Castaway

Short Story by Kakuli Nag

It was a cold December evening, a few decades ago, when I had read Tagore’s The Castaway and Nilkanta is still fresh in my memory. I can remember the smell of my bedroom, the warmth of my bed and the shawl I was clutching to myself as I read those last lines from that Classic and felt inexplicably sad for Nilkanta.

The first time I saw Babla in Bangalore Central carrying Pratima’s shopping bags, I mistook him to be a servant to do easy odd jobs at home to earn a living. The lingering sadness I had felt for Nilkanta rushed back to smother me, the moment I saw his sad monotonous eyes, receding hairline and tired expression. Pratima Majumdar- my friend – looked beautiful and in contrast to her son, very beautiful.

 I assumed her husband had passed his not - so - right looks to Babla however, later I learnt Mr.Majumdar had been a much sought after guy since his University days, both by business leaders for his intellect and hopeful fathers of eligible daughters for his good looks – who of course had his interest pinned on Pratima and later settled for a job that kept him in the States for months together on different projects.

 It is during these periods of absence Pratima first realized exactly what and how much he meant to her. That was the love story twenty years back. It is not that pretty any more – She had a life in India before marriage and doing nothing worthwhile in US, except socializing with acquaintances was slowing getting into her nerves as meaningless and endlessly tiring. She could never really get over the pangs of separation from Kolkata, her family, relatives, friends and colleagues– I never found that as a ground, good enough for divorce – She did, and when Babla was just six years old, she returned to Kolkata, legally separated.

 I had been to her parent’s house in Lake Gardens once or twice during my trips to Kolkata however never met Babla as my visits were often brief – He was either in school or swimming classes. In the later years, it was tuition or group study. The frames in Pratima’s house had pictures of his kid years and I always found him very cute.

 It was on a Sunday afternoon, two months after she shifted to my work city Bangalore that we decided to catch up for shopping and coffee. So seeing that kid in this form was a mild shock, which was soon replaced by an instant liking for him, the moment he offered to carry my shopping bags as well.

 I was pathetic at small talk. My feeble attempt to do just that, with the boy who looked older than Eighteen in his full sleeves shirt was a total disaster. I asked him casually when Pratima left us at the escalator to get us Espresso – “What are you studying now Babla?”

 He looked shocked as if I had stepped into a zone he wanted to protect fiercely. I continued to stare at him expecting a response and he in turn continued to stare at the aisle his mother went to, eagerly wanting her to return to his rescue. I wondered what was he so nervous about to answer an innocent question about his studies.

That was the second shock of the day I received - that he had not completed his first Board exam yet. He repeatedly failed in Mathematics and now he is studying in open school with a new subject to get rid of Maths.

*** 

One month after that meeting, Pratima had to go out of station for a couple of months to attend a leadership training and wanted him to stay at my place so that I could over see his studies in her absence.

 At my place, he remained withdrawn probably because this proposition to live in my house was not to his liking, as being tutored by me would only expose his weaknesses and academic challenges. He mostly kept to himself, always with books and I pad, responded to my queries in monosyllables and no TV at all.

 When I returned from office, getting me a bottle of water from the fridge had been his priority. He had offered several times to make tea but I did not let him. Babla minus his academics failure was a perfect boy - absolutely trouble free. I grew to like him for his quiet ways.

 All hell broke loose when my cousin Asima, who stayed with her daughter Minu, just a couple of buildings away from mine, came home to invite me for Minu’s dance program in the local Bengali Cultural Hall – A musical on Tagore’s Chitrangada.

 She noticed Babla head to toe, as if he was an alien. I observed the color from his face fade when she made subtle comparisons between him and her exceptionally talented daughter. Asima is the kind who takes pride in being tactless and labels it as being straightforward. I had never seen another mother so conceited about her child’s achievements.

 That day, the clouds hung incredibly low, as if weighed down by all possibilities to reach the earth, as drizzle or downpour. Almost like Babla’s face, ready to weep. I asked him to go to his room and study, ignoring her comments.

