The Glorious Now

Sutapa Chattopadhyay

Sutapa Chattopadhyay

Many people tell me I have an unusual name: Poulomi. According to one of many Sanskrit translations, it means ‘a ray of the sun’. For me, my name transcends it’s meaning, becoming an embodiment of the hope I discovered with Shekhar. A vibrant waltz against the austere temple bells of tradition, it challenged the ironclad rules of marriage that cage us and expectations that suffocate our individuality.
Shekhar was an unusual person. His beliefs were deeply sincere and honest. Societal norms, often relics of a bygone era, held no sway over him. And he lived up to what he believed in, without hypocrisy. He did not promise me eternal, everlasting love: he knew things could end. What he did promise was living in a glorious present which I did with him for a few moments of our lives. In my view, it was worth it although I never told him that. He and I were fully alive then. And I had no guilt whatsoever.
According to him, human beings cannot and should not be in a relationship when it has ended, and it usually does because of life itself. Being together after that makes no sense except it makes us live an inauthentic life. He said Hindu mythology also subscribed to this. Radha, Krishna’s beloved wasn’t his wife. In fact, she was married to someone else. The love between them was real, as real as physical reality can be.
We never really met each other as students at IIT Bombay (Powai). I was an engineering student and Shekhar an MSc student in Mathematics. Actually, we did meet, it was brief, and the encounter was one of irritation for me. I bumped into him at one of the cafeterias at the Institute. He spilled his coffee on me. I wiped the hot coffee off my arms, brows furrowed in irritation and walked off. That’s it.
Agni Shekhar Mukherjee – Shekhar to all - was a student interested in everything around him. He studied the classics, politics, history and philosophy and everything that interested him. His favorites were the Enlightenment philosophers, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche. He studied it outside coursework with diligence.
Shekhar’s dad was a teacher at ‘Don Bosco’ school. A teacher of History. They could barely afford to send him to IIT Bombay, but he wanted to go, and he came to IIT Bombay which had a great Mathematics Department.
My dad was an Engineer at Steel Authority of India in Asansol. We were financially well off. I took the Joint Entrance Exams (JEE) exams, did well and got into IIT Bombay to study Electronics and Computer Engineering. It was a triumphant moment for me and my family to be one of the first to get into a prestigious college via mastering the JEE, and the first woman in the family to travel long distance to study at IIT Bombay.
In college, I did well and built an impressive resume. I also had a boyfriend. We were both busy building our resumes to go to the US, but we came to know each other well enough given the constraints of the time. His name is Gautam Tarafdar, also from Calcutta.
Gautam was from an impoverished middle-class family in Calcutta. He went to ‘Calcutta Boys’ school which his parents could not afford but his dad was an employee of the school, so he did not need to pay tuition.  At IIT, it was smooth sailing for him with his merit cum need scholarship to pay his tuition and all other expenses.
In 1979, the year we graduated, we prepared for the GRE, sat for the exams, applied to several colleges in the US and waited anxiously for the results. I got into University of Maryland for an MSEE degree and, fortunately, so did Gautam.

