Amita Ray
      The distance from the school building to the main gate of the school was a five minutes’ walk. Sreemati hurried, she had to be at the gate within ten minutes of the school giving over. Her rickshaw hired on a monthly basis would take her back home. But her hurry was not because she wanted to reach home early. She wanted to get a glimpse of Saurabh who she knew would be eagerly waiting for her at a distance from the school gate before he boarded his bus which would take him home.
      Such was the way of adolescent love in those days. It was not infatuation; a tug in the heart, a coy smile, a furtive glance, a gesture of assurance were all that one craved for in answer to the emotional pull towards each other. Sreemati could not think of penning a love letter in her wildest of dreams. Meeting each other for a close chat over a cup of coffee was as wild a dream. She belonged to a Bengali conservative Brahmin family. Being the only child of a well to do family and endowed with both beauty and brains, she was loved and pampered by her parents and grandparents. In those days of joint families, the grandfather was the ultimate authority of the family. Too much love showered on someone amounted to overprotectiveness. So Sreemati was never allowed to go out either alone or with her friends. She felt stifled in a life of confinement. Vigilant but loving eyes monitored and kept a record of all her activities. It was only on her best friend Dona’s birthday party that she was allowed to go unescorted to her house as both the families were great friends.
         Many of her friends used to cycle to school. But her parents objected to her going to school cycling. One day Sreemati said, “Mama I want to go to school cycling.”
        “Listen Shree that will be real tiring for your frail limbs. And we don’t want you to land up in any mess.”
          “But Ma, my friends do go.” Sreemati mildly protested. “Dona goes cycling too. Please Ma I will be very careful. You always worry too much.” Her mother tried to pacify her daughter indulgently; she promised to consult with her father and grandfather about it. But Sreemati very well knew taking up her wish to the head of the family, her grandfather would mean a negative reply. Her request would inevitably be turned down. And so it was. Her school was a couple of miles away from home. She travelled the distance by rickshaw though she desperately wanted to go cycling along with her friends.
        Thus the days rolled on. Quick glances, a smile, a hurried gesture of farewell as Saurabh boarded the bus were all the love transactions between them. And what a world of untold joy opened up! Those few minutes sreemati became conscious of her heartbeats, a rapturous thrill flooded her mind, her very pores, and her existence. Saurabh kept visiting her mind off and on while at home. She got lost in imagining things about him. She had learnt from her classmate that he was a talented boy. He looked handsome too. The bus he travelled in belonged to the air force. So it was obvious that Saurabh’s father worked with the air force. Saurabh and Sreemati attended missionary schools which were situated at a stone throw’s distance from each other. One was for the girls’ the other for the boys’. The schools started and gave over at the same time. One day Sreemati after school came to the main gate but to her dismay couldn’t find the air force bus. Her heart almost sank. How could it leave so early! Then looking around she found Saurabh standing at a distance with his friends. Sourabh had a twinkle in his bright jovial eyes, an endearing feature which was discernable even from a distance. Their eyes met, it was as if a ritual was accomplished. Gradually all her friends left; only she pottered around talking to girls from other classes whom she remotely knew. His rickshaw man seeing her little mistress whiling away time aimlessly said, “Didimoni, kya hua? Ap kab jayennge? Koi kam hay? (Little mistress, what has happened? When will you go? Do you have any work)?” It was a benign question but it offended Sreemati. She adamantly decided to stay back and not leave unless the bus arrived and she had seen Saurabh off. The bus was late by fifteen minutes but those fifteen minutes of furtive looks between the two meant a lot to the budding love of the teenagers.
       Sreemati was in class ten when this fondness for each other flowered in both hearts. At first Sreemati was unaware of someone watching her with interest as she stood with her friends after class for the final chat of the day before going home. It was Dona the bossy smart girl who was quick enough to perceive it and cracked the subject playfully in front of the others. Sreemati mildly protested and tried to make others targets of Saurabh’s interest. “Well, how can you be so sure? I guess he has a crush on Preeti as she seems to know a lot about him”, she chortled. But at last it was proved that it was Sreemati who was Saurabh’s heart throb. One day Sreemati was absent. The girls paused for some time at the school gate after class for a wind up chat as usual. They observed that when Saurabh found that Sreemati was absent among the knot of girls his searching eyes drifted away and he didn’t look at them the second time. The day after when Sreemati came to know the truth she felt strangely elated. She felt like a bird let out from a cage. It was indeed her first taste of freedom in the guise of love though she knew that the flight would be short lived. She became apprehensive. She knew that her family would not approve of anything which didn’t conform to their taste. Saurabh’s full name was Surabh Mitra. The second name indicated clearly that he didn’t belong to their caste and was a rung lower to them in the caste hierarchy.
