for his own children, he loved no one but himself – Birupaksha had become used to accusations like these, and Suhasini had tired of levelling them too.
No one protested anymore about that fact that Birupaksha did not join celebrations and didn’t deviate an inch from his daily routine even to please the nearest members of his family, no one expected anything of him, everyone had accepted him. Accepted him exactly as he was, a zero with the label of ‘husband’ or ‘father’ or ‘grandfather’, as though he was missing from this house even while living in it, as though, despite the natural circle of love, any contact between him and his family was now beyond the realm of possibility. Sometimes Suhasini told her children pityingly, ‘The man’s heart has died rummaging through dead languages all his life – he wasn’t like this before, you’ve seen for yourself…’ and the others exchanged glances and changed the subject, for everyone knew there was no use talking about it anymore.
~ 3 ~
But still, despite being so unburdened and detached, despite the unbroken leisure, free of distractions, at his disposal, Birupaksha had made almost no progress in his real work over these past ten years. Continuous hard work and round-the-year efforts, defying the seasons, had yielded only those three short monographs, from whose dangerous worldly repercussions he had managed to protect himself carefully. Those were nothing – merely the preliminary shoots, with nothing in them to suggest that he would eventually be able to sink his teeth into the succulent, blood-red apple. The certainty – distant. The proof – none. The letter was still as impenetrable as it had been on a summer morning in Rome ten years earlier. He had covered a great deal of ground around it, emerged from his Indo-European circle, learnt some Hebrew and Chinese; hunched over books for days on end at the National Library; familiarised himself with several extinct scripts after much research; leapfrogging obstacles like his own lack of money (for fate had not endowed him with the ability to walk the path of wealth), the unavailability of foreign exchange in India, and the reduction in the import of foreign books, he had procured from London many dictionaries of obscure languages, he had not slept for more than three hours on many a night; but still he had not been able to pierce the obscurity of the composition.
He had, of course, encountered several points of light. Many moments when he had clutched his pen with the ardency of the adulterous wife at the moment of meeting her lover to write down what at that time had appeared to be a literal translation of the letter. But after the first few sentences he had been stupefied by doubt, a tortuous and unending worry about which corner of the universe the next sentence was concealed in, and how he would find it, making his grey head droop over the desk. He had written nearly three hundred and fifty fragments over ten years, besides innumerable notes and comments – meanings of words, the possible syntax, minute details of the probable grammar – a dozen thick notebooks filled with scribbles, whose meaning was unclear even to himself now – every time he felt that the secret key was within reach, his perplexity grew even more. The principal reason was the inappropriateness and inconsistency of his surmised or imagined translations, terming which laughable would not be an exaggeration. One sentence seemed to yield a description of women’s fashion for autumn that year (‘The cheetah and peacock from your country will steal women’s fashion this time.’); another appeared to offer an intricate analysis of the Cold War between the USA and Russia; a third seemed to be the beginning of a scientific treatise on migratory birds. One revealed an unbelievable degree of vulgarity, while another was like the Sunday sermon by a Methodist priest. Clearly, none of these could possibly be the message he was seeking; obviously, all of them were wrong. He had not been able to close the distance even by a hair.
In moments of exhaustion he had decided to write to Esha, asking her to unravel the mystery, but this had not seemed the correct course of action for various reasons. First, Esha may not have kept a copy of her unusual letter, and he was unwilling to be parted with it even for a moment – or else he could have had a block made and had as many copies printed as he liked. Of course, Birupaksha had made about fifty facsimiles on the pages of his notebooks – he believed the last three were absolutely flawless, therefore there could be no objection to sending one of them to Esha. But… a long time had passed, what if Esha herself had forgotten the solution to this puzzle? Suppose she has indeed forgotten, and wants to know from me what she wrote? Possibly that’s it, possibly that’s just what it is. She rummages through her post-box every day with just this hope. She jumps when the phone rings. ‘How strange! You can’t decipher it? Not even you!’ How infinite her faith in me, she will not allow me to seek anyone’s help, she has made me so lonely, self-dependent. If I ask her for the answer now, will I not be proven unworthy – not just unworthy, but also a fraud? Whatever else I may be, I am not one of those who cheat at chess, who copy from their books in university examinations, who buy lottery tickets to become overnight millionaires. Even amidst such uncertainty, Birupaksha remained steadfast to two of his convictions: (1) This letter was an expression of Esha’s eternal love for him – so that he did not forget her, till his last living breath, that was why she had tied him up in knots, and therefore (2) deciphering the letter not only his personal responsibility, but also possible. An unformed but strong feeling took hold of him – since he had been held to this vow, it must be assumed that it was within his ability of fulfil it. There’s no difficulty – it’s just that I’m not able to concentrate hard enough; charmed by the decorations on the chest, maybe I have forgotten to lift the lid.
