A Room Full of Presents
"What do you mean who? You know which Dev I'm talking about. He is dead, did you know that?"
"Yea, I guess so. I mean I think I read his obituary somewhere, but didn't give it much thought. He used to be your batch-mate, right Ma?"
"Yes. Now this letter . . ."
"What does the letter say?"
"Um . . . I've been asked to see his lawyers the week after next. Something about a will . . . I don't know why . . ."
"Ma, I'll see that letter on my way back home, ok? Don't worry; I don't think it's anything to be afraid about. Unless you've been up to some hanky-panky after Baba died!"
"Trinu! That's a horrible, shocking thing to say. What do you mean?"
"Oh Ma! Can't you take a bit of teasing? C'mon now, don't be such a prude! All the women of your generation had some sort of a crush on him! Including you! That didn't stop Baba from loving you the way he did, or you him for that matter! You stay put, I'll drop in early, ok?"
Priti smiled a little as she replaced the receiver on the cradle. Trina's teasing made her feel more normal. The letter had startled her much more than she had realized. Yes, it was true that she had had a crush on Dev. But so did all the other girls in her class. And, if her suspicions were true, some of the lady teachers were also a little bit in love with him!
Dev had been the stuff of a Mills & Boon romance. He was tall, dark and handsome, and extremely rich. To make matters worse, he had also been a very good student. So nobody could say, however much they would like to, that his father's money had bought him his seat at Calcutta's most prestigious college. Dev could have gone abroad to study if he had wanted too. Instead he had chosen to finish his college here in dusty, crumbling Calcutta. Of course, unlike the other girls and boys in his class, he hadn't opted for a Master's degree in the same subject. Nor did he sit for the usual bank and civil service exams. He opted to study management, securing a seat in one of the most prestigious institutes in the country.
Priti remembered the day he drove into college in his sleek red car. It was a foreign car, but she couldn't remember the make. That was more than thirty years ago, when anything foreign still drew oohs and aahs from the hoi polloi. He was wearing a short kurta, blue jeans and Kohlapuri chappals--considered the height of fashion in her time, which had come back a full circle now. Except that women preferred it more nowadays than men did, she thought ruefully. Trina always wore jeans under loose khadi kurtas.
Dev always had a bevy of beauties from the college around him. He was no less popular with the guys, though. Together, Dev and his friends formed that exclusive circle in their college, made up of the beautiful people--smart, wealthy and very fashionably turned out. Priti was never a part of their group, nowhere near.
Dev, however, was always polite with her. Too polite. Some of her friends said that the great Devnath Gupta was actually afraid of the petite, reserved and schoolmarmish Priti. She herself didn't think he was being anything but polite. He was courteous and considerate with everyone. Secretly, he made her feel shy and feminine. She was determined that he should never think of her as another girl who had fallen for his charms. They had remained friendly acquaintances. That's all.
She had passed out with good marks, good enough to allow her to go overseas for further studies. He had congratulated her with the careless warmth that he showered on most of his classmates, even those that were obviously not part of the beautiful people. She had congratulated him too, because he had topped the class. He had bought a round of cold drinks for everyone at the college canteen. They had all toasted each other. And then they had moved on.
Priti met her late husband and Trina's father, Samaresh, during her sophomore year at Columbia University. He was finishing his doctorate in sociology. They met, became friends, and then slowly fell in love without really realizing it. They both returned to Calcutta because it never occurred to either of them not to. After that, marriage, a university lectureship, Trina's birth, several years spent in being a committed mother to Trina and wife to one of the most respected academics at Calcutta University, and then back to teaching again.
Altogether, her life had been uneventfully happy. Unless one considered worth mentioning Devnath Gupta's popping up every now and then in her social circuit, which was supposed to be far removed from his flamboyant and sometimes scandalous life.
Devnath made a good conversation piece though, during dinners and get-togethers with close friends. Priti had remained in touch with most of her school and college mates and they, along with their spouses, now made up her little circle of close friends. Whenever the conversation flagged, one had just to mention his name and one or the other of the ladies present would shriek at the prospect of a juicy morsel, and Priti could rest assured of at least half an hour's worth of animated and sometimes heated conversation. Of course Priti always had some anecdote or the other about his escapades in college to relate, while the rest of her group always had some new gossip about him.
