I meet Ila for the first time at Basanta Cabin. I order a dal-rice plate because I haven’t eaten lunch, she orders a Fanta. That’s twenty-five rupees. On insisting she orders a Kabiraji cutlet. We sit across each other in this fan-cooled enclosed section, looking unsurely at the gravy stained menu before us. Now a crumb fried piece of chicken sits between us. She has contacted me through the advertisement that I put out in the paper for guitar lessons. She is in a hurry, she has to go, she says.
It is decided then, I would come to her house once a week to teach her the guitar. I would be paid at the beginning of the lesson a grand sum of three hundred rupees and her husband would not know about this. He is the possessive kind, she says. She drinks her Fanta in a hurry and speaks in an orange tongue. I pay the bill today. She is apologetic about it as she has forgotten her purse in a hurry. But it doesn't matter to me, even though these days money is tight. Very tight. I knew I was going to see her on Thursday next and that made me hum an old song on my way back to the hostel.
Those days Ranjan had returned from Rehab, for the third time. The boys and I at the hostel were on duty, to track him down every day. We took turns. He had a knack for finding his allies, under the bridge, behind the bus stand, at the back gate of the football ground. He often found his knit, always looking for the next hit, the next deal, the next fix. They would get together, a twitch of the eyebrow, a smirk, a flicker of recognition before they all sat together. Around the only bonfire which kept them warm, for this night.
Last time he had been clean for 4 years. We thought he had come through, to the other side. All our gentle chiding, sleepless nights, occasional harsh words had paid off. Until one day he disappeared. Only to return after a week with empty pockets and empty eyes. Kanan’s Walkman was missing, a couple of my books, Ranjan’s room was bare. “My boy is broken!” his mother wailed. We knew we had to get him to a rehabilitation center immediately. It was government-run, basic, bare-boned, but it did the job. Until the next time, he took a trip down the familiar rabbit hole.
I reach Ila’s house at 3 pm, on a Thursday. ‘Chatterjee’s’ the nameplate read. It is an ancestral house, with a tree growing out of its eastern wall. But once you climb up the spiraling stairs, you are transported into another world. Sunlight filters in, to dance with the books and records kept in the corner, a sweet smell of jasmine hangs in the air, promising wondrous things. A constellation of vintage objects embraces you as you enter her lair. Her white guitar stands on a cushion, comfortable, entitled, new.
It is her husband’s house, she corrects me. Ila is married to a doctor. They are childhood sweethearts. She doesn't tell me anything else about him. But he sits between us in gilded frames- at a convocation, at a polo match, at his marriage reception besides a younger, demure Ila. We sip black tea, talking about Hendrix and Baez. I tinker with the guitar to remind her that I am here for a lesson. She smiles apologetically. I stay for two hours. I teach her to strum. She reveals that she had a guitar teacher earlier, but she stopped since her husband didn’t like her playing. But she missed the music, so she has decided to go ahead nonetheless, without his knowledge. The base of her neck is a pool of the afternoon sun. She looks at my face intently as I strum ‘Stairway to heaven’. She hums “Sailing for the lowlands, low,” I feel dizzy.
Soon we meet twice a week. My payment is left on the table in a neat white envelope with a painted flower. Somedays I feel that she is just paying me to have someone to talk to in the afternoon. But surely she can afford better company, I reasoned. Why me? Between E -minor and G -major she starts playing some songs. I encourage her, she smiles and soon announces the end of the lesson. Some days when I leave the building I notice a head or two peep out from behind the curtains; Lace, clean, perfect, keeping the outside world where it belonged. I like being a secret. I feel chosen.
Having watched Ranjan go from a robust young chap to a scrawny 60-kilogram-on-good days boy was daunting. We wanted to make sure that never happened again. Five of us knew each other for fifteen years. We grew up in the same neighbourhood in Naihati, a suburb near Kolkata, snoozing on afternoons after a lunch invitation or in anticipation of a football match. When Ranjan got admission to Jadavpur University in the city, we knew it was our ticket out of this godforsaken town where nothing ever happened, except a marriage or a Cremation. Ranjan found himself in the hostel and as each of us passed our twelfth exam, he went with us to our parents to explain how Kolkata would change our lives. He was the adult; a ‘guardian’ as my mother called him. It didn’t take too much to convince our parents, the moment we explained that the rent was low and we would do odd jobs after our college to pay the bills. My mother sent me two thousand rupees on the sly, no one knew about it but Ranjan.
