“Oh, this Shiladi …. she’s just too much” Sujata muttered under her breath as she slammed the laptop shut. Just three days to go to the program, and now she wants to change three of the songs that they had chosen? Of course, Sujata had to admit, Shiladi did have a knack when it came to these things. Why, only last year she had come up with this crazy notion of inserting a comic song in their social drama. Everyone had objected that the song didn’t fit into the serious theme, but when it came down to the performance proper, it was this very song which turned out to be a big hit! That being said, editing three songs from scratch, putting in all the extra sound effects – all this was a lot of work – and that too on such short notice! And on top of all this, her laptop chose just this moment to throw a tantrum. She had just downloaded one of the golden oldies – KananDevi’s old classic chhande chhande duli anandey, ami bonophul go (swaying joyously in rhythm with the wind, I am a wild flower) and started to edit it when the speaker started emitting weird crackling noises. Sujata carried on bravely for a while, but had to give up in disgust as the noise started getting on her nerves. She will just have to finish the job using Avik’s laptop! Good that Avik has this thing in his college, thought Sujata – had he been home, she would have a hard time getting her hands on the damn thing ! He spends every waking hour with either that or his phone. Forget about her, you can’t even tell whether he is aware of the existence of their daughter at times. As if he is the only one who teaches, Sujata thought, with the rising annoyance that comes over her whenever she thinks of Avik and his laptop. Why, Sujata has to teach four to five classes every day too – you won’t find her with her nose glued to the screen all the time!
In the event, editing the three mp3s didn’t take as long as Sujata had anticipated. She managed to share the finished files with Shiladi on Google drive well before Avik’s return, and even had time to sit down with Molly to check her homework. Molly was actually quite diligent about her tasks, she knew – but Sujata still insisted on checking her homework every evening – just for her own peace of mind, rather than anything else.
It was nearly eleven o’clock by the time Avik reached home. The college had arranged a dinner for them – but the dinner was anything but free. They had had to earn it by first sitting through three whole lectures on cyber-security. What made it even more painful was that each of the specially invited experts had essentially harped on the same few points over and over again – “India is turning digital. We have to be more vigilant… et cetera…”. The first two speakers were still okay, the last one – all that Avik could remember from that lecture was that the speaker had an extremely sing-song voice. It took all the will that Avik could muster, along with a lot of yawning and vigorous eye-rubbing, to stay awake, if not alert. What almost made him throw a fit was a comment from his colleague Sandipan, who was seated right next to him. At the end of the lecture, Sandipan had turned to him and commented “now we know how the students must feel in our classes”. Smart, well-dressed, and eloquent, Sandipan was a favourite among the students. Avik knew that while he had said our classes what the smart-alek had really meant was your classes. The nerve!
Already fuming mentally at Sandipan’s snide comments, Avik’s mood hit a new low on the way back when his thoughts turned to Piyali. The way she has been behaving over the last couple of weeks was just plain inexplicable! Piyali was a relative newcomer among his colleagues, having transferred in from a rural college about six months ago. Somehow or the other, Avik had developed a liking for her from the very first day. In retrospect he has come to realise that in a way Piyali reminded him of Su when he had first met her nearly fifteen years ago. That same open smile, the same self-esteem and confidence which allowed her to gladly accept help from others as well as offer it to them without any hesitation, that same… Avik has helped Piyali adjust to her new surroundings in many little ways since she had joined the college – all the time telling himself that this was his natural duty towards a new colleague. Now he could no longer be so sure – slowly but surely he could feel himself getting drawn more and more towards her. In fact, it was Avik who had forced himself to draw back a little. He could no longer be sure that he was still in love with Sujata, but fifteen years of habit is difficult to shake off. On top of that, there was Molly to think about. No matter what his personal feelings, he couldn’t bear the thought of inflicting pain on his darling daughter. On the other hand, of late Piyali has been acting downright cold towards him. No longer did she seek out his table in the lunch hour. Indeed, it seemed to Avik that she had even started to avoid looking him directly in the eye. He couldn’t be sure what this change in Piyali really meant. Maybe he had not really been able to conceal his attraction well enough, embarrassing her into withdrawing into a shell. Or perhaps things are just the opposite. Maybe Piyali had been drawn to him too, and, sensing his reluctance to go forward with their relationship, has lapsed into a hurt silence. In either case, Avik knew he could not absolve himself of all the blame for whatever was causing this complication, but that did not make it any less annoying…
