Fiction: The Secrets

Aju Mukhopadhyay

Aju Mukhopadhyay

Brief Bio
Among the books the author has published three books of short stories are in Bengali and two are in English. Though his stories have been published in many distinguished magazines, translated and anthologised in Indo-Australian Anthology, Book of Indian Short Stories in German language and other anthologies, he once edited a short story magazine and one of his stories was prized, he doesn’t often write stories.

Written over a period of nearly nine years, there are 13 short stories in this volume covering different genres and topics like social including ethnic and ethical, eerie and a story with animals among the subjects. They have different hues sometimes with branches spreading to other countries as the writer is an ever traveller, interested in human stories across the Nations. Different as they are, each story draws reader’s attention towards something new, often piquant.

I followed them quite closely to eaves-drop their conversation. Of the two ladies the one who suddenly seemed to be known to me, was walking fast though not running. Her companion too moved in the same pace, rhythmically. Both of them wearing white vest and white short were talking constantly in some sort of Chinese or near-to-it dialogue interspersed by English. My effort to overhear them was near defeated.
     Singapore Strait is a perfect cosmopolitan city full of foreign nationals. Among the citizens large numbers are of Chinese origin, some are former Malayans and Indians, mostly Tamils. Tribal people too are there.
     After a while they became aware of my presence behind them. Once she stopped pretending to pick up something from the ground. As I came closer she turned to look at me. Though brighter, her complexion almost remained the same; white tinged with yellow-golden hue. Her eyes were of the same size, round but not too big; eyebrows bushy, half covering her small forehead. Her nose matched her face. Certainly she was a beauty, brighter with puff of hairs round her ears, fluff of smallest hairs on her cheeks which could be seen with the microscopic eyes only and it flashed back my youth revoking kind of infatuation as I had for her for a short while. Memory induced recognition gave me happiness. I had no doubt that she was Sony Dasgupta. Her glance did not recognize me apparently though there was a slight change in her appearance with slight broadening of the aperture of her eyes accompanied by a kind of apperception but that momentary recognition soon faded into a frown. It gave me more joy confirming her presence.   
     They resumed talking, walking at slower speed. It seemed that she talked something about me without disclosing my identity. I too became alert and slowed down my speed to make the distance between us longer. They stopped once again at a turning point and looked back at me to announce that they were quite aware of my following them.
     One can find large numbers of walkers and runners alongside the Singapore River or Quay De River as in other sites like Mac Ritchi reservoir and parks. There are tracks along some roads close to the sidewalks for cyclists, runners and walkers. It seems to be a city of walkers. Amid a culture of walks my walking after them could not be singled out as following them, not necessarily! I argued to myself.
     It happened after two months of my temporary settlement in Singapore on a temporary assignment for about a year to explore the market in Singapore and nearby areas for the products manufactured by our company. I had picked up the habit of walking with the other Singaporeans and chose my track along the quay of the river. I found them not only disliking my walks with them but sometimes showing a sense of botheration to give me company even from a distance. With recently acquired knowledge of the strict laws in that country about dealing with women, I changed my venue and time. 
     Being a new comer to the metropolis I tried to enjoy my walks in different areas including Ang Mo Kio in the north, travelling by MRT (metro railways) or car. I already had some people known to me who loved to walk with me. Once in the afternoon as I was walking I found Sony with her friend but discovering me with my companions they left abruptly. I found her driving out of the park.
     On holidays I chose sometimes distant areas to visit like Canning Park which has a good height, the elevation being covered either by hilly tracks designed for walks or wide stairs to go up by steps, providing further chance for exercise. Behind such walks I always had a secret idea of meeting her by chance in a situation where we could talk one to one. Sometimes I had to move out of Singapore on business, sometimes visited some offices but nowhere could I find her. As the time for my stay was getting reduced, my company regularly enquiring about further prospects, I became suspicious about finding her at all, to the point of almost disbelief to what I had seen before, for after all she was taken to be dead or lost forever in her family circle and neighborhoods. Though I wished to clear myself of all burden of her memory I could not brush her aside entirely once I saw her. Something remotely lurked inside me telling about her presence in the city.
     Towards the end of my assignment I and my recently joined colleague who was deputed to help me from the local business circle, was relaxing in a small round table in Celebes Café on the third floor of the busy Wheelock Place with two cups of steaming cappuccino between us. As it happens in lazy moments, my eyes were straying in tables surrounding us in the big hall. Suddenly they fell on the profile of Sony talking jovially with her friends sitting in one of the chairs surrounding a big round table located not far from us. My eyes were riveted to her. At this sudden turning of my attention my friend, becoming curious tried to follow my direction but couldn’t be sure. I tried to keep his curiosity at bay lending a causal smile only, telling him something in passing.
