Words: Premendra Mitra

Even afterwards there are things to say
After it has rained
Like the soil-smeared smell of a wet cool wind,
Blurred, like clouds
Who knows whether they’re words
Or a trembling vibrant silence

I shall not say these things to her
In pauses between the determination and effort to survive
My astonished heart
Tells itself in solitude
All these mist-like words
I have whispered many strange things
How much of what the heart means
Can these words hold anyway

Like snow all these words melt
On a lofty peak
Of passion
I touch a hand with my hand
Grope within my heart with words
Do we have each other still?

And so when all my words
Have been defeated, a sigh
Flows, and perhaps indifferent time
Shivers by mistake, once

And then in every crack of existence
The fog settles, and words
Like the fog, roll towards the horizon

There Was Somewhere I Wanted To Go: Premendra Mitra

There was somewhere I wanted to go
But never did
In the closed room the panes are rattled
By a wild gust of wind
Let them, I’m just fine
Picking out my thought worms
When that irks me I swat flies
I know all wants will die when I shut my eyes
I have learnt to grow where the sunlight falls
To pluck the dreams within reach of a stretched arm
Or to avoid the rice because it is bitter
I’ll weep no more for the absence of what cannot be
Why not instead spin a yarn of ‘oh, if only’?

Ikebana: by Premendra Mitra

At first, plump and well-shaped if not actually beautiful fingers are seen at work amongst a few flowers and decorative leaves. Even the polish on the carefully cultured fingernails can be made out.

For several moments the camera stays still on just this frame. The flower arrangement is being changed continuously.

The camera retreats slightly. We see, first, the vase in which the flowers are kept and, then, the woman who is arranging them. She is as modern in her dress and appearance as the fingers had suggested. Slim, shapely. Though her face isn’t strikingly beautiful, the attempt to turn the form of her body into the main attraction, even through her clothes, has not been completely unsuccessful.

However, the affluence indicated by her dress and appearance is absent in as much of the room as can be seen. (In other words, the impression one would have on seeing her in a Swiss confectionery on Park Street is proved wrong.)

There is a sincere attempt, though, to turn an ordinary middle-class look into a modern one. As the camera zooms out, a hint of the building opposite this one, which has become visible through the half-curtains on the window, make it clear that this is part of a row of flats. Although it isn’t clear whether the vase and flowers reflect the woman’s personality, they are highlighted in a way that leaves an impression on the mind.

She is absorbed in arranging the flowers, the concentration on her face accompanied alternately by a frown and an expression of pleasure. The camera zooms into a close-up of her head, but from the back. Only a bit of the neck and shoulders are visible.

Suddenly she starts, emitting an indistinct sound of terror, her face blanching momentarily. Two hands are approaching slowly along her shoulders and neck. Wriggling forward, they suggest the unpleasant touch of a reptile.

The woman’s startled fear diminishes gradually, the colour returning to her face.

Her face is still. Only the eyes flick this way and that a couple of times, observing the fingers. Her expression has gradually hardened. Her face is rigid now, with the hint of a sharp, derisive smile on the corners of her lips.

The fingers seem to be revelling in the silky smoothness of the woman’s shapely neck. Seen in close-up, the hands and fingers cannot be ignored. Strong, masculine fingers, not crudely shaped, but the skin rough, the knuckles too prominent. The nails should have been clipped a few days ago. One suspects they aren’t clean. The thumb and index finger of the right hand are the ones fully visible. Nicotine stains are clear on them.

The derisive smile on the woman’s stern face disappears. She raises her right hand and tries to prise off the fingers running over her neck. She doesn’t succeed. The fingers seem to be trying to circle her neck more intimately.

An angry spark appears in her eyes momentarily. Without trying to move the intruding fingers any more, she says, ‘Remove your hand.’

There is fire in her eyes but the voice is calm – determined, even.

But the hands do not move.

A laugh is heard – muted, amused laughter.

Then the words, with a bite to the amusement in their sound. ‘But I don’t want to! Is it really all that hateful?’

The woman clenches her teeth and says, “I didn’t think you’d have the guts.”

“Didn’t!” The faintly harsh, amused voice is heard again. “Does a husband need courage with his wife!”

The woman whirls around. The camera moves back at the same time. Just enough to catch the man and the woman in the same frame.

“A husband! You dare claim a husband’s rights!” The woman’s eyes and voice are both inflamed. “Don’t you know I can scream at this instant!”