We took turns in keeping a watch on Ranjan. We trailed him when he went for a stroll in the park, we paid him visits in his room when he kept his door shut for too long, we pretended to be interested in his jaunts to the library. Somedays we would just get a message at the hostel and off we went to the familiar haunts, only relieved to have traced him at a church or a newsstand. We stopped whatever we were doing if one of us uttered “Where is Ranjan?”
Ila is chattier than usual today. She tells me stories from her childhood, the pickle recipe written down by her grandmother, how she met her husband at a math tuition class, how he whisked her away to get married at 19. She stopped her education after college. She has been dabbling in different things ever since. One month she wants to become a painter, next a teacher, next an actor with a theater group and now a musician. Her friends were travelling to different cities, in different continents, graduating to be doctors, scientists, copywriters, while she sat there in the golden cage that her husband lovingly built for her. After all, he was the ‘possessive kind’. I sense the hint of affection that comes with it.
But you couldn’t shake off her loneliness, no matter how animated she got. The soft strumming of the guitar floated into the room where a teacher was slowly falling for his beautiful student. Knowing very well that she was unreachable, she had a husband, a house, a life. And I was a loafer from Naihati, who when not teaching a guitar, was out looking for his friend who might be doing heroin with his gang. We were galaxies apart. But we orbited the same sun. The centrifugal force of our melancholy brought us together.
“Enough about me, what’s happening in your life? I hear of an entanglement with a married woman,” Ranjan pokes me in my belly. I double over, half in embarrassment. “Whoever told you that,” "The word on the street,” he says as he lights a cigarette. I take a drag. “It's nothing. Mithun is just messing with you,” “Be careful,” he says. “Don’t get yourself hurt,” he flicks off his Charminar. “Are you coming for football today? Tatan is coming to play?” he turns to ask. “I have class” I meekly say as he walks away. His casual lanky arms thrown up in the air, air of busyness around him, this is the Ranjan I knew. This is the Ranjan I wish he remains.
Our hands' touch. Twice. The next day we meet at Dhakuria Lake. Ila rests her head on my shoulder overwhelmed with a dinner that she is arranging. The next class gets canceled because her husband has arranged for a surprise visit to their aunt at Barasat where he drives her in his sky blue Ambassador. She later tells me that she wore a sari for the occasion. I imagine them making love that night and it makes me want to vomit.
On my birthday she kisses me. (“Full smooch? Or a plain kiss?” Kana asks later while drinking tea). She brings a box of Monginis cake and gifts me a shirt. “Wear it when you get a real job,”. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what to make of it. Does she want me to get a job, so I can take care of her?
The next week I take her by the hostel building and bring her my dog eared copy of Manto. She pulls me close and kisses me when we reach her house. I make love to her on the sofa in her living room. It is hurried, breathless, with half our clothes on. Always on the alert when a car passes the building. But her face is illuminated, errant strands of hair touch her face, loose from a bun. I could keep that image pressed between the pages of my journal, to look at on lonesome afternoons, where I don’t have the privilege of her company. “Oh my God, I simply love you,” she throws into the air, it echoes in my head for a week.
The week that we don’t meet, I cannot think straight. I play football, only to miss all the passes, I try to read but cannot put three sentences together. I sit with the boys but their voices sound muffled and I can hear my heart racing. I play the role of lovelorn lover and find solace in a bottle of cheap whiskey. It does not agree with me. I smoke regularly, the leaves sigh. I look at the constellations and wonder if she is thinking of me. I call her but she feigns to not hear me, “Hello… hello… hello..” Her voice haunts the hallway of my mind.
Days turn into nights, turn into days but I hear nothing from her. I try calling her a week later, but there is no response. I go to her neighborhood to see if Ila is home, to have a word with her, to find out what happened. I see lights on, some days there are guests, some days it is just her and a lonely record. I can never muster up the strength to climb up the spiraling staircase.
I roam like a ghost at my hostel. They no longer call me for runs for Ranjan. I go to his room one day. “I know you for 15 years and you have never been this way,” Ranjan pasted a poster on the wall. Soumitra Chatterjee from Charulata looks at me. “I just need to speak with her once.” “But, what will you get out of it? Her husband must have found out.” “But she hates that marriage.” “But you cannot provide her what she needs. She has a house, a car, life. He is a doctor, for God’s sake.” “But she loves me.” “I’m sorry to break this. But you were a plaything for her. I know these bhadralok types, they are used to using and throwing,” I shoot Ranjan a look. “You are jealous, after all, that I have done for you,” I spit out. “Because nothing good has ever happened to you,” I regret it the moment I say it. I am too ashamed to stay. I get up and leave. I go down to the STD booth and dial the numbers before I can remember them: 2441139.
