THE FORGOTTEN LETTER
That forenoon, Abhijit Verma was alone in his small house in the suburb of Allahabad. His wife had gone to Sultanpur, a nearby town to attend the marriage of her niece and was expected only after two days. Normally, Abhijit would have accompanied his wife but for their pet dog who could not be left unattended. A problem, typical of the dog lovers. Abhijit wanted to make most of his freedom. He made a cup of coffee for himself and decided to sort out old redundant papers; files, office manuals, old reports, books etc., which were virtually littered all over the place. He has been thinking to undertake this exercise since his retirement nine months ago. May be it was lethargy or craft of procrastination that he had not taken up the much desired task.
Now this is the best opportunity; no one to disturb. Let me do it now. He thought.
Amongst the pile of books and manuals, he saw a blue coloured paper jacket. He remembered it. He had been keeping all the letters he received from his father in that blue jacket. He would read the letters sent by his father once, sometimes twice and then stuff it in the jacket. He had done this for forty years since he joined his first job at Nagpur way back in 1960 and until his father’s death thirteen years ago. Abhijit had not opened the jacket after the death of his father; there being no occasion to do so.
Abhijit opened the jacket for he had an urge to have a look at the letters and put them seriatim in a file. There was a typical format in which his father wrote to him. It always started with a Sanskrit mantra on the top and at times a short commentary of the same. There would be a brief description of the day to day events and then some quotes from scriptures. Never would he ask anything from Abhijit or give him any advice on his personal matters. And there was an unmistakable identity of his father’s letters. They were all in the ‘inland form’ where contents were written inside, folded and then the address of the recipient written on the outer fold. Abhijit had preserved his father’s all letters for he was emotionally attached to them and he considered their content of high philosophic value.
He was sipping coffee and working leisurely, enjoying his freedom and was happy that he had progressed well. Now he wanted to weed out the unwanted books. Unlike spacious racks and shelves in the government bungalows, he had to manage them in a small house. And then he saw a book, ‘An Autobiography of a Yogi’. He took hold of it. In a flash, he remembered the person and the occasion it was presented to him.
Abhijit was lost in memories. He shuffled the pages of the book and then there was a surprise to follow; there fell a letter from it. It was written on a blue ruled paper, most probably torn out of an exercise book of a child, folded twice and inserted in to the book. Its colour had paled. He unfolded it and saw the date on top of the paper.
It read 17 May1982. That was the day he had sailed out of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands more than three decades ago.
A streak of pain chilled his spine. He felt giddy and nearly collapsed in the chair. He lay still for some time and then managed to get up from the chair, walked slowly to the refrigerator and took a bottle of cold water. As he sipped the water, he swooned to his days in Andaman Nicobar islands.
It was 1979 that he was posted to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; an idealistic, young officer full of energy. Even though he had to work often beyond office hours, he found time for his hobby of reading and writing and by virtue of his official position he was elected as the president of the cultural club of Port Blair. Mr. Lalit Ratnakar, the Director of Port Blair All India Radio Station was the Secretary of this club. Ratnakar was very energetic for his fifty odd years. He had an inimitable quality of approaching people and befriending them. And in sync with his profession, he had a flair for cultural activities. In practice, Ratnakar was the life and soul of the cultural club with Abhijit as its titular head. Ratnakar would arrange musical evenings or cultural programmes on the eve of major festivals and whenever any VIP came from the main land.
Abhijit was sinking deep in to memory lane. Yes it was February 1982, a few months before he was to revert back to his parent department. The festival of Holi was only a month away. Ratnakar suggested staging a three act play of the famous Hindi writer, Upendra Nath Ask titled, Taulye: The Towels. The play is a comedy and a satire on the neo-rich middle class on being finicky in the use of towels. The wife decrees that every member of the family will use his own towel and no towel will be used second time. But there is always a terrible mix up. The family members forget the rule and often use the used towels - that creates the rumpus.
Ratnakar had worked out all details; finalised the main cast and other supporting actors and had kept Abhijit informed. He requested Abhijit to come to the club after office even if it were for few minutes. “Your presence will encourage the boys to perform better,” he had pleaded. Abhijit had obliged unless he was held up due to any official or social commitment. All seemed to be going well. Funds had been arranged through some local businessmen who were too glad to oblige so long it was brought to Abhijit’s knowledge.
The play was scheduled to be staged a week later in the auditorium of the administration. One evening, Abhijit was about to get out of his office at the close of the day when Ratnakar rushed in, all ruffled; very unlike of him. He had literally run past the stairs leading to Abhijit’s office on the first floor. He was panting.
