Fiction: Rhododendrons (Sreetanwi Chakraborty)

Sreetanwi Chakraborty
Evenings in North Bengal are abrupt, sudden and often monotonous. Summers, with the last strand of breezes sweeping across faces, can have a real soothing effect. Monsoon evenings, on the other hand, can be more beautiful for some, like me, with that incorrigible romantic heart that throbs for George even now. With the dark tumultuous clouds hovering above the cyclop-like gothic, colonial, spired Darjeeling buildings and hotels, monsoons often offer no respite to many. But for me, they keep on weaving messy stories each and every time. Was it the 3rd or the 5th of May, 2015, when George said he no longer...that he cannot...that we should...that the paths better get diverged? I really wonder how to react when my friends and colleagues still keep blabbering, “it wasn’t a break-up, it was a blessing.” My classes in the quaint little hill-college still look the same, my lessons often interrupted when I see him fidgeting with his golden spectacle in the Principal’s room, or else when I still find him humming ‘two old friends meet again’ by Michael Murphy. Strength, madness, love, sex, anaesthesia, a shoulder to cry upon, rhododendrons...I feel desperate and forsaken, with an insipid taste in my mouth, perhaps even more insipid than the words he blurted out last. The last one, yes, maybe the rhododendrons can be of slight help, now that I am all inside this huge cottage of mine, one more pair of doe eyes observing me intently, often crawling by my side, waiting for my care and attention.
“Why doesn’t he call you anymore? What about the poinsettia flower beds across the college alley? Will they not be watered anymore because you had the worst break-up of your life?” the doe-eyed devil was inquisitive.
“They will now be looked after by Narayan, he is there to help but...” I stammered.
“But what? How are you going to recover? What about your classes?” doe-eyed was impatient now.
My classes. Ah, my classes. I still remember the first day of the interview. It can also be called a break-up of an interesting variety, as I keep explaining doe-eyed sitting in Vajrasana position right now on my tattered mattress. It was also a break-up, a blessing in disguise, breaking our silence, the interview and the ice-breaking session (as it is technically called). I was dubious if I could be the chosen one, frantically trying to adjust my bra strap and the sheaf of papers in my hand, completely oblivious that I had almost entered the interview room. I expected a volley of questions as settled down on the revolving chair, but instead, there was just a baritone, and a bouquet of rhododendrons resembling a flurry of colours all splashed across a palette, and...and...a pair of eyes that instantly reversed my entire world order into an amalgamation of god knows what. A pair of greenish brown hazel eyes minutely checking my printed credentials as I sat benumbed, besotted, longing to be immersed into a thin film of spring pool of ripples in front of my eyes. For the first time in my whole 30 years, I fell in love and that too with the principal of a hill-college.
“What happened after that? Why the break-up?” Doe-eyed now started fidgeting with the ends of her drawing copy, trying to paint clusters of rhododendron by dabbing colours into the inflorescences with her thumb.
Happened? As in? I mean this was never going to be even the worst love story possible ever. Nestled amidst the snow-capped mountains of North Bengal and Bhutan, this college was just a feast to the nature-lovers. Misty mornings, myriad moments, magical mountainscapes and lulling-lullabies that tottered across my dreams at night- my life was surely going to change for the better.
Away from the bustles of myopic city life, I could rediscover how enchanting literature could be. First flushes, tea-buds, teaching British Romantic poetry and Indian English drama was never so fascinating. College meetings were as usual dismal, with a bunch of half-researched, moronic questions hurled at newcomers. My students were very fond of me. From the ‘new English ma’am’ it took them very less time to include me in their local college community, as ‘Sree’ mam, with all the warmth that I craved for. College excursions and community building programs were fun. Teaching role-based plays through voice modulation and enactment became livelier with outdoor sessions and rigorous library works. George was always there as a live encyclopaedia. He had been a globe-trotter; I never was. However, although initially I could not decipher why we talked about obscure philosophical facts, or why the first electric chair was invented by a dentist, or even when he ridiculed me with a chuckle because I did not know that Stewardesses is the longest word in English, that can be typed only with the left hand. The only thing that was a common bond between us was the rhododendrons in multiple colours. Excursions were the only platform where George made me familiar with rhododendrons. He never plucked the flowers. But he just took me to his side, looked straight into my eyes and started explaining:
“Look, Sree, bluette, the blue variety, and there, on the branches up there, you find the lovely Dexter’s Victoria, almost pale lavender to mixed white in colour as per seasonal variations. The locals call the rhododendrons laali guras.”
