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from the December 2017 issue

The House of Wax

In a chance encounter in a train station, a divorced couple forced into proximity and reflection on their marriage in this story by Subodh Ghosh.

 

What train is this, so late at night? 

The breathless, tired train rolls into Rajpur Junction in the dark, misty rain, against the cold wind, and rests at the platform.

The train has probably journeyed from the banks of the Ganga. One can still hear the whistle of the steamer on the river, not so far away, the same steamer that has transported a crowd of travelers to this bank and then, sighing at the lightening of its load, moved back to the other side.

The train engine, waiting at the platform, continues to pant. The service boy busies himself in the first-class waiting room, quickly wiping the table, the chair, the bench, and the mirror clean with a towel. The cleaner brushes the leftover litter out of the room with big sweeps of his broom.

Even though this train, which starts from the bank of the river, is short and has only a few passengers on board, there are always at least a couple of people traveling first class: some distinguished trader from a sugar mill in Katihar or an overseer of some tea estate returning from Darjeeling; some such gentlemen can be found aboard, besides the customary group of tribals and porters.

Today, however, the passengers who get off this worn-out train and scurry for shelter into the first-class waiting room are neither from sugar factories nor from tea gardens.

Leaving her suitcase and bedding to be brought in by the coolie, a Bengali woman walks down the platform briskly, through the drizzle, and is the first to enter the waiting room. She is wearing a delicate ulster, made of Kashmiri wool, and a pair of small “Jewish-style” turquoise earrings. Her hair is done up in a bouffant, very British.

The second person to enter is also accompanied by a coolie, similarly carrying his suitcases and bedding. He is bespectacled, has a shawl draped around his shoulders, and is attired in indigenous clothes: a Bengali man.

A man and a woman, traveling by the same train, taking shelter in the same waiting room: this is the only relationship that they share, if any at all. He might stay for a couple of hours, she for three or so, waiting at this wayside halt for another train before going different ways.

Yet, surprisingly, as soon as they enter the room, they are taken aback on seeing each other and then they sit, frozen in shock, as though in a painting. They are, perhaps, unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared, as though they were escaped criminals now facing a new court of law, having eluded the witness box earlier. Tiny droplets of water sparkle wordlessly on Madhuri Ray’s overcoat. Shatadal Datta, too, forgets to wipe his wet spectacles.

This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, not a court of law. There is neither a judge nor a lawyer, neither witnesses nor rows of unblinking eyes of a set audience. There is no third person here to demand answers, acknowledgment, or attestation. However, this close proximity to one another is apparently unbearable to both. Perhaps they think of leaving, perhaps they should have left.

Shatadal walks down to the door and calls out to the coolie.

Madhuri’s things lie scattered on the bench; Shatadal’s lie piled on the table.

Shatadal Datta will have to ask the coolie to take his luggage out immediately, but where? He does not know. Overcome with embarrassment, what he does know is that he must get out of that waiting room; perhaps go to the unfurnished lodge nearby, which is not as brightly lit, where there is no fear of losing his composure on coming face to face with a nebulous silhouette of his past. No coolie shows up in response to Shatadal’s call. The service boy comes around and says, “Sir!”

He has to respond. Shatadal Datta saunters toward the door again. The spitting rain sprays his face as he looks outside. He turns back to the table, and standing by it, tries to think up a reply.

He quietly ponders the situation, and angry with his own behavior, he waits, quite still, perhaps trying to summon some resolve. Agitation is futile. He has no need to escape from the room just because of the presence of the other person. There is no point in surrendering to such weakness. 

“Yes, sir?”  The boy waits for orders.

Shatadal Datta calmly pulls a chair up to the table, sits down, and asks the boy to get him some tea.

Madhuri Ray takes off her pashmina coat, rearranges her things to make some space on the bench for herself and the coat, then sits down quietly.

Shatadal Datta and Madhuri Ray: two co-passengers, sitting at the Rajpur Junction waiting room, awaiting the next train. There is no other relationship between them.

There has been no relationship between them for almost five years now, but they had shared something earlier, for seven long years. The signs of a brewing liaison had been clear twelve years ago. Madhuri Mitra, a very pretty, unmarried young woman, was Shatadal’s sister-in-law’s friend. The place was Ghatshila, the time was Phalgun—early spring—the eleventh month of the Bengali calendar, when fragrance and celebration fill the honeycombed boulevards. Madhuri Mitra and Shatadal Datta’s relationship had begun suddenly, under the afternoon sun one day, when they had gone out on a trip together.

