A Play in Three Acts
[The same day, three-thirty in the afternoon. The curtain rises on the ground floor of Manorama’s house. It is a huge living room. A portion of the staircase going up is visible at one end of the room. It is an old-style wide, wooden staircase, carpeted and shining with glossy black varnish. There are three doors, one each to the right, left and center. The right-door leads out of the house and the other two lead indoors. There is a window to the right, with the hint of trees and a garden outside and the sun streaming in brightly. For a few seconds the stage is empty. Then Kanaklata comes down the stairs, dressed to go out; she is fashionably clothed. Her sari, blouse, purse and umbrella are impeccably matched. Her hair is piled high on her head in a bun. She is around twenty-three with a face that can be loosely described as pretty.]
Kanak (looks around) – Didi . . .didi . . .didi!
Shampa’s voice (off) – I can hear you. What is it?
Kanak – Where are you?
Shampa (off) – Right here!
Kanak – Again she has gone in to that hole in the wall; (knocks on an invisible door under the staircase) Come out didi, I need to talk to you.
Shampa (off) – Why don’t you come here – I’ll show you something.
Kanak – Be a darling, didi, come out.
Shampa (off) – I am busy.
Kanak – I beg of you, didi; come out for a minute.
[Shampa comes out from under the staircase. With a worn, old sari draped casually around her, she is tall, thin, emaciated and at first glance looks a little hunched. Her disheveled, matted hair looks reddish for lack of care. Her skin is actually fair, but has taken on a bronzed, rusty hue. Her cheeks are sunken and her eyes elongated and narrow; her gaze is often wan, sometimes sharp and at times unusually bright. She is twenty-eight but looks far older. Her face bears no trace of beauty and yet she cannot be called ugly. Her expression, her carriage and her voice holds something that is intoxicatingly charming.
Shampa blinks a few times and then, after a conscious attempt, focuses her gaze on Kanak.]
Kanak – Didi, what exactly do you do inside that cubby-hole?
Shampa – I look for skeletons; I pile fossil upon fossil and re-create history.
Kanak – Old trunks, broken boxes, dust, rats and cockroaches – is there no better spot in the house?
Shampa – That is my place; I belong where the past rests.
Kanak – Don’t you even feel hot?
Shampa (shields her eyes) – Ugh, it’s so bright here! Why are the windows open?
Kanak – Just look didi, the day is just like an autumn morning.
Shampa – So what? How does it matter?
Kanak – Just take a look outside –
Shampa – Nothing, there is nothing to see; winter, summer, monsoon, autumn – all the same, they are all alike. No difference. Just the same pain, the same anguish, and the same anticipation: for that which is not there, for that which will not happen.
Kanak (sympathetically) – Didi, please, just listen to me –
Shampa (sharply) – I’ve told you I can’t stand the light! Can’t you draw the curtains?
Kanak – Don’t be angry, didi. (She draws the curtains and comes back) Come on, let’s sit here for a bit.
Shampa – I shall not sit. Tell me what you had to say. (She studies Kanak closely) Is Sunanda coming?
Kanak (blushing) – You know, didi, I have said yes.
Shampa – You’re getting married?
Kanak (nods her head slowly) – I’d thought I’ll spend the rest of my life with you, take up a teacher’s position in some college and move out with you. But –
Shampa (lifelessly) – I understand everything –
Kanak – Besides, how long will this go on?
Shampa – Why say so much – have I asked you for an explanation?
Kanak – You know, I have thought long and hard. I gave it a lot of thought before I said yes. You and I, two sisters – we have no one to call our own, no one to come to our aid. They have bought off all our relatives and every staff-member of this house. Father’s friends no longer come this way. We do not even have someone to talk to.
Shampa – Are you forgetting Adri?
Kanak – Why should I forget him? But how do I know that he remembers us? Does he ever write to us or ask after us? I have heard that he writes to mother sometimes, but no one knows what he writes. Do you believe he will ever come back home?
Shampa – Certainly! He has to.
Kanak – How do you know?
Shampa – There’s no reason to think so. But that doesn’t mean I have to stop hoping.
Kanak (after a short pause) – But didi, brothers and sisters don’t share a home and neither do they live life together. We need to think how we shall live. All this while I was beside you, now Sunanda will also stand by you – I have given him that right. A man has become our friend – wasn’t it necessary?
Shampa – Perhaps for you. When is the wedding?
Kanak – Probably very soon.
Shampa – Great, what is there to say – run away, escape from this house as soon as you can.
Kanak – And you?
Shampa – I am all right.
Kanak (looks at Shampa unblinking for a few seconds) – Didi, tell me the truth: do you wish I wasn’t getting married?
Shampa (laughs a little) – Silly girl! Why would I wish that, and if I did, why would it stop you? You have forgotten – you’ve stopped thinking about that which cannot be forgotten. There is no more to be said about it.
Kanak – Didi, it’s been twelve years –
Shampa (harshly) – Twelve years! The burden of this grief would defy eternity. Don’t you see them (looks up): living on brazenly, head held high. And she – our mother – hides the pus in her heart with gem-studded jewelry. Dear heavens – that criminal is our mother!
Kanak – For shame, didi: that’s no way to talk.
Shampa – I am a witness Kanak, I must say it. I am a witness and hence I am reduced to this in my own father’s house. Each one of their maids is an empress in my comparison.
Kanak (heaves a sigh) – You have brought this on yourself, all on your own. You will not listen to anyone. Why don’t you eat properly, didi? Why don’t you do your hair or wear a nice sari?
Shampa – This is my way of snatching all power from everyone; I am beyond all torture.
