Short Stories

Ikebana: by Premendra Mitra

At first, plump and well-shaped if not actually beautiful fingers are seen at work amongst a few flowers and decorative leaves. Even the polish on the carefully cultured fingernails can be made out.

For several moments the camera stays still on just this frame. The flower arrangement is being changed continuously.

The camera retreats slightly. We see, first, the vase in which the flowers are kept and, then, the woman who is arranging them. She is as modern in her dress and appearance as the fingers had suggested. Slim, shapely. Though her face isn’t strikingly beautiful, the attempt to turn the form of her body into the main attraction, even through her clothes, has not been completely unsuccessful.

However, the affluence indicated by her dress and appearance is absent in as much of the room as can be seen. (In other words, the impression one would have on seeing her in a Swiss confectionery on Park Street is proved wrong.)

There is a sincere attempt, though, to turn an ordinary middle-class look into a modern one. As the camera zooms out, a hint of the building opposite this one, which has become visible through the half-curtains on the window, make it clear that this is part of a row of flats. Although it isn’t clear whether the vase and flowers reflect the woman’s personality, they are highlighted in a way that leaves an impression on the mind.

She is absorbed in arranging the flowers, the concentration on her face accompanied alternately by a frown and an expression of pleasure. The camera zooms into a close-up of her head, but from the back. Only a bit of the neck and shoulders are visible.

Suddenly she starts, emitting an indistinct sound of terror, her face blanching momentarily. Two hands are approaching slowly along her shoulders and neck. Wriggling forward, they suggest the unpleasant touch of a reptile.

The woman’s startled fear diminishes gradually, the colour returning to her face.

Her face is still. Only the eyes flick this way and that a couple of times, observing the fingers. Her expression has gradually hardened. Her face is rigid now, with the hint of a sharp, derisive smile on the corners of her lips.

The fingers seem to be revelling in the silky smoothness of the woman’s shapely neck. Seen in close-up, the hands and fingers cannot be ignored. Strong, masculine fingers, not crudely shaped, but the skin rough, the knuckles too prominent. The nails should have been clipped a few days ago. One suspects they aren’t clean. The thumb and index finger of the right hand are the ones fully visible. Nicotine stains are clear on them.

The derisive smile on the woman’s stern face disappears. She raises her right hand and tries to prise off the fingers running over her neck. She doesn’t succeed. The fingers seem to be trying to circle her neck more intimately.

An angry spark appears in her eyes momentarily. Without trying to move the intruding fingers any more, she says, ‘Remove your hand.’

There is fire in her eyes but the voice is calm – determined, even.

But the hands do not move.

A laugh is heard – muted, amused laughter.

Then the words, with a bite to the amusement in their sound. ‘But I don’t want to! Is it really all that hateful?’

The woman clenches her teeth and says, “I didn’t think you’d have the guts.”

“Didn’t!” The faintly harsh, amused voice is heard again. “Does a husband need courage with his wife!”

The woman whirls around. The camera moves back at the same time. Just enough to catch the man and the woman in the same frame.

“A husband! You dare claim a husband’s rights!” The woman’s eyes and voice are both inflamed. “Don’t you know I can scream at this instant!”

“Certainly you can.” There is now an arrogant contempt mingled with the amusement in the man’s face and voice. “But how will that help, Neel! Will your neighbours come running to save you by thrashing the daylights out of me? I doubt if there’s anyone in this anthill of flats who’ll be concerned with other people’s troubles. Even if you scream your lungs out no one will even open their doors for fear of getting involved with the police. And suppose someone from these pigeonholes did come running to save a damsel in distress. What’ll you tell them? That a monster has entered your room to torture you brutally? Will you be able to say this?”

As he speaks the camera moves forward, almost without our knowledge, excluding the woman from the frame. Now the man simply has to be observed. He’s about 35. Not unpleasant in appearance. Once he must have possessed a masculine grace and good looks. His face is set in a strong and rather sharp mould. But a wild, undisciplined life has left its mark on his appearance and clothes, wiping off the grace and the good looks almost entirely. Not only is the shirt that we have seen so far not at all clean, its collar is also quite frayed. There is a one-day stubble on his face. Though bright, the eyes are sunken and underlined by dark circles. When he smiles, his eyes and face acquire the touch of a clever sense of humour that is not disagreeable, but at the same time one can’t help but notice the unhealthy appearance of his teeth.

