A Play in Three Acts
[A few hours later the curtain rises
on the same section of the drawing room. Manorama sits alone. Her clothes have
changed. She wears a white blouse, a light-coloured sari from
It is at night.
Kanak enters from the left, with coffee on a tray.]
Kanak – Mother, where is Adri?
Manorama – I just saw him in the dining room.
Kanak – He said he’d have coffee. (She places the tray on a teapoy.)
Manorama – Perhaps he has gone to the verandah with Jasmine.
Kanak – Didn’t you notice – Jasmine has left.
Manorama – Oh, yes. I am so forgetful today.
Kanak (with a sly smile, in a tone of newfound empathy with her mother) – It is not what you think Mother. Jasmine, Manjula, Kasturi, the girls pulled out all stops. But Adri was like a piece of wood.
Manorama (laughing at this newfound intimacy with her daughter) – I suppose none of them appealed. Perhaps he has found someone abroad.
Kanak – I do not think so. Adri seems very strange this time.
Manorama (a trifle sharply) – How so? It is for him that there is all this celebration in the house today.
Kanak (a little hurt) – You are forgetting the other reason.
Manorama (strokes Kanak’s back affectionately) – No dear, no, I haven’t forgotten. But isn’t it a great stroke of luck that your wedding got fixed and Adri too came home!
Kanak (soothed) – That’s true. But you know, Adri seems very disconnected, unmindful. He did not even talk much with Sunanda.
Manorama – Give him some time to settle down.
Kanak (a little heated) – Really, what is there to settle down to? This is his home, his country. We are his near and dear ones.
Manorama – His heart and soul still
lies in those foreign lands. Didn’t you hear him going on and on about
Kanak (a pause) – But Didi – (stops short abruptly)
Manorama (encouraging) – Yes?
Kanak – Didi really surprised us today, didn’t she? We’d all forgotten what she really looked like.
Manorama – Do you think her illness is on the mend then?
Kanak (eyes get shadowed) – No, no, not an illness – I don’t find her sick at all. Let Didi be, as she wishes; how does it harm anyone? (Eagerly, pleading) Mother, please do not force her, don’t compel her in any way. Sunanda and I shall look after her. You do not have to worry about her.
Manorama (annoyed) – You are talking as if Shampa is nothing to me.
[Enter Ajen through the door on the left. He is wearing white pyjama-kurta and sports a pipe between his teeth. His face bears traces of anxiety.]
Ajen (on spotting Kanak, drags a smile to his lips) – Today all of you really livened up the evening Kanak – it passed in a blink. I didn’t know Sunanda can sing. He sang really well. He is a wonderful boy . . . I can’t seem to see Adri around. I thought I’d offer him my cherry-brandy for a taste.
Manorama – Perhaps he has gone to bed, he is rather tired today. Kanak, will you please check if he needs anything?
[Kanak glanced at her mother once and then went up the stairs. Ajen started pacing the floor, smoking his pipe.]
Ajen (stops pacing and faces Manorama) – So – you have donned a ‘madonna’ costume today: the Bengali housewife? (Mocking) Hah!
Manorama (bashfully) – Adri doesn’t really like such heavy jewelry.
Ajen – Goodness me, mother and daughter seem to be competing for Adri’s approval. I saw that the princess has worn a colourful sari today and even washed her hair.
Manorama – Isn’t that good? A good omen. Finally her pig-headedness of so many years has crumbled. She even wore a few pieces of jewelry.
Ajen – She’s flaunting her charms for her brother and you call it a good omen?
Manorama – You know, I – I sense hope around the corner. Who knows, perhaps . . . Shampa has realized her mistake at last.
Ajen – Having your son back has turned your head. Have you gone blind? Didn’t you look at Shampa’s eyes?
Manorama – Ajen, today I feel good.
Ajen – You just saw how she’d dressed up, but didn’t you see her eyes? I did – at the dining table her eyes locked with mine a few times. The same wintry chill, harsh, inflexible. She did join us for dinner, but she hardly ate anything – barely pushed the food around on her plate. (Manorama’s face clouded) I . . . was observing her. And suddenly . . . oddly enough . . . I was reminded of you.
Manorama: Me? Why me?
Ajen (almost to himself) – That night – when Indranath came home: that night you too were staring at Indranath from afar, and I was staring at – (whispers) you!
Manorama (sharply, covering Ajen’s lips with her palm) – No – don’t say that.
Ajen (pushes her hand away rudely) – Suddenly that scene came to mind; it was a strange sort of stare: cold, icy, bleak. (Draws very close to Manorama, looks her in the eye, whispers in a stage whisper) Do not forget that Shampa is your daughter.
Manorama (agonized whimper) – No, I will not listen to this. Shut up!
Ajen (almost as if he has lost control over himself) – Have you already forgotten everything? It was this very morning – your nightmare and right then – Adri’s phone call?
Manorama – Ajen, will you too persecute me now?
Ajen – All was well. No one would have seen Shampa from tomorrow. But suddenly Adri took a taxi from Dumdum airport and directly . . . without informing us . . . do you know, Shampa did not once look at Adri? We had dinner and chatted for so long – but never once did she glance at Adri.
Manorama – So what? How does that matter? What is so scary about that?
Ajen (laughs shortly and then puffs up his chest) – Do I look like a coward? But it is also stupid to turn a blind eye where there is a real cause for fear.
Manorama (blanches) – What cause? What fear? Why persecute? What have I done? What have we done?