Sujata had already gone to bed by the time Avik got home. She tried to get up as Avik came in , but he stopped her, saying “Don’t bother, I’ve already eaten at the college. Remember, we had this set of special lectures I had told you about?” “How were the lectures?” asked Sujata, more out of habit than interest. “Oh, the usual”, Avik replied while changing into comfortable clothes for the night. Lying down beside her, he continued, “You know, they could have been much more interesting than they turned out to be, given the topic!”. “Remind me. What were they on, again?” asked Sujata. “Just some stuff on cyber security and all that” said Avik, and bit his tongue just in time to stop himself from saying “nothing that will interest you!” He knew that to be not quite correct – despite her liberal arts background, Sujata was quite comfortable around computers. Indeed, in many ways, she was more at home with them than himself. As if to compensate, Avik hurried to furnish some details “You know, one of the experts was saying that even if your computer is switched off, an expert hacker can turn it on remotely and steal your files, as long as you are connected to the net. Unless you take the right precautions, that is. So Hollywood!” He continued in this vein for some time, just enough to feel that he had done enough to make up for his almost dismissive comment. He was almost falling asleep when a thought struck him. “By the way, the first speaker today was originally from your hometown. He is almost our age – maybe slightly older. Suvayu Chakraborty – do you happen to know him, by any chance?” Sujata had been fighting off sleep with monosyllabic answerable far. This seemed to generate some interest in her “I do, actually! He used to live close by. Was a brilliant student by all accounts. But I thought he was in the US. Has he come back to the country?”. Avik thought for a while and then answered, “Oh, yes! I think they mentioned it in the introduction. He was director of a research lab in the States – and now the Government has invited him back to the country to head a new cyber-security task force.” Avik dozed off after a few more comments, completely oblivious of the storm he had raised…
Avik was fast asleep, snoring lightly on one side of the bed. On most days this did not bother Sujata. If anything, she found the sound comforting, almost like some forgotten lullaby from her childhood. Today, however, the sound did nothing to put her mind at rest. “What a coincidence!” she thought to herself, “I think about Suva-da for the first time in ages today – and, today of all days, Avik has to go and attend his lecture. In spite of herself Sujata felt a twinge of jealousy – it was she who was meant to be in the front row of Suvayu’s lecture – if only to see whether his comforting voice sends her now middle-aged heart racing the way it once used to.
Suva-da was almost a next door neighbour in Kalyani where she grew up. At first Sujata knew him as a son of a physics professor at the University, a colleague of her father’s. They used to visit each other’s homes quiet often. It was at her father’s request that Suvayu, who had begun to make a name for himself as a brilliant student in senior school, took on the task of tutoring Sujata in mathematics. In hindsight Sujata was sure that teaching a class six student basic mathematics could not be much of an interesting task for an academic superstar that Suvayu was fast becoming. Despite this, Suvayu’s enthusiasm about even the most mundane of mathematics problems was so obvious that even her young mind couldn’t help being deeply impressed.
The tuition went on until Sujata switched to Arts after passing the class ten exam. This did not being their friendship to a halt, though. If anything, they started spending even more time together, if that was possible – seeking out the smallest pretext to be in each other’s company. When they ran out of pretexts, they would just sit on the roof and talk for hours. Even in today’s so called liberal times, such a relationship would have been frowned on, Sujata realises – but they were very lucky in the way their respective families treated them. Her mother had mildly protested at first, citing, as usual, what the neighbours would have to say – but as far as serious objections go, that hardly counted. Actually, Suvayu’s father was very fond of Sujata – and Suvayu, he simply could do no wrong in the eyes of her parents! While nobody said it out loud, least of all the two of them, it was almost taken for granted all around that it was just a matter of time before they got married. The issue never featured in their conversations – perhaps because any other possibility simply didn’t seem to be on the cards, especially as far as Sujata was concerned.
