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Abani's Marriage

Love happens when you are least expecting it

Buddhadeva Bose  

I had been practising barely a year when I got married. I hadn't thought of getting married quite so young. Having got myself a chamber in Dharmatalla and a telephone connection, I even had a small car, but no clients to speak of. According to my calculations, the estate my late father had left for his only son would last five years or so -- if I couldn't build a practice by then, shame on me.

I had decided not even to think of marriage until I was earning at least a thousand a year. All those people who got into their wedding finery the moment they got their sixty-rupees-a-month jobs gave me palpitations. It's all very well to get married, but what about things like children, illnesses, the wife's whims, your own demands? And even if you managed to provide for all of these, there were the tiffs, the heartburn, the conflicts. All that was not for me. Or so I had thought. But things turned out differently.

I laugh when I think about it now, but my heart beat with nervousness on the morning of my wedding day. I'd seen her in so many different situations for so long, spoken to her in public, and later in private, so many times, but every time I realized she was about to be my wife, that she would live in my house, sleep in my own bed, that her authority over my life would be more than mine -- and that all this would continue not for a month or two, not even for a year or two, but all my life; every time this realization hit home, I had no choice but to run and get myself a glass of water, or pace up and down my room.

Yes, I was very nervous that day. But I shouldn't be putting the cart before the horse. It's best to begin at the beginning.

I remember the first time I saw her. There I was, sitting in my patient-less chamber, dressed for the day, when my friend Ramen telephoned. "Can you come over right away?"

"What's the matter?"

"There's this girl who's cut her foot -- it's all swollen up -- she's in a lot of pain."

I laughed and replied, "What do you want a personal visit from the doctor for? Put a boric compress on it, it'll heal."

"No, it's just that -- she needs to recover very soon, or else we can't get on with our rehearsals."

"Rehearsals? For what?"

"You didn't know? We're putting on a play, The New Nest."

I'd read a novel called The New Nest recently by Shailesh Dutta, who was quite a famous novelist back then. Was it being made into a play? The answer was yes. Dutta had written the play himself, and he was directing it himself too; the girl who had injured herself was his sister-in-law. She was playing the main role, but the poor girl could barely stand because of the pain, so I had to go over to Dutta's home and cure her promptly. Ramen gave me an address on Lake Road; the lake was a new addition to Calcutta and Lake Road had been built very recently.

Ramen was a great friend of mine those days. He was a strange character; the first two years in medical college had convinced him he wasn't going to get through the examinations, so dropping out, he opened an oculist's store on Free School Street. The shop soon moved to Chowringhee and an ophthalmologist with a foreign degree was installed, as was an Anglo-Indian girl at the counter. None of us had expected his business to thrive so much. We were a little surprised, to be honest; he didn't have much by way of physical capital. But he did have one divine form of capital -- his appearance. You seldom found such a handsome Bengali; six feet tall, as fit as the centre forward of a football team, with a fair, ruddy complexion and a head full of curly black hair. It was his appearance, I felt, that was the key to his success.

These same good looks meant that the Anglo-Indian girl he'd hired as an assistant became so brazen that she didn't relent till she had married him. Friends like us tried our utmost to prevent it, but Ramen whistled his way to the registrar's office. Within a year the marriage was over, but Ramen couldn't care less. He ran his shop with the same enthusiasm as he had earlier and promptly hired another Anglo-Indian girl to run the counter.

Arriving at the Lake Road address, I found Ramen waiting for me on the pavement, pacing up and down. Getting out of the car, I said, "At least we got to meet. We hardly see you these days."

Ramen smiled in embarrassment, making the obligatory excuse. "Been very busy. Come upstairs."

Mr Dutta and his wife Gayatri both welcomed me with smiles. His book had charmed me earlier: I was even more charmed upon meeting him.

After the greetings and formalities, I asked, "Where's the patient?"

"Please come this way," said Mrs Dutta, leading me into the next room.