[A minute’s silence, the two stand face to face; their jaws are stiff.]
Manorama (moves away and laughs) – Bunkum; nightmares are hogwash and they don’t mean a thing. Saturday, the month of August: all nonsense. I shall not think of it any more. I know everything, better than you actually Listen – the other day – that day the woman you’d stared at and this woman you see today, they are not the same person. The Manorama of that day is no more. I am someone else. I am now Adri’s mother.
Ajen (heartlessly) – You were a wife too.
Manorama – That wasn’t me, that was someone else.
Ajen – Adri’s father’s wife.
Manorama (in a piercing hiss) – So . . . should I live in fear all my life?
Ajen – Fear dies only when a man dies. We all die but once.
Manorama – And the one who dies, has no regrets, no complains. He submits and he forgives.
Ajen – I do not know. I know nothing of after-lives. (Paces the floor and speaks to himself) I am a doctor, all I know is that human beings wish to live – for as long as possible. And then again some don’t wish to. They get killed, purely for their own idiocy. They do not understand when they should avoid stepping on a beast’s tail, or when to avoid their own wives. For example, Pandu. The same one in The Mahabharata. . . people say desire lives as long as you live. They are right. But the opposite is also true: terror too lives as long as you live.
Manorama – I will not have it. I shall live anew from this day forth. Adri loves me. It is for me that he has come home so suddenly.
Ajen (had moved to the window as he spoke; now he looks out and suddenly gets agitated) – Look at that – come here, just see this!
Manorama (rushes to his side) – What is it? What have you seen outside?
Ajen – Can’t you see? And you thought he’d gone to bed!
Manorama (breathes heavily) – You’re right!
Ajen – Look how they walk, shoulder to shoulder. Both of them look unnaturally thin and tall – like shadows, as if two shadows have suddenly got to their feet and are walking. Adri’s head is bent low and – and the witch is looking at him, talking, she is whispering in his ears! (feverishly) Call them – send for them – tell them to come inside, fast!
Manorama (leaning over the window, raises her voice) – Adri—i! Adri—i!
Ajen – They can’t hear. They are not even looking this way.
Manorama (raises her voice further) – Adri—i! Adri—i! Come here – I have to talk to you – hurry up. . . . (to Ajen) I shall speak to Adri. Right now. You go to bed.
Ajen – Don’t be late. And don’t keep him up till very late. Get a good night’s sleep tonight. Tomorrow morning I shall get rid of the ill omen.
Manorama – We shall talk about that tomorrow. Now go!
Ajen (stops after taking two steps up the staircase, and turns back) – Remember, don’t keep Adri up till very late. (Goes upstairs.)
[Adri and Shampa enter from the right. Shampa is wearing a dark blue sari and a pearl necklace; her hair lies in thick, wavy tresses. Her skin is the colour of ageing ivory. Adri is wearing a pair of dark blue slacks and a white half-sleeved shirt. On spotting his mother Adri leaves Shampa’s side and stands with his back to them, beside the coffee tray left there by Kanak.]
Manorama – Where were you two? (The agitation in her voice is blatant)
Shampa – Nowhere special. We were just walking in the garden.
Manorama – So late in the night?
Shampa – Adri wanted to walk in the moonlight.
Manorama – But I thought the sky was overcast.
Shampa (smiles slightly) – Adri loves this kind of cloud-covered moonshine. Why were you calling us?
Manorama – Well, it’s late, isn’t it? Time for bed . . . Adri, you’re having coffee now?
Adri – Just a little.
Manorama – Wouldn’t it chase away the sleep?
Adri (pours coffee from the pot) – I like my coffee late in the night. (He takes the coffee cup and sits on the sofa as he picks up a book.)
Manorama (feels the coffee pot with the back of her hand) – It’s lukewarm. Shall I make some fresh?
Adri – No, this is fine. Didi, will you have some?
Shampa – No, I’m sleepy – (she stifles a yawn with her hand) I’ll be off. (She heads for the door.)
Manorama (facing Shampa, in a low voice) – Have you decided anything?
Shampa – Oh, that thing! But there’s still a lot of time. The sixteen hours aren’t up yet.
Manorama – Sixteen hours? What is that? (Throws a quick glance at Adri and finds him immersed in his book) So you are giving it a thought?
Shampa – I am thinking. Getting ready. Preparing myself mentally.
Manorama (flattering her) – You are looking wonderful today. The necklace suits you.
Shampa (with a subtle smile, plucking at the necklace with her fingernails) – But this is yours – remember?
Manorama (suddenly losing colour) – Well, ye—s, of course I remember. But pearls are unlucky for me.
Shampa – How fortunate that they are lucky for me. I love pearls and especially this necklace.
Manorama – Very well, that’s wonderful to know. I shall buy you an entire set of pearls: as much of it as you like! So, will you let me know tomorrow morning?
Shampa – Let the dawn come. (Leaves through the door in the center.)
[Slight pause. Manorama glances at Adri a couple of times, but Adri has his eyes glued to the book.]
Manorama (standing close to Adri) – Adri, listen to me. (Adri looks up) How do you find your Didi?
Adri – She’s lost a lot of weight, hasn’t she?
Manorama (sits next to Adri on the sofa) – Haven’t you noticed something peculiar about her? At times haven’t you found her . . . abnormal?
Adri – Something . . .I’m not exactly . . . (suddenly) Mother, are you all right?
Manorama – Not really. My heart gives me trouble. (After a pause) Your father too had died of a heart failure.