There is no doubt that within a year of meeting they had fallen irrevocably in love. Their love had been legally registered—they had made no mistake there. Within seven years of their marriage, however, the bonds of love between Madhuri Datta and Shatadal Datta had begun to weaken. So they had willingly and legally ended their registered relationship and separated from each other.

Who knows how they had concluded that their love was no longer strong enough? When they realized that they had drifted away from one another in their feelings, they decided that it would be meaningless to continue pretending to be husband and wife for the benefit of society. Instead of playacting, as in a theater, they had bade each other farewell. Neither had stopped the other.

The love that had blossomed with the essence of the honeycombs in Ghatshila early one spring could not last more than seven such springs. How had that fierce love that had led to marriage dwindled after their union?

Both of them had real, empirical proof of it. One day Madhuri had sat immersed in a book in her room while Shatadal packed his clothes in a suitcase in another room. He was leaving for Bhubaneshwar for a week to supervise an archeological survey. Madhuri had not come out of her room, not even once, as he was about to leave. Shatadal had found the sunshine that had crept in through the window that early winter morning and spread itself out on the floor absolutely meaningless.

The early winter morning, however, was not the only thing to blame. Later that year, in spring, one Sunday evening had also wrought havoc in their lives. Madhuri, like every other week, had dressed up that evening as well, ready to go out, waiting in her room. Shatadal had remained in the other room making sketches, with intense concentration, of the foundations of temples from the Chalukya dynasty. He had forgotten all about the evening plans. Madhuri had looked out of her window at the sky and thought how meaningless it was for the setting sun to color the clouds crimson. It was merely a tease. Soon darkness would envelop everything. Why did the sun play these tricks, then? It would have been so much better if it set all at once, swiftly.

Bit by bit they had both realized from other such instances that the love between them was lost. Or, who knows, perhaps these indicators became prominent because the love was lost? Perhaps they would have discovered the answers if they had tried. Maybe they did try, or maybe they did not. Either way, no one could be blamed for knowing or not knowing. Perhaps they had both knowingly remained silent; perhaps they had consciously stopped trying.

Maybe they had both fallen in love anew with other people, rendering their spring in Ghatshila a lie, or perhaps that old spring had lost its fragrance, forcing them away from each other in new directions. One had moved to a late autumn evening, and the other, to a full-moon monsoon night. Neither, therefore, was angry or sad. Either they had both been right or they had both been wrong. They could not blame each other.

They had not blamed each other. They had hated each other, they had not been able to forgive each other, but only deep down in their hearts. When they had been unable to contain their feelings within themselves any longer, they had moved away from one another: without blame, without slander. They had gone to the courts and ended their seven-year-long relationship.

Shatadal had heard within a year of their separation that Madhuri had married an engineer named Anadi Ray. Madhuri too had read in the papers that Shatadal Datta, teacher, had remarried. His new life partner, Sudhakana, was a teacher too, at a crafts school in Calcutta.

These new life choices were, presumably, informed choices, presumably governed by love. No matter what people said, Madhuri knew that she was happy with her husband, Anadi Ray. No matter what people said, Shatadal too knew that he was happy with Sudha.

On this cold, quiet night, therefore, questions and speculation on the relationship between Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta are irrelevant and unnecessary. They have closed that chapter of their past and had moved in entirely different directions. There is nothing between them anymore.

This, however, is not about their past. It is about their present.

Why are these two people, who had with the help of the law ensured that they need not see each other, suddenly facing their past—and their present—in this wayside waiting room at this ungodly hour? This sudden encounter is a ridiculous conspiracy: entirely impermissible, completely intolerable. They cannot really forgive this night but they cannot register any complaints or objections either. If only the woman were not Madhuri, if only the man were not Shatadal, if only they were just two other strangers waiting in that room! Common courtesy would then have dictated that they introduce themselves to each other. Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta, however, belong to other people now; there is no relationship between them. They sit silently, thus, in the waiting room: helpless, imprisoned almost, their hearts full of hesitation and discomfort.

