Published by: Bangla Academy, Dhaka-1000
First Edition: May 1998
Noyon brought me to her drawing room. I had never expected that my presence would create much excitement in the apparently happy life of someone I had worshipped silently over the past two decades. I felt neither despair nor any exhilaration. There had been
some comfort in loving her from a distance. I wondered at the way I sat calmly so close to the person who used to stop my breath, freeze my speech. It seemed I was watching, not Noyon, but my own bygone youth, on a cinema screen. It looked unreal. The tall woman drawing the olive green curtains aside, used to occupy the major portion of my thoughts those days.
: Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back in a minute.
During those days whenever we met I was filled with great trepidation. To think I was lolling coolly on her white sofa, with the grave of that love within my heart! A search of that region would now only reveal a dry, tearless grey desert. Contact with women, frequent loveless intercourse had hardened me into emotion – less concrete. Yet Noyon, after so many years of marriage, still looked like a fresh flower-bud. The freshness of Bengali women who have borne children has a tranquil restful quality. Noyon seemed to have gauged my thoughts with her sixth sense. She said as she sat down beside me;
: This visit to Lahore gave me a strange feeling; as if I was going there for the last time.
: I knew you were psychic but why entertain such unholy premonitions?
I deliberately used my West Bengali style of speaking to tease her. Mihir and Noyon used to constantly pull my leg over this at the university.
: No, seriously, the political atmosphere there seemed very stormy. Some members of the People’s Party were after me to meet Bhutto. To avoid them I stayed in my hotel-room after the conference on the plea of a headache.
: Why should you hobnob with politicians – you had gone to a Writers’ Guild Conference.
She was startled by the softness of my voice. To woo her I would use this tone in the past. The habit had persisted although I had no ulterior motive.
: What have I said now, to annoy you?
: Your voice reminded me of my childhood – adolescence, my parents’ house. It was like a forgotten song. Well, to come back to what I was saying…
She fell into a silence, ruminating with a dreamy haze in her eyes. Noyon’s two-year old son rushed into the room, jumping into her mother’s lap and breaking the spell. Playwright, brilliant debator, radio and stage-actress Nazneen Rahman whose life even now seemed full, should not have been moved by the tenderness in my voice. Was it possible that she lacked love and affection? I was shocked. Noyon’s maid entered with a tray of fruits. Light-complexioned like a European, the woman wore a gorgeous sari. Her eyes betrayed a certain cunning. No one could imagine more welcome snacks on a summer afternoon, pieces of milk white keshor, (white sweet potatoes, eaten uncooked) and round, succulent leechies. I smiled and complimented the hostess;
: Very original!
Touched by my tribute Noyon turned to me with a strange look in her eyes. Then she suddenly withdrew within herself, concealing her loneliness. She gave the child to the maid saying: The fruits are from the garden. We got this house at a bargain price.
: You’ve done it up beautifully. I had no idea, there was a pretty locality called Monipuripara here. Tell me more about your Lahore trip.
: Last year, the Writers’ Guild met at Karachi where I met Bhutto’s disciple Ahmed Kaiser. Her has a golden voice but has left singing for politics. He sang such enchanting ghazals (verses put to melody)! When you came I was reminded of something Kaiser told me. I have no idea as to why he should have chosen me to narrate his first experience with a woman! To be more precise what he described was the aftermath of that experience. In the morning he felt a wave of disgust and repulsion. He was in a hurry to run away from the woman he had slept with. You are going through-
Her unfinished words made me flinch. She had put her finger on my malaise. My peculiar aversion to the female physique was something that I never talked about. How did Noyon sense it? All these years she had been so distant. Now she was drawing closer to me with quickened steps. Nor did she seem annoyed by this untimely visit. I stifled a sigh and said;
: Let’s not talk about me. Are you all right?
: I have put on chains on both feet.
: Marriage would seem a bit like that.
: A bit? Entirely, absolutely!
I did not find it in good taste to continue this subject. There was a ring of unexpressed pain in her voice. She said again;
: There was a terrible row over my trip to Lahore. I was accused of seeking fame, neglecting my soon…. She stopped realizing the tone of complaint might lower her in my eyes. I rose to go.
: Please stay. I’ll run upstairs for a minute.
