I was visiting Kolkata after 20 years. The city had changed drastically with the passage of time. There were huge sprawling multiplexes and shopping malls, flyovers, five-star hotels and flocks of people thronging the city. I had heard of all this from others but this was the first time that I got to see it myself. It is amazing how time changes people, perceptions, conceptions and even places! I smiled to myself.
“Are you trying to figure out the Kolkata you had stayed in?” I was startled and turned to face a young woman of 25, smiling prettily with dimples in her cheeks. She was Shilpa, my niece. She was not my own niece but my cousin’s. But we were on friendly terms. She had come to Delhi about a year ago for a job interview and I had let her stay at my place for those few days. She had been extremely obliged at my gesture and, since then, we had kept in constant touch with each other. Shilpa was honest and industrious. She was currently pursuing a Diploma in Journalism at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
“You can read my thoughts, it seems!” I laughed. She echoed my laughter gaily. “Really, it makes you nostalgic when you visit a place after such a long time,” she replied. “And in your case, this is your native place, the place where you were born and brought up! Ma had told me earlier that you were bound to be awed by the Kolkata of today.” I nodded in assent, “I am amused…” We were soon chatting away. Our car turned round a bend and Shilpa showed me the university where she was presently pursuing her studies.
We were on our way to the book fair. I was excited as to how the fair would be after so many years. On the whole, I actually looked forward to all the places where Shilpa and her mother, Deepa, took me. For the first time in my life as a school teacher, I was actually on a holiday to another place. All my previous summer vacations and winter holidays were spent in Delhi. I would spend those long intermissions reading books, watching various prorammes on television and sometimes visiting my friends in Delhi. I had led a quiet, humdrum life for a long time, ever since I had separated from Ritesh. That was a long time back, almost 18 years ago. After that, I was content to lead life on my own terms. My parents had told me repeatedly to marry again and ‘settle down’, as was the norm. But I refused to be bound by obligations and expectations. I felt I had had enough of life and was not ready to undertake any more ventures.
Shilpa’s cellphone was ringing. She stopped midway in her conversation and turned to open her bag. After shuffling inside for a minute, she took out her phone and pressed it to her ear, “Hello! Hey, I’m sorry Pankaj but I had absolutely no time…” she spoke softly, bending her head as she did so. It was evident that she was conscious of my presence. Perhaps, she was embarrassed. I turned to the window and tried to suppress a smile. “Poor girl!” I mused, “She is forced to speak to her friend in front of her aunt… but she should know that I am not going to eavesdrop or anything… ”
The passing view soon diverted my train of thoughts. I recalled my youth in Kolkata 20 years ago. I remembered Asif, who was so plain and ordinary, yet frank, considerate and down-to-earth. And this drew me to him. We had met in college and soon our friendship had blossomed into love. Our friends, however, were not aware of this. I did not want anyone to know and had cautioned him as well. “But what’s the harm, Muku?” he had asked. He and a few others used to call me Muku, short for Mukta. “It’s my parents,” I had replied, “If others come to know and the word reaches my family, I don’t know what’s going to happen! They are very staunch and you are from a different religion, you know…” “But does it matter to you? I know that I am not at all afraid of bringing in a …” he stopped midway. I kept silent, twisting my fingers while looking at him with a fixed gaze. I knew he was uncertain whether he had spoken the right words. “It doesn’t matter to me,” I said at last, and then smiled “But I’m not independent yet!”
We met in secret, which absolutely disgusted me and I think it irritated him too. But what were we to do? It was always in the evening, near the ferry where we watched the boats float by until they were no bigger than dark specks. Far away, on the other side, the lights of Howrah shone bright. Launches travelled to and fro on the river. The scene always made me so wistful. The distant lights seemed to shine from some unearthly tinsel town, attractive in its own right. It used to remind me of the lights of Christminster in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, where Jude had been so allured by the distant gleam of the city that he had longed to go there as a boy. And both of us spoke softly, quietly, murmuring sometimes. I used to dream and wonder… was this true love? Was I mature enough to understand? Was I doing the right thing? Would he forsake me some day? One evening, it was a few minutes before I realised he was holding my hand and looking intently at my face, waiting for me to reply to him. I was so lost in my speculations that I had not heard what he had said! But I knew in my heart that I loved him truly and passionately. I couldn’t bear to live without him.
When a few months were left for the completion of my graduation, my father was transferred to Delhi. It was decided that my mother and I would leave after my exams were over. This shocked me. I was greatly disturbed at the thought of having to part from Asif. My studies seemed meaningless to me. For a couple of days, I suffered intensely, lost my appetite and spent restless nights. I was in a distracted state of mind when I met him, but I refused to divulge to him the real cause of my anguish. I knew it would cause him distraction in his work too and I wanted him to suffer in no way. The days soon flew by and our final exams were over.

