Camellia: Rabindranath Tagore

Kamala was her name
I saw it on the cover of her book
She was on the tram, going to college with her brother
I was on the seat behind hers
The perfect line of her profile was visible
Tender wisps of hair straying on her shoulder
In her lap were her books and notes
I didn’t get off where I should have.

Since then I’ve been timing my departure
Though it doesn’t match my working hours
Frequently it coincides with their hour of travel
Frequently I get to see her.
I tell myself, what if there’s nothing between us
She’s a fellow-passenger at least.
A pure intelligence
Seems to shine through her appearance
The hair swept back from her young forehead
Her bright eyes fearless.
I wished a crisis would erupt right now
I could fulfil my existence by rescuing her –
An assault of some sort on the road
A goon trying to get fresh with her…
It happened all the time these days.
But my luck was like a shallow, murky pool,
Incapable of holding anything historic
Ordinary days croaked drearily like frogs
Sharks and alligators weren’t invited, nor swans.
One day there was a crowd, some jostling

A half-Englishman was seated next to Kamala.
Without provocation, I was dying to knock his hat off,
And throw him out by the scruff of his neck.
I couldn’t find a pretext, my fingers itched.
At that moment he lit a fat cigar
And began to puff on it.
Going up to him, I said, ‘Throw it away.’
Pretending not to hear,
He blew smoke-rings deliberately in the air.
Plucking it from his mouth I tossed it out.
Balling his fists he glared at me –
Then leapt off the tram without another word.
He probably knew who I am.
I was well known as a footballer,
A bit of a loud reputation.
Her face turned red,
Opening her book, she pretended to read.
Her hands trembled,
She didn’t even glance at the hero.
The office clerks said, ‘Good for you.’
Soon afterwards she got off, before her destination,
Took a taxi and went on her way.

I didn’t see her the next day
Nor the day after.
On the third day I spotted her
Going to college on a rickshaw.
I realized my bull-headed error
She was quite capable of looking after herself
I needn’t have intervened at all.
I told myself again,
My luck’s like a shallow, murky pool –
The memory of my heroism echoed in my mind
Like a mocking bullfrog.
I decided to make amends.

I’d heard they usually vacationed in Darjeeling
I needed a holiday urgently that year.
They had a tiny home, it was named Motia –
In a corner down a slope from the road
Behind a tree,
Facing the snow peaks.
I was told they weren’t coming this time.
Contemplating return, I ran into a fan
Mohonlal –
A little sickly, tall and bespectacled,
His weak constitution perked up only in Darjeeling.
He said, ‘My sister Tanuka
Won’t let you go without meeting you.’
The girl was like a shadow
Her physical existence the barest minimum –
Not as keen on her meals as she was on books.
And hence such unusual admiration for a football captain
She thought it generous of me to meet her.
What games destiny plays!

Two days before my return to the plains, Tanuka said,
‘I’ll give you something to remember us by –
A flowering plant.’
Such a nuisance. I was silent.
Tanuka said, ‘A rare, expensive plant,
Needs a lot of care to survive on our soil.’
‘What’s it called?’ I asked.
‘Camellia,’ she answered.
I was startled –
Another name flashed in the darkness of my mind.
I smiled. ‘Camellia.
Its heart isn’t to be won easily, is it?’
I don’t know what Tanuka made of this,
She was embarrassed suddenly, pleased too.
I set off, along with the potted plant.
It turned out she wasn’t an easy co-passenger.
In a carriage with two compartments
I hid the pot in the bathroom.
Never mind the details of the journey,
Forget, too, the triteness of the months that followed.

The curtain rose on the farce during the autumn vacation
In an area where tribal people lived
A tiny village. I’d rather not reveal its name –
Compulsive holiday-makers aren’t aware of its existence.
Kamala’s uncle was a railway engineer
He had set up home here
In the shade of a sal wood, in squirrel country.
Where the blue mountains could be seen on the horizon,
A stream coursed across a bed of sand nearby,
Silkworm were cocooned amidst the flame of the forest
Oxen wandered about beneath the trees
Unclothed tribal boys perched on their backs
There were no houses to stay in
So I pitched my tent by the river
I had no companion
Only the camellia in its pot.

Kamala was here with her mother.
Before the sun was overhead
While the dew-soaked breeze blew
She strolled in the sal wood with her parasol.
The wild flowers bowed in prayer at her feet
She didn’t even spare them a glance.
Crossing the stream with its thin trickle of water
She went to the other bank,
To read beneath a tree.
That she had recognized me was obvious
From the fact that she didn’t notice me.

One day I saw them picnicking on the sandbank.
I had the urge to ask, don’t you need me for anything.
I can fetch water from the stream –
Chop wood and bring it from the forest,
Besides, isn’t it possible to find
A decent bear in the jungle nearby?

I spotted a young man in the group
In shorts and an imported silk shirt
Sitting beside Kamala with outstretched legs
Smoking a Havana cigar.
While Kamala absently shredded
The petals of a white hibiscus
An English monthly magazine
Lying by her side.

In this desolate corner, I realized,
I was unbearably redundant, I wouldn’t fit.
I would have left immediately, but for an unfinished task.
The camellia would bloom in a few days
Only after sending it to her would I be free.
I roamed the jungle all day with my gun
Returning at dusk to water the plant
And check on the progress of the bud.

It was time, finally.
I had sent for the tribal girl
Who brought me firewood every day.
I would send it with her
In a leafy box.
I was reading a detective story in my tent
When a melodious voice wafted in, ‘You called for me?’
Emerging from the tent, I saw
The camellia tucked behind her ear
Lighting up her dark-skinned face
‘Why did you call for me?’ she asked again.
‘Just for this,’ I replied.
And then I journeyed back to Calcutta.

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