A Life: Buddhadeva Bose

Gurudas Bhattacharya, Vachaspati, the seniormost teacher of Sanskrit at Khulna’s Jagattarini School, had an accident during Bengali literature for Class Nine.

‘Amaar projagawn amaar cheye tahare bawro kori mane…’ The pundit stumbled on the sentence. Cheye? Did that refer to the Bengali word for glance? Or for desire? After some thought, he explained the sentence as, ‘The King says his subjects want him, they desire his sanctuary, but they respect the king of Kaushal more. Grammar has been distorted a little here.’
The boys on the first bench exchanged glances. Then one of them stood up to say, ‘It’s fine, sir. The word “cheye” in this case is used for comparison, in the sense of “than”. My subjects consider him more noble than me. See, it says a little later, “Are you so bold as to imagine you can be more pious than me?’

‘If only I were an Arab bedouin rather than this,’ the boy next to him recited.

Gurudas did not respond. Accepting the correction made by his students, he continued teaching the poem. The bell rang.

It was the last period. Collecting their umbrellas and books, the other teachers left for their homes, while Gurudas made his way to the school library. The library was nothing but three cupboards full of books in one corner of the staff room, most of them textbooks obtained as free samples. Among the more valuable volumes were several hardbound sets of the Bengali literary magazine “Probashi”, a Philips atlas of twenty years’ voltage, a Chambers Dictionary, and three Bengali and English-to-Bengali dictionaries used by students. Clearing his throat, Gurudas said, ‘Can you unlock this cupboard, Nabakeshto?’

Not even the servants at school paid much attention to the Sanskrit teacher. And Nabakeshto donned the mantle of bearer, doorman and gardener single-handedly. ‘The library is closed, sir,’ he answered with a touch of insolence.

‘Never mind, just unlock it. I need some books.’

‘But I have to leave for Rasoolpur rightaway – my daughter’s in-laws have invited us…’

‘That’s all right, you can go. Leave the keys with me.’

‘All right then. Don’t forget to give them back to me before eleven tomorrow. You know how strict the new headmaster is. And lock the door of the room before you go… here’s the padlock, see?’

Unlocking the cupboard, Gurudas planted himself in front of it; with a glance at his back, Nabakeshto gathered his bundle, wrapped in a gamchha, from its place beneath the table – he was taking a bunch of grapefruits from the tree in the school yard as gifts for his son-in-law.

No one was allowed to take the dictionaries home; Gurudas spent a good deal of time leafing through the two Bengali dictionaries. The light grew dim, the silence of a provincial evening thickened inside the room. He forgot to sit down, forgot his hunger, his internal senses seemed to soak up the rows of letters. Today’s incident had wounded him – he had not been able to capture the meaning of a word which millions of adults and children used every single day without a thought. How could he – he was a teacher of Sanskrit. He had learnt Sanskrit, but not Bengali. But he was a Bengali – that was the language he spoke. He seemed to realise for the first time that the Bengali language was not Sanskrit, not even a corrupt form – it was a complete, living, changing, evolving, independent language, the spoken language of seventy million people, their mother-tongue. ‘A living language, the mother-tongue’ – he repeated the words in his head several times. But prowess in one’s mother-tongue was not automatic, it needed nurture.

Gurudas noticed that none of the dictionaries included the word he had tripped over that morning. He was reminded of other words used in similar fashion – “thekey”, the Bengali word used for “from” or “since”, or “dyakha”, used for “seeing” or “meeting” or “looking after”. This was how the Bengali language perfumed the task of the Sanskrit verb-ending. None of this was in the dictionary. There were mistakes – mistaken explanations, even mistaken spelling. How were the students to learn? And I – how am I to learn?

It was late evening by the time Gurudas returned home. His wife Harimohini asked, ‘So late?’ Gurudas did not answer. He ate his dinner in silence. ‘Are you ill? You aren’t eating.’ ‘I am not ill.’ He went to bed early that night.

Jagattarini School began at eleven in the morning, and the district school, at ten-thirty. Gurudas went to the district school around a quarter past eleven the next morning, spending half an hour in the library before breathlessly entering his own class in the nick of time. It was Saturday the next day – from the school he went to the only college in Khulna. He had a nodding acquaintance with the Sanskrit teacher there (here, too, it was he who taught Bengali). They conversed for some time, and he flipped through three or four books in the library – but his restlessness did not leave him.

No, he had not found it – he had not found what he was looking for, anywhere. Could there not be a complete Bengali dictionary, which had room for every single word, both Sanskrit and vernacular, in the language, which included every combination, every application, every colloquial usage, which would enable the Bengali language to be learnt, its nature to be understood, its unique creative spirit to be appreciated? The college professor had said there was not a single such book. There were a few good ones among those he examined, but in a workmanlike way – where was the dictionary that one could use for real scholarship?

The biggest bookshop in town was Victoria Library. In the evening Gurudas asked for a look at a major Bengali dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. Having leafed through them for a few minutes, he said softly, ‘There’s something I want to discuss, Rebati-babu.’

In a small town, everyone knew everyone else. The owner looked at Gurudas over the rims of his glasses.

‘It’s Saturday – may I take these two books home? I’ll return them to you first thing Monday morning.’

‘Take them home?’

‘I’ll handle them very carefully – won’t soil them, won’t crease them – I’ll look after them. I need them urgently, you see.’

‘Someone’s already ordered those books, Panditmashai.’

‘I see.’ Gurudas’s fair, lean face reddened. A little later he said, ‘Then I’d better buy them.’ He had to wage a terrible war against himself, but… he had spoken, he couldn’t take his words back now.’

‘Pack these books for Panditmashai…’ Rebati-babu made no further reference to the books having been ordered.

‘But I can only pay next month.’

‘Hmm…’ Gurudas sent up a silent prayer, ‘Let him not agree, o lord.’ But Rebati-babu’s mouth softened.

‘Very well. But on the first of the month, don’t forget. We run a very small business, you know… sign here, please.’

He had got them at a discount by virtue of being a teacher. Thirteen rupees and fourteen annas – nearly a third of his salary.

Gurudas browsed through the two books late into that night by the glow of a lantern. His grasp of English was poor, but he had no difficulty in realising the difference in the presentation of the two books. And yet this was just a condensed version, he had heard that Oxford had a giant dictionary too.

Before going to sleep he mused over Panini, considered the sheer extent of the Sanskrit dictionary “Shabdakalpadruma”, and recollected Vidyasagar. An extraordinary talent for grammar, unbeatable enthusiasm for analysis, bottomless vocabulary. He used to have them all. What happened to them?

Harimohini had planted flowers in a fenced-in corner of the small yard. She was watering them with her daughter on Sunday morning when Gurudas came up to them, smiling.

‘Shibani, go check if Nidhu-r ma has brought the milk.’

‘Later. Listen to me first.’

Harimohini paused and looked at him.

‘I’m about to start something new.’

A ray of hope flashed across Harimohini’s face. Had the match for Shibani been finalised with the Chatterjees of Nimtala then? Their elder daughter Bhabani had been married into a high-born family – this was the other daughter. She had turned fifteen, if she didn’t get married now, then when?

‘Have they sent word?’

‘Who?’

‘The Nimtala Chatterjees.’

‘No, that’s not it. I am going to write a dictionary of the Bengali language. I made up my mind last night.’

There was no flicker of expression on Harimohini’s face.

‘You know what a dictionary is, don’t you? A collection of words. The meaning of words in the Bengali language, similar words, usage of words, and so on. There isn’t a book like this at the moment.’

‘Not a single one? You’re going to write it?’ Harimohini felt a burst of pride. ‘Will it say anything about gods and goddesses?’

‘Everything.’

Yes, everything. Unknown to Gurudas, a smile spread across his face. He had fallen asleep last night as soon as he had come to this decision – a deep sleep. And when he awoke this morning, he discovered his mind was calm, his heart, cheerful, and his body, healed and rested, while support for his endeavour radiated from the branching rays of the sun in the sky. As though nature had been waiting these last few days only for his resolve to do this: as soon as he accepted this, satisfaction spread across the heavens, and the movements in his body acquired an easy rhythm. Gods and goddesses – of course he would have to include then. But all the gods? All their names? He would have to determine which of them belonged to an encyclopaedia and which, to a dictionary. Which of the Sanskrit words could be considered Bengali? What to do with Brajabuli? What were the indications that a word was part of the Bengali language? Would he have to add words which were not in circulation but might be required? There was so much to think about. So much to think – but even Harimohini’s flowering plants were urging him to start at once.

Gurudas had been to Puri once as a student, he was reminded now of his visit. He could see just such an ocean stretching ahead of him – a succession of waves, hollows, whirpools, effort… the horizon in the distance. On this ocean his raft would have to float, this was the sea he would have to cross. For a moment Gurudas felt his skin prickle.

After lunch he brought the subject up again with his wife.

‘I was thinking of the dictionary.’

‘Yes, what?’

‘The thing is, I need some material. Books and things.’

‘Very well.’

‘Very expensive books. I was thinking, Chakrabroty-mashai had made an offer for that acre of land back home…’

‘You’ll sell it?’ A shadow fell across Harimohini’s face. ‘We have nothing else, and the girl’s growing up too.’

‘We can survive on what we have.’ Gurudas could not inject too much confidence in this assertion, so he tried to compensate with a soft smile. ‘That is to say, I will survive, and once your son’s grown up you’ll have nothing to worry about.’

‘The things you say! I think only about myself all the time, don’t I? But I shan’t let Nobu be a teacher like you. You know Netai, my nephew? He’s passed his Matriculation examination and joined the Railways. Sixty rupees a month already – and extra earnings on top of that.’

Gurudas did not approve of the final statement, but swallowing his criticism, he returned to the original subject.

‘Just the Railways? Nobu might even become a deputy magistrate like my brother,’ said Gurudas, throwing a sidelong look at his wife. It was a calculated ploy – he was fully aware of Harimohini’s reverence for his stepbrother’s status as a deputy magistrate.

‘Do you suppose I could ever be so lucky? But then, everything is possible if the gods smile on us, isn’t that right? That reminds me, I’d sent you sweest after Lakshmi-puja the other day, but Shibani said you didn’t have them.’

‘I touched my forehead with them – that’s better than eating them. Listen, I’m giving the land to Chakraborty-mashai then, all right?’

‘Giving it? We hardly have anything anyway – and there’s not only the girl who has to be married off but also the boy whom we must leave something to.’

‘Everything will be done. But I cannot turn back now.’

‘Cannot turn back – what do you mean?’

‘Wealth is by nature temporary, but…’ The pundit groped for the right word, and then turned helplessly to emotional appeal. ‘I have made up my mind – are you going to stop me now?’

The land they owned was in Nandigram, about an hour away by steamer. Gurudas paid a visit during the Janmashtami holidays. A house, fruit-bearing trees, a small pond, some farmland. Some? It was about seventy acres in his grandfather’s time. After being divided up, about eight acres had come to Gurudas. He had had to sell nearly two acres for his elder daughter’s wedding, and now another acre. Never mind, at least he was getting a hundred and fifty rupees. Rummaging through the books at home, he even found the old Sanskrit dictionary printed in Bombay – it had belonged to his father – and, how fortunate, the Sanskrit grammar that he had borrowed from a schoolmate and forgotten to return. The first thing he did on returning to Khulna was to buy two reams of the cheapest paper, which Shibani laced into a notebook.

On the first day of the Puja holidays at school, Gurudas travelled to Calcutta, where he had to put up for three days at a boarding house in Sealdah. Two more Bengali dictionaries, Suniti Chatterjee’s book on linguistics, an ancient (but excellent) Sanskrit-to-Bengali dictionary found after scouring the pavements of College Street and Chitpur, a Bengali grammar written by an Englishman, Tekchand and Hutom Pyancha published by Basumati, Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Mahabharata published by Hitabadi. He didn’t dare ignore Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Theory of Words” when it caught his eye – poets were the creators of language, might as well find out what he had to say. All this accounted for nearly fifty rupees. Then there were the new clothes for Durga Puja, a pair of shankhas each for Harimohini and Bhabani, a dhoti for his son-in-law, a pair of rubber slippers for Nobu costing a rupee and thirteen annas. He had to spend eight annas on his way back on a porter to carry all the books – that really pinched.

They had a wonderful time back home that year during the Durga Puja. Harimohini stayed back with the children, while Gurudas returned to Khulna the day after Lakshmi Puja. He cooked his own meals, and read all day. He found the English difficult, but managed to make sense of it, and it grew easier the more he read. Drawing one of the notebooks made by Shibani to himself on the day before Kali Puja, he wrote the first letter of the Bengali alphabet, ‘Aw’ in a large hand. Fifty words were written that day. The school opened three days later, the family returned, and his leisure hours shrank.

Gurudas set himself a routine. He woke up at five in the morning to write for two hours, and then drank his share of milk, went out on private tuition, bought the day’s provisions, and returned. This gave him a little time before his bath. He had to take private classes in the evening too – the exams were approaching – but he didn’t go to bed until he had put in a couple of hours of writing. Gurudas was making smooth progress.

Winter came. There was no light before six in the morning, and this was when the pressure of checking annual exam papers intensified. But the Christmas holidays were approaching.

He had to visit Calcutta again during the Christmas vacation. The subject was like Draupadi’s sari – unfolding constantly, an unending mystery, one whose depths you kept sinking into. How would he prove equal to this task – he, a mere Gurudas Bhattacharya, a minor Sanskrit scholar? He did not know his way on this road, had no clear idea of where he would find the bricks and cement needed to build this structure. In Calcutta he laid siege to the Imperial Library: the days passed navigating his way through the dense jungle of comparative linguistics. Many of the books were written in German, with an abundance of Greek letters and a thick growth of Latin, Gothic and Persian references, as though the immense vegetation of the Aryan languages had stretched up to the sky, spreading its branches far and wide. Sanskrit alone had never given him this feeling of kinship with the West, with the entire world. For the first time he set eyes on the Monier Williams Sanskrit dictionary, he discovered Skeat’s etymological dictionary too. Ten days passed cramming his notebooks with jottings.

When he was about to set off for Calcutta again during the summer holidays, Harimohini could not keep herself from objecting mildly.

‘Why must you go to Calcutta again?’

‘Do you need me here?’

‘I was thinking of the expenses. The boarding house costs money too.’

Gurudas had thought about this as well. The examination season was in the past, and not many studied Sanskrit these days, he had no private tuitions. Thanks to a supply of food from the land back home they managed to survive on forty-five rupees – but barely. They could afford coarse rice and dal and their clothes – anything more was virtually impossible. But… he simply had to go.’

‘Doesn’t your mother’s brother live in Calcutta?’ said Harimohini. ‘You could always…’

‘Of course not, how can I stay a month at someone else’s house? And he’s only my mother’s cousin – I haven’t met him in years… it’s impossible. But I’ll manage – don’t worry.’

‘It’s all very well for you to say that, but I spend sleepless nights.’

‘But why?’

‘Have you decided that Shibani will remain a spinster?’

That was true. He had to accept that his daughter was showing signs of womanhood. It was time for her to be married. But… how?

‘Why so anxious? She’s not even fifteen yet. Many people don’t even think of marriage till eighteen these days.’

‘You of all people are saying this? Your family the Brahmin pundits of Nandigram didn’t allow their daughters to pass the age of ten.’

‘Why shouldn’t I? Didn’t Rammohan Roy speak up against idol-worship? Didn’t Vidyasagar introduce widow-remarriage? They were Brahmin pundits too.’

‘Those who get their daughters married at eighteen also give them the chance to go to school and college, all right? They don’t let them rot at home and turn into liabilities. Do you have it in you?’

Gurudas’s lean, fair face grew pale. She was right. He had no response. He must try to arrange a match.

From the matchmaker he learnt that Rameshwar Banerjee of Hatkhola in Calcutta was looking for a bride for his third son. Rameshwar had been a professor at Sanskrit College during the single year that Gurudas had read there. He decided to plead with Rameswar in Calcutta to provide a safe passage for his daughter.

In Calcutta Gurudas rented a ‘seat’ in the cheapest room in a boarding-house he was familiar with. His meals were at a ‘pice hotel’ (which he had discovered on his previous visit; for four paise you could eat so much that you didn’t need a second meal). His days were spent at the Imperial Library, at the university library, wandering among second-hand bookshops, and seeking audiences with renowned professors. He had sensed a new requirement: instructions, advice, discussions – he had brought along all the pages in his notebook, in case anyone had any constructive comments to offer. It wasn’t easy to meet professors – some had gone to Darjeeling, others were busy. Only two deigned to meet him. Leafing through the notebooks apprehensively, both of them said, ‘Excellent, it’s coming along very well, you must complete it.’ When he enquired whether a detailed discussion was possible, he learnt that both were engaged as chief examiner for the B.A. exams, and did not have the leisure even to die at present.

