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The Linguist
Short Story - By Geetashree Chatterjee


Nalini looked radiant and she had every reason to be so. She was getting married. The exciting news was conveyed in jubilant whispers as soon as Mrs.Kocchar, our lecturer, turned her back towards us. She wrote something on the blackboard but we had little attention for her notes or lecture.

Nalini and I were class mates post graduating in English literature – final year. We were not bosom buddies but shared a common love for the English language or for that matter, any language. Much of our leisure (in between classes) was spent wrangling over the subtle nuances of Dickens, Hardy, Bronte, Shelly, Tagore, Prem Chand, and others in the league –sometimes in the empty lecture halls, sometimes in the crowded canteen and at other times while walking down to the bus stop to catch our respective University Specials.

But today, the classics were set aside.I eagerly waited for Mrs.Kochhar’s session to end so that I could pounce on Nalini to extricate some more information about the imminent ceremony. We were out on the compound as soon as the class was over.

It was peak winter in the capital. The pale warmth of the sun soothed our freezing bones. I found an excuse to draw Nalini apart from her group. “So what does he do?” “Oh! He is a professor,” Nalini said airily. I coaxed for more. “A linguist!”She added after a while. Now pride was clearly intoned in her reply. A professor of Comparative Study of Languages in one of the widely known international academic centres!! Quite an authority on the subject!! He would be visiting India very soon to tie the knot and whisk the bride away with him.

“How lucky!” I said. She looked cool in a blue salwar suit. There was an additional sparkle in her large, luminous eyes. I could almost hear her noisy heartbeat. Her face was suffused with colour. And her breath came in short spurts. Nalini looked like an over inflated balloon ready to burst any moment with uncontained joy.

Nalini would be settling abroad which meant that I would not be able to see her more often. The thought made me a little sad. We had spent some lovely time together. Our thirst for knowledge was unquenchable and spirit of imbibing boundless.

***

I could not stop marvelling at what Nalini’s life would be being married to a linguist. For me it was the ultimate enraptured existence! How her eclectic horizons would broaden discoursing with an intellectual giant who coupled as a soul mate too! Life could not have been more profitable for Nalini.

It was fantasizing on Nalini’s post-marital bliss that I experienced the first pang of jealousy – a mild but nevertheless pricking pain in my heart!

***

The marriage was fixed on a date after the final exams, three months hence. Nalini seemed to be on winged feet. Of course, she was in constant touch with her beau as was obvious from the conversations that we were having lately.

“Toska!” She threw the word in the air. I jumped up and caught it. “Russian”, she explained, “The word has several layers to it. Love-sickness is one of them. Putting it simply!” We hurried towards the library.

A week later we collided in the corridor. Nalini broke into a tinkle of merry laughter. “So how’s the romance going?” I asked jokingly. “Oh! We often “meet” on Skype. But most of the time we are in a state of mamihlapinatapei!!!” “What’s that?” I exclaimed uncomprehendingly. Nalini elaborated that it signified the meaningful look shared by two people who desired to initiate something but were hesitant to do so, each expecting the other to start.

Nalini shuttled these invaluable gems at me as though tossing a bowl of juicy meat towards a ravenous hound. I would hurriedly note them down in my diary. But at times I also missed one or two which left me with a sense of acute deprivation. It was also the time when the pain in my chest intensified.

***

The marriage was a grand affair. Nalini dazzled while the groom looked shy and ill at ease. A little advance in age, perhaps, but definitely the most prized catch. I wanted to draw him into a “meaningful” chat but he appeared to be a man of very few words. One who would like to lose his identity in the crowd.

A month after Nalini left for her new home. We did meet years later but it was not the Nalini that I knew.

***

The mobile rang incessantly. I extended my hand under the quilt to answer the call.

“Hi Geeta! Sorry to wake you up early in the morning. But I wanted to invite you home this evening. We are having a get-together, just a few of us, old college mates.”

“Hi Shamlee! An invitation for a wakeup call! One couldn’t ask for more.”

“Soo sorry! But its just next to impossible to get you these days. That’s why thought of calling you up at this wee hour.”

I could not argue on that. My work took up most of my time. I had almost ex-communicated my friends. My social circle was next to nil. I suffered from numerous ailments and in spite of all the hard work that I put in and the timely promotion up the organizational ladder, I generally felt dejected with myself and my life. This was my last chance to woo normalcy. So, I heartily agreed to join the bandwagon at Shamlee’s sharp at eight in the evening.

***

“I have a surprise in store for you.” Shamlee looked chic in her new dress. She pointed a well-manicured finger towards the opposite corner of the room. A lone, emaciated form nursing a drink occupied the sofa. The soft lighting over played the shadows in the room. I could barely make out a long drawn face, wrinkled brows, hollowed cheeks, worried eyes and drooping lips.

“N-a-l-i-n-i” I halted on each letter. She looked so different….withdrawn…unhappy.

She was equally startled to see me but merely gave a half-hearted “Hi” in reply. Averting gaze she concentrated on the drink. My attempts at conversation yielded minimal response.

It was Shamlee who filled me in later. Nalini’s marriage seemed to be on the rocks. Apparently, married to a linguist had its own share of strain. Nalini’s husband nurtured a selective society of fellow linguists who had this strange habit of communicating in multiple languages. Naturally, Nalini found it difficult to keep pace with them. At times she felt like an outsider and at other times she was made to feel like one. She tried to discuss the matter with her husband. But he only had a quiet contempt for an answer. Gradually, diffidence set in. Nalini felt as though she were good for nothing and retreated into a shell which made things worse. Somebody suggested a change of scene. That was why this sudden visit to the homeland. All by herself. But Shamlee had grave doubts whether this self-imposed separation would ultimately prove fruitful.

I remembered the Nalini of yore – cheerful, giggly, loud, opinionated, noisily arguing on Tennyson’s superiority over other poets. “Depressing!” I genuinely felt sorry for her. “It seems being a good husband is much more essential to keep a marriage going than being a brilliant scholar…..a linguist….or whatever.”

Shamlee nodded in agreement.

It was a priceless revelation for me as well who had once felt envious of Nalini’s conjugal gains.

***

Time flew by. I, once again, lost touch with my friends. It was work, work and work….grinding….gruelling….grousing. I had almost forgotten Nalini when we suddenly bumped into each other in Cannaught Place. This time, again, I failed to recognize her. She had put on oodles of weight. Prosperity, as she put it. The tell-tale marks of age were visible on her face. But I was glad to note that the music in her laughter was back. Her spirits shone in her eyes. And her demeanour spoke of general well-being.

Yes, she was doing well.

“Won’t you like to know how?” She quipped.

Before I could ask, she continued, “We are seekers throughout our lives. It’s far better to plunge in than to suffer fromtorschlusspanik. And that, my dear, is German. The fear that time is running out.”

... The Linguist - Story Continued here...