The women would sit, happily talking about Dev and his escapades. They would lightheartedly bitch about Dev's women, with special focus on his current mistress or wife. The husbands would mostly hover silently around holding their drinks. And the conversation would invariably end with one of the husbands present remarking, sometimes with ill concealed sarcasm to his wife, "aren't you lucky to be married to a humdrum fellow like me?"
Priti considered herself lucky that he had never looked at her as a possible fling. She had wished once, but only fleetingly, that he would flirt with her a little, just a little. But after a while she felt that he thought of her differently. Something in his body language had convinced her that he respected her greatly, and she was secretly proud of it. She wasn't available; she commanded respect, so even a playboy like Devnath steered clear from making a pass at her.
Priti's husband had met him too, at one of the classical dance and music recitals to which Priti and Samaresh often went. Dev had been as polite and charming as before. He had been a little distant perhaps, because now he was a business magnate, an industrialist who hobnobbed with politicians, movie stars and other industrialists. Priti hadn't expected him not to be conscious of his wealth and status. But she had been a little rankled at the way he seemed to look her over once and then at Samaresh. She had fumed a little about it back home. But Samaresh had only laughed and then teased her about it. He knew about her little crush, the feelings that had brushed over her during her college days. Her na´ve and silly feminine vanity as Priti wryly referred to it. Samaresh often teased her about it, even in front of Trina. In fact, Dev was a bit of a private family joke, so that even a mention of his name brought out impish grins from father and daughter.
Now, Dev had summoned her through his lawyers after all these years, after both Samaresh and he were dead. Samaresh had died from cardiac arrest more than three years ago, and Priti had never quite recovered from it. Dev had died very recently in a car accident that many people claimed was not an accident at all. Priti felt confused and a little worried.
"Ma, this is just a letter asking you to be present at the reading out of his will," said Trina. She had come down as she had promised and was now sitting with her legs stretched out, occupying two chairs, at the dining table. She held the letter in front of her, squinting at it while she tried to drink tea. "There's nothing to worry. He was known as a generous man, maybe he's left all his college mates something, including you!" This last bit was delivered with the trademark impish grin.
"But that'd be so silly," said Priti frowning.
"Why?" demanded Trina, but Priti had no answer to that.
"Ma," said Trina, putting a friendly and undaughterly arm around Priti's still slim shoulders. "Ma, you didn't have anything to do with him, I mean in terms of business. You're not related to him. The only relationship you had with him goes back to your college days. And people can be pretty sentimental about their ol' mates y'know. I can't think why his lawyers would have called you unless he wanted to give something to you. His will probably mentions some little something to be given to everybody he knew from his student days."
Priti looked at Trina. "You'll be there with me, won't you Trinu?"
Trina was right about the first part, but wrong about the second. There were no gifts for any of the girls and boys from their class, and nothing either for the old Alma Mater. But he had mentioned her clearly in his will. He had left something for her and for her alone. He had left her a room full of presents!
The young man who ushered in a very nervous Priti and a slightly nonplussed Trina had been very respectful. It turned out that he was one of Samaresh's ex-students.
"You won't remember me, Mrs. Mukherji, er ma'm. But I had gone to your house once to get some notes from sir," said the young man, standing in front of her and tilting a little forward, duck fashion. "Won't you, both of you, please sit down?"
He opened a stout mahogany door and ushered them into a small office. Priti was glad to sit somewhere private. She had noticed the unfriendly looks that a couple of ladies had flung in her direction. These women seemed to be the same age as she, but were dressed in the height of fashion. There were some young people too, who were waiting in the main hall.
"Those are his ex-wives," whispered Trina in her ear. Then, frowning a little to jog her memory, "I thought he had married four times? Nah! The other two were mistresses! Ma, your ol' mate was some womanizer!"
"Trinu!" Said Priti. "Do be quiet. The poor man is dead and here you are gossiping!"
"Oops! Sorry!" said Trina, with a grin. "Anyway, no one heard me, so it's ok."
The young man had left discretely. He must have instructed someone to send in refreshments, because soon after a uniformed bearer entered the little room with a tray. The bearer respectfully set down two glasses of chilled water, two cups of steaming coffee and a plate of cream biscuits.
"That's nice," said Trina, reaching for the cup of coffee. "Ma?"
But Priti shook her head. She still didn't feel quite comfortable in Dev's solicitor's office, despite the young man's obvious respect for her as Samaresh's widow. Trina looked at her keenly for a second or two, then shrugged and took a long sip from the cup. Priti sat straight in her chair, looking at but not really seeing the mahogany bookcase-lined walls packed with rows of formidable looking leather-bound books.