Adri – These days I’ve heard that they are able to restart the heart even if it stops beating.
Manorama – Well, death is inevitable. Whatever the intensity of grief at that moment, one has to come to terms with it. But Shampa – is harbouring the same grief in her heart.
Adri – Hmm. (Sips on his coffee) I am in agreement with you mother. It is best for Didi to get married now.
Manorama (smiling) – Exactly! It took a few seconds for you to grasp that. It’s not difficult to grasp either. A girl – sitting at home idle, she didn’t bother to complete her education, meanwhile she is pushing thirty; is this a way to live a healthy life? But – do you know something? She hates the thought of marriage, she finds joy in revolting and she hates love.
Adri (stands up) – Hates love?
Manorama (stands up as well) – Abso—lutely. She is vigorously revolted by all that is good, beautiful, joyous and all that one would desire in life. Now you tell me, if this isn’t a mental illness, what is it?
Adri – So you’re saying this is a mental illness?
Manorama – Not just me, the greatest psychiatrists of Kolkata are saying that.
Adri – So then . . . it has gone that far?
Manorama – They say, even now she may be cured if she gets married. Or else it’ll get worse by the day.
Adri – Hmm. (Goes to the window, looks out and then comes back) Mother, I saw your dogs in the garden. Fabulous! I have rarely seen such jet black Alsatians.
Manorama – You liked them?
Adri – But I don’t think they took to me much.
Manorama – You must be joking. Let a few days pass and you’ll see how devoted they will be to you.
Adri – It is really amusing to think that so many dogs and cats get so much affection from people and so many humans do not. (Laughs a short laugh, a little rashly.)
Manorama (a trifle pale) – What kind of talk is that? Affection is not cash in the bank that will fall short in someone’s share if given to someone else. Besides, love is of many kinds and all of them together bring joy to a person’s life.
[A short pause.]
Adri (sipping on his forgotten coffee cup) – Joy. What we call happiness, what we desire. Behind all of it there is a big inequity mother.
Manorama (with a wobble in her voice) – Why? Where is the inequity?
Adri – We can only be happy when we are able to overlook others’ misery.
Manorama (mournfully) – Adri, we are just human, each of us. We are not God that we shall be able to perceive everyone’s tragedy.
Adri – But if there is someone who wants to right a wrong, who wants to address an injustice, who cannot forget the wretched?
Manorama – Of what use are they to us? At the most their anger will make them indulge in some rebellion; and that will lead to: more misery, more wrong and more injustice.
Adri – Or for example, a friend of mine is in hospital dying of cancer and I go to a party to enjoy myself. And suddenly that friend comes to my mind?
Manorama – You are not responsible for your friend’s cancer. He will die even if you do not go to the party.
Adri – You are right. He will die even if I do not go to the party. But the dying person – could be my wife as well, or my father?
Manorama (loses colour) – What are you blabbering Adri? Should others stop living because someone is dying?
Adri (a moment’s pause) – Exactly. You are right. (Laughs mistily) Do you know, I was reading a book in the plane . . .
Manorama – Oh, put away your bookish sentiments. Life is about living – not reading. Living is a composite unit of joy, sorrow, good and bad. There is misery and there is grief, but above all else, all is well. Life is beautiful. Living is a good thing. Tell me, this exultation I feel today on seeing you – is this counterfeit? (Looks at Adri lovingly.)
Adri (meeting her eyes) – I too am happy mother; very happy (collapses on the sofa wearily).
Manorama (a little later, warily) – What has happened is – she no longer feels good about anything. I am speaking of your Didi. She seems to try so hard at being miserable, almost compulsively.
Adri – And some people try so hard at being happy, almost compulsively.
Manorama – But they are the best – it is through them that life goes on. Those who want happiness for themselves, also allow others to be happy. And those who yearn for sorrow, make sure that everyone else is miserable too. Take our Shampa for example – what does she lack? Nothing, it is all make-believe, she loses face if she is not wretched. You saw her state when you came in – how ugly! Shameful! Do you know why she does that? She punishes me that way. She has vowed, sworn with her heart that she will torment me.
Adri (emotionally) – Torment – you?
Manorama – Shampa cannot stand the sight of me. You can never understand how painful that is for me.
[Manorama reaches out to Adri; he moves away. A short pause.]
Manorama (in a low voice) – Let me ask you something Adri. Do you – ever think of your father?
Adri (blanching) – About father? Not really. Why would I? I did not really – know him.
Manorama – But still – have you never wanted to know anything? (Adri is silent) Tell me, if you have questions, ask me.
Adri (wearily) – Let it be mother.
[Adri’s gaze drops to the book on his lap. Manorama goes around to stand behind his sofa and she leans forward to see his face.]
Manorama – But I wish to tell you a few things. You have grown up and now I can tell you everything.
Adri (looks up, as if startled) – No, mother, no one can tell everything. And I do not wish to hear it either.
Manorama – Tell me, have you ever felt that your father and I – that I caused your father some grief?
Adri – Why on earth are you asking such questions?
Manorama – I am, beause that is Shampa’s firm belief. She has believed the same for the past twelve years.
Adri – And you could not make her change her mind?
Manorama – Perhaps she isn’t wrong. Perhaps I truly caused him grief – and I received my share too Adri. But Shampa never considers that I too am human, I too could have been wounded. All her compassion is reserved for the dead, and for me she can only turn the corkscrew and make me suffer – as if it is criminal that I am still alive. And to augment my guilt, she makes herself suffer all the time – for so many years – twelve years. (A little later, cautiously) Wouldn’t you call this an illness?
