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.
“Also,” remembered Debrani, “That phone number you gave me elicited no response.”
“I have changed my number, Debranidi,” said Neelima quietly, “Both number and address. I live near Sulekha now.”
“Did your flat-contract expire?”
“That, and other problems. My father needs chemo regularly. He needs a place to relax when he comes up from Barasat. It is a killing journey for an old man like him. My present apartment has one biggish room that I give him.”
Debrani was surprised. Neelima’s father was still undergoing chemo? Never a bright head for medical names of diseases Debrani knew from six years back that the gentleman had been diagnosed with an ailment that wasn’t regular cancer, but the first step leading to it. He needed chemotherapy regularly to keep the disease at bay. So, the process was still on after so many years. Debrani shuddered at the mammoth cost such treatment must be sucking in.
Her face must have reflected her concern for Neelima said quietly, “I never wanted to give up the college job, Debranidi. You know that better than anyone else.”
Debrani nodded. She had seen Neelima’s personal file. First Class in BA Honours from Brabourne College, First Class in MA, Calcutta University, MPhil, Calcutta University, NET and SLET qualified; both within a year of completing her Masters. Debrani remembered asking Neelima why she had sat for both NET and SLET.
“You know how it is,” Neelima had replied, “There are not even a handful of teaching posts in Sociology. So I thought qualifying both might give me an edge.”
But the luckless Neelima hadn’t profited from her double degree. She had taken the CSC interview more than twice before crossing the age limit. She had fared well every time, but the panel expired much before her name. Her marriage had broken in the interim. Her husband who had also been her batch-mate left her for another woman after nine years of marriage. For five years after that Neelima had lived in a PG accommodation while her furniture and effects remained dumped in an airless garret in her aunt’s house. It was only after working two part-time jobs that she was able to rent a one-roomed flat in Selimpur and furnish it with some of her belongings.
One day, in a relatively empty staffroom, reminiscing the aftermath of her divorce Neelima had burst into tears.
“Can you imagine the pain, Debranidi, of living out of a suitcase, sharing a bed with an unknown woman, not even having TV in the bedroom, eating tasteless thali food, after one has cooked one’s own kitchen for nine years? I knew Sayantan wasn’t a one-woman man. I begged him to keep his women out of our house. But I couldn’t preserve my home, Debranidi.”
Where was God when children were cooking in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz? Unbidden the question had leapt to Debrani’s mind. A woman battling broken marriage, financial instability, father suffering from a lethal ailment that proved to be a severe drain on resources, bitter disappointment in career front; how much more could she take? Yet here she was, grossly underweight, neck tendons stretched, a limp disfiguring her gait, shoulders weighed down with heavy shopping bags, yet eyes neatly lined with kohl and lips done up in soft brown colour.
Sitting in the midst of colourfully tricked out stalls in Dakshinapan, sipping Nescafe and tearing off a piece of masala dhosa, Neelima laughed gaily.
“After I left your college, Mrinal came into my life. Mrinal is a good man, a loyal friend. But he is also an orphan who has been by himself for a long time. If you are a cat-lover you will know. If you do not caress kittens from babyhood they become touch-wary. As cats they hover, but just out of reach. Mrinal is like that. I was desperate to marry him and settle down. I begged and begged, but he shies away from commitment. He runs errands, does my groceries, and even accompanies Baba for his chemo-sessions, but that is all. I had a couple of bad relationships with Sayantan’s friends who barged in pretending compassion and then… you know how it is. In fact I had to give up my first rented apartment partly for that reason, - my landlord had grown truculent with all their coming and goings -, that, and my phone number – they kept ringing me up at odd hours, swinging between abuse and blackmail. Mrinal saw me through all that but refused to make me a part of his life. Anyway, that in short is my story Debranidi. Of late I have developed a knee ailment. Sometimes when my knee buckles in the middle of Jadavpur bus-stand I ask myself what will I do when I can no longer walk? How will I survive? But then maybe I won’t live that long.”
Debrani thought about her own life; a doting husband, two loving daughters, a plush apartment in Southern Avenue, an adorable Golden Retriever to cuddle at the end of a workday….
Neelima was arranging her bags. They had exchanged phone numbers.
“Do visit,” Neelima urged, “It is a tiny, tiny flat. The bathroom is ridiculously small. But still it is all I have to call my own. The rent increases every year. With Baba’s situation buying even a one-roomed flat is out of question. Mrinal comes occasionally. I cook for him on Sundays. Baba comes down from Barasat once a month. Not much, but it is my life at present. How are the staffroom people Debranidi?”
“As raucous and happy-go-lucky as ever, though the milieu has changed from your time with us,” Debrani informed her. “Anyway I only have a year left and then it is retired life for me. Remember Sonali of the English department? Yesterday she gave us lunch. She has just been awarded her PhD.”
Neelima’s face lit up. She grabbed Debrani’s arm.
“Debrani di, I plain forgot! I would have left without telling you. Last month I completed my PhD. From IGNOU. I had begun working in JU, Sociology department all those years ago. Remember I was in the middle of the thesis when I left your college? My guide passed away after that and no one was willing to take me up. I had all but given up. But Mrinal wanted me to complete it. Remember it is on folk culture and he has some interest in the subject. I got derailed a few times. Every time Baba relapsed I suffered a set-back. But Mrinal advised me to shift to IGNOU and brought me some material from Asiatic Society. He has a few connections there, and in Santiniketan. All the time I knew it was my last academic exercise, my farewell to the academic world. That office I have to attend every day is a terrible rat-hole. My colleagues have made snide remarks about the futility of the exercise. What purpose will it ever serve, they sneer? But for me, Debranidi, that thesis is the one solid thing I’ve achieved in my life. Everything else is spoilt irretrievably. But that one thing Fate couldn’t take from me. I shall show you my bound thesis when you visit.”
Debrani had planned to leave Dakshinapan early since she had a doctor’s appointment that evening. But after Neelima left she found herself lingering in the plaza. The lights had come on and the groundswell of young crowd was rising. Pausing before Assam Emporium, Debrani hesitated before walking in.
“Do you have thick silks?” she asked.
“They start from ten-thousand bracket.” warned the salesman. Don’t waste my time if you don’t have the wherewithal, he implied.
For a moment Debrina dithered; - what would Neelima do with the saree? Where would she wear it? The cash would be more helpful, maybe the idea should be shelved … but, only for a moment.
“Show me your collection. It is a gift for a young friend. She has a wheatish complexion, so I shall prefer white or off-white base with red and blue patterns,” Debrani instructed crisply before settling down on a stool. Folk culture, Neelima had vouchsafed. Was North-eastern folk part of her thesis? The thought brought a smile to her lips. Encouraged, the salesman turned to the stacks, “You are lucky. A fresh lot has just come in today…..”