“Casting aspersions on the dead is wrong,” said Manosh Dhar in defence of late Rathin Gupta, his poet friend for almost eight years, with whom he shared worries and passion for cinema and literature.
The other two friends were not sure whether the allegations levelled against their poet friend were fabricated and malicious.
“You have to see the other side. This lady claims to have known him at a time when he was a complete stranger to us,” enlightened Jogen Lahiri, “and about this particular phase of his life we have no clue. He settled in our locality just a decade ago.”
This opinion did not go down well with the other two.
“What is this lady called Suparna Gomes grumbling about? Is she trying to tell that Rathin Gupta was an ordinary poet early in his career? Or her grudge is that though she lived in the same area as Rathin did during those days she did not win his attention?” Arun Das shot back with a genuine urge to unravel what the lady was trying to achieve after years of silence.
There was merit in this observation since the timing of her scathing attack was significant. Just after Rathin Gupta had won the Sahitya Puraskar, Suparna Gomes appeared on the scene and cried foul – apparently to smear the image of the noted poet in the eyes of his readers.
Stumped by this insight, Jogen Lahiri burst forth, “You mean Gomes is trying to seek revenge for being spurned. A story of revenge and betrayal? You are creating a strange twist in the plot. I don’t buy this at all.”
“Though I am not fully convinced with this being the ulterior motive, I cannot entirely dismiss its possibility,” Manosh Dhar cut in when Arun Das looked at him for support.
Three friends tried to explore several possibilities and analyze intent. One was defensive of Gomes, one overtly critical and the third switched sides depending on the pull of the argument.
Very convincingly, very dramatically, very conveniently Suparna Gomes said in the local media that she had believed Rathin Gupta to be dead all these years. Only the recently published book of poems made her realise that Rathin Gupta was still alive, writing and winning accolades. It was divine justice that he did not live to receive the prestigious award. She felt proud to unmask Rathin Gupta.
To arrive at the truth was important, for the sake of their departed poet friend who had no one to defend him. Moreover, they realized the need to know the real Rathin. The task was daunting and Suparna Gomes was not the source they could bank on though meeting her would help them find some clues. Some photographs, some letters, some mementoes, anything from her would be resourceful.
Before meeting her, they felt the need to do proper homework. It was a foregone conclusion that it would require some skill to extract information from Gomes who would become wary once she learnt that they were his friends during the last days.
Manosh Dhar took the other two to Rathin’s house. He was confident of getting hold of something clinching. The servant who had served him was a lady who wept inconsolably.
Hoping that she would open up, Manosh exploded, “It’s shameful that people are asking about your relationship with Rathin. You have not left this place even after his death.”
“This is where I would like to die. I have nowhere else to go,” Radha broke down.
Ignoring her outburst, Arun Das said, “Show us the room where he wrote.”
Without replying she went in, and the three followed her. She pointed to the ante chamber next to his bedroom. A small almirah, half-open, with lots of unarranged papers inside, an amputated chair, a writing desk and a bookshelf.
Jogen Lahiri asked Radha not to leave. “One personal question. Did Rathin ever misbehave with you? Made any demands? Please be honest. He was our good friend but there is a lady called Suparna who makes shocking charges about him.”
“If I say yes, will you call him wicked? Will you believe a servant?” Radha asked.
“Well, your view is certainly important. You have spent such a long time with him. It will help us reach a conclusion.”
After a lengthy pause, Radha said, “Honestly speaking, I always wanted to make him happy. In every sense, a woman thinks it possible. But he never forgot Shabana. Every week he wrote letters to her and those came back undelivered. There must be a bunch lying in that almirah.
Arun found a thick bunch on the upper shelf and began reading the first page aloud. It spoke of unrequited love. A sample of passionate prose gave them an idea of how deeply he loved the woman called Shabana. The one undelivered last month spoke of how happy she would be to see him honoured.
Meeting Radha was beneficial. They learnt of her status and how he lived with her. Inside the poet’s room, they saw a double bed and two pillows stained with hair oil. They noticed some red dot-sized bindis affixed to the bedstead. From her, they got to know that the man loved Shabana. They felt like rubbishing the charges made by Suparna Gomes. Now they wanted to find Shabana. They noted the address – Dhaka, Bangladesh. Undelivered means Shabana had left that place without a forwarding address.
When it was not possible to meet Shabana, they felt that they should at least meet Suparna Gomes. Maybe, something worthwhile leads to revelations that change their views forever.
Arun was confident that there was more that Radha could offer, some nuggets that could be of help, some secrets waiting to tumble out. Without consulting the others, he ventured forth, “Would you say that Rathin changed for the better in his last days compared to what he was when he came to live here?”
“He willed this house in my name last year,” Radha said slowly with pride.
Manosh turned around with swiftness, “What! This house is yours! His kindness or an undue favour?”
