Mrinal moved to a chair next to her. He knew it would be too melodramatic to tell her it was Romeo and Juliet that was playing. He leaned as far towards her as propriety allowed and asked, 'Do you recognize the play?'
She frowned, trying to figure out. Mrinal didn't know if she knew, but it was immaterial. The sensuous melody of the piano said all he wanted to say.
A sudden, harsh noise disturbed the scene. The doorbell. Mrinal almost jumped in alarm. It was too early for his parents to return. He waited, struggling not to lose his composure, when the bell rang again.
He sighed and went over to answer the door. An aunt stood there with her teenage daughter. They were regular visitors and did not need to keep anyone informed about their visits. Without waiting to be invited in, they came in and crashed on the couch. And then, noticing Priya, stared at her curiously for a while.
'Where's your mother,' asked the aunt, suspicion plainly written on her face.
Mrinal stammered, 'They have gone to see a movie ...'
His answer must have sounded like a bombshell. The aunt and her daughter immediately transferred their attention to Priya, studying her with deep attention now.
Priya stood up. She was obviously uncomfortable. 'I am getting late,' she smiled with understanding. 'Can I please borrow the book I came for?'
For a second, Mrinal was dumbfounded. 'Book?' he asked and then understanding dawned. Priya may not have known Romeo and Juliet by heart, but she certainly had better presence of mind than Mrinal.
'Oh yes, the book ...' Mrinal disappeared inside the house and came out with a copy of David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and handed it over to Priya. She looked at the book and her eyes twinkled. She was not an Economics major!
'Thanks a lot,' she said and disappeared through the front door into the foggy darkness of the Kolkata winter. Mrinal, swearing under his breath, came back and sat down to entertain the guests.
They conversed idly for a while, Mrinal keeping up the show in monosyllables. The aunt and the cousin were bored soon and decided to leave. But Mrinal knew that Priya was now at least halfway back to her home.
He recalled the aunt at Priya's home too and uttered viciously to himself in a stage whisper, 'Nephews and nieces of the world, UNITE!'
Something like a response greeted him from the corner of the empty room. He stared at the audio player with impotent rage. It was still on.
The play had progressed in the meantime he realized, for he heard a dying Mercutio deliver his immortal line:
'Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, it's enough.'
dd: Hi Mrinal! Long time no see ...
Mrinal (somewhat surprised): Umm ... yes ... umm ... I mean ... Sorry, I don't wish to offend you ... but do I know you?
dd (smiling): Good question and thanks for being so frank. I wish I didn't have to embarrass you this way, but the problem is that I need to ask you a question. So, I had to intrude into the privacy of your mind ...
Mrinal (dumbfounded): Intrude into my mind? Goodness gracious me!! Who the hell are you? And how dare you intrude into my privacy!! Vanish, I say. Leave me alone.
dd (distinctly disturbed): But that's impossible Mrinal. Even if I could perform the vanishing trick, your mind is one place I simply cannot vanish from. It's where I live. Frankly, I was not really intruding. I was simply reminding you that I have been a permanent tenant of your mind. Only I never paid you any rent! Awfully sorry ... I have lived there all my life. And that means all your life too, doesn't it?
Mrinal (gaping stupidly): I am not sure I understand you. Are you telling me who I am? Am I you?
dd (relieved): Ah! I knew you would finally understand. You've never been insensitive. Yes friend, I am no one else but you yourself. And I am simply asking you to dig into the depths of your soul and recall an incident that took place many years ago on a soft, velvety winter evening in Kolkata.
Mrinal (smiling at last): Which incident? There were so many evenings and yet many more incidents. Which one do you mean?
dd (eyes twinkling): The evening you waited for Priya.
Mrinal (mirthfully): Ah yes! That was a cruel evening indeed!
dd: Remember the book she borrowed? What did she tell you when she returned it back to you?
Mrinal (sighing): Nothing, nothing at all. She never returned it ...
dd (perturbed): No? You never asked her for the book?
Mrinal (sadly smiling): There were more important things that happened and I simply forgot to ask her. And now it's too late.
dd (curious): Oh really? But what happened? Won't you tell me?
Mrinal (irritated): Why do I need to tell you all this? You said you are me! You of all people should know what happened. Every single detail of the happenings. Why are you pulling my leg?
dd (compassionately): No, not at all my friend. Telling me is just a way of telling others. Do you want to share your answer to the "What happened?" question with others?
Mrinal (sighing again): Others? Is anyone interested? Do you know anyone who wants to hear what happened?
dd: Surprisingly enough, I do.
