The dewdrops were intact, balanced and well-grounded on the leathery foliage of the scarlet star. The bright red bract, the usual attraction of this ornamental plant, had lost all its charm before those tiny, bold and colourless water droplets daringly waiting for the harsh sunlight. It was five in the morning. Aparajita tenderly caressed the beautiful residents of her terrace garden after completing her morning yoga. It was her usual regime. Her day started by embracing the crazy quilt of bright colours. As the first sun rays bathed the earth, each ornate plant on her terrace had a vibrating tale to tell.
Aparajita bent down, swiped her index finger across the unruffled dewdrops. An enchanted smile crossed her face. Swiping on nature’s textures enraptured her more than swiping on a smart-phone’s screen. Aparajita Chowdhury, as her name suggested, was an undefeated face of the current socio-political system. She was a renowned social activist fighting for gender unbiased social advancement. Professionally, she was an eminent professor of Political Science in Calcutta University and a visiting professor in many distinguished institutions all over the world. However, she was a household name in the two NGOs boisterously contributing towards elimination of child labour and instilling vocational training along with basic education. Her name gained momentum over the years amongst the youth and adults through her novels about the gradually changing socio-political scenario. Every novel of hers was a work of fiction with different yet influencing characters and of course was worthy of note. She became one of the most sought out literary figures of the nation. Over the years, Aparajita was bestowed with various dignified and prestigious awards for her contributions and gained a new feather to her wings of achievements when she represented the nation at the United Nations cultural summit. She grabbed all the attention when she stated the enduring cultural conflict of the world as a sign of cultural imperialism. She was the matter of talk in every corner of the media world.
As the sun shone through, her eyes fell upon the bright yellow bract of the eternal flame standing next in the row. Aparajita was probably born with a smiling face. Nobody had ever seen her frowning till date. At the cusp of 61, her well-defined wrinkles definitely evidenced her growing age. However, she bore an eye-catching charm. Her sparkling eyes were lined by dark circles but possessed an inextinguishable joy. Smile, joy, enthusiasm and energy were her inseparable companions, be it during a press meet or in the field trips or while delivering a lecture. An aquiline nose housed a small diamond nose stud right from her childhood. It was a gift from her grandmother and a tradition of her zamindar (landlord) bloodline of Bengal. Aparajita was a spinster. Her dense curly hair over time was patterned into various lengths and shapes; from waist length pleats to a bob-cut but never felt the coarse texture of sindoor (mark of a Hindu married woman). Her well documented past evinced her spinster status as just a matter of choice. She was a happy soul, completely devoted to education and service to humanity.
Much alike other days, she was blissfully absorbed with her colourful companions of the terrace garden. Fingers fondled the mottled leaves, eyes cherished the vibrant petals and her soul adored the visual delight in the wee hours of the morning. But the day had an important meeting in store for her. An interview with one of the biggest news channels beckoned her. Aparajita had asked them to join her at her own bungalow at 10a.m. She was pleased to organize a small brunch for her media guests.
The news channel van, replete with all the hi-tech gadgets and devices arrived at her gate sharp on time. Aparajita, dressed in a simple matka silk saree, silently witnessed the different faces hovering outside her house. The two technicians looked flustered by the constant stream of instructions from the famed journalist Varsha Sinha. Two cameramen, two technicians, one journalist and a coordinator; a total of six people with their gadgets and many complicated wires and microphones were all geared up.
Within half an hour, the drawing room was finalized as the location for the shoot with some minor adjustments. Varsha Sinha, the rising young face of journalism, began by grandiloquently naming Aparajita as the face of the nation. She continued by listing Aparajita’s various accomplishments, experiences and her personal opinions on the ongoing societal norms and political scenario. The tail-enders in the interview was some questions about her personal life. The interview proceeded smoothly as Aparajita was an open book to the world. But then Varsha posed a seemingly innocuous question.
“I have two final questions Aparajita which I would like to merge together,” Varsha took a momentary pause and continued. “What or who inspired you to become what you are today. And as you are still single, have you ever fallen in love?”
