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Tilottama Majumdar

Translated from Bengali by Chhanda Bewtra

There was huge round dot on her forehead. Just like a moon. A spring moon arising the day after the full moon, just a tinge short of reddish. Her hair was perfectly cut up to her shoulders, as if the hair stylist had put all her dexterity in that haircut. And in her eyebrows too. They were perfectly proportioned, neither too thick, nor too thin. Perhaps she was a regular patron of some famous and expensive beauty salon in town. Nowadays, a perfect pair of eyebrows was considered the first sign of beauty. The eyes under those brows were perfect too, just like in the idol of a Goddess। Not her nose, lips or chin, the foremost attractant in her face were those eyes. Still, when she was totally engrossed in teaching, one might notice her pale yellow sari, or sky blue, or white with dots, all handloom saris, all worn expertly, with not a single pleat out of place or uneven. At those times she appeared as a yellow illusion, or a sky blue vision, as if a unique being had suddenly appeared in the classroom. As if, while teaching history, she was visualizing all the dramatic actions. If it were the description of the bathing places in Mohenjodaro-Harappa ruins, one could easily imagine her there. No, history did not mention if those were strictly for the men or women. Perhaps both bathed together. But contemporary mind can imagine tall, youthful male bodies splashing and playing in the fountains and the women watching openly with envy and desire. Perhaps women were not segregated behind veils in those days.

Then, when she taught the story of Sher Shah, her eyes softened in deference. Because Sher Shah was a visionary ruler. But when she discussed the defeat of Indian soldiers in the Battle of Plassey, her eyes blazed in fury and hatred for the traitors. Monima, in ninth grade, had almost given up history as half-true tales of dead people as boring as her previous history teachers. Now she was smitten by this new teacher of history. Miss Erica. Erica Dutt. Lively. Dreamy. Beautiful. Totally one with her favorite subject, history. She was younger than most other teachers. After the lessons, her eyes would return to the present, to the students in front of her. Sharp. Penetrating. She would ask—“What is your name? Jaya? Sujaya? Good! What subject do you like the best? Physics? Wonderful. Shall I ask you something about Light? If you can’t answer, I will ask history questions. If you can’t answer that too, then punishment. OK?"

Everyone was afraid. What kind of punishment would it be? Yes, they did have punishments in school. One could be made to stand on the desk or outside in the hallway. That was so embarrassing! All the students of other classes, especially of lower classes, could see you being punished. But Miss Erica’s punishment did not quite sound like those ones. Sujaya could not answer the question on light, or the one on Sher Shah. The whole class was silent, waiting anxiously for the punishment. Only Monima remained calm. She was sure that one with such gorgeous eyes could mete no harsh punishment! Even her punishment would be a thing of beauty, almost like a reward. And she was right. Miss Erica said—“Your punishment will be to sing only half of a song, any song.” The girls smiled in relief. Sujaya started to sing.

Sujaya was totally tuneless. Miss Erica was trying to drum her fingers on the table in tempo, but Sujaya was also off beat. All the other unmusical girls then decided to pay more attention to history. Even the music experts were worried of similar fate. Therefore they too had to concentrate on history. Thus, Miss Erica became the protagonist of history for everyone. And naturally, everyone’s favorite teacher and friend.

Erica, Erica, Erica. Some teachers naturally were envious of her. But that envy did not become destructive, because Erica was not a full-time teacher. She was only a temporary teacher filling in for Miss Devaki, who was on maternity leave. Erica was hired for one year only.