That evening Kana comes breathlessly into my room. “He is gone. Ranjan da, he is gone,” "I just spoke to him this afternoon” “He is gone. No one can reach him,” I jump out of my bed and go downstairs. The three of them await me. We know the usual route. We each had a spot from there we would start combing back to the hostel. We have done this before. We always find him. I was sure we would today too. “Did something happen? “ “Did he get the job he had applied to?” “His father was coming tomorrow to meet with him,” We go looking for him frantically into the night.
We didn’t find him that night. We didn’t find him for the next 4 nights. We make a police complaint. We get called to some morgues too. But there is no sign of Ranjan. Numbed by Ila’s absence and the grief of Ranjan’s disappearance, I spent my night awake, staring into the lane, hoping for the sound of the familiar loose slippers. Where is he, Where is he? Where is he? Where is Ila?
The next day I wake up to a commotion in the hall downstairs. I go down and I can hear excited voices. At the end of the corridor, I see a few boys outside Ranjan’s room. As I enter I see Ranjan sitting on his bed, with his legs folded, holding court. Boys are playing cards, some are passing around tea, some smoke their bidis “Champ, here you are!” He says as he takes a drag of his Charminar. I looked around in confusion. “Where were you?” I ask as I sit down at the corner of his bed, staring at him, trying to make sure that this was not an apparition. His face glows as he smiles at a passing joke.
“I went to the bridge first. I scored. And then I took it with me and went to the Centre. They took me in, kept me there and started me off as a mentor to some of the kids. I stayed there for 5 days, it was the best 5 days in a long time. This is what I want to do, talk to other kids. Eventually, they may give me a job,” he says as Kana passes him a cup of tea. I lung forward and hug him. “I am sorry, I am sorry” tears escaped my eyes. “I should be sorry. But what you said has never been the untruth. As an elder brother I should have to have the ability to stomach it. Worry not, champ! Im not going down that road again...” he says as he takes a sip of the tea. We spend the day together in his room. We get called to the TV Room to watch the Twin Towers crumble: there is terrorist attack on America. We watch with our mouths agape. Ranjan’s eyes seem faraway.
I wait for a week to call Ila, she picks up. She asks me to meet with her the next day. Basanta Cabin was where I met Ila for the last time. She sits there, hidden behind dark glasses drinking her Fanta. She looks like a ‘cinema artiste’, as my mother would say. I do not order anything. “The Kabiraji is very good,” she says with a shy smile. "Do you know that Freedom fighters used to sit here to plot their next move? Right here where you are sitting. Imagine, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Surya Sen and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose sitting where you are sitting. And now look at us being rebels right here”. I look around its green walls, and flower printed curtains. I look at her. She takes off her glasses. I can hear soft whispers from the cabin next door. A steel glass falls outside.
“We cannot meet anymore,” She whispers. I reach out for her hand. Behind the flowery curtain of the cabin, I feel braver, more sure. She recoils. “Alok found out everything, Mrs Majumdar next door told him. He wanted to leave me,” “I love you, Ila. Come with me. I know I may not be earning much now, but….” “I can’t. What about Alok? I loved him since I was 16. I can’t leave him, how will he live without me? We have everything together….” “What about everything with us?” I ask and immediately realise that it is futile. She looks at the floor, sips her Fanta slowly. She seems like the poster, on Ranjan’s wall: so beautiful, but attainable.
I have tears in my eyes but I swallow them. “Listen, I want to ask you something...” I nod, “I hope you are not in some bad company.” “What do you mean?” “Alok told me that he treated a boy from your hostel at the emergency ward. He is an addict, a what-do-you-call-them, a ‘Pata khor’. He would have died, but he just made it. He comes to him for regular checkups now and it’s the same hostel.” “How do you know?” “Because I was in the car when we dropped him off after his recovery. Alok took a liking to the boy, he is from Naihati. I thought of you, and was worried.” “When?” “Last week, when Alok told me he wanted to leave. I went to the hospital to convince him.” I shake my head, still looking at her. As if I never knew her at all.
The waiter buzzes around the cabin but does not come in. I can smell his impatience from behind the curtain. He finally comes in after silence fills our cabin. There is no room for anything but two words. “Bill, please”
Sudeepta Sanyal is a writer based in Goa where she lives with her dog Doenut. Her work has been previously published in Out of Print, The Bombay review, The Bangalore Review, won the June Jazz competition by Bengaluru Review, 805 Lit and Lucky Jefferson, to name a few. She has assisted screenwriter Apurva Asrani for a project for Applause Entertainment. She is an Alumni of the Kolam Writing Workshop (erstwhile Dumpukht).