His arms lay folded on his lap holding on to the daily newspaper; his head titled sideways to the right as Debashish Mukherjee sat dozing on the easy chair in his verandah.
“Wake up, Dadababu. It’s time you had your bath,” called Sati his maid-servant, a woman in her early forties.
He opened his eyes slowly and stared dazed at her face for a moment and then uttered,
“I must have fallen off to sleep for quite some while. What’s the time, Sati?”
“It’s nearly 1 o’clock and that is why I had to call you, Dadababu. I have to leave for home by 2 o’clock ”
Sati was working for him for the last fifteen years and her husband who was an electrician also helped him to look after his house. They had two children, a teenaged son who was studying in school and a daughter who had been already married off. Debashish had thought of asking them to live with him and accommodating them in the room on the terrace. He was already in his late seventies; getting weaker and disabled by the day and was in need of constant companionship. No longer did he possess the courage and confidence of his youth and his failing faculties made him nervous. He didn’t wish to die alone unattended and miserable. He knew that his days were numbered and he was of no use to anyone which sometimes made him feel depressed, but he still hoped to live through his days with dignity. Fond memories of his past would sustain him and he hoped to end his life clinging onto them.
He retreated back to the time when Meera, his dear wife had suddenly left for her heavenly abode leaving him feeling lonely and heartbroken. Whenever her lovely, serene face flashed in his mind he choked back his tears sighing. They were a childless couple and were very close and possessive about each other. Often they fought regarding the minutest of things but soon made up as they couldn’t continue long without speaking to each other. She used to pamper him like a spoilt boy paying attention to all his needs and making sure he never felt uncomfortable. Both of them loved travelling and in younger days they went out on vacations every year. A smile flashed through his face when he recollected the times when they had visited Kashmir, Meera rode a horse at Gulmarg. The horse strode step by step up the mountain slopes carrying her while its owner a youth walked on beside holding onto its reins. Suddenly the horse gave a tug making the owner lose his grip and trotted forward quickly with her on its back. She was petrified and started screaming as the horse moved on through the edges of the mountain. One false step would bring them down the mountain slopes and their traces wouldn’t be found. The owner however ran forward calling out to the horse and got it under his control. He reminisced of the times when they had visited Haridwar. She, he recalled, had walked up briskly to the Manasa Mandir situated at the top of Mount Manasa but he had fallen behind, out of breath. Fellow tourists had goaded him on. “Take the name of Ma Manasa and all your fatigue will fade away“, they had said. In Lakshmanjhoola, the Ganges was full of fishes of different varieties who swam right up to the top of the water of the river. As the people residing there were pure vegetarians, fishes were never caught. So, if one put his hand inside the water of the river he could even get to touch the fishes who weren’t afraid of human beings. He contemplated the time when they had vacationed in the Nilgiris. They had hired a white jeep to take them on a sightseeing trip inside the forests of Madhumali. Meera was thrilled like a child on seeing white boars, bison, deer, peacocks, and wild tuskers too. A herd of elephants had attacked their jeep and the driver who was an expert at his job drove the jeep in back gear at full speed and been able to save them from the horrible fate of being crushed to death. Later he got to know that a hunter had once shot a wild elephant there and now if they saw a white colored jeep they turned violent and attacked it. He recollected vividly how he with his wife spent a romantic evening at the beaches of Gopalpur watching the sunset. He lived with these precious memories which enabled him to carry on.
She was an excellent cook. Once he invited his seniors to his house for dinner who came from Delhi on an official tour. Throughout the day she prepared various dishes both Indian and continental. They were very pleased and complimented her prowess as a cook and also as a hostess. Within a few months after that he was given a promotion he wasn’t expecting. The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach: he teased her.
