The Girlfriend: by Narendranath Mitra

After office, Bibhupada paused at the magazine stand at Esplanade. Several other people had gathered there too. All kinds of magazines in different languages – English, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu – were available. Different readers with different tastes, they were all to be found here. Most of the customers were leafing through the magazines, they did not seem to have any intention of buying them. Some had opened the film magazines to gape at the actresses’ photographs inside. They wouldn’t relinquish the magazines until the shopkeeper snarled at them. There were all kinds of people in the world. Some people were utterly shameless. But those who only looked discreetly did feel embarrassed. You could spot all sorts of characters if you stopped by such shops sometimes. Watching people’s behaviour dispassionately could be quite interesting. Time flew by quickly and besides, you could add to your experiences without much effort. But Bibhupada was not particularly interested in augmenting his experiences at this moment. He kept scanning the roads. How could you relax when someone who was supposed to have arrived at ten, or at most a quarter, past five was still not here at five-thirty? Bibhupada could not relax either. What was taking Sheela so long? She was never so late. In fact, sometimes she arrived five or six minutes early and waited for him. It was Bibhupada who was late at times. But it was just the opposite today, he had arrived first, counting the minutes and seconds as he waited, but the leader had become the laggard. Bibhupada glanced at his watch once more. Five-forty. No, Sheela probably wouldn’t come today.
 
And yet Sheela herself had made this appointment two days earlier. She would meet him here at Esplanade at a quarter past five. They would cross the road and enter one of the restaurants on the eastern side, sit in one of the curtained-off cabins and eat something. A ‘chop’ or a cutlet with tea – whichever Sheela preferred. There were days when her face suggested she was famished after a hard day’s work at the office. On such days he ordered curry and rotis for her instead of a cutlet. He himself was a small eater. He didn’t eat meat very often, neither enjoying it, nor able to digest it well. But Bibhupada loved to play host to those who ate well, those who loved eating. After the meal, they would take a walk by the river. Or stop at Eden Gardens to chat. Bibhupada preferred good old Eden Gardens to the modern Dhakuria Lakes. The memory of his youth was entwined around this garden. In his college days he had been here often with his classmates, they would discuss and argue over things for hours on end. All those friends had become invisible now. Some of them were physically present in the city, of course, but Bibhupada was no longer in touch with them. This was probably the law of ageing. Bibhupada had not yet crossed fifty, but the world had already created a forest for him to retire into. People don’t have to go the Dooars or to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh in search of forests, their friends and family themselves turn into trees and mountains and cliffs. Those who can find glades or hermitages amidst those forests can survive, the rest have to spend the rest of their lives battling with the beasts in the jungle. Bibhupada had those battles too. He had cliques to fight at the office. Even if you did not want to attack others you had to defend yourself from them. He could not afford everything his family needed, he had to wage a superhuman struggle every day to keep the expenses of feeding, clothing, supporting and educating his wife and children under control. It wasn’t as though the engine of the household didn’t threaten to break down now and then. But even amidst all this Bibhupada had still managed to create a small glade, an arbour for himself. The name of that flower-bedecked garden of eternal spring was Sheela Dattagupta.
 
Actually, this flower-bedecked dell was also a creation of Bibhupada’s own fancies, desires and dreams. For Sheela was neither beautiful, nor in possession of the unbridled physical exuberance of youth. Her oval face was sweet, however. Looking into her large black eyes made Bibhupada think of a sea of dreams. But there was none of the infinite lustre of the young woman in Sheela’s underdeveloped, tall, slender frame. Just as she came from a poor family, so too did she lack in physical beauty. Sheela could at least have been a little prettier, Bibhupada would have enjoyed the vision of her a little more had she been a little more comely in appearance. But since she was not, there was no use ruing it! There was no choice but to accept that, man or woman, no one had any control over their own beauty, everything here was subservient to nature, dependent on it. Nature bestowed attractiveness in abundance on some people, to others she gave but a few drops of it, to yet others not even that. Of course, no one considered it nature’s whimsy any more. Biology must have a logical explanation for why a particular young woman is not beautiful. But how would Bibhupada benefit from memorising this explanation. After all, he could not use it to transform a homely woman into a beautiful one. He could, however, sit by her side in silence on a bench in the Eden Gardens in the dim, dark evening, or take her hand in his while sitting on the paved ground by the river and gazing at the stars in the sky, the current in the river and the endless necklace of light in the distance, crossing the frontier of death to be transcended into an infinite realm of beauty beyond it. 
 