“Certainly you can.” There is now an arrogant contempt mingled with the amusement in the man’s face and voice. “But how will that help, Neel! Will your neighbours come running to save you by thrashing the daylights out of me? I doubt if there’s anyone in this anthill of flats who’ll be concerned with other people’s troubles. Even if you scream your lungs out no one will even open their doors for fear of getting involved with the police. And suppose someone from these pigeonholes did come running to save a damsel in distress. What’ll you tell them? That a monster has entered your room to torture you brutally? Will you be able to say this?”

As he speaks the camera moves forward, almost without our knowledge, excluding the woman from the frame. Now the man simply has to be observed. He’s about 35. Not unpleasant in appearance. Once he must have possessed a masculine grace and good looks. His face is set in a strong and rather sharp mould. But a wild, undisciplined life has left its mark on his appearance and clothes, wiping off the grace and the good looks almost entirely. Not only is the shirt that we have seen so far not at all clean, its collar is also quite frayed. There is a one-day stubble on his face. Though bright, the eyes are sunken and underlined by dark circles. When he smiles, his eyes and face acquire the touch of a clever sense of humour that is not disagreeable, but at the same time one can’t help but notice the unhealthy appearance of his teeth.

After he has finished speaking the camera breaks the continuity of the sequence up to this point, abandoning him to focus exclusively on the woman addressed as Neel.

“I needn’t even go that far,” she says grimly. “Even entering the room of a woman with whom one has no relationship is wrong if you haven’t taken permission. Especially when the accusation comes from the woman.”

“Yes,” the man agreed, a sly smile appearing his face, “if someone does come running at your screams, they’re not going to wait for me to defend myself once they’ve heard your accusations. They’ll be ready to lynch me immediately. But it’s one thing to be ready to do it, another to actually do it. I don’t particularly look like a well-behaved sort. If I stand up to them and threaten them back, they’ll have to think twice. And if I take that opportunity to tell them that I am Anupam Chakraborty, your husband whom who you have abandoned, whose home you have fled to set up house here, who has found you after all this time and is here to take you back, won’t things get a bit complicated?”

We had abandoned Neel as soon as she had finished speaking and have been watching Anupam Chakraborty. At first he had been visible only from the waist up. But now that he moves away as he talks, still in the same frame, to a settee in a part of the room we haven’t yet seen, and stretches out lazily on it, we see his entire body. The camera has been following his movements. All this while we have seen Neel only once, for just a few moments. An amused smile as well as an impatient frown on her face, she is still where she was, leaning slightly against the wall and watching Anupam.

The words “…your husband whom who you have abandoned, whose home you have fled to set up house… ” have been heard over Neel’s image. The faintly amused smile on her face has also appeared with the same words.

Having stretched himself out on the settee, Anupam suddenly alters both his tone and posture to sit upright, smiling engagingly. Beckoning Neel intimately with his index finger, he says in an almost tender voice, “But you won’t scream, nor will I have to explain my behaviour. So let’s forget all this rubbish and sit here. Come, darling! Neel my Neelima!”

The last words are heard over NeeI’s, i.e., Neelima’s face.

There is a sort of black magic in Anupam’s voice and in his call of “Neel my Neelima”. She shivers in spite of herself.

Then, appearing to pull herself together she says in a hard, ice-cold voice, “No, you’d better go. I’m asking you nicely, go away at once. I won’t tolerate this unwarranted intrusion much longer.”

We hear her last words over Anupam’s face. There is no anger in it, only an amused, twinkling smile.

“Lovely!” he looks at her in apparently fascinated appreciation. “You still look so sweet when angry… ”

“Shut up!”

Her sharp command almost startles him into silence. With a strange grimace he cunningly pretends compliance “As you wish. But damn it – sorry, honestly – it was the heartfelt truth.”

The camera focuses on Neelima. Then, holding her in the frame, it retreats as she advances, so as to include Anupam on the sofa in the frame too.

She is still advancing in agitation, saying, “Really, what do you want? Why have you tracked me down to haunt me like I’ve been cursed? What do you want? Is it money? Has the bottle fund run dry, or is it gambling debts?”

As she finishes speaking we see Anupam along with her in the picture. He is still on the settee, looking at her in amusement while she pants in rage before him.

“When is the bottle fund anything but dry anyway?” He shrugs helplessly as soon as she finishes. “Will you offer me money to replenish it? Go ahead. I won’t object. I admit I came with the intention of cadging some cash out of you.”

