…. Swati stayed where she was. She felt comfort, physical comfort, the comfort of the shimmering afternoon, the comfort of smooth digestion following a little chat after lunch. She was feeling drowsy – in fact, sleep was on its way – when, hearing a light sound in the room, she asked without opening her eyes, ‘Did you forget something, Dalim?’
Not getting an answer, Swati opened her eyes, and then sprang to her feet.
‘… What? What is it?’
Pale face, dishevelled hair, pinched lips and unshaven cheeks – in all this time Swati had never seen Satyen Roy looking like this. And when he spoke, his voice sounded strange too: ‘Haven’t you heard yet?’
Satyen Roy lifted his eyes towards Swati, then lowered them again, saying, ‘Rabindranath…’ He couldn’t continue.
Swati bowed her head too at once, clasping her hands together at her breast. Her posture was similar to the one in which she had read Shweta’s letter, standing; and in the lines of her shoulder, her neck – where earlier a joyful grace had almost spoken out aloud – now the same lines drew a picture of sorrow, a silent submission, the deeper grace of sadness.
They stood face-to-face. But not face-to-face either, for both had their heads bowed, both were silent. A little later Satyen raised his eyes; Swati did not see this, but she raised hers too immediately: in an unquestioning serenity they looked into each other’s eyes.
‘Let’s go,’ said Satyen Roy.
‘Don’t you want to go? To see him?’
‘Of course.’ But go without telling baba? Swati wondered.
‘Let’s go then.’
‘But you – where were you?”
‘I was there – I wouldn’t have come – but I came for you. You’ve never seen him – you didn’t – but still, for the last time at least…’
With a look at Satyen Roy’s wan, stubbled face, ‘But you haven’t eaten or…’
‘No time for all that now,’ Satyen’s shoulders signalled something, a slight impatience.
‘We’re getting late. Let’s go.’
‘Do have something to eat. Haven’t you eaten anything since morning?’
‘No,’ Satyen said, perhaps a trifle too loudly. He seemed a little disappointed – seemed hurt – at Swati’s insistence on such trivial things as food at a time such as this. It was true he hadn’t eaten anything since his first cup of tea in the morning: but he had no sensation of hunger, nor of fatigue; he had no sensation at all, other than that of grief; an expansive, rare, incomparable grief; familiar through imagination, ancient though possibility, and yet strange in reality, as unknown as the unexpected, as intolerable as the incredible… Arriving there in the morning, as soon as he had realised today was the last day, he had decided to stay till the end… the hours passed somehow after that, the crowds swelled, the large rooms and verandahs at the poet’s Jorasanko residence filled with people, more of them in the courtyard… a perspiring man in a vest passed on the news over the telephone; besides him everyone was silent, not one among all those people spoke, even after spotting familiar faces no one said anything, newcomers understood at a glance, without having to ask. Waiting, waiting mutely, just waiting – for what? Then, after a long time, he had sat down for a bit, he suddenly heard a sound – from the next room – like a single long-suppressed heartrending gasp, and immediately people glanced at the watches on their wrists, at the clock on the wall, something-past-twelve, a whisper rose. A little later, when they allowed a single visit into the room – he had entered too. The head had seemed even bigger than earlier, enormous, but the body seemed to have shrunk a little, although the wrist was as broad as always, as powerful, the fingers as formidable. For the last time he had set eyes on that long-familiar face; on that head, that brow, that greatness; touched the ice-cold feet just once… and as soon as Satyen recalled that moment, as soon as he saw in his mind’s eye the exhausted slump of that gigantic head, a red-hot shiver rose in his chest, he turned his face away quickly. Collecting himself in a moment, he said like a faint smile, ‘All right, give me a glass of water.’
‘Nothing else?’ Swati quickly fetched him a glass of water from Dalim’s pitcher.
Draining his glass, Satyen said, ‘Quickly now. Let’s go.’
‘But… I was thinking…’ Swati said.
‘About what your father will say?’ Satyen guessed right – half right… ‘He’ll be back any moment. All offices have been closed.’
Swati’s face brightened. ‘Then… can’t we wait a little bit?’
‘You’d rather tell him before you went?’ Satyen finally understood, and was jolted. Couldn’t the rules be broken even on a day such as this? Couldn’t the daily compulsions be forgotten even for once? Did the same things as on other days have to be considered? But he had not; winding his way out through the crowd, he had run off to take a bus all the way from Jorasanko to Tollygunge, meaning to rush back to Jorasanko from Tollygunge immediately. But why had he?
The question died as soon as it had risen in Satyen’s mind; he was in no state of mind to quiz himself, nor did he have the time. ‘Your father won’t mind, I know.’
‘So do I.’
Swati didn’t reply.
‘Then you’d better stay. But I can’t anymore.’
‘No, I’m going too,’ said Swati at once.
