Friday, June 25, 2010

This, then, is the end

Nineteen Sixty-Eight,
When Calcutta was not yet Kolkata,
Its signs of decay not yet tell-tale,
A Calcutta where Howrah Bridge stood alone,
And suspension bridges buried in the womb of the future,
A Calcutta where trams still regularly chugged the streets,
Wide enough for the occasional cars to pass,
The Calcutta of Firpos, Park Street and poetry,
The Calcutta of coffe houses and Apur Sansar,
Where nights would pass arguing between Ray and Ghatak,
Engulfed in unfiltered Capstan smoke, over endless cups of tea,
Cultured Calcutta, literary Calcutta,
It was here that they first met,
Circa Nineteen Sixty-Eight.

It was the unlikeliest of love stories, as love stories go,
She, a bare chit of a girl,
Daughter of working-class parents, migrants from Chittagong,
Slight and frail, barely five feet out of her sandals,
Dusky, sallow-skinned, slightly protruding teeth,
Curly hair that would never stay in place,
Who wrote poetry, listened to Rabindra sangeet and Nazrul-geeti.
He, the scion of landed aristocracy,
La Martiniere for boys, Presidency thereafter,
Six feet in his stockings, fair,
Who could run hundred meters in 11 seconds,
The heart-throb of countless girls,
Who had read poetry only to scrape through his Senior Cambridge,
Who thought of the Beetles as passe,
Jazz the only thing to listen, with maybe
a little bit of Beethoven and Mozart,
Who liked Charulata better than Pather-Panchali,
And adored De Sica.

Yet, they met.
He saw her first through a tram on College street,
And could understand every word of what she was saying,
Just through her eyes, fleetingly glimpsed,
He jumped off the tram then, landing in a pot-hole,
Then stumbling into a lamp-post,
Acquiring a limp, ever so slight, in the bargain.
'You were swept off your feet when you saw me!' She'd tease him later.
It took a while longer for her,
She was wary of his looks,
Bewildered by his tastes,

'It were her eyes', he told his friends,
'I'll make this bohemian civilised still', she told hers.
It was a Calcutta where the fresh breeze from the sea,
Swept off the sultry days in languid evenings,
A Calcutta where sail-boats fluttered in the Hooghly,
Where roses bloomed in December.

And yet, it was a Calcutta of gathering clouds,
A Calcutta where Meghe Dhaka Tara was a reality on the streets,
Where passions flew high,
And ideals rained from the eye, vying with bullets and tears,
A Calcutta where dreams soared,
And hope painted the sky in colours of red,
An exuberant Calcutta which would change the world,
Or so the city believed,
In circa Nineteen Sixty-Eight.

Cut to Scene 2,
Connaught Place, New Delhi, Two Thousand Nine,
A glitzy Delhi, Delhi of CNG buses, Metro Railway,
Delhi of the ridge, history seeping through its lanes,
Delhi- ancient, medieval and modern all at once,
An excavated Delhi, with jostling buses, autos, motorcars,
Gingerly threading their way around mounds of earth
strewn on its streets, yet a Delhi,
Beautiful and balmy on a late February evening,
When a tall man, fair, slightly stooped,
Silver streaks in his hair,
Fine crow-feet around his eyes,
Stumbled over a pile of rubble,
And fell right across the road from Regal.

'You still fall at the feet of girls', said she,
'No, I only stoop to conquer', said he,
Brushing the dust out of his trousers,
Straining his neck at the voice,
Redolent with the fragrant promise of lost years.
'Oh, so you finally read that delightful play?'
'I even go to the opera now, and know what a liberetto is',
'Liar, you must have a thing going with the soprano',
'No, nothing after the day I lost you',
'You still have that limp, don't you?'
'It has got more pronounced with time',
'I thought it would be cured by now',
Some things, once broken, are never healed',
'True, but one finds other things to replace them with'.