Still speaking, he gets off the settee and walks up and down, looking at Neelima with a mixture of amusement and wonder. Because the camera is following him from a close distance, we see him alone at times and, when he passes by Neelima, with her sometimes.

Walking up and down, he keeps talking. ”I got hold of your address for just such an emergency. So finding you was no problem really. My only concern was to ensure that I’d find you suitably alone, which I did. But nothing else is going as I’d thought.”

Anupam has stopped before Neelima with the words ‘…so finding you was no problem really…’ From his back we have been watching the reaction of his last words on Neelima’s face. A reaction that is difficult to gauge. Her face is like stone. Her jaws look as though her teeth are clenched. But her eyes suggest some other agony.

As soon as he stops speaking she says in a dry, mechanical voice, “There’s no need to go on. Take what you’ve come for and spare me.”

She turns and walks to the other end of the room. The camera follows her, holding her in the frame down to her knees. The way her body moves makes it clear that it is a pleasure to watch her walk.

We leave her for a few moments for a close-up of Anupam’s face. A faint, crooked smile on his face exposes his reaction, a coarse and naked desire shining in the eyes crinkled with amusement.

The camera picks up Neelima again. Jerking open a drawer in a beautiful cupboard set against the other wall of the room, she pulls out several currency notes from a bag, slams the drawer shut, turns round and says, “Here’s all the money I have with me now. Please take it and go. And remember, there won’t be a repeat of this if you ever return.”

Even as she speaks, the camera wanders off to capture Anupam’s face. He comes forward, listening, and the camera retreats, holding him in the frame. As he stops at her side the camera also stops, having brought them together.

“No repeat?” With a peculiar expression on his face, he says, “I don’t deserve one. I had never hoped you’d actually give me all this money!”

Extending his arm as he talks, he practically snatching the notes from her hand and counting them eagerly.

The camera has moved away from Neelima to capture him exclusively, showing his greedy, ecstatic eyes and triumphant smile.

Having counted the money, he says, “This is almost two hundred rupees!” and looks at Neelima in surprise. ‘So much money at one go! I know it’s to get rid of me, but obviously you can afford it. That means you’re quite rich now. Of course, that’s obvious from your house.”

Still speaking, he walks around the room. The camera retreats a little to follow his movements.

“It may not be ostentatious,” Anupam speaks almost to himself, “but it’s smart and trim, it reflects your taste. This is the sort of house, the sort of life that you wanted. You have mixed tastes. They don’t match with mine. But then, at least there isn’t any pretentiousness to them. There never was…”


A little startled by Neelima’s sour voice, he turns around. The camera is now on Neelima. She is saying bitterly, ‘I don’t need your gratitude for the money. Do me a favour instead. Go away this instant. It’s time for my husband to return. It isn’t desirable for him to find you here.”

The last words are heard over Anupam’s face. There has been a subtle change in his expression. The amused smile is still there at the corner of the lips, but there is an unnatural sharpness in his eyes.

“Not desirable?” he says with a laugh. “No, certainly not desirable for you. Explaining something like this to your husband might be quite uncomfortable. Especially to a new husband. It’s not been long, he’s only been your husband for a year, yes, what is it your new husband’s called? Datta – what Datta is it now? Yes, Datta. Shubhankar Datta. Here we are!”

As he speaks, Anupam has again started moving slowly, edging close to the wall. He stops near a framed photograph on a small table. Saying, “Here we are,” he picks it up and holds it close to his eyes, as if to inspect it carefully. The camera also moves forward, holding the photograph and his face in a close-up. The photograph shows a quiet, pleasant, roundish face. It is different in every way from Anupam’s.

“This Shubhankar Datta,” holding the photograph in his hand, Anupam speaks in almost undisguised admiration, “isn’t an undisciplined, immoral, worthless good-for-nothing, he’s a genuine gentleman of character, climbing step by step towards the peak of success in life. Apparently he’s the Development Officer in some foreign company. With sustained effort and dedication, he’ll climb even higher … ”

As soon as Anupam starts speaking with the photograph in his hand, the camera moves over to Neelima. The words seem to hit her like a whiplash. Her face and eyes are burning with rage. Restraining herself with great effort, she marches up to him and snatches the photograph out of his hand. The camera has kept her in the frame, bringing her together with him.

