1974, north Calcutta. The city was trying to shake off the aftermath of the terrible days of the Naxalite uprising. You could hear boys playing football in the fields again. On the raised concrete porches attached to the houses on the side of the footpaths, the evening chat sessions have begun again. Kali-babu’s tea stall at the central crossing of the locality is buzzing. In that neighbourhood of the dimly-lit, narrowest alleys and houses with old, moth-eaten walls, of the low doors and the high stairs, Tanmay-da was an ideal young man for all of us. He came from a joint family in which his father and uncles lived under the same roof. Their three-storied, dilapidated rented house was always abuzz. On the ground floor, you could hear the third scion playing his Sitar, on the second story the fourth demanded that another cup of tea be served immediately while on the first story the eldest brother would take a few puffs at his country-made cigarette with a gentle yet mischievous smile on his face. There was space for academics, politics, sports, songs, music and painting in that house — nothing appeared to be missing. But most of the male members of the family were somewhat bohemian in their habits. None was exactly evil, but they lacked discipline and were never punctual or tidy. It appeared that most of the inmates of that house were eccentrics. The women in the family would finish their mid-day meal at four in the afternoon. The youngest scion would go out for a walk at 9.30 in the night. All the male members had many friends. They would come and go as they wished. Except for the last few hours of the night, the main wooden entrance to the house would always remain ajar.
Tanmay-da was temperamentally different from all the others in that house. He excelled in academics, was skilful in sports and very helpful to others. He was good in recitation and was an excellent swimmer. The college-going Tanmay-da’s presence in the locality came as a blessing for the guardians of the teenagers and the students of the neighbourhood. They used to believe that when Tanmay is there, their children would always have proper guidance. If their own wards would ever be impertinent, they would say, rather spontaneously, “Can’t you learn even a little from Tanmay?” Tanmay-da’s greatest gift was his mental fortitude, patience and concentration. He was extremely sincere in his work. Whatever promise he would make would be kept. Whatever he would read, would remain etched in his memory. In a house full of some exceptional people who were so well endowed, Tanmay-da too was a genius in our eyes. But his mental make-up was different from that of the others in that house. I know that Tanmay-da received prizes for ‘perfect attendance’ in nine of the ten years he spent in Scottish Church School. He missed a single year’s prize as he contracted chicken pox.
But, the boys in the locality, especially those of us who were a few years junior or senior to him in studies always felt that Tanmay-da lived with a secret, that even such an ideal young man as he had a weak spot, for it was with us that he would have those regular gossip sessions. We could offer no real foundation or proof of what we imagined. Perhaps many in our ranks used to feel jealous on hearing such profuse praise about Tanmay-da from their parents and guardians. Perhaps it would have satisfied us if we could find a single blemish in a person of such stellar character and great talent. It seemed as if such a discovery would have made the almost daily upbraiding and humiliation at the hands of our guardians somewhat less painful. Tanmay-da’s cousin Subrata belonged to our camp. Since they lived in the same house, it was Subrata who supplied us with information about all the secrets of Tanmay-da’s life. Many of us used to observe that as soon as we mentioned the name of Surabhi-di of House No. 35 in our evening sessions, Tanmay-da would go mum. Since he was senior to us, we couldn’t do much about it except enjoying a few banters when he was away. Besides, Tanmay-da already got admission in the first year of college with Honours in Economics. Even though he was only a couple of years senior to us, he appeared to be out-of-reach as it so often happens at that age. No one dared to play pranks with Tanmay-da on those chat sessions on the porches of the neighbourhood. Moreover, within a few years, Surabhi-di’s government servant father was transferred to Balurghat and their family left for good that old, rented accommodation in that narrow lane of north Calcutta.
Year 2003. Almost three decades have elapsed. That locality of ours is not the same any more. Men of the generation of our fathers and uncles have grown old now. Some of them have died. Among our friends many went abroad or to other cities of India in search of employment. Some of the old one or two-storied houses are being demolished and high-rises are beginning to appear in their place. The ambience of the locality has changed too. People are more aggressive now, most of them appear to have a mercantile mentality. The gossip sessions on the porches lost their old glamour, no one has leisure for anything, let alone for a chat session. Of all the old families still residing in that locality, Tanmay-da’s family is one. Subrata is here too. A busy salesman, he is married now and is the proud father of two children. Tanmay-da works in a bank. Besides, he is quite a famous author. He has written quite a few books on Indian economics. He has remained a bachelor though. He occupies two rooms on the third floor of their old rented accommodation. His rooms have large bookcases that reach almost to the ceiling and they are all full of tomes on serious academic subjects. Tanmay-da used to be taciturn, now he is more so. Sometimes I go to faraway cities for office work. When I return to Calcutta, sometimes the trains are late. While returning home late at night, I have observed that in the third-floor room of Tanmay-da, the lights would still remain on.
Last week, while on my way to office one day I found Tanmay-da standing near the wooden ironing table in front of Ganga’s laundry next to Kali-da’s tea stall. Tanmay-da was talking loudly. I have never seen Tanmay-da, a sober and educated man by any standards, talking in such an aggressive manner in a public place. Since I was in a hurry, I didn’t stop. But I could guess from the gestures and whatever I have heard of what he was saying that while ironing a punjabi, Ganga’s son burnt the apparel along with some essential papers that was in its pocket. That was the reason of Tanmay-da’s displeasure and irritation. “You have destroyed my punjabi?” Ganga’s son Shital stood with bowed heads in front of Tanmay-da.
I forgot all about that incident. I was reminded of it when Subrata visited my house yesterday. I asked him, “What happened? I don’t remember Tanmay-da ever getting so irritated?” Subrata remained silent for a while. Then he said, “You know Rajat, Chorda is a godlike person. But he is completely out-of-tune with these times. Do you remember Surabhi-di? I don’t know how much you knew, but Chorda was deeply in love with her. You won’t see such romantic attachments these days. It was love as it used to be in those days. Then, hand-written notes were the only medium of communication between lovers. Chorda never mentioned it to me, and of course, I don’t know how and where Surabhi-di is now. But I know this that Chorda used to keep a note written by Surabhi-di all the time in his pocket. That day Shital reduced Chorda’s punjabi to a piece of smouldering rubbish. Perhaps Chorda later realized that the old, folded, yellowed piece of paper was still in the pocket of his punjabi and that he had forgotten to take it out when he sent his punjabi to the laundry. So he rushed to get it back from Ganga’s laundry. Otherwise Shital himself brings the cleaned and ironed clothes to our doorstep. Do you think Chorda can be so irritated for losing a mere piece of cloth? When he came back that morning, he was muttering, ‘That piece of paper from so long…..’. Then I understood what it could be. You can say this is madness Rajat, doesn’t it appear incredible in this age of ours? Chorda didn’t marry, all day those books are his only companion.”
Subrata has left. I sit in complete silence, lost in my thoughts. Is it possible? A whiff came from somewhere and the intervening thirty years magically dissolved into thin air. A long-lost late afternoon unfolded before my eyes. The rays from the setting sun bestowed the sky with a crimson tinge. I stood on the high porch in front of our house. On the street was Surabhi-di in a yellow sari with two books in her hand. She was a student of Bethune College then and was on her way to the Chaitanya Library. “Are you doing well, Rajat?” I nodded in assent. Surabhi-di went ahead. Her long braid of hair reached below her waist.
— Subhamay Ray