A pair of youthful eyes dance back at me from the bedside mirror. I catch a glimpse of a lady in her mid-forties , with a reminiscent smile on her lips. A faint tinge of grey peeps in through her locks as she relaxes in her rocking chair by the window. It’s early March and the warm sunshine rests on her cheeks in golden patches of warmth.
Yes, it’s me, engaged in my daily musing. It’s only 7o’clock. I can eagerly look forward to a nice hour with my idle thoughts. Deepti won’t be up before eight, but , I can see her striding into my room, with a glass of water and my morning pills, within an hour. “Up already?”she’ll say and add with a nod of her head “Too little sleep”. Yet, I know, had she found me sleeping, she’d have expressed the same concern over my health-“Too weak”.
Deepti is my niece-a first-year-medical student at the NRS, Calcutta-too eager to make it known to one and all that she’s almost a doctor. I don’t mind her chidings and reply with mild protests. I’ll then ask her about her college and that’ll set her babbling away. Of the terms she uses , I understand none – biology was never my genre. But , who can admit that to a young niece? To her, I’m a pantomath. Her friends all know, Deepti is the niece of Ms.Sharmila Roy-Choudhury-the owner of the Stardust-Publishing-House and a Booker-Prize-winner. I chuckle as I imagine my childish niece showing off to her admirers and she must be having quite a lot of them, too. But , she won’t be up at this hour and I’m safe from anyone barging into my room for the moment.
The city has woken up. Now and then, I meet someone jogging by my window. Some pass by, a shopping bag in one hand, and the morning-paper in the other. As I sit by my acoustic window, staring at the still world, I feel a sudden shock through my veins…….yes, I am happy. It isn’t the kind of happiness I had experienced when I had been declared the Booker-Prize-winner a few years back, for that had flickered out in the span of a few days. I don’t feel the urge to sing out loud-happiness seems to be engraved deep in my veins, in the very wrinkles of my aging skin. It’s a candle burning steadily on-a sensation that links me to the carefree days of long-lost childhood. The harsh years of youth disappear like a distant nightmare. On my table, lies my last book, bearing the name, “Sidney” on its cover. I smile, as I fish out a notebook, carefully hidden away beneath a pile. The yellowed pages hold the secret of Sidney’s birth.
Two young girls sat in the playground-one, with a valiant look in her eyes and the other, leaning down before her-tears in her beseeching glance. I smile at them, just as some passer-by may have done, some thirty-years down the memory lane. Yes, there was a play going on. We had caught hold of “The Tale of Two Cities” and it had touched our young hearts so much that we decided, it deserved a play. Oblivious to our earnest efforts, a seventeen-year-old-boy chuckled to himself as he captured the moments in his new camera. When we finally noticed, the damage was done and for years , the inseparable duo came to be regarded as “Sidney and the Seamstress”. I was Sidney and the seamstress was none other than my bosom friend, Reshmi Parekh. Reshmi’s parents owned the Stardust. I’d make frequent night-stays at her palatial bungalow across the street. Ah, those days! The aforementioned mischief-maker was one other than her brother.
The Parekhs were fond of travelling. Whenever the couple went on a tour to different corners of the world, my heart would thump in excitement as I eagerly awaited the mementos, curios and what-nots. The chief attraction of the gifts , however, was the accompanying letter and the beautiful Stardust envelope. The envelope isn’t like anything you’ll find even in gift-shops, nowadays. The paper was a crème-pink and it lent a warm sensation to the hand. A characteristic fragrance would fill the room-a sweet papery smell. I can almost feel the crisp in my fingers, even after all these years. Sidney and the seamstress dragged each other along through the hard years of teenage, maturing over the years. The young girls looked forward to a bright future-their dreams were unfolding slowly- a flower ripening into a fruit. However ,I now think, with a sigh, “ There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” In our case, the slip came , when it was least expected.
The news hit the headlines-“The Parekh family murdered”. Reshmi had been staying at our place that night and was the sole survivor. A doomed silence hung over the beautiful bungalow. The clink of glasses and the roaring laughter from the frequent parties seemed to reach my ears, only to fade away in the crowd of reporters and policemen that thronged the house. Reshmi didn’t break down. She gazed at her lifeless family and then, in a trance, made her way to her room.
For a few days , Reshmi lived with us. She did regain some of her old liveliness, but the exuberant extrovert I had known, was dead. Dad said, “She’ll be all right. Time heals all wounds.” Dad’s prophecy might have come true, but , one night, she disappeared with her old nanny. Another headline-“The daughter of the Parekhs, Reshmi, disappears”. It came to me as a bolt from the blue-no goodbye note, no letter-she just left , with the house locked. At first, I told myself, “She’ll be back soon,”. As days turned into months, the reporters lost interest in the Parekhs, but I was no reporter and the new-born vacancy was determined to make its presence felt. The excitement was sparked again a few months later, when the murderer was arrested- a family-friend I had often met at their place. Then the wave fell, never to rise again, and I tried to detach myself from the Parekhs .
