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The "soon" arrived more than a month later. Mrinal's pre-commitments to his foreign host left him little time to get back in touch with Priya. Worse, his wife was diagnosed with a gallstone problem that called for surgery. She had to be hospitalized too and Mrinal spent most of the nights in the hospital in the private cabin assigned to his wife. He travelled from the hospital directly to the university for his lectures and spent very little time at home.
It was nearly two months later that he found the opportunity to call up Priya. A woman's voice answered the phone. No, Priya was not home, nor her husband, Mrinal was told. She was the maid in whose charge they had left the house. "Where are they?" he asked.
"They have gone to Mumbai," she answered. "The master needed a medical check up."
Mrinal missed a heartbeat. Mumbai! Not to the Tata Memorial Hospital he hoped. He tried her mobile number, but it was switched off. He sat in his office and worried. Isn't there a way he could contact them?
Well, where there is a will, there always is a way. He recalled suddenly that Priya and Sandipan had a daughter living in Delhi and that she might be able to give him more information. He spoke to the maid again and asked her if she knew the daughter's phone number. Fortunately she knew. She was marginally literate. Mrinal copied down the number and called Priya's daughter Shyamali immediately. Once again a maid intervened. The mistress was not home, but she would be back by the evening. Mrinal checked his watch. Given the time difference, he would need to call at 2 AM in the morning to speak to Shyamali.
It was a long wait, but he was able to speak to Shyamali at last. Yes, she had Priya's mobile number in Mumbai, but the news was not too cheerful. Sandipan had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was undergoing treatment at the Tata Hospital.
Mrinal couldn't help remembering Sandipan's ever cheerful face, his humorous demeanour and never compromising attitude. Mrinal lacked the courage to call Priya up, but he knew he had to go through with it. His heart wouldn't allow him to remain silent.
Priya told him the details of the treatment. Apparently Sandipan was responding to the therapy, but one never knew how long the improvement would last. They would be leaving for home in a day or two. "Call my home next time," she said.
Mrinal didn't call for the next four months, after which his assignment was over and he was back in Kolkata. His wife had recuperated and their household was back to normal. Mrinal too was soon absorbed in the everyday activities that kept him engaged. One of these happened to be the role he played as a TV commentator on economic events of importance. At the time the burning issue was the stalled industrialization programme at Singur, West Bengal. One of the channels where he normally appeared arranged to hold a programme in the very town where Priya lived.
Mrinal's heart thumped when he received the invitation from the channel. "Call my home next time," Priya had said. Mrinal prepared himself for the journey without any persuasion from the organizers at all.
It was a short flight and the team arrived on time around 11 AM in the morning. The programme though was fixed for 4 PM in the afternoon. Mrinal checked into the hotel and called up Priya almost immediately. It was she herself who answered the phone.
"Hello Priya, this is Mrinal."
"Of course that's who you are. I can recognize your voice."
"Priya, you know what ... can I come and see Sandipan and you today?"
It was she who sounded surprised this time.
"Where are you? Are you here in town?"
"Exactly. Can I come over?"
She sounded more than pleased. "Of course, but you will lose your way if you try to reach our residence by yourself. You don't know the town that well. Let me speak to a local person from your TV team and give him directions."
Mrinal handed the phone over to a team member and he had no difficulty figuring out the location of Priya's residence. Mrinal borrowed a car and left after lunch was over. He knew he would have to be back for the programme before 4 PM.
The driver had been given instructions about the route to take. But when the car reached the area, the driver was somewhat confused about the exact lane leading to Priya's house. Mrinal told him to remain seated in the car and searched around by himself on foot. Soon he was there.
He rang the doorbell wondering who would be answering the door. He recalled the soft, velvety evening in Kolkata hundreds of years ago when it was Priya who had rung the bell and he had himself opened the door for her. The roles had changed indeed, for it was she who stood on the other side of the door this time. Mrinal felt his pulse beat rise as she smiled at him and led him into the living room.
"Look Priya," said Mrinal in jest, "I was able to find your home on my own. This person you gave directions to was able to send me only half the distance. He lost his way and I had to do the excavation job myself! I arrived on foot and I don't know anymore exactly where he parked his car."
"I can find you wherever you choose to hide," he added laughing.
Priya smiled sadly in response. Sandipan was seated on the couch and he too smiled. He had visibly thinned, but his charming face glowed. They were engaged in small talk for about an hour or so over tea and snacks. And then it was time to leave.
"Get well soon, Sandipan," Mrinal said softly.
"I will try," said Sandipan, "but I think this time I will have to accept defeat!"
"Oh come on, Sandipan, don't talk that way. Be your usual self. Nothing can go wrong with you. I am sure you are watching European Football every evening."
"Of course I am ...How can I give that up?"
"See," said Mrinal, "you will never lose your lust for life."
He looked around but Priya was nowhere to be seen. Yet he had to leave. It was already 3.30 PM. He waited for a few minutes and left through the front door finally in disappointment. Sandipan's eyes followed him in silence.
Once out on the street, he began to search for the car and found that it was parked right in front of Priya's home. The driver had obviously followed him as he walked to his destination. He began walking towards the car, wondering why Priya had disappeared. And it was then that he noticed her, standing in front of her neighbour's house only a few yards away. Quite clearly, she was waiting for him.
He came across to her and before he could open his mouth, she said, "Let me walk you to your car. You said you had parked it elsewhere. You may have difficulty finding it and you could then be late for your programme."
"Thank you Priya," he said, "but the driver was smarter than I thought. He is parked right in front of your house. He followed me."
For the first time in their long acquaintance, Mrinal saw a trace of disappointment in Priya's eyes. "I see," she uttered almost inaudibly, "he is here already is he?"
Mrinal stood facing her and she looked straight into his eyes. He wanted to give her a tight hug and whisper some sweet nonsense into her ears. But it was broad daylight. Besides, the driver in the car was watching.
Yet Mrinal couldn't hold himself back from touching her. Without getting too close to her, he raised his right hand and stroked her hair. "Keep well, Priya. We'll be in touch."
She said nothing at all but did not remove her eyes from his face even once. He too had nothing more to add. The chauffeur had opened the door and was waiting for him to board the car.
Two months later.
The phone was ringing and Mrinal, a late riser, was too lazy to respond. But the caller was patient and let the phone keep on ringing till Mrinal counld't ignore it anymore.
"Hello," said he groggily and somewhat annoyed too.
A young woman's voice spoke from the other end.
"This is Shyamali calling from Delhi," said the girl, voice choked with tears.
It took Mrinal a while to recognize the name. It was Priya's daughter he realized finally. He was all attention now.
"Oh, Shyamali, yes of course, ... tell me ...," Mrinal's voice trailed off into silence, anxiety having taken charge of the situation.
"Baba is no more," she said. "Ma asked me to inform you. They had come to Delhi for treatment and now all's over." Shyamali was not capable of continuing any further.
Mrinal too didn't know how to proceed. Then, finally, he asked, "Where's Ma?"
"She's inside the hospital. But she wanted me to let you know."
"I see," said Mrinal. "I am so sorry to hear about this." His words sounded far too
cliché. So he added quickly, "Tell her that I shall contact her later, will you please?"te
"Yes, later please ... call her later," said Shyamali and hung up.
Mrinal tottered over to his study and stared blankly at the empty computer screen.
He was waiting for Priya.
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