Just as was expected, Suvayu graduated with top honours from the University. Again as expected, he managed to get a prestigious scholarship to study under a world famous computer scientist in Harvard. Sujata’s mother had asked them to consider the idea of their getting married before Suvayu left for the states, but she had found this idea, as well as the underlying notion that her Suva-da could stray once he was halfway across the world, absurd.
Suvayu used to write regularly the first few months after landing in the States. The times were very different. There were very few computers around – and none at all in ordinary homes. This was even before the era of cyber-cafes mushrooming in every street corner. Sujata had learned from her Suva-da of this wonderful new means of communication called the e-mail, which allowed you to communicate almost instantly to just about anywhere in the world … Indeed, it was via this very e-mail that Suvayu had managed to get in touch with his mentor Chris Brown, the Harvard Professor. But that was available in very select places – thankfully Suvayu’s University was one of them. And computers? Sujata could still remember the day Suvayu took her along to his Department to see their latest acquisition – a 486SX machine that cost a whopping 1.5 lakh Rupees! Memories of the near reverent feeling they had both had then brought a smile to Sujata’s lips – why – even her cellphone is way more powerful than that Juggernaut! Sujata felt a twinge of nostalgia as her thoughts returned to the days back then – she used to wait almost with baited breath for the blue bordered white envelopes that arrived once, sometimes twice a month – Par Avion written in bold red letters across the top. Sujata remembered falling in love with the French language – if two mere words could evoke such feelings in her, how wonderfully intoxicating must the real thing be?
Suvayu filled those letters with all sorts of detail. The wonders of the campus at Harvard, the spending time with street performers in Copley square, the beauty of the Charles river, the amazing rush of watching the whales leap out of the Atlantic, and so many, many more things! Even after all these years the images conjured up by those words seemed to flash before Sujata’s eyes – it was almost as if she had seen them herself! On top of all these, Suvayu kept on writing her about his work – the wonderful strides that computing was making, how the world as we know it will change as a result – every page bore testimony to his great excitement with his role in all this. From childhood Sujata had leaned towards music – but she was not averse to the wonders of science. The letters ignited in her a keen interest in this brave new world that was being created in their own lifetime. Not that she could understand all that Suvayu wrote – sometimes he got carried away and went on and on about what Sujata could only assume to be highly technical stuff – but his excitement and wonder shone through brightly on every page. Those letters were the real reason why she had been bitten by the computer bug – and that’s ultimately why today she has ended up being the honorary sound editing expert of both her college and her local club – completely self-taught, but quiet competent.
This hectic letter writing phase had lasted for all of two years. Then, as Suvayu got more and more engrossed in his research, the letters became more infrequent. Where earlier two letters had arrived in most months, now Sujata could count herself lucky if even one came along in two months. At first, Suvayu used to apologise about his tardiness in the letters – describing briefly the immense pressure he was under, how their group was developing a revolutionary new method for combating computer viruses, how their work, if successful, would revolutionise the world of computing and so on. It was not long before even these letters stopped coming in. Sujata clearly remembers the letter she wrote four months later – in it she had stated, explicitly for the very first time, that she loved Suvayu. There was no reply.
