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The meeting

What happens when you meet someone you remember well but have never met? Nostalgia? Confusion? Here's a short story by Taslima Nasrin.

books Updated: Dec 30, 2007 01:22 IST

I suddenly met Shuranjan. He rang the doorbell one day at my Lowdon Street home. I opened the door to find a stranger.

“Yes? What do you want?”
“I want to see you.”
“Why me?”
“It’s very important.”

“You can’t just say, ‘It’s very important’ and walk in. You have to tell me where you’re from, why you’re here.” <b1>

Whether he scratched his head or his hand, I can’t recall. But I do remember him scratching something. He didn’t seem too smart.

“I can’t meet someone if he lands up like this. Fix an appointment over the phone and then come,” I told him as I closed the door on his face.

From the other side came the sound that seemed to get lost in the air, “I’m Shuranjan, Shuranjan Dutta. Open the door. I want to tell you something.”

The name sounded familiar. Shuranjan Dutta. A very familiar name. But I couldn’t recognise his face. To check where I had seen that face before, I creaked open the door a bit. Nope. Still couldn’t recognise him. I didn’t think I had ever met him anywhere before.

With a careless smile, he spoke, “I’m Shuranjan. Don’t you recognise me? You wrote a novel about me.”
“A novel?”

“Yes, a novel. You had written a novel called Lajja. Remember?”

I shivered. The feeling wasn’t unlike finding someone whom I thought was dead years ago walking towards me. I couldn't move forward; I couldn't move back. Dumbstruck, I stood rooted to my spot.

Again he dropped his eyes and started scratching his cheek. Yes, this time he was definitely scratching his cheek. I remember because he had a large mole. Every time his nails scraped that raised birthmark, I thought it would come off his face. I have been afraid of moles for years. I have seen how a small, tame mole on the hand of a French friend of mine spread and grew into cancer. When I was young, I pined for a mole on my face. There were so many times I would use an eyebrow pencil to draw a beauty spot above my lip. And nowadays, I see moles and shudder. Shuranjan’s mole made me move from my spot. I opened the door and told him to come in.

The two uniformed policemen sitting in front of the door with rifles in their hands were not dozing. But whether the person I was inviting into the room had a bomb in his pocket or had something wicked up his sleeve, they weren’t bothered.

Actually, I don’t quite know why the policemen were sitting outside my room at all. There are so many people who keep walking in and out; they didn’t question anyone. Today it may have been me opening the door, but usually it’s Sujata. Even though Sujata has been told not to open the door to strangers, this girl who grew up in the wide expanses of a village household didn’t always bother about precautions. My intercom hasn’t been working for a couple of years. I’ve complained, but the building maintenance committee doesn’t care. There have been many days when strangers have walked into the house with the police, rifles next to them, dozing in their chairs.

Does the presence of the policemen make Shuranjan wary at all? A bit, I think. He has this pale look on his face. When I told him to come in, I saw him hesitate at first as he manouevred himself between the sitting policemen and my standing body. That explained him scratching his mole extra briskly. His first step, which was full of movement, became slothful by the second step and even more slothful by the third. The fourth step, with his body passing the doorstep, had become quick again. Shuranjan entered; the door closed. He sat on the sofa; I sat on the sofa opposite.

When I sat down facing him after asking Sujata to make some tea, he dropped his eyes. The mind is a strange thing. I started thinking, “Who says this is Shuranjan? What if someone else with ideas had come taking up his name? Then?”
“So tell me, what’s the news?” But before I asked him something along this line, I got up and opened the door, not leaving it completely ajar, but let it be half-open...

...Shuranjan lifts his head and answers my question, “News? What news can there be?”

Our eyes meet. The eyes seem very familiar. Had we met before? Shuranjan has no news. He keeps saying what news can there be in this world. Instead if I tell him news of myself, that would make some sense. And I keep wondering where and when I had met Shuranjan before.

“Achha, have we ever…?”
“No, we’ve never met.”

“How is that possible? We must have. If I hadn’t met you, how could I have written the novel?”

“You wrote from what you heard. Kajol, Debnath, they are my friends. You knew them. You heard about me from them.”

“I’ve been to your house in Tantibari. Didn’t I meet you there?”

“No, not me. You met my mother. I had reached home exactly seven minutes after you had left.”

