(The original story was written in 90’s and is included in author’s Odia anthology Deshantari (ISBN: 81-7412-147-0) under the title ‘Burkha’ and English version of this story was first published in The Kindle in 2011. Hindi translation of this story has been anthologized in author’s short stories collection Rape Tatha Anya Kahaniyan, (ISBN: 978-81-7028-921-0) published by Rajpal & Sons, Delhi. Arita Bhowmik has translated it into Bengali and it has been included in author’s short stories collection Dukha Aparimit (ISBN 978 984 404 243-8), published from Bangladesh by Anupam Prakashani, Dhaka.)
All throughout the journey we faced each other in the compartment on the train. We were acquainted with each other; we were classmates in college but it had been a long time since we saw each other. And even then, there had not been any great bonding between us; we just had been in the same section. She was smart and I was just a simple middle-class girl. She had passed out from an English-medium school and could speak English fluently while I struggled. While she used to make running notes during lessons and lectures, I could not understand what was being taught in the lessons I attended and struggled.
Her name was Simi. As I remember, she wasn’t very pretty, though they say that youth makes even a monkey look beautiful! Her face was big like a pancake. Her nose was flat and broad. Her teeth were not uniform but there was a magic in her smile. She was very healthy. Her bust line was bigger than mine. We used to come in salwar kameez; she used to wear skirts. All the girls were very quiet when they stepped out of the common room to go the classrooms; she was never quiet. She had a different style of moving in and out of the classroom than the rest of us. She would enter the classroom after the teacher always asking, “May I come in, Sir?”
The lady now sitting in front me resembled the Simi I remembered from college. Her face was round like a pancake just like hers. Her nose appeared as if someone had slightly pressed the clay when the sculpture was still wet just like Simi’s. But this woman was not smiling so I could not make out if she still had a magic in her smile. She sat in front of me but never showed any signs of recognizing or knowing me, let alone smiling at me. I was a bit confused. I hoped I was not wrong. Or maybe, she was someone else. As it was, I didn’t have a good memory for faces. That’s why most of the time I had to face unpleasant situations.
I had met her when I had just joined college. Twenty years had passed since then. The woman on the train was accompanied by her three daughters and a son. The three girls sat close to each other and chatted while the son sat between the parents and kept on squirming around like a pet cat. A very serious gentleman sat next to her. He was sweating profusely. Might it be her husband? Something in his face reflected he was a very dominant man and had those five lives firmly under his thumb.
I suddenly remembered the girl who came to see these people off. She had a blunt, cut hairstyle and was dressed in a pair of jeans with a khadi top. She was a replica of the Simi I remembered from twenty years back. She was definitely Simi’s sister I thought. But is it possible this ‘Simi’ did not recognize me? Had she forgotten me? Or was this woman someone else?
I examined her more carefully as we sat facing each other. Her wrists were full of red bangles with gold trim. A wide row of sindoor ran through her thinning hair on her forehead. Her cheeks bore the mark of age. A white stone nose-pin adorned her nose. She had two to three bead necklaces and a gold chain. She wore an embroidered blouse to go with the saree. Her stomach appeared heavy with fat. Her fingers were swollen like moist lotus stems. Her ankles were full of cuts and black marks. Was this Simi? There was a great difference between this ‘Simi’ and the one I remembered from college. Sometimes life and age radically changed our appearances. I wondered...
Simi had finished her schooling in Delhi and had come to our small town. She did not go back to Delhi for college but instead, got admitted to the college in our small town. Her father was an officer in the Army. Sometimes she would talk about her daddy and mummy. “Daddy got transferred to Jammu and mummy makes nice kachoris because we can’t find kachoris in any restaurant here.” Yes, in those times, even the best restaurants in our town did not serve kachoris.
We had twelve girls in our section; the rest were boys. Out of the twelve girls, Simi was the only one who tried to be friendly to me; I don’t know why. But I could never stay with her for very long. Her way of life and her mannerisms never suited my temperament. Maybe she was attracted to my smart looks and my smart hairstyle. Whatever, it was, we drifted away from each other within a few months. I was not bothered about her because I never considered her my friend.