“What’s the matter Mr. Ratnakar? You all right?” Abhijit asked him, a little concerned.
“Sir, very serious problem,” Ratnakar managed to say gasping for breath and then continued after pausing a little. “Anupam Choudhury, the lead character of our play has to leave by tomorrow’s flight. He has lost his father.”
That surely was a serious problem; disturbing in fact. Ads had gone in the local newspaper and AIR was reminding the people every day, requesting them to come and see the play. Even ferry timings had been altered to facilitate spectators’ returning home.
Worried by the sudden impediment, they proceeded to the rehearsal venue. Ratnakar had requested all actors and support crew to be present in the club. The matter was discussed in length; majority wanted the play be abandoned.
“What can we do when the lead character goes away? How can we replace him in such a short span?” That was the majority opinion. Abhijit was restrained but Ratnakar was adamant to stage the play.
“The show must go on. The prestige of the club is at stake.” He argued.
“What about the credibility of the club? Who will play the lead role? And even if you hunt someone, how can you make a raw horn to play the lead role? There are not many people in Port Blair acquainted with theatre nuances let aside performing before a crowd.”
The discussions carried on and on. And then Ratnakar got up and requested the gathering to calm down. I have a suggestion. Everyone looked at him askance. Ratnakar paused and said, “May I request on behalf of all of you; Mr. Verma should play the lead role.”
There was a mixed reaction but everyone nodded. Abhijit was startled; shocked in fact. “How can that be? I have not even read the script properly and there is hardly any time.”
“Sir, if anyone can salvage the situation; it is none other than you. The reputation of the club is at stake. Sir, you can do it. Please accept the challenge. We are with you. Let this be your parting gift to the club and the people of Port Blair.” This was Ratnakar echoing his sentiment.
One person who was a quiet listener so far was Mrs. Soumya Bhardwaj, the leading lady of the play. She was looking at Abhijit and at her script off and on. The situation had rattled her since she was one of the most affected persons. But she wanted the play to be staged and she wished Abhijit played the lead role.
Soumya was Abhijit’s ardent admirer. She had attended all the functions wherever Abhijit had presided or recited his poems. Her husband, Anil Bhardwaj was a Hindi typist in Abhijit’s department. She had obtained and preserved the copies of all the poems Abhijit had recited and she had prevailed upon her husband to get her a copy each of all the manuscripts Abhijit left with Anil.
Abhijit was tall, fair and handsome young man and he was aware of ladies glancing at him admiringly and he enjoyed the attention. But that was social admiration and it was true that he didn’t know many of them individually. For him, Soumya was also just one of them.
Ratnakar handed over a copy of the script and dialogues of the lead role to Abhijit. The opening scene had Soumya washing the towels and hanging them on the twine for drying. And while doing so, she is to censure the family members for being careless in the use of the towels. Abhijit watched her perform while holding the script.
Next six days were a melee of events. Abhijit was rehearsing the dialogues to himself even during office hours. The ordeal was putting him under terrific stress. On the first day, while Soumya was perfect in remembering her lines and delivering them, Abhijit was flabbergasted. And time and again he saw Soumya looking at him intently; it baffled him more. He could feel the strong vibes emanating from her, and he was finding it difficult to ward them off.
Following days were equally turbulent. Whereas Abhijit had got hold of himself as far as the play was concerned, he could make out that Soumya was inching towards him. Even though no words were exchanged; her looks were impacting him. During the short breaks in between the rehearsal, he would see from the corner of his eyes; Soumya looking at him intently.
He was getting unnerved; her looks with a thin smile were driving him crazy. Soumya was beautiful, curvaceous and her long tress, fondling with her waist line was stirring him. True enough, Soumya was appealing and charming to make any man lose his equanimity.
The show was a great success. Bouquets were presented to Soumya and Abhijit for their performance. The audience went home complimenting the lead pair. Back in the green room, Abhijit went to Soumya and thanked her for the success of the show. “You carried the show. I was very diffident when I was assigned the role but you saved the day for us.” While saying so Abhijit had unknowingly taken Soumya’s hands in to his and pressed them softly. Then he looked up and saw Soumya standing before him, tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn’t even thank him; there was a lump in her throat. Ratnakar and Anil came up and congratulated Abhijit and Soumya. Abhijit exited hurriedly and joined his family.