Radha turned silent.
Jogen Lahiri implored, “But why?”
“It shows he cared for her loyalty, isn’t it?” Arun answered knowing that she would at least nod favorably to his framed response.
All of them looked at her face, to observe the changes in expression.
Manosh and Jogen were of the view that one meeting was not sufficient for a complete expose since they had never been on friendly terms with her. It would be unfair to seek all the answers at one go. Radha had with substantial frankness provided valuable information.
Arun wanted to spend more time to find out the nature of her relationship with the poet. He felt there was more to gather and since Radha had fallen prey to his interrogation, he was confident of making her spill the beans. Others thought differently when she slipped to the kitchen.
After elaborate discussion, the majority view prevailed. They left the house without taking her leave.
On the way back home, they discussed with surprise, shock, and anger that they never knew their poet friend had gifted the house to her.
“Nobody gives away property like that. There was surely something between the two,” Jogen said with authority.
“There was a wide age gap,” Manosh said disdainfully.
‘You don’t know these creative people; age is nothing in matters of love. Haven’t you seen how honestly she revealed her feelings for Rathin Gupta?” Jogen Lahiri reasoned in the light of what he had observed.
“You mean there was physical intimacy between them?” Arun asked in utter disbelief at first.
After poring over it for a while, he changed track: “The kind of erotic stuff he wrote…I mean the descriptions match with certain traits of Radha; her walk, her mannerisms, her expressions. I read some poetic lines so it could be true,” Arun said with insight.
“That means she did inspire him creatively,” Manosh observed.
“Creative inspiration is something different but we are trying to delve into his ‘dirty’ past,” Arun said aggressively, “And are we anywhere close to that? We will come to Suparna or Shabana later but I am sure Radha knows a lot. What role Shabana played is difficult to find because we cannot reach out to her. We cannot make it a mission of our lives when we ourselves are old and tired.”
“Yes, we need to find out if Suparna Gomes is interested in meeting Radha. Let us first meet Radha once more to ascertain if she can contest those charges and give a befitting reply. I think that should be better,” Jogen suggested.
“This makes our task easier but we need to tell Radha all that Suparna says. She has called Rathin a fake poet. Radha will obviously say that she saw him write and the lines bear resemblance to Shabana,” Manosh reasoned with foresight.
After a week of introspection, the three of them went to meet Radha one afternoon.
The visit was useless. The grille gate was padlocked. They enquired from neighbours. They were told that the lady had left for Bangladesh.
It was considered likely that she had gone to find out where Shabana was and it was a mission to bring her back. Or had she escaped to that country because they were told that she came from that country along with her husband who died in a truck accident years ago? Multiple options are so scary.
“We should reply to Suparna saying she is incorrect and invite her here as we his friends are of the view that she does not know the complete truth,” Manosh said with new-found conviction.
“We are still confused. One side of the brain says Suparna is right and a moment later our heart says she is lying,” Arun said with crackling honesty, “Why do we get into all this as we learn mere half-truths? After spending so many years we did not know Rathin as a person. We have doubts about his past. Why do we bother to know all that? What interest do we have? What do we gain? Plus, do we really know a person ever?”
“I can grant that Suparna is right,” Jogen said, “because many people perform incredibly noble deeds of kindness and gratitude to lessen the guilt, to offset the wrong doings of the past. That’s how I would interpret it.”
“Let us meet at the tea shop tomorrow evening and then decide,” Manosh proposed to end this guessing game.
It was a difficult night for Arun as he could not understand why Radha had left suddenly. Had she got to know where Shabana was?
Manosh was incisive when he met them the next evening, “I see that Shabana is Radha. This could mean Shabana was a part of her personality that she had left behind. And she has gone to find her estranged self.”
“But how did Rathin meet Shabana in Radha?” Jogen asked with child-like curiosity.
“I cannot answer it because I am myself looking at possibilities. I do not say it is the truth,” Manosh clarified, offering a disclaimer.
A disturbed Arun said, “I can’t take it any further. This tension is killing me. What will all this give us? We were thinking he was our friend. But was he a true friend? Did he consider us friends? Radha knows what Suparna has said and she should go and defend Rathin Gupta. He has a nominee, a survivor. It is her duty.”
These valid observations made Manosh agree with Arun.
“Should we then consider Rathin Gupta a grey character? All these years I thought I knew him inside out. But we know so little of him. One thing is crystal clear. He was not as simple as we thought him to be,” Jogen reflected.
Bumba trooped in with cups of lemon tea and filter cigarettes. Arun lit one and blew rings of smoke like a detective lost in deep thought. Manosh clamped one between his lips and looked outside with suspicion. Jogen slurped tea after putting the cigarette in his kurta pocket. There was no mention of Rathin Gupta after tea was served.