In the end, both felt they couldn’t carry on any longer. A year of most bitter experience had shown them that forcing didn’t make things happen. Ending it all was better than smoldering on in dissension.
And yet only a year ago, Soumyen felt sure that he had found the most wonderful woman on Earth, who had been waiting only for him! Perhaps Sunetra too thought of him as the only man for whom she had built herself lovingly with all the poetry, songs, and dreams.
Soumyen had asked, “I am going to accept the teaching job in the village. Will it be inconvenient for you?”
“Why should it be?” Sunetra had smiled, “I too am a rural girl.”
“But you haven’t been to our village.”
“All villages are the same. They are muddy in the rain and have no electricity. At night the jackals howl nearby. No, I won’t mind.”
“How will you pass the time?”
“Painting, of course!”
Of course, thought Soumyen. Why should he worry about Sunetra? Even in Calcutta, he had noticed that Sunetra was unlike other women. She never felt easy amidst a crowd and remained silent among other chattering women. She frowned at overly talkative people. She liked to get lost within herself and wordlessly gaze at the golden sky during sunsets. Even Soumyen did not disturb her at those times.
Yes, Sunetra would be fine. She could spend the time by herself when Soumyen went to work. Sunetra did not have the habit of napping during the day. She would either open a book or sit by the window, gazing at the wide expanse of the river Rupnarayan at the edge of the green land and yellow silty mud, interspersed by small pools of yellow-brown water — sailboats, running steamers, flocks of birds, and the hazy outline of Kolaghat bridge at the backdrop far away. Beyond, the sun would rise above the blue-green horizon and unfurl its petals of light, and the moon would appear like the round vermillion mark on Sunetra’s forehead.
Sunetra could paint all that. No, she wouldn’t be bored.
A year later, however, not a single painting was complete. She could not respect Soumyen’s mother. She deemed his father boorish and uncouth. She cringed at the sight of Soumyen’s brothers and sisters munching bowlfuls of moori with jaggery. She could not sit by, peacefully watching the river. Every little detail of their domestic life poisoned her.
“Can’t you adjust a little?”
“Perhaps mother is a bit rural, but still —"
“I am rural too. But I don’t believe that rural folks need not have good manners.”
Soumyen’s face flushed. A sharp retort was ready at the tip of his tongue. He stomped out of the room to avoid an ugly scene.
Later, he asked her frankly, “Do you want me to take you away from my family?”
Sunetra replied with a strange smile, deepening a tiny dimple on her cheek. There was a time when that smile intoxicated Soumyen. He could feel Sunetra stepping out of his reach into some faraway land — like her paintings — beautiful and remote. But now he understood that smile. It conveyed cruelty, contempt, and spite. Soumyen was incensed.
“You know I am the eldest son. I can’t hurt them.”
That cruel smile still played on her lips.
“I know. Hurting someone needs a bit of strength. You don’t have any.”
“You think hurting someone is a sign of manhood?”
“Breaking the chain can hurt if you are used to it. But one accepts it if one wants to survive.”
These quarrels never ended. They could go on fencing with sharp words and hurt each other at every opportunity. But Soumyen had no desire for it. In the end, both had to admit the truth.
“We've made a mistake.”
Soumyen tossed out the cigarette he had just lit and said, “I agree.”
“How shall we live now?” Sunetra asked pointedly.
“We have to get a legal separation.”
“I think so too.”
The moon — like Sunetra’s vermillion mark — rose over the Rupnarayan, bestowing a mystical aura upon the river. The last flock of the egrets busily flew to their nests. But Sunetra was not immersed in them. A savage light was in her eyes. But Soumyen’s eyes shone even more fiercely.
“Fine. That’s what we’ll do.”
That was what they did.
A few days later, a boat left their banks in the evening.
Mother did not even step out of her room. Father silently stood by the river — Sunetra bowed to touch his feet. His lips moved a little. His utterance was not clear — it could have been a blessing. Soumyen thought Sunetra should have skipped that act before leaving. It wouldn’t have mattered.
The boat left.
The tide was high the next morning; the waters submerged paddy fields and the yellow silts and crept up to the cowshed. And then the waters receded, revealing soft mud and sinuous streams. Clumps of green paddies and water hyacinths were stuck in the mud here and there. They had to pass a mile-long stream to reach the river Rupnarayan. The Kolaghat station was still two miles away. And then came Calcutta. There, Sunetra would be lost to Soumyen forever. They had first met at Howrah station, and perhaps their last meeting would be there too. No, there might be one more meeting — in court.
The boat sailed on. The only sound was that of the oars on the water. In the light of the setting sun, the silty mud looked like a silk sari with footprints of shorebirds. There was a melancholic peace in the sky — a single star blinked like a tired firefly. The water in the stream sobbed softly. Both of them sat in silence. There was nothing left to say. Not a single word.