Adri – Well – yes – a form of illness certainly. But please talk no more mother. Go to bed.
Manorama – Please, let me speak a little more, Adri. (After a pause, tenderly) Look, were you upset with me for some reason – is that why you didn’t come home for so long?
Adri – I do not know why I stayed away, but I have told you why I came back – because of you.
Manorama (face lights up, all smiles) – So then – so then, Adri, tell me honestly – you hold no grudges against me? You are not angry about Ajen?
Adri (with a peculiar smile) – Why would I be angry? I believe everyone has the right to their own life. Whatever keeps one happy is what’s right for them.
Manorama – Right! That is exactly what I thought too. I’d wished that everyone would be happy in his or her own way, I wanted what was good for everyone. Even now, that is what I truly want. But – your Didi – she is the cause of all discord in this house, not a moment’s peace. It is your home, your mother and sisters, all your own people.
Adri – Tell me, mother, what can I do?
Manorama (sits on the sofa beside Adri) – You persuade her, bring her around to our circle, to the real world. You’ll succeed. You can do it Adri. The stony heart has melted on seeing you. She has changed suddenly, a miraculous change. Now if you tell her – if you convince her – perhaps she’d even agree to get married. You are home . . . both your sisters getting married . . . all my dreams will come true . . . all at the same time.
Adri (wildly) – All your dreams – all at once!
Manorama – Misery . . . for so long have I borne it. I feel suffocated. The pure hatred in Shampa’s eyes – to this very day! But why – how have I ever sinned against her? And even if I have, can she not bring herself to cast it from her mind? Who in this world has never made a mistake?
Adri (digging his fingers into both sides of his temple and muttering to himself) – That, which cannot be imagined! That, which is beyond belief!
Manorama – Someone commits the crime and someone else gets punished for it: there is no justice in this world!
Adri (gazing into a vacuum, muttering) – No – I do not accept, I shall not accept! The world is good, life is beautiful, we all want to live!
Manorama (frantically) – Adri, you are a divine boon to me – please save me from this torment.
Adri (suddenly comes to life and leans over to his mother) – Mother, why do we not have any memories of our childhood? Why don’t we have memories of the time when we were six months old or two years old? Mother, did you take me on your lap and caress me? If I fell down, did you hug me and stroke my hurt away? When I refused to eat and ran around, did you run behind me and feed me, bit by little bit? Tell me mother, please tell me.
Manorama (with deep emotion) – My darling! My dear little pet!
Adri – Why do we forget? Why does it feel as if we were born grown up? . . . Growing up: too many obligations. Who wants to think? Who wouldn’t rather be a child again?
Manorama – Adri – my heaven! My holiest prayers! (Draws Adri’s head to her bosom with both her hands.)
Adri (tortured voice) – Mother, oh dear mother! (Hides his face on his mother’s shoulder.)
[Silence. Manorama runs her fingers through Adri’s hair.]
Manorama – Adri, will you tell me something? What does Shampa want? What can I do to make her happy? Has she told you anything – when you were out in the garden?
[Adri stares at his mother for some time and then slowly moves away from her side.]
Manorama – Won’t you tell me?
Adri (coldly) – She was telling me the same things that you told me: you all want her to get married and she doesn’t want that – all these things.
Manorama – At times she talks quite sensibly. One can’t tell that there’s anything wrong with her.
Adri – Precisely. . . So – so, I’ll speak to Didi. For sure. (Opens his book again.)
Manorama – Why are you opening the book again? Won’t you go to bed?
Adri – This is one bad habit I got
Manorama – But you can read in bed as well. You’ve come a long way today, don’t stay up late.
Adri – Mother, you go to bed. I’ll go shortly. I seem to really like the feel of this room. This sofa is very comfortable.
Manorama (happily) – I’ll be off then. (Stands) Sleep in the eastern room on the first floor tonight. Tomorrow I shall do up the second floor for you. Now hurry up and go to bed.
[Manorama goes up the stairs. Adri lights a cigarette and stretches out on the sofa. The lights grow dim gradually. Only the burning cigarette can be seen, punctuated by Adri’s occasional wrist movement, flicking off the ash. A few minutes pass thus. Then again lights come up on stage – a blurred, blue light just like the first scene. It is very late in the night. Adri sits upright on the same sofa. His hair is disheveled, face pale and the ashtray is overflowing with cigarette stubs and ash. Shampa tiptoes in through the middle door. She is still dressed in the same sari and pearls. She carries Adri’s overnight bag in her hand. Shampa sits beside Adri and looks at him.]
Adri (without glancing at Shampa) – I need proof, solid proof!
Shampa – I have it here (bends down to unzip the bag). Letters – from father to mother (extracts a thick bundle tied with a string). And these are from mother to father (extracts a thin bundle tied with a string). And these are from mother to Ajen (extracts a fat bundle tied with a string). Old letters, living history. I have arranged them chronologically and they have told me many a tale.
[Adri glances at the letters, but doesn’t say a word.]
Shampa – Do you know where they were? In that little cubby-hole under the stairs – covered with grime and dust.
Adri – Father’s letters – over there?!
Shampa – You want to see some more? (She extracts a huge envelope from the bag and pulls out a sheaf of photographs from it) Father’s pictures – these too were lying in there. (Holds out a few photos like a deck of cards) Look: some are faded, some crumpled. They were lying beneath a broken trunk.