Kanak (after a pause, speaks empathetically) – I feel very sad for you, didi.
Shampa – For me? You feel sad for me? (Her voice grows shriller) Can’t you find anything else to feel sad about? Feel sad for him Kanak, for him – weep, scream at the top of your head. Let the roof of this house crash with your screams. Weep for him who gave birth to you, the one they fed to the dogs, on the very day he came back, at the threshold of his own bedroom.
Kanak (terrified) – No! No! No!
Shampa – No? Do you mean to say I am wrong?
Kanak (timid, scared tones) – It was an accident, didi.
Shampa (smiles bitterly) – It is pointless talking to you. You did not see it. You and Adri were both with grandma in Dehradun at the time.
Kanak – But you tell me, do accidents never happen? Who can avert them?
Shampa – If it was accidental, then why was Adri packed off abroad? So young then, he could still not sleep unless his didi sat next to him! And that Ajen Majumdar! (Looks up) He clings to his lover like glue, and controls this house like the devil incarnate – I suppose that too is accidental? And she – that woman who feels for dogs, loves plants with her heart and soul – have you ever asked how many tears she shed for her husband?
Kanak – Please forgive me didi, I cannot think such terrible thoughts – no, I cannot and I do not want to! Even if that is the truth, I do not want it. Bury it, bury it deep under the soil – deep, deep inside so that no one ever finds it. . . .(pleads) Didi! (Shampa starts to walk away. Kanak reaches out and stops her) Don’t go, please listen.
Shampa (coldly) – I have heard you, now let me go back to my work.
Kanak – Wait, there’s more to talk.
[A charged silence.]
Shampa (impatiently) – Tell me: have you suddenly lost your tongue?
Kanak – I’ve just heard something terrible.
Shampa (with a start) – Adri! Has something happened to Adri?
Kanak – No; at least not that I know of.
Shampa – What else is there that can be so terrible?
Kanak (edges closer to Shampa and whispers) – You, for you – do you know what they have decided for you? The asylum.
Shampa (suddenly wails in agony, in a choking voice) – N-n-nno! (Hides behind Kanak like a frightened animal and clutches her shoulders) Are you sure?
Kanak – I was eavesdropping: talking on the phone with Dr Kanjilal.
Shampa – Which one of the two was it?
Kanak – The other one. A few words fell on my ears clearly. (In tears) Didi, they are going to take you by force!
Shampa – And she – the one whom we call mother – did she say anything?
Kanak – She came to my room in the afternoon, suddenly. She spoke at length about how happy she was that I am getting married. Then she said, ‘We have fixed a match for your didi as well, a very good match. She stands to gain if she agrees. Tell her. Make her understand. This is the last chance.’ Mother looked very wretched today, as if she was breaking down. On one hand they are plotting with the psychiatrist and on the other hand offering you marriage: it is all very mysterious. Does mother not know about the other plan then?
Shampa – You can rest assured, the two are hand in glove. It’s a brilliant trap, between the devil and the deep sea.
Kanak (fervently) – Didi, will you please say yes?
Shampa (muttering melodiously) – I shall never be a wife to anyone; I shall never be a mother to anyone.
Kanak – Never? On no account?
Shampa – On no account! Never!
Kanak (suddenly as a new thought strikes her, she brightens up) – There is a way out, didi. Come away to Bombay with us. Come, let us run away, tomorrow. I can get married there – shall I tell Sunanda? Tomorrow morning flight? No one will be able to lay a finger on you there.
Shampa – Are you asking me to turn traitor for fear of my life?
Kanak – Traitor? Traitor to whom? (Agitated) Tell me didi, explain to me – tell me how I can leave you in danger like this?
Shampa (stares at Kanak with glittering, sharp eyes) – Will you stay with me? Will you? (hugging Kanak with one hand) Come then, let us do that task together – that work for which I have lived all these years.
Kanak (fear in her voice) – What work?
Shampa – The work that, when finished, will make autumn a joy again, will fill the monsoon afternoon with melody and the air will no longer carry the stench of blood.
Kanak (gazes at Shampa intently, trying to gauge her thoughts) – What do you mean?
Shampa (pauses, then pushes Kanak away) – No, it’s nothing. You know how I ramble. I feel I have given my word to someone, as if I am indebted to someone.
Kanak – Won’t you come, didi, to Bombay with us?
Shampa – I shall never leave this house. My life is here and here lies my work and my destiny.
Kanak – Didi, we shall not be able to fight them. They are powerful and we are just girls, helpless.
Shampa – I am not helpless, and neither am I a woman.
Kanak (hopelessly) – Will you really not recognize what a great crisis is staring you in the face?
[A motor horn sounds outside.]
Kanak (with a start) – That will be Sunanda. I need to go out, didi. Please be careful and don’t forget what I said.
Shampa (calm and collected) – Do not worry about me Kanak. You go ahead on the path you have chosen.
Kanak – Mother will probably talk to you today. Think carefully and give your answer, okay?
Shampa – That I must.
Kanak (a trifle reassured) – ’Bye then? I shall be back quickly. Be very, very careful. (She brushes her sister’s cheek with her own and then leaves by the door on the right.)
Shampa (gazing after Kanak) – Each to her own! Kanak, my very own sister, my own flesh and blood – she too. The bestial cavern opens up once again – in the same house: that cavern where the angel of death pounces from behind and the other two signal with their eyes. Aren’t you ashamed, Kanak? Haven’t you seen a wife, a mother? Go then, don’t let me come in the way of your happiness. I have understood that I have no one and nothing: except for the pain, the agony and that anticipation . . . for that which is not there, for that which will not happen. And echoes – endless and eternal.