One day he overheard a young man at a book shop on College Street. The buyer was looking for a book on the history of Bengali literature; turning over the pages of two or three, what he uttered was clearly weighed down with nausea. ‘Dead! All dead! Rotting and ingested with worms which this swarm of professors is picking out to eat. They collapse when they see living literature. Rabindranath was born in vain.’ The young man disappeared, his sandals flapping.

Chuckling, the shopkeeper said, ‘Subrata Sen speaks as forcefully as he writes.’

‘Who was that?’ Gurudas stepped forward. ‘What did you say his name is?’

‘Subrata Sen. You haven’t read him? Very powerful.’

At the boarding house he normally drank a large glass of water and went to bed – his exhaustion taking him beyond the hot weather, the stench, and his hunger in an instant. But sleep eluded him that night, the young man’s statement ringing in his ears constantly. And you, Gurudas Bhattacharya, engaged in composing a dictionary of the Bengali language – what do you know of Bengali literature? Ishwar Gupta, Bankim, Michael – and that was it. The young man had named Rabindranath – some people said he had injected new life into the Bengali language, but you know nothing about him, you haven’t read him at all. And these new writers – take Subrata Sen, for example – language lived through transformation in every era. It would die if it were to lose this power. And if a dictionary could not provide a portrait of this evolution, what use was it?

He had to think of the whole thing afresh. A dictionary was not a compendium of explanations for students, not a list or collection, not an immovable, static, ponderous object. Its essence lay in the flow, in movement, in showing the path to the future – to move ahead it had to gather sustenance from the creative work that writers were engaged in constantly. It would have to be replete with hints, allusions, advice, even imagination – just like a flowing waterfall glinting under the light. He would have to read literature – living works, current, changing literature – all that was being written, read, said, heard in the Bengali language – all these were his ingredients.

He came back home bathed in a new glow. Within five minutes of his return Harimohini asked, ‘Did you meet Rameshwar Banerjee?’

‘I did.’

‘What did he say?’

‘In a minute.’ Gurudas sat down on a mat, leaning back against a post. ‘They have many demands. They’re well-off, you see.’

‘Who’ll marry your daughter on the strength of her appearance alone?’

‘A thousand rupees in cash. Twenty-five bhori gold. All expenses. Provided they like the girl. But… can we afford all this? I’d better make some more enquiries…’

Sighing, Harimohini went away. Evening fell.

This time Rameshwar had brought a ream of fool’s-cap paper from Calcutta. It was cheaper there, and available at even lower prices if bought by the ream. He had nearly exhausted his older notebooks. He had to scribble copiously – scratch out bits, make changes, there was new information every day. And yet he wasn’t even done with the first letter, ‘Aw’.

Gurudas got down to work calmly. Some of it involved reading. He had avoided reading the newspapers all this time, but now he had to scan a couple of Bengali dailies every evening at the public library. And he left no Bengali book he could get hold of untouched. Happening to read Rabindranath’s “Ghare Baire”, he was astounded. Could the Bengali language actually be this way? This was not Hutoom, this was Kalidasa. Not even Kalidasa, something else altogether.

His notebook and pencil were always in his pocket. He took voluminous notes. Most of them would not prove useful, but who could predict what would?

The Bengalis’ forms of self-expression became the subject of his discoveries. He listened closely when his wife, son or daughter spoke; with so much interest that he often did not grasp the content, and forgot to answer. What he wanted to know was not what they were saying but how they were saying it. When the younger students raised an uproar during the lunch-break at school, he lurked unobserved behind them. At the market he kept his ears peeled for rural dialects. When he went home on holidays, he sought out Muslim peasants and made unnecessary conversation with them – they had a special way of speaking.

And he had to go to Calcutta during the longer vacations. He learnt the Greek alphabet, took help from a priest at St Xavier’s School to understand the rules of Latin grammar, even had to visit madrases for Arabic and Persian. Hardly any books were available in the provinces – for this too he had to visit Calcutta.

How did he afford all this. Cheap boarding houses and pice hotels, but still? Gurudas had made arrangements, getting rid of another acre of land, this time without telling his wife. He didn’t know anyone in Calcutta particularly well, feeling beleaguered if he had to speak in English. Nor did his soiled clothes evoke respect from anyone. He had to discover everything he needed all by himself, with the help of that eternal quality, effort, the capital that god endowed every human being with. Effort, endeavour, waiting, patience. It took him four hours to do an hour’s work – he was lighting rows of fireflies and pushing through the darkness. But there were lights at every street-corner – like signals for trains in the blackness of night.

Summer holidays once more, the monsoon once more. The rains were torrential that year. Earthworms burst through the kitchen floor in July. Leech in the front yard. Snakes here and there. On some nights seater streamed through gaps in the tin roof – having found dry spots for the children to sleep, the parents stayed up all night. After seven days of incessant rain, Gurudas opened his safe one day to get the shock of his life. Instead of his best books, what he saw were millions of termites wriggling about. Fifty pages of Suniti Chatterjee’s book were missing, the third volume of the Mahabharata was in shreds, the Sanskrit dictionary from this father’s time crumbled in his hands when he picked it up. The day passed battling the termites – he poured in four annas worth of kerosene.

Immediately after this accident a ray of hope emerged; Shibani’s marriage suddenly seemed a likelihood. The groom was from Barishal, recently posted here at the Khulna steamer station. The groom’s family approved of the bride, and made no demand for dowry – only the cost of the wedding, and shankha and sindoor for the bride. This was no cause for concern – Harimohini still had some ornaments.

The wedding would not take place before March, but Bhabani was overcome with joy when she heard. At long last she would be able to visit her mother. She lived in a large family, surrounded by her in-laws, at Madaripur – she didn’t even have the chance to visit her own family during Durga Puja.

Shibani ran up a fever after the rains. When the fever didn’t go down even after a week, Gurudas sent for the kaviraj. He prescribed plenty of red and black pills – but to no avail.

On the twenty-first day the official assistant surgeon turned up. His fees were four rupees, and he stomped about in boots. Typhoid, he said after examining the patient. Give her nothing but glucose. Pour water over her head morning and evening. Here are the medicines. Note down the temperature at four-hour intervals. Inform me after three days.

The medicines were bought with borrowed money. The doctor came once a week – paying his fees was a near-impossible task. Milk and fish were stopped; Harimohini’s deity was given a quarter of her regular rations.

Shibani lost weight, the fat disappeared from her cheeks, her discoloured teeth grew bigger and uglier. Then came the day when her hair had to be cut on the doctor’s orders. Her scalp needed water, the more the better. Harimohan poured water over her daughter’s head every hour, but Shibani was delirious.

When she died, her limbs had withered away to resemble sticks, her breast was like a seven-year-old boy’s chest. And this same girl was sixteen, healthy, full of grace. The ornaments put aside to pay for the wedding were used to clear the debt to the doctor.

Gurudas returned home at ten at night after the cremation. It was the end of February, winter was on its way out. He felt rather cold – wrapping a shawl around himself, he sat down next to his wife, who was slumped on the floor. The night passed in the same position.

A long night, but the sun rose finally. Harimohini had fallen asleep, while Nobu was curled on the floor in cold. Covering his son with the shawl, Gurudas carefully slipped a pillow beneath Harimohini’s head. Then he want out, spread a mat and sat down with his notebook. This last one had also been made by Shibani. For a moment, all the letters blurred. Wiping his eyes on the end of his dhoti, he set down more letters next to the blurred ones.

Five more years passed, the dictionary was in its seventh year. He was done with twenty-four letters, up to ‘Thaw’.

The words no longer flowed. What had started as an extraordinary, thrilling joy had turned into work now. Work, duty, responsibility, compulsion. The madness of discovery was gone, the excitement of gathering material had dissipated. He had an enormous quantity of information at his disposal now, the roads were familiar. It was time to work, it was time for nothing but work. Daily work, weekly work, monthly, annual, continuous. No likes, no dislikes, no reluctance either. This was an immaculate world, where the individual’s specialities were dead

That year saw the fruition of a long drawn-out effort of Jagattarini School’s – the government finally approved grants. Teachers’ salaries were increased; Gurudas’s monthly earning leapt to fifty-five rupees – it could even get to seventy or seventy-five eventually. In that same year Nobu, or Nabendu, vaulted over the hurdle of the Matriculation examination. Not just that, he got a job almost immediately. A job with the Railways, as his mother had hoped.

A few months later there was tragic news: Bhabani had become a widow. And within two months she appeared in her father’s yard with close-cropped hair, dressed in a widow’s garb and holding three children by the hand. Her late husband’s parents was no longer willing to shoulder the burden of their daughter-in-law, without whom they couldn’t survive a moment once. ‘They are not as well-off as before, my brothers-in-law have several children, and he didn’t leave anything for us, Baba.’

Her father said, ‘Don’t worry. Nobu has a job now. I’ll look after all of you.’

Gurudas went to Calcutta during the summer holidays that year – after a gap of two years. He couldn’t postpone things anymore, it was time to find a publisher.

In his canvas shoes, holding a dusty umbrella, he scoured the summer pavements from Goldighi to Hedua with his manuscript stuffed into a tin trunk. Finally he came across Bharat Press in a lane off Sukia Street. They published old Sanskrit and Bengali books, and were inclined towards dictionaries. But the proprietor Bipin-babu said, ‘We cannot judge how good your dictionary is. If you can get a recommendation from someone worthwhile, we’ll think about it.’

‘Such as? Whose…’ Gurudas was too embarrassed to utter the word recommendation.

Bipin-babu mentioned three or four people. The very first one was that of the Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Gurudas arrived at this gentleman’s house the next day. About a dozen people were waiting in a small room. As the day progressed, a crowd of people waiting for an audience filled the open space in front of the house. Dhotis, western suits, Madrasis, Punjabis, even saffron. Some paced up and down, some leaned against the railing, some peeped over the swing door before ducking behind it. Young men, old men, women, helpless faces, grave expressions – but all of them similarly afflicted by the need for solicitation. The clacking of typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the bustle of orderlies and clerks – it was impossible to tell who had got an audience and who was waiting in despair. From seven the clock moved on to eleven – there was no hope of a meeting today.

Gurudas slipped while getting off the tram on the way back, hurting himself. Putting tincture of iodine on his bruises, he rested on a plank in the boarding house all day. When he awoke the next morning, his hips were aching. But still he got into the second-class coach of the tram with his trunk.

No luck that day either – four hours passed, alternately sitting and standing. Four successive days went by this way.

On the fifth day he arrived even earlier, in case he could get in before anyone else. He discovered only two people already there. A man of dignified appearance walking across the yard stopped suddenly on seeing him.

‘What’s the matter? Here again?’

‘I had to come again, because…’

‘You haven’t met him yet? Haven’t I been seeing you every day? Well, what do you need?’

‘I have composed a dictionary of Bengali. It’s about this dictionary…’

‘Oh, a dictionary? Of Bengali?’ The man surveyed Gurudas from head to toe, not omitting his tin trunk. ‘You’ve actually brought your manuscript?’

‘Just… in case he wants a look… if he has the time.’

‘Very well, sit down. Go straight in as soon as he arrives. Through this door here – there’s nothing to be afraid of.’

He really did get an audience, along with a slip of paper with the words, ‘I endorse this book for publication’ along with a signature.

Five hundred copies of each of several slim volumes would be published, each costing one rupee. The books would not be bound. Half of whatever was left over after paying for costs would go to the author, but if expenses were not recovered within a year, the writer would recompense the publisher.

These were the terms of the contract. Bipin-babu kept the manuscripts for the first four letters, ‘Aw’ through ‘Dirgho-ee’, and Gurudas received the proofs within a week of returning to Khulna.

Six volumes were published in a year; the vowels were done. But Bipin-babu welcomed him sombrely the next summer. ‘The books aren’t selling at all. There they are – see for yourself. An entire dictionary is available at ten rupees, who’s going to pay six for just the vowels? And who cares for so many details? I couldn’t cover my costs, but I know you cannot recompense me. I can absorb this loss, but if you want to publish further you’ll have to pay half the costs. If the books sell, I’ll recover my costs first, plus thirty per cent commission. The rest will be yours.’

‘Half the costs? How much?’

‘It takes between two hundred and two-fifty to print each volume. You’ll get bills.’

Gurudas left another six volumes of his manuscript with the printer. With each volume being printed, he sold half an acre of land. Eventually nothing but the homestead was left, and then that was sold too.

By then ten more years had passed. Gurudas was almost through with ‘Baw’; all the letters up to ‘Dontyo-naw’ had been published. Meanwhile his hair had greyed, he wore thick lenses in nickel-framed glasses – but despite the spectacles everything seemed blurred at night. Harimohini was suffering from arthritis, she couldn’t do the household tasks anymore. The entire family was under the care of the lean, indefatigable Bhabani. She paid a little extra attention to her father, offering him whatever she could – a little milk or fruit, or some juice. When she had a few moments to spare, she leafed through his dictionary. Gurudas had taught her, the first child of his youth, a little Sanskrit and Bengali. She knew her grammar, and had even picked up proof-reading skills. There were times – perhaps on the morning of a holiday – when Gurudas sat outside the house, writing, while Bhabani sat at his side, turning over the pages of books, not talking. They never spoke – but they were happy, both of them.

Nabendu now had a salary of seventy-five rupees. He lived in Calcutta, his job was to check tickets on trains leaving from Sealdah Station. His days passed travelling on trains, but he rushed home whenever he could, and he handed over a decent sum of money to Gurudas every month. It was thanks to him that they survived even with three growing children. Gurudas could afford to go Calcutta from time to time, and Harimohini did not come to know that they didn’t own any land anymore, that they actually had to buy all their provisions now.

Harimohini busied herself in finding a match for her twenty-seven-year-old son. Nabendu wasn’t willing, he said he was trying to get the post of station-master – it would be better to marry after he had settled down. Actually, it was the state of the family that had made him reluctant to add to his financial burden. But Harimohini insisted, and he was married in May.

Along with new quilts and sheets, a painted box of toiletries, and the fragrance of vaseline and scent, the new bride also brought in a wave of joy into the house. A beauteous girl of fifteen. A little pain was unavoidable too; reminded of Shibani, Harimohini wiped her eyes covertly.

Nine months after his wedding, Nabendu slipped while trying to climb into a moving train and fell on the tracks. By the time he was pulled out his heart was still beating in his mangled body, but not long enough to make it to the hospital.

His wife was seven months pregnant at the time. She fell unconscious when informed, and delivered a premature, dead baby four hours later. She never succeeded in getting back on her feet; overcome by childbed fever, suffering for six months, she finally vanished into the shadows like an insubstantial shadow herself.

Gurudas received one thousand five hundred rupees from Nabendu’s provident fund, and another two housand rupees as ‘compensation’. And a few months later, just before Durga Puja, the war between Germany and England broke out.

From ‘panchambahini’ – fifth column – to ‘anubidaran’ – splitting the atom – Gurudas collected many new words during the six years of the war. These would have to be added to the appendix. But his work didn’t progress significantly during this period, he only got as far as the Bengali letter ‘Law’. Nor could he publish beyond the Bengali letter ‘Raw’; printing had become four times as expensive, and paper was hard to come by. Meanwhile, the landlord suddenly demanded seventeen rupees as rent for the house for which Gurudas had been paying seven and a half rupees all this time, the price of rice vaulted from four rupees per maund to forty, kerosene became too expensive for lanterns. And his eyes began to trouble him. The doctor said he had developed a cataract in one of them, and that surgery was necessary. This meant a trip to Calcutta and a cost of about a hundred and fifty rupees. He dismissed the proposition as soon as he heard it – it was more important to remain alive, even if on only one square meal a day.

They survived on Nabendu’s three and a half thousand rupees. He dipped into it to pay for Bhabani’s daughter’s wedding, which cost about five hundred. Despite controlling his expenditure strictly, the rest melted during the war years like ice put out in the sun. He had returned his daughter-in-law’s jewellery to her father.

It was during the war that Harimohini learnt that they no longer owned a home of their own. But she was not perturbed – she had lost that ability. She had turned inert after her son’s death – somewhat deranged. She seldom spoke, just eating her meals and staying in bed most of the time, and suffered from arthritis. Her teeth had fallen off, she was an old woman now.

