| by MANJU KAPUR
'Viru!' exclaimed the Professor. 'That is love. So often love is manifested in waiting.'
How fondly he says those words, thought Virmati resentfully. He must have read them a thousand times.
'No,' she continued out loud, firmly avoiding English Literature, 'you are right. She was not silly. She was clever. She must have been quite comfortably off. That is why she didn't go. Old and ugly, as the English become, red and wrinkled by the time they reach forty. Here the Maharaja would have looked after her. And paid for this expensive gravestone. Could a doctor's widow get this gravestone and this view anywhere else, despite all the angels she has lost and found?'
'This is very cynical of you, Virmati,' commented the Professor gravely.
'Perhaps my life has made me cynical,' replied Virmati equally gravely.
'I will not pretend to not understand you, sweetheart,' said the Professor earnestly. 'Indeed I do, too well. I know the trials you have gone through for me. I appreciate them, more than you think, as a lifetime of loving will prove!'
'If it ever begins, that is,'
Virmati could not understand what was happening to her. She started again.
'You think it's so easy for me!' She turned on him. 'It isn't! People wondering all the time. Why I'm not married. What should I say? That my lover is a coward? That he is waiting for permission from his family to bring home a second wife?'
Virmati had never dared to say so much. She stopped. She hadn't realized how angry and humiliated she was, and her eyes filled with tears.
The Professor flushed. How dare she insult him like this? He knew men whose second marriages had been condemned socially, resulting in nothing but humiliation and misery to everybody. And she was blaming him for being careful! All he had taught her had led to this! He started to walk away.
Virmati watched him go. She turned slowly and looked across the valley. Harish was right. It was beautiful. A peaceful resting place. It was a great pity she couldn't die straight away and rest there too. She fell down on the grass and closed her eyes, crying noiselessly for a long time, her face pressed against the earth. Her body felt too heavy for her to lift and take home. It would have to remain there, where it had dropped.
Virmati realized – and thought how stupid she was not to have realised earlier – that to have a man stay with you is to invite certain consequences, though poetic justice might demand that the distress caused by that visit should allow those consequences to dissolve. But they didn't. They assumed very tangible voices. These swirled around her figure, and very soon, without her knowing, become loud and threatening.
The prime minister called her about a month after the Professor's visit. As Virmati walked to his residence butterflies danced in her stomach, and the sunshine on her seemed less pleasant than usual. She had a nasty presentiment about this meeting. She had seen the prime minister only recently, and normally he didn't see her so soon.
She rounded the corner of the hill, and there it was, the prime minister's house. Broad stone steps led up to it, flanked by curved stone balustrades. At the top were small, seated lions, and big iron gates between. Through them she could see the marble entranceway, with grass and flowers growing on either side, and further steps leading up into the house. As she approached, her gait grew slow and irresolute, so that by the time she reached the side entrance, the one she usually used, she was dawdling.
Slowly she entered and slowly she followed the servant, who left her in the selfsame angan where she had waited with Harish more than a year ago. There was the looking even more bedraggled despite its decorative pot. Oh, why couldn't Harish have stayed there again? But then she dismissed these thoughts. Her life was so tangled, it was impossible to focus on any one particular that should have been different.
The servant reappeared. Apprehensive, Virmati took in the crimson carpet, hunting pictures, swords, crystal chandeliers, and heavy rosewood furniture with brocade coverings. She had had no idea the Diwan Sahib lived so well. She went up to one of the pictures. It was in black and white, in a carved wooden frame, with a gold edge, crowded with English men, women, horses and dogs on leashes. In faint, double black letters underneath was inscribed The Hunt.
The Diwan Sahib came and found her staring short-sightedly at it.
'Like it?' he asked pleasantly.
'Oh yes,' she replied. 'The horses and the dogs – so lifelike.' Then she paused, confused. Saying something was lifelike was not supposed to be an aesthetic yardstick that much she now knew. But what else to say. She looked again at the picture.
'The British love dogs and horses, don't they? She hazarded tentatively.
Diwan Sahib smiled. 'Sit down,' he said.
Virmati sat on the edge of one of the brocaded rosewood chairs. She looked down nervously.
'Beti,' he started, 'you know I am like a father to you. Your parents sent you here on my recommendation. I am responsible for you to the Maharani as well as to them.'
'If there is anything bothering you, or any difficulty, you must tell me,' continued the Diwan Sahib, looking at the principal's head bent intently on the carpet.
'No, no, there is nothing,' mumbled Virmati.
'This is a small place. People are traditional, and when anything out of the ordinary happens, they talk.'
Virmati cleared her throat. 'Talk?' she repeated. 'yes, I suppose they would.' She wished he would say what he meant and get it over with. She was not accustomed to tact. Her family usually hit her with a sledge-hammer, and when not satisfied with the results, hit her again.
'There is gossip and you know how bad any hint of scandal can be for a school. It is important to set a good example, particularly because there is so much readiness to suppose that education encourages girls to be independent and wayward.' He hesitated and added, 'You know our people are simple. When they see something like this, they jump to obvious conclusions. They do not know what else to believe. And a bad example is set.'
'I see,' said Virmati tonelessly.
The Diwan Sahib waited a moment before reiterating patiently, 'The situation then becomes very delicate.'
Virmati could see she was expected to say something. The truth was out of the question, so she tried a lie. 'He is a friend of the family's. He came late, and then we couldn't think of disturbing you.'