The ‘seven minutes’ made me smile.
“You remember all that?”

Shuranjan smiled and nodded. “Do I have a choice of not remembering?”

The more our eyes meet, the more I’m convinced that I had seen these eyes before. Where, I don’t remember. But Shuranjan insists we never met. The bloke who remembers the matter of seven minutes should remember whether we met or not...

...I consciously used the term ‘tumi’ with Shuranjan. A lot of things have disappeared from my mind over these years.

Having ever met a youngster named Shuranjan has also disappeared from my mind. I am completely clueless about when and
where I might have met him.

“You came to this country way back in 93. That’s quite a long time ago.”

“Yes, a long time,” he said with a nod.

“I’ve been in exile for 13 years…14 years for you folks.”

I quickly corrected myself, “Although I’m the one who’s in exile, not you.”

Shuranjan laughed a laugh that can’t be described in words.

I was keen to know how he made a living. I knew that a very honest, good lad with values had been corrupted. Apart from feeling bad for him, I feel nothing else. I felt the way one feels about the Taliban. The difference between the two being that no alternative has been given to the Taliban, apart from fundamentalism, that is. Of course, Shuranjan had turned communal, but he had a choice of becoming something else, something quite the opposite. Actually, after seeing him, it seemed that he was the youngster with right values again. That he had changed, had become narrow-minded, I didn’t remember all that.

The rising tide of sympathy makes me remember Maya. But Maya isn’t there. Maya had been killed and her body found floating on the lake. Shuranjan must feel the pain. The pain must be more for his mother Kironmoyi. Was Shudhamoy Dutta, Shuranjan’s father, alive? That was a question I didn’t ask even as I wanted to. Instead I asked him where he lived.

“Park Circus,” he replied feebly.

“That’s close by.”

“Yes, close by.”

“Who stays with you?” I just want to know the answer to this question. Without asking him directly whether Shudhamoy was still alive, I ask him this. Whenever anyone asks me, “I hope your father is still alive?” I feel extremely awkward. Most of the time, I don’t reply. Pretending that I didn’t hear the question, I move on to another subject. And if I have to give a reply, I change the subject after saying something on the lines of, “Yes”.

“Mother and I,” Shuranjan replied.

“Mother and you?” I repeated purposely. I repeated his answer so that I could register the fact that his father was no more. And the fact that he hadn’t married. Had he been married, there would have been a wife. Maybe he had married and they got separated...

...“What do you do? Meaning…work, job, business...? I mean, what do you do for a living?”

“Right now, nothing,” Shuranjan said, slowly rubbing his hands together.

The news of him not doing anything is something I can’t figure out. I notice that I can’t speak to Shuranjan freely. I probably can't because I can’t come to terms with him being corrupted. There would have been no problem had he come over from that country fearing safety. But the hate he kept flinging as he made his way here makes my skin crawl...

….“I’ll bring my mother over one day, okay?”

“Yes, do bring her over.”

Shuranjan suddenly kept the empty-for-a-while-now tea cup back on the tray.

“I have to go now.” Saying which he stood up and started walking towards the door. Directing him, I mentioned, “You can keep my phone number. Call me before coming over with your mother.” At the door, I give him my number.

After pressing the button, he kept standing in front of the lift, while I kept standing at the door. I don’t stand like this for other people. I don’t know why I feel such sympathy towards Shuranjan. Whether it’s because he was the protagonist of my novel or because of his poverty, I can’t quite tell. Before getting into the lift he said, “Maya will
also want to come over. Can I…?”

Maya? Only I knew that my eyes were bursting from inside.

“Yes, Maya.”

Oh. It was as if I felt a long-crushing boulder roll off my chest.

The lift went down….

….Maya. I thought she was dead. Who would have thought that the girl who was found floating on the lake was still alive? Before my eyes, I saw two Mayas — one Maya dead, dead and bloated in the waters of the lake. And another Maya, in Calcutta, alive, shimmering.

Both the Mayas push me against the wall. The whole day I am in a trance. I tell no one that I have met Shuranjan. The incident remains only mine. I tell no one that somewhere in this city the girl named Maya exists, the girl who was not supposed to have been alive. But she is alive.

(This is an extract from Taslima Nasrin's forthcoming novel, Sharam - translated from Bengali by Indrajit Hazra)