Bhabani stood like a pillar, resilient. Her sons Amal and Bimal were in school. The elder one passed his Matriculation examination and joined Khulna College, where Gurudas intervened with the principal to ensure that he would not have to pay any fees. Bimal gave up studies suddenly and, applying his own judgement, got a job at the ration shop, where he learnt to pilfer. When the sixteen-year-old’s mother found out, she used a piece of wood to take the skin off his back.

Gurudas was penniless when the war ended. His salary and allowance at the school amounted to sixty-three rupees, but because of his age the authorities were pleading with him to retire. After much begging, he secured an extension of two years – he would have to leave after that.

But suddenly the problem of employment became a trivial one. Rivers of blood began to flow over the country, after which the country became independent. Khulna was allotted to Pakistan. Waiting and watching for a while, Gurudas decided to go away with his family.

It’s best not to talk about how the journey was made. Partly on foot, partly by train, occasionally on a boat across a river. Their belongings (such as they were) were left behind; they took only absolutely essential clothes, a few utensils, and his case of books. The published copies, handwritten notes, and… and virtually nothing else. All those books he had collected with so much effort since childhood had to be left behind.

Although they were unencumbered, the journey was not an easy one. He had grown old, his vision was dimmed. His wife hobbled. Amal and Bimal actually had to carry their grandmother at times – but how far can you walk bearing the weight of a heavy old woman? They had to pause for rest beneath trees, while Harimohini shrieked with arthritic pain. Rain. Sun. Dust. Droppings. Flies. And hordes of helpless people. Two babies were crushed to death by the crowd at Ranaghat Station.

It took ten days to get to Calcutta. They passed a week at Sealdah Station, eating nothing but muri, and were then transferred on a lorry to a camp at Bongaon, where they were served a lump of rice and dal at two every afternoon. Gurudas recovered a little on this diet, but there was no respite from Harimohini’s cries of pain.

Finally the lord took pity on her. Cholera broke out at the camp, and her heart gave way after she had emptied her stomach out several times. They could not cremate her themselves; government officials gathered bodies wholesale and took them away in a black vehicle.

Two months later they were given shelter at a refugee colony near Kanchrapara. Rows of one-room bamboo shanties, with a little space to cook in. A pond nearby, a tube-well for fresh water at a slight distance. Still, Bhabani set up a household despite the limitations. Amal got a job at a nearby mill, which helped them survive somehow. Bimal went to the dogs, spending all his time outdoors, smoking and watching films, though no one knew how he got the money for it.

Gurudas pulled out his notebooks again. One eye was clouded over with cataract, the other had dimmed too. Every moment of daylight was priceless. He went outside as soon as the sun rose, while Bhabani brought him a cup of tea and a little muri. Bhabani had to have her tea with her father – he insisted on it. Gurudas had discovered tea towards the end of the war. It really provided energy, and suppressed hunger too. Starting with the first light of day, he worked till the last rays of the sun faded. He sat cross-legged, his notebooks on a small stool, and just two or three books open around him – whatever he had been able to salvage from Khulna. When his back ached, he placed a book beneath the small of his back and lay down for a few minutes. It brought relief.

The next month Bhabani made him a bolster. And that same day he wrote a postcard to Bipin-babu at Bharat Press.

The reply came two days later. Bipin-babu had asked after him, expressing pleasure at hearing from him after such a long time. Demand had picked up for his dictionary recently, the previous editions had almost sold out. It was necessary to publish the subsequent volumes now. The money realised from the sales of the earlier volumes would be enough to publish the new ones – Gurudas would not have to pay any more money. Bipin-babu would be obliged if Gurudas could inform him when the new manuscripts would be available.

After a few more letters had been exchanged, Bipin-babu agreed to provide a monthly ‘assistance’ of fifteen rupees. Gurudas saved some of it to get some new books all over again. Several volumes were published in succession over the next two years; he got as far as the letter ‘Dontyo-shaw’ meanwhile.

The following year Gurudas finished his dictionary, while it took another two years to publish all the volumes. He had to read everything in print once more: the corrigenda, the appendices, everything. The ‘Great Bengal Dictionary’ was completed in fifty-two volumes. It had taken him thirty years. He was a young man of forty when he began – now the hair on his head was white, his back was bent, his cheeks were like crevices, his veins protruded on his skin. He was blind in one eye, and had marginal vision in the other.

Gurudas took to his bed a few days later. The task for which he had conserved the last drops of his energy had been completed, he no longer needed it. He recalled Shibani, Nobu, Nobu’s wife. He recalled his wife. ‘Don’t perform my last rites, Bhabani,’ he told his daughter. ‘I don’t believe in any of it.’

But he simply suffered in bed. Death wasn’t at his beck and call.

Meanwhile, there were murmurs in Calcutta about his dictionary. One Gurudas Bhattacharya had apparently composed a dictionary – an outstanding achievement. Word spread by word of mouth – to the university, to literary gatherings, to newspaper offices. Those who bought the dictionary praised it, those who didn’t praised it even more.

Eventually a young journalist appeared in a jeep one day, accompanied by Bipin-babu from Bharat Press. Gurudas did not speak much – he had no strength. Covering her face, Bhabani answered all their questions in a soft tone. A sensational report appeared in the next day’s paper, peppered with magnificent words like sacrifice, dedication and devotion.

And so Gurudas became famous.

It was the fifth year after Independence. The government had announced literary awards. Someone one the committee proposed Gurudas for an award. Gurudas Bhattacharya? Oh, the dictionary. Well… well, one has to admit he has accomplished a mammoth task, written thousands of pages. And, we hear he’s in financial difficulties, eking out an existence in a refugee colony – it would be a spending gesture. Something to capture the popular imagination with. You’ve seen how “Swadeshi Bazaar”: has praised him, haven’t you?

Gurudas was chosen to receive the award.

In reply to the official communication, Bhabani wrote that her father was ill and unable to visit Calcutta in any circumstances.

One of the younger ministers said, ‘Very well, let us go to him. People will approve.’

Therefore an enormous car drew up at the Kanchrapara refugee colony at ten o’ clock one morning, escorted by a jeep showing the way. A minister of the independent state emerged from the car, accompanied by two high officials, and two orderlies in shining red uniform. The same young journalist, a government clerk, and a photographer with a camera jumped out of the jeep. The car could not come up all the way to the door. As children and women watched with bulging eyes, they walked along the narrow path between rows of shanties to Gurudas’s hut. The tiny space was suddenly filled with people.

There was no room to sit – the ceremonies were conducted with everyone standing. The minister said a few words. A silk shawl, a bouquet of lowers, and one hundred rupee notes tied with a silk ribbon, amounting to five thousand rupees, were placed on Gurudas’s bed. The cameras clicked, Gurudas’s weak eyes blinked at the flash- popping bulbs.

He lay still on his back, his hands gathered at his chest. His expression did not betray whether he was aware of what was going on. But when the guests had moved away from his bed, when their demeanour suggested they wanted to leave but were staying back only out of embarrassment, Gurudas spoke clearly but faintly. ‘Turn me on my side, Bhabani. This is very funny, but if I laugh I will be insulting all these people. Make me face the other way.’ The eye with cataract was still, but laughter flashed in the other eye for an instant. Bhabani turned him over on his side carefully.

He died the same afternoon. His grandsons and the young men from the neighbourhood took him to the crematorium draped in the same silk shawl and covered with the same flowers.

He had made a single statement before dying. ‘Keep the money, Bhabani, it’ll prove useful for you.’

[ Original story: Ekti Jibon (1957) ]

To A Dead Woman: Buddhadeva Bose

‘I will never forget you.’ Such arrogant commitments
Are never forgiven by life. So, no false promises.
May your final freedom find its way along roads not yet
Imagined. Let the magic in your face merge with green leaves
And blend into the play of the seasons, in land and air,
Into the blue of the sky. Let me just keep these words lit
In my heartlight tonight – that you were there, still, you were there.

Black Rose – Chapter One: Buddhadeva Bose

Welome. Did you take a tour of my garden? The roses haven’t bloomed yet, it’s barely May. I have seven shades of roses: two of yellow, two of pink, two of red, and one white, of course. Each of them grows to the size of my fist. The rose is my favourite flower. Do you know why? Because though it was imported, it’s ours now. From Iran it spread across the world: the Mughals brought it to India. The original name, gulaab, is half Persian, half Sanskrit. You could call it a symbol of international union. I believe in internationalism.

Oh no, you’re not disturbing me at all, I have nothing to do—take a seat, stay as long as you like. People often come to see this house, this garden of mine, it’s a tourist attraction in Ootacamund now. Did you see the Japanese garden on that side? There’s a winding lake, the cherry trees are budding, a few spells of rain and the blossoms will appear. Lots of people take a walk there at sunset. I don’t stop anyone, how much can I take in alone with these two eyes of mine anyway? Beauty is for mass enjoyment, isn’t it? And I still crave the appreciation of other people. But no matter what people say, there’s nothing extraordinary about it, there are thousands of gardens like this in the world. I haven’t been able to add an eighth colour to the seven, have I? You know, I had this fancy once—I wanted to create a rose of a different colour. Blue or purple or black—why not black, after all? I had lots of books sent to me from Japan, from Holland. I couldn’t sleep for nights in excitement; trembling, as though I was about to get a key to a hidden chamber. Why are there no black flowers in the world? Flowers, fruits, grain—whatever springs from the earth is limited in colour to the seven shades of the rainbow, but why? White, which is a mixture of all colours, is still available as a colour for flowers, but black, where the colours have disappeared—why don’t we see black flowers? Don’t they exist, or is it just that we haven’t found them yet? Wouldn’t the first person to make a black rose bloom be considered greater than even God? What if it were me? Don’t be afraid, I haven’t gone mad, even while I dreamt of a blue rose I knew it wasn’t to be. You could call it a game with myself, a way to pass the time, something interesting to do, that’s all.

Excuse me for speaking in English with you. Yes, of course I’m Bengali. From Dacca, in fact. But I’ve been living outside Bengal for a long time, I haven’t used the language in ages. I don’t read Bengali books either. If I lapse into English now and then, assume it’s for convenience, out of habit. As a matter of fact, I don’t talk much these days. Don’t have to, either, except once a week with my steward. I live by myself, don’t go anywhere; I’m a widower, both my sons live abroad.

Pardon me? Oh, yes, the name of my house. Bonheur. It’s a French word, meaning joy, happiness. The name was chosen by Nellie—Nalini, my wife. We used to discuss the location of our final residence. At first we had decided to continue living in Malabar Hill, close to Nellie’s father’s house. He was the one who gave Nellie the house. At one point we were inclined towards the Riviera, but on a vacation to Ootacamund, Nellie fell in love with this place. The designs for the garden, the plans for the house— everything was hers. The house was built, it was named Bonheur. But within two years she wasted away to death, struck by a mysterious disease. She left me memories, her unlimited wealth, and her dowry. Her father was Gujarati, her mother, Kashmiri—she was what people call gorgeous. Her goodness was incomparable too. I was very fortunate to have a wife like her. Would you care for some tea? Nilgiri, or Darjeeling?

# # #

Tell me about Calcutta, about Bengal. They’re very unhappy, very troubled there, aren’t they? I read about it in the papers sometimes. But then, where do you find people living happily in India? Nobody knows just what they want, all they do is stir up trouble on any pretext: internal conflicts, hunger strikes at the drop of a hat, trains being burnt, riots, killing. On top of that, throw out English, bring back the Middle Ages, build a monolithic Hindi kingdom. What do you think? Will India be fragmented into many bits all over again? And then will some other superpower occupy our country again? And the British, whom we got rid of with so much fanfare, must be laughing themselves silly on the other side of the ocean. We’re now using the same weapons we wielded against them, to attack and wound one another— one another, meaning ourselves. It’s a joke, isn’t it?

You know, I too had believed that all it would take to turn India into a heaven on earth was to drive out the British. I was reading for my MA in Dacca at the time. Oh, you too, really? When was that? But I was there at the same time! Do you know Bakshibazaar? The orphanage? What! I lived near the orphanage too. Very ordinary middle-class Bengali-Hindu family—born and brought up in it, but there are many things I hate about them: far too constricted, too poor, too claustrophobic. It isn’t just economic poverty, their minds are like cesspools. When I read English literature, history, I wonder whether these extraordinary feats were really achieved by the same people who were nothing but plunderers in our country. Was it because they were a formidable nation, or because of some fatal flaw in ourselves? You know, I wanted to be ‘like them’— independent, reckless, powerful. I wanted to free myself from the shackles of our family-bound lives, where even joys and sorrows are measured, where not even hope can extend very far. And I even found a way out—when I met Mitu Bardhan, when I became acquainted with Arthur Jones. Here’s your tea.

Did you ever run into Arthur Jones? No? Many people in Dacca knew him. The fellow was a fresh ICS officer. Spoke Bengali, mingled with Bengalis, took part in debates at the university, even visited locals at their homes. A music lover. I met him at Mitu Bardhan’s house. Have you heard of her? That’s remarkable, that you still possess Amita Bardhan’s records. Very well, let me tell you something, I’ve been all over the world, clinging to all these old memories means nothing at all. Just like gout, just like leprosy, just like paralysis, memory is also an illness; it debilitates. Take India—we are still basking in the glory of the Upanishads, of Kalidasa, of Tansen. But after that? Aren’t all our achievements thanks to the British?

# # #

Do excuse me for not joining you with a cup of tea, I’m having gin. A little for you . . .? All right, to each his own, can’t argue with that. It’s the same with women— pardon me, I meant wives. Oh, the prohibition—alcohol isn’t a blue rose, after all, it’s not beyond reach when you want it. And if breaking the law is illegal, following it is illegal too. That is my opinion as a legal expert. We picketed schools and colleges once upon a time, set postoffices on fire, now we block trains whenever we like: each of these amounts to interfering with people’s independence, depriving them of their rights. Alcohol is a minor issue in comparison, minor and harmless—peaceful, private, personal—no one is being harmed, no one else cares. You’re on your way to take your BA exams, I don’t let you go; you’re taking a train to see a dying relative for the last time, I gather a mob and block the train; whereas here, without coming between you and your wishes or your movement, I get a little pleasure out of having a drink in my own home . . . Can there be any doubt about which of these is illegal and which isn’t? Whether it’s alcohol or acrostics or kissing in films—all these cases will eventually be thrown out by the high court. Pardon me? Oh, I was in a government job. Seasoned criminal: an ICS from the British era. Ranajit Dutta, ICS, Barrister-at-Law. Currently retired, settled here . . . Well then . . . Cheers! Is your tea all right?

I had never met a real live Englishman before Arthur Jones. Of course, I’d never seen a dead Englishman either—although they were dying left, right and centre from terrorists’ bullets. To me, Englishmen were people I’d read about in books, seen in films. And, sometimes, figures I had seen dimly in Calcutta. The Chowringhee- Park Street area, a mere slice of an enormous metropolis, an illuminated island replete with pleasures, indulgences, wealth; beyond our reach. Tall, hearty men with flaming red necks, dolled-up women on their arm: unfamiliar, distant, majestic. Like different creatures, not human beings but something else, as though they didn’t breathe the same air as the rest of us. This on the one hand, and on the other, the books I read which said just the opposite. I was young, unable to reconcile the two. In my head I had created an incredibly fine and talented England, whose flag was not the Union Jack but Shakespeare. Whose ships didn’t take away tea, jute, cotton and gold from India, but delivered Shelley’s poetry and Dickens’s novels to every port. Shelley was a vegetarian, Keats was only five feet tall, but how glorious they both were to look at, and how much pain their poetry held. They felt so very much a part of my life, was it even possible that they were Englishmen too? The same nationality as those people who strutted around on Chowringhee as though even the stars in their sky bent to their wills? Whose Firpo’s restaurant didn’t let in anyone wearing a dhoti? The mere sight of whom in the tea gardens of Assam meant that the babus (perhaps my own uncles) had to get off their cycles? I felt the urge to explain to those bovine idiots, the tea and jute bosses that I knew their country far better than they did, since I had occasional conversations with Shelley and Keats . . . Conversations? Well, maybe not, there are no exchanges, it’s all oneway. An idea, an ideal, in other words, a toy I’ve made for myself. Shelley and Keats, perhaps as dim, as unreal, as the John Bulls on Chowringhee. But it was only after meeting Arthur Jones that I realized that Englishmen are human beings too, just like us.