[Shampa sits on a chair and with her chin resting on her hands, thinks for some time.]
Mania, mono-mania, obsession, fixation: so many words fashioned by them. A bunch of cheats! Thugs! Scoundrels! As if there is nothing called love, remembrance, dedication! . . . Psychiatry – it is the bane of this world. And that one, who is sitting upstairs – she too is perhaps neurotic? Schizophrenic? She did not realize what she was doing – and therefore she did not do it! Wonderful! (Laughs shortly) That is the end of good and bad, right and wrong. God is tumbling around in the dirty drains. People have come to terms with the fact that the man is no more: hence I cling to him for dear life, with all my might! Just me, no one else.
[Shampa is silent for a few seconds. Then she rises and comes to the fore of the stage. Suddenly she looks like a little girl.]
Father, where are you? Can you hear me? I know how miserable you are, how lonely. I know how terrible was that night, how terrible your death. No one believes it, father . . . they say it was accidental! They call me a lunatic. What is my crime? I have loved, I still do. The man is no more, but the love can still persist. Tell me father, is love a commercial transaction that I will give with one hand and take with the other? Do you not know how many tears I have shed for you? No, I weep no more; my tears have dried, my heart has shriveled, I look like an old hag! This is I, whom you called Rapunzel, the apple of your eyes, the songstress. Do you know father, I too am lonely like you. I have no mother and I shall never be a mother to any one. I have no sister and neither am I a sister to anyone. But they cannot stand that, father. Do you know, they have laid a trap for me. Either I fall in line with them or I shall be put in a cage like a beast. . . . No, I am not asking you to save me. I know you cannot do that. If that is what lies in store for me, so be it. I am not afraid for myself. But I do ask you: will you not avenge yourself on them? Tell me father, for the very last time – speak! Let them hear you one last time. Tell them that sin is still sin, grief is still grief and revenge is still revenge. This is not the claptrap of psychiatry, but the pure, unadulterated truth! Through me – speak up through me! Give me your blessing, so that I have that much time to spare, and do not buckle down at the last minute. . . .Father!
[Exhausted, Shampa sits down and looks ahead with empty eyes. Silence for a while and then slowly, Manorama enters from the left. She is dressed to the hilt with a bright coloured sari, rings on her fingers, necklace on her throat, bracelets and bangles on her wrist – no effort spared. All the jewelry is gem-studded. Her thick, dark, wavy hair is parted neatly in the middle and her lush lips painted crimson. Her large eyes are darkened with kohl and her face is impassive. With all her jewelry, clothes and the deadpan face she looks like a clay idol of a goddess – dazzling and a trifle menacing. When Manorama walks in, Shampa does not see her.]
Manorama (stands behind Shampa) – Shampa!
[Shampa rises from her chair, moves a few paces away with her hands crossed over her heart in a defensive pose.]
Manorama – Why are you not looking at me? Will you be angry with me all your life? (Shampa is silent) Will you always think of me as a foe? I – your mother? (Shampa is silent) Shampa, do you not love me one bit? Have you ever tried? Have you ever considered that I may be unhappy too? (Shampa is silent) Do you know, I have nightmares these days and I cannot sleep for fear. Can you tell me what will drive away the nightmares and allow me to sleep again?
Shampa – Penance mother, do a penance. Sprinkle holy water in the house.
Manorama – So you too have started believing in God?
Shampa – What choice is there? They are the ones who send you those dreams. Don’t you know what it means?
Manorama – What does it mean, tell me?
Shampa – They want atonement.
Manorama – But who has been wronged? And what is the crime? What is the atonement for?
Shampa – Ask your self, in front of the mirror, alone in a room. Or you can look at me – I am your mirror, your answers.
Manorama (pause) – Are you so vicious with me because I have not renounced my life at the feet of the Hindu society? The death of a husband – is it a wife’s crime or her misfortune? You are today’s woman – will you too demand that she suffer all her life for it?
Shampa – Some women feel the pain and some don’t. Some women know how to love and some don’t.
Manorama – I was ill and bedridden at the time, suffering for two months, nearly at death’s door. At such a time your father suddenly upped and left with a job in the army, leaving me all alone. Ajen was treating me, and he saved my life.
Shampa – Real men do not sit by their wife’s bedside.
Manorama – And then for seven years – seven long years, the man was not to be seen. He did not come home on leave either. Most times I would not even know where he was.
Shampa – He was facing danger, facing cannons, walking under skies raining bombs: in Libya, Singapore and the jungles of Burma. He was fighting the fascists.
Manorama – One day I heard that he had dropped out of the Army. The war ended and yet he did not return. Eventually he was located in Netaji Subhas Bose’s army. He simply wouldn’t tire of fighting.
Shampa – My father, the patriot! The brave man!
Manorama – What is your definition of bravery? It was pure hatred – violence, cruelty. I had asked him to stay back and not leave me: don’t make war, make love.
Shampa – Make love! That’s something that even dogs, cats, pigs and apes can do.
Manorama – How can you be so crude – you too are a lady.
Shampa – What can I do if the truth is crude?
Manorama – You do not know the whole truth. You do not know how I went through those seven years. We are women – we need a man; it feels very lonely, very empty. We need protecting.
Shampa – Speak for yourself – don’t say ‘we’.
Manorama – I begged so hard and yet your father went away; he did not listen to me, did not think of me.
Shampa – Perhaps you missed him very badly? And to console yourself –
Manorama (stopping her, coldly) – I was his wife. He had duties towards me.
