Spring, it would appear, is invariably followed by summer and summer in its turn by autumn, and so on and so forth. No wonder therefore that as the spring moonshine girl receded into the past, other seasons invaded. And I grew older. And older. Though not quite as old as I am today. In fact, I was quite young still, when the spring moonshine girl disappeared into a galaxy tucked away in an unknown corner of the universe.
I think I was a student of the MA class when yet another girl showed up at a forgotten crossroad of my wayward ways. Well, I exaggerate, for I have not quite forgotten the morning when Sovan-babu spoke to me as he sat in the well-appointed living room of a friend’s home. “There’s this tenth class girl who needs to be tutored. Will you be available?” he asked me with a fixed smile on his kind face. Sovan-babu was a regular at the friend’s home, having been a devoted student of his father, who taught History in the Jadavpur University. He wore a dhoti and a long shirt whose colour wavered between butter and buttterscotch, and never forgot to carry his umbrella. A bachelor by all accounts and a person devoted to old books. He was himself a collector of sorts, or at least one who was intimately connected to collectors of precious gems of our literary past. I cannot recall any expression other than a smile on Sovan-babu’s dark face. A smile that never failed to invite, not even the most insensitive specimens of our race.
The wages of my labour, Sovan-babu told me, would be Rs. 40 a month, which was a dramatic rise from the spring moonshine Rs. 5, that had sent me scurrying towards safety. I was elated frankly, since a bus ride from the southern end of Calcutta those days to its northern outskirts cost no more than 50 paise. And Sovan-babu being a totally dependable person, I jumped for the offer and showed up at the home I was directed to visit no more than a week later. I arrived exactly on time.
Sovan-babu was waiting there. It was once again a somewhat low middle class room in a large two storied building. The building must have seen better times when it had been built perhaps three decades ago. Old, but not quite as old as the Red Fort. Somewhat like the older me compared to my moonshine day. What caught my attention, though, as soon as I entered the room, was a shiny black human skull sitting on a shelf filled with tit bits of accumulated almanacs from the near and distant past. There could have been other museum pieces sitting there as well, but what I saw, apart from the skull, was a large sized bed inherited from more affluent days, going by the quality of the wood. However, unlike the spring moonshine home, the bed did not occupy the entire room. There was enough space left for a dark brown Burma teak cupboard too, jam-packed with unorganized books and papers that peeped through its panelled glass door. And there were a few straight backed wooden chairs as well and a writing table of unknown vintage once more. As opposed to moonshine, the student’s books were sitting there in a pile on the table under the scrutiny of the aforementioned skull from the wall at the far end of the room.
Apart from Sovan-babu, the girl’s father was expecting me too and at some point of time after I arrived, the mother showed up as well. Smiling, welcoming people and well-fed too going by their sizes. The father was clad in a somewhat worn out white fatua and a dhoti reaching down to the knees, worn South Indian style. It is difficult for me to recall what we conversed about, but whatever it was, we were soon nodding our heads in agreement. I had been hired as Aparna’s (name unchanged) teacher, to teach her mostly English and Mathematics. And I have forgotten of course at which point of time during the proceedings the pretty young Aparna had entered the stage. As I have already told you, I was older now, but not exactly as old as the Sepoy Mutiny. Besides, Aparna wore a saree, unlike the moonshine kid, who was just a little girl in skirts.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is no love story that I am weaving out for you. It will not lead to broken or joined hearts, if that’s what you are expecting. It is just a story of a growing young girl, who needed extra help outside her school. Aparna was a sweet young girl, full of reverence for her new found teacher. And the teacher was hell bent at that stage of his life on turning into a professional teacher some day in the not too distant future.
I arrived on the day we agreed upon for my first session and this time I had a better look at the inside of the building as I climbed up the stairs to the first floor. It appeared to be a house full of people as well as rooms. The people lived as separate families occupying two or three rooms each. Peaceful coexistence, for each family appeared to own the rooms it lived in and I ended up with the impression that they had once been a joint family. With time the family had grown in size probably, making joint living an infeasible proposition. The reasons could have been economic too, but I didn’t care much to exercise my brain over the issue.
