First he took off his coat, then his tie and shirt, then the socks and trousers. With his back to the mirror he quickly put the dhoti on – whenever he was in a hurry it took him longer – sometimes too short, sometimes too tight, it could take him six or seven minutes at times, bringing perspiration, bringing tears – but although he was afraid of just such a thing happening, how amazing, nothing like that happened, the dhoti gave him no trouble at all, didn’t disobey him even once, he put it on perfectly at the very first attempt. Good omen! Pleased, Protap went up to the washbasin to splash water on his face, his hair; wiping his hands on his handkerchief he took his silk kurta out of the attaché case, pulled it on, extracted his comb from the pocket of his abandoned coat and stood before the mirror. It wasn’t as though he standing up straight would work; only after bending at the knees, just the way frogs are drawn in children’s books, could he see his face reflected, for Mr Ghosh was short, and the mirror in his bathroom was fitted to his convenience. It wasn’t possible to maintain such a pose very long, but despite the physical discomfort he examined his own face, seemingly carefully, in the dim light, trying to tell himself, after a thousand scans, a million scans, ‘I’m not all that unpleasant to look at.’ But the imaginary words stuck in his throat, despite a thousand attempts, a million attempts. Nothing had changed, just because it was his Maya-boudi’s birthday, and just because he had been invited to the celebrations, his appearance hadn’t changed; the same protruding forehead, sunken cheeks, snub nose, pockmarked skin, and the same thin sparse dying hair. Someone seemed to have plucked his hair out in handfuls – and he was barely twenty-seven. But then what could he do about it – medicine was just quackery, you cannot hold back someone who’s determined to go – quick clean baldness was the best option now. He would look respectable – quite elegant, in fact – what you might call affluent. They wouldn’t keep him waiting in shops, college students might actually make room for him in trams. Some sort of hope shimmered in his heart sometimes; perhaps he’d look quite presentable if he turned bald. But his cheeks would still remain sunken, wouldn’t they? And the pockmarks wouldn’t ever go away, would they? Why did he have to have both? If he had had only one of them – the sunken cheeks or the pockmarks – he could still have managed somehow, with a bald head he could have appeared a gentleman, but the pockmarks, and on top of that the sunken cheeks… it was too much.
With a sigh, Protap straightened. Now the mirror reflected his scrawny neck, the collar-bones sticking out, thin jutting shoulders, a pigeon-chest, long thin legs. Let the face remain as it was but couldn’t his body be a little… a little more like everyone else’s? ‘Be careful, there’s a lot of TB going round in Calcutta these days.’ How often had he heard that. He would get tuberculosis any moment – that was the first thought that came to people’s mind when they saw him. He himself was scared – some nights he half-died at the thought of getting tuberculosis. He had himself x-rayed not once but thrice, spending his hard-earned money – but nothing. Still – medicine, injections, vitamin, calcium, calories – regular meals, not working too hard – he had tried everything – but to no avail. He didn’t gain an ounce, didn’t look the slightest bit healthier. He would have to make peace with this appearance – forever, forever.
Moving away from the mirror, he proceeded to fold his coat, shirt, socks, tie and trousers one by one and put them away in the attaché case. Although the war had relaxed the dress code, making the bush-shirt the norm, Mr Ghosh never bothered with full-sleeved shirts, Protap always dressed formally, never forgot his tie, nor his socks, wore shoes with laces, although their prices were almost out of reach – as it is western clothes exposed the angularities in his appearance mercilessly, on top of that he was not foolish enough not to hide his arms or neck or feet when he had the opportunity. Considering how ugly he appeared to himself, to others he must… no, there was no point fooling himself, he had no hope, no hope. He had fussed over Maya-boudi’s birthday for nothing, paid thrice the price to have his dhoti laundered overnight, ironed his silk kurta all over again because a corner had been crushed under the lid of the suitcase, borrowed an attaché-case from his uncle on the pretext of a business trip to Asansol, after both his brothers – with whom he shared his room – had gone to sleep last night, he put the dhoti, kurta and newspaper-wrapped sandals secretly in the attaché-case and hid it under the bed, carried it all the way to office in the morning – in case going back home to change took too long. Pointless! Pointless! Changing into these clothes was no easy task either! After Mr Ghosh had left, he had to loiter for a while, then coax his orderly into a good mood with eight annas in order to use the bathroom for a few minutes… oh! He hadn’t been in here too long, had he? Kartik wouldn’t start grumbling, would he?
