Love is just one word, but she wrote letters for she had so much more to say.
The vermilion sun played hide-and-seek behind silhouettes of leafless trees and covered the obscure multi-storey buildings in a canopy of dusk. Blotches of neon lights slowly appeared, twinkling in the far distance like glow-worms. I sat by myself looking outside the French window as time drifted away into oblivion. My empty cup of cappuccino seemed as desolate as the café and bits of muffin lay scattered on the bone-china plate. I scribbled on a notepad, ‘Life is but a fleeting memory, fading minute by minute’.
Every Saturday evening, I came to Mocha—a quiet little coffee shop in Civil Lines—tucked away from the hullabaloo of the metropolis.
A waiter cleared the table and asked me, ‘Ma’am would you like to have anything else?’ I stood up and said, ‘No thank you’, paid the bill, plugged in my earphones, and walked homewards. The society’s gate was adorned with RIVIERA APARTMENTS painted on it in bold letters. After walking for a few minutes and climbing the staircase, I reached my one-bedroom flat on the fourth floor. The new apartment I had rented was small but cosy.
Cool February breeze wafted through the voile curtains of my home and filled me with a sense of joy. I switched on my laptop, added some songs to the VLC playlist, and pulled out a cotton night-suit from the Godrej almirah. Gliding across the room, I undressed and stood naked before the mirror, looking at my reflection. Smooth terracotta-coloured skin juxtaposed against shoulder length black hair, made me look almost like a mannequin. I observed the tiny moles on my upper chin, index finger, nape of the neck, and left breast.
And then like a motion picture, time zoomed out of focus and memories of childhood crystallized before my eyes. I saw myself as a six-year-old playing with toys. And then there was my brother, standing in a distance, looking at me with bloodshot eyes. His hands groped my body. Then I could see nothing. I could only hear faraway cries of a little girl.
Memories of molestation kept haunting me for years after it was over because for me it was actually never over. My voice had been muffled but the scars remained as fresh as an open wound. My cousin brother’s image kept flashing before my eyes. He was the culprit, the perpetrator. For years I remained quiet but I could never accept what had happened. I kept blaming myself for it. I started believing that it was my fault. Every time I looked at my naked self, images of sexual torture filled my being. Every time a guy tried to caress me, the touch jogged my memory to an agonizing past.
My phone vibrated and ‘Mummy Mumbai’ flashed on the screen. I lowered the laptop volume so that only faint murmurs of my favourite song could be heard in the background:Does your memory stray to a brighter summer day when I kissed you and called you sweetheart? I pressed the ‘Answer’ key and said, ‘Hello Mummy.’ Walking to and fro around the four-poster bed, I chitchatted for fifteen minutes and then disconnected the call saying, ‘Okay baba, I will arrange everything tonight.’
I changed into the night-suit and went to the kitchen to make maggi for myself. Once done with eating, I opened one of the sealed cartons kept on the floor. Under a pile of old photographs and bric-a-bracs I found my college books. I took out copies of Eliot, Bronte, Plato, Baudelaire, Austen, Tagore, Dickens, and Sophocles, and arranged them one on top of the other. The empty plywood cupboard hadn’t been used since I had shifted. Close to the window, it would serve as an ideal place to keep my books. I opened its doors and spread old newspapers on the shelves. The lowermost ledge was covered with cobwebs. I squatted on the floor and scraped my hand within the cavity and found a few dust-laden beer bottles and some empty containers and plastic tubes.
Among other things I discovered a decrepit shoe-box hidden behind some old newspapers. Intrigued, I opened it and found a bunch of papers wrapped in a mottled silk handkerchief. All the dog-eared sealed envelopes were addressed to the same man—Anirban Roy of Amherst Street, Calcutta—and I realized that they were actually unsent letters. Curious to know more, I sat on my bed with the box and opened one of them. What met my eyes was a beautiful love letter, written in calligraphic handwriting. Lost in the magical world of pure love, I frantically went through the treasure I had found. There were twenty-one letters in all. Written in 1980s by some Sasha Dutta, the letters were full of love and warmth.
The second paragraph in the third letter caught my attention and I couldn’t help but read it out:
History can boast about the stories of kings and knights; they are too cheaply scattered and known to all. But our stories...those fragments of a few months spent together are curled in time's box like a precious solitaire. The dust of time cannot tarnish it...it can only add to its brilliance. The stories of those beautiful moments...only two people know of it...only two people will ever know of it.
