‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Crossings at Benares Junction - 5
 

  first impressions
  Vol VI : issue 3

  Cover
  Jayant Sankrityayana
  Kaushik Basu
  Altaf Tyrewala
  Shilpa Paralkar
  Parismita Singh
  Only in Print
  New Writing Award
  Current Issue

 

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Kaushik Basu

Lights come up again. Siddharth faces Kavita, his hand touching the hem of her sari. She is not uncomfortable.

Kavita: And I don’t think it was just infatuation. I really was in love with you.

Siddharth: I see you choose your tense very carefully. But thank you. I have a great suggestion: come away with me to Calcutta. Just hide in the train when we reach Benares.

Kavita: I should not have said so much and put you in a tight spot. But anyway, you have nothing to worry about. I am sure my bindi and ring are a source of great comfort.

Siddharth: No, Kavita, I mean it.

In Compartment 1, everybody is asleep, excepting Gautam, who is fidgeting about, unable to sleep.

Ghosh: (In a very sleepy voice) Gautam, why don’t you go to Chatterjee Uncle and ask him to tell you a story? I am sure he can tell you a nice children’s story.

Gautam walks over to Compartment 2. The door is shut. He fidgets with it and opens it.

Gautam: Uncle, you are awake?

Siddharth and Kavita are taken aback by this sudden intrusion. Siddharth takes a moment to recover.

Siddharth: Ah, Gautam. You have come at a very good time.

Gautam: (Puzzled by that remark) What, Uncle?

Kavita: (Giggling) Uncle is saying that you have come at a very good time. You have saved Uncle (pause)… from getting bored.

Gautam: Uncle, everybody is asleep in that compartment. Can you tell me a story?

Siddharth: (Hesitates for a moment) Okay, come up here. (Helps him onto the bunk). I shall tell both of you a nice story.

Kavita settles snugly into her seat to listen to the story.

Siddharth: There were two good friends, Ritu and… and Anu. They lived in a lovely little barsati in Defence Colony. No. No. They lived in an apartment on Kasturba Gandhi Marg.

Gautam: You first thought they lived in Defence Colony and then remembered that they lived in a house on Kasturba Gandhi Marg?

Siddharth: That’s right. I forgot for a moment. For some time, Ritu had been a little worried about Anu. Anu seemed distracted, a little depressed. And on many weekends she would go off somewhere without telling Ritu where she was going. This was not normal, Ritu felt. You see, they had known each other from college. No… from school, when they were just fifteen.

Gautam: Uncle, it is difficult to remember everything, isn’t it?

Kavita laughs.

Siddharth: Yes, especially at my age.

Kavita: You have a very, very nice uncle, Gautam.

Gautam: Yes, I know.

Siddharth: And you have a lovely, lovely aunt.

Gautam: What about the story?

Siddharth: Now, ten years later, they were not girls any more, they were working women. For all these years, they had told each other everything. There were no secrets between them. So naturally, Ritu was puzzled and also a little hurt about Anu’s recent behaviour. She wondered how she could help Anu.

Ritu remembered how supportive Anu had been when… when that stalking affair had started. This chap called Ravi, to whom Ritu had been introduced at a party, had started following Ritu everywhere. He sent her letters professing undying love for her. But Ritu disliked him and was actually quite terrified of him. Once Ritu, Anu and their friends went to Faridabad for a picnic.

Gautam: Uncle, picnics are great fun, na?

Siddharth: They are. But this time it was not much fun, because suddenly, near Badkhal Lake, Ritu realised that a pair of eyes was watching her all the time.

Gautam: Uncle, is this a horror story?

Kavita laughs.

Siddharth: No, my dear Gautam, don’t worry.

(Gautam nods) The eyes, Ritu soon realised, were those of Ravi. Clearly, he had begun stalking her even when she was outside Delhi.

Gautam: Uncle, ‘stalking’ is the same thing as following someone?

Siddharth: Yes, following someone all the time.

Kavita: What useful words Uncle is teaching you.

Siddharth: Ritu was scared but Anu told her not to worry, that she would in fact speak to Ravi, telling him not to do this. Actually, Anu was not scared of Ravi at all. In fact, in an odd way, she was quite attracted to him.

Kavita: Gosh, this is becoming a psycho thriller. Gautam, you have a very nice uncle (giggling) who, however, has no idea what children’s bedtime stories are all about.

Gautam: But the story is very interesting.

Siddharth: (Turning to Kavita) See? Some months went by and Ritu could take it no more. So she lodged a complaint with the Delhi police. And the police immediately served a restraining order on Ravi.

Kavita: Now we know this is a story.

Siddharth: He was not to go within a mile of Ritu. That seemed to work. Weeks, months went by, no sign of Ravi. In the beginning, whenever she was alone in the streets, she would always be looking over her shoulder. But gradually, her fear went away, she felt liberated and put Ravi out of her mind. In fact, now her only worry was for Anu’s welfare.

Suddenly, Ritu knew what to do. She would have to follow her one Saturday or Sunday and see where she went. It was not nice to follow a friend, but she was doing this for the sake of the friend, so she did not feel bad.

