We welcomed 1965 – with hopes and without fears. My final year in the postgraduate course was drawing to an end. I had several good offers from institutions in England and Europe. You were halfway through lectures and papers on international relations. There was plenty to study and discuss that tumultuous year. I advised you to apply to international organisations. You preferred to wait until the end of the academic year.
You told me, “My father will be able to guide me on this. So, let us wait until June.” You had a touching faith in your father’s wisdom.
That June came – but not in the manner we had anticipated. You received a letter from your father informing you that he was ill and was advised to rest. Your gentle mother tried to cope but she had never dealt with finances or taxes. Your younger brothers felt rudderless. Under the circumstances, he could not attend the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. I remember that June evening when you stood in abject misery near the LSE clock, where we always met after lectures.
“What is it, Madhusri?” I asked, an old familiar fear clutching my chest, a fear I seemed to have felt across a century, when our parents tried to separate us. You handed me your father’s letter. I read it in growing distress, and paused to look at your sombre face. Though you disliked any “public display of affection,” I gently led you outside, where you sobbed in my arms. “Your father’s illness is curable,” I said firmly. “A course of iron injections will do.” Pleading for assurance, you asked, “Do you really think so?” “Yes. Let us go to my parents’ place. They will advise us what to do.” When we went to my parents’ place, you announced that you must go home to Calcutta to be with your parents.
Mother embraced you and murmured gently, “Of course, dear child.”
I was utterly astonished when Uncle Harry drew me aside and said, “Go to India with Madhusri immediately after the term ends. She will need strength now. I will pay your airfares.” In profound gratitude I hugged my stepfather, the stolid, unromantic, hard-nosed banker. My parents asked you to make trunk calls from their place. You came twice a week to speak to your parents, to ask about their health, and reassure them that you would return home in July. We were surprised when your mother sent a reassuring message. “Complete your studies. A few months will not make any difference.”She was obviously not in agreement with her husband.
But you, Madhusri, shook your head. “Mother is anxious. I can sense her sadness. I must go…if only for a few weeks… after writing the exams next month.”
“Would you like me to accompany you?” I asked anxiously, yet hesitant to intrude. You blinked back threatening tears. “I would like nothing better but perhaps my family would…” I nodded. “I understand. Sometimes, a family wants to be left to themselves in the midst of a crisis. I will be a stranger at the gates. But if I can help…let me go with you.” Looking at me gravely, you said, “I shall phone you after seeing how things are at home.”
Apple blossom time arrived in England. I marvelled at the manner in which you composed yourself and wrote the postgraduate exams. The time came for you to leave for India. We sat together in your hostel room on the evening before your departure. I told you to be brave for both your and your parents’ sake. “I lost my father when I was five. Life goes on relentlessly and opens other doors,” I said, embracing you, as if that would nullify the imminent separation.
As I drove you to Heathrow Airport the next morning, sunlight flirted with the clouds and danced on verdant trees. We waited in the lounge until your Air India flight was announced. I held you in my arms – for a minute and an eternity. Then I watched you walk across the tarmac, wisps of wavy hair flying around the sad cameo of your face, the end of your sari blowing towards me in reluctant farewell. Halting, you turned to wave. As you stood motionless looking at me, I had a wild impulse to run to the tarmac, board the plane and fly together to our destiny. You telephoned me from Calcutta a few days later. To hear you was to hear music! But the music faded as you told me briefly about your father’s condition. “The doctors think it may be something more serious.”
“Doctors are prophets of doom,” I replied tersely. “That is how they make their living.”
“But one has to take their advice.” You paused and said, “I wish you could be here – with your optimism.”
“I am ready, waiting, and willing,” I replied, imitating Eliza Doolittle’s father. You laughed. The sound warmed my heart and dispelled my inner fear. You hesitated before describing the chaotic atmosphere at home; one wayward brother and the other who had plunged into melancholy, your mother’s weariness and the disorderly servants. I waited eagerly for your letters, sometimes brief, sometimes long, imbued with dignity, never asking for sympathy. You described the kalbaisakhi storms that were a prelude to the monsoon. Those descriptions stirred memories of distant forgotten kalbaisakhis.
One letter described your visit to a Nabadwip temple by the Ganges on Lord Krishna’s birthday, of bhajans chanted by the devotees. Remembering our argument in Paris, you added mischievously, “The place was swarming with Krishna Consciousness votaries.” I smiled, visualising my sophisticated, high-heeled fiancée in that setting. Your last line moved me. “I prayed for our dear families – and for you, dearest Alexander. The ashram gave me peace. I felt I had come here once before to seek peace.” This also brought unease; I recalled family accounts of how Radha Ruthven had sought sanctuary in Nabadwip after Julian’s death and after their son Marcus was taken away to England.
Your letters were delayed when war broke out between India and Pakistan in August 1965. There was fighting in Kashmir, West and East Pakistan. Major cities were under curfew. It was difficult to get telephone connections, letters went haywire. How I feared for your safety through that terrible month! Confused memories of war disturbed me. Was it because of the Second World War or something older? Frantically, I read news of the Indo-Pakistan war. I wrote asking if I should come to India. I received no answer.
Excerpted with permission from Phantom Lovers: Two Novellas, Achala Moulik, Olive Turtle/Niyogi Books.