After nearly four months I received a long letter from my artist friend Bhuban. He had written: My dear Niresh, you must be angry with my long silence. But believe me, I’ve been stuck in a dark corner behind a closed door all this time. I’ve had no contact with anyone. My mother knows me so well that she never asked me why I had exiled myself this way. I’m so accustomed to making a noise about my work that my friends are convinced that only a quarter of my talent remains – that I’m three-fourths a businessman.
But that same person has not touched paint or brushes all this while, buried under an unbearable agony in his friendless, lonely room, caught in the massive jaws of a painful and dark question.
And yet I know that all of you will consider it trivial when you come to know of the reason. You might even laugh. By all means we can trivialise it and laugh at it, but I hope you’ll acknowledge that even the trivial can achieve special significance in certain cases, echoing deep within oneself. The same thing has happened to me. It is a trivial incident that will remain a source of lifelong curiosity about what lies behind the closed door.
When I left the French embassy in Delhi after discussions about an exhibition in Paris, I was in a very happy state of mind. I decided to take a brief holiday on my way back to Calcutta. Agra sprang to mind at once. An unfamiliar interest, the figure of a woman, seemed to beckon me to Agra. The figure belonged to someone whose name I was aware of, whom I even knew a great deal about, but had never set eyes on – Subarna Roy. You too have seen a couple of her letters to me, and laughed about it as well – for while you have seen me correspond with the people whom you call my fans, you have never known me to keep in touch with anyone for two years. I have not done it because it is not possible. I cannot clearly tell why I did it with Subarna. Possibly I saw a very special woman, a very special mind, flashing through her letters. Whose effortless energy nevertheless allowed a rare shyness to play within. Despite the lack of familiarity, her eyes held a smile that suggested she had been caught out. It appealed to me. Which was why I began to address her with the informal ‘tumi’ the first time she requested me to. I had promised to inform her and meet her if I ever visited Agra.
I had remembered that Subarna was preparing for her M.A. exams. I wrote to her from Delhi, telling her that I would be arriving in Agra three days later by the morning train, and added my hotel address.
I arrived in Agra in the morning as planned. The train wasn’t particularly crowded.
As soon as I handed my ticket over to the ticket-collector, I noticed a woman outside the gate looking at me. I went out. Her smile seemed to sparkle. She approached me, almost like a stranger.
Are you Subarna, I couldn’t help asking.
Without a word the end of the silk sari and the flowing hair practically tumbled at my feet. She seemed to be trying to prove to me that she was indeed Subarna. I am not used to such displays. What do you think you’re doing, I said quickly in embarrassment, using the formal ‘apni’.
Subarna was on her feet again. And why are you using ‘apni’ with me, she said.
It must have been stiffness at first sight on my part. But Subarna was scripturally Subarna – golden-skinned and red-lipped and black-eyed and….
Never mind. I cannot describe Subarna with words. That’s your area. But this Subarna turned out to be much more than the person I had seen through the letters – or, whatever was hidden in the letters now became visible through her physical presence. A dreamy happiness seemed to burst forth from her eyes. Like a flower quivering in the wind. A coil of hair snaked past her eyes. I shan’t lie to you – I was in the grips of enchantment.
How did you recognise me, I asked.
Just the way everyone else does, she answered with a touch of shyness, like someone I had long known. I’ve seen your photograph in the papers.
She looked into my eyes before lowering her own. But the porter was waiting with my luggage. I shall go to the hotel now, Subarna, I said.
I’ll take you home in the evening, Subarna said. And may I go to the hotel with you now?
Her asking for permission helped me know her even better. Pleased, I said, if it’s no trouble for you…
Suppressing her elation, Subarna said, I don’t in the least feel like going home now. It’s no trouble for you, I hope?
Not at all, I said.
I was surprised. Such rapture at first sight – I was entranced. Why was a hitherto undisturbed part within the layers of my thirty-plus heart suddenly turning somersaults? The first thing I was reminded of on seeing Subarna was my art. And for the first time ever I felt that not all the colours in the world gathered together would be sufficient for her. Not all the motion of my brushstrokes would be able to capture her.
We seemed to reach the hotel in an instant. A room had been reserved for me on the first floor. I asked her to take a chair, and oredered some tea and food.
But I found Subarna sitting with her eyes lowered, picking at the table with her nails and smiling. What is it, I asked.
I’m very embarrassed, Subarna almost whispered.
She had indeed turned red.
Why, I asked.
Because I’m recollecting my letters, she said. You must have laughed at them.
I certainly didn’t weep, I told her.
Subarna laughed. Then, lowering her eyes again she said, but you must have thought the woman shameless.
No, I answered. I thought that the woman was turning Bhuban Chowdhury shameless. So I rushed here.
This time Subarna’s laugher rang out like the tinkling of bangles. Ish, she said.
I laughed too.
But suddenly a pensive shadow fell on her face. Although I was trying to maintain my dignity and the gravity of age, I asked, what’s the matter, Subarna?
Subarna raised her eyes towards me. And said without hesitation, you take so much time to reply to my letters that it hurts.
Subarna’s voice articulated her suffering with such artlessness and lack of fuss that I was silenced. But it was Subarna who continued, I assumed you were painting and didn’t remember me. When you did, you would certainly write.
I had to avert my face from her then. Her helpless agony seemed to weigh me down.