That was why, with considered thought, Birupaksha had refrained from getting in touch with Esha. It would not have been impossible for him to revisit the distant country where he had discovered her in an unknown town. At one point – when the Indian government and foreign embassies were looking upon him favourably, the possibility had even risen once; but he had deliberately (or, perhaps, battling against his inclination) brushed aside the possibility. No – it will not be right, I do not deserve to meet her until I have accomplished the task she has given me. She – my gentle, soft-spoken, lover – is waiting patiently for me to explain the meaning of her letter to her. She is waiting – for me to remind her of what she has forgotten herself. Day after day, year after year.
~ 4 ~
But who was this Esha, to whom or to whose memory this middle-aged scholar had dedicated his time, his health, his complete attention? For that matter, what did ‘memory’, that ponderous, glittering word, mean? Does my pulse quicken when I say her name in my mind? Do I hear her voice anymore when I press my ear to my pillow before going to sleep? Can I recollect her face clearly? In fact, if she were to knock on my door suddenly, would I recognise her at once? Questions such as these rose in his mind from time to time, he brushed them aside at once. And this was probably the deepest reason that he had never attempted to meet her face to face again. What if the old melodies were forgotten when they met? What if the hours go by making small talk, as though we are mere acquaintances? What if a letter brings forth a reply that anyone else could have written? No, not that way, not through any easy road – I will not take this route to my destination. What does it matter who Esha is, what she is, what she’s like? What difference does it make if she has retreated to a distance that cannot be bridged? It is that very distance that I touch, just like the waterfall touches the sea the moment it begins its journey. The letter, I have this letter. Her final message – the very last gift with her name – this is enough. This was how, as the years went by, this was what Birupaksha had thought. As a matter of fact, the waves of time had washed away all the facts – sometimes he couldn’t even recollect the name of the tiny town in the American Midwest; to determine whether Esha’s house number was 1302 or 1203, he had to turn the yellowing pages of his notebook – but through this continuous erosion, a single idea – the core of his existence, as it were – remained strong, even grew – that this letter, these different scripts, was indeed a message.
One some nights, when Birupaksha opened his notebook and flipped through the pages gouged by his own pen, his heart swayed like a pendulum between the two extremes of enthusiasm and despair. Sometimes he hunched over the mysterious letters, holding the sheet out flat in the glow of the table-lamp, just the way he had in Rome after receiving the letter, as though with the hope that a hitherto-undiscovered new letter would appear suddenly, or a new relationship between the visible letters would emerge. There must be some principle beneath all this, a mathematical law – surely it was all quite simple, just like the way substituting numbers with symbols automatically revealed the working of algebra. But why have I not been able to find this underlying principle despite all my efforts? Birupaksha was annoyed with himself because his notes and explanations were haphazard, he had written down whatever had occurred to him, without following a rigid methodology – should he have prepared a card index using the American method, creating an alphabetical listing, had he drifted further away from his objective by studying the Tibetan and Sinhalese languages, neither of which was connected to the letter? But method – was that everything? Wasn’t vision the main thing, don’t all mysteries reveal themselves if the power of vision is sufficient? A few years ago I found it difficult to read small letters, they were indistinct, as soon as I began to use glasses everything became clear. Only after Galileo used the telescope he had made himself did he see the mountains on the moon. X-rays made it possible to see the skull, the lungs, the heart of a living man. But where is that miraculous ray which can pierce this paper to reach the distant place where a certainty beyond all argument awaits me?