Debashish’s father Harish was a pious and righteous man. Everyone in the surrounding neighborhood held him in great regard, affection and awe. He was so charitable by nature that he used to donate money to anyone who came asking for help. Debashish’s mother, Parul was often angry with his husband’s careless attitude towards his family and his own interests and the big heartedness he demonstrated towards one and all .She took over all financial matters from him. At the end of every month he handed over the salary to her. But still how could she change his basic nature? Whenever someone came calling for help, in dire circumstances he gave away whatever he had in his possession like brass utensils or watches so that they could sell them off to get some money. He was indeed a most lovable and revered figure whether at home or amongst his friends, relatives or as the Headmaster of his school.
Debashish’s mother, Parul was a strict disciplinarian. In fact he believed that he would have never become what he was if it weren’t for his mother. She brought up his brothers and sisters as well as her brother-in-laws’ children. Everybody used to fear her and nobody dared to utter a word on her face. But underneath her tough exterior was a sensitive soul of a mother.
Suranjan Ghosh was his classmate at school. He was never serious about his studies although he was intelligent. One day while Debashish was going through the daily newspaper, he grabed it away from his hands and said,
“Why do you waste your money and time reading such rubbish when they are sold off later in bulks at a cheap rate? Read poetry instead. They would come to your use.”
Suranjan never studied what was taught at school and did what he pleased. An ardent admirer of Algernon Charles Swinburne, he often used to quote lines from his poems which he still remembers.
“When the hounds of Spring are of winter’s traces,
The mother of month’s in meadows or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the thracian ships and the foreign faces,
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.”
Their English teacher, Mr Hafizullah used to be annoyed with him as he never showed interest in class and his studies. He usually occupied the back bench wherefrom he poked and disturbed his friends throughout the period. One day while he was up to mischief he was caught red-handed by him who reprimanded him severely. “You would never be able to pass your exams like this”, he had said. Suranjan had replied back confidently that not only would he pass but be the highest scorer in his paper and subject. As promised he came out with flying colours in his exams and stood first in English. While distributing the answer scripts to the students he had hugged and blessed him with tears in his eyes.
“Don’t waste your merit my son. You possess everything to make you successful in life”, he had professed.
After nearly two decades Debashish met him suddenly in Ripon Street. Exchanging warm greetings he had enquired about him.
“What are you doing right now, Suranjan?”, he had asked.
“Nothing really much, I give private tuitions and I’m in search of a suitable job”, he replied. “I have recently published a small book of poems and also written a couple of stories.” he added jovially taking out a book from his handloom bag which slung from his shoulder. After that chanced meeting they had never met and he often wondered what had become of him. Debashish had also nurtured dreams of becoming an author but due to many constraints and responsibilities in his life he never could become one. In some way he held himself responsible as he neither had the drive nor was he enthusiastic. He would have changed a lot of things in his life if he could go back now but alas ‘time and tide waits for none’.
His first friend was Kushal. When he first met him he had a dark navy blue half pant on and was bare chested standing beside a pond throwing stones in the water. He was only seven years old then and he went and stood a few yards away from him and started flinging stones inside the pond just like him. Soon they became friendly and competed with the each other to see how far each could throw. Much later in life when he was reaching fifty he suddenly came across him near Stephen House. He was carrying a jute bag full of vegetables which he had purchased from the streets of Dalhousie. He looked frail, pale and much older than his actual age. He told him that he was the father of five daughters; one of whom he had already married off. He seemed overburdened with worries which made him appear so old. After Debashish returned home he peered at his image in the mirror had asked Meera whether he looked like an old man. She was amused by his query and told him that he looked as young as the day they had first met. Yes, those were the times.
He had studied in Zilla Government School when young. His school was renowned for its excellence in academics .Boys from every strata of society studied there: poor, middle-class and affluent . Sukhomoy Majhi was his batch mate. He was an ordinary student in school but was good at sports and was the goalkeeper captain of the school team. He liked him very much, not only because he was good student, but because he was kind, helpful and friendly. One day, he invited him to his house. He happily agreed to accompany him but he wasn’t prepared to face what had happened next. His parents and grandparents all welcomed him ardently and touched his feet with reverence saying,
“Oh how lucky we are that you have set foot here. You have sanctified our house.”
