Yes, it's spring again. Bohag. Once more, the air is full of the sounds of dhol and pepa, once more, the lilting Bihu songs gladden the heart of even the most hardened cynic. Once more, the streets of the city are full of people dressed in their best, going from one Bihu pandal to another, listening to their favourite singers, watching lissome young girls dance joyously to the enticing beats that their handsome partners thrum out through horn and drum, cymbal and song.
Yes, it's Bohag. The month of joy, a time of celebration. The kuli calls out endlessly to its soulmate far into the balmy nights. Setting aside their usual shyness, cascades of keteki bloom boldly as busy bees hum happily around this sudden abundance of beauty.
It's been several years since I've come back to the city in time for Rongali Bihu. My life in England - Scotland, actually - is full and fulfilling, but living under grey skies and weak, watery sunshine, I have yearned, often, for the brilliant blue and gold of the Bohag firmament, the warmth of the spring sun on winter-chilled skin, the touch of warm breezes that is so like a lover's caress. It's amazing, isn't it, that the whole city celebrates Spring with such abandon? I had been sunlight-deprived, and hadn't known it till I found myself, once more, in my birthplace during RongaliBihi.
Yes, I have laughed and sung, danced and been happy in this season of Spring. The sap had risen in my veins, too, even though I am well past my youth. I had yearned for Varun's presence near me as I had gone from Bihutoli to Bihutoli, along with friends and family, taking in the songs and the singers, the dances and the dancers, sharing joy and bonhomie, love and laughter. But Varun is far away, across several oceans, too busy with his work to come back for a month's holiday to his homeland. He calls every day, though, wanting to know what I have been doing, whom I have met, what is life like in the land of my birth now.
I have told him casually, that I saw you last night. Just as casually, he asked if we had talked. No, I had said truthfully across the static that had suddenly thrummed through the wires, we had not. Indeed, I am not even very sure that you had seen me at all.
When Seema and Ranjit had invited me to their house for a Bihu party, I had no inkling that you would be there. I had been glad that they had remembered me. "You'll meet lots of the old college gang," Seema had promised me. "Surajit, Dhananjay, Rekha, Shamim, Bobbi, Achintya, Runjun - yes, they're all coming. They're looking forward to meeting you again. It's been a long time, hasn't it, since we all got together again?" She had left without mentioning that you would be there as well.
Perhaps she had forgotten? But no, how could that be? Anybody who had known either of us during that time can't fail to remember you when they talk to me now. And vice versa. Rashmi and Riddhiman, that was us. A couple, right through our late teens, to our twenties. We were perfectly matched, down to our very names that fitted each other's so euphoniously.. if Riddhiman was near, Rashmi could never be too far away. If Rashmi's laugh was heard, one could be sure that Riddhiman had said something funny.
I was your inspiration, you said, all through those years when our lives, our waking hours, our almost every waking thought were as inextricably intermingled as the waters of the Luit, and the sandbanks that dot its expanse. The poetry you wrote, the songs that you sand were all for me, you said. And I, basking in the glow of your attentions, loving it when you looked straight down at me in the audience as your velvet voice soared rapturously over the crowd, I believed every word that you said.
But. being somebody's inspiration, like Petrarch's Laura. Is that every enough?
It was amazing that when I saw you last night, I still felt a frisson. It was a thrill of - what? It wasn't love, no, nothing like what I had felt during our years together in college, when the mere sight of you across the room was enough for me to break out in goose pimples. But I certainly felt - well, something. How could I not, after all those afternoons spent under flaming krishnasura trees in bloom, or evenings by the side of the Luit, on a peaceful bank, watching the vast river go quietly by, never letting us know its great strength, its power.
You were singing of the Luit when I saw you last night. Seema had had a small stage built at one end of her large lawn, and you were there, almost as I remembered you. From that distance, across the garden, you still looked as though you were performing at one of those college festivals where you had always been such a major attraction. Surrounded by tablas and guitars, harmonium and now even a synthesizer, you had looked as you had ten years ago, when I had last seen you. Strong. Romantic. Vulnerable. And achingly handsome.