Shatadal’s thoughts sink at some point in this wordlessness, his tired eyes droop, and, without realizing it, he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes he comprehends that he is in the waiting room: Madhuri is sitting on a bench at some distance, her unblinking eyes staring at the wall, disinterestedly.

Shatadal does not turn his gaze away. His eyes are impatient, eager to see her. But what is there to see? What is there to see anew?

There is.

Madhuri has never worn that cloud-colored crepe sari before. Shatadal has never before seen Madhuri allowing the loose end of her sari to almost kiss the floor. Earlier, Madhuri had mostly dressed in cottons or handlooms when going out. Her hemmed folds and pleats used to whisper a strange, exciting swishing sound. She used to apply a drop of extract of the night jasmine. And so, as Madhuri walked next to Shatadal, she was transformed into sensations of sound and smell. There are no remnants today of that sound or that smell. Madhuri is sitting now, sculpted as though by a new artiste, in new colors, with new adornments. Shatadal had never stared at Madhuri in such a clandestine way before, never gazed so surreptitiously and so greedily at something forbidden. He realizes that this sculpture is not the one that he had once known. She is different, almost difficult. She is the engineer Anadi Ray’s wife, Madhuri Ray.

Shatadal finds some relief from his unreal thoughts, his uncomfortable musings, after a while. He slowly shifts his attention back to his own needs. He retrieves a towel and a cake of soap from a small leather box, a pillow and a bedsheet from his carryall, and puts them down on a reclining chair.

There is no need for Madhuri to look directly at Shatadal. She gazes, instead, at the Shatadal reflected in the mirror. No, not deliberately. It’s just that Shatadal’s image can be seen in the mirror. Even though unwilling, she, too, cannot quite control the craving to steal a glance.

Madhuri can see Shatadal’s reflection going about his business smoothly. He winds his watch and puts it on the table. Madhuri realizes that this is not the watch she knows. It has a black leather band, the kind of black that Madhuri never liked. To respect Madhuri’s taste, Shatadal had never worn a watch with a black band before. She notices his new ring. The pillow cover is new too: colorful, floral. Madhuri had always known that Shatadal preferred plain, white pillowcases over bright, embroidered ones. She concludes that this is Sudha’s handiwork; she must have worked on his tastes. 

Shatadal goes to the bathroom with his towel and bar of soap. Madhuri turns her eyes away from the mirror and looks at all of Shatadal’s little household things on the table. She finally gets the chance, as it were, to investigate what lies there.

But Madhuri probably does not know exactly what precious object she is searching for among all the items that lie scattered on the table. She looks at each of them carefully for a while. They are all new: no memory of their life from five years ago taints these things. She should not have been so curious.

If Madhuri had looked in the mirror now she would find her eyebrows—beautiful like painted brushstrokes—crinkled in envy! She is not looking in that direction, though, but at Shatadal’s things. Three of his cases are open, his watch, wallet, and spectacles lie on the table, his ash gray flannel kurta is on the hanger, its gold buttons glittering in the light. He has left everything exposed to a stranger he has no relationship with. His things could get stolen, but he seems unafraid of that. Just as the man’s behavior is extraordinary, so too are the woman’s gestures: extraordinary. Nobody has asked her to watch over his things with so much attention.

Madhuri turns away as soon as Shatadal reenters the room.

She glances at the reflection in the mirror again—this time she can see him more clearly. Shatadal has grown lean. Perhaps his teacher-wife doesn’t pay much attention to his health. Yes, she has not seen him for five years, but she knows that look on his face: Shatadal would never have appeared so worn-out if he were not hungry.

Madhuri’s assumption is not wrong. Shatadal opens his lunchbox and sets the bowls out on the table. He sits down to eat. He is about to raise his hand to ask for something, but then he changes his mind. He walks with a glass to the pitcher in the corner of the room.

Madhuri had never imagined that the sight would cause her so much pain. She is not prepared for this feeling. It strikes her without warning. 

She turns her gaze away from the mirror and angrily looks at Shatadal. The surprised turn of the nape of her neck, the soft creasing of her eyebrows, her aggrieved eyes: all seem more natural than her previous reserve.

Madhuri says, “What’s all this?”

Shatadal, taken aback at this sudden question, looks at Madhuri, surprised.

Madhuri says again, “Just a word or two, if not more: that can’t be a sin.”