After he has finished speaking the camera breaks the continuity of the sequence up to this point, abandoning him to focus exclusively on the woman addressed as Neel.

“I needn’t even go that far,” she says grimly. “Even entering the room of a woman with whom one has no relationship is wrong if you haven’t taken permission. Especially when the accusation comes from the woman.”

“Yes,” the man agreed, a sly smile appearing his face, “if someone does come running at your screams, they’re not going to wait for me to defend myself once they’ve heard your accusations. They’ll be ready to lynch me immediately. But it’s one thing to be ready to do it, another to actually do it. I don’t particularly look like a well-behaved sort. If I stand up to them and threaten them back, they’ll have to think twice. And if I take that opportunity to tell them that I am Anupam Chakraborty, your husband whom who you have abandoned, whose home you have fled to set up house here, who has found you after all this time and is here to take you back, won’t things get a bit complicated?”

We had abandoned Neel as soon as she had finished speaking and have been watching Anupam Chakraborty. At first he had been visible only from the waist up. But now that he moves away as he talks, still in the same frame, to a settee in a part of the room we haven’t yet seen, and stretches out lazily on it, we see his entire body. The camera has been following his movements. All this while we have seen Neel only once, for just a few moments. An amused smile as well as an impatient frown on her face, she is still where she was, leaning slightly against the wall and watching Anupam.

The words “…your husband whom who you have abandoned, whose home you have fled to set up house… ” have been heard over Neel’s image. The faintly amused smile on her face has also appeared with the same words.

Having stretched himself out on the settee, Anupam suddenly alters both his tone and posture to sit upright, smiling engagingly. Beckoning Neel intimately with his index finger, he says in an almost tender voice, “But you won’t scream, nor will I have to explain my behaviour. So let’s forget all this rubbish and sit here. Come, darling! Neel my Neelima!”

The last words are heard over NeeI’s, i.e., Neelima’s face.

There is a sort of black magic in Anupam’s voice and in his call of “Neel my Neelima”. She shivers in spite of herself.

Then, appearing to pull herself together she says in a hard, ice-cold voice, “No, you’d better go. I’m asking you nicely, go away at once. I won’t tolerate this unwarranted intrusion much longer.”

We hear her last words over Anupam’s face. There is no anger in it, only an amused, twinkling smile.

“Lovely!” he looks at her in apparently fascinated appreciation. “You still look so sweet when angry… ”

“Shut up!”

Her sharp command almost startles him into silence. With a strange grimace he cunningly pretends compliance “As you wish. But damn it – sorry, honestly – it was the heartfelt truth.”

The camera focuses on Neelima. Then, holding her in the frame, it retreats as she advances, so as to include Anupam on the sofa in the frame too.

She is still advancing in agitation, saying, “Really, what do you want? Why have you tracked me down to haunt me like I’ve been cursed? What do you want? Is it money? Has the bottle fund run dry, or is it gambling debts?”

As she finishes speaking we see Anupam along with her in the picture. He is still on the settee, looking at her in amusement while she pants in rage before him.

“When is the bottle fund anything but dry anyway?” He shrugs helplessly as soon as she finishes. “Will you offer me money to replenish it? Go ahead. I won’t object. I admit I came with the intention of cadging some cash out of you.”

Still speaking, he gets off the settee and walks up and down, looking at Neelima with a mixture of amusement and wonder. Because the camera is following him from a close distance, we see him alone at times and, when he passes by Neelima, with her sometimes.

Walking up and down, he keeps talking. ”I got hold of your address for just such an emergency. So finding you was no problem really. My only concern was to ensure that I’d find you suitably alone, which I did. But nothing else is going as I’d thought.”

Anupam has stopped before Neelima with the words ‘…so finding you was no problem really…’ From his back we have been watching the reaction of his last words on Neelima’s face. A reaction that is difficult to gauge. Her face is like stone. Her jaws look as though her teeth are clenched. But her eyes suggest some other agony.

As soon as he stops speaking she says in a dry, mechanical voice, “There’s no need to go on. Take what you’ve come for and spare me.”

She turns and walks to the other end of the room. The camera follows her, holding her in the frame down to her knees. The way her body moves makes it clear that it is a pleasure to watch her walk.

