Twenty-five Years After – or Before: Buddhadeva Bose

[A restaurant in an international airport. It must be assumed that the restaurant is huge, with a large number of people eating, drinking and moving about, but we can see only a single table and four chairs around it. On one of the chairs are an Italian ladies’ handbag of black leather with brass buckles, and a large, shabby, brown, bulging briefcase. On the back of another hangs two raincoats – one red, the other grey.

The other two chairs are occupied by a man and a woman. The man’s hair is grey and unkempt, the fatigue of travel is gathered on his face, he is sitting slackly. The woman is middle-aged too, but still attractive, with a well-maintained figure, her face reflecting the aura of good health and make-up. She is dressed in a moss-green nylon sari and a pale green sleeveless blouse. The man is in a blue suit – well-tailored, but slightly crumpled. Long-stemmed wine glasses are set before both of them, between them is a plate of savouries, with a crystal carafe of white wine on one side. The woman’s glass is almost full, the man’s, half-empty.

The glow from a sloping blue sky and a sunny afternoon is visible through the glass window. ]

Woman: (continuing, as soon as the curtain rises)… and that’s how the years go by. Sometimes in Cairo, sometimes in Prague, sometimes in Bangkok. Vienna or Washington now and then. And India, once in a blue moon… So you’re still in Calcutta?

Man: Where else would I possibly live.

Woman: Why, weren’t you in Delhi once? I heard you had two stints in America too. Which means we could have met earlier too. (A little later) Why didn’t you let me know? Didn’t you know we were abroad?

Man: But I had no idea exactly where…

Woman: You could easily have found out with just a little effort.

Man: It didn’t quite… occur to me. There was such a rush before leaving the country…

Woman: Didn’t occur to you… in other words, you didn’t remember. (A little later, lightly) You had forgotten me, hadn’t you?

Man: (sipping his drink, smiling faintly) You shouldn’t ask such questions, Urmila.

Woman: I’m a simple sort, I say whatever comes to mind. Unlike you, I’m not… (Stops)

Man: You’re not a brooding type like me. Old hat.

Woman: How strange it seems, when you were in Boston in ’61, we were in Washington. Practically next door. (She pauses, the man doesn’t respond.) When did you visit Bangkok?

Man: Bangkok? … ’65, in January.

Woman: There you are. We were in Bangkok too at the time. You’ve been travelling so much, but not once did you enquire after us.

Man: (suddenly vehement) But this is best. Meeting suddenly like this.

Woman: Far too suddenly. (After a pause) Did you recognise me?

Man: Of course, why shouldn’t I?

Woman: I’m asking if you recognised me at first glance.

Man: Yes… almost.

Woman: Almost…? (a little teasingly) Now don’t say I look just the same.

Man: It’s not a question of the appearance. We often look, but we don’t see. When we do see, we recognise instantly. Though I don’t exactly know what it is that we do see.

Woman: Riddles.

Man: For instance, at first I saw a woman in a sari. The sari caught my eye the most. The woman was walking towards me, looking around her. I was watching the way she walked. Watching in the sense, I was looking, but not seeing anything. Her face, her expression, were all visible to me, but still…

Woman: But still you didn’t recognise me? Have I really changed that much?

Man: It’s not the appearance. I was saying that I could see everything, but somehow I couldn’t see you. And then… what made me recognise you was not your features, not even the way you walk, but everything together, in a flash. As though a bulb lit up in my head.

Woman: But you looked familiar even from a distance. Although I had assumed I was mistaken. But when you came closer, I saw… it really is… Chinmay.

[An announcement is heard on the loudspeakers.]

Woman: KLM coming in from Beirut. (Another announcement.) Pan-Am’s off to New York. Arrival and departure. Over and over. And amidst all this we’ve met suddenly. After such a long time.

Man: (sipping his drink) Yes, after a very long time.

Woman: Twenty-two… no, twenty-three… no, twenty-five… exactly twenty-five years after. In this airport restaurant… as though you fell out of the sky.

