A short story By: Atanu Bhattacharya
For a feel of touch
Daniel looked out as far as he could see from the southern window of his office room. There is not so much traffic in his country. A few tall buildings, a giant – size water reservoir of different shapes are on top of them. Vests, trousers, petticoats hang on a clothesline. Below, on the roadside are huge hoardings, in them, the cut outs of heroes and heroines of films are poised. Though Chittaranjan Avenue is swallowed by iron, steel and cement, though a kind of harshness has begun to scratch it, yet its romance has brought to Daniel’s mind the heat of another country that he has left behind. However, sitting in this room on the fourth floor of Sulekha apartment where Daniel has started to draw figures for a weekly newspaper, its editor Anant Mohan Mitra often warned him playfully that Kolkata is Kolkata, it can never be like Daniel’s Amsterdam. And to prove it, this mad city has since the last month displayed a strange unimaginable romance.
Truly, the preparation for the autumn celebration of Durga puja brings to the people of Kolkata a nameless feverish heat.
The main attraction of puja is over already and since last evening the preparation for the procession of vans and different types of carriages has begun. The trucks carrying the idols of gods and goddesses will follow a definite route streamlined by the authorities. The denizens of this city know well the entries of which roads will display ‘No Entry’ signboard, which roads one should not take to avoid heavy traffic. But to Daniel, these situations are completely new. It has not been a year since he arrived at Kolkata from Amsterdam. He has passed sixteen years in that city. In his forty seventh year Daniel left behind his wife Clara and two children Jo and Sophia. Does he not remember them? Does that photograph he had taken with Clara on the bank of river Amsel disturb him? One cannot know it simply by observing Daniel’s face, one cannot say yet if he will return someday to Amsterdam and whether he will leave this low paid job in a newspaper to join some other company. In fact, one cannot pass a definite judgement on the life style of the people from the west And yet one can say this much, that they enjoy an intense sense of freedom, they can take a few dangerous risks in life and are always in search of something new. That is why Daniel’s divorce and his search for a new way of life is a casual incident, something that does not deserve much importance.
And yet, there lurks suspicious fear regarding Daniel in editor Anant Mohan’s mind though Daniel has become quite indispensable because of his sketches and pictures for the newspaper. Despite his age, he has slowly developed an intimacy with the colleagues. Yet Anant Mohan feels a wee – bit of dread regarding Daniel. Sometimes, they get into arguments too. But when they argue about their country’s culture, Anant Mohan appears proudly defiant. The fifty two year old editor steeped with self pride is seen giving counsels to Daniel.
When these two aged men begin to speak for the seemingly opposite cultures of east and west, then this room on the fourth of Sulekha apartment becomes an amusing place. Each of them - Soumen, Bipra Das, Tanoy Majumdar, the new sub editor and Brinda Niyogi who works for the two pages every saturday, they all begin to savour those moments. Sometimes some of them hesitatingly take sides with one of them and yet none of them wish to defeat any one of these two respected persons.
Tea arrives several times during the day, with it comes snacks. A few well known writers arrive and in the midst of every thing, the work on the newspaper goes on uninterrupted. The young man who comes to leave Brinda at the office, like a self – declared guardian sometimes on Saturdays tries to steal some hours from Brinda. And Brinda tackles that situation quite well.
And in the middle of all these systematic developments, Anant Mohan declared last month, in a rather alarming voice that very soon some thing untoward was going to happen. In an emotional moment Daniel had made a confessed before Anant Mohan that he wants to touch Brinda, just once.
There are so many things a man can desire and yet this old man wants to touch a twenty eight year old woman! They could not quite believe it. Tonoy Majumdar however explained – Daniel is an artist, a man from the west, so it is nothing unusual for a man like him.
The matter has luckily not yet reached Brinda’s ears. Anant Mohan said in a voice mixed with fear and anxiety – ‘isn’t it a terrible thing? This is India, It isn’t Daniel’s Holland; and so it is an unpardonable sin to nurture such a wild desire.’
There went on, unknown to Brinda a lot of discussions and criticisms relating to Daniel. His movements have been kept under vigil. And in the middle of all these irritating and uncomfortable situations, he declared in a rather calm and composed manner that just as one may wish to touch a flower, while knowing that it is just a butterfly in a picture yet one wants to feel its contours, just like that, he wants to touch Brinda.
‘ A horrible comparison’ – Anant Mohan says _ ‘ look Daniel, this is the transgression of old age. You must learn to behave like an old man as I do.’
Daniel says – ‘I am not old. Why only at forty- eight, even when I turn seventy -eight, I will not be old. But you tell me, is it wrong for me to think of things ins a new way, that I may want to make a new beginning!’
‘I don’t understand them. I know only this that a horrible, unpleasant thought is nestling inside you.’
‘No’ – Daniel denies it – ‘I can never accept it as an unpleasant thing. Instead, if there is no intention to harm, then I believe everyone should get an opportunity to touch.’
‘That’s another matter altogether. Llike wanting to touch something, how can you think of touching Brinda in such a simple, unaffected way?’ – Anant Mohan asks it is like an expert move on the chessboard that checkmates the king.
Daniel could not answer that question then. Two days later he spoke in a quiet, low voice – ‘I cannot say that I have no attraction. And yet I have the courage to confess openly that I want to touch her.’
Anant Mohan says – ‘There is no question of courage in it. This is a crucial matter of culture. If I am not mistaken, you have a daughter of about that age.’
‘Truly my daughter is quite grown up now. But I don’t want to think that every girl of Sophia’s age is a Sophia.’