Every girl's dream come true, in fact.
But dreams are uni-dimensional, life is not. Life has many dimensions, has it not, many facets.
Oh, of course I had heard, over the past fifteen years since I left the country, about you. Bits and pieces from people we came across visiting us in Scotland, or from friends and relatives when I came home on holiday. Nothing much, just that you were still here, in the town of our youth, working. And also singing. Not professionally, your job didn't leave you time for that, but on occasion, at friends' places, or at Bihutolis. But nobody had told me of the change in you. Not in your appearance, but in your voice. It had always been your best characteristic, your voice, better even than your six-foot frame and perfectly chiselled features. So often, as we had sat on some park bench holding hands while you talked, I had closed my eyes and my mind to the sense of what you were saying, and had let the sound of your voice resonate through my entire being, even as the bright Bohag sunshine had wafted the fragrance of spring flowers down to us.
But if I had not actually seen you last night, I would not have believed that it was you singing. It has changed, your voice. It no longer strikes a chord in some deep part of my soul. Last night, I did not feel myself being lifted on a wave of melody, responding to your voice, totally in consonance with your mood.
Or perhaps it is not your voice that has changed, but I.
You were singing that old Bhupen Hazarika song which was always one of your favourites, and mine.
Tomarey omola monto aasey,
Bohag mahor Luit khonit,
Duyo satura monot aasey .
I remember it all.
The fun, the frolics of our childhood
Our dips in the Luit during the month of Bohag,
The first blush of the shy dawn of youth.
When I had said, That without you, I would kill myself.
My entry had been noticed by many of my old friends. Their greetings were warm, their smiles affectionate. But there was something – some wariness in their looks. I noticed some of them glancing quickly at the stage, then back at me. Of course it was after more than a decade, a full fifteen years, that they were seeing me in the same place as you. Rashmi and Riddhiman. How could they take one's name without the other's? and yet it was no longer legitimate, no longer permissible to do so.
Everywhere, there were people, celebrating the coming of Spring. You continued to sing, while many of the people who crowded the lawns hummed along with you. Your voice rose with passion as you song of the storm that had created havoc in the spring of your life.
You left me for another .
Leaving behind the monarch of your heart,
You went with the prince of wealth
Chanting of riches, you left,
Shaped by the love of wealth,
In that storm.
I could see people looking at me covertly as you sang those lines. How many times in the past had I heard you singing just this song, how many times had I been moved by the lines! But last night, they had seemed to be imbued with a special significance.
Suddenly, it had dawned on me. To all those people who knew me on the lawn, and were looking out of the sides of their eyes at me, and, most important, to you, I had been - I am! - a betrayer! The song that you were even then singing paralleled, in their eyes, our lives fifteen years ago. No doubt for you, too, the song had become, fortuitously, the story of our lives.
The shock of it had made me stumble to a chair under a rosy Radhasura tree, and sit down. Yes, of course, I was the one who had left behind a youthful love, and gone to the land of riches, hadn't I? I was the one who had not waited for my beloved to get himself a job, and had suddenly married, instead, an NRI, a man older to me by several years, a man who could provide for me in a way that you, Riddhiman, could never hope to?
But it was never like that. Never. I have never betrayed you. To betray a love would be to betray oneself. How can I explain to you? Do I even need to?
Your voice, rougher now than when I had last heard it, continued,
Suddenly, after a long time
I saw you again
The gold of your jewellery glistened from afar .
Yes, I realize, I need to explain. To you, and also to myself. You may think, and persuade yourself, that I had betrayed you. It is probably easier for you to believe that of me. But you know, deep down, that it wasn't really like that, don't you?
Yes, I, too, remember that occasion. It was ten years ago. I had come home with Varun. It was not the first time that we had come on leave. But I remember that I was particularly happy at that time. No, not for the gold that you saw on me. But because things were going well. I had just completed my Ph.D. in Biochemistry from a very well-known British University, and had just landed a challenging job there. I was looking forward to it. Of course the pay was good. But would you believe it, Riddhiman, when I way that the pay was not the reason I was happy? No, I was happy because I would be part of a team working at the cutting edge of Science. Genetic modification, that kind of thing. At last, I was beginning to feel that I would be contributing something truly valuable to humanity.