[The man doesn’t respond. A few moments of silence.]

Woman: And for such a short time. The two of us travelling in two opposite directions. (Pause) How does it feel?

Man: How does what feel?

Woman: This… (Pauses, as though changing her mind) Returning home after a year. How does it feel? You must be excited, mustn’t you?

Man: Yes… well… a little. (Sips his drink)

Woman: Your wife… daughters… they must be very nice.

Man: They’re very nice.

Woman: Someone mentioned your wedding in a letter. We were in Cairo… Bijon’s first job outside India. Manju was born that year. Manju, my daughter. You haven’t seen her. You probably remember Bablu.

Man: Bablu?… Oh, yes. I used to play with him sometimes. With a red rubber ball.

Woman: Bablu is an established engineer now, he lives in Montreal. His wife’s American. Martha’s a wonderful girl.

Man: Excellent.

Woman: Manju’s married a German, she’s going to have a baby next week. I’m on my way to see them. (Pauses, the man says nothing) Karl, my son-in-law, is very accomplished. He paints, he can cook, he plays the violin very sweetly.

Man: Excellent.

Woman: They’ve named their son Adim. Bablu and Martha. From Adam from the Bible. Do you like the name?

Man: Yes. (Sips his drink)

Woman: As a child, I always thought of grandmothers as old women. But now I see… that’s not the case at all, it’s perfectly possible to be a grandmother and live a normal life… Your daughter’s aren’t married yet, are they?

Man: They’re… getting ready.

Woman: And then – you’ll be a grandfather too. Our Chinmay.

Man: Indeed. (smiling) Living needs courage, Urmila.

Woman: (a little later) You’ve realised that a little late.

[The man looks out through the glass window. A few moments of silence.]

Woman: (looking at the man out of the corner of her eye) Why don’t you say something? What are you thinking of?

Man: It’s a beautiful day. Look outside.

Woman: (after a single glance through the window) I wonder if there’ll be any sun in Hamburg. It gets so foggy there.

Man: The sun – the blue sky – the mountain in the distance. I was thinking…

Woman: (eagerly) Yes?

Man: I was thinking that somewhere in the world it’s raining now, elsewhere it’s winter, and somewhere else, there’s a fog. But here, outside the window… it’s like autumn in Dehradun.

Woman: (almost inaudibly) Dehradun… Delhi…

[The roar of an aeroplane outside. The sound is heard for a few seconds before fading gradually. The man listens closely.]

Man: Did you hear… the sound?

Woman: Pan-Am’s off to New York.

Man: New York? But I suddenly thought…

Woman: (eagerly) Tell me.

Man: As though the sound is going far away, so very far away… to a place where we may have been once upon a time, a place we want to go back to.

Woman: (almost inaudible) Once upon a time… a long time ago… or was it just the other day?

Man: But the people inside the plane cannot hear the sound. They’re wondering when they can take their seatbelts off, when they can smoke, some are reading their newspapers, others are sipping their fruit-juice. But later, somewhere else, when some other plane flies past, they’ll hear its sound – from a long time ago – which they had heard back then but not listened to.

Woman: Another riddle.

[A few moments’ silence. The man sips his drink. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.]

Woman: Qantas is off to Singapore. A group of people leaves. Another group is coming up the stairs. They won’t wait long either…. What time did you say your flight was?

Man: One thirty-two.

Woman: Mine’s at one thirty-nine. We’ll have to leave together.

Man: That’s true.

Woman: Mine’s leaving from Gate No. 21. Yours?

Man: Mine’s probably… (pulls the boarding card out of his pocket) mine’s No. 22.

Woman: Facing gates, then. We’ll go together all the way.

Man: Not exactly all the way.

Woman: (with a light laugh) I meant we’ll walk together up to the gates. Climb down the stairs, walk across the lounge, climb down another flight of stairs, and then side by side down a long corridor.

Man: That’s true.

Woman: As though we’re travelling together, as though we’ll get into the same aircraft and sit next to each other.

Man: Yes indeed.

