Short Stories

Twenty-five Years After – or Before: Buddhadeva Bose

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

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

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

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

Man: Where else would I possibly live.

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

Man: But I had no idea exactly where…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man: Bangkok? … ’65, in January.

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

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

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

Man: Of course, why shouldn’t I?

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

Man: Yes… almost.

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

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

Woman: Riddles.

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

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

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

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

[An announcement is heard on the loudspeakers.]

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

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

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

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

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

Man: How does what feel?

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

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

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

Man: They’re very nice.

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

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

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

Man: Excellent.

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

Man: Excellent.

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

Man: Yes. (Sips his drink)

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

Man: They’re… getting ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman: (eagerly) Yes?

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

Woman: (almost inaudibly) Dehradun… Delhi…

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

Man: Did you hear… the sound?

Woman: Pan-Am’s off to New York.

Man: New York? But I suddenly thought…

Woman: (eagerly) Tell me.

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

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

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

Woman: Another riddle.

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

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

Man: One thirty-two.

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

Man: That’s true.

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

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

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

Man: Not exactly all the way.

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

Man: That’s true.

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

Man: Yes indeed.

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

Man: And Bijon?

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

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

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

Man: Why should that be strange?

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

Man: That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man: I will. (Refills his glass)

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

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

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

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

Woman: What do you mean, the same?

Man: You haven’t grown older.

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

Man: Never?

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

Man: Perhaps because of that very reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man: I’m trying to.

Woman: Meaning – you can’t?

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

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

Man: I was asking what those days were like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman: You’re asking?

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

Woman: You’re asking? Asking me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man: Go on – and then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman: Do you remember your response?

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

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

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

Man: And then?

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

Man: Perhaps.

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

Man: Or courageous, perhaps.

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

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

Woman (coldly): I see. Bijon.

Man: There were tears in his eyes that day.

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

Man: That sounded cruel, Urmila.

Woman: At least I’m crueller than you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman: What if I say you were mistaken?

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

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

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

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

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

Man: You shouldn’t humiliate yourself, Urmila.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[An announcement on the loudspeaker]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[They’re ready to leave.]

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

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

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

[Side by side, they begin walking.]

Short Stories

The Strange Course of Love: By Buddhadeva Bose

Ila is pacing up and down restlessly in her room when Shobhon appears outside the door. The only information about them we need is that Ila is twenty and Shobhon, sixteen.

Ila (brusquely): Who’s that?

Shovon: It’s me.

Ila: Ah… Shobhon? (gently) Come in. (Shobhon enters) Sit down. (Shobhon sits down) Have you heard what your Amal-babu’s done, Shobhon?

Shobhon: What’s he done?

Ila: You haven’t heard? (acerbically) He’s getting married, you see!

Shobhon: Then so are you.

Ila: (suddenly stops pacing up and down and faces Shobhon) Look, Shobhon, I’m warning you, you’re becoming cheekier by the day…

Shobhon: I’m sorry.

Ila: (quickly patting Shobhon on the shoulder) Well, so’m I. Please don’t mind – I’m not in my senses today.

Shobhon: So I see.

Ila: Listen. Your Amal-babu is marrying Pamela Mitter – can you imagine! Pamela – ha ha! (Ila laughs drily.) What do you think of Pamela’s looks, Shobhon?

Shobhon: Ug-ly.

Ila: Ah, Shobhon. You have discerning eyes. Pamela… her face is exactly like a halibut’s, isn’t it?

Shobhon: (after some thought) Very much like a halibut’s.

Ila: Not very much, Shobhon, exactly like a halibut’s. Take a good look when you can.

Shobhon: I will.

Ila: And he has to pick halibut-face to… have you brought my cigarettes, Shobhon?

Shobhon: I have. (takes the packet out of his pocket and gives it to Ila)

Ila: (rips the cellophane wrapper off the packet and opens it with such force that the entire foil-covered tray slips out on the floor.) Damn!

Shobhon: Here you are (picks it up and hands it back to her).

Ila: ‘kyou. (putting a cigarette in her mouth) Want one?

Shobhon: No.

Ila: Have one. Never mind, don’t, you’re still a child. (tosses the packet on the dressing-table, then picks a lighter up from the teapoy nearby to light the cigarette) What I simply cannot understand, Shobhon, is how he could choose this halibut-face – ugh, what taste Amal has! Just as well, Pamela will suit him just fine. Do you suppose, Shobhon, that I would marry him, that I would even consider marrying him, even if he threw himself at my feet and licked the soles of my boots and sobbed?

Shobhon: Why are you pacing about that way? Please sit down.

Ila: if you run into him, Shobhon, tell him that Ila is ashamed today, that she feels sorry for herself, for having consorted with someone whose taste runs in that direction…

Shobhon: I will.

Ila: No, don’t tell him she feels sorry for herself. You can tell him instead that… never mind, there’s no need to say anything at all. If you run into him, say nothing about me. All right, Shobhon?

Shobhon: All right.

Ila: And if he tries to say anything, if he tries to say anything about me, Shobhon, just give him a resounding slap. Can you do that, Shobhon?

Shobhon: Of course I can.

Ila: No, don’t say anything, there’s a good boy, don’t say a word. There’s no use making a scene. Let him do whatever he wants, what relationship do I have with him anymore? (remains silent for a while, then throws the cigarette out through the window) Let him die, let him go to hell, let him be ruined – what do I care? And yet and yet and yet, Shobhon, yes – you know that I loved him, Shobhon – can you tell me why he didn’t marry me? Yes, of course I would have, I was ready to. If he asked me even now, at once I’d – you’re laughing, Shobhon?

Shobhon: Oh no, why should I laugh?

Ila: What do I do now, Shobhon, tell me. What use is it to stay alive? Now I wish… if only I’d died earlier… but who would have thought such a thing would have happened. No, it’s no use staying alive. I’m going to kill myself, Shobhon.

Shobhon: You’re determined to?

Ila: I’m telling you in confidence, Shobhon, don’t tell anyone else. Tomorrow… by this time tomorrow I’ll be dead.

Shobhon: How will you kill yourself?

Ila: With poison – no, I’ll shoot myself. Can’t you get me my father’s pistol without anyone knowing, Shobhon?

Shobhon: Do you know how to fire it?

Ila: That’s true, I’ve never fired a gun in my life. What if I miss – how terrible! There’ll be a bang, everyone will get to know, such a scandal – but I won’t have died. I’ll have to die of shame instead. No, I’m going to poison myself – opium, strychnine, potassium cyanide…

Shobhon: Where will you get all this?

Ila: You’ll get them for me.

Shobhon: Where?

Ila: That’s true, that’s true, this is a big problem. So many varieties of poison in this world – but not a bit to be had to kill oneself. What’s to be done, Shobhon, what’s to be done?

Shobhon: What if you don’t kill yourself?

Ila: (after a brief silence) Yes, you’re right. You’re right. No, I shan’t die, I shall live. I shall live. I’ll show him that he means nothing to me. I consider him insignificant, I loathe him – no, I don’t even loathe him. He will realise I never loved him a bit (suddenly stops, then speaks hoarsely) But I did love him, Shobhon, you know that.

Shobhon: Come and sit down here, have another cigarette.

Ila: (sits down beside Shobhon, puts her hand on his) You’re a nice boy, Shobhon, a very nice boy.

* * *

[ One year later ]

Shobhon: (answering the phone) Hello.

Ila: (on the phone) Is that you, Shobhon?

Shobhon: Yes, it’s me.

Ila: Listen Shobhon, I’m going to… it’s Ila…

Shobhon: I know. Tell me.

Ila: I’m going away. I’m leaving Calcutta tomorrow, India three days later.

Shobhon: Our misfortune.

Ila: No, don’t say that. I’m feeling just as horrible about leaving all of you.

Shobhon: Why are you going?

Ila: Just… holidaying.

Shobhon: You don’t care for India anymore?

Ila: it’s not that; I have to go somewhere far away – that’s why.

Shobhon: What! Are you planning to settle in England?

Ila: I might. It was all very sudden – I didn’t even get a chance to meet everyone…

Shobhon: So soon after Ranajit-babu’s wedding…

Ila: Don’t say that, Shobhon, don’t say that.

Shobhon: I’m not saying it – everyone is.

Ila: Who is?

Shobhon: Everyone.

Ila: What kind of people are these, what kind of people. But Shobhon, that’s why, that’s why I have to get out of this country.

Shobhon: You’re wise. It’s far too hot here.

Ila: (after a pause) Um, Shobhon, let me ask you something. Have you run into him… Ranajit?

Shobhon: I have. I went to their house the other day – we were invited.