I reread the last line, ‘…only two people know of it...only two people will ever know it’, and a sudden realization dawned upon me. I quickly flung the letters away on the bed in utter embarrassment. I had shamelessly read someone’s personal letters. Someone I had no connection with, someone I didn’t even know. But why did I feel wonderful reading those lines? Why did I find myself speaking through Sasha’s words?
Exhilarated and unable to control myself, I read the letters over and over again. They touched my heartstrings. I wanted to know more, know more about Sasha, about Anirban, their relationship, their life. Were they still together? Were these letters ever sent to Anirban? Was Sasha’s love unrequited or was it reciprocated? If yes, why were these letters lying here, in my home? Why were these beautiful memories buried in a cupboard of an old apartment? I was stuck with wonder and surprise. But no matter how much I wanted to know the story, I didn’t want it to end on a sad note. In office I often came across submissions which began like a fairy-tale and ended with a ‘and they lived happily ever after’. I wanted this story to end in the same way.
I picked another letter and read:
Ashy fog surrounds the windows. Our cup of tea is still warm with love...smiles kiss our lips. Your name is embossed on my palm...written with a red pen in your beautiful handwriting. Silence echoes all around. The smudged kohl in my eyes speaks a thousand words.
Each word was written so simply yet beautifully! I somehow wanted to know more about the lovers. I was busy calculating the mathematical permutations and combinations that could help me find Sasha and Anirban, when suddenly a phone call interrupted my thoughts. ‘Hi Samik, how are you?’ I beamed from ear to ear. I quickly told him about the treasure I had found. He seemed as delighted as I was. After a few minutes I disconnected the call saying, ‘Yes I know, I know. I’ll be there on time.’
Samik… It had been three years since we last met. After post-graduation I shifted back to Mumbai to prepare for civil services and become Ma Pa’s ‘IAS Beti’. Living by myself in an apartment after all those years of staying in a hostel would have made little sense. Moreover my roommate had also left the city. But Samik stayed back to pursue his MPhil. He was those brilliant sorts who wanted to study, prepare for UGC NET, and become a professor. I, on the other hand, never knew what was right or wrong for me.
My only aim in life was to be happy. At every phase I wanted to become someone different. Whenever relatives and neighbours asked me, ‘Beta kya banna hai bade hoke?’ I always responded with different answers. At times I did say, ‘Papa ke tarah civil servant’ but my mind was always occupied with the thoughts of becoming an ‘army officer’, ‘school teacher’, ‘astronaut’, ‘shopkeeper’, ‘film actress’, or ‘writer’. In all those muddled thoughts that every 8-year-old has, I never considered the possibility of becoming an editor. But as fate would have it, it brought me back to Delhi, and after two unsuccessful attempts at civil services, I ended up joining a publishing house as an editor.
When I shifted to the city after three years of mutual separation, I was by no means the young college-going girl. I was a 26-year-old woman who had a wonderful life ahead waiting to be explored. No longer the naive and innocent email@example.com; I now had a more sensible existence as well as an email id that made sense. Even though my office was more than 25 kilometres away in Noida, I chose to stay away from the jam-packed localities. As long as I had my independence and happiness, the whole shebang fell in place. Everything seemed perfect, but Samik had left the city. However distance did not mean virtual separation and we stayed in touch.
Samik and I became friends when the pandemic ‘Swine Flu’ struck India. Like most frequent flyers, I too became an immediate victim, and was soon shifted to Mumbai to recover. Being under the weather, a long bedridden stay at home meant nothing but boredom. So to ease away the heartache of being socially ostracized for a month, I turned a blind eye to the protracted disease, added as many people as I knew on Facebook, and rejuvenated my virtual social life.
Samik was a classmate I hardly knew. In a batch of 250 students, Mr Sen was a teacher’s pet. I detested the fact that he, who had not even graduated from Delhi University, was elected as the class representative. I had reluctantly sent him a friend request which he had willingly accepted. What surprised me was that the supposed ‘introvert’ was a chatterbox in real life. Out of the twenty-odd people I had added to my profile, he was the only one who enquired about my health. In fact he was the only one who asked me to sleep on time and seemed genuinely concerned. His affection touched me.
Formal Facebook conversations progressed to nonchalant chats on Google Talk. Eventually we exchanged phone numbers and had long tête-à-têtes. His mellifluous voice embalmed me. And when I returned to Delhi after thirty days of bed-exile, I felt like a completely new person. At the age of twenty-three I, who had always remained loveless, fell in love with Samik. Over months of innumerable cups of tea and after-class discussions, ‘Love in the Times of Swine Flu’ developed into a charming love-story.