She sat up apprehensively as we entered. I was amazed -- could a mere cut on the foot cause a person to look as wretched as this? An ashen face, lips as dry as those of someone with high fever, reddened eyes, hair dishevelled and all over her face. A single glance told me the illness was a severe one.

And yet I could discover nothing, even after a prolonged examination. While I was bent over, checking on her foot, the patient sat still, chin on her knees; I straightened and asked, "Is it hurting a lot?"

She didn't answer.

I asked again, "Does it hurt a lot?"

Ramen said from my side, "Answer him, Bina."

The girl answered without looking at anyone, "Yes, a lot."

I wrote out an ordinary prescription, left the room and told the Duttas, "It's hardly anything, and yet she seems to be in bad shape."

Mr Dutta said gravely, "Yes, in very bad shape."

I spoke reassuringly, "There's nothing to worry about. She'll be fine very soon."

Ramen said, "Small things sometimes flare up into complications, you see. That's why I called for you. I hope the play doesn't have to be called off."

"No, no, there's no fear of that. She'll be fine," I repeated, calming him down.

Whether it was because I was a doctor or for some other reason, both Mr Dutta and his wife seemed to have taken a liking to me. They invited me to attend the upcoming rehearsals; rehearsals were held thrice a week at their place. There was one the very next day, so if I could make the time.

"I'll try my best," I said, and took my leave.

The next evening, amidst the bustle of Dharmatalla, as I wondered whether to go or not, Ramen marched in and instructed, "Come along."

After dressing for civilized company, I got into Ramen's cream Morris. A little later, we entered Mr Dutta's drawing room. The concert of voices welcoming Ramen became restrained on seeing me. Many of them looked at me with an expression that said, and who on earth is this? Mr Dutta took charge of introductions immediately, announcing my name first and then, one by one, those of the others -- no small labour, for at least twenty people were scattered around the room in small groups, some of whom it was rather difficult even to attract the attention of.

I had lost track of Ramen within a minute of entering. Everyone around us sought him out. Ramen was fluid by nature, he had no inhibitions; anything he did seemed to suit him because of his fine appearance. I had always seen him become the toast of the party wherever he went, and here too he was the centre of attraction. Everyone seemed to have something to say to him in private, even Mrs Dutta spoke to him in a low voice by the window for nearly ten minutes.

It appeared that Mr Dutta had been trying to get the rehearsal started for quite a while, but the conversation just didn't seem to cease. Finally, Mr Dutta stood up and said, "Let's start now. We haven't done Anupam and Lalita's scene in quite some time, we'll start with that one. Anupam! Lalita!"

Ramen stood up and assumed a serious expression.

"Lalita! Bina, come on!"

The patient of the previous day had all this while been sitting quietly in one corner, leaning against the wall. I had noticed that she had not spoken to a single person in the crowd, not even looked up once. She had a book open on her lap, though her face made it clear she wasn't reading. Her face was as ashen as the day before. She had done her hair for the evening, changed her clothes, even applied a little make-up -- but there seemed to be not a drop of spirit in her whole body. I had asked after her as soon as I entered, and Mrs Dutta had said she was better today. But I could see no sign of recovery. I admitted to a twinge of worry. A blood test might be needed, seeing how thin she was; even an X-ray was not a bad idea.

Mr Dutta called her again, "Bina!"

Bina limped up on her bandaged foot. Mr Dutta said, "Your lines, Ramen."

I had not realized all this while that Ramen was acting too. And not any old role either -- the role of the young lover I had read of in the novel. I had enjoyed the romance between Anupam and Lalita the most. I settled down to watch closely.

Ramen was asking, "Don't you recognize me?"

Bina said something unintelligible, softly. "Speak up," the author urged her from the back.

Now a faint voice could be heard, "Anupam-babu, isn't it?"

"Look at him as you speak."

Bina raised her eyes with great difficulty and repeated her dialogue.

"Smile, smile as you speak."

She smiled wanly. But there was no connection between the smile and her words, both seemed empty. I was wondering why they had chosen her for the role.

