‘Would you care to hear an interesting story?’
I looked at the man in surprise. We had struck up an acquaintance only a short while ago – and that too, not a very deep one. He had enquired whether I was waiting for a train. Yes, I had replied, asking him out of courtesy where he was going.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he had replied with a smile. ‘I’m here to receive my wife. She’s coming from Chittagong. The train’s two hours late. I don’t feel like going back. I thought I’d wait instead of going all the way home and then returning to the station.’
That was the extent of our acquaintance. If a person were to ask on the strength of this faint connection, would you care to hear an interesting story, one is bound to be at least a little surprised. I was not particularly inclined to having strangers tell me stories. And besides, I have observed in my long experience that stories that are said to be interesting never turn out that way.
I remained silent. The man would understand the significance of my silence if he were intelligent. If not, I would be forced to hear his story.
The man did not prove to be even remotely intelligent. Taking a tin of paan out of his pocket and preparing one for himself, he began his story.
‘You must be very irritated with me. It’s natural, here’s a man who has started pouring out his tale without so much as a by your leave. But do you know what the problem is? It’s a special day for me. And on this special day I have the urge to tell someone my story. If you permit me, I shall tell you.’
‘Do you like paan?’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Try one, it’s a mishti paan. You’ll like it.’
‘Do you also offer paan along with your story on this special day?’
The man laughed. Quite amiably. He was about forty. Very handsome. His sparkling white kurta and pajama suited him very well. He appeared to have dressed carefully for his wife.
‘This incident took place about twenty years ago. I was studying for my Honours degree at Dhaka University – in physics. It’s probably too dark here for you to see me clearly. If there had been enough light you’d have realised I am quite handsome. Twenty years ago I looked like a prince. In fact I was known as The Prince amongst students. The funny thing is that the girls paid me no attention. I don’t know if you’ve noticed – women are never attracted to men for their appearance. They notice everything about men except their looks. None of the girls at the university ever came up to me to make friends or even to talk. I didn’t take the initiative either. Because I stammered. I could not speak fluently.’
Interrupting him, I said, ‘But you’re not stammering now, your speech is quite smooth.’
‘My stammering was cured after I got married. It was very bad earlier. I tried all kinds of treatment – from talking with marbles in my mouth to homoeopathy and even amulets from the Pir – no stone was left unturned. Anyway, to go back to the story. My subsidiary subjects were mathematics and chemistry. A girl in the chemistry subsidiary class almost made me stop breathing. How lovely she was! Long lashes, dark eyes. Eyes that laughed all the time. Have you ever fallen in love?’
‘If you haven’t, I won’t be able to explain my state of mind. The very first day that I saw her, I literally fell ill. I didn’t sleep all night. My throat grew parched every few minutes. All I did was take drinks of water and pace up and down in the veranda of Mohsin Hall.
‘We had only two subsidiary classes a week. I wanted to weep with frustration and misery. What harm would it have done to have a subsidiary class every day? Two classes a week of fifty-five minutes each meant a hundred and ten minutes. These hundred and ten minutes went by in a flash. And besides, the girl was frequently absent. There were times when she wouldn’t attend classes two weeks in a row. On those occasions my impulse was to jump from the roof of Mohsin Hall and put an end to all my agony and torment. You won’t understand how horribly I suffered. Because you’ve never been in love.’
‘You haven’t told me what the girl’s name was. What was it?’
‘Her name was Rupa. I didn’t know it at the time though. It wasn’t just the name – I knew nothing about her. I didn’t even know which department she studied in. All I know was that chemistry was one of her subsidiary subjects and that she came to university in a Morris Minor. The number was V 8781.’
‘Didn’t you make enquiries about her?’
‘No, I didn’t. Because I was constantly worried that if I did I would discover that she was friendly with someone else. You’ll know what I mean when I tell you about something that happened one day. After the subsidiary class had ended, I suddenly noticed her smiling and talking to another boy. I began to shiver. I thought I would collapse. I came away, not attending any more classes – and in a short while my body was wracked by a fever.’
