Written in 1916 by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Aparichita’ is a short story featured in his ‘Golpo Guchho’ (A Collection of Stories). It has been translated from Bengali by Aruna Chakravarti as The Stranger.
I am twenty-seven years old today. My life has been unremarkable, so far, both in terms of length and quality. Yet it is not without value. It can be compared to that of a flower on whose breast a honeybee had nestled once, leaving behind a faint glimmer that germinated and swelled into a tiny ball of fruit.
Something similar happened to me. The encounter was brief; almost ephemeral. In chronicling the events I shall be brief too. But make no mistake. Though short, my story should not be passed over unread. Those who take the trouble to go through it will find meaning in it.
I am well educated. I have passed all my college examinations with ease. I am good looking too. When I was a child my school masters would mock my pretty face. Simul phul they would call me. Makal phal. Simul is a flower and makal, a fruit. Both have gorgeous exteriors but are of no use to anyone. The first is totally lacking in fragrance and the second in flavour. I would shrink with shame and resent the unfairness of these remarks. But as I grew older, I told myself that if another birth was granted to me, I would like it to be a replica of this one. My face should be as handsome and those of my schoolmasters as twisted with derision as when I was a lad.
My father had been poor once. In later life he made a lot of money. However, his profession as a lawyer demanded so much time and effort that he never got a chance to enjoy any of it. He must have heaved a sigh of relief when he died. For the first time he had been granted a rest.
My upbringing was left to my mother. Having come from a poor family she never lost sight of the fact that she was a wealthy woman. Nor did she allow me to do so. As an infant I remember being carried long after I had learned to walk. As a result, I never really grew up. I still look amazingly young for my age. I could easily pass for the elephant headed god’s younger brother nestling in his mother Annapurna’s lap.
After my father’s death, my maternal uncle took charge of our affairs and became my guardian. Mama was only six years older than me. But, like the parched sands of a subterranean river, he steadily sucked away everything we had… assets, liabilities, hopes, cares, dreams and aspirations. The draining had been so thorough that we were unable to access anything on our own. We had to dig into him for every drop. In consequence, I lived a life totally shorn of responsibility.
Fathers of marriageable daughters could not but consider me a good catch. I had no bad habits. I’d never even touched tobacco. I was simple and good tempered. That’s because being simple and good tempered made life easy for me. I obeyed my mother because I lacked the guts to disobey her. I was prepared to allow this quality full play in future. Girls permitted to choose their own husbands would do well to keep this in mind, when making their choice.
As soon as the time was ripe, marriage proposals from the best families started to pour in. But my uncle, who was the Chief Agent of the Dispenser of my Destiny, had very definite ideas of what constituted a good match. The girl had to come from an impoverished family for only then would she keep her head bowed and be humble and obedient. On the other hand, what was the value of a daughter-in-law who didn’t bring a substantial dowry? My uncle’s requirements were simple. The father had to be poor yet ready to give him all the money he wanted. He must be the kind of man Mama could milk with ease yet wasn’t obliged to treat with respect. One who wouldn’t complain if he was offered tobacco in the coconut shell hookah meant for subordinates instead of the lordly silver albola he smoked himself.
My friend, Harish, works in Kanpur. On one of his visits to Kolkata, he said to me, “O hey! Speaking of brides, I know an excellent girl.”
I was in a state of limbo at the time. I had passed my M.A. some months earlier. Now there was nothing for me to do. I didn’t have to study or look for a job. Nor was I required to poke my nose into any of my financial affairs. No work, no worries, no opinions were expected of me. A desert of indolence and inactivity stretched before my eyes. I was consumed with thirst for something; someone… I had no idea who or what I was searching for.
In this frame of mind Harish’s words struck a chord in me. My mind and body trembled with an unknown emotion — the way newly budding leaves on the boughs of a bakul tree shiver and quiver with the first warm winds of spring, throwing dancing patterns of light and shadow on the ground. Harish had a romantic side to him, and he spoke with tenderness and passion. He described the girl in words that fell like a sweet shower on my shrivelled soul. I looked at him with star struck eyes, “Why don’t you speak to Mama, Harish?” I begged.