Ila: What did you see? Is he happy?

Shobhon: So it seemed.

Ila: (after a pause) I’m glad to hear that.

Shobhon: Really?

Ila: Yes, Shobhon, really. Let him be happy, I don’t want anything more than that. Let him be happy – I’m going away. Now I do think I’m not coming back – no, I shan’t come back. Perhaps we’ll never meet again, Shobhon, don’t forget me.

Shobhon: You and I shall meet. I’ll go to England next year, as soon as I’ve passed the ISC examination. And I’ll bring you back when I return. If you don’t want to come, I’ll force you to.

Ila: (laughing) Shobhon, Shobhon, of all the people I know, you’re the only one who loved me a little.

Shobhon: Do you want to know my plan? I’ll have a job waiting for me here as soon I’ve got my engineering degree in England. Then… then I’ll marry you.

Ila: You’re getting too impertinent, Shobhon…

* * *

[ Four more years later ]

Shobhon: Hello.

Ila: Is that Shobhon?

Shobhon: Yes it is.

Ila: It’s Ila.

Shobhon: Oh, Ila. So glad. So kind of you to have … me up…

Ila: Not at all.

Shobhon: You’re the first person I thought of when I came back. How are you?

Ila: I just found out that you’re back. I had phoned earlier too – you weren’t home. Listen, will you come over? Just once?

Shobhon: Of course I will. And not once, but a thousand times. I would have even if you hadn’t asked.

Ila: Ah, Shovon, what a good time we had in London those first few months, do you remember?

Shobhon: I’d expected you to stay, if not forever, at least a little longer.

Ila: Do you suppose I was unwilling? But I had no choice, my mother fell ill suddenly… but we didn’t meet the day I was leaving, I had hoped…

Shobhon: I tried my utmost, but something came up…

Ila: Never mind all that now. Do you remember what you told me on the phone the day before I left Calcutta, Shobhon?

Shobhon: I wanted to marry you, and you scolded me. (laughing) Oh Ila, the things people say when they’re children!

Ila: When are you coming over, then?

Shobhon: How about this evening?

Ila: Yes, come rightaway, this evening.

[ A pause ]

Ila: We’ll meet after such a long time. Three years – no, even longer. Where was it that we met last? Wait, let me recollect – at the Chinese restaurant in Soho, wasn’t it?

Shobhon: Ah, that Chinese restaurant. What a funny place. How funny the man’s accent was. But still, the food was superb. Later I took Marjorie there quite often.

Ila: Took whom?

Shobhon: Marjorie.

Ila: Who’s Marjorie?

Shobhon: My wife.

Ila: (choking) What did you say?

Shobhon: My wife. I’m telling you in confidence, Ila, don’t tell anyone else. I haven’t let anyone know yet. The idea is, once Marjorie gets here…

Short Stories

Lovers: by Buddhadeva Bose

I climb out of the Subway on 110th Street. The end of June, the beginning of summer, a glittering Broadway. In the distance, the sun is setting into the arc of the Hudson as it flows into the Atlantic – all of Manhattan is iridescent, the grey houses are pink. I have climbed these subways stairs up to 110th so many times that I have lost count now. I no longer get into the wrong train, I don’t have to consult the green arrow anymore to take the shuttle to Times Square, I’ve memorised everything. I belong to this city now. I have no fixed working hours, but I choose to return when offices close, to savour the sharpest taste that the city can offer. The peak commuting hour is past – I was in a paperback store in Greenwich Village (oh god, some of their bookshops turn you mad) – half of New York is done with dinner – but how crowded it still is, how crowded! Millions of people, different races and nationalities and colours, women, men, old people, boys. And among them, me. They are rushing like an army of ants; so am I. They don’t glance at one another, but I glance at them – grim, lined faces, expecting dinner back home, each with their secret anxieties, looking forward to meeting their wives or husbands – or sadness. All of them lonely, but I am immersed in an ocean of companionship. Today I took the wrong exit and surfaced on the opposite pavement, I was confused suddenly, for a moment I didn’t recognise my hotel. This is one of the contributions of the Subway – the same city, the same street corner, the same house and sky can appear in different forms, just like a lover dressed in clothes of a different colour or style. Ten days more, two hundred and forty hours. After that I will no longer climb up these stairs, look at the rectangle of the sky getting larger as I ascend, or be astonished at the sight of an even larger world beneath the sky. The same faces, but they have changed now, this summer evening has spread the light breeze everywhere, people are exchanging glances now, no one is lonely anymore. This evening crowd on Broadway will keep smiling and flowing, I won’t be there. I will have to leave her – but who is she? She is supposed to be there between quarter to eight and eight: hurry up. Let me call her and tell her not to be late. Here at this drugstore… no, the pastry shop is just a minute away; let’s go, run. I want a quick look at that girl, at the man too. Husband and wife? No, they’re too similar in appearance, must be brother and sister. Danes, both of them tall and slim, perfectly blonde. Indra and Indrani from the Rig Veda. Alas that they have to be shopkeepers despite such beauty, goddesses from heaven pressing buttons to add up prices. There are three customers ahead of me, I keep looking at the girl in rapt attention, why haven’t I asked her for a date all this time I have been here, when Dolly was working late at the office – but who knows, what if they are actually husband and wife, I can never tell from the ring, but then I could have found out easily enough by striking up a casual conversation. But I haven’t progressed beyond the smiles in their eyes, which they distribute to the entire world, I am leaving in ten days. I ask for a slice of fruit-cake from the showcase beneath the counter, so that she has to bend to get it out. (So slender, like a tender shoot; so flexible, like a strip of cane; my ivory girl, my willowy woman – whose poem is that?) She puts it in a box, I request her to wrap it in paper, so that I can watch her long, tapered fingers at play a while longer. I will have to carry this box now, although I never eat dessert, Dolly doesn’t care for it either. In the civilised world, why can’t one simply say, ‘I don’t want to buy anything, I’m only here to gaze at you for a bit, and for another glimpse of your blue eyes’? Near the door I remember – the phone call. ‘Bella isn’t asleep yet, I’ll leave as soon as Martha arrives.’ ‘When will Martha come?’ ‘It’s time – any moment now, there’s the doorbell, that must be her. See you soon then – in fifteen minutes.’

