[Inspired or loosely based on the life of Violet Stoneham in the unforgettable film ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’, written and directed by national award-winning actor-filmmaker of Bengal, Aparna Sen, produced by Shashi Kapoor, featuring Jennifer Kapoor as the lonely, yet spirited English teacher Ms. Stoneham.]
She walked past the entire expanse of Esplanade, looking for a taxi ride to take her back home, at 36 Chowringhee lane, that old, ubiquitous alley with brittle brown, faded yellow houses on both sides of the lane, crossing the crowded bazar. Her own home, a rented space of three narrow, yet tastefully decorated rooms and a semi-dark, tiny kitchen where sir Toby Junior, the furry black cat would display his acrobatics, especially during those times when she stayed at home all day long, exclusively for him, he loved to believe.
“Just like his moody ancestor, Sir Toby!” She smiled, thinking. Most of the times, when the lift would be still out of order, she didn’t have the courage to venture out, as her tired old limbs could no longer climb the stairs like the old times.
It was close to Christmas again, as Nature unfurled the pages of yet another year. She had developed a few more creases on her face, a few more wrinkles in her jaws and neck, her palms and wrists grew paler, devoid of much strength. Like that reclining chair which was a prevalent entity in her cozy drawing room, she swung back and forth between her past treasures and present memories, between the characters who took entry in her life’s stage, and exited with no real closures. Like that old student of hers, Nandita and her writer boyfriend Samaresh who used her home nonchalantly during her absence for his writing and their secret escapades with lovemaking. Like Rosemary whom she gave unconditioned love and company till she flew to England one day, in search of greener pastures.
‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. /They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts.’
Shakespeare spoke to her in his surreptitious voice, like always, as an aside from his play. Yes, there have been so many players in her life, but which part did she play, she wondered furtively.
Sometimes, in wistful evenings like this, before darkness engulfed the city, she would call for a rickshaw puller to take her for a visit to her old school where she used to teach English grammar and composition, the plays of Shakespeare which became an intrinsic part of her being. She would stare at the contours of the tall school building from outside the school gate and walk wistfully in the sprawling park, remembering the classrooms where she taught, sweating profusely in the sultry Indian summers, remembering the teachers’ common room where she sat, secluded from others and had her lunch silently. She remembered the lines of the play ‘Twelfth Night’, that she taught like an illuminating morning prayer, but she was still unsure if the lines had the minimum impact on the students’ young, truant minds.
“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Yes, music it was, the music of torrential rains and sudden lightnings, the music of pigeons in the windowsill and the cantilevered tales of old Calcutta that she relished along with her dearest brother Eddie. Eddie who used to stare at the window of his little room with forlorn eyes, waiting for her hour-long visit every week at the old assisted living facility where he lived with the other inmates, all lost and surrendering to the final call. What did they sing together when they met in that tiny room at the end of the hallway, munching oranges and vanished childhood tales? Let it be…let it be the story of yet another day. Eddie was dead for five years now, and she visited his burial place in the cemetery close to Saint Paul’s Cathedral every week, unfailingly. She would kiss the burial ground and adorn the tombstone of her parents and Eddie with a bouquet of roses bought from New Market, and also leave roses and a silent kiss, a hushed prayer for the beloved soul of David, her Davie who rested in eternal peace in the same cemetery since he became a martyr in the war, long, long ago.
“How would it be like, if Davie and I would be husband and wife and be together now? Would he still kiss my hands the way he did when we were young, engaged? Would we walk hand-in-hand, relishing the summer skies and the fallen leaves of Autumn in England? Or would it have been in this city of joy in spite of all its quandaries? After all, he wanted to live here and serve the people of this country!” She wondered often.
She was used to doing her household chores all by herself, being visibly different, the agile, self-reliant, lonely Anglo-Indian teacher of English literature and language, Ms. Violet Stoneham. But she was in her late seventies now. Time was a strong wind drift, leaving its imprints on her as well.
“Time, my dear…time is really the strongest teacher, look what time did to me too! I had to get a part-time maid to help me, a minor Nepali girl, Rosy. This year she promised she will help me prepare the Christmas cake. Let’s see, I’ll manage to do most of the work myself. Who keeps promises in this forgetful world, after all?” She said to herself while crossing the busy city streets, holding in her frail hands plastic bags containing flour, sugar, chocolate chips, nuts and raisins that she had bought from the best store she knew in the Chowringhee area since her youth.
She walked away, staring at the neon flashlights that flickered and burnt, illuminating the majestic Shaheed Minar, Fort William, the ancient sentinel, the illustrious Raj Bhavan, or the Governor’s mansion. The city danced before her eyes like a letter flying out of a splendid wall graffiti and she became one with its rhythm, its inherent nostalgia.
She was no iconoclast, no rebel out to bust old myths of the confluence of the East and West, nor did she ever attempt to delve into the political intricacies behind the end of the British regime in India. She had heard the tales of partition in bits and pieces… yes, that painful stab of a knife that divided the India that she came to live in, while very young and docile, the narrow, dingy alleys of Calcutta that became her refuge for decades and ages now.
“Don’t you ever wish to come back to your roots and see your hometown in England for once, Aunty? Frederick and I are both working in London, and making quite a pretty living. Last month, we sold our old townhome and bought a villa with a magnificent view. How you would have loved it! And you know, Jonathan completed 5 years in fall and has already started going to his ‘big boys school’!