Harish was ready to oblige. He was a great entertainer, and everyone enjoyed his company including my uncle who, once they sat down to a chat, was loath to let him go. Mama, of course was more interested in the girl’s father than in her. From Harish’s description he came to know that, though wealthy once, the gentleman was now in straitened circumstances. However, there were still some good scrapings left in the pot of gold bequeathed to his family, years ago, by the goddess Lakshmi. Unable to keep up the lofty standards set by his forefathers, he had decided to leave his ancestral village and settle in a small town in the west where no one knew him and he could live a simple life, without worrying about lost prestige. He had just this one daughter, no one else, so he wouldn’t hesitate to pour the contents of the pot into the hands of one who ensured her happiness. What could be better? My uncle was thoroughly convinced that this was the man he was looking for.
So far so good. But there was one worrying factor. The girl was fifteen. Why had she been kept unwed for so long? Was there some flaw in the family? “Arre na na” — Harish hastened to explain. The father was very picky. He hadn’t found anyone he considered worthy of her, so far. He didn’t mind waiting till the right boy came along. But the girl’s age did. Refusing to stop at her father’s command it had marched on at its accustomed pace. Harish’s ability to charm his listeners and lull their fears, worked. Mama was persuaded to look into the proposal.
Mama considered any place outside Kolkata to be as alien and exotic as the islands of the Andaman. The furthest he had travelled in his life was to Konnagar. If he had been Manu, he would have forbidden the crossing of Howrah Bridge, in his Samhita, for who knew what dangerous territory lay beyond it? There was no question of his leaving Kolkata, so my cousin Binu was sent to Kanpur to conduct the negotiations and, if all went well, seal the new relationship by a ritualistic blessing of the bride. Mama had full faith in Binu da’s good sense, good taste and sagacity. I would have liked to go with him and see the girl but couldn’t summon up the courage to ask for permission. I didn’t even dare ask to be shown a photograph.
Binu da returned satisfied. “She’ll do…,” he muttered, “pure gold.”
He tended to speak in monosyllables and was extremely reticent in his praise. Where another would have exclaimed “Wonderful!” or “Excellent!” he mumbled, “Not bad”. His “She’ll do” was ample affirmation. It was clear to all of us that Fate had smiled on me. Prajapati, the God of marriage, had given the nod.
As was to be expected, Mama decided that the wedding would be held in Kolkata. The resultant effect was the bride’s father was forced to make all the arrangements in a city of which he knew nothing. Shombhunath Babu was a handsome man of about forty. There were traces of silver in his whiskers though not in his hair which was black and plentiful. He had the kind of good looks that compels attention even in a crowd. The immense trust that he reposed in Harish was evident from the fact that he agreed to the marriage without seeing me. He set eyes on the one who was to be his son-in-law only three days before the ceremony.
I fervently hoped that he liked what he saw. It was difficult to tell. He spoke little in a very soft voice and listened quietly when Mama’s tongue wagged vigorously with exaggerated accounts of our wealth and status and our reputation as one of the first families of Kolkata. I squirmed with embarrassment under that gentle, probing gaze. But Mama’s enthusiasm would not be dampened. He went on and on. He probably assumed, from Shombhunath Babu’s subdued voice and manner, that the man was spineless and easily intimidated. The thought must have filled him with glee for, in fathers of brides, this quality was deemed a virtue. He remained seated when his guest rose to take his leave. He didn’t think it necessary to escort him to his carriage.