Shatadal’s grim expression softens. “No, no sin at all,” he smiles.

Madhuri stands up and walks toward him. Her soul feels liberated finally, after those crushing moments of unbearable silence in the waiting room. Shatadal’s easy laugh breaks through the wall of Madhuri’s somber, troubled heart. She takes the glass from Shatadal’s hand, smiles, and says, “Sit over there.”

This is the waiting room. Not their former house on Cornwallis Street. It isn’t Madhuri’s birthday either, the day when she had taken Shatadal away from the noise of the celebration to a secluded room and served him a meal in private.

Madhuri pours water out of the pitcher into the glass, puts it on Shatadal’s table, and starts serving the food from the bowls on a plate. Her bangles strike the glass without a care. The quiet past—from five years ago—wakes up with a start to this tinkling sound. They no longer look like two co-passengers on a train. They appear, in that moment, like two fellow-travelers, companions, journeying this world together: and their life’s course seems free of all obstacles. Madhuri’s fingers have thinned, but she still picks the food with them gingerly as though they are delicate forceps: an old habit. She stands very close to Shatadal. In the silence of the room, Shatadal can clearly hear Madhuri breathing. The loose end of her sari slips off her shoulder and caresses one of Shatadal’s hands. Madhuri does not notice. It is neither strange nor abnormal: she has no reason to notice.

“Looks like none of this food is homemade.”

There is a hint of disapproval in Madhuri’s words, which Shatadal does not take long to understand. He knows that Madhuri has forever been against food from restaurants. Trying to defend himself, he says meekly, hesitantly, “Yes, I bought these from the Katihar bazaar.”

“Where are you off to?”

“To Calcutta.”

“You stay in Calcutta these days?”

“Yes. And you?”

It would, perhaps, have been better if they had not started this conversation. Madhuri loses her composure, her hands tremble. Shatadal’s question makes her conscious of her present identity. Recoiling from him, she says in a low voice, “Rajgir.”

After this they run out of things to talk about. There is nothing else that requires an answer. One of them is going to Calcutta, the other to Rajgir. They are only two travelers, traveling by train—not the same train, not even in the same direction. Yet, for a moment, in their mistaken, misled hearts, they had come really close to one another. For a moment they had felt it was decent and appropriate to do what others considered downright indecent and inappropriate.

Perhaps because there is no other subject to broach, Shatadal asks, “You will be taking the train to Patna, I suppose?”

“Yes. Finish your food.”

Madhuri forces the words out breathlessly and moves away. Indeed she will have to leave by the train to Patna. She is not going to stay in this waiting room forever. She looks at her watch, slightly worried. Then she goes back to her bench.

The food is spread out in front of Shatadal. The light from the bulb is reflected by the glass, the water looking like melting fire. Perhaps Shatadal feels awkward and ashamed again. However, there is also hatred in this shame, and bitterness. How could he knowingly, consciously have believed the charade to be true even for a moment?

He impatiently gets up from his chair, wraps the shawl around his shoulder, stretches himself out on the bigger chair, and lights a cigarette. 

He cannot eat. Why though? He does not try to find an answer to the question.

The waiting room turns into a waiting room again: two strangers with no relationship between them, two travelers waiting for two different trains, counting the moments. The train, however, does not come, nor does a third passenger enter this room. The boy arrives, tray in hand, ready with the ingredients for some tea: one teapot, one jar of milk, one bowl of sugar, but two cups.

The boy puts the tray down on the table and leaves. Shatadal looks at it thirstily, but turns away from it the very next moment, feeling helpless.

There are two cups on the tray. What terrible mockery! What made the boy bring two cups? Shatadal had not asked for two cups.

Drinking the tea seems impossible now.

Even though she does not look at him directly, Madhuri can see quite clearly with her mind’s eye that Shatadal has not touched his food. Perhaps he will not have his tea, either. The boy is a complete idiot. Had he poured the tea, the man would not be sitting there sullenly now. Why is he so sullen anyway? This is not Madhupur, nor is it his uncle’s house on that Christmas Day. 

