Daughter of Darkness
“Are you from Kolkata?”
I nodded affirmatively in silence. After spending the whole year in classroom, lecturing students I crave solitude. I was in no mood for small talk with fellow tourists, particularly from my home state who are known for their gregariousness. But it was difficult to ignore the antics or constant chatter of the child. As I sat nursing a cup of coffee the boy, hardly three or four, kept his parents busy, particularly his mother who was trying to coax him into eating his breakfast. I had figured out they were Bengalis but had not made any effort to strike up a conversation with the couple. However, in this case I did not have much choice, simply because I was sitting at their table.
The dining room was packed and the manager had requested the family to accommodate me at their table. Hoping to avoid pleasantries I tried to get away with what I hoped, was a warm smile but my attention was riveted on the child as he got busy in tugging the table cloth down and arrange the cutlery on the floor.
“I am Dr Siddhartha Sen and this is my wife, Sohini. And this monkey is my son, Ruku,” the bespectacled, clean shaven young man eagerly made the introductions. He was clearly looking forward to some adult conversation than running after his boisterous child.
“I am Professor Siddhartha Ray.”
“So we are namesakes.” I responded with a polite smile. I had seen his name in the column above mine while signing the register at the reception of the resort.
“We, too, are from Kolkata. We live in Salt Lake.” The lady added, turning her attention from her son, who was now earnestly trying to topple the bowl of cornflakes from which his mother was feeding him.
“Jodhpur Park,” I replied inattentively, thoroughly enjoying the delightful antics of the child.
Suddenly, the man sat up straight and looked at me with renewed interest. The child went on banging his spoon against the bowl creating quite a din. The sudden change palpable among his parents, obviously, had no effect on him. His mother ignored him, looking at me with large, apprehensive eyes.
“And where exactly do you live in Jodhpur Park?” The man demanded, almost forgetting to breathe. Then noting my discomfiture, he offered hastily. “Actually I know somebody who resides at 43/1 Jodhpur Park. I grew up there.”
It was my turn to be astonished. “43/1? I stay at 43/1 Jodhpur Park.”
“Then do you know Mr Sen? Well, you seem to have moved in recently. You would not know him, would you?” The words tumbled out a little bit hurriedly.
Even before I could nudge in a reply he continued awkwardly, “So they have sold off the house. They no longer live there, do they?” As much as he tried the young man could not hide away his eagerness and I was quite surprised by the turn this conversation was taking.
“No, I am his tenant. But how do you know Mr Sen? Is he a relative?”
The young man suddenly seemed deflated, even embarrassed. He abruptly signalled his wife to get up. Pushing back his chair he looked away, averting the perplexed look in my eyes and for a moment I thought he would leave without a reply; but then with slight hesitation he softly added: “I am his son. Please excuse us.”
The little one was clearly not ready to forego his spoon and bowl but his parents dragged him away. I could hear him whimpering. The half-eaten omelette and toast on their plates reminded me they had left the dining room without even finishing breakfast.
I sat dumbfounded. As far as I knew Mr Sen did not have a son. His daughter, Yamini was their only child. And the girl was schizophrenic. She was in her early-thirties and I had got the impression that she was abandoned by her husband because of her ailment. I had never heard any reference to a son in the past five years I have spent with them. I have never even seen any photograph. There must be some mistake, I concluded and tried to steer away my thoughts and enjoy what remained of my vacation.
It was definitely weird. It seemed impossible that I had been living in such close proximity yet never knew that Uncle has a son; that too, staying in the same city. I occupy a portion of the ground floor of his two storeyed-ancestral-house. I had come armed with a recommendation from his close friend. As a bachelor, I was the perfect candidate because they were willing to let out only a portion of the ground floor comprising a room, an attached bathroom, a kitchen and a small balcony.
Uncle, a retired government officer, still worked part time as a consultant and travelled for a day or two every fortnight. I had always wondered whether it was to keep himself occupied after retirement or out of necessity. After all he had retired quite a few years back and his savings were bound to be low due to the huge monthly medical expenditure. But this apart, if he had a son surely there would have been some reference, at least a momentary slip. In fact, Uncle was quite a straightforward person, often blunt, even given to garrulity at times. Often, Aunty would beret him saying: “Are you going to drive him nuts with your constant babbling? He is not an old man like you.”
Aunty was slightly debilitated with rheumatism which gave her trouble particularly during the winter. Still, both led an active life, Uncle – busy with gardening and his wife in the kitchen making all sorts of titbits which she shared with me without fail. But one could easily sense the pall of gloom hanging over the entire household like a thin mist, gradually sucking away the vital sap of life. I had attributed it to the melancholic disposition of Yamini. She was an exceptionally quiet girl; extraordinarily beautiful yet the attention of the onlooker was seldom drawn to her beauty. Instead one would notice only the strangely impassive face, almost like a dusky porcelain doll. Only her large doe like eyes stood out, resembling fathomless pools of some dark indescribable emotion.