She received her beloved niece Rosemary’s handwritten letter just a few days back, along with photographs of their tour to Scotland, Paris, Norway, Austria and so many picturesque cities, cities with fancy roads and museums, citadels and historic attractions. The sudden flash of her memories of those cities visited in her early childhood with her parents came back with a fresh gust of wind, and her eyes moistened with unknown tears.
“We miss your Christmas cake, aunty. Come here, please, for next Christmas.” She signed off with the habitual plea.
Her roots in the suburbs of Hampstead in England were like a distant dream now, sometimes tearing her apart in her nightmares. Often she tossed and turned in her sleep as she saw herself, a young virgin bride-to-be in a white veil, crying her heart out as Davie slept eternally in his grave, and the sea in its gushing waves, a rejoinder of her pathos.
Married to the city of Calcutta now for decades, she still kept stumbling on old faces in her evening walks, in her little uneventful sojourns. Just a month back, during her strolls, she crossed paths with a young couple with two bright, jubilant children, a boy and a girl, ten to twelve years of age. As they were stepping out of their car and entering a posh restaurant in the Park street area, their eyes met.
“Ms. Stoneham, how have you been? Long time didn’t see you!” There was a glint of joy in Nandita’s eyes.
Samaresh came forward and shook hands.
“My…my, you sure haven’t changed much! Still look beautiful, like you used to!” She said to Nandita, as she introduced her to their children Subho and Saswati, waving at her courteously.
“We call them Bumba and Pinky at home.”
“They are twins, you know, but Bumba is faster for his age…got double promotion last year, and is in 6th Standard now. Pinky is a bit shy, introvert like me, but very good with the piano. We got a grand piano for her from an auction last year. Samaresh’s promotion happened around that time. Why don’t you come over to our place? You will love to see it!” Nandita held her hands as she spoke.
“Here, take my card. I just printed 50 copies today. I am a music teacher in Saint Mary’s school for two years now, and also teach private lessons from home.”
Saint Mary’s School! She felt a tremor in her heart after years. The school premises she still visits to this date surreptitiously, like an ancient ghost, serenading her favorite lines of Shakespeare.
…By the way, what are you doing for this Christmas Eve? Remember our meeting, which was long due?”
“Yes, yes, why not? Let’s plan. You have our address still, no?” Samaresh had the same looks and demeanor still, as she remembered him, only that he wore glasses, and acquired a paunch and a bald plate.
“I would love to come over for Christmas, you know, but I would be visiting my niece and her family in England for the Christmas holidays this year. Finally, I decided to visit my roots. Good for me, I think.” She replied, both with a sigh and a smile, and left them after a few more parting words.
…A yellow cab stopped in front of her. She got inside, sat in the back seat and bolted the door carefully, shaken from her reverie. Her reply that day to Nandita and her husband Samaresh was the first blatant lie she ever uttered in her life, but it seemed as if she was waiting her turn to play her own cards since years now. For years, since the revelation of their betrayal on the Christmas Eve, when they lied to her in answer to her desperate want for their company during that auspicious day. The day when Nandita replied coldly to her phone call, telling that she would be spending her Christmas with her mother, as Samaresh had a sudden business trip for which he would be away that entire week. The auspicious Christmas eve that tore her to shreds when she arrived the doorsteps of their newly furnished flat with her freshly baked cake, only to listen to the loud, boisterous music and the claps, the easy banter of couples and friends partying away.
‘Pray do not mock me. I am a very foolish, fond old man. Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less.
And to deal plainly, I fear I’m not in my perfect mind.’
The haunting lines of King Lear, speaking to a dog, forlorn and lost, came back to her as the cab sped past the busy city streets. She had to cancel her flight that she had booked from Calcutta to London in an eager November as her dearest brother Eddie suddenly took a flight to the other world, leaving her desolate, all over again.
Soon she would be home with sir Toby Junior, the old fat cat in her arms, and Rosy, the young maid would bring her some hot tea, just like Nandita gave her, years back. But would she? Jesus knows how long she’ll stay. Ms. Stoneham cocooned herself in the arms of the silent, lonely, inviting night.
All Rights Reserved. Lopa Banerjee. May 12, 2020
Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, editor and adjunct faculty of Creative Writing at Richland College, Dallas, USA. She has authored six books and has co-edited four anthologies in fiction and poetry. She has been a recipient of the Journey Awards (First Place category winner) for her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, and also a recipient of the Woman Achiever Award (IWSFF, 2018), the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and International Reuel Prize for her English translation of Nobel Laureate Tagore’s selected works of fiction (2016). Her nonfiction essays, fiction and other writings have been published in various journals, e-zines and anthologies in India, UK and USA. She is also a consulting editor of the literary e-zine ‘Learning and Creativity’, India. Recently, she has been an honorary poetry fellow at Rice University, Houston and co-produced the poetry film ‘Kolkata Cocktail’ directed by Shuvayu Bhattacharjee, where she has also featured as one of the lead actors.
Her works are available in her website www.lopabanerjeewrites.com and also in Amazon.com and Amazon India.
Image Courtesy: www.newscientist.com | Google