A Trail of Roses
She didn’t have the patience to answer the incessant volley of questions that the garrulous woman impaled her with. The growing belly wasn’t a thing of concern for her as yet; she had the privilege of a great physique. Tall and svelte, she was the epitome of beauty for many a young Calcuttan women. Some adored her and spoke fondly of her blonde hair, her blue eyes and her porcelain smooth skin, bestowing upon her the quintessential salutation of ‘Mem’, the distorted Indianized version of ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’m’. Others didn’t have such big hearts. Their way of expression was cynical. They distrusted everything about the ‘firingee meyechhele’. It was a derogatory term to use for anyone; she’d learnt during her stay in Calcutta. ‘Meye’ literally translated into girl in English while ‘Chhele’ meant a boy, but when you combined both, it gave the picture of an odious female, who possessed qualities unfit for respectable women of the times.
Presently, crammed into the very last seat she could manage on the Indian Airlines Flight flying from Patna, bound for Kathmandu, she sat ruminating about her past, present and future. The choices she’d made, the men who’d made and broken her, her birth, her relationships and her need to assert herself. It all seemed too distant now for the first trimester of her pregnancy had left her jarred with exhaustion. She remembered that she hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, since last evening to be precise. Looking at her watch, she realized it had been nearly fifteen hours since she’d had her last meal comprising of a measly bowl of short and stubby rice, covered with what was a fair attempt at curry cooking, except that she’d never had so many vegetables curried into a single dish ever before.
The woman sitting beside her was evidently travelling with her husband and horde of kids, who were especially mischievous and rampant with their obnoxious pranks. They pranced around the aisle, happy about their coming Himalayan soiree. Their father was a stoic man, who had a sharp jawline. He sat on the aisle seat just one row ahead of where she sat, and all that she could see from her vantage point, was that he was nothing like his wife who was short, plump and probably had a genuine smattering of oriental genes. Her eyes had the perpetual look of curiosity and the monolids gave them a comic touch of eternal perplexity. The wide-eyed curious look of a woman who had seen too less of life, and even less of the hard parts. She was dressed in typical seventies style polka dots. Her sari was black polka dots on a background of white, and her sleeveless blouse was just the opposite; white dots punctuating a black background. It gave her the image of roly-poly chessboard that huffed and puffed as the plane took off, her seat belt digging into her lower belly that stuck out impassively. One of the boys was seated next to his mom by the window, and it was a welcome respite when he decided that he’d had enough of monkey business for the day, and looked out the window, switching to commentary mode instead. That was better, she thought, trying to catch up with forty winks.
Her plans were smashed soon enough. Her neighbour poked her on the arm.
“Akela akela Kathmandu jaata, dar nahi lagta?” her eyes were shining with excitement. The question wouldn’t have irked her, but she was extremely tired, pregnant and unsure of what she was going to find once she got to Kathmandu. In addition to all these, she was hungry.
What a bothersome woman, she thought, before replying in English. She thought that creating this language gap would be the best way to stave off such unsolicited questions.
“Why should I be afraid of going alone to Kathmandu?”
The response seemed to have the intended effect on the target. Blinking a few times, she seemed to make up her mind. Then she replied in Hindi.
“Hamara pati. Officer. Customs mein hai. Kathmandu to bahut khatarnak jaigah. Kya jaane kya pakadne jaata hai hamara pati. Senior officer hai to. Isliye hum bhi ghoomne chala aya. Suna bahut foreigner rehta hai wahan.”
She understood the sensible no-nonsense look on the husband’s face now. He was serving in Customs and was probably going to attend to a tip-off about something. Maybe, it was some bureaucratic paper-work that was required. She surmised he probably didn’t expect the mission to be one of action or he wouldn’t have taken along his family. The woman was excited that she’d be seeing a lot of foreigners in Kathmandu. Her infectious enthusiasm was irritating and it was no wonder that her husband had found himself the morning papers to delve in. Either way, she wasn’t exactly interested in the affair. She decided not much time would be there for her to rest, and so, she ceremoniously let out an exaggerated yawn, and closed her eyes. Soon enough she fell into a deep sleep.