Aparajita was silent. The cameras were rolling. Her prolonged speechlessness coaxed Varsha to crosscheck if Aparajita was willing to answer this. Aparajita smiled. Her eyes mirrored a myriad of emotions. She cleared her throat, took a deep breath and uttered, “I shall tell a small story.” Varsha’s eye glittered as she sensed something unknown and unheard of was brewing. She was all ears and prepared for a monologue from the famous Aparajita Chowdhury.
The year was 1970. Kolkata was Calcutta that time. Communism was at its roaring peak but Naxalism was no lesser deafening. Cruel killings, abductions, concealed conspiracies were omnipresent. Opu, the only granddaughter of Raibahadur Ramakanta Chowdhury, had entered her teenage years. She was raised in their ancestral house in a place called Behala, a suburb of Calcutta. Opu resided there with her joint family. Two uncles elder to her father, their wives and four of her cousins stayed together in the same house along with her widowed grandmother and a few servants. Opu’s mother, a housewife, took care of her almost like a single parent. Her father, chairing a high profile central government job, was posted in Delhi. Opu, amidst love and affection from her extended bloodline, never actually missed her father. She grew up happily embracing all the goodness of childhood.
Her house bore the atypical architecture of Bengal’s bagaanbari. A huge gate of wrought iron, a soiled uneven driveway lined with gravel which made its way to the main building, semi-circular arches with decorative motifs in plaster, hanging eaves, brackets, long verandas and cupolas evincing a hybrid of Mughal and European designs. Classical columns, domes with high drums and fenestration, pediments, high raised staircases, red coloured cemented flooring, halls in the centre of the main block with rooms on either sides and long windows with straight iron grills and wooden window panes. The front courtyard, which was the usual play area for Opu, was adorned like a newlywed every year during Durga puja. In short, the Chowdhury-baari, as it was popularly known was a palace in secluded locales of Calcutta suburb where more than fifty souls resided once upon a time but now hardly fifteen.
One day while coming back from school Opu saw Tarak da, her eldest cousin brother, discussing something very seriously with their grandmother and his father. Another unknown face, very casually dressed in an indigo coloured cotton half sleeve shirt and a black colour pant was nodding his head in approval for whatever her jethamoshai (eldest uncle) was instructing. There was a suitcase resting next to that man. He was dark with a thick mop of curly hair. Very little facial skin was visible as a dense beard along with a moustache covered his jawline. Opu stared at the ongoing event while munching on the groundnuts what she bought on her way back home. Somewhere there was something very appealing in that unknown face. His eyes had a glimmer. A permanent feeble smile on his lips somehow captivated Opu’s adolescent eyes. Probably in his early thirties she surmised. He never epitomised good looks. But Opu developed some fondness towards this new face in the house. Undoubtedly it was a teenage crush for Opu.
That evening, while blowing the conch and lighting the lamps near God, Opu’s mother told her about this new entrant in the house. His name was Manojit Basu. He was a teacher by profession and needed their outhouse for his workshops. Her mother knew nothing more and even if she did, she did not tell. Few days passed by and Opu observed Manojit’s activities by surreptitiously escaping everyone’s notice. Sometimes from the abandoned room adjacent to the outhouse. Sometimes while peeping through his windows secretly while playing and at times scrutinized his room in his absence unbeknownst to others. She had seen many young men joining him after the daybreak. They were all decently dressed, bore a sophisticated look and always used to come with papers, books, posters and many other things. She had often heard them discussing about some political issues recently published in the newspapers. Most of their elderly talks went over her head but one thing she comprehended that Manojit Basu was someone trying to bring a change in the prevailing communist scenario. He was definitely a mind flowing against the flow.