Shampa – But he did not want duty from you. He did not ask anything of you that went beyond the bounds of the heart. And you wanted him to be your shield and stand guard over you.
Manorama – Shampa, no one lives by their heart. If everyone does his or her own work, life goes on smoothly.
Shampa – His duty lay all over the world. He was noble, you are self-centered.
Manorama – I had to be self-centered, for the sake of all of you. All three of you were very young then. Adri was a baby. There was a war on and chaos all around. Nothing was stable. And amidst the mayhem I was all alone – a woman with three children.
Shampa – Mother, were you frightened at so little? Did you start in terror when the Japs hurled two tiny bombs over Kidderpore? Did you ever think of London, Moscow or Berlin? What about Hiroshima?
Manorama – Enough – for me that was more than enough. For women who become mothers, nothing is more grotesque than war.
Shampa – But soldiers do not attack from behind. They face death on their own terms.
Manorama – I want order. I crave for peace.
Shampa – Written in blood: peace. The war has ended: has it?
Manorama – Let me finish what I was saying. Right then when the world was going to pieces and I was losing my head, Ajen came and stood by my side. He took over the role of the head of the family. Thus the days passed – not one, not two, but seven years. In the final year I did not even get a scrap of news. The British declared him a revolutionary. I did not know where he was hiding or even whether he was dead or alive. And then one day – when the country had just gained her freedom – he came back suddenly.
Shampa – The husband returned to the wife, the very instant it was possible for him.
Manorama – Why didn’t he come earlier? Not even once?
Shampa – There must have been hurdles great enough.
Manorama – What hurdles? What could possibly be such an obstacle?
Shampa – Where did he get a chance to explain all that?
Manorama – Fate!
Shampa – Yes – after surviving the thousand perils of war, the wild beasts and reptiles in the jungles and the deadly viruses – eventually in his own home . . .Fate! Yes, certainly.
Manorama – Shampa, will you never understand me?
Shampa – I am my father’s daughter.
Manorama – And yet, it was in my womb that you were conceived and I am the one who gave you birth.
Shampa – You stand before me and speak and he . . . is no more.
Manorama – There is no sadder soul in this world than a mother. A child is born, she grows up, all the work is done by mothers, all the pain is borne by them: all sacrifice, all patience, all the tender loving care is demanded of them. The fathers have no role in it at all. A body within a body, a soul tied to another heartstring – fathers cannot fathom these things. They stay in their own world, sometimes they cuddle the child a bit and when they wish, they go far away. The same child, when she grows up and tells her mother –
Shampa – Stop it! I hate that moo-ing; can’t stand it. It makes me sick.
Manorama – It makes you sick? The word ‘mother’ makes you sick?
Shampa – Guess why?
Manorama – Because you are sick.
Shampa – If I am sick what is the cure? Can’t you get me cured?
Manorama – Am I not trying that for a very long time? I have told you a million times, do whatever you wish, but do something. You didn’t enjoy college. You quit your dance classes. French, sitar, painting – you started all of them and felt bored. I wanted to send you abroad: England, France, America, wherever you wished. But you didn’t go.
Shampa – Adri was young, he didn’t understand. But why should I go?
Manorama – May I ask why you have crushed your life underfoot, smashed it to bits and ruined it so brutally?
Shampa – I have done exactly what I wanted to do and that is what I am still doing.
Manorama – Tell me, for whom do you weep? How much of him do you even remember?
Shampa – I have had to remember – so that others do too.
Manorama – This is not your grief, it’s a fashion.
Shampa – Do I look very fashionable to you?
Manorama – Don’t you feel ashamed to walk around dressed like a beggar?
Shampa – If I stared feeling shame, how would others feel their shame?
Manorama – Ego – unnatural ego! As if grieving is your sole property in this world. And you must advertise it in a big way too!
Shampa (glancing at her mother’s appearance) – No one else became a widow, but someone has to dress like one, right?
Manorama – Shame! Is there a limit to your brazenness?
Shampa – Some people call it idealism, or dedication.
Manorama – Do you know the truth? You just want to torture your mother, you wish to torment me. All that you did not do and all that you are doing is to that one end only. Am I right or not? (Shampa is silent.) I have gone through hell for you – still do – for these twelve years. But I can take it no more Shampa. Now you take your poisonous glare elsewhere – let me live.
Shampa – You wish to live mother? You still wish to live? Do you ever think of those who are dead?
Manorama – You are so cruel!
Shampa – Most people are only cruel to others. I do not make much distinction between self and other.
Manorama – And yet I must speak again – simply because I am a mother.
[Silence for a while.]
Shampa – Mother, the gems in your necklace are so red, like drops of blood! Just like drops of fresh blood. Do you still love the colour red?
Manorama – My moon-sign is Aquarius; emeralds and rubies are good for me. Your moon-sign is Pisces. Topaz and pearls suit you best. I was just thinking what kind of jewelry I shall give you for a trousseau.
Shampa – You are making a mistake. It is Kanak who is getting married.
Manorama (suddenly adopting a harsh air) – Just you hear me now Shampa: it is time for you to get married.
Shampa – Ugh!
Manorama – It will be you first and then Kanak’s turn. That is how it must be. I have taken enough of your nonsense; no more.
Shampa – I have reached the end of my tether too.
Manorama – If you refuse to agree this time, then –
Shampa – Then?
Manorama – Then something else will happen. It won’t be nice.
Shampa – What will you do? What will you do with me?
Manorama – Everything that is necessary for the benefit of one’s child.
Shampa – Who is the groom?
