This armchair is an old companion; it is even twenty years older than this house. It has been a companion for sixty years. When Amarnath was a young man he did not give his heart away to any Lady; but to the dry leaf of books and to those words, which were the fruit of his research. There, beneath that wood-rose tree, Amarnath would sit on this armchair and while away his time, from morn to the fall of night. Sitting there, he would bask under the winter sun and read books. He had spent many a sleepless night collecting material for his thesis, sitting on this chair. The power of his lens had increased slowly and steadily. But trying to discover himself, reading through his thick lenses, he cared little about his eyesight. His thick hair started becoming thin. This armchair has been his companion right from that time when he had started developing a bald patch on the crown of his head. At that time Amarnath did not have any time to see his reflection in the mirror. Neither did he have a wife who would say, “ Hey man, you’re balding!”
Amarnath remembered pretty well the day when he first came to Kolkata with his teaching job. Then he had no other belongings except a string bed and this arm-chair. Since his income was meagre he was rather careless about the needs of his material existence. And why not? After all his needs were also meagre. The only reason for his living was research. To mitigate his pangs of hunger he would cook a frugal meal twice a day and at times take a bit of rest if time permitted. During those times this arm-chair was a saving grace for him. He would sit on this chair for hours together and do his work. He would make a table of his string bed and would sit on the arm-chair while doing his writing and reading. When insomnia would eat into his mind and body like a worm, during those sleepless nights, young Amarnath would rock himself on this armchair and would string a garland out of his hopes and despairs, joys and sorrows in his mind.
A day came when Madhurima entered his life breaking through the loneliness of his solitary existence. Amarnath would still remain immersed in his books. Research was over. He had already obtained a doctorate. But this was not all for him. This was the end to a new beginning. Is there an end to research? How can the pleasure of swallowing words and creating a new meaning out of them be forgotten so easily?
Madhurima soon involved herself in arranging her household. Her husband and her home were the be-all and end-all of her life. Everything in the household became precious with the touch of her caring hands. But that old armchair was intolerable to her. It was like a second wife of her husband, she asserted. One day she laid a proposal in front of Amarnath, “Listen, why don’t we give this chair away to someone?”
—“ Why?” Amarnath looked up through his thick glasses. What would have been his age at that time? Thirty-two?
But beside his personality, the frivolity of a young sixteen year old accepted defeat. She nervously looked at her husband. After a lot of hesitation she replied, “You are in no dearth of chairs now”.
— “Yes!” The firmness in his voice remained unchanged. The old armchair made of cheap Sal-wood did really look awkward beside the other costly Mahogany furniture gifted by his in- laws. He did understand that. But still he never showed any interest to do away with that chair. Instead he would raise his eyebrows and say- “Don’t you think that in this house I am myself a mis-match. Isn’t it better to get rid of me?” Madhurima would lose the smile on her face during those times. And her big eyes would fill with pearls of tears.
Amarnath loved to recall those days. Wearing anklets on her feet and nose-pin Madhurima would roam inside the house. At times Amarnath would hear the tinkling of her anklets in his study. Then he would startle and wake up as if from a meditation. He would raise his eyes from the pages of the book. Madhurima would giggle and say, “Well, at last you got some time to look at me, isn’t it?”
Amarnath’s heart would go haywire. He would be in the grip of strong youthful passion. Caressing Madhurima’s chin with his hand he would say- “Would it suffice to just sit and keep looking at your eyes?”
Madhurima would immediately make an expression of artificial annoyance and would say, “ This armchair is my competitor. At night you don’t sleep beside me. Why do you get up from your bed and come to lie on this chair?”
Amarnath would roll into laughter. He would say “not a competitor, not at all. It’s the one who maintains and supports both of us. Everyday you should salute it. Sitting on this chair I studied, wrote my thesis, corrected examination scripts. You’ve got to tolerate this chair.”
Madhurima would not join-in to laugh. She would still say with a lot of annoyance in her voice, “Do I only have to tolerate it? Will the chair tolerate me? All the time it takes you away from me. Do I have to stay all alone?”