‘You’re a low-down beast!” she says in a fiery voice. “He’s a god compared to people like you. It’s his job that you’re jealous of, but his greatness is beyond your imagination. Now that you’ve got your money, go away, go away this instant. I shan’t allow you to mock him in this room.”

Towards the end the camera leaves her to settle on Anupam, as he listens to her, for the first time a melancholic smile appears on his face, from the words “his greatness… ” onward till the end,

“How strange, Neel! How strange!” He looks at her a trifle disappointedly. ‘You’ve even forgotten how I speak! Don’t you know the Almighty has built me so twisted that everything appears distorted to me. The moment anyone sets eyes on me they suspect I’m dishonest and cunning. Anything I say sounds like a taunt because of the way my ugly face and twisted smile are set. I wasn’t mocking your Subhankar Datta. What I said may have held the pain of jealousy, but not ridicule or contempt. I’ve been trying to tell you a few simple truths today, honestly. I did come here with the idea of getting some money out of you, but everything changed when I stole into the room and saw you from the back. I had this feeling of you knoweth not what thou hath lost. Forgive my barbaric behaviour. But…”

As he speaks, he advances towards her. At first she retreats a little, but now, without knowing it, she is standing still Continuing to talk, he takes her hand in his. Pressing it lovingly between his own, he speaks to her in an intense tone. The camera now holds the two of them intimately.

“It’s only when you went away,” he continues, his smile still cast in the same mould of slyness mingled with amusement, “that I realised what you meant to me. You aren’t mine now, but although that makes you even more attractive, I can scarcely think of you as another man’s wife. I keep telling myself that a few scratches on a piece of paper cannot stop the blood pounding…”

He has moved even nearer and drawn her closer now, one arm around her waist. Suddenly a bell rings. Not the telephone – it’s the doorbell downstairs. She jumps back.

“It’s Datta,” he says, remaining where he was. “No, it isn’t. Why should he ring the bell? Some pest must have turned up.”

The bell rings once more between these words. Neelima has been standing silently all this while, a strange look in her eyes. Suddenly she seems to snap out of the spell. Turning round, she puts the photograph on the table nearby and goes downstairs to answer the doorbell

Anupam stands still for a few moments. Then he looks around and, going to where Neelima had been arranging the flowers, stands before the vase. He looks at the flowers.

Looking around again, he goes to another, larger, flower vase in one corner of the room. There’s a half-dried bunch of flowers in it. The camera shows him picking up a few dry, thorny sticks from it before moving away from him.

The camera is now downstairs, in the vestibule at the bottom of the staircase. Neelima signs the peon’s receipt and takes the telegram he has brought.

About to climb the stairs, she stops, opens the telegram and reads it. We read its contents too.

It says, “Stuck here. Returning tomorrow. Datta.”

She stands still for several moments. The camera focuses on her face in close-up. It is deeply suffused with some kind of emotion.

She climbs back up the stairs.

We see her from the front as she is about to enter the room upstairs. Inside, she looks around in surprise at first, then says in surprise when she spots Anupam in the distance, “What on earth are you doing over there?”

The camera shifts to him. He too is startled – standing upright quickly, he smiles slightly, saying, “Nothing.”

Nothing other than his torso can be seen. As he straightens up the camera retreats a little to make room for Neelima in the frame.

“What were you doing?” Neelima looks down and frowns.

The vase with the flowers arranged in it is not in the frame, however.

“I told you – nothing.” He turns his attention elsewhere. “Who was it?”

No sooner has he asked the question than he spots the telegram and snatches it out of her hand. She is unable to prevent this unexpected move.

Seeing him unfolding and reading it she protests sharply, “Why are you reading my telegram? Hand it over.”

He has finished it. Returning it, he smiles and says, “It isn’t a letter, after all, there’s no harm in reading a telegram.” After a pause he says, “Of course, I wouldn’t have stopped even if it had been a letter. Scoundrel, beast – call me any name you like.”

“I’m doing no such thing,” said Neelima calmly. “You’d better go now.”

“You’re asking me to go!” He smiles at her strangely. “Why do I have to go? The coast is clear. Nothing to worry about tonight. Will the world turn upside-down if I stay back?”

Neelima doesn’t reply. She only looks at Anupam with a sharp, unfathomable gaze.

Trying to compete with this gaze in silence for several minutes, he loses, as it were, laughing loudly and saying, “No, this money in my pocket is crying to be set free. I have to go.”

