It was just before sundown and the platform was almost deserted. Only an old man with a wrinkled face, sitting in his miserable tea stall, was pouring out tea in to an aluminum kettle and a vendor was snoring uninterruptedly just beside the station master’s office with his hands joined on his chest. I lit a cigarette and taking a deep pull of it looked at the sun which was sinking behind the eucalyptus trees imperceptively, turning gradually from yellow to burning red. The dusk was falling. A few specks of cloudlets were floating in the sky with a leisurely air. I sat on a bench, and stretched my legs in easy posture. Little pools of water had collected here and there on the platform after the heavy shower in the afternoon.
Suddenly a deep mellow voice announced clumsily that train would be arriving shortly. A few minutes later the shrill sound of the whistle came floating over on the breeze. I rose and crushing the cigarette under my foot moved towards the edge of the platform. The train came huffing and puffing like an old man suffering from breathing problems and gushed out a plague of smoke. No sooner had the train arrived than a large number of people started emerging out of it, stirring the platform to life all of a sudden. A pale, slightly built woman wearing a yellow salwar leaned out of a door and looked up and down the platform. Recognizing her face I raised my hand and she reciprocated it with a smile. I took the suitcase from her hand and stretched my left arm to help her get down.
‘Hi, how are you? Hope the journey was comfortable. Welcome to my town’, I said at length, and held out my hand.
‘I’m fine’, she said briefly, dusting her dress and touched my palm softly. Coming out of the station I hired a rickshaw and both of us mounted on it. Her shoulder rubbed against mine as the rickshaw jolted down the narrow path. Clear of the town, the rickshaw took a path that threaded through mustard fields. The path was lined with trees on either side; the remaining daylight was trembling through the leaves and played hide and seek on her face. It took us twenty minutes to reach home, and during this time she remained silent, spellbound by the beauty of the place.
On reaching home I showed her the room allotted for her. She entered the room cautiously. The room consisted of a large bed over which was spread a flower-printed bedcover, a wobbly chair that I had bought from a nearby shop three years earlier; a second-hand table on which books were heaped haphazardly, and beside it a small tumbler of water on the ground. She looked around the room with an admiring eye and asked if it were I who kept the room spick and span. Hearing that it was maintained by my servant Gopi she nodded silently. I showed her the bathroom which was attached to the room. She was sweating profusely and was in dire need of a bath. She went to the bathroom immediately, throwing the handbag on the bed. I came to kitchen to prepare tea. From the kitchen I heard the sound of tap water and some fragments of tune that she was humming from time to time. I laid the table for tea on the verandah, and, stretching myself on an easy chair comfortably, waited for her.
‘It is a beautiful place and spending days among such scenes as these is really a blessing’, she said as she came out of the room drying her hair with a towel, drops of water still dangling from her chin and earlobes. And as twilight caught her on the verandah a pale, liquid glow mused on her cheeks.
Instead of sitting on the chair she perched herself primly on the railing of the verandah and gave a far-away look at the sky. Evening was drawing on but had not yet closed in. Silence fell about us. Even in half-light I could see her breast heaving anxiously.
‘You know Amit, all my life I have searched for a place like this, so tranquil, so peaceful’, she said breaking the silence that was almost choking.
‘Those who come from Kolkata find this place attractive at first. But if you stay here for two months, you will get bored like me.’
‘For how many years you are staying here?’
‘You must feel lonely at times, staying so far away from parents, alone.’
‘Sometime. But I have grown used to it’.
‘Why don’t you get married Amit? Then you can bring your wife here. At least it will reduce your loneliness.’
‘Oh I have thought about it. Maa is trying to find a match for me. But till now she hasn’t been successful. Who will marry me Sudeshna? No girl will be ready to come to a place like this.’
‘Hmm,’ she nodded thoughtfully, and we became silent.
‘Forget about it. Tell me about you. How everything is going? Where were you all these years?’ I said, shrugging my shoulder.
‘Oh that’s a long story. Everything is as usual. Still trying to get a foothold.’
‘I still can’t believe that mashima has given you permission to work in a place like this.’
‘Maa didn’t have any other option. Moreover it looks odd that an educated girl is squandering her time away doing nothing. I can’t live like that.’
‘That’s true,’ I nodded. ‘And if you get this job you can stay here forever, in the lap of nature’, enjoying her beauty.