So one morning, when she heard Anu leave the house at around 10 o’clock, she quickly put on her sneakers and followed her. She could see Anu in a beautiful mauve sari walking briskly towards Connaught Place. In minutes, she had reached the inner circle of CP. Anu walked along the inner circle in a clockwise direction. Ritu decided to keep the maximum possible distance without losing sight of her quarry. She calculated that that would be about one-third of the circumference of the circle. So when Anu was near Jain Book Depot, Ritu was somewhere near Art Today.

Suddenly, Ritu was worried that her worst fears could be true. CP had become a den of addicts and traffickers. Perhaps Anu was headed for a dealer. Ritu was so absorbed in these thoughts that she did not realise that she was going past Jain Book Depot a second time. What was Anu up to? Ritu smiled to herself. Anu was probably just out window-shopping. CP was always such a feast for the eyes, with those Rajasthani artworks being sold on the pavement and beautiful paintings outside Dhoomimal Art Gallery. The December nip made walking a pleasure. So much so that Ritu did not realise that she was coming up to Jain Books for the third time. She suddenly felt worried and tired. She could not keep this up anymore. Outside Galgotia’s, she saw some empty chairs and plonked herself down on one. She was reconciled to the fact that she would now lose sight of Anu. But so be it. She could not deal with this madness anymore. But then, miraculously, Anu slowed down and stopped.

After ten minutes, feeling a little rested, Ritu got up and began walking slowly. And soon, almost like magic, Anu was also up, walking once again.

It was then that the more chilling thought struck Ritu. Was Anu going mad? This was utterly irrational — going round and round a circle. Ritu smiled, for it struck her that if someone was watching Ritu, that person would think the same of her. But of course Ritu was not mad or irrational. She was doing this on purpose; she was following someone. But if her seemingly odd behaviour was rational, why couldn’t Anu’s seemingly odd behaviour be rational too?

And she froze. For she realised in one blinding flash that Anu was not aimlessly going round CP. She was going around for the same reason that Ritu herself was going around. And that is when she realised with a shiver that she was not out of danger herself.

Long pause. Kavita’s gaze is fixed on him; and his on her.

Kavita: Gautam’s fast asleep. I don’t know if it was your lullaby or the fact that it is close to four in the morning. Why don’t you also try and catch some sleep? I wonder when we shall reach Benares. The train is running so late…

Siddharth: Come with me to Calcutta. I mean it. Come, Kavita.

Kavita: Are you off your head? What about these tourists? Leave them with Lacchu?

Siddharth: Why not? They’ll have a memorable, totally unforgettable trip.

Kavita: You’re crazy, Siddharth. You hardly know me.

Siddharth: I knew you many years ago.

Kavita: But you don’t know the person I am now. And what about after Calcutta? I shall be left to fend for myself.

Siddharth: No, we’ll live together.

Kavita: I thought you did not believe in the institution of traditional marriage.

Siddharth: We do not have to marry. And even if we do, ours will not be a traditional marriage, since you are already married. Moreover, in case this was not clear in my lectures, I should clarify that I have opposed the institution of marriage. I believe society would be better off without it. But if the institution is there and everybody gets married, I see no compelling reason for a single pair of persons not to marry. Don’t tell me you are wedded to the middle-class value of once wedded, wedded for ever.

Kavita: I am not, but I have a feeling you don’t know what you are trying to commit yourself to.

Siddharth: You talk in riddles, Kavita. I am a simple philosopher, I don’t understand the householder’s riddle. Come away with me, Kavita.

Kavita: I would love to. I would love to throw everything aside, every little thing I own, and go away with you… wherever you take me.

Siddharth: And we shall vanish in the milling crowds of Calcutta. We shall live in an overcrowded part of North Calcutta, in a sultry bylane where balconies rub shoulders with balconies…

Kavita: …in an old house with tinted windows and wrought iron grilles. And with so many people living in that neighbourhood, it would be easy to vanish… to go shopping in the local bazaar, to the fish market where all the local Bengalis go, and not be noticed… to be just the two people who came from nowhere, who have no history

But I can’t, I can’t. I don’t even know you want to… I’m scared, Siddharth.

Siddharth: If I were not saddled with this damned lecture by this blessed British philosopher, I would have got off at Benares. I would have no qualms about missing my own lecture, but I don’t think I can do this to him.

Pause.

Kavita: I need to be excused. Can you please help me? Get me my crutches from under the seat.

Siddharth looks hesitant, puzzled.

Siddharth: Crutches? (Hands her the crutches) How did this happen? Did you hurt yourself recently?

Kavita: It happened the year I left college — nine years and two months ago. I had an accident… a DTC bus. I’ll be back.  

She goes out of the cabin door towards the bathroom.

 

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 p. 5 p. 6

 
Kaushik Basu is Professor of International Studies and Economics at Cornell University. He believes this play to be his first attempt at ‘serious’ writing. Well-meaning friends have told him that academic papers don’t count. The notes for this play remained stashed in a drawer for years until he was “an invited professor somewhere”. He declines to disclose where, for fear of not being invited ever again. This is his first published creative work (2005)