“Oh, these are wonderful,” I said.
“See this, come here,” at 50 he was nothing short of a Hercules remorphed, it seemed. I staggered on my way to the lofty undulated peak areas, but George, with an inimitable gait and charisma, could easily manage me by holding my hand, helping me to climb up very near to the flowers-so near, that the fragrance of the magnolias, the orange clusters of the laali guras dissolved into his clove-scented breath that only I could feel. I...I could...I felt...I said...and stopped.
“Ok. Understood. It was love at first sight, then at second sight and then at every sight.” Then what? Doe-eyed was intently looking at me. “Come on. There must have been some more romantic encounters.” Doe-eyed was chuckling. I observed, and felt very uneasy; I was searching for some kind of anomaly but could find none. Chuckling...the right facial muscles resembled...
“If you are so impatient, I think it is high time I go back to my diary. I do not want to tell you anymore about it.” I looked vacantly at a Golden-breasted Fulvatta as it flapped its wings on my window louvers, perhaps indicating an impending disaster. Doe-eyed perhaps felt repentant for snubbing at me like that. She came to me and clasped my fingers and started playing the criss-cross game with them. It started raining. I tried to smell the drizzle pattering on my window sill as the conifers, and the aromatic anthopogan shrubs in my garden sparkled with a fresh lease of life. I started humming my favourite...our favourite... ‘Rhapsody in the rain.’ Suddenly I remembered. Was it a rainy day? Or did it rain the other day? I felt a convulsive sensation now; it was very tough to remember anything. Doses of medicines, anaesthesia, ampoules, ambulances, red, orange and greenish-blue syrups- greenish past and present almost congealed into an abyss of nothingness now. I remembered, faintly.
“I think there is something between us, Sree”, George was a bit hesitant. It took him one whole year to find out what that ‘something’ was. It rained that day when we were out for a community development program in a small village at Alipurduar. The Terai-Dooars weather forecast department predicted a storm, thunder, lightning, and average to heavy rainfall. The distance from Panchak village to our hill college was more than 95 km and therefore, we decided to stay back in that village. There were few local people here and there, trying to shield themselves from the rain. The community church was the only huge shelter that we had there. Rests were small hills and some undulated stretches of forlorn land, often taking us nowhere.
“Something, means?” I pretended to be as naive as ever. His eyes sparkled a little, the rustling wind trying to camouflage his enthusiastic spirit.
“I mean it is about love, relationship, commitment for life...come on Sree, you understand.” George was feeling helpless now. We decided to walk a little more along the blasted heath. The storm had subsided although the rain was still lashing with an indomitable spirit across the landscape. After walking miles, we could see the rhododendrons all washed by the slanting gashes of rain. The village roads were mainly made of broken bricks and clay, and I was suddenly at the brink of slipping. But when you have the messiah by your side, in all probability, nothing can go wrong anywhere. George held me strong, pressed me hard to his chest, so hard that I could feel him entirely. It was a forsaken rain-kissed land it seemed now, and each and every drop of water, along with his frantic kiss, triggered in me the tremendous urge for a sublime bodily union. The raindrops were more frantic then, and so were us. We nibbled, kissed like never before, as George’s hands were searching all across my landscape, for his prized possession-
“My rhododendrons are lovely,” he kept on foraging into the darkness of a deep abyss, as I moaned and wreathed in ecstatic pleasure. The rain-kissed explorer was ecstatic to find his desired spot, as he kept on rowing till the pirate’s boat reached its destination. The rain stopped early in the morning. We decided to go back to our college; our small guest room behind the church vibrated with the gongs of the morning bell.