I wake up with a start from my reverie. Half-an-hour’s gone . Let me leave the young girl to melt away in despair and harden herself into my cool and composed forty-year-old self.
Deepti rushed into my room one day, a brown envelope in hand.
“Aunt, guess what!”she cried out, “The owner of the Stardust has asked for an appointment!”
I was puzzled. “But, it was shut down long back,” I protested.
It was Deepti’s turn to be puzzled now. “Don’t say , you don’t know the Stardust, Aunt. It’s ,clearly, one of the greatest publishing houses.”
“It was,”I replied.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said my young niece, exasperated.
Finally, a meeting was arranged. My throbbing heart saw the lady come in. She was dressed in a formal suit and her hair was cropped short.
“Reshmi Parekh,” she said with a broad smile, as we shook hands.
“Sharmila Roy Choudhuri,”I replied. We found ourselves, discussing business deals and having formal conversations, throughout the evening. When she finally left, with the throng of reporters, I don’t know, how I felt.
“How did it go?”asked my eager niece.
“Fine,” I smiled.
Yes, it was a profitable business for me , but was it the meeting of two childhood friends? Did Reshmi even remember me?
A few days later, another letter arrived from Miss Parekh. I stared long and hard at the name and ran my fingers over the smooth fabric. Yes, there could be no mistake. It was the same old touch, the same old crisp. I opened the seal carefully, so as to preserve every inch of the envelope that filled my room with a smell of the past. A letter popped out.
It’s over twenty-years since Reshmi’s disappearance. She’s dead to the world ,except, maybe, to you. We had to flee that time. Our huge property had got my family killed and my life was at risk. I lived with my nanny, till she passed away a year back. I know, it’ll be hard for you to forgive me now.
The evening we met, two days shy of a month, I was amazed to hear the formal tone in my voice, which I failed to discard. You , too, I presume, suffered the same agony as we spoke , separated by a barrier of insignificant formalities. The crowd further strengthened the barrier, but, as for now, let it go.
Today, I come to you with a request. I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Operations have failed and the doctors have given me six months at the most. My adopted child, Cyril-a three-year-old girl will be left all alone and this thought won’t let me be at peace. For the sake of our friendship, can you forgive me and adopt little Cyril?
I know, Sharmila, you’ll like to meet me, but it’ll be hard for both of us. Let this be my goodbye. Remember me , not as the successful owner of the famous Stardust, but, as the girl you grew up with.
Once again, I didn’t know how I felt. I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks and a voice, that seemed to be a skeleton of mine, whimpering, “ Yes, it’s easier this way.” Days passed. I didn’t forget the Seamstress , but I never wept again. Cyril would soon be there to light up my days. I had only seen a photo of her and there was one thing I could be certain of-Cyril was going to be the love of my life. I have nurtured the soft, innocent love I had for my childhood chum , in solitude, and now, this child was there to claim her share of it.
Now, as I turn back the pages of my diary , I return to a particular date-the day before Cyril arrived . The words smile back at me:
“I didn’t think , I’d ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that, I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical or pessimistic or sad. I’m just someone who once felt bigger than anything else I’d ever felt, and when I lost it, I honestly believed, I would never have that again. But, I was 22 then and life is long. And , I’m feeling things right now, that I haven’t in a long, long time.”
With a click , the door swings open, and I’m dragged back to the present. In comes Deepti, with the pills. So, my hour is finally over. Following her, enters a five-year-old in her kindergarten uniform, her dark curls bouncing off her slender shoulders and caressing her mischievous eyes. She’s Cyril- my little darling. Cyril is my daughter and the magical Stardust , too, is mine. The doorbell rings and in come the maids. The ayah rushes back to the kitchen in relief- she has succeeded in making Cyril have her glass of milk, which is, indeed , a Herculean task. The crowd in the street outside ,is thickening. Men with briefcases hurry on, as I gaze , satisfied, at the waking world. It is with this unexplained satisfaction that I realize, I’m not alone in my rocking chair , smiling at life. I’m not alone as I enjoy the rhythmic chanting of alphabets emanating from the open nursery door. Two young faces , full of hope, and bubbling with vigour , smile back at me from an old photograph , standing on the dressing table. I’m truly happy today. I had been lost, but I have discovered the real Sharmila. As if to clarify the faintest speck of doubt in my mind, a gust of the fresh morning breeze blows in. It whispers, “Me, too.”