# # #

I see you find this amusing. When were you born? What a coincidence, that’s my year of birth too. Don’t you remember what it was like back then? Have you forgotten it all? Let me tell you, when I was growing up, the British lion hadn’t become toothless yet. And also take into account the atmosphere at home, everyone a government servant, low or middle-level—my father, his brothers, other members of the family—almost everyone. That was their Holy Grail, the objective, beginning and outcome of their lives: a government job. No retrenchment, annual increments, a pension after retirement, and what a pleasure to work under the British! They carefully avoided any other kind of job or business or profession that had the slightest degree of uncertainty attached to it, that needed a little extra intelligence or initiative—loathsome! It makes my stomach turn. I’ve seen many of the women in my family get married; I’ve been present at the ‘display of the prospective bride’ on several occasions. Caste, sect, genealogy and horoscope; so much in cash and so much in gold; pedigrees and mongrels; this village or that; are the Ghoshes of Varakar higher or lower in standing than the Mitras . . . I had no choice but to listen to all this as a child. Even my elder sister, with an IA degree, a talented student of Eden College, had to appear in near-bridal finery before a group of unknown men and women, my mother laid out plate after plate after plate heaped with food for them, my father behaved in the most obsequious manner possible. Execrable!

I had a personal problem too. Ever since I had passed my BA exams, everyone kept telling me ‘take the ICS, take the ICS’. Since scoring high marks in exams was one of my shortcomings, there was nothing else my family could talk of. Imagine, some of them were scribes, some postmasters, some clerks; apparently, the mere thought that one of their own could become the administrator for an entire district—that he might even become a high court judge some day—gave them ‘the strength of an elephant’, made them feel like they could ‘conquer mountains and rivers and seas.’ As though the job were a stairway to heaven, where the last rung wasn’t even visible to them. I put on an all-right-since-everybodyinsists air, although I knew perfectly well that the two things I would never go in for were a government job and an arranged marriage. What happened, then? Fate, I tell you, fate; man proposes, someone somewhere disposes.

When did you watch a film for the first time? What a pity you don’t remember, I do. I was very young then, the war with the Germans was on, the First World War. There was a free show at Coronation Park. First some random images of cannons, tanks and warships, Marshal Fosse, Lord Kitchener’s moustache . . . and then, suddenly, those horrifying scenes. Children being tossed in the air and impaled on bayonets, young girls in chains being whipped—all the Germans’ doings, of course. I trembled in fear, but still couldn’t think of Germans as ogres, because I’d seen at home that the grown-ups couldn’t stop smiling whenever there was talk of the Germans. They were ready to throw parties when the Emden kept sinking British warships. ‘They’ll go to hell now.’ ‘The British won’t know what hit them.’ ‘No more fun and games, my friend.’ But they said all this in whispers, leaning back on their bolsters on their bedsteads. But out in the streets? In broad daylight, in the open, if they so much as caught a glimpse, even from a distance, of an Englishman or an equivalent Indian, or a person of fair skin or in a high government post, their spines bent, their faces paled, they forgot where they were going and dashed into the nearest lane. When the war raged, when every family cursed the British, even then I saw in many houses photographs of Government House in Delhi, of King George V of England, sceptre in hand, surrounded by his wife and a gaggle of children. My grandmother’s prayer-room had a picture of Queen Victoria too. You’re laughing? I’m not making it up, believe me. Among the images of Radha and Krishna entwined with an Om, of Shiva with a snake round his neck, of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, of Lakshmi, was a photograph in ‘three-colour half-tone’ of that fat, dead woman who reigned over a distant cold island, who had been referred to by a Frenchman as ‘the old hag with the yellow teeth’. In my grandmother’s opinion, the days of the empress were the golden age, the ideal world. During the Non-Cooperation Movement I had managed to get rid of the photo of Government House in Delhi, but my grandmother clung to the empress affectionately—‘Oh, please don’t take her away, she is a goddess come to earth!’ However, to satisfy both public opinion and me, she added a photograph of Gandhi next to that of Victoria. She was happy if her pantheon gained more gods, but she was unwilling to lose a single one.

# # #

Let me tell you an amusing story. I saluted the governor once. It was in Dacca, on Nababpur Road. I was in primary school. The governor was visiting Dacca. After getting off the steamer at Sadarghat, he was on his way to Government House in Ramna; I stood among the crowd of people gathered by the road. Escorted by a convoy of thick-whiskered Pathan soldiers on horseback and white sergeants on motorcycles, an enormous black car approached. A ruddy face in profile, sharp nose, puffy cheeks, a grey moustache—a face no different from hundreds of other nondescript faces—flashed past me. Amidst that crowd, under that sun, a momentary glimpse of that profile blinded me as it were. As the car passed, I suddenly stood to attention and saluted. Why did I? No one else did, no one had told me to; it came to me spontaneously. Back home, I told my parents jubilantly what I had done, they merely laughed.

Pardon me? Yes, I know what you mean when you say it was just childishness; it didn’t prove anything, wasn’t even worth considering. But you know, when I started frequenting Mitu Bardhan’s house—where I met one or two other significant people too—when I started thinking about things afresh, started seeing things differently from the way I had earlier, this insignificant event came back to me. At times I felt our lives were nothing but one humiliation after another. We swallowed humiliation with our food, sipped humiliation with our drinks. Had I saluted the governor because I was an innocent child? Or was I particularly evil, a sinner, which made such base behaviour possible? Or did we all—young and old, educated and uneducated—offer salutes forever, in our heads if not with our hands? Why else was Kim one of the textbooks in our university curriculum—written by Kipling, to whom Bengalis were ‘bunderlog’ and all that you could find between Peshawar and Rangoon were animals, their keepers and British Tommies. Many such thoughts assailed me at the time—I felt pain, for more than one reason I felt pain. At times I even felt that those who assassinated Englishmen were avenging this humiliation. A fitting revenge. You can’t have forgotten all the things happening in the country at the time. First in Chittagong, then in Dacca itself: at Mitford Hospital, then in the heart of Calcutta, at Writers’ Building. Tell me, for those people whose hearts can only flutter, can do nothing but flutter, isn’t it natural for war-drums to start beating in their breasts when they see one of those formidable Englishmen slump to the ground—not in battle with the Germans, but from a bullet fired by a mere Bengali?

Bloomington, Indiana: Buddhadeva Bose

How quiet this Sunday morning is – the streets deserted, the houses
Asleep behind curtains, rows of unemployed cars. In this country
No one gets out of bed before one o’clock on Sundays; the roads
Lie like canvases with the silence of the trees on either
Side.

But when I went out I heard a tring-tring behind me.
Tring, tring, tring. A few minutes’ gap, and then again.
Again. Again. Wounding the tender body of the wind
The sound rose – piercing, voluble, ardent –
I walked along and, following me, this sound seemed
Unending.

What message was the telephone ringing with – in whose house,
For which hero, which friend, which lover? Was someone in distress
Waiting on the other side? Had someone’s loneliness proved unbearable?
Had death visited someone? Or was it some mute sorrow,
Some unspoken grief that finally wanted to be heard like a
Bugle in this incessant ringing of the telephone bell?

But could no one besides me hear it?
Was I the only one awake on this street? Citizens,
Wake up. Hero, friend, lover, hold out your arms
Awaken, heart. Awaken, agony. Awaken, consciousness. Listen
To the cries, ‘Save me, save me!’ They are for you
Only for you, this announcement – these are those same tears
That keep flowing across the world like an unceasing current
In a secret melody, they materialised for you today, this moment,
Spreading out in one wave after another. Someone wants you.
You are needed – you, the fortunate one.

I don’t know when the sound stopped, don’t know whether someone
Sank into despair, all I know is that the one who calls out
Is vulnerable, the one who expects is helpless – for sometimes
The telephone rings in numbed rooms, some letters never
Reach, and the language of what must be said is inaccessible.

Meanwhile the June sky was bright, the wind once again
Unruffled and healthy, the leaves rose and fell like breath
And the houses were stilled as usual behind curtains of sleep.

The Love Letter: Buddhadeva Bose

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Walking though the drizzle in a raincoat, he kept stopping every now and then – to fill his lungs with oxygen, to swallow a few mouthfuls of light air. It was lovely – this drizzle, this fresh air which seemed newly-awakened, this quiet narrow serpentine lane, which – although a little uneven, paved with stones, a little too clean and desolate – still, it vaguely reminded him of Beltala Road. So… I’m going back? Yes, of course; my job, my family, my ‘Speech’ magazine, my linguistics society – all of them are in Calcutta, how will Calcutta survive unless I return? But there are still three days to go.

He chanced upon a street corner, on the right a mansion with Doric columns, in front of it Diana surrounded by her nymphs, a wide avenue bursting with the sound of scooters. This is Rome, I have arrived in Rome, the infinite city of memories and loveliness – I arrived this instant, for the first time… and now? The lane after the statue of Diana – wasn’t that what the girl at the hotel said? Looks like that street there… yes! Another narrow, paved lane, small shops on either side – furniture, silverware, clothes, books – behind the glass the latest books on four languages – I’m tempted to enter, but not now: first, the letter. The rain had almost let up, the sunlight became visible on the last few drops, the enormous square was lit up – crowds of people, taxis coming to a halt, two horse-drawn phaetons awaited the most sophisticated among the tourists – and a flight of steps began where the square ended; steep, wide, venerable, like a concentrated, silent welcome. So this was the Piazza di Spagnia. He didn’t stop for a look, he walked on quickly, a wall caught his eye – a deferential notice on a plaque: Keats-Shelley House. That second floor room – that window, through which a foreign young man would gaze occasionally, an unknown, dying poet, seeing nothing, understanding nothing. I will be in that room in a few minutes, from the same window I will look out on the Hispanic steps – the same I who had till the age of forty-two considered Delhi my western frontier. Excuse me for a few moments, Shelley-Keats: first, the letter.

After a single glance, he tore his eyes away from the fountain before him; American Express was just two buildings away.

It was summer, there was a crowd of American tourists, long queues snaked up to every counter. Although some tourists decide to go out there on camping, taking out all the necessary equipment with them that is of vital importance. Still he was from the one on the counter, behind nine or ten people. He was looking at the letters arranged in their pigeonholes – envelopes of different colours, red blue yellow green airmail flags, stamps glittering as though they had been crowned – inside  them, scores of languages, so much hope, happiness, comfort. Is it that light grey envelope there… no, that’s been given to someone else. Even after scouring the racks with his eyes he didn’t seem to spot the familiar grey envelope. Was it just an aerogramme then, or perhaps a picture postcard with a couple of paragraphs? Or was it actually possible that not one of those numerous envelopes had his name on it?

Suddenly he felt warm, taking off his raincoat he folded it over his arm.

Who was this distant friend for whose letter he was so distraught? Sadly, the answer was rather pedestrian. A woman, whom he had met – unexpectedly, unbearably – in a Midwest town in America, because of whom his days had become burdened for several weeks now and his nights tumultuous, whose absence accompanied him everywhere in Europe, from one city to another, from one country to another, continuously. And continuously the letters from this woman, in every country, in every city, while travelling on the train, while eating at the restaurant, on a bench by the river, on the steps before the museum; in the spaces between all he had seen on his travels, all the sights, all the paintings, all the palaces, all the old manuscripts, the letters ebbed and flowed like waves, a secret longing in his middle-aged veins, exciting and pleasurable like the beginning of an illness. Of course he had written back too – staying up nights in his hotel room after the exertions of the day, sometimes the moment he arrived at a new town, sometimes he had constructed sentences in his head while travelling, which he no longer remembered when it was time to write the letter. There were no significant developments to report, no questions that had to be answered, nothing new that needed to be said, but still – he had to write. He had to write in a language that was foreign to both of them; she could at least use her mother-tongue German from time to time, but although he could read five European languages he could write only in one, English, which he had once prided himself on knowing very well. But when he tried to write to a special person during a particular state of mind he discovered that what he had thought of as English was nothing but a tight, ill-fitting dress, which he could use to accommodate his research on linguistics, but in which it was impossible to express what was in his heart. It was a formidable obstacle – but still he had to write. Such a turmoil in his heart – he could not find the words to match it, he condemned his own fate because she did not understand Bengali, and then the very next moment he bowed in gratitude to his destiny, because his life – his humdrum Bengali life on which the shadow of old age had fallen already – had experienced something so astonishing.

Her last letter would reach him here in Rome. Last, for he was going directly to Calcutta from Rome, and to him Calcutta was synonymous with a well-defined, disciplined, clearly-articulated circle of life, which included many other people, and which had no room for anything purely personal. He would board the eastbound plane three days from now, and the woman of his desire on the other side of the ocean, living on an unknown longitude on a distant western continent, who had awakened him, who had aroused his sadness, would be lost at once. What had been alive in two chaotic hearts would be converted into a silent point on a lifeless atlas. That was why today’s letter was crucial.

From the other side of the counter came a voice: ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Ray, Birupaksh,’ he said, offering his passport; the handsome young clerk, as efficient as a machine, met his expectations at once. A strange sensation spread over him as soon as he saw the envelope, as though all distance had been banished for an instant, as though there was no such thing as separation in life. And to think I had imagined there would be no letter – how sceptical I am even though I’m so lucky!

Birupaksha walked away, leaning against the wall in a quiet corner. He slit the envelope open carefully with his nails. A large sheet of ivory paper, stiff and crackling – but a little too white, unbelievably colourless. Nothing written on it, not a single ink-mark or pen-stroke – from top to bottom, from left to right, on both sides… white, silent, virginal. But what did the words top and bottom, left and right mean anyway, since nothing was written he didn’t even know whether he was holding the letter the right way up. Yet the handwriting on the envelope was flawless, the postal mark on the stamp featuring Abraham Lincoln was immaculate – and the envelope, light grey, with the watermark of aeroplanes all over it, made in France, was indubitably from Esha too… Then?

Out on the road, Birupaksha wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, slinging his suddenly heavy raincoat over his shoulder he stopped on the pavement. There’s a newspaper kiosk – I haven’t kept touch with the world for a long time, let’s see how things are. Carefully crossing the road made dangerous by speeding cars, he bought a New York Herald Tribune published in Paris, a Le Monde, a Frankfurter Zeitung, and, at the last moment, a slim guide to tourist attractions in Rome – immediately after buying them he regretted burdening himself with these papers, to tell the truth, am I really curious about the world right now? Crossing the road again and passing the Hispanic steps, he paused suddenly before a signboard: Babbington Tea House. No sooner did he read the name in this unexpected display of the English language than his Bengali throat felt parched for the taste of tea – although many things on the Continent were magnificent, no one understood tea there, now he might be able to quench his thirst in real tannin juice in this tea shop with an English name. He liked the place the moment he entered – its tranquil settings were quiet and dark, with just two customers sitting silently and dimly in two corners – that table by the window, tasting the news of the world with tea for a restful half hour – the possibility seemed delightful. He leaned back on the padded bench, ran his eyes over the headlines in each of the newspapers in turn, but it appeared that nothing was happening in the world, nothing new, at any rate – a minister’s resignation, trouble at an election, countries at odds with one another, conflicts, pretended alliances – for ages, ages, he had been seeing these same things in the papers, the same news under different names and different dates. Birupaksha sighed, pushing aside the newspapers in exhaustion. A short Italian girl with pink cheeks brought his tea in a silver pot, Birupaksha’s heart quickened a little at the sight of her milk-white, ironed uniform.

Was that what it really was? A virginal white? I didn’t make a mistake, did I? Making sure no one was watching, he surreptitiously pulled the grey envelope out of his pocket – this time too, an unmarked sheet of paper emerged. Holding it up to his nose briefly, he thought he sensed a faint fragrance – familiar – like the perfume Esha used. What, what could it be? … What could it be? Had she written a letter on both sides of a different sheet of paper and then absent-mindedly inserted a blank sheet in the envelope? No, it wasn’t possible, there wasn’t even a chance in a million of such a mistake – especially for someone like Esha, whom I have never seen losing her composure even under the strongest emotional pressure. But what if that one-in-a-million chance has come true in my case? Who can say with certainty that what doesn’t usually happen will never actually happen? But if the mistake did occur, it must have been caught at once, and the real letter also posted?… But… then… why didn’t the other one reach?

Birupaksha drank half a cup of tea out of good manners, left a fat tip for the short, pink-cheeked waitress, abandoned the newspapers, and returned to American Express in two minutes.

‘Can you please check whether there’s another letter for me?’

Checking the pigeon-hole patiently, the clerk said, ‘Sorry, sir.’

Glancing at his yellow tie, Birupaksha swallowed.

‘Will there be another delivery in the evening?’

‘The evening delivery doesn’t contain overseas letters. Besides, we’re only open till three. You can check again tomorrow morning.’