Mr Dutta stood up and began to lecture the girl. "Bina, do you want all our hard work to go waste just because of you? If you behave this way no one will be interested. Your role's the biggest, you have lines with everyone."

Bina sighed, "Leave me out."

"What childishness is this," Ramen smacked her lightly on the head. "Stand up straight, say your lines properly."

She seemed to tremble on hearing this, her eyes widened, blood rushed to her face. She didn't play her role half badly after that. And yet the lines of pain just didn't seem to leave her face; it was as though she didn't really want to say her lines, didn't even want to think them; she was just being forced to.

Around ten-thirty, someone said, "Let's call it a day."

Mr Dutta said, "Anupam and Lalita's last scene."

Bina exclaimed, "No, no, not that one." I was surprised at the sudden vehemence in her voice.

Ramen said, "Of course. Come, Bina, it's getting late."

Bina rose slowly. She looked as though she wouldn't be able to utter a word, but how beautifully she played that last scene. When Anupam said, "I'd better go, Lalita," her eyes filled with tears as she said, "No, don't go -- don't leave me." I was full of admiration for her performance.

Ramen was the last to leave; I had to wait for him. Mrs Dutta said, "Do come sometimes, won't you?"

I nodded courteously, and Ramen quipped, "Why sometimes? He'll come every day. He has no practice, you see, that chamber's just for appearances."

Mrs Dutta smiled and said, "Fine, why not set up your practice right here then? You are appointed medical officer of The New Nest."

I said, "That's wonderful, but I don't seem to have made much headway in my first case."
"Bina? There's nothing wrong with her -- she'll be fine soon."

Ramen spent the night at my place. I used to work as well as live in my chamber, at that time. I ordered some fried rice and cutlets from the restaurant nearby, and we sat down to chat over coffee afterwards. "Bina acts quite well," I remarked.

Ramen smiled without responding.

"But she doesn't seem to be in good health."

"Her health is fine, it's just been poorly of late."

"It seemed to me her foot injury is nothing -- there seems to be something else seriously wrong with her."

"You're right there."

Encouraged, I said, "She's extraordinarily pale, I think it's anaemia. I could arrange for a thorough examination if you like. Perhaps Major Ghosh."

"Do you really think a doctor can cure her illness?"

"What do you mean? Why not? You're half a doctor yourself -- you shouldn't be saying such things."

"But I know what's wrong with her."

"You do?"

"Her illness is love."

"What?"

"Love … She's fallen in love."

His words seemed to plunge me into water, from my safe refuge on land. I managed to compose myself in a minute and said, a suitably doctor-like expression on my face, "I see. Then there's nothing that a doctor can do."

"Not other doctors, perhaps, but you can," said Ramen, bending his tall frame a little and lying down. "Ah, this couch of yours is wonderful." Rubbing one foot against the other, he continued, "The thing is, the object of this girl's illness is me."

I smiled. "Not a new thing for you."

Ramen suddenly became agitated. "So what do you expect me to do? Die? Or leave the country? Bina's such a nice girl, I had never imagined she'd create such a terrible situation."

Now Ramen started his litany of woes. How was he to get any peace if this kind of thing kept happening! He slaved at his business all day, the evenings at Mr Dutta's were a pleasant diversion, he had become intimate with them in a short time, they were very nice people too, or else it would have been impossible for him to show up there anymore. Having heard him thus far, I said, "Well, I'm sure she's not the only one to blame -- these things are never one-sided."

"Believe it or not, it's completely one-sided. There's nothing from my side."

"Nothing? Rubbish!"

"There you are, you're saying the same thing. I'm sure Mr and Mrs Dutta think so too. And as for me, I've exhausted myself trying to explain things to her these past few days. I can't take it any more."

"What are you telling her?"

"I've been telling her to be calm, to be composed, to be good,  to understand."

"And what's she saying?"

"She can say nothing -- she can only sob. I had no idea anyone could weep as much as she can. She's been transformed from a lively young woman into a corpse. And can you imagine how you feel when you see someone sobbing that way -- especially when you know the tears are for you. The more I try to comfort her, the more wretchedly she sobs."

