When I saw the prompt - Letters – for this month’s challenge at Romantic Friday Writers, it seemed a perfect fit for some characters/lives I dreamed up a few years ago. I wrote a triad of Bengali short stories sometime back – Chithhi (“The letter”), Ashtamangala (“The return of the bride”) and Seemaheen Bidesh (“Borderlessly Foreign”), and you can read a synopsis of all three stories here, if you have the time.
The mc is Abin Bhaduri, a middle-aged widowed man, living in early-nineties Kolkata, Bharati is the name of his wife. The others are Chhuti, his step-daughter and her husband Tareq, the couple live abroad; and Abin's long time companion-come-helper Ramcharan, and Ramcharan’s wife, Namita, though they have no role in the current story.
My first response to the prompt was an abridged and translated version of the first story. But it felt a little lame to let go of the prompt with a tweak of an old idea. So I sat down and wrote afresh, directly in English no translations involved, about the same characters. I also used the challenge to write a separate story in verse form, in a series of sonnets, so all in all I have exploited the prompt quite fully, thank you RFW :)
I write in two languages, and what I write in my mother tongue has always felt untranslatable to me, even though the cultural context for what I write in English is much the same and I hope, smoothly interchangeable. I have always kept my Bengali and English writing separated, I have always thought the emotions evoked, the settings, the dialogues in Bengali can’t be seamlessly transposed to English. But this prompt made me want to try. It will be interesting to see if I have been able to prove myself wrong.
Looking forward to your views!
The Guardian of Letters
Abin looks out of the window into the garden briefly, before he bends to open the cabinet under its sill. He lifts up the pile of old newspapers and gropes the concrete surface gently – nothing. A little flutter of panic and he kneels laboriously to look closer, and ah, there it is.
“The thing to say is – of course I’ll always be with you, in everything, everywhere, don’t grieve. But that’s a lie. I’m tired of lies. The truth is, I will be nowhere when you read this. But I was. I was with you. Everywhere. I must remember that till the end. So must you.”
A flake of paint falls into his teacup from the ceiling as Abin straightens up. Early morning, there is no-one in the garden, just the birds with their frenzied news exchange. He tries to remove the floating flake, but it leads him a chase and crumbles. A crow sits on the gatepost and croaks a single warning caw as a taxi turns in at the far end of the block.
Abin heaves a long sigh. The house, Bharati’s house, needs repainting. When she died, his household help and companions, Ramcharan and Namita saw him through that loss; Bharati’s own daughter Chhuti left her mother’s house at a marathon run soon after, didn’t stop till she crossed an ocean and settled into a foreign land and faith. Quite some time since she married her Arab husband Tareq.
Then Ramcharan died, and his son claimed the mother; so Namita too left, and all that remains here to see him through all his losses are the letters. Bits of paper that Bharati wrote as she got ready to die. Two years she’d had to prepare, and she had used them to make pickles, rows and rows of jars, and to scribble those odd conversational notes, an instruction manual for coping; straight talk tucked into desks and closets, messages in bottles and jars. Well, the pickles had finished a long time ago. But her letters are there still, in the empty jars, inside the closets and cabinets; read and reread. Bharati’s voice still echoes around him in this house; he can access that comfort whenever he wants. Though he hasn’t quite made out till now what she meant by “So must you” – what? Remember that they were together till her death, or remember it till his? He’s chosen to till his end, not that it’s a choice. One can’t remember or forget on demand. She was absurd sometimes. Abin smiles a little and looks down again at the note in his hand.
It’s all still exactly as Bharati had planned. The house, the garden. A gardener still comes to tend it part-time, though Ramcharan is not there to supervise anymore. Few houses with patches of garden left now, the older ones remade into high rises, often with only potted plants in the lobby. Houses have changed hands in this street itself. Sutapa, Abin’s long time neighbour and Bharati’s friend, has sold and moved out recently. He misses his old neighbours, Sutapa used to make him pickles; sometimes he used to play chess with her husband. Another link with the past snapped.
“Everything needn’t be filed away in triplicate. Leave this note where you found it, you’ll see you’ll forget, and come upon me suddenly some other day, and it will be like a fresh discovery again. Isn’t that better?”
He knows some of the notes by heart, and still, the specific details of contents and locations do slip his mind sometimes; so when he comes upon one suddenly, it still gives him an aching thrill.
“No-one can spend a lifetime rambling around alone. One must find someone to share a laugh with, a shoulder to cry on, to talk to. It’s easy to find shoulders, but to bring oneself to rest one’s own head on a different living body and let the tears soak it, now that’s never going to be easy.”
She never wrote any salutations or signed off anywhere, he had thought he’ll find one headed “Dearest” or ended with the customary phrases of undying affection, but nothing had ever been found. In retrospect, it made sense, she wasn’t the type to write in predetermined formats. He’d never found that shoulder anyway, and doesn’t particularly want to. He stays here, the guardian of her letters and garden. He is content enough alone, shadowed by his own grief, an outcome Bharati hadn’t foreseen.
The taxi meanwhile makes its way round and now stops at the gate, to his surprise. Which redoubles when Tareq gets off it. They have just spoken last week, nothing mentioned then. Tareq has dropped in unannounced before, and that didn’t bode too well for Abin. He leaves his seat, walks swiftly out onto the patio.
“Peace to you too, Tareq! Everything well?”
“Oh yes, all fine. Chhuti would have come, but she isn’t allowed travel. You are going to be a grandpa, Sir! I thought you’ll want to be with her, a woman needs her parents such times. And we didn’t want to tell you on phone. There are other things too -,” he hoists his bag.
It strikes Abin again, this easy-going gravity with which Tareq affords him the respect due to a father; of a step-daughter’s father. He is delighted, but all change, even good ones have a bitter-sweetness about the core.
“That’s great news, Tareq! Congratulations! But how will I leave now? Before, Ramcharan was here. But now –“
“You leave that to us. This might be a good time for the repairs. We could get a contractor, make a turnkey job of it –“
Abin interrupts horrified, “No, no, that would mean all the letters – . Everything in the house will be upended, disorganised—“
Abin can’t quite explain the dilemma, why he avoids all maintenance work like the plague.
” Let’s talk it over,” Tareq says as he steps inside.
Read more about RFW and the May challenge here. Membership isn’t mandatory for participating, so go on over if you enjoy writing.