The young man returned after what seemed, at least to Priti, a very long time. This time he was not alone. A bald man with silver side-locks was with him.
"Ma'm," said the young man to Priti, still tilting duck fashion despite Trina's irrepressible impish grin, "This is Mr. Dastidar, our senior partner. Sir, Mrs. Mukherji."
"Namaskar, Mrs. Mukherji," said Mr. Dastidar kindly. "We are sorry to drag you into this, but Mr. Devnath Gupta had expressly wanted you to have the gifts."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," said Priti, visibly embarrassed.
Trina put a protective arm on Priti's shoulder. "Can you tell us how this, I mean the gift business, came about?" Trina looked at Mr. Dastidar directly. "Ma and he were just classmates, y'know. We weren't expecting . . ."
Mr. Dastidar raised his palm, smiling. "We understand perfectly how you feel. I know this is very awkward for you ma'm, but we have to follow our client's instructions. I can assure you of complete discretion and privacy. In fact, even Devnath Babu's current wife is not aware that he has left you anything."
"Why would he want to leave my mother anything?"
Mr. Dastidar seemed to pause for thought before clearing his throat to speak again. "Devnath Gupta was a very curious man. He was a very public person who had a very private side. Mrs. Mukherji, he was a very unhappy man, despite all that he had. To tell you the truth, he had, especially during his last years, before that very sudden accident, begun to rely more on us than even on his children. He didn't seem to be able to trust anybody. Not his family, nor his friends. His death is still under investigation. His assets, which are very considerable, will be held in trust until the whole thing is cleared up."
"In that case, how come Ma gets these gifts or whatever . . ." said Trina, interrupting him.
Mr. Dastidar smiled at Trina gently. "These so-called gifts don't come under his assets. As I said, he was a very curious man. These are personal items. He used to collect them every year. He asked us to keep them privately for him a couple of years before his, er, this tragedy. We were instructed to hand them over to you if he died before you and to destroy them if you departed before him. He had a note book, a diary of sorts, in which he used to make entries on certain dates, Mrs. Mukherji. He used to buy the gifts for specific dates or occasions . . ." Mr. Dastidar looked directly at Priti, "Those dates concern you, ma'm, I think. Here it is," he said, handing Priti a sealed brown paper package.
Priti took the package silently, almost fearfully. It contained Devnath's diary. Trina was not the only one who sensed her discomfort. Mr. Dastidar and his junior were looking at her kindly. Their looks seemed to say that they understood how she felt, and they did not hold her responsible for anything. Priti was glad for that, but it didn't lessen the awkwardness of it all. Not a bit. She was very quiet on the way home. Trina, sensing her mood, didn't try her patience with her usual prankish remarks and jokes.
Trina brought her seven-year-old son along later that evening.
"We are sleeping over," she said airily to Priti. "Jeet," indicating her husband with a dismissive wave of her hand, "can manage very well for a couple of days."
The solicitors' office had sent over a vanload of packages that afternoon. Trina, who had taken leave from her office, had helped unload and dump the presents, for that is exactly what they had turned out to be, in the guest bedroom.
"For the time being," she had explained to the bewildered Priti. "You can sift through them and browse at your convenience, without jamming the whole house. The wrapping papers will fetch quite a bit from the Bikriwallah," she had said, attempting to lighten the mood with a joke, but Priti hadn't smiled.
Trina left to pick up Binku from his school and to inform Jeet that he would be alone at home for a couple of days, "till ma settles down with these gift things a bit." And Priti was left to contemplate the "gift things" all afternoon.
The presents filled up the whole room. They were in all shapes and sizes, beautifully wrapped and tied with silk ribbons. They covered the queen-sized bed, the study table, the dressing table and the floor in between, in a double layer. The room looked festive, like a room in a wedding house where the presents had been placed for safe keeping. Priti looked at this room apprehensively, not daring to enter, while Trina instructed the two men who had brought in the load. The men left shortly afterwards, and so did Trina, promising to return in the evening. Priti sat down in the armchair in her drawing room then, holding Devnath's diary. And, she stayed there until Trina returned in the evening, with Devnath's diary still unopened in her hands.
The diary lay like a stone, waiting for the ghosts to return to their place of final rest.
"Ma," remonstrated Trina, as soon as she entered the house, because Priti looked pale and tired. "You're really very troublesome! Couldn't you get yourself a cup of tea at least? Did you eat anything? What's wrong with you Ma, c'mon!" This last bit was delivered with a clumsy hug.