The leather shoes couldn’t be stuffed in; with the attaché-case in one hand and the shoes wrapped in a newspaper in the other, Protap emerged with long strides of his sandalled feet, dressed in his dhoti and kurta. Kartik was perched on a stool outside the boss’s door, and while he didn’t actually stand up, he didn’t assume a supercilious expression either. Approaching him, Protap put his load on the floor. ‘I’m leaving these with you – look after them, will you.’
‘They’ll be safe,’ answered Kartik, without looking at him.
But Protap wasn’t reassured. What if they were lost? Or stolen? Thirty-rupee shoes. The check ash suit was only three winters old, looked like wool from a distance. On an impulse he dipped into his pocket, extracting his wallet and pulling out an eight-anna coin and handing it to Kartik after only a moment’s thought, saying, ‘Take care of them…’
Kartik rose to his foot now, saluted fleetingly and said, ‘I’ll put them in sir’s cabinet, if you can come early tomorrow…’
Protap didn’t wait to hear the rest. There was a wind in his sail now; a wind that bore him like a king across the huge empty hall of the office, where he occupied a corner eight hours a day to work on figures. It propelled him down the staircase – the very same stairs he climbed up and down every day, muttering invectives against his fate – blew him out to the road. Never mind the other things, he was nearly six feet tall, after all, just how many Bengalis were so tall? Mr Ghosh, with his salary of sixteen hundred rupees, only came up to his chest, he towered over everyone else walking along the road. Even the arrogant Kartik, who didn’t baulk at arguing with the cashier, had been forced to offer him a salute, hadn’t he!
Filling his lungs with air, he looked around. The winter afternoon had been shivering earlier, it was night already. The West-End clock blinked before him, twenty-to-six; he had to be there at six-thirty. It would take twenty minutes at most by tram to reach Maya-boudi’s Elgin Road flat, and besides, it was better to be a little late – make a better impression? To the trams over-laden with homebound people, he pretended that he always travelled by taxi, that he was walking on a whim. With long strides, towering over the rest, he wondered what to buy as a birthday present. He was ready to spend up to fifteen rupees, that would only leave five rupees for the rest of the month – but what was a few days’ financial discomfort compared to today’s happiness? Nothing, nothing at all! If it was wonderful on any given day to take a seat in the luxury of Maya-boudi’s drawing-room, to gaze at her moving about gracefully, to listen to Sami-da’s eloquence, how much more wonderful it would be on this festive evening! The very thought made happiness wrap itself around him, a soft warm opulence enveloped him like the colour of clouds; and as the colour melted, a light flared up, the most wonderful amongst all that was wonderful. Protap could see her face, her eyes, her eyes so very clearly in his mind’s eye that he felt an ache in his breast. Her name was Chhaya; what a beautiful name.
At Esplanade, Protap paused. His eyes moved past Curzon Park and alighted at Chowringhee, a necklace studded with many-hued lights, the gloss was back after the war, it glittered invitingly, come along, come along, come along – Protap felt intoxicated. Walking swiftly, he reached Chowringhee in a couple of minutes. There was an incredible crowd outside Metro cinema, dazzling with a hundred lights. The three o’ clock show had ended, the six o’ clock show was about to begin. It all looked incredible, incredible clothes, incredibly large cars. This was life… life was pleasure. What else was man alive for, if not for pleasure. A thousand cars raced along in search of pleasure, a thousand shops had laid out pleasureware. Come in. Come in, come in. Protap heard the invitation; a keen appetite for life awoke him, awoke someone else within him, that one among many, his youthfulness, his life-force. He existed, he too existed, these pleasures were his too, a life as bright as a hundred bulbs lit up – that was his too.