The cash component of the dowry had been agreed upon already. Mama, who prided himself on his extraordinary skill in negotiation; his well-honed ability to extract the best deal for himself in any given situation, now turned his attention on the quality and quantity of jewels that would adorn the bride’s person. Polite but pointed questions elicited the response he desired. Enough would be given to satisfy the most determined of blood suckers. I had no idea of what was going on between the two guardians. To tell the truth I wasn’t interested. Financial affairs were not my business. Besides I was confident that, in any battle of wits, Mama would emerge the winner. It mattered little that we didn’t need the money or that Shombhunath Babu was being squeezed dry. I was proud of Mama as were we all.
The turmeric ceremony was conducted with a lot of fanfare. So many trays of gifts were sent to the bride’s house with so many maids and servants carrying them, that doling out the necessary tips must have been a financial drain on her father. Exchanging gleeful remarks about the poor man’s distress and helplessness, Ma and Mama had a good laugh.
The wedding day arrived. The bridegroom’s procession was led by a mighty concert of drums, trumpets, flutes and fiddles. This set up such a pandemonium of discordant sounds that the noise could be compared to a stampede into Saraswati’s lotus garden, by a herd of mad elephants, violent enough to force the goddess of music to flee to safer havens. Covered with brocade and precious gems, I looked exactly like a jeweller’s shop in the middle of an auction. I had to prove to the bride’s father, had I not, the worth of the son-in-law he had had the good fortune to acquire? It was a battle of prestige and I rushed headlong to win it.
Mama was not impressed by the wedding venue. The assembly hall, to which the bridegroom’s party was ushered, was small and the seating somewhat constricted for the number of guests we had brought. The arrangements were on an ordinary scale, hardly befitting our family’s wealth and position. He was also a bit miffed by Shombhunath Babu’s behaviour. He found it strange. Rather cold and distant. If it weren’t for another man’s servile bowing and scraping, oily smiles and folding of hands, Mama might have felt incensed enough to walk out of the house with the bridegroom in tow. This was a lawyer friend of the bride’s father—a hulk of a man with a huge bald head and a very dark complexion. That he was in charge of the logistics was obvious from the greasy sheet he had wrapped around his middle and the cracked voice that was clearly the result of having shouted orders all day. The good thing was that, unlike the bride’s father, he was aware of the niceties of social behavior and what was owing to the groom’s party. He smiled and swayed his heavy head at everybody and addressed strings of flattering words to each, from the cymbal player in the band to the most distinguished of the wedding guests.
Shortly after our arrival Mama took our host aside and whispered something in his ear. The two walked out of the room. I don’t know what transpired between them but, within a few minutes, Shombhunath Babu returned. “Babaji!” he said, “Your presence is needed. Please come with me.”
The problem was a simple one. Some persons, not all, are ruled by a single compulsion. Mama was one of them. He had a goal before his eyes of which he was determined never to lose sight. This goal, he would never forgive himself if he failed to reach it even in the tiniest degree, was that he would never allow anyone to get the better of him. He had a horror of being cheated. The bride’s father had promised a good amount of jewellery. But could he be trusted to keep his word? The man seemed somewhat tight-fisted judging from the tips and return gifts the servants, carrying the turmeric, had brought back with them. Who knew if the bridal ornaments were of the weight and purity of gold promised? The sensible thing to do was to have their worth assessed before the rituals commenced. To wait till after the ceremony would be an exercise in futility. Thus, with due caution and good sense, he had included our family goldsmith in the wedding party.
My future father-in-law led me to a small room. It was empty, except for Mama who was seated on a chowki, and the goldsmith who sat on the floor with his scales, weights and touchstones spread out before him.
“Your uncle wishes to have the girl’s jewels tested before the ceremony,” Shombhunath babu looked at me with a strange expression in his eyes. “What do you say?”
I hung my head in silence.
“Why should he say anything?” Mama answered for me. “It’s what I want that counts.”
“Is that so? Do you endorse your uncle’s statement?” The gentle, thoughtful gaze unnerved me. Not knowing how to respond I tilted my head expressing assent. Financial affairs were handled by guardians. What right did I have to interfere?