Only one year! So be it. At least Monima would enjoy her class for one year. Monima liked most of her teachers. Miss Keya in English, Miss Sadhana in Bengali, Miss Mahua for Math. But Miss Erica was different. She could actually touch history. Touch dreams. Sometimes Monima thought Miss Erica herself was a dream. As if she was that timeless woman, walking up the stony steps of the ruins of Mohenjodaro, from one century to the next, from one civilization to another. She described the scenes from history in a personal way too, “Imagine we were there at that time,” she would say, “We are all dressed up in exotic jewelries, waiting for the festivities to begin. Some of us are sculptor, some architect; we are making those statues, drawing those murals on the wall, building those temples, palaces, and forts. Or, imagine yourself in that battlefield. You are an expert soldier, mounted on a horse. You could hear the horses neighing, soldiers screaming in agony, the war raging on around you. See, the history does not describe any female soldier. Not even in the Puranas and the old epics. Only Chitrangada, an exceptional warrior, is mentioned in the Mahabharata. May be one or two more like her. Just imagine, how incomplete history can be. No mention of women in battlefield, nor in politics, none in any civil activities. Where was the woman? What was her job? Just producing soldiers? We have to search history more thoroughly, think about it, link various unrelated facts and derive at a conclusion. Therefore, you see, history is not always the complete truth, nor it is an uninterrupted narrative. History is often just an opinion that speaks about some events of the past. History says a lot about the kings and queens, but nothing at all about the foot soldier that died, helpless in the battle, or about his young widowed wife. Nor does it mention those farmers, hungry because of the famine, penniless because they had to sell all their possessions--their bulls, cows, yokes, everything--to the greedy landlord, the entire family had to forget all their dreams and morality, just to keep themselves alive. No mention is made of the farmers, weavers, servants and slaves who toiled day and night, only to merit a footnote in the history, when they united to oust some tyrant ruler. Still, we need to learn history, as it is, to glean a few golden nuggets of truth from the vast sands of time.”

Thus the students learnt some philosophical aspects of history. Their previous teachers had never taught them this way. This unusual way of looking at history was considered illogical by some, deep and unusual by others. But no one thought such discussions necessary in the class. Any facts outside the strict classroom lessons were not considered of any practical use. But Monima was amongst the converted ones. She started reading her textbook back from the very beginning. And then she would think about what she had read. Her thinking process was not always logical, but she realized that her textbook knowledge was too limited. To really understand the past events, she would have to read much more widely and deeply. So far she had never even noticed the list of references at the end of each chapter. Now she realized that those references were her keys to this vast untapped resource. She made a list of all the references of interest and decided to read those books and papers in original. That way she would get a much clearer picture and be able to answer the test questions in much more thoughtful details. And Miss Erica, upon reading her papers would realize that her teaching had not been in vain. It had inspired at least one of her students. Just that thought made Monima feel overcome with emotion and inspiration.

As a student Monima was considered special in the school but as a learner she was not so weak as to gain notice. The teachers were sympathetic towards her but did not take as much care of her. Yet she was special, because the school got to appear generous by allowing her admission. She was sponsored by a non-government organization (NGO). In short, she was discovered, planned and sponsored by the NGO volunteers. They picked her off a roadside village school. She first learned her alphabets in the NGO School and with the help of her volunteer 'uncles' and 'aunties' had improved rapidly. She never slacked in her studies and the NGO teachers also used her as an example of their success. When the foreign donors came to inspect their school, and the collective future of the organization had depended on pleasing them, she had impressed them by speaking and writing a few words in English. She even showed them her drawings of cloud, sky, butterfly and home-sweet-home. Her malnourished, ragtag appearance had nothing to speak about except her status as a scheduled class. Thus her English pronunciation, and her pitiful drawings of clouds-butterfly-our-house etc. were sufficiently poignant to win their sympathy and a scholarship to continue her studies. She also got the necessary textbooks and other essentials free of cost and the rest of the scholarship money was carefully saved in a bank account. But as per the spending plans made by the NGO, she could not get any advanced textbooks that other students bought to get ahead in the exams. Till now, she had been content with her lot, and did reasonably well in her exams, but now she needed some extra money for the history reference books. She approached her mother--
--“More books? Why? Aren’t they giving you all the books you need?”
--“Yes, but these are extra. Everyone buys them.”
--“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
--“I need them now, I’m in class nine.”
--“Moni, do you want to be a teacher? Like them?”
--“Yes, mom. But not only in school. I want to teach in college too. But that's a long way still.”

Her mother stayed silent. But she was thinking—“How much longer? When will my backbreaking job end?” And Monima was wishing she could say—“Very soon, ma, starting today, now!" But neither could say what they wished. Instead they fell back into ordinary conversation –- as it happens in all families, one resorts to soft lies to spare the loved ones from worry and heartache. So, although Monima’s mom could not afford any extra expense, she did not voice any complaint but asked,
--“So how much would you need Moni?”
--“Don’t know, mom. Hundred rupees perhaps?”
--“Don’t know even that would be enough—"
--“I can get used books in College Street. I will look there first. They are cheaper.”