For the first time Protap understood the meaning of being alive, the purpose of being alive. Partly from the shock of this realisation, and partly because of the jostling crowds on the pavement, his footsteps slowed; mingling with the people waiting to watch the film, he breathed in the caress of contentment, the perfume of pleasure. But the scent of happiness wasn’t enough, he wanted all of it – its body, its touch, its warmth, its satisfaction. An undefined, infinite appetite for life manifested itself to him at that moment in the form of the smoky aroma rising from three restaurants, converting itself into an appetite for food so powerful it whipped his belly.
Should he enter? It was best to eat something now, or else he would end up devouring the food over there to satiate his hunger at the end of a long working day. … Late? Why not! Maya-boudi would say, a smile dangling from her lips, ‘You’re early, aren’t you?’ while someone else would have a plate ready…
In one prawn-cutlet always lay the wish for another – but no. He would have to eat something there, after all. What if she came up to him to say, ‘But you aren’t eating at all.’ What if she said, ‘That shondesh…’ Protap’s nerves rang out like sitar strings. What a lovely voice. What lovely diction. How could everything about a person be so lovely. Had god decided to give everything to just the one person? And nothing at all to me? …What do you mean, nothing at all? He has given me the one whom he has given everything, hasn’t he.
After a few sips of tea, leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette, Protap ran these words over in his mind without blushing, without feeling bashful: God has given me the woman whom he has given everything. The shyness he used to experience at the very thought of her was now like dead skin at the end of winter; for the first time he surrendered himself to his heart, the same heart whose covert explorations used to leave him afraid to dream when asleep. For the first time he was able to think of Chhaya without turning giddy with excitement. He could picture her standing, sitting, walking, laughing, talking – Maya-boudi was a lot like her, but she was like no one. Perhaps she had been there since morning since it was her sister’s birthday; after Sami-da had left for the studio, the sisters must have had so much to talk about in the intimacy of the afternoon, so much to tell each other. The best things to talk about are the ones that stay only between two people, two people, two people…
Of course, during these past seven months he hadn’t exchanged even seven sentences with her – but so what. She didn’t even look at him properly – but what did that matter either. Who could tell she wouldn’t look at him one day, who could tell when she would look at him. If such impossible things as Protap’s being accommodated in the famous film-director Samiran Sanyal’s drawing room, addressing his wife as boudi, and being invited to her birthday celebrations, could have taken place, then why could something even more impossible not take place too?… Of course, had he not been fortuitously present at the right time that Sunday morning, he may not have received the invitation, but then fortune always has a role to play in life, and maybe fortune had smiled on him because it intended to smile some more. When he arrived on Sunday, Amar Mitra was leaving, and Sami-da was saying: ‘Don’t forget about day after tomorrow, all right?’ ‘How can I forget Maya’s birthday.’ And a couple of minutes after Amar-babu had left Sami-da said, lighting a cigarette, ‘You must come too, Protap – in the evening, all right?’ He had overheard, so Sami-da had invited him too – so very well-mannered of him.
Protap had never been exposed to such good manners, such immaculate behaviour. His father bellowed at home, his mother didn’t even bother with her chemise in summer, his brothers kept themselves busy gossiping at the roadside shop. Sometimes it was unbearable to get back home from the Sanyals’ – but no, why call it unbearable, at least he still had something else beyond his horrible home and even more horrible office. Who would have thought on that Saturday, when he had accompanied his colleague Subodh Bagchi to watch a film being shot in a Tollygunge studio, that fate held such a wonderful something else for him. It was a special occasion of some kind, several guests were present with their wives, Maya-boudi was there, and so was – he uttered the name clearly in his head – Chhaya. Subodh was a relative of theirs, during the conversation he said, ‘This is my friend, Maya-boudi…’ There were so many people, but even amidst all that confusion she exchanged a few sentences with him, alone. Protap was charmed by her courtesy, and beside himself with joy the day he visited them at home along with Subodh. Thanks to Subodh, he addressed Mrs Sanyal as boudi the very second day, and a couple of months later, after Subodh had gone off to Bombay with a better job, for the first time he went by himself, a little apprehensively, but, reassured by Maya-boudi’s behaviour, started visiting quite regularly.
