Moushumi stood in total darkness in her bedroom. She had just returned from her long seminar on Renaissance Studies, and she felt drained. The feel of the soft, pink satin covers and the Kurl-on mattress that would sink under her weight did nothing to revive her mood. She changed into her blue pinstriped pajamas with almost a sort of self-compulsion and threw herself into her bed. Staring blankly into space, she brooded over her life as she waited for sleep.
Moushumi Banerjee worked as a teaching instructor for the English department at her university. A thoroughbred urban girl from Mumbai where her family had lived since her birth, the rural tinge of Kolkata’s squalor had appalled and disgusted her when she had first arrived here for graduate school. Since then, a lot had happened to totally alter the texture of her simple life. As soon as she got her Masters’ degree in English, she had married a man whom she had begun to hate after two years of their marriage. He had driven her crazy with his constant and persistent need to control every move she made, right from how she handled her finances to how she held her spoon at the dining table. One evening stood out in her memory though there were numerous other equally horrible ones. They had gone out on a trip to Digha and her mother-in-law had joined them too. This had annoyed her because the trip was supposed to be a birthday gift to Moushumi but he had insisted his mother be there. Moushumi had later tried to complain to him about this when they were alone in the room and his mother had gone to the bathroom. He had said, actually almost yelled at her in order to scare her to shut her up, “Just stop disrespecting my mother in front of me always! She does not get to go out much. So I brought her to this trip. That does not deprive you of anything and I do not understand why you should be so unhappy about it. If my mother is so disagreeable to you, you should not have married into my family, isn’t it?” She had retorted, “But you could have taken her out some other time.” To that he had muttered under his breath in that condescending tone he used with her, “You do not tell me what to do with whom, especially when I never asked for your opinion.” Then he had scrutinized her from head to toe and sneered, “Come on, at least learn to dress according to your size before telling me what to do!”
His family despised her too and had been relieved at their divorce. She could clearly remember her ex-mother-in-law exclaiming with a long drawn sigh, “Thank God that whore left my son alone! Just imagine, she used to spend her entire time without a hint of ‘sindoor’ on her head as if my babai is dead or something!” at the court after the papers had been signed. Moushumi had always despised meaningless traditions like the ‘sindoor’. As if women need to be marked like reserved tables in a restaurant! It was like a stamp on their head: TAKEN. This irony of patriarchy always unsettled Moushumi, that it was held up most dexterously by women themselves, that the misogynistic attitude that was so rampant in some men were actually instilled in them by their own mothers. It also made her feel helpless and alone.
She shifted her thoughts to dwell on the events of the day. She had been very nervous because people from foreign universities were to attend the seminar, and that always sucked up all her self-confidence. When her name was announced, she sprang up as if her chair had been electrocuted and unsettled the plastic coffee-cup on her table. The hot brown liquid seeped into Dr. Sengupta’s paper. He was sitting right beside her, but what alarmed her was he did not react in his usual way. He was known to be quick tempered and foul-mouthed, and yet all he did was roll his eyes. Moushumi had dragged herself to the dais and now she could not remember how she had survived through the presentation and also earned her huge lump of accolades. Dr. Sengupta had read the soft copy of his paper from his laptop. When they were outside the seminar hall, he had surprisingly come and congratulated her with a friendly pat on her back, adding generously, “It’s okay, Ms. Banerjee. Mistakes do happen. I don’t expect you to cope with so much all alone. You are really young for that.” That had annoyed Moushumi so much she had felt her ears going hot, unable to be publicly rude to him. People pitied her for her divorce, asking her questions like how she managed to do everything without help, like she was a kid. Dr. Sengupta’s tone had a tinge of that sympathy for a single woman. What made her hate him more was the fact that even he was divorced. But he had married again and these troubles did not come to him because he was a man. Somehow, that gave one the license to live as one wished in this world.
