The fragrance! Ah! The fragrance! Those days of strong feelings! The music! The casting music of the T.V. serial! The songs, sung by Mukesh on the tape recorder, brought newly repaired. The bang! Ah! The bang of those doors that hid the face behind it, leaving me always beaten and always stumbled down abed. Then, the throbbing. And the sharp, piercing, “No”. And then, “I’m sorry.”
The fragrance of the lotion drowned me again down in the memory. The lotion which I used to rub on my face to get rid of the pimples has been one of those passages which lead me to this memory.
I remember. I had come from my village to the town for my studies, further to class ten. But soon I left the room I had settled in and took shelter in a village near the town where I had to guide the children of the family and for which I had been provided with a nice room and I no longer had to worry about my food.
So I shifted my new dwelling. It was an admirable place, far off from noisy surroundings of the town, even out of the village, isolated. The room I was allotted was really a nice one, which a student can find rarely with such facilities. It pleased me. But for some reasons, which I never knew for certain, my heart was palpating at its worst. In the evening I felt alienation. No one talked to me, nor did any one pay any heed to me. It seemed to me that I was thrusted upon them. ‘Why didn’t they receive me happily? Why did they look gloom over it? … I will leave the place this morning … But how! How can it be? … I have come here to live at. No matter … They have not said to me anything that proves their grudge at it. They did not receive me jovially … But it does not matter… Why should they show it? Everyone has co-operated with me in settling in this room. The children are not gloomy or grudging over it at all. I have to work with them. Why should I think of the elder people?’
Things were going flatly but my mind was counting more and more complaints against the family and I was adopting myself in my new circumstances. My alienation was growing day by day. I was keeping myself confined to myself, seeing no one even trying to be intimate with me, confiding in me. I also did not trust any of them.
I was not content with the treatment I was getting there. The food was not being served to me properly and timely. In the morning I would not be served tea or breakfast if the eldest daughter of the head of the family would not be at home and therefore I, out of agitation, would go to the tea-stall, some two hundred metres or three away from the house.
The head of the family had five children, three daughters and two sons. The eldest was one of his daughters, some seventeen years old and the youngest was his son, some three years old. I liked all the children. I taught all of them except the eldest two, because they were going to another teacher, as they had to appear in their matriculation examination. I had tested their knowledge and had advised them not to appear that year in the exams for they were very weak. I helped them in their further learning. Among these two eldest damsels, the younger one was comparatively more receptive and smarter both in academics and in physique. The eldest one was dull and quiet while the younger one was more agile and garrulous.
My alienation was falling down now as I had learned to love the teaching, the children and my own study. I had begun to feel that there was somebody who understood me. I felt that the eldest daughter of the family either loved me or had sympathy with me. She paid heed to my needs. I saw her worry about me. She was the only person whom I found with sentiments. I saw her worrying about everybody, about needs of everybody. She was sincere and earnest. All this made me praise her. I wanted to share her problems and love her.
I had seen her watching me. Many times her eyes met with those of mine. Whenever the T.V. was on she would open the door of the room, opposite to that of mine. And I would come out of my room and would sit on a chair near the door so as I could watch the T.V. screen and her as well. Our eyes would meet and then one of us would shrink back after a few moments.
Sometimes a kind of impulse would say to me that she really loved. But I was not certain. How can it be? She is chaste. And she likes to remain chaste. She knows that even such a kind of thought can corrupt her if the thought is merely revealed. Why should she bar her herself. She would not denounce her herself … But why? Why can it not be? If there is love she can marry me. She and I both are of the same age. She and I are both of the same caste. There is not any position or rank gap between her and me except that she is nearer to a comparatively more developed town, which her family takes advantage of and prospers. There will be no clash of families if it is supposed to go further … Why talk to her at every concern, at every place, at every time? Why can I not …’
Since then began a clash of opinions in my mind, whether she really loved me or not or there had been any other thing in those eyes? I was trying to find an answer out of it.
It took a long time.
Now my endeavours were to outline her every movement whenever she came into my sight, whether she saw me or not. I was cautious every time not to betray my intentions to my intended or to anybody else. I was gathering facts to come to a solution.
These days I was always craving for a glance of her, despite she was not away from me. There was a vestibular between my room and the other room just opposite to that of mine into which the children used to come for playing at midday on holidays. She would come to it. She always sat there in such a position so that I could see her while I was seated on my bed in my room. I could gaze her. She would stare at me. It has always been of short perusal. But gradually it lengthened. It became my adventure to peep into her eyes as long as I could dare.
Further, I saw that she begun to wear ‘paayal’, the anklets. And its tinkling began to strike me at her every step. My heart would tremble in accordance with this tinkling. And I would step ahead to catch a glimpse of her through the window.
In those days of summer she would come all alone to the vestibular and would walk about there and I would gaze and she would also do the same. Our power to bear gazing each other strengthened. I felt that she really loved me. But I could not dare name it ‘love’.
I had been a good singer. And now I had become more sensible to love songs and its pangs than before. My favourite songs had always been those of pathetic, calm and cool ones. The music that had the capacity to arouse pathos in the heart of the cruellest kind of persons. I would sing those songs in the night when everybody was sound asleep. But I would sing. For I had hopes that she would be waking and if not, the song would awaken her. My tone had really been painful. And out of this tune, I would step down towards the field and granary and would be lost in it which comforted me much.