     After some time, her gaze falling on me she moved her chair to an angle showing her back to us while talking and laughing in the same way. Involuntarily I stood on my feet and addressed her, “Hello Sony, how are you?” She ignored but was alert.
     I moved a step forward coming to the edge of the table between the two of ours which was crowded with a gossip monger group who paid no attention to my addressing her or coming so close to their table. We often come across such groups in Kolkata Coffee house opposite Presidency College. I again addressed her, “Hello Sony!”
    Slightly turning her chair she faced me with a somber-cold look without a word. By this she drew attention of her friends, mostly ladies except two men at their late youth. In spite of it I moved crossing round the table and asked, “Isn’t it strange that after such a long time I’ve got a trace of you here! Isn’t it that I should at least ask about your wellbeing?”  
      She stood coming closer and looked astounded. The table of gossip mongers, guessing a case stopped talking. I felt that the whole hall became silent. We two looked at each other. Gossip mongers agog with curiosity and all her companions including my friend coming forward stood surrounding us. All eyes on us, silence prevailed.  
     After a pause she broke the silence, “Who’re you! I can’t at all place you anywhere!”
     In the same tune without least nervousness I asked her, first in my mother tongue, Bengali, and then in English, “Sony, tumi ki tomar atit sob bhule gachho? Forgotten your birth place Kolkata, family and friends? Don’t you at least remember them?”  
    The audience looked astonished. All they could guess was the name, Kolkata, as the Chief Minister from that place had recently visited Singapore and making some noise left some waves on its shore.  Sony listened carefully and then replied, “Oh, I guess now why you tried to follow me in parks. I understand nothing of what you say, nor remember you in any way. Please make it clear, what’s your motive?”
     As all her companions looked askance at her as she continued in Mandarin, I guessed forcefully telling something against me, making all her friends directing their look at me. Half bewildered, my companion came a step further towards us and addressed them in Malay or may be in some local dialect mixed with English, telling about my background, that I was quite a well known gentleman from Kolkata and that whatever I said was genuine to my feeling, in well meaning words directed towards Sony, that I believed that I had known her for many years in India.
     At this one of the ladies present said, “Ami Tan is a native of Singapore and as far as I know she hasn’t ever visited India.” Among the two gentlemen present, one from India supported her telling that, surely it’s a fact that Ami never have gone to India. At this my friend said to all those present that it was a clear case of mistaken identity as the person herself starkly denies the fact of her being recognized.  He apologized on my behalf telling that the matter should not be dragged further promising that I should never again repeat it.  
     Elated, Ami said, “I warn that any more attempt to follow me or making any effort to approach me would meet with serious consequences as I shall have to seek the help from the security staff.”
     All agreed to this. Hotel manager, anticipating trouble, sent bills to us and to Ami Tan party also. While the occupiers of the two large tables were getting ready to pay their bills my friend quickly proceeded to the counter and paid ours. To our surprise Ami Tan came forward and taking out her visiting cards from her pouch gave one each to me and my colleague with a smiling face. She settled the bill with her card before any other person could approach the counter. My friend quickly gave her his card.
     Her approaching us on her own and giving us her cards at the last moment surprised us but cleared all doubts in my friend’s mind about my right stand. But he did not spare me, telling that Laws in Singapore is heavily drawn in favor of women and that any lapse would result in serious consequences. “Who knows the design of her giving us cards at the end?” He concluded.
     Following a clue from me about discovering a source of demand of our products there my company asked me to intensify my efforts while asking my friend to seek for a hall somewhere near Raffle’s place, for an office.
     Once while I was out of the Strait, Ami Tan visited our camp office and met my friend admitting that she was indeed born of a Bengali family in Kolkata. She also said under vows of his secrecy that she fled from her husband and his family and somehow came in touch with a very benevolent and well-to-do family of Singapore who helped her settle here. She confirmed that she was a settled citizen of Singapore by the efforts of her new parents who adopted her as their child, a member of a well known family in this City State. She agreed to use her influence to help us.
     She told my friend that with a growing difference in every aspect of life with her husband she fled one night from their home and lived hiding somehow without any information even to her parent’s house.