Dr. Archishman Sengupta was a man everybody tried to avoid getting on the wrong side of. Earlier, when he was young, he had never minded powerful, independent, strong and opinionated women as long as they had shared a professional relationship with him (even though he had been highly critical of them). The moment it used to rise to a personal level, he had disapproved of such women completely. That had brought about his annoyance, frustration and hostility towards the sex because he has always staunchly believed women could never match men. Whatever they do, they ultimately build their emotional security and partly (if not wholly) their economic one around a man. They were just some sort of handicapped burden on the society–weak, fragile, always insecure, and a truck-load of trouble. Despite that, they hankered for individual space, freedom and the right to make important decisions themselves. It was foolishness to trust them with mature projects when they could hardly manage themselves. That was proved by Ms. Moushumi Banerjee herself. How clumsy could a person of her age be! “I was smarter and more organized when I was doing my PhD,” he reflected. But his wife was an exception. She was the ideal woman according to him: responsible, obedient and never indulging in any unnecessary reckless adventures. She always saw reason in Archishman’s opinions and agreed with them like a truly intelligent person. Archishman had known Moushumi since her post graduation days. He had taught her and even then he had disliked her indisciplined, rash and defiant attitude. It was no wonder it had led her to the sort of careless, uncoordinated person she was.
Since his divorce, Archishman had changed his attitude towards these kinds of women– femi-nazis under the banner of feminists. He had cut off his hostility and turned to a mature, cheerful acceptance of them as people do towards mischievous kids. They amused him and their immaturity and irrationality made him inquisitive. He treated them like specimens in the jars of a laboratory and so he had omitted to yell at Moushumi for her clumsiness just like he did to his pet dog that made it a diurnal ritual to poop around the house in the morning, leaving him with no choice but to endure until his wife cleaned it up.
The rain beat down hard on her umbrella as Moushumi stood waiting for a bus to her apartment in Behala. It had already been an hour and all she had spotted were a queue of autos and some private buses. It irritated her to stand in the mud and mulch at the bus stop and for no reason her anger directed itself towards the student who had delayed her exit from the University because he wanted to know why he had received a C for a half-written research paper. The rain fell in torrents now, soaking her completely to her bones even though she was carrying an umbrella. As she made a mental note to buy a rain-coat in the weekend from Gariahat, she spotted a black Sedan roll towards her. She had seen it parked in the University parking-lot before. It belonged to Dr. Ganguly, a senior professor and the head that peeked out from the rolled down tinted windows of the passenger seat in front was of Dr. Sengupta’s.
“Why, Ms. Banerjee, you resemble my coffee-washed papers, waiting for a bus that won’t come! You won’t mind hopping in, will you? Ganguly can drop you at your apartment.”
“Yes, Moushumi. There’s a huge water-logged area on Anwar Shah Road. Buses on that route aren’t plying. You would have to take a taxi if you don’t want to come with us,” Dr. Ganguly offered amicably.
Moushumi did not have the money for a taxi to Behala in her purse, having spent a huge amount purchasing Harper Lee’s latest novel from the World View Bookstore in the campus. Without much hesitation she sidled into the backseat. Dr. Sengupta turned around to present an ear-to-ear smile to her which creeped her a bit. Then he handed her the towel draped on his back-rest to wipe her hair that hung like cords, dripping water down her shoulders. Moushumi’s confused expression seemed to amuse Archishman as was evident from his self-satisfactory smile. When they reached her apartment and she got off, turning to wave, he winked at her, “I will always be there to protect you from difficulties and rain, Moushumi. After all, you are a single woman and it’s the mark of a true gentleman to extend the much needed arm of protection.” Moushumi’s jaw froze, tingling with fury. Calmly, she retorted, making every syllable clear,”I don’t need your protection, sir. I am not that weak. But thanks a lot for your concern. And you too, Dr. Ganguly.” She nodded at the other professor, a smile wavering on her lips, and then she slammed the apartment entrance door shut behind her.
Moushumi decided to spend the weekend at her apartment, watching movies on her laptop. She checked her emails before putting on the latest Avengers film. There was an apology e-card from Dr. Sengupta where a teddy bear walked about on a patch of strawberry coloured grass in circles, singing ‘I am sorry, I am sorry’ in a squeaky voice. At the bottom of the card, he had written, “Moushumi, I have no clue as to why you flared up last day at my remark. You definitely do not (rather CAN NOT) disagree to my statement about gentlemen protecting single women. That is the mark of a man, to respect women and to see they are not exploited. Still, I am sorry for upsetting you. I hope you would not object to having a cup of coffee with me at the Café Coffee Day in South City on Monday? I would be waiting for you there at 2:00.”
Moushumi deleted the mail and put on the movie. No way was she going to share a coffee with this man.
Dr. Sengupta checked his watch for the hundredth time since morning. Finally at 1:30pm, he hailed an auto to the South City Mall. He had called up Moushumi loads of times during the day but her phone was switched off. He hadn’t spotted her all day. “Must have been busy !” he thought excitedly. The possibility of her not turning up at all had crossed his mind once but he had shoved it aside. He had been pretty earnest with his apology and this was going to be just an effort at building up a healthy professional friendship. He knew very well Moushumi was not the type to take every friendly gesture of men well unless they made an earnest effort like the one he made in that e-card. So he felt pretty confident about her turning up.