Sami-da was large-hearted, and Maya-boudi was, after all, Maya-boudi; there were frequent gatherings of people at their house in the evening; some wrote, some painted, some were brilliant with the camera – so many talents! A few film-actors visited, too, at times, though actresses never did – but then Protap had no fascination for actresses. Was there an actress who could… who could be compared to her, imagine comparing a film-star to a real star.
He didn’t visit very frequently; sometimes once a week, sometimes twice. Lest… anyone was annoyed. In that crowd of such gifted people, he was… definitely a bit of a misfit. He never spoke, only listened, observed; when people burst out in laughter at something, he didn’t laugh loudly, only smiled behind the cover of his palm, his face turned away. Was he even worthy of laughing with them as an equal! Those expert writers painters photographers didn’t even consider him worthy of their attention, why should they, still, it did hurt him a little initially, he had even bought a copy of Rabindranath’s Sanchayita after receiving his salary, even buckled down to writing some poetry – he had almost managed to finish a poem, eleven or twelve lines along the lines of ‘O distant sky / pray tell me why / you look at me / so bewitchingly’ – but then Ghentu woke up suddenly, growling like a beast, ‘Switch off the light.’ He had made another attempt the following night, but Bhentu reared his hood that night. No, it was impossible to write poetry with a couple of wild cats for company. He hadn’t tried any more, stoically accepting his own insignificance, he had been at peace.
As he drained his tea, he felt like laughing at the thought of those attempts to write poetry. How childish he had been just the other day, even yesterday, even a short while ago! But something had happened suddenly, all the doors had opened, gifts lay stacked behind every one of them, for him too, for him alone… He had tried to write poetry to be worthy? But was Maya-boudi a poet? Or a painter? It was true she was beautiful, talented too, but among the visitors were many women whose beauty was prouder, whose talents were louder. But was any of them like her? It wasn’t her beauty or her talent, it was her niceness that made everyone like her so much, wasn’t it? She always found the time to talk to him, touching on those very subjects that he was comfortable talking about. If, once in a blue moon, he managed to spend five minutes with her alone, it was like a spell of refreshing rain. She was so very nice – that was her greatest qualification. And – he almost said it aloud as he rose from his chair – it’s my qualification too; I’m nice as well. He was shaken from head to foot by a giant wave of niceness, at the head of Corporation Street, suddenly, amidst that December crowd on Chowringhee.
With Christmas approaching, New Market were simply bursting with people. English, Bengali, Parsi, African, Chinese – the shops as well as the shopkeepers were finding it difficult to cope. Very well – Protap strode ahead, thrusting out his reedy, hollow chest – he would buy too. But what? Entering through the gate halfway down Bertram Street, he sought the answer with his eyes, with his heart, while maintaining the spare determined gait of someone headed towards a specific shop with a specific intent. Going past the Christmas cards, the pettycoats and chemises, the woollen clothes, the pink and purple conical lingerie, he arrived at the hub of the market with the weighing machine situated in the centre, and turned right; arrayed before him were silverware, silks, precious stones of different hues, ivory dolls, scarlet shellac tables. He suppressed the desire in his eyes – he couldn’t afford any of this, but he didn’t have any idea what he could afford, either, he walked towards the Lindsay Street end of the market – and instantly he was riveted by rows of flowers to his left. Yes, flowers. He paused, then turned towards the nearest flower-shop, where a group of English girls were gathered – how they chattered! Protap waited a little absent-mindedly behind them, with his six-feet-tall glory… Roses, red roses. As red as the fresh flow of blood when you cut your finger. And also the darker hue that it acquired afterwards. Each one as large as an electric bulb, the light shining from the folds in the petals, the wick was green, it lit up the illuminated market, the city, the winter night in Calcutta.