India, ever since her heydays during the Harappan civilization, had probably been home to multi-ethnic people, which led to a rise of cultural diversity. The earliest period of documentation of such diversity was when the Vedic culture came to an end and India saw rise of Buddhism, a sect that diverged from mainstream Sanatana Dharma, literally translating to ‘Eternal Religion’ or the founding philosophy behind modern day Hinduism. It is believed that during Gautam Buddha’s own lifetime, there were already sixteen important republics known as Mahajanapadas sprawled across what was the then Indian subcontinent. The most prominent among them were the Shakyas of Kapilavastu and the Lichhavis of Vaishali. This goes on to show how easily accommodative the natives were of cultural or philosophical differences. So many invasions later, India had seen most of the tribes living around the then Eurasia, and had sustained through the mindless plunders.
It was no wonder that with ascent of the Mughal Sultanate in Delhi, India found her myriads of castes, creeds, ethnicities and philosophies united under a common umbrella that had a strong background; strong enough to command millions under the name of the dynasty. By the time the Mughal dynasty ruled the Indian subcontinent, there were already several different independent Hindu and Muslim pockets strewn across the region. The Ummayad Caliphate’s excursion from Damascus, and their eventual invasion of the Baluchistan and Sindh provinces and then the entry into India, had already exposed India to a ‘religiously different power’. The plundering of the Somenath Mandir stationed by the Arabian Sea, by Mahmud of Ghazni, nearly five hundred years before the advent of the Sultanate, had therefore given the country a chance for outrage. The united voice of outrage didn’t emerge though, because of the multi-ethnicity and lack of a common governing body that could give a feeling of unity among the number of sovereign pockets.
Mughal period wasn’t only a time of immense socio-political development, but also found the need for rise of the Sikh movement ushered in by Guru Nanak Deva, the Maratha movement assembled under the able leadership of Chhatrapati Shivaji, and then the final stages of the Bhakti movement. This shows that oppression under Islamic rule was already present. Eventually, it would be ironic how Bahadur Shah II would be deported to Rangoon by the British on suspicions of being an accomplice and patron of the Sepoy Mutinee of 1857. India’s struggle for independence came in periodic spurts. It was strange how the struggle for India’s independence denoted solely the period of movement against British Raj. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 was a decisive victory for the British where they defeated Bengal’s last Nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah, who was being aided by the French.
The British had been lucky enough to find a few defectors within Siraj’s own army, most prominent among them, his demoted Chief of Army, Mir Jaafar. The British had been anxious about getting outnumbered by the French army that had been sent to reinforce the Nawab’s troops. When they got hold of people like Mir Jaafar and a few others like Yar Lutuf Khan, the influential Jagat Seths, represented by Mahtab Chand and Swarup Chand, Umichand and Rai Durlabh, they got the leverage of having the Nawab’s army stationed at the battlefield, but without any command of taking positions.
As a result, the Nawab’s 50,000 strong army saw defeat at the hands of Robert Clive’s measly force of 3,000 soldiers. This was the most apt reply the British could give to the insolent twenty-three year old Siraj, who was said to have been a combination of volatile temperament and lack of political finesse that the earlier Nawab, his grandfather, Alivardi Khan had shown until his death. Although sceptical of the profit mongering British East India Company himself, he’d successfully walked the fine line of balanced diplomacy and shrewdness. Siraj, on the other hand, was furious when he learnt of the British attack on Chandannagore Fort, a French centre at the time.
The Mutiny of 1857 also saw the transfer of power from the British East India Company directly to the British Crown. The independence movements didn’t subside though. The years since the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny were tumultuous for the British rule in India. Too many charismatic leaders had come to guide and stoke the nationalistic fervour; some believed in violence, others in non-violence. The British saw that their rule in India wouldn’t be there for very long, but the dying embers of the Raj saw a few hapless British men and women stranded in India. They were people who had the spirit of a losing athlete who’d seen better days, and they revelled in the memories of a dying afternoon.
The remaining Sahebs and Memsahebs felt a constant threat to their lives, and with good reason too. After more than two centuries of oppression of local masses by their race, they hardly had anything to complain about. The recurring famines, the increasing burden of taxes levied on farmers, forced the depleting British power in India, to reconsider their sense of security and power they had hitherto maintained. British women became scarce on Indian lands, and a predominant custom of the times emerged in the form of marriage of British soldiers to Indian women. This gave rise to a new race – that of the Anglo-Indians, who’d already started feeling jittery by the turn of the twentieth century. The sheer shrewdness of British policies implemented almost unilaterally on India, had been brought out to light and everyone was well aware that this didn’t particularly endear the firingees to Indians.