Ah – soon. In fifteen minutes. Run home. The owner of the laundry I use is standing at the door for a breath of fresh air, she munches on some sort of mouth-freshener all the time, her words are always fragrant. She smiles at me – should I stop for a bit? – no, two of the fifteen minutes must be over, there’s no time, just about ten minutes more. How wonderful this city is, how beautiful this evening, the first real day without a trace of winter, all the glass doors open, the entire world out on the streets, the florists on the pavements. How lovely these twelve – eleven-and-a-half – eleven – minutes of waiting are. I stand at my third floor window, looking out, one bus after another comes to a stop, she will get off one of them – the splitting image of her, with my favourite face, eyes, lips, and cheeks, ready for me. I still have a long ten days to go – unlimited time – a kingdom. I hope she won’t take a taxi, if she comes in a bus I will see her getting off, her rolling walk, in this sparkling light, I will see her look at my window across the road. Thumping, my heart thumping, I’m trembling with expectation, I’m not forty-two anymore, I’m eighteen. I’m travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, with Manju by my side. Some stroke of fortune has handed me the responsibility of escorting her back to her hostel. What joy, Manju needn’t be back before ten, it’s only eight-thirty now. I have instructed the coachman to take the road leading away from her hostel – towards Ramna – I’ve promised to pay him by the hour, so that he may drive slowly. A spring morning, a green Ramna, the golf course and the race course, the houses with sloping roofs concealed amidst their respective gardens, not a soul anywhere. Manju by my side, our shoulders touching, never before have we sat so close together. The carriage trundles along, laziness dripping from the sound of the hoof beats, the occasional rustle of leaves, a dreamy, intoxicating morning. Not too many words spoken, just looking into each other’s eyes occasionally; we’re alone, the veil of pointless conversation can be torn away; in my eyes she grows lovelier by the minute, my love has made her even more beautiful. Her smile spreads from her eyes to her lips, her lips part, a flash of teeth, tongue, I move away to observe how red I’ve made those lips of hers. My first time. My first kiss, that is. Manju is panting a little, suddenly it occurs to me that faces aren’t visible up close – which is better, kissing or looking? But it is Manju who leans towards me now, we grow bolder, suddenly I spot a boy of fourteen or so on the road, looking at us round-eyed, smiling. We have not even bothered to raise the shutters on the window, we’re innocent, we’re children, we’re heaven on earth. We’re children, both of us, I am seven at most, Tunti is probably not even five, I am visiting my mother’s family in Faridpur. All my games are with Tunti, I dress up dolls, dig holes in the ground to light a stove, pluck leaves and blades of grass to use as seasoning, I’m trying to be like Tunti, to love everything that she loves, for her sake I’m almost becoming a girl myself, all boys of my age seem to be apes when compared to Tunti. But in the evening my male personality asserts itself, I have taken the responsibility of coaching her, I teach her the alphabet, a lantern sits between us, two large shadows on the wall, instead of teaching her I watch the shadows, both small but one bigger than the other, but because the lantern is so close both are large, they shake their heads when we do, wave their hands, crook their fingers, I love watching them, curling up behind her I merge the shadows into one, I move about to make my shadow touch hers, I shake the lantern to create strange forms on the wall – Tunti laughs coquettishly, she is scared too. This was a mystery, shadows, a primordial evening romance which the easy availability of electricity has destroyed today. But there is no electricity at this Kohinoor Hotel of ours, there’s brilliant sunlight all day and at night the world disappears only we remain – Ila and I – in this tiny room on the second floor, the huge terrace just outside the door, and even larger sky above it, and before us – as big as the sky – huge, powerful, turbulent – waves, one after another, the storm rages all night, but all day long it’s just blue, white, frothy, green, violet – the sea. The whole sky is in this room, the horizon is in this room, and the voice, the passion, the breath of the sea – all ours, all for us. Ila’s in Puri for the first time, she is afraid of the roar of the waves at night, we spend most of the night awake. I still cannot get used to the idea that Ila is mine now, my wife, every time I feel I am doing something wrong, doing what I should not, and that’s why the thrill is unending. Is this real? Are Ila and I really alone in our second-floor room, cloistered in the heart of the night with the sea stretching before us and the star-studded sky over our heads? Which is real? These days, these nights, this upheaval of the waves, this stirring of the blood – or marriage, domesticity, the poky little flat in Bhawanipur, the suffocating smoke from burning coal every evening? We’re on the Chowringhee tram, on our way to New Market, I am sitting next to Ila on a seat reserved for ladies, but several nurses in white uniform get on at Elgin Road, I move to the long bench near the door. A young Anglo-Indian woman enters at the next stop and sits down next to me at once, a priest takes the seat on her other side, a thin, tired clerk somehow makes space for himself on the few remaining inches. Four people on a seat meant for three, the priest is quite plump, it’s a tight squeeze, I cannot avoid contact with the Anglo-Indian woman’s body even if I try, fidgeting makes the contact even more palpable. But her face shows no sign of discomfort, her face hasn’t contracted in annoyance, her eyes are quite cheerful, as though she has avoided contact with the priest and is leaning against me, she might even respond without reservation if I say something. Pleasure spreads over my body – the fading winter sunshine on my back, and this other warmth – I am feeling guilty because Ila is on the same tram (even if she has her back to me), and because of the guilt, the sensation is even stronger, as though I am on a swing in a garden, moving very slowly (actually the sideways swaying of the tram), my eyes are closing, I can get a whiff of flowers in the air (actually the lotion in the woman’s hair, the powder on her face, the perfume on the handkerchief tucked into her breast) – ten minutes pass this way – no, maybe five, three hundred seconds, an eternity, with my body I sense a young woman, a young soul, a stranger’s life – warm, soft, new, undiscovered. She gets off at the same stop as we do, I have to suppress all other desires because Ila is with me (could I not have found out her address at least?), in fact I don’t even try to look at her on the road – I do not realise when the mistress of touch is lost in the crowd on Chowringhee forever, gifting me only a flower that lived for five minutes. Everyone is lost this way, no one can be held back, the person you’re spending your life with, the person you refer to as your husband or wife, that person has long been lost too. All of us are changing every moment, we do not know one another. A smashing party, liquor is flowing in this city under prohibition, the low hum of the Arabian Sea is drowned in laughter and conversation, film stars are circulating like Ferris Wheels – millionaires, diplomats, and so on. I am drinking lemonade, I don’t want to lose my composure, I’ve got my eye on the fair-skinned French countess, her velvet dress clinging to her curves, it looks very simple but every weave holds an artist’s talent, skill, taste – at least, let’s assume that’s the case – I must find out whether it’s a Dior. As soon I arrived I got a couple of minutes with this Indophile writer, I asked her without a moment’s hesitation whether she was fond of Baudelaire; in response, she smiled with her eyes and murmured the first stanza of the wonderful poem whose title is Invitation au Voyage. The French words fell from her lips like droplets of honey on my ears, I found a new beauty in the creases at the corner of her eyes signalling her age. But I had to move away soon afterwards because of the swelling crowd, and now I cannot approach the siren any more, I cannot even see the slender figure in black velvet continuously, like a jewel in a box, like a sword in a scabbard – how downy black the velvet is, like a poem by Baudelaire, black, a glow bursting out of it. I’m standing in a corner like a fool, guzzling lemonade – how about a Cinzano instead – no, best to avoid these shallow Romantics, Classic scotch is best. No, not alcohol, I need food, I’m ravenous after the exertion of seeing the Vatican, I’ve just returned to my hotel, it’s three in the afternoon. The dining room is shut, I’m at the snack-bar in the basement. There’s are no thronging crowd now, I’m the only customer, besides a broad-shouldered young German drinking beer on the long bench. I raise my eyes as I eat; a girl is standing on the pavement outside, as still as a picture. I am in the dimly lit basement, the girl’s one floor above me on the pavement, it’s summer outside, I get a clear view through the clean glass window – she’s exactly like a heroine taking up position on stage. She’s dressed in a thin, white, low-necked dress, I am thinking Boticelli, but suddenly the lady of spring appears to wave, she seems to be signalling with her hand – then, bending, almost flattening her nose against the window, she sends an unmistakable message – come. To whom? Must be the German, but his back is still turned as before, and from his position he cannot see her anyway. Me? Impossible. I concentrate on my omelette again, but… isn’t it silly to brusquely reject someone who’s submitting willingly? Isn’t it cowardice? Isn’t it discourteous to life itself? Let me at least find out what this is all about. But when I raise my eyes – she’s gone. I abandon my food to go outside – not there. Where has she gone? Black magic? I keep thinking of her all afternoon, and at night when the fashionable crowd on Via Veneto is swelling, I’m wandering around the cafes, scanning the faces – but will I even be able to recognise her now? Did I really see her, or did I only create an object of desire from my suddenly arousal? Maybe she was only an ordinary streetwalker (just like my companion of five minutes on the tram to Chowringhee) – she had thought that a foreigner would be easy prey – and for her I had wasted the entire afternoon and evening – and that too, not in any old city but in Rome, where, this very morning, just a few hours ago, I had seen the Sistine Chapel and the opulence of the Vatican for the first time in my life. Was it for the thin white dress, the curve of the neckline, the cleavage which rose and fell with her breath, the cheap array of beauty being peddled that I had forgotten the Eternal City and the immortal Michelangelo these past few hours? Here they are, arranged on the shelf, the books I bought recently; Thomas Mann’s novel, Rilke’s poetry, a wonderful new translation of Sophocles – and I am restless because Dolly isn’t here yet, my days are flying by either in Dolly’s company, or waiting for her; the hours that I could have used to re-read Philoctetes, to listen to the angels beating their wings, to watch the goddess ascend from the fires of hell to Faust, have been filled to the brim by Dolly Gordon, who does not understand poetry, who likes going to the Metropolitan Museum only for the pleasure of having lunch by the fountain in its garden, whose lack of time (or lack of interest) prevented me from going to Mozart’s Don Juan, making me give up the tickets even after getting them. How cruel this thing is – which people call love. How agonising – this waiting. Half an hour has passed, my eyes are smarting form staring at the clock, ten times I have walked up to the telephone and ten times I have returned without using it. Why should I worry? She’s the one who should inform me if she’s going to be late: it’s her responsibility, her duty. I’m hungry now, lunch was a long time ago, a hamburger (I don’t enjoy eating good food alone) – she isn’t even bothered that I’m starving because of her. Why don’t I go out – let Dolly go back, let her be punished, let her realise that she’s no empress, and that I’m no slave either. Dolly does these things wilfully, she hooks me to a barbed wire and enjoys the outcome, savouring her own power. And now there are only ten days to go. Does she really love me? Or, having submitted, does she find herself trapped, is my golden bird now fluttering her wings in a cage? And yet, when I was stuck in Hotel Mascot, unable to go out because I had a cold, it was winter, this same person had brought me food every day – lobster, ham, chicken, apples, Rhine wine, soft and warm rolls she had baked herself – one day the lift was out of order, she had walked all the way up to the ninth floor, carrying the basket of food, a handkerchief tied around her head, a limpid glow in her Hispanic eyes, snow on her overcoat, panting because of the cold and the effort of climbing nine floors, her lips slightly parted, offering me the gift of her vigour and her joy, the giver of life, the giver of sustenance. I was gazing at her spellbound – Dolly, Dora, Dolores, my Dhaleshwari, my dahlia – how could Jim Gordon have left her. Love: must it be only momentary, then? Desire, the blooming of desire – is that all there is to love, does the other side of the vibrant picture reveal itself as soon as the desire is satiated? Ah – if only it had been the French countess instead of Dolly, whose address I hadn’t sought, whose very name I had forgotten, yet with whom there could have been a mingling of minds, the kind of love on which the body does not obstinately intrude every now and then. With her help I too might have discovered the key to Racine, the fire beneath the ice, the lightning hidden under the lid of the couplet; I would have got to the heart of the secret magic that made every cultured Frenchman and woman besotted with Racine, while foreigners could not reach him at all. What a triumph it would have been in my life, like conquering a new kingdom. But the time comes when we no longer want conquests, nor happiness – we just want peace. And this peace can only come from… the body. Books make you think too much, books are bad. The body offers no argument, the body is good. Even a beautiful woman sitting in front of me gives me peace, like a pink haze stealing over me surreptitiously, I have to make no effort. And that is why I want Dolly Gordon. Just look at the time – a quarter to nine, the streetlamps have been lit – what is she doing? Fleur de Lis will close in another fifteen minutes – the small French Restaurant on 87th Street, never crowded, they serve wonderful oysters and a cold and sweet sauterne – all day long I’ve been looking forward to dining there with Dolly. Why isn’t she here? Is it even possible that her daughter has not gone to sleep yet, or that the babysitter hasn’t arrived? Or… has there been an accident? Did a drunk run his Chevrolet over her? Did the cable of the lift snap suddenly? I seem to see Dolly at the hospital, covered by a sheet – she is no longer beautiful, she is not a woman anymore, she has become a pulpy lump of flesh and blood. No, this anxiety is unbearable, swallowing my pride I pick up the phone: busy. Two minutes later, the moment I hear her voice, I am furious, my jealousy rears its head, unformed accusations and suspicions. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry, please forgive me – Martha only just got here, and Bella simply wouldn’t go to sleep.’ ‘But you said the doorbell rang.’ ‘That was the janitor, he was here to fix the kitchen sink.’ ‘Right. But then why was your phone busy a few minutes ago?’ ‘It wasn’t me – Martha was calling her boyfriend.’ ‘Didn’t you say Martha only just got here?’ ‘Oh, only just in the sense of a few minutes ago. The moment she came in the phone rang.’ ‘Why was she so late?’ ‘She had gone to the hospital to see her grandmom.’ ‘Is her grandmom dying?’ The response was brief laughter. ‘Wait at the corner for me, I’m coming over in a taxi, ok?’