Soon she became very irregular. She started missing classes yet she was seen on the campus every day. She would be there for the English class and then vanish somewhere. She would not show up for the logic lesson afterwards.
There were so many ‘pairs’ (lovers) in the college. They were seen talking to each other behind walls and pillars and under the mango trees. But Simi was never seen in those places. Actually, she had no friends so one knew where she went. Simi was lost somewhere in the amazing world where popular stories were about sleazy teachers, knife fighting of hooligans, strikes for no apparent reason, elections, drama, sports, teasing the principal, and vandalizing walls with the names of pairing couples.
But can the town of my college days really forget Simi? That very small town where everyone knows everyone; where every human being thinks twice before and after committing a sin; that town which was like a disciplined and cautious daughter-in-law from the village; that town which had been woken up from the deep slumber by Simi early that dawn.
Simi was very talkative. I remember one day, as we sat beneath a mango tree, she told me the story of a movie in such a way that I was able to imagine the whole movie while listening to her.
But this lady sitting in front of me could never be Simi. Why? Simi would have started chatting with me. We had spent twenty minutes without exchanging a single word; the journey would be for about two to two-and-a-half hours. Other than this woman, there were lots of familiar faces in the compartment and I had shared a thought or two with almost everyone within that first twenty minutes. I had already answered numerous questions like where are you going? When had you come home? Where are you these days? How many kids do you have? How long will you stay there?
‘I hope this lady is someone else and not Simi,’ I thought. How would we travel together sitting across from each other for two hours or more without uttering a single word?
It had happened before. We would be chatting with her but once we went into the classroom, we would forget about her. We never paid any attention to anything about her; she was like one of those people, friend or stranger, one meets on the road.
That day, it was around four in the afternoon. Simi had been missing for a long time and we were all waiting to go home on the bus. The bus was about to leave when all of a sudden, she came dashing onto the bus. She came up to me with a smile on her face and squeezed herself next to me. Then she said, “You know he was looking for you.”
“Who? Why was he looking for me?”
“You don’t know him.”
“If I don’t know him, why are telling me about him. Look, I don’t like such things.”
“His daddy is an industrialist.”
That day I felt I was watching two movies; one from the past and one of the present. Among the many mismatches there was one thing that did match, that one thing which kept on making amazing collages in my mind.
Her husband asked ‘Simi’ or the lady across from me for a paan. She took out a packet of paan from her purse and gave it to him. “Keep it,” she said to him.
“No, you keep it. I will finish everything if I have it with me.”
Before ‘Simi’ could say anything, her son said, “Mr.Das! Why don’t you keep the paan? Why are you keeping it in her purse?” Obviously shocked at the words of the child, everyone in the compartment stared at him. No one had noticed the child had first uttered ‘Mr. Das’ before saying the rest. I saw the scorn in their looks.
‘Simi’s husband was a little perturbed. He muttered slowly, “This child is really getting naughty.” Then he turned to his son and said, “Can’t you keep quiet?”
I looked at ‘Simi’ to see what her reaction would be. As soon as our eyes met, she turned her face. She pretended as if she did not know me at all, as if my presence in this compartment was nothing more than the presence of a stranger. I don’t know why, but my undisciplined eyes kept on turning towards her and sensing my stare, she continuously tried to escape my gaze. Had her husband taken her name, I would have found out for sure but he only addressed her with commands and questions.
As our journey continued, ‘Simi’ and her husband were discussing about some problems in one of their relative’s marriage. She was looking stealthily at me even when they were chatting. When she spoke, I noticed the black mole on her lips. I was sure that this lady was none other than Simi as Simi had had a black mole on her lips as well. I wanted to address her by her name and put an end to the hide and seek game which had been going on for some time now but something inside me stopped me. I thought, ‘Let me leave her alone. If she does not want to recognise me, why should I be bothered? There are so many people who come into our lives and then shoot their way out of our lives like meteors or change their paths. Why should I be so serious about Simi?’