     Seeking solace in Gods she visited temples. Once she went to Mahabodhi Society Hall in College Square, Kolkata, and attended a lecture as she was getting drawn towards Lord Buddha. There she met a middle aged couple on a visit to Nepal and India; visiting Nalanda, Gaya, Kolkata and other Buddhist centers. Being childless they liked her, especially because she looked like them, a rare occasion, and she too equally liked them desperately seeking their support. She began staying with them. She was then taken to Sri Lanka with many Buddhist relics and Buddhist temples. And then they moved to Singapore.
     She is a graduate and already mixed up in society circles. She on her own volition was converted to Buddhism. Then she learnt with diligence Mandarin, Malay and other tribal languages to be a part of the family and country. In her new family-friend circle she was known to be someone related to her legal parents, living in Malaysia. No one had an inkling of her Indian connection. She said that she was already engaged as one of the Directors in one of the family businesses and was gradually being introduced to their other business houses. She gave a further hint that her parents were trying to get her married even in her late youth to one of their relatives who they wanted to live settled in their household and own their whole property jointly with her in their absence. When they so much helped her, she said that she wasn’t averse to their ideas though she’s not so inclined to marry anyone again. “I wish not to stand against any of their grand plans when they are so much to me.”
     Now it is my turn to tell her story before any such incidents.
     Raghubir and his wife Pramila Dasgupta with their two daughters, Sony and Ruby, were our neighbors and my father used to say that Raghubir was distantly related to us. Sony was their first daughter, some ten years younger to me. She was born quite early after her parent’s marriage and Ruby was born eight months thereafter. She had a male child next after some two years. He was the first boy born in the family. He was sent as a child to Dehradun for studies and then sent to the States.
     When Sony was in school I was studying in a college. Her look is exactly like a Japanese or Chinese, a complete Mongoloid face; more accurate than her mother and sister in that respect. I often visited their house and the sisters too visited us. My mother loved them. Even during my teens I could sense a difference of status between the sisters and guessed the cause. Her mother was quite aloof about Sony. She pined for affection. Her father was owner of a shoe shop in Gariahat market in Ballygunge whereas we lived in North Calcutta separated by long north-south division. He used to go out early in the mornings coming back in the late evenings. None in the neighborhood saw him often even on holidays. He was not in the habit of socializing. Just after Sony’s graduation her father managed to get a nicely educated salaried son-in-law, Nitu Sen of south Calcutta, a thorough dandy, womanizer. Up to 38 years he preferred not to marry but agreed to marry Sony; firstly on receiving a good dowry and secondly, perhaps he liked her at the beginning. Before others could have an inkling of it she was married off; a hush-hush affair.  
     I remember to have kissed her when she was eight, nine years old and even at her ten once or twice. When she was admitted in our college I was out of it. But we closely embraced each other more often than not and perhaps kissed. Happily she responded. My appetence to be very intimate with her was sharpened with an edge of jealousy when she became cynosure of many young hearts but time and tide did not allow. Though it seemed that we kept something in us in bud-form never we had any concrete idea about it. When we suddenly knew that in two, three days time she would be married, I had an unknown shock and she never again met me after her marriage.                                       
     At the beginning happy Sony used to visit her paternal home with her husband but soon it became few and far between. After a year we didn’t see them together. Sony sometimes came and stayed for a few days but that too became rare. After three years of their marriage rumor was ripe in the circle that Nitu Sen had married for the second time.
     Some years passed by. No one saw Sony in the vicinity. Her mother was always disinterested to discuss about her; “Don’t know what the girl is doing. She never lets us know,” was her pat reply. Gossip was doing a round that she died. But no one enquired how and when. Nitu Sen’s reply was very vague. “She’s lost”, he said. She might have become a burden to her husband’s family, as we heard. Her sister Ruby became a professor and established a tutorial at her home and joined an NGO, doing some social work. She gained some reputation as professor and social worker. Raghubir died two years ago. Ruby held the reign of the household.
     Sony was not traced. No record of her death was found on enquiry. Nitu Sen did not divorce. Her issue was raised and discussed in private circles. I was in it. After some time aged Nitu with his new wife left India. As Sony’s affair was not subject to objection or enquiry by any political party or woman organization or even an NGO it never became public. None in the local circle dared to challenge Nitu or raise the issue in Assembly. Many such issues get nipped in the bud in want of proper handling by any forceful body in the society.
     I came back to India and resumed my duty. I have not divulged my newly acquired knowledge about her. Neither Sony wanted nor my friend was interested to spread the news except telling me. There is still a hiatus between me and Sony, between what I know of her and what she has become or how much water has flown through her life.