I wonder if you have ever felt like that, Riddhiman? The glow that you saw around me that day, ten years ago, was not the glow of gold, but the effulgence of happiness. For I am happy, Riddhiman, more truly happy than I ever was with you. For even when your voice washed over me in the Bohag of our youth, there was, in spite of my joy, always a niggling feeling in my mind. Poetry is all very fine, and music is, too, but what about the other things that make up life? I was a Science student, and my mind has always moved along very literal lines. But when I look through an electron microscope at the microcosm of life, when I read about the things that some of my fellow scientists have done recently, I feel the power of poetry surging through my being in a way that I never did feel with you, Riddhiman. After all the years spent in research, I even have a couple of scientific patents to my name now, Riddhiman - and that, for me, is music much sweeter than any of the songs that you ever sang for me.
Is that love of wealth? Is that greed for gold? I don't think so, Riddhiman, and I'm sure, if you think about it, you will agree with me.
Many of my old friends were around last night. They talked warmly to me, and were as friendly as though we had last met just fifteen days ago, not fifteen years. We talked, made light conversation, even as my mind was seething with thoughts about you, about us. Runjun, Rita, Shamim, Dhananjay - they were all brought up to me by Seema, with a "Guess who's here!" "You look well, Rashmi," they had said, every one of them. "And we're so proud of you. Of your achievements - we read about them in the papers. We've never met your husband, but we've heard so much about him - where is he? He hasn't come? What a pity ."
You repeated the stanza about the storm that entered your life, a storm that carried me away from you.
"He's never married, you know," said Runjun, misinterpreting my look towards the stage.
I had made a careful answer. "Oh really? What a pity." Or something like that.
There had been no accusation in Runjun's voice, none at all. Yet I had felt something - a twinge of guilt. This was quickly replaced by anger, then sadness.
It's not my fault that you've not married. I never asked you not to. In fact, I remember clearly, I wanted you to be happy. I still do. I had seen the rainbow in my sky, and I had wanted one for you, too. The storm that entered your life. Yes, it was a stormy time, a difficult time. We had graduated from college at the same time, you with English Major, I with Chemistry. I had applied to, and got admission into IIT, Delhi, for a postgraduate studies. You had wanted to go to Delhi to study, too, but hadn't got admission anywhere. You had tried in various places, in vain. Desperate, you had looked around for a job. You had sat for umpteen examinations, tried joining the Civil Services, tried the banking services - it had been three years of frustration for you.
We had, naturally, kept in touch over that time. But my new life, my new studies, were stimulating, exciting, challenging. Besides, there was the guilt that I felt. Guilt that I was doing well, you were not. Was it because I am a woman that I felt this guilt? Possibly. For years, I had looked up to you, hero-worshipped you, your poetry, and your music. But now was doing something at which I was good, and excelling at it. Sometimes, after reading your letters, I felt that it was wrong of me to excel, whereas you, the man in my life even at that point of time, were going through such an agonizing time. You wanted to earn your livelihood. Charmingly, you wanted to support me for life. But things weren't shaping up that way. Sometimes, I even caught myself pitying you.
Can a woman marry a man she pities. No. Never.
And in any case, Varun came into my life soon afterwards. Varun. How can I describe him? you have labelled him a rich man. Well, "rich" is a relative term. Yes, he was rich from the point of view of an unemployed, struggling you man. But Varun was no millionaire when I met him. Nor are we wealthy, even today.
He is a doctor, Riddhiman. You know that, don't you? But not a practicing one. He is into cancer research. His work focuses specifically on a kind of leukaemia that attacks young children.
Physically, he is nowhere as impressive as you. He is shorter, slighter. His hair is steel grey now, the black almost eclipsed by the white. Decades of study have stooped his shoulders a bit. Is he good looking? Honestly, Riddhiman, after all these years together, I really don't know. To me, of course, he is much more than merely handsome.