Without another word, he leaves, but turns back in a few moments. The camera has followed him as far as he has reached.

“Mind you keep the doors and windows shut properly, Neel,” he says, pretending that he is already slurring from alcohol. “If I get particularly drunk I might even make a raid.”

He doesn’t wait a moment longer, marching out of the room in almost military style.

Following him until he is gone, the camera returns to Neelima’s face. She is standing still.

She stands motionless in this way for quite a while before returning to her vase with the flowers in it.

When as she looks at the vase, there is surprise in her eyes.

We realise the reason once she sits down.

The flowers have been rearranged. While she had gone downstairs, Anupam has rearranged them.

It isn’t really an arrangement to speak of – just three dry, thorny, dead sticks planted raggedly.

But all adding up to look rather unusual.

The Tale of a Coward: by Premendra Mitra

Karuna brought me my morning cup of tea herself.

I couldn’t help laughing at the accompaniments to the tea. “The climate here in your part of the world may be excellent,” I told her, “but my digestive system is still a hundred percent Indian—a couple of days here have not changed it much.”

When Karuna only smiled in response and made as if to leave after arranging the cup and saucer and other dishes on the table, I called her back. “Are you getting formal with me? I’d have understood Bimal-babu’s being formal, but . . .”

Interrupting me, Karuna said, “Let’s say I were to do it on Bimal-babu’s behalf—would that be a crime?” With a smile, she left.

The tea got cold while I thought things over for a long time. No, there was no harm admitting even to myself that Karuna’s behaviour was making me uneasy. Not that I’d expected her to do anything dramatic. Far from making me expectant, it would have given me cause for anxiety. That’s why her initial lack of stiffness had actually reassured me. But gradually, an injured pride lurking somewhere within me seemed to be rearing its head. She needn’t have gone to such extremes, I felt. Maybe the sun had set, but couldn’t its light have delayed a bit to tinge the clouds to the west?

I think I’d have been happiest had Karuna appeared excessively forbidding and remote. A constant wariness on her part would probably have satisfied my ego the most. But Karuna resorted neither to theatrical exuberance nor to rigid indifference.

I could have easily decided that it didn’t matter to me even remotely. And so I should have. After all, I had harboured neither the hope nor the wish to meet Karuna. It hadn’t been in the cards either. Having disappeared without a trace among the countless millions on this earth, rediscovering each other some day was completely unforeseen.

But when the unforeseen did materialise, I realised I had not been able to shed a lurking pride at Karuna’s inability to forget me even though I had forgotten her quite effortlessly.

This pride probably wasn’t altogether unnatural.

After all, you couldn’t forget the past entirely. Especially a particular evening. It had been raining incessantly all day, making it impossible to go out even if one wanted to. The servant informed me that a woman had come to see me.

A woman to see me here at this hotel! I was mystified at first. When Karuna followed the servant into my room, astonishment must have been written large on my face.

“You must be very surprised to see me,” said Karuna, coming up to me after the servant had left.

“I am a bit, yes, but you’re sopping wet.” I was genuinely concerned.

Taking the nearby chair, Karuna said, “Don’t worry, going out in the rain inevitably means getting wet.”

Then she laughed. “What can you do anyway? Where will you find women’s clothes in this completely male world of yours? Surely you don’t have an amateur drama troupe here either!”

“There’s a married couple in No. 10 upstairs,” I said after a little thought.

“Are you proposing to borrow a sari and a blouse from her?” Karuna laughed again. “How will you explain it?”

Suddenly looking sober, she said, “I’ll be fine in my wet clothes. Don’t worry, I won’t fall ill.”

I had no choice but to sit down by her side. Even before I could ask anything, she said, “You must be wondering why I’ve suddenly come here to see you.”

I didn’t answer this time either. Karuna seemed distracted for the next few minutes. Then there was a sudden transformation. I realised she had been holding this torrent of emotion in check all this time.

Falling into my arms, she said frantically, “They’re taking me away to Patna tomorrow. My uncle wrote yesterday.”

It wasn’t as though I didn’t understand. But still refusing to acknowledge the painful truth as long as possible, I said, “Your college will be closed, won’t it?”

Even more frantically, Karuna said, “No, it’s not that. You don’t understand. They won’t let me stay here anymore, this will be my final departure!”