We leave her for a few moments for a close-up of Anupam’s face. A faint, crooked smile on his face exposes his reaction, a coarse and naked desire shining in the eyes crinkled with amusement.

The camera picks up Neelima again. Jerking open a drawer in a beautiful cupboard set against the other wall of the room, she pulls out several currency notes from a bag, slams the drawer shut, turns round and says, “Here’s all the money I have with me now. Please take it and go. And remember, there won’t be a repeat of this if you ever return.”

Even as she speaks, the camera wanders off to capture Anupam’s face. He comes forward, listening, and the camera retreats, holding him in the frame. As he stops at her side the camera also stops, having brought them together.

“No repeat?” With a peculiar expression on his face, he says, “I don’t deserve one. I had never hoped you’d actually give me all this money!”

Extending his arm as he talks, he practically snatching the notes from her hand and counting them eagerly.

The camera has moved away from Neelima to capture him exclusively, showing his greedy, ecstatic eyes and triumphant smile.

Having counted the money, he says, “This is almost two hundred rupees!” and looks at Neelima in surprise. ‘So much money at one go! I know it’s to get rid of me, but obviously you can afford it. That means you’re quite rich now. Of course, that’s obvious from your house.”

Still speaking, he walks around the room. The camera retreats a little to follow his movements.

“It may not be ostentatious,” Anupam speaks almost to himself, “but it’s smart and trim, it reflects your taste. This is the sort of house, the sort of life that you wanted. You have mixed tastes. They don’t match with mine. But then, at least there isn’t any pretentiousness to them. There never was…”


A little startled by Neelima’s sour voice, he turns around. The camera is now on Neelima. She is saying bitterly, ‘I don’t need your gratitude for the money. Do me a favour instead. Go away this instant. It’s time for my husband to return. It isn’t desirable for him to find you here.”

The last words are heard over Anupam’s face. There has been a subtle change in his expression. The amused smile is still there at the corner of the lips, but there is an unnatural sharpness in his eyes.

“Not desirable?” he says with a laugh. “No, certainly not desirable for you. Explaining something like this to your husband might be quite uncomfortable. Especially to a new husband. It’s not been long, he’s only been your husband for a year, yes, what is it your new husband’s called? Datta – what Datta is it now? Yes, Datta. Shubhankar Datta. Here we are!”

As he speaks, Anupam has again started moving slowly, edging close to the wall. He stops near a framed photograph on a small table. Saying, “Here we are,” he picks it up and holds it close to his eyes, as if to inspect it carefully. The camera also moves forward, holding the photograph and his face in a close-up. The photograph shows a quiet, pleasant, roundish face. It is different in every way from Anupam’s.

“This Shubhankar Datta,” holding the photograph in his hand, Anupam speaks in almost undisguised admiration, “isn’t an undisciplined, immoral, worthless good-for-nothing, he’s a genuine gentleman of character, climbing step by step towards the peak of success in life. Apparently he’s the Development Officer in some foreign company. With sustained effort and dedication, he’ll climb even higher … ”

As soon as Anupam starts speaking with the photograph in his hand, the camera moves over to Neelima. The words seem to hit her like a whiplash. Her face and eyes are burning with rage. Restraining herself with great effort, she marches up to him and snatches the photograph out of his hand. The camera has kept her in the frame, bringing her together with him.

‘You’re a low-down beast!” she says in a fiery voice. “He’s a god compared to people like you. It’s his job that you’re jealous of, but his greatness is beyond your imagination. Now that you’ve got your money, go away, go away this instant. I shan’t allow you to mock him in this room.”

Towards the end the camera leaves her to settle on Anupam, as he listens to her, for the first time a melancholic smile appears on his face, from the words “his greatness… ” onward till the end,

“How strange, Neel! How strange!” He looks at her a trifle disappointedly. ‘You’ve even forgotten how I speak! Don’t you know the Almighty has built me so twisted that everything appears distorted to me. The moment anyone sets eyes on me they suspect I’m dishonest and cunning. Anything I say sounds like a taunt because of the way my ugly face and twisted smile are set. I wasn’t mocking your Subhankar Datta. What I said may have held the pain of jealousy, but not ridicule or contempt. I’ve been trying to tell you a few simple truths today, honestly. I did come here with the idea of getting some money out of you, but everything changed when I stole into the room and saw you from the back. I had this feeling of you knoweth not what thou hath lost. Forgive my barbaric behaviour. But…”

As he speaks, he advances towards her. At first she retreats a little, but now, without knowing it, she is standing still Continuing to talk, he takes her hand in his. Pressing it lovingly between his own, he speaks to her in an intense tone. The camera now holds the two of them intimately.