The night deepened, one o’ clock, one-thirty, two o’ clock, Birupaksha sat uncertainly, dazed with sleep and uneasiness in his heart, immersed in the silence of the night. Drowsiness made his thoughts incoherent; even the conviction that he had considered deep-rooted all these years seemed to disappear now and then, a horrifying question assailed him: is there really anyone named Esha? Was there, ever? Did I ever see her, did I touch her? If she is not a figment of my imagination, if she does exist, why doesn’t she appear? Why doesn’t she say something? She must come, she must prove she exists, she does not have the right to saddle me with all the responsibility and remain dormant herself. At times the form of a woman pushed aside the curtain of sleep closing over him – sitting in the armchair next to his desk, her face indistinct because that part of the room was in the shade, but the contours of her body were not mute, as though she were saying something with all her being, silently. But what? Birupaksha listened carefully, tilted his head to pay more attention, there was only a buzzing, like the continuous hum of a small insect, as he listened sleep came in a rush, waking up suddenly he saw the sheet of paper beneath the lamp. Hebrew letters, Greek letters, Devnagari. His research, his lifetime quest, his examination. If I ask for more proof, will I not be proving my own poverty? Pushing his notebooks aside, Birupaksha rose to his feet, he felt as though he had returned to his focal point, switching off the light he went to bed – but sleep eluded him for a long time.
So he swung from one end to the other – all day and all night – simultaneously with everything else he had to do, hidden behind them.
Ten more years passed. Meanwhile Birupaksha published yet another book; about a hundred and fifty pages of the main text, with eighty-seven pages of notes – dense with symbols and scripts – titled: ‘A Proposition Regarding the Relationship of Sanskrit with Chinese, Russian and ancient Persian’, it offered a new theory regarding the origin of the Indo-European languages. It created even more of a sensation among foreign experts, a great deal of debate ensued over his hypothesis, several people protested vehemently, some labelled the monograph ‘revolutionary’, while others rued the fact that, like many other Hindus, Mr Ray had also regrettably abandoned science in favour of mysticism. German and French translations appeared within six months, but because India was in the grip of a political crisis, there was no repetition of the unwelcome incidents referred to earlier; delectably meeting his expectations, this new effort went completely unnoticed in his own country. He retired from teaching the day he turned sixty-two – although nothing would have prevented him from clinging on for three years more, and Suhasini had pleaded with him to do just that. On the same day he handed over editorship of ‘Speech’ magazine to a younger colleague, and ignoring all protests he resigned from the post of president of the linguistic society. Now all his time for research was under his own control. But – his family observed in astonishment – his daily routine changed in ways beyond everyone’s imagination. He no longer spent his entire day with his nose buried in his books, his chair in the second-floor library was often empty, his connection with the National Library had become tenuous too. The thick journals that came from abroad – which he would eagerly leaf through as soon as they arrived – were often put away without being unwrapped. Even more surprisingly, he joined family gatherings now and then, took part in light conversation and banter with his children and their spouses – he even seemed curious about Pop Art and The Beatles. It was noticed that when his daughter’s or daughter-in-law’s female friends visited, he – provoking ill-concealed discomfort in everyone – spent some time uninvited with these young women, gazed at them with a degree of wonder, made unnecessary conversation with them, even made racy comments not befitting his age or status. His son had been transferred to Calcutta with a promotion some time earlier; Birupaksha had made friends with his granddaughter after she turned eleven, the same granddaughter whom he had not paid any attention to earlier, he took her for strolls along the river and the Dhakuria Lake, his enchantment with her childish babble became evident in his expression. One morning, he grew excited after seeing a photograph of Madhubala, who had died recently, and reading her biography in the newspaper; he expressed such intense regret at having to die without the chance to watch such an extraordinarily beautiful actress – whose talking, moving figure on the cinema screen had captured the heart of the entire nation – that his daughter-in-law could not suppress the laughter rising in her throat. ‘All right,’ she consoled her father-in-law, ‘if I hear of Mughal-e-Azam playing anywhere I shall take you.’ ‘Who are the most beautiful actresses today?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Most beautiful?’ His daughter-in-law reeled off several names, explaining the unique qualities in their acting styles, Birupaksha listened attentively. ‘There’s a Saira Banu film on, would you like to go?’ she asked, using the Bengali word ‘boi’ – book – to refer to the film. ‘Boi? What do you mean, book?’ His son answered, ‘That’s how films are referred to nowadays.’ ‘Not just nowadays – for a long time now,’ added his daughter-in-law. ‘I’ve been hearing it since I was a child.’ ‘Really? For a long time now? How strange! And I had no idea. Just imagine…’ unconsciously echoing something he had heard many years earlier, Birupaksha said irrelevantly, ‘just imagine how difficult it is to learn even a single language properly – leave alone several!’ Meanwhile, his daughter-in-law had been scanning the entertainment columns in the newspaper, looking up from the paper, she said, ‘It’s playing at Bijoli, I can send for tickets if you like.’ ‘Are you mad!’ his son objected firmly. ‘What’s the use of torturing baba this way?’ But astonishing everyone, Birupaksha accompanied the women in the family to watch not one but two films in a single week – featuring Saira Banu and Tanuja, respectively. His daughter declared, ‘I can guarantee baba will be forced to leave in ten minutes…’ but nothing like that ensued, on the contrary, after their return Birupaksha conducted a long comparative analysis of the two actresses’ looks and acting skills.