[Adri takes one photograph and examines it. His brows, cheeks and forehead crinkle.]
Shampa – Did you see this face in
your dream – yesterday, in
Adri (gazing at the photo) – This face – yes, that’s right. No – I am not sure.
Shampa – But you knew him all right. You heard him all right.
[Adri does not respond; he goes through the photographs one by one. Shampa stares at him steadily.]
Shampa (low voice, hums her words) – Father has sent you to Kolkata, one day in advance, so that they fail to get me; so that you can complete your real mission.
Adri (puts the
photos away) – Yesterday? . . . Was I in
Shampa – Father is still awake. Put him to sleep first.
Adri (opens his eyes with some effort) – You are keeping him awake. You have kept him awake for twelve years.
Shampa – He did not die in the war. He did not succumb to illness, on his own bed.
Adri – Death is all the same. All dead men look alike. They have no memory.
Shampa – We are alive. How can we forget?
Adri – Whatever you do, he will not come back.
Shampa – At least we can pay him back his due. The debt will be cleared.
Adri (seeming to lose control) – Do you want a police enquiry? The hassles of a court case? Newspaper headlines? A nationwide scandal? Our mother, father – do you want their names to be dragged through mud?
Shampa (a jagged smile on her lips) – Do you summon the penal code when you feel wretched? If someone loves you, do you run to the lawyer? Is it all written in the law books – when you should weep and how much, whom you should love and how much?
Adri – I say, let the law be unto itself, and let us be unto ourselves.
Shampa – But Adri, we have a heart. It is larger than the law. It is greater than all arguments, logic, intellect and reason. That heart has its eyes – it can observe. That heart can hear, what no one else can . . . Do you know what I feel? Father is keeping an eye on me; he has lost everything but he doesn’t want to let go of me. That’s why I cannot turn to anything else, or think of anything else. You arrived and bells started tolling in my heart. I am prepared! You must get ready too. He is gazing at you as well. Look at this (tucking a photo in to Adri’s hands) – look at his eyes. These were the eyes you saw in your dream.
Adri (gazing at the photo, lost in emotion) – I have seen these eyes in my dream. I have not seen my father. I have seen my father.
Shampa (leaning over Adri) – He has not forgotten you!
Adri (as if suddenly coming to his senses, eyes large as saucers) – This cannot be called proof! No court of law will accept this as proof.
Shampa (pushing the bundle of letters towards Adri) – Read these.
Adri (gently shaking the sheaf of letters) – What? Some rattlesnakes crouch within these? But then why did they store these? Why didn’t they burn them up?
Shampa – There must be a crack; there’s bound to be one. And through that crack the truth will slip out.
Adri – For example?
Shampa – Ajen: even before father went to war. He was the reason for father going away.
Adri – Why did he go? Had he stayed, perhaps everything would have been different.
Shampa – When a man truly loves, he doesn’t beg for alms. Neither does he seize with brute force.
Adri – He stayed away for a very long time.
Shampa – He was a soldier, he was brave, he was a patriot.
Adri – Mother was alone.
Shampa – Alone? Ajen was there all the time.
Adri – It is very difficult to fathom these things. Very difficult to tell the good from the bad. And besides . . . perhaps father too . . . at some time –
Shampa (Snaps sharply) – Quiet! Not one word against father! Has your mother poured all this into your ears already? Crying and carrying tales: ‘I was all alone – I was ailing – your father was lost in his own world – Ajen cured me!’ I have heard enough of that. Melodrama! Lies! Crocodile tears! I say, father did the right thing. Staying beside a wife who didn’t love him!! No real man is capable of doing that. But he really loved mother, he came back to her and only to her.
Adri – And the other one – what was he supposed to do? Love cannot be forged to order. It comes on its own – or it doesn’t.
Shampa – My father! Your father! A man like him! And instead a stupid wimp – a two-legged organism! You do not know anything Adri, you were young, you had no sense. You do not know how father sold his soul – to the woman who is now Ajen’s wife. Father lost his mother when he was but a child. He had no one to call his own, not a sister, not his wife’s sister, an aunt or any other woman. All his emotions had flown towards mother – concern, affection, caring, adulation, passion: everything that a man could ask of a woman and that a woman is capable of giving to a man. He had poured his libation at her altar: all his unquenched thirst, his dreams of bliss and his love of life.
Adri – Is it possible for one person to meet so many needs?
Shampa (flares up) – Why not? What is simpler than dedicating your self – if you find someone worthy of it? I know – I have seen it. I have seen the agony in father’s eyes. And mother’s eyes – wintry for father and animated for Ajen. You know, a storm would erupt in my heart – a tornado of love. I’d say to myself, ‘Father, I am still a child; just wait for me to grow up, I shall give you all the love, as much as you want.’ – I grew up, father came home, but our time was snuffed out.
Adri (eyes half-closed, bleary voice) – I am sleepy, Didi. Very sleepy.
Shampa – Have they dosed you too on sleeping pills?
Adri – Didi, I haven’t slept for two nights in a row. Three actually. (His eyes droop shut.)
Shampa – I have gone without sleep for many nights in a row. It hurts to sleep. Canine teeth – lodged here (touches her heart) – and here (touches Adri’s heart). Wrench it out. Then sleep – you and I – together – sleep.
Adri (in an unnatural voice, screams) – No – wrong! It is all wrong! There is no proof. (His eyes open wide.)
