By Amita Ray
It was a weekday and Rupa was negotiating a peak hour rush in the Howrah station to board a local train. A sea of office goers tumbled down to the platforms as each local train meandered its way through a maze of tracks at the approach to the station and halted at the respective platforms. Howrah station, the largest railway complex in India reminiscent of colonial architecture, is witness to thousands of footfalls each day as this metropolis is the hub of the state luring people from all segments of society. The City of Joy mutates to a city of love, labour, longing as hoards of people flock here with dreams in their eyes to earn a living. Those coming from neighbouring places commute daily while those from other states make this city their home. The city embraces one and all.
Rupa was moving against the rush and so was intercepted at every stage. Glancing at her watch and checking the announcement she consoled herself, “Cool down, you have quite some time.” Suddenly she bumped against a short, bespectacled figure. It was Utpal.
Utpal was her classmate years back in a teacher’s training collage situated in a district town. In a class packed with over one hundred students, this diminutive, coy, bearded young man proved to be almost a non-entity during the first couple of months. He was a habitual backbencher and preferred to stay aloof. The days passed and Rupa made a few friends. Within a few days a group of four was formed: two boys and two girls. Skipping classes occasionally they would hang around, spend time in the college canteen chatting or raising a storm over some issues, gulping cups of tea with samosas. Utpal stayed away from the canteen probably because he eschewed company and din. Interestingly enough, the library seemed to be his favourite haunt.
One day Rupa and her gang found him sitting in a corner of the canteen all by himself. He cut the gloomy figure of a recluse dimmed in self-effacement. It was almost the end of the day’s working hours and the canteen looked deserted. In the midst of their adda, Rupa noticed that Utpal was casting furtive glances at them, as if eager to say something. He had a cup of tea in front of him and an unlit cigarette dangled indolently from his lips. He fumbled in his pockets for something, probably a match box to light his cigarette. Disappointment writ large on his face, he took off the cigarette from his lips and looked inquiringly at the group. Did he wish to ask Rupa’s male friends Dipak and Shamu whether they had light with them? That was the first sign of communication from the shy guy and they thought of making the best use of it. Shamu responded by ambling up to him, “Hi, I am Shamu… any problem lighting your cigarette?” The affirmative nod made Shamu stoop down and Utpal borrowed light from the dying embers of the butt of Shamu’s cigarette.
“Why don’t you join us at our table?” said Shamu.
The four of them in unison screamed an invitation which evoked a faint spark of glee in Utpal’s dreamy eyes. Utpal approached their table hesitatingly.
That was the beginning. They became a group of five.
Then classes started in full swing, observance of special days and cultural activities commenced with ritualistic vigour, co-curricular activities being a vital constituent in training would be teachers. Utpal, a first class M.A. in History gradually became the cynosure of all eyes and would steal the show. Be it a debate performance, recitation or a show demanding histrionic abilities, Utpal was sure to come out with flying colours. The unassuming, short, and insignificant Utpal on stage was a transformed personality, sending out positive vibes keeping spectators spellbound. Everyone was engrossed as his sonorous voice glided over a poem of Jibanananda Das or Shakti Chattopadhyay with full-throated ease. The resounding applause in the mime performance on the college social still rang in Rupa’s ears. As the days passed and Utpal bagged laurels one after another, Rupa realized that a close bond had surreptitiously blossomed between them, a bond defined by mutual liking and faithfulness. Their aspirations and applications were poles apart but Utpal found in Rupa a mind to confide in. She gathered that he hailed from a humble background and had to strive for every inch of his success. He had put up in a hostel for the ongoing course as commuting from his village home to college daily was impossible. In order to meet the expense of his stay and studies, he was engaged in a part time tutorial class.
For the four in the group, the degree to be attained at the end of the course would be an add-on to their existing qualifications. It was not by choice that they were undergoing the course. But for Utpal it was the truth of his life. He had thrived on the dream of becoming a dedicated teacher since his school days; his father was a teacher in one of the village primary schools. Rupa was rest assured that Utpal with his aura of scholarship, idealism, and oodles of love for children would make an ideal teacher. He had loads of natural endowments just waiting to be in use for moulding young learners.
The bond between the five friends grew stronger day by day. One wet day the class was waiting patiently for their professor to arrive. Among Rupa’s friends, only Utpal had turned up and was seated beside her. Suddenly Utpal whispered in Rupa’s ears, “Rup, I have something to tell you.”
With a twinkle in her eyes, Rupa teased, “That you love me?”
Utpal became very serious and said, “Something I wish to share with you only as I always do.”
“Come out with it,” Rupa chided. “Why are you so secretive?”
“Hush, there enters B. K.G.!”
The chaotic class instantly became silent; the randomly dislocated ones went back to their places like puppets. Some teachers have a miraculous ability to feel the pulse of the students and Binoy Kumar Ganguly was one such stalwart, revered by all. To Utpal, he was an icon worth emulating.