I have been listening to Dolly a little suspiciously all this while – the janitor, Martha’s boyfriend, the grandmom, it all sounds plausible, but who knows whether the truth is something else, I have no way of finding out anything beyond what she chooses to tell me, how much of her days and nights, of her entire past, of her life, do I know about anyway? I am smarting at the casual air with which she spoke to me on the phone, as though these things aren’t particularly important for her, she will be happy if she can visit me, but not unhappy if she can’t; for some reason, she is oblivious about how wrong it is of her to be so late, uncaring about how much it pains me. But my state of mind was transformed the moment the last word fell off the black instrument bearing our words back and forth. ‘Wait at the corner, I’m coming over at once…’ These words gave life to a different Dolly in my mind – Dolly – Dolores – Dhaleshwari – honey-tongued, clear-eyed, a heart of pure compassion. We have entered a restaurant – fortunately it’s still open – high ceilings, a stone building from the eighteenth century, a strapping tall half-asleep young man is our waiter. It’s almost closing time, but he isn’t hurrying us, his big body is lumbering about lethargically, the corners of his eyes are red, his face is creased, grave. He holds a desultory conversation with us (assuming that Dolly and I are married), perhaps to shake off his sleep, or because there are no other customers. He speaks English haltingly, he comes from Buenos Aires – the loveliest city in the world, according to him – I sigh because I am unlikely to see this city ever in my life, but Dolly begins to talk to him enthusiastically in Spanish. Our broccoli and brain-cutlet are laid out before us, the man stands with his back against the wall, Dolly’s gaze keep drifting towards him; ‘He’s handsome, isn’t he? His face is very interesting, isn’t it…’ ‘Looks like an alcoholic, doesn’t he?’ Dolly keeps whispering comments like these in my ears, squeezing my hand at times, as though to reassure me of her devotion, and I am wondering where my gut-wrenching craving has gone, which made every nerve in my body tingle while I was standing at the corner of Broadway and 110th. And when her taxi did in fact stop – it really was Dolly, after this long wait it really was her lovely, fragrant body – how did my joy from that moment vanish so quickly? Is this why Jim Gordon had left her, then? Is it then possible only to love the one who is not near, or who has not submitted? Is love nothing but the phantom of our desire then? Is it better to remain at a distance than to get close? We want to love, our special instants are born of that wanting, they provide only a single glimpse before they vanish into the darkness, into the caverns of time, into the recesses of our dreams – and still new dreams don’t cease. Dreams from memories, memories from dreams – unending. Take that waitress in Vienna, ripe of body, red of cheeks, whom I cannot help stealing covert glances at while dining with a professor of Indian studies. This place is known as a ‘Greek Inn’, centuries old, ivy creeping up its ancient stone walls, uneven rows of caves and grottos inside, some a couple of steps down, others a few steps up, dim lights in brackets hewn into the walls – half-dark, unpolished oak tables without table linen, but with an announcement in four languages printed in large letters, reading which thrills me. ‘Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe and Heine used to frequent this inn; many of their compositions were planned here.’ I cannot quite fathom what the professor is saying about Geetagovindam, my curiosity about this inn is growing uncontrollably. How old is it? Seven hundred years? Six hundred and fifty? What was it before it became an inn? Was it a monastery for medieval monks? Or a chieftain’s fort? What led to its conversion into an inn? Is there a memorial to Goethe or Beethoven here? The professor does not know for sure, he had heard about this place once, he does not remember now – he has been immersed in studying Sanskrit for the past twenty-five years, he has not had the time to devote himself to anything else. ‘Can’t we ask the waitress?’ The professor asks her a series of questions, explaining the answers to me in English, it turns out she is not very well-informed either, but that does not matter much to me – I get a chance to gaze a little longer at this plump, round, rosy-cheeked beauty with heavy breasts, a figure straight out of Rubens, as though a mythical heroine has descended to earth to pour wine into my glass, as though this extraordinary grotto is the location of my tryst with her – but the moment I leave this place I will never see her again, she will sink into a grey and hazy early morning dream – like the two Negro nurses at my hospital in Cincinnati. They turn frantic as soon as they see me, I don’t know why, one of them smoothening the pillow, the other straightening my sheet (although everything is just fine); saying ‘lie down, lie down, the doctor will be here any minute…’ they practically shove me into my bed (without offering any explanation of why I have to lie down because the doctor was coming); they bend over my face from either side, two pairs of silky impenetrable black eyes pierce me; one of them says, ‘My name’s Jenny, hers is Fanny, call us if you need anything, call us by our names, whenever you like, we’re here all night tonight – ok? That’s a nice boy.’ I turn red, I try to tell them I’m neither a ‘boy’ nor ‘nice’, I am forty-two, I am a formidable literary critic in my country, there’s not a writer who does not fear my jabs – but before I can open my mouth, Jenny (or Fanny) asks, ‘Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ and bends so far over me that her breasts spill out before my eyes – the colour of clouds, tranquil, like grapefruit, I have to lower my eyes, the doctor enters that instant and my dark-skinned does disperse, startled. Knuckles rap my back and chest, everything is alright, but this ward won’t be convenient for me, apparently – I cannot make out why not, but in ten minutes I am transferred into a room that I have all to myself, it’s far more comfortable but there’s no Jenny, no Fanny, I did not even get the chance to bid them goodbye, they vanished after leaving a single black scratch on the sky of my multicoloured imagination. The snow-covered world stretches before my eyes, but in my heart black glows brighter, tender deep black eyes, and unruly waves of curly black hair. Was it not a fresh beauty that had flashed before my eyes for just a few moments? I don’t think they were really promiscuous – Jenny and Fanny – perhaps they pitied me because I’m a foreigner, maybe their ability to love is unfulfilled, perhaps they are looking for ways to dispel their loneliness, no matter how briefly. But why am I even thinking of other things when the real life Dolly is here with me, the long day is ending at last, I’ll be here for nine days more, the night is deep, Dolly’s eyes are shining like stars in the darkness – let us assume nothing else exists in this whole wide world, only the two of us for each other, I am falling asleep, my head on her breast. Ah, this peace, which nothing can match, for which I can forget Michelangelo, Thomas Mann, ambition, effort, responsibilities, the fear of death – everything. Like another round of sleep within the sleep, like certainty that one can sink into – for a few days, a few hours, a few moments. I am falling asleep with my head on Dolly’s breast, I am waking up, or am I dreaming? What are those ants doing there? They’re dragging a dead dragonfly – from my shelf to their hole in the window-sill, their home – a lavish feast. Such power, such momentum, and such speed. The dragonfly’s wings seem to be beating faintly now and then – has it died, or have they clamped their sticky legs on its dying – but not yet dead – body, should I release the dragonfly from its agony? I press down on it with a book, the dragonfly is flattened, but none of the ants dies, their legs are clamped to it as before. One, two, four, twelve… exactly fourteen, too small for the naked eye (I had to count thrice), the dragonfly is as big in comparison to them as the elephant is in comparison to us. Papers and books are piled high on my shelf, the window-sill is low, they will have to climb down one wall and up another – how effortlessly they are traversing the danger-strewn route uphill and downhill, scaling the peak of the Kanchenjunga before climbing down to the valley – crossing or skirting every obstacle, like a tank on the battlefield, at a hundred miles an hour by our standards – these amazing atom-sized creatures. I try to stop them with a postcard, but it is like trying to stem a flood with a fence – they swarm over it, cross it – they are unstoppable, indomitable. I even kill one or two of them between my fingertips, others take their place immediately, the troops do not scatter. I gaze at this victorious march – spellbound, a little fearful, as though I am exhausted just by the sight of this incredible endeavour, then I become aware of the sound of trams outside, Calcutta’s May heat is palpable even at this early hour of the morning – a long, sweltering day stretches before me, I have to get out of bed soon, I have to shave, I have to bathe, I have to wonder how to fill this day, so many hours, till I fall asleep again. I am not as strong as the ants, where can I take shelter?