My woollen jacket offered little protection against the cold piercing mountain wind. Yet the chill could not numb my thoughts. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains. I chose to sit outside in the cold, warmed by my thoughts of Yamini. I tried to visualize her life with a brother around. Did she communicate with him? Somehow the cheerful image of Dr Siddhartha Sen and his family did not mesh with the sombre world of Yamini and her old and frail parents.
I had never witnessed any display of violent rages or despair. Only her pensive eyes hinted at some inner broodings. She rarely smiled. In fact, I realised now I had never seen her smiling. I had never probed. Uncle had only once, perhaps propelled by a momentary weakness spoken about her illness. “I am a failure as a father,” he had said unexpectedly, as he browsed my books. “My colleagues talk about their children who are scholars and successful in their careers but I…,” he broke off in the middle. “If God wants to punish you he gives you a child who brings nothing but shame to the family,” he muttered as an afterthought. I felt he was being unfair to Yamini but held my tongue.
Drawn by my huge collection of books he often dropped in to borrow books. Even just before I left Kolkata, he was engrossed in a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I had selected for him. But I was quick to realise that despite his modesty he was exceptionally well-read, particularly when it came to vernacular literature. True, he did not keep himself abreast with the latest tomes in English but being a voracious reader he was quick to catch up. We love to exchange views once he finishes a book. He always managed to catch me unaware with his deep insights into life. That was the beginning of his bond with me. His sunny disposition never ever allowed him to wallow in pity; only Aunty consistently found faults with him which I had put down to the usual domestic banter.
Yamini spent most of her time indoors. She rarely ventured out but I often heard her humming to herself. I was moved not only by the melody in her voice but at times when she chose to sing instead of hum, her rendition brought out the connotation or essence of Tagore’s words. But unfortunately, the music came only in bits and pieces – when she sang in low key while tending the flower beds with her father, though only after much coaxing and cajoling.
For the next few days, Dr Siddhartha Sen and his family tried hard to evade me but with little success. It was a small hill station and we often bumped into each other and exchanged sheepish grins.
That night, after an early dinner I was just about to switch off the reading light when there was a hesitant knock on the door. It was Dr Sen. I invited him inside; he fidgeted awkwardly, shuffled his feet nervously before blurting out, “I owe you an apology.”
I looked at him questioningly. “I know it is weird. Sohini was emphatic that I should come and explain the circumstances. Otherwise, you might misunderstand us,” he mumbled.
I silently waited for him to continue.
“I… I have no ties with my parents. They chose Yamini over me. “
“Yes, she is my wife. My first wife. We are divorced,” he blurted out.
“As the only child of my parents I was my father’s pet. I have always been a good student but it was his dream that I should be a doctor and serve the poor. I fulfilled all his dreams. Eight years back I married Yamini. It was an arranged marriage. Her parents had given an advertisement in the newspapers and Baba responded. We did not know but she had a history of mental illness. Her parents, like most others, had thought she would get better after marriage. I detected something amiss within three months of marriage. When she was diagnosed with schizophrenia I wanted to divorce her. Baba disagreed. He said I had married her and I should not abandon her. He also reminded me about Hippocrates oath. I could not… when I did not relent he decided to sever all ties with me.”
“Yamini is not their daughter?” My head was spinning.
“No,” lost in his own tale Dr Sen paid no attention to my floundering.
“Initially, at least Maa was sympathetic towards me. But she will never go against Baba. I obtained the divorce and married Sohini. She is my friend’s cousin. Baba and Maa continued to stay with Yamini. Maa had cried a lot when I left home but she chose to side with Baba. They did not even come to visit us after Ruku was born.”
Dr Sen sat with his head bowed. Then he suddenly turned towards him and asked: “You tell me, is it possible to lead life with somebody who is mentally ill? I wanted to live my own life, have kids. Do you think it was too much to ask?”
I sat in stunned silence. My mind was incapable of forming conducive words or offer comfort to him. Siddhartha Sen’s voice sounded far off as an idyllic scene played out before my eyes – that small house in Jodhpur Park where Aunty sat braiding Yamini’s long tresses; she sat with her head bowed low on her knees, singing one of the devotional songs of Tagore in a low voice; Uncle sat beside them reading, occasionally lifting his face to look at his daughter with tenderness. At that moment, precisely I decided against revealing to them, my new found knowledge about the family dynamics.