Mom pulled out some limp and soiled notes from her secret cache. Just about eighty rupees. Monima carefully tucked them in her book bag. That bag too was donated by the NGO workers, as were her dress and shoes. But she did not have an umbrella. In rain or shine she went to school without umbrella. If it rained heavily, she covered her books in a plastic bag. She would rather get wet herself but never let her books get wet. Thus, like the extra books, the umbrella too was an extra expense not covered by the NGO.

At long last, that special day arrived. To Monima it was more precious than a dream. That day she did not go home from school but went straight to College Street. There she walked by the bookstores, her orange-bordered white sari and her book bag clearly marking her as a student. A young schoolgirl walking alone in that early evening, perhaps depicted the emergence of independence for all women, who would search and walk on alone, without a care or fear. Monima too was searching, carrying her reference list in her hand. The first two store owners didn’t have those books. The third person was more helpful. He gave her the name of another store that had two of her books. But the heavy tomes were expensive. One cost 380 rupees and the other one 250. Even halving the prices did not come down to eighty. Monima pled, pitifully, but the bookseller was not moved. He took the books back and stuck them back in their cubbyholes. Monima slowly walked away, carrying her book bag and broken hopes. Still, hopes died hard. With every step in life, new hopes arose. Then they got beaten down by the daily grind, only to rise again, next day. Monima knew this. She and her mother, like thousands others in this world, lived everyday with these pieces of hope. Even after losing all hopes, they strive to live for another day, to face the next battle. Still, at least Monima could go to school. Her sari was dull because of lack of soap and ironing. Her skin and hair did not have the gleam of others better off. But she had no complaints about that. She extracted joy in whatever she could find. So, that evening, she walked on, looking for a book that would cost just eighty rupees.

Right then, just like an angel from Heaven, Miss Erica appeared in front of her.
--“Hey, aren’t you in my class? Class nine? What are you doing here all alone?”

Monima was embarrassed. Why, she did not know. She could feel her heart racing, again why she did not understand. So she just smiled shyly. Miss Erica looked serious, “Haven’t been home, eh? Roaming around all alone? Wouldn’t your parents worry?”

Monima smiled again and tried to hide the list in her hands. Why was she feeling so shy? She should have been bereft of any embarrassment, just like she was without any hope. Miss Erica asked again, "What happened? Your name is Monima, no? Why aren’t you answering my questions?”

Now Monima tried to answer, "No, I mean… I came to buy books…”
-- “To buy books? What books?”
-- “Just, umm.… history books.”
-- “History books? What history books?”

Monima twisted the book list in her hands, looked down and kept silent. The crowd on the sidewalk swirled around them. Realizing Monima was interested in history, Erica Dutt softened her expression a bit, “What do you have there? The name of the book?” she asked.

Monima nodded. Miss Dutt wanted to see the list. She had to hand it over to her. Surprise spilled over Miss Dutt’s large eyes, her brows creased around the perfectly round dot on her forehead. She bit her lips for a moment, tried to tuck in her sari. She was wearing a pink handloom sari with white dots. She looked at Monima, “These are all post graduate level books. Who are they for?”
--“No one”, Monima said faintly.
--“What do you mean ‘no one’? Someone must be reading these.”
--“Yes…I mean…no…I mean. I will read them.”
--“You? Who told you to read these books instead of your text?”

Monima was silent again. She was trembling a little, heart beating faster. She wanted to say, "Ma’am, you inspired me to read all this. You made me realize that the text book was not enough to answer all my questions”.

Miss Dutt stared at Monima for a while. She understood something, or perhaps she didn’t. But what she understood pleased her, and what she did not, made her more curious. She said, “Come with me…", and after some browsing, "Do you have money?”

Again Monima could only nod, forcing Miss Dutt to ask the amount of that money, because she had already noticed Monima’s dull and frayed sari and realized correctly that the amount of money was not going to be sufficient. After knowing Monima’s budget, Miss Dutt haggled with the bookseller and brought down the price to ninety rupees. When she added ten to Monima’s eighty, Monima was totally overwhelmed. In a strangled, whispered voice she tried to plead, “No, Ma’am… Please, no...”