Mrinal: Really? Who are they? Do they have names?
dd: They do. But what's in a name? They want to know. They are nice kids you know. Why don't you comply? I too want to listen. Wait, don't begin yet. I want to make myself comfortable. The couch sitting next to the window looks most inviting and cosy. Let me settle there first ... Right. I am ready to listen now. Go ahead. No, no, I don't need a drink. You know, don't you, that alcohol's not my cup of tea? Hee, hee, ... stupid joke.
Mrinal: Yes, that was a stupid joke. Anyway, I think I want to assign a title to my story first. Do you know what I want to call it? I want to call it "Adulterous Thoughts".
dd (visibly taken aback): Ohhhhhhh ... Well so long as you keep it confined to thoughts, it's OK I guess. Anyway, proceed ...
Mrinal (half reclining, sideways, on a divan, left elbow digging into the pillow): A century seems to have gone by since the day I saw Priya for the first time in my life. I must have bunked a class and strolled into the first floor of the College Street Coffee House. She was sitting with my class mate Animesh at the table closest to the swing door that separated the restaurant from a mysterious, poorly lit interior that Coffee House regulars referred to as a kitchen. In hindsight, the standards of hygiene maintained there must have fallen short of pristine purity, but our minds were too preoccupied with members of the opposite sex outside the kitchen to be overly bothered by rules of cleanliness observed inside.
Priya was undoubtedly the prettiest woman I had seen during the entire course of my youth and she continued to retain her beauty for the best part of her life. She never wore any make up and kept radiating the beauty nature had profusely endowed her with. She was always simply dressed in her plain cotton sarees, behaved as friendly as the girl next door and never failed to appear as innocently attractive as a newly born puppy. Her skin was the colour of gold, her features sharp yet soft, her smile angelic yet devastating and her male admirers as numerous as sand grains on a sea beach.
My first encounter with her in Animesh's company was relatively eventless. But I was struck by her good looks and used the occasion to employ all the fishing tricks at my disposal to attract her attention. The meeting, however, was short, for Animesh, sensing my intentions, quickly disappeared in her company in Kolkata's crowded streets.
Perhaps that's where the curtain would have fallen too, if I did not see her in the college precincts soon afterwards, not once but almost everyday that followed. Our friendship grew and I discovered tid bits of her personal life. Her parents lived elsewhere, her father being a successful lawyer in her hometown, while she lived in Kolkata with her sister and aunt, to continue with her education. She attracted me inexorably, like a flame attracting a fly. Yet, naturally inclined though I was to run after every other girl I came across, I never found the courage to proceed much further.
We dated only once as I remember, during my entire college life, when we went together to watch a popular Utpal Dutt play at Minerva Theatre in North Kolkata. It was a purely friendly excursion, bearing no semblance of a secret meeting of love birds. Despite her beatific smile, she had by this time acquired reputation as the most notorious of men killers in town. Consequently, the pressure of competition forced me to suppress the quivers I felt in my heart and play the role of a "good friend and nothing more". There was no miasmal mystery therefore that accompanied our dating.
As Priya moved from conquest to conquest, leaving behind her a trail of corpses of multifarious shapes and sizes, I too kept myself engaged in chasing a variety of women. Each one of my chases though ended up in disaster. And Priya remained the only woman amongst the ones I fell for, who, despite occasional disappearances for varying lengths of time, never vanished completely out of my life. We continued to be in the best of terms and she was always ready to lend me a sympathetic shoulder to weep on after the tragic denouement of each of my romantic adventures.
Then one day, Sandipan arrived in her life. I knew him from the past and liked his approach to the world at large. He was a tall, handsome person, plucky when circumstances demanded. And when circumstances didn't demand, he was tension free, ever smiling, and full of humour. He was certainly a gentleman worth cultivating. It was a most interesting development from my point of view. There was a time when every new paramour Priya acquired would make me turn green with jealousy. With time, jealousy had turned to indifference. But upon Sandipan's arrival, I felt, paradoxically enough, truly happy for the couple. They were two great friends I had and I came pretty close to singing loud hosannas in praise of their relationship, which culminated in marriage.
We were not too regularly in touch after this event took place. I moved away to different parts of the world and they settled in a small town, both taking up teaching positions, one in a college and the other in the post graduate department of a university. After a few months, we lost touch quite completely.
Till that is, two years or so ago, almost fifteen years since our last encounter. My work required me to travel to the town where I heard they were located and I used my contacts to dig out their phone number to call them up before I travelled. It was Sandipan who answered the phone. Needless to say, he was surprised to hear from me and even more so to know that I intended to visit them. Of course, he did welcome me and gave me directions to his residence.
How was Priya though? On being asked, he informed me that she was not particularly well, having been a victim of breast cancer in the recent past. She had undergone mastectomy I learned, followed by a course of chemotherapy. The news came as a shock and I braced myself for an encounter with a metamorphosed Priya.