That day classes were over before time as many professors didn’t turn up due to the inclement weather. The students who were present were in no mood to encounter the fury of an imminent cyclonic diversion. Rupa was about to bid good bye to Utpal when he virtually pulled her along to the canteen which was more or less empty. It suddenly struck Rupa why Utpal was determined to confide in her that very day. With the other three not around, he deemed it just the ideal opportunity.
They settled down in a corner table face to face; Utpal with his back to a window overlooking a rain-drenched grey evening. They ordered two cups of coffee. Anticipating some mushy revelation, Rupa looked at him with overwhelming curiosity. Utpal rested his cigarette between his visibly quivering lips flanked by stubble and lighted it. The first puff probably gave him the zing to start his story. With the steaming cup of coffee in front and the haze of the spiraling smoke arising from his cigarette against the bleak afternoon, Utpal seemed to be possessed of an eerie aloofness.
“It’s about Mala and me,” he started.
Rupa almost choked as the coffee slithered down her throat. She wiped the sauce off the plate with the last bit of the only samosa they shared.
“What’s it Utpal? Out with it fast.” Her tone betrayed a sign of urgency.
Mala was the other friend in their group of five. The only daughter of affluent parents, she was short and sweet; she looked suave with a degree in English. It transpired that they both were seeing each other after classes for a pretty long time, while they withheld it from the others in the group. They behaved as mere friends while in their company.
“That’s great!” Rupa congratulated brushing off her initial astonishment. “Why don’t you want to share this news with the rest?”
“Oh no! Rup not now. Promise you won’t divulge.” Utpal begged clutching her hands.
“Promise,” she acceded with a smile.
That night Rupa kept thinking about Mala with Utpal’s love. The one a jovial extrovert, the other cooped within himself, reticent and a diehard idealist. Though Utpal was immensely talented, he lacked the spunk to achieve in a world driven by cutthroat competition. Moreover while the former was the pampered daughter of rich parents, Utpal would have many mouths to feed once he got a job. But then disparity and differences weave the best love stories, she mused.
Months passed and they were at the end of their course. The final result of the university examination was out. Rupa’s joy knew no bounds when she learnt that Utpal had secured a first class, though she herself had got a second. In those days getting a first class was an arduous task and only the worthy could bag it. The class would definitely pave the path to the realization of his dream of becoming a classy pedagogue.
The group disintegrated after a hilarious farewell meet of the five. While Dilip, Utpal, Mala, and Rupa cheered and chirped pulling each other’s legs, Shamu seemed to be a little subdued, lost in himself, though he was the most carefree and jovial among them. This handsome hunk had been pining for a first class but missed it marginally. Since then he had been a little remorseful though the friends had tried their utmost to cheer him up. Was it then something else? The last time Rupa had seen them was at her wedding. She had whispered in Utpal’s ears, “Send me a card when you marry Mala. I will surely be there!” Thereafter Rupa left her hometown and lost contact with them.
“Hello Utpal where are you off to?” Rupa ecstatically demanded in the midst of the surging crowd in Howrah station.
“Writers’ Building,” was the cryptic reply.
Elbowing her way through the rush and having changed the direction of her movement she asked, “What business do you have there?”
“My daily business of earning bread,” he quipped.
Rupa was flabbergasted. She certainly could not reconcile herself with the thought of Utpal slogging with an unstimulating white-collar job. How could his life be thus wrecked?
“But what about all your dreams, aptitudes, and performances?” Rupa demanded.
“I could not buy me a teacher’s job.”
Rupa held him by the hand and maneuvered a reluctant Utpal a little away from the milling mass.
“Hold on a bit, you idiot,” she gasped, “We are meeting after many years. How is Mala?”
“Which Mala? I know no Mala.”
“Come on, our friend Mala you were to marry.”
“She married Shamu,” Utpal said tersely.
After a customary word or two, Utpal lapsed in the swelling crowd leaving Rupa dumbfounded. Rupa’s eyes turned moist. She woefully recollected that day when Utpal in the college canteen lighted his cigarette with the dying embers of Shamu’s light and the grateful look on Utpal’s face. Did Utpal have to repay his debt to the unscrupulous Shamu for such a price?
As Rupa gazed at Utpal melting away in the diverging crowd, she bitterly contemplated on why his dreams had turned out to be empty nothings. An incessant stream of office-goers, daily wage earners poured out of the station. An epiphany struck her: dreams were to be cherished and pursued as the monsoon clouds chase the rain. Destiny ordains whether there will be a soothing shower.
Amita Roy is a retired Associate Professor in English at Uluberia College, Howrah, West Bengal. An academic of varied interests, she is a translator and writer of short stories, which have been published on different platforms.
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