They therefore required a safe haven for themselves; a replica of their motherland, England, right in the heart of India. The British didn’t consider their Anglo-Indian counterparts, as English as they themselves were. They never got the equality they should have gotten from the British, while the Indians always eyed them with suspicion. The nearer India’s independence drew, the more uncertain the fate of this community appeared. That was when Ernest Timothy McCluskie, an Anglo Indian from Calcutta, born to an Irish father and an Indian mother, came up with the novel idea of creating such a homeland for the families whose future needed to be ascertained.
Thankfully, McCluskie was an astute businessman, and once he’d set his mind to this idea, he coaxed and cajoled Raja Uday Pratap Nath Shah Deo of the Nagavanshis , or the then Zamindar of Chhota Nagpur Plateau, to lease out some 10,000 acres of land, near Ranchi of the then Bihar. McCluskie got what he wanted and the Raja was later-on conferred with the title of Kaiser-e-Hind Medal for his public services.
Thus came to be established around 1920, an idyllic Anglo-Indian colony in the heartland of India, which would be known as McCluskieganj. The location was ideal; it provided access to the railway, to a river as well as a road, and the place soon enough thrived with a colonization society established according to McCluskie’s plan, that permitted Anglo-Indians to buy shares in the cooperative society, and get a plot of land in return for their investment. The scheme wasn’t limited to people of English descent though, anyone having Portuguese, Dutch or French parentage could also invest in the society.
Soon enough, the Ganj of their dreams was built; a safe haven, a firingee colony that was exclusively for the Sahebs and Memsahebs, who arrived trudging along their European fanfare behind them. Heavy wooden chests, shotguns, rifles, and weapons fit for preservation in any armoury, riding breeches, pianos… the list was endless. It was the picture of a cross between an Indian tropical heaven replete with marigolds, hibiscus and chrysanthemums, with proper European way of life.
The three ‘R’s didn’t suffice for the fourth ‘R’ though. McCluskie hadn’t thought about remuneration, or livelihood, so to say. It had been thought that the residents would survive on agriculture. It was a notion that didn’t have much practicability because this was an endeavour that the Sahebs neither had the capability, nor the willingness to partake. Thus, where initial years found the place thriving with residents, the numbers dwindled within passing of merely two decades. Most of the residents had already made a hasty exit by the late 1940s. They migrated to United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada, and the liveliness of the community declined. The once majestic bungalows now stood abandoned, often sold for a pittance to customers, while owners left in a hurry. Some housekeepers took over from the owners, having gained a stature they’d only hitherto dreamt of.
Amid the exodus of erstwhile residents, some families chose to stay behind. Among them were the Hourigan family. They had the proud genes typical of Irishmen. They loved their lands and had taken to McCluskieganj as if they had found a suitable and emotionally fulfilling alternative to Clanmaurice in Kerry County, back in their homeland. Hourigan Sr. found the Church in McCluskieganj as an apt substitute to the Killarney Roman Catholic Church, where he was christened. Elizabeth had always felt left out of her family legacy, because she’d never be called Hourigan Jr. That name had already been taken by her father. Her grandfather had been a hard-core patriot and he loved the fact that he’d served in the army. He’d always told his son, Elizabeth’s father, that one needed to respect the land. Whichever country one lived in, what mattered was that one had to have the solidarity for the country and the people in their heart. Thus it was no wonder that Hourigan Jr. was drafted to the Indian Air Force when he’d grown up.
Elizabeth therefore grew up in a household predominantly lacking a father figure. She’d seen so less of her father during her childhood that she sometimes felt stifled by his sporadic visits. All he would ever do was to sit in front of the gramophone, haul in hordes of vinyl, and sit languishing in his recliner, his love for country music taking over his senses. John Hourigan had never attended to the needs of his family, and when he did turn up at home, he didn’t know what to do. All he had was his booze, his music and his bad temper. Elizabeth had seen him hitting her mother so often while he was home, that she began detesting his presence. This led her to stop relying on men. She got to believing that men were rough feral animals who loved dominating docile womenfolk.
She was exceptionally anxious when her father turned up to stay at home permanently, after he’d retired. She was thirteen at the time. Almost as soon as he was home, he began grumbling about the expenses, which according to him, were too much for his meagre pension.