Fortunately though, her appearance was reasonably normal when I saw her finally at her residence. Chemotherapy had done some damage to her hair, but she was simply an aged Priya in every other way. Memories flooded back with a rush and the rusty gates that kept us separated for a long many years gave way without much effort on either side.
Our contacts resumed and they started to visit us every time they were in Kolkata and we even called each other over the phone just for a chat. During one of these occasions, Priya told me that she was visiting alone to attend an academic meeting.
As always, I was delighted and my wife and I hoped she would be able to come over for dinner during her stay. "Oh yes, of course, I will. Let's fix a day after I arrive," she said. And call she did during her stay in Kolkata. "Say, will it be too much of a trouble if I dropped in at short notice?" "Of course not," I said. "Just keep me informed, or else I may be away from home." "How about this evening?" she said. I checked with my wife and gave her the green signal.
She kept her appointment and spent the entire evening with us. There was nothing really new about the subjects we confabulated on. Except for one piece of information. She had suffered from other illnesses too and one of them required her to undergo hysterectomy, she informed us smilingly. I watched her in silence as I absorbed this piece of intelligence. The person who sat before me was the same Priya, who conquered a thousand hearts with her female charm. But she was not just aged now. She retained few physiological characteristics that would qualify her as a woman!
Yet, she continued to appear to me the eternal woman she had always been in my eyes. What, I asked myself deep inside my heart, is a woman? Isn't there something far beyond physiology that defines the quintessence of womanhood? And, I found myself answering my question in the affirmative. Priya was still the same woman I had known and loved when I was too young to imagine that I would ever be facing the person I faced now.
It was late when she left and I told her that it wouldn't be safe for her to go back alone. She protested, but I insisted on dropping her back where she had put up. We went out into the street and called a passing cab. I opened the door for her and then followed her in. Inside the cab though, a surprise awaited me. She had seated herself in a way that left me little room except to squeeze myself in. Yet there was ample space for her to shift and let me sit more comfortably. It would be rude to ask her to move to the other side of the seat and I accepted the space she had allotted me without protest.
We had a long way to go and we covered the distance in close physical proximity. I soon realised that she would let me hold her hand if I wanted to. She would let me move closer and perhaps even plant a kiss on her age worn face. This was the only time during our long acquaintance that Priya revealed herself to me, when she had nothing left in her that would diagnose her clinically as a female. Yet the most fascinating of God's creations, the woman, had managed to survive.
It was the closest she ever came to returning my love. On my way back, I wondered if I would have committed adultery to hold her hand in the darkness of the cab or exchange a kiss. I thought hard but no easy answer presented itself. I could not solve the problem, ending up in utter confusion. I spent a sleepless night and, with the arrival of dawn, sat down paper and pencil in hand to write the only poem I ever composed in my life:
Her lovely face
In a smoke filled coffee house
Etched in my heart, forever.
What Happened Next
Mrinal was due to leave India for an academic assignment abroad. He had told Priya about his date of departure on the night he saw her off in the taxi. She called him up the evening immediately preceeding the day he would be leaving. The call came through in a shopping mall where he was making last minute purchases for the trip.
He was pleasantly surprised.
“Hi! How are you? You gave me a surprise!” said Mrinal.
She responded, “Why, are you unhappy to hear from me?”
“Of course not! Do I sound unhappy?”
“I called up to say Bon Voyage,” she said.
“Now this is a true surprise. You remembered the date? Thank you so much.”
There was silence at the other end. He waited for a minute or two and then said, “Hello, are you still there?”
“Yes,” Priya’s voice answered.
“I see, I thought we had been disconnected.”
“No, we are not disconnected. At least I am not disconnected. Don’t know about you …,” the voice at the other end said slowly. Mrinal listened intently and sighed silently.
“How is Sandipan?” he asked trying desperately to change the subject.
There was a short silence again.
“He has been admitted to the hospital,” she said falteringly. Mrinal thought he heard tears in her voice.
“Hospital! Why? I mean what do you mean? What happened?” he stammered.
“He was coughing blood and the tests revealed a shadow in the lungs. The final reports are yet to come in. It will take a few days. One needs to rule out malignancy.”
“Mal – ig – nan …!” Mrinal found it hard to finish the word. His vocabulary had come to an end. He couldn’t help recalling what Priya had told about herself the last time they had seen each other. This was too horrifying a coincidence. Both of them afflicted by the same disease! Who's going to look after whom?
Her voice returned back. "Well, have a nice trip. And ... keep in touch if you can ..."
"Sure, sure enough. And you too take care of yourself ... Take care of both of yourselves ... I will call you soon."