They were discussing flowers one day, Protap remembered. Sami-da voted for the magnolia. Ananga Nag – a painter – said with a laugh, ‘Too fleshy. It’s almost like it wanted to be a fruit and became a flower by mistake at the last moment.’ ‘The essence of the flower is the jasmine,’ said writer Amar Mitra, ‘all of Bengal lies within.’ ‘Maybe,’ commented Maya-boudi, ‘but it dies at the slightest touch, while a fistful of bokul remains fragrant for a month.’ ‘I see,’ responded the writer, ‘even when it comes to flowers you prefer the hardy, the durable.’ Everyone laughed at this, and when they stopped, Chhaya said softly, ‘But I like roses the best.’… with his ears, Protap saw her words were a warm red; with his eyes he heard the song of the rose. Yes, a bunch of roses – ten, fifteen, twenty – as many as he could afford.
The English girls bought nothing at all, and though they had seemed young from the back, their faces were aged. Both these factors heightened Protap’s enthusiasm. Approaching, he asked, ‘How much are those – the large ones?’ pointing at a magnificent bunch of roses.
‘Twenty-five for a single bunch flowers!’ Protap frowned like a veteran.
‘Not the bunch – each.’
‘Each!’ It sounded like a cry of despair.
‘Twenty-five rupees for each flower.’ The shopkeeper’s announcement was heartlessly cold.
Protap was shattered. During the war years prices had risen to absurd levels: forty-eight rupees for a cotton kurta, twelve rupees for a tin of gold flakes, two-hundred-and-fifty rupees for a tea-set – but still, twenty-five rupees for a single flower! A flower! Just one! Twenty-five! He had once seen a puppy frolicking on the street when it was suddenly hit by a car – how it had squealed! But he was a human being, he could hardly whimper.
A couple came into the shop. They weren’t English, they didn’t seem Bengali either, but you never could tell these days. The woman with short curly hair, dressed in navy-blue slacks and a red jumper, took ten roses, and the man pulled out two hundred-rupee notes in the twinkling of an eye, then they walked out without looking at each other.
‘If it’s two hundred for ten it should be twenty each,’ Protap blurted out the words without looking at the shopkeeper.
‘Twenty-five if you take just one,’ came the answer.
After a few deep breaths, Protap said, ‘Can’t you let me have it… I have just twenty… I really need it…’
Finally the shopkeeper looked at him. ‘How many do you want?’ he asked after a pause.
‘Just the one…’ sensing a ray of kindness in the shopkeeper’s eyes, he added quickly, ‘a large one – yes that one please.’
He went out into the road quickly, holding the blood-red rose wrapped in tissue paper. The tower-clock of New Market rang a quarter to seven! He was late, very late. By the time he reached the room would be full; the tea would be half-over. Cracker-bursts of conversation, rocket-trails of laughter would leave no room to draw one’s breath; Ananga Nath, Amar Mitra, the actor Suresh Banerjee, the cameraman Naren Chanda, Indu Das – something or the other, but Protap had not yet succeeded in making out what – and Lotika Debi, Sunanda Debi, Anuradha Debi – all the ladies were debis, goddesses – in Sami-da’s drawing-room. Who else? Many more people. Amidst this dazzling, glittering gathering, he would appear suddenly, lanky, reedy, gauche; holding a single rose after all the expensive, carefully-chosen gifts – no one would look at him, or everyone would look at him, he would stamp on a lady’s feet as he tried to sit down, the smoke from the strong tobacco in Naren Chanda’s pipe would make him cough, he wouldn’t say a word, but still he would remain, he would have to, for he didn’t even know how to take his leave all by himself, before everyone else.