Soon enough, his incessant drinking binges landed the family in penury. What little of the money was left, John Hourigan quickly put into his apparently far-sighted investment. He bragged that the family would one day be proud of his smartness; he’d purchased the shares of a great Calcutta based business conglomerate. He said that the company owned coal mines, tea estates, engineering ventures, among a number of other enterprises that were sure to give a high return. John Hourigan found out soon enough that he’d been wrong in even the one thoughtful step he’d taken during his lifetime.
He began withering just like the vines that had begun climbing along the rafters of the bungalow. A smell of abuse crept into the Hourigan household with each passing day. Elizabeth remembered seeing her mom going to sell her wares at the Railway Station. She toiled hard at the kitchen garden, growing onion greens and tomatoes and pumpkins. Retaining what she thought would be required for her household consumption, she sold the rest along with a number of sweet and savoury bakes. She often sold out her wares, and returned home empty-handed at others. McCluskieganj had begun dying a slow and painful death. It wasn’t only the Hourigan family that had been affected by the throes of time, and Karen Hourigan often found a dearth of buyers who had enough purchasing power for her merchandise.
Eventually John Hourigan did what he felt he could, to redeem his image in the eyes of his wife and his daughter. He’d never bothered about impressing his own father because he despised the old man with vengeance for not thinking highly of him, ever! He didn’t have a dime to care about now, that he was dead, and Elizabeth felt sorry for her mother, who looked like patience personified, in comparison to her unruly and boisterous husband. Elizabeth respected her mother for her ability to forget and forgive.
John Hourigan began going to Calcutta, his pockets heavy with his savings, basically his wife’s hard-earned money. He went to the derby, and needless to mention, lost his money most of the time. His occasional outings however provided him with the necessary outlet to channelize his energy into meeting people. John Hourigan had quick charms readily up his sleeves, and he didn’t fail to impress people when he recollected anecdotes of the glorious yesteryears. The race course regulars had a social circle that they cherished, and Hourigan, with his grey eyes, tall with a faint hint of the youthful handsomeness left behind, presented a great romantic picture to many of the new generation Bengali Sahebs and Memsahebs.
These were a new creed of anglicised liberal Bengalis, who considered themselves ‘enlightened’ by their acceptance and adaptation of the fading traditions of the yore. They spoke on serious topics like communism, the fruits of the two great wars, the impending Americanization of the world, and the changing face of socio-political conditions in the country. Calcutta was that metropolis of India which boasted of having retained the ‘elegance’ of the erstwhile British era. It was a swirling paraphernalia of sights, sounds, smells and traditions; a melting pot of the indulgent decadence of the Babu Culture married with the trend of logical thinking and non-conformism left behind by the earlier Bengal Renaissance.
The Babus were gone though; the creed of offsprings no longer dressed in the pristine mulmul panjabis, finest silk dhotis and Kolhapuri chappals. The attire had been replaced by the smarter and utilitarian suits, the hookahs had given way to more practical cheroots. The city’s cultural heritage was gaining a new edge, a mixture of modernism and vintage style. The gentry of zamindars, aristocrats and blue-blooded royalty had gradually morphed into the new class that had been inexorably touched by the new-wave modern Bengali.
The women kept up with the traditions by dressing for the enterprising races, in their finest clothes; French chiffon, exquisite pearls from Mandalay and the most brilliant diamonds harvested from South Africa. The new generation had much to boast about though; there brilliant entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, journalists, acclaimed economists, film-makers, thinkers, scientists, the finest new-wave poets and painters. Calcutta became the city of mavericks.
Of course, Bombay was thriving as the economic capital of the country too; it was the city of dreams. The tinsel town housing the most impressive and enterprising studios that churned out multi-million buck films each year. The city wasn’t therefore left behind in rise of the Mafioso either, who would become legendary characters in the annals of history. Delhi, on the other hand, was the seat of power for the newly developing giant democracy, but for someone who’d visited all three metropolises, Calcutta was the romantic’s muse. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the city regularly pulled in people intent upon unwinding themselves, a respite for tired and weary working class. There were bars, night clubs and smoking joints. Fancy restaurants teeming with eager experimental diners, juxtaposed against the not-so-fortunate lower class. The city was a perfect artiste’s canvas, and often attracted the attention of documentary film makers, avant-garde painters, lyricists and anyone who needed artistic inspirations.