Manorama – Let me tell you everything. The land-broker Janardan is really very keen. But I do not wish you to fall in to the wrong hands. That Avijit – the Chartered Accountant – do you remember him? I got a letter from him suddenly today. He is still a bachelor and he still lives in hope –
Shampa – I see no fault in Janardan either. Does the hen get a chance to pick her rooster?
Manorama – I am not joking Shampa. I need an answer – a clear answer.
Shampa (pause) – Won’t you give me some time to think?
Manorama – Certainly. You have a day to think.
Shampa – Just one day?
Manorama – One night actually; just tonight. It’s enough: nearly sixteen hours. Tomorrow morning I need your answer. I would like to send for Avijit no later than tomorrow. Remember, it will be to your advantage if you agree. And if you don’t: do not blame me later, don’t say I did not warn you. Until tomorrow morning.
[Manorama climbs the stairs with measured, proud steps.]
Shampa – Misery, now it is just you and me. Come, let us go back to the real work.
[Shampa goes back towards the room under the staircase. For a few seconds the stage is empty. Then, Adri enters swiftly from the right. He is twenty-one, dressed in narrow, drainpipe trousers, a lime green shirt and a slim tie, a maroon jacket. On his feet he sports tapering, Italian shoes. He has a head full of slightly wavy, brushed-back hair and his face bears the stamp of health and ruddiness that is a gift of cooler climes. On his shoulder rests an overnight-bag and he holds a suitcase and a portfolio.]
Adri – Looks like no one is around. (Dropping his luggage to the floor) Bearer, bearer! Is anybody there? Has everyone gone to sleep?
[Shampa steps out and comes forward with steps that drag.]
Adri (to Shampa) – Is the mistress at home? What about the young ladies? Where? Upstairs? Is the mother home? And her daughters?
Shampa – Who do you wish to see?
Adri – Please send for someone to take my things upstairs. (Moves towards the stairs.)
Shampa (Blocking his way) – Who are you?
Adri – Sort of cheeky, this girl!.(Stops short) Come here and let me tell you something: why are you so shabbily dressed? Don’t you get better clothes to wear in this house?
Shampa – You don’t have to worry about my clothes, young man. Tell me what you want. Have you been sent by Dr Kanjilal?
Adri (Stops abruptly and looks at Shampa intently) – Who are you?
Shampa (returns the intent gaze) – Who are you?
[Brother and sister stare at one another in silence. Shampa notices Adri’s luggage. She bends down and reads the labels on them. When she straightens, her expression has undergone a sea change.]
Shampa (disbelieving tone) – Really? . . .Really? . . . Is it you?
Adri – Didi! (He stretches out his arms and goes to embrace Shampa. She recoils and shrinks away.)
Shampa – I was wading in old documents; I am very dusty.
Adri – Nonsense! So what’s a little dust? (He hugs her) Where is everyone? Mother? Chhordi?
Shampa – You didn’t ask about the other one.
Adri – Who? Oh . . . (laughs lightly) Didi, are you still up in arms? How strange! In those countries women get married so many times, more so if they lose their husband at an early age. I like it that way. Besides Didi, we have grown up now.
Shampa – In no country does a woman re-marry if she was once wedded to a man like my father.
Adri (Trying to lighten the conversation) – Let these things be for now. Tell me, give me all the news. I have just arrived and you want to sulk? I shall not let you, wait and watch.
Shampa – It’s a very hard task, Adri. Will you succeed?
Adri – I’ll try, to the best of my ability. Is mother asleep? Won’t you call her?
Shampa – She just went upstairs for a nap. She did not sleep well last night.
Adri (a trifle disappointed) – All right then, let her be. Where is Chhordi?
Shampa – Kanak has gone out. She is getting married soon.
Adri – Really? Splendid; I’ve come at a really good time then.
Shampa – Yes, at the right time – on the dot in fact.
Adri – Did you all assume I shall never return?
Shampa – Not I. Does anyone ever leave their home, their land behind forever?
Adri – Perhaps you’ll get mad at me, but homesickness as you all know it, really doesn’t affect me these days. Do you know, I have really roamed the world in the last few years – for every holiday. Europe is truly amazing. Sometimes I feel like staying back there.
Shampa – So why have you come back?
Adri – Well, you are all here.
Shampa – There you are: homesickness, blood ties. You have no choice but to return . . . Come, let us sit down here. (They sit on the sofa, side by side) Take off your jacket. Aren’t you feeling warm? (Shampa helps Adri to take off his jacket and she also loosens his neck-tie). Take off the shoes as well. Make yourself comfortable. Shall I take them off?
[Shampa bends down to help him with the shoes. Adri grabs her hand and stops her.]
Adri – Oh no! What are you doing?
Shampa – Why, what’s wrong? As a child you never wanted to wear your shoes. It was I who put them on for you and took them off too. (Takes off his shoes) Wow, very pretty pair of shoes!
Adri (pleased) – I bought them in Rome. This is the latest fashion. (Pause) Didi, try and visit Athens once. There is nothing like it in the whole world. Nothing to match the Parthenon. You know, I’d thought you’ll come to London to study. It would be grand if you came. I wrote to you so many times – but you never replied.
Shampa – You wrote? To me?
Adri – What? You didn’t get them? Not even one? (A shadow crosses his face and he gazes at Shampa intently for some time) Didi, how did you . . . when did you start looking so different?
Shampa – You don’t have to stick to your Western manners with me – why don’t you come out and say that I look like a hag? They call me a witch – perhaps they aren’t far off the mark (short laugh).
Adri – They – Who?
Shampa – She whom we call mother. He whom she calls her husband.