Protap trembled as he walked towards the tram tracks. His shawl was seven years old, faded, with holes in it – but still he wished he had it with him. Who would notice him, after all? But what if they did? Although no one noticed him ever, maybe the holes in his shawl… But so what? How could he conceal his poverty? How could he conceal his ugliness? The hope, the joy, the wave of pleasure that had driven him mad just a few minutes ago now left him like a receding fever. Breaking his tooth of arrogance with a couple of resounding slaps, a cold north wind lodged in his brain the truth that he was Protap, the very same Protap, whose salary, including dearness allowance, was a hundred-and-ten rupees, whose cheeks were sunken and skin was pockmarked, too, who never caught anyone’s eye despite being nearly six feet tall, who looked like a TB patient when someone did notice him. He hadn’t become a different individual just by virtue of addressing Samiran Sanyal’s wife as boudi; he hadn’t been reborn because he had been invited coincidentally, for form’s sake only… no, no, no…
Noooh… screeched the tram as it came to a halt. He found a place to stand directly beneath the electric fan, if he stood upright he would knock his head against it, but he had to save the rose too – luckily there were straps to hold on to, at least. That he was so tall was also a joke that destiny had played on him; without any other kind of development, he had suddenly shot up abnormally. Half his legs stuck out of his dhoti when he was dressed in one – and the less said about the legs the better! He would have preferred to have been short, he wouldn’t have looked like a reptile, he would have fitted into his surroundings too, would have felt a sense of comfort at being able to blend into the crowd.
The closer the tram got to his destination, the more his interest in arriving fell. He needn’t have become so impatient about getting to this birthday celebration on time: he could have gone home, had the bread and tea set out for him, changed into these clothes and arrived at a leisurely pace. He would have bought a powder-case, or a bottle of perfume, or a book of poems, for three or four rupees at the neighbourhood shop… The sheer arrogance of competing with the others had made him carry a sack of clothes to the office. For a rupee he had purchased half a salute, for twenty rupees, a rose. He had spent twelve annas on food, now all he had left in his pocket were a few annas; tomorrow he would have find a way to borrow five rupees. How stupid, what colossal stupidity… shame! Coming to terms with the extent of his own foolishness, he felt like leaping out of the tram.
He needn’t have accepted the invitation. That is what he should have done. First, he hadn’t really been invited, Sami-da had included him for form’s sake because he happened to be present. Secondly, irrespective of what it was like on other days, today he was definitely a misfit in that gathering, like a mangy jackal in an assembly of majestic creatures like the tiger, the leopard and the peacock. And thirdly, was he affluent enough to spend even two rupees on anyone, leave alone twenty? His father claimed seventy rupees from his salary, and he himself barely survived on the remaining forty; no lunch towards the end of the month, so many good films skipped, having to agonise for six months whether to get a couple of new kurtas made or not. Really, why hadn’t he wriggled out on the spot on some pretext or the other? But as if he was capable of saying as much to Sami-da, to Maya boudi! If only he was, he would have been a real man. And suppose he had actually said that, how then would he have been able to turn mental somersaults in sheer elation?
The tram went past Theatre Road. Theatre Road, Circular Road, Elgin Road. He would have to get off in another five minutes. It took him a minute’s effort to twist his body away from his position under the fan, he stood near the door gripping the handle, gauging with his eyes the right tactic for breaking through the cordon. Careful, he mustn’t let go of the flower. But what if he did. What if he didn’t even go, why not just go directly home instead. Having been petrified with anxiety all this while, he suddenly felt reassured at the thought that he could still not go if he didn’t really want to. He had been foolish enough already, if he didn’t go he would at least be spared this final act of foolishness. Nobody was waiting for him over there. The joys of the evening wouldn’t be reduced an iota by his absence. No one would even think of him. Then why bother? Nobody but he knew of the foolish things he’d done, why perform the most foolish act of all before a roomful of people?
