'Good Afternoon Sir, may I interest you in an incredible story?' The words came as an awkward surprise from a bystander at Howrah station. A complete stranger. It was an otherwise pleasant face. A 40 something gentleman, maybe even at the rear end of forty with shoulder length hair, greying delicately at the sides. He had a broad capacious forehead, a salient nose, thin lips, overall quite a prominent looking gentleman. But still it is not every day you get invited by strange men at bus stops or railway stations to hear stories. I was visibly perturbed. One might even say I was a bit irate, too. It had been a longish August day and due to the monsoons and incessant rain I had missed my scheduled local back home. As I looked at him with amazement written all over my face, without any wavering he continued and asked if I was waiting for a train. I said yes and out of sheer politeness asked if he was also waiting for the same train.
The gentleman replied that he was not going anywhere, but had come to receive his wife who was travelling back to Calcutta. There was a pleasant geniality about his overall countenance. ‘She is coming from Lalgola and the train is running two hours behind schedule because of water logging on the tracks. I didn’t feel like returning home. It would be a waste of time to go and come back again. So I decided to wait.’ A situation quite common if you have stayed in West Bengal.
That was all that I knew of him. On the basis of this sparse familiarity when someone says, ‘Would you like to listen to an interesting story?’ it becomes quite daunting. I am not one of those who like to listen to interesting stories from strangers. Besides, I have often noticed that self-proclaimed interesting stories are rarely interesting at the end.
I remained silent. I hoped that the gentleman would be wise enough to understand my dissent from my silence; else I would have to listen to his story. There was nowhere else to shift in that crowded platform.
As it turned out, the gentleman in question was definitely not wise. He took out his 'Paaner Dibey' (a box containing betel leaves and related paraphernalia, quite popular till 90s in Bengal) and after fixing himself a paan started his story.
‘I am sure you find this awkward and even a bit disconcerting at my request when suddenly a complete stranger almost coerces you to listen to his story. It must be. But you know the trouble is that today is very exclusive day for me and on a day like this I can’t but help myself from telling this ironic story to someone – anyone. So, if I have your attention I would start.’ There was an almost uncanny enchantment in his persuasion.
‘Would you like to have one?’ He beamingly offered me one of his paan.
‘No, thank you.’ I curtly replied.
‘Please try one, these are special leaves. I am sure you would like it.’ He said again with earnestness.
‘Do you also offer paan along with your stories on special days like this?’ I couldn’t but hide my annoyance.
He started laughing. There was a childlike innocence in his gait. Here was this late fortyish man, quite attractive I must add, dressed impeccably in white dhoti and punjaabi (kurta) who has braved the Calcutta monsoons to receive his wife trying his best to tell me a story – an interesting story. I gave in.
‘It was almost 20 years back. I was studying Chemistry honours at Presidency College. It is dark in here so you probably cannot see me well, but I must say that I am quite impressive in my appearance. 20 years ago I looked like a prince. Not only that even my friends at college had nicknamed me – The Prince. But the funny thing is that I hardly had any impact among the women students in the college. I don’t know if you have noticed or not but women are rarely attracted to a man’s features. Women can see everything about a man – save his looks. So, while I was at college I did not have the good fortune to befriend women or have them come up and talk to me. Even I, being quite shy could never approach them either. There was a significant reason for that – I stammered. I couldn’t utter a simple sentence without halting a zillion times just like the State Buses on a busy Dharmatalla street.’
I interrupted him at this point. ‘I don’t see any stammering in you now. You are talking quite placidly.’
‘Ah! My wobble was cured after my marriage. But it was quite formidable before I got married. I had been through various kinds of treatments. From Allopathy, Homeopathy to putting marbles in my mouth while talking, even wearing various rings and talismans – I had tried it all. Anyway, coming back to the story at college my pass subject was Mathematics. There was a certain girl in my pass course who had besotted me beyond comparison. I used to choke every time she was in front of me. What a face, delicate like a Renoir painting. Her hair was long and fell over her waist likea river. Her gait was like a Viennese concert in motion. Her eyes were the most endearing part of her feature like shells – beautiful and exquisite and always smiling as if alluring you. Have you ever fallen in love, sir?’
‘No, sir.’ I remarked.
‘Well in that case you would probably not understand my state of mind in those days. The first day I saw her, a feverish craving had come over me. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. My throat kept getting perched. I probably had finished a few gallons of water that night. The whole night in my trance I sauntered the college corridors in my mind.’
‘We had two pass lectures in a week those days. It was unbearably painful. What was wrong in having a pass lecture every day? Two lectures a week meant two periods of fifty minutes each – just hundred minutes. Hundred minutes of looking at her would pass by in the wink of an eye. Besides the girl in question would often bunk lectures and spend time at the canteen with her friends. There had been times when she missed back to back lectures for two weeks in a row. Those days, I almost wanted to terminate this pain of longing once and for all by jumping from the terrace and end this miserable existence. You were lucky you had never fallen in love so you would not understand the torment that this kind of passion ushers in.’
‘You didn’t mention her name. What was her name?’ I said getting a bit interested now.