As they sailed through the water hyacinths and green paddy, breathing the scent of the wet soil, listening to the suppressed sobbing of the water, and looking at the lone, weary star in the sky, both realized that they had nothing to say to each other anymore. No complaints, no remorse, no grievances. Neither had committed any offense, nor cheated the other. They had simply made a mistake. They had thought they could live their lives together, that their bodies and souls were tied to each other for life, and even beyond (even though Soumyen did not believe in afterlife, and Sunetra never decided if she did or not). But it seemed they could not go on together for even a few days, let alone an entire life. It was for the better. Breaking off an intolerable relationship was much better than dragging it on.
The last flock of birds flew over the muddy flats today as well, and disappeared beyond the Rupnarayan. Sunetra lifted her dark eyes to the golden light of sunset. “Please forgive me,” said Sunetra softly, “I have caused you much suffering.”
“You too have suffered, Sunetra,” Soumyen’s voice was made sad by the impending separation, “I too should ask for forgiveness. I have hurt you a lot.”
“Perhaps I have made some gains also. Who knows?”
Perhaps there indeed had been some benefits. Who knew what Sunetra meant by that? Whatever we face in our lives leaves us with something useful. Nothing deprives us completely. Death gives us the strength to endure other deaths, sorrow grants us the fortitude to suffer more, and the first love opens up the soul like the first touch of sunlight. Perhaps Sunetra felt that her mistake would protect her from others in the future, and help her better understand the next person, without any illusion clouding her vision. Still …
The last sunrays faded over the Rupnarayan. A meandering stream joined the river. The ebbtide pulled the river hard towards the sea. Two more miles lay diagonally across on the way to Kolaghat. A train from there to reach Calcutta, another ocean. “Couldn’t she wait a while longer? Tolerate just a little bit more?”
Far away, the lights on the banks of Kolaghat were beckoning. Sunetra sighed quietly. Why couldn’t Soumyen show a little more strength? Why couldn’t he say — ‘I promise you, I’ll take you away from here. Just wait for a few more days?’
The boat sailed on. The ebbing flow was strong, and the boat was pulled towards the port like relentless fate. The sky had lost all colors and had turned pitch black. Only a few stars in between some hazy clouds and a few lights at the port far away blinked. The water too was all black — in the darkness, the Rupnarayan seemed to flow beyond the banks into the farthest horizon.
The river had become still as a lake. Only a few small waves splashed against the boat. Suddenly, they heard a deep roar, as if the Rupnarayan had woken up from a slumber and stood up.
“The tide is coming in Babu,” said the boatman, “we should have left earlier —”
Before he could finish his sentence, a large wave crashed into the boat. The rope tying the oar snapped, and the boatman narrowly escaped falling into the water. The boat tilted to one side and spun around.
How long was it? Half a minute? One minute? It felt like eons. The dark waters of the Rupnarayan turned into a tumultuous sea. The lights at a distance seemed like a cruel joke. The night wind roared in laughter. The shadowy railway bridge looked like a sinister skeleton beckoning.
“Help, help!” the boatman screamed in terror.
Another spin around the rolling vortex. Huge waves crashed into the boat. The spinning boat sped a few yards backward. Getting over her initial shock, Sunetra screamed out as if wanting to cling hard to Soumyen. At this moment she had no other shelter, no other recourse.
The boatman managed to pick up his oars. “We are safe now Babu,” he said, “but it was a very close call.”
They were safe! Sunetra immediately sat up straight — Soumyen folded in the arms he had extended to hold her. It was no longer necessary. Soumyen was rewarded a rare opportunity to show his strength to Sunetra. But it arrived for only a moment and disappeared in the next. “Nothing to worry about now, Babu,” the boatman tried to reassure them again, “we’ll reach Kolaghat in half an hour.”
Soumyen gnashed his teeth in fierce frustration. “Nothing to worry about?” What use did “nothing to worry about” have? Let the boat sink in the storm on the Rupnarayan, let the dark waters pounce like a ferocious demon. And he alone would have sheltered Sunetra in his arms and carried her to safety. For once, at least, he could have proven to Sunetra that she did not know all about him. There was still a lot left unknown.
Meanwhile, Sunetra wondered why he shrank back instead of pulling her into his arms. Why didn’t he embrace her hard and said, ‘now that we are facing our deaths, know this Sunetra, I’ll never let you go. I’ll hold on to you with all my strength.’?
But neither could utter a single word. The oars pulled the boat steadily towards the shore. The lights shone brighter as they came nearer. The rail line to Calcutta appeared over the banks of the Rupnarayan.
Only once had the river tried to stop them. It had brought them a precious opportunity, if only for a few moments. But neither of them could make use of it.
The boat reached Kolaghat like inevitable destiny.
“Eighteen minutes,” said Sunetra, glancing at her wristwatch. Soumyen gritted his teeth once more.
“Yes. Plenty of time to catch the train.”
Published in Parabaas: March 30, 2022
The original story 'রূপনারায়ণ' ('Rupnarayan') was published in 1959 in the collection titled মনোবীণা ('Manoveena') by Ujjwal Sahitya Mandir, Calcutta.
অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Ananya Das