He looked tragically at the rose he was holding upright against his chest. A red glow emanated through the flimsy white paper it was wrapped in; the fragrance assaulted his senses, his breath caught in his throat for a moment. Two or three people nearby, noticed Protap, were glancing covertly at the rose, trying to take in its scent as long as it was still there… So the flower was nice, after all? But how much nicer, how much more impressive the flowers arrayed in Maya-boudi’s room would be, and by their side would lie this flower, just a solitary flower, just one. Wouldn’t Naren Chanda sneer, wouldn’t Ananga Nag blow smoke-rings at the ceiling, his eyes slanted?
‘Are you getting off?’
‘Get off now – or let us get off!’
How uncouth Calcuttans had become. Pushed and shoved, he was forced to get off the tram. He stopped a couple of times as he crossed the road – he hated this crossroad – then tiptoed on to Elgin Road, taking the pavement on the left. One, two, three, four… he could hear his footsteps with his heart.
So he was going after all. Couldn’t stay away.
The ground floor… the first floor… as soon as he turned into the final flight of stairs leading to the second floor, he saw the brown door – shut – but even where he was, he could hear the sounds inside. Waves of laughter greeted him as he approached. He paused for a while outside, breathed deeply, but his courage failed him at the last moment though a faint wish remained; dropping the tissue-paper-wrapped flower on the floor, he pushed the door open slowly and entered.
It turned out exactly as he had thought it would. ‘Come, Protap,’ said Maya-boudi, handing him a plateful of food. He had to take a seat next to a rather fat man – not exactly beside him, but behind him – he’d never seen the gentleman before, he discovered he was Maya-boudi’s maternal uncle, had an important job in Delhi – every time he laughed, Protap had to retreat a little, he kept backing till he came up against the wall, still the uncle kept guffawing and moving backward himself, and the edge of his neatly folded shawl kept tickling Protap’s nostrils. The source of all this laughter was Suresh Banerjee, who was imitating the idiosyncracies of veteran stage actors; during a pause Sami-da said, ‘Say what you will, there hasn’t been another one like them. The way Sisir Bhaduri would call out to Sita…’ ‘Tapankiran could have, if he hadn’t died,’ said Ananga Nag. ‘You’re right,’ Anuradha Debi exclaimed in a bird-like voice, ‘how suddenly he died, and so young too!’ ‘Twenty-six.’ ‘Oh no,’ protested Amar Mitra, ‘twenty-nine.’ They argued over this for a while, before settling on twenty-eight. The cameraman was the silent type, but he spoke now, ‘I saw him just the other day…’ he clucked in regret, ‘and yesterday I met his elder brother. They’re so similar in appearance – if it hadn’t been a Calcutta road and the middle of the day, I’d definitely have thought it was Tapankiran’s ghost.’ ‘Don’t ghosts appear on Calcutta’s roads in the middle of the day?’ asked Indu Das. ‘Let me tell you a story…’ ‘No, please,’ Sunanda Debi raised her hands and twittered, ‘spare us, Indu-babu, don’t tell us a ghost-story, please!’ Encouraged, Indu Das began his ghost story with great gusto, but seeing that he was losing the audience’s attention he shifted the focus to research, to the difference between banshees and ghouls, to the hierarchy between vampires and zombies, to the question of whether only humans became ghosts or animals too. ‘Are you aware of this strange incident?’ Uncle said suddenly. ‘In 1926, a horse named Aurora won the Viceroy’s Cup.’ He stopped, whereupon two or three people asked in unison, ‘What’s strange about that?’ ‘Aurora had died that morning.’… Now the conversation turned to horse-racing, Lotika Debi joined in, Sunanda Debi too, but Sunanda Debi’s husband – the writer Amar Mitra – trumped everyone here. The clock rang nine, nine-thirty, it was nearly ten. When everyone suddenly fell silent together, ‘We should go,’ suggested Naren Chanda. ‘Yes, time to go…’ There was a shimmering movement, a rustling of sarees…. Finally everyone got to their feet at the same time, Protap was grateful for the chance to straighten his crumpled body after such a long time.
