The Face: by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay

A long, long time will pass thereafter. Finally Sita will waste away into nothingness one day. And will anyone remember afterwards that the morning dew had glistened under the rays of the sun here once upon a time? Only the solitary rosewood tree may retain the memory of the dew for a few weeks. Then, when winter comes, it will shed its leaves, overcome with sadness as it gazes at the tender glow of the declining sun. After that, one morning, it will surprise itself under the red sun – because it has been coloured by fresh leaves. It will not even remember this moment of its solitude.

The afternoon sunlight lay on the other side of the glass window. It had created a square patch of light on the marble floor this side.

Sita rose from her soft, white, milky bed. She opened the window with her sick, pale, colourless hand. A perfect late afternoon tumbled on to the marble floor. Sita stood at the window, holding the bars. The lawn with its flower-beds and gravel path lay beneath. A row of wild casuarinas, clumps of tall almond trees, patterns in green on the leaves of mango trees, golden frangipanis like the tender long fingers of a princess. There was the porch, and the gate at the other end of the lawn.

Oh, how long it had been since Sita had been out. After a long time, she had walked as far as the gate the other day. She had even been about to give some instructions to the gardener, but she couldn’t continue when the face floated up before her eyes with unbearable clarity. She had returned, ashen with fear. Walking across the veranda with the marble floor, she had entered this room on the second floor. Then she had slumped on her foamy white bed, sobbing into her pillow for hours.

What else could she have done?

New books from the library arrived in the post almost every day. Books wrapped in shiny new cellophane resembling glass. Expensive books. How much people could write! Sita no longer enjoyed reading. She found it tedious. Even the newspapers seemed insipid. How long could you just brood silently? Her senses reeled, fat teardrops rolled down her bony cheeks, and when they reached her lips, what else could she do but bury her face in her pillow?

How lonely it was in this huge house.

Sita took her hands off the window-bars, tearing her eyes away from the sky. She glanced at the walls. At the walls and at the clock. It was late afternoon. She glanced at the oil-painting of Saroj’s. A handsome Saroj bursting with health. She glanced at the table. The vase held a bunch of rajanigandha. Sita had no idea when the gardener had changed the flowers. Perhaps she had been asleep. The white table-cloth had a lovely pattern on it. White lace. Embroidered by Sita.

She walked up to the table, running her pale thin hand over the pattern.

What would Sita do now? The room was getting dimmer in the darkness. Evening was descending on this tiny room on the second floor.

Sita switched on the light. The room glittered brightly as soon as she pressed the switch. Maybe Sita’s life could have glittered the same way.

She opened a drawer. A square box filled with blue notepaper lay within. Letters. She withdrew one of them lightly. Not only had the ink not faded, there was even a faint, sweet fragrance on the paper. Then why had everything ended for Sita? Why had it all ended for her?

Bikash had sent the letters to Sita on her wedding night, adding a comment in a sharp, distinct hand. ‘What do I need these letters for any more? You can keep your own letters.’

Sita’s gaunt face paled further at the thought of her wedding night. She picked up another sheet of blue notepaper from the box. She re-read the much-read letter, written in her own hand, one more time.

‘As I sit down to write after a long, long time, I wonder why I cannot become any less ardent even after everything’s been said. Where will the priest find flowers every morning? And yet he cannot pray without flowers. Don’t laugh. I’m the one in trouble. I want to tell you something, something that can present my thoughts properly, beautifully, but everything goes haywire.

‘So many thoughts. If you could read my mind, you’d be astonished.

‘I miss you so badly.

‘When bathing in the sea, sometimes I get out of the water to lie on the sand. Alone, all alone. Resting my heads on my hands, I look at the foam on waves. Small flecks of white foam, just like your smile. The early morning light makes patterns on my face. The sunshine fringes the quivering feathers on the seagulls’ wings. I am reminded of you. It feels as though I only have to turn sideways to see you smiling at me. Or as though you’re going to take my hand any moment and pull me into the water.

