Short Story: Centre Stage

- Arpa Ghosh


    As it is in rural colleges, the lunch was sumptuous. There were jumbo prawns and tenderized mutton richly cooked with giant potatoes, rosogolla and vanilla ice-cream, creamy dal with giant fish-heads and succulent aubergine fries. Mrittika ate daintily, conscious of her exquisitely embroidered tussar silk. Over the years Mrittika has mastered the art of enjoying her meals while holding forth elegant conversation with perfect strangers.
       Mrittika Sengupta, professor, Matangini Hazra University, was an academic celebrity and, in this part of the world, a goddess. The principal, sitting to her left wanted to know more about women’s movements worldwide. Guests from other colleges buzzing like bees round a queen requested her signature on their copies of her book I am Durga that they had lovingly brought to the seminar. The local councilor hovered like a benign magus mindful of her comfort.
            Mrittika had just delivered her keynote address. The theme had been female empowerment, and Mrittika had simply talked about herself, her meteoric rise from a humble beginning in a Government sponsored college in Murshidabad. All the time she smiled compassionately at the suburban audience, mostly sweat-shiny male teachers from neighbouring colleges in shabby bush-shirts, and puffy, saree-wrapped, vermillion-smeared women, clutching shapeless hand-bags while straining to retain the flow of her stylish diction. Mrittika could make out they were in awe of her and it gave her a high. The cosmopolitan had deigned to pay a visit to the periphery.
         Well, some might see it that way. Mrittika had friends in Saturday club who were first-class snobs. But she was a feminist intellectual and the people, entitled, empowered or subaltern, were her strong-hold. She loved centre stage and the way her well-built, inspiring ideas stunned her audience.
             Twenty years ago, Mrittika had erupted in the academic scene with her vibrant and stimulating address on women’s rights in India in a Cornell University conference that she had attended as a greenhorn. Her address had been lauded by the American audience and she had been requested to stay back and deliver lectures in other Ivy League universities that autumn. It didn’t take long for Indian dailies to promote her as the new kid on the block, the next academic force to reckon with.
        Since that golden autumn there had been no looking back. Whether it was academic work, creative writing or simply an evening among learned friends brainstorming ideas on poetry, cinema and theatre; whether it was a formal lunch with an global guest or a paid academic soiree to London, Sidney or New York, Mrittika had aced it every time.
            And her engaging trait was she rarely refused invites. This invite for instance. The college was in Gosaba and usually Kolkata people were terrified that Royal Bengal tigers would be loitering in the corridors of such colleges, but Mrittika accepted the invitation with poise and professionalism. “I would like to visit the nearest women’s homes,” she requested in her soft pleasant tones knowing well that with all the garlanding and speech-making, there would be no time for any such visit. But such promises never failed to impress. 
     “Will it be tussar or sambalpuri?” she asked her husband, gently leaning against her wardrobe. “Really, one of these days Sabita will have to rearrange the shelves. My wardrobe is turning into a nightmare,” she groaned peering into its chaotic innards.
        “Shouldn’t you be brushing up your speech? I don’t see you working on your lectures these days,” mused Pratim her husband.
        Mrittika grinned. Where would she be without Pratim? Whosoever complained about uncaring spouses had clearly not met Pratim. What a wonderfully supportive man!
        “I have my lucky charm.”
        “Cornell?” Protim raised eyebrows.
         “In those far-flung, mofussil places Cornell magic is enough. They won’t be able to digest stronger stuff.”
          “Like Swamiji’s “Brothers and Sisters of America,”?”
            Mrittika chose to disregard the light irony in Protim’s tone.
****
       Once her speech was over, they all rushed to lunch. Mrittika was a little surprised. She had expected a modest discussion of sorts. But most of the participants came from beyond twenty kilometers. Also the college was feeding all its workers and members of the students’ union. They couldn’t afford to be late with the mid-day meal. Any laxity was enough to kindle the fire of violence in these underdeveloped areas. And frankly, she was famished.
        The harried coordinator trotted up to her table just when she had daintily inserted a spoonful of mango chutney in her mouth.
     “Madam, are you ready?”
      “Yes, I have finished my meal. I just have to wash my hands.”
The organizers had promised to drive her back to Kolkata post lunch. It was a four-hour drive and she was leaving for Delhi in a couple of days. She had to be home by seven. 
      “Madam,” continued the coordinator ingratiatingly, “There was a request. Yours was the main speech. We were eagerly waiting to hear it and it was magnificent. But if you could be kind enough to… I mean, a generous person such as yourself…. I mean…”