He would have left much earlier if he could have, but it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t be able to. He passed the entire time in a sort of daze, had no idea what he ate, barely heard half the exchanges around him, raising his cup of tea to his lips, discovered it had turned cold with a film on the surface. His eyes roamed around the room now and then; Maya-boudi was seated in the middle of the large sofa, flanked by Lotika Debi and Anuradha Debi – a smiling figure every day, today she was a veritable goddess of happiness – and, a little in the distance, in a small chair near the window at the corner of two walls, sat she, Chhaya, dressed in a light green saree; alone despite the people around her. She was listening to everything, even talking sometimes, but still her attention was somewhere else – where? – on the painting on the wall, or was it on the sky outside the window? Protap hadn’t glanced at her too often, lest their eyes meet, lest the idea take root within him, even by mistake, that Chhaya had looked at him during a distracted moment. Truth to tell, he hadn’t even been able to look at Chhaya properly even once, he had only fixed his eyes on the dark green border of her light green saree. When she got to her feet at the same time as everyone else, Protap sensed a breeze rustling gentling through a leafy tree.
Everyone advanced towards the door, still talking. Sunanda Debi went out, tripped on her high heel. Ananga Nath put out his hand quickly to steady her.
‘What is it?’
‘I tripped on something.’
‘What, let me take a look…’ Samiran Sanyal stooped, picking up the reason for his lady-friend’s losing her footing. ‘Oh! A rose! Still wrapped in paper!’ He unwrapped it carefully, the blood-red rose, fully bloomed, unveiled itself with a smile, as large as Samiran’s fist, looked on smiling, cast a fragrant spell on everyone, then suddenly seemed to tremble under the gaze of so many people and shed one, two, three petals trampled on by a shoe.
‘Oh dear, you stamped on a flower,’ the writer chided his wife laughingly.
‘How would I know…’
‘Never mind,’ Ananga Nath rescued his lady-friend quickly. ‘in ancient days some flowers actually didn’t bloom until beautiful women had kicked them to life, the modern rose doesn’t seem at all dejected, looks happy, on the contrary.’
‘So beautiful,’ said Maya Debi.
‘How sweet it smells.’ Lotika Debi took a deep breath.
‘It’s an expensive rose,’ Suresh Banerjee narrowed his eyes like a connoisseur. ‘Not less than twenty-five rupees.’
‘Really!’ The cameramen was stunned.
‘Of course. Can anyone even afford roses these days!’
The price-tag raised the value of the rose for everyone. How did it turn up here? Had someone left it by mistake? Or had they left it deliberately? It wasn’t one of you, was it? How strange, why should it be us – and if we had, we’d have given it to you, wouldn’t we. It would have been an honour to present you with a flower such as this on a day such as this!
‘I’m sure an admirer of yours has left it for you, Maya,’ commented her uncle. ‘A silent tribute from one of the uninvited.’
‘For Maya? Or for our Chhaya?’ Ananga smiled with his eyes at Chhaya.
‘Yes, that’s right! It’s for Chhaya, of course,’ a wave of laughter ran through the women.
‘Then give it to me…’ Chhaya came forward at once, taking the flower from her brother-in-law, placed it in her hair with a flash of her right hand. Dark hair turned to light.
Although he was standing behind everyone else, Protap heard everything over their heads, saw everything. Chhaya stood to one side, the breeze rustled again through a leafy tree, a flower had just bloomed on it, a red flower, a red rose lit up the world, a red rose turned to light, dark hair turned to light, darkness turned to light, all the darkness of the day, of life, of a thousand lives, turned to light in an instant, in one red rose.
… Down on the road, discussions began on how to distribute the guests between the three cars, but Protap had already disappeared unobtrusively, he was walking along the deserted pavement by himself, tall, trembling. But not in the cold, not in the cold wind, he was trembling in the breeze rustling through a leafy tree, on which a flower had just bloomed, a red flower, his flower, his blood-red rose, his blood-red heart.