The sum and substance of everything else Ramen continued to pour out to me was that he would have given up all contact with the family had it not been for the play. Besides, why should he give it all up? Did he not have a life of his own -- his own happiness, his own peace? Should he stop visiting a place he wanted to visit simply because a young woman had lost her head? How unfair!

I consoled him with the thought that this was the tax he had to pay for his good looks.

Yes, he had realized long ago that his looks were his enemy. Just imagine, there he had been, enjoying his evenings at the rehearsals; and now tears threatened to drown it all. For the Bina I had seen, Ramen said, offered no hint of the kind of girl she really was. Bubbling, lively, pleasant -- just the way Lalita's character was at the beginning of The New Nest. Mr Dutta might well have created Lalita in his sister-in-law's mould. Whenever she had come in through the door, the spectre of depression had flown out the window. A lovely girl, very nice, and if anyone had asked him, he would have vouched for the fact that anyone who married this sister-in-law of Mr Dutta's was a fortunate man.

"She has chosen the fortunate one on her own," I teased him.

Ramen only sighed in response.

If only he hadn't joined the group. Everything had been fixed for the play, but they hadn't been able to find someone to play Anupam until they fortuitously discovered Ramen.

Rehearsals went ahead full steam, for a month or so. Everyone agreed that vivacious Bina was the last word where Lalita was concerned. They had known she would do well in the first part, where her character ran around all over the place and came across as quite light and bubbly, but not even her sister had imagined she would play the romantic and sad scenes towards the end so beautifully. One day, however, everyone heard that Bina was very ill and would not be able to rehearse. Ramen got worried, everyone got worried, but they did not let anyone meet her -- apparently she had a terrible headache and was lying down in a darkened room. The rehearsal didn't go off well that evening; Mr Dutta was distracted, Mrs Dutta kept disappearing inside every now and then, and finally the session broke up early. This was the point when Mrs Dutta took Ramen aside and said she had something important to discuss with him.

Ramen was thunderstruck at the news she gave him. Bina, Mrs Dutta reported, had been looking sullen yesterday, since afternoon, pacing from room to room, window to window. No rehearsal had been scheduled for that evening, and while Ramen sometimes visited even when there weren't any rehearsals, he hadn't that day.

When evening fell, the girl asked, "Isn't Ramen coming today?"

"It's past eight, I doubt if he's coming today," Mrs Dutta answered.

"Tell him to come -- telephone him," said Bina, at once. Mrs Dutta looked at her sister in surprise and saw that her eyes were brimming with tears. No sooner did she exclaim "Bina! What's wrong?" and put her hand on her sister's shoulder, than Bina had put her arms around her and burst into tears, saying, "I want to marry Ramen, I want to marry Ramen!" And so it had continued since then. Bina had given up on everything and retired to her bed. "I'm in a spot," Mrs Dutta had concluded.

Ramen had no idea what to say, where to look, where to put his hands in response. He felt terrible and yet, though he felt guilty, was it his fault? He had never said, done or even thought of anything that could have evoked such strong feelings in Bina. Mrs Dutta's account was difficult to comprehend.

He had no choice but to believe it when he saw her, however. She was in a wretched state. Ramen sat next to her and asked, "What's the matter, Bina?" and apparently she immediately clutched his hand and started sobbing.

She didn't even seem to remember how to properly conduct herself -- had she gone mad? Ramen was flabbergasted, but also felt miserable.

The Duttas were incredibly courteous, and left the room. Ramen felt extremely self-conscious and tried to overcome it with a laugh, saying, "What is it?"

There came a muffled reply. "Hasn't didi told you everything?"

"She has."

"What do you think?"

Ramen explained that they would have a lot of time to talk about this, but that right now she needed to recover so that the play wouldn't have to be abandoned; but his efforts were of no avail.