‘I return splashing water from my wet sari after bathing. Sand drips from my hair. I take the trail by the casuarinas. It feels as though you’re walking by my side. I don’t want to look around. If I do, I’ll discover you aren’t really there. That’s not what I want. You’re there. You’re there by my side, in the blue of the sky, in the wind, everywhere, in my heart. I don’t want the road to end, ever.

‘But how can it not? The gate to the house is just a short distance away. Nor are you by my side. Once inside, I let myself go under the shower. And then the monotonous day follows. It’s horrible.

‘Really Bikash, believe me. The rain rang out like the sound of anklets the other evening, I began to miss you so very much as I looked at the dim shape of the casuarina grove. I seemed to be able to smell your cigarette clearly. I could feel the heat from your body, your amused glance.

‘The one thought that keeps coming back to me these days is that there are no turnings in life. I feel so helpless, so angry, at times. I wonder whether I’ll ever have a space only for myself, for my soul.

‘Maybe this will surprise you. You might even smile slyly when you hear this story. The story is a glaring example though of how I’ve become obsessed with you. The fish was cooked in a new way for lunch yesterday, with a new sauce. It was excellent. I loved it. So I thought I’d learn the recipe. The very next moment, I remembered you saying that you don’t care for sauce every much. What was the use of learning it then? Nothing could inspire me after that. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up.

‘I’m sure it’s a very amusing story, but can you imagine my plight. Even things I like are irrelevant to me unless they’re after your heart.

‘It may not be a bad idea to make a resolution not to accept everything you say. The way things are going, maybe you’ll be bored too by such a faithful Sita. I suspect both of us have forgotten how to quarrel. I wonder how people can waste their time quarrelling.’

Sita raised her dark eyes from the notepaper to the window. After staring at the darkness outside for a while, she turned her eyes back inside the room. To the wall and the clock. To Saroj’s portrait. And instantly that face, that horrifying face, floated up before her eyes.

She shut the drawer quickly, trying to turn her eyes away from Saroj’s portrait. But she could not. A face, a terrifying face, attracted her like a lingering kiss.

The very next moment Saroj, who was in his study, heard her scream, a scream that had become all-too familiar by now: There! There!

Saroj ran into the room. Into the second-floor room. Sita was unconscious again. She was slumped on the floor.

* * *

Dr Roy was due at seven in the evening. He was never unpunctual, not even by a minute. He was very strict. He would talk to the patient alone, without anyone else present. He had already informed everyone that this was how mental illnesses were treated.

Saroj was sitting by Sita’s bed. Although she had regained her consciousness, she lay with her eyes closed. It was a quarter to seven. A servant arrived to inform Saroj of a telephone call. He left on tiptoes.

Sita turned on her side. She felt a discomfort inside her head. Not exactly a pain, but much worse. There was no one in the room, she observed. Saroj must have gone out for something. The rajanigandha on the table was beginning to spread its fragrance now. A gust of wind came in through the gap in the curtain to distribute the aroma all over the room. The wall-clock showed thirteen minutes to seven. Sita was having trouble breathing. She dabbed her handkerchief on her perspiring forehead. The handkerchief was cool with the scent of lavender. Saroj had switched the light off, as Sita had asked. The light hurt her yes. A faint light in the veranda was visible through the curtains. Everything in the room was indistinct in the darkness at dusk.

With a deep sigh, Sita turned on her side again. In the darkness, someone came up near her head on light footsteps. Who is it, Sita asked, her eyes still closed.

No movements now, came a gentle reply. Stay as you are. Tell me everything about your illness, all right? Don’t leave anything out.

Oh, it’s Dr Roy. Take a seat, please.

Please don’t worry about me, stay as you are, don’t open your eyes.

Sita was feeling a great discomfort inside her head. She couldn’t bear it any more.

