by Geetashree Chatterjee
“You still look the same, Maamone”, gushed my aunt. There was an additional quantum of exuberance, a wee bit extra dash of ingratiating admiration in the manner the sentence was uttered, which I, in spite of myself, felt was justified. The aquiline nose, in response, crinkled elegantly and the petal soft lips parted slowly to disclose a row of perfectly moulded teeth. Maamone’s sparkling smile illumined the otherwise dull, grey afternoon which had clouded the room with a plethora of pleasant and unpleasant history playing hide and seek in the shadowed nooks.
We were sitting in the more habitable wing of an otherwise dilapidated mansion which bore silent witness to decades of feudal pomposity and inutile extravaganza. Maamone sitting quietly by the corner of the four poster bed was the quintessence of an era long gone by - an era whose tattered fragments could still be found in parts of the country, though in a state of wilting decay, yet hopelessly holding the fort in a last minute skirmish with modernity. It was rumoured that serious talks were under way with known hoteliers for the crumbling estate. I wondered what would happen to Maamone once the shambles changed hands. Would she be able to retain her quarters? I could not imagine her in any other backdrop. She was so much a part and parcel of the whole withering facade – like a delicate tendril desperately clambering up a ravaged wall.
“Age has taken its toll,” a few mellifluous notes floated in the air. I came back to the present. There was no resentment in the words spoken – just a casual mention of an irrefutable fact. My aunt rushed to oppose vehemently. “No! No! Maamone, when did we last meet? About four or five years back? But I see no change in you.” Maamone’s lips stretched again in that same indulgent smile. She shook her head slightly as though making a mute protest. A lightening revelation struck me. Maamone’s indomitable spirit rose from her almost super natural power of acceptance of the inevitable. Notwithstanding her flawless skin, artistically chiseled features and aristocratic bearing she knew that she could not fight with age for long. It was a useless battle.
My aunt and I had come to pay a visit to Maamone on hearing of her failing health. Maamone was distantly related to my uncle. The proximity of residences had enabled my uncle to always maintain a close and cordial relation with Maamone’s family. Maamone’s husband, Buluda, was one of my uncle’s bosom friends. Buluda had passed away a few years back. Since then my uncle’s visits to the sprawling premises had lessened. But now after so many years the threads of cordiality had once again been picked up and here we were sitting with Maamone reminiscing the olden days.
Maamone’s father-in-law, Shri Brojeshwar Rai, was an austere as well as astute person. He chose his daughter-in-law with much care. Maamone’s radiant beauty dazzled the household, her restrained charm beguiled every heart and above all she was educated and well read. “Deadly combination,” as my uncle would comment whenever Maamone crept into our conversation, “That of beauty and brain,” he would elaborate after a little pause. “To top it all, education bestowed upon her a singularly high self esteem, which made and broke her at the same time” Uncle would conclude with a deep sigh.
Buluda or Billeshwar Rai, Maamone’s husband, was an equally
erudite and imposing personality. Tall, handsome, debonair with a hearty winsome laugh, he would always be the centre of attraction amidst any gathering. Buluda’s business necessitated frequent journeys abroad. After a few years of marriage the frequency of trips increased. Gradually the visits became more and more lengthy. It was not known when and how the seeds of suspicion were sown in Maamone’s heart - perhaps during one of these prolonged absences. It was after one of Buluda’s long awaited return that one fine morning an open letter lying carelessly on the sideboard corroborated the misgivings which were tormenting Maamone for quite some time. She read the missive once and wordlessly picked up her personal effects to leave her husband’s room forever never to return again.
Maamone came to occupy the ground floor apartment from then onwards while Buluda continued to stay on the first floor. No amount of pleading on Buluda’s part could change her mind. She could have gone back to her parents but did not want to be an additional burden on the family who were not doing too well either. Her father had retired. Her brother was earning a frugal income from odd jobs which was just about enough to sustain himself and his parents. He had not got married because of financial instability. Maamone did not have the heart to inflict any further mental pain on her aged parents and struggling sibling by returning home for good.
So she withdrew into her shell. A quiet life of philanthropy followed. But she never went back to her husband no, not even when Buluda was on his death bed. She had embraced the austerities of widowhood much before Buluda’s demise and made it a practice to always appear in spotless white in public or otherwise. It was quite obvious that an irreparable rift had disrupted their conjugal harmony. Perhaps the anguish was too intense and the hurt too deep to admit forgiveness. Separation was irrevocable.
“But what was written in that letter?” I had once asked my Uncle. “Nobody till date knows what was written in that piece of paper. Maamone neither spoke about it to anybody nor complained about her misfortunes. She just submitted to her fate and exited with dignity out of a life which was not acceptable to her ethics,” my uncle clarified. It was left to one’s imagination what that epistle might have contained.
A tinkle of laughter broke my reverie. Dusk had fallen. In the interplay of half lights Maamone’s beauty had taken on an ethereal glow. We bade her courteous good bye. She walked out to see us off. I was leaving the city the next day and did not know whether I would ever be able to meet Maamone again. As I crossed the courtyard I looked back for the last time. She stood there leaning against one of the massive pillars of an intricately carved archway. A solitary remembrance of a resplendent yet pathetic past!!
Beauty is never skin deep, I mused. Maamone’s undying radiance germinated from her inner core, her strength of character, her unbending poise in the face of personal injustice and her gracious acceptance of life as it came. Her beauty stemmed from something beyond the tabernacle of flesh and bones. It was the manifestation of her blemish free soul.
Maamone died peacefully in her sleep a few months later. But the grandeur of her imperishable beauty lives on. The End