|Lady Ranu was ten when her little brother was born. Her father took her to the hospital chamber in which her mother was breastfeeding the baby. After she was done feeding, she turned to Ranu and said, “Come here, dear. Have a look at your little brother.” And she kissed the baby’s head.
Lady Ranu was looking outside the hospital window, loathing every breath she took in the medicine-stained air of the hospital. Slowly, she walked to the bed. One brief glance at the baby and Lady Ranu knew she was not going to like this nuisance that entered her life. Her mother, recently out of labor pain and full of milky love for the newly-born, did not see the hatred frothing in the ten-year-old’s eyes.
When the boy was two years old he chewed off Lady Ranu’s drawing pencils. He decided the colors looked better on the walls than his older sister’s drawing book. In anger, Lady Ranu threw away all her paintings out of the window of the two-story house. It took her father, the barrister Indraneil Roychowdhury, three nights and a new set of pastels, easel and canvas to get her back to painting again.
When Lady Ranu had lived eight more grueling years of her life in that old Calcutta house and had reached no ounce of conciliation with her brother, she packed her finest dresses and fat books and sat on a plane to London. People said she went to study law like her father.
Whether the girl went willingly I can not tell. But her sudden departure did break a few wooing male hearts, a handful of whom were later to inherit their father’s millions in money and property and marry beautiful women who would cook food in the kitchen and never come to the drawing room when their husband’s friends were present.
When Barrister Indraneil Roychowdury died, no one saw his daughter at his funeral. It was heard she sent a telegram from the United States of America which said she was too hurt and broken to return home after all these years only to have a look at her dead father’s body. The neighbors smiled a sad, knowing smile and sympathized with Mrs. Rowchowdhury when she informed about Lady Ranu’s telegram. As soon as they had left the Rowchowdhury residence, they said to each other, “So, now it’s proven she has married a foreigner and Mr. Roychowdhury banned her from the house. That is why I say, never send you daughter to a foreign place. God knows what might happen in those places. But no, they had to get their daughter educated! Now seethe result!”
Mrs. Rowchowdhury died a year later. Putting an end to all existing gossips, Lady Ranu returned as Mrs. Anjan Chatterjee, mother of six-year old Anurup Chatterjee. She was thirty-four.
The brother and sister hugged each other after sixteen long years. Or maybe more, for before that they had perhaps never hugged each other. Her brother had passed his bachelors in technology from IIT, Kharagpur and was working in Jamshedpur.
Lady Ranu and her husband said to Abhirup Roychowdhury, “Brother, come and live with us in the States. Now that both mom and dad are dead, what’s the use of staying here? We do not have any close relatives around. Job opportunities are far better in the States than here. It’s best you go with us.”
Her brother smiled a bleak smile. He hugged his American English-speaking nephew and said, “Didi. I am better off here. I don’t feel like going away. In fact I am trying to get posted here in Kolkata so that I can commute from this house.”
Lady Ranu sighed. Anjan Chatterjee put his hand around Abhirup Roychowdhury’s shoulder. The Chatterjee family boarded the next Air India flight to USA.
The next ten years passed via emails. Times had changed. Computer ceased to be luxury items. It had become a necessity. Lady Ranu got acquainted with her sister-in-law through emails and email attachments.
Sulata, Abhirup’s wife, gave birth to daughter. Abhirup wrote to Lady Ranu, “Didi, she looks just like you. You eyes, your complexion. Even the lips!”
Lady Ranu smiled as she typed in her reply. Her own son was away somewhere in Australia. Where precisely, she did not know. At first he emailed regularly. As days passed Abhirup’s emails would be more frequent than Anurup’s. Lady Ranu suppressed a sigh. She and her husband sipped black coffee from big bone-china mugs.
When Lady Ranu was fifty-one, Anjan Chatterjee passed away peacefully in their Manhattan apartment. Anurup Chatterjee was nowhere to be seen. Abhirup Roychowdhury emailed saying he would come to the States on the very next flight. Lady Ranu wiped a grey tear with the corner of her sari and typed, “You need not come. I shall leave for India if you and Sulata are willing to have me there. I do not wish to be here anymore.”
Abhirup Roychowdhury replied instantly, “Just let me know when you will land in India.”
It was the summer of 1962. I was fourteen. Ranu must be two years younger than me. I watched her sitting in her balcony in her crisp white frock. I admired the curves of her body; her round, fair hands; the innocent look on her face. Her skin was the color of the whitest conch shell. Her eyes were large and deep. But what I loved best was her swan-like neck. It was so thin that I felt I could hold it in one hand. And it was so blissfully white!
In that summer of 1962 I dreamt of having Ranu in my arms and in my life. So did every other boy in our neighborhood. Ranu gave us all a disgusted look as she walked from to her home from her friend’s place or the occasional evening walk. We would either be playing cricket or building mountains and caves with sand heaps lying around, meant for the construction of flats in the neighborhood. She would snicker when one or two of the older guys winked at her, “You freaks would always be building houses with mud, while I fly away deep into the skies. You can never touch me.”
Sure she did fly away. And I was building houses for a living. Me, Arup Mukherjee, retired architect. And Ranu, a widowed woman, still graceful like a swan, playing ‘build-the-house’ game with her niece who closely resembles her. Ranu, who has nothing to do in her bored Kolkata evenings and comes to visit me over cups of coffee every day. Today, in the fast-fading-crimson-dusk of her life, she unburdens her heart to an old man, sharing every detail of her life. And I can not but compare the don't-give-a-damn look of her eighteen-year-old eyes and the experienced, pained, and sad eyes of this fifty-five year old lady. The grace remains, but somewhere she appears lost in her quest of flying high, somewhere she appears defeated and broken. Every time I look into her deep eyes these days, I feel a lump in my throat that chokes my voice.
I am grateful to Abhirup Roychowdhury for never selling their ancestral house. I am grateful to Abhirup and Sulata Roychowdhury for letting Ranu come and stay here after so many years. At least I can still see the woman I have loved forever, the woman who has been in my dreams since the summer of 1962. The same woman with whose thoughts I went to sleep every night, praying to God if only I could see her once before I died. The woman for whom I have remained unmarried all my life.
Ranu never knew of all this. She never will. She will come to my house every day to have coffee in the afternoon. She will narrate me incidents from her life in the States, and talk about her dead husband and her bohemian son. She would share her grief, tears, smiles, and happiness over that single cup of coffee. And I will listen with rapt attention, engraving in my heart every word she utters, every expression of her beautiful face, every line in her crisp white sari.
This, until one of us goes to grave.
W. C: 1375
Note: This story has been written from an Indian perspective. In case the reader has a problem understanding anything, please feel free to email ~*Arpita*~
A few words have been explained for the reader's convenience:
Calcutta/Kolkata - The capital city of the state West Bengal, India. The old name was Calcutta. Now called Kolkata
IIT, Kharagpur - One of the most prestigious institutes of Technology in India, situated in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India
Jamshedpur - A city in the state of Jharkhand, India
Didi - A term used by which younger siblings refer to their older sister (Bengali)
Sari - A dress worn by Indian women