He was taken aback and with much embarrassment he said,
“You are my elders .Why are you touching my feet?” he retracted back.
“You are a Brahmin. God’s child and his representative on earth. We are blessed by your presence at your home.” said Sukhomoy’s grandmother. After that incident Sukhomoy gradually drifted away from him. Their friendship was never the same again.
He remembered Somanth Deb, a peculiar character. If any boy at school talked to a girl he gravely abominated him as characterless and bad. “Don’t mix with him, he goes around with girls. His influence will wreck our studies and characters”, he would say. He, however, was studious; a bookworm who later became an engineer. Later, though one of his friends he got to know that he had eloped with a girl to Paris where they both got married and settled down. So, much for discarding female company, he reflected amused.
While thinking about Somanth he was reminded of another friend of his childhood days, Akash Dasgupta. Akash was elected secretary of the college union and a fine orator, student and sportsman. After becoming the secretary of the student’s union he became popular especially with girls in his college who swarmed around him like bees. He became very friendly with one particular pretty girl named Swati. She was a year junior to him in college. Often she used to seek his guidance and ask for notes. Their bond grew deeper as days progressed and it was apparent that they liked each other’s company and mutually admired each other. But both never voiced each other’s feelings. After he passed out from college, one day he got to know that Swati’s marriage was fixed to a well established and wealthy man. Whereas he then had just graduated and wasn’t even employed. He could do nothing but watch with a broken heart his first love, being given over to another man. A few days after her marriage he received an envelope addressed to him delivered by post. When he opened it he found a dark red petal of a rose inside it. There was neither a note inside nor any reference of its sender name. “Farewell”, he sighed, “You are too dear for me to possess and will always remain in my heart.”
The world is small and so after a decade at Gariahat he again came across her. It was drizzling and she was standing under the shed of a shop holding the hand of a little girl, about six years old. As soon as she saw him she walked away silently with her child. He then went and stood at the same spot they had stood until it stopped raining. Such are the pangs and joy of unrequited love and ‘the sweetest songs are those which tell the saddest stories.”
Yes, love is universal. It doesn’t distinguish one man from another by creed, region, caste, sex or age. So also is pain and its expressions are universal. Whereas happiness has different forms of expression and varies from one man to another. Some find happiness in solitude amidst nature while others in pursuing materialistic goals and ambitions. Some find joy in the simplest things like reading a poem while others in partying in hotels and clubs.
Debashish had been to London on an official tour. A young English lady worked as a personal secretary and stenographer in the London office. One day he found her looking very gloomy and upset. She was desperately trying to wipe away her tears with a tissue paper. He was moved but felt uncomfortable to inquire. She was a foreigner and he was in a foreign country and unaware of their customs and ways. But at last he gathered enough courage to ask her the reason of her grief. The young English woman burst out crying and said that while she was coming over to office she had found her boyfriend with another girl. She was a strong willed, modern and independent woman but was as emotional as any other girl in any part of the world in love would be under the same circumstances. Basically, all human beings are the same.
When he was very young Jibanda was his neighbor at their native village. He used to love him very much and would take him for long walks in the evenings. It was he who first gifted him with a beautiful Japanese pen which he proudly showed to his friends. After school hours or on holidays he spent most of his time at his house. A strong bond of mutual affection and regard had formed between these two souls. He was married and had a baby son. One day while visiting in his house he heard Jibanda’s mother complaining that he didn’t spent enough time with his own son. Debashish was hurt and annoyed by the statement. It was nearly after two decades that Jibanda had visited his home at Calcutta but unfortunately he wasn’t at home that moment. That was the last time he heard of him.
All these sweet memories ran through his mind and he looked up at the sky which remained as blue as ever before.