Noyon’s drawing-room was divided by two colour-schemes; olive and white. The carpets, walls, light-shades, all matched. Mauve clusters of Parul blossoms peeped through the windows. The entire room emitted cosmopolitan taste; there was no jarring element, present like a fridge or family photographs. On entering the place a visitor would normally conclude that the couple who owned it, lived in perfect harmony and happiness. Perhaps that is how things were. Had I not carried the carcass of a bygone love in my heart, that possibility might have aroused my envy. But as it happened, the picture of Noyon’s married happiness did not produce any regrets in my soul. I felt only goodwill and a great wave of tenderness for her – the kind that is given to people younger than oneself. Those innocent lips and eyes that I had adored day and night, in my dreams and waking hours – if they were to come close now I would be revolted. I might even be capable of insulting Noyon with cold withdrawal.
Noyon seemed quite taken up with this Ahmed Kaiser. It would hardly make any difference to me now even if she had been in love with him. During the time when I loved her intensely I only wanted what was best for her. I wanted her to realize herself completely. It was strange the way my ennui and desirelessness had turned me so paternal towards her. We were of the same age.
I had heard Ahmed’s speech when he came to London with Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. They put up at Claridge’s. I went to see them with a Pakistani journalist friend. With all his good looks and energy Ahmed had seemed a bit dim beside Butto’s sharp and brilliant presence; at least that was my impression. Bhutto had extraordinary mastery over the English language although his accent was faulty and voice cracked. Ahmed had the more polished voice. On returning to my room in London I had again considered these two men. Ahmed seemed more honest and Bhutto the master of manipulation. His towering ambition and sharp intelligence would perhaps use the simple, impressionable young man to his own advantage, only to discard him like the unwanted rind of a coconut. My journalist friend Asrar was also of the same opinion. The two popular Urdu newspapers the Jung and The Daily Hurriet were open on the table. I was startled by the blown-up portraits of Noyon in them.
: Do you know the lady? Asrar asked, adding: the daughter of Sir Sadruddin Mirza.
As I had no Urdu I could not read the stories about Noyon. What I gathered from Ahmed was that Noyon had come to attend the Writers’ Guild conference. She had charmed the Karachites with her innocence and clear English. The stories were about her personality and writings. Later Asrar informed me that it was Ahmed kaiser who had projected Noyon in the Urdu newspapers. They might have wanted to use the image of Sir Sadruddin’s daughter for political purposes. Sir Sadruddin along with other leaders had fought for Pakistan. On hearing this I laughed and said to Asrar in English: what I know of Noyon, tells me politics is never going to be her cup of tea – she is straight like a eucalyptus. Asrar, another genuine admirer of Noyon, used to visit Sir Sadruddin’s residence in Lahore. I had seen Noyon receiving two volumes of Anna Karenina, gold-lettered and bound in Morocco, sent to her by post from Asrar on her 21st birthday.
Noyon came down in a white cotton sari with a thin black border, wound carelessly around her body. She had worn a printed sari when she went upstairs. Her hair was wet from a recent bath. For a moment that freshly washed face without make-up seemed as dear as ever. The bath had obviously improved her spirits. She said, her face lighting up with a smile: Good, you are here.
The old teasing tone of our university days had crept into her words.
: Tell you what – I used to feel like an orphan with you and Mihir away. I am such a misfit in Arif’s business-circle. I am not myself anymore ; all this furore about trade and commerce! Ugh! I feel totally eclipsed.
: Is that possible?
: What do you mean?
: You used to shine all the time! However much we tried we found it impossible to eclipse you! Arif is spoken of, as a very harmless person!
Her smile was full of sarcasm. I took a piece of the cool white fruits, chewed it and got up. Noyon said in her old, demanding tone: Come and have lunch here on Sunday.
: Isn’t that supposed to be a family day? Why me on that day!
: I wouldn’t hear of any lame excuses. You are coming. I haven’t had a good chat with you for ages. On top of that I left you for a bath. Why are you in such a hurry?
I could not find a suitable answer to this. Although I gave no definite promise about Sunday. I did not want to eliminate the possibility of that visit, either, from Noyon’s. I went straight to the Registrar’s office. A new flat in Fuller Road had been allotted to me. I had come to get the key to this. Everybody here was familiar. They had seen me graduate, go abroad and then join the university as a teacher. The Chief Engineer was good enough to offer me a cup of lemon-tea. In front of our block were a couple of Palash trees in full blossom. At the back was a great Shireesh tree with its branches and leaves constantly dancing in the breeze. The British Council and my former hostel, Sir Salimullah Hall were close by.
Mihir’s servant, Kadom, who practically raised him, had arrived from the village to take charge of me at his master’s behest. He squatted in front of my flat, dozing and mumbling curses at me for not turning up earlier. I gave him the keys and declared: From now on you are the master of this place…