The Royal Calcutta Turf Club was therefore a regular haunt for wannabe journalists who wanted to meet the new face of Calcutta. It was during one such race when John Hourigan realized early on that his charger wasn’t going to make it big, that he met an eager young fellow called Parthasarathi Basu. A quick smoke later, he expressed an appreciation for Hourigan, whom he’d earlier heard recounting the history of the Club to a mesmerized audience, who seemed more enticed because they were hearing the story from a real Anglo-Indian!
Basu was everything that’s characteristic of young people; energetic, fidgety, high on enthusiasm but low on experience. He had big dreamy eyes that shone with overwhelming emotions at the slightest knock of ideas. He listened patiently, taking meticulous notes as Hourigan repeated the story, pausing with dramatic precision at regular intervals. He was aware of the fact that Basu was slurping up everything he’d spoken, and this healed Hourigan’s hurt sense of ego to no end.
“Did you known young man, that King George V and Queen Mary visited the city and attended a race right here, back in January 1912? You won’t find this information anywhere else. It’s because of my father who attended the event himself that we know about the mad frenzy this racecourse saw that day. The huge stands were packed to their utmost capacity, my boy!”
Hourigan felt satisfied as he listened to the steady swish of Basu’s pen moving across his writing pad.
“Their majesties were received with so much of grace; those were different times you see. They came in a big ornate carriage drawn by a pack of six horses, escorted by bodyguards. The retinue of four other carriages followed them. They sat in the royal stand, after being received by Lord and Lady Hardinge, amid the cheering crowds who waved at them happily. Eighteen ran the race and the king’s Cup provided a coveted contest that was won by Galstaun’s Brogue. Johanes C. Galstaun, a leading Armenian property developer and merchant at the time was among the city’s elite, and a Derby frequent. You can trust my memory, son. The second place went to Mr. Goculdas’s Last Call, who lagged by a length and a half. Yes, the very same Goculdas, the famous jute merchants. You should have seen Mr. Galstaun beaming at the crowds as he received the cup from the King and Queen themselves! What a time… what a time!!”
Hourigan couldn’t keep the romantic yearning out of his voice, which grew heavy with nostalgia. By the time the Cup had been handed over to the winner, he’d already acquiesced to the young man’s request of giving him the chance to let him come over to McCluskieganj. Basu said that he felt it would be the perfect place for reminiscing about a long-forgotten past. Hourigan felt the tinge of sincerity in Basu’s words and invited him to stay at their place while he worked on his project. What he didn’t know was that this was going to be the catalytic event that would bring interminable changes into the Hourigan household very soon…
Basu arrived on a Sunday. He loved the laidback air of the colony. Bungalows laden with creepers running along the parapets, gabled windows overlooking quaint little kitchen gardens, front lawns that had lost their former sheen, but nonetheless looked like the perfect pictures of a vanishing time, set against the white exteriors with peeling paint… Porticoes and winding driveways, an occasional gargoyle that spoke of an experimental house owner, who didn’t mind dabbling with bits and pieces of Gothic architecture to spruce up the pristine sharp minimalistic colonial houses. The chirping of birds was typical of a tropical spring punctuated by the promises of a great mango season. The trees were covered in gold and green, and Basu felt that he would fall in love with the place if he didn’t stop his mind from conjuring romantic images. A strange scent wafted through the air, the horizon looked bluer and the hibiscus a darker shade of vermillion.
Elizabeth was out in the front lawn when she saw the handsome young man coming up their driveway, a suitcase in hand. She realized that the man had been watching her too, and the first time their eyes met, Elizabeth felt the sharp gaze penetrating her, and she surprisingly couldn’t take her eyes off those dark brown intelligent eyes. He was the perfect combination of an impish smile, two deep dimples on the cheeks, a mop of tousled brown hair and a tall and sinewy physique.