     Suddenly unmarried Ruby died of coronary thrombosis. Her mother’s physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly. Her only son, Sopan arrived in India alone within ten days of Ruby’s passing away. He said that his wife wasn’t willing to come. They completed the funeral rites. Even in her bereavement Pramila was happy that her son was back after long.
     We found the mother and son settled in the house after proper cleaning, some quick repairs and repainting. Sopan didn’t mix up with anyone. While at home he received unknown persons and mostly moved out in a hired car.  
   On a morning after another ten days Pramila came to our house and began crying restlessly. Effort to console her was of no effect. When I came back she seemed to have temporarily restored to herself. All she said was that Sopan planned to take her to America to live with him and his wife. He said that he had no child. On his strict advice she did not discuss this plan with anybody. Yesterday evening he took her to Airport at Dumdum and after entering the A.C lounge with her asked her to sit in a comfortable place chosen by him while he queued up with papers in hand and other wheeled boxes which contained her dresses and their belongings. While waiting she slept and when woke up saw none in that queue. Two hours had passed. When she asked about her son they told her that the queue would form again when further departure would be announced. Worried, she met some airport officers and explained her position in Mother Tongue. Searching their records they noticed that her son alone boarded an Air India plane for Quebec which began its journey some half hour ago. She was told that no other name was connected with his in journey tickets. Sopan Sen alone left India with American Passport and Canadian Visa. The area she was sitting was visitor’s area anyone could enter with visiting pass. They helped her wait for the night. In the morning she came out of the airport after a long walk and boarded a bus. She said that her house was sold as Sopan planned to take her with him forever. She signed all the papers in the Registration office. Sopan took the cheque. In two days time they planned to leave for US.
     On enquiry we knew that the bank account opened by her son jointly with her was closed. In it the sale proceeds of the house was deposited which was much less than the market price. The house we found locked. All her near and distant relatives were sounded but none agreed to take her charge at her age with failing health condition. One of her maternal cousins agreed to arrange for a bed for her in a destitute home. She had been with us for three days, crying from time to time. She could not say how her relationship with her son had been or how he spent his days in US. “He talked very less”, we heard her say.
     Searching her vanity bag and a leather case her son gifted her we found some items she could not recognize as her own. We found a thin folio cover with a sheet nicely typed in script fonts in it. She had never seen it. It was a strange paper without a name or signature; addressed to none:
I have considered my status on earth: A definite beginning and end but without any distinct past, without future. I accept the Indian idea that one comes alone and goes alone; none is a real friend none is relative. After death all ends. Speculation about after death status is futile. Instead of meeting with utter frustration at this I have decided to live life to the full without any responsibility or remorse. I settled in America and now live in Canada. I lived with a Kashmiri and now planning to live with one from Honolulu; a Hawaiian. I lived with others too. I may live with any being without any obligation of any relationship. My biological parents have a biological link with my birth and nothing else. I live with whatever I generate without sharing, planning to leave what remains which I never think as mine. None is responsible for my acts. I am alone and on my death everything ends about me.
     Sony’s card in hand; I rang her up. She took it to be a matter of course but said in a huff that she expected long back a call from the one who was once most affectionate to her. It was the cause for her to admit my cognizance of her in spite of all she promised to deny her past. Her purpose of visiting my office was that he would convey the news to me. I felt sorry but said that it was under compelling circumstances that I left Singapore as I was summoned by my company immediately on my resuming usual duty there after my visit to some islands.
     “As you know, this company is extremely conscious of its capacity to utilize someone to fulfill its purpose and then call back even when he’s at his best. After coming back I felt shy, cringing or affected, I can’t explain but now the cause of my contact is serious.”
     I then explained what had happened in her family, that her mother has been crying helplessly, knowing more at her age that she has become a destitute. She heard me patiently and said, “I almost never knew the one you are calling my brother. He’s none to us. And My mother!”
     She then implored my visiting her for she had a storehouse of subjects to discuss with me as her best well wisher and elder brother, most affectionate. I knew that my company would not permit me to go there now. But I agreed. To this she said that I needn’t hesitate to accept her hospitality at least for a week and then we shall see for more. Without any more dallying about it I booked my air tickets to and from Singapore and informed her. She was glad but expected my stay to be lengthened.
