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Shekhar remained silent, staring in another direction. After a long time, Bhuvaneshwari continued, "Besides me, she cannot ask anybody for anything. If she is hungry at an odd hour, once again, she comes only to me. She would keep hovering around me and just looking at her I could understand what she wanted. That is the thought that keeps going around in my head, Shekhar; Lalita moves about dispiritedly all the time, nobody understands or even asks after her. She has only me to care for her physical comforts; she not only addresses me as Mother, but truly looks on me as one." Shekhar did not have the gumption to look at his mother in the eye. He continued gazing in the direction he was staring into and said, "That's all right, Ma, why don't you just send for her and after finding out her needs make sure she is taken care of?"
"Why would she accept anything from me now? Your father has blocked even the common passage. What face do I have to give anything at all? Gurucharan Babu, in the throes of sorrow, might have blundered badly. We as people close to him, could have organized a penance and helped him stone. But instead we isolated him and cast him off totally! This much more I will also say, it is because of your father that Lalita's Mama has been forced to give up his religion. Your father has been hounding him repeatedly for payments – any man can over-react in disgust. I would say that Gurucharan Babu has taken the right decision, that boy Girin has proved much closer to him than we are – I am telling you, Lalita will be happy, if she marries him. The marriage is next month, I believe." Suddenly Shekhar turned around and asked, "Oh, is the ceremony next month?"
"That's what I hear."
Shekhar had no further questions.
Maintaining a silence for a while, his mother then said, "I heard from Lalita that her Mama is not keeping too well either. How will he? As it is there is no peace in his heart, and added to that a continual spate of tears in the house. There is no calm there, even for a minute." Shekhar listened in silence.
The lane in which they lived was so narrow that two cars couldn't pass each other. About ten days later, Shekhar was on his way back from work when his office car was brought to a halt by a car parked in front of Gurucharan's house. Shekhar got down and upon asking was told that the vehicle belonged to a doctor – a doctor had been summoned.
As is mother had told him of Gurucharan's ill health, Shekhar made his way directly to Gurucharan's bedroom instead of returning home. What he had suspected turned out to be true. Gurucharan lay on the bed, seemingly lifeless; on one side of the bed sat Girin and Lalita, looking careworn; on the other side was the doctor, carrying out his examination.
Gurucharan uttered some muffled words of welcome. Lalita, pulling one end of the sari ever closer, looked the other way.
The doctor belonged to the same locality and knew Shekhar. He completed his tests, arranged for the medicines and left the room, accompanied by Shekhar. As Girin followed them out and settled the dues, the doctor emphasized that the disease had not become virulent, and that a simple change of air would work wonders. Once the doctor left, both returned to Gurucharan's room.
Lalita gesturing to Girin began to have a hushed conversation with him in one corner of the room; Shekhar sat in front of Gurucharan, looking at him silently. Gurucharan now lay with his back towards the door and was unaware of Shekhar's sitting by his side.
After a while Shekhar got up and left. Even then, Girin and Lalita remained in intimate conversation; neither had anybody asked him to be seated, nor did anybody see him out. There was nobody to address even a solitary remark to him to ask him a single question.
It was then that Shekhar realized only too definitely that Lalita had been released from his onerous responsibility – that he could now breathe a sigh of relief! There need no longer be any fear – Lalita would not involve him in any imbroglio! As he changed into this casual clothes in his room, Shekhar reminded himself innumerable times that now it was Girin who was the true friend of the family, the hope of all and provider of Lalita's future shelter. Shekhar himself was nobody at this moment of crisis. Lalita had no longer felt the need of even some verbal assurances from him now.
Exclaiming aloud, "Oof!" Shekhar collapsed onto a padded couch. Seeing him, Lalita had withdrawn in a pointed manner that made it only too clear that he was a total outsider, a mere acquaintance! Further, in his very presence, Lalita had deliberately called Girin aside and consulted him in low, intimate tones. Not so long ago, it was in the company of this very man that Shekhar had forbidden Lalita to pay a visit to the theatre!
At one point, Shekhar even tried to convince himself that Lalita had behaved in that manner with Girin out of embarrassment regarding her secret liaison with Shekhar – but, how could that be possible? If that were the case, would she not have attempted by some means or the other to speak to him about all these complicated issues that had come to pass?
