[Issue 10 / August 2014]
“I didn’t think you’d come?”
“It’s so against the tradition, asking to see the girl alone, in a public park…”
“Thank goodness for that. At least my mother did not have to go all hyper about frying luchis and procuring the sandesh for the would-be jamaibabu…”
“Here, I thought you’d like a cold drink…”
She takes the Coca-Cola bottle from him. He takes another for himself from the roadside vendor outside the Victoria Memorial. They enter the park and look for a place to sit. The ground is crowded, being a Sunday afternoon, with noisy families and quiet lovers occupying the empty spaces, including the tree shades. He hates crowds. She is used to being around prying eyes. They finally settle for an empty staircase behind the imposing memorial.
“So, why this place?” She is a natural conversationalist. He is reticent. She is plump, and in the yellow-and-green top, she is right at home with the environment. In his black t-shirt and graying hair, he looks older than he is.
“Because I did not want you to come.”
“Maa-go, why? You did not like my photo? Then why did you want to meet me? You should have just said no, or not responded at all.”
“It’s not like that. I couldn’t have just said no.” He stops and puts the Coca-Cola bottle on the staircase between them. “It’s funny, really. I couldn’t really say no, so, I put this condition. I thought your folks would consider me a pervert and wouldn’t go ahead with the plan.”
“What do you know? Desperation of parents with an ageing daughter!”
“I bet your folks are not as desperate as my mother is. If she could, she would marry me off tomorrow. You know about her.”
“Yes. Dastidar Kaku told us. The bridegroom may be a little old, but he’s a good guy, no bad habits. His mother is dying and they would like the wedding as early as possible. Those are the exact words Dastidar Kaku told my father.”
“He said I’m old?”
“Are you not?” She laughs, having her revenge.
“Anyway, I’m sorry. I’ve already said no to three proposals in the last six months. This time when mother said that I must go and see the girl, I couldn’t refuse. You know, in her delicate state.”
“But you don’t want to get married.” She faces him. “You are post the marriageable age anyway.”
He notices her noticing his hair. “They are prematurely gray.”
She gives him a knowing smile and places her Coca-Cola bottle next to his, like a pair of Barbie and Ken dolls.
“But you could have skipped this meeting.”
“Dastidar Babu was very insistent.”
“What do we do now?”
“And what do I tell my parents?”
It’s the moment for him. “You can tell them that you don’t like me, that I am old, with gray hair.”
“My mother would send you a packet of hair-dying powder.”
“Perhaps you could tell them that I took you behind the tree and tried to do things with you.”
He is embarrassed. He wants to flee and he doesn’t know how to do it politely. It takes her a few seconds and then she bursts out laughing, a laughter that shakes her whole body.
“And what would Dastidar Kaku say about this, apart from the fact that I’d drag you to the police station if such a thing were to happen.”
“I’m sorry. It came out all wrong. I am sort of desperate.”
“What’s the problem?” She is starting to like this guy, her failed suitor. “You are new in Kolkata, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Been in Delhi all my life. Moved to Kal last year after my mother’s condition worsened. I’m the only son.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“Terminal. Doctors have given six months. Max. She is in pain.”
“No, not that. Why didn’t you like me?”
“Who said I didn’t like you?”
“Then why would you invite me here and then reject me? The other boys at least had the courtesy not to take calls instead of saying no.”
“I’m sorry. There’s been a mistake. I invited you so that you could reject me.”
“Why would I reject you? You seem like a nice person to me.”
He gives her a sardonic smile, picks up the bottle and takes a gulp. He has nothing to add.
“But you don’t want to go ahead with the proposal either. What seems to be the problem? You have a girlfriend somewhere you don’t want to tell your mom about?”
“No. I don’t have any girlfriend.”
“So you are waiting for your dream girl to show up one day?”
“No. I am not getting married.”
“O-ma. Shotti? Whatever for? Somebody broke your heart real bad, is it?” He finishes the contents of his bottle. “So, what you want to do? Join the Ramakrishna Mission, or the Hare Krishna guys?”
“Why can’t I just be myself and not marry?”
“Sure. Why don’t you tell this to your mother so that some poor girl doesn’t have to spoil her Sunday afternoon with a stranger?”
“I did. But she doesn’t understand. Now, with her condition, I don’t know what to do.”
“But why don’t you want to get married?”
Enough questions already, he decides it’s time to end the meeting. “What do we do now?”
He is about to get up. She continues to sit, scrutinizing the couples under the trees.
“They all look so carefree. How many of them do you think will eventually get married?”
He realizes his folly. It is his fault and he must make it up to the girl. “Tell me about yourself. You were in Boston for some time. Did you have a boyfriend?
“Why? Is having a boyfriend a prerequisite for staying in America?”
“I was just making conversations?”
“Okay. You do not ask the girl you have come to see about her past affairs. Even if she had affairs, she had forgotten all about it the day she agreed to the arranged marriage.”
“I’m sorry. Seriously. But I think I made it clear that there’s no proposal between us.”
“Thank you for being so rude.”