Amarnath would say, “ You also sit down beside me. Then you won’t feel lonely.” Amarnath would take a lot of care and would give his teenage wife something to study. While fondling her he would show her dreams of a bigger world. Madhurima would still request, “leave that chair, come and sit beside me on the bed and study.”
—“Well you know what?” Amarnath would get distracted. He would comfortably stretch his body on the armchair and say, “Without this chair I don’t really feel comfortable. What if I fall asleep intoxicated by the smell of your body?”
—“Oh dear!” a flash of joy would sparkle in Madhurima’s eyes.
After this, one by one little members enlarged this family. Both of them became parents. Their children grew up. One day they also started disliking the old armchair. The girls would say, “Baba, why don’t you use the revolving chair in front of your secretariat table to sit and study?” Amarnath would reply, “my dear, at this age can anyone study without comfortably sitting in a reclining posture?”
—“Why not sit on that spring divan and study?”
Amarnath would wear his glasses again. “No dear, those are for all of you. I am an old-fashioned man, this is okay with me”. Tultuli, his youngest daughter, would still be stubborn about it. She would point her finger at the chair and say, “this chair is obsolete. We must throw it away. It’s totally back-dated”.
Amarnath would begin to laugh. He would say, “I am myself obsolete. Backdated, my dear. Won’t you throw me away?”
Looking at the armchair, Amarnath would recall the days when he started teaching at college with a paltry salary of hundred rupees. Madhurima had done away with the string bed long ago. But his heart would cry out the moment he would think of giving up this chair.
His daughters were now married-off. The sons were living apart with their wives. But this armchair had never betrayed him. Its cheap wooden frame had not yet developed any cracks. Amarnath still sat on it.
When his vision became hazy in the dim twilight, Amarnath sat at a corner of the verandah and listened to the chirpings of the birds.
Madhurima sat just beside him on a cane-chair and read aloud to him— sometimes from books, sometimes from newspapers. Now, Amarnath was totally blind. His eyes have been affected by cataract. An operation did not help him much. To him all the beauties of the world- flowers, birds and books are hazy now. He has not seen the gorgeous green of trees and plants for a long time. Nor has he seen the swift playful clouds gliding along the deep blue sky, or the parade of merry geese across the winter sky.
Madhurima went on reading the newspaper. Amarnath wanted to listen to the same news again and again. Political upheavals, change of ministry, market inflation, strike, death, murder — Amarnath listened to these news and tried to relate this time with the past, the time he knew so well. He tried to find out the difference between the two. Madhurima understood that Amarnath was ebbing away. Desperately trying to adjust himself with the changing times Amarnath blankly stared at the road that lay before him. The hazy face of the stranger walking down the path raised a storm within his mind. Even the familiar looked strange to him. And the strange looked familiar. With his dimmed eyes, Amarnath seemed to be searching for something. He loved to think about the time when he was not so disabled. Then he could also see the changing colours of this world like the others. He would also walk down the same road. The path bifurcated to the left into a narrow serpentine lane leading to the temple of Lord Shiva. The temple lay beneath a wood-apple tree. The leaves of the tree flutter down on Lord Shiva’s head. During the evening, earthen lamps were lighted. The Bells rang.
The priest left after making offerings to the God. In his own mind Amarnath tried to calculate… “What’s the age of the wood-apple tree?”
Everyday in the morning Amarnath used to write the name of Goddess Durga. He still wrote. His hands keep shaking now. As he can’t see properly, he writes with great difficulty. But earlier, when his vision had not become hazy, he would wear his dhoti and kurta and would get ready immediately after writing the name of Goddess Durga. Finishing his breakfast, he would go out to market with a bag in his hand. It was his old habit. He has known those vendors at the market for a long long time. How can he live without seeing those familiar faces? So many people used to come to this house, now no one comes. The life of a ninety-year old is very pitiful. Disease and decay are his constant companions. Getting insulted by others for his long life. The neighbourhood boy Gobinda often comes to tell, this neighbour has died and that neighbour has died. “They have taken leave in a hearse lying on a bed of flowers. Grandpa, they were all younger to you.” Amarnath lets out a sigh, “What can I do? It’s all in the hands of God.”