 Babla was desperate to return to his own house and stay all by himself till Pratima’s return, probably to avoid confronting Asima’s overbearing personality again. Knowing her insensitivity, she is likely to continue these comparisons regardless of its impact on him. He will probably be biting his lower lip, when he is alone or weeping bitter tears, in the middle of the night – I will never know.

 ***

The most unexpected incident happened the day Minu’s twelfth standard results were announced – She failed in two subjects. Asima and I were shocked and almost collapsed with disbelief.

 “You heard me right. I failed. Now so what?” Minu casually repeated, surfing her smart phone. Her non-verbal language communicated more strongly that this whole failure bit was deliberate.

 That evening, I had more serious problem to tackle, at home.  I return from Asima’s home to find Babla packing his bags.

 “I will stay with Dadu in Kolkata. I have booked tickets online”, he informed.

 “Why? You will do no such thing till Pratima is back from her official trip.” I warned. I politely reminded him of the killing heat in Kolkata, the subtle taunts from his relatives, how degrading it would be to face his friends who were ahead of him in their academic pursuits – everything to make him decide against going back and yet nothing worked. I tried calling Pratima however for some strange reason, her cell was continuously ringing.

 He continued packing silently. My heart went out for the poor boy. Something about the way he sat there on the edge of the bed, made me want to embrace him but I sat there still watching him slowly, carefully arrange his clothes and books. I suddenly had the same sadness choking me that I had years back, remembering Nilkanta leaving Kiran.

 As I was struggling to shrug off that memory, he whispered softly lowering his gaze, “I am sorry about Mrinmoyee”.

 My sense of reasoning failed me there – Why should he be sorry about her results? He hardly knew her. The thing I probably missed was the humiliation he faced at Minu’s failure, more than his own, as if he had inflicted his unfortunate fate on her just by being in the same city.

 Something about the tone of voice when he spoke about Minu struck me as familiar and yet annoyingly odd. “How dare he?” was my first mental reaction. I vaguely tried to imagine Asima’s outburst at its possibility, for wherever my creative mind was leading me to.

 The only time Minu had seen him was at the Cultural Hall, post her solo dance - the second week, after he came to stay at my place. I never thought they even noticed each other. She brushed past me after the act to know if I liked it. She had not even cast a side-glance at him when he got up from his chair to let her sit, while she chatted enthusiastically with me about how little time she had to rehearse, how difficult some steps were – and then quickly returned to the Green Room to change for another group performance. He had stood there ignored, by both of us.

 On my birthday, I remembered Mrinmoyee brought us some chicken Biryani when I was in office. He always used Minu’s fair name, as if shortening it would damage, something about it - about her. I was suddenly curious now and asked, “How long was she here when she came home with Biryani?”

 He looked surprised, as my question was sudden, without pretext. Random thoughts have no background or future nor any definite sequence to occur and one’s doubts are even worse at chronology. He stared at me. The suitcase lay open in front of him, half packed “I did not let her in. I saw her off from the door”.

 “And why exactly would you want to be so uncivilized” I insisted to know. The printed cotton curtains of the bedroom swished and a whiff of cold breeze slipped into the room. His forehead glistened with sweat.

 “That is the most civilized thing I could think of doing” He spoke softly, “knowing how much her mother loathed me”

 Sometimes curiosity gets the better of me – “Do you like her?” I asked him upfront.

 “No” he replied automatically, without a moment’s thought “I feel like an insect under her microscopic gaze. She makes me feel, I should never have been born”, he almost whispered.

 “Why, Minu should never make you feel like that” He looked surprised again.

 “I thought you asked if I liked her mother”

 “Are you scared of her and is that why you are running away to Kolkata?” I somehow felt Babla was afraid of my cousin for her loud mouth and insensitive attitude.

 “One can only admire her for her talents, not be scared of her” He got me wrong again.

 “Dude, I meant Minu’s mother, are you scared of her?” I clarified my question, repeating myself.

 “Just as much as I am scared of you – I don’t want anything to go wrong between you both because of me – Mother wanted me to stay at your place. However the moment I saw Mrinmoyee at your door step with chicken curry, I wanted to be out of your house”. The writer in me noted that blush on his face.

 “Is that why you drove her away from the door? “ I demanded to know.    

Short story continued here.....