The Stranger

It all started on one misty morning in October, when the clock was striking six. There were very few people to be seen and the stray dogs were scavenging at the corner of the street. Muskan, Nazreen’s mother stood at the courtyard watering the plants. Her husband was out for his business dealings as usual, her daughter was going to the school and her quiet and protective neighbours were waking up for another day. Nothing was different in her life; just like she wanted. Nazreen was on her usual course, hurrying towards the bus stand. She usually took twenty two steps straight, turned right then took fifty four steps to reach the bus stand but that day everything changed. After taking thirty five usual steps, she stopped. She heard someone reciting her favourite poem in a very deep voice. She looked around. It was hard to spot anyone in that thick mist. As per her knowledge, it was coming from outside the empty house, which always had a ‘to-let’ board stuck at the gate.

She belonged to a lower-middle class Muslim family. She was only allowed to go to school and to read nothing other than the usual course books. However, she stopped at a book store some times and flipped through the pages. On some days she would skip lunch and read novels only to rush back to school on time. Unknown to her parents she slowly developed as a reader and loved poetry in speciality. Their locality however, failed to have like-minded people. They believed in religion more than in themselves and they always looked for a way to break into a fight. Though she was born and brought up amid them, she grew up a little differently and hence she always felt left out and lonely. However, this sudden change surprised her and she took two more steps to get closer to the house. She saw the outline of a man, chanting the lines, quite oblivious to the outside world.

“But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. “

She stood there amazed and the horn of her school van at a distance woke her up from her reverie. She ran to the bus stop. It was a different day and she could not help but think about the stranger. She could hardly wait for the evening.

The van dropped her off at the stoppage exactly at three-thirty-one in the afternoon. His voice was still ringing in her ears, but she did not find him near the house. The doors and windows were locked as usual but the ‘to-let’ board was missing. She longed to meet the stranger, to know him more. It was stupid and she had never felt this urge before. She reached home and went to her mother.

“Is there a new family in our locality?”

“Yes, I have been hearing about a Hindu. Why are you asking?”

“Is there a family?”

“Just a man perhaps.”

Her mother was not interested in the man or the family. He was a Hindu and that is all that she cared about. Their family was extremely orthodox and did not like conversing with any others, let alone someone from another religion.

“I think I heard him on my way to the bus stand. He was reciting Fire and Ice. I wanted to-”

Her mother was scandalized.

“Don’t even think of talking to him. We give you enough liberty; go to school and read your books. Talking about poetry and that too with a stranger? This is not something that we are going to allow. Don’t even mention it to your father. If he hears of it, I won’t be surprised if he locks you in forever. Do not bring shame to our family.”

With this, she got up and went away to the other room. Nazreen sat at the table for a longer time, contemplating on life. She failed to realize the barriers that human beings can construct to send another human being far away. She had to talk to him. She will hide it from her parents, if need be. She has heard stories in her family, but if Hindus were different from them, she had to feel it and convince herself. Her dad was always busy with his business and the mother with the household chores; they had no interest in anything that she liked. She decided to take a chance.

She left five minutes early the next morning to see if she found him there. She stopped when she heard his voice, trailing in the morning breeze, coming through the early morning mist from far away. She stood mesmerized. He was speaking in some other language which was not known to her but it sounded beautiful. She woke up at the sound of the horn once again and ran to the bus stand, his voice stuck in her brain for the rest of the day.

This grew into a habit. She would stop after her thirty fifth step and hold her breathe till she heard his voice and would stand there just to hear him say another line. She would smile and say the same lines in her mind. He knew many poems, so many of her favourites and she could not help but admire the stranger. One day, when she went and stood there, he stopped reciting midway.

“I know you come here every day.” The voice said.

She stood, not knowing what to do.

“Sometimes, when I recite Frost or Keats, you smile to yourself and recite them with me. At the other times you do not. There are many of them that you haven’t read. Why don’t you sit with me some day? We shall read all the poems together. I do not know who you are, but by your steps and your outline, I think you are a young girl. I am an old man. My name is Aniruddha Sen.”

She ran to the bus stop hating herself; for a moment she thought that she was actually going to run to him. She wanted him to teach her more. She wanted to see the world through his eyes. Was he a poet himself? She blushed at the thought.

 

Wherever there’s a will, human beings manage to find a way. After about a month, she found herself sitting comfortably in his room, looking at him reading his favourite pieces. It was a cosy room which seemed to have nothing but books and candles. It had a lot of colourful lamps which made his house look like some ancient magical palace. She folded her legs and sat four hours. Attending school had become secondary. She would leave his house in school time, just to come back home.

“You look very happy nowadays. I wonder what has changed in your life!”

Her mother said one evening after she returned from school. She smiled at her and said nothing.

“You remember your father’s words, right? You are not to talk to anyone outside your school. Never talk to a boy, ever. This is not the age. Our family will never accept it. We shall disown you.”

She was already trapped in his charm. It was too late. She was sixteen and he was sixty seven. What they had between them could not be named. Only a few feel those feelings and a fewer think about naming the relation. It was not something to be named. It had to be felt. It was the love for poetry, for humanity and emotions that brought them together, severing all boundaries of age or gender. A reader and a writer rose in unison to the apex of the language and plunged into the depths of the words, a little each day. Nothing else mattered.

“Do your parents know that you skip school and come here every day?”

“They have no idea.”

“Do you like going to school?”

“No. They do not teach me what I want to learn. They teach me what they want me to learn.”

“What do you want to learn?”

“The meaning of life.”

“Why do you think we live?”