Shampa (stands up very slowly, moves to the front of the stage) – Father, listen to what he says, listen. None other than your son, your flesh and blood. He too does not believe. He wants proof. He talks convoluted logic like a lawyer. This is the same Adri whom you jiggled on your lap, whom you called Byomkesh, Neelkantha, Trilochan. He too does not realize how terrible was that night, how gruesome your end. You have spoken to him yourself, and yet he refuses to accept it. So then, is it true that you have no one else – except me? I am your only hope. The burden rests on me alone – I, your frail, weak daughter, for whom they have laid a trap . . . to cage me? Last night . . . perhaps this is my last night father – I do not know what will happen tomorrow. Hence I have worn this sari . . . look, do you remember? You gave it to me, the day you came back; and these Japanese pearls – for mother. But she didn’t wear them, you know? She never even touched them. Adri does not know all this and he doesn’t believe me when I tell him. He wants proof – testimony! (Laughs a slight laugh.)
[Through this soliloquy Adri had gazed at Shampa with awe in his eyes. Now he rises and slowly walks to her side. He picks at her necklace.]
Shampa (pulls away, without looking at Adri) – I have – I still have something: grief. I have no brother, I am nobody’s sister. I have no mother and I shall never be a mother. My grief – I have kept it alive with my own blood, with my own flesh and blood . . . for many years, many many years now.
Adri (turns and comes face to face with Shampa) – Everyone wants to forget their grief. Why do you cling to it?
Shampa (shrill voice) – Are you here to dole out advice? No, I won’t give up, never ever – nobody can take my grief away from me.
Adri – You strive to be miserable, your grief is contrived.
Shampa – I have nothing else, my life is devoid of any other wealth. But for my grief, what will I live for?
Adri – Living for grief, it is no way to live!
Shampa – I suppose they are more alive than I am – those ones, who are as ruddy and contented as pigs? They are born, they procreate and they die – they don’t bother to ask why or wherefore!
Adri – Pigs are good. They follow the rules. Fish swim, birds fly, man builds a home – there are rules for everything. The stars are in the sky, once in two hundred years comets streak the sky – same rules. Who are we to break those rules? However far we travel, we cannot cross the limits.
Shampa – The rules are different for humans. Humans think: at least some people do. Humans grieve: at least some people do.
Adri – Nobody grieves all the time.
Shampa – No. When they eat a hearty meal, they forget to grieve. At the sight of rain-clouds or the autumn sun they forget. They forget all injustice, all foul-play, all deception. Some lives – they look like a huge, ripe, juicy mango; but just jab it once and out will crawl the lies, like a string of worms. Deception – with one’s own self, treachery with others!
Adri – Treachery is fine – in spite of it, peace is good.
Shampa – The opiate’s heaven! The peace of Mescaline! It is not that simple, Adri, not so easy at all!
Adri – Your misery is a more treacherous drug than opium, marijuana or Mescaline.
Shampa (moves aside and looks away) – Misery – they know you not, they do not know your other names. Strength, courage, valour, gratitude: you are all of those. It is you who goes by the names of remembrance, devotion and oblation. Swell up, O Misery, engorge: fill me up as a child does a mother’s womb – and then rip me apart as you emerge; let the blood flow like water. I shall throw myself down in that stream of blood and you shall be – the victor! No more – I shall not keep you confined within me. I shall set you free so that the skeptic’s doubts are laid to rest. The way to freedom lies hidden in my hand.
[She takes slow steps back to the sofa. Adri’s eyes follow her movement. Shampa bends down and extracts another item from the bag. When she straightens, in her hand is a pistol.]
Adri (sudden shriek) – Didi! (He runs and grabs her hands.)
Shampa (a victor’s smile on her lips, her eyes are gleaming) – Didn’t you ask for proof? See this!
Adri (strangled voice) – This – with this?
Shampa – This too. They killed him three times. First it was with hatred, then the dog and then it was this. Father had brought it . . .it belonged to him.
Adri (terror in his eyes, his words slur) – You – d-did you see it?
Shampa – I heard it. I came running. On spotting me, the pistol dropped from Ajen’s hands. I picked it up and hid it – they did not notice it. Father’s remembrance! (She presses the pistol to her bosom.)
Adri – Father’s remembrance – give it to me (reaches out).
Shampa – I kept it safe only for you. It was meant to be a gift on your twenty-first birthday.
Adri – I have turned twenty-one. Give it to me now.
Shampa – First you must tell me what you will do with it!
Adri – I have to think about it.
Shampa – But they did not stop to think. That would have been a waste of time, and the mission could have been stalled. I too have stopped thinking now. It only remains to act. (Steps forth.)
Adri (stops her) – Where are you going?
Shampa – I’ve realized that you cannot do it. I have to do it myself.
Adri (in an unnaturally warped voice, smothering a scream) – You will go nowhere! Sit down.
Shampa (stands still) – So then – you’ll go?
Adri – I! (Sits on the sofa, drops his head and covers his face with both hands.)
Shampa – They had showed no mercy, Adri. Not a single drop of it. (Adri is silent.) They killed like a beast, set a sharp-toothed canine on him. He had just stepped out of his bath, cheerful with a heart full of faith, anticipation and ardour. He was to be reunited with his wife after so many years. . . at that very instant, exactly on the threshold of his bedroom.
Adri (without raising his head, tearful voice) – Father! My father!
Shampa – He was going to the room, dressed in a black kimono embroidered in gold – a regal man. Are you listening, Adri?