Shatadal and Madhuri had been visiting Shatadal’s uncle’s house in Madhupur on Christmas Day that year. The unwelcome incident had taken place on the very first day, almost like this present wordless protest. Shatadal had pulled a chair out and sat under a jhau tree in the garden, throughout the morning, without drinking his tea. There was a reason behind his remorse: why had a servant served him his tea when there were so many people in the house, including, and especially, Madhuri, who should have done it? Everyone had felt awkward when the reason was discovered. Madhuri had been at the receiving end of all their scolding. Shatadal’s aunt, another of Shatadal’s uncles, even Shatadal’s elder brother, a man of few words, had said, “When you know Shatadal is displeased if you don’t take his tea to him yourself, why did you . . .”

This is a waiting room though, not Shatadal’s uncle’s house. It no longer becomes Shatadal to mope like a husband—hurt, proud, angry.

Yet this misplaced hurt-pride-anger seems to touch the interiors of the waiting room. Like a scene from a play being performed on stage, this make-believe episode, too, is gradually coming alive with its demands for respect, for hurt-pride-anger. There is no one here to chastise Madhuri and remind her of her duties, but when she pays heed to a voice from deep within, it sounds like a reminder.

“Why aren’t you eating?”

There is something gentle, tender, almost like an appeal, in Madhuri’s words.

Shatadal quietly replies, “I’m not going to eat all this now at this hour.”

“Drink your tea, then.”

“Yes, I’ll have some tea. Won’t you?”

The shadow of a smile lights up Madhuri’s face. “Was this supposed to be for me too?”

Shatadal smiles, stiffly. “No, it wasn’t. But since the boy has brought two cups by mistake . . .”

“Then I should drink a cup of tea, shouldn’t I?”

There is no hesitation or restraint in Madhuri. She laughs as she says this.

“Well, that’s what I think. It’s not really the boy’s fault, is it?”

“No, there’s no point in blaming the boy.”

They both turn somber again for a few minutes. Indeed, there is no point in blaming the boy. Madhuri’s words are, perhaps, tinged with regret. Maybe she wants to say, Why should it be the boy’s fault? The fault is in the stars. Why else would we be caught unawares on a stormy night in this waiting room full of conspiring?

Madhuri either has no strength left to keep sitting quietly or she wants to surrender herself to this conspiracy. She stands up, walks to the table, and pours the tea, with her own hands, with the same dexterity as before, as readily as ever.

Shatadal rises as well. He draws up another chair to the table, close to his own. Turning to Madhuri, he asks her to sit.

Madhuri does not object. Today she cannot find her old headstrong self anymore to say no. And because of the mistaken, misled hearts of a man and a woman who have no relationship between them, the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, turns, little by little, into a married couple’s secret nest of sentiments. Even if the world begins to realize what is going on, it poses no impediments to their passion. Madhuri sits on the chair next to Shatadal.

Shatadal sighs contentedly after the first sip of his tea: clearly, it is not only on account of the flavor. The tea now includes Madhuri’s touch; it is supposed to quench his thirst.

Shatadal says pleasantly, “It was really uncomfortable seeing you look so serious all this time.”

Madhuri laughs. “Maybe you were feeling uncomfortable, but I alone know what I was going through.”

“Were you frightened?”

Madhuri nods.

“Tch. Afraid of what?”

Though their conversation begins with smiles and laughter, toward the end the exchange is weighed down by a touch of regret, of pity. Madhuri’s words are an acknowledgment of their anguish, and Shatadal’s are thick with consolation. The past is the past. What is there to be afraid of today?

When someone dies, it is easy to think of them fondly, to forget their mistakes, to amplify their virtues. Perhaps Shatadal and Madhuri are judging their dead past with a similar tenderness today. That history of fear, hatred, and doubt seems to have been reduced to ashes in its own flames: it has been carried away by the wind. That past seems like a beautiful night—seven years long—studded with some faint and some magnificent stars: how soft its afterglow is today. To think that that sky is lost forever brings too much pain. They don’t want to believe it; they would like to have it back.

Madhuri looks at Shatadal and says, “You have lost so much weight.”

“And you?”

Madhuri is holding her cup of tea. Shatadal looks at it and admonishes her. “Why are your fingers in such a state?”

“What state?”

“They’ve become so horribly thin.”

Madhuri smiles, embarrassed, and tries to hide her hand behind the loose end of her sari. Shatadal errs—perhaps because of an uncontrollable urge. He loses his sense of propriety, takes Madhuri’s hand, and covers it with his hands. Madhuri does not object.