Suddenly his mother's voice was heard outside, "What is the matter, haven't you washed up as yet? It's getting on to be evening!"
Shekhar sat up in a rush, keeping his face averted at such an angle as not to catch his mother's attention, and quickly proceeded with his evening ablutions.
These past few days his mind had continually pondered deeply on many matters; but there was one thing Shekhar had glossed over – whose fault was it really? Fully aware of the marriage plans for Lalita, he had not spoken even one word of reassurance to her, neither had he given her any opportunity to speak her mind. Rather, he had let himself die a thousand deaths in apprehension that she might make some untoward claims or revelations. He had marked Lalita as the perpetrator of all crimes and judged her harshly; at the same time, jealousy, rage, hurt and frustration were all burning him to a cinder. This perhaps is the manner in which all men pass judgement, and this is how they are consumed inwardly by flames. Shekhar had passed seven days burning in his own private hell when, one evening, a noise at the door made his heart beat wildly! Lalita, grasping Annakali firmly by the hand, entered his room and sat down on the carpet. Annakali said, "Shekhar da, both of us have come to take leave of you. We are going away tomorrow."
Shekhar stared at nothing in particular, left speechless by this sudden news.
Annakali continued, "We have done you a lot of wrong, committed a lot of sins, please forgive it all."
It was clear to Shekhar that these were not her words she was merely repeating what she had been taught. He asked, "Where will you be going tomorrow?"
"To the west. All of us will be going to Munger with Baba, Girin Baba has a house there. We don't plan to return even after Baba's recovery. The doctor has said that climatic conditions here don't suit Baba."
Shekhar asked, "How is he now?"
"A little better." Annakali took out some saris and showed them to Shekhar, saying Bhuvaneshwari had bought these for them. Lalita had remained silent all this while, Getting up and putting a key on the table she said, "The key to the cupboard has been with me all this while." Smiling a little she continued, "But there is no money inside, everything has been spent." Shekhar said nothing to this. Annakali said, "Come along Lalita di, it is almost night." Before Lalita could respond, Shekhar hastily spoke up, "Kali, just run below and fetch me some paan, won't you?" Lalita caught Annakali's hand and said, "You sit here Kali, I'll fetch it." She went downstairs and returned with the paan which she gave to Annakali, who in turn handed them to Shekhar.
Shekhar sat in dumb silence, holding them in his hand. "We'll have to leave now, Shekhar da," Annakali said, respectfully bowing at his feet. Lalita bowed to the ground silently from where she was. Then both left the room slowly.
Shekhar sat there with his sense of propriety and pride intact; he sat in nonplussed silence, as though turned to stone. She had come, said what she had to and left forever. But Shekhar had not been able to speak a word. The moment had passed by like he had no illness to speak at all. Lalita had deliberately brought Annakali with her to avoid any direct conversation with him – Shekhar was well aware of this. His entire being seemed to painfully come to life now; head spinning, Shekhar fell into bed with his eyes shut tight. Gurucharan's deteriorating health did not mend even in Munger. Within a year, casting away all earthly cares, he left for his heavenly abode. Girin had truly come to love him and till the very last nursed him to the best of his ability.
Before breathing his last, Gurucharan took both of Girin's hands in his own and, beseeching him never to sever ties with the family, requested him to left their deep friendship deepen further into a more intimate family bond. Failing health and rapidly passing time would not permit him to witness the happy occasion, but even from above, he would like to see the events come to pass. Girin, in utmost happiness and with all his heart, gave Gurucharan
his word.
The tenants who had leased Gurucharan's house kept Bhuvaneshwari in touch with all that was happening to them; they conveyed the news of Gurucharan's demise to him. Not much later, a momentous disaster took place in her own house, Nabin Roy passed away suddenly. Turning almost insane with sorrow and grief, Bhuvaneshwari headed for Benares, leaving the responsibility of the entire household to her daughter-in-law. She promised that she would return to solemnize Shekhar's marriage which was scheduled for the following year.