Adri (lifts his head and heaves a sigh) – Oh!
Shampa – They did not allow him the time to step into his room: the signal sprinted from their eyes and the angel of death pounced from behind (gestures like a dog pouncing). And then – from the back – pistol! (Gestures like firing a shot) Man and beast crumpled to the ground together. The beast still got the chance to yelp in pain, he did not even get that. His Japanese kimono was soaked in blood.
Adri – How terrifying! How ruthless!
Shampa – When I saw him, his lips were still moving, as if he wanted to say something. They did not even give him a few drops of water. Even death was far more compassionate.
Adri – Dear God!
Shampa – I threw myself on him like a crazed woman; a scream of pure grief ripped from my throat. But they sedated me – they did not even let me weep to my heart’s content!
Adri – Sweet heavens!
Shampa – When I woke up I found – it was all over, not a trace of the man was left.
Adri – I was too young. I wasn’t there. I knew none of this.
Shampa – Father arrived and instantly sent a telegram to Dehradun. Kanak and you got here the next evening. But they had finished everything long before that. You had the right to do the last rites, but they did not let you – they cheated you and they cheated him. And then – within three months – doctor Ajen became our father’s – wife’s – husband.
Adri (sighs heavily) – Possible – is this even possible!
Shampa – Possible – it is all possible – it is all true. They did not even have mercy on him after death; they wiped out all trace of him. You won’t find a single photograph of father in the entire house. His photos, his letters . . . are all junk to them. Have you ever wondered why you were bundled off to study abroad – such a small boy who still needed his Didi when he went to sleep? So that you forget who you are – that’s why. So that father, home, homeland, all become a blurry memory to you, that’s why. They did not even give me your letters – they wished to steal you away from me. Do you know the reason? It is because I stand for remembrance, for dedication and conscience. They could not unnerve me – by temptation, threat, nothing. Hence my existence is noxious to them. And that’s why today what awaits me is: handcuffs, chains, the mental asylum.
Adri (tearful) – Didi! My Didi!
Shampa – Adri! My brother! My soulmate! (Sits on the sofa and hugs Adri) now go on – pay your respect, do obeisance and accept the blessing. (Hands him the pistol) Here, take this – there is fire in this; at last his final rites will be performed.
(Adri gazes at her frenetically and does not say a word.)
Shampa – They had killed him like a beast. They should die the same way.
Adri (tonelessly) – Who? Which one?
Shampa – Both are the same. There’s no difference.
Adri – Ajen had fired the shots. He was the one who sedated you.
Shampa – The other one had stood at his side, holding his gaze. She gave him strength, she encouraged him. Neither of them showed mercy and neither would receive it.
Adri – . . . But . . .
Shampa – Are you scared? Shall I come with you? Or do I have to do it myself? Or am I our father’s only offspring?
Adri (slurring like a drunkard) – How pretty your hair is – just like mother’s. Your eyes – the same as mother’s. You are so beautiful, Didi!
Shampa – Whom do you call mother? We have no mother. She who has blood on her hands and a festering wound in her heart, ceases to be a mother.
Adri (bewildered) – In her heart . . . but how can I be sure? Perhaps the wound has dried up and on that fallow land has grown a vast patch of thorny bushes which stab at her every second? Or perhaps in the thorny bushes one or two blossoms have bloomed – perhaps you or I have failed to spot it? Who can tell what’s in someone else’s heart? We are not God, either of us.
Shampa – Who is your God? He has been silent for the past twelve years – for ever and ever in fact. It is up to us now to do what He has not done. We have to play God. (Handing Adri the pistol) Don’t tremble, hold it tight.
Adri (staring at the pistol, whispering fiercely) – No pardon?
Shampa – Higher, climb higher Adri: rise above terror, forgiveness, rules. Just for once taste release, have a taste of freedom.
Adri (angst-ridden scream) – No need! No need! I don’t need it!
Shampa (touches Adri’s hand lightly) – Only the hand is yours; the rest is all mine. (Hands him the pistol once more) Won’t you accept this gift of mine?
(Adri stares at Shampa with terror-stricken eyes for some time and then makes a sharp movement to push her away.)
Shampa (peculiar laugh) – Come, let me lead you by the hand.
Adri (a stifled shriek rips from his throat) – Fiend, get away! (Shudders as he collapses on the sofa.)
Shampa (calm and collected) – The fiend is upstairs, Adri, sleeping. Get up, time is short. (Bends over Adri and hums to him) Silent night – everyone sleeps – but he still lies awake. He stares, his eyes wide open – there, look – he stares at you – at me (points in the air).
Adri (covers his eyes with his hand) – I cannot see anything.
Shampa – Listen carefully: ‘My sheets are dirty, change them.’ Erase all trace of blood with blood alone. He has commanded you.
Adri (covering his ears with his hand) – I cannot hear anything.
Shampa – Listen here (draws Adri’s head to her own bosom) – thud, thud, thud: it is nearly bursting, and yet it does not. I have endured this – year after year: waiting for you, hoping you’d come. Just this little thing – a tiny chore – I have lived all these years for it.
Adri (hides his face in Shampa’s neck) – Dear mother!
Shampa – I am not a mother to anyone, you have no mother either. (Runs her fingers through Adri’s hair) I am all you have and you are all I have. (Gently, hums) I bestow my grief on you, I bestow my strength on you, my waiting culminates in you. You and I – the same blood, the same flesh, the same recollection. Look up, look at me – listen to me.