For the first time, Birupaksha realized that, like other things in life, letters also depended on chance. How easily we assume that any letter that’s been written is bound to be posted, and that if it has been posted it is certain to reach its destination at the right time. It was true that the majority of letters did arrive at their destination, but don’t we hear of letters being lost at times? And this postal network spanning the entire world – international, intercontinental, interoceanic – this highly complicated and superbly controlled system, the finest example of human cooperation, which ensured that a letter extracted from a post-box in an Alaskan village was inevitably delivered five days later to a dilapidated building in a Bangkok lane with its address obliterated – was this too not a wonder, terming which a miracle would not be an exaggeration? So many yawning traps stood in its way – a clerk’s exhaustion, a postman’s inattention; floods, storms, fire, transport mishaps. Come to think of it, receiving a letter was just as unlikely as living healthily for many years; any letter could be lost, we could die or fall hopelessly ill at any time – and yet we have not learnt to be grateful for being able to live with our organs intact, or for having received all our letters all this time.

– But perhaps I’m overdoing it; a wider world exists beyond the circle I am going round and round in over an expected letter – not the bubble-like world of the newspapers, but a different, magical world, in which even ruins shine forth as examples of beauty, and the perturbation of existence has a dappled covering which we mistake for permanence. This is Rome, I am in Rome, for the first time, I’ll be here only for two days, and yet I’ve seen none of the sights although it’s 10.30 am already.

Birupaksha made up his mind and took a taxi; saw many sights, spent a great deal of money, drank a glass and a half of Chianti with dinner so that he could sleep well – and returned to the hotel at nearly 11 pm, suitably tired, a little unsteady from the wine that he was unused to drinking. He was sleepy on his way upstairs in the lift, but the moment he unlocked his door and entered, switching on the light to see a neatly made bed, maroon curtains on the window, a bottle of mineral water on the table near the head of the bed – all the routine arrangements for comfort which were available for a price in any country – he was overcome by the kind of fatigue that can almost be called hopelessness, under whose effect he could suddenly fall ill one night while on his travels, switching on the light at his head now and then, tired of trying to sleep, and then switching it off immediately afterwards and turning on his side, and, half-asleep, feeling in the dim darkness that he was in his usual bed in his own home, that someone would respond if he were to call, someone dear to him would come running if he were to scream, when his imagination persuaded him that his country was the best, that the most comfortable bed was the one the maid Haridasi made for him every night, and that the most beautiful sight was the three-storied house with the plaster flaking off the walls he set his eyes on first thing every morning – and remember the very next instant that he was now far away in another country, even if he tossed and turned all night in his sleep no one would come to him. Just like the child whose heart ached (Birupaksha was reminded of the term pawran porey, which he had learnt as a young boy in east Bengal) if his mother went away for even a single day, Birupaksha was overcome by unhappiness – he had never felt this way anywhere else – as though he wanted to go back, to do nothing but go back to his own house where his family was, the only place that offered him happiness, offered him security. But the question was: which was his own country, where was his home, and who was his family?

Birupaksha prepared for bed mechanically; taking off his watch, he piled everything in his pocket on the table, wrapping his dressing gown around his pajamas, he sat down in the chair. He tried to keep alive in his mind all that he had seen that day… an unwavering radiance, another free spirit with the same bent of mind, beyond our momentary pains and pleasures – ultimately, was this not what brought comfort to humans – such as his linguistics, or like Michelangelo, Rafael or Donatello, who obliterated the memories of the heinous crimes of the Renaissance, the poison, the dagger, the agony of thousands of people burnt alive… But I am only reeling off names, quoting from books, I have not seen anything. My mind is estranged from my eyes, my soul is battling with my body, I am not where I am. Say something, Esha, say something to me – let me see Rome. This is my first time here, I may never come back.

Seemingly disobeying his will, his hand reached out amidst the pile of light, glittering and valueless Italian coins, the wallet swollen with Italian currency notes, the address book, the passport, and the useless scraps of paper. Again that white sheet of paper, turned bluish by the light from the table-lamp with the green shade. As though they were there, words, hidden in it, like pomegranate seeds beneath the hard shell – or like the emptiness of the mirror in an empty room, which can be filled any moment if a door were to be opened, if a curtain were to be drawn. Birupaksha held the sheet of paper up to the light, it appeared yellowish white, like the yolk within the eggshell. Stretching it out flat on the table, he examined it more carefully, for better illumination he bent the neck of the lamp much closer to the paper. After a few moments he thought a few letters were dimly visible here and there. Birupaksha rubbed his eyes, concentrating all the power in his eyes, trained by years of reading ancient manuscripts, on those spots; a few more letters became visible.

Suddenly he remembered reading about invisible ink in a detective story a long time ago, the letters appeared as soon as the paper was warmed. Even earlier, when he was in school, someone had said that the same effect could be achieved by writing with a nib dipped in lemon juice, he had tested this and found it correct… Then… that’s what it was! Very carefully, he held the paper with both his hands just below the bulb; before his eyes, just like corn popping, or like the blooming of buds into flowers under the touch of sunlight at dawn, the black letters began to appear against the white of the paper – one side was filled entirely. Now for the other side – that didn’t take long. And now, the message, the words, the assurance, the drops exuded by the heart of the woman who lived far away, a glass filled to the brim… before him, awaiting the touch of his lips. Birupaksha was not the least bit surprised, he felt no excitement – on the contrary, he considered it natural and appropriate, blamed himself for not having caught on straightaway to this small, innocent trick of Esha’s. But soon thick creases appeared on his forehead, his breath quickened, he had momentary doubts about his own equilibrium.

The letter was written in a language he did not know.

It was a long letter, filled with letters on both sides, nothing scratched out, no white spaces except between the lines, but even he – an expert in Indo-European languages, someone who worked all the time with several Indian and European languages – could not lift the veil off a single word on the sheet of paper spread out before him. After scanning it for some time, he was convinced that the letter was in code, written in the form of a puzzle, for in it he could see many different scripts – Greek letters between the Roman ones, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Gothic, Devnagari, he suspected some of them of being in Brahmi, in fact there were even Chinese characters, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Bengali letters too, and some symbols that eluded Birupaksha’s guesswork. Only at the bottom right of the reverse side, close to the margin, was the name ‘Esha’ written in large letters (Birupaksha had made her practise this), and only this made it possible to identify where the letter started and where it ended, and only this one word could be read.

Birupaksha laughed in a low, soft voice. She’s testing me to find out how good a linguist I am. She used to laugh at me gently when out of sheer bad habit I tried to explain the etymology of words to her, when I tried to teach her Bengali and Sanskrit. ‘Even after twelve years in America I haven’t mastered English,’ she would say, ‘and other languages on top of that! Spare me!’ Her logic was that learning more than one language meant learning none of them, and even after learning several many more would still be left. I would say, whatever is learnt is valuable. Maybe, but you have to accept that man’s ignorance is infinite anyway! The argument would end in amused laughter – but now, she seemed to have written this letter to me just to prove her point, she seemed to be challenging me with bolts of lightning from her lips and eyes  – well? Read this if you can!… Give me a little time, a little time – look, I’ve understood your game now.

But could she – whom I had named Esha, who had learnt a few Hebrew and Yiddish words from her grandmother as a child, and a little Russian from the time she had spent with her former husband, but who, to tell the truth, didn’t know any other language besides German or Russian – possibly compose such a global puzzle? But then how can I say she could not, for many ordinary dictionaries do include the Hebrew, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, she could have picked up a few Devnagari and Bengali letters from books that I had left behind, and what I thought of as Chinese, Egyptian or Brahmi scripts might well be her own improvisations – maybe they had only been used to embellish the manuscript, the way many people doodle in the margin while thinking of the next sentence… But what if it turns out that the entire letter is meaningless, merely an artistically assembled chest with nothing inside? Just look – the handwriting appears synthetic too, the Roman letters are like printed text, interspersed with capitals – not quite recognizable although similar to Esha’s script. It seems this letter’s taken a long time, a great deal of patience, to be written or drawn – but how did she get so much time, how did she manage to be so patient when she knew how much I yearn to hear her voice?

Why do you mock me, Esha?

– Mock? Did she then not really give all of herself to me, did she hold something back? Is she then trying to take herself back at this final hour, before the last farewell, to reject her relationship with me – she, who’s the torrent in my heart?… No, it isn’t possible, it just isn’t possible. I must believe. There’s her signature – clear, my most favourite letters in the language most familiar to me – am I so weak as to ask for more proof? She’s not lying, she’s not mocking me, I will decipher the meaning – I have to.

An hour passed, but still the lines on Birupaksha’s brow didn’t smoothen out, his eyes began to ache from glaring constantly at the letter. Despair crowded around him again, his body was ready to collapse with fatigue, but there was no sleep, it was impossible to sleep in this state of mind. Tell me, Esha, explain what this means – if it’s rejection, tell me that too. In two days the distance between us will become immense – tell me your final word before that – tell me, is this agonizing vigil of mine real? Is it not real?

The telephone on the table caught his eye. His watch showed one-thirty. Eight-thirty in the evening in the Midwest in USA – she was probably at home now, after dinner, the dishes done, she was flipping through Life magazine by herself, or listening to the news on television – what else did Americans who lived in the suburbs have to do in the evening? After a few moments, Birupaksha placed a long-distance phone call.

Successive female voices wafted over the ether – Rome, New York, Chicago – a wave travelling at the speed of thought – a few moments of silence, and then, he heard clearly, ‘Hello.’

For an instant, Birupaksha could not breathe. Esha’s voice – exactly like hers, a little deep, as though she’s standing before me, as though I’ll see her face in a moment. It took a little time for the echo of the impersonal ‘Hello’ to die in his ears.

Again from the other end, ‘Hello.’

‘It’s Birupaksha, from Rome.’

‘Oh, it’s you! How strange – I was thinking of you. How are you?’

‘Did you write to me – in Rome?’

‘Yes, of course I did. Didn’t you get it?’

‘I did – but I cannot understand whether it’s a letter.’

‘ Cannot understand?’ A gust of laughter.

‘I cannot understand a word, Esha. What have you done?’

‘I am writing a letter to you, all the time.’

‘All the time?’

‘All the time. In my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’

‘But this letter – listen – what did you write in it? Which language is it in? Tell me, Esha, answer me – what did you write? Which language?’

‘You’re asking me what I wrote? In which language? You, of all people.’ That drizzle of laughter again.

‘Esha – I beg of you – tell me what you wrote.’

‘I wrote…’ a strange sound followed, as though it wasn’t Esha’s voice anymore, but impotent, half-spoken gobbledygook from the throat of someone being strangled.

Birupaksha heard himself shout, ‘Tell me! Tell me! What did you write?’

‘I wrote…’ Again those peculiar, distorted sounds. As though the sentence was being bent and mangled the moment it was begun, the shriek of a broken record on an old-fashioned wind-up gramophone, or a monkey trying to imitate a human voice. Every time Birupaksha called out, ‘Esha! Esha! Can you hear me?’ he heard the same sounds.

Then the line was disconnected. After a few moments Birupaksha placed another call to the same number, after several attempts the operator told him there was a storm on the Atlantic, she wouldn’t be able to get through till the next morning.

Birupaksha realized he was trembling, sweat was pouring down his face. Drawing the curtains, he opened a window pane, after several gulps of mineral water he sat down with the letter again.

What had they talked about on the telephone? Nothing at all, all he had found out was that Esha did indeed write him a letter. But… even that was a lot. Yes, she did write, but what proof did he have that this was the letter? ‘Cannot understand?… You’re asking me what I wrote? You, of all people!’ Faint laughter, affectionate, but blended with a touch of amusement, as though she was surprised that I cannot understand, as though she has reposed enormous faith in me, but I am proving myself unworthy of her. If only I had been able to talk a little longer, if only that mechanical failure hadn’t swamped us suddenly, if only nature’s whim had not cut us off! But she had said, ‘I am writing a letter to you all the time – in my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’ What could be clearer? Not everything can be written down, since there there’s no end of things to say. And besides (this might be the real reason), how much can language achieve? A tight, ill-fitting outfit – does that describe only a foreign language, as English is for me or Russian, for Esha? Isn’t the concept of language itself constrained, a sort of guesswork – even if it’s what we refer to as our mother tongue? The only difference is that we are more at ease in some languages than in others. Consider the nations that speak English, or Spanish, or Bengali or Hindi or Tamil – how many of their people can really speak it in a way that you can talk about? Instead, language is being eroded by their usage, it is their thousands of newspapers that are becoming filthier by the day, the adjectives are crumbling, the proverbs and humour and apt phrases are being converted to clichés. Does none of those acclaimed pieces that are acknowledged as the best examples of a language reveal the occasional stitch of a blunt needle, a strand of loose thread, or passages held together by a pin – which we do not notice because of the gems that sparkle in between? What is perfect and dazzling and complete in itself in the mind shrinks – or swells, bursting and losing its intensity – to become a compromise when it is put into the mould of language – no longer absolute, but relative to place, time and situation. Yes, relative, but language changes continuously over time – even the flesh-and-blood Shakespeare can no longer be read without notes now, eighteenth century Bengali prose is incomprehensible to the everyday reader. Consider two contemporary individuals from Chittagong and Bankura – both places situated in what was once the single state of Bengal, both the individuals speaking ‘Bengali’ – but bridging the linguistic gap between them is almost impossible. Texts change so much in translation – they have to, for not all languages are equally endowed, every language has its subtleties, compound words, pulses and rhythms, light and darkness, which are unique to it, beyond the reach of any other language. And what we refer to as original writing, that is translation too – from thought to language, from imagination to embodiment; this translation is the most difficult and arduous – and perhaps the least successful. How wonderful it would have been if we could have woven several languages on the same loom, if there were a retort flask in which we could have distilled the different qualities of different languages! Perhaps in this might grow, not this language or that, but just language, the long awaited language in which everything can be said. And perhaps that is what Esha is trying to do – on a small scale, on her own initiative, she wants to create just for me a special, secret, assimilated, symbolic language that no one else may understand, but that I will easily be able to get to the bottom of – at least, that’s what she assumes – since I am a linguist, and since I love her. Then… what I had thought at first is right, after all.

– But how is that possible? Esha isn’t a book-eating creature like me (thank goodness!) – how would such an plan occur to her? The doubt rose in Birupaksha’s mind for the second time, but this time he dismissed it deliberately, the proposition that it was impossible for Esha to create such a script no longer seemed worthy of consideration. He viewed the whole thing from a different perspective now, he asked himself: how much do you know about Esha anyway? No, do not protest; you have to admit that you were busy with her in another way – choked by the constraints of the body and of time, the days and nights growing more passionate under the threat of your imminent parting, you had neither the time nor the inclination to look for anything beyond this. You tried to hold her in arms too eager, far too impatiently, that is why she slipped through them, when you think of Esha you recall her laughing eyes, the scent of her hair, the trembling you felt at her touch – nothing else, just these. You have to admit that you could not accommodate anything larger in this love of yours, you only nibbled at the corners with your small appetite.

– But now this error would be corrected. This letter was the means.

Birupaksha trained his eyes again on the coded sheet of paper; he did not realise when his head fell back against, when his thoughts dimmed and disappeared in the darkness. He woke up with a start to realise that he was sleeping in his chair, his neck ached, and the glow from the table-lamp had paled in the glow of the sunlight reddened by the maroon curtain.

~ 2 ~

He didn’t receive a letter at American Express that day, but then he hadn’t expected to. He spent the day wandering about the streets – dishevelled, aimless, desultory. Numerous lanes, several piazzas, many statues and palaces and churches and fountains and gardens; but all his other curiosity was dead, he had eyes for nothing else. The thought that he was in Rome did not disturb him anymore; he didn’t even remember that on the plane he had decided that he simply had to see Bernini’s sculpture Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona (because one of the rivers was the Ganga); indeed, he didn’t even feel the urge to visit the graves or the memorials of the two poets from his childhood whose lines had still not been squashed under the weight of his linguistics studies. A different task, one specific task, seemed to have captured all his attention, he could have no respite until it was complete.