Short Stories

One Red Rose: by Buddhadeva Bose

First he took off his coat, then his tie and shirt, then the socks and trousers. With his back to the mirror he quickly put the dhoti on – whenever he was in a hurry it took him longer – sometimes too short, sometimes too tight, it could take him six or seven minutes at times, bringing perspiration, bringing tears – but although he was afraid of just such a thing happening, how amazing, nothing like that happened, the dhoti gave him no trouble at all, didn’t disobey him even once, he put it on perfectly at the very first attempt. Good omen! Pleased, Protap went up to the washbasin to splash water on his face, his hair; wiping his hands on his handkerchief he took his silk kurta out of the attaché case, pulled it on, extracted his comb from the pocket of his abandoned coat and stood before the mirror. It wasn’t as though he standing up straight would work; only after bending at the knees, just the way frogs are drawn in children’s books, could he see his face reflected, for Mr Ghosh was short, and the mirror in his bathroom was fitted to his convenience. It wasn’t possible to maintain such a pose very long, but despite the physical discomfort he examined his own face, seemingly carefully, in the dim light, trying to tell himself, after a thousand scans, a million scans, ‘I’m not all that unpleasant to look at.’ But the imaginary words stuck in his throat, despite a thousand attempts, a million attempts. Nothing had changed, just because it was his Maya-boudi’s birthday, and just because he had been invited to the celebrations, his appearance hadn’t changed; the same protruding forehead, sunken cheeks, snub nose, pockmarked skin, and the same thin sparse dying hair. Someone seemed to have plucked his hair out in handfuls – and he was barely twenty-seven. But then what could he do about it – medicine was just quackery, you cannot hold back someone who’s determined to go – quick clean baldness was the best option now. He would look respectable – quite elegant, in fact – what you might call affluent. They wouldn’t keep him waiting in shops, college students might actually make room for him in trams. Some sort of hope shimmered in his heart sometimes; perhaps he’d look quite presentable if he turned bald. But his cheeks would still remain sunken, wouldn’t they? And the pockmarks wouldn’t ever go away, would they? Why did he have to have both? If he had had only one of them – the sunken cheeks or the pockmarks – he could still have managed somehow, with a bald head he could have appeared a gentleman, but the pockmarks, and on top of that the sunken cheeks… it was too much.

With a sigh, Protap straightened. Now the mirror reflected his scrawny neck, the collar-bones sticking out, thin jutting shoulders, a pigeon-chest, long thin legs. Let the face remain as it was but couldn’t his body be a little… a little more like everyone else’s? ‘Be careful, there’s a lot of TB going round in Calcutta these days.’ How often had he heard that. He would get tuberculosis any moment – that was the first thought that came to people’s mind when they saw him. He himself was scared – some nights he half-died at the thought of getting tuberculosis. He had himself x-rayed not once but thrice, spending his hard-earned money – but nothing. Still – medicine, injections, vitamin, calcium, calories – regular meals, not working too hard – he had tried everything – but to no avail. He didn’t gain an ounce, didn’t look the slightest bit healthier. He would have to make peace with this appearance – forever, forever.

Moving away from the mirror, he proceeded to fold his coat, shirt, socks, tie and trousers one by one and put them away in the attaché case. Although the war had relaxed the dress code, making the bush-shirt the norm, Mr Ghosh never bothered with full-sleeved shirts, Protap always dressed formally, never forgot his tie, nor his socks, wore shoes with laces, although their prices were almost out of reach – as it is western clothes exposed the angularities in his appearance mercilessly, on top of that he was not foolish enough not to hide his arms or neck or feet when he had the opportunity. Considering how ugly he appeared to himself, to others he must… no, there was no point fooling himself, he had no hope, no hope. He had fussed over Maya-boudi’s birthday for nothing, paid thrice the price to have his dhoti laundered overnight, ironed his silk kurta all over again because a corner had been crushed under the lid of the suitcase, borrowed an attaché-case from his uncle on the pretext of a business trip to Asansol, after both his brothers – with whom he shared his room – had gone to sleep last night, he put the dhoti, kurta and newspaper-wrapped sandals secretly in the attaché-case and hid it under the bed, carried it all the way to office in the morning – in case going back home to change took too long. Pointless! Pointless! Changing into these clothes was no easy task either! After Mr Ghosh had left, he had to loiter for a while, then coax his orderly into a good mood with eight annas in order to use the bathroom for a few minutes… oh! He hadn’t been in here too long, had he? Kartik wouldn’t start grumbling, would he?

The leather shoes couldn’t be stuffed in; with the attaché-case in one hand and the shoes wrapped in a newspaper in the other, Protap emerged with long strides of his sandalled feet, dressed in his dhoti and kurta. Kartik was perched on a stool outside the boss’s door, and while he didn’t actually stand up, he didn’t assume a supercilious expression either. Approaching him, Protap put his load on the floor. ‘I’m leaving these with you – look after them, will you.’

‘They’ll be safe,’ answered Kartik, without looking at him.

But Protap wasn’t reassured. What if they were lost? Or stolen? Thirty-rupee shoes. The check ash suit was only three winters old, looked like wool from a distance. On an impulse he dipped into his pocket, extracting his wallet and pulling out an eight-anna coin and handing it to Kartik after only a moment’s thought, saying, ‘Take care of them…’

Kartik rose to his foot now, saluted fleetingly and said, ‘I’ll put them in sir’s cabinet, if you can come early tomorrow…’

Protap didn’t wait to hear the rest. There was a wind in his sail now; a wind that bore him like a king across the huge empty hall of the office, where he occupied a corner eight hours a day to work on figures. It propelled him down the staircase – the very same stairs he climbed up and down every day, muttering invectives against his fate – blew him out to the road. Never mind the other things, he was nearly six feet tall, after all, just how many Bengalis were so tall? Mr Ghosh, with his salary of sixteen hundred rupees, only came up to his chest, he towered over everyone else walking along the road. Even the arrogant Kartik, who didn’t baulk at arguing with the cashier, had been forced to offer him a salute, hadn’t he!