Priti looked up at Trina and drew Binku, her grandson, close. The child, as if sensing that his grandmother was disturbed, had crept close to her, looking up at her with big brown eyes, instead of running around the drawing room as he usually did.
"I was waiting for you Trinu. Didn't feel like doing anything for myself today."
"Hm!" Said Trina. "Binku. You look after Dida, and I'll go rustle up some food for us."
Priti picked the boy up and held him close. She smelled Binku's sweet child's odor and it calmed her. She had been feeling a little lightheaded ever since the letter arrived, and it had become worse after her visit to the solicitors'. Priti hadn't opened Devnath's diary. Not yet. She was curious, yet afraid of it. A part of her didn't want to know.
Why had he accumulated presents for her? Why? And why her, of all people? Those questions swam round and round inside her head, skirting the answer that waited patiently to be revealed. She was too old for this sort of thing. She felt she had betrayed Samaresh in some way. She wished he were here now. The wish grew into an ache. She wanted Samaresh here with her, only Samaresh and no one else. Priti clutched Binku tightly. The child wriggled in her lap.
Trina came in after a while and insisted she sit with them at the dining table.
"Ok. If you don't feel like eating, I won't force. But at least give me some company and feed Binku, Ma won't you?"
Feeding Binku was a ritual that involved telling the child stories. Priti didn't feel up to it, but she led Binku to the table. She knew the effort of story telling would keep her mind away from that jumble of thoughts that was threatening her placid life. The diary sat waiting quietly on the side table.
She went back to it straight after she had fed Binku and eaten a little herself. Trina came in and sat next to her later, after Binku had gone to sleep.
"Would you like to take a look, Ma?" She asked in a quiet voice.
Priti nodded and stood up. She picked up the diary and beckoned Trina. They went into the guest room together.
"I'll pick up a present at random and read out the date on the tag," said Trina. "You can check the entry on the diary for that day, ok Ma?"
Priti nodded. Trina held up an irregularly shaped package wrapped in shimmering silver paper. She opened it carefully, trying not to tear the wrapping.
"Fifth July, your birthday Ma," said Trina. "1978. That's more than twenty years ago!"
Priti opened the diary and leafed through the pages. She read the entry under that date:
"My Priti, my very own and very precious Priti. I had this little brass figurine specially commissioned for you. If you look underneath, you'll find your name etched on it. I hope you like it. I know you love little Ganesh Murthis. So I had this made, just one piece. One unique piece, for my one in a million Priti . . ."
"Ma, it really has your name underneath!" Trina held up the little Ganesh figurine for her to see. "You know who made it? Goshto Kumar! Imagine!"
Priti took the figurine absently. Trina didn't seem to have realized the strangeness of the words she had just read out. Or perhaps she had, but didn't want to blurt out her opinion, as she normally did with Priti.
Priti put the figurine down and started to read at random. Page after page, entry after entry, said the same thing, in different words, describing different gifts, but referring to the same set of dates. The dates were the most difficult to accept. He had marked each important day in her life, her birthday, her graduation day, her marriage day, Trina's birthday. Within the pages of the diary, he had claimed each date for his own, annulling the people dearest to her and directly associated with the dates, Samaresh and Trina, and replaced them with himself and a child of his own. The diary contained an imagined world, a blissfully happy imagined world, inhabited by real people. Priti, Devnath and Trina. Though the last, Trina, was not really she.
It seemed to Priti that Devnath must have completely believed in this imagined relationship and this life that was a complete fiction, a figment of his own longing. Devnath had always been a talented writer, and the story of Priti's life now flowed out from the pages of his diary. It flowed out so strongly that it seemed her real life must exist within the pages of the diary, that the life she was currently living must be a lie.
Priti let the diary rest on her lap; her forehead slumped against the palm of her right hand. Trina had stopped opening the presents by now. She was looking at Priti with concern. She quietly took the diary from Priti's unresisting lap and began to read from it at random.
The words began to blur as Trina, who usually never had any patience with namby-pamby emotions, began to weep silently. Priti stood and then sat down next to Trina. Her cheeks were wet too. And soon after, while Trina held her tightly, Priti's shoulders convulsed with soundless sobs. She wept. Wept for having broken a man's heart that she had never meant to break. Wept because she couldn't have helped it, even if she had known. She wept and wept as the night quietly wore on around her and Trina, and around the ghosts that slipped softly past them towards their place of final rest.
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