This match had been fixed by Nabin Roy himself and the wedding would have taken place much earlier, but his death had postponed matters for a year. But now, the bride's family did not want to delay things any further and they had come the previous day and completed the engagement ceremony. The marriage was to take place that very month. Shekhar was getting ready to go and fetch his mother. As he brought out his things from the cupboard to pack, Lalita came to his mind after a very long while. All these chores used to be taken care of by her earlier. It was over three years since Lalita and her family had left for a long while there had been no news of them. He had made no effort to trace them either – probably there was no desire to do so. Gradually a kind of hatred had grown in his mind for Lalita. Today all of a sudden he wished he could find out how they all were by some means or the other. Of course, there was every reason for them to have prospered – Shekhar was quite aware that Girin was well to do; however, he wanted to know the details – when the marriage had been solemnized, how they all were – all that.
The tenants of Gurucharan's house were not there either – they had shifted elsewhere. Shekhar had once thought of approaching Charu's father – they would definitely have kept track of Girin's whereabouts. For some moments, putting aside the packing, he stared emptily through the window and brooded on these mattes. Suddenly their elderly maid called aloud from outside the door, 'Chhoto Babu, Kali's mother would like to see you." In astonishment Shekhar turned around and asked, "Which Kali's mother?" The maid pointed to Gurucharan's house and said, 'Our Kali's mother, Chhoto Babu, they returned last night." I'm coming," Shekhar started out immediately.
The day was drawing to a close; no sooner had he stepped into the house than a loud keening resounded all around. Going near Gurucharan's wife who was clad in the grab of a widow, Shekhar sat down on the floor in front of her and silently swallowed his own tears. Sorrow, not just for Gurucharan, but for his own father was well, overwhelmed Shekhar all over again. Lalita came into the room bearing lights when darkness had fallen all around. She greeted Shekhar from a distance and after waiting for a while left quietly. Shekhar could not bring himself to either look at or address this wife of another, a seventeen year old woman now. However a covert glance revealed a little, that Lalita had not just grown up but had become a lot thinner too. After weeping considerably, what Gurucharan's widow had to say amounted to this – all that she wanted to do now was to sell this house and live under another shelter of her son-in-law in Munger. Shekhar's father had craved to buy this house, now her family wanted to sell it to Shekhar's family for the right price. This way, they would feel that somehow they were still a part of it. They would not feel any trepidation about selling off the house and should they visit at any point of time in the future, she was sure that she'd be allowed to spend a few days there. Once Shekhar had reassured her that he would speak to his mother and do what he could, she wiped her tears dry and asked, "Will Didi not pay us a visit now by any chance?"
Shekhar said that he was leaving that very night to fetch her. After that, Gurucharan's widow elicited other bits of information regarding the date of Shekhar's wedding, the amount of dowry the bride's family were offering, what jewellery had been bought, how Nabin Roy had passed away, how Bhuvaneshwari had coped with his death etc. etc. When Shekhar was finally permitted to leave, the moon had risen. At the time, Girin was coming downstairs, and was probably going across to meet Charu's mother – his sister. Observing this, Gurucharan's widow asked, "Shekharnath, are you not acquainted with my son-in-law? There is no comparable to him anywhere in the world."
Shekhar entertained no doubts about that at all; he said as much as also giving her to understand that he was acquainted with Girin, rapidly made an exit. But he was forced to come to a halt on entering the outer room. In the darkness, Lalita was waiting behind the door. She asked, "Are you going to fetch Ma tonight?"
Shekhar answered, "Yes". "Is she very distressed?" "Yes, she had all but turned insane with grief."
'How is your health?"
"I am well," he said and left hastily.
Stepping out, Shekhar seemed to burn up in shame and disgust. It seemed to him that by standing in proximity with Lalita, he too had become sullied. On returning home he somehow managed to close his suitcase; knowing that there was still plenty of time before the train left, he stretched out on the bed and with the purpose of burning to a cinder Lalita's poisonous memories, fanned the flames of disgust all through his heart. In the agony of being seared through and through, he chided her in the harshest of terms; as a matter of fact, he did not even hesitate to call her a fallen woman. Then he recollected that Gurucharan's wife had said, "That was a marriage of convenience, not joy – so, no one had been informed or invited, otherwise Lalita had said that your family ought to be intimated." This sheer audacity of Lalita's seemed to ignite the flames of Shekhar's wrath even further.
                     To be continued......



 
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