        It was in the early seventies. The Indian School Certificate examination date was announced. The last day in school was a memorable day for the girls. A farewell was accorded to them by the girls of class ten. The main attraction was a hilarious skit performed on the future of the outgoing girls of class eleven. Sreemati being the pretty face was featured as a beauty queen sans brains! The juniors had fun at the expense of the seniors but they all took it sportingly in true spirit. The exams were scheduled to be held in November. The centre for the examination was in the girls’ school where students from both the schools would appear. The days of the examination passed in hectic fervour and Sreemati could not think of anything beyond her studies. Moreover she was escorted to and from her school by her father on the days of the exams. On days when there were two papers her mother used to visit her during interval with refreshment. Therefore though Saurabh’s seat was in the same building they saw each other but did not get the opportunity to speak. On the last day when the exam was over all the girls gathered, hugged each other in tears and parted with promises to meet again. A camaraderie of eleven long years ended. How could one escape the pangs of separation! After all school days covered the longest period of companionship in one’s student life.
       It was a Sunday morning. The continuous clinking of cycle bell near the window of Sreemati’s bedroom woke her up. She wondered who it could be. Rubbing her eyes in indolence she stepped out of bed and saw Dona giggling at the entrance to their house.
    “Open the door stupid! Still in bed… you lazy bones!” A bit embarrassed Sreemati opened the door to let her friend in.
      “After the exams I am up by six o’ clock and am off with my cycle riding down solitary lanes. Preety joins me sometimes. No studies, no work. It feels so refreshing.” She rattled off. “Listen Shree, today evening I am hosting a party in my house, all close friends. Four of the boys from Father’s school are also coming and I am expecting Saurabh too. You must be there by four o’ clock.” Saying this Dona was about to put her leg on the pedal to be off leaving Sreemati gaping at her meteoric appearance when she suddenly turned back and resting her cycle against the hedge entered their house. “Where is aunty? Sorry dear, I forgot that I have to take permission from her.” All her friends knew that Sreemati’s family was very conservative as she was not allowed to go out anywhere with her friends. They really felt sorry for her and missed her sorely in little gatherings or expeditions of fun. But though they pitied her she was also secretly admired for being an obedient girl living up to the expectations of the elders in her family. But for Dona securing permission from Sreemati’s mother was not a tough job. The ultimate nod from the highest authority was not a prerequisite for going to Dona’s house. If only Sreemati’s mother knew that there would be boys in the party!
      Throughout the morning Sreemati felt restless. She would be meeting Saurabh Mitra for the first time and in all probability speaking to him too.  What would he ask her? How would she respond? She felt a flutter in her heart while imagining and rehearsing in his mind the answers to the questions she would probably face. Well, he wouldn’t be a fool to propose in their first encounter she nervously thought. Wasn’t she going a bit too far? She chided herself and dismissed all such thoughts. She ran to her wardrobe to choose the dress she would wear. She desired to look her prettiest sweet sixteen that afternoon. Throwing the pink dress on her she stood in front of the mirror to scan herself. Did Surabh go for looks or brains? Well, the tall handsome hunk looked clever enough and she had heard that he was a topper in his class.