“Very well.” Shombhunath Babu murmured. “The trouble is…it will take some time to remove the jewels. The bridal toilette is complete, and my daughter is wearing them already. Had I known….no matter… please stay here till I return.”
“Why?” Mama cried out surprised. “Why should he stay here? Go back to the hall, Anupam, and join the others.”
“No.” Shombhunath Babu’s voice was soft but firm. “He will stay here.”
He left the room and returned after half-an-hour with a bundle wrapped in a gamchha. Spreading out its contents on the chowki, he invited the goldsmith to begin his examination. The goldsmith’s practiced eye told him the worth of what he saw in an instant. “There’s no need to examine anything,” he said, “The gold is hundred percent pure. Not a trace of alloy. Look.” Picking up a bangle he pressed it gently. A tiny dent appeared. “These are obviously from a bye gone era. Nothing like this is fashioned anymore. The girl’s grandmother’s perhaps?” He threw a questioning glance at our host.
The moment he heard this Mama whipped a notebook out of his pocket and started listing the ornaments one by one. He had to make sure that everything he had been shown would find its way into the family vault. A pleased smile appeared on his face. They were far more in number and of greater weight than he had expected.
Now, Shombhunath Babu picked up a pair of earrings from the pile. “Kindly examine these and let me know their value,” he said. The goldsmith turned them over in his hands. “Bought from an English shop,” he curled his lips disdainfully, “They have hardly any gold to speak of.” Shombhunath Babu took them from him and handed them to Mama. “Keep these with you,” he said. Mama’s face flushed a deep red with embarrassment. They were the earrings he had sent with Binu da for the bridal blessing.
“Go Anupam.” He tried to recover his composure. “Go sit with the others in the assembly—”
“No. No.” Shombhunath Babu interrupted smoothly. “There’s no need to go to the assembly hall just now. Dinner, for the bridegroom’s party, has been served and your guests have proceeded to the dining area. Let me take you there.”
“What!” Mama exclaimed, “Eat now? Before the ceremony begins…?”
“The auspicious hour is far off. Why wait till then? Please come with me.” There was something in his voice, a strength that came from a long habit of command, that compelled obedience. Mama rose meekly and followed him out of the room.
The meal, though not ostentatious, was well-cooked, neatly served and plentiful in quantity. The guests ate to satiety and were well content. Shombhunath Babu invited me to join them, but Mama was aghast at the suggestion. “What nonsense!” he cried forcefully, “How can the bridegroom sit down to a meal before the rites have begun?”
Shombhunath Babu ignored the outburst. “What do you say?” His eyes looked into mine thoughtfully. As though he expected a reaction. Any reaction. But I remained silent. What could I say? How could I go against the express wishes of my uncle and guardian?
“Very well then.” Shombhunath Babu turned his attention back to my uncle. “You have taken a lot of pains and come a long way,” he said pleasantly. “My hospitality, I’m afraid, has not met the standards your illustrious family is used to. I’m a poor man. Please forgive me. I do not wish to trouble you any further.”
“It’s alright. It’s alright.” Mama waved his hands in the lordly manner he used to reassure his inferiors and demonstrate his generosity. “Let the ceremony begin. I’m ready…”
“It will take a few moments for your carriages to arrive. Kindly wait till then.”
“What!” Mama’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Is this a joke?”
“You are the one who has turned a serious affair into a joke.” Shombhunath babu answered calmly. “How could you even think that I would steal my own daughter’s jewels? What sort of people are you? I am sorry but I cannot give my daughter in marriage to a family like yours.” He looked straight into Mama’s eyes ignoring me completely. He didn’t glance at me even once or try to gauge my reaction. He seemed to have made up his mind that I was nothing.
What happened after that? As was to be expected the groom’s party shouted and cursed, broke the furniture, smashed the chandeliers and having completed the carnage to their satisfaction made their way home. The band that had pronounced its entry into the wedding venue with such a cacophony of sounds now slinked along the streets in funereal silence. The lamps had burned out and the only light that guided the mournful procession came from the stars.