It was August, as the day progressed the sun grew stronger, at one-thirty in the afternoon he took refuge in a cafe. First a glass of Campari with plenty of ice, moistening his parched throat he spread the puzzle out again – for the first time that day. Something unexpected happened. As soon as he glanced at the paper three words leapt out of it to lodge themselves in his brain: ‘fern’ (‘distant’ in German) in Gothic letters, in the next line the Greek ‘oyaks’ (‘home’), and, a few words later, the word ‘alo’ (Bengali for ‘light’) – surely it was Bengali? – in Cyrillic script… so simple? He almost laughed aloud, but because of his familiarity with the rigorous techniques of research, he controlled himself at once, exercising caution… Where were the verbs hidden? Which of the words were prepositions and conjunctions? What kind of grammar linked the words? Nothing could be conjectured, an entire sentence had not revealed itself yet… Still, a start had been made, three holes discovered in the wall, like the false dawn before sunrise, the sky would soon be filled with light. That one of the three identified words was ‘light’ also seemed a good omen; ‘distant’, ‘house’, ‘light’ – perhaps she had written, ‘A light shines for me in that distant house’ – in other words, ‘Your absence is making me unhappy’… But it could also be ‘I want to return home from that distant light’. In which case the meaning would change entirely. These three words could be part of hundreds of different sentences – which of them was it? And besides, what was the certainty that they were part of the same sentence? The punctuation is unclear, and I’m not used to reading handwritten Greek or Gothic or Cyrillic, could I be getting confused, the way Bengali children confuse compound letters? If only I could get some help, if only a multilingual dictionary were at hand, an expert or two… is there anyone in Rome? He remembered Enrico Carducci – Italy’s finest linguist, but the field of his research is Mongolian, my problem doesn’t exactly belong to his area… Should I go to Geneva, home of Charles Dubois, whose huge accomplishment is the compilation of a ten-volume comparative dictionary of the ancient Indo-European languages? Birupaksha toyed with the idea – I met Dubois just a few months ago at the international conference in New York, he had expressed his approval for my short monograph on ‘The Evolution of Nasal Words in North Indian Languages’ – I don’t think he will turn me down. But… what shall I tell him? This letter… so personal, intimate – how can I show it to anyone? But… I could pretend amusement and say, ‘One of my American students has sent me a riddle – can you tell me whether it makes any sense, or whether it’s a hoax?’… And besides, to a scholar it’s all a question of knowledge, and knowledge is never personal; an authority like Charles Dubois or Joachim Tsin from Tubingen will analyse this letter with the same detachment with which a surgeon uses his scalpel on an unconscious and naked beautiful woman. Moreover, their probing skill will only reveal the literal meaning, the implied message will remain a virgin just for me. The more he pondered, the more Birupaksha found himself drawn to this idea, he felt that before he returned home he had to somehow shed this burden of disquiet that had taken over his mind. There was no difficulty, his holidays had not run out, the return ticket was valid for three weeks more, he had some money too. Nothing would go wrong if he were to delay his return…

He rose with his ravioli half-eaten, took a taxi to the airline office, cancelling the next day’s ticket, and sending a telegram to Calcutta, he took the train to Geneva in the evening.

But Charles Dubois was in hospital, ill. At Tubingen he was told that Joachim Tsin was in Portugal for his summer vacation. From Tubingen to Hamburg, where everyone was surprised when he enquired about professor Helmut Schnell, for the octogenarian scholar had been buried a year earlier. He went to Paris, but Henri Pere from the Sorbonne was in Quebec, and not due to return before October. For a moment, Birupaksha gave up in disappointment, he felt as though ill luck was dogging his footsteps, perhaps he would have to spend the rest of his life burdened by this turmoil.

His last night in Europe passed in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank in Paris. Before going to bed he counted his remaining foreign exchange – he had been travelling Third Class on trains all these days, had not taken a taxi in any circumstances, eaten frugally, travelled through the night wherever possible to save on hotel bills – but what he had still managed to spend was by no means insignificant in Indian terms. He was a good husband, a good father, dutiful, he was taking back for his family whatever money he had saved from his income as a teacher in the United States – he did not consider the money his own; which was why he felt a stab of remorse at this whimsical and speculative expense on the last leg of his journey. And it had come to nothing. Perhaps I should forget this letter, or conundrum, or joke, or whatever it is, it’s not as though I have nothing else to do and can devote all my time to such a trifle.

He had almost fallen asleep when a new thought suddenly set his mind ticking. That he had not found anyone to help him despite so much effort might also be intended, planned; she does not want me to seek anyone’s help; her demand of me is that I should pass this text alone and unaided. As soon as the thought occurred to him a wave of pleasure washed over his heart, sleep made his eyes heavier, he felt he had discovered the vital clue in this complex game. Slowly, he drifted off.

When he awoke, he found it was not light yet. His plane was to leave at ten, he had plenty of time. He had slept barely three hours – but still he felt light on his feet, without a sign of exhaustion from all the travelling. Switching on the lamp, he sat down with the letter again; after a couple of hours he arrived at a certain conclusion. The first three letters were in medieval pig Latin, possibly they said, ‘After you left…’

He returned to Calcutta ten days later than scheduled, rejoined his job, began to shoulder all his responsibilities again. He repaired his ancestral house with the money had managed to save and bring back, bought his wife a refrigerator, a radiogram, and new furniture; he re-entered the orbit of his old, familiar life – easily, without resistance.

Over the next ten years, he published several slim volumes of research in linguistics, inducing active interest among international scholars. But what was normally discussed only by experts abroad made an astonishing impact on people at home. Needless to say, issues such as the influence of Sanskrit on conjugation in Tibetan, or which Hebrew and Greek words had been imported from ancient Persian, or how closely the Tagalog language was related to Tamil and Sinhalese, and how much of Pali and Magadhi-Prakrit featured in it, were equally irrelevant to the daily life of people anywhere in the world; but since incomprehensible issues can also provide the ingredients for excitement, and because the incitement of patriotism and the possibility of compensating for our inconsequentiality makes us Indians exaggerate assumptions of genius, one morning – as a result of two long and admiring discussions in ‘The Philologist’ from Oxford, England and ‘The Journal of Linguistic Studies’ from Cambridge, which some people chanced upon – one of Calcutta’s highly circulated newspaper ran a special article on Birupaksha Ray, the other newspapers followed up with a number of reports – journalists bestowed such flowery appellations on him as ‘Mr Eloquence’, ‘Born Under the Star of the God of Speech’, and ‘Twentieth-Century Mithridates’, in an unguarded moment a harmless-looking but cunning young man took a photograph of him reading and had it published in an illustrated magazine from Bombay. Things became more convoluted after this, suddenly becoming aware of his existence, the gods of Delhi conferred the title of Padmavibhushan on him; the following year, competing with Delhi, the leaders of West Bengal awarded him the highest honorary title of the university, which was normally preserved for highly-ranked scholars on the verge of death.

Birupaksha was considerably disturbed by these unexpected and, for him, completely unnecessary events. Crowds of uninvited socially-conscious men and women at home and in the workplace; appeals from many unknown and, occasionally, a few famous people through the post and over the phone, requests for interviews from one magazine after another; he was asked to participate in myriad agitations, to become the president or vice-president of – or advisor to – a variety of organisations, to sign a multitude of petitions and address a host of meetings; he was immensely surprised at his opinion being sought on such diverse subjects as the Suez crisis, spaceflight. Sino-Indian relations, artistic freedom, and even the architecture of a proposed temple and the desirability of displaying kissing in Indian cinema. For some time attempts were made to drag him into the centre of the debate on the national language of India; north Indians assumed that he would support Hindi by virtue of being an expert in Sanskrit, and south Indians were hopeful that no Bengali could be anything but anti-Hindi; as a result, flattering statements began to be showered on him from both sides. Invitations piled up from foreign embassies; requests to join different programmes in Delhi and Bombay and Jullundhar and Ernakulam, or to head cultural delegations despatched by the Indian government to east Europe or southeast Asia. How was he to cope with all this, what would he do with them? Birupaksha felt helpless at the first onslaught – confused, beleaguered, powerless, and because of this, as though unable to maintain his balance, did one or two things which were both inappropriate and unbeneficial. He signed a couple of petitions (simply to get rid of strangers quickly, without properly reading what they said); responded to repeated requests (since refusing over and over again was a waste of energy) by delivering pedestrian speeches at one or two meetings – but a trivial incident amidst all these developments made him determined to exercise self-defence. One day, one of his colleagues (older than him) told him, ‘Let me tell you something Birupaksha-babu, you’re in the good books of the bosses now – why don’t you take the opportunity to grab a fat grant for ‘Speech’ magazine, in fact if you make an effort you might even be able to get your hands on a plot of land for our linguistics society.’ Each of the words and phrases like ‘good books’, ‘opportunity’, ‘grab’ and ‘get your hands on’ seemed to make Birupaksha quiver inside, but his senior colleague used precisely this language, and in a tone, accompanied by movements of the eye, which suggested that it would be foolish of Birupaksha not to accept his advice. And at once Birupaksha knew what he should do in this situation; he realized that the only way to survive was passive resistance, like a vulnerable insect he would have to hide in his hole, withdraw into a shell like an immobile snail. After this he began to reject each and every proposal indiscriminately – gently, firmly, deferentially, sometimes a trifle rudely, even evoking the ire of ministers and popular leaders. The harsh glare of publicity, which had fallen on him unexpectedly, moved away smoothly, no one could see Birupaksha Ray at meetings anymore, he was not the member of any committee in Delhi or Calcutta, because of his silence on all manner of topical affairs, his name never appeared in newspapers or magazines. For some time, he was criticised in some quarters for his unsocial behaviour; but because candidates always outnumbered posts, his absence was not felt anywhere (some people breathed a sigh of relief at his exit); influential men shunned him, the public forgot his name; Birupaksha was freed of the demon.

Meanwhile, there were some changes in his family life too. His daughter married a young artist of her own choice; his son moved to Ranchi with a job in the government’s geology department; and his wife Suhasini created a happy and independent life for herself. After the initial passion of youth had been spent, Birupaksha’s relationship with his wife had begun to sag – the reason could be his excessive fondness for linguistics, or an unconscious aversion on the part of his wife; for many years (barring the weeks with Esha) his life had been devoid of physical relations with women, and that was what he had become used to. So he was not upset when, shortly after his return from Europe, his wife reached her menopause, though somewhat early. And now, when there were virtually no inhabitants at home other than the husband and the wife, they grew distant from each other, with almost nothing in common. Under the influence of her daughter (or of her son-in-law, via her daughter), Suhasini began to consider herself an art expert; she visited exhibitions with them, entertained young artists at home. In addition, her South Calcutta Women’s Organisation kept her busy too, as its secretary she was invited to the Governor’s residence on Independence Day and Republic Day, she discussed issues of women’s welfare on the radio sometimes. Then there were visits to her son twice a year, motoring around the beautiful hilly tracts of Manbhooom-Chotanagpur, the unmixed pleasure of becoming friends with her grandchildren. And since Birupaksha did not participate in any of this, his distance – not just with his wife but also with the rest of his family – kept growing.

It wasn’t as though there were no conflicts over this at first. Soon after her daughter’s wedding, Suhasini had made a strong accusation to the effect that since Birupaksha was a learned man, whose opinion might be considered valuable, he should not be silent about Asit Samanta’s paintings. ‘I’m not saying this because he’s our son-in-law, but really, his work is very good – extraordinary!’ Now, to Birupaksha, paintings referred to creations in which the subjects could be identified clearly, where the water, the mountain, the animals, the people, the gods and goddesses all revealed themselves at a single glance, all told it was like a narrative – viewing some samples of which on his visit abroad had made him feel as Duryodhana did in the demon architect Moy’s Indraprastha – he was about to pull out his handkerchief to wipe away the fresh blood oozing from the wounded soldier’s chest, it had taken him some time to realise that the flash of bright sunlight was not a natural phenomenon but the result of applying colours. Of course, he wasn’t indifferent to the depiction of Radha’s tryst or to Holi as seen in Mughal or Rajput miniatures, although the figures looked like dolls you could tell immediately what was going on – but Asit’s work, he felt, could easily have been the work of a child; broken, straggling brushstrokes, arbitrary splashes of colour, on the whole nothing like the things we know – in fact it wasn’t even possible to tell whether the painting was upside down or not. His intellect tried to convince him that this was the new style (for he had seen similar work abroad) – but be that as it may, none of this made any difference to him, all this was a thousands miles away from his life. That was why he preferred silence; lest his wife or daughter or his artist son-in-law himself tried to explain the mysteries of these paintings, the fear of which prevented him from speaking his mind. At this time, Suhasini and he might have had private conversations such as this one:

‘Asit’s exhibition opens at the art centre on Saturday. You’re going, aren’t you?’

‘Let’s see.’

‘What do you mean let’s see. Asit’s first solo exhibition – how can you not be there?’

‘I don’t understand art.’

‘Art is to be seen, not understood.’ (Suhasini said this a little self-consciously, and Birupaksha told himself, ‘Khuku’s words, Khuku heard Asit says this, and Asit must have read it somewhere.’)

‘I… er… I’m busy, you know.’

‘Everyone’s busy. That doesn’t mean they have no diversions.’

‘Very well, I’ll go.’

‘Can you tell me why you aren’t interested? Do you know what ‘Abhijan’ said about Asit this week?’

‘What?’

‘They wrote, we congratulate Asit Samanta wholeheartedly for his painting ‘Starry World’.’

‘Wonderful!’

‘I’ll show you Asit’s file.’

‘File? What file?’

‘Clippings of all his reviews, that’s all. You’ll see how much praise he’s getting.’

Birupaksha sighed.

‘Lady Pramila Chatterjee is coming to the exhibition on Saturday. Do you know who’s inaugurating the show? Shankarananda Sinha Roy!’

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Birupaksha.

‘Just imagine, such a great film-director, so famous all over the world – he’s inaugurating the exhibition! Asit is hoping to do some work in cinema – paintings don’t sell in this benighted country, but there’s money in films – if Asit can be the art director in Sinha Roy’s next film…’

‘Of course! Of course!’ Birupaksha interrupted. ‘That would be wonderful.’

‘Everyone admires his work so much – but you don’t say anything even though he’s part of the family – do you think that’s appropriate?’

‘What do you think I should say?’

‘You want me to tell you that too!’ Suhasini said acerbically. ‘They’re your own daughter and son-in-law – you don’t have the slightest feeling for them. You’re not just his father-in-law, you’re an important person too, don’t you understand how delighted Asit would be if you were to encourage him?’

Suhasini continued her lament for some more time, but Birupaksha didn’t say a word.

Or, a few years later:

‘So you aren’t going?’

‘I told you…’

‘Leela requested you so fervently, she wrote…’

‘I have things to do here.’

‘Very well, take your books along. Debu’s got a huge bungalow – you’ll get a room to yourself just like you do here, no one will disturb you.’

After some thought Birupaksha said, ‘But I cannot tell beforehand just which books I might need.’

‘Don’t you even want to meet them at least?’

‘But I do. They visit from time to time.’

‘It’s not the same thing. Just think how happy they’d be if you went. You’re becoming more and more peculiar by the day – we have a lovely granddaughter, you haven’t even bothered to play with her.’

‘There’s no dearth of people to play with her.’ Absently, Birupaksha made an unwise statement.’

‘Incredible! Are you even a human being!’ Suhasini hissed a rebuke, her eyes furious.

But even this sort of bickering was now a thing of the past. He was selfish, he was self-centred, he was stuck in his own little world, he did not care for his own children, he loved no one but himself – Birupaksha had become used to accusations like these, and Suhasini had tired of levelling them too.

No one protested anymore about that fact that Birupaksha did not join celebrations and didn’t deviate an inch from his daily routine even to please the nearest members of his family, no one expected anything of him, everyone had accepted him. Accepted him exactly as he was, a zero with the label of ‘husband’ or ‘father’ or ‘grandfather’, as though he was missing from this house even while living in it, as though, despite the natural circle of love, any contact between him and his family was now beyond the realm of possibility. Sometimes Suhasini told her children pityingly, ‘The man’s heart has died rummaging through dead languages all his life – he wasn’t like this before, you’ve seen for yourself…’ and the others exchanged glances and changed the subject, for everyone knew there was no use talking about it anymore.

~ 3 ~

But still, despite being so unburdened and detached, despite the unbroken leisure, free of distractions, at his disposal, Birupaksha had made almost no progress in his real work over these past ten years. Continuous hard work and round-the-year efforts, defying the seasons, had yielded only those three short monographs, from whose dangerous worldly repercussions he had managed to protect himself carefully. Those were nothing – merely the preliminary shoots, with nothing in them to suggest that he would eventually be able to sink his teeth into the succulent, blood-red apple. The certainty – distant. The proof – none. The letter was still as impenetrable as it had been on a summer morning in Rome ten years earlier. He had covered a great deal of ground around it, emerged from his Indo-European circle, learnt some Hebrew and Chinese; hunched over books for days on end at the National Library; familiarised himself with several extinct scripts after much research; leapfrogging obstacles like his own lack of money (for fate had not endowed him with the ability to walk the path of wealth), the unavailability of foreign exchange in India, and the reduction in the import of foreign books, he had procured from London many dictionaries of obscure languages, he had not slept for more than three hours on many a night; but still he had not been able to pierce the obscurity of the composition.

