The JEE results would be out today and destiny decided for millions. For some it will be a life-changing day, for some it will be life-threatening. What would happen to the dream that my middle-class teacher parents have held on to in their hearts since the day I was born? Even before I understood what an ‘engineer' did, I had made their dream mine , as naturally as I came to love my parents, and with such passion that alternatives stopped existing for me. For the past four years I had voluntarily given up on holidays, picnics, cinemas, Feluda, Saraswati pujo adda, Durga Puja or friends.
The morning newspapers claimed that the results would be posted sharp at two in the afternoon. R.G. Kar Medical College would be the closest for me to go and see. If I do not rank high enough to get Computer Engineering in Jadavpur I would have to take up Electrical in IIT Delhi. That is not what I desired at all. Like Arjun in Draupadi's sawambhar I had aimed for Computer Engineering at Jadavpur. When we had to write essays in school about future ambition and my friends had changed their minds every other day wavering between pilots and doctors and fire fighters I had not hesitated for a second. In all probability I too was headed for the heartbreak house. I remembered that poem by Langston Hughes that Ma quotes often:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Is that really my name on top of the list? I came prepared to scan my roll number till I found it. I had expected my name to be among the top 100 for I have been consistently topping Hindu, but JEE topper? In my wildest dreams I would not have imagined how free I would feel. Could dreams weigh so much? I was free at last to be a teenager and dream like a teenager. This time I promised myself to live only for myself. Oh, when will the classes start? Life had suddenly opened up in front of me. This interminable wait for the action to begin would perhaps be the longest in my life.
I was hoping against hope that I do miserably in JEE. I had always wanted to study English literature, preferably in Presidency or Jadavpur. But Baba stubbornly maintained that no one in our illustrious family has ever studied Arts. My only hope lay Failing the entrance test. But Fate obviously had other plans for me. To my utter surprise I stood 30th in Engineering. It only made Baba sigh and grumble that if only I had put in some minimal effort I too would be in IIT like Dada. Ma understood but she was too in awe of her scientist husband to ever join my battles and remained almost stubbornly passive, like she had her own hidden agenda.
To think that Rimli and Jhinuk were preparing to sit for the English entrance tests. Why was I born in such a science-crazy family? Or if I was, why could I not be a science fanatic like Dada? With the decision to choose my stream snatched away from me, I promised to myself that though I would become an engineer like my parents wanted me to be, I would carve out a life that is my own. I would always be independent and make my own decisions. So that someday when the need arose I would be able to stand by my child unlike my mother.
I was waiting for the counseling to get over and the classes to resume. I guessed with my rank I would make it to the hallowed Computer Science department. I also managed to reason out my career decision with myself, without feeling too much of a loser. One does not have to formally study literature to love it and pursue it. This way at least I would be able to earn those pots of money required for the personal library I have been dreaming of for so long. Saheli and Rupsa from school have also ranked among the top 100th. So in all probability they would be in Jadavpur too.
For me it was being caught under a spell at first sight. I had never had the time or the inclination to think about girls before. Apart from Ma, women did not fare in my daily life. Hindu school had not prepared me for interacting with the opposite sex, especially a tansh South Kolkata girl from La Martinere for Girls whom I was tongue-tiedly attracted to. The fact that I was the JEE topper seemed to make no impression on her. But if I read her correctly, perversely, my giving up IIT did. She seemed almost dismissive of engineering, as if she would rather be doing something more worthwhile with her life. Before long I realized that I was not alone in my attraction for her. It seemed that every alternate guy in the class felt that same. The hostel guys wrote a poem about her along the lines of ‘There's Something About Mary'. It was natural perhaps. She had a flame-like quality that instantly set her apart. Even apart from that, with only three girls in our class compared to the 45 odd boys, the girls got a lot more attention than they would have in an evenly balanced class. And the other two were no competition.