The rest of the family was wild with fury. Had anyone even dreamed, let alone seen or heard, anything like this? Such arrogance in a bride’s father! What did the man think of himself? “Let’s see how he secures another match for his precious daughter,” the women cried out to one another, “The world doesn’t run according to his whims and fancies. Wait and watch. He’ll be taught the lesson of his life.”
Which was all very well. But what was the point of cursing a man with the eternal spinsterhood of his daughter if he was prepared to keep her unwed all her life?
In the whole of Bengal, I was the only bridegroom with the distinction of being turned away from the wedding venue. I, who was so eligible! Such an excellent catch! And to think that the stigma stamped on my brow had followed such a jingoistic display of wealth and status from our side! Everyone was laughing at us. Mama’s breast burned with rage and humiliation. The thought that stung him most cruelly was that the wily father of the bride had outwitted him. How cleverly he had managed to feed him and his party, keeping them in his debt forever, before sending them packing! The insult was not to be borne. “I’ll sue the scoundrel for defamation and breach of promise,” Mama shouted as he stomped about the house. “I’ll make sure he spends the rest of his days turning the grinding stone in jail.”
At this point some of his well-wishers stepped in. If he tried anything of the sort, they warned, he would lose the few shreds of dignity he had left. The farce would be complete.
Needless to say, I was fuming too. “If only some disaster were to strike the man,” I thought over and over again,” he would regret his folly and come rushing to my feet begging for forgiveness…” I wished fervently for something terrible to happen. I lined up all kinds of possibilities tugging at my whiskers in nervous anticipation.
Yet, running parallel to this dark stream of hate and malice, was another. Irradiated with light. My thoughts had been submerged in its waters all these months and would not be dismissed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pluck out the image of the unseen maiden which had taken root in my heart. Her face had possessed me entirely and continued to do so. I saw a brow adorned with sandal paste. Cheeks flushed a deep rose in shy expectancy. A form draped in red silk, glittering with jewels. In the fantasy world I inhabited she was a golden creeper, ready and waiting to shower her wealth of spring blossoms at my feet. One moment, another step, and I could have claimed her. But the moment had stretched to eternity. A mighty wall had appeared between us, and I had lost sight of her…
Ever since Binu da’s return from Kanpur I had made it a point to visit him, every evening, and pester him with questions. Being extremely economical in language and expression he had said little. Owing to that very fact, perhaps, the few words he uttered sent sparks flying into my soul and set it aflame. I was overwhelmed with a sense of the girl’s beauty. It was not of this world. It was ethereal.
I had waited patiently for the moment when the imagined would transform to reality. When I would see, with the eyes of the flesh, what I had only dreamed about. But alas! Fate had beguiled me with false hopes then dashed them to the ground. A thick veil of mist had risen between us. She had disappeared beyond it, and I was left on the other side, lurking like a ghost.
The girl had been shown my photograph… so I’ve heard from Harish. I’m sure she approved of what she saw. Why wouldn’t she? My heart told me that she has kept it hidden in a secret drawer. And on lonely afternoons, secure in her room with doors and windows locked against prying eyes, she would take it out and look longingly at it. I saw her bending forward to examine it more closely, her beautiful hair falling on both sides of her face in long shining strands. And the moment she heard footsteps, she would hide it quickly in the scented folds of her sari.
The days passed, one by one. No one mentioned marriage. Mama was still nursing his grievance and Ma thought it preferable to wait till people have forgotten my humiliation.
Harish told me that good matches were found for the Kanpur girl, but she had taken a vow to remain unwed. The news filled me with elation. My inner eyes could see her… pale and worn with longing for me. She ate little and that, too, when she was forced. Dusk would set in but she would forget to braid her hair. Her father looks at her and wondered. “What has happened to my girl? Why is she so changed?” Sometimes, he would walk into her room and find her sitting by the window, her eyes streaming with tears.
“What is the matter Ma?” he would ask tenderly. “Tell me the truth. Is something troubling you?”