She paused for a moment to think and then sighed deeply.
‘I don’t know. My life is no longer the same.’
‘Life never remains the same Sudeshna’, I said calmly, putting the accent on the word ‘never’.
‘Yes I know. But my life has changed beyond recognition’, she said, lowering her voice.
Silence once again descended on us.
Evening had finally settled in outside. Sudeshna took her cup and sat on the chair beside me and began to stir the tea contemplatively with a spoon. A brooding pallor could be discerned on her face. As I stole a glance at her, a bright face of a girl in her twenties, whom I had seen on the first day of my college, rose from the depths of my memory. It was a sunny day. The clock from a nearby church chimed out half-past ten. A deep hum of voices rose from the packed classroom. Sporting a ponytail she entered the room like a rock song, metallic and unabashed, accompanied by the clacking of heels; her face bearing a devil-may-care expression. As she entered the class, all the attention got riveted on her. Silence fell about the room. For a few seconds time stood still. She looked about the room and came to sit beside me. As she unfastened the hair, letting it fall in a profusion of curls about her face, a faint smell of Sunsilk shampoo entered my nostrils and stirred my blood. I glanced sideways at her shyly from top to toe but could not summon the courage to talk to her. She seemed to have been carrying a spark within herself that created an impenetrable circle around her. I thought that it may not be possible for me to break that circle. But slowly unobtrusively we became closer and eventually anchored in each other.
Steadily our friendship grew. We started spending time together, talking about a hundred different things from Linkin Park to Roberto Bolano. She seemed to be glad to have me as her friend, and always listened to me as one entranced, her kohl-smeared smouldering eyes sparkling like two bright little marbles. She was always neatly attired, and never betrayed any clumsiness. She had a cheerful countenance that seemed to suppress a sense of fear which was gnawing at her heart. A fear that one day everything may fall in ruin around us, proving how fragile our bond was; a fear that life may not give her opportunity to fulfill her dreams. Sometimes, absorbed in these painful thoughts, she could not sleep for nights and came to college with marks of dark circles under her eyes. There was no one she could confide to except me, and she unburdened herself of the sorrows that were welled up in her heart by sobbing on my shoulder, leaving stains of kohl on my shirt. But for all her pains and sorrows and heartaches she retained a vivacity that was almost infectious.
But today, when I looked at her, I found that eight long years have wrought a radical change in her. Much of her vivaciousness had given way to a subdued mellowness that imparted an uncommon dignity to all her gestures. Three days earlier I received her letter. There she said that she was called for an interview for the post of a teacher and, as she knew no one here, she would stay at my house for a night. I was surprised that though it had been years since I met her last, the letter bore no sign that it was written to a stranger. She was as warm in the letter as she had always been in earlier days. Even her handwriting had hardly changed: she still forgets to dot the ‘i’s, writes the ‘f’ like a child and gives the ‘S’ a bend in the end as though it were a duck floating on water.
‘Why did you apply for the job?’ I resumed after a minute’s silence.
‘You do not know Amit,’ she replied, ‘how maa and I had coped with one misfortune after another.’
‘Misfortune?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Yes misfortune.’ She rose from the chair and went in to the room. ‘Do you remember my father? He owned a large jewellery shop at Shyambazar. Baba wanted to expand his business, so he decided to shift to Pune after my graduation. Baba thought that if he could move out of this state he may make a fortune easily. I protested, but could not make him change his decision. We moved to Pune,’ she came out of the room wiping her hand in her dupatta, ‘But there baba could not compete with the other merchants. He mortgaged everything to start a shop there. But his business dwindled. His health deteriorated. Baba started drinking heavily. Maa once requested him to go back to West Bengal, but baba was adamant. One day he collapsed in the bathroom and died there. Three days later bank officials came and seized the house. We came out on the street penniless. Somehow we managed to come to Kolkata. Our uncle gave us shelter. There was no one I could lean on then Amit….no one, not even you.’ She said at length, tears fast filling her eyes.
I listened to her with eyes wide open and stood there dumb.
‘I tried to find you out,’ Sudeshna continued after a moment’s pause, leaning on the wall, ‘but couldn’t trace you anywhere. I went to your house. It was deserted. I came to learn that you no longer lived in that neighbourhood. I felt alone in the desert. Where were you then Amit….where?’ She started to cry. The storm that had been brewing inside her for all these years found an outlet in the form of tears. She covered her face with her hands and fell on her knees.