Holding her chilled hand in mine, I sat in silence. Yes, there was pain in my heart, too, that evening, but it was nothing in comparison to Karuna’s anguish. My love lacked the passion that could have made it rise in arrogant revolt against the obstacles posed by fate.

But, raising her tearful face a little later, Karuna said with determination, “I won’t go, never. Why should I?”

I didn’t know what to say. Even that evening, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I did not support her rebellion. I knew already that the mutiny would be in vain.

Trying to change the subject, I said, “It may not be what you think; maybe your fears are unfounded.”

Karuna became distressed again. “No, I’m sure, they want to keep me there by force. They think it’s an infallible cure for my childishness.” She smiled bitterly.

“I’m supposed to be going to college,” she continued. “I didn’t mean to put you in a bind by turning up here. But I had no choice; you hardly visit my aunt’s house anymore. I wouldn’t even have been able to inform you.”

After a pause, Karuna was distraught all over again. “Will they really take me away by force? Is there nothing we can do?”

There’s no need to describe in detail here the assurances and consolation with which I deposited Karuna at her aunt’s house, but although it hurt terribly, it was indisputable that I hadn’t been able to do anything about it.

Whether by coercion or not, Karuna’s uncle did take her away to Patna after that; we didn’t even get a chance to meet before she left.

Although I wasn’t invited, I did hear of Karuna’s wedding. I cannot claim to have received the news either impassively or dispassionately, but when I look back and analyse it today, it’s obvious that the next few days had turned grey with despair because I was looking at things from Karuna’s perspective—I did not have the ability to make out whether there was some smugness mingled with the pain of the realisation.

Even after my memory of her had faded, I had the conviction somewhere at the back of my mind that, even if I could, she would never forget me.

I embarrassed myself a little with the unexpected reaction I experienced to this cruel blow to my conviction, but still couldn’t restrain myself.

When Karuna returned to my room a little later, she would have been able, had she wanted, to detect a subtle difference in my behaviour and the way I spoke to her.

“What’s this! You haven’t eaten anything at all,” she said, looking at my plate.

I glanced at her as I buttoned my shirt; with a smile, I said, “Formality begets formality; what would you have thought had I cleaned out the plate like a starving man in a famine?”

“. . . You’re still harping on the same theme!” Karuna sounded a little disappointed.

“Harping on the same theme is a weakness of mine, Karuna, I haven’t been cured yet.” My voice was deep with emotion.

Karuna was putting away the plate of food, her face averted. I couldn’t see her expression. But her response revealed nothing but lighthearted banter.

“So you’ve overcome all the other weaknesses.” Turning towards me again, she said, “What’s this, are you going out already?”

“Yes, I’d better check how far they’ve gotten with the car.”

“Checking won’t make the repairs go any faster. My husband said he’d enquire. He’ll be home soon; he’s asked for you to wait.”

“Therefore, you and I should talk until then?” I tried to say, smiling.

“We could,” said Karuna with an amused expression.

“How easy it is for you to say something like that, Karuna.” My tone had become intense on its own.

“What’s so difficult about saying something like that?” Karuna’s face held both a smile and traces of astonishment.

“Not all that difficult then, Karuna? Really? Aren’t you afraid to be with me all by yourself? I fear myself still, you know.”

“You really have gone quite mad.” Karuna left with a laugh, leaving me feeling rather foolish.

Turning back from the door, she said, “Don’t you go away, I’ll be back soon.”

But Karuna didn’t return for the longest time. As I paced up and down in the room, I felt a certain resentment burning within me—whether against Karuna or against myself, I couldn’t tell. Perhaps it was against destiny.

Why did I have to meet her again this way. What could this meeting be but an act of fate?

Having obtained some unexpected leave from the office, I was on a motoring holiday. When the engine broke down suddenly last night in the middle of this town, I was grateful to fate for ensuring it had happened in a civilised town rather than in the middle of the forest. If I’d known what the future had in store, I may well have preferred the forest.

Not only was it night, but the place was also unfamiliar. Unable to secure a room either at the waiting-room at the station or at the cheapest of hotels, I hopelessly directed my horse-drawn cart back to the workshop where I had deposited my car for repair. That was where I met Bimal-babu. Employed at a nearby coal-mine, he was visiting the workshop on business. Volunteering to come to the aid of another Bengali in a foreign land, he offered a room for the night in his house. I may have demurred mildly, but he brushed aside my objections.