Bibhupada had similar expectations of this evening. After a cup of tea with Sheela he would take her out. If a taxi was to be found a taxi it would be, else a phaeton or even a rickshaw would do. Sheela was afraid of riding in a phaeton. Who knew what tales she had heard, but a deep terror about phaetons had been entrenched in her. Apparently, to ride in those carriages was to court extreme danger. The coachman would spirit them away somewhere, extort money from them, who knew, he could rob and plunder them too.  Still, Bibhupada had managed to get Sheela into a phaeton on a few occasions. He had no objections to the phaeton. He was content with any manner of transportation except the bullock-cart. As long as he had company, he never bothered about where and how he was travelling. He lost himself completely in his female companion. And it was to lose himself for some time that he sought a companion. The woman was just the pretext. Whether she was beautiful or not was irrelevant, a feminine name was sufficient.
 
Bibhupada had decided not to insist on anything too strongly today. There was no hope of securing a taxi after five in the evening. If Sheela did not want to get into a phaeton, let her not. If she was embarrassed to take a rickshaw, if she was afraid of being seen by someone she knew, he wouldn’t summon a rickshaw. He would walk down to the river with her. They would sit side by side on the steps leading down to the water, gaze at the sky, the water. The sight of ships floating on the water would make them dream of travelling to a distant land. They wouldn’t even realize how an hour or two would pass in a flash. Then, on the way back, if they were fortunate enough to find a taxi they would take it; if not, a rickshaw; if that wasn’t available either, there was always the footbus. At Esplanade he would see Sheela off into a bus for Shyambazar and himself take a tram to Kalighat.
 
Not every day – Bibhupada’s routine of the restaurant followed by a promenade with his young girlfriend took place two or three, or at most four, times a month. It did mean some expenses, of course. He compensated for it by being a spendthrift in other ways. Bibhupada never tired of the taste of mixed fear, apprehension, affection and love secreted in these assignations. In fact, the warmth he gathered from his intimate proximity to a young woman supplied him with energy for the entire week.
 
Colleagues of his age had an inkling of what was going on. There was much joking and laughter over this weakness of his.
 
‘Well, Majumdar, how is the evening promenade going?’ some would ask. ‘How do you manage? Doesn’t Mrs Majumdar suspect anything? Doesn’t she create a scene?’
 
Bibhupada wouldn’t answer clearly. ‘What rubbish you people talk,’ he would smile.
 
‘This is the real elixir of life,’ Sehanobish from accounts would observe. ‘Haven’t you seen how Majumdar doesn’t have a single grey hair even though he’s over fifty? How well he has maintained his body – strong, robust, proud. All thanks to those evening promenades.  The blessing of the female company he keeps.’
 
Bibhupada neither admitted nor denied any of this. ‘What rubbish,’ he protested mildly, embarrassed.
 
Bibhupada knew that Sheela’s company brought him warmth and joy. She had a lovely, melodious voice. He would express his regret that she had not trained to become a singer despite such a beautiful voice.
 
Making do with sugar in the absence of honey, Bibhupada would cajole her to recite poetry if she wouldn’t sing. Sheela seldom complied with his request. ‘I simply cannot memorise poetry,’ she would say, ‘I’m just not up to that kind of thing.’
 
Still, it was a sweet melody that floated into Bibhupada’s ears. Even a discussion on the price of eggs in that voice sounded like poetry. The young woman was bereft of most qualities, the only fortune she possessed was an exquisite voice.
 
Bibhupada moved away from the magazine-stand and continued to wait. When it turned ten past six, there was no more hope. Sheela wasn’t coming this evening. But if she wasn’t going to come she could easily have telephoned. The phone was within easy reach. Didn’t she remember he was waiting for her? Surely Sheela had no idea how difficult it was to just wait for someone for an hour or more.
 
Bibhupada walked up to Curzon Park and sat down on a bench. It had another shareholder, who stood up immediately, relinquishing his rights. Bibhupada was pleased at being able to occupy an entire bench all by himself. He would sit here for a while. Not for any other reason, but simply to wait for the trams and buses to become a little less packed. Once the crowd thinned down, Bibhupada would be able to take a tram easily, even find a seat. That would be his only gain today.
 
The rest of the time had proved a complete loss. Was Bibhupada still young enough to waste his time in expectation of the arrival of a woman? He could have used the time in other ways. If he had behaved like the perfect head of the family instead and bought a whole fish from the market on his way back home, his wife and children would have been pleased. The evening would have passed pleasantly enough over a cup of tea in the company of his near and dear ones. Bibhupada would have been spared this feeling of hopelessness, depression and humiliation.
 
