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Assam Silk

The staff-room was redolent with warmth, well-being and the aroma of spicy, overdone mutton. Debrani Chatterji savoured the rare bonhomie. The younger teachers were a self-centered and competitive lot. Their discussions rarely moved beyond pay hikes, government orders, policy changes, possible dates of teacher recruitment ads and interviews, and such occasions were dwindling. She was glad her thirty-five year tenure was coming to an end. Hopefully in the year or two she had left there would be no such disaster as extension of retirement-age for teachers from sixty to sixty-five. Debrani had had a comparatively peaceful tenure. She had seen her friends retire and a few of them die. She was ready to go.

Today she felt relaxed basking in the afterglow of a sumptuous lunch hosted by Sonali Sarkar of the English Department.

Sonali had completed her PhD on Charles Dickens at the age of 54 and was ecstatic about her success. She had taken two years off under the Faculty Development Programme scheme. In that period she had been twice to UK and twice to USA visiting her sons, touring and collecting material for her work.

Soumen, her London son (as the staffroom mischievously called him) had taken her on an extensive Dickens memorabilia tour. The pictures and posters she had brought back had stunned even her dour-faced guide. Probir, her Boston son, had given her a tour of Dickens’ American lecture sites. Sonali’s cup of joy spilled over.

However, she wasn’t selfish. Every time Sonali had remembered to bring expensive gifts for the principal and governing-body members. Consequently, she had become the principal’s special friend. “You have to give us a treat when you finish,” the principal had insisted and Sonali was complying.

The gifts her colleagues showered upon her, more than made up for Sonali’s exertions. Paperbacks from Starmark, handbags from Leatherland, sarees from Mriganayani, jewelery from Chamba Lama; - Sonali was flooded with lavish presents. Debrani noted with amusement that teachers fiercely competed even in the gift-giving ritual. Not to be left behind, the principal had given Sonali a snow-white Assam silk ornately embroidered with red and blue flowers! A magnificent gift! The buzz was Sonali had gifted the principal an imported food-processor and the Assam silk was partly a return-gift.

Sonali’s face was pink with exertion. She was flitting from end to end urging teachers to eat their fill. The crowning glory was the Magnum ice-cream as dessert. The staff-room was humming with refusal notes. “No, no, we can’t. We’ll die from over-eating. Spare us Sonali…,” but almost everyone was lovingly licking chocolate sticks.

“Debranidi, hope you ate well,” Sonali’s hand lightly rested on Debrani’s shoulder. Debrani looked up at her younger colleague. “I am replete. The food was excellent. I have to leave early, Sonali. I’ll skip the ice-cream. You know my sugar problem. Hope you won’t mind.”

“Of course not, health comes first.”

The next day, Debrani’s prep-day saw her in Dakshinapan as certain necessities needed to be addressed. She was looking up furnishings in Rajasthali when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Debrani turned to encounter a thin, pale face with jutting cheekbones. Large, eloquent eyes with a hint of smile gazed at her. A gaunt fortyish woman in a shabby salwar kameez was smiling at her. A known face, a loved face, but for the life of her, Debrani couldn’t remember the name.

“Neelima, I’m Neelima, Debranidi,” said the woman in soft musical tones.

“O, Neelima,” Debrani rued, “Your Debranidi is growing old. Names elude her.”

“Don’t worry. Such things are the norm. How are you? We are meeting after how long? Six years? You haven’t changed. Can’t we sit somewhere? I have so much to tell you.”

Neelima had worked as a part-timer in Debrani’s college for a year or two before she resigned. When the part-timers got regularized in 2010 just before the fall of the Left Front Government, Neelima was working two part-time jobs and had to choose, as regular appointment, between her teaching job and an office job that she was doing on the side in the entertainment section of West Bengal Government. From grounds of seniority the office job was more lucrative for her and she quit teaching. Debrani had been in touch with her for some time after Neelima quit her teaching post as she had a soft corner for the quiet, scholarly girl. But gradually bonds grew slack and they lost touch.