This strange transformation – which should have pleased his family – did not generate the expected joy in anyone’s heart. Out of long habit (and to tell the truth, because his absence had never created any difficulties), everyone felt that it suited him better to spend his days in his second-floor library, detached and indifferent; he seemed to be descending to a pedestrian plane from the highest peak of punditry that he occupied; he seemed to be unfairly destroying the pride that they had felt in his being an ‘extraordinary man’, despite all the pain he had caused them. His daughter felt a fresh bout of pique at the thought that her father had never commented on Asit’s paintings, but now appeared childishly obsessed with cheap Hindi films, which was why she couldn’t protest when Asit chuckled, ‘Your father’s brain is turning to jelly,’ meanwhile Suhasini casually told her daughter-in-law, ‘Don’t you go inciting your father-in-law to watch films, he might turn senile.’
~ 5 ~
However, Birupaksha continued to wage his secret war, it was only his strategy that had changed. He now viewed the entire problem from a different perspective; what he had sensed sometimes, on a late, drowsy night, had now been converted into certainty; he had accepted that the so-called ‘scientific approach’, which he had tried to follow assiduously all this time, was not applicable in this particular instance. I have attacked the script from so many different angles; left to right, right to left; top to bottom, diagonally; I have improvised many different symbolic alphabets, constructed a mixed framework of many languages, but the results have all been unacceptable, all of them have misled me further. By and by he began to think that his knowledge of linguistics was only a façade for ignorance; life was so short (once again he echoed someone else unconsciously) – how many languages do we have the time to learn anyway? There are innumerable languages about which I do not have the slightest idea, whose very existence I am unaware of, and even those in comparison to whom I am but an insignificant labourer, even those geniuses, are nothing but infants, just like me, before the enormous Tower of Babel. Bantus, Swahilis, Eskimos – all these people are articulate and eloquent; despite being surrounded by an alien and powerful language, American tribals apparently still speak in nearly five hundred different tongues. Then how futile, how meaningless our efforts – we who consider ourselves linguists, with our capital of ten or twelve or, at most, twenty languages. Besides, language doesn’t belong to man alone; cats have their love songs, chimpanzees are argumentative, domesticated dogs can communicate hunger, fear, love and the intrusion of thieves simply through inflections in their barking. But wild dogs do not have this range of notes – it is said that the domesticated dog has learnt the ‘language’ of man by cohabiting with him and copying him. But is this assumption valid in all cases? Take the bat – blind by day, living far away from the company of human beings, an actual sound from whose throat we might hear once in a lifetime – fifty years ago a German expert had published a complete notation of their language. And recently a team of scientists in California have recorded the language of the hippopotamus, the range of its sounds is apparently extraordinary considering that it is not human. Until now, human society has believed that only human beings can ‘talk’ in the real sense – since he can stand upright, since the power of his tongue and vocal chords is unique, since the structure of his brain and nervous system is exceedingly complex… with logic such as this man has proved his own pre-eminence. But who knows, maybe fish are not dumb either – it is our eardrums whose capacity is limited, and no instrument exists yet to capture the very low or very high sounds that fish might make. Since we are human beings we look at the world only through the eyes of human being, we observe the behaviour of other creatures only with our own minds and senses (we don’t have a choice) – in these circumstances, how can it be certain that all that has been conjectured about the languages of other animals, or about the origins of human languages, is not as blurred and ephemeral as cobwebs floating in the air?
