Kuntal needed to see his insurance agent in Connaught Place in Delhi, but just as he was about to walk into the well-appointed office, he noticed Mr. Sharma's name on a plain wooden door adjacent to the glass paneled office entrance. And, to leave nothing to doubt, the word 'Residence' stood out in bold letters on the door, defining clearly the boundary between agent Sharma's private and public life.
Neither Mr. Sharma nor the door will have a role in this story however. They were catalysts at best in the chemical laboratory of our hero's life history. Especially the door marked 'Residence'. Had Kuntal missed it, the story we are about to hear would have remained untold.
Kuntal was impressed. An apartment in CP, only a block away from the famed Regal theatre, an age-old landmark in Delhi, belonged to the same category as a dwelling in Times Square in New York or Oxford Street in London. Or, for that matter, a flat he had often been to on top of the New Market, in the Calcutta of yore.
Memories invaded like space ships in search of lost galaxies. Kuntal stood transfixed on the pavement in front of the agent's office as his mind flew back to his youth. The Regal faded away slowly. So did Delhi. His thoughts travelled back to an evening thirty springs ago and he found himself in the company of Manasi and her older sister, Smita, in their parents' apartment above the New Market in the posh Chowringhee locality.
He had not gone to visit Manasi, he remembered, because it was Smita whom he knew. She had been Kuntal's contemporary in the university and lived with her parents. The spacious living quarters opened out into the terrace of the New Market, which served as an outsized balcony, large enough to hold a soccer tournament. The Globe theatre dazzled proudly across the street and the Lighthouse and New Empire theatres, the glory of old Calcutta, were a mere five minutes' walk from the flat.
Smita and Kuntal talked aimlessly on the terrace, watching the brilliantly lit buildings of the pre-power cut days that surrounded them, when Manasi arrived out of nowhere as it were and pulled up a chair to join the conversation, quite uninvited.
Kuntal was unaware of Manasi's existence till then, but the moment she showed up, he knew she was an attractive young woman, whose eyes sparkled like freshly poured champagne in a crystal wine glass. She spoke without inhibitions, though pleasantly so, and her beautifully chiselled, yet soft featured face reflected the colours of the sky set aglow by the setting sun. Her sister appeared in fact somewhat plain by comparison.
Kuntal's whole being experienced a wondrous thirst in Manasi's presence, a thirst he had never known before.
It had taken her less than a half hour to tell Kuntal, 'You have a lovely voice you know. Do you sing?'
And then she persisted, 'Come on, you've got to sing for us!'
Kuntal was pleasantly embarrassed. He was not a trained singer, but did manage to pick up songs played on record players. He was dying to oblige the young lady, but feigned unwillingness as custom demanded, only long enough to ensure of course that the topic did not change. And then he sang at the strangest of venues, a patio located above the New Market.
The accolades he received were far out of proportion to the quality of his rendition. He felt bolder.
'Manasi, you have a wonderful voice too. Won't you sing one for me?' Kuntal asked, carefully avoiding the word 'us'.
Manasi wasn't shy. She came out with a full-throated performance of a Tagore composition. Kuntal still remembered what she sang: 'mone holo jyano perie elem ontobihin poth ashite tomar dware ...' (It seems to me that I have travelled an endlessly long way to reach your door ...) She had obviously gone through rigorous schooling and her vocal performance, like the rest of her, was nothing less than exquisite.
The lyric was loaded and his defences against her magnetic attraction were weak. Was it conceivable that he, a temporary lecturer in a Calcutta college, had charmed this fascinating woman? A wave of emotions crossed through his mind as they sat quietly after Manasi had finished. Her recital was so moving that silence was the only tribute one could offer.
'Is this love at first sight?' he asked himself. 'But no, that's foolish thought.' Kuntal was struggling, when Manasi broke the silence with a bomb shell. 'You will be a great teacher someday, a most popular teacher, I am sure! I can make it out from the way you speak,' she announced glowing with confidence.
Smita was unimpressed by Manasi's prophecies and reacted in a tone full of rebuke. 'What's wrong with you today Manasi? Gone gaga, have you?' The elder sister was feeling awkward, Kuntal saw.
Manasi had received a jolt. She was about to proceed, but halted abruptly to scrutinize alternately the expressions on the two faces she faced, trying probably to judge if she was the celebrated third person who transforms company to crowd. The charm, quite obviously, was broken. She got up slowly and disappeared into the apartment, under the obviously lame excuse that she had pending work to finish.
She left Kuntal burning with desire, but he was too shy to ask Smita if he might see her younger sibling just one more time before he left.
He spent an uneasy night, for he felt there had been love in the air, however incongruous, and he visited the apartment week after week to correct Manasi's misconception about the nature of his relationship with Smita. Only, she never showed up again. The weeks ran into months and the months to years. Three long years went by, during which life took irreversible twists and turns and Manasi disappeared slowly into the depth of the subconscious.