Filling his lungs with air, he looked around. The winter afternoon had been shivering earlier, it was night already. The West-End clock blinked before him, twenty-to-six; he had to be there at six-thirty. It would take twenty minutes at most by tram to reach Maya-boudi’s Elgin Road flat, and besides, it was better to be a little late – make a better impression? To the trams over-laden with homebound people, he pretended that he always travelled by taxi, that he was walking on a whim. With long strides, towering over the rest, he wondered what to buy as a birthday present. He was ready to spend up to fifteen rupees, that would only leave five rupees for the rest of the month – but what was a few days’ financial discomfort compared to today’s happiness? Nothing, nothing at all! If it was wonderful on any given day to take a seat in the luxury of Maya-boudi’s drawing-room, to gaze at her moving about gracefully, to listen to Sami-da’s eloquence, how much more wonderful it would be on this festive evening! The very thought made happiness wrap itself around him, a soft warm opulence enveloped him like the colour of clouds; and as the colour melted, a light flared up, the most wonderful amongst all that was wonderful. Protap could see her face, her eyes, her eyes so very clearly in his mind’s eye that he felt an ache in his breast. Her name was Chhaya; what a beautiful name.

At Esplanade, Protap paused. His eyes moved past Curzon Park and alighted at Chowringhee, a necklace studded with many-hued lights, the gloss was back after the war, it glittered invitingly, come along, come along, come along – Protap felt intoxicated. Walking swiftly, he reached Chowringhee in a couple of minutes. There was an incredible crowd outside Metro cinema, dazzling with a hundred lights. The three o’ clock show had ended, the six o’ clock show was about to begin. It all looked incredible, incredible clothes, incredibly large cars. This was life… life was pleasure. What else was man alive for, if not for pleasure. A thousand cars raced along in search of pleasure, a thousand shops had laid out pleasureware. Come in. Come in, come in. Protap heard the invitation; a keen appetite for life awoke him, awoke someone else within him, that one among many, his youthfulness, his life-force. He existed, he too existed, these pleasures were his too, a life as bright as a hundred bulbs lit up – that was his too.

For the first time Protap understood the meaning of being alive, the purpose of being alive. Partly from the shock of this realisation, and partly because of the jostling crowds on the pavement, his footsteps slowed; mingling with the people waiting to watch the film, he breathed in the caress of contentment, the perfume of pleasure. But the scent of happiness wasn’t enough, he wanted all of it – its body, its touch, its warmth, its satisfaction. An undefined, infinite appetite for life manifested itself to him at that moment in the form of the smoky aroma rising from three restaurants, converting itself into an appetite for food so powerful it whipped his belly.

Should he enter? It was best to eat something now, or else he would end up devouring the food over there to satiate his hunger at the end of a long working day. … Late? Why not! Maya-boudi would say, a smile dangling from her lips, ‘You’re early, aren’t you?’ while someone else would have a plate ready…

In one prawn-cutlet always lay the wish for another – but no. He would have to eat something there, after all. What if she came up to him to say, ‘But you aren’t eating at all.’ What if she said, ‘That shondesh…’ Protap’s nerves rang out like sitar strings. What a lovely voice. What lovely diction. How could everything about a person be so lovely. Had god decided to give everything to just the one person? And nothing at all to me? …What do you mean, nothing at all? He has given me the one whom he has given everything, hasn’t he.

After a few sips of tea, leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette, Protap ran these words over in his mind without blushing, without feeling bashful: God has given me the woman whom he has given everything. The shyness he used to experience at the very thought of her was now like dead skin at the end of winter; for the first time he surrendered himself to his heart, the same heart whose covert explorations used to leave him afraid to dream when asleep. For the first time he was able to think of Chhaya without turning giddy with excitement. He could picture her standing, sitting, walking, laughing, talking – Maya-boudi was a lot like her, but she was like no one. Perhaps she had been there since morning since it was her sister’s birthday; after Sami-da had left for the studio, the sisters must have had so much to talk about in the intimacy of the afternoon, so much to tell each other. The best things to talk about are the ones that stay only between two people, two people, two people…

Of course, during these past seven months he hadn’t exchanged even seven sentences with her – but so what. She didn’t even look at him properly – but what did that matter either. Who could tell she wouldn’t look at him one day, who could tell when she would look at him. If such impossible things as Protap’s being accommodated in the famous film-director Samiran Sanyal’s drawing room, addressing his wife as boudi, and being invited to her birthday celebrations, could have taken place, then why could something even more impossible not take place too?… Of course, had he not been fortuitously present at the right time that Sunday morning, he may not have received the invitation, but then fortune always has a role to play in life, and maybe fortune had smiled on him because it intended to smile some more. When he arrived on Sunday, Amar Mitra was leaving, and Sami-da was saying: ‘Don’t forget about day after tomorrow, all right?’ ‘How can I forget Maya’s birthday.’ And a couple of minutes after Amar-babu had left Sami-da said, lighting a cigarette, ‘You must come too, Protap – in the evening, all right?’ He had overheard, so Sami-da had invited him too – so very well-mannered of him.

Protap had never been exposed to such good manners, such immaculate behaviour. His father bellowed at home, his mother didn’t even bother with her chemise in summer, his brothers kept themselves busy gossiping at the roadside shop. Sometimes it was unbearable to get back home from the Sanyals’ – but no, why call it unbearable, at least he still had something else beyond his horrible home and even more horrible office. Who would have thought on that Saturday, when he had accompanied his colleague Subodh Bagchi to watch a film being shot in a Tollygunge studio, that fate held such a wonderful something else for him. It was a special occasion of some kind, several guests were present with their wives, Maya-boudi was there, and so was – he uttered the name clearly in his head – Chhaya. Subodh was a relative of theirs, during the conversation he said, ‘This is my friend, Maya-boudi…’ There were so many people, but even amidst all that confusion she exchanged a few sentences with him, alone. Protap was charmed by her courtesy, and beside himself with joy the day he visited them at home along with Subodh. Thanks to Subodh, he addressed Mrs Sanyal as boudi the very second day, and a couple of months later, after Subodh had gone off to Bombay with a better job, for the first time he went by himself, a little apprehensively, but, reassured by Maya-boudi’s behaviour, started visiting quite regularly.

Sami-da was large-hearted, and Maya-boudi was, after all, Maya-boudi; there were frequent gatherings of people at their house in the evening; some wrote, some painted, some were brilliant with the camera – so many talents! A few film-actors visited, too, at times, though actresses never did – but then Protap had no fascination for actresses. Was there an actress who could… who could be compared to her, imagine comparing a film-star to a real star.
He didn’t visit very frequently; sometimes once a week, sometimes twice. Lest… anyone was annoyed. In that crowd of such gifted people, he was… definitely a bit of a misfit. He never spoke, only listened, observed; when people burst out in laughter at something, he didn’t laugh loudly, only smiled behind the cover of his palm, his face turned away. Was he even worthy of laughing with them as an equal! Those expert writers painters photographers didn’t even consider him worthy of their attention, why should they, still, it did hurt him a little initially, he had even bought a copy of Rabindranath’s Sanchayita after receiving his salary, even buckled down to writing some poetry – he had almost managed to finish a poem, eleven or twelve lines along the lines of ‘O distant sky / pray tell me why / you look at me / so bewitchingly’ – but then Ghentu woke up suddenly, growling like a beast, ‘Switch off the light.’ He had made another attempt the following night, but Bhentu reared his hood that night. No, it was impossible to write poetry with a couple of wild cats for company. He hadn’t tried any more, stoically accepting his own insignificance, he had been at peace.
As he drained his tea, he felt like laughing at the thought of those attempts to write poetry. How childish he had been just the other day, even yesterday, even a short while ago! But something had happened suddenly, all the doors had opened, gifts lay stacked behind every one of them, for him too, for him alone… He had tried to write poetry to be worthy? But was Maya-boudi a poet? Or a painter? It was true she was beautiful, talented too, but among the visitors were many women whose beauty was prouder, whose talents were louder. But was any of them like her? It wasn’t her beauty or her talent, it was her niceness that made everyone like her so much, wasn’t it? She always found the time to talk to him, touching on those very subjects that he was comfortable talking about. If, once in a blue moon, he managed to spend five minutes with her alone, it was like a spell of refreshing rain. She was so very nice – that was her greatest qualification. And – he almost said it aloud as he rose from his chair – it’s my qualification too; I’m nice as well. He was shaken from head to foot by a giant wave of niceness, at the head of Corporation Street, suddenly, amidst that December crowd on Chowringhee.