Birupaksha could no longer accept all the theories he had read about the origin of language – from gestures, from dance, from war, from screams or hisses – in his imagination the family divisions between languages had disappeared too, he had even become sceptical about the universally accepted proposition that Chinese had nothing in common with English. He felt that the Puranas were right where these things were concerned. The echo of one particular articulated sound, like the first pulse of life in an animate world, had tumbled over centuries and millennia to compose all those other collections of sounds, vowels and consonants, nasals and aspirates, whose diverse symmetries we refer to as language. It’s just like the numerous concentric circles created when a pebble is thrown into a lake, only its surge was unending, the waves never ceased. A cascade of echoes, a reverberation of resonance – not the real thing, different kinds of counterfeits, in other words, all languages are only corruptions of the original language – the so-called primitive languages like those of the Bantus or Mundas as much as the so-called evolved languages such as Sanskrit or Greek, English or French. And that is why we do not understand one another’s languages, do not understand each other even when speaking the same language or dialect; the minds of the monkey or the bat or the hippopotamus remain unrevealed to us, whatever interpretation we have of this world and this life are all woefully partial and subject to revision. But St Francis of Assisi used to converse with birds, Gunadhya wrote the Brihat Katha – Ocean of Stories – in ‘barbaric’ Prakrit and read it out to wild animals, Orpheus’s song entranced trees and stones and beasts. Don’t these legends all point towards a single world language – not a synthetic Esperanto or a commercial basic English, not something limited to a particular continent or a means to a limited end – but universal in the widest sense, the natural mother tongue of all of nature, the connecting link between the innumerable and distinct existences on earth? Just as the fraction may be infinite but is still contained within the whole number, so too are the separate language fragments of man and beast subsumed within the original tongue, which in itself is unique and infallible, but beyond the reach of our specialised sciences because it is manifested in many different languages. If one of its rays were to give itself up to me, no language in the world would remain unknown to me, and in an instant the message would become lucid, the message which I have exhausted myself over with my literal quest over all these years.
Birupaksha was electrified by the courage of his imagination, almost feeling afraid at first. Will it be right for me to step off the path which I have long been accustomed to, and which so many experts have walked on? Logic does not support my line of thinking, after all. But was it logic that had dreamed up X-rays? If a ray capable of penetrating flesh and skin to unravel the inner mysteries of the human body could have been discovered, why can’t we discover at some time in the future an invisible beam that can penetrate the covering of script and meaning to unveil what lies at the heart of any language? This see-through ray, which was beyond imagination even a short while ago, was actually hidden in nature since the beginning of time, and it is now considered a natural property of the universe. Similarly, the original language is waiting too – one of us will suddenly part the veil to reveal it. It’s easy – quite easy – only a thin curtain lies in the way, it seems as though it will be drawn any moment, it virtually wants to give itself up.
As he mused about this, it occurred to Birupaksha that man’s biggest superstition was the perceived difference between the miraculous and the natural. We cannot invent anything, we can only discover things. They exist – everything exists simultaneously in the universe – all that we desire, the subjects of our wildest hopes, even all that is beyond our ken right now – are all present; it’s just a matter of finding them. Am I then on the verge of some such discovery, which people will dub astounding and epochal? Birupaksha felt his heart beat faster, overcome by wonder and humility, he pressed his hand to his chest and lowered his head. A different thought sprang up at once from the bottom of his mind, as though he could see a clear path before his eyes. Enough of attacking – it was time to surrender. What I am looking for is self-illuminated (for all the languages of the world are only weak reflections of it) – why should intelligence, knowledge, analysis or exertion be necessary to find it? The world is lit up as soon as the sun rises – do we have to make an effort to realise this? The locked, abandoned room that has been dark for many years and the room that became dark five minutes ago because of a power failure will be illuminated simultaneously when a match is struck. One pinpoint of light is sufficient to dispel even the darkness accumulated over centuries. Then what use is knowledge? An illiterate itinerant forest bandit had unexpectedly articulated incantations bound in rhythm. A clever thief had built the first veena from the entrails of dead animals. I will now have to forsake all my learning. I will have to pretend I have forgotten my vow. I will have to start afresh.
This was the reason that Birupaksha’s daily routine had been broken so spectacularly, or perhaps he had broken the very concept of the daily routine. He was waiting – he would have to pass this period of waiting easily, without making demands of himself, without pondering, without pride. He would have to fill his days with whatever diversions were at hand – and it would be a serious mistake to assume that anything that was at hand was necessarily trite, or irrelevant for him. No – everything was connected, they were all part of the different fractions of the whole number. Every last thing was important now. He would have to observe young women’s gestures, the cultivated seductiveness of beautiful women on cinema screens, how the little girl’s shy smile spread from her lips across her entire face, how sadly his daughter-in-law’s pet dog raised his eyes to the sky, how the beam from the setting sun which fell on his bathroom window made the walls glow… he would have to listen closely to the splash of the rain, to the sound of the streets being watered, to the trundling of the first tram at dawn – the essence of all these ingredients would have to be stored like a secret stash of food within himself, where there was growing, little by little, unknown to him – like a foetus incubated for years on end in the womb of a gigantic mother – the message which he had been searching for in vain all these time. As though the radiation from a distant star had covered millions of light years to approach earth, to approach mankind… to approach him. There’s nothing I have to do – besides allowing what is imminent to materialise. There’s nothing I have to think, I am prepared.