She was quiet, she had no answer. But she knew in her heart that living for so long, he must have found a reason.

“I do not know. Why at all?”

She asked with keen interest. She saw the creases on his face, his deep brown eyes and his grey hair. He replied, looking a little disturbed.

“Me neither.”

With that, he went on to read the next poems which were about after life; a thing that scared her and amazed her a lot. She kept her head on her knees and closed her eyes. He was old, she was young. She had her life in front of her, her hopes, dreams, and ambitions but at that point she lived only to hear him recite another time. She loved his works.

“Why don’t you publish your works?”

“I do not think people will like that.”

“I will buy your book.”

He smiled. She looked at the flickering flames of the candle. He carried on with the poems.

“Ere the evening lamps are lighted,
And, like phantoms grim and tall,
Shadows from the fitful firelight
Dance upon the parlour wall;”

He paused to breathe. Then he looked into her eyes and said,

“I am blessed to have you here. You can listen to me, from my own diary. But if I ever get my work published, I shall send you my book.”

“I wish you do that. I shall wait. Do you write letters?”

He paused.

“I did.”

She felt a growing emptiness in her stomach. He did, for someone else. His emotions had long blended in with hers; she had become a part of him. He however, was lost in some other world. He did not belong there.

“Why do you live alone?” she asked.

“Do you believe that we need to be in a family to love?”

“No.”

She hung her head and pressed her eyelids closer, of course not. Look at her family, it was just a term given to them a long time back. Right now, all they did was following yesterday’s pattern. The movements were the same, the instructions were the same and even the emotions were the same. There was no love; just a mirage of some long lost history that once existed. She looked at the flickering candle and sighed.

“I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you. “

She put a finger asking him to stop. She heard some voices across the road. She got up and peeped out of the window and her insides dropped. It was evening, she had lost track of time and had forgotten to go back home. All her neighbours were standing outside his house and were looking up. She let go of the railing and sat on the ground, her face white in terror. If they found out that she was here, they would not let him live. All their poems on life seemed so far and distant.

“I think they have come looking for you.”

His face showed no sign of remorse or terror. He was new here and he had no idea how dangerous this place was. People would just look for excuses to take out their anger on anyone. A man who did not belong to their group was a target double quick.

“Do you have a place to hide? If they find me here, they will kill you for sure.”

His face was blank, as if he had seen worse.

“There’s a backdoor that leads to the next lane. Go out and get back to your house. I shall see what happens to me. That and never come back. I think I have taught you enough to live a meaningful life.”

She was almost in tears but too scared to make a sound. Outside, the crowd was increasing and the level of noise went up. She wanted to lie at his feet, to tell him that age, gender, religion played no value in her life and that he was the best teacher that she had ever come across but this was not the time. What she felt was much deeper and too intense to be put into words. Trembling, she parted her lips and breathed quietly.

“I shall write to you” He said.

“I shall wait for your letter, till my last day. I am serious”. She replied, her voice barely audible.

“Do you know why we live?” he asked.

She was scared beyond death still calmer than usual. She stood, wanting him to answer his own question. But suddenly she realized what he was about to say, somewhere, their brains were working the same.

“Hope”, they said together.

 

She did not stop till she reached her house. Her mother was waiting for her at the gate. What happened next need not be told. Her hair was trimmed; she was locked in a room and was kept without food for a long time. She had brought shame on the whole neighbourhood, their family and their religion. She had no idea why religion had to come in everywhere. They were not doing any sin.

She sat in the dark room, chanting the poems over and over in her mind. After almost a fortnight, her parents let her out. She was still locked inside the house and was never allowed to leave. She tried asking what happened to him and was beaten mercilessly each time but was never given an answer. She raged, she cried, she broke down; she thought of the worst. She was not caught red handed, so he might be spared but there was a high chance that he was killed.

Days changed to weeks and weeks to months. His teachings were engraved in her memories but her mind tried its best to forget him for better. A year later, slowly she had convinced her parents how sorry she was and that she would never do something like that again. She had realized how pointless it was. She promised to give up reading story books all together and live a life like her mother. She died, mentally.

 

One fine evening, her parents had to leave her alone in the house and go for an urgent work. She stood at the door, not knowing whether to stay there, or to rush back to his house, or to go and ask her cruel neighbours, what they had done to him. Slowly she gathered courage and after one long year stepped out of the house. She walked across the streets which did not seem to belong in her world anymore. When she reached his house, so many memories came flooding in that she almost stopped breathing. The gates were locked, the windows closed and the gate had a ‘to-let’ sign. She was almost in tears. He had promised her that he would write. She went to the letterbox. It was empty. She hurried back to her house, not knowing who she was anymore, where she belonged and life was so cruel to her. Physically, all she lived for was hope and everything shattered in front of her own eyes. There was no meaning in living a life that will never change. The one that runs in circles whose end is forgot.

She entered the house and locked the door. Her mind was numb, her head was heavy. Suddenly, she saw a parcel lying on the floor. She picked it up and found a little yellow parchment. She could hardly believe her eyes. In a neat and small handwriting, which was extremely familiar to her, it said

“Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door;
The beloved, the true-hearted,
Come to visit me once more;”

Holding her breathe she opened the parcel and found a new paperback book inside. It said, ‘Letters to Nazreen’ by Aniruddha Sen.

In a parallel universe, unknown to the rest of the world, she was reborn. The golden sunrays flooded the courtyard; the chilly wind teased her unkempt hair. Not fighting the tears that flowed freely, she breathed deep into the pages of his book.

[Written in 2015]

Published by Leena Bhattacharya

A researcher who finds solace in social work

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