Elizabeth felt a strange shyness for the first time in her life. She almost floundered with words when the confident young man came up to her, and asked her if she was Elizabeth Hourigan. She dismissed the initial unease, convincing herself that it had more to do with an expectation of some sort of impending changes in their household, for the coming few days. She knew that even though she’d been friends with a lot of boys when she was a little girl, she’d missed a predominant male member who took charge of everything in the family, and the initial awkwardness, she presumed, had more to do with that. With passing time, she got to realize that she was falling for this man who had the grace and enthusiasm to have impressed even Karen Hourigan. Elizabeth could see that both her parents were quite smitten by his charm within a couple of days. That the young man hailed from a renowned and well-to-do family, only added to their pleasure, because he contributed quite generously for the expenses incurred towards his hospitality. It was a welcome arrangement for both parties. The young people didn’t know that this momentary bliss was the beginning of a strange and doomed love story…
The bungalow had the best possible architecture to support and buttress the confused emotions of the young people. Elizabeth, fair-skinned, golden-headed and blue eyed, was a thing of reverence for the young Basu. He’d been educated in one of the premier institutions in Calcutta; his brood of siblings and cousins, all had the benefits of being alumni of a famous Jesuit school in the city. It was one of the best educational institutions in India, at the time. Basu’s easy refinement spoke of his noble upbringing. His father was an industrialist, mother what they used to call a proper homemaker, who had all the bearings of professional greatness, but who chose to be a veiled recluse, following the norms of the ‘sambhranto’ or elite strata of their time.
Basu came from a very protective environment; his parents ferociously defensive of their heritage. The afternoons in McCluskieganj were the best time for the young people to discover more about each other. Elizabeth didn’t have Basu’s finesse; she’d abandoned her plans of studying after appearing for a private matriculation examination, in which she didn’t fare well. Coming to know Basu now, she began resenting herself for being so raw and crude. It was true that she knew a lot about the soil, the kinds of vegetables they could grow and the best times of the year for that. She also knew her way around McCluskieganj and the adjoining areas, like they were the back of her hand. She was practical, and she confided into Basu one afternoon, while they sat on the terrace, looking at the faraway rice fields, that she wasn’t ever considered worthy of the Hourigan name. Maybe, the gender bias wasn’t an entirely Indian thing; no one had ever bothered to ask her if she wanted to continue with her education. She felt that her father even heaved a sigh of relief when she informed them that she’d decided not to study any further. Her mother had steadfastly refused to have another child though, and Elizabeth suspected it had much to do with her maladjustments with her husband. She simply didn’t want to increase her sense of binding responsibilities.
Elizabeth spoke about her childhood for long hours, and Basu would watch her speaking her heart out patiently, occasionally adding a few monosyllabic questions or marks of exclamation. The best thing about him was what Elizabeth thought was his non-judgemental nature. He listened to her, but it never changed his attitude towards her parents; he remained the ever-enthusiastic protégé to John Hourigan, and the extremely well-behaved diner at Karen’s table, who appreciated her hospitality and was effusive of her kitchen skills.
The afternoon that would remain forever with the young people, was buzzing with the usual late-spring sounds; the rustle of new leaves punctuated by the buzz of swarms of insects that hovered around the budding fruit orchards. The distant paddy fields hadn’t yet caught on the edge of gold, the stillness around the Ganj was that of a verdant glade, the sounds of little nothings reverberating in the air. Elizabeth had stepped out of her shoes and was walking barefoot on the red-painted terrace. Basu surmised there was something about her; an anxiety of some sort. He jumped off the parapet where he’d been sitting, smoking a cigarette, and listening to the distant sounds of nowhere.
There was a thunderstorm gathering around the far-horizon. A ‘kalboisakhi’ was approaching. Hourigan Jr. had to go to Calcutta for the Annual General Meeting of the company that had failed to give him returns, but did meticulously send him the sealed and emblazoned white envelopes each year. Those were the invites to the AGM, a perfunctory reminder that he ought to keep his hopes up. Karen was out, the Church was holding a meeting for the coming Lents, and there was planning to be done about the celebrations this little town would see at the end of the tortuous period of abstinence.
Basu approached Elizabeth who seemed lost in thought, and ‘booed’ her from behind. He burst out laughing as he saw the tremors shake her svelte frame, but stopped when he realized that she didn’t turn around. Basu laid a hand softly on her shoulder; she was shaking. He turned her around to see that she was crying.
“What is it? I didn’t mean to scare you so”. He said softly.
Elizabeth wiped her tears, but more continued flowing down her cheeks. Basu clutched her shoulders and repeated his question.
“What is it?”
Elizabeth didn’t reply. Her seventeen-year old face looked younger and her beautiful lashes looked darker. Maybe, it was the approaching storm, that had bathed the environment in shades of monochrome, but Elizabeth stood there, motionless against the bleak background, looking like a Goddess. Basu, for the first time in his life, realized that she was more beautiful than any other girl he’d ever seen. Never before had he in his entire life ever felt as hopelessly in love with a woman, as he felt that afternoon. He wiped her tears yet again, and made an attempt at humouring her.