[Adri lowers his gaze. Long pause.]
Adri (looks up) – Didi, are you unwell? Are you suffering?
Shampa – How long will you be in Kolkata?
Adri – Not too long. About a fortnight or so. On the way back I’d like to visit Japan and then on to Berkeley.
Shampa – I didn’t know you were headed for America.
Adri – You didn’t? Strange! Doesn’t mother tell you all anything about me? (Shampa is silent) Did she even tell you I was coming?
Shampa – Did you let her know?
Adri – I had called mother, from Athens. Don’t you know?
Shampa – When? What time?
Adri – Last night, I mean – this morning. It was nearly dawn in Kolkata then. I was supposed to reach by tomorrow evening. But suddenly I just took an earlier flight.
Shampa – Oh, so that’s why! That is the reason! Therefore the sixteen hours! (Suddenly embracing Adri tightly in an emotional upsurge) Adri! My brother! My ally!
Adri (moves away) – What is it, Didi?
Shampa – I’ll tell you later. (Gazes at Adri wondrously) First, let us have a chat – just like the old days. Do you remember when I used to give you phonics lessons?
Adri (Same wonderment in his eyes) – ‘A for apple, B for ball.’ (laughs innocently.)
Shampa – You’d say ‘aypple’ and I had a hard time getting you to say ‘apple’. And when we came to V-W, there’d be so much of wheezing.
Adri (recites) – ‘The brothers V and W, sit in a corner violently wheezing!’
Shampa – Great, you remember.
Adri – Who can forget these things? And Didi, that ‘Kinchit biscuit’!
Shampa (recites) – ‘Banchha, fetch me some tea and Kinchit biscuit.’
Adri – I adored that word, ‘Kinchit’ – a wee bit, right? I’d often wish it would rain all night long one day and at dawn someone would fetch me tea and Kinchit biscuit. I could see two round cookies in my mind’s eye and I could even smell them, and the tea.
Shampa – You’ve come home after so long . . . so suddenly; totally without warning. Just like father. Do you remember him? Do you remember father?
Adri – How can I? He was at war even before I learnt to speak.
Shampa – And that day – you were not here that day either. It was September and the sun shone brightly. In the evening a taxi drove into the gate. I spotted it from upstairs, before everyone else. I ran down the stairs and leaped into father’s arms. It was so sudden that he actually didn’t recognize me – so many years had passed and I was older, wearing a sari. And then – I was a grown-up sixteen-year-old lady almost, in a sari – he heaved me up in his arms and kissed my cheeks. He smelled so sweet – no, no, not sweet; he wore such an amazing, manly scent. He was dressed in a khaki suit and a blue neck-tie – I cannot describe how handsome he looked. He was taller than you, his chest so huge and his cheeks had a bluish stubble. Within seconds he started calling up people and then he took the car and went to the market. I was with him. All the time. So much was bought, so many places visited, such a variety of food cooked and so many people came home that night. Laughter, conversation, joy, father was like a fountain of joy. I was with him all the time, sitting close to him, almost touching him. He changed from the khaki suit into a pair of blue trousers and a white shirt. He looked even more handsome then. When the clock struck ten mother told me to finish my dinner and go to bed. Father said, ‘Poor thing, let her be. Just for today, can’t we dispense with some rules?’ But mother insisted. And I (bunching her hands in to fists and stretching them forward) – I fell asleep . . . Adri, I fell asleep.
Adri – Didi, let it go.
Shampa – No, listen. You have grown up. Now you can be told everything. In my sleep a terrible cry pierced my ears. I rushed out and saw – dog and man lying in a pool of blood. His lips were still moving, in an indistinct mutter. But then that too stopped.
Adri – Didi, why are you troubling yourself with these memories?
Shampa (after a short silence she heaves a sigh) – Three grandchildren of the evil witch are still being reared in this house, being fed, walked and cuddled.
Adri (weakly) – What is their crime?
Shampa – Am I blaming the beasts? Do you know what they did to me? They medicated me: that doctor Ajen, by stealth! They did not let me weep to my heart’s content or even to catch a last glimpse of him. When I came back to my senses, all was gone. Nothing was left; the man was lost, disappeared – extinct, erased, forever after.
[Few minutes’ silence]
Adri – Didn’t you – go to cremate him?
Shampa – I didn’t get the chance; my sleep bound me in chains. They finished everything in a hurry.
Adri (suddenly) – Do you know what kind of a bed they carried him on?
Shampa – How would I know that either? But why do you ask that all of a sudden?
Adri (mussing his hair with his fingers) – No reason. Do you know Didi, I’ve seen so much of the world, but I’d never visited Athens. When I went there I felt that gods and goddesses were not the stuff of legends and myths – they are real, they are there, in Athens. (In a trance-like voice) It was midnight when I finished calling mother and went and sat on the verandah of the hotel-room. Perhaps it was a full-moon. People thronged the streets as if on this moonlit night they had all come to offer homage at an altar. I gazed at the Parthenon. I’d gone there three times that day and had just come back from there – yet I yearned for it. White, simple pillars row upon row, the roof caved in, so much is ruined, others have looted – yet, so alive. It is truly a living temple. Suddenly, as I sat there, my eyes drifted shut and I dreamed.
Shampa (leaning towards him) – Dream? You had a dream?
Adri (in a low voice) – I dreamt of father.
Shampa (stifling a cry) – Father!
Adri – It is not a face that I knew, but I felt for a fact that it was him. He lay there, pale. ‘My bed is very dirty, change the sheets.’ I heard him say the words clearly. ‘Bed is dirty, change the sheets.’ As his voice faded I woke up.