But then I broke up with him. I didn’t have a choice. The scars of molestation were too deep-rooted to let go off me. My phone beeped and the stream of Samik-thoughts came to a halt. A colleague had sent an SMS. I texted back and walked towards my bed. The letters were lying on it.
Sasha’s words made me realize that love was about accepting oneself and loving the other person unconditionally. The knot I was trying to untie for the last twenty-six years suddenly seemed to open all by itself. Samik was the only person who understood me, and he did so like no one else. He loved me as much as I loved him… maybe even more than that. Then why was I holding myself back? Why was I not allowing love to take its course? Sasha’s love was incomplete. Would mine remain incomplete too? Would I let go of my love because of a horrible past? And was it my fault after all? If yes, would I have to live with it forever? And if no, was it wise to let go of a love as pure as Samik’s?
The last envelope was heavier than the rest. I opened it and found a monochrome photograph of a young woman within. A charming lady with a slightly flat nose and high cheek bones, she seemed familiar. I looked at her picture again but couldn’t make head or tail of it. I read the lines written in the last letter: ‘I think my boat is still scuttling across the seas like an abandoned child. Perhaps looking for me, perhaps looking for you…’ For a split moment I felt scared…scared that I’d lose him. I didn’t my boat to be abandoned. I wanted to be loved, loved by Samik.
Drowsy with sleep and random thoughts, I kept the letters on my bedside and dozed off.
The morning alarm snoozed and woke me up with a start. It was already 6 am! I had to reach the railway station by 6.50. I brushed my teeth, took a bath, quickly changed into a pair of jeans and T-shirt, grabbed a sandwich from the fridge, and rushed out of home. My hair was still wet and I had somehow managed to put kohl in my eyes. I took the first Metro to New Delhi. The train was jam-packed with people going to the Kashmere Gate Bus Adda and New Delhi Railway Station. I reached my stop at 6.35 am and somehow managed to buy a platform ticket in good time.
The train would arrive on Platform 6 and was late by half an hour. I flipped through my Inbox messages. The one I received the previous night said: Train no: 12229 Lucknow Mail. Seat no. 42. Coach B6. I waited at the station running my fingers through my hair. My eyes met different people. A little boy was running around selling tea and biscuits. A pot-bellied man was snoring peacefully on a green bench next to the bookstall. A young couple stood nearby with a baby covered in woolens and an old man stood across on Platform 5 smoking a beedi. Snippets of conversation caught my ears as people rushed to catch their trains.
Lucknow Mail slowly lurched onto the tracks. Platform 6 was abuzz with activity as people started disembarking. I stood in anticipation. In a blue pinstripe shirt and grey trousers, 6-foot tall Professor Samik Sen stood in front of me. My heart skipped a beat as I sprinted ahead and gave him a tight hug. He smiled and put his left arm around me saying, ‘Anu, Anu, Anu…it’s so good to see you after such a long time.’ I blushed with delight. I had never thought that meeting him would mean so much happiness.
He pressed my hand against his and we walked towards the exit. We took an auto-rickshaw to Mall Road. All through the ride we held hands and said nothing. We just looked at each other and smiled. The contentment of seeing each other, feeling each other’s presence after three long years was what made the short journey extremely romantic. After a 25-minute ride we reached my society. I invited Samik for a cup of coffee and snacks.
When we reached the apartment, I asked him to relax in the living room while I prepared breakfast. I made two mugs of steaming hot coffee and served it with cheese sandwiches and Bourbon biscuits. He smiled and said, ‘You know how to please me, don’t you?’ ‘What have I done to please you?’ I replied. ‘You know how much I love Bourbon biscuits. You bought them for me, didn’t you?’ he said. I smiled and said nothing.
He followed me to the kitchen, held me by the waist, and said, ‘Anu, don’t you think we should be together? Don’t you think we are meant to be? I have always loved you and so have you, so why can’t we be together?’ My heart skipped a beat as I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about the same thing since last night. You know Sam, when I read those letters yesterday I realized that true love does exist. And I know you and I feel that same kind of love for each other… The purity and emotions with which those letters are written is truly magical. I don’t even know whether Sasha and Anirban met each other and lived happily ever after or not! Life is so uncertain, isn’t…’ Before I could finish, he said, ‘But I don’t want to live a life of uncertainty. You need to open up a little more and not think about what happened. It’s not your fault Anu! You were a little girl. You have to let go of your past and forget what happened. Brooding on empty time will only hold you back. You can’t just let your life drift away like this…’
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I said, ‘I love you Sam.’ His eyes too filled with tears and he said, ‘I love you too’. He kissed me a million times and for the first time I didn’t stop him even once. I wasn’t scared anymore. He held me close to him and asked, ‘Won’t you marry me Anu?’ I looked into his eyes, said ‘I will’. That split second seemed to last forever.