Really, Bibhupada himself didn’t know what attraction had kept him chained, why he had made a rather ordinary young woman an intrinsic part of his life. He had known Sheela for about three years – but had their relationship progressed in this long period anywhere beyond spending some time together, having a cup of tea, chatting, or, rarely, watching a film? Sheela hadn’t allowed it to. And Bibhupada had not had the courage to proceed against her will. It wasn’t just a lack of courage either. His sensibilities had prevented him. What was the point of forcing himself on her, he had concluded. If it had just been a case of physical desire, there were other ways to attend to it. But Bibhupada did not seek naked fulfilment of his libido. He preferred to keep his desire hidden under beautiful multicoloured wrapping. He could not possibly throw away his dignity before a woman half his age. It was better to bear the agony of remaining unfulfilled than to lose his prestige before a modern young woman.
 
‘Really, I have never had a friend like you,’ Sheela had often told him. ‘I don’t have even one other well-wisher like you.’
 
Bibhupada had had to remain content with such faint praise.
 
‘Believe me,’ Sheela had said, ‘I cannot go to anyone as freely as I can to you. I don’t wander around the city with anyone else, I don’t spend hours altogether chatting with anyone else either.’
 
In other words, Sheela wanted to say that she had given Bibhupada what she had given no other man. But her gifts were rather paltry. Could any man feel glory in receiving so little, could his desire for conquest possibly be satiated this way.
 
‘Don’t you have any other men friends!’ Bibhupada had asked her occasionally. ‘Someone whom you have truly loved. Someone whom you have given not just your friendship but something more? You can tell me freely, I will not be jealous.’
 
But Sheela had refused to accept that another man had ever come into her life. Nor was she particularly keen on it. She had little interest in young men. They were garrulous, flighty. She got no pleasure in conversing with those who had no experience whatsoever of life. It was impossible for her to even imagine any of them as her husband. ‘But that isn’t normal either,’ Bibhupada had remarked.
 
‘Then you’d better assume I’m abnormal,’ Sheela had responded.
 
Bibhupada had tried to delve into the reasons behind this young woman’s indifference. Hers was a lower middle-class family. She had lost her father at sixteen or seventeen. The responsibility of supporting a widowed mother and three minor brothers and sisters had fallen on her. She was a clerk at a post-office. Her salary was not sufficient for all the expenses of the family. She had to give private lessons to make up the deficit. Sheela had told Bibhupada everything. Was it this poverty, this unbearable burden of responsibility and fear that had gradually emptied Sheela’s heart of all emotions, turning her into an ascetic in the prime of her life? Sympathy welled up in Bibhupada’s heart.
 
But sometimes Sheela acted rather irrationally, like she had today. Was it right of her to have broken her promise this way? If she wasn’t planning to come couldn’t she have telephoned to say so? Considering how she prattled on the phone, couldn’t she have at least given him this information? Would he have turned up here had he known beforehand? And wasted so much time? Sheela really did behave stubbornly and unreasonably at times. As though she completely lacked the ability to appreciate other people’s difficulties.
 
* * *
 
The first thing Bibhupada did after signing the attendance register at his office the next morning was to telephone Sheela. There was pique, there were protests. There was a mild scolding too.
 
Sheela said she hadn’t even been to office the day before. She had been cooped up at home all day. Bibhupada would learn the reason later. She was in a bind. She would tell him everything when they met. He should come to Esplanade after work and wait for him in front of the restaurant.
 
Bibhupada did not have to wait very long today. Sheela arrived in about five minutes.
 
He took her into a curtained-off cabin as usual. ‘What’ll you have?’ he asked her lovingly.
 
‘Just a cup of tea,’ answered Sheela. ‘I don’t feel like anything else. I’m not hungry at all, believe me.’
 
‘You have conquered all kinds of hunger and thirst,’ Bibhupada smiled. ‘I’m famished, however.’
 
‘Why don’t you eat something then,’ Sheela said.
 
Bibhupada ordered fowl cutlets for both of them. ‘What happened yesterday,’ he asked. ‘I waited for a long time. You didn’t come. You could at least have informed me.’
 
‘Didn’t I tell you I couldn’t even go to the office yesterday,’ said Sheela.’ There’s no phone nearby in the neighbourhood that I could have used. Besides, my mother was keeping strict watch on me all day. I had no way to go out.’
 