On our Orientation Day when we were told to introduce ourselves, one of the girls introduced herself as ‘Sushmita Das, not Sen'. She was from Asansol. And no, to our minds, she did not have to clarify that she was not Sushmita Sen. The second one was an intolerably talkative girl from Assam, who made us desperate for sticking plasters. The third of course was Ms. Sen, but Sohag not Sushmita. She possessed an uncommon radiance that drew people towards her. She talked straight. She walked straight with her head held high. There was a grace about her that made her stand out. A month went by and I had still not gathered the courage to speak to her. I knew my case was hopeless. She was so comfortable with boys and had so many friends from different departments. Why would she ever notice me in the first place?
My philosophical stance, however, did not last for long. I fell in love with her, totally and completely. It was our Freshers' Welcome at Gandhi Bhavan. She danced Chitrangada for the cultural function to the obvious catcalls from the back, ‘Sohag chandbadoni nacho to dekhi…' But I was oblivious to it all. I had never been so grateful for the comforting darkness surrounding me. I must have looked like a complete fool, perhaps like Tapas Pal in Dadar Keerti. I simply could not look away. It seemed to me that her rendition of Chitrangada, the fiercely independent warrior-princess, was an extension of her personality. That proud sense of selfhood was perhaps the source of her inner flame that continued to dazzle me. I was more enamoured and more intimidated than ever.
I remembered Ma's oft-quoted lines from the Romantic-Shelley, of our ‘devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow'. That night I went home and found solace in the dust-covered, long-forgotten Pavlov's Golden Treasury that had been my birthday gift from Mashi some years back. Sohag's dancing form became the muse for my amateurish poetry writing. Glimpses of her at the University, snatches of conversations or muffled giggles as she passed me by with her friends took up pages in my diary. The rapidly filling pages giving me an outlet for emotions that I dared not share with anyone else in class. For I knew what would happen then, it took three precise seconds for the sacred to become ridiculous. A bunch of competitive nineteen-year-olds was not my idea of trustworthy confidants. I had had enough exposure about that from observing the dating rituals of animals in Discovery Channel.
To my utter delight Jhinuk got through in Jadavpur English. I fell in love with her syllabus and promptly decided to enroll myself to their book club. That led to lots of new friends from all disciplines. I was introduced to Derrida and Foucault along with Boolean Algebra and circuit drawing. I realized that I might just have had a narrow escape. Boolean Algebra seemed much less confusing than philosophy. Led by my new-found friends I joined the photography club. To my surprise I found Palash there. I had slotted him in my head as the laltu porua type. However, it seemed there was more to him than that. There was something about him that made me want to know him better. It was much later though when I acknowledged, even to myself, that I was attracted to him. He was not my type at all – the typical conservative type from North Calcutta who had never had a female friend before.
After some group photography sessions we paired off together through an unspoken mutual consent though our subjects of interest were hugely different. While I was more into people photography, he would endlessly try to capture the marvels of Nature. To him Nature was, what humanity was to me, a thing of abiding interest. While I would capture early dawn through the sleeping form of the beggar woman in the Outram Ghat, he would be busy capturing the first rays of the sun reflected in the misty waters of Ganga.
We soon became friends, though it was an unequal friendship towards the beginning. For the first month only I would talk, he was a patient listener, who listened with interest and remembered all the trivia I shared with him. Gradually Palash began to get more comfortable around me, lost some of his awkwardness and began to open up. I felt that it was a rare gift he was bestowing on me. There was something innocent and untouched in him that appealed to me. A depth that was refreshingly different from the casual banter that I shared with my other male friends. Maybe it was so because he did not have any other close friend. As the year sped by we became inseparable. I looked on with almost a sense of pride as he opened up enough to make more friends. I suppressed my initial pangs of loneliness and jealousy at not remaining his only confidant. And though I was not too fond of his loud, boisterous friends, I thought it would help him grow up, give him a support system, teach him male bonding.
Palash continued to top the semesters with an ease that made me feel envious at times. I was happy to stay within the top ten. I was happy, period. With each passing day I was falling more and more in love with Palash, and once or twice I had spied a yearning in his eyes that set my heart aflutter and made me believe in happy endings. I was beginning to feel grateful that Baba had wanted me to study engineering. How else would I have met Palash? I could no longer relate to the life before I met Palash, it seemed colourless. The entire campus seemed to pair us off as an item. But where once I would have spat fire at such uncalled for assumptions just because a girl and boy were good friends, I found myself secretly proud to be paired off with him and offering only token protests.