     In the evening of the day we reached she took me to the Singapore River when the Sun was most glorious during its course. She told me that because her father was a shoe merchant and many of the shoes in vogue in Calcutta as it was called then, especially in Chinese shoe houses, were hand made by the Chinese experts. Her father knew many such cobblers. He was once attracted by one of their girls and had some affairs with her. Eventually she became pregnant. Her father searched for a similar looking woman among his community and after thorough searches spending good amounts for brokerage came in contact with a girl suitable for the purpose. The family of the bride wasn’t very well off. Her father negotiated that she would accept the Chinese woman’s child as her own when the child would be born. Giving up hope of any dowry he paid handsomely to the father of his bride you know as my mother. I was born after eight months of their marriage. My foster mother was camouflaged as pregnant, taken to the nursing home with my real mother and was given the child she brought home secretly. I was accepted as early born child of my mother. And Ruby was born after another eight months.     
     “Though Pramila Dasgupta acted well she strongly resented the fact of having accepted me as her child though born to a foreigner; usually unacceptable to our society. None else knew it. My actual mother, daughter of a cobbler, for fear of further troubles was sent back soon to her mainland.
     “I never received a motherly behavior from my known mother. She always discriminated between her two daughters. Some relatives guessed. My father knew but for his own weakness he could not take any strong action against her. He always guarded me and to his satisfaction married me off to one he thought to be a prosperous young man with education and talent. My foster mother might have passed on the secret to her daughter and may be, I now think, to my husband, Nitu Sen.
     “Nitu Sen, a very shrewd company executive began to take me to the parties where his bosses and colleagues, including prospective clients, used to gather. I learnt party fashion and other techniques of dealing with them under pressure. I learnt better English and Hindi but I was considered as a party-lady in my father-in-law’s circle, fond of fun, frolics and concomitant evils. They considered their son innocent, taking me there being cajoled by me. My position was lugubrious, both at my own home and in my father-in-law’s house. Nitu Sen publicly enjoyed his position both at home and outside. I was the victim. Thus tortured I fled from them after three years.”
I who believed to have knowedge all the secrets of her family from her birth admitted that there are secrets hidden in secrets like darkness covered by darkness.
     Back to her home for a night I was overwhelmed at her position. She promised to receive me any time. I was given check for a big amount as annual payment for getting her destitute mother admitted to a luxurious Guesthouse-cum-Old-age-Home. She promised to provide more anytime as I required. I returned happily but something might be gnawing at some weak spot in my heart without any consolation of its healing any time. What is my marital status? I am not willing to divulge that secret to anyone.
     Everyone knew it and praised me for giving her such a grand and unexpected gift. Under vow of secrecy I could not divulge the name of the donor. I became Pramila’s official caretaker guardian. She was happy indeed. Some of the well wishers and others with curiosity visited her at times and all reported witnessing her wellness and happiness. I was feeling uncomfortable as everyone was thinking that I managed everything. Some in my close family circle might have felt jealousy.     
     But frankly, secret things may have their own force of disclosure. One day I went there and told masima (Pramila Dasgupta) as I called her,
     “Everyone including you knows that I provide the money needed for your comfortable stay  here. But please pay attention to my incredible story.”
     Masima was in very good terms with me, more than before now. She was in a good mood too. As I told her the story of her first daughter at Singapore (she knew of my visit and stay there on official duty) she remained agape for some time. The incredible thing became credible to her.  We sipped tea silently. Then she came down from her bed and sitting by my side in the sofa turned to me, face to face. I saw her glistening eyes, ready to overflow. I thought that was tears of joy, natural! I asked smilingly, “What’s happened?”
     “I was never boisterous, nor rebuked her loudly or ill-treated her always. But you don’t know how badly I treated that girl as a mother for reasons utterly secret. My natural love always flowed towards Ruby and at her death I was most shocked. I never understood Sony well as I was ever averse to her birth even. None knows how I behaved! Her father is no more. After a good pause she said, “And she now keeps me so well! Oh God! How should I behave with her now!”
    “You need not for she’ll never come.” I said.
She began crying loudly; so loudly that both the manager and owner of the house came running. Seeing her condition they rang up the Doctor retained for them. He came, checked her BP, tongue and other conditions and ordered her complete rest. Switching the T.V in the hall and light in the room off, we came out. I was advised by the guardians of the house that at her age and condition no shocking things should have been discussed. They expected me to be well aware of her condition.
     Few days passed by when I was rung up at midnight to be informed that Pramila Dasgupta suddenly died of heart attack, unexpectedly.
     All formalities over, I didn’t tell anything to Sony.

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।