Avik turned over in his sleep, the noise bringing Sujata’s thoughts back to the present. Was she really happy today? Probably, she decided. It’s true that forever busy Avik could not give their daughter, or her, as much time as they deserve, but there was no doubt in her mind about his affection for them. And wasn’t she busy herself as well? On top of her teaching she had to take time out for their daughter, her in-laws, her parents – leaving her precious little time for Avik, and even less for herself! Did she like being the ever-patient, ever-thoughtful, mature adult who bore it all? Of course not! Sometimes she did feel like chucking it all up and taking off to some faraway place – with just Avik and Molly for company. But the most she could realistically hope for, given how difficult it was to match their schedules, was an occasional film show, or at most an evening dining out – but even such occasions were few and far between. Despite all this, she is quite happy with her lot, Sujata told herself. Her childhood friend Rini sometimes chided her about her unkempt appearance “I wonder why Avikda has not taken off with one of those pretty young students of his – what with you never trying to look anything other than the grumpy old auntie you’ve become!” Though she feigns anger at such questions, Sujata finds it absurd to think that Avik – the stick in the mud who can’t tear his face away from the laptop screen for more than a few seconds – would actually show enough initiative to actually go through with an affair!
Sujata had never told Avik about Suva-da. Not that there was really any active deception on her part. When she met Avik it was more than five years after that last letter. By the time the dull ache that seemed to pervade all her days had subsided – indeed, she hardly ever thought of the by now big shot computer scientist any longer. The endless hours the two of them had spent chatting seemed like some distant memory – not important enough to bother the newfound love of her life with. It was this very omission that had forced Sujata into a small lie today. By virtue of newspaper reports as well as Facebook she was fully aware that the eminent computer scientist Suvayu Chakraborty had been invited by the Government of India to head its new cyber-security initiative, that he had given up a very prestigious directorship of one of America’s leading research laboratories to head back to the motherland, that he had never married… Not that the newspapers reported the last one – but mutual childhood friends did keep her updated from time to time.
Sujata was not very clear why she had concealed the fact that she did know today’s main speaker much better than she had led Avik to believe. The fact was, when he had mentioned Suvayu’s name, today of all days, Avik had caught her completely off guard. Today of all days, because today, after more than a decade, the thought of Shuvayu Chakraborty was swirling around in her brain. That initial off-the-cuff response had led to further concealment, until here she was, sleepless in the middle of the night, racked with both the pain of unrequited love and the guilt of not being entirely open with her partner of fifteen years. It was all Siladi’s fault – thought Sujata, as she finally felt sleep start to overcome a stiff resistance from her restless mind. It was Siladi’s choice of the golden oldie, chhande chhande duli anandey that had sent her mind into a frenzy of thoughts on Suvayu. And why not? Banaphul had been Suvayu’s pet nickname for her – all those many, many years ago.
Avik sat up with a start. Straining his eyes hard, he managed to read the wall clock by the street light that had managed to creep in through partially drawn curtains – it was a quarter to four. Turning to his right he saw Sujata sleeping on her side, the faint light lending her peaceful face a quiet, calm glow. Avik could see that she had not heard whatever it was that had woken him up. But, what exactly had that been? Hadn’t he heard a noise that had cut right through his slumber? Avik tried very hard to listen – but for a while all that he could hear was the yelping of a few street dogs in the distance, and an occasional jaagtey raho, from a diligent night guard. No, this was definitely not what had woken him up. It was something nearer, something that sounded very familiar… After straining his ears for a while Avik decided that he must have dreamt up the noise – whatever it was. Just as he laid his head down on the pillow again, hoping against hope to catch up a few more hours of sleep before the daily grind commenced, he heard it – the sound was unmistakable this time. It was a song – and a very familiar one at that. The sound was coming from the next room – Queen singing Spread your wings and fly away. It was Piyali, quiet amazed that the apparently staid Avik was a Freddy Mercury fan, who had gifted him this mp3 a few months ago. The song must be playing on his laptop, realised Avik. A smile had started playing on Avik’s lips at the thought of Piyali, only to change into a puzzled frown. Granted that it was his own laptop that was playing the song, but just what in heaven’s name was it doing paying the song at this ungodly hour? Must be something that Molly had done – the girl keeps on tinkering with his stuff despite, or perhaps just because