* * *
Kuntal had a hobby, stage acting. And amongst his friends was the family physician, even though he was somewhat older than him. To his surprise, the doctor revealed to him one day his own weakness for the stage. There was a Doctors' Club, Kuntal learnt, that held an annual stage show. The performance this year, Shakespeare's Macbeth, was only a week away. But the doctor playing Banquo had disappeared without warning, in full knowledge of the fact that invitation cards had already been distributed!
'This is short notice I know, but it is a short role too and you can surely fill in,' the doctor pleaded. Kuntal could not refuse his friend, seeing how piqued he was by his fellow professional's irresponsible conduct.
But his heart thumped as the physician gave him directions to the rehearsal room. He realized he did not need to be shown the way. It led quite unmistakably to the dream apartment. Till that day, he had no idea what the sisters' parents did for a living. Despite his many visits to the apartment, he had never had an opportunity to meet them. He discovered now from his doctor friend the reason why the parents had not been around on earlier occasions. Both were busy medical practitioners it seemed and he wondered why he had failed to notice a nameplate on their door despite his several visits! His mind must have been too preoccupied to notice the surroundings he concluded.
He arrived on time and climbed up the imposing wooden staircase leading to the flat. This time he found himself in a large room bereft of furniture except for a few hard backed wooden chairs. The room was tailor made for rehearsing a play. He was introduced to the parents this time by his doctor friend. But there was no sign of either sister. He exchanged pleasantries with the parents, refraining, with enormous self-control, from drawing their attention to the fact that he was no stranger to the flat, especially the sprawling balcony it must have been well known for. Consequently, he couldn't find any excuse to bring up the sisters, about whom he was dying to find out. What were they doing? Or, at least, where was Manasi now?
Soon the rehearsal was on and he was called upon to deliver almost immediately, since Banquo arrives and disappears towards the earlier part of the play. He got up and addressed the three witches in a theatrical quiver:
' ... If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me ...'
Strangely, however, the witches responded with highly un-witchlike expressions on their faces. They beamed with human warmth and smiled at the door behind him that led into the room. He was forced to stop midway, realizing to his annoyance that the rest of the room's occupants had their smiling faces turned in the same direction too. No one, including the director, appeared to be interested in the rehearsal anymore. They had obviously been interrupted. Kuntal, still irritated, looked behind to identify the cause of the break and barely managed to sustain a breakdown himself. Manasi stood at the door, smiling elegantly in a black silk saree with a bright gold border, a matching blouse, a thin gold necklace and a pair of small, but glittering gold ear rings. Her social status had changed as the red vermillion mark on the parting of her hair indicated. And he thought he noticed a diamond ring shining on her left ring finger.
'What a surprise!' someone said. 'When did you arrive? Your mom never mentioned you would be coming over. Come in, won't you. Watching a rehearsal could be more fun than watching the play itself you know.'
'I was passing by and thought of dropping in to say hello. Are you sure you don't mind people butting in?'
'Of course not, you are still one of us. And bring in your hubby too, where's he hiding?'
'He's gone to examine a patient. I came alone,' she smiled.
It was plain from the tone of the conversation that these people had known Manasi for years. Family friends expressing warm familiarity, exchanging innocent jokes to which Manasi responded with ease.
The atmosphere was totally different from the strange evening three years ago. Yet, Kuntal felt that her eyes still lit up all the thousand and one Arabian Nights. He was uncomfortable for a reason he was hard put to explain even to himself as she moved in and occupied a chair, preparing herself to witness the play's progress. It had become immensely difficult for him to concentrate on the role now. Yet, upon hearing the director's signal, 'OK, let's get on with the rehearsal,' he limped back from the ruins of destiny and resumed in a hollow, mechanical voice:
'If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear ...'
The rehearsal progressed. Once the scene was over, Kuntal moved to a corner facing away from Manasi, though he was desperate to study her lovely face again and again. After the Banquo murder scene, however, he knew that it was pointless for him to linger on and he asked for the director's permission to leave.
'Sure,' said the gentleman, 'and do remember please, it's same time tomorrow. ' Then he added in some embarrassment, 'Oh yes, thank you so much for agreeing to substitute.'
As he was leaving, he finally found the courage to look back at Manasi from the door. Her luminous eyes met his eyes immediately. The black silk provided a classic contrast to her fair and radiant face and bewitched him all over again, though, unlike Macbeth's witches, she had no need to resort to witchcraft.
He forced himself to smile at her, but her ever smiling face failed to reveal if she was smiling back at him. He realized he would never find out if he resided anymore in her consciousness and asked himself miserably, as he descended down the wide staircase, if she remembered that she had treated him once to her view into the seeds of time. And, unfairly enough, his mind presented him with no queries at all about Smita. She had long ceased to exist anyway!
* * *
Like a patient coming out of a coma, Kuntal heard the Connaught Place traffic begin to hum and the signal went down for Time train to resume its forward journey from Station Past. The Globe theatre disappeared into the dense blackness of history and the Regal theatre stood in its place.
He walked into Mr. Sharma's office to sign the documents, wondering if there were insurance policies that covered the scars of memory.
His lips stretched into a barely perceptible smile.