He lived in a remote corner of the town. When we reached it, the house had already fallen silent. As he rattled the knocker on the door, Bimal-babu said, “I wasn’t supposed to be back today, you see. The damned servants are all blissfully asleep.”

A little later a woman with a lantern opened the door, saying drowsily, “I’m so sorry, I was fast asleep. But didn’t you say you weren’t coming back today?”

“Fate was probably going to give me a chance to be a good Samaritan, so it led me back home. If I hadn’t, this gentleman would have probably found himself in a bit of a spot in an unfamiliar town.”

Finally Karuna saw me. About to retreat, covering her head with the cowl of her sari at the sight of a stranger, she suddenly stopped in her tracks.

Bimal-babu was still talking. “Can you call the servants, they can unlock the drawing-room and make up a bed for him in there. The gentleman may not find it very comfortable. . . .”

He was forced to stop when he heard what Karuna was saying.

“So what if the gentleman does find it a little uncomfortable so far away from home?” smiled Karuna.

Bimal-babu looked at both of us in surprise. “What do you mean! Do you know him?”

“Of course I do, just a little,” Karuna laughed.

“How strange.”

“Why should it be. Why can’t I know someone even if you don’t. I’ve only been married to you these past three years, do you suppose I was in solitary confinement the previous twenty?”

“But perhaps you could choose not to display this sample of our married life to the gentleman while he’s still waiting outside in the cold,” Bimal-babu laughed too.

Karuna pretended to turn serious. “Oh, so you want him to conclude that I’m perpetually quarrelling with you.”

Since it really was time that I said something too, I tried to laugh as well. “Selling is my profession, Bimal-babu, you cannot fool me with samples.”

The manner of Karuna’s first exchange of conversation after all these years struck a false note in me somewhere.

After a long wait, just as I was wondering whether to go looking for her, Karuna arrived. On her own, she answered the question I was about to ask her on seeing how she was dressed. “I have to go out for a bit. Will you come with me?”

Taking my shawl from the clothes-rack, I said, “Your wish is my command. But where are you going?”

“To buy groceries,” Karuna smiled.

“Groceries?” I asked in surprise.

“I do the shopping myself quite often,” she smiled again. “It’s true that local women here don’t usually go shopping themselves, unless they belong to families here on holiday, but I don’t care for such restrictions; when my husband isn’t here I go myself with the servant.”

“But Bimal-babu is here today, isn’t he?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you! He sent word that he’s been held up on important work. He won’t be back today.”

Karuna said all this quite casually. But I stopped in the middle of the road. “What do we do, then?”

“You seem concerned. Do you think you won’t be looked after in his absence?” An amused, mischievous smile played on Karuna’s face.

“It’s not that, Karuna. I was thinking . . .” I said without a smile.

“If you start thinking here in the middle of the street, I’ll have to go on alone.”

So I had to walk along with her, in silence. The roads in this part of town were quite deserted.

The houses were few and far between—many of them unoccupied. There was hardly anyone on the road to speak of.

We continued walking in silence. After a few glances at me, Karuna smiled again. “Why so serious? What are you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking about leaving today.”

“But your car won’t be ready so soon.”

“They can send the car on afterwards. I’ll take the train.”

“Why so impatient to leave? What are you afraid of?”

I stopped again in the middle of the road. “I told you, didn’t I—I’m scared of myself; it’s me I don’t trust.”

This time Karuna laughed loudly. “What if you don’t, it won’t hurt anyone.”

No, I couldn’t take this anymore. Suddenly losing all self-control, I took her hand. “What if you’re the one that’s hurt . . .”

Karuna didn’t withdraw her hand. But cruelly making light of all my passion with a mocking smile, she said, “But how? I trust myself, after all.”

“Couldn’t that trust be shattered in an instant, Karuna?” I said, letting go of her hand. “Couldn’t a wave come along to dislodge you from your moorings?”

Karuna’s eyes still held that indecipherable, amused smile. “No idea, but then I haven’t been tested either.”

I don’t know what I might have said after that, but the roads were filling with people. I was forced into silence.

The Karuna who had gone shopping in the morning was completely different from the Karuna who sat opposite me at an elaborate lunch. Dressed in a sari with a broad red border over a white chemise, she came up to sit near me, her wet, loose hair draped over her back. She had never looked so extraordinary.

“What are you staring at? Haven’t you seen me before?” she smiled, fanning me as I ate.