I could no longer recognize myself when I stood in front of a mirror. Who was that confident and happy guy who smiled back at me? I had seldom smiled before. I used to be so serious and diffident and shy. The changes were not merely restricted to that. My entire universe had changed. I was a young man in love with the best girl in this planet who also happened to be my best friend. I still pinched myself occasionally to be sure that Sohag had actually welcomed me in her life and made me feel special. My parents were happy that I had remained true to my ‘always-a-first-boy' record, though in my delirious mind frame I would not have minded standing last in class. My career-only dreams were being replaced by dreams of a future that included a laughing and intelligent girl. I had not yet confessed my emotions to her, though my friends knew. There was no need to rush things. And I planned ahead for the perfect time and place for declaring my undying love and loyalty for her.
My friends suggested that a guy should not come too easy. And Sohag, who always got what she wanted, should also be made to understand and feel the same desperation that I felt for her. And our plan was working. She was getting restless. Rupsa, her friend from school, was asking me strange questions about future plans and dream girls in the canteen the other day. I had thought of waiting till campussing got over. With a job in my pocket I felt I would be in a better position to promise a future to the girl of my dreams. That is what Pinaki and Mihir also advised. And they had better understanding of girls than me. I had only interacted with Sohag. Not that I had any regrets on that count. She was all I would ever need, that much I was sure of. Ma had already guessed my feelings for Sohag. The other day she had muttered strange warnings about being taken for a ride by fast South Kolkata girls that were highly unlikely from her. Pinaki and Mihir also kept warning me from time to time, reminding me of Sohag's background and popularity. Howeevr, I dod not wory too much, not any more. I knew what we had was special, and could feel Sohag knew it too.
Campussing came and went directly after the Pujas in a flurry of activities and a bundle of nerves. Written tests, psychometric tests, oral tests, interviews – and then as suddenly they were all over. Given the IT boom the entire engineering department was floating on cloud nine having pocketed unheard of starting salaries. I bagged the highest salary from the campus. My parents found it difficult to believe that a fresher could earn monthly what was almost their yearly salary. Sohag also got picked up by another IT giant. After the Semester was over in January, the Class decided to celebrate by going on a trip to Kalimpong and Darjeeling. But the trip kept getting postponed. Finally we found ourselves in North Bengal exactly after a year, with only the final semester to go before we finished our degree and went our separate ways. Most of us were already feeling nostalgic. But there was a growing restlessness too. We were almost prepared to join the cutthroat job world that was to be our coming-of-age.
I was acutely aware that time was flying by. It was past time to confess my feelings to Sohag. I was growing impatient of the stilted conversations and the awkward silences that were creeping into our relationship. She was no longer the carefree girl she used to be. I could see that Sohag was withdrawing from me. Friendship alone was not enough to sustain me anymore. I needed to feel secure in the knowledge that she reciprocated my emotions and that my dreams were safe with her. I wanted her declaration of love, the right to be able to hold hands with her in the cosy darkness of the movie theatre and profess my love. I wanted to be able to introduce her as my fiancé. This time I was not listening to the cynicism of Mihir and Pinaki. I realized suddenly that they indulged in heartless relations, looking for thrills, and blamed the girls when the relationships could not sustain the burden of routine. My mind was made up and knew that my association with the likes of Mihir and Pinaki were coming to an end.
There were dark circles under my eyes. What happened to the inner source of bubbling joy and confidence? The girl who stared back at me from the mirror looked haggard and old with bruised eyes. After a lot of soul searching, I admitted to myself that I was in love, not in the happy-on-top-of-the-world way, but in a desperate, obsessive way that made me feel like a weepy nag-doll at times and a possessive maniac at others. Was there any point in deluding myself that things were hunky dory between us? Palash's attitude had changed towards me. He seemed impatient and restless around me, as if he would rather spend his time with his rowdy friends. Was it finally getting into his head that he had bagged a salary higher than what most IITians are offered? And that his world need not end with me anymore, there were greener pastures ahead? Whatever it might be, I had to know for sure. I decided to ask him myself sometime during our North Bengal tour. I had thought of asking him right before we left University. That way we would not have had to face each other daily if he had a negative response. But I did not have it in me to wait out this trauma for another whole semester.