Gautam and I both got our master’s degree from University of Maryland at College Park. Gautam always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In 1982, we got married in India with the blessings of our parents. Both our parents were happy for us. Gautam got a job at a startup that was a precursor to Cisco, making routers for the internet traffic. He was very excited as he was interested in making better, more reliable, and faster routers. He wanted to start his own business eventually.
I, too, got a job at Cypress Semiconductor, a maker of computer chips. Life was perfect. This marked the beginning of our rapid ascent as highly skilled immigrants in Silicon Valley.
I am speeding through the narrative of our married life. It wasn’t remarkable in any way. My marriage, though, was one of constant adjustment for me, I felt. I came from a progressive family where girls got educated and worked outside the house. By 2007, Gautam was a wealthy man, but his value system remained rooted in the narrow alleyways of North Calcutta - a very traditional place where the people lived as they always had, holding conservative views about women and their place in society. There is nothing wrong with such a value system, and many women live happily in its confines. But it wasn’t for me, and we were not compatible in many ways. He felt he was always right in his judgements about me and his family and staff who worked for him. It was deeply ingrained in him, no matter that he was now in Silicon Valley and in charge of a modern workforce.
Gautam started his business, and he called it ‘Concertina Networks’. It was a networking hardware and software provider. Gautam was a brilliant and renowned technologist. He had many patents to his name and papers that were highly cited in academic journals. But in the process of building the business, he had no time for his family. By 1992, we had two kids, Sharanya and Abhimanyu. I took care of both of them and worked as well.
All that isn’t really unique. That’s what happens in almost every immigrant household from India that I know with only a few exceptions. The difference was, Gautam was totally, maniacally involved in building his business. He worked almost 20 hours a day, worried about his venture’s funding all the time and was consumed with anxiety. He came home to sleep for 4 hours and went back to work. Driven and relentless, his pursuit of success meant an essential hardness of demeanor even with his family. He was impatient with his children and miserly in giving them any time. And he thought it was my job anyway.
There were times when he promised to spend more time with us. But it almost never worked out. As a middle-aged woman raising two children alone, I succumbed many times to self-pity. I lived in the world of imagination where I wrote stories for myself about a happy functioning marriage. But I felt utterly stuck and that is a deadly, suffocating feeling. My life was a broken Concertina. A crushed one.
I slept alone in our bed. I woke up and did the same things. Things were into such a groove, that I felt I could not get out of the miserable circumstances, so I might as well make the most of it. That meant, taking care of all the finances, building family wealth, pursuing my own career, and taking an interest in the arts, entertainment, and culture in the San Francisco area. When Gautam was struggling, it was necessary to take care of all these things. Nothing was certain about his success.  His company was later bought by Cisco in 2007 and he became wealthy as I explained earlier.
In 2012, my youngest, Abhimanyu, went to college at Stanford. We both were relieved. I felt the first sense of liberation. Sharanya and Abhimanyu were both doing well, and they did not need me!
In 2014, I finally decided to take a sabbatical and go to India for a few months. If I liked it, I would resign from work. Gautam didn’t really care, and we did not need the extra income.  And he would not miss me. I could buy an apartment in Mumbai or Calcutta for our family. We had enough to buy an apartment in both cities. I had close connections to Calcutta and Mumbai.
Landing in Mumbai as a “single” woman was a new adventure for me. I was fearful but also excited. I hunted for and rented a nice apartment in a posh area of Mumbai near the financial district. My mom came to live with me. All the new setup, the buying of stuff to make a comfortable life was time consuming and exciting.
Finally, after a couple of months, I got in touch with my batchmates through the alumni network. IIT Mumbai was having a reunion and I decided to attend. I was extremely nervous because I had been in touch with my classmates in California but never in India. I hadn’t gone back to IIT Mumbai in 35 years.
The reunion began by all of us gathering in a spacious auditorium where each attendee received a personal welcome along with a flower garland. I found the flower greeting rather peculiar, yet it added a touch of charm to the experience of reconnecting with friends from years ago. They all seemed to know me although I could not place people and had forgotten many names.
The third day was when I first saw Shekhar. He was now working as an advertising executive in a company in Mumbai. Shekhar was giving a speech on his business and the opportunity for Indians in 2014 in the field of advertising in the Indian media market. But the speech – like everything about him – was about everything under the sun. I had read about him in our alumni magazines but barely knew him. His speech made me sit up in my chair! It was brilliantly interdisciplinary, and Shekhar had the knack of effectively connecting various disciplines to his advantage.
After his speech, came the evening’s various entertainments and dinner. My table had an empty seat next to me for Gautam – I had booked his tickets too in the hope that he would come. He wasn’t there as usual.
I was talking to my classmate sitting on my right when suddenly the chair next to me was pulled over and Shekhar seated himself with his heaping plate of food.
“Decided to change my table for more interesting company” he said and started eating.
“Hey, who among us is more interesting to you Shekhar? Me?” Rajesh piped up. Rajesh Kakkar, all smiles.
“Nope. It’s Poulomi”, he said with no hesitation.
“Well, Agni Shekhar, nice to know I am interesting!”
“Oh, stop with the ‘Agni’ nonsense. I have no idea why my parents wanted me to be a fire breathing dragon. I am just Shekhar to all my friends” he said.
“I don’t yet know if you are interesting, but you are certainly someone I don’t know”, he continued.
“But Poulomi, do you remember that scalding cup of coffee I spilled on you in the cafeteria?” Shekhar said.
“No, I don’t remember.”
“Oh well, that comes from being so undistinguished/indistinguishable I suppose. I was one of the teeming masses.”
I was at a loss for words.
The evening progressed and I came to know what Shekhar was up to. He lived in Mumbai, was an advertising executive and his wife had gone back to Calcutta, and he was going back to Calcutta in a few years’ time, but not now. It was all so unsettled, so unlike my life where every single step was taken with careful planning, weighing the pros and cons on spreadsheets! I was intrigued. Shekhar was absolutely straightforward in his dealings.
He looked at the chair on which he was sitting and read the name when he got up for seconds from the buffet.
“Oh, this is Gautam Tarafdar’s chair. Blech!!” he commented.
I pretended I did not know Gautam. So, I asked:
“Why do you say that? Blech?”
“Oh, I used to know Gautam because he was in charge of all the electronics and lighting at our cultural festivals” he said.
“Gautam was relentlessly ambitious. Nothing he did was ever just for fun. It was all for his own future that he put so much faith in. There was a steel-edged hardness to him. Almost like a robot. I remember he dated someone…. let me see…OMG, you!!”
“Yes, I am married to him”.
Shekhar made a face but never apologized.  Everyone else was listening but with eyes down, pretending they weren’t listening. That was typical Shekhar. There was no filter on his words.
Somehow, I did not take offense to anything that night. My marriage with Gautam was on the rocks long ago. I saw it with a detached sense. And Gautam seemed far away, physically, and mentally. A galaxy away from me.
During the evening my resume-oriented cover story poured out to Shekhar with the rest listening in and pretending not to. I was looking to buy an apartment in Mumbai perhaps near the Santa Cruz airport. Shekhar volunteered immediately to show me around the city, it’s landmarks and apartments as well.
Then as the evening ended, he said:
“Ok Poulomi Tarafdar – although I liked your maiden-name Sarkar better – I will see you tomorrow”.
“Ok” I said and walked out in a haze. My mom asked me at home how the reunion went as she did every night, and I was unintelligible, I am sure of that.