~ 6 ~
This new realisation of Birupaksha’s had some other results too. The sheet of paper with the symbols – which he had taken great care of all these years, spreading it out flat and inserting it into a clear plastic folder (so that it did not tear along the folds), never forgetting to spray insecticide on it once a month – he put away in the iron safe in his bedroom, adding the notebooks with the notes and comments that were the fruits of years of labour. He could no longer believe that they would prove useful; he was amused when he recalled the nights that he would go to bed with the plastic folder beneath his pillow, and his notebook, pencil and the bed-switch within his reach; those moments from the past appeared tragic – moments when he had sat up in bed and switched on the light, written line after line in a feverish hand, drawn a number of diagrams, mouthed the presumed sentences silently, only moving his lips, and then, suddenly stabbed by the dagger of doubt, had plunged his face into his pillow and tried to go back to sleep. He had scanned the letter so many times that a perfect and complete facsimile had been etched sharply in his mind; he could hold on to the image as long as he liked, and if he ever told himself, ‘Not now, I’m sleepy,’ it would slowly disappear. Before he went to sleep, or at the moment of awaking, he played a game like this with his mystery letter.
Because his work always involved sitting at a desk, Birupaksha had long suffered from constipation, of late its severity had increased, he had to allot a quarter of an hour for the preliminary moving of his bowels. To keep annoyance at bay, he went in with a light novel or magazine, but one day he remembered that whatever original ideas he had had about linguistics had been revealed to him for the first time, long ago – not in his library, nor while teaching – but in the pleasant solitude of the toilet. Immediately, he felt a desire, after a long time, for a look at the original manuscript; he took it out of his safe and into the toilet. It was just the same – in other words, just as he had seen it six months earlier. For quite some time now it had become obvious that the physical existence of the script could not be depended on; once pitch black, the letters had turned brown long ago, but even that brown had now become yellow and faded, despite all the care a few creases had appeared on the sheet, even its whiteness seemed grey now. Birupaksha tried to look at it afresh, as though he were seeing it for the first time, but the pretence didn’t last, at first glance the letter seemed to grow heavy in his hand with all its past history. No – there was nothing new to see, he knew it all, he had come through all the battles, burnt a great deal of incense, but not for a moment had he set eyes on the goddess of these letters. Birupaksha sighed, he spent longer than usual sitting where he was – so long and so absent-mindedly that there was a knock on the door, he was informed that his tea was getting cold (‘Actually they’re worried that I might have fainted – it happens all the time these days.’) – to reassure them, Birupaksha said, ‘Coming,’ and rose to his feet, and suddenly, out of haste or carelessness, the letter slipped out of the plastic folder. It fell directly into the commode where he had recently emptied his bowels. Without a moment’s thought, he dipped his hand into the dirty water and picked up the letter, blindly turning on the tap in the basin and spreading the sheet of paper out under it. The cleansed – far too clean – yellowish letters melted into the water, all that had been written was obliterated, and the sheet of paper crumbled into dust and into the basin, where it passed effortlessly through the drain into the metropolitan underworld through which flowed the excretion of innumerable people. And all this took place within just a few seconds, before his eyes – Birupaksha had no opportunity for second thoughts, he could not save a single fragment as a memento. By the time he had turned the tap off, not a sign remained.
The first impact of this accident gave rise to two different feelings in Birupaksha’s mind. He felt guilty – as though a loved one had died because of his carelessness, someone who had been his lifelong companion. But just as, after someone’s death, we think mostly of the dead person, just as they come alive all over again in our minds, so too did Birupaksha recollect, strongly, the real person, whom he had named Esha, the way he had seen her, twenty or twenty-five years ago, in a small town in the American Midwest. Astonishing him, almost overwhelming him, Esha’s face, the form of her body, her voice, all came back to him clearly. Suddenly the desire to see her again, to touch her again, reared its head. He remembered the sunlight, the drizzle, the light breeze, the cobbled lane and the wide, generous piazza – he saw himself at American Express, waiting behind nine or ten people for his letter; his heart was twisted once more with the hope, the anxiety, the failure, of that moment. And then, shaking with restlessness, he slowly found his answer, he went forward towards that quiet ending, which time prepares us for without our knowledge, so that a man does not suffer too much.