Shampa (holding her breath) – And then?
Adri – Suddenly I felt I should go to Kolkata immediately. I felt very restless. I came out; after trying a couple of airlines, I got a seat on a Lufthansa flight. It was scheduled to leave in an hour. I packed in a few minutes; once I boarded the plane I felt I was being juvenile – silly. I should have stayed another day in Athens! Who knows when I’d be able to go back there.
Shampa (stands up and speaks exultantly, like a victor) – God, you exist! Love, you are not a myth!
Adri (stunned, rises slowly) – Didi, I am not sure I understand. I feel there is a lot I do not know yet. I feel I don’t really know you. What is it, Didi? What has happened?
Shampa – Come closer. (Adri draws closer, Shampa puts her arms around his neck and whispers in his ears.)
Adri (recoils sharply) – W-what? What did you say? Mad-house? (Shampa nods slowly) No! No! No! (His eyes mirror terror.)
Shampa (eyes bright with an unnatural glow) – There, you can hear the bells tolling in my heart (draws Adri’s head to her bosom). He has given you his command as well. The debt must be paid off. The vow fulfilled. The skies will no longer be thirsty, the air will be purified, the rainy afternoon will overflow with music. Just this much – I had wanted just so much, Adri. I waited for this, for you. Then – you and I together: in prison, in the madhouse, who cares? We are two birds, ocean-birds – liberated.
[Adri stares at Shampa – fearful, silent, unblinking.]
Shampa – Why are you staring like that? Do you really think I am off my head?
Adri – N-no. That’s not what I am thinking. Tell me Didi, what shall I do – what can I do.
Shampa (finger on her lips) – Shhh! Footsteps on the stairs. She is coming.
Adri (whispers) – Who – Mother?
Shampa (whispers) – Adri – beware! Not a word more. I shall tell you everything later.
[Manorama appears at the staircase landing. She is dressed as before.]
Manorama (takes two steps down and spots Shampa first) – Why is there such a ruckus here? Who were you speaking to? My sleep is so light, the slightest sound is enough to wake me. Won’t you let me even catch a nap in peace?
Shampa (calmly) – Mother, look who is here.
[Now Manorama spots Adri. She takes a step forward and stops short on the stairs. Shampa throws her a quick glance. Manorama looks from Shampa to Adri and her face mirrors joy and terror simultaneously.]
Adri (stands below the stairs and speaks joyfully) – Mother, I have come – it’s me.
[Manorama comes down to the last step and places her palms on Adri’s cheeks and gazes at him silently.]
Adri (laughs) – What is it Mother – you can’t believe it’s me?
Manorama (overwhelmed) – Adri, my darling! My love! How you have grown. (She kisses him on the brow and he cringes away) Oh, so now you feel shy? But a son is never too old for a kiss from his mother.
Adri – How are you mother?
Manorama – How do you find me?
Adri (with laughter threading his voice) – Fine. Great. You look very beautiful.
Manorama – That’s what every son says to his mother!
Adri (suddenly, in an altered tone) – Mother, why are you wearing so much jewelry?
Shampa – Have you noticed Adri, how pretty are the gems on Mother’s necklace! Glowing red – like fresh droplets of blood.
(Adri glances at his mother’s throat.)
Manorama – They have healing powers, it is good to wear them. When you get married all this will go to your wife . . . Shampa, you are so strange. You just sat here all this while with Adri; why didn’t you go upstairs and call me?
Shampa – Adri stopped me from waking you. He’s learnt good manners abroad!
Adri (hastily) – I – I’ve just arrived, Mother: a few minutes ago.
Shampa (narrowing her eyes as she looks at her mother) – Mother, Adri came home so suddenly, without informing anyone: just like father, isn’t it?
Manorama (blanches) – So, if a boy wants to come back to his own home why does he have to inform anyone? (Adri glances at his mother and Manorama drops her gaze.)
Adri (somberly) – You are right mother, I am coming home – why would I have to inform. (Tries to lighten his tone with effort) Suddenly I had a great wish to see you, Mother. So I came home.
Manorama (pleased, rushes in) – Listen Adri, let me tell you right away: do not leave the country again. Stay here, in your own home, with your mother. I’ll leave the entire second floor to you, and I’ll have it decorated to your taste. It is your home, everything will be as you wish. (Edges closer to her son) You’ll stay, won’t you? (Adri cringes and moves away.)
Shampa – A man worth his salt never sits at home with his mother.
Manorama – Adri, won’t you stay? Will you leave again?
Adri – But I – I have to go to Berkeley, Mother. I have already written to them saying yes.
Manorama – Adri, I am growing old –
Adri – No, no, you are not old; you do not look old at all. (Looks at Shampa and then at his mother) You are still the same as before. But Didi – I didn’t recognize her, you know.
Manorama (listlessly) – Really? So, do you have to go to Berkeley?
Adri – They have given me a fellowship. It is really good. You won’t have to spend anything on me anymore.
Manorama – Well, just listen to you talk! Like I am really balking at the thought of the expenses! Everything I have is in reality yours. Daughters are born to go away, sons are yours to stay. Listen, there is good news – your Chhordi is getting married.
Adri (faking surprise, halfheartedly) – O-oh really? That is a good news.
Manorama (warily) – Your Didi may also be getting married.
Adri (truly surprised) – Didi’s marriage? Didi’s? (He glances at Shampa and then looks away.)
Shampa (suddenly, pleading) – I beg of you mother, please do not ask me to get married.