Thus began our acquaintance and later a serious relationship. Shekhar never attempted to hide anything from me. He told me that his marriage was on the rocks and his wife had left to go back to Calcutta and to live with her parents. They fought so much that it was better for his son to have peace and serenity than see his parents’ fights which could damage him forever.
It was a dangerous thing to spend time with him. We both had very rocky marriages and were meeting like two shipwrecked ships facing each other amidst treacherous ice. I paid no attention to my inner voice, though. Somehow, I felt I had to know what it is to be loved for oneself. Did Gautam love me like that, or did he want me as his prize? If I went away now to the US,  would I die an unloved spinster in my mind even though I wasn’t a spinster. Secondhand experiences would not do for me.
But I wasn’t as blind as one might imagine. I had come to India to escape my life in the US. And I felt entitled to my own happiness. Was it selfish?  I am too close to the affair to know. But certainly, Gautam did not need me. Why the fidelity to someone who doesn’t really care that much about me. In Asansol, standing before the fire during our wedding ceremony, we took seven steps together. Did that mean I was destined to die alone? That was silly. I certainly did not feel like Anna Karenina, carried away by guilt. Or Hester Prynn for being a seductress.
We went apartment hunting, but also saw the sights of Mumbai. We went to famous eateries. Visited landmarks, museums and historical buildings, had coffee and pakoras, Vada Pav and all the delectable food offered at food stands in Mumbai. It was wonderful. I felt light and free.
A few months into our friendship, Shekhar said he loved me. We were at Juhu beach, a crowded place with bags of peanuts we shared between us. He came close to me, held my hand and said:
“Poulomi, you know by now, I love you, don’t you? I haven’t spent as much time with any woman - with the exception of Sudeshna - than I’ve spent with you.”
“I love you very much. As I’ve told you many times, the relationship is between us, and no one should care. I don’t really care about societal norms or where this will go”, he continued.
I looked at him and said:
“But Shekhar, I am married”.
“Duh, don’t I know that? So? Do you love Gautam? You wouldn’t be out with me if you did! What’s all this nonsense about being married? Is that a condition where we are condemned to eternal damnation?”.
“That’s true, Shekhar, I am out with you almost every day”. But I still did not say anything in return about loving him.
“I am going to Calcutta to meet my wife, Sudeshna. I need to make sure Nikhil is ok. I will be gone for a week”.
We parted with sadness that night. Nikhil is Shekhar’s 8-year-old child and the light of his eyes!
Somehow my mom’s radar was up. She asked me a lot of questions about where I was. I felt like a teenager again, but that is not unusual in my relationship with her. I deflected the conversation by talking of the apartments I had seen that day.