I went towards her and, lifting her up, raised her face to the dim light. Tears were still rolling down her cheeks. Her thin soft lips were quivering like ripples on water. I brought her close to me. She rested her head calmly on my chest. For a full minute we remained silent.
Evening had already deepened in to night outside. The sickly moon, that was shedding a feeble light on earth, had hidden her face behind a dark cloud. A cracked peal of thunder died away in a distance. The smell of an ensuing rain pervaded the atmosphere. I went to the room, still clasping her with one hand and closed the door behind me. She sat on a chair, resting her forehead on right hand. Suddenly the lights went out. The whole world, as it were, plunged in to a black hole. Groping my way through scattered articles I went to the kitchen and lit a candle. Putting the candle on the centre table I sat beside Sudeshna and, as she looked at me, I vainly attempted to bring a smile on my face.
‘Amit’, Sudeshna said, lowering her voice to a whisper, ‘please don’t think I am accusing you for all this. I just needed someone for mental support at that time but there was no one I could trust. I was completely broken.’
I took her hand and squeezed it softly. I didn’t know what to say. A guilty feeling entered my mind.
‘Sudeshna,’ I tried to console her foolishly, ‘everything will be settled as before if you get this job. You will get a footing. Don’t fret about the past.’
She tossed her head in disbelief and smiled reluctantly. The candle was dimly burning. Its thin flame created a faint patch of yellow light that hardly illuminated the room. But in that faint light I saw that Sudeshna’s eyes were still glistening. Stains of tears left marks on her cheeks like tributaries of a river.
That night we didn’t talk anymore but exchanged only odd looks. After finishing a scanty dinner she went to bed. I bolted the doors and, before going to bed in the adjacent room, peeped through the door and looked once more at her slumbering features. She was sleeping, drawing the blanket on her like serenity; a girl who had once had loved me madly but received no reciprocation from me just because I could not break away from the timid conventions of society. We belonged to different castes and my father, being rigidly conservative, never approved of our relationship. I did not have the courage also to elope with her for it would have broken my mother’s heart. So I took the easiest way. I started to avoid her during the last days of college. The bond gradually slackened and at last when we moved away from Kolkata it got snapped. Over these years I pursued my way through many highs and lows, eventually coming to this odd place. During these years her thoughts never crossed my mind for once. But now when she has come to my life once again breaking the silence of eight years, I could not bring myself to tell her how much I had loved her.
Thoughts such as these and a crowd of others suddenly cluttered my mind. A tide of sorrow surged in the heart and my eyes grew moist. A sense of helplessness unnerved me. I stood motionless with the candle in my hand and watched Sudeshna. Then I closed the door slowly and came to my room. Blowing out the candle I retired to bed, though I knew that I could not sleep a wink.
I didn’t know when I fell asleep. The following morning I woke up with the sound of a knock on the door. I started up on my bed and, recollecting my wits after sometime, went to open the door. My servant Gopi was standing on the doorway.
‘You did not bolt the door last night,’ Gopi said, motioning his hand towards Sudeshna’s room.
‘What,’ I asked in utter disbelief, and ran hurriedly towards the room. The door was ajar, and Sudeshna was not inside. Her little suitcase was also gone. I checked the bathroom. It was empty. I called out her name several times but no answer was returned. An intolerable silence prevailed around me. I came running to my room. After changing my dress I took Gopi’s bicycle and paddled it fast towards the station. I instructed Gopi to stay until I came back for I was nurturing a faint hope that Sudeshna may have gone for a morning walk and would come back soon.
Reaching the station I deposited the cycle at the custody of Raghu who had a grocery shop just outside the station, and ran towards platform no1. But the platform was deserted like the previous day. I asked the station master when the last train departed. He said that it had departed three hours before. I consulted my write watch. It was half past seven. I stood on the platform like a fool. Beads of sweat collected on my forehead. I didn’t know what to do next or where to search her. I could not make out why Sudeshna did this to me. I resolved a hundred different explanations of her disappearance and rejected them every one. A moment or two later I bent my steps homewards feeling exhausted.
Later when I had enquired about the interview in that school, they said that no such interview was called for this post.
Subhankar Roy writes short stories, poems and essays. An avid reader he always steeps himself in books when not writing. Apart from literature he has a deep interest in art, specially western art. He lives in West Bengal.