Before I could respond, the bearer entered with the tea and food. Turning back to Subarna, I discovered wonder and joy in her wide open eyes, as natural as a sun-dappled lake. I’ve waited so long to meet you, she said.
And what do you think now that you have, I asked.
I cannot tell you, she answered.
An unusual smile appeared on Subarna’s lips. She looked at me. And then lowered her eyes again with a smile.
I just don’t feel like going, she said, but I must go now.
I grew despondent at the thought of her leaving. Later, I said. Have a cup of tea first. As she drank her tea, I saw her covert, caught-out smile over and over.
I’ll go now? Subarna said.
You’ll be back in the evening, won’t you, I asked.
Of course, she replied.
But once more she said, I’m going, all right?
As she kept asking the question, I despaired. Subarna appeared to me as a dazzling, supernatural goddess, smeared with sweat and oil after the application of the final layer of paint. My hand was resting close to hers. All the blood in my body seemed to be concentrated in my hand. Why, why was Subarna seeking permission to leave so many times?
Before she left, she suddenly said in a low voice, I probably haven’t learnt to be deferential. But nor have I learnt to suppress my sensations and joy. That’s why I feel my heart trembling.
– Why, Subarna?
The expectation of intimacy with the person whose paintings have fulfilled me makes everything else meaningless, said Subarna.
At this my blood began to pound with the same intensity with which I was overcome at the sight of Subarna biting her lips. Her eyes turned misty with tears. Taking her hand without hesitation, I called out to her in a whisper, Subarna?
She seemed to awaken suddenly from the shyness of a reverie. Looking reassured, she flashed me a dazzling smile once more. She said, I’ll go now, all right?
I, Bhuban Chowdhury, man of the world, could not utter a word. I let go of her hand. She went downstairs, while I watched from the first floor veranda. Looking back at me, she smiled and then disappeared.
I was overwhelmed by the joyous notes of the laughter and tears of the soul hidden in the silence hanging over my room. The colours and energy within me seemed to sense a new release.
The fatigue of a wakeful night had disappeared. Going through the motions of a bath, I began to wait in the guise of resting.
The bearer knocked on my door at nearly three o’ clock. A lady was here to see me, he said. My heart beat faster. In my head I said, she isn’t a lady, she’s an empress. I asked him to fetch her.
But the woman who parted the curtains to enter was someone else altogether. She was pretty, her appearance was flawless in every way. Disappointed and surprised, I said, my name is Bhuban Chowdhury – and you?
My name is Subarna Roy, she answered. Startled, I protested, of course not. Are you talking to me, she said in astonishment. I am Subarna Roy. You had written to me saying you were arriving today. I’ve brought the letter along to ensure there’s no mistaken identity.
I could see my letter in her hand.
I see, I said quickly.
But my heart was caught in a maelstrom. An agonising conflict between trust and doubt. Could this even be possible? How? But still I stopped as I was about to speak. No, not now. Maybe I’d learn more later. But an inevitable helpless daze consumed me.
May I, asked this Subarna, and proceeded to touch my feet. Listlessly I stopped her. And I was reminded of the flamboyant show of deference from the Subarna of the morning.
This Subarna said, you had agreed to visit us at home. You’ll come, won’t you?
I was reminded of the Subarna of the morning again. I’ll take you home this evening.
Was she not Subarna? Then who was she? Who was playing this game with me? Let her not be Subarna if she wasn’t, let her have a thousand disguises. But wouldn’t she come to me anymore? It wasn’t just her words that I had listened to – I had looked into her eyes. I could still feel her touch on my hand.
Are you ill, asked this Subarna anxiously. Hmm, I asked, flustered. Er… yes.
Then you’d better rest today, this Subarna said. I’ll take you home tomorrow morning, all right?
I agreed with a smile, but didn’t stop her from leaving.
I didn’t know when night arrived, riding the breeze of late spring. But the Subarna of the morning did not come. My doubts left me, but my night without sleep was torn apart by a single question: who was she, then? Who was she?
I never did get an answer. I was in Agra for four days more. In the evenings I went to Subarna’s house, met everyone there, dined with them, visited the Taj and the fort and Fatehpur Sikri. I stared at every woman I passed on the road. And constantly I felt as though the Subarna of the morning was somewhere close by, invisible, laughing with her mouth covered with the end of her sari.
But why? Why this cruel game? Who was she? What harm had I done her? The more I thought about it, the sharper and more vivid did those few moments from the morning grow. This is all I’ve thought about, locked in my room for the past four months. Unbearable agony.
I felt such fury and hatred for the Subarna of the morning. But I cannot lie, even after this, when I listened closely, I heard myself weeping too.
I’m sorry I won’t be meeting you this time around, my friend. I’m leaving for France the day after tomorrow. I may not have been up to it. But four months of darkness within have led me to the light of the truth outside. Which is that two kinds of people turn up in our lives this way. They never give advance warning of their arrival. Even if they cast a shadow, we do not sense it. One of them appears just once, while the other appears several times, in different forms.
The first is death. And the second, the eternally sought touchstone of our souls, the one our hearts seek. They are to be found within our horizons but they do not dance to everyday rhythms. I shall end here.
I finished Bhuban’s letter, but the Subarna of the morning remained in front of my mind’s eye.
[ Original: Subarna ]