Short Stories TerminalSeries

Stars Fade Away

After buying a large coffee and a cheeseburger from a nearby McDonald’s for my midmorning break, I returned to the newly opened Sapna Book House in the vast, swanky Terminal III of the New Delhi International Airport.

I work as the manager of the book stall and get ample time with my friends all around me. A confirmed bookworm that I am, I love my job as it gives me full freedom to be with my ever present companions. The tastefully decorated stall, with prominent display of popular books by well-known authors could not achieve its job of catching customer footfalls losing out to its neighbours, harbouring eye-catching artefacts and heritage handlooms on one side and a bustling fast food chain on the other.

Once in a while, an occasional man or woman walk into my haven, browse an aisle or two and hurry out as they hear the much-awaited announcement. Whoever spends money these days on impulse purchase of books of all the things?

As I hurried to reach my destination, spotting a would be customer walk into my stall, I glanced towards the visitors lounge in the arrivals on my left. There he was sitting serenely on a wheelchair, dressed immaculately in a white kurta-pyjama and a smoke grey Nehru jacket. His silver-grey hair well groomed and neatly in place. There was an air of odd familiarity about the gentleman, but the faraway look and vacant expression were in stark contrast. I have earlier also seen this gentleman sitting in the same place for a couple of hours in the last few months.

I entered my bookstall thinking about him and greeted my visitor absently with a ‘May I help You’ smile. After he walked away mumbling thank you a few minutes later, I settled down to my favourite pastime and picked up, ‘The Fallen Idol’ by Somnath Chatterjee and resumed reading from where I left.

Somnath Chatterjee is one of my favourite Indian authors. Winner of two Sahithya Akademy awards and countless other awards and prizes, Somnath Chatterjee is a prolific writer both in English and Bengali

Though I am a Bengali by birth, born and bought up in Delhi I can hardly read or write in Bengali. However, my mother and father ensured early on in life that the culture and history of my Bengali ancestry was firmly ingrained in me.  They observed every custom and ritual of a traditional Bengali family.

My father himself was a writer and a published author of several short stories and poems in Bengali though he could not claim to belong to the same league as Somnath Chatterjee. Our house had some of the best Bengali classics, popular novels as well as children’s books in both English and Bengali. My father nurtured my love for reading. When I was a young girl he took me to many sahitya sabhas and literary and cultural festivals. He advised me, “ Upasana, if you set your sights high and aim for it there is nothing that you cannot achieve. Dearest, if you want to reach out to the stars you must hitch your wagon to a winner.”

That was when I discovered the magic of Somnath chatterjee.  I was totally hooked to his writings. He won his first Sahitya Akademy award for his novel on the resurgence of the north east, ‘The land of the Seven Sisters’. There was of course a criticism against him that he writes for the elite intellectuals only totally ignoring the common man. But I idolised him. I worshipped him and dreamt that one day I should walk in his footsteps.

After several attempts at writing sauve and saucy romances, most of them miserable failures except for a couple of published coffee table novels; which were hardly ever noticed, here I am today working in a book store of a famous  brand and taking solace in the fact that I can spend my whole day reading and dreaming big. Maybe one day! I have not given up my writing activity but I have realised my limitations. I have yet to break my shackles.

I finished my coffee and the chapter that I was reading and glanced across towards the visitors’ lounge as if by a strong magnetic pull. A middle aged man accompanied by a tall lanky youth entered the visitors lounge from outside and approached the elderly gentleman waiting patiently in his wheelchair. The young boy made a great show as if he was just walking in from the arrivals gate and hugged the old man. The excitement and happiness in the elderly gentleman was palpable and very much visible even at this distance.  After a couple of minutes, slowly the trio exited the lounge as the middle aged man steered the wheelchair out into the parking lot. I was a bit perplexed as there were no fresh arrivals and I had earlier noticed that the boy came into the terminal from outside but he approached the elderly person from the arrivals gate.

The same scenario repeated a couple of weeks later. This time I was once again watching with renewed interest. The elderly gentleman with an aura of dignity was looking familiar, but I was sure I have never met him in person. All the time he was waiting in the lounge, I was wondering why I was feeling a sense of déjà vu, have I seen him before? When?

When the middle aged man started to wheel away the wheelchair after a repeat of the previous charade, I could not contain my curiosity any further. I rapidly approached them and caring not that it would seem impolite and impertinent, I accosted the man steering the wheelchair and exclaimed, “Excuse me sir, is he related to you.” He looked up a little surprised and mildly irritated, “Yes he is my father, why?”

I stammered and said, “I see him frequently sitting in the wheelchair in the visitors lounge and after a couple of hours you walk in and take him away. I have not seen him receive anyone.”  

“He comes here to receive me.”  Now I was totally confused. “But”, I faltered,” I saw you coming from outside and this young boy I noticed maked a show as if he was coming in from the arrivals gate and hugged your father?”

The middle aged man’s eyes misted. He removed his spectacles and after wiping them, he showed his son beside him.  “I am Siddarth Chatterjee and this is my son Subhrendu. This revered man in the wheelchair is my father Somnath Chatterjee. He recognises me only in my son now as he still sees me as the young postgraduate returning from London after completing his studies for his wedding celebrations.”

Somnath Chatterjee? I squeaked unable to find my voice. “Yes the Somnath Chatterjee,” Siddarth replied. I felt utterly devastated and weak.

But how? Why? I know these questions are rude and impolite, but a compulsion beyond my control made me persist with them to satisfy my curiosity.

Siddarth Chatterjee looked up at me, a complete stranger making a splendid fool of myself. I did not know what made him open up.  Despite his growing irritation, he patted my shoulder and said in a low voice almost inaudible, “Thirty years ago, I returned from Cambridge after completing my studies to get married. On the day of my arrival, my entire family, my father, mother, sister and my elder brother came to the airport to receive me. After I touched my parent’s feet and did pranaam, my father hugged me and my sister and mother were simultaneously giving me all the joyful details of the happy event to take place in a week’s time.

The bride to be came along with her father and greeted my shyly. It was an arranged marriage and we met for the first time. After the introductions and some icebreaking conversation, we accepted the invite for an informal dinner at the bride’s residence the following evening. We took leave of them, collected my baggage and proceeded to the parking lot chatting excitedly. There I saw a regal looking luxury sedan waiting for us. I was very much excited and thrilled to see the new car. My father lovingly informed it was his gift for my wedding. He said he would drive home for this one last time as I have just returned after a long journey.

What unfortunate prophetic words!  That ride back home did indeed turn out to be his last time at the wheel. An unfortunate accident claimed the lives of my mother and sister and a severe head injury left my father paralysed from waist down and he lost his memory and mental faculties. He is not even aware that my mother and sister are no more.

The marriage was performed in a subdued manner after the necessary wait till after the first death anniversary of my mother and sister. Much time has flown. Now my son is of the age I was when my father met with the accident. On certain days when he is lucid, he remembers that he has to go to the airport to pick up his son. He insists that he has to go to the airport. There he meets my son and the rest you know. He sees me in my son now. He does not know who I am.  The world has lost the great writer Somnath Chatterjee and his wait for his son continues eternally.” Siddarth concluded and slowly moved away towards the parking lot.

Upasana felt like a hurricane had hit her. She was staring at her still charismatic idol with tears clouding her eyes and anguish filled in her heart.

Now she understood why she had the strange feeling of déjà vu. It was this great man of letters who was the chief guest at her convocation and it was an honour to have received her B.A. honours degree in English Literature from his hands.  

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