‘You weren’t one to follow rules and regulations all this time,’ said Bibhupada. ‘What made you a dutiful daughter all of a sudden?’
 
Sheela was silent for a while. She seemed to be suppressing her laughter. Did anger not suit Bibhupada? Was his rage nothing but a source of mirth for a young woman?
 
Sheela looked at him after some time. ‘If you’d heard the story you’d have known how impossible it really was for me to have come out yesterday.’
 
‘Why, what happened yesterday?’ asked Bibhupada.
 
‘The same old annoyance again,’ responded Sheela. ‘Bride-spotting. And not just a casual visit, but for the final approval this time. I quarrelled with my mother and younger brother almost all day over this. When I’ve already said I don’t intend to marry, why this nuisance? But who’s listening. Ma shouted loud enough for the entire neighbourhood to come running. What a scene. Finally I said, do as you please.’
 
Bibhupada sank into an abrupt silence. He had not imagined that something like this could have been the reason behind Sheela’s absence. Yet how natural it was. This was the law of the world, Bibhupada mused – to meet one, you must part from another. After a bit he said, ‘The semi-final must have taken place before the final. You never told me.’
 
‘I certainly would have if it had been worth telling,’ said Sheela. ‘I had expected to avoid this one too, like before. But eventually I couldn’t.’
 
‘Just as well,’ Bibhupada told her. ‘What’s the young man like? Is he handsome?’
 
‘What do you think?’ Sheela retorted. ‘You could say we’re made for each other. He passed his BA exam just the way I did, scraping through on the second or third try. The juniormost clerk in his company. His salary is five or ten rupees less, not more, than mine. But he has fewer encumbrances. Just the one sister. She’s a college-student, I used to be her tutor. This is her tribute to her teacher. Reba is actually the matchmaker.’
 
‘That explains it,’ said Bibhupada. ‘So you knew each other already.’
 
‘It’s not what you think,’ answered Sheela. ‘A familiar face, that was about all.’
 
‘Is that the truth?’ Bibhupada smiled.
 
‘I’ve told you over and over again romance just isn’t in my nature.’ Sheela said. ‘I’m just a block of wood.’
 
‘But still a wood primrose has bloomed,’ said Bibhupada.
 
‘People like you make it bloom,’ answered Sheela after a pause.
 
Her voice was soft and sweet already. Gratitude seemed to make it even more tender today.
 
‘Do you recall what a trivial incident brought us together?’ Sheela continued. ‘I used to sell stamps at the post-office, I simply couldn’t balance the accounts, I had to pay out of my own pocket to make up the deficit. You gave me an extra rupee by mistake one day. When you came again the next day, I called out to you to return it. That was how we met. It was you who took it all the way into a friendship. Would I ever have dared to?’
 
Bibhupada was silent. Sheela had never spoken to him this way before. All this time it had only been her voice that was sweet, what she said never held any particular sweetness. Every complaint she had against the universe assumed severe proportions as soon as she met Bibhupada. But still he was reminded of a few memories from monsoon and spring over these past three years – a few golden afternoons and silvery evenings.
 
But instead of referring to any of these, he suddenly brought up a prosaic subject, asking, ‘But how will your mother’s household run? I’m told your brother’s still studying, your sisters are in school too.’
 
‘That was exactly why I had objected,’ Sheela told him. ‘Let’s wait another two or three years, I’d said. But my family is well-matched by the other side. All of them were adamant. But I have forced an agreement too. Until my brother is able to earn for himself, my entire salary will go to my family.’
 
‘This I admit is a good arrangement,’ said Bibhupada. ‘But will it last?’
 
‘Of course it will,’ averred Sheela. ‘Do you think the other agreement will remain if this one’s broken?’
 
The waiter parted the curtains to serve the food. Sheela drew the plate to herself eagerly. Bibhupada smiled to himself. No matter what she might say, she must be starving.
 
Bibhupada cut a piece of his cutlet with great reluctance and speared it with his fork. Before raising it to his mouth, he said, ‘This is the last time then. We won’t meet again.’
 
‘What! Why won’t we meet again?’ asked Sheela.
 
‘You’re getting married now,’ Bibhupada told her. ‘You’ll have a new family.’
 
Sheela looked at Bibhupada, then said with a smile before raising a piece of her cutlet to her mouth, ‘So what. If your having a family doesn’t prevent anything, why should mine?’
 
Bibhupada raised his eyes. No, it wasn’t sarcasm – the innocent, gentle amusement on her face was indeed making Sheela look lovely today.

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