The Tale of a Coward: by Premendra Mitra

Karuna brought me my morning cup of tea herself.

I couldn’t help laughing at the accompaniments to the tea. “The climate here in your part of the world may be excellent,” I told her, “but my digestive system is still a hundred percent Indian—a couple of days here have not changed it much.”

When Karuna only smiled in response and made as if to leave after arranging the cup and saucer and other dishes on the table, I called her back. “Are you getting formal with me? I’d have understood Bimal-babu’s being formal, but . . .”

Interrupting me, Karuna said, “Let’s say I were to do it on Bimal-babu’s behalf—would that be a crime?” With a smile, she left.

The tea got cold while I thought things over for a long time. No, there was no harm admitting even to myself that Karuna’s behaviour was making me uneasy. Not that I’d expected her to do anything dramatic. Far from making me expectant, it would have given me cause for anxiety. That’s why her initial lack of stiffness had actually reassured me. But gradually, an injured pride lurking somewhere within me seemed to be rearing its head. She needn’t have gone to such extremes, I felt. Maybe the sun had set, but couldn’t its light have delayed a bit to tinge the clouds to the west?

I think I’d have been happiest had Karuna appeared excessively forbidding and remote. A constant wariness on her part would probably have satisfied my ego the most. But Karuna resorted neither to theatrical exuberance nor to rigid indifference.

I could have easily decided that it didn’t matter to me even remotely. And so I should have. After all, I had harboured neither the hope nor the wish to meet Karuna. It hadn’t been in the cards either. Having disappeared without a trace among the countless millions on this earth, rediscovering each other some day was completely unforeseen.

But when the unforeseen did materialise, I realised I had not been able to shed a lurking pride at Karuna’s inability to forget me even though I had forgotten her quite effortlessly.

This pride probably wasn’t altogether unnatural.

After all, you couldn’t forget the past entirely. Especially a particular evening. It had been raining incessantly all day, making it impossible to go out even if one wanted to. The servant informed me that a woman had come to see me.

A woman to see me here at this hotel! I was mystified at first. When Karuna followed the servant into my room, astonishment must have been written large on my face.

“You must be very surprised to see me,” said Karuna, coming up to me after the servant had left.

“I am a bit, yes, but you’re sopping wet.” I was genuinely concerned.

Taking the nearby chair, Karuna said, “Don’t worry, going out in the rain inevitably means getting wet.”

Then she laughed. “What can you do anyway? Where will you find women’s clothes in this completely male world of yours? Surely you don’t have an amateur drama troupe here either!”

“There’s a married couple in No. 10 upstairs,” I said after a little thought.

“Are you proposing to borrow a sari and a blouse from her?” Karuna laughed again. “How will you explain it?”

Suddenly looking sober, she said, “I’ll be fine in my wet clothes. Don’t worry, I won’t fall ill.”

I had no choice but to sit down by her side. Even before I could ask anything, she said, “You must be wondering why I’ve suddenly come here to see you.”

I didn’t answer this time either. Karuna seemed distracted for the next few minutes. Then there was a sudden transformation. I realised she had been holding this torrent of emotion in check all this time.

Falling into my arms, she said frantically, “They’re taking me away to Patna tomorrow. My uncle wrote yesterday.”

It wasn’t as though I didn’t understand. But still refusing to acknowledge the painful truth as long as possible, I said, “Your college will be closed, won’t it?”

Even more frantically, Karuna said, “No, it’s not that. You don’t understand. They won’t let me stay here anymore, this will be my final departure!”

Holding her chilled hand in mine, I sat in silence. Yes, there was pain in my heart, too, that evening, but it was nothing in comparison to Karuna’s anguish. My love lacked the passion that could have made it rise in arrogant revolt against the obstacles posed by fate.

But, raising her tearful face a little later, Karuna said with determination, “I won’t go, never. Why should I?”

I didn’t know what to say. Even that evening, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I did not support her rebellion. I knew already that the mutiny would be in vain.

Trying to change the subject, I said, “It may not be what you think; maybe your fears are unfounded.”

Karuna became distressed again. “No, I’m sure, they want to keep me there by force. They think it’s an infallible cure for my childishness.” She smiled bitterly.