Manorama (gently) – This is a peculiar resolve of your Didi’s – she will not marry. Meanwhile Kanak’s marriage is fixed. How does it look if Shampa doesn’t marry first? It is also customary in our country that the elder one goes first. Now that you are here Adri, try and convince her.
Shampa – Adri, you know your math, right? Some do it twice and some not even once: that’s what balances the scale, doesn’t it?
Manorama – I do a different calculation. There is misery in life and yet it is human to try and be happy.
Shampa – Flies feast on festering wounds and frogs deem the dirty drains to be their heaven.
Manorama – Did you hear that Adri – did you hear what your Didi just said?
Adri (distractedly) – Do not involve me in these matters, Mother. I would like to stay out of it. (Moves away.)
[Ajen enters from the door to the right. He wears trousers and a half-sleeved shirt. He comes to a standstill. His gaze skitters from Shampa to Adri and from Adri to Manorama. There is a moment’s eye-contact with Manorama. A dark shadow looms over his face but instantly he drags a smile to his lips and advances towards Adri. Shampa exits silently, unnoticed by all.]
Ajen (Heartily) – Hullo, my boy, nice to see you. (extends his hand.)
Adri (reaches out to shake his hand) – Hullo. (The two men shake hands in the best of western tradition.)
Ajen – Welcome home.
Adri – I – came home suddenly.
Ajen – Very good! Excellent! Well, you look wonderful: a handsome young man! Have you seen him, Rama? Would he have had such an excellent physique had he lived here? So, you are a B.A., Cantab! Wonderful! Are you now en route to Berkeley or has the wandering son returned home for good?
Adri (distracted) – Berkeley? . . . Yes, of course. I must go. (suddenly, as if something else comes to his mind) I mean – I am supposed to reach there on the twenty-fifth, but – I do not know what to do.
Manorama (her face lights up) – So – you will stay? Is that final?
Adri – I have to think. (after a pause) You know mother, I do not have any patriotic connection to this country as such. But there is something else – a pull of the blood-ties; I can feel it after coming here. Somehow I feel (looks around the room) – this is where I belong.
Manorama (thrilled beyond measure) – My Adri! My love! (To Ajen) Please convince him to stay back?
Ajen – He is a mature adult, he will do as he deems fit. In our country parents interfere too much and it hinders young men from growing up properly. Am I right, Adri? (Places his arm on Adri’s shoulder affectionately, Adri slips away.) Have a smoke? (Opens the cigarette case and offers it to Adri.)
Adri – Thank you. (Reaches for the cigarette and checks himself) Not now, later.
Ajen (in a tone dripping with informal amicability) – C’mon, take it. You’ve grown up abroad; do you still believe in all that traditional nonsense? Listen, let me be frank with you. Do not think of me as an elder or suchlike. We are friends, OK? (Proffers the cigarette case again.)
Adri (Takes the cigarette and speaks in a flawless, courteous tone) – Thank you sir. (Lights his cigarette with Ajen’s lighter) Mother, wouldn’t it be nice to have some tea now?
Manorama (bustles about) – Oh sure, certainly! I don’t know where my wits were – one look at you and I forgot everything. (Goes to the door on the left) Bearer, tea please! What will you have with the tea? Sandwiches or puri? Come in, let us all go and sit at the dining table.
Adri – Mother, let me go and have a quick wash.
Manorama – Don’t be late, the tea will be ready soon. Go on upstairs, I’ll send your luggage. And I’m coming up soon; in case you need anything . . .
Adri – Don’t worry. I don’t need anything.
[Adri went up the stairs. The minute he turned the corner, Ajen’s expression changed, and Manorama’s too. Both of them drew closer and looked extremely anxious.]
Ajen – When did he come?
Manorama – I am not sure. I’d just fallen asleep. When I came downstairs I was shocked.
Ajen – And the witch – was she there?
Manorama – She was. (Ajen’s face is clouded.) Why are you so worried? She is a helpless girl and you are so afraid of her?
Ajen – She is no longer helpless.
Manorama – But my son loves me – he will love me. ‘Blood ties’ – didn’t you hear him?
Ajen (almost to himself) – Meanwhile I have made all the arrangements. Kanjilal will send his men tomorrow. But – Adri has just arrived and within a day his sister – no, let us watch for a couple more days. We must keep an eye on them. And then if (leaving the sentence incomplete) – did he say why he came a day early?
Manorama (purring with pleasure) – He said, ‘Suddenly I wanted to see you, Mother.’!
Ajen (almost to himself) – Adri will perhaps go on to Berkeley, he will not stay here too long. In that case . . . Shampa’s arrangement – can wait for later, can’t it?
Manorama – Listen to what I have to say. Let Kanjilal’s men come tomorrow. If the situation doesn’t look good, they can go back. No one will know who they were or what they came for. I shall explain to Adri about Shampa today. He has grown up, he is bright and has lived abroad – surely he’d be reasonable. Besides, if Shampa suddenly agrees to the marriage, then there’s nothing like it. You know what I want most – Adri will stay and Shampa won’t: this is what I want.
Ajen – You want Adri? (pause) Have you noticed how much like his father he looks? It wasn’t so apparent when he was a child. His forehead, his lips – startling in fact!
Manorama – Ri—ght you are . . . yes, that is so. So much so that, even his voice –
Ajen – The same as Indranath’s.
[Manorama and Ajen look at each other steadily. The curtain comes down.]
Kolkatar Elektra was first published in Sharodiya Desh in 1967, and later, in book form, in 1968.
Translation ©Sreejata Guha.
Published November 30, 2009
Illustrations by Nilanjana Basu, who is based in California.
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