Woman: It’s so strange, Chinmay. It’s so strange that two hours from now I’ll be in Hamburg, chatting with Manju and Karl, and you…

Man: And Bijon?

Woman: He’s in Ankara. Didn’t I tell you that’s where I’m coming from? I had to change planes here.

Man: Yes, you did. (Sips his drink)

Woman: Bijon won’t get leave anytime soon, I have to go because Manju’s expecting. Her first pregnancy.

Man: Why should that be strange?

Woman: Oh for heaven’s sake – not because of that. I was saying that two hours from now I’ll be in Hamburg, chatting with my daughter and son-in-law. And tomorrow morning you’ll be in Calcutta – where your wife, your daughters, your family, are all waiting eagerly for you. Everything is all right, everything is running smoothly – and suddenly we meet.

Man: That’s true.

Woman: (glancing at her watch) We have thirty-five minutes more – nearly forty. And then, walking down a long, cool corridor – suddenly we’re separated, each to a different plane, on opposite sides. Don’t you find it strange?

[No response from the man. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.]

Woman: Air India arrives from London. SAS is off to Helsinki. The long table is emptied out. Three Japanese men are coming up the stairs. Two Arab women are coming up the stairs. The corner table over on that side is emptied out… interesting place, the airport.

Man: Too restless. So many people, but none of them can be tied down.

Woman: (smiling faintly) There’s no lack of things to tie you down. This is preferable sometimes. Everything is fleeting – temporary. Very interesting.

Man: Yes – nice – for some time. At the end there’s the arrival. No danger.

Woman: (softly) It was you who were afraid of danger, Chinmay – not I.

[The man lowers his eyes to his glass. A few moments of silence.]

Man: (lifting the carafe, looking at the woman) You haven’t touched your drink.

Woman: I will. (Spears a piece of cheese with her fork and lifts it to her lips) You aren’t eating anything.

Man: I will. (Refills his glass)

Woman: People talk too much when they drink. You’re growing quieter. You haven’t said anything about yourself yet.

Man: What else is there to say, tell me.

Woman: We’ve been sitting here for nearly half an hour, you haven’t yet told me anything about me.

Man: (after a pause) You’re still the same, Urmila.

Woman: What do you mean, the same?

Man: You haven’t grown older.

Woman: (with a smile at the corner of her lips) All these trite statements have turned stale. (Eats a small sausage) But you know what, I never think of age – I keep myself busy, I get about, I never let things get me down…

Man: Never?

Woman: As much as I can help it. Take us here, now – I seem to be doing all the talking, and you look as though you’re bent over with worry at the sight of an old friend. Back then too I used to say we had completely different natures. But how, in spite of that… (Stops)

Man: Perhaps because of that very reason.

Woman: What do you mean by reason. No one knows why these things happen.

Man: Or, when it does, we don’t understand.

Woman: There’s nothing to understand. It’s a sort of madness. How else could I have been prepared to walk out – Bablu was just four, and I’d only been married six years.

Man: That’s exactly what I’m saying. You can’t always keep yourself from worrying.

Woman: But how often does something like that happen in a lifetime! If you count the hours and minutes, how long does it last? All these things are so short-lived.

Man: Are they really short-lived? Didn’t you ever feel afterwards that…

Woman: There’s no ‘afterwards’. All these things live and die with the moment. Tell me truthfully, how many times have you thought of me during these past twenty-five years?

Man: It’s not as though I never have. Sometimes I even wished I could see you again.

Woman: Which is why you never made enquiries while you travelled half the planet.

Man: Exactly. I did not want to see you at home with your family. You’re a different person there – you’re a wife, a mother, an eminent lady.

Woman: (throwing him a sharp glance) I seem to remember being the same back then too.

Man: It was because you were that… (Stops, doesn’t finish) I had wanted to see you somewhere where you’d be – just you. I wanted to match you to the picture in my head.

Woman: (after a pause) Are you able to match me?

Man: I’m trying to.

Woman: Meaning – you can’t?