“I’m supposed to be going to college,” she continued. “I didn’t mean to put you in a bind by turning up here. But I had no choice; you hardly visit my aunt’s house anymore. I wouldn’t even have been able to inform you.”

After a pause, Karuna was distraught all over again. “Will they really take me away by force? Is there nothing we can do?”

There’s no need to describe in detail here the assurances and consolation with which I deposited Karuna at her aunt’s house, but although it hurt terribly, it was indisputable that I hadn’t been able to do anything about it.

Whether by coercion or not, Karuna’s uncle did take her away to Patna after that; we didn’t even get a chance to meet before she left.

Although I wasn’t invited, I did hear of Karuna’s wedding. I cannot claim to have received the news either impassively or dispassionately, but when I look back and analyse it today, it’s obvious that the next few days had turned grey with despair because I was looking at things from Karuna’s perspective—I did not have the ability to make out whether there was some smugness mingled with the pain of the realisation.

Even after my memory of her had faded, I had the conviction somewhere at the back of my mind that, even if I could, she would never forget me.

I embarrassed myself a little with the unexpected reaction I experienced to this cruel blow to my conviction, but still couldn’t restrain myself.

When Karuna returned to my room a little later, she would have been able, had she wanted, to detect a subtle difference in my behaviour and the way I spoke to her.

“What’s this! You haven’t eaten anything at all,” she said, looking at my plate.

I glanced at her as I buttoned my shirt; with a smile, I said, “Formality begets formality; what would you have thought had I cleaned out the plate like a starving man in a famine?”

“. . . You’re still harping on the same theme!” Karuna sounded a little disappointed.

“Harping on the same theme is a weakness of mine, Karuna, I haven’t been cured yet.” My voice was deep with emotion.

Karuna was putting away the plate of food, her face averted. I couldn’t see her expression. But her response revealed nothing but lighthearted banter.

“So you’ve overcome all the other weaknesses.” Turning towards me again, she said, “What’s this, are you going out already?”

“Yes, I’d better check how far they’ve gotten with the car.”

“Checking won’t make the repairs go any faster. My husband said he’d enquire. He’ll be home soon; he’s asked for you to wait.”

“Therefore, you and I should talk until then?” I tried to say, smiling.

“We could,” said Karuna with an amused expression.

“How easy it is for you to say something like that, Karuna.” My tone had become intense on its own.

“What’s so difficult about saying something like that?” Karuna’s face held both a smile and traces of astonishment.

“Not all that difficult then, Karuna? Really? Aren’t you afraid to be with me all by yourself? I fear myself still, you know.”

“You really have gone quite mad.” Karuna left with a laugh, leaving me feeling rather foolish.

Turning back from the door, she said, “Don’t you go away, I’ll be back soon.”

But Karuna didn’t return for the longest time. As I paced up and down in the room, I felt a certain resentment burning within me—whether against Karuna or against myself, I couldn’t tell. Perhaps it was against destiny.

Why did I have to meet her again this way. What could this meeting be but an act of fate?

Having obtained some unexpected leave from the office, I was on a motoring holiday. When the engine broke down suddenly last night in the middle of this town, I was grateful to fate for ensuring it had happened in a civilised town rather than in the middle of the forest. If I’d known what the future had in store, I may well have preferred the forest.

Not only was it night, but the place was also unfamiliar. Unable to secure a room either at the waiting-room at the station or at the cheapest of hotels, I hopelessly directed my horse-drawn cart back to the workshop where I had deposited my car for repair. That was where I met Bimal-babu. Employed at a nearby coal-mine, he was visiting the workshop on business. Volunteering to come to the aid of another Bengali in a foreign land, he offered a room for the night in his house. I may have demurred mildly, but he brushed aside my objections.

He lived in a remote corner of the town. When we reached it, the house had already fallen silent. As he rattled the knocker on the door, Bimal-babu said, “I wasn’t supposed to be back today, you see. The damned servants are all blissfully asleep.”

A little later a woman with a lantern opened the door, saying drowsily, “I’m so sorry, I was fast asleep. But didn’t you say you weren’t coming back today?”