     At fifteen to four o’ clock she was at Dona’s doorsteps. With a thumping heart she waited impatiently for the door to open after ringing the doorbell. It was as if she expected Saurabh to welcome her inside. The more she tried to relax the more nervous she felt. Going inside she found that no one had arrived till then. She felt a bit silly for being so ridiculously enthusiastic about meeting Saurabh and turning up so early. One by one all of them dropped in- Tina, Daymanti, Preety, Susan and Urvashi. The boys came in too, Rajdeep, Kushal, Tony and last of all, at four thirty Saurabh stepped in. All this time Sreemati was waiting in feverish expectation thinking about how rude it would be had Saurabh not turned up eventually. But there he was over six feet upon heels in jeans and T shirt and that characteristic twinkle in his eyes! The four boys were Dona’s new friends. She had approached them and introduced herself one day during the examination in their school. On the last day of the exam she had invited them to her house for this get together. She wanted her friends to get acquainted with them and specially introduce Sreemati to Saurabh.  Dona took the lead to introduce each other in the group. Their favourite song Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, was put on the turntable to start the party. As the tempo picked up with jokes and snacks Sreemati got to know more about Saurabh. Her assumption that Saurabh was witty turned out to be true and it seemed that he had saved all the jokes for that evening. They laughed and enjoyed till their sides ached. They chatted a lot about their respective hobbies, future plans and ambitions. Dona strummed the guitar and they all joined in to sing the song Oh Bloody, Oh blooda life goes on… Sreemati was saddened to know that Saurabh’s father being in the air force would get transferred soon The dream of becoming an air force pilot was embedded in Saurabh’s mind and he was determined to join the newly established Air Force academy in Dundigat once the results were out. Sreemati mused that this was exactly what he had wanted and became proud of the would be Air Force officer.
       “When do we meet again?” Saurabh asked Sreemati taking her aside when the others were engrossed joking and merrymaking.
    “Not sure.” She uttered the words and felt foolish. But what could she do? She could not help but disclose that she was always escorted when she went out of her house. On rare occasions was she allowed to go out alone. Those were the days when few houses had land phones and mobile phones were unheard of. The only way of communicating with distant friends was through letters. Taking out a piece of paper which was neatly folded in his pocket Saurabh said, “Please write down your address Sreemati.”
      She was taken aback for a while and said, “Oh no! Please don’t post me any letter. As I have already told you my family is very conservative. They won’t approve any letters written to me by a boy they don’t know.” Looking down she toyed her bangle waiting for an answer.
     “Sreemati, I don’t know how to place it. You must have realized by now that I had waited long for this day when I could talk to you and come close to you. I wish to carry this friendship ahead. I really don’t know how it will be possible if we don’t communicate through letters. As you know, my father will be transferred soon. Only when I settle down in the new place can I give you my address. Then you can send your letters. I hope you understand.”
     He looked at her pleadingly touching her hand lightly. The touch had a magical effect on her thirsting soul; so pure and liberating was it that she got carried away. Breaking barriers of age old traditions she yielded to his wish and scribbled her address on the bit of paper.
     “I have to face it!” She told herself grimly.
       Life in Sreemati’s family was slow paced, organised. There were no major happenings or upheavals. Everything was in place; everyone was at peace from morning to night. But was the little girl of the house at peace in her mind? In a conservative Brahmin family with puja being performed twice a day meant peace and happiness should reign in the household. Moreover, the elders showered affection on the only offspring pampering her with all she wanted. It was hard for them to figure out that their darling brought up in the lap of lavishness could have some discontentment at heart. Obedience and good behaviour was all that they expected from their daughter and Sreemati had never let them down. But from the day she spoke to Saurabh in Dona’s party she became unmindful. Sourabh lodged in her mind and her adolescence dreams found fulfilment in his new love. Now since there were no school and study hours, the whole day was equally divided between reading books and day dreaming besides eating and sleeping. Saurabh occupied a great part of her idle dreams; she was worried, greatly depressed. In the meantime Saurabh’s father had been transferred to the air force base at Dehra Dun. Sreemati thought that if Saurabh really meant what he had said then a letter from him would be on its way to her address. She dared not think of her grandfather’s reaction when it would first reach his hands. But Sreemati was determined to fight for her right doggedly; to receive letters from her friends of either sex. Some time back when she was in class nine she had posted a letter to a pen friend who was an engineering student in Kerala. When the reply came the letter was read by her grandfather and torn right in front of her as trash. That night her pillow became moist with tears. But this time she resolved to keep her pillow dry.
        At last the much awaited letter arrived. Sreemati was summoned to the dining room where her parents and grandfather sat around the table sipping tea. A blue envelope with her name and address written on top in bold letters rested on the table. Sreemati sat next to her mother and waited for the elders to pick up the conversation.
    “Who is Saurabh Mitra?” Grandfather looking at her demanded.
