Halfway through the reading, Ronny Banerjee finally accepted what the acid puddling in his stomach since lunch was trying to tell him: the story was shit.
Inside Pragya’s drawing room, the six or seven people who’d assembled this morning around ten – an unearthly hour for Tollywood – sat scattered on the plush sofas and the mahogany divan, all sleepy eyes and polite expressions, unmoving, seemingly absorbed in the narrative as Pragya read, her soft voice rising and falling to the hum of the air-conditioner. “And then, Mondira rose up in a fury and swept off the bed...”
Pragya made an arresting picture though, Ronny had to admit, as she sat on the ottoman. If her ramrod straight back drew attention to how statuesque she was, how much like her mother, with the broad shoulders and yoga-regular arms, the angle at which her knees were splayed and the way the pages scattered in front of her on the purple velvet softened the forbidding quality of their family beauty. Her lack of self-consciousness was what had made her so ideal for the part. But was that enough? Could character compensate for story?
“Srijon walked through the streets, hunting for something, a few tangible remnants of the past, perhaps?”
Pragya read; the audience listened; Ronny sighed in his corner, flexed his toes and looked about his person.
It seemed the afternoon had paused; in this house, a true testament to the pleasures of the Bengali bhadralok, with its wide verandas and select art and bookcases, it would be afternoon forever. Outside, Calcutta’s post-lunch hush had enveloped the neighbourhood, the shuttered shops, and the darkened bedrooms where mothers and children were napping after schoolday. Inside, the white marble dazzled where the sunlight fell; the lacy curtains fluttered in the breeze as delicately as the harmonious clinks that emerged from Pragya’s kitchen.
Pragya read; the audience listened; Ronny cursed silently.
At some point, a tea-trolley was wheeled in by Shaarani Sen, looking regal in a black Kashmiri caftan with red embroidery.
Pragya’s mother, the legendary if neurotic Shaarani Sen, appeared so rarely before Pragya’s colleagues that this tea ceremony became the climax of the reading. The heroine might be stranded and the hero walking through the streets of Calcutta depressed beyond belief – but nobody cared any more, if they ever had.
The acid now found its way to the back of Ronny’s throat.
Almost in panic, he stood up and stretched his arms. “Good work, guys,” he said, keeping his voice even. “Thanks. Shall we break for tea? Aami ektu ghure aaschhi tawbe? I’ll be back. Naa naa, no tea for me, complicates the acidity. Please carry on.” He bowed to Ms Sen, waved briefly at Pragya and slipped on his moccasins. Pragya looked somewhat put out. But then Pragya was Pragya – too well bred to ask questions – and without waiting to hear any comments from the audience, who were already gushing in the slightly dizzy manner people fell into before Shaarani Sen, Ronny stepped out into the garden.
The budgies in their gigantic enclosures were chattering in unison, much like the actors within. It was still quite hot. The gardener was dragging his hose behind him, and Debu, the cook, plucking curry leaves in a basket, muttered under his breath. Neither quite approved of Ronny and looked away pointedly as he walked past.
“Ronny-da, wait. Wait!”
Bobby had followed him out of the screen door, barefoot, and now hopped on the burning walkway from one foot to the other.
“Are you going to buy cigarettes? I’ll get you a pack, baba,” she said, ineffectually. “Wait a second. Ronny-da!”
But Ronny flashed past the bougainvillea and hibiscus, and by the time Bobby returned in her slippers, he had vanished into New Alipore, leaving the red wrought-iron gate open behind him. “Fuck,” said Bobby, willing herself to come up with excuses on behalf of her boss. “Should have quit when I had the chance.”
Ronny Banerjee did not have quite the celebrity yet that people would stop him and ask for autographs. It’s not that he wasn’t recognised – he was regularly in the papers and had a big following on social media – but the most common fallout of recognition was that when people did recognise him, they usually asked him about his star, Judhajit (Still his real hair? Actually so fair or was it make-up? Weight training or diet?); otherwise they told him the story of their life at a breakneck speed, hopeful of its potential for the silver screen.
And therefore, celebrity status notwithstanding, whenever Ronny found himself wavering and panicking – oftener than you might think – worrying or over-thinking, he slipped right back into his college-day habit of walking the streets of Calcutta, long and hard, grinding the footpath and crushing the gravel underfoot, almost wearing through his shoes in the span of one long day, a pair of dark glasses perched on his nose as a sort of joke.
In his Presidency days, he would carry a camera around, and these days he had his iPhone, but in essence the process was the same: there was the thing he knew in his heart; there was the thing he found himself committed to (world, parents, girlfriends, teachers, bosses, friends, yada yada yada). And the quarrel between the two played out fiercely in his head as he walked through the avenues and by-lanes of Calcutta, threading through throngs of people, each one of whom had their own compelling private quarrels playing out in their heads. His own private quarrelling rose to a crescendo and then, suddenly, the collectiveness of it all calmed him down in a rush.
Then the mad walking simmered into a quiet art form of its own.
Ronny loitered in street corners, sampling shingaras; photographed decrepit shopkeepers proudly plying their nearly forgotten trades, who frowned at him suspiciously as he lurked in their radii; played football with boys who wondered why he looked so familiar; slipped in and out of the gates of Presidency College at night – the security guards were all fans of Judhajit, the star of his films. All the while, his ears were tuned to the secret life of the city that coursed underneath the roads and railway tracks.
After all, you were a true Calcuttan only if you were an animal of its streets. It was on the streets, in a sort of communal individualism, that life in the city flowed. The places where you were known, the houses, the offices, the para clubs and the community centres – there was way too much politics and noise inside. It was, paradoxically, in the buses, the parks, the markets, the streets and the metro stations where, among strangers, despite the heat and din and crowds, that you found a sort of peace.
New Alipore was not one of Ronny’s favourite paras, not by a long shot. And perhaps for this reason, his panic did not abate even after fifteen minutes of circling the lanes with their quiet, once-stately houses. By the time he got to the middle of Majerhat flyover, having hurried to avoid the new-age yogurt boutiques and nitrogen ice-cream parlours on Nalini Ranjan Avenue and hoping to walk to the congested galis of Mominpur and Khidderpur where he had a couple of low-life friends who always cheered him up, late afternoon had begun to stain into dusk.
The traffic roared at him now. An un-November heat clung to his body as he walked hotly ahead, and eventually, bang in the middle of Majerhaat Bridge, rivulets of sweat pooling below his nose and running down his cheeks, Ronny felt the circumstances of his life congealing into an appropriate – but rather inopportune – metaphor. He was hemmed in from all sides.
There was the matter of money. The constant, corrosive worry about money. (He didn’t have any savings or health insurance, and all the investments he had made in his advertising days had lapsed.)
There was the matter of his parents, they were not getting any younger. There was the matter of the contract for Shomoy that he had signed in a bout of euphoria, the fineprint of which included an iron-clad time frame for delivery. And he was pushing forty. Yes, on balance, he had had a small spot of fame. Only thing nobody told you: fame didn’t pay for anything. Travels, yes, and fancy hotels – but every minute had to be accounted for.
When he had outlined all this to Pragya last night, she had laughed her merry, tinkly laugh: “Pushing forty is gynaecologist-speak, silly. Not meant for artists!”
He had hidden his face on her flat, flat stomach, but failed to find any comfort.
At Majerhaat, the lights changed; the traffic stalled; a goods train whistled below the bridge. The orange in the sky lit the buildings behind Ronny with a sort