‘Her name was Mouri. Well that was what everybody called her. Those days I didn’t know that. Not just her name, I was equally ignorant of everything about her. Where she stayed? Which department she belonged to? All I knew was that she had Mathematics as her Pass course and that she came to college in a Black Ambassador car WMA 8912.’
‘You had never enquired about her?’ I asked in surprise.
‘No, I never did. For I was always occupied with a phobia that if I go exploring about her, I may get to know things like – she is already in love with someone else which would finish me. You would know my state if I tell you one incident – one day after the lectures were over I saw her talking to another boy from the class. They seemed quite engrossed in their conversation. They were laughing together. A shiver took over me at this sight. I felt nauseated. That day I didn’t attend any more lectures and returned home. Shortly after, I had very high fever and delirium.’
‘Very strange.’ I remarked.
‘Yes, strange indeed. Two years went by like this. Academically, I had degraded considerably. Then one day I did something crazy. I walked up to her chauffer and procured her address. Then I wrote her an anonymous letter. I don’t recollect exactly what I had written in that letter – but the subject matter was that I wanted to marry her. That she must give her consent at my behest. And that untill she agrees I would sit on a hunger strike in front of her house indefinitely. Well in those days hunger strikes were quite in vogue....Are you finding my narrative interesting?’
‘Yes, I am. What happened after that, did you send her the letter by post?’ I quipped.
‘No, I took the letter myself to the address given. It was an old house somewhere in Ballygunje. The house had a big iron gate that opened into an expansive garden in front of the house. I gave the letter to the gatekeeper telling him that there is a lady in this house – who goes to college – this letter was meant for her. The gatekeeper obediently took the letter and went inside. Soon, he was back and informed me that he had given the letter to “Didi” but she said that she doesn’t know me. I told him that she was right. She didn't...but I knew her and that was enough.’
‘Saying this I took my position outside the gate as per my corresponded intentions. You can well understand that it was complete insanity. Actually I had lost the capacity to think. All logic had temporarily abandoned me. Everything seemed futile in front of my passionate fervour. Anyway, I stood in front of the gate from 9am in the morning till 4am in the afternoon without much happening save the first floor curtains moving at intervals or some annoyed faces gazing at times from the balcony. At about 5 pm, an angry gentleman came towards me and said, "Enough of this madness. Go home now!" I replied even more firmly that I shall not move.’
"We would then have to call the police. They would take you away." came the offended retort but in my insane obsession I told him to ahead.
"You rascal, couldn’t you find some other place for your hooliganism." He spat out.
Please don’t be abusive. I am not being profane here. I replied. The man turned back in fury and went inside. Then it started raining. It was one of those torrential thundershowers as if the sky had also been rabid by the tempest that had possessed me. I stood there getting drenched without much ado. Nothing would have affected me that day. But I could make out that I was shivering and slowly coming down with temperature. I was out in the sun the whole day and now this sudden change of climate had taken its toll on my body. But a frenzied recklessness had taken over me. Nothing else mattered. My body was slowly succumbing to fatigue and hunger but I was unmoved. I was getting fainting spells, but I stood. By this time a curious crowd of people had gathered around me asking me what the matter was. Why am I standing there getting drenched? I told them to mind their own business and that I was a run away from an insane asylum.’
‘I guess the news of this queer incident was also relayed from her house to friends and relatives of the family by telephone as I saw around 3 cars enter her house through the gates. The passengers of those cars cast a gaze of utter disgust towards me and entered the house.’
‘It was 9 pm by then and the rain didn’t show any signs of stopping. My body was burning with fever. My legs felt weak and I couldn’t stand anymore. So, I squatted next to the gates. The gatekeeper came and whispered in my ears that the Sahib is calling the police, but Didi is not agreeing. She is crying at your state. So, do not move from your stance. Now, that was inspiring.’
‘Once it struck 11 pm at a nearby house, I saw the portico lights light up. The girl came out and behind her trailed out almost everybody who stayed in that house but no one crossed the porch. The girl came up to me and asked, “Why are you doing this madness?” I was shocked. For this was not the girl from my Mathematics Pass course lectures. This was somebody else, whom I had never seen before now. The chauffeur of the black Ambassador had given me a wrong address, probably intentionally.’
‘The girl spoke very tenderly to me and implored me to come inside and eat something. I tried to get up and tell her that this was all a very big mistake. You are not the woman who had besotted all this insanity. You are someone else. But looking at her affectionate eyes I couldn’t. For before this no women had ever looked at me with such fondness.’
‘I was so weak that I could barely walk. Noticing this she gave me her hand for support and asked me to hold it. Everyone who stood at the porch was looking at us with stiff disbelief. The girl stretched out her hand at me completely oblivious to her family and disdaining their resentful gaze. It was not humanly possible for any man to reject this gesture of profound love that she expressed at that moment by holding my hand. I held her hand. And I have been holding her hand since the last 20 years. But sometimes I feel this uncanny restlessness. I feel an incredible desire to tell my wife about this incredible miscue. But I fail. Then I look for some stranger like you to tell my story. I tell my story to strangers as I know this wouldn’t ever reach my wife’s ears. Well, I need to go now. My train is here.’
Saying this he got up abruptly and without as much as looking back at me he walked towards the platform. In a distance I could see the glaring light of the engine tracing itself inside the station. The train was indeed there.