        Mrittika looked at him askance. “What do you mean?” she asked gently.
      “There is a young boy. He happens to be our ex-student. He has made a film on the Sunderban local women. Our students are eagerly waiting to watch the film. Some of them come from very far and have the evening ferry to catch. So we are screening it right away. Parimal is keen for you to watch it. He is right here,” said the organizer dragging forward a tall, spare young man who was quietly waiting in the background.
       “Madam…,” Parimal began.
       “How long is your film?” Mrittika asked.
       “About an hour, Madam. I would be very grateful if you could comment on it. After watching it, of course. ”
 With visible reluctance Mrittika agreed.
                 When she returned to the auditorium a muted roar greeted her. The room had been darkened with black curtains. Yet Mrittika could make out that the audience had doubled since her lecture. The familiar bird-song of young voices troubled her in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. Her taking a seat in the first row coincided with a ridiculously harsh spot-light being focused on the gangly young Parimal who smiled warmly at the crowd.
                “Our students adore him,” vouchsafed the organizer, “He is a gifted boy. We are proud of him too,” he added.
                 Parimal explained the nature of his film. He spoke with a strong local accent, peppering his Bengali with apposite film jargon. Yet listening to him was like bathing in a clear mountain stream, so passionate and well-argued was his presentation. He talked to his audience who responded collectively by making approving noises. His lecture was strewn with film and theory jargon and he took time to explain abstruse terms clearly and concisely. It was obvious he hadn’t learnt them by rote. He had lived them. Even the teachers were relaxed and happy. Mrittika sensed in her bones that with a dancer’s effortless charm, Parimal was soldering the room into a single entity, filling it to the brim with love, passion and knowledge, taking upon himself the sacred duty of educating his younger brothers and sisters in the heady craft of film-making. Using a humble hand-camera he demonstrated several cine-techniques that were studiously jotted down by the young members in the audience. They interrupted him fearlessly and he stopped every time to clear their doubts.
                When the film finally commenced there was a respectful stillness in the hall. It was a simple story about a girl who happens to be the solo bread-earner of her family and who is reportedly dragged away by a tiger when she goes into the forest to collect honey against the wishes of villagers. Her mother’s dauntless search uncovers the covert flesh trade that goes on in the region.
                    A film with a predictable ending. Yet one that was ably and artistically made. Even to Mrittika’s inexpert eyes it was apparent that the boy had studied the legacy of Ray, Ghatak, Benegal and Tapan Sinha. It was also obvious that he practiced his craft with a panache that was ardently appreciated in his neck of the woods. At the end of the show, Mrittika was requested to comment on the film which she did by heaping lavish praise on Parimal and wishing him the very best in life.
                 So, on her way home, a packet containing an expensive dhakai jamdani saree, gift from the Gosaba college, reposing next to her, the greenery receding on both sides with reassuring speed, why did Mrittika experience a sinking feeling of unease? She stared out of her window, she fiddled with her smartphone, she rearranged an already organized hand-bag and repeatedly asked her driver to increase and decrease FM volumes, yet the picture of a boy with lean corded muscle, trembling with passion and gesticulating wildly about the architectonics of film-making refused to leave her head.
              “How did your day go?” asked the ever dutiful Pratim.
               Mrittika’s dry response stopped him on his tracks. Tuned to the most delicate shifts in her mood, Pratim sighed. The tussar had finally stopped working as he had feared it would someday. Pratim felt oddly relieved. Off late, he missed the fiery feminist he had wooed in his youth.  Maybe she would resurface now.
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Arpa Ghosh is primarily a short story writer who began publishing her stories in the national daily The Statesman from 2004. She is also into academic and feature writing and has published widely in national and international journals. She teaches literature in Vivekananda College for Women. She has completed her doctoral project from Jadavpur University on white South African apartheid fiction. Contemporary fiction and theory are her areas of interest. Her stories majorly center on the urban experiences of the educated Bengali middle classes. Humorous depiction of social foibles and portrayal of the single woman's experience are her forte. She also enjoys writing on movies, watching films, travelling, music and reading autobiographies. She lives with her parents in Kolkata. 

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