“What do you want me to do, give you false hope and then send Dastidar Babu with an apology?”
“He would be devastated. He was so full of praise for you.”
“Why did you leave Boston?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“It’s surprising a girl like you is still single.”
“You are not very good at flattery, are you?”
“I mean it. You are so accomplished boys should queue up in front of your house.”
“I’d like that. Accomplished, you said? Oh, you have read my CV. Did you like it?”
“But you wouldn’t marry me.”
“I wouldn’t marry anyone. It’s a personal choice.”
“Men and their choices. I wish I were a man, I could choose, too, then. Shall we leave now?”
This time he remains sitting. He doesn’t want the conversation to end so abruptly.
“Are you late?”
“No. But it doesn’t look good for a girl of my age to be alone with a man who wouldn’t marry me, that too in a place bustling with puppy love. Look, how they are behaving, as if they’ve never kissed before.”
“You sound jealous.”
“You bet I am. Not because they are kissing, but at their age. They are so young, so full of hope for an exciting future…”
“Like going to Boston?”
“Like doing a Ph.D. from MIT.”
“But you did your Ph.D.?”
“From Calcutta University, four years late.”
She laughs. She is forbidden to mention this to any prospective groom, or to anybody for that matter. She faces him. He’s not her prospect anymore.
“I don’t remember the exact details. I was told by the nurse at the mental hospital that I attacked a man with a kitchen knife in the middle of the street. There was a police case.”
“You are joking, right? That’s insane.”
“Insane. That’s the right word. Now, you can go tell your mother that I’m insane and the wedding is off. Just don’t tell Dastidar Kaku about it, if possible. He doesn’t know. Nobody knows.”
“I’m sorry. I did not mean that. I’m finding it hard to believe your story. You look perfectly normal to me, unless you are carrying a kitchen knife in your bag right now.” He gives her an open-mouthed smile of solidarity. “Who was the victim anyway? Was he dead?”
“Thankfully, no. This is the best part. He was the reason I went to Boston. He was my senior and we were in love. We were planning to get married once I’d finished my doctorate.”
“Then his mother found him a bride.”
“No. He decided to marry a local girl, because he had impregnated her. He came to me that day, this much I remember. He told me that he loved me, but he must marry that girl because she was carrying his child. He must protect his seed, those were his exact words.”
A silence hangs between them. Sometimes silence is the best way to extend solidarity.
“How did you come? Do you want me to drop you somewhere?”
“Oh, you got a car. How nice! My mother doesn’t approve of my driving. You can drop me at Garia. I can take a rickshaw from there.”
They walk towards the gate, side by side, like a couple.
“I am really sorry for setting you up like this. I should have thought of a better plan.”
“That’s okay; you are not the only man around.”
“I am sure. You certainly deserve someone better.”
“Why, what’s wrong with you?”
His shields are down. Her confession has made him susceptible to telling the truth.
“You told me a secret. It’s only fair that I tell you one too.
“Sure. Then we’d be even.”
“Not like that. Since you trusted me with your story, I think you should know why I cannot marry you, or anyone. Basically, I don’t like woman, in the physical sense, I mean. I cannot sleep with them.” He doesn’t know how to continue this without fumbling. He never had any occasions to come out.
“You are saying that you are gay?”
“O-ma! Who could have thought? You look so normal.”
“Gay people are normal.”
“I mean, you don’t talk like a girl. You don’t have the funny walk. You don’t even have an ear stud.”
“I had. I removed it when I moved to Kolkata.”
“You have a boyfriend in Delhi.”
“No. Boyfriends are nothing but trouble. I’m on my own and I like it that way.”
“What do you do about sex?”
“What do you do about sex?”
They both laugh, an innocent, wicked laughter, a laughter that suggests that they could be friends if they wanted to.
“But that’s no reason not to get married. Gay people marry all the time.”
“And then go looking for sex elsewhere. That’s kind of cheating.”
“So, what’s your plan?”
“I wish I had one. What about you?”
“Oh, I will find a groom. Don’t worry about it.
They find the car. He opens the door for her.
“What are you going to tell your folks?”
“What do you want me to tell them?”
“I don’t know—anything to keep Dastidar Babu off my back.”
“I can perhaps come to see your mother sometime if it can be of any help.”
They stop at the signal. It is indeed a good idea. Seeing a girl would give his mother hope. But it isn’t fair on the girl.
He doesn’t want to say yes. He cannot say no. As the light turns green, he knows, this isn’t going to be their last meeting.
“Can I give you a call sometime, tomorrow perhaps?”
Dibyajyoti Sarma is the author of a volume of poems, ‘Glimpses of a Personal History’ (Writer’s Workshop, Kolkata, 2004) and co-editor (with Dr R Raj Rao) of the book, ‘Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-one Queer Interviews (Sage, 2009). By day, he is a PhD scholar, who has published papers on Indian Writing in English and Queer Theory, by evening he is the senior copy editor with a national daily, and by night, he is a creative writer, who has published short stories and poems in various journals. Born and educated in Assam, and after spending 14 years in Pune, Maharashtra, he now struggles in Delhi.