Anannya Dasgupta teaches writing and literatures of the British Renaissance at Shiv Nadar University. Her poetry and works of fiction can be found among others in: Wasafiri, Pirene’s Fountain, Four Quarters Magazine, Bangalore Review, Out of Print and Elsewhere. Her first book of poems Between Sure Places (Writers Workshop) is forthcoming in 2015.
“You would notice the scent of the flower but not know that it came from me”
– Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Champa Flower”
“You can nurture them as your own but you have no claim over them,” mused Teja, leaning back on the wall of the barsati terrace. “You are right, I don’t” agreed Nupur, her voice strong against the pang that wrenched her heart at the instance of its uttering.
She focused on the smoldering orange glow pulsing with every drag that Shreya pulled and blew into smoke a few feet away. Old Hindi film songs wafting from a neighbour’s barsati lifted the hot Delhi night from its heaviness into something dreamy and light – Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahaan, sun ja dil ki dastaan; the heat seemed to let up as the giant neem and blossoming champas and amaltas in the park nearby rustled up a light breeze. A power-cut in the middle of the night had woken them up and they were sitting on the terrace to escape the oppressive May heat that the barsati flats were designed to trap. Far from cooling down, even at one o’clock in the night, the concrete walls and the terrace floor were still exuding heat.
Nupur was staying at Shreya and Teja’s for the night. They had become friends she could count on. She had met Shreya at a conference in JNU earlier that year; they had instantly hit it off. When Shreya invited her home one day to meet Teja and have a home cooked meal, their friendship became the chink she began allowing in her armour of alienation. Nupur was grateful to have them. In a city where she was only beginning to find her feet, the ground had already shifted. She was grateful for the respite of their company. There was something about the two of them that comforted her and allowed her to be herself in a newness she had desperately craved.
Shreya was meticulously stubbing out her cigarette when she said, recalling a conversation from earlier in the evening, “So the teaching was really good this year. I have to say, when you speak so fondly of your students, it makes me wonder what some of our really invested teachers got from us”. Nupur left that last bit unremarked. “Yes, it was pretty exhausting as well as good. I am glad for the break though”. And then she said, without quite knowing that she was going to say it, “I am going to adopt a baby”. “That’s some news! So exciting! You can count on me to baby sit,” Teja said with genuine enthusiasm that trailed into a yawn. She slid from sitting up to lying down on the tiled terrace floor. The breeze picked up her nightshirt that she held down with one hand, the other she curled behind her head to cushion it. Watching her, Nupur felt a sense of ease with her own body in its fast approaching middle age. Here there was no reason to be younger or shapelier than she was, though she was routinely mistaken for an undergrad at the college she taught. There was a disconnect between face and body, the quiet graying of her hair and the air of adolescence that hung about her like an unshakable faith. Yet, the last year had been about letting a different person emerge from that body. Letting go is never easy, especially not if you held close a knot buried so deep in the heart that to let go you might have to cut your heart out. But sitting on that terrace in the middle of the night, still a little numb from the afternoon, Nupur let herself unravel, a bit “…ek akela is sheher mein, raat mein aur dopahar mein…”. One is never truly alone in being alone in a big city. The song didn’t offer any, but she took solace from it any way.
Teja turned her head to look at Shreya and said not half-seriously, “We should have a baby too. I can be pregnant, unless you want to. I even know a perfect donor for us.” Shreya, ever pragmatic, laughed, “I think we should both finish our Ph.Ds first. Nupur, you’ll make a wonderful mother”. “Only till I screw up,” Nupur’s mind drifted to Reva. Shreya and Teja got into a lively disagreement about the default failures of parenting, leaving Nupur to her thoughts. Nupur let herself feel the loss she knew she had no business feeling. She let her heart slice wide open.
Reva took to Nupur the very first week that she started teaching. She’d make it a point to catch her eye in class. She’d sit in front listening intently, always nodding and then follow Nupur outside class on most days with something or another to say. She’d seek her out in a crowd. Grasping at straws in a new job and a new city and amused by the memory of her younger self, Nupur accepted Reva’s attention.
To throw herself into the teaching was the only way Nupur knew to stay on the precarious side of well-being. The last ten years of her life she had condensed into a few sentences that she could put away and move on. She wanted this year to unfold in newness, in whichever way it would. The students responded to her energy and enthusiasm in class, and she found herself growing close to them. The realization that she was getting to be old enough to be their mother gave her a new sense of self-assurance as she gave herself over to her new job and new students. The teaching was intense; the college literary and dramatic society activities were even more intense. Through it she grew fond of all her students, but Reva she grew to love quite in spite of herself.
“Ma’am” Reva would call out on the corridor and catch up with her “could you please sign this?” Nupur would sign it. “You look tired. What happened?” she might ask some day. And sometimes if something was the matter, Nupur found herself telling her too, “I’ve had three continuous classes and a tutorial. I am ready to sit down and catch my breath”. “I am free till 1:45. I could come with you to the canteen if you’d like,” and she’d tag along. Sometimes Nupur would see Reva come running from afar to envelop her in a hug and go off to whatever she was up to. Nupur began looking forward to these unexpected gestures of affection. One evening Reva, unusually quiet, walked her out after a late event in college. When Nupur hugged her to say goodbye, Reva held on to her and said thank you. “What for?” Nupur asked, but she wouldn’t say. Then, held close to her heart like that, Reva said, “You’d be such a good mom”. Nupur dissolved into the moment in which the ends of her life loosened and came together.