Palash had asked me out in the afternoon for a walk in the Mall. Darjeeling was mostly empty in January apart from a few foreign tourists. I knew this must be confession time for me. So I dressed with care and a mounting sense of martyrdom. But why was Palash looking so ill at ease and diffident like he used to before we became friends? Had he guessed my intent? Yet there was that familiar fire in his eyes that I rarely see anymore. The weak winter sun cast its golden spell on us and it was an enchanting afternoon. Other than the occasional ponies carrying laughing tourists, we had the roads pretty much to ourselves. We walked in silence for a while, the surroundings moving me despite my inner turmoil. Just as I had taken a deep breath Palash asked me if we could sit down somewhere. Finding a secluded bench, we sat down facing the valleys below with my heart hammering away, the pulse in my neck throbbing. Palash looked straight into my eyes and stated baldly, without any introduction, that he was desperately in love with me and would like to marry me after we finish college. To my horror I just stared at him without any comprehension. The tears started, washing away with them our hidden insecurities, longings and fears. They made me feather-light in an almost unbearably gravity-defying manner. We sat in comfortable silence watching the deep valleys and the high snow-capped mountains as I tried to contain the gushing fountain of joy bursting within me.
That evening I was drunk with happiness. We had not got to talk coherently. We needed to make plans about so many things. From seeing if we could have postings in the same city to what to tell our respective parents, anticipating how they would react. But I was happy to wait, to just let my mind float around in hazy dreams of a red and gold wedding and bright babies with Palash's intense eyes. We were to see sunrise from Tiger Hill the following morning. We had to get up at 3:30 in the morning to reach the hills in time for sunrise. I shared a smaller room with only Sushmita and Pallavi. We chatted for a while, but it had been long day. And Sushimita and Pallavi dozed off. I was too excited to sleep. They boys had five larger rooms to them. They had joined the beds from the adjoining rooms and collectively decided to stay up. I could hear their hoots of laughter occasionally.
When someone lightly knocked our door I knew it was Palash. I was hoping that he was feeling the same need to see me for I could hardly bear to be away from him. I went out and desperate to be together we sneaked into one of the unused rooms. What had begun with an innocent desire for mutual company soon turned into a longing for deeper intimacy. Overcoming our natural caution and shyness we gave in to the overwhelming need to merge as one that seemed greater than our very existence. For all my imaginings I had never realized that it could be so easy and feel so right for a man and woman to come together. When I quietly returned to my room I was still dazed with what had been the most moving experience of my life. I imagined that after such a night nothing could ever go wrong between Palash and me. I was eagerly waiting for our last semester to end. Then we could finally get married and be together. I knew staying apart would get increasingly difficult after this.
Nothing seemed to be going right anymore. Thamma used to tell me stories of inexorable bidhata purush, or destiny when I was a child. Baba did not agree with them. But now I wonder. I was trying to write my story the way I wanted to. But suddenly the pen seemed to have decided to have a will of its own and write my fate the way it wanted. The control seemed to be slipping away from me. Why else were Sohag and I not talking anymore? I had erred, erred grievously. But does that mean that I would never have a second chance? I was sentenced to death, for life was death-like without her presence in it, without even the briefest of hearings. I had been foolish, but love sometimes made even the most discreet of souls fools. The morning after the most gratifying experience of my life almost two months back we had watched a perfect sunrise in Tiger Hills. It was quite rare to get such a clear view in winter, we were told. But everything was dreamlike then and my heart had overflowed.
Unable to contain my emotions within me, I had confided in Mihir and Pinaki. They seemed to understand my wonder and awe. But perhaps my outburst had not been only to express my heart. I had perhaps wanted to tell my friends that Sohag was mine, in everyway possible between a man and a woman. Only I had forgotten my initial distrust of them. They had immediately realized the sensational gossip value of my ramblings. The high and mighty Sohag and Palash had finally fallen. What had been sacred to us became the hottest topic of gossip overnight. Sohag's friends confronted them. They pointed their fingers towards me. I became the villain and Sohag the wronged heroine of a third-grade melodrama. No one stopped to consider that the experience had been precious to me too and that I was also deeply distressed.
