I had known Shipra from childhood. She was almost my age, probably a few months, at most a year, younger than I was. Her father, Sridhar Da’ to my father, had been a couple of years ahead of my father in college. I called him Sri Uncle.
My father could not finish college in Calcutta due to the Japanese bombings that started in December 1942. He fled to a distant uncle in Jamshedpur, who found him an apprenticeship in the burgeoning steel mills of the Tatas.
Earlier that year, Sri Uncle had just finished college, and joined the Indian Railways as a commercial clerk at Kenkudgod, about 100 miles west southwest of Jamshedpur. According to Sri Uncle, Kenkudgod was a degeneration of the original name, ‘Kinkar Garh’ (the fort of king Kinkar), which the otiose locals, given to chewing the cud, found difficult to pronounce with a mouth full of tobacco and spittle.
After completing his apprenticeship, father found employment in the steel mills. Every summer, on his way to a vacation in the village, or returning from it, Sri Uncle stopped over at Jamshedpur; and the family stayed with us for a few days. My recollection of those visits is the most vivid around the time I was about to finish high school.
Compared to ours, their family was large, having six children. The first two were boys, followed by two girls, and finally a boy and a girl twins. The college-going eldest two, Srijan Da’ and Sujan Da’, maintained a condescendingly cordial distance from me. The youngest two, Sanju and Manju, were so much into each other that I did not exist for them. That left me between the two middle sisters, Shuvra Di’ and Shipra, in share.
Aunt was tall, thin and dark-skinned, with a lean face, large sunken eyes, a fine nose with a sharp bridge, and thin tightly pursed lips. I often wondered whether she would have looked good, had she not been so dark-skinned. All her children were varyingly dark-skinned too, except Shuvra Di, and Shipra. They were of much lighter complexion, ‘the colour of ripe wheat’, as mother used to say. To me, their skin had the iridescence of bronze.
Shuvra Di’, the eldest daughter, was two years older than I was. She had the sweetest demure smile. When she smiled, her teeth never showed; but her lips elongated, lifting at the corners, and forming new moon dimples in her shallow cheeks. She was short, with a square face, prominent jaw and high cheekbones. She always tied her wavy hair in a long braid with her strong hands. Her frame was too broad for her height, both at the shoulders and at the hips. Yet, in flesh, her femininity was much understated for her age – of which she was acutely conscious. She tried to hide the lack of contour in layers of crisp starched Sari. Somehow, with all that, even in summer she managed to smell heavenly fresh. When arriving and departing, she would give me a hug, and I daresay I looked forward to it.
Shipra was tall, almost my height and neither thin nor plump. She had the plainest looking unblemished face I had seen until then. She carried her small head on a long and lithe neck. A thin layer of fat on her throat folded into three deep creases below her Adam’s apple. Around these creases, the skin looked lighter, and glowed with faint moisture when it was hot.
What I liked in Shipra was her very disarming simplicity. Her body, quite youthful, bore no aggressive attraction. Of practical disposition, she made no great effort in her studies, nor did she try to hide the fact of her indifferent performance. Yet, whenever I said something clever, her face lit up warmly. I did not find much to say to her, and felt that as far as our interests were concerned, we were as apart as the poles.
The only exception to this was our love for the outdoor. She loved to go for long walks. Often, before the summer sunset, when it was still too bright to go out, she would change into a sari, and ask if we could go for a walk on the road by the river. I would take out my bicycle and pedal slowly, she following on foot. Usually she would stay a few steps behind, engrossed in herself, it seemed to me; and we would speak little. At times, I would stop for her to catch up. Seeing me stop and look back, she would smile, exposing her even teeth. At once, she would shake her head, imploring me not to stop for her.