Miss Dutt ignored her and placed the newspaper-wrapped book in her hands, “I am you teacher. Of course I can give you a book” she said. “And next time if you want to read something, just ask me. I have some of these books. Besides, we can try the library. If you want to read a lot, you've got to check the library."

Monima did not put the book in her bag right away. She wanted to hold it close to her chest. They walked together for a while. Monima was feeling a bit easier. Miss Dutt did not get mad. She was treating her like a friend, asking, “Have you told your mom at home? How much time do you have? Which way do you want go now?”

Miss dutt wanted to cross the crowded street. She held Monima’s hand and carefully brought her across. Then she led her to the Coffee House. The Coffee House! Monima had heard about the place but never laid her eyes on it. “Have you been here before?” Monima shook her head, “No, never.” “Look then” said Miss Dutt. Monima looked around. Bunches of people were sitting around each table. Loud conversation in the big hall sounded like buzzing of hundred bees. She heard Miss Dutt say, “Don’t come here before you get into college. OK?”

Monima nodded. She was thinking, ‘College! University! Would I even make it there?’ She followed Miss Dutt’s smart steps noticing her two and half inch heels. Looking at her smooth ankles, Monima feared that such a place was perhaps for people like her teacher only. Monima felt totally out of place there. Miss Dutt led her out of the Coffee House and into another bookshop named Rupa. Here there were hundreds of slick and shiny books arranged in perfect rows. It was an effort for her to read even the titles. True to herself, she was looking for a history book but she did not find any. Before long, Miss Dutt had purchased a slim book by Somerset Maugham and they got out of the store. “Want a cold drink?” she asked with a smile.

Now they both stepped out together. She was like all other chosen students in all ages, led by a kind mentor.

Near College Square a few swans swam lazily in a pond. They too had to return home? Where was their home? Where could a swan spend the night in this huge crowded city? Monima was wondering and looking around. Pictures of famous people hung in a paan shop, they were all bowled over by the tasty paan there. What fun! She looked at rows of garment shops, with the shopkeepers waiting patiently for customers. Perhaps they would spend their entire lives waiting for that someone! Like all life long waiting. Monima was happy. In the company of her favorite teacher for so long… she felt like the swan, as if she could fly away in that magical evening. Then she had to return home. Home!

Miss Dutt was asking, “Where do you live?”
--“In Rambagan. Where do you live, Ma’am?”
--“I am from Tollygunge, but currently I live in Goabagan. In a hostel, since the school is too far from home. Do you live close to school?”
--“Yes, fairly close. Durgacharan Street”
--“Here we are, come on.”

It was a narrow long café. The seats were deliberately made uncomfortable so the customers would not linger too long. Ceiling fans whirred overhead. Large old-fashioned fans. Miss Dutt asked her “What would you prefer?”‬

There was a long confusing list of drinks on the wall, drinks made of banana, apple, mango, pineapple and so many more. The price too was written against each item. Monima did not know what would be polite. Should she order the least expensive one?

“Do you like green coconut drink?”

Yes. She liked everything. Whatever her teacher wished. They ordered the green coconut drink. They both sat at the narrow table. Monima was careful not to bump against her teacher. That would be hugely embarrassing. They both sipped their drinks, Monima carefully imitating her teacher.

--‘Who all live with you, at home?” Miss Dutt asked.
--“Just my mom.”
--“You don’t have a dad? How about any brothers or sisters? Oh, I see. How long have you been without a dad? Right from your birth? Oh no! You never met your dad? What happened to him? Some serious illness? Nothing? Then…?”
--“My father left us.”

The teacher remained silent, sipping her drink. The level of the drink dropped to the bottom, like water level in a dry, hungry gulch. Air sighed through in the empty straw. The teacher asked, “How do you manage?”
--“Mom works. Very hard. Somehow we make do.”
--“What does she do? Daily labor? Your education? Can she manage it all?”

Monima told her about the NGO volunteer scholarship. She did not mind. Her eyes did not tear up, nor did it burn in pain and anger. She had enough practice in telling her story to a number of people. Whatever associated pain there was, had eroded away over time. She knew how to remain calm and controlled.

But Miss Dutt’s eyes were shining. She held Monima’s hands, “There is no one at home to help you with your homework. Right? Listen, I am here for eight more months. I will help you. See me after school. OK?”