Birupaksha did not even realise when the wave of memory and desire, which had been resurrected by the disappearance of the letter, subsided. What had been a reality in the distant past was converted into a pure idea now, his thoughts found a new equilibrium. He was no longer repentant because the original letter no longer existed, on the contrary, he saw a certain aptness in its sudden disappearance. It was natural for an inanimate object to dissolve into the five elements – it wouldn’t be wrong to call it desirable either – because something remained even after that, and this remnant became evident only when it moved out of the shadow of the physical object. Is there anyone who doesn’t know that the idol has to be immersed so that the goddess can seep into our lives? Or perhaps there’s no need to make an effort, it works as automatically as the air we breathe. When it’s humid, when not a leaf on the trees stirs, the breeze still exists – for everyone, all the time. Is this – what I’ve thought of all this time as the ‘letter’ – ‘my letter’? Isn’t the word ‘my’ presumptuous, isn’t it incorrect? Can anyone really live without a task such as this, a responsibility, a constant companion? People live easy lives, passing time on some pretext or the other – until they’re called away to their real work. ‘Here’s the letter – your letter – read it to find out what it says.’ The same letter for everyone, yet everyone thinks it’s only for them – and that is why the mystery runs so deep. It will not be unravelled in any meeting, by any committee, at any conference, pedantry and judgement will be of no use, each one will seek an answer on their own – only within themselves, nowhere else. Birupaksha looked out of the corner of his eye at the other people in the house, he observed people’s expressions if he happened to go out – had the letter reached any of them, or would it reach soon, did any of them know of the expectation that kept each of them moving about restlessly? He thought that this was why his granddaughter was growing up, why his daughter and daughter-in-law did their make-up with such care, why his busy son’s eyes sometimes grew wistful, why his son-in-law played with his paint and brushes. They wanted it, they wanted the same thing that had been growing within him all this time, which had filled him to the brim year after year. That was what they wanted too – but they hadn’t realized it yet. Now and then he wished he could call one of them and reveal his secret, wished he could ask, ‘Have you got it? Have you got the letter? – but he restrained himself at the last moment, lest they thought he was going mad.
For the first time in his life Birupaksha seemed to consider himself happy; that he was alive was enough, there was nothing else he had to do, nothing else he wished for. He may indeed have suffered from a mental problem at this time; sometimes he didn’t understand the meaning clearly when he opened a scholarly book, he thought to himself, ‘Why do people write all this? What purpose does it serve?’ One day an old essay of his happened to fall into his hands, reading just two pages so exhausted him that he had to lean back on the sofa and close his eyes. Another time, his daughter brought him a clipping from a French magazine – a brief discussion on Joan Miro – in the process of reading and explaining it to her, he had to stop several times and check the dictionary. He was surprised, but not upset – instead, he was pleased to think that he had finally been released from the iron grip of his own learning. His vision was weaker, he had to hold the page close to his eyes to read, but he felt no urge to change his glasses, for books had retreated from his life. And the incident had retreated even further – quite indistinct by now – the incident which could be said to have given birth to all the others, and which had seemed oh so important once. Perhaps it was incorrect to call it an ‘incident’, for the word held the sense of an ending, while actually it was still taking place, it took place every day, there was no assurance of its ending. It was like a game, and the game was everything – it was irrelevant why and for whom. And that was why the person who had introduced him to the game was almost wiped out from his mind, he forgot her real name, he even forgot the name he had given her, Esha. And the lost letter, which he had assumed was imprinted in his memory, no longer appeared frequently in his mind’s eye; after spending many sleepless nights, he now fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow, sleeping through the night without waking up; in his dreams he sometimes went back to his childhood, now and then he saw his mother’s face, she had been dead thirty-five years now. The last year of Birupaksha’s life passed this way, in utter happiness.