With Christmas approaching, New Market were simply bursting with people. English, Bengali, Parsi, African, Chinese – the shops as well as the shopkeepers were finding it difficult to cope. Very well – Protap strode ahead, thrusting out his reedy, hollow chest – he would buy too. But what? Entering through the gate halfway down Bertram Street, he sought the answer with his eyes, with his heart, while maintaining the spare determined gait of someone headed towards a specific shop with a specific intent. Going past the Christmas cards, the pettycoats and chemises, the woollen clothes, the pink and purple conical lingerie, he arrived at the hub of the market with the weighing machine situated in the centre, and turned right; arrayed before him were silverware, silks, precious stones of different hues, ivory dolls, scarlet shellac tables. He suppressed the desire in his eyes – he couldn’t afford any of this, but he didn’t have any idea what he could afford, either, he walked towards the Lindsay Street end of the market – and instantly he was riveted by rows of flowers to his left. Yes, flowers. He paused, then turned towards the nearest flower-shop, where a group of English girls were gathered – how they chattered! Protap waited a little absent-mindedly behind them, with his six-feet-tall glory… Roses, red roses. As red as the fresh flow of blood when you cut your finger. And also the darker hue that it acquired afterwards. Each one as large as an electric bulb, the light shining from the folds in the petals, the wick was green, it lit up the illuminated market, the city, the winter night in Calcutta.

They were discussing flowers one day, Protap remembered. Sami-da voted for the magnolia. Ananga Nag – a painter – said with a laugh, ‘Too fleshy. It’s almost like it wanted to be a fruit and became a flower by mistake at the last moment.’ ‘The essence of the flower is the jasmine,’ said writer Amar Mitra, ‘all of Bengal lies within.’ ‘Maybe,’ commented Maya-boudi, ‘but it dies at the slightest touch, while a fistful of bokul remains fragrant for a month.’ ‘I see,’ responded the writer, ‘even when it comes to flowers you prefer the hardy, the durable.’ Everyone laughed at this, and when they stopped, Chhaya said softly, ‘But I like roses the best.’… with his ears, Protap saw her words were a warm red; with his eyes he heard the song of the rose. Yes, a bunch of roses – ten, fifteen, twenty – as many as he could afford.
The English girls bought nothing at all, and though they had seemed young from the back, their faces were aged. Both these factors heightened Protap’s enthusiasm. Approaching, he asked, ‘How much are those – the large ones?’ pointing at a magnificent bunch of roses.

‘Twenty-five rupees.’

‘Twenty-five for a single bunch flowers!’ Protap frowned like a veteran.

‘Not the bunch – each.’

‘Each!’ It sounded like a cry of despair.

‘Twenty-five rupees for each flower.’ The shopkeeper’s announcement was heartlessly cold.

Protap was shattered. During the war years prices had risen to absurd levels: forty-eight rupees for a cotton kurta, twelve rupees for a tin of gold flakes, two-hundred-and-fifty rupees for a tea-set – but still, twenty-five rupees for a single flower! A flower! Just one! Twenty-five! He had once seen a puppy frolicking on the street when it was suddenly hit by a car – how it had squealed! But he was a human being, he could hardly whimper.

A couple came into the shop. They weren’t English, they didn’t seem Bengali either, but you never could tell these days. The woman with short curly hair, dressed in navy-blue slacks and a red jumper, took ten roses, and the man pulled out two hundred-rupee notes in the twinkling of an eye, then they walked out without looking at each other.

‘If it’s two hundred for ten it should be twenty each,’ Protap blurted out the words without looking at the shopkeeper.

‘Twenty-five if you take just one,’ came the answer.



After a few deep breaths, Protap said, ‘Can’t you let me have it… I have just twenty… I really need it…’

Finally the shopkeeper looked at him. ‘How many do you want?’ he asked after a pause.

‘Just the one…’ sensing a ray of kindness in the shopkeeper’s eyes, he added quickly, ‘a large one – yes that one please.’

He went out into the road quickly, holding the blood-red rose wrapped in tissue paper. The tower-clock of New Market rang a quarter to seven! He was late, very late. By the time he reached the room would be full; the tea would be half-over. Cracker-bursts of conversation, rocket-trails of laughter would leave no room to draw one’s breath; Ananga Nath, Amar Mitra, the actor Suresh Banerjee, the cameraman Naren Chanda, Indu Das – something or the other, but Protap had not yet succeeded in making out what – and Lotika Debi, Sunanda Debi, Anuradha Debi – all the ladies were debis, goddesses – in Sami-da’s drawing-room. Who else? Many more people. Amidst this dazzling, glittering gathering, he would appear suddenly, lanky, reedy, gauche; holding a single rose after all the expensive, carefully-chosen gifts – no one would look at him, or everyone would look at him, he would stamp on a lady’s feet as he tried to sit down, the smoke from the strong tobacco in Naren Chanda’s pipe would make him cough, he wouldn’t say a word, but still he would remain, he would have to, for he didn’t even know how to take his leave all by himself, before everyone else.

Protap trembled as he walked towards the tram tracks. His shawl was seven years old, faded, with holes in it – but still he wished he had it with him. Who would notice him, after all? But what if they did? Although no one noticed him ever, maybe the holes in his shawl… But so what? How could he conceal his poverty? How could he conceal his ugliness? The hope, the joy, the wave of pleasure that had driven him mad just a few minutes ago now left him like a receding fever. Breaking his tooth of arrogance with a couple of resounding slaps, a cold north wind lodged in his brain the truth that he was Protap, the very same Protap, whose salary, including dearness allowance, was a hundred-and-ten rupees, whose cheeks were sunken and skin was pockmarked, too, who never caught anyone’s eye despite being nearly six feet tall, who looked like a TB patient when someone did notice him. He hadn’t become a different individual just by virtue of addressing Samiran Sanyal’s wife as boudi; he hadn’t been reborn because he had been invited coincidentally, for form’s sake only… no, no, no…

Noooh… screeched the tram as it came to a halt. He found a place to stand directly beneath the electric fan, if he stood upright he would knock his head against it, but he had to save the rose too – luckily there were straps to hold on to, at least. That he was so tall was also a joke that destiny had played on him; without any other kind of development, he had suddenly shot up abnormally. Half his legs stuck out of his dhoti when he was dressed in one – and the less said about the legs the better! He would have preferred to have been short, he wouldn’t have looked like a reptile, he would have fitted into his surroundings too, would have felt a sense of comfort at being able to blend into the crowd.

The closer the tram got to his destination, the more his interest in arriving fell. He needn’t have become so impatient about getting to this birthday celebration on time: he could have gone home, had the bread and tea set out for him, changed into these clothes and arrived at a leisurely pace. He would have bought a powder-case, or a bottle of perfume, or a book of poems, for three or four rupees at the neighbourhood shop… The sheer arrogance of competing with the others had made him carry a sack of clothes to the office. For a rupee he had purchased half a salute, for twenty rupees, a rose. He had spent twelve annas on food, now all he had left in his pocket were a few annas; tomorrow he would have find a way to borrow five rupees. How stupid, what colossal stupidity… shame! Coming to terms with the extent of his own foolishness, he felt like leaping out of the tram.

He needn’t have accepted the invitation. That is what he should have done. First, he hadn’t really been invited, Sami-da had included him for form’s sake because he happened to be present. Secondly, irrespective of what it was like on other days, today he was definitely a misfit in that gathering, like a mangy jackal in an assembly of majestic creatures like the tiger, the leopard and the peacock. And thirdly, was he affluent enough to spend even two rupees on anyone, leave alone twenty? His father claimed seventy rupees from his salary, and he himself barely survived on the remaining forty; no lunch towards the end of the month, so many good films skipped, having to agonise for six months whether to get a couple of new kurtas made or not. Really, why hadn’t he wriggled out on the spot on some pretext or the other? But as if he was capable of saying as much to Sami-da, to Maya boudi! If only he was, he would have been a real man. And suppose he had actually said that, how then would he have been able to turn mental somersaults in sheer elation?

The tram went past Theatre Road. Theatre Road, Circular Road, Elgin Road. He would have to get off in another five minutes. It took him a minute’s effort to twist his body away from his position under the fan, he stood near the door gripping the handle, gauging with his eyes the right tactic for breaking through the cordon. Careful, he mustn’t let go of the flower. But what if he did. What if he didn’t even go, why not just go directly home instead. Having been petrified with anxiety all this while, he suddenly felt reassured at the thought that he could still not go if he didn’t really want to. He had been foolish enough already, if he didn’t go he would at least be spared this final act of foolishness. Nobody was waiting for him over there. The joys of the evening wouldn’t be reduced an iota by his absence. No one would even think of him. Then why bother? Nobody but he knew of the foolish things he’d done, why perform the most foolish act of all before a roomful of people?

He looked tragically at the rose he was holding upright against his chest. A red glow emanated through the flimsy white paper it was wrapped in; the fragrance assaulted his senses, his breath caught in his throat for a moment. Two or three people nearby, noticed Protap, were glancing covertly at the rose, trying to take in its scent as long as it was still there… So the flower was nice, after all? But how much nicer, how much more impressive the flowers arrayed in Maya-boudi’s room would be, and by their side would lie this flower, just a solitary flower, just one. Wouldn’t Naren Chanda sneer, wouldn’t Ananga Nag blow smoke-rings at the ceiling, his eyes slanted?