“Why, no Baba.” She wiped her eyes quickly and rose to her feet. “Nothing is wrong.”
The father’s heart would sadden. She was his only child. His pride and joy. How could he bear to see her thus? How could he stand by and watch a delicate bud, just about to open its petals, wilt and wither in the hot dry winds of a rainless summer? He decided to swallow his pride. He would rush to our door and beg pardon with abject humility…
The stream of hate that lay coiled within me unwound and stretched to its full length. “Tell the girl’s father to make fresh arrangements,” it wouldhiss like a poisonous snake. “Let lights blaze and guests arrive from far and near. Then, just when the rituals are about to commence, gather the bridegroom’s party together and walk out of the wedding venue with a smile.”
But the other stream, pure as a lover’s tears, appeared before me in the form of a milk white swan. “Set me free,” it pleads. “As I flew to Damayanti’s garden, aeons ago, so let me wing my way to the beloved one and whisper the joyful tidings in her ears.”
The dark night ended, new rain fell, the drooping flower raised its face. The wall crumbled and made way for me. Only me. The others were left behind. And then…?
My story ended here.
But no. It wasn’t the end. I’ll come to the point at which it was left hanging and conclude my narrative.
I was accompanying my mother on a pilgrimage to some holy cities of the north. I had been entrusted with the task since Mama, as I’ve said before, was so averse to travelling that he hesitated to even cross the Howrah Bridge. Tossed this way and that by the swaying of the train, I slept fitfully, dreams dancing in shards in and out of my head. Suddenly, it came to a halt, and I awoke. My eyes beheld an expanse of light and shadow the like of which I had never seen before. I was still in the throes of my dream, I think, because everything looked remote; unreal. I felt I was in another world. Only the few lamps burning on the station platform seemed vaguely familiar.
I turned to Ma who lay sleeping on her berth, the green curtain shielding her eyes from the light. Boxes and bundles, dislodged from their places by the movement of the coach, lay scattered. I hadn’t come out of my dream fully, perhaps, because even this common place scene appeared surreal in my eyes. The scattered objects, the dim green light…I felt I was floating in a space between existence and non-existence.
Suddenly the silence of the night was broken. “Come,” someone cried out, “Come quickly. There’s space here.” My heart leaped upon hearing the Bengali language spoken in a feminine voice. Was what I had just heard a string of words? Or was it a song? I wondered at myself. Did I react the way I did because the voice belonged to a member of the opposite sex? No, I’m quite sure that wasn’t the reason. Perhaps I had been yearning to hear my mother tongue through all these months of staying away from my roots. Have I heard anything like this before? I asked myself, feeling awed and humbled. Opening the window, I looked out. There was no one there. The guard waved his lantern and the train started to move.
All my life I have found myself being moved by a beautiful voice. Beauty of face and form has its own attraction but the human voice, I’ve always felt, expresses that which lies deep within the soul. Though I could see nothing with the outer eye a form started taking shape within me. Like a star-studded sky which wraps one in its folds but does not brush the skin, it slid deep into my soul making music as it went. You who are so perfect; so complete! I called out to that divine melody. You bloom like a flower on the bruised heart of a capricious age and let its winds pass over you. Yet not a petal is blown away. Not a speck appears on your pristine purity.
The train picked up momentum. The rattle was as metallic as before, falling like strokes on an iron drum. But, strange to say, it made music in my ears. There’s space here… I heard with every beat… there’s space here. But was there a space? In this self-absorbed world did anyone concede space to another? Did anyone know the truth about another? Yet, this not knowing, I was convinced, was a web of mist; an illusion. Once torn apart all would stand revealed. Recognition would be complete.
“ I know you,” my heart murmured to the one who was once a stranger, “I’ve known you from the beginning of time. You called out to me, ‘Come quickly,’ you said. I’ve come to you. I haven’t wasted a moment.”