“It really feels as though I haven’t.”

“Maybe you really haven’t,” she said with an odd smile, and then asked, “Tell me something, what did you think when you saw me shopping?”

“I was thinking that you’re a new discovery for me.”

“Really! But I beg of you, don’t deny Columbus’s claims.”

“What if my claims pre-date Columbus’s?”

“Even if they do, there’s no deed of proof.” Karuna laughed uproariously at her own sense of humour.

I ate in silence for a long time. Then I said, “Not everyone values a deed. Deeds are the easiest thing to burn.”

Karuna didn’t smile this time. Looking at me strangely for a while, she suddenly rose, saying, “I forgot your dessert.”

It was the cook and not Karuna who brought the dessert. But she brought me some paan herself a few minutes later in my room and blurted out, “So you’re leaving by the evening train?”

I looked at her in astonishment. Was I imagining things, or was there a trace of anxiety on her face?

“Very well, I will,” I replied.

“What do you mean, ‘very well, I will’? As if I’m forcing you to go. I asked you to stay, it was you who insisted on leaving.” The acid in her tone was unmistakable now.

“Do you think I’m blaming you?” I smiled. “I simply have to go.”

Karuna smiled too, perhaps a little embarrassed. “I know, what can possibly hold you back in a place like this? But listen, you do know there’s only that one train. Exactly at six-thirty, don’t forget.”

I didn’t have to take the trouble of not forgetting. Well before evening, Karuna had made all the arrangements for my luggage to be packed, the motor workshop to be informed, and a carriage to be fetched to take me to the station. Just in case there were any disruptions during the fifteen-minute journey to the station, she saw me into the carriage an hour earlier and only then relaxed.
I didn’t even get an opportunity to say anything all this time.

As I was about to leave, she came up to the carriage to say, “Heaven knows what you must be thinking about me. Probably that I’m dying to get rid of you, isn’t that so?”

“That’s the only source of consolation.”

“If consolation is so easy to obtain, how will you ever get the real thing?” Karuna laughed.

The echo of her laughter was drowned in the clatter of the carriage drawing away.

It would have been best for this story to have ended there—but it didn’t.

When I reached the station there was a long time to go for the train. Unable to make the clock run faster after depositing my luggage in the waiting room and strolling aimlessly all over the platform, I was standing at the bookstall, wondering which of them to buy. Suddenly I jumped out of my skin.

“Karuna! What are you doing here?”

“Nothing in particular,” she said with a wan smile.

Whether because of the faint light on the platform, or because she really felt that way, Karuna looked defenceless.

Moving away from the stall, I said, “I can’t quite understand why you’re here, Karuna.”

Karuna smiled again. Then, suddenly looking serious, she said, “I’ve burnt the deed.”

Genuinely perplexed, I stared at her idiotically for a while. Then I said frantically, “Do you know what you’re saying, Karuna?”

“Is it impossible, what I’m saying? Can’t a wave ever come along to dislodge you from your moorings?” Karuna’s voice acquired an intimacy of tone. Stepping up very close to me, she raised her eyes to mine to say, “Can’t you take me away? Won’t you?”

I was overcome. “Take you away . . . I . . .”

“Are you wondering where to take me? Wherever you like.”

I couldn’t say a word. I only felt an upheaval within.

“I know what awaits you—difficulty, humiliation. But then I’m prepared for all that too, I’m risking all the shame and condemnation in the world to come to you.”

Karuna gazed at me in distress. What would I tell her? What could I say now? Thoughtlessly I had opened up the floodgates, how could I reject her now?

“But have you thought about it all the way, Karuna? Will you be able to withstand the storm that will ensue? We might get so fatigued fighting it that one day we’ll end up hating each other.”

Karuna was still looking at me intently, but gradually—very gradually—a contemptuous smile appeared on her face.

“Thank you for your valuable advice. The moorings would have been loosened in another moment.” Karuna laughed loudly this time.

I looked at her in surprise. Had she staged the whole thing just to mock me!

“There, the bell’s gone for your train,” Karuna spoke quite casually. “Mine’s almost here too.”

“Your train!”

“My aunt and her family are coming from Calcutta. They don’t know the way to our house. My husband isn’t here either, so I came myself. Very disappointed?”

Without another word I set off for the over-bridge that would take me to the other platform. My last view of Karuna was of her bent over the books in the bookstall.

Was she really at the station to meet her aunt?

I’d never know.