|| The Bungalow ||
My first encounter with love was sort of an out-of-body experience. One memorable summer I met two adolescents who were silently in the throes of love. The boy was a distant cousin, and the girl, just a girl he had chanced to meet before I met her. Not that otherwise it would have made any difference to me. Because, this happened long before I was ready to taste first love.
The setting was a small railway town – mildly quiet in the daytime and resolutely silent at night. During a typical day, at times no train passed, no radio played, no bird chirped, and even, no one spoke. Then all you could hear was the murmur of the tall trees around swaying in the leisurely swelling sea of warm dry summer wind. As the languorous summer day wore on, the wind dropped and turned into a cool breeze by the time evening descended. Now trembling occasionally, the trees froze into silhouettes that soon merged with and disappeared into the darkness. Faint whispers emerged from the depth of this darkness, pierced only by glow-worms moving in inexplicable loops. An invisible army of overpowering unfamiliar summer-flower fragrances advanced and captured the air. Then, listening carefully, you could hear your heart yearn to be enslaved by some hitherto unknown charm.
Mother had three sisters. Two of them, mejo-mashi and chhoto-mashi, as I called them, lived in this small town. Their husbands, the respective meshos, served in the railway. Baro-mashi, the eldest of the sisters, and mother were visiting them en famille. The boy, son of chhoto-mesho’s sister, had come down alone. Apart from the four pairs of parents, there were a dozen of us, the cousins. The girls, mostly staying close to their mothers, engaged themselves in various chores. We the boys steered clear of our fathers and stuck together in different bands. At any time there were at least two bands – one, of the still infantile homebound kids; the other, mainly of the three of us adolescents, mejo-mashi’s son Dinesh, chhoto-mesho’s nephew Tamal and me. There was much for us to do outside, such as explore the colony, play with the local boys when they were short for a team, steal fruits just for the thrill of scrumping, and befriend or chase stray animals. We talked some about girls, without anyone knowing much about them except what can be learned by observing one’s cousin sisters. Evidently, that was inadequate for any serious discussion.
I was fourteen. It was my second last high school summer vacation. The summer had begun mild, heralded by frequent hailstorms in its initial days.
One of the families I got to know was of the principal of the railway institute where chhoto-mesho taught. Across a small wooded patch from his quarter stood the principal’s bungalow, set on a large raised level ground enclosed by picket fence. From the swing gate of the ground, a pebble-strewn path with flower beds on either side led to a small paved yard in front of the porch. Narrow walkways covered with bright murrum soil radiated from there. Cutting through the flower beds they fanned out into the undergrowth below the tall trees that stood further in the ground. Each walkway entered the flower garden under an arch of bougainvillea in bloom in all possible hues. The vines, their intertwined stumps thick and gnarled, must have been planted long back. A side-gate in the picket fence gave access to the pantry, and through the kitchen to the dining area in the main hall.
I never met the principal. Chandana, the girl, was his daughter. Friend of chhoto-mashi’s daughter Nidra who was two years older than me, Chandana though was about my age, probably slightly younger. Her mother, a fond auntie, often called us in and treated us to some sweets or savoury that seemed to be always available aplenty.
Throughout most days, in between the breakfast and meals at home, we boys flitted in and out of the bungalow by the side-gate. Sometimes Chandana appeared by the side of her mother. She spoke freely with Dinesh whom she had known for long, sparingly with me, but rarely with Tamal. I knew that he had known her from his earlier visits. So, I could not help feeling that there was something in this reticence between them. But, neither Nidra nor Tamal ever said anything on the ‘subject’. It was Dinesh who hinted once that the two ‘liked’ each other.
I did not understand what ‘liking each other’ meant. Tamal and Chandana behaved strangely in each other’s presence. When she came over for a chat with Nidra, Chandana was ebullient. Even with Dinesh she talked twenty to the dozen. But in Tamal’s presence she became awkward and tongue-tied. Once in a while I felt their eyes darted to meet, but I could never be sure, it was always so quick. In her presence Tamal too became silent. Always amiable, even in our company Tamal became withdrawn on seeing Chandana. If liking each other called for being emotionally explicit, these two showed few signs of it. Nor did I ever see the two seek each other out in any obvious manner.