It is all so strange! They realize after all this time that the garden they had rejected after seven years is still green: they had walked away from its thorns, not its shade.

Shatadal suddenly seems to have discovered an unknown truth. Turning toward Madhuri, he says, “You look just the same, Madhuri. Your face has not changed at all.”

Everything has changed, only her face has remained unaltered. Everything has gone, only that face which he had once loved has stayed as it was. Is this possible? Either his eyes are lying or his imagination is making a mistake.

Abandoning all deceit and pretense, Madhuri’s face reddens with embarrassment. Not like the flushed face of a young girl being courted for the first time, not like the bashful face of a coy bride on the first night in the bridal chamber, but like the face of a woman being greeted reverentially by her husband after a long separation.

This is not a bower of courtship, not a bridal chamber, not the home of a married couple. This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction. Yet Shatadal and Madhuri, two travelers, sit side by side, as though they have been journeying through life forever, just like this, together, as though they had never parted.

They finish their tea. Madhuri asks, “Where is your uncle now, your father’s younger brother?”

“He has built a house in Dehradoon. That is where he lives now.”

“And Puti?”

“She’s married now. To Ramesh, who else? He has got a good job at the Secretariat in Delhi.”

Shatadal has been holding Madhuri’s hand in a tight grip, as though an elusive bond from five years ago is within reach at last. He holds her hand between both of his, so as not to lose her again.

“Do you believe, Madhuri?”

“Believe what?”

“That I have not forgotten you? That I cannot forget you?”

“Why would I not believe you? I can see it in your eyes.”

“But you?”

“What?”

“Have you been able to forget me?”

Madhuri shuts her eyes, preparing herself, perhaps to blind the realities around her, to blind the eyes of the society, and then answers him. Their heads come closer as she leans toward Shatadal. Two dots of moisture come to life in the corners of her eyes, like a pair of pearl drops.

Shatadal puts his arms around her, drawing her head to his chest. 

“You have to tell me, Madhuri. I won’t let you go without knowing.”

Madhuri suddenly becomes restless, as though a burning agony has grabbed hold of her. She pulls herself free and stands up. An iron bell can be heard clanging outside, breaking the silence of the cold. The mirror starts shaking, as though, unable to stand the audacious transgression of these two people, the waiting room is shrieking in pain. The passenger train for Dhulian arrives. People can be heard rushing about on the platform.

“He’s supposed to be on this train!”

Madhuri runs toward the door in distress.

A third traveler enters the waiting room. His face lights up in joy on spotting Madhuri—Madhuri Ray’s husband, Anadi Ray, has finally seen the light of an inn on a night with no moon to show the way.

Madhuri’s face brightens too, though it is still slightly colored by some melancholy: the light from an overworked lamp is usually smoky.

This is enough to perturb Anadi Ray. Going up to Madhuri, he fusses over her, asking, “Do you feel all right?”

“Yes, I’m quite all right.”

“You’ve had a long wait all by yourself, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“What could I have done? The trains are running very late, or else I would have arrived two hours ago.”

Anadi Ray enthusiastically spreads out a bedding roll. Madhuri stops him. “Let it be, there’s no need.”

“You should lie down for a while, Madhuri. You’ll feel better after some rest.”

“Let it be! How much longer are we going to be here anyway?”

Anadi Ray is not to be deterred. Taking a shawl from his suitcase, he folds it and carefully wraps it around Madhuri’s shoulders.

Shatadal has been watching them in silence from his chair. This is a scene from a farce, vulgar and cruel. He could not continue sitting for long. He walks to the door hurriedly and looks out. Returning to his chair he starts fidgeting with his things needlessly. His soul is restless, trapped, as though, in a prison. He looks for a sanctuary or an escape route. 

He really cannot stand the sight. The shawl seems to hug Madhuri’s weary, traveling soul with a hundred affectionate embraces. This good fellow, Anadi Ray, is glowing with pride. His face is so lively. And that woman, Madhuri, is like a mythic woman pretending to participate in a ceremony to choose her husband, but eventually choosing the man who abducts her and takes her away on his chariot. Shatadal looks on helplessly like a vanquished rival weighed down by the humility of defeat. It’s impossible to bear the pain.

But he could easily leave. Why does he stay to endure this suffering?