I remember the day I broke the news to him. He was so relaxed that evening. “We can now spend so much of our time together! It makes me so happy…” he whispered as he drew me to him. We were so close that I could hear his heartbeat — constant, rhythmic and so precious to me. I wanted to forget everything at that moment and just rest my head against his chest. But a voice warned me from within not to deceive him any further. I started, “Asif… I… I… wanted to tell you something… actually… I…” Never before had I been at such a loss for words to express what was necessary. His eyes looked at me with assurance. “What’s worrying you, Muku? Come, lighten your heart…” he stroked my hair gently while patiently waiting for me to resume. It was soon over in 15 minutes. He was very upset and would neither look at me nor let me touch him. I was heartbroken. Though I had anticipated some kind of reckless behaviour, I didn’t know it would be this extreme. We parted on a bad note that day and my heart was heavy with sorrow.
But within a week, he apologised to me. He later made me promise to keep in touch with him and I gladly complied. But the worst day was when I met him for the last time, the day before I was to leave for Delhi. There was pain in his eyes which I could not bear to see. He gave me a jasmine flower and a ring with a tiny pink rose studded on it. “Do write to me! Do write to me!” he kept saying. We kissed for the first and last time that day, fiercely, blindly, passionately, as if the world would soon come to an end. And then from the next day, I saw
him no more! Yet I remembered his countenance and demeanour distinctly…
“Okay, driverji, stop by that building please!” It was Shilpa. Her voice brought me back to the present and I quickly turned to her. “This is where I do my weekly social service,” she said to me, “It’s an asylum for mentally deranged people. I’ve got to talk to one of the men in the office. I shan’t be long. Can you wait for a while, please?” “Why, of course!” I smiled, “Take your time, dear.” The door slammed and she left.
The road on which the car was parked was actually a lane. Here, it was not as busy as on the main road. Occasionally, a car or auto was seen passing by, and now and then, some passers-by frequented the place. The driver turned on the radio in the car and it played a song that was familiar to me…it was from the first movie which Ritesh and I had gone to watch after our marriage.
Ritesh… where was he now? How was he doing? Did he still bear a grudge against me? Questions swirled in my head without any definite answers. To this day, I could not think of him without feeling a sense of guilt. After all, it was not his fault that I could not marry Asif. It was… well… destiny? I recalled how I had always kept in touch with Asif during the years of my post-graduation and B.Ed. At first, it was great to hear from him.
But over the months, there was a frantic appeal in his letters. He kept imploring me to come back. He was not able to concentrate on anything, he said. This unnerved me. I tried to explain to him many a time that it was impossible for me to return. It was not at all practical! But he remained obstinate.
Gradually, his letters became less frequent till I received no reply at all. All this time, my parents were looking for a suitable match for their only daughter. I desperately wrote to Asif but could not elicit any reply. At last, I wrote to one of my close friends, Meena, and asked her casually about Asif. Her letter extinguished the last rays of hope in me. She informed me that he had taken to drinking and would return home late in the night. After his M.A., he had been idling away his time! The last time Meena had met him, he was not in the least serious about life and had told her that he wanted to enjoy life. “I don’t know what he is going to do,” were her exact words, “He is not keen on any job, nor has he planned any further studies.” Meena had heard from others that he had also taken to gambling. I was completely aghast. My heart refused to believe it but I knew Meena would not lie to me. Eventually, I was disgusted with myself for having loved and trusted such a man. Disillusioned and shattered, I resigned to marry the person my parents chose for me.
From the beginning, I could not trust my husband, Ritesh, completely. Maybe I had lost my faith in men. I had no time to analyse my state of mind, but could never be completely open with him. He was proud but sincere, yet I deplored him in secret. I would shrink by his very touch. “You’re so selfish, Mukta! You only think of yourself!” a voice cried within me. But I could not help feeling the way I did. Objectively, I sympathised with Ritesh and liked him for what he was — good and honest. But at night, my soul cringed and my heart froze at the thought of him entering the room. This continued for some days… until it came to a breaking point. A year later, when Ritesh wanted us to start a family, I felt I could take this no longer. Our mild arguments turned into heated debates. We could no longer stand each other. Inwardly, I wept with desolation even as I outwardly raised my voice against him. At last, to my great relief, it was all over between us within a few months. Ever since, I had been on my own, not able to lead ‘an ordinary settled life’. I lived a simple, quiet life and was always preoccupied with work.