Now, several days had passed, during which Ramen had tried in no small measure to appease the girl, to calm her, to persuade her to recover, with Bina's sister at it as well, round the clock -- but no! They continued to flounder. For some reason Bina was certain that her life held no meaning unless she married Ramen, and no one could convince her otherwise. It made no difference to her that Ramen had been married earlier, and she particularly liked the fact that his lifestyle was a little westernized. Apparently this was the kind of man that was her ideal: tall, fair, someone who would climb the stairs whistling, play tennis, always be dressed in trousers. It seemed she had even told her sister that if the wedding didn't take place in normal course, she would move into Ramen's home -- he wouldn't be able to throw her out, would he?

Ramen shared his woes with me till two in the morning. Then he said, "What do you think is the way out?"

Of course, I said, there was an easy way out; just marry her.

"You're asking me to marry her? If that were possible it would have been simple."

"Why isn't it possible?"

"Something is coming in the way," Ramen made another confession. "I've promised Ruth that if I do get married again, it will be to her."

"Who on earth is Ruth?"

"Ruth is the girl in my shop ..."

"Again, Ramen!"

"Can't you understand, she has no one of her own ... And the way she's pursuing me -- I'm very unlikely to get married again, but if I ever ..."

I said angrily, "So an Anglo-Indian's ploys matter more to you than a Bengali girl's tears?"

"Say what you will. I'm off to bed."

Ramen yanked his jacket off and threw it on the floor, rolled his trousers up to the knees, and stretched himself out on the couch.

Enraged, I said nothing more.

Sleep eluded me that night. I could see Bina's woebegone expression, puffy eyes, unkempt hair. I felt pain, and yet it wasn't quite pain, it was an unfamiliar pleasure. I imagined I was pacifying Bina, consoling her.  She refused to listen, but I kept talking; once, she smiled, said something, and then I suddenly realized that Ramen and the girl who was so besotted by him were no more in my thoughts; I had forgotten about her. Embarrassing myself, I decided straightaway that getting involved in others' affairs was not wise. It didn't make any sense to visit the Duttas anymore; it was best to mind my own business.

But Ramen wouldn't let me be; he forced me to go along with him the next day. As I had said earlier, I enjoyed the atmosphere there. And in a few days I became addicted in any case; I stopped being a footnote to Ramen and started frequenting the place on my own.

In that time Bina had finally gotten hold of herself, her face had acquired colour and a smile, she spoke beyond the dialogue she had begun delivering again, with such talent. With her recovery the pace of rehearsals rose; the intense level of socializing that went on before, after and during the rehearsals was something I witnessed only at that one time, in my entire life.

In the first week of March, a couple of months after the first time I had been to Mr Dutta's house, in winter -- possibly in January -- The New Nest was staged.

The production came to an end, but the aftermath lasted another whole month. First at Mr Dutta's place, then at a restaurant, then at his friends' country home, and finally again at Mr Dutta's -- feast after feast, celebration after celebration. Although I had not contributed much, having spent most of my time watching, I was invited to every celebration; the Duttas were flawless hosts. By now, I'd had the opportunity to get to know several members of the troupe quite well, I no longer felt like a fish out of water amongst them.

Of all of them, it was Bina I knew the least; no more than fit the tight confines of a formal relationship. I'd observed in her something of an antipathy for me. Maybe she didn't care for the way I looked, or perhaps she was aware that Ramen had told me everything about her -- whatever the reason, she seemed to avoid my company. I did not mind this, for it was hard for me to fathom how to talk to, how to conduct myself with a love-struck, love-singed young woman. This distance was far better.

In April, the Duttas went off to Kalimpong. I paid a visit the day they were leaving, and no one else was present except them, for a change. After some casual conversation, Mrs Dutta announced, "Some news for you, your patient has recovered completely."

Wonderful news, I thought to myself, but why tell me? My relationship with them was ending.