of, being told repeatedly that they are not to be messed with. Avik realised that there is no way that he could solve the mystery of the playing laptop from his bed. In any case, the music must be stopped. It’s a blessing that Sujata has slept through the whole episode – Avik fully appreciated that with her heavy schedule she needed her little sleep way more than he did – but the loud song would surely wake her up if it were allowed to go on. Stretching out his arms and legs, more to gather his wits than anything else, he stepped out of the bed into the next room. The errant laptop was on a table on the far side of the room. One look at it and Avik was dumbstruck – the song was being played on the laptop all right, but the laptop itself had its lid closed – it should have been automatically suspended! There was no denying though that it was, in fact, blaring away! Afraid that this will surely wake Sujata up, Avik tried desperately to shut the laptop down. The combination of sleepiness and haste wasn’t working in his favour at all – he messed up his password twice before finally managing to enter his nickname and Molly’s birth date in succession. Even in this haste his mind flashed back to the sermon on passwords he had heard a few hours ago – definitely not the most secure of all practices! While struggling to shut down the music player program he made a note to himself about changing the password, and soon. The music player finally stopped, leaving him facing Molly’s dear smiling face. This wallpaper was one of his own clicks. Molly was looking so beautiful in the new dress that they had bought for her twelfth birthday … Avik sighed in content as he stretched out his hand to close the lid of the laptop. His hand froze as he stared, horrified, at the new image that replaced Molly’s face. It was another smiling face – another picture that he himself had clicked a few months ago in a function at his college. Piyali’s smile was not one that Avik had expected to see, though. He had deleted this picture, as well as the others he had snapped of her, from his laptop – afraid that Sujata might not take to kindly to them. Strange – hadn’t Suvayu Chakraborty mentioned in his lecture that in the world of zeros and ones deleting a file does not make them go away permanently – not even if you remember to empty your trash! An enterprising hacker can bring them back to life – has he been the victim of a hacker attack? Avik dismissed the thought as ridiculous the moment it entered his mind – what possible reason can any hacker worth his salt have of messing around with his files – not that he had a treasure chest hidden in his laptop! Then … was it Sujata who had somehow managed to resurrect this picture? Was she suspicious of his feelings towards Piyali, and had managed to orchestrate this somehow to get back at him? Even in his current muddled state of mind this seemed even more preposterous than the hacking theory. Sujata being Sujata, she would have confronted him straightaway and have a blazing showdown – such underhanded manoeuvres are completely alien to her! By then a slideshow had commenced on the screen – picture after picture of Piyali, some that he had taken with her knowledge, some not – flashed in a lazy succession. Just as Avik managed the strength to take another go at turning this damn thing off, he stiffened – the picture that was now showing up on the screen was not one that he had seen before. It was Piyali all right – but this was in somebody’s home – all the pictures that he had taken were taken at the college. As the screen dissolved into a closer view of the same picture, a shiver ran down his spine. There was no mistaking the painting of the mermaid in the wall behind Piyali’s smiling face. It was his own sitting room – a room which, to the best of his knowledge, Piyali has never visited! So, Avik thought in both horror and disbelief, Piyali must have got the wind of his feelings, and finding them unwelcome, must have come and complained to Sujata. This was the only possible explanation! The two of them must have connived to give him this scare. Avik was still busy figuring out the kind of hurt indignation that he must adopt when Sujata finally confronts him over this when the screen changed again. This time it was their bedroom. Piyali was sitting on the bed, an annoyed grimace on her face, as the man next to her wrapped her in a tight embrace. Avik could feel his heart hammering away even as his brain tried to grapple with the scene he was witnessing. Despite the man’s back being towards the camera, Avik had no difficulty figuring out who he was even before the next picture, taken from the other side, came on. A faint choking sound came from the door. Avik turned to see Sujata standing there, her eyes fixed on the screen – staring at his face staring back at them over Piyali’s shoulder.
Avik sat up straight with a gasp. His heart was still pounding away, his chest heaving. He felt dizzy. Even the sight of Sujata, sleeping peacefully, did little to help him calm down.
So, it was just a nightmare after all! A few minutes passed before Avik could compose himself enough to lie down again. Just as he was, he heard a crackling sound coming from Sujata’s laptop by the side of the bed. It had started playing chhande chhande duli anandey – ami bonophul go!