Autumn turned to winter, winter turned to the winter break; everyone went home and returned to college for the new semester but not Reva. Nupur worried sick, called and emailed to no response. Reva returned a week later. Everything seemed to be the same except that Reva was pre-occupied. She moved from her front seat in the class to the back and made no eye contact. When Nupur tried to find out what was wrong, Reva avoided her and didn’t respond. She persisted till Reva wrote an email to say that it was just some things she didn’t feel like talking about and she’d appreciate being left alone. Stung to tears, Nupur left her alone. She figured a few more weeks would sort it out, but she was wrong. Without explanation, Reva had cut her off. She played out scenarios in her head to explain the sudden distance and blamed herself for imaginary wrongs. She knew of course that she couldn’t press Reva to speak to her. It would break her heart afresh to see her hiding at the back of her class and stay totally disengaged. There was nothing she could do about it. The strange thing was that the slight of being cut off was overwhelmed by a different feeling – that of her heart expanding to make room for when Reva would be ready to come and talk to her. She had come by a different love, one that didn’t let her retreat and shut off in the face of rejection. She’d run into her outside class sometimes but Reva, if she saw her, would say at most a perfunctory hello without stopping. Nupur also walked away waiting for Reva to turn around and come back, but she never did. The spring semester too drew to a close and Reva along with her class got ready to graduate.
On the days following the last class of the semester, Nupur tumbled into a void. What had kept her fully engaged over the year was suddenly no longer there. Her temporary cocoon lay threadbare. She was touched by the notes and emails she got from some of the students though it made harder the task of keeping a grip on her sense of loss. Most of all she missed Reva who had left without a word. Quite unwittingly she found her heart softened against every reinforcement of steel she had worked into it. May be the love and the loss had little to do with Reva and everything to do with the last ten years she had done her best to pack away and put out of reach. That afternoon she lay cornered by a past that defied her sentence of exile.
Kevin and she were returning from the adoption agency. Their homestudy approved, they could now adopt a child. It was something he really wanted. She was at the wheel when the car skid, crashed into a tree and killed him. She broke an arm and got some stitches on her forehead. She couldn’t bear to be in the same house, in the same city, in the same job, dream the same dreams, live the same life. She couldn’t even bear to cry. She quit her university job, sold their house in Atlanta and rented a flat in Gurgaon. Her move to Delhi upset her parents, who wanted her back in Calcutta with them, but she needed to be in a place where no one would know her, or pity her fate. How could she even begin to forgive herself?
She made herself get out of bed and called Shreya and Teja to ask if she could go over and when they said yes, she walked to the metro station in the unforgiving heat.
The yellow line train was packed with the evening rush-hour commuters. For once she was glad to be jammed between bodies that held her in place. At Shreya and Teja’s, she submitted herself to the evening. They chatted, cooked dinner, drank chilled beers, ate and eventually fell asleep under an over worked air-conditioner gasping to stay up to task, till the stuffy heat after the power-cut woke them up and chased them to the terrace.
Shreya lit a cigarette and leaned over the balustrade singing snatches from songs they could hear from the neighbour’s radio; Teja and Nupur settled on the floor lathering themselves with mosquito repellent. “What plans for the summer now that the semester is done?” Teja asked. “Start looking into the adoption procedures here” Nupur replied, and then added, “I am really going to miss this lot of students. It is weird because this is hardly the first time I have students graduating.” “You can nurture them as your own but you have no claim over them” mused Teja, leaning back. “You are right, I don’t” agreed Nupur.
A nudge from Teja brought Nupur back to the conversation she had barely heard. “Nupur are you spacing out? Do you agree with Shreya or me?” Nupur made an attempt to clue in, “What? Sorry.” “Parental love is socially learnt like any love. It explains all the goof-ups, but better yet, it lets non-biological parents be just as good at it,” Shreya repeated with the studied patience of an academic. “And I don’t think any love is learnt. The rituals of expressing or sustaining love are learnt, but the feeling can’t be taught. It is either there or not,” Teja passionately countered.
Nupur drew her knees under her chin and braced herself, “we may be just too entrenched in it to ever know for sure if love is hardwired or learned”. Then oddly sure of herself, she continued, “the real issue might just be one of helplessness that will catch you off-guard. Loving a child might be a bigger exercise in helplessness than either biology or culture prepares us for”. Nupur had just finished speaking when the neighbourhood air-conditioners hummed into life and the street lights came on. “The Delhi Electricity Board judges this debate in your favour,” Shreya intoned in mock seriousness, helping Teja up. “I’ll come in, in a minute,” Nupur hesitated and stayed behind on the terrace.
A faint perfume of champa had coloured the fresh gust of warm breeze that caressed her hair and soothed her back. Reva did leave her a gift. Nupur wept in relief that she could not have explained if she tried.
Illustration: Neeraka Karon