As though she had read my mind, Mrs Dutta said quietly, "You know the whole story, after all, so I thought I'd let you know. Now Bina says fine, let Ramen not marry her, but she's not going to marry anyone else either, not in her entire life. But we're going to be planning for her marriage soon. For now we're leaving her with my elder sister -- you've met her, she was in charge of women's costumes for the play, and my mother's going to be visiting next month. She too will be relieved once the last of the brood is married off. Will you keep your eye open for a suitable boy?"

I nodded in consent, but her words seemed heartless. Bina had barely survived a major crisis -- and to talk of marriage again so soon afterwards!

Mrs Dutta said, "My sister's house is on Southern Avenue, it would be lovely if you could visit them sometimes! And Bina's health, too -- I'd really like it if she could live according to a doctor's regime for some time."

And thus began my visits to Southern Avenue. One or two people from the cast of The New Nest used to visit too, but most did not -- the Duttas' home had been the destination of their pilgrimage; as soon as the Duttas left, the gathering broke up. And Ramen -- he seemed to have been waiting for just such an opportunity; when the Duttas disappeared, so did he.

I put Bina through a round of calcium injections, prescribed two patent pills -- one after meals and one before going to bed -- and fixed a diet for her. The treatment appeared to be working; her cheeks grew redder, her eyes, brighter, her skin, silkier. Her eldest sister joked, "Bina's blooming -- marriage beckons."

Her mother arrived from Benaras, and the matchmaking began. But whenever a prospective groom was mentioned, Bina would fling her hands up, make a face and say, "Oh, spare me, please." By now the ice had thawed between us. Her mimicry of potential suitors, ranging from a young shawl-wearing professor to a widower landowner of Rangpur, accompanied by her comments, made me both laugh and feel sorry for those unknown gentlemen.

"Why don't you tell us what kind of person you want -- we'll look."

Bina said, "Are you telling me it's like an outfit or a shoe that you can order at a shop?" All this was happening in my presence; I felt quite uncomfortable. Just as I was wondering if I could leave on a pretext, Bina's sister suddenly glanced at me and said, "Why look anywhere else -- you and Abani here are a perfect match."

Bina went off in peals of laughter. "What rubbish!"

Her laughter betrayed excellent health, but it didn't ring very nicely in this doctor's ears. I stood up and said grimly, "Well, goodbye." Bina's sister said, "You seem annoyed."

"Not at all -- I have some things to do, so."

"Will you take us for a spin in your car? It's so hot, we'd love some fresh air."

"Of course. Come along ..."

"What about you, Bina?" asked her sister as she rose.

Bina came along too. After a couple of turns around the Dhakuria Lake, I stopped the car. Bina's sister wanted to sit on the grass, but as soon as we got out of the car she ran into a neighbour and the two of them walked on ahead.

"What would you like to do?" I asked Bina. "Sit here, or catch up with them?"

Bina said, "Might as well go back, this area has become terrible."

"We'll go back when they return," I persisted. "Let's sit down for a while."

The two of us sat down, and then there was no conversation. I was trying to dredge the shallows of my brain for something to say, when Bina suddenly said, "Why do you hang about our place -- aren't you supposed to be a friend of Ramen's?"

I cannot myself describe what my expression must have been like at that moment but it must have been quite terrible, for the moment she looked at me, Bina's expression changed as well. She said quickly in a low voice, "Please don't mind, I shouldn't have said that."

"You're right," I said and stood up.

Bina stood up too and said, "I never say such things to anyone, I wish I knew why I said it to you. Please tell me you won't remember this."

"But you're right."

"No, I'm not. I'm wrong. You'll come tomorrow, won't you? Tell me you'll come."

"I will."

Her sister rejoined us. Bina rose and said, "Let's go home."

"So soon?" said her sister and looked at her, and then at me. "What's the matter, have you two been quarrelling?"