The past few days’ activities reached a peak. The matter of the special puja issue incidentally meant a thick volume.
Tea and snacks arrive at each table. There is the regular arrival of so- called reputed writers. Bipra Das is kept busy working on the page maker on the computer. The new sub editor is trying to make a caption more attractive. Soumen sits down to scan the proof of a write – up on ‘autumn and Rabindranath.’
Daniel sat next to Anant Mohan and almost whispered into his ears – ‘actually it is a pleasure to watch Brinda from a distance. When she sweats in the heat, strands of hair plaster upon her face and forehead, she looks very lovely. During those moments, in the middle of so much work, I have made innumerable sketches of her.’
Anant Mohan throws cold water on Daniel’s enthusiasm. He says – ‘Let me accept the matter up to the fact that you want to sketch her. Beyond that, you may not wander because she already has a young lover. You have seen that young man who comes to pick her up every Saturday.’
‘ I have seen him. I have seen him staring into Brinda’s eyes while talking to her. But he seems to see only her eyes he praises only that black mole on her cheeks. Brinda is more fulsome than just that. Isn’t that a kind of waste?’ – as it were Daniel suddenly found a safe route to save his endangered king on the chessboard.
And yet Anant Mohan puts forward another soldier to upset the king. He says – ‘Look Daniel, which ever way you think of her, the final word is she does not belong to you. So you have no right to touch her.’
‘ I have also gradually realized that I have no right whatsoever. And yet I want to. If you look at it from my point of view, don’t you think it is a very sad thing?’ – Daniel looks at Anant Mohan remorsefully. And soon afterwards, he says again – ‘ Actually there is a strange relationship between senses and the emotions. It is some thing like a bulb being switched on somewhere with the press of a button. I believe, if I ever get to touch Brinda, I will consider myself lucky. Perhaps, I will become a complete man that day.’
Anant Mohan looks into Daniel’s pair of challenging eyes. What kind of power is in the river water of the Rhine that men like Daniel feel young again? What magic is in the salty wind of Amsterdam that they become restless for a touch?
Perhaps Brinda is unaware of all this. She is trying to finish her load of work at one go.
Later, ten days after that special issue is out, the office remained closed. During those ten days Soumen, Brinda and others are busy in their own world. Daniel too has frantically moved around looking at the idols of goddesses and the multi coloured decorations of pandels from Salt Lake to Shyam Bazaar. He has spent hours sitting on the bank of the Hoogly. He has passed several hours in the silence of Belur Maath.
Today the office reopened. And yet there is no certainty that every one would rush back together. May be one can ignore such a thin attendance for two days after puja.
Daniel arrived early and noticed - only Anant Mohan was there. He was banging on the cradle of a dead telephone, as it were he would bring it alive with a few blows.
‘The telephone is dead’ – Anant Mohan said with irritation, -‘ Even the lift is out of order. It will be rather difficult to get a repairman now.’
‘Can’t we send the watchman?’ – Daniel enquired.
‘ He too went somewhere today. Let me go and do some thing myself.’
Daniel was alone for some time. It is another matter to be alone in Belur Maath, he did not want to sit listlessly in a place like Chittaranjan Avenue that throbbed with life. He looked at the road below through the southern window.
Each person looks like a bonsai from top, each car looks like a beetle. One can somehow spot a familiar face among them.
And just there, fleetingly he thought he saw Brinda. But next moment she disappeared behind a huge hoarding of ‘Johnson Courier and Cargo Ltd’. Where she would have reappeared, a bus covered that space somehow. He tried to spot her once below the plywood cut out of Amir Khan.
Yes, that’s Brinda, she is coming.
The lift is out of order, so she is climbing up the staircase, on the last two steps she is panting. In this month of October too a few rare beads of sweat glisten on her cheeks. A few strands of hair are wet behind her ears.
She talked with Daniel for about ten minutes, waited for Anant Mohan for extra fifteen minutes and then left again by the staircase.
And a few moments later, by that same staircase, Anant Mohan arrived hurriedly with a child like curiosity and asked Daniel – ‘ Did Brinda come here?’
Anant Mohan expressed an inexplicable feeling of exhilaration and said – ‘ ah! Will you believe Daniel, just now Brinda passed me unnoticed and though I saw her I could not call her.’
‘Why?’ – Daniel asked with a look of surprise.
‘ Daniel, I don’t know what exactly happened to me. As I came through a crowd of people, after lodging a complaint in the telephone exchange, just then Brinda passed very close to me. And as she did so a scent of her sweat and perfume assailed my nostrils. Her crisp new cotton sari also brushed against my shoulder. I noticed that she was sweating. And then just like you do in the west I suddenly felt like a young man.’
‘ What did you do then?’
‘ Nothing. I just looked at the sight of her without her knowing. You are right Daniel; there is a close link between senses and emotions. I now feel as if I too wish to touch her.’
Daniel smiled and said – ‘she waited for you for about fifteen minutes. Not to work, she came to office in the middle of so many engagements to offer you her Bijoya pranam.’
‘ And then?’
‘ In a matter of five minutes, she gave me a fairly good idea about this social practice. And then she bowed and touched my feet. In fact, she brought her head close to my feet as far as her hands would reach.’
‘ What did you do then?’
‘ In fact I was touched, as if, I suddenly wanted to behave like you do in the east. And I placed my right hand over her head automatically. – Isn’t that a strange thing?’
In that dilemma of defeat and triumph, two perplexed old men were silent for a while. A few rare, unresolved moments lightly shook them, as it were, a bulb was switched on, a fan began to whirr somewhere.