Very well, I’ll tell you everything. Listen. This has been going on for four or five months. I was on my way back from a music session at Gitabitan one evening, it was around eight PM. My car stopped at a traffic signal at the crossing of Circular Road and Chowringhee. Suddenly I saw a man under a lamp-post, glaring at me. It felt awful, terrible. He was tall, thin. One of his eyes seemed to be popping out. His hair was dishevelled, he had a stubble on his cheeks. His jaw was slack, as though it belonged to someone else. His mouth had fallen open, the tongue hanging out slightly.

You obviously observed him quite closely.

Yes. Sita continued listlessly: Besides, it’s not as though I saw him just once, I’ve seen him many times since then. I felt so scared. He smiled at me, displaying his ugly, crooked teeth. A dirty, frayed suit hung loosely on him. My skin prickled with fear. I told the driver to drive away quickly. But that repulsive and frightening face took over my consciousness, in sleep and in wakefulness. I had never seen him before, and yet I couldn’t help feeling all the time that I knew him. Such a horrible pale clammy face.

And then?

Sita paused for breath. There were beads of perspiration on her forehead. Her veins had become visible next to her closed eyes – blue veins. Tucking one of her hands under her pillow, Sita continued, whenever I went out after that, I felt the man would be waiting for me somewhere. About to get into my car after shopping at New Market, I might find him standing at the gate, squinting at me, or staring without blinking. I might close the car door quickly. Ever since then, I have been consumed by a terrible fear. I saw him several times at different places on the road. I’ll tell you one particular incident. I was visiting a friend at her place. She dropped me close to my home late in the evening. The rest of the way was quite and desolate. Only the occasional lamp-post lit up the road. Suddenly I wondered what would happen if I were to run into that man. I began to tremble with hear. Looking behind me, I saw him hobbling towards me, about five or six yards away. My limbs froze. I practically ran home. I could hear someone limping behind me, continuously. Entering through the gate, I ran into the hall and fainted.

Sita paused. Her face had turned ashen with agitation and fear. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Saroj could be heard talking beneath the stairs. He was on the phone. The curtain swayed slightly in the breeze. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers.

For a long time, continued Sita, I didn’t tell my husband. He was busy with different things, so was I. But one day I did tell him. He laughed it off. Are you turning prematurely senile, he asked. Have you started daydreaming? The durwan hasn’t seen anyone like this man near the gate. You’d better rest for a few days. But Dr Roy, that was when my illness took hold of me.

Continue, please, came the unhurried response.

Then there was an accident one day. A small girl had been run over. The mob was busy beating the driver up. I spotted the man in the crowd. He was staring greedily at the blood-soaked body of the little girl – an obscene delight written all over his face. My driver took the little girl into the car to take her to the hospital. I saw the man wagging his finger in the crowd, threatening me. I can’t tell you what an awful nightmare I had that night, Dr Roy. I dreamt I was lying on the operation table in a hospital. Someone appeared near my head to anaesthetise me – it was the same man. I screamed and fainted. The illness has become much worse since then. I live in fear of seeing that face all the time. I cannot sleep at night. My heart’s extremely weak. I can’t take it any more. Dr Roy – Sita spoke loudly in her agitation – either you must cure me quickly, or I must die. I can’t go on like this.

With a deep sigh, Sita remained on the bed, her eyes closed. Her beautiful fair brow was covered in perspiration, her exhausted face looked heartbroken expression. The room was dark. Almost nothing was visible. Only a faint beam of light entered the room through the gap in the curtain.

You’ve never seen that man at home, have you?

No, I’d have died on the spot.

Is he very ugly?

Very. I have no words for it.

Something like this?

A face leaned over the bed. Opening her eyes, Sita screamed.

No one who’d heard that terrified scream would ever forget it.

Sita! Sita! Putting the phone down, Saroj hobbled upstairs.

Sita’s body lay inert on the bed. There was no one in the room.

Saroj laid his ear on her breast to check for a heartbeat. When he realised that this heart would never beat again, his protruding eyes suddenly acquired a strange look.

* * *

As soon as the clock rang seven in the hall, Dr Bikash Roy’s car was heard sounding its horn.

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