His intellect was what attracted me first to him. He has a brilliant mind, and I have always admired intelligence. But had another quality that completely bowled me over. He is the most humane person I have ever met. His work, his life, is dedicated to erasing a particular kind of disease. Could anything be more inspiring?
His family stays in Delhi. We got to know each other gradually, during his visits to this country. I began to look forward to his phone calls, his visits. Our conversations were wonderful. We talked endlessly, about many things ranging from Science and society, to the mundane happenings that added meaning to our lives.
With you, I had always been in the role of the listener. You were the brilliant speaker, and I was the enthralled audience. Could you blame me, Riddhiman, for preferring his company to yours as the days went by? He listened to what I had to say, my opinions, my deepest thoughts, mindful always of the tone of my voice, the nuances of my gestures, with the deepest courtesy and unfailing attention.
Varun is a decade older than I am. He, too, has had a past relationship with another woman, an Irish lady who is a software engineer. A live-in relationship, but they were not married. She did not want children, he did. They are still great friends. She has become my friend, as well. I look on her as a kind of elder sister. And no, I do not feel in the least bit threatened by her.
Varun knows all about you. About how far our relationship stretches back in time, about how once you were the centre of my universe, about how I gradually outgrew you.
For that's what happened, Riddhiman. I outgrew you. You remained as you were, while I wanted more. As my horizons expanded, I wanted a man by my side who would be my companion in that new world that I was seeing before me. Was I wrong to do that? No, I don't think so. Shouldn't all of us have the right to a choice, at every point of our lives? I made mine when I married Varun.
But of course you've never understood, have you? When I went o your house fifteen years ago to tell you, as gently as possible, that it was over between us, all you could think of was that I had betrayed you. Possibly, that's how you feel even today. Certainly, last night when sang that song, you had cast me in your mind as a betrayer.
Why is it that when a woman leaves a relationship, she is branded a betrayer, one who sells out to money? Of course money is any important part of any relationship. It's only in our college days that we imagine that we can live on love and fresh air. Love wilts very quickly without lucre, we all know that now, don't we? But even then, money is not everything.
Last night, as I watched you sing the last stanza of that song, a sudden realization had dawned on me. You had refused to accept the fact that I had left you, all those years ago, because I had fallen deeply in love with another man. instead, you had persisted in believing that it was the lure of gold that had ensnared me. Was that, I wonder now, because to acknowledge the truth would have been a blow to your ego? Better, isn't it, to cast me in the mould of betrayer, than face the fact that you couldn't keep pace with me? That I left you for a man who was more suited to me? Better for me, even?
If you think, my love
That without you
I shall kill myself
It's a mistake you are making
It's a false dream.
Living, I want to build a place
Where the worth of a man is more
Even though somewhat, than gold.
Well, good for you. I never asked you to kill yourself - just wanted us to be friends. Build a just society, why don't you? When I come home, I see guns where flowers used to be, I see the power of money where love used to be, I see conspicuous consumption where simplicity used to be. Sing a song of justice, why don't you, but remember there are many ways of measuring the worth of a man. Or a woman . Not just the poet's way. Not just the scientist's way. But a bit of both, and then some. And all of us have to tread the paths that are most suited to us.
You had looked straight in my direction when you had sung that last stanza. I had looked back, steadily. But had you actually seen me? I don't know. It was dark under the tree where I was sitting. I came away without meeting you at all.
It is better so. I am sending this to you by post. By the time it reaches you, I will be gone. Back to Varun, back to our daughter Anita, to our home, to my laboratories, to my friends and my colleagues.
It is cold in Scotland now. Spring comes later there than it does here. And Bohag, with its fragrant breezes and Bihu melodies, Bohag does not come at all. But it will still be Bohag for you when you read this letter. And if some of the meaning of this festival of love, of renewal, still remains in your mind, I ask you to think of me in friendship from now onwards.
And then, perhaps, in some other Bohag, under some other Bihu sky, we can meet again, in companionship and in joy.