Some days that we went very far, while returning, I would insist that she ride on the bicycle. She would then sit on the crossbar, dangling her legs on the left. I would pedal furiously to rush back home, my pounding left knee sometimes knocking against one strong leg stretched taut. When there was a gusty wind, locks of her linen hair would flutter, plying my face into hypnosis, like fingers playing on a piano. Reaching home, I would find my heart pumping nervously with a strange palpitation. Those evenings, I would become distracted, and avoid eye contact with her at the dinner table. I would go to sleep only to dream of riding with her; and in trying to reach the bell of the bicycle, passing my arm close by her waist and brushing it. I would wake up feeling guilty, and hate myself for dreaming of someone I found too plain and uninteresting for my taste.
Yet, I could not completely ignore her. When her sister hugged me, Shipra would look on as if a stranger had defiantly held and caressed something that belonged to her. Her eyes would then sparkle, firing a surreptitious excitement all over me. Yes, she occupied me as an enigma I did not want to unravel.
Once I was in college, I started missing their visits, as Sri Uncle stopped vacationing in summer. I got an opportunity to see them in my last year in college. My vocational training at the steel mills had fallen through due to some glitch. There had been frequent nor’westers that had quenched the great heat. Father said I could go visit Sri Uncle, and see what he had been up to. Father knew I was somewhat fond of Sri Uncle. In fact, I liked that uncle could debate on many subjects father did not even broach. I remember, once, when I had an argument with my father, Sri Uncle had told me not to be dogmatic. Later he had explained to me what the word meant. He had also explained the difference between being dogmatic and being pragmatic. Thus, (in spite of the fact that Sri Uncle had six children) I had formed an impression that he considered himself pragmatic. Truly, he was an agnostic, and openly denounced all kinds of superstitious belief, then prevalent among us, Bengali Hindus.
I took my father’s advice, and set off for Kenkudgod one fresh morning. The train took about four hours. I alighted on an almost empty platform of a large station. Asking at the stationmaster’s office, I learned that Sri Uncle no more worked for the railways. He had become a contractor for the supply of railway sleepers, and moved out from the railway quarter he had. To reach his house, I had to take a jeep from outside the station.
The jeep journey over a dust road through lush green Sal forest took about an hour, and terminated after crossing the old town of Kinkar Garh.
Uncle’s house was well past the end of the town, close to the old fort. The house, almost a mansion, had once belonged to the Dewan (finance minister) of the king. Uncle had purchased it at the throwaway price of a distress sale. With several large rooms standing in a sprawling ground overgrown with weed, the building badly needed repair and a fresh coat of paint. Still, set apart from the crowded town, it had a charming desolateness that took my breath away at first sight.
Uncle was not at home when I reached. Aunt was overjoyed to see me. I had expected Shuvra Di’ to rush out and hug me. I did not see her, and the house sounded empty. After putting away my bag, aunt made me some tea. Gradually, I caught up with what I had missed over almost four years. Srijan Da’ and Sujan Da’ had got jobs and moved out, one to Rourkela and the other to Cuttack. Shuvra Di’ was teaching at a school near Calcutta, and had married one of her colleagues. Shipra was at college, and would return shortly. The twins were at school, about to return soon, too.
A while after the twins noisily returned from school, and piped down, I heard the almost inaudible creak of the wooden gate. For some unknown reason, I felt an uneasy apprehension clutching at my stomach. Going out to the verandah, I saw Shipra coming over the garden path. Obviously hot, she dabbed the sweat on her neck with the end of her sari. Reaching the bottom of the stairs that climbed to the verandah, she sensed my presence and looked up. Abruptly arresting her movements, she froze.
I smiled at her. She just said, “You!”
Then coming to life, she climbed the stairs and went past me. At the door, she paused, turned to look at me, and slowly lowered her eyelids, signaling that I could follow her.