I couldn’t sleep the whole night. At every station I opened the window and looked out, fearing that the unseen one would depart unseen…
We got down, the next morning, at a junction station where we had to change trains. Since I had reserved seats in a first-class compartment, I was not worried about being caught in a crowd. But the sight that met my eyes filled me with dismay. The platform was choc a bloc with sahebs and their orderlies. Some army general, out on a pleasure trip with his cronies, was waiting for the train which arrived, a few minutes later, crammed with passengers. I realised that travelling first class was out of the question and felt a stab of anxiety. Where, on this crowded train, would I find place? I ran up and down the platform peering into every window when a girl, standing at the door of a second- class compartment, called out to my mother. “Why don’t you come to our coach? There’s space here.”
I looked up startled. The same voice. The same words. There were only a few moments left for the train to leave. I helped my mother up then, climbing in, I called out to the coolies to stow the luggage. Just then the train started moving. Overcome with panic I stood helplessly, not knowing what to do. Who was worse equipped than me to deal with a situation like this? But the girl, with extraordinary dexterity, snatched the boxes and beddings from the hands of the running men and flung them on the floor. In the commotion of the moment, an expensive camera of mine was left behind. I made no effort to retrieve it.
What happened next? A perfect bliss pervaded my being of a kind impossible to put in words. How shall I even begin to describe it? Stringing a bunch of words together seems meaningless. They would express nothing.
The music I had only heard so far had assumed a shape and appeared before our eyes. I glanced at Ma. She was staring at the girl with such rapt attention that not an eyelash flickered.
She was about sixteen or seventeen. But the shy diffidence of approaching womanhood, so common in girls of her age, sat lightly on her. Her gaze was clear and unflinching, her gestures free, and there was a purity in her face and form the like of which I had never seen before. Not a trace of timidity or unease marred the natural grace of her movements.
What I felt at the time went beyond what I saw. To tell the truth, I can’t even recall the colour of the sari she wore. All I remember is that she was dressed very simply and that I was filled with a sense that externals held no meaning for her. She rose, slender and upright as a tuberose stalk, above the plant that had given her birth. Above the earth in which it was embedded. Her fragrance was hers alone and came from within.
I sat in one corner, my eyes glued to the pages of a book. But my ears were keenly attuned to the excited voices of the little girls who were travelling with her. I marvelled at the way she became one with them. Though considerably older she was totally at ease, and they laughed and joked merrily together. The little ones had an illustrated storybook out of which they were pestering her to read a story. I gathered, from their chatter, that they had heard it several times yet wanted to hear it again. I understood why. It wasn’t the story. It was her voice they wanted to hear; the golden voice that reinvented as it went along and made everything sound new. That, springing from the heart like a fountain, filled their ears with music. I found myself responding in much the same way. Her presence made my sun shine brighter. My sky was more intimate in its embrace. My heart was washed by the pristine waters that emanated from the one who was still a stranger…
At the next station she beckoned to a vendor and bought an enormous cone of spiced gram which the whole party proceeded to eat with gusto. My nature was so hedged in by restrictions that, though tempted, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for some. “Stupid me!” I thought, “this was my chance of speaking with her. Of letting her know I wanted something from her…”
The moment passed.
From the expression on Ma’s face, I realised that she was puzzled. She couldn’t decide what to make of our travelling companion. The way she was wolfing down large handfuls of the crunchy mixture, that too in the presence of a male, was surely reprehensible in a girl of her age! Yet, and this too I saw in Ma’s eyes, one couldn’t really think of her as shameless and greedy. There was an innocence about her, a lack of self-consciousness that proclaimed the fact that, though adult in years she was a child at heart. Perhaps she didn’t have a mother and hadn’t been taught the niceties of feminine deportment. Ma is not a garrulous woman. She cannot converse easily with strangers. I could see that she wanted to find out more about the girl, but her natural reticence stood in the way.
The train stopped at a large station and a group of sahebs, clearly belonging to the general’s entourage, came in. Striding purposefully up and down the compartment they scanned the seats with eagle eyes. There wasn’t an inch of extra space and they left.