     “A friend dadu, he was in our neighbouring school and he sat for the board exams with us.”
     “But how come you know her? How come he knows our address? Questions in quick succession came up in a voice endearing but firm. Sreemati could not think of lying. She was prepared for such questions so she calmly said, “The day I went to the gathering in Dona’s house he had turned up. There I gave him my address.”
      “Did he ask for it?”
       “Yes he did.”
       “Well, you know dear that we don’t appreciate such advances from a boy who is a stranger and does not belong to our caste-“
        Sreemati went out of her way and intervened, “But dadu he is just a friend, nothing more or nothing less.” Saying this she stopped to wonder how she had mustered courage to argue with her grandfather who loved her so dearly. But she was determined to speak her mind this time and cheering her up continued, “How does it harm if he is a boy and my friend. Can’t he be my friend just like Dona and Preeti?”
      Her mother felt sorry for her daughter in agony. Caressing her hair she explained, “No dear you are too young to understand it. A boy can’t be your friend like a girl at your age. We want you to concentrate in your studies, get married and settled in a decent family of our caste.”
        The father remained silent. In situations like this it was always the mother and grandfather who did the talking. The father was too soft to admonish his loving daughter or say something which would give her pain.
       “Dadu, can I read the letter and give it back to you?”
        “Not at all darling, such a worthless piece of writing doesn’t deserve your attention.” Saying this he tore the letter to bits remorselessly as he had once done before. Sreemati in tears leapt up in a bid to save the letter from her grandfather’s clutches but the paws of the dominating person got the better of her. Later in the darkness of dead night she stealthily crept in the dining room when all were fast asleep. Lighting a torch she picked up lovingly the pieces of the letter littered in a corner, trying to fix the jig saw puzzle and retrieve at least a bit of what Saurabh had conveyed in the letter. But all in vain, the letter had been torn beyond comprehension.
     The result of the Board exams was declared sometime in March. Sreemati had bagged ten points, an achievement which made her parents and grandfather proud. Though all avenues of studies were open for her she chose to study Honours in English and become a journalist. Dona her best friend also came out with flying colours. But she opted for medicine and packed off to Medical College, Calcutta where she got a chance. Before going away to Calcutta, Dona visited Sreemati to take leave of her. Dona was in touch with her boyfriends as her family was liberal enough to permit such relationships. It was from her that Sreemati learnt that Saurabh had joined the Air force Academy and was terribly depressed for not receiving a reply to his letter from Sreemati. Dona knew the incident and the fate of the letter when it fell in grandfather’s hands. She had conveyed everything to Saurabh. Dona felt sad that Sreemati’s grandfather had been so unreasonable and nipped in the bud the relationship between her two friends. But what could she do to amend things? It was precisely for this reason that she was at Dona’s house. She handed over a letter which Saurabh had written to Sreemati and sent in Dona’s address.
      The letter was short, sweet and emotional:-
     Dear Shree,
       My heart almost broke when I realized after weeks of waiting that I wouldn’t get a reply to my letter. It didn’t take much time to sink in me that the letter must have fallen in the hands of your parents. I don’t think it will be possible for us to connect with letters. Meeting you sometime seems as remote. But I do connect with you in my imagination since that is the only option left. I will never be able to forget you Shree. I have joined the Air force Academy in Dundighat. It was always my dream to serve my country as a fighter pilot. If I die I will do so with your beautiful name on my lips
Yours ever
   Saurabh Maitra
       Reading the letter Sreemati was deeply touched. Tears rolled down her beautiful cheeks. Both the friends hugged each other and wept bitterly. The pangs of separation gnawed at Sreemati’s heart. She knew she had to cope with it throughout her life. Trying to convince her family anything would be the height of craziness!


      Nineteen hundred and ninety-one---It was a spring morning. Sreemati woke up early to get ready for an assignment; a news report for the daily she was working with. Shantiniketan in the wee hours of the morning looked pristine. She sat on the Verandah of her room in Shantiniketan tourist lodge admiring the spring blooms and sipping her tea leisurely. A little girl was playing with a ball nearby when suddenly the ball flew into her verandah and banged on the window. The girl stood petrified but responded to Sreemati’s affectionate call, “Come child, take the ball. Nothing to be afraid of.”