~ 7 ~
An April morning. Birupaksha had just woken up after a pleasant night’s sleep. He was awake, but hadn’t got out of bed yet, not even opened his eyes. He didn’t know why, but he considered himself extraordinarily happy that day from the moment he had awakened, still in bed, he was enjoying the sensation, half-asleep, without opening his eyes. A breeze ruffled his thin hair – not from the electric fan (he realized this clearly), it was blowing in through the window, a zephyr, a vernal breeze. He seemed to taste the phrase ‘vernal breeze’ with his tongue, with an air of amusement, he thought he got a sudden fragrance of cloves, and the scent was translated into several of the poet Jaideva’s smooth alliterations. A woman’s voice wafted in from the dining room – he recalled that the house was full of people, Khuku and Asit had dropped in the previous night and stayed over, a niece was visiting from Bhagalpur – not exactly visiting, her parents had sent her to Suhasini so that the entire country could be combed to arrange a match for her – ‘she’s not doing anything much after passing her B.A. exam!’ – and the girl had already made some progress towards striking up a romance with Asit’s younger brother. Birupaksha recollected the faces of everyone in the family – how nice they are, how nice they are all – I really have been unfair to Asit, I have hurt Suhasini now and then, Leela too – and yet how they all love me – amazing! He was pleased by the thought that he lived with all of them, that he was alive with all of them around him, he was pleased by the thought that his niece would soon get married, two individuals would once again discover the age-old mystery, like fresh blades of grass children would come again, the youth of the world would remain intact. I had been somewhat detached when Khuku got married, when Debu got married, but this time I will play the uncle of the bride to the hilt, welcome the guests, supervise the wedding feast. There was a tinkling sound – the tea was being laid out – everyone would wake up now, one by one, the dining table would turn noisy. He heard his granddaughter say, ‘Make my omelette please, didani, all right?’ She couldn’t bear to have an omelette unless it was made by her grandmother, even if it was burnt, she would still bite into it and say, ‘Delicious!’. How sweet Debu’s daughter was, she would probably grow up to be a real beauty. Suddenly a face floated up before his still-closed eyes – a woman’s face – the body took shape slowly beneath the face – who was it? Where am I? The sea, infinite from one horizon to the other, an unending succession of waves, the froth racing over the blue, breaking and flowing back constantly – and the woman was walking along the shore of this sea, in a sheer dress, triumphant, radiating youth with every step, beneath the enormous sky, as though wrapping the sunlight around her, and making the ocean her witness. Did I ever see a scene like this in a film? Or is it someone else whom I know, whom I have seen somewhere? Who can it be, what is her name? Suddenly he remembered – Madhubala. Madhubala… Madhumala… Madhumati… wasn’t it a different name? But not all his efforts could make him recollect another name, identifying the woman correctly appeared impossible, and yet the feeling that he knew her, that he had seen her somewhere, grew stronger. He concentrated all the power in his vision on the woman – she was walking towards him, she wasn’t very far away now, but the little distance that remained simply could not be bridged, he was surprised, wondering how the woman could be in motion and still be so immobile. And then he saw that there was no woman there anymore, the sea and the sky had disappeared, and in their place a single letter appeared before his eyes, a dazzling symbol against a dark background. And immediately an uneasiness took hold of his body, his chest seemed constricted, and then a marvellous sight took his breath away. Rows of letters – aligned and organised – surrounded him on all sides, in the same disciplined way in which a band of soldiers wrested a fort from the enemy. All those letters – now he remembered – long familiar… unfamiliar… but unfamiliar no more now. The letters seemed to enter his body on their own – spreading like germs in his bloodstream, in the marrow of his spine, piercing his flesh like needles; their meaning, their sense, their subtle allusions brought forth a response from every pore in his body. ‘Ah! At last! Then… it’s true, all true!’ He tried to say this out loud, but all he heard was a sound like a faint cough. He felt as though he was being unfolded by this unexpected attack, he was spreading out in every direction like a waterfall cascading down to the plains – swelling in every direction, with love for everyone, he was going far, far away. Where am I going? The question flashed in his mind and disappeared at once. Joy – he was overcome by unimaginable joy – happiness, as unbearable as pain, was grinding him to pieces, his heart beat uncontrollably, the sea that had disappeared from his sight a short while ago now roared in his ears, but not devoid of meaning, amidst this roaring he seemed to hear the sounds corresponding to each of the letters. But his senses had not left him completely yet; he felt an indistinct need – although he could not determine whether it was a wish to pass urine or to quench his thirst, or was it to write down for others what he had just heard? His body twitched with the desire to sit up.
A little later, Birupaksha’s daughter-in-law entered the room with his bed tea to find that his head had slipped off his pillow, one of his legs was dangling from the bed on the floor, his body was motionless, his face, peaceful, and the lines of his mouth suggested that he wanted to say something.