He had, of course, encountered several points of light. Many moments when he had clutched his pen with the ardency of the adulterous wife at the moment of meeting her lover to write down what at that time had appeared to be a literal translation of the letter. But after the first few sentences he had been stupefied by doubt, a tortuous and unending worry about which corner of the universe the next sentence was concealed in, and how he would find it, making his grey head droop over the desk. He had written nearly three hundred and fifty fragments over ten years, besides innumerable notes and comments – meanings of words, the possible syntax, minute details of the probable grammar – a dozen thick notebooks filled with scribbles, whose meaning was unclear even to himself now – every time he felt that the secret key was within reach, his perplexity grew even more. The principal reason was the inappropriateness and inconsistency of his surmised or imagined translations, terming which laughable would not be an exaggeration. One sentence seemed to yield a description of women’s fashion for autumn that year (‘The cheetah and peacock from your country will steal women’s fashion this time.’); another appeared to offer an intricate analysis of the Cold War between the USA and Russia; a third seemed to be the beginning of a scientific treatise on migratory birds. One revealed an unbelievable degree of vulgarity, while another was like the Sunday sermon by a Methodist priest. Clearly, none of these could possibly be the message he was seeking; obviously, all of them were wrong. He had not been able to close the distance even by a hair.

In moments of exhaustion he had decided to write to Esha, asking her to unravel the mystery, but this had not seemed the correct course of action for various reasons. First, Esha may not have kept a copy of her unusual letter, and he was unwilling to be parted with it even for a moment – or else he could have had a block made and had as many copies printed as he liked. Of course, Birupaksha had made about fifty facsimiles on the pages of his notebooks – he believed the last three were absolutely flawless, therefore there could be no objection to sending one of them to Esha. But… a long time had passed, what if Esha herself had forgotten the solution to this puzzle? Suppose she has indeed forgotten, and wants to know from me what she wrote? Possibly that’s it, possibly that’s just what it is. She rummages through her post-box every day with just this hope. She jumps when the phone rings. ‘How strange! You can’t decipher it? Not even you!’ How infinite her faith in me, she will not allow me to seek anyone’s help, she has made me so lonely, self-dependent. If I ask her for the answer now, will I not be proven unworthy – not just unworthy, but also a fraud? Whatever else I may be, I am not one of those who cheat at chess, who copy from their books in university examinations, who buy lottery tickets to become overnight millionaires. Even amidst such uncertainty, Birupaksha remained steadfast to two of his convictions: (1) This letter was an expression of Esha’s eternal love for him – so that he did not forget her, till his last living breath, that was why she had tied him up in knots, and therefore (2) deciphering the letter not only his personal responsibility, but also possible. An unformed but strong feeling took hold of him – since he had been held to this vow, it must be assumed that it was within his ability of fulfil it. There’s no difficulty – it’s just that I’m not able to concentrate hard enough; charmed by the decorations on the chest, maybe I have forgotten to lift the lid.

That was why, with considered thought, Birupaksha had refrained from getting in touch with Esha. It would not have been impossible for him to revisit the distant country where he had discovered her in an unknown town. At one point – when the Indian government and foreign embassies were looking upon him favourably, the possibility had even risen once; but he had deliberately (or, perhaps, battling against his inclination) brushed aside the possibility. No – it will not be right, I do not deserve to meet her until I have accomplished the task she has given me. She – my gentle, soft-spoken, lover – is waiting patiently for me to explain the meaning of her letter to her. She is waiting – for me to remind her of what she has forgotten herself. Day after day, year after year.

~ 4 ~

But who was this Esha, to whom or to whose memory this middle-aged scholar had dedicated his time, his health, his complete attention? For that matter, what did ‘memory’, that ponderous, glittering word, mean? Does my pulse quicken when I say her name in my mind? Do I hear her voice anymore when I press my ear to my pillow before going to sleep? Can I recollect her face clearly? In fact, if she were to knock on my door suddenly, would I recognise her at once? Questions such as these rose in his mind from time to time, he brushed them aside at once. And this was probably the deepest reason that he had never attempted to meet her face to face again. What if the old melodies were forgotten when they met? What if the hours go by making small talk, as though we are mere acquaintances? What if a letter brings forth a reply that anyone else could have written? No, not that way, not through any easy road – I will not take this route to my destination. What does it matter who Esha is, what she is, what she’s like? What difference does it make if she has retreated to a distance that cannot be bridged? It is that very distance that I touch, just like the waterfall touches the sea the moment it begins its journey. The letter, I have this letter. Her final message – the very last gift with her name – this is enough. This was how, as the years went by, this was what Birupaksha had thought. As a matter of fact, the waves of time had washed away all the facts – sometimes he couldn’t even recollect the name of the tiny town in the American Midwest; to determine whether Esha’s house number was 1302 or 1203, he had to turn the yellowing pages of his notebook – but through this continuous erosion, a single idea – the core of his existence, as it were – remained strong, even grew – that this letter, these different scripts, was indeed a message.

One some nights, when Birupaksha opened his notebook and flipped through the pages gouged by his own pen, his heart swayed like a pendulum between the two extremes of enthusiasm and despair. Sometimes he hunched over the mysterious letters, holding the sheet out flat in the glow of the table-lamp, just the way he had in Rome after receiving the letter, as though with the hope that a hitherto-undiscovered new letter would appear suddenly, or a new relationship between the visible letters would emerge. There must be some principle beneath all this, a mathematical law – surely it was all quite simple, just like the way substituting numbers with symbols automatically revealed the working of algebra. But why have I not been able to find this underlying principle despite all my efforts? Birupaksha was annoyed with himself because his notes and explanations were haphazard, he had written down whatever had occurred to him, without following a rigid methodology – should he have prepared a card index using the American method, creating an alphabetical listing, had he drifted further away from his objective by studying the Tibetan and Sinhalese languages, neither of which was connected to the letter? But method – was that everything? Wasn’t vision the main thing, don’t all mysteries reveal themselves if the power of vision is sufficient? A few years ago I found it difficult to read small letters, they were indistinct, as soon as I began to use glasses everything became clear. Only after Galileo used the telescope he had made himself did he see the mountains on the moon. X-rays made it possible to see the skull, the lungs, the heart of a living man. But where is that miraculous ray which can pierce this paper to reach the distant place where a certainty beyond all argument awaits me?

The night deepened, one o’ clock, one-thirty, two o’ clock, Birupaksha sat uncertainly, dazed with sleep and uneasiness in his heart, immersed in the silence of the night. Drowsiness made his thoughts incoherent; even the conviction that he had considered deep-rooted all these years seemed to disappear now and then, a horrifying question assailed him: is there really anyone named Esha? Was there, ever? Did I ever see her, did I touch her? If she is not a figment of my imagination, if she does exist, why doesn’t she appear? Why doesn’t she say something? She must come, she must prove she exists, she does not have the right to saddle me with all the responsibility and remain dormant herself. At times the form of a woman pushed aside the curtain of sleep closing over him – sitting in the armchair next to his desk, her face indistinct because that part of the room was in the shade, but the contours of her body were not mute, as though she were saying something with all her being, silently. But what? Birupaksha listened carefully, tilted his head to pay more attention, there was only a buzzing, like the continuous hum of a small insect, as he listened sleep came in a rush, waking up suddenly he saw the sheet of paper beneath the lamp. Hebrew letters, Greek letters, Devnagari. His research, his lifetime quest, his examination. If I ask for more proof, will I not be proving my own poverty? Pushing his notebooks aside, Birupaksha rose to his feet, he felt as though he had returned to his focal point, switching off the light he went to bed – but sleep eluded him for a long time.

So he swung from one end to the other – all day and all night – simultaneously with everything else he had to do, hidden behind them.

Ten more years passed. Meanwhile Birupaksha published yet another book; about a hundred and fifty pages of the main text, with eighty-seven pages of notes – dense with symbols and scripts – titled: ‘A Proposition Regarding the Relationship of Sanskrit with Chinese, Russian and ancient Persian’, it offered a new theory regarding the origin of the Indo-European languages. It created even more of a sensation among foreign experts, a great deal of debate ensued over his hypothesis, several people protested vehemently, some labelled the monograph ‘revolutionary’, while others rued the fact that, like many other Hindus, Mr Ray had also regrettably abandoned science in favour of mysticism. German and French translations appeared within six months, but because India was in the grip of a political crisis, there was no repetition of the unwelcome incidents referred to earlier; delectably meeting his expectations, this new effort went completely unnoticed in his own country.  He retired from teaching the day he turned sixty-two – although nothing would have prevented him from clinging on for three years more, and Suhasini had pleaded with him to do just that. On the same day he handed over editorship of ‘Speech’ magazine to a younger colleague, and ignoring all protests he resigned from the post of president of the linguistic society. Now all his time for research was under his own control. But – his family observed in astonishment – his daily routine changed in ways beyond everyone’s imagination. He no longer spent his entire day with his nose buried in his books, his chair in the second-floor library was often empty, his connection with the National Library had become tenuous too. The thick journals that came from abroad – which he would eagerly leaf through as soon as they arrived – were often put away without being unwrapped. Even more surprisingly, he joined family gatherings now and then, took part in light conversation and banter with his children and their spouses – he even seemed curious about Pop Art and The Beatles. It was noticed that when his daughter’s or daughter-in-law’s female friends visited, he – provoking ill-concealed discomfort in everyone – spent some time uninvited with these young women, gazed at them with a degree of wonder, made unnecessary conversation with them, even made racy comments not befitting his age or status. His son had been transferred to Calcutta with a promotion some time earlier; Birupaksha had made friends with his granddaughter after she turned eleven, the same granddaughter whom he had not paid any attention to earlier, he took her for strolls along the river and the Dhakuria Lake, his enchantment with her childish babble became evident in his expression. One morning, he grew excited after seeing a photograph of Madhubala, who had died recently, and reading her biography in the newspaper; he expressed such intense regret at having to die without the chance to watch such an extraordinarily beautiful actress – whose talking, moving figure on the cinema screen had captured the heart of the entire nation – that his daughter-in-law could not suppress the laughter rising in her throat. ‘All right,’ she consoled her father-in-law, ‘if I hear of Mughal-e-Azam playing anywhere I shall take you.’ ‘Who are the most beautiful actresses today?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Most beautiful?’ His daughter-in-law reeled off several names, explaining the unique qualities in their acting styles, Birupaksha listened attentively. ‘There’s a Saira Banu film on, would you like to go?’ she asked, using the Bengali word ‘boi’ – book – to refer to the film. ‘Boi? What do you mean, book?’ His son answered, ‘That’s how films are referred to nowadays.’ ‘Not just nowadays – for a long time now,’ added his daughter-in-law. ‘I’ve been hearing it since I was a child.’ ‘Really? For a long time now? How strange! And I had no idea. Just imagine…’ unconsciously echoing something he had heard many years earlier, Birupaksha said irrelevantly, ‘just imagine how difficult it is to learn even a single language properly – leave alone several!’ Meanwhile, his daughter-in-law had been scanning the entertainment columns in the newspaper, looking up from the paper, she said, ‘It’s playing at Bijoli, I can send for tickets if you like.’ ‘Are you mad!’ his son objected firmly. ‘What’s the use of torturing baba this way?’ But astonishing everyone, Birupaksha accompanied the women in the family to watch not one but two films in a single week – featuring Saira Banu and Tanuja, respectively. His daughter declared, ‘I can guarantee baba will be forced to leave in ten minutes…’ but nothing like that ensued, on the contrary, after their return Birupaksha conducted a long comparative analysis of the two actresses’ looks and acting skills.

This strange transformation – which should have pleased his family – did not generate the expected joy in anyone’s heart. Out of long habit (and to tell the truth, because his absence had never created any difficulties), everyone felt that it suited him better to spend his days in his second-floor library, detached and indifferent; he seemed to be descending to a pedestrian plane from the highest peak of punditry that he occupied; he seemed to be unfairly destroying the pride that they had felt in his being an ‘extraordinary man’, despite all the pain he had caused them. His daughter felt a fresh bout of pique at the thought that her father had never commented on Asit’s paintings, but now appeared childishly obsessed with cheap Hindi films, which was why she couldn’t protest when Asit chuckled, ‘Your father’s brain is turning to jelly,’ meanwhile Suhasini casually told her daughter-in-law,  ‘Don’t you go inciting your father-in-law to watch films, he might turn senile.’

~ 5 ~

However, Birupaksha continued to wage his secret war, it was only his strategy that had changed. He now viewed the entire problem from a different perspective; what he had sensed sometimes, on a late, drowsy night, had now been converted into certainty; he had accepted that the so-called ‘scientific approach’, which he had tried to follow assiduously all this time, was not applicable in this particular instance. I have attacked the script from so many different angles; left to right, right to left; top to bottom, diagonally; I have improvised many different symbolic alphabets, constructed a mixed framework of many languages, but the results have all been unacceptable, all of them have misled me further. By and by he began to think that his knowledge of linguistics was only a façade for ignorance; life was so short (once again he echoed someone else unconsciously) – how many languages do we have the time to learn anyway? There are innumerable languages about which I do not have the slightest idea, whose very existence I am unaware of, and even those in comparison to whom I am but an insignificant labourer, even those geniuses, are nothing but infants, just like me, before the enormous Tower of Babel. Bantus, Swahilis, Eskimos – all these people are articulate and eloquent; despite being surrounded by an alien and powerful language, American tribals apparently still speak in nearly five hundred different tongues. Then how futile, how meaningless our efforts – we who consider ourselves linguists, with our capital of ten or twelve or, at most, twenty languages. Besides, language doesn’t belong to man alone; cats have their love songs, chimpanzees are argumentative, domesticated dogs can communicate hunger, fear, love and the intrusion of thieves simply through inflections in their barking. But wild dogs do not have this range of notes – it is said that the domesticated dog has learnt the ‘language’ of man by cohabiting with him and copying him. But is this assumption valid in all cases? Take the bat – blind by day, living far away from the company of human beings, an actual sound from whose throat we might hear once in a lifetime – fifty years ago a German expert had published a complete notation of their language. And recently a team of scientists in California have recorded the language of the hippopotamus, the range of its sounds is apparently extraordinary considering that it is not human. Until now, human society has believed that only human beings can ‘talk’ in the real sense – since he can stand upright, since the power of his tongue and vocal chords is unique, since the structure of his brain and nervous system is exceedingly complex… with logic such as this man has proved his own pre-eminence. But who knows, maybe fish are not dumb either – it is our eardrums whose capacity is limited, and no instrument exists yet to capture the very low or very high sounds that fish might make. Since we are human beings we look at the world only through the eyes of human being, we observe the behaviour of other creatures only with our own minds and senses (we don’t have a choice) – in these circumstances, how can it be certain that all that has been conjectured about the languages of other animals, or about the origins of human languages, is not as blurred and ephemeral as cobwebs floating in the air?

Birupaksha could no longer accept all the theories he had read about the origin of language – from gestures, from dance, from war, from screams or hisses – in his imagination the family divisions between languages had disappeared too, he had even become sceptical about the universally accepted proposition that Chinese had nothing in common with English. He felt that the Puranas were right where these things were concerned. The echo of one particular articulated sound, like the first pulse of life in an animate world, had tumbled over centuries and millennia to compose all those other collections of sounds, vowels and consonants, nasals and aspirates, whose diverse symmetries we refer to as language. It’s just like the numerous concentric circles created when a pebble is thrown into a lake, only its surge was unending, the waves never ceased. A cascade of echoes, a reverberation of resonance – not the real thing, different kinds of counterfeits, in other words, all languages are only corruptions of the original language – the so-called primitive languages like those of the Bantus or Mundas as much as the so-called evolved languages such as Sanskrit or Greek, English or French. And that is why we do not understand one another’s languages, do not understand each other even when speaking the same language or dialect; the minds of the monkey or the bat or the hippopotamus remain unrevealed to us, whatever interpretation we have of this world and this life are all woefully partial and subject to revision. But St Francis of Assisi used to converse with birds, Gunadhya wrote the Brihat Katha – Ocean of Stories – in ‘barbaric’ Prakrit and read it out to wild animals, Orpheus’s song entranced trees and stones and beasts. Don’t these legends all point towards a single world language – not a synthetic Esperanto or a commercial basic English, not something limited to a particular continent or a means to a limited end – but universal in the widest sense, the natural mother tongue of all of nature, the connecting link between the innumerable and distinct existences on earth? Just as the fraction may be infinite but is still contained within the whole number, so too are the separate language fragments of man and beast subsumed within the original tongue, which in itself is unique and infallible, but beyond the reach of our specialised sciences because it is manifested in many different languages. If one of its rays were to give itself up to me, no language in the world would remain unknown to me, and in an instant the message would become lucid, the message which I have exhausted myself over with my literal quest over all these years.