He pushed his way through the crowd of shoppers in the mall and booked a table for two in the cafe. The waiter took an order for a mango shot which Archishman meant to enjoy until Moushumi’s arrival. The clock in the café showed 2:30 but Moushumi obviously had not turned up still. “Perhaps she is stuck with a student,” he thought and decided to wait. To pass the time, he started to observe a plump woman in an orange embroidered saree sitting at a table in the corner with her son who was dressed in a school uniform, sipping a chocolate latte. The face of the woman reminded him of his wife back at home. It was the same nut-brown colour with pink full lips, silky black hair and wide black eyes. His wife, Kamla was a very amiable woman, sweet-tempered and doting. She was neither vain nor demanding and loved him very much. Still, Archishman felt a tinge of incompleteness in their conjugal life. It had nothing to do with his domestic or sexual comforts; the void was purely intellectual. She did not understand the subtleties of human feelings and any literary or political discussion with her always felt one-sided and futile. His ex-wife fulfilled this necessity too well but she was too much of a rash and despotic woman. Such women were intellectually stimulating but too inhuman and self-centered. His invitation to Moushumi for a coffee-date had been with the intention of initiating such a relationship of pure intellectual companionship. The idea of ‘dating’ other women, so to say, and cheating on his wife was a repulsive idea to him. Men who did this disgusted him too. This had been in his mind for some months past, even during the seminar, which is why partly he had omitted to fly up in a rage at her because of the coffee-incident. He scraped out the remains of his mango shot with the plastic spoon and looked at the clock. It was already 3:15 and there was no sign of Moushumi. A little ball of disappointment in his stomach began to expand and reached his throat. Since he could not yell at that moment, he let it steal up his spine to his head and after some time, his temples began to throb. He also felt a tightening at his chest. Rejections, especially such cold ones, always broke him down. Atleast, she should have informed him.
Moushumi was on the verge of crying out of joy. The email had brought positive news, something for which she had been waiting for her entire life: she had been selected for admission in the PhD programme at the University of Sussex. The UK had always been her dream and finally she had made it. She could now progress higher up in her academic career, just the way she had planned. She decided to treat her colleagues at the University as soon as she received her visa. So she quickly started surfing the British Embassy’s website.
Archishman had been waiting since early in the morning in front of the UG-1 classroom to catch Moushumi. He had searched the teachers’ record book in the HOD’s office and had found out Moushumi had a class with the first year undergraduates at 10:20. At about 10:15, he spotted her making her way through the lobby towards the UG-1 room, her hair loose and a red orna around her neck like a scarf. She looked really pretty in the blue cropped top and white skinny jeans but his memory of humiliation at the Café Coffee Day was paramount in his mind. As soon as she came close, he cleared his throat. Moushumi turned towards him, her lips curved in a self-satisfied smile that irritated Archishman very much. He had crunched up the plastic shot glass that day to vent his disappointment and had left the café, almost in tears.
“Moushumi, may I have a minute with you?” Archishman tried his level best to keep his voice down but it still came out an octave higher than he intended.
Moushumi raised her eyebrows and shrugged, “Yes, sir, definitely!”
“Umm… were you in any problem last day? I waited for you for almost 2 hours but you did not turn up. Is everything all right?” Archishman tried to bring his usual tone of matured nonchalance with Moushumi but failed.
Moushumi pretended to be surprised and said with a feeling of sudden realization on her face: “Oh, sorry! I had totally forgotten about the meeting.”
She felt triumph but also a new surge of hatred towards this man who stood in front of him, asking so casually why she had not responded to his unusually friendly advances after the way he always treated her at work. The effect of her retort on this man pleased her a great deal. His face scrunched up, looking like a deflated balloon and this analogy in her mind made her giggle a little which Archishman noticed and his face reddened deeply with embarrassment. She had almost turned to enter her class when she remembered something important.
“Dr. Sengupta,” she said, “I am going to the UK soon for my PhD, from the University of Sussex. I shall mail you my address from there in due time so that you know where to send the alimony checks.”
Dr. Sengupta stared blankly at his ex-wife for a few seconds and then nodded feebly. A long drawn sigh escaped his mouth while Moushumi walked into her classroom contentedly.