I do not remember much of those days passed in near captivity. Shipra rose early, and by the time I woke up, she had left for college. If I woke up and felt she was still at home, I stayed in bed until she left. She returned home around two in the afternoon. By then, on aunt’s insistence, I had finished lunch. I saw her only in the afternoon, when she brought me tea. We had very little to talk about, and we exhausted our curiosity about each other’s college with fading interest. Still, every night just as I got into bed, she came in to ask me if I needed something. She hung around for some time, declining my invitation to sit on the bed. On the night before I left, she came, and standing at the door, said, “This time we did not go for a walk.” I stared at her, expecting more. “Tomorrow, could I come with you to the station, and see you off?” she asked. As I nodded, she went away, switching off the light in my room.
The next day we took the jeep early morning. I was taking the Calcutta Mail, which arrived at nine, and halted only for a minute. As soon as it stopped, I rushed to the door of the nearest coach, and gripped the rod by the doorway with my left hand. I turned to bid good-bye to Shipra. Standing behind me on my left, she had placed her left palm on my hand and clasped it; and with her right hand, she clutched my shirt at the back. I heard her say, gently nudging me, “Go! …” just as the engine blew its shrill horn, drowning the rest of her words. I clambered in, and made my way rapidly to the nearest window; but the train had already gathered speed, and left her behind.
I was not to see her again, nor know what became of the family, for many years.
I passed out, worked for couple of years, went to the USA and completed my PhD. I yearned to come home, but did not know what to expect. My two passions, photography and travel, consumed me with an unrelenting ferocity. Somehow, the question of my marriage eluded me, and probably my parents too. They were getting old. I was a late child, and the only one.
I came home, without knowing it would be for good, a few days after my father suddenly died from his first heart attack. I had already planned my visit. Therefore, mother did not inform me of father’s death. She just kept his body in the hospital mortuary for me to perform the last rites after I arrived.
A few days after the cremation, I was sitting with mother. As it happens after losing someone dear, she had fallen to taking stock of people from her generation still biding their time. I recalled Sri Uncle, and asked mother about him. “Oh!” mother said, “He passed away last year due to stroke, like your father.” I asked about the family, and learned that all the children had got married, except Shipra. She still lived at Kenkudgod, taking care of aunt. “You should go and see them sometime” mother said, winding up the discussion.
In a few days, I gathered this story from mother. After I passed out, and before I went to the USA, Shipra had announced to uncle and aunt that she was going to marry someone of her choice, and they should not bother to find her a groom. She had completed her college, and got a job at a government office. With her money, she started buying clothes and jewelry, ostensibly for her wedding, which showed no sign of happening. She refused to reveal who the boy was, just saying that she wanted to wait for him. Uncle became annoyed with her. He found several suitable boys, but Shipra declined them. Aunt put Manju’s marriage in abeyance, because she wanted Shipra to marry before Manju. Finally, one day there was a long argument, and uncle worked himself into a rage. He told Shipra that wait she might for as long as she wished, but no one was ever going to fall for a plain-looking girl like her! Cut to the quick, Shipra broke down, and locked herself up in her room. The next morning she was gone. She had left all her jewelry and fine silk saris with a note that they were for Manju. Uncle inquired at her office, and learned that she had got herself transferred to Sambalpur. She must have been planning that. When uncle finalized Manju’s wedding, aunt wrote to Shipra, entreating her to come. Shipra arrived on the day of the wedding, but left the very next morning. After uncle died, she got herself transferred back to Kenkudgod to stay with aunt, and look after her.
As mother finished the story, she said, “You must go and see them.” I asked, “Will you come with me?” Mother shook her head, and said, “You … you must go, and see how they are.”
For some weeks, I remained busy. Tentatively, I wrote to the Chair of my university in the USA, asking for a year’s sabbatical. I looked for, and landed a teaching job in one of the upcoming private colleges, doubling as the deputy dean of students’ affairs. I asked for a month’s time before I joined.
After settling mother with a nurse to look after her, I told her I would go and see aunt and Shipra. It made mother so happy, she gave me a letter for aunt. For Shipra, she asked me to buy a sari, and bring back a picture of her wearing it. I thought that would be too much to ask Shipra, but packed my camera, and then on second thought, its complete gear. I had not taken any pictures in a long time.