“Hey, did you read P.B. Shelley?”
He began reciting Love’s Philosophy.
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Having done this so many times, he felt himself falter. The words were no longer alien; they rang with the recognition of understanding, and Basu heard his voice tremble with emotions, the way he’d heard some of his favourite theatre artistes do it.
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—
Maybe it was the wind that was gaining an intensity with each passing moment, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to let the words rise up to the air, wisps in the continuum of time-space…
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
Each word lingered and hung around the enchanted couple stranded in the middle of nowhere, beautiful frames captured in photographs for an eternity that was everywhere and nowhere.
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”
Basu felt as if a surge of electricity had hit him the moment his fingers had touched Elizabeth’s shoulders. It was a familiar feeling, and yet, very different than what he’d ever felt before. Maybe, it was because he considered her to be different. He quickly withdrew his hands, and began inching towards the heavy metal door that led to the stairs leading downstairs to the first floor. He’d taken enough of liberty, camouflaged behind his poetry, and he felt afraid that his heart would break if he stood there any longer.
He suddenly felt a tug on his arm; it was Elizabeth.
“What would we ever do after your job is done? Partha, I feel afraid to think of coming here, walking barefoot among the tendrils that encroach this terrace the same way you do, to my mind.”
Elizabeth had never called Basu by his first name before, and it felt so strangely comforting to hear her say his name exactly the same way his so many friends called him.
“How did you know that they call me by this name?” Basu realized he was whispering into Elizabeth’s ears, as she stood perilously close for him to avoid.
“Shall I call you by some other name then? Only when you tell me that you do permit me doing so.” Elizabeth’s eyes looked a deeper shade of blue; Basu was sure he could discern a swirling spark of golden in them too.
He hushed her, laying a finger on her rose-bud lips, and heard her moan. She closed her eyes, and kissed his finger, and then she took Basu’s hand to her breast. He could feel her heart thumping beneath the flowery cotton bodice of her dress. The young couple didn’t know which storm would unleash itself more ferociously; the one devouring their heated-up bodies or the one brewing in the horizon, with a promise to cool off the approaching summer heat.
As the first gust of relentless winds hit the stuccoed walls of the bungalow, creating a wind tunnel through the first floor corridor, the world immersed in a shade of darkness punctuated by the swaying lace curtains. The frenzy of the thunderstorm made it difficult to shut the heavy wooden windows that were running askew, slamming shut and creaking open, wreaking havoc, just the same as the emotions were doing in the couple’s hearts. They had a hard time securing all the unruly doors and windows, and when they did, they realized they had already been made sogging wet by the forceful and torrential sheets of rain, that kept on changing directions with the fiery gusts of winds.
As the last of the sounds of the outside world had been shut off, Elizabeth felt that she could hear her own heartbeats. She realized she felt strange and queasy with anticipation. Basu pulled her to himself, their wet forms heating up the soaking clothes that came off pretty soon. The first time Basu’s fingers brushed past her nipples, Elizabeth shivered, and led him to the bed. She felt the heat of his tongue as his mouth devoured her breasts, his teeth doing wonderful things to them.
Elizabeth lost her virginity to Basu, with tears of joy streaking her sweaty face. Long after the rhythmic swaying had ceased, they lay in each other’s arms, uttering sweet nothings and looking into each other’s eyes. The afternoon had melted and given way to an inky dark evening. The nature seemed to be rejoicing with greenery, having had her the first brush with the rains for the year, a promise of fecundity hanging in the distant sounds of crickets and the toll of bells at the Church.
Elizabeth knew that Basu meant it when he’d whispered ‘Love you, Darling’ into her ears over and over, his moans making his voice sound slurry. She knew that they both had a future together, or why would God throw someone as improbable as Basu in her path? As the excitement ceased, her apprehensions returned.
She asked Basu the same question. What were they supposed to do once he was done with his story?
Basu laughed, as he kissed her on the forehead, and told her that he was a fugitive. He was escaping the life his family was steadfastly trying to impose upon him. He didn’t want to go to England, nor did he want to join the Civil Services like his father had done. He intended to work for the common people, the poor and the destitute. He teased Elizabeth by recounting how deviously he’d planned to stay back in McCluskieganj, so that he could seduce the lamb of his dreams. He assured her that she shouldn’t worry about anything; he’d approach his parents and tell them very clearly that he intended to marry Elizabeth, and that he also wanted to pursue his journalism more seriously.