The chief commissioner had invited all the artists and crew members to dinner at his residence. Abhijit looked around to locate Soumya; he couldn’t see her. Nor was Anil present there. Ratnakar who could sense Abhijit’s consternation came over and told him that Soumya felt too tired to stay back for dinner and therefore Anil had taken her home. “She wanted me to convey her apologies to you,” Ratnakar added. It was now Abhijit, missing Soumya.
She should have been here to share the moments of glory. He thought.
Next two months were hectic. Office work followed by social engagements and then winding up the household and getting them packed for shipping. It was a mess of events. Those days there were no professional packers. It was left to amateur jetty labourers to do the packing. Abhijit often remembered Soumya and her tranquil looks, which were so expressive. He wished Anil had invited him to his place. Unfortunately, the poor steno could never think of that. It would have been sheer audacity on his part besides many tongues would have wagged.
The day arrived when Abhijit was leaving the islands. A deluxe cabin had been booked for him, his wife and his young son in MV Harshvardhan. The friends and colleagues had come and gone bidding them farewell. Anil was there helping him to stack the bouquets and gift packets and standing at a corner was Soumya listening quietly to Abhijit’s wife and the prattle of his young son.
The ship had hooted twice. As is the norm, after the third hoot the gangway is removed. Non passengers are required to clear the deck before that. Abhijit told Anil to leave. He hugged Anil, but his eyes were stilled on Soumya.
Soumya came forward and presented him a neatly wrapped packet. “You may like this book,’ she whispered handing it over to him... She could speak no more.
“Take care and keep in touch,” Abhijit whispered as they came to the deck. Abhijit stood at the deck as he saw them going over the gangway.
The final hoot pierced the atmosphere. Abhijit standing on the deck saw Anil and Soumya standing at the jetty waving at him. As the propeller churned water, the ship started getting separated from the jetty. Large ship of MV Harshvardhan size took good half an hour to be tugged away from the shores. The jetty was near empty by now except that there was a lone couple still looking at the departing ship and Abhijit looking at their silhouettes.
One tends to be selfish with the passage of time as one strives to adapt to new responsibilities, new people and new environment; official and social. Abhijit forgot Anil. He forgot Soumya and he forgot Andaman Islands and he also forgot the book presented to him by Soumya. He did open the cover once; it was the autobiography of Swami Yoganand. He gave it a look and then stacked it in his book self.
That was over thirty years ago. He had risen in the hierarchy; had a share of glory, accolades and criticism and finally retired and settled in his small house in Allahabad. He had lot of spare time now. The invites had dwindled over the time and one possible reason was that he avoided driving at night.
It was that forenoon when he was free from house hold chores that it occurred to him to sort out his old papers and he saw the letter forgotten for three decades; and that too it was by sheer chance. He read the letter once, twice and thrice and he was shaken. He loathed himself.
Oh God! What a wretched person I am. It took me more than thirty years to see this letter. Where would be she now and in what condition? What agony she would have suffered? Can I be pardoned ever?
The letter read:
Dear Sir ji
Pardon me writing this letter to you. Even after innumerable sleepless nights, debating whether I should or I should not; I could not restrain myself and have mustered courage to write these few lines. I know full well that I cannot explain the propriety of my action.
The very first time I saw you, I was drawn towards you. Since then, my body was captive but my soul was always with you. I am God fearing and religious yet I do not feel any guilt or shame in admitting it. The more I saw you, more I yearned for you; not doing so was beyond me.
Now you are going away and I see no hope of seeing you again. But your picture is etched in my heart and it will remain so until my last breath. Left to suffer in these islands I am like a tulsi (basil) plant, which is adorned but never given a place inside the house.
In last Holi, you played colours with all of us. I can never forget your applying orange colour on my face. Sir ji! Can I make one request: whenever you play Holi, please put a tinge of colour on the tulsi plant of your house. I will feel your presence within me.
Be God with you.
Abhijit took the letter, folded it and kept it in the blue paper jacket along with his father’s letters.
Three months later it was the Holi festival.
Abhijit’s folks had gathered at his place. His brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, his grand children and his wife; all had gathered to celebrate the festival of colours. There were snacks, sweets and there were packets of colours of different hues. He being the eldest, all family members waited on him to start the ritual of applying the colours. Abhijit got up quietly, picked up the plate with orange colour and walked to the tulsi plant at the other end of the lawn and smeared it around its stem.
Everyone thought he was getting senile. Abhijit but smiled inanely; he knew he could not explain it to them.