Monima stared at her. Her eyes first held surprise, then disbelief, and finally tears.

-- 2 --

The next few months went by like dreams for Monima. Four days every week she went to Miss Dutt’s hostel straight after school. She felt a special joy, mixed with excitement. As if she was privy to some extra special privilege that no one else in the entire school possessed. Miss Erica had told her to wait near Radha Cinema Hall at the Hatibagan Crossing. She also told her not to tell anyone in the class.

She had agreed eagerly. Of course she would not tell anybody. This was her own very special secret. She did not want to share it with anyone. Besides, there was no friend close enough to share all her joys and sorrows. No, none. She knew that nobody could share her sorrows. Because her sorrows were solid, heavy and undivisible. So, nobody would want to share her joys either, lest it got contaminated with her sorrows, got mixed up with her duties, obligations and heartaches. She had realized that even joys have weights and sometimes they could be heavier than sorrows, but never as unbearable. They were more like scattered clouds in the sky, or like birds flying aimlessly. Heavy but also light. Acute but bearable. One wanted to share them but they were unsharable. Thus Monima stood near Radha Cinema, carrying both her joys and sorrows and waited.

She was worried at first in case someone in her class saw her on the road to the hostel. Perhaps they would ask curiously, “Hey, what are you doing in this part of the town?”

But she did not need to worry. Her classmates were not very close to her. Perhaps because she was a poor student on scholarship, there was an invisible class barrier. She was not as well dressed, nor as smart and talkative. Whatever little curiosity they had for her was because of her poverty and the fact that her father was missing.

So, on the first day, Monima was nervous, there was a touch of fear and anxiety mixed in her happiness. But nothing untoward happened. Right at five, the teacher arrived. They walked for about fifteen minutes to Miss Dutt's hostel. Many young ladies were coming and going. Miss Dutt shared her room with another lady named Anindita. But she came home late, around nine and Monima never stayed beyond seven thirty.

On the first day Miss Erica gave her snacks of muri, cashew nuts and shondesh. She said, “What do you eat before coming to school? Rice? How long can that last?”

Monima was melting in Miss Erica’s kindness. All this kindness and concern for her sake! As if she could inhale the flavor, just like the pure fragrance from the offering plates before Goddess Saraswati.

Miss Erica would start her speech then. On the very first day she told Monima that she would not teach her history again. “Because I taught all I know in the class already. I have nothing else left to teach." she said, "I know other teachers do the same with their subjects, still, I will teach you those subjects, so that I too can learn something new. I will help you with any subject but Geography. Because I don’t understand it myself!”

So she started her lessons. And soon Monima started showing great results in all subjects, except of course Geography. There she remained a C student as before. Erica Dutt had deep knowledge about all subjects and could explain even the most difficult theorems in Geometry. Monima too grew more interested in all the subjects and devoted more time in studies than before. The combination of these factors resulted in her being placed amongst the top ten students in her class. Other students were surprised at her rapid, almost magical improvement, but Monima was not surprised. She was not sure how far she could progress beyond the NGO volunteers' supports. But she worked on, enjoying the learning, though being fully aware that like her sorrows, this joy too may not last long.

Before meeting Miss Erica, Monima's sorrows and disappointments did not show on her face as she was serious and unsmiling most of the time. But after coming in contact with Miss Erica her feelings and emotions spread their wings like the swans in the lake, and her sorrows too reflected clearly in her face like dark slimes on a swan's wings. Miss Dutt would ask, “What happened? Why do you look sad?” Monima would try to hide, “No I’m not!” But Miss Dutt would say affectionately, “Don’t hide yourself from me. What happened? Missing Dad? Don’t. What is gone is gone. Do you know that song by Tagore? ‘All the burden You gave me/You made it easy to carry/All the burden I put on myself/ Got heavier in a hurry’…You did not give yourself this sorrow, so it will not be unbearable. Besides, if you grieve about something you cannot have, you only insult the good things that you do have. Look at your mother. She loves you so much. Think about her and be thankful. You know, sorrow is like darkness. You need to light a candle of joy to see through that darkness. Sorrow burns us up. You have to light up against that sorrow. That is what life is all about. I want you to listen to a poem. Do you read poems?”