'You have not grown an inch since I last saw you!'
'Silly, it was my twentieth birthday that day',
'And now you are fifty-one',
'You have learnt to add!'
'I'm an investment banker in New York now',
'My, my. I teach poetry at Miranda',
'Still doing all the useless jobs!'
'And what are you doing, counting currency notes?'
'Isn't it a far cry from counting pamphlets at Naxalbari?'
'Then why?'
'Because thats what revolutionaries do when revolutions die',
'We thought you were killed that day on Alimuddin Street',
'Do you think I am alive now?'
'My parents brought me to Delhi after the shooting',
'And mine sent me to the promised land',
'You have turned into a cynic, haven't you?'
'How do you expect I'd retain my faith in life?'
'What could I do? You were rumoured to be dead',
'So many of us died that day',
'Those who survived were scattered all over',
'And nobody knew where every one else went',
'So what could I do? Life had to go on',
'I've been dying bit by bit every day ever since',
'I must go now. Its already eleven',
'Marry me. I've a flight back in the morning',
'I must really go now. Kaushik would be worrying',
'My husband. He teaches economics at D-School',
'Oh, I think you should leave then',
'Have a nice flight. Your wife must be waiting back home',
'I've an empty house to return to',
'What? I thought you were joking when you asked to marry me',
'I dont joke anymore. Something within me is dead, though I survived',
'Will we ever meet again?'
'I dont know. Please don't go',
'I must. I have a job, a family, a husband',
'Well, I guess its goodbye then',
'I guess it is.'

She stood on tip-toes, while he bent low,
She caressed his lips with her fingers one last time,
Before hailing a passing autorickshaw,
While he stood there rooted,
Watching her melt into the shadows of the night.

And finally, Scene 3,
A scene which is yet to play out,
But is destined to unfold just like this,
Bombay, circa Two Thousand and Thirty,
A Bombay of land reclaimed from the sea,
Bustling, teeming, frantic, chaotic Bombay,
A Bombay of bomb-blasts, chawls and open drains,
A Bombay of gang-wars, sub-urban trains, and Dharavi,
A Bombay of contradictions,
Manufacturing celluloid dreams for millions,
Where the Samovar still has an aroma of coffee,
and culture hanging to its table-cloths,
The Bombay of Flora Fountain, VT station, Bandra Bandstand,
Where the sun still sets gently in the Arabian sea,
And the Marine Drive sparkles like the Queen's Necklace at night.

In this Bombay, still the same twenty years later,
A frail woman, a Sylvia Plath book in her hand,
Suddenly rushed across the corridor of JJ Hospital,
Smashing into a stretcher, upsetting a food trolley,
Overturning almost a wheel-chair where sat huddled,
A fair man, bent low with age,
His shirt hanging loose on a gaunt frame.
'Marry me', she laughed and sobbed,
'Marry me, marry me', she whispered and shouted,
Causing a passing nurse to drop the tray she was carrying,
'Marry me, Abhijit' her voice faltered,
'Marry me, please', she pleaded,
While the man looked vacantly at her,
No signs of recognition illuminating his eyes,
'I'm sorry, but I dont know who you are',
'No Abhijit, not this',
'Say no if you want to, but dont do this to me',
'Don't be a stranger, Abhijit, look at me',
'I'm Madhavi, and I haven't grown an inch still',
'My eyes are cataract-clouded, but they still have stories in them',
'See Abhijit, I'm still stupid enough to read poetry'
'................................', silence,
'Kaushik passed away of an heart attack ten years ago',
'I'm retired now, my children settled',
'I live in Bombay now, and I still yearn for you.'
'...................................' silence, all pervasive now.
'Dont you remember Naxalbari? The revolution?'
'The trams in Calcutta?'
'You know the streets are still potholed there, though the trams have stopped plying',
'Don't you remember the shooting? Kisses stolen from the Hooghly?'
'My twentieth birthday?'
'You have mistaken me for some one else',
'I've never been to Calcutta in my life.'
Words finally, colder than steel,
Echoing, bouncing off the narrow corridor,
'You must remember Connaaught Place',
'My fingers brushing your lips?'
'I'm sorry madam, but you have mistaken him for someone else',
'He needs to rest now, all this commotion is not good for him',
'Please go. Leave him alone.'
Voices surround her, as she pushes back her tears,
And turns to go with fumbling steps,
The weight of a lifetime in her eyes,
Which sadly, do not speak anymore.
While he slowly gets up, limping across to his room.

This, then, was the end,
Except that stories need epilogues
to round them off. And sometimes poems do too.
Everything needs a conclusion,
Be it a story, be it a poem,
Be it life itself.

A month later, Alzheimer's claimed Abhijit,
Madhavi died exactly three years later of a broken heart,
Without knowing that he had never forgotten her,
That he could never do so,
Not really.

Some stories, though they come to an end,
Are never concluded,
The same is true with poems too...

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