The fortnight or so he was away, I missed him terribly. I hung around the house and mooned and sighed. And it was my mom who took me shopping and talked incessantly, which got on my nerves. But in those 2 weeks, I decided to have an affair with Shekhar. But my mom could not witness it. So, I asked my brother to come and get her to Hyderabad where he lived for a few weeks. My brother wasn’t so sure how safe we were, my mom and I, and he happily complied.
The moment my mobile phone rang with his identification on it, my heart leaped. I’ve never felt so much excitement before, never with Gautam when we were dating or newly married.
I picked it up and said “Shekhar, I missed you so much! I love you. Now come and get me”.
“So, you love me too, Poulomi? Repeat it. I want to hear it again”.
“And, by the way, I am not Arjun, the warrior son of the Pandavas, to come and get you on horseback like he did with Subhadra!!”, he said.
“Oh, shut up. Don’t be so wordy. Come and get me, Shekhar!”.
After a few more minutes, he said:
“Ok, where do we meet?”
“Mom is gone to Hyderabad to stay with my brother. Come over to my apartment”.
He did. My mom was gone, and we spent the night at our apartment. I’ve never been happier.
Look, gentle reader (I am a fan of Charlotte Bronte and this expression of hers), I am a techie and an artisan with software and electrons.  What do I know of love? I do, but not enough to describe it in poetry. This experience struck me as sublimely poetic.
We stayed in our apartment, ordered food via a food app, talked and made love. I’ve never seen him or myself happier.
So, did I fulfill - like a description on a resume - an experience that I’ve never really had? I don’t know and I don’t care.

My mom decided to stay a few more days with my brother. So, I booked a flight to Kochi for Shekhar and myself. I also booked a private villa at a beautiful resort there in Mararikulam.
Thus, began our stay in Mararikulam. The beach was sun-kissed in the morning and drenched in moonlight at night. We took long walks along the beach, swam in the ocean when we could. We went to the vegetable gardens or to look at the herb and flower garden. We slept in hammocks. Shekhar had his ‘Categorical Imperatives’ by Kant which he read lying on the hammock. Beats me how he could read such serious stuff, but he enjoyed it. We swung in the hammocks, drinking, watching the tall trees and birds and each other.
It was a time of total abandon and freedom for both of us.  We acted like a newly married couple, and no one suspected anything. We also went on a houseboat tour. But it was such a lovely experience at the resort that we stayed there most of the time.
Shekhar loved freshly caught fish and we ate Kingfish at a restaurant out in the moonlight every night. The coffee at the estate was so good. I’ve never tasted better coffee after that stay in Kerala.
Shekhar gave me garland of flowers to wear on my hair like a South Indian lady. We took thousands of photos to remember this by, as if we knew it was going to end inevitably.