About four months passed after this. Classes went on as usual; the poinsettias in the college garden were more vivacious with proper pruning and watering. There were new batches of students, with the previous batches bidding us farewell. I was busier, and so was George, with more academic and administrative duties. Some new teachers joined, some were about to leave for better monetary opportunities. Those days I was not keeping well. Pangs of nausea, weakness and bodily discomfort took sway over me. A well-churned distance was developing between us. We did not discuss poetry or rhododendrons anymore. Rumela, the new Geography teacher, was now closer to him. He often fell embarrassed now when I entered his room suddenly; there were animated discussions going on with Rumela, about something that I did not find it worthwhile to find out. She was everywhere now-in the community development program, with George in different social and academic programs, often taking care of his files, his spectacles and one day, as I found out, also, about his diet plan. Everything seemed perfect in the cloistered hill college with two people falling in love again, except that I needed to talk to George now regarding the new life that was growing in me.
“Responsibility? Fatherhood?” Doe-eyed almost chewed the words as she spoke. I pursed my lips in anguish.
“Sree, I do understand, but you see, we live in moments. It is not about camouflaging, or commitment of a lifetime, it is pure and sublime love that surpasses any type of social commitment.” His oracular stance made me impatient; I tried to clench my teeth and looked longingly at him, trying to make him understand:
“But dear, it is not about you or me now, it is about the third voice, it is about our child. I hope you understand.”
“Yes, I do. I do. But there are multiple ways in which this rash decision of giving birth to this child can be avoided. You know how medical science has progressed. Just accept this as God’s will.” He seemed almost nonchalant about the moments and the rhododendrons now. And somehow, a bit more interested in where Rumela was, perhaps.
This was the end of everything. Somewhere the roads diverged; somehow I could not come to terms with the raw sensation that I must move on. There was nothing to move on, except that the poinsettias and the college building looked blurrier. I could not gauge if it was the storm that was brewing outside or inside. I wanted to say the final goodbye to Narayan as he stood in the gateway. I decided not to come back anymore, but then I stopped. I wanted to change this college, but not the city. North Bengal hills were my greatest shelter. Narayan just glanced at my face and like some ancient clairvoyant, he uttered:
“Didi, it is the third time, God will not accept this anymore. He has crossed all limits. It is the time for the apocalypse now; aandhi, toofan, God is going to exact the penalty.” He kept on muttering and looked at the Christian graveyard at a stone’s throw distance. To my horror, I discovered much later, that Dorothy Ekka was Narayan’s only daughter and the cursive engraving on her tomb read: For the child unborn, for the moments that passed by, for your hazelnut eyes, thanks to George, and my rhododendrons.
The rains stopped now. Doe-eyed had fallen asleep. I decided to open the louvers and smell the rain-soaked nature outside. It was no time for delirium. I needed to remove the tanned zones of my life now. The local doctor had prescribed me high doses of sedatives, after that incident...that...I really detested this amnesiac tendency. I closed my eyes for a minute, waited, again looked outside, could feel the clove-like breeze, and then swallowed the pinkish-white tablets, resembling the colour of his favourite rhododendrons...
“Who prescribed her such heavy doses of anti-depressant and anti-hallucinatory drugs?” the head of the neuro-psychiatrist department asked the warden as she stood by Sree’s frigid body in the mental asylum. “The patient had a clear case of tactile, visual and auditory hallucination after the loss of her first child through an ectopic pregnancy. How can all of you be so irresponsible in administering the hallucinatory drugs? We need to make a report on this. God knows how the medical commission will now react to this suicide case.” She was furious and helpless.

As per the latest news reports circulated the next day, the principal of a reputed Christian missionary college was found dead in his room, the medical reports said massive heart attack. After primary investigations, the police could only find a red leather diary in his room. The last few words were, “Sree, I could not save you, for the doe-eyed that I could not save, for the rhododendrons that will no longer bloom. Pardon me...” Nobody except the Almighty could find out that both the deaths occurred exactly at 11:56 in the night. Narayan looked at the table calendar. It still showed the date as 5th May.

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