       The momentary mark of hesitation on the child’s face vanished and she happily ran to Sreemati to get the ball. The child looked up at her and that very moment Sreemati startled. She discerned the unmistakeable twinkle in her eyes, the face too a replica of that visage she had lovingly cherished in her mind. After that day when Dona had handed her Saurabh’s letter Sreemati had consciously avoided all contacts with Saurabh. She even suppressed her eagerness to know about him from Dona who had retained some correspondence with him for some time. For what use would it be? Her heart broke but she very well knew that belonging to that family, she would never be able to marry the man of his choice. But how could she banish Saurabh from her memory where he remained perpetually ensconced? Sreemati was now an established journalist but she chose to remain single in life. She didn’t marry in spite of her parent’s repeated urgings rejecting all proposals from eligible Brahmin young men of their choice. Sreemati felt that she had accomplished a silent revolt on her part thus; an answer to their self-conceit and pride. In the meantime both her father and grandfather had passed away and she now lived with her mother in Calcutta.
       Suppressing a whirl of excitement within her Sreemati said, “What’s your name dear?”
         “Sreemati Mitra” Sreemati’s heart almost leapt up. Drawing her close Sreemati smiled nervously and said, “Where do you live? With whom have you come here?”
           “I stay with my grandfather, grandmother and Ma in Durgapur. I have come here with my Ma.”
             “Oh! That’s nice. Where does your father stay?” Sreemati’s voice quivered. With her heart pounding she waited for the answer.
              “My father Squadron leader Saurabh Mitra is up in the sky. He has become a star.”
               Sreemati felt the ground beneath her slipping off. Her head started spinning. Gathering herself with much effort she handed over the ball to her who darted off to her room waving a farewell gesture. Sreemati did not know how long she had remained there dazed. She woke up to the call of her driver, “Didi, I am waiting for a long time. You are supposed to be in the venue at 10a.m.” Sreemati looked at her watch, “Oops! I am sorry. I will be with you within ten minutes.”
                The day was hectic, interviewing the adivasis, the head of the panchayat, coordinating information, statistics with the S.D.O. The report had to be submitted within a week. Though she had been terribly shaken she had no respite to entertain thoughts about the morning’s incident. That is how life is; relentlessly demanding when you wish for some succour. But once back to her lodge in the evening she became her sole companion and drowned herself in speculations. Dona once told her that Saurabh had got married. Was the little girl Saurabh’s daughter? Both the second name and her father being a squadron leader clearly indicated so. If it is true, how did Saurabh die? Such deeply unsettling thoughts plagued her. Only the crickets chirped incessantly to answer her questions. That night she couldn’t spare a thought to any other thing. Memories of her relationship with Saurabh though half-baked swarmed anew in her mind. Tears irresistible drenched her pillow and she tossed on bed in anguish. She didn’t feel like going to the dining room to have dinner. So she decided to meet the girl’s mother the next morning without disclosing her own identity.
        Waking up a bit late after almost a sleepless night Sreemati felt the pangs of hunger. It struck her that she had skipped her dinner last night. After a quick shower she passed by the rows of locked rooms and realized how late she was for breakfast. Most of the inmates had either gone to the dining room or left for sightseeing. She only longed to meet her namesake and her mother in the dining room. When she entered the room it was abuzz with conversations. She looked around searchingly and caught sight of the little girl who was looking at her and smiled. The mother and child were sitting in a corner table as if oblivious of the people around. Sreemati approached them and stooped to caress the child. Looking at her mother she said, “So you are Sreemati’s mother? Such a loving child!” Pointing at the chair opposite to her the mother invited her to sit down. Sreemati sat down but she could feel her heart beating fast. She tried her best to calm down and be master of the situation. Now she looked straight at the lady before her. She was fair and beautiful as porcelain doll, her blue veins prominent in her translucent skin. A melancholy look etched in her face diluted the very sharpness of her features.
     “I am Miss Chatterjee from Calcutta working with a media office and I am here on an assignment.”Sreemati introduced herself and deliberately withheld her name.
      “I am Mrs. Debjani Mitra and I am from Durgapur.”