As I got off the train, almost at the same time as in my last visit, I tried to recall details from that. A blank memory stonewalled my reflective mood. I only clearly recalled my departure as if it had happened just the other day.
The jeep driver recognized the address, and began to speak with surprising familiarity, saying he often brought the ‘Madam’ of the house to the station, and took her back. I did not understand whom he meant by that, aunt or Shipra. As either seemed unlikely, I asked him to explain. Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “Oh! She just attends the Calcutta Mail, and then returns.” Puzzled, I did not probe further.
The house, which bore signs of having been painted sometime, probably for the last wedding that took place (Manju’s), looked drab, and almost uninhabited. The grounds looked wilder, overgrown with all sorts of shrubs, bushes and wild trees. The wooden gate had broken down, and at half-mast, it leaned sideways. As I climbed to the verandah, a face darted across a window. Before I could knock, Shipra had opened the door. She stood immobile, staring at me in silence. I looked at her face, and her throat. My hankering eyes flitted all over her. She, still healthy and supple as I remembered, looked plainer than ever. Her throat still had those three deep creases below the Adam’s apple; and there were dewdrops of perspiration around them, probably from working in the heat of the kitchen.
Unable to look away, with an effort, I brought myself to say, “It’s me, Priyabrata!” Without saying a word to me, she moved aside to let me in, and then called out to aunt, “Mother! Come and see who is here.”
Aunt came, shuffling down the hall, clad in a white sari, looking very old and lost. She came near me, and peered at my face, until Shipra drew aside the curtains to let in some light. Then aunt hugged me, and stood clinging for a long time. Finally, Shipra pulled her away from me, and led her to her bedroom. Shipra came back and asked me, “Same room as the last time?” Picking up my bag, I said, “Whatever … I so need a bath!”
After I had unpacked, around two in the afternoon, Shipra came to tell me she had served lunch. She saw my camera lying on the bed. During lunch, she spoke little, but as I finished eating, and waited for aunt to finish, Shipra asked, “Are you planning to take pictures?” I said, “Yes. In fact, mother has sent a sari for you, and wants your photo taken wearing that.” Shipra quickly looked down at her plate, and I thought I had caught a flicker of embarrassment in her abrupt shying away.
I stayed in my room that day. The second day, a Sunday, we went to see the fort, which loomed over the sea of trees seen from my window. I asked Shipra whether she could ride a bicycle. She said sometimes in winter she wore salwar-kameez, and rode uncle’s old bike to office. Unfortunately, that was the only bike she had. I took it out. Once on the street, Shipra said she would prefer to walk. It was then much like the last time she had visited Jamshedpur. I rode ahead, or idled, while she walked behind, trying to keep up with me. At the fort, I took many photos, but she always stayed out of their frames. As we returned, the sun was setting. I asked her whether she would like to ride with me. She shook her head, pointing to the sun. As I frowned at her, she said with a mocking smile, “See! The sun has not set yet.”
The days passed much the same way every day. She left around nine, after preparing breakfast and lunch. I offered to help, but she refused. She returned from office a little after six. Her office was on the way to the station, about halfway. Some evenings we went for a walk, and she asked trivial questions about my life in the USA. She never asked why I had not married, as if it never occurred to her.
One day it grew very humid from the morning. By the time Shipra returned from office, menacing clouds had overrun the sky; the hot wind smelt of static; and rain seemed imminent. It looked impossible to go out. We had tea on the verandah. I wanted to see the view from the roof, and take pictures of the fort against the backdrop of the clouds and lightning. I asked, “Shipra, can we go up on the roof?” As if bitten, she looked at me with hurt in her eyes. Her face twitched in pain, like the sky tormented by the lightning. Before I could ask her if I had said something wrong, she sprang to her feet, and disappeared into the dark hall on faltering steps. I sat in silence, and returned to my room when lashing rains came down.