Sohag and her friends stopped talking to me. All my efforts to get her talking to me failed. I could never find her alone; she was always surrounded by a bunch of overzealous friends. She stopped taking my calls. She did not open my e-mails. She changed her cell number. Once I left a note on her desk only to find it crumpled and unopened after the class. Not that the separation was going her any good. I wanted to point out to her hysterical friends who looked at me with murder in their eyes. The fire was gone from her eyes. Her face looked white and pinched all the time. I knew that what had hurt Sohag most was the perceived betrayal of trust. But I was hurt too; this stubborn refusal to give me any chance to explain was killing me slowly. I wanted to scream to her air-headed friends to leave us alone. But I had lost all claims to privacy. My concentration was shot to pieces. I could barely read a sentence together. Unable to bear the burden alone I confided to Ma. After her initial shock she promptly took Sohag's side. Her anger and disappointment at my foolishness perversely made me feel better. Perhaps I wanted to be punished. She wanted to go with Baba to meet Sohag and her parents to ask for her forgiveness and consent in marriage. But I told Ma that I did not want our marriage to happen like a guilty compromise. I asked for some time from them to convince Sohag. Else there was Pink Floyd and death eager to welcome me in their numb folds.
Perhaps we had gone too far. Palash and Sohag had not been talking to each other for the past two months. I could not bear to see their faces anymore. But what the heck, we were not the only ones to be blamed. The whole University had been jealous of Palash and Sohag's relationship. But they had been so engrossed in each other that they were blind to everything else. And that Sohag, she had such a disapproving air when Palash was with us. Like he was the saint and we the sinners corrupting him. Did she ever notice my attempts to start a conversation with her so many times? Did she ever notice that there were other boys also who would have given anything for a little attention from her? The topper getting the most beautiful of girls -so clichéd, yet it happened every time. We knew in our hearts that they were really in love with each other. That of course made things harder for us. Why did Palash have to come and blabber about how mind-blowing his love life was? Did he expect that we would just digest such a piece of information? Why did he have to flaunt his victory?
We added bits of spicy details and circulated the news. That was minimum penalty, we thought, for all the heartburn he gave us. Who was going to verify whether she really had a mole there or mark here? But even we had not anticipated that it would get so blown out of proportion. After two months it was still scorching the campus like some raging forest fire. And hey, we are not villains. Today's news shattered our complacence. Sushmita swore that she had heard Sohag telling Rupsa that she might be pregnant. When Palash went to confront that arrogant hoity-toity girl she said that Palash made her sick and if she indeed were pregnant she would bring up her child alone. If this continued Palash would be a basket case before too long. It's time we did some fire fighting.
Pinaki's idea was brilliant in its simplicity. He suggested we fight fire with more fire. We decided to post a problem to the personal column of the leading Bengali newspaper in Sohag's name stating her moral dilemma and impending pregnancy. The trick was in highlighting the details. For example, ‘I am a final year student of JU Computer Science….' In the end her residential address and full name should do the trick. They were sure to have enough well wishers on both sides, from among the 11, 00,000 readers in West Bengal the newspaper claimed to have, to ensure the rest. That stubborn girl could do with some well-meaning pressure. But we had to ensure that Palash did not get any inkling. He would have happily killed us, and we were not ready to die, not without his marriage feast.
When I first held Sohag in my arms after she was born I felt I had nothing more to ask from God. I wanted to surround her with love and fought with her father to name her Sohag. All these years when she was growing up I was patiently waiting to tell her my story, the story of Indrani before she became Mrs. Sen, the subdued wife of an eminent scientist. Hoping that someday we would be each other's best friend, that some day she would be able to understand why I steeled my heart and ensured that she learnt to fight her own battles. But this time I have let things go too far, I have failed her as a mother. When her father hit her in the morning for the first time in her life, I merely stood watching even though my heart was breaking. So many relatives – and they all had opinions to give, where were they when I sat beside Sohag sleepless when she almost died from infant pneumonia? Why were they behaving like there was some death in the family? But I was proud the way my little Sohag fought with her father for the rights of her unborn child. That she did not consider the easy way out. I wanted to tell her that in her battle to raise her child with dignity she would definitely not be alone, I would be with her. And if my intuition was right so would Palash.