“Fate was probably going to give me a chance to be a good Samaritan, so it led me back home. If I hadn’t, this gentleman would have probably found himself in a bit of a spot in an unfamiliar town.”

Finally Karuna saw me. About to retreat, covering her head with the cowl of her sari at the sight of a stranger, she suddenly stopped in her tracks.

Bimal-babu was still talking. “Can you call the servants, they can unlock the drawing-room and make up a bed for him in there. The gentleman may not find it very comfortable. . . .”

He was forced to stop when he heard what Karuna was saying.

“So what if the gentleman does find it a little uncomfortable so far away from home?” smiled Karuna.

Bimal-babu looked at both of us in surprise. “What do you mean! Do you know him?”

“Of course I do, just a little,” Karuna laughed.

“How strange.”

“Why should it be. Why can’t I know someone even if you don’t. I’ve only been married to you these past three years, do you suppose I was in solitary confinement the previous twenty?”

“But perhaps you could choose not to display this sample of our married life to the gentleman while he’s still waiting outside in the cold,” Bimal-babu laughed too.

Karuna pretended to turn serious. “Oh, so you want him to conclude that I’m perpetually quarrelling with you.”

Since it really was time that I said something too, I tried to laugh as well. “Selling is my profession, Bimal-babu, you cannot fool me with samples.”

The manner of Karuna’s first exchange of conversation after all these years struck a false note in me somewhere.

After a long wait, just as I was wondering whether to go looking for her, Karuna arrived. On her own, she answered the question I was about to ask her on seeing how she was dressed. “I have to go out for a bit. Will you come with me?”

Taking my shawl from the clothes-rack, I said, “Your wish is my command. But where are you going?”

“To buy groceries,” Karuna smiled.

“Groceries?” I asked in surprise.

“I do the shopping myself quite often,” she smiled again. “It’s true that local women here don’t usually go shopping themselves, unless they belong to families here on holiday, but I don’t care for such restrictions; when my husband isn’t here I go myself with the servant.”

“But Bimal-babu is here today, isn’t he?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you! He sent word that he’s been held up on important work. He won’t be back today.”

Karuna said all this quite casually. But I stopped in the middle of the road. “What do we do, then?”

“You seem concerned. Do you think you won’t be looked after in his absence?” An amused, mischievous smile played on Karuna’s face.

“It’s not that, Karuna. I was thinking . . .” I said without a smile.

“If you start thinking here in the middle of the street, I’ll have to go on alone.”

So I had to walk along with her, in silence. The roads in this part of town were quite deserted.

The houses were few and far between—many of them unoccupied. There was hardly anyone on the road to speak of.

We continued walking in silence. After a few glances at me, Karuna smiled again. “Why so serious? What are you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking about leaving today.”

“But your car won’t be ready so soon.”

“They can send the car on afterwards. I’ll take the train.”

“Why so impatient to leave? What are you afraid of?”

I stopped again in the middle of the road. “I told you, didn’t I—I’m scared of myself; it’s me I don’t trust.”

This time Karuna laughed loudly. “What if you don’t, it won’t hurt anyone.”

No, I couldn’t take this anymore. Suddenly losing all self-control, I took her hand. “What if you’re the one that’s hurt . . .”

Karuna didn’t withdraw her hand. But cruelly making light of all my passion with a mocking smile, she said, “But how? I trust myself, after all.”

“Couldn’t that trust be shattered in an instant, Karuna?” I said, letting go of her hand. “Couldn’t a wave come along to dislodge you from your moorings?”

Karuna’s eyes still held that indecipherable, amused smile. “No idea, but then I haven’t been tested either.”

I don’t know what I might have said after that, but the roads were filling with people. I was forced into silence.

The Karuna who had gone shopping in the morning was completely different from the Karuna who sat opposite me at an elaborate lunch. Dressed in a sari with a broad red border over a white chemise, she came up to sit near me, her wet, loose hair draped over her back. She had never looked so extraordinary.

“What are you staring at? Haven’t you seen me before?” she smiled, fanning me as I ate.

“It really feels as though I haven’t.”

“Maybe you really haven’t,” she said with an odd smile, and then asked, “Tell me something, what did you think when you saw me shopping?”

“I was thinking that you’re a new discovery for me.”