The room this time was empty, except for Aparna and I sitting across the table from each other. Two people in a large room, leaving out the skull that stared at my back as I faced Aparna. It was not a particularly scary experience, I know not why. Skull it was, but it was a friendly looking skull, not entertaining deep dark thoughts against any one in particular. Since the skull was after all a skull though, I did inquire about it when I saw Sovan-babu next time. It appeared that Aparna’s father, Amiya-babu, had started out life quite differently from the way he was living now. In particular, he had not planned to raise a family at all and so Aparna’s appearance in this world was directly linked to Amiya-babu’s change of mind.
Amiya-babu, I was informed, had left home to live the life of a hermit In his young days. And no ordinary hermit at that. He had chosen to be a tantrik sadhu! Which explained the skull, perhaps the only relic he had saved from his tantra filled days. As I looked once in a while at the good natured, Hobit shaped man, I found it most difficult to visualize him sitting on a corpse and practising whatever tantra yoga a tantrik performed. Quite clearly, he had been disillusioned and come back home to announce that he was no longer interested in ascetic occupations. Instead, a family of his own and a pretty daughter attracted him more. God, being merciful, was not deaf to his appeal and hence, there I was, teaching Aparna under the ever watchful guardianship of the skull that had lost its charm. Or had it? I will have more to offer on this matter as we move on.
Aparna, as I found, was fairly weak in English and I had to work hard to make her learn. Her mathematics was OK as far as I could see, but it could have been better. She was not exactly a serious student and I soon found myself scolding her once in a while for not working hard enough. Her parents sat in the adjacent room and listened to the radio quite almost every evening I visited them. Sometimes though, my voice rose a few decibels above the radio waves, especially when I took Aparna to task for neglecting the work I had assigned her. And the parents would hear me clearly it seemed, especially the mother. Hidden behind the curtain separating the two rooms, she would join me in chiding her daughter in a shrill voice. An embarrassing situation for me, for Aparna reacted quite strongly. Not vocally though. Her eyes spewed fire, as she frowned in dogged defiance at the table. “I won’t forgive you for this,” she appeared to be yelling at me in thundering silence.
But there were interludes of entertainment as well. Provided by the father. As I recall, they owned a few cats that roamed freely inside their rooms. And Amiya-babu was obviously fond of them. He would speak to them whenever one or the other of them appeared in the adjoining radio equipped room. Quite invariably he would invite them to his vicinity, saying “Meow” in his most affectionate baritone. Like my voice, his meow floated over in the opposite direction to where we sat and caused immense embarrassment for Aparna. She was not quite prepared to present a meowing dad to her tutor. There were variations too in the meow theme. On one occasion, the radio announced that a programme of light classical Bangla songs was about to begin. I have no idea why Amiya-babu began to imitate the announcement immediately. And he kept repeating the imitation at ever higher pitches and in a variety of notes and tunes, till suddenly he shifted gear and ended up with a few bouts of his meows. On some of these occasions, Aparna would turn red trying to suppress her embarrassment and, once at least, she left the room to bring her dad back to his senses.
Even though I maintained a straight face for Aparna’s comfort, I used to be greatly amused by these incidents and described them later to Sovan-babu. He was surprised the first time he heard about this and even went to Amiya-babu’s home to find out if I was imagining things. He came back with the message that Amiya-babu believed that he was engaging in these antiques to help me feel at home. I don’t think I ever produced the impression of feeling constrained or shy in any way, but Amiya-babu didn’t give up his efforts to make me feel relaxed, even after his conversation with Sovan-babu. He kept on maintaining the comfort level at his home to his daughter’s endless discomfort.
Amiya-babu and the skull in the room were the most interesting memories I have from my Aparna-teaching days and I often wondered who Amiya-babu was meowing at, the silent skull or his cats?