A Short story By: Atanu Bhattacharya
Sum of love and life
There is a mild provocation in pine air but no terrible conspiracy. In that provocation Mrs. Dutt leaves behind her umbrella deliberately at Rueben’s house, Annie, a khasi girl dials a stranger’s telephone number for no apparent reason and standing on the courtyard of a big church at Laitumukhra, Kharmaphlang asks Nancy _ is she going to marry him just then? These are minor incidents that occur in Shillong. If someone has erred, don’t bother. At the most, you may be slapped full in the face.
“I warn you not to do it again.”
That is it. Later everything is quiet. Forget and enjoy life.
But the mistakes Vaishali have been committing one after another alarms us. The rented house at Laban’s Kasnsastrace, where she and her mother live, every evening some boys pass it, a suppressed murmur then rises among them. A smile crackles automatically on their lips. That and its effect are not good for her. I myself have admonished Vaishali. I have cautioned Mr. Baruah who has come forward to marry her. Just three days back that man willingly left Shillong. And that is why perhaps, Vaishali wants to meet me in my Oakland office this evening at five. I am worried. May be she will reprimand me. In fact, I am really scared.
It will not be an easy thing to come face to face with Vaishali at this moment. Perhaps, it did not take her too long to realize how Mr. Baruah got to know so many things. But do I need to say much? Benarjee babu from Baruah’s office saw her once sitting with a young khasi boy on a boulder at Elephant Falls; she was seen caressing his fingers. She once travelled by bus from Guwahati with an engineer named Anil Banikya; two weeks later she went with that man to Dreamland to watch a film. She thinks no one sees her. How can you hide yourself in a place like Shillong’s Police Bazaar?
At Anthony’s she had a relationship with one of our classmates, Rajiv Tamuly. More than five hundred students came to know of that relationship. Of that five hundred, at least fifty students are still in Shillong. Isn’t Vaishali aware of this equation?
These past eight years Vaishali has gone on like this. A pre planned program to get herself acquainted with any new engineer who arrives in town, then invite him to have a special meal, serve him pitha, namkeen, payash during bihu. When she does it, it does not seem that she has done it before. Each time is, as it were, a new beginning. The best part is – she does not need to make any effort. She just has to create a situation –
‘ I have not gone to the movies for a long time, there is no one to get me a ticket’ – when she speaks of her regrets to a man just when he is biting into a piece of namkeen, how can he but not make arrangements?
‘Are you free this Saturday?’
‘Have’nt been to Barapani for quite sometime ‘
Vaishali’s mother encourages her in these enterprises. Those days, she too gets busy with her would be son – in – law. She prepares idli, changes the cushions of her sitting room and hangs two attractive paintings on the wall to exhibit her refined, sophisticated tastes. If her daughter returns home late in the evening, she tells her visitors that Vaishali was at the library.
Once Vaishali actually went there. She went to Central Library on her way back from St. Anthony’s. She took out a roll of paper carefully pressed by her fingers between two fat volumes of Colin’s Encyclopedia, proffered them at Rajiv saying – ‘I won’t be able to continue with this relationship.’
‘Why?’- Rajiv cried; it rang off key inside that quiet reading room for quite some time.
‘Every thing is written there’ – Vaishali said in a low voice and left.
What was it? Three days later the real thing came out. A public health engineer was visiting Vaishali’s house. Does he not know about Rajiv Tamuly? Why won’t he?
He knows about Rajiv Tamuly – about their relationship, the public health engineer is aware of it. The young khasi boy knows about the public health officer, Anil Banikya knows of Tamuly but not of the other two – Baruah does not know their names but that in her younger days, Vaishali had some one, he had heard of it. During adolescence or in early youth, some one does exist in the heart. Nothing serious. Baruah does not bother about them. But so many men, so many incidents! Baruah became alarmed. No, no, no more of this. He must leave the town, go some place else, far away.
How Vaishali manages all this is a mystery. So far, I know that in the last eleven years, Vaishali has become intimate with seven men at different periods. She spent a Christmas evening with one of them, went to Upper Shillong with two, took pictures sitting on a boulder at Elephant Falls, wrote almost twenty five odd letters and good luck cards, made innumerable telephone calls and on two evenings confessed her sad story to two men. In those eleven years, on different occasions, she rejected four men and three rejected her. Three of them left Shillong for different reasons. Apart from Baruah, none of them had any serious allegation against her. It happens – such things do happen under the canopy of the pine tree.
And yet, I am worried too much about the future of this girl.‘You have run so much, are you not tired? Don’t you get bored?’- I want to ask her. But I don’t have the nerve to do that. I don’t have that much right too. I have visited her house at Kansastrace several times. I had arranged for two artistes to rest one night at her house while organizing a cultural evening at Bishnupur. To eight girls who had come to sing a chorus, I had directed them to her house to use her toilet. Though I don’t visit her too often, Vaishali’s mother asked me once to look for a good match for her daughter. She had asked me casually ‘how old is Anil Banikya?’
But Vaishali tried to conceal many things that we all know of. I overheard while watching a football match at Polo field – ‘Vaishali went to Barapani yesterday.’ The owner of a bookstore in Police Bazaar asks – “who was that boy with Vaishali? Did they go to Cherrapunjee yesterday?” My colleagues inform me – ‘This April, Vaishali will have a new surname – Baruah’
In April, not only Vaishali, whole of Shillong gets ready for some thing. Shillong becomes beautiful. Light and shadow play hide and seek, it makes this tableland more enchanting, more mysterious. A strong scent of eucalyptus assails the nostrils. Some school children in colourful uniform, a kong carrying a basket on her back cross the meandering road. Dating begins in April, exchange of hearts take place under the shade of pine trees.
It is March. I would not know if there is talk of a marriage in April, but three days back Baruah left Shillong. Did he tell Vaishali that I had told him every thing? Let’s see.
As I peep out of the window of my office on the third floor, I see Vaishali arrive. May be it is five o’clock. I am going down by the lift. And then I prepare myself to face an assault. Vaishali stands before me near the gate. I do not want to be insulted before others in the office. So I say - ‘let’s go ahead, you can then say whatever you want to say.’
She agreed. On the other side of the road is the lake built by Ward Sahib. In the middle of the lake is a wooden bridge, like one sees in a calendar. People stood on that bridge feeding fried nuts to black and white fishes. The fishes make a ripple as they aim towards each and every nut. The boat keeper strikes the bell for the fourteenth time to draw the attention of boat number 14. I could see a couple sitting quite intimately on a concrete bench.
I looked around and said to Vaishali – ‘now tell me’
‘The matter that you wanted to say to me’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t be so serious. Come to our house some time. You have not visited us for a long time. Ma keeps asking about you.’
I stared at her. Those are her pair of eyebrows, her two lips, no trace of guile in them. Instead, there is a strong faith of youth.
She paused and then said – ‘I don’t meet you these days. This Saturday, are you free?’
‘Yes. Are you thinking of going to Barapani?’
A whiff of pine air passes over my head. I have wasted several saturdays of my life. For a change, Barapani – it won’t be too bad. What do you say?
Translated from Assamese original By: Rupanjali Baruah