She rushed inside, wrote a two-line note for her father and handed it to the maid, changed her clothes and shoes, took her handbag, and, stepping out on the road with Satyen, the first thing she noticed was that the day was still just as joyous and gorgeous and luminous.
The bus filled before they reached Kalighat. Still people kept getting in; college students, schoolboys, shopkeepers, the unemployed, young men who chatted with one another all day. The bus was so crowded she felt suffocated. But the seats reserved for women, one of which Swati occupied, were safe – and she was seated by the window, staring out fixedly. The roads were full of typical late-afternoon crowds, schoolboys in groups, but without their boisterousness; several older people wandered around aimlessly; groups of people gathered at any shop where the radio played; and there were small crowds at every street-corner, hoping to board any bus or tram that came by. Cinema posters were covered in black; the doors shut. Women stood in verandahs, at windows, their hair open, children in their arms, taking in as much of the road as they could. Everyone’s eyes, everyone’s mind, were trained on the road.
The day became cloudy, it started raining by the time they reached Chowringhee. But when the bus came to a halt at Esplanade, the sun was shining again, brightly; and in that moistsoft light, Swati saw an extraordinary swirl in the crowd, extraordinary even for Esplanade. The office-goer in a suit, the lawyer in his black coat, middle-aged clerks with umbrellas in hand, thin young clerical workers, Englishmen, Chinese, Madrasis, priests, Parsis – they were all rushing to and fro between Chowringhee, Dharmatalla, Curzon Park, Corporation Street, but without any specific destination, seemingly a little bewildered; many of them seemed to have forgotten the axiom that you go back home when the office is closed. No matter how fragmented they looked, Calcutta’s crowds were never aimless; everyone usually knew where they were going and why; but today they had all forgotten the destination, the certainty of a destination – and that was why these crowds were unusual, extraordinary.
Some people just stood stiffly, staring straight ahead, some just walked around, some seemed to make up their minds and walk a few steps, only to stop suddenly, some read the papers, each with two or three more peering over their shoulder. The special edition had just hit the streets, disappearing in a sea of hands.
Sitting behind Swati, Satyen reached out through the window to buy a newspaper, handing it to her after a single glance. Swati gave it just one glance, putting it on her lap. The girl of about fifteen sitting next to her took it without asking for permission, her eyes moved from the top to the bottom, and from those eyes tears fell on the newspaper with words printed on it in black, washing away the still-wet ink fresh from the press.
The bus all but emptied out at Jorasanko. Everyone ran towards Dwarakanath Lane, but, about to cross the road, Satyen paused. When he had left there had been a barrage of people – what had happened to them? Where was everyone? – ‘Have they taken him away already?’ the words escaped his lips.
‘Yes, they have – if you want to see him go to College Street…’ answered someone as he passed.
Swati had never been to Chitpore before; she watched with amazement the jostling trams and buses on a street that was more of a lane; even more of a lane further down, dark, twisting; tall buildings, cheek-by-jowl, shutting out the sky; strange crowds on the pavements and in makeshift roadside kiosks selling peculiar things. She almost forgot why she was there; remembering only when Satyen said, ‘They’ve taken him away already. Let’s go to College Street. You can walk quickly, can’t you?’
They walked swiftly, silently along the nominal pavement, avoiding brushing against other pedestrians. After a few minutes they turned left, entering Muktaram Babu Street. All these Calcutta neighbourhoods – Swati felt – were like a different land, a different world; the light, the air, even the smell was different. She looked around her, but couldn’t see anything clearly because of the pace at which Satyen-babu was walking.
The long, dark, serpentine Muktaram Babu Street ended at Cornwallis Street; and the crossing of College Street and Harrison Road appeared soon afterwards.
Satyen stopped on the covered pavement in front of the College Street market, climbing the steps of a shoe-shop. Many more people stood there, mostly college students. They were heard saying, any moment now.
‘Did the walk tire you out?’ Satyen asked.
‘Do you wish you hadn’t come?’
The conversation ended there, both of them were silent again. Some people stood on the dangerous bare roof of a shop on the opposite side of the road, their cameras aimed; women and children thronged the first-floor balcony next door; there wasn’t a single window nearby without three or four faces peering out of it, and no one moved on the road, everyone waiting. Satyen felt the weight of that waiting, that mute waiting, on himself again.
‘They’re coming… they’re coming…’ a buzz rose through the crowd.
Swati had expected a long intense overwhelmed silent slow procession of bowed heads; but only a handful of people bore him away on their shoulders, rather quickly – from north to south – a few people straggling behind them… like a flash of lightning they disappeared from Swati’s vision – the long white mane and the enormous pale tranquil contemplative brow glinted in the sunlight. That was all Swati saw, nothing more.