It was only the other day, five years ago when Amarnath could see a little better than now, sitting with a book early in the morning, he would hear a knock at the door. The moment he would open the door—
|—“What are you doing uncle?”
—“Well, young man what’s the news?”
—“How are you?”
—“I am fine.”
—“Uncle, I feel jealous of you.”
—“Just now you said you are fine. Why can’t we say like that?”
—“God has given me plenty without asking, that’s why I say I am fine.”
—“Yes, yes uncle, how many of us do acknowledge this blessing? Really, uncle you are a fine gentleman.”
The boy living next-door Arindam would say this.
Amarnath cannot understand why people do not like him now? Is he becoming senile? Are his words becoming incoherent? Once upon a time lots of people used to come to discuss about literature, philosophy, and politics with him. Discussions would go on for hours as if it would never end. But what about now? He still remembers Shakespeare. He can still recite Milton by heart. Then why is he left so severely alone? He loved to think about those days when he had a lot of value in this world. He searched frantically for that worthy and valuable Amarnath.
The sky is visited by rain-bearing clouds. Amarnath blindly stared at the sky with muddy eyes. Madhurima stopped reading the newspaper and casually looked into her husband’s eyes. Her eyes also travel far away. This evening seems to be never-ending for her too. She feels a sense of hopelessness at this very moment. After working for the day, the maid goes back home. Then Madhurima sits beside her infantile husband. Old cherished memories haunt her too. Madhurima secretly lets out a sigh so that her husband is not affected by it. Amarnath says, “Listen, don’t our children recall their old parents?”
Madhurima’s eyes become wet. She has to lie to her husband, “They often send letters. Just the other day Papun wrote from Jabbalpur, Tultuli from Asansol, Bulbuli from Shimla and Tapun from Bangalore- Don’t you remember?”
Amarnath asked anxiously, “Where, where is the letter?”
Madhurima showed an old yellow post-card and says, “ Here’s the letter.”
Amarnath tried to feel the vanishing words written on the old yellow post-card with his fingers. He says, “This is just one. Where are the others?”
Madhurima takes the post-card away and then again gives it back to him. Then again. Then once again… It becomes the symbol of Tultuli, Bulbuli, Tapun, Papun….
The flowers drop one by one from the wood-rose tree. It seems Amarnath can hear the bell of Papun’s son Vodo’s cycle. Cring… Cring…-Cring…-Cring…Cring…Cring….
Tapun’s son Bapi is playing cricket in the small garden. Gone, gone everything’s gone. Those new saplings are all gone! The seasonal flower- pots are also broken. In his mind Amarnath kept running behind his grandson.
—“Grandpa you do the bowling.”
—“Yes dear here it is”, Amarnath ran. His shawl hanging from his shoulder fell on the dust. Amarnath laughed and said “ Dear son, these are old bones. Can it take such strain?”
Darkness descended slowly. The crickets sang. Glow-worms gathered and started twinkling. There was a power-cut inside. Madhurima went to fetch the lantern. Rubbing his hands on the sides of the armchair, Amarnath suddenly cried out aloud like a child. As if he wanted to cry out and say, “My dear darlings please come back! Won’t you grow old like me!”
Translated from Bengali by Mousumi Mukherjee.
KANA BASU MISHRA. Started writing from her early teens. During the 70’s her short stories and novels started getting published in leading vernacular dailies such as Anandabazar Patrika, Yuganter, Basumati etc. She taught in a missionary school for a while and also served as a college lecturer. Later she took to journalism and served as editor of a number of noted dailies. She writes regularly for Bengali newspapers and magazines published outside India. She has received a number of awards and letters of appreciation for her literary works.
MOUSUMI MUKHERJEE. Is an M.Phil scholar at the Dept of English, Calcutta University. She is a part-time lecturer in English at Sri Shikshayatan College and South Calcutta Girls College, Calcutta University. Translates from Bengali into English.