Monima’s eyes were shining like twin fireflies seeking to climb high in the trees. She eagerly nodded. At that moment she looked so lovely that Miss Dutt affectionately touched her cheek and then pretended to get serious, “Yes? What have you read? Poems in the textbooks?”

Monima quickly shook her head, “No, no. I have read others too. I own Sanchayita by Tagore. I have also read Sukanta Bhattacharya, Jibanananda. I got those books for winning in school recitals.”

--“I see! You recite too? Well, then listen to this. Shakti Chattopadhya—

‘A life burns, only burns,
Stormy rain clouds come,
The river roars with vengeance
In an icy deluge—
Receives the one unattainable.
The life burns on
As if it has no other purpose.
Monima saw Miss Erica’s eyes lighting up in beauty, reaching somewhere far away. Monima’s ears were ringing—'a life burns, it burns on'--- there were tears in her eyes. Miss Erica was saying, “All life burns Monima, perhaps that is the purpose of life, or death. Perhaps we push our lives into fire, by mistake. Stay on the side of light, not darkness. Then you will never be wrong.” Monima scored in the first ten positions in the final exam too. Miss Erica’s term was almost over. She was getting married and planning to settle in Dehradun in a new life. Monima was crying silently, in joy and sorrow. Miss Erica put her arms around her, “Don’t cry. Write to me… here is my address”, then lovingly, “ I want to give you something, before I leave. What do you want?”
--“Just write to me, please? I have never received a letter from anyone.”
--“Sure. Definitely. You keep up the good work in your studies, hear me? I will always be there… Oh! Goodness. Just saying ‘I’ll be there’ reminded me of a poem. Want to hear?...’God? Even if there is no God, I’ll always be there’…Monima, you never took me to your house! I never got to meet your mom!”
--“I would love to, Miss Erica”, said Monima, “But… our house…it may be too shabby for you…”
--“Monima, shame! You mustn’t talk like that. You are not responsible for your poverty. You should not feel ashamed for it. If a sweet girl like you can live there, I can certainly go and visit.”

Monima smiled naively and hugged her teacher close just like her mom. She still had that innocent smell of childhood. Poverty and neglect did not yet rob her of it. She took her teacher to her house. One really could not call it a house. A shack perhaps, or a hole in the wall. Miss Erica became somber entering the neighborhood and delicately picked up her sari. Her wide eyes were taking in the pollution and corruption all around her. The filth, the restless injustice were like slimes around the beautiful Miss Erica in her perfectly pleated crisp blue sari. “What is the name again? This neighborhood?” She asked.
--“Durgacharan Mitra Street.”

Monima unlocked the front door. Her mother was not at home. Miss Erica stepped in. Their ‘house’ consisted of one small room only, thus reflected their entire lives in it. It was mostly occupied by a bed covered neatly by a dull sheet. One tiny window was shut and covered with a tattered curtain. The room smelled stuffy and rancid, like the body odor of a drunkard. On the wall were a few calendars and a rickety, cheap shelf with Monima’s books. Miss Erica’s face was becoming more serious, brows knit, a feeling of disgust was overwhelming her senses. Monima held her hands, “Please sit down Ma’am. Shall I get you a cold drink?”
--“No Monima, please. I don’t want anything. Where is your mother? I can’t stay too long.”
--“She will be a bit late. Please sit. I have something to tell you.”

Miss Erica reluctantly sat on the edge of the bed. Monima had switched on a table fan. Miss Erica dabbed her face with her handkerchief, “OK. Tell me quickly what you want to say.”
--“I…love you very much Ma’am.”
--“I know. Anything else?”
--“I had lied to you earlier. So…I am feeling very guilty about it.”
--“What lie?”