Man: If only you’d help me a little. Tell me – what were those days like, when you’d thought of walking out?

Woman: (looking at him coolly) I was prepared. You backed out.

Man: I was asking what those days were like.

Woman: Such thoughts. As though something extraordinary was about to take place in my life. Something amazing.

Man: (softly) Someone else was involved too, Urmila.

Woman: Bijon. My worthy husband. (Laughs softly) Do I need you to remind me of him? I’m sure you didn’t think of me as an unhappy wife.

Man: You wanted for nothing. I created the want.

Woman: (drawing her words out) Oh… I…. see…eee. You went away out of kindness for me? Out of pity for my well-constructed, neatly arranged, inflated, exaggerated happiness? You wanted happiness for me, Chinmay – you didn’t want me. (Laughs softly) Fine. Fine.

[The man doesn’t respond. He sips his drink. The woman eats an olive absently. A few moments of silence.]

Woman: You’re just the same. Your tie’s still crooked. Your hair still sweeps over your forehead.

Man: (brushing his hair away) But – what did happen? What happened between you and me?

Woman: You’re asking?

Man: I know the facts, but what… what exactly did we do?

Woman: You’re asking? Asking me?

Man: I was occupied with what was actually happening. I didn’t understand any of it. Can you describe it?

Woman: (smiling faintly) As if it can be described.

Man: Why not. What was that room like? That town, that house, the scene outside the window? What was the garden like – the one in which you strolled at dawn while I gazed at you through the window? (Continues after what seems to be a moment’s reflection) Roses, weren’t they?

Woman: (almost inaudibly) Dehradun – Hillview Hotel – where we first met.

Man: And dahlias, I think. Or was it sunflowers?

Woman: We met virtually every day, exchanged a few words. One day I discovered you were in the garden already.

Man: I think I counted five different shades of roses. Red, white, yellow, pink, and the fifth… the fifth was halfway between red and pink – darker than pink, lighter than red (after a pause, ardently). Tell me what that particular colour was – did it have a name?

Woman: We returned to Delhi together after the holiday. Bijon was working at the Secretariat, you were teaching at Delhi College. The light colour deepened gradually.

Man: A solitary tree – directly in front of your Raisina Road bungalow. Was it a deodar or a gulmohar, or… see, I can’t remember.

Woman: I hope you haven’t forgotten Feroze Shah Kotla. The sunset on the Yamuna.

Man: Didn’t a lot of birds flock to the tree at sunset? Or was that a different tree – was it in Delhi or Mussoorie or Dehradun?

Woman: There’s no place on earth without a tree like that.

Man: But that tree, which you and I would look at together. Those birds, whose cries you and I would listen to together. The things that lie beyond what the eye sees, what the ear can hear… see, I can’t remember.

Woman: I hope you haven’t forgotten Qutub Minar on a winter afternoon. You and I climbing up, Bijon lagging behind, the staircase growing narrower as we climbed.

Man: The smell of moist earth – can you tell me exactly what it was like? Like the smell of ancient stone, something that’s faded but still clinging to it.

Woman: And at the top – such a strong wind, how large the earth seemed. I was afraid I might fall. But the fear was like a joy.

Man: Tell me, Urmila, does whatever has happened live and die with the moment? Why can’t we capture it – that precise moment? The smell in the staircase – I seemed to get it a minute ago, but now it’s gone.

Woman: The light, the wind, the smells – they were everywhere, just for me. Seeing, hearing, speaking, not speaking – waves washing up continuously. But sometimes I saw a shadow on your face. Sometimes Bijon looked grim. Once it so happened that there was no sign of you for ten days. And then at a concert…

Man: You’re right. Hirabai was singing… Jayjayanti, wasn’t it?

Woman: You were listening with great attention, you turned pale the moment our eyes met.

Man: Go on – and then?

Woman: (looking at him coolly) You seem to think this is a story, that it has nothing to do with you.