But, I knew otherwise. I knew that they spoke to each other in some manner with their body language. Sometimes when we sat at auntie’s dining table, relishing something that auntie had served, Chandana checked with Tamal, only Tamal. She did it without interacting with him, but by fidgeting around him in a certain about to do something manner, or asking auntie some oblique question. Seeing Tamal shake his head ever so slightly, I knew that she had wanted to know if he would like another helping, and he had replied in the negative, only because he did not want what would follow if he said yes.
There were other signs. I found Tamal sometimes entering or leaving the bungalow by the main gate. He did not try to hide this aberration. But an absorbed look on his face told me that my curiosity about a probable rendezvous in the garden was unwelcome. Tamal was slightly older than Dinesh, who was a year older than me. By his occasional reticence like this with me, Tamal made this amply clear to me.
Within a week of our arriving, the hailstorms receded and an arid summer set in. Men and boys started sleeping in the open on camp cots. Soon, it became uncomfortable indoor even in the comparative coolness of the night. This is when our trio got invited to sleep in the yard of the bungalow. Auntie had a pair of camp cots from the guest rooms laid out, with soft bedding and fresh linen, on the paved yard before the porch. With me in between, Dinesh and Tamal slept on either side. In spite of the cushion, lying on the hard side frames of the cots was uncomfortable. Yet, the gradual cooling of the night, the stirring of a crisp breeze at first light, and the wafting smell of the just watered lawns and flower beds made for a unique experience.
One morning, when I was in deep sleep lying face down, in a bout of mischief, Dinesh and Tamal gently pulled apart the two cots, trapping me in a hammock formed between the two cots by the bed cover sinking under my weight. I woke up with a start to find myself thus suspended. Unable to extricate myself, I began to thrash around. Chandana came rushing to my rescue. As I struggled out, I saw her standing with a look partly alarmed and partly amused. Her face glowed in the morning light. In her hands she carried some frangipani flowers. I suddenly found myself distracted by her. I do not remember if she looked pretty, but I do remember that at that moment I realized she had never before looked the way she looked at that moment.
That day my distraction stayed with me. When I was plodding alone among the tall trees, I felt a faint prick in the sole of my right foot. I was wearing Hawaiian slippers. A shard of fine glass had entered it, its fine point piercing the upper side of the instep. Strangely, I did not bleed. I took a few gingerly steps and felt the pin-prick. Still, my foot did not bleed. I tried to bend the sole of the slipper and extricate the piece of glass, which was not flat but curved. I cut my finger and gave up. I was afraid to tell father because he would think I had been looking for stuff in garbage. I let the piece of glass remain, and practiced to walk avoiding the pin-prick.
Just a day before I was to return home, I saw Tamal and Dinesh standing near one of the bougainvillea vines. With a pen-knife Tamal was carving something, some letters, on the gnarled stump, next to what appeared to be a large brass upholstery nail. Dinesh told me he had driven that nail, and Tamal was carving his initials, just to commemorate the wonderful vacation we had spent together. Dinesh asked me what I would like to do. I shook my head. I felt heavy at heart. I had that glass piece in my slipper, constantly reminding me of … what, I did not know. I just knew I would never be able to remove it. I would have to let it remain forever and ever, reminding me of some time that I had frittered away instead of conserving, embellished with significant memories.
That was almost my last visit there. I think I visited only once after that. But, I did not inquire about the principal’s daughter with either Dinesh or Nidra. After a few years chhoto-mashi, and then mejo-mashi, moved from the town.
I met Tamal after nearly twenty-five years. He had come to visit some friend living in my city, and came down to see me with his wife and a son a few years old. I had already learned from Nidra that Tamal had married a girl that chhoto mashi had earlier proposed for me. Neither Tamal nor his wife, however, showed any sign that acknowledging this fact.
It was another five years before I was to see that bungalow again. One winter morning I drove down to this railway town with my wife and daughter, because they had heard so much about it from me. The railways station was as before, but the town looked different. The old bungalow still stood in its ground. Vacant, it looked like it had not been occupied for years. The flower beds were bare, and the ground was overgrown with weed. Tatters of dry parasitic vines covered the tall trees.
From then on, I drove to the place almost every other winter. I would take a stroll around the bungalow, hoping to see it occupied. But life did not return to it, and every year its looks worsened. Each trip only succeeded in reminding me about Tamal and Chandana, making me wonder why they had not come together. I rued not asking Tamal about it when he had visited me with his family.
But, that was just as well. Probably, asking Tamal about Chandana would have been inappropriate. Probably, Tamal would have replied that Dinesh had told him too a similar story – and that story had been quite different.
© mikupa / 15 March 2015