Monima was silent for a while. Her head bowed, she was picking at the corner of the bed sheet as if trying to remove a speck of impure filth, “My dad is really not missing.
--“What do you mean?”
--“I don’t know who is my dad. My mom does not know either. She…she is a …when I was small she used to hide me under this bed. Other men came here. Mom used to say, ‘Be absolutely still. If you make any sound I’ll kill you.” She used to look so scary then. I used to be really scared and curl myself into a ball. In winter, mom used to wrap a blanket around me. But still I used to shiver. Mosquitoes bit me. Rats, cockroaches climbed over me. I used to try to fall asleep, but on the bed they made all kinds of noise. Sometimes mom used to quarrel with the men about money. Sometimes they used to beat her too. When I grew up a little, I had to buy alcohol for them too. Then mom did not let me stay in the room. I had started school by then. I had started in the roadside school by then, and later with the NGO-uncles. I used to take my books and go to auntie Kamala-auntie’s room. She was old so nobody came to her room. One day she died. I was in seventh class then. Mom’s visitors used to look at me in a funny way too. I hated it. Still do. Very much. My mom realized it. She did not want me to become like her, so she quit entertaining in the room. Now she goes outside. Sometimes she returns quite drunk, you know. And then she yells at me, calls me names, blames me for all her problems, says things like "why did I have to give birth to my own enemy, why didn't you die in my womb" etc.

Silence. How long, nobody knew. Monima’s palms were cold but sweaty. She could have gone on talking, talking about everything that was bottled up inside her and now tried to bubble over. While talking, she did not stop once, not even for a breath, she went on in a monotone like a whiny child. She must had noticed Miss Erica’s expression of wishing her to stop, like people irritated after a long, monotonous rain just wished it to stop, so she stopped. After awhile, Erica Dutt spoke, “OK, I have to leave now. Can you show me out of this neighborhood?”

That was the last time Monima saw Miss Erica. Monima was used to sorrow but that was the first time she experienced missing someone. Now she was in tenth class, and still among the top ten students. She was working hard and trying to save herself from the mistakes of her earlier life, a life that kept burning, inevitably. She wanted to go further. And she thought about Miss Erica. It had been a whole month since she had left. Miss Erica hadn’t written to her. But she would. She had to. Monima had complete faith in her teacher. One day she could not wait any longer and wrote a letter herself—

Respected Ma’am,

I remember you all the time. The way you spoke. The way you taught us. No one can teach like you. Your classes were like a dream. Why didn’t you stay longer? Why couldn’t you be my own sister? But I love you Ma’am, I love you more than my own sister.

I didn’t get to ask you if you believed in reincarnation. But I do. My aunt Kamala-auntie used to say, 'the sins of previous life get punished in this one.' Virtues get rewarded too. Otherwise why don’t we all in this world have similar fate? Ma’am, it must be the virtues of my previous lives that rewarded me with your presence.

I have decided, if the NGO-uncles pay my tuition, I would study history in college. I want to be a teacher. Just like you.

I would love to know more about your life. And about your husband too. Why haven’t you written to me? I keep waiting everyday for your letter.

This year on Teacher’s Day, we all decided to sign a card for you. But nobody knows your address. I haven’t yet told anyone that I do know. Shall I? May I give them your address?

My most sincere regards to both of you,

Yours truly,


Monima waited one more month. One day there was a letter! In her name!! She had been waiting so long for this. She knew it was from Miss Erica. It just couldn’t be from anybody else. She hugged the letter, kissed it, even danced with it alone, in her room. She told the bed, “See, here is her letter”. She told the Gods pictured on the calendar, ‘didn’t I tell you it will come?” She drew an imaginary circle on the floor where the letter had come to rest when the mailman slipped it through the crack under the door. Then she ran outside with the letter. She had to read it in the open, under the wide sky. Let the sky see her letter. From her very own Miss Erica, as beautiful as the sky itself. She ran to the neighborhood park. Monima had come home straight from her school. She hadn’t even changed out of her school outfit. It was still early evening. There were many people in the park. But she did not notice anyone or anything. She stood still under a tree. She still had not opened the letter. As if opening it would end the magic. But waiting was hard too. At last she held the long envelope before her, then carefully slit one narrow end and took out the long awaited letter. Her eyes widened, her heart thrashed in her chest. The letter itself had nothing new written on it. In fact it was another envelope, the very one she had mailed Miss Erica. Unopened. Unread. Miss Erica had sent back her letter without reading it! And she did not write back a word!

Published in Parabaas, July, 2012.

The original story Asompurna (অসম্পূর্ণা) by Tilottama Majumdar is included in ('Ri') (Ananda, Kolkata).

Translated by Chhanda Bewtra. Chhanda (Chatterjee) Bewtra was born in Purulia, West Bengal but... (more)

Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.

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©Parabaas 2012