The Diwan Sahib frowned. 'Don't you have some further studying to do?' he asked after a little reflection. 'Maybe after this term is over, you can do it.'
Virmati stood up. 'Of course I have to study more,' she said wildly. 'In Shantineketan.' That was the furthest spot she could think of on the spur of the moment.'
'Excellent, excellent.' The Diwan Sahib could not have looked more pleased. 'I'll inform the Maharani of your plans. She will be sorry to lose you, but we cannot keep young people here against their will.'
Virmati hardly heard him. She started walking quickly out. She hated him, hated herself. Why couldn't he come out and say she was dismissed, instead of trapping her like that? She would be glad to leave this stifling place. She would go to Shantineketan, if that was the last thing she did. She would never go back to Amritsar. What face did she have left to show there?
Two months were left before the end of term. Virmati worked steadily and avoided the small set of friends she had built up during the year and a half she had spent there. The Professor continued to write to her.
She wrote back as normally as she could. She didn't want to risk the Professor's visiting again. When she left it would be with her head held high.
When Virmati paid the prime minister her final visit he was as cordial as he had always been. He told her there was no need for her to take leave of the Maharani, she was much preoccupied with her husband's affairs. The teaching staff of the school gave her a small farewell party, where her plans for future study were politely discussed. None of them asked her about marriage the way they used to.
On the morning of 30 April, Virmati was packed and ready. She had come with a suitcase and a bedroll, and at the end of two years the only addition to her luggage was the packet of Harish's letters. She latched the front door behind her and stood in the dewy grass of her small garden. She looked over the low mountains and gentle valley for the last time, and involuntary tears rolled down her cheeks. Then, looking straight ahead, she walked out of the gate, and down the hill, towards the bus stop, followed by the coolie, hurrying to keep pace with her quick step.
The bus to Ambala, the train to Calcutta. How many new beginnings had her relationship with the Professor led her to? That sense of hope was beginning to feel stale. Still, with every mile she travelled she felt stronger. There was a life of dedication and service ahead of her, and in that she would forge her identity.
The women in her compartment were all older. She could feel their curious looks without even turning around from the window. The smell of their food and the clattering of lids from tiffin carriers made her mouth water. She knew if she became the least bit friendly, they would hospitably offer all they had to eat, but in return feel entitled to ask her a thousand probing questions. So she remained where she was, drool wetting the corners of her mouth, but with a will stronger than her appetite.
At Delhi, Virmati had to wait seventeen hours before the connecting train to Calcutta. She knew Harish's poet friend lived in the Civil Lines, and she decided to look him up. His family was old and established, she was confident that she would find the house.
The poet was nonplussed. He had not heard, he hinted delicately, when she had washed, and been served some sherbet.
Nobody had, retorted Virmati.
'but why? Has something happened?'
'the same thing that has been happening for so many years,' she replied. 'You know your friend. What can I tell you? I ask one thing only. How long can I go on waiting? People talk. They are bound to. I know his position is difficult. But so is mine.'
'You mean you are not going to marry him?'
'I mean I cannot wait forever.'
'This cannot be allowed to happen. Aren't you going to see him again?' he pleaded.
He remained silent.
'No, how can I? It is over – absolutely over,' she repeated, staring uncompromisingly at the milky white sherbet in her glass.
'Bhabhi,' the word broke from the poet. At this moment Virmati was less than ever his bhabhi, but the poet was too wrapped up in his role as saviour of romance to notice the expressionless look on her face. 'Bhabhi,' he repeated, 'let me write to him. I cannot bear to see my friend ruin his life. Bhabhi, I appeal to you, delay your departure for three or four days. After that I will not stop you. My mother will be so happy. She has often talked of inviting him here.'
Virmati hesitated. Shantineketan was calling, but – the poet pressed home his point. 'After so long, a few more days will be of no consequence. How can you rush into something that will affect your whole life?'
'Rush!' exclaimed Virmati, hurt and astonished. 'Is that what you think?'
The poet made calming gestures with his hands, soothing noises with his mouth, but Virmati continued sharply, 'do you think I would rush into something like this?' She bit her lip and turned away her head. How could she really talk of all that had happened between them, how many times he had promised her solutions, and how many times she had believed him. Nevertheless her training, her sense of obligation, made it difficult for her to ignore her host's request.'
Virmati was a silent guest at the house of the poet. She was acutely aware of her lack of standing. She didn't think the Professor would come. After all, he had had more than five years to make up his mind. Still, she didn't want to appear petulant and unreasonable, so she waited for five days to pass and helped the poet's mother every evening in the kitchen.
Meanwhile the Professor had received his friend's urgent telegram. 'Come Virmati here. On her way to Shantineketan. Urgent. Come at once.' He felt uneasy. Why was Virmati on her way to Shantineketan? He had been expecting her back in Amritsar for the holidays.
During dinner his wife noticed how preoccupied he looked. Hardly any words passed between them, and she was in a state of perpetual hunger to know what he was thinking. Today she associated his distracted air with the telegram. It must be something to do with that witch, what else. The familiar knot inside her tightened, and she prayed to God, like she did every day, morning and night, to keep her home safe from outsiders, safe till her children grew up and married. Then god could to what he liked with her. She would accept.
The next day the Professor informed Ganga that he was leaving by the night train, and she should pack two sets of clothes for him, one pant-shirt-tie-socks-shoes, one dhoti-kurta-jooti.
'Where are you going?' she asked fearfully.
To be continued......