He cannot go because of that one urgent longing, to hear Madhuri’s answer to his question. Shatadal can leave victorious and happy if he can only hear Madhuri say that she has not been able to forget him. 

But will he get a chance in this lifetime to hear those words?

Anadi Ray looks at his watch. It is probably time for their train. Madhuri wraps herself in her overcoat. The coolie arrives—the train to Patna is approaching.

Madhuri is standing next to her husband. The coolies swiftly lift the luggage on their heads and pause. In a moment they will leave the waiting room at Rajpur Junction empty. Shatadal feels as though Madhuri has set this house of wax on fire before leaving. 

Was the sky they had above them for seven years entirely a lie? Can it really be forgotten? You can make a break but can you be free? Madhuri will not answer these questions, there will be no opportunity.

It would be best if Madhuri could walk out of this room with her husband, smiling. But she can’t. 

The coolie leaves, Anadi Ray walks on ahead, but when Madhuri reaches the door, she pauses before disappearing for the last time, drawn to this house of wax by some imagined attachment. Turning to look at Shatadal, she smiles to take her leave. “I’ll go now.”

Shatadal tries to smile but fails. A mass of confused hurt-pride-anger, accusations and demands want to make themselves heard. But where is the time to say so much? So Shatadal only wants the answer to that one question, to know once and for all.

“You’re going without answering my question, Madhuri.”

The smile fades. Madhuri looks at him in wonder and asks, “What question?”

“Have you really forgotten?”

Madhuri does not reply. Perhaps she has indeed forgotten. She has not been able to forget their seven shared years, but she has forgotten what was said seven minutes ago. Have the laws of the universe changed so drastically that she has to forget everything? Shatadal cannot understand.

Madhuri says, “I have to go. It’s getting late.”

One rude blow seems to shatter all his curiosity. Shatadal remembers that Madhuri has a final destination, she cannot be late. He had delayed her for seven years, he has no right to hold her back a minute longer now.

Crestfallen, Shatadal replies, “I see. You won’t give me an answer.”

Madhuri says calmly, “I should not.”

“Why not?”

“It was an unfair question.”

“I understand!” Shatadal jumps out of his chair abruptly. His besotted mind is so befuddled that he is finding it hard to understand anything, he has to try repeatedly. Turning away, Shatadal says abruptly, “Go then, but there was no need for this drama.”

Bitter words. Madhuri’s face hardens instantly into a frown. She ponders silently but smiles the very next moment, just like before. Perhaps because of that imagined attachment, Madhuri prepares not to burn down this house of wax but to inject a note of acceptance, of happiness.

Flashing a glance at her wristwatch, she says, “Bring Sudha to Rajgir for a holiday.”

Shatadal is unprepared for this. “And then?”

“Then I will see you off on the train when the two of you leave.”

“Why?”

“You will get a chance for some drama, too. That’s why.”

“What will you gain from it?”

Madhuri laughs. “Nothing at all. Maybe I will also get needlessly angry then and say something you’d rather not hear.”

Shatadal gazes at her eyes steadily for a few moments and then says, “I see.”

He says it quite loudly and then breaks into a laugh. The meaningless hurt-pride-anger and demands have finally identified themselves for what they are and have given way to a burst of laughter. Shatadal has finally understood.

Staring at his watch, Shatadal realizes without looking up at the door that Madhuri has left.

Madhuri does not set this house of wax aflame. Instead, she lights it up with the echo of her laughter. It rouses Rajpur Junction from its slumber. The signal is given for the next approaching train. The train to Calcutta is here. Not on this side of the platform but the other one. Heaving his luggage up on the coolie’s shoulders, Shatadal Datta also leaves hurriedly.

The two different trains will go in two different directions. After the brief tumult, what remains of the night at Rajpur Junction will be quiet. There will remain no witness to the supreme test inflicted in the privacy of the waiting room on the relationship between the two travelers.

There is still some evidence left, though one might not notice it immediately.

A tray sits on the table inside the waiting room, with two empty cups on it. Two people had arrived from unknown places, quenched their thirst side by side, and left. Before Rajpur Junction goes back to sleep, the boy will wash the cups, wipe these dry, and put them away. One cup on this side of the cupboard, and one, perhaps, on the other.


© Subodh Ghosh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.

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