In a month or so, Opu’s school closed for summer vacation. She was a free bird, pursuing her hobby of painting, playing with her friends, roaming in the garden and much more. Her one-sided love was booming too. She used to intentionally wander in and around Manojit, trying to capture his attention. Some days when Manojit exchanged a courteous smile, Opu spent sleepless nights imagining a full-fledged romantic movie. One day she dared asking Tarak da about Manojit. The reply was quite interesting. Manojit was the ‘Dawn of Betterment’. She didn’t know why that day her eldest brother did not hesitate to introduce his beautiful young sister to this unknown man. Since that day, her summer vacation was spent making several posters and calligraphic works for Manojit and his men. His provocative thoughts, appealing ideologies and inspirational quotes drew Opu closer to him. She relished his attention and gradually grasped Manojit’s rebellion disguise. She did not wish to know the right or wrong. She was bitten by the love-bug. More than physical attraction her nascent and blossoming mind was carried away by his philosophies. She too swung in to bring the much needed change.
Days went by and the ominous clouds of Kaalboishakhi swept across the sky. It was the darkest night Opu had seen. The inky black sky looked like a darkened weeping widow. The churlish clouds coughed out great gouts of water. It looked like an unending curtain of waterfall from the sky. There was no electricity from the past two days. Rooms and verandas were illuminated with hurricane lamps. Along with the bounteous smell of rain soaked soil, the smell of kerosene pervaded the nostrils as well. It was 7p.m and Manojit had not yet returned. She had already made few rounds in around the outhouse citing some weird reasons but he wasn’t there. Opu was ardently waiting in the balcony. Her mother had cautioned her against the misty raindrops but she ignored it by stating that the balcony was breezier than the rooms inside.
Suddenly, through the thick wall of rain, her eyes visualized a brawl between some men. Nothing was properly visible in the flickering flame of the hurricane lamp but she could see a milling crowd. She heard a loud cry of immense pain. In a few minutes a similar chaos materialised in their courtyard too. Opu ran through her grandmother’s room to the gallery and towards their courtyard. Tarak da was panting. His whole shirt was smeared with a dark stain. Elders shared hands in bringing him inside the house. Opu scampered to the ground floor. In the mellow light she could see Tarak da properly. Those dark stains were blood. His body had many gashes and deep wounds. He was losing consciousness slowly while mumbling something. The previous night Opu had heard him planning out a visit somewhere with Manojit. Her senses raised thousand queries. Who is her brother? Who had done this to him? Where is Manojit? Who was there in the mob? Was that Manojit’s cry outside? Opu lost all shame and hesitance and questioned her fainting brother about Manojit. “They killed him. Now no one will dare for a change.” Tarak da replied and closed his eyes.
The next morning Manojit’s dead body was found in an abandoned area behind the Chowdhury-baari. His body had several wounds. One hand was chopped off and his throat was slit open from side to side. Opu’s uncles had to preserve the family’s prestige and safety. They burned their outhouse to erase even the slightest sign of Naxalites. The fire didn’t scare Opu. She forcibly escaped from her mother’s clutch and gathered some of Manojit’s articles and belongings. Opu’s shattered state of mind didn’t pass unnoticed. She and her mother were soon transferred to Delhi to keep them away from the controversial and awful dispute between Naxalites and Communists. Years passed by. Opu attained doctoral qualifications and had many research papers of her own. However, the kerosene drenched handwritten articles and posters of Manojit remained close to her heart. Manojit’s unfulfilled ideologies became a source of inspiration for her. The man whom she loved at her tender age remained her love forever and idol for always. She devoted her life to propagate Manojit’s philosophies.
Aparajita stopped, looked at Varsha and smiled. A flattened glass bowl, filled with freshly plucked Asian pigeonwings flowers, was kept on the tea table to beautify the shoot. Aparajita took one of them, caressed it and uttered, “This flower shares my name.” After a brief pause she voiced again. “And Opu is Aparajita Chowdhury.” Varsha’s big doe-like eyes widened further. But she chose to be silent as she sensed Aparajita had some more to reveal. Aparajita smiled and concluded, “As your question was merged, I too merge my answer. Love did happen to me. MY LOVE WAS LABOURED BUT IT NEVER LOST.”