“Flowers! Flowers!”—a voice screamed. I turned to see a veiled woman selling a bunch of flowers. I suddenly felt an urge to buy. On beckoning to her, the woman came towards the window of the car, “What would you like to have? There are roses, tulips, rajnigandhas, poppies, jasmines…” “I would like to have a jasmine please,” I said, looking for my purse. The woman handed me a small beautiful jasmine flower. “It costs five rupees, madam,” she said. I quietly gave her the money and she soon retreated. Her cries echoed into the distance till they could be heard no more.

I looked down at the jasmine. It reminded me of the jasmine Asif had given me on the last day. I looked at my watch and noticed that it was almost 15 minutes since Shilpa had gone. Feeling restless, I decided to go into the asylum myself and look for her. Informing the driver, I stepped out of the car. The small jasmine was still in my hand.
On nearing the building, strange, incongruous sounds emanated from it. One voice was heard distinctly telling someone to sit down. From another part, there was a peal of hideous laughter. It made me a bit nervous. Wouldn’t it have been better if I had waited in the car? It was too late to decide. I had climbed up the porch and was at the desk. A middle-aged man with spectacles looked up wearily at me. “Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for my niece, Ms Shilpa Rao. She went inside the office here a few minutes ago.” The man nodded, “Yes, go straight and turn left — there’s the office. Our manager, Mr Atul, was very busy when she went in. I guess, she must have had to wait for a while before she could speak to him.” I thanked him and went in the direction given. The glass door of the office was closed. From outside, I could see Shilpa talking to the manager. I stood aside in the corridor and waited for her to come out.
So far, I had not seen any mentally deranged person in the place. But I knew they were in those rooms whose doors were closed as I could hear noises and incoherent talk from that direction. Two women, possibly helpers, came along the corridor and entered one of the rooms. They left the door open and I could see some people inside. There was a teenaged boy at the table, jerkily colouring a white sheet of paper with crayons, a girl fiddling with a box and another younger boy narrating a story on his own. Their movements and gestures were evidently absurd and abnormal. I was suddenly overcome with compassion for the children who were rejected by their own families and left in the asylum to grow on their own. Was it their fault to have been born the way they were? What was their future going to be?
I moved towards the room and was standing right outside it now. My eyes shifted from those children to the other side of the room. A middle-aged man was sitting on a chair with his head bent downwards. There was a picture book on his lap, and I wondered if he was looking at it or browsing. The woman helpers by his side were arranging food on the small table in front of him.
Suddenly, the man in the chair looked up. Our eyes met and I gasped. I realised that the face I was staring at was…Asif’s! His hair had gone grey, his eyes were sunken and his fingers quivered as if from some nervous problem. I was shocked, stupefied, dumbfounded! The ground beneath me seemed to have shaken and I could make no movement. I didn’t know how to react. My senses grew numb as I continued to look at the pair of once-familiar eyes. As I gathered strength and was about to turn, I heard his voice after 20 years. “Muku! It’s you!” he cried, “I knew you would come back… I knew in my heart that my love would bring you back one day! So I waited and waited… and at last…” The helpers looked up swiftly and then, following his gaze, turned towards me. One of them got up and said, “Please don’t mind him, ma’am. Sorry we left the door open… Actually…” “Oh, you’ve come here!” Just then, I felt someone touch my shoulder and saw Shilpa standing next to me. In the background, Asif’s voice continued, “Muku, I’ve waited for you for so long…”
My head was aching and I could hardly register what each one was trying to say.
Shilpa looked at Asif and then started gently to lead me away. “Oh, don’t mind him. He calls every woman Muku and cries out like that. He loved a girl named Muku but she left him. Over the years, he gradually descended into lunacy. He is really harmless. It’s only when he sees a new woman that he starts talking like that! I myself was taken aback when I got to know him first. But…don’t be afraid…you’re okay!”
I tried hard to smile as I looked at Shilpa, while we were moving away. Behind us, Asif’s cries grew louder, “You’re leaving? No…no! Please don’t do this to me! Muku don’t leave me, don’t go! Don’t…please, please!” I could hear him stagger and try to get up from his chair abruptly. “Quick! He is getting hyperactive… give him an injection…hurry!” one of the helpers shouted. I speeded my steps as I couldn’t bear his agony and pain. My mind had stopped working and I didn’t know where I was going. “Muku, do come back!” the voice gave a piercing cry even as I reached the porch. The cold wind blew on my face as I stepped outside. It was only then that I realised that I was clenching my fist tightly and the jasmine had crumpled in my palm.

  • Ananya Sarkar

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