I am a mother. I have a son not much older than Palash. I know Palash would do any mother proud. Sohag and Palash were still so young and innocent, too immature to handle such intense emotions and responsibilities. Did Sohag not understand why Palash had felt the urge to confide in his friends? Can Sohag claim that she had not confided in any of her friends? It was time for me to intervene. Otherwise the father-daughter duo would go on and on in circles, only managing to hurt each other further. It was time we called Palash's parents over and sorted things out. They have wanted to do so for a long time.
I liked Palash's parents from the word go. They seemed idealistic and caring – with no false airs. If anything, they had looked as stricken as Palash and Sohag. My heart felt at peace for the first time since I found out that Sohag was expecting. They would make wonderful grandparents for my Sohag's children. And Palash's father seemed so mellow, not like my aggressive husband. Perhaps Palash has got his gentle and sensitive nature from him. The marriage has become a necessity now but I would have been happy to give my Sohag to such a family. That is, if any mother can ever be happy giving away her daughter. But who will reason it out with Sohag? She is as stubborn as her father. Why doesn't her father understand that ultimatums are the last things that she needed now? She must have loved and trusted Palash very much to have given herself so completely, I know my Sohag. That is why she has also got hurt so badly. The time has come to start the healing. Sohag needed understanding, and if she or Palash took any misguided step out of desperation, I would never be able to forgive myself.
Our marriage has been finalized. Though Baba kept on ranting and raving about the ‘only proper thing to do', it was to Ma's gentle persuasion that I gave in. In her gentle eyes there was enough conviction to make up for the lack in mine. In the days leading up to the marriage I found a new level of understanding with Ma. Perhaps the events of my life had put me out of league with Rupsa's and Jhinuk's. Ma's uncritical and gentle presence was comforting. I also liked Palash's parents. They were trying their best to make up for the evident lack of warmth between us. But Palash did not once try to come and talk to me in the mean time. Like me, he seemed to be almost indifferent to the marriage that was going to take place, though he did everything that was expected from him. Dada flew home from Berkeley where he was doing his MS. He came determined not to like Palash but soon realized that Palash was quite apathetic about whether Dada liked him or not. The onus fell on Dada to befriend him. As for myself I did not try to analyze my emotions at all. I was alternating between crying and feeling angry. Ma dismissed my mood swings though she was the one who had to bear the burnt of it the most.
Two days back I got married to a glassy eyed stranger. A stranger who also happens to be the father of the child I am carrying in my womb. A stranger I had once loved so much that it had hurt to imagine a day without him. But who was this expressionless stranger I had gotten married to? If he was indeed a stranger then why had I felt so listless in the two months that I had not talked to him? And why did I marry him? Was it only because of external pressure and playing happy family for my unborn child? Then why was I feeling so relieved and, if I was honest enough with myself, also a little bit happy? Why did it feel so right when I was taking those seven steps in front of the holy fire? Whatever happened to the free, independent Sohag? Was I ready to give Palash and myself a second chance at happiness? Is it the destiny of every daughter to realize one day that she carries her mother's wisdom within her?
Palash entered the room and closed the door softly behind him. He looked at me, and for that one unguarded moment, his eyes betrayed the fire in his heart. But almost immediately the shutters came down, and he threw a blank gaze at me, patiently waiting for the whipping to begin. Suddenly a dam broke within me and I opened my arms for the healing and forgiving to begin. The music from the sanai floated in the night air mimicking our love and pain.
More posts by this author:
- Many Moons Ago …
- Flightless and Fightless An Inhuman Story
- Random Thoughts of a Troubled Mind
- Random Reflections on Mommyhood
- Of Sita We Sing