Bina laughed in a manner designed to prove the complete falsity of her sister's surmise, but the laughter lacked authenticity. I didn't smile either. That night I made up my mind. Enough -- this was the end. If Bina could say to my face what she did, the mere suspicion of what she really thought made me break out in a sweat. The expression 'hang about' was eating away at my brain like termites. But it wasn't right to do anything drastic suddenly; that would be melodramatic, people would notice, it would become a topic of conversation. After all, I had developed something of an intimacy with these people over the past few months. Without revealing my intentions I planned to gradually decrease the frequency of my visits, and then finally disappear -- nobody would consider anything significant to have happened. I'd get peace of mind, they'd be relieved, Bina wouldn't have to put up with the unwanted company of a fool.

With this objective, I visited them the next day, to discover Bina dressed up and waiting in the drawing room. She said, "Ah, you're here."

When I glanced at her she said, "I was worried you wouldn't come."

I realized this was a case of applying a balm of sweetness to the previous day's wound. Forcing a smile to my face, I said, "Why shouldn't I?"

Bina laughed unaffectedly and said, "That's what I thought. But how bardi [elder sister] scolded me last night!"

"Scolded you? Why?"

"It seems I'm very rude, unsocial, impertinent ..."

"Why, what's the matter?"

"I've already admitted it was wrong of me to have said what I did -- why drive it home further? Anyway, now that you've come, I'm relieved. Bardi, bardi ..." Bina called out without getting up. "Abani has come."

I hadn't seen Bina in such great spirits recently -- never, in fact -- for from the time I had seen her, she had been overcome by love. She seemed like a different person, like a child.

After her bath, Bina's sister came into the room and said, "Bina, could you get the tea please? They're making some snacks, get those as well."

When Bina had left, her sister smiled at me and said, "We've  fixed her marriage with that court officer, Abani. The boy's family is in a hurry, and Ma's getting anxious too. And really, how long can one delay these things?"

It seemed to me Bina was something of a burden for these people, that they'd be thankful to be rid of her. I didn't like the idea.

"We were thinking of next month -- the twenty-ninth ..."

Things had progressed quite some way. And I knew nothing. Then again, why should I know -- where did I stand in the scheme of things, after all? Was that why Bina was in such high spirits today?

Her sister said, "What do you think?"

"I was only thinking ..."

"Thinking what? That's what I want to know."

"Has she agreed?"

"Bina? We can't afford to wait for her to agree. We can't all be as childish as she is, can we!"

So, she hadn't agreed? The marriage was against her wishes? And still so joyful?

The tea arrived with the snacks, and so did Bina. But the tea tasted bitter, the snacks stale, I didn't even glance at Bina.

After I had finished my tea, Bina's sister said, "Shall we go to the lake again?"

My mind was wandering, I came to with a start and said, "Were you talking to me?"

"Of course I was talking to you. Let's not take the car, it's not very far, after all. A walk will be nice."

She knew everyone in the neighbourhood; no sooner did we go out than she ran into someone she knew. A little later I noticed Bina and I had left them far behind. Back then, girls were just beginning to move around freely in that part of town. Observing this, I said, "This freedom for women is a very good thing."

Bina said, "Do you think the freedom to move around freely is everything?"

"I think it'll grow to cover other things too."

"I don't see it happening."

The words had been on the tip of my tongue for quite some time; I took the opportunity to say them. "You sister gave me the good news."

"What good news?"

"Apparently on the twenty-ninth of next month ..."

"Are you mad?"

"You mean it isn't true?"

"Why don't you ask the one who told you?" I didn't say anything more, but I felt much lighter. But why was I so concerned, what responsibility did I have? Hadn't I vowed the previous night to put a full stop to this? Indeed, what on earth was I doing here, why did I even visit every day, why did I ever get involved with that play and the people in it? This was the time for me to expand my medical practice. Suddenly it occurred to me that there would be no salvation unless I left Calcutta. Why not spend a few days in Darjeeling, and then get to work with fresh determination -- yes, this was a good idea.

Engrossed in my thoughts, I suddenly heard Bina's voice, "A penny for your thoughts."

I replied immediately, "I'm going to Darjeeling." It sounded discordant even to my own ears.

"Why?"

"Just like that -- on a holiday."

"When?"

"Early next month," I said.