The doorbell rang and I realized that it was already 8.30 am. The maid had come. I asked Samik to sit in my room. He sat down on the bed and said, ‘I am so happy Anu! I want to talk to my parents about it. You know what? I have a conference tomorrow after which I plan to go and meet my MPhil supervisor.’ ‘That would be wonderful. What time do you plan to go?’ I said. ‘Since you have office till 6, I don’t think you’ll be able to attend the conference. But you can join me in the evening, can’t you? I want you to come with me.’ I said, ‘Of course I’ll come with you. I’ll be back home by 7 pm. We can go then. What do you say?’
‘Okay let me ask her,’ said Samik and called up his supervisor. ‘Gooood morning… Yes Samik… I reached Delhi this morning… Ya ya… Yes Lucknow University is very nice…but not as good as DU though… Yes I’ll be presenting a paper on Progressive Writers. You’ll be coming, right? Oh! ... Okay then can I come and meet you tomorrow evening? Would 7 pm be okay? Yes yes not a problem… I have a little surprise for you… No, no, I am not going to Cambridge or Oxford… Okay then. I will see you tomorrow.’ He disconnected the call and looked at me smiling: ‘So Anu, I want to introduce my to-be wife to my supervisor.’ I smiled and said, ‘Oh! Stop teasing me Sam.’ He hugged me and patted my cheeks like a little baby’s.
After a long conversation on Lucknow and his job, he said, ‘By the way, show me those letters. I also want to see what influenced my darling Anu to accept my proposal.’ I took the heap and put them in his lap, ‘Here you go.’ He went through some of the letters and exclaimed, ‘Whoa! These are pure gold! What a beautiful handwriting! And what expression! Who are Anirban and Sasha?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. But whoever they are may God bless them.’ ‘Oh by the way, I also found this in the last letter,’ I said handing him the photograph.
He took the antique looking black and white picture and held it in his hand. Then taking a closer look, he raised his eyebrow and said, ‘You got to be kidding me!’ Then he chuckled and held out the picture to me. ‘What does this laughter mean’ I said irritated. He asked, ‘Are these letters addressed to Anirban Roy?’ I said, ‘Yes they are. Haven’t I told you already?’ ‘No you didn’t, you just said that these letters were sent to some Anirban. And what was the name of the lady? Sasha?’ he asked sounding rather amused.
‘Yes Sasha Dutta. But why do you want to know? She wrote these letters to her lover in 1980s and never sent it to him. Isn’t that sad enough?’ I retorted.
‘No it isn’t! Because Sasha Dutta does not exist,’ he said.
‘I can’t understand a word you are saying! What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘I mean that Sasha Dutta is now Sashwati Roy and she is married to Anirban Roy,’ he replied smiling.
‘But how is that possible? And how is it that you know these things?’ I questioned.
‘I know it because the woman in this picture is actually Dr Sashwati Roy, a professor of English Literature in Delhi University. And you will be glad to know that she is married to Dr Anirban Roy who teaches in Delhi School of Economics.’
‘What! Are you sure?’ I said totally confused.
His response benumbed me: ‘How can I not be sure Anu? Dr Sashwati Roy is my supervisor!'
Anukriti Sharma is a Delhi based writer working with Random House India. Founder and Owner of Ekphrasis India, she completed her post-graduation in English Literature from Miranda House, Delhi University. A completely visual person who loves to dream; her passions include blogging, reading, music, social service and painting. Lover of 'Chai' and 'Cheesecake', a fusion of east and west... Admires smiles as well as tears... At times too talkative,at times too quiet...
Her pockets jingle with little blessings... Among innumerable faces her's is just another one trying to find a place in this world.
Her blogs have won many accolades including recognition and prizes from Yahoo! India, Dove, HP, Surf Excel, HUL, Indiblogger, BlogAdda, BlogJunta and Blogger's Symposium. Eminent personalities like Javed Akhtar, Ayaz Memon and Ashok Chakradhar have acknowledged her with the best blog award for her poem on Mumbai Terror Attack. Her work has also been published in various college journals and online magazines like The NRI, Youth Ki Awaaz, and Impulse.