That night, I made my usual call to mother. After I had told her about the incident, she cried out, “Oh! I should have told you. I do not know how I forgot … The evening of Manju’s wedding, Sridhar Da’ had asked Shipra to go up on the roof, and not come down until the guests left …” Puzzled, I interrupted her, “Why?” Mother said, “He thought Shipra’s spinsterhood was a bad omen; her presence might bring bad luck, upset the guests, and mar the ceremonies.” I asked, “Did she really stay up on the roof?” Mother said, “Yes, all night. She left the next morning, vowing never to set foot in that house again.” I asked, sounding stupid, “Do you know if it had rained that night?” Mother said, “It might have. It was during the monsoon.” Feebly, I tried to protest, “But I cannot believe this. Uncle was so pragmatic … he … he never believed in any kind of superstition.” Mother just repeated herself, “No. I should have told you. I do not know how I forgot.”
The next day was Saturday. Seven days had passed since I had arrived, and I was keen to return. I woke up late, to a feeling of the house being full of Shipra. It was a strange feeling. I heard the sound of water running in the bathroom, the clutter of someone dumping the dishes in the kitchen sink, the folk songs playing on FM, and subdued words passing between Shipra and the housekeeper that came in the morning.
Soon Shipra entered with a cup of tea, and asked, “Would you like to go to the railway station with me?” I nodded, remembering the jeep driver. ‘So, this is one of her days to visit the station’, I thought.
We reached the station after the Calcutta Mail had left. The platform was deserted. I wanted to ask her why she came to the station; but remembering last night’s incident, I desisted. I busied myself with taking photos. Shipra strolled up and down, looking at her watch, as if it gave wrong time. We climbed the footbridge, and crossed over to the other platform where an empty train stood. Walking to an end of the train, I set up my camera on its tripod to take a shot of the whole length of the train, its girth gradually tapering to the point where several lines of the tracks shimmered in the hot air. As I focused my camera, Shipra came over, and asked, “Can you take a picture of the two of us?” I looked at her. She said, “Like … you were departing, and I was seeing you off.” She looked calm yet serious. The memory of my last departure came back to me, and I asked, “Like the last time I left?” She nodded, and went to stand near the open door of a coach. I went over to where she stood. Facing the camera, I placed my left hand on the rod by the doorway. I asked her to stand behind me on my left side, and place her left palm on my hand on the rod. Then I said, “Stay like this.” I went back to the camera, focused on her, and took a test shot. I took the camera to her to show the picture on its display.
A few urchins had gathered at a distance. With consuming curiosity, they watched us, two middle-aged persons – one in outlandish khaki shorts, grey T-shirt and baseball cap worn backward; and the other in a traditional striped cotton sari. In the otherwise absolute stillness, I heard the slow click-tick-click of a distant shunting engine approaching, blowing short tweets on its horn.
I put back the camera on the tripod, checked the viewfinder, set the timer to click in twenty seconds, and ran back to Shipra. Then we posed and stood still.
After I thought I had heard the camera click, I eased up, and gently tried to disengage my hand from the door rod. Shipra’s palm still clasped my hand. I disengaged it, saying, “It’s done.” Then turning around, I asked her, without reflecting, “Do you remember what you had said the last time you saw me off?”
“Yes, I remember.“ She spoke like someone in a trance, her voice cracking with grief. “Go! … Just say that you …”
The shunting engine had rammed the train at the far end to couple with it. Its tremor ran down the coaches, coming closer and closer. It arrived at our coach, galvanizing it into a jerky roll. The door rod under Shipra’s palm shuddered and snapped her grip, jolting her out of an ephemeral tryst.
Indroneer / 27 May 2014
Acknowledgement: Source of sketch: penciljammers.com/group/dailysketchgroup/forum/topics/51-so-saree[/embed]