“Have you read Marcel Proust?”

The silence that greets this question, if divided by two, would be just enough to sublet a small room by the highway at night. Low on rent, the food not too reliable and it usually takes time to fall asleep there.

“I understand. André Gide? Have you?”

The silence that answers this one, with just a little more added to it, would get you an apple orchard on a hilltop where desolate workers turn up once a week, the wind on the rest of the days, in silence.

“Not even that? Alright. James Joyce?”

This silence is enough to stir envy in a sturdy vase or neatly folded washed curtains in a house that’s been locked for ages, a house where no mail arrives any more.

“Goodness! You haven’t read Kafka either, have you?”

Now the silence will break, like softly crushed peanut shells.

“Yes, I have. Just The Metamorphosis.”

Pushkar’s reply is soft. There are at least eight other people in the longish room, all staring at him– the new entrant, small, slim, dishevelled hair and unkempt beard, the boy named Pushkar. Dressed in a kurta and a pair of faded jeans teamed with an equally raggedy jhola bag, the boy looks exceptionally innocent and out of sorts, like an unused boat tied at the fisherman’s wharf because it cannot withstand the waves of the sea. Or like old magazines folded on benches at a saloon, magazines whose gloss and relevance have long faded, but ones that idle customers do leaf through from time to time.

One can also say he resembles the narrow balcony of some cheap hotel where discarded things are dumped throughout the year and where only a few venture once in a while. These are all similes of Pushkar’s own invention whenever he stands in front of a mirror. He has no way of knowing if the people staring at him think the same of him.

These questions are not from them but from the boy his age sitting on the bed. Nirban. Surprisingly, this room, too, has two adjacent windows right next to the bed. These just have a sliver of the wall separating them, as in they are not twins. There is a fine, expansive field outside where the colours of a football match have begun to appear in the afternoon. The sun is about to set as it is meant to, there is no rain or snow in sight. Does the world not split outside other people’s windows? Is that why people manage to go to college and office on time? As he asks himself these questions, he cannot help but think what on earth had possessed Abhijit to drag him here.

“Do you make anyone read what you write?”

Abhijit asked this question as he grabbed a handful of moori, puffed rice, for himself. They were in his house, sitting in the small, dark veranda. This must have been nearly a year back. This was not the earlier, hesitant kind of darkness.

This was darkness of a more refined kind, surely because it was Abhijit’s own house and not a rented one. It was around the last days of school; after years of being nurtured in the warmth of those uniforms they were about to be released into the world. All grown up, in body and mind. Abhijit was the “first boy” of the class, Pushkar was never anything like that. Yet they were friends, a friendship that had formed simply on its own. Growing up together, a love for reading, their preferences in music, these things matched so perfectly that it was impossible to not be friends. Besides, they were five boys huddled together in one tiny bench in their classroom. The rest of the room belonged to the boisterous girls, many of whom Pushkar was quite scared of. They were quarrelsome, some were known to pick fights, not letting the boys anywhere close to them. All except one, but more on
her later.

Nonetheless, the boys stuck together. Consequently, without either of them realising it, Pushkar and Abhijit became friends. Which meant coming back from school, freshening up, changing and then taking an auto to Abhijit’s house. A bright stretch of road, a paved lane, an old wavy bridge over the canal, a dimly lit path, a slip of a track and then Abhijit’s two-storeyed house. This was the route.

They were sitting and chatting that day on the first- floor veranda when Kakima, Abhijit’s mother, came by and placed a large ewer of moori in front of them. As if she firmly supported this conversation but held no expectations whatsoever. Abhijit picked up a handful and asked him the question again.

“Do you make anyone read what you write?”

“Which ones?”

“Obviously, I’m not talking about your economics notes here. Your poems. Did you have someone read them?”

“You have read them.”

Pushkar helped himself to some moori although picking out the chillies in the darkness was turning out to be a difficult chore, like stalking a convict through a forest in the dead of night.

“Yes, I have read a few. But someone else has read many more?”

Since this was an uncomfortable question, Pushkar silently thanked the elegant dimness and picked out a nut instead.

“Someone else? Who else?”

“Listen, don’t put on that act with me. You make Saheli read all your stuff. She takes your diary home, reads it and then brings it back to you. Everyone knows that.”

As soon as he heard her name, seated right there on the floor of that veranda, the image of a blue border on a plain white saree flashed through Pushkar’s mind. As if someone had hung the saree out to dry in faded sunlight and the fabric – the gradually changing and growing school uniform – simply refused to dry out completely. Refusing to shake the scent of dampness off itself. The name of that scent was Saheli too.

The name of a wristwatch with a thin, black leather strap. The name of the afternoon sunlight that filtered through the latticed windows of the school corridors. And even the name of the shy tiffin box with the brown lid. And the names of many more things. Saheli. People’s names are often not just their own, Pushkar understood this now.

Excerpted with permission from A House of Rain and Snow, Srijato, translated from the Bengali by Mahargya Chakraborty, Penguin India.