‘Of course it was strange. I passed two years this way. I virtually abandoned my studies. And then I did something extremely bold. I found out her address from the driver of the Morris Minor. And then I wrote her a letter, without addressing her. I no longer remember exactly what I wrote, but the sum and substance was that I wanted to marry her, and that she must agree. Until she did, I would stand in front of her house, without eating. A fast unto death. Does the story seem interesting?’
‘Yes it does. What happened after this? Did you put the letter in the post?’
‘No. I delivered it personally. Handing it to the doorman, I said, you know the apa who lives here, the one who studies at the University? Give her this letter. The doorman took it obediently, returning in a short while to say, apa says she doesn’t know you. She’s right, I told him, but I know her. That’s enough.
‘And so I camped outside the gate. As you realise, it was an insane idea. I really was out of my mind then. I couldn’t think logically. Anyway, from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, I stood uneventfully in front of the gate. I noticed a few curious eyes observing me from the first-floor window now and then. Around four in the afternoon a man emerged from the house and told me sternly, “Enough of your madness. Go home now.”
‘ “I shan’t,” I answered even more sternly.
‘ “We’re informing the police. They will arrest you.”
‘ “I don’t mind. Go ahead.”
‘ “You rascal! Is this any place for your drunken antics?”
‘ “Why are you abusing me? I haven’t abused you.”
‘Burning with rage, he went back into the house. And it started raining immediately afterwards. Incessant rain. I got soaked, but I couldn’t care less. I knew as I did that I was getting a fever. After spending the day under the blazing sun, I would never be able to stand the rain. But I was desperate by then – I wasn’t afraid of the outcome. I was collapsing with hunger and exhaustion. I thought I would faint any moment.
‘Meanwhile, I had succeeded in attracting the attention of curious passers-by. Several of them asked me, what’s the matter? Why are you getting drenched here in the rain? I told all of them, don’t worry about me. I am a madman.’
‘The girl’s family may have informed others about this strange incident over the phone. Three different cars arrived at their house. The passengers threw angry glances at me before entering.
It was nine at night. The rain had not stopped for a moment. I was burning with a fever. I couldn’t stay on my feet anymore. I sat down, splaying my legs out. The doorman came up to me and whispered, the sahib wants to call the police, but apa isn’t willing. She’s weeping at your condition. Sit tight.
‘I sat tight.
‘It was eleven o’ clock. The lights went on in the veranda of their house. The door to the drawing room opened and the girl came out. Followed by all the other people in their family. None of them stepped off the veranda. The girl came up to me alone. Standing in front of me, she said in an impossibly tender voice, what’s all this madness?
‘I looked at her, bewildered. Because it wasn’t the same girl. A different one. I had never seen her. The driver of the Morris Minor had given me the wrong address. Possibly deliberately.
‘Tenderly the girl told me, come inside. Dinner’s served on the table. Come now.’
‘I rose to my feet. I tried to say, please don’t mind, I’ve made a mistake. You’re not the same girl. You’re someone else. But looking into her eyes, soaked with compassion, I could not say this. No woman had ever looked at me with such softness.
‘I couldn’t walk properly because of the fever. You don’t seem well, she said. Take my hand. No one will stop you.
‘The rest of them stood on the veranda, looking at me harshly. Ignoring them, the girl held out her hand. With an intense love that man has not been given the power by god to ignore. I took her hand. I’ve been holding it for twenty years now. Sometimes I feel a sort of restlessness. I have the urge to tell my wife this story of mistaken identity. But I cannot. Then I seek out a stranger like you and tell him. Because I know that this story will never reach my wife. All right, I should go. The train’s here.’
He stood up. The lights of the train could be seen in the distance. The railway lines were rumbling. The train was indeed about to arrive.