Simi was just like a meteor. She had come into our town out of the blue. She had dazed everyone with her brilliance and then vanished from our lives. While still young, she had gained a lot of unique experiences; they were nothing more than a matter of curiosity for us though. A few of us had fallen in love as soon as we began college. These things were not a secret to us. But all these were instances of platonic love. We had so much fear and hesitation that it was doubtful if we even held each other’s hands. Those were the days…
Once we saw Simi in a disgusting state. This was when she wasn’t attending her classes regularly; she used to come once in every two or three days. That day I had a leisure period and was reading a novel under the Mahua tree behind the ladies’ common room. Simi came up to me, looked at me and said, “What a wonderful deer cub!” I looked around. I could not see a deer cub anywhere. Her laugh did not sound normal. I realized that day that even laughter can be ugly and indecent. I was unnerved. I felt like crying. Was there anything wrong with me? Before I could think of anything, she came and held me tight. I tried to break her embrace but she refused to let me go. Somehow I escaped from her clutches and ran as fast as I could. She ran after me around the Mahua tree. I suddenly ran into the common room and took refuge with one of our senior colleagues. I complained to her about how this Simi was troubling me.
The colleague looked at me somewhat confused and then asked, “Who?”
I turned around and saw Simi was nowhere to be seen. The senior thought one of the boys had troubled me so she advised me to go and speak to the principal but I did not go to complain to the principal. Instead, I went and told everything to my best friend and felt a little better. We thought Simi had been possessed or she had become mad. Slowly, word spread throughout the college. The conclusion which came out of the gossip was Simi was suffering from hysteria. We were new to the college. We knew what ‘history’ meant but ‘hysteria?’ What was that? But soon afterwards, we came to know what this hysteria meant. After getting a vague idea of what hysteria really meant, I told everyone about all my unpleasant experiences with Simi, even the incident about her getting high on cocaine.
Simi did not seem to care about it at all. As usual she was seen in the college for hardly thirty to forty-five minutes at a time and then she vanished somewhere. The principal could not throw her out of the college because she was having an affair with a guy who was a real ‘dada’ (gangster). He was two years older than us. The principal maintained a silence about Simi. We didn’t know if it was out of fear or out of helplessness to a situation out of his control.
There were two groups in the college who carried knives instead of pens. These two groups always engaged in feuds and attacks on each other. The use of knives in these attacks by members of the two groups was not uncommon.
Could this lady facing me discussing with her husband about the budget for putting a roof on her house be that same Simi? Who knew? It appeared her house was not very big and there was no space for a garden. She was upset about not having space for a garden. She had to have a house with an open space. She was sad as she realised she would never get it, at least not in this lifetime. Her husband was consoling her. He explained, “You ought to be happy that you have a house in Bhubaneswar and the girls will get married. We don’t know where our son will take up a job. Why do we need a big house for just the two of us?”
I glanced at ‘Simi’ from the corner of my eyes looking for some kind of response or reaction to what her husband was saying. But there was none.
It seemed to me Simi was like a free bird yesterday, hopping along the electric posts, rooftops, window sills, and branches of trees and somehow had caught sight of the space on the skylight. But now, ‘Simi’ was collecting twigs and straw for her nest and complained how the free bird of yesterday had lost its wings.
The husband continued, “Look, everyone gets a roof over their heads. Whether it is one of tent or it is the sky itself is a different issue.”
By now, the train had left the Barang station. The compartment had become more crowded. After a while, ‘Simi’ left her seat and disappeared somewhere. We were seeing each other for the first time after twenty years but it was more like not meeting at all. But why was there no warmth in our relationship even though we are seeing each other after such a long time? Was ‘Simi’ scared of me? Was she thinking I would spill the secrets of her past? Would I speak about how, on a fateful dawn, she had awakened our small town from its deep slumber?
Yes on that day, Simi appeared at my home even before the sun had come out. She had never been to our house. I woke up to my mother’s call and thought, ‘What does she want from me this early in the morning?’
Simi asked me, “How will I go home?”
“What do you mean, how will you go home? Where had you been early in the morning? How did you come?” The day was early; the questions were many.