Birupaksha was electrified by the courage of his imagination, almost feeling afraid at first. Will it be right for me to step off the path which I have long been accustomed to, and which so many experts have walked on? Logic does not support my line of thinking, after all. But was it logic that had dreamed up X-rays? If a ray capable of penetrating flesh and skin to unravel the inner mysteries of the human body could have been discovered, why can’t we discover at some time in the future an invisible beam that can penetrate the covering of script and meaning to unveil what lies at the heart of any language? This see-through ray, which was beyond imagination even a short while ago, was actually hidden in nature since the beginning of time, and it is now considered a natural property of the universe. Similarly, the original language is waiting too – one of us will suddenly part the veil to reveal it. It’s easy – quite easy – only a thin curtain lies in the way, it seems as though it will be drawn any moment, it virtually wants to give itself up.

As he mused about this, it occurred to Birupaksha that man’s biggest superstition was the perceived difference between the miraculous and the natural. We cannot invent anything, we can only discover things. They exist – everything exists simultaneously in the universe – all that we desire, the subjects of our wildest hopes, even all that is beyond our ken right now – are all present; it’s just a matter of finding them. Am I then on the verge of some such discovery, which people will dub astounding and epochal? Birupaksha felt his heart beat faster, overcome by wonder and humility, he pressed his hand to his chest and lowered his head. A different thought sprang up at once from the bottom of his mind, as though he could see a clear path before his eyes. Enough of attacking – it was time to surrender. What I am looking for is self-illuminated (for all the languages of the world are only weak reflections of it) – why should intelligence, knowledge, analysis or exertion be necessary to find it? The world is lit up as soon as the sun rises – do we have to make an effort to realise this? The locked, abandoned room that has been dark for many years and the room that became dark five minutes ago because of a power failure will be illuminated simultaneously when a match is struck. One pinpoint of light is sufficient to dispel even the darkness accumulated over centuries. Then what use is knowledge? An illiterate itinerant forest bandit had unexpectedly articulated incantations bound in rhythm. A clever thief had built the first veena from the entrails of dead animals. I will now have to forsake all my learning. I will have to pretend I have forgotten my vow. I will have to start afresh.

This was the reason that Birupaksha’s daily routine had been broken so spectacularly, or perhaps he had broken the very concept of the daily routine. He was waiting – he would have to pass this period of waiting easily, without making demands of himself, without pondering, without pride. He would have to fill his days with whatever diversions were at hand – and it would be a serious mistake to assume that anything that was at hand was necessarily trite, or irrelevant for him. No – everything was connected, they were all part of the different fractions of the whole number. Every last thing was important now. He would have to observe young women’s gestures, the cultivated seductiveness of beautiful women on cinema screens, how the little girl’s shy smile spread from her lips across her entire face, how sadly his daughter-in-law’s pet dog raised his eyes to the sky, how the beam from the setting sun which fell on his bathroom window made the walls glow… he would have to listen closely to the splash of the rain, to the sound of the streets being watered, to the trundling of the first tram at dawn – the essence of all these ingredients would have to be stored like a secret stash of food within himself, where there was growing, little by little, unknown to him – like a foetus incubated for years on end in the womb of a gigantic mother – the message which he had been searching for in vain all these time. As though the radiation from a distant star had covered millions of light years to approach earth, to approach mankind… to approach him. There’s nothing I have to do – besides allowing what is imminent to materialise. There’s nothing I have to think, I am prepared.

~ 6 ~

This new realisation of Birupaksha’s had some other results too. The sheet of paper with the symbols – which he had taken great care of all these years, spreading it out flat and inserting it into a clear plastic folder (so that it did not tear along the folds), never forgetting to spray insecticide on it once a month – he put away in the iron safe in his bedroom, adding the notebooks with the notes and comments that were the fruits of years of labour. He could no longer believe that they would prove useful; he was amused when he recalled the nights that he would go to bed with the plastic folder beneath his pillow, and his notebook, pencil and the bed-switch within his reach; those moments from the past appeared tragic – moments when he had sat up in bed and switched on the light, written line after line in a feverish hand, drawn a number of diagrams, mouthed the presumed sentences silently, only moving his lips, and then, suddenly stabbed by the dagger of doubt, had plunged his face into his pillow and tried to go back to sleep. He had scanned the letter so many times that a perfect and complete facsimile had been etched sharply in his mind; he could hold on to the image as long as he liked, and if he ever told himself, ‘Not now, I’m sleepy,’ it would slowly disappear. Before he went to sleep, or at the moment of awaking, he played a game like this with his mystery letter.

Because his work always involved sitting at a desk, Birupaksha had long suffered from constipation, of late its severity had increased, he had to allot a quarter of an hour for the preliminary moving of his bowels. To keep annoyance at bay, he went in with a light novel or magazine, but one day he remembered that whatever original ideas he had had about linguistics had been revealed to him for the first time, long ago – not in his library, nor while teaching – but in the pleasant solitude of the toilet. Immediately, he felt a desire, after a long time, for a look at the original manuscript; he took it out of his safe and into the toilet. It was just the same – in other words, just as he had seen it six months earlier. For quite some time now it had become obvious that the physical existence of the script could not be depended on; once pitch black, the letters had turned brown long ago, but even that brown had now become yellow and faded, despite all the care a few creases had appeared on the sheet, even its whiteness seemed grey now. Birupaksha tried to look at it afresh, as though he were seeing it for the first time, but the pretence didn’t last, at first glance the letter seemed to grow heavy in his hand with all its past history. No – there was nothing new to see, he knew it all, he had come through all the battles, burnt a great deal of incense, but not for a moment had he set eyes on the goddess of these letters. Birupaksha sighed, he spent longer than usual sitting where he was – so long and so absent-mindedly that there was a knock on the door, he was informed that his tea was getting cold (‘Actually they’re worried that I might have fainted – it happens all the time these days.’) – to reassure them, Birupaksha said, ‘Coming,’ and rose to his feet, and suddenly, out of haste or carelessness, the letter slipped out of the plastic folder. It fell directly into the commode where he had recently emptied his bowels. Without a moment’s thought, he dipped his hand into the dirty water and picked up the letter, blindly turning on the tap in the basin and spreading the sheet of paper out under it. The cleansed – far too clean – yellowish letters melted into the water, all that had been written was obliterated, and the sheet of paper crumbled into dust and into the basin, where it passed effortlessly through the drain into the metropolitan underworld through which flowed the excretion of innumerable people. And all this took place within just a few seconds, before his eyes – Birupaksha had no opportunity for second thoughts, he could not save a single fragment as a memento. By the time he had turned the tap off, not a sign remained.

The first impact of this accident gave rise to two different feelings in Birupaksha’s mind. He felt guilty – as though a loved one had died because of his carelessness, someone who had been his lifelong companion. But just as, after someone’s death, we think mostly of the dead person, just as they come alive all over again in our minds, so too did Birupaksha recollect, strongly, the real person, whom he had named Esha, the way he had seen her, twenty or twenty-five years ago, in a small town in the American Midwest. Astonishing him, almost overwhelming him, Esha’s face, the form of her body, her voice, all came back to him clearly. Suddenly the desire to see her again, to touch her again, reared its head. He remembered the sunlight, the drizzle, the light breeze, the cobbled lane and the wide, generous piazza – he saw himself at American Express, waiting behind nine or ten people for his letter; his heart was twisted once more with the hope, the anxiety, the failure, of that moment. And then, shaking with restlessness, he slowly found his answer, he went forward towards that quiet ending, which time prepares us for without our knowledge, so that a man does not suffer too much.

Birupaksha did not even realise when the wave of memory and desire, which had been resurrected by the disappearance of the letter, subsided. What had been a reality in the distant past was converted into a pure idea now, his thoughts found a new equilibrium. He was no longer repentant because the original letter no longer existed, on the contrary, he saw a certain aptness in its sudden disappearance. It was natural for an inanimate object to dissolve into the five elements – it wouldn’t be wrong to call it desirable either – because something remained even after that, and this remnant became evident only when it moved out of the shadow of the physical object. Is there anyone who doesn’t know that the idol has to be immersed so that the goddess can seep into our lives? Or perhaps there’s no need to make an effort, it works as automatically as the air we breathe. When it’s humid, when not a leaf on the trees stirs, the breeze still exists – for everyone, all the time. Is this – what I’ve thought of all this time as the ‘letter’ – ‘my letter’? Isn’t the word ‘my’ presumptuous, isn’t it incorrect? Can anyone really live without a task such as this, a responsibility, a constant companion? People live easy lives, passing time on some pretext or the other – until they’re called away to their real work. ‘Here’s the letter – your letter – read it to find out what it says.’ The same letter for everyone, yet everyone thinks it’s only for them – and that is why the mystery runs so deep. It will not be unravelled in any meeting, by any committee, at any conference, pedantry and judgement will be of no use, each one will seek an answer on their own – only within themselves, nowhere else. Birupaksha looked out of the corner of his eye at the other people in the house, he observed people’s expressions if he happened to go out – had the letter reached any of them, or would it reach soon, did any of them know of the expectation that kept each of them moving about restlessly? He thought that this was why his granddaughter was growing up, why his daughter and daughter-in-law did their make-up with such care, why his busy son’s eyes sometimes grew wistful, why his son-in-law played with his paint and brushes. They wanted it, they wanted the same thing that had been growing within him all this time, which had filled him to the brim year after year. That was what they wanted too – but they hadn’t realized it yet. Now and then he wished he could call one of them and reveal his secret, wished he could ask, ‘Have you got it? Have you got the letter? – but he restrained himself at the last moment, lest they thought he was going mad.

For the first time in his life Birupaksha seemed to consider himself happy; that he was alive was enough, there was nothing else he had to do, nothing else he wished for. He may indeed have suffered from a mental problem at this time; sometimes he didn’t understand the meaning clearly when he opened a scholarly book, he thought to himself, ‘Why do people write all this? What purpose does it serve?’ One day an old essay of his happened to fall into his hands, reading just two pages so exhausted him that he had to lean back on the sofa and close his eyes. Another time, his daughter brought him a clipping from a French magazine – a brief discussion on Joan Miro – in the process of reading and explaining it to her, he had to stop several times and check the dictionary. He was surprised, but not upset – instead, he was pleased to think that he had finally been released from the iron grip of his own learning. His vision was weaker, he had to hold the page close to his eyes to read, but he felt no urge to change his glasses, for books had retreated from his life. And the incident had retreated even further – quite indistinct by now – the incident which could be said to have given birth to all the others, and which had seemed oh so important once. Perhaps it was incorrect to call it an ‘incident’, for the word held the sense of an ending, while actually it was still taking place, it took place every day, there was no assurance of its ending. It was like a game, and the game was everything – it was irrelevant why and for whom. And that was why the person who had introduced him to the game was almost wiped out from his mind, he forgot her real name, he even forgot the name he had given her, Esha. And the lost letter, which he had assumed was imprinted in his memory, no longer appeared frequently in his mind’s eye; after spending many sleepless nights, he now fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow, sleeping through the night without waking up; in his dreams he sometimes went back to his childhood, now and then he saw his mother’s face, she had been dead thirty-five years now. The last year of Birupaksha’s life passed this way, in utter happiness.

~ 7 ~

An April morning. Birupaksha had just woken up after a pleasant night’s sleep. He was awake, but hadn’t got out of bed yet, not even opened his eyes. He didn’t know why, but he considered himself extraordinarily happy that day from the moment he had awakened, still in bed, he was enjoying the sensation, half-asleep, without opening his eyes. A breeze ruffled his thin hair – not from the electric fan (he realized this clearly), it was blowing in through the window, a zephyr, a vernal breeze. He seemed to taste the phrase ‘vernal breeze’ with his tongue, with an air of amusement, he thought he got a sudden fragrance of cloves, and the scent was translated into several of the poet Jaideva’s smooth alliterations. A woman’s voice wafted in from the dining room – he recalled that the house was full of people, Khuku and Asit had dropped in the previous night and stayed over, a niece was visiting from Bhagalpur – not exactly visiting, her parents had sent her to Suhasini so that the entire country could be combed to arrange a match for her – ‘she’s not doing anything much after passing her B.A. exam!’ – and the girl had already made some progress towards striking up a romance with Asit’s younger brother. Birupaksha recollected the faces of everyone in the family – how nice they are, how nice they are all – I really have been unfair to Asit, I have hurt Suhasini now and then, Leela too – and yet how they all love me – amazing! He was pleased by the thought that he lived with all of them, that he was alive with all of them around him, he was pleased by the thought that his niece would soon get married, two individuals would once again discover the age-old mystery, like fresh blades of grass children would come again, the youth of the world would remain intact. I had been somewhat detached when Khuku got married, when Debu got married, but this time I will play the uncle of the bride to the hilt, welcome the guests, supervise the wedding feast. There was a tinkling sound – the tea was being laid out – everyone would wake up now, one by one, the dining table would turn noisy. He heard his granddaughter say, ‘Make my omelette please, didani, all right?’ She couldn’t bear to have an omelette unless it was made by her grandmother, even if it was burnt, she would still bite into it and say, ‘Delicious!’. How sweet Debu’s daughter was, she would probably grow up to be a real beauty. Suddenly a face floated up before his still-closed eyes – a woman’s face – the body took shape slowly beneath the face – who was it? Where am I? The sea, infinite from one horizon to the other, an unending succession of waves, the froth racing over the blue, breaking and flowing back constantly – and the woman was walking along the shore of this sea, in a sheer dress, triumphant, radiating youth with every step, beneath the enormous sky, as though wrapping the sunlight around her, and making the ocean her witness. Did I ever see a scene like this in a film? Or is it someone else whom I know, whom I have seen somewhere? Who can it be, what is her name? Suddenly he remembered – Madhubala. Madhubala… Madhumala… Madhumati… wasn’t it a different name? But not all his efforts could make him recollect another name, identifying the woman correctly appeared impossible, and yet the feeling that he knew her, that he had seen her somewhere, grew stronger. He concentrated all the power in his vision on the woman – she was walking towards him, she wasn’t very far away now, but the little distance that remained simply could not be bridged, he was surprised, wondering how the woman could be in motion and still be so immobile. And then he saw that there was no woman there anymore, the sea and the sky had disappeared, and in their place a single letter appeared before his eyes, a dazzling symbol against a dark background. And immediately an uneasiness took hold of his body, his chest seemed constricted, and then a marvellous sight took his breath away. Rows of letters – aligned and organised – surrounded him on all sides, in the same disciplined way in which a band of soldiers wrested a fort from the enemy. All those letters – now he remembered – long familiar… unfamiliar… but unfamiliar no more now. The letters seemed to enter his body on their own – spreading like germs in his bloodstream, in the marrow of his spine, piercing his flesh like needles; their meaning, their sense, their subtle allusions brought forth a response from every pore in his body. ‘Ah! At last! Then… it’s true, all true!’ He tried to say this out loud, but all he heard was a sound like a faint cough. He felt as though he was being unfolded by this unexpected attack, he was spreading out in every direction like a waterfall cascading down to the plains – swelling in every direction, with love for everyone, he was going far, far away. Where am I going? The question flashed in his mind and disappeared at once. Joy – he was overcome by unimaginable joy – happiness, as unbearable as pain, was grinding him to pieces, his heart beat uncontrollably, the sea that had disappeared from his sight a short while ago now roared in his ears, but not devoid of meaning, amidst this roaring he seemed to hear the sounds corresponding to each of the letters. But his senses had not left him completely yet; he felt an indistinct need – although he could not determine whether it was a wish to pass urine or to quench his thirst, or was it to write down for others what he had just heard? His body twitched with the desire to sit up.

A little later, Birupaksha’s daughter-in-law entered the room with his bed tea to find that his head had slipped off his pillow, one of his legs was dangling from the bed on the floor, his body was motionless, his face, peaceful, and the lines of his mouth suggested that he wanted to say something.