I had watched her every movement and diagnosed every word whenever she said. But it did not help reach a solution. Though her activities would suggest me strongly that she loved me but I was waiting for some words assuring me of the love.
Those words never came out of her mouth. But at the same time, her manners made me believe that there was some kind of entanglement between she and I and she was indicating it.
One day I came across her while she was bathing at the tube well. I could not persuade myself that it was a sheer chance because she had herself informed me of my lunch to be ready. And she knew this very well that I had to pass through that very way to enter into the house for my lunch. It infected me.
After this event, I thought she loved me, perhaps. ‘No! She doesn’t. It can’t be named love. And if it’s love she couldn’t have demonstrated herself in this manner. Rather she would have expressed it verbally … But how! How can she say it? After all she is a woman, who owns a weak heart. She can’t dare initiate it … Her every conduct says she loves me and is craving for me. Her very eyes confess it. She does look innocent and lonesome whenever I look into her eyes … She can’t initiate such affairs. I’m a man and I should initiate it … I’ll initiate it …’
This was the climax of my affair. I was determined to take the first step myself by asking her a question.
But in what manner I should ask her … I shall ask her when she would be alone. No one will be there then with her. She comes at midday to the vestibular. I’ll ask her then. But what shall I ask her- Do you love me?- Not that won’t do. It’s a hackneyed sentence and is blurred with many kinds of bad intentions. It’s a sentence that doesn’t carry one’s true love these days. Even a flirt or a cheat says it, insensitively. No, it doesn’t suit it … Then what? … What shall I ask? … Do you want me? … No! That is a worse one. It shows that it is her need and when it’s once fulfilled, she’ll throw it off… It doesn’t convey her true love… Really! Love? Does she love me? …Yes! She does. Really she likes me… Yes… like… That’ll do- Do you like me? – If she likes me then what does it mean but she loves me… The true love… The very word ‘like’ suits it well if she does like me, she does love me… She will marry me… There is nothing incongruous in it … Nothing immoral …It communicates one’s lovely feelings, sentiments and passions neatly without blurring it, without leaving any stain of bad intentions on it … true word … true like … innocent like …’
Now I was looking for a time when I should meet her alone.
It did not take much time.
She was going to the byre, some five metres or six left to the house. The tinkling sound of her ‘paayal’ had informed me that. I came out to ask her. She returned from the byre and was going to enter the house. I peeped into her eyes, she too did so. And I shirked. She was in the house. The tinkling vanished. My courage had turned into cowardly shame and had made me a statute. I moved towards my room and fell on the bed.
‘I can never say anything about it to her. Why was I mute then? Why didn’t I ask her the question then? … But … I can write her… Yes, that’ll be an easy way to reach the destination … At least, I can write her, if I can’t dare ask her verbally.
I wrote a letter addressing her, explaining my cause of inclination towards her. I wrote that her manners and behaviours had compelled me to ask her the question. I wrote that I wanted be sure of my conclusion I had made out her disposition. And then at last I added that question- ‘Do you like me?’– and urged to reply through the same way I had preferred.
But this time again I could not dare to hand her the letter. She would come and go before my eyes and that too, many times, all alone. The letter itself had become an impediment in the course of my watching her. The letter remained in my own possession for many weeks. During this time whenever I attempted to give her the letter I found myself even to watch her. Whenever I was with it and she came before me, I became convulsed and the convulsion would take away all my courage and willpower.
Later on I ascertained that the way was unable to serve my purpose. ‘The letter itself is an obstacle. Letters are not supposed to be a good source of communication in such affairs. She may also be angry with me if I only offered it… Then What? … Am I also as weak women usually are in such affairs? … No, I’ll dare… But in what manner?’
Now I gathered up my full courage and willpower once again. All thoughts and feelings were vanished from my mind and heart, except the thought that I must communicate to her.
I decided to submit her only a slip with the only one question written on it.
She came out to the byre. I also came out, stepped down from the vestibular to the campus. Saw her in the field, near the byre, hollowing out the earth through the scoop and placing the plants of flower into it. I remained in the campus with the slip, showing the excuse of basking as it was winter. I was strolling and standing in the campus and always watching her, peeping into her eyes continuously for the last time to assure myself more and more. It appeared to me co-operating. My courage doubled. I was full of vigour.
I saw her standing up, finished with the work and proceeding to return back into the house. I came near the door of my room. Saw the slip for the last time, content- ‘Do you like me?- Yes or No’- both on the front and on the back- ‘send by marking an option—’
I was trying my best to keep my willpower safe within my ribs. And I succeeded this time. I called her by her name.
She came near me. I was shuddering. All my courage and vigour were going off quickly.
I handed the slip to her. My hand was quivering.
I came into my room. Lay abed. My eyes staring at a page of a book. All the words flocked together, suddenly creeping here and there but within the fringes of the swarm. Then the answer came.
The sharp, piercing, fierce arrow wounded my heart as many times as many it echoed in the valley of my mind and the mind ordered the mouth.
“I am sorry.”
(Written in July 1999 and revised in February, 2000)