Elizabeth asked him if he didn’t find himself to be too upright and prone to making his family unhappy with all his future decisions. She immediately knew that it was a wrong question that she shouldn’t have asked. His eyes grew darker, and he said that the day had been too beautiful to be signed off with such bad confessions. He said he’d tell her everything; she needed to acknowledge that they had a lifetime for questions and answers like these!
“I’m an atheist, my dear Elizabeth. I don’t hope for salvation by worshipping such a God who lets people be starving, be terminally ill and be perennially oppressed. He who lets his so-called children die off like winter wheat, without bothering to hear their pleas… I don’t believe in such a God. We don’t believe in such a God!”
Elizabeth was nuzzling against Basu’s chest, her warm body resting against his. The fast-approaching summer heat sent gusts of unruly winds down the long corridors of the house. Basu was finding the passages to be the vestiges connecting a bygone era with a new present. The opulent finesse had been gradually taken over by a decadent legacy, as if invisible cobwebs had spun themselves around the place. John Hourigan had indicated to him in no subtle terms that he intended to marry off his daughter to the first man that came asking for her hand. Basu didn’t know whether Elizabeth’s parents knew anything about their relationship, but they would have to be blind to not recognise the glow in her fair skin, the glow of a newly deflowered virgin who had taken to understanding the subtle art of lovemaking and was being unapologetically proactive in the process.
Moreover, they had been getting more and more involved with outside activities leaving the young couple with a chance of getting cosy. It wasn’t long before Basu realized he had extinguished all his reasons of staying back at the quaint little colony. All good things come to an end and his stay at McCluskieganj was drawing to an end too. The thoughts of getting separated from each other began affecting the young people, so that they tried stealing away each moment to invest into their own little fantasies; each moment they stole from the cruel grasps of time were poetic and lyrical. To assure one’s love about a distant plan called marriage was one thing, and to encounter the reality headlong, and to pave the path to that ultimate goal was entirely another thing.
Basu knew that he’d already irked his family enough with his decisions to be himself. He didn’t join the civil services, he didn’t practise law at the High Court, and he had refused to get hitched to his father’s business associate’s daughter. To make things even worse, he didn’t show even the faintest bit of interest in his family business. It, according to him, reeked of the guilt of profiteering and he couldn’t bring himself to earn blood money like many others were.
The clash of principles had been there for a long, long time…
Basu found his father to be an extremely good businessman who had the vision and foresight for making profits. As a child, he’d often been to some tea estates where his father held gargantuan shares. He would be in awe of such beauty that nature offered amid the gentle slopes, but he’d be surprised when he saw children his age shirking away from his company. Initially, this would disturb him, and befuddle his little brain for hours. He had such nice shoes, such smart dresses, such good manners and so many toys… It took him a couple of visits to realize that the very things he thought, would attract these children to be friends with him, were basically the ones that stopped them. They were hesitant, they didn’t know how to make friends with someone who was dressed so impressively and so ‘Englishly’. They were not only hesitant, they were afraid. Afraid of his attire? It was so perplexing for the little boy of five, that he felt really sad. This wasn’t something he had expected.
It took him very little time to realize the truth though, bright as he was, as a child. People wearing English clothes had exploited them for so long that they had grown to be distrusting of anyone who donned the kind of attire. It was difficult and utterly distressing for a child to hear about how workers had been flogged mercilessly, and it was such a vivid picture ion the fertile mind of the child that he grew up believing that each grain of food he ate, had been brought to his plate by depriving someone else. The lush greenery around the tea gardens took on a red edge for him since then. It wasn’t therefore a surprise when his parents found him wearing someone’s old and tattered clothes one day, his English clothes having been carelessly strewn around for people who cared to put them to use. Basu was so happy that he was looking like all the other children, that he didn’t recognise the storm of shame and disappointment creep into his father’s eyes that day. He soon enough decided that he’d have to give to his son, what he’d never be able to, if he allowed him to stay him at home. His wife, Mahamaya was simply too loose and loving with their son, who needed discipline more than anything else, Basu Sr. decided.
Thus, Parthasarathi Basu was sent off to a boarding school in _ when he was just seven years old.
Author: DEBASREE BANERJE , 36.