“Really! But I beg of you, don’t deny Columbus’s claims.”

“What if my claims pre-date Columbus’s?”

“Even if they do, there’s no deed of proof.” Karuna laughed uproariously at her own sense of humour.

I ate in silence for a long time. Then I said, “Not everyone values a deed. Deeds are the easiest thing to burn.”

Karuna didn’t smile this time. Looking at me strangely for a while, she suddenly rose, saying, “I forgot your dessert.”

It was the cook and not Karuna who brought the dessert. But she brought me some paan herself a few minutes later in my room and blurted out, “So you’re leaving by the evening train?”

I looked at her in astonishment. Was I imagining things, or was there a trace of anxiety on her face?

“Very well, I will,” I replied.

“What do you mean, ‘very well, I will’? As if I’m forcing you to go. I asked you to stay, it was you who insisted on leaving.” The acid in her tone was unmistakable now.

“Do you think I’m blaming you?” I smiled. “I simply have to go.”

Karuna smiled too, perhaps a little embarrassed. “I know, what can possibly hold you back in a place like this? But listen, you do know there’s only that one train. Exactly at six-thirty, don’t forget.”

I didn’t have to take the trouble of not forgetting. Well before evening, Karuna had made all the arrangements for my luggage to be packed, the motor workshop to be informed, and a carriage to be fetched to take me to the station. Just in case there were any disruptions during the fifteen-minute journey to the station, she saw me into the carriage an hour earlier and only then relaxed.
I didn’t even get an opportunity to say anything all this time.

As I was about to leave, she came up to the carriage to say, “Heaven knows what you must be thinking about me. Probably that I’m dying to get rid of you, isn’t that so?”

“That’s the only source of consolation.”

“If consolation is so easy to obtain, how will you ever get the real thing?” Karuna laughed.

The echo of her laughter was drowned in the clatter of the carriage drawing away.

It would have been best for this story to have ended there—but it didn’t.

When I reached the station there was a long time to go for the train. Unable to make the clock run faster after depositing my luggage in the waiting room and strolling aimlessly all over the platform, I was standing at the bookstall, wondering which of them to buy. Suddenly I jumped out of my skin.

“Karuna! What are you doing here?”

“Nothing in particular,” she said with a wan smile.

Whether because of the faint light on the platform, or because she really felt that way, Karuna looked defenceless.

Moving away from the stall, I said, “I can’t quite understand why you’re here, Karuna.”

Karuna smiled again. Then, suddenly looking serious, she said, “I’ve burnt the deed.”

Genuinely perplexed, I stared at her idiotically for a while. Then I said frantically, “Do you know what you’re saying, Karuna?”

“Is it impossible, what I’m saying? Can’t a wave ever come along to dislodge you from your moorings?” Karuna’s voice acquired an intimacy of tone. Stepping up very close to me, she raised her eyes to mine to say, “Can’t you take me away? Won’t you?”

I was overcome. “Take you away . . . I . . .”

“Are you wondering where to take me? Wherever you like.”

I couldn’t say a word. I only felt an upheaval within.

“I know what awaits you—difficulty, humiliation. But then I’m prepared for all that too, I’m risking all the shame and condemnation in the world to come to you.”

Karuna gazed at me in distress. What would I tell her? What could I say now? Thoughtlessly I had opened up the floodgates, how could I reject her now?

“But have you thought about it all the way, Karuna? Will you be able to withstand the storm that will ensue? We might get so fatigued fighting it that one day we’ll end up hating each other.”

Karuna was still looking at me intently, but gradually—very gradually—a contemptuous smile appeared on her face.

“Thank you for your valuable advice. The moorings would have been loosened in another moment.” Karuna laughed loudly this time.

I looked at her in surprise. Had she staged the whole thing just to mock me!

“There, the bell’s gone for your train,” Karuna spoke quite casually. “Mine’s almost here too.”

“Your train!”

“My aunt and her family are coming from Calcutta. They don’t know the way to our house. My husband isn’t here either, so I came myself. Very disappointed?”

Without another word I set off for the over-bridge that would take me to the other platform. My last view of Karuna was of her bent over the books in the bookstall.

Was she really at the station to meet her aunt?

I’d never know.

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