“It’s only when you went away,” he continues, his smile still cast in the same mould of slyness mingled with amusement, “that I realised what you meant to me. You aren’t mine now, but although that makes you even more attractive, I can scarcely think of you as another man’s wife. I keep telling myself that a few scratches on a piece of paper cannot stop the blood pounding…”

He has moved even nearer and drawn her closer now, one arm around her waist. Suddenly a bell rings. Not the telephone – it’s the doorbell downstairs. She jumps back.

“It’s Datta,” he says, remaining where he was. “No, it isn’t. Why should he ring the bell? Some pest must have turned up.”

The bell rings once more between these words. Neelima has been standing silently all this while, a strange look in her eyes. Suddenly she seems to snap out of the spell. Turning round, she puts the photograph on the table nearby and goes downstairs to answer the doorbell

Anupam stands still for a few moments. Then he looks around and, going to where Neelima had been arranging the flowers, stands before the vase. He looks at the flowers.

Looking around again, he goes to another, larger, flower vase in one corner of the room. There’s a half-dried bunch of flowers in it. The camera shows him picking up a few dry, thorny sticks from it before moving away from him.

The camera is now downstairs, in the vestibule at the bottom of the staircase. Neelima signs the peon’s receipt and takes the telegram he has brought.

About to climb the stairs, she stops, opens the telegram and reads it. We read its contents too.

It says, “Stuck here. Returning tomorrow. Datta.”

She stands still for several moments. The camera focuses on her face in close-up. It is deeply suffused with some kind of emotion.

She climbs back up the stairs.

We see her from the front as she is about to enter the room upstairs. Inside, she looks around in surprise at first, then says in surprise when she spots Anupam in the distance, “What on earth are you doing over there?”

The camera shifts to him. He too is startled – standing upright quickly, he smiles slightly, saying, “Nothing.”

Nothing other than his torso can be seen. As he straightens up the camera retreats a little to make room for Neelima in the frame.

“What were you doing?” Neelima looks down and frowns.

The vase with the flowers arranged in it is not in the frame, however.

“I told you – nothing.” He turns his attention elsewhere. “Who was it?”

No sooner has he asked the question than he spots the telegram and snatches it out of her hand. She is unable to prevent this unexpected move.

Seeing him unfolding and reading it she protests sharply, “Why are you reading my telegram? Hand it over.”

He has finished it. Returning it, he smiles and says, “It isn’t a letter, after all, there’s no harm in reading a telegram.” After a pause he says, “Of course, I wouldn’t have stopped even if it had been a letter. Scoundrel, beast – call me any name you like.”

“I’m doing no such thing,” said Neelima calmly. “You’d better go now.”

“You’re asking me to go!” He smiles at her strangely. “Why do I have to go? The coast is clear. Nothing to worry about tonight. Will the world turn upside-down if I stay back?”

Neelima doesn’t reply. She only looks at Anupam with a sharp, unfathomable gaze.

Trying to compete with this gaze in silence for several minutes, he loses, as it were, laughing loudly and saying, “No, this money in my pocket is crying to be set free. I have to go.”

Without another word, he leaves, but turns back in a few moments. The camera has followed him as far as he has reached.

“Mind you keep the doors and windows shut properly, Neel,” he says, pretending that he is already slurring from alcohol. “If I get particularly drunk I might even make a raid.”

He doesn’t wait a moment longer, marching out of the room in almost military style.

Following him until he is gone, the camera returns to Neelima’s face. She is standing still.

She stands motionless in this way for quite a while before returning to her vase with the flowers in it.

When as she looks at the vase, there is surprise in her eyes.

We realise the reason once she sits down.

The flowers have been rearranged. While she had gone downstairs, Anupam has rearranged them.

It isn’t really an arrangement to speak of – just three dry, thorny, dead sticks planted raggedly.

But all adding up to look rather unusual.

One thought on “Ikebana: by Premendra Mitra

  1. just three dry, thorny, dead sticks planted raggedly.

    But all adding up to look rather unusual………………What does the end mean?Would love to discuss with someone.

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