Man: That’s true – it has everything to do with me, I was deep inside it at the time, that’s why I didn’t understand what it really was. How I felt – when I was listening to Hirabai with my ears, thinking of you in my head, I considered slipping away but I couldn’t avoid your eyes… how I felt then… I don’t remember.

Woman: You took me home from the concert. There was no more of hide and seek between us.

Man: I remember a road – narrow, winding, dense foliage on both sides, dimly lit – I walked with you on that road after darkness fell – when was it, where was it… (fervently) Where was that road, Urmila?

Woman: There were many such roads in old Delhi back then.

Man: No, not many – one, just one – the one along which you and I walked. Bushes and hedges on either side, no one else on the road, no sound from any of the houses, we didn’t say anything either. But where – where exactly was it? I don’t remember.

Woman: Surely you haven’t forgotten your flat in Dariyaganj. Where the curtain was brought down on this drama.

Man: Perhaps that road still exists, but we aren’t walking along it. So it doesn’t exist anymore. Even if we walk along it again, it will still not be the same road. And yet it feels as though we’re still walking along that road – you and I from back then.

Woman: You were startled to see me. ‘I was going to your house anyway, why did you come?’ I said, ‘I came to Chandni Chowk to buy something, I suddenly felt very thirsty.’ You brought me a glass of water. Looking at the glass, I said, ‘This won’t quench my thirst, Chinmay.’

Man: Incredible! You shook your head the same way now, spoke in the same tone.

Woman: Do you remember your response?

Man: The same smile on your lips. That very moment seemed to be back – and then it vanished.

Woman: ‘Let me go, Urmi.’ You were looking so forlorn. Poor thing. (Laughs softly)

[A few moments of silence. The woman sips her drink for the first time. The man is gazing at her steadily.]

Man: And then?

Woman: (her voice sharper) This isn’t a story, Chinmay, this is life. Red blood beneath the skin, a throbbing engine beneath the breast – which you were afraid of that day. (A pause) Tell the truth, weren’t you afraid?

Man: Perhaps.

Woman: I was ready with everything I had, you went back from my doorstep. I hadn’t imagined you were such a coward – so impotent.

Man: Or courageous, perhaps.

Woman: You could certainly say that. You do need a little courage to make advances to a married woman.

Man: (after a pause) There’s something you probably don’t know. Bijon and I had a conversation one day.

Woman (coldly): I see. Bijon.

Man: There were tears in his eyes that day.

Woman: Really? A tall, strong, powerful man – with tears in his eyes! Why, exactly?

Man: That sounded cruel, Urmila.

Woman: At least I’m crueller than you.

[A few moments of silence. The woman sips her drink.]

Woman: (drawing out her words) So… you melted at the tears in Bijon’s eyes? And as for me – whose happiness, whose peace, whose sleep you destroyed – you didn’t think of me at all? You really are generous.

Man: I didn’t think of myself either, Urmila. I hurt myself too.

Woman: What do I care whether you were hurt? I was roasting in my own hell. (A pause) So – you made such a big sacrifice – for Bijon! The same Bijon, who was toying with Rukmini Chauhan not six months ago – practically under my nose. Encore! (Laughs softly)

Man: (in a pained voice) Why are you blaming Bijon suddenly, Urmila?

Woman: You wanted to know exactly, ex-act-ly, what happened, didn’t you? Then listen.

Man: You were in a turmoil. Maybe you misunderstood many things. Maybe you imagined some of it.

Woman: (sharply) Why should I have to imagine anything? Did I do anything wrong, for which I needed an excuse?

Man: But if you blame Bijon you blame yourself too, don’t you see?

Woman: You mean to say that it’s wrong to want to punish someone who does something wrong?

Man: I want to say that whatever happened happened on its own. There was no other reason behind it.

Woman: What if I say you were mistaken?

Man: (smiling affectionately) Mistaken, Urmila? Were you pretending with me, then?

[A few moments of silence. The woman takes a long sip of her drink.]

Woman: (softly) Why be surprised if I did. You need to, sometimes.