(Adri looks up; his eyes are disturbed like that of a hunted animal).
Adri (looks away, speaks evocatively) – O earth, pardon me! Water, soil, fire, sky – please forgive me.
Shampa (rising from the sofa) – Stand up, Adri. (Adri stands up shakily) Take this. (She hands him the pistol and he takes it, almost in a trance) Listen – you and I, we are no longer Adri and Shampa. We are far greater. We are greater than water, soil, fire and sky. We have transcended human limits, all limits. We are now beyond good and bad, pain and joy, right and wrong. We are free, we can do whatever we like, the world is at our feet. I have bound you, you must free me from bondage. I have awakened you, you must put me to sleep. Come, Adri (hugs him). Come, let us live like the gods for just one instant and then nothing matters anymore. (Releases Adri as she whispers) Now go on. Up the staircase – the room right before you is theirs.
[Adri exits through the middle door. Shampa stands: still, stark, inert as a statue. Off, sounds of banging on a door and Manorama’s frightened screams.]
Adri’s screams (off) – Who had killed my father? Who is my father’s murderer? Tell me! Answer me! (Sounds of struggle, of chairs and tables overturning) Where – where is Ajen? Where have you hidden the scoundrel?
Manorama’s screams (off) – Help! Someone please help!
Adri’s screams (off) – Do not shield him. Move away! I want Ajen!
Manorama’s screams (off) – Somebody, please help!
[Thud of running feet – Manorama runs in through the centre door; her clothes are in dishabille, her hair lies tangled on her back, her hands are raised above. She is followed by Adri holding the gun. Adri’s eyes are bloodshot, his breathing is rapid and his face is bathed in sweat. Manorama runs around blindly for some time and suddenly comes face to face with Adri.]
Adri – Hand over Ajen, or else you will not be spared either!
Manorama (pleading desperately) – I am your mother! I am your mother! (Suddenly notices the door on the right and rushes out, followed by Adri.)
Ajen screams (off) – Murder! Murder! Help!
Adri screams (off) – Here is that scoundrel! Here, take this!
Manorama screams (off) – You’ll be torn to bits by dogs! You’ll be torn to bits by dogs!
[Off: sounds of pistol shots followed by deathly silence. All this time Shampa stands inert, unblinking as the eyes of a stone statue. A little later Adri walks in with sloth steps.]
Adri (throwing the pistol away) –
Go! Go into the
[Shampa had been standing as before, as if she could not see Adri or hear anything he said. Now suddenly she comes to life, lightning courses through her and she trembles from head to toe.]
Shampa (lifts her face, hand on her heart, heaves a sigh) – Peace – at long last!
Adri (shrieks) – Their breath is fanning my heels! Fiery blasts!
Shampa (sighing) – Peace – peace – peace! (She sways.)
[Adri goes to embrace Shampa and she falls to the ground like a lifeless animal.]
Adri – She fell – through my fingers – where? (Looks at Shamps) Didi, are you asleep, already? (Kneels down and nudges Shampa) I am scared, Didi – please get up, please speak! . . . Look, there they come . . . the fiends, Kali’s grandchildren – monstrous – slithery eyes, blood on their jaws – shoo! Shoo! Get away! Whom do you want? I am not Adri! I do not know anything – I am a small boy, I still say A for aypple – I shall now sleep beside my Didi!
[Adri curls up beside Shampa. For an instant the stage is in darkness and then the lights come on. It is now morning, sunlight streams in through the window. The brother and sister still lie on the floor as before – Shampa looks lifeless and Adri seems to be asleep. Ajen stands still as a statue to one side. Through the centre door an aged clerk walks in, followed by two servants.]
Clerk – I came to say that all arrangements for the cremation have been made. (Looks at Shampa) Shall we take her away then?
[Through the door to the right two khaki-uniformed men walk in.]
Uniformed man – Dr Kanjilal has sent us. (Looks at the two figures on the floor) Which one is the patient?
[Through the door to the left a few white-uniformed policemen walk in.]
Police Inspector (takes out his notebook and reads from it) – Shampa Bhaduri . . . aged twenty-eight . . . found dead . . . how did she die? Does anyone know anything?
Adri (stirs in his sleep and mutters) – Don’t know. I don’t know anything.
[Everyone takes position in a semi-circle at the back of the stage, all eyes are fixed on Adri.]
Adri (sits up, looks at the circle of people surrounding him) – Again! You’ve come again! So many of you! Weren’t you just three – the three grandchildren of the demonic fiend – when did you multiply into so many? (The policemen take a step forward and their boots thud on stage; from the other end the asylum-staff take a step forward. Adri speedily shakes his hands in each direction and waves them away) Get away! Shoo! Shoo! I am a small boy, I know nothing. (Crawls like a baby) A is for aypple, B is for ball, the brothers V and W sit in a corner violently wheezing (coughs noisily)! I want to have biscuits, ‘Kinchit’ biscuits – (whimpers) please give me a biscuit! Didi, can’t you see? (Prodding Shampa’s corpse) There they come – sabre-toothed beasts – hideous! (The policemen and the asylum-staff take another step forward.) Get up didi, take off my shoes, I want to sleep – sleep – I am sleepy, let me sleep! (Quiet for an instant and then his scream rents the air) Didi, didi, why aren’t you looking – they are upon me – I am being torn to bits by dogs, I am being torn to bits by dogs!
[Adri tries to stand, but collapses. The policemen and the asylum-staff move in on him, surround him and reach for him.]
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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