        The little girl’s smiling eyes were riveted on Sreemati and the latter felt a bit uncomfortable under her gaze. So much did she resemble her father; especially her eyes spoke of Surabh.  Sreemati felt she was being scanned by the little one. Both the elders continued talking casually while having breakfast. Sreemati learnt that Debjani was born and brought up in Durgapur. She had come with her daughter to spend a few days in Shantiniketan. She also told her that her husband worked with the Indian Air force. Sreemati was impatient to know about how her husband had died. Also she was eager to confirm whether her husband was the Saurabh whom she had loved and lost as a torn chapter of a book. The first meeting was not ideal for betraying her inquisitiveness. She had to wait until and unless Debjani herself spoke about her tragic past or there was a point in their conversation where such a thread could be picked up. So when Sreemati left the breakfast table wishing good bye to both of them the questions left unanswered lingered in her mind.
       That day Sreemati had little to do. She went to the S.D.O. office for some information and came back early. Towards the evening she sat on the verandah of her room. The day was suffocating and hot enough for late spring. She experienced a nagging headache ever since she had waked up in the morning. It wasn’t for the oppressive heat she knew; it was for her sleepless night, her restless vacillation between two thoughts. One half of her mind asserted that that Saurabh was no longer living based on little Sreemati’s words. The other half of her mind proclaimed just the opposite. She was sipping tea when suddenly she spied Debjani and her daughter like many others ambling on the turf in front. Waving to them she summoned the duo. Both of them smiled and in no time were they by her side. While the little one capered in front of her room the mother sat on a chair beside Sreemati. The last trace of the ruddy glow in the western sky died away and darkness set in. Ordering two cups of tea and a plate of snacks Sreemati said, “Have you visited Gurudev’s ashrama?”
        “Yes yesterday we went there. We also went to the museum but unfortunately found it closed. Well, we still have some days left. So we can visit it another day.”
     The conversation thus initiated wove into a lively chat where both of them came to know about each other. Sreemati got some cogent hints which only proved that the lady beside her was none other than Saurabh’s widow and the girl was their daughter. Debjani had dropped in the name of the school from where Saurabh sat for the board exam. So there was no room for any doubt that the Saurabh Debjani had married was his Saurabh too. Sreemati however did not disclose that her schooling and education was in the same place as his. She wished to steer clear of raising any question in Debjani’s mind. It was only after her father’s death that she along with her mother shifted to Calcutta and settled there permanently. Debjani had been to many places with her husband after her marriage in 1980. The first place was Ambala and thereafter it was a hectic shifting to the air bases in North and Western India. She also came to know that little Sreemati’s pet name was Bubun.
         “Such a sweet name Bubun and she is so cute! Who has named her Sreemati?” Sreemati Chatterjee slowly ventured to plunge.
         “Well it was her father’s wish that she be named Sreemati.”
          “Lovely name. She must have been her father’s pet.”
          Suddenly a gust of wind blew dishevelling the darkness piled up in the verandah. The wait for the answer seemed to be eternity.
           “Bubun didn’t get to see her father. Unfortunately she was a posthumous child. He passed away when I was seven months carrying.”
           “I am sorry …” Sreemati mumbled. There was a lump in her throat.
            Debjani continued, “It was a Monday. We were in Chandigarh, I seven months pregnant. Saurav’s parents were also staying with us.” Debjani paused; the melancholy look on her porcelin face was visible through the darkness.
          “We received the sudden news of a mirage trainer aircraft crashing. Squadron leader Saurabh Mitra and two pilots ejected. Both the pilots breathed their last on the way to the hospital. Saurabh succumbed to her injuries the day after in the hospital. Holding my hands the last wish Saurabh had uttered consciously was if our child was a daughter she should be named Sreemati. The last word he had on his lips was the name Sreemati.”
    Debjani looked like a Greek goddess against a patch of darkness. The fate of both of the women merged as they were locked in a gaze.
        “If I die, I will do so with your beautiful name on my lips.” Sreemati recollected the last line of the only letter Saurabh had penned to her.


  1. What a unique story! It lingers in your mind.

  2. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, Amita Di!

  3. The character of Srimati is superbly drawn. The ending is touching! All in all a wonderful story.Congratulations, Amita Ray.

  4. Beautiful, true to life's ironies, beautiful expresson. Thank you for sharing the story with us.


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