On day eleven of our stay, Shekhar got a call from his wife. Nikhil had hurt himself when he fell down the stairs. He was in the hospital for observation.
Shekhar was white and shaking unable to do anything. I booked his flight home to Calcutta immediately and packed his bags. He left. We parted without words, but we hugged knowing somehow, we would not be together again, ever.
I returned to Mumbai, disconsolate, bereft. Thankfully, my mom was not there to observe me.
I knew now that Nikhil meant everything to Shekhar. I could not possibly get in the way. Besides, Shekhar had told me a divorce is really hard in India. Many people, even advertising executives are separated, not divorced. The courts take too much time to grant one and it costs a lot of money, money that isn’t worth spending if you don’t have unlimited amounts of it. Many of my alumni friends in India are separated but not divorced. And if he did divorce, he would still need to provide for his family. Sudeshna wasn’t working.
If I agreed to just being a mistress and to steal moments here and there with Shekhar with difficulty, the situation I was in was ludicrous to me. I had abandoned all my beliefs about the sanctity of marriage or fidelity. But I wasn’t going to be able to be with Shekhar even if I left my family, and he couldn’t leave his.
There was also the question of my very conservative mom who knew nothing (so I thought) and who would not approve. Even after 40 years, I was looking for her approval. She would have a conversation on how to suffer through my marriage with Gautam. I would not have been able to stand such a conversation.
It was the essential hypocrisy in all our relationships in our middle-class society. Stick to something even if you feel like you are drowning. My mom would have tried to tell me that in many ways. And it would have buried me brick by brick, her judgements.

I called Shekhar in Calcutta. He returned my call after he had privacy.
“What’s up love? I am coming back in a week. Nikhil is ok now; he will go back to school on Monday”.
“I am relieved Shekhar. So glad. But I am flying back to San Francisco tomorrow. Abhimanyu is coming back from Stanford with a high fever. Gautam isn’t handling it. I need to go back to make sure it isn’t anything serious.”.
“Couldn’t you wait a bit? Isn’t Sharanya there?”.
“No, it can’t wait. Sharanya called me. She is only 22, I don’t think she should be her brother’s keeper”.
None of the above was false except the sense of urgency. Abhimanyu would have been all right even without me being there. Sharanya had called only to inform me, not to ask me to come back.
We both bade each other farewell on the phone and I hung up in tears.

I went back to a deserted house in California, as empty as I was inside. I missed him terribly. Abhimanyu recovered soon after, but I am not sure I did.
I thought of divorcing Gautam and finally brought it up in late 2016. We agreed to an amicable divorce. He did leave me a portion of his estate including our house. I did not care too much about what he left me because I had my own savings too. I quit my work.
Shekhar tried to call me and email. I didn’t reply and he stopped after a while.

I was living in a state of some peace and serenity. I was travelling and writing, things I loved to do. I had made up my mind never to go back to Shekhar and I kept my resolution.
Suddenly one fine day in July, I got an email from our alumni network:
“With deep regret, we would like to announce the death of Agni Shekhar Mukherjee on July 20th, 2017. He was admitted to Lilavati Hospital after suffering a massive heart attack on the night of July 19th. He never woke up. Shekhar breathed his last at 6:30 AM. He is survived by his wife Sudeshna and son Nikhil. Memorial services at his home are being arranged by friends.”.
Lots of emails about tributes poured in. Since they were aware that I knew him, they asked me to contribute for his family’s resources and his son’s college fund. After I got over my catatonic shock, I did contribute. It took almost a month. Thank God my mom wasn’t here!
One never gets over a death like that. Was he thinking of us, on his last moments in life? Was he missing me terribly? I knew him so well, yet he was gone!! I spent weeks in bed, staring at the ceiling and touching the pearl earrings he put on my ears in Mararikulam that I hadn’t taken off.
Do I regret having this affair? Not at all. It has enriched my life in a way that could not have happened if I hadn’t jumped in feet first, not thinking of anything. We only have one life to live, that’s not a trite thing to say, and one must live it as one sees fit.

Bio: Sutapa Chattopadhyay is a technologist who has worked for more than 38 years as a software engineer. In her spare time, she loves reading and writing. Her favorite genres are biography, history, literature of the nineteenth century, and modern classics.  She also gets inspiration from writers of Indian origin such as Jhumpa Lahiri.
A short essay of hers has been recently published in an anthology of memoirs “A Body of Memories: A collection of personal memoirs and essays” edited by Lopamudra Banerjee. An essay of hers was also published in “SETU” magazine in September, 2023.

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