A few minutes later a railway employee, a native, entered with two name cards which he proceeded to hang on the seats we were occupying. “These are reserved seats,” he told me, “You’ll have to move to another compartment.” Ma’s face turned pale and even I felt a pang of apprehension. But before I could say or do anything someone spoke in Hindi. “No,” the familiar voice was cool and confident, “We won’t give up our seats.”
“You’ll have to,” the man answered roughly, “There’s no other way.”
The girl left the train and returned with the station master, an Englishman who was clearly embarrassed by what he was being forced to do. “I’m sorry,” he looked at me with a rueful smile, “But these seats are—”
I rose to my feet and started walking towards the exit calling “Coolie! Coolie!” as I went. Suddenly I had to stop in my tracks. The girl was standing before me. “No,” she said firmly, “You’re not going anywhere. Please return to your seat.” Turning to the station master she said in flawless English, “That’s a lie. These seats are not reserved.” Plucking the name cards off the seats she flung them out of the window.
The man who had been allotted the seats was standing at the door instructing his orderly to stow his luggage. He stared in shock at the cards flying out of the window and, unable to meet the fire raining eyes, turned away. Plucking at the station master’s sleeve he whispered something in his ear. I have no idea of what transpired between them. All I know was that the departure was delayed for a while and a new coach fitted to the train.
Kanpur station arrived. Our travelling companions rose and started gathering their belongings. My mother, who had sat in silence all this while, could hold herself in no longer. “What is your name Ma?” she asked.
“My name is Kalyani.”
Ma and I threw startled glances at one another.
“Your father?” Ma’s voice was a whisper.
“He’s a doctor. His name is Shombhunath Sen.”
Setting my mother’s wishes firmly aside, disobeying Mama’s express command, I went to Kanpur. I met Kalyani and her father and apologised on my own and my family’s behalf with folded hands. The latter’s heart seemed to melted but the former remained firm in her resolve. She would not marry.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I follow my mother’s command.”
But she didn’t have a mother. I was wild with desperation. Was there another maternal uncle, then, lurking somewhere? Was history repeating itself?
It didn’t take me long to arrive at the truth. Her mother was Bharat Mata. After the fiasco of the wedding, she had taken a vow to dedicate herself to her country. And how better to do that than spend her life educating girls of the land?
But I did not give up hope. A stream of music, the like of which I’d never heard before, had crept into my ears from out of the dark and seeped into my soul. That exquisite melody played in my heart, all day long, like the strains of a flute from another world. It became the lodestar of my being; the refrain of my life-song.
I was twenty- three then… I’m twenty- seven now. I have shed my uncle. He is no longer part of my life. And my mother, perhaps because I’m her only son, has preferred to remain with me.
If you are under the impression that I nurture hopes of marriage–you are wrong. All I live for is hearing that voice speak the same words There is space. Of course, there is space. There has to be. If there wasn’t, where would I find the ground to stand on?
Years have gone by. I’ve stayed on here. I see her from time to time. I hear her voice. She entrusts me with small tasks, and I carry them out. This is the space I’ve needed and dreamed about. “O stranger!” my heart calls out to her, “you will forever remain a stranger for there is no end to knowing you. Yet I’m grateful. My destiny has been kind to me. It has granted me the space I’ve yearned for all my life.”
 Maternal uncle
 Spanish Cherry tree
 Oh, no no!
 Manu was the author of Manusmriti, a Hindu text dating back to ancient times
 Manu Samhita is an ancient lawbook authored by Manu
 Elder brother
 A low stool
 Traditional thin, coarse cotton fabric often used in lieu of a towel
 Traditionally, women were supposed to tie their hair especially in the evening.
 Nala Damayanti, a story from Mahabharata, where the couple were parted before they were reunited.
Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors, Suralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince and her short story collection, Through a Looking Glass, are her most recent books. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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