Satyen saw Swati standing rigidly upright, hands balled up in fists, her lips clamped together; saw the trembling in her throat, the quivering of her lips, the deep colour in her cheeks. He saw her liquid black bright eyes become brighter, become shining mirrors, then the mirrors shattered, became liquid again, brimmed over, the head was bowed.
And at this sight, Satyen had a catch in his throat all over again, his eyes misted over, and he embarrassed himself. This death demanded no tears, this grief, this immense, invaluable grief, this final jewel of eighty years of uncompromising labour – was it to be squandered in tears?
‘Let’s go now.’ Satyen spoke.
Swati did not try to conceal that she had been crying, she wiped her eyes on the end of her saree, coughed, and then said hoarsely, ‘Let’s.’
But the trams and buses were choked. From every direction, on every road, people rushed towards Nimtala, for the last rites. They waited helplessly, their feet aching as they stood there.
‘Should we try walking?’ Swati said. ‘A little further ahead we might…’
‘Walking a little won’t help. Only if we can go all the way to Esplanade…’
‘Is that very far?’ Swati asked, unsure about the geography of this part of town.
‘Not all that far,’ Satyen said encouragingly. ‘Down Chittaranjan Avenue – shall we walk then?’
As soon as they had traversed Colootola Street to reach Chittaranjan Avenue, the skies became dark, opening up suddenly. They took shelter under a portico. Dense the rain, cascading to the ground, and, drenched in that rain, passed a group of calm silent grave Chinese men, each with his head bowed, each with flowers in his hand, each barefoot.
Swati looked at them as long as they remained visible. ‘How beautiful they are,’ she said.
Satyen nodded in assent.
‘Where are they going?’
‘Must be Nimtala.’
Swati had heard of Nimtala, so she understood. ‘Aren’t you going?’
‘I would have… but…’
‘Can’t I go too?’
‘You can, but I can’t take you.’
‘You can’t imagine how crowded it will be.’
Swati didn’t like this. Even on a day such as this, she reflected, Satyen-babu remained far too cautious, conventional, mindful of dos and don’ts. Meanwhile the rain didn’t let up.
Another group appeared, Englishmen, priests, bearded old men, dressed in long white smocks, flowers in their hands, tranquillity on their faces, prayer in their eyes. Soaked to the skin, they passed by.
The rain lessened, the rain stopped, they resumed walking under light raindrops, raindrops on their hands, lips, heads. The sun came out; the yellow sunlight, slanted in the late afternoon, glinted on the wet, black surface of the road, glittered in the moist-soft air.
‘Tell me if you’re feeling tired, I think we can get on a bus here.’
‘I’m enjoying the walk,’ said Swati. As soon as she spoke she felt remorse, felt guilty; on this day, at such a time, was it right to ‘enjoy’ anything? Even if you did, did you have to say so? Swati glanced apprehensively at Satyen Roy out of the corner of her eye, but the grief-stricken professor appeared not to have noticed the discordant note of enjoyment, on the contrary, he said, pleased, ‘You are? That’s fine then.’
They walked on in silence, but not the way they had on Muktaram Babu Street after being thwarted at Jorasanko; back then their pace was swift, the lane narrow, the mind anxious; and now before their eyes lay the generous neatness of Chittaranjan Avenue – an enormous, broad, large-hearted expanse, uncrowded, without trams, the cars floating by lightly, silently; huge, tall buildings lined the road on either side, but even larger, even higher was the sky, and the road was so spread out that the buildings appeared weightless – the houses on the two sides of the road seemed to belong to two separate neighbourhoods; and over the entire road a curtain with the subtle, transparent tinge of the rain-swept yellow-green late afternoon rippled, swayed, glowed. They walked slowly, there was no hurry now; the climactic moment had passed under the portico of the College Street shoe-shop; the nerves weren’t drawn tight like bowstrings anymore, they had gone limp now, now there was time to gaze – at the afternoon, at the light, at the bright, beautiful sky. Swati felt an undefined joy in her heart; a little later her guilt vanished too, but she herself remained unaware of this change of season within, didn’t think about it, didn’t consider it specifically, she sank gradually into her sensation of happiness. And Satyen – passionate about poetry, he had worshipped the poet all his life – he too experienced an elusive joy; just as the blue pennant was hoisted at that moment over the dispassionate gateway of the sky over post-Rabindranath Bengal and grief-stricken Calcutta, so too was the deep dank grave of historic grief in his mind covered by the green of the present, the immediate, the living moment – so effortlessly that even he did not realise it. In silence, each of them accepted this happiness they were dimly conscious of – their own, as well as that of the other person – they had not spoken earlier because there was nothing to say, now they didn’t because there was no need to.
At Esplanade the screaming wheels, the orbit of the crowds, the jostling and shoving began again. They crossed the road after several stops and starts. At Chowringhee Satyen said, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
By Buddhadeva Bose (translated from the Bengali)