Man: Impossible. I never saw in your eyes what you’re saying with your lips now. I still don’t.

Woman: (tenderly) You’re such a good person, Chinmay, such a good person. But still – listen. Just like some people catch a cold when they travel, Bijon had that illness. Sometimes it was Rukmini Chauhan, sometimes Jayeshwari Shukla, sometimes someone else. I was forced to think of a cure.

Man: You shouldn’t humiliate yourself, Urmila.

Woman: I was humiliated by Bijon. But the medicine worked.

Man: You won’t succeed. Not even you can blacken the picture in my head.

Woman: The picture in your head? Imagination? A beautiful, dazzling, wonderful dream? You’re right, you’re right. That’s all that a person like you needs. But I had a different sort of demand.

Man: (ardently) Then you accept that there was no pretence for you?

Woman: (after a pause) How do I know – it’s been such a long time. Maybe it began with pretence, but that too was a delusion – it wasn’t really pretence but I was trying to pretend that it was, or perhaps pretence stretched out over a long period becomes real – or appears to be real.

Man: (with a faint smile) There you are – you couldn’t call it pretence despite your best effort. The truth came out.

Woman: The truth… how can I say that either. You left Delhi suddenly – I was in such a state. I thought I would die. (smiles faintly) But gradually – everything became all right. While you were there I used to think of Bijon as bad – horrible. But later I discovered – not at all, Bijon was quite nice, wonderful. And all the turmoil – it seemed to have been nothing at all. (A pause) No one knows how many different ways we fool ourselves.

Man: No, Urmila, no. There you are – I can see that glow in your eyes again, as I listen to you it’s all coming back to me – all the roads and the rooms and the gardens, all the windows and the evenings and the nights – all that we had one day – that we still have – that continue to be, taking the you and I from back then along with themselves – we’re not aware of them, but it isn’t as though we’re never aware of them.

Woman: (slightly miserably) Just memories. Suddenly – unexpectedly – now and then. They’re not enough to live with, Chinmay.

Man: But it feels as though it’s possible to return. Now and then – suddenly – momentarily.

[A few moments of silence. An announcement is heard on the loudspeaker.]

Woman: There comes your Air France. (Shifts in her chair) I feel a little sad, you know. Not for you or me – but for what happened. So many hopes, so much joy, such suffering – but eventually – nothing. Nothing?

Man: What we had felt – still feel – is that nothing?

Woman: Feelings? Beating heart, tearful eyes, missing someone? What do they add up to? I had wanted love in every sense, Chinmay. I had wanted from you every last thing that life can offer.

Man: But… and what could have happened then, what usually happens… that’s nothing but routine. But the things that really happen are outside the routine.

[An announcement on the loudspeaker]

Woman: My flight’s boarding too. Thank goodness. We’ll set off in opposite directions once again. Everything will fall into place again.

Man: But still… what about this time in between, Urmila? We’ll have this too. Or, we will remain in this.

Woman: Just a little time. It’s always just a little time. But we have to live a long time – a long long time. That’s why we can’t do without routine.

Man: But still – this meeting today. This restaurant – the sky and sunshine and the glittering aeroplanes outside – this will go on too, taking along with it the you and I of today – it will go far, far away – to a place where we may want to go back someday.

Woman: And now – back to our respective routines – let’s go back.

[They rise to their feet, take their respective belongings and leave the table – ready to proceed. The handbag hangs from the crook of the woman’s elbow, the red raincoat is slung at her shoulder. The man carries the briefcase, his grey raincoat folded on his arm.]

Woman: Hamburg in two hours, Ankara again a month later – my happy, married, family life – for which I am grateful to you.

Man: I am grateful to you too, Urmila, for you have just taught me that what has happened once never dies.

[They’re ready to leave.]

Woman: [stopping as she is about to start walking] Just a minute.

[They stop for a moment, look into each other’s eyes.]

Woman: Your tie’s so crooked. (straightens his tie, touches his hair fleetingly) Let’s go.

[Side by side, they begin walking.]

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