‘Are you getting off?’

‘Get off now – or let us get off!’

How uncouth Calcuttans had become. Pushed and shoved, he was forced to get off the tram. He stopped a couple of times as he crossed the road – he hated this crossroad – then tiptoed on to Elgin Road, taking the pavement on the left. One, two, three, four… he could hear his footsteps with his heart.

So he was going after all. Couldn’t stay away.

The ground floor… the first floor… as soon as he turned into the final flight of stairs leading to the second floor, he saw the brown door – shut – but even where he was, he could hear the sounds inside. Waves of laughter greeted him as he approached. He paused for a while outside, breathed deeply, but his courage failed him at the last moment though a faint wish remained; dropping the tissue-paper-wrapped flower on the floor, he pushed the door open slowly and entered.

It turned out exactly as he had thought it would. ‘Come, Protap,’ said Maya-boudi, handing him a plateful of food. He had to take a seat next to a rather fat man – not exactly beside him, but behind him – he’d never seen the gentleman before, he discovered he was Maya-boudi’s maternal uncle, had an important job in Delhi – every time he laughed, Protap had to retreat a little, he kept backing till he came up against the wall, still the uncle kept guffawing and moving backward himself, and the edge of his neatly folded shawl kept tickling Protap’s nostrils. The source of all this laughter was Suresh Banerjee, who was imitating the idiosyncracies of veteran stage actors; during a pause Sami-da said, ‘Say what you will, there hasn’t been another one like them. The way Sisir Bhaduri would call out to Sita…’ ‘Tapankiran could have, if he hadn’t died,’ said Ananga Nag. ‘You’re right,’ Anuradha Debi exclaimed in a bird-like voice, ‘how suddenly he died, and so young too!’ ‘Twenty-six.’ ‘Oh no,’ protested Amar Mitra, ‘twenty-nine.’ They argued over this for a while, before settling on twenty-eight. The cameraman was the silent type, but he spoke now, ‘I saw him just the other day…’ he clucked in regret, ‘and yesterday I met his elder brother. They’re so similar in appearance – if it hadn’t been a Calcutta road and the middle of the day, I’d definitely have thought it was Tapankiran’s ghost.’ ‘Don’t ghosts appear on Calcutta’s roads in the middle of the day?’ asked Indu Das. ‘Let me tell you a story…’ ‘No, please,’ Sunanda Debi raised her hands and twittered, ‘spare us, Indu-babu, don’t tell us a ghost-story, please!’ Encouraged, Indu Das began his ghost story with great gusto, but seeing that he was losing the audience’s attention he shifted the focus to research, to the difference between banshees and ghouls, to the hierarchy between vampires and zombies, to the question of whether only humans became ghosts or animals too. ‘Are you aware of this strange incident?’ Uncle said suddenly. ‘In 1926, a horse named Aurora won the Viceroy’s Cup.’ He stopped, whereupon two or three people asked in unison, ‘What’s strange about that?’ ‘Aurora had died that morning.’… Now the conversation turned to horse-racing, Lotika Debi joined in, Sunanda Debi too, but Sunanda Debi’s husband – the writer Amar Mitra – trumped everyone here. The clock rang nine, nine-thirty, it was nearly ten. When everyone suddenly fell silent together, ‘We should go,’ suggested Naren Chanda. ‘Yes, time to go…’ There was a shimmering movement, a rustling of sarees…. Finally everyone got to their feet at the same time, Protap was grateful for the chance to straighten his crumpled body after such a long time.

He would have left much earlier if he could have, but it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t be able to. He passed the entire time in a sort of daze, had no idea what he ate, barely heard half the exchanges around him, raising his cup of tea to his lips, discovered it had turned cold with a film on the surface. His eyes roamed around the room now and then; Maya-boudi was seated in the middle of the large sofa, flanked by Lotika Debi and Anuradha Debi – a smiling figure every day, today she was a veritable goddess of happiness – and, a little in the distance, in a small chair near the window at the corner of two walls, sat she, Chhaya, dressed in a light green saree; alone despite the people around her. She was listening to everything, even talking sometimes, but still her attention was somewhere else – where? – on the painting on the wall, or was it on the sky outside the window? Protap hadn’t glanced at her too often, lest their eyes meet, lest the idea take root within him, even by mistake, that Chhaya had looked at him during a distracted moment. Truth to tell, he hadn’t even been able to look at Chhaya properly even once, he had only fixed his eyes on the dark green border of her light green saree. When she got to her feet at the same time as everyone else, Protap sensed a breeze rustling gentling through a leafy tree.

Everyone advanced towards the door, still talking. Sunanda Debi went out, tripped on her high heel. Ananga Nath put out his hand quickly to steady her.

‘What is it?’

‘I tripped on something.’

‘What, let me take a look…’ Samiran Sanyal stooped, picking up the reason for his lady-friend’s losing her footing. ‘Oh! A rose! Still wrapped in paper!’ He unwrapped it carefully, the blood-red rose, fully bloomed, unveiled itself with a smile, as large as Samiran’s fist, looked on smiling, cast a fragrant spell on everyone, then suddenly seemed to tremble under the gaze of so many people and shed one, two, three petals trampled on by a shoe.

‘Oh dear, you stamped on a flower,’ the writer chided his wife laughingly.

‘How would I know…’

‘Never mind,’ Ananga Nath rescued his lady-friend quickly. ‘in ancient days some flowers actually didn’t bloom until beautiful women had kicked them to life, the modern rose doesn’t seem at all dejected, looks happy, on the contrary.’

‘So beautiful,’ said Maya Debi.

‘How sweet it smells.’ Lotika Debi took a deep breath.

‘It’s an expensive rose,’ Suresh Banerjee narrowed his eyes like a connoisseur. ‘Not less than twenty-five rupees.’

‘Really!’ The cameramen was stunned.

‘Of course. Can anyone even afford roses these days!’

The price-tag raised the value of the rose for everyone. How did it turn up here? Had someone left it by mistake? Or had they left it deliberately? It wasn’t one of you, was it? How strange, why should it be us – and if we had, we’d have given it to you, wouldn’t we. It would have been an honour to present you with a flower such as this on a day such as this!

‘I’m sure an admirer of yours has left it for you, Maya,’ commented her uncle. ‘A silent tribute from one of the uninvited.’

‘For Maya? Or for our Chhaya?’ Ananga smiled with his eyes at Chhaya.

‘Yes, that’s right! It’s for Chhaya, of course,’ a wave of laughter ran through the women.

‘Then give it to me…’ Chhaya came forward at once, taking the flower from her brother-in-law, placed it in her hair with a flash of her right hand. Dark hair turned to light.

Although he was standing behind everyone else, Protap heard everything over their heads, saw everything. Chhaya stood to one side, the breeze rustled again through a leafy tree, a flower had just bloomed on it, a red flower, a red rose lit up the world, a red rose turned to light, dark hair turned to light, darkness turned to light, all the darkness of the day, of life, of a thousand lives, turned to light in an instant, in one red rose.

… Down on the road, discussions began on how to distribute the guests between the three cars, but Protap had already disappeared unobtrusively, he was walking along the deserted pavement by himself, tall, trembling. But not in the cold, not in the cold wind, he was trembling in the breeze rustling through a leafy tree, on which a flower had just bloomed, a red flower, his flower, his blood-red rose, his blood-red heart.

About, Out, When The Time Is Right

About When The Time Is Right

When The Time Is Right
By Buddhadeva Bose
Published in Bengali 1949
Published in English translation by Penguin Books India, 2011

Buddhadeva Bose’s greatest novel is a grand family saga set in Calcutta during the last two decades of British rule. Of Rajen Mitra’s five lovely daughters, it is the youngest – the beautiful, intelligent Swati – who is the apple of her father’s eye. As she grows from an impetuous, spirited child to a lonely young woman, Swati is witness to the upheavals and joys of the Mitra family even as the country slides towards the promise of independence and the inevitability of war.

Anxious to ensure that his daughters find suitable husbands, Rajen-babu realizes that it is only a matter of time before his favourite child too must leave home. While the boorish entrepreneur Prabir Majumdar decides that she will make him a fitting wife, Swati finds herself increasingly drawn to Satyen Roy, the young professor who introduces her to a world of books and the heady poetry of Tagore and Coleridge.

First published in Bengali as Tithidore in 1949, When The Time Is Right is a moving tale of a family and a nation.