"Which means very soon ..."

Bina suddenly stopped and said, "Let's wait, they've fallen a long  way behind."

There it was. Since I was off to Darjeeling in a week, why break the routine for the remaining few days? My daily visits continued, and the promenade to the lake became a regular feature too. Bina's sister was the most enthusiastic about them, running into people from the neighbourhood every day and leaving us to chat with them. Bina and I walked a little, sat a little, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent. We discussed many issues those days by the lake, and, amazingly, discovered we thought alike on most of them.

On the first of June, Bina said, "When are you going?"

"Going? Where?"

"So you're not going to Darjeeling."

To hide my embarrassment I explained unnecessarily. "Yes, of course I'm going -- just that I'm attending to an important case right now, so ..."

"You're definitely going?"

"Definitely." The more I said it the more my obstinacy grew -- yes, I had to go.

Bina looked at the waters of the lake for a while and suddenly said, "No, don't go."

"Not go? What are you saying?" I could feel the tremor in my own voice.

"No, don't go," Bina said again. "You don't know -- they've really -- fixed everything ... for the twenty-ninth -- but I cannot -- I cannot marry that court officer in trousers ..."

Her description didn't make me smile, for I regularly dressed the same way, doctors had to. I said severely, "Not everybody looks as good as Ramen in trousers, but that doesn't mean ..."

Bina took the words out of my mouth, "But that doesn't mean this idiotic character ..."

I spoke like her guardian, "Should such thing be said about a respectable gentleman?"

"So, why doesn't the gentleman stay a gentleman? Take my word for it, none of what they're expecting will actually happen."

"But surely you have to get married."

"Why must I?"

"You're not a child -- you know perfectly well ..."

"You think so too!" said Bina, and gazed at the water again. I looked in turn at her eyes and at the water. They seemed similar to me; black and white, bright and moist.

Suddenly Bina turned to me and said, "No -- I cannot -- you mustn't go -- you must save me."

"Me? How can I save you?"

As soon as I asked, I knew the question was meaningless; Bina had answered it long ago!

Ramen was the first to arrive on hearing the news. He leapt in the air, embraced me and spun me around, tipped the servants five rupees each -- then left in a whirl and returned an hour later, in a whirl. Handing me an emerald ring and a sari with silver work on it, he said, "Here's your pre-wedding gift. Don't forget to visit the Duttas in the evening -- they've just gotten back."

Mr Dutta smiled when I met him. "What's all this I hear?"

"So it really turned out to be the 'new nest' for you," said Mrs Dutta.

"So I see. The new nest for the new guest -- it even rhymes," joked Mr Dutta.

"Of course it'll match. The match they've made will now ensure that."

The couple continued in this vein for a while, and I laughed like a fool, red with embarrassment.

The days passed in a whirl. On the one side were the sharp verbal darts from the two future sisters-in-laws -- here too Mr Dutta found a rhyme, pointing out that brave hearts attract verbal darts -- while on the other was the business of finding a new house, buying things needed to set up home. Ramen went everywhere with me, arranging everything. I'd never have been able to do it all myself. And then -- and then what else but that June twenty-ninth? I went to the new house. Ramen had been there since morning -- he was the sole representative from the groom's side, and I still recall the exhilaration shining on his handsome face. Suddenly, I felt a little sad too. He had aroused Bina -- and I was the one she ended up with. Was I just someone who was conveniently available?

After our wedding, I had asked Bina about this and she replied, with that air particular to a bride, "Uff!" Later, she added that she wanted to laugh when she thought about the scene she had created because of her infatuation with Ramen. Wanted to laugh? Already? On the chance that she had not married me, after a few months would she have -- but it was ridiculous, why think of all these alternatives; life with Bina had turned out to be perfectly happy.

 

Buddhadeva Bose was a 20th-century Bengali writer, whose vast body of work has come to be an integral part of modern Indian literature.

Excerpted from My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, published with permission from Penguin India. First published in the Bengali as Moner Mato Meye in 1951.

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