She did not answer my questions. She only replied, “I would have gone, but…”
“Then, go,” I interrupted her. Simi’s house was in a corner of the town. “Take a rickshaw and go.”
She did not speak anymore after that. She left the place just as she had come, a ‘morning deity.’
I had not even asked her to stay for a cup of tea. My father, who was brushing his teeth, asked me, “Who was that girl?” I told him her grandfather’s name. “Oh, her mother was very infamous,” he responded.
I could not understand what my father meant by ‘infamous.’ I left the place as soon as I could, anticipating he would be cross with me for being friendly with her.
That day what I heard at the college sent shivers through me. Indeed, there were incidents like this which happened throughout the world but I never thought this could happen near me and with people whom I knew. I knew Simi was into many things on her own accord. But how could such a thing happen to her? And I would have never known from that encounter early that morning she had just faced a storm, an attack. She appeared like a dew-laden flower in dawn’s light -- sweet and delicate and innocent of life’s realities. I had learnt the incident happened like this:
The night before, around eight thirty in the evening when she was walking alone on the road, her lover and his friends saw her and proposed to accompany her. Simi felt as if some strangers were coming to attack her, baring their claws and teeth. Simi started to walk fast. Just at this moment she saw a jeep with very dim lights approaching from the opposite direction. She stopped the jeep and asked for help. Within a flutter of an eyelid she got into the jeep and disappeared. Neither her lover nor his friends could make out where the jeep vanished. They went to her grandfather’s house but Simi was not there.
The rest of the incident I heard in college from Simi. She appeared very calm. Until that day, I had never approached Simi; this was the first time. I went up to her and asked, “Do you know what these people are saying about you?”
She remained calm and explained, “There were four people in the jeep. They took me to the dilapidated bungalow that belongs to Peter Saheb. All four of them bit me into pieces but still I am not sexually satisfied.” I was shocked when I heard her words. I could not make eye contact with her. Was it because I felt sorry for her or I felt sorry for the society in which we lived? I was very perturbed by the incident for a long time afterwards.
Simi never came to college again after that day. Where did she go? To Jammu or did she go to another unknown town? Did she continue her studies or was that the end of her college life?
What paths did she tread to reach to this ‘Simi’ (if it was Simi) sitting in front of me? Did her husband know about ‘Simi’s past? Did he know everything and had he forgiven ‘Simi’ with his generosity? Or was it that ‘Simi’ had buried the incident away in a deep hole like a hidden treasure and there was no way this man had ever known about it? Was ‘Simi’ thinking that I would open her secrets and that’s why she was ignoring me? Was she afraid I would show the man that way to find the hidden treasure? Otherwise, why was she avoiding my looks?
I never regarded her as my friend anyway; but she always treated me like a friend. She always came close to me. But today when I wanted her closeness, she was moving away from me. Maybe she was not Simi after all; maybe she was someone else. Maybe her memory just came to me because of the resemblance between the Simi I had known in college and the woman sitting across from me on the train.
The train reached Bhubaneswar station. ‘Simi’s children cut through the crowd and jumped out of the train. ‘Simi’s husband got down with an attaché and an airbag. ‘Simi’ followed but seemed to hesitate. I got down after a few people. When I got off the train, ‘Simi’s children were already on the stairs. Her husband followed while minding them. But ‘Simi’ was far behind them. She shocked me when she turned and smiled at me. I did not expect this at all. I tried to return a smile but discovered I couldn’t. She enquired, “You are Mita, aren’t you? Where have you been?”
I don’t know why but I thought to myself, ‘You will never be short of tricks will you? Only I will be fooled.’ I asked her with a note of surprise, “Are you talking to me? But who are you? I don’t know who you are.”
“Sorry” she replied, moving forward and joining her family.
As I watched her walk ahead I thought, ‘Did you think you would finish the game? Go. I have set you free. Go. Make a home. Have a happy life.’ Just like in old times, this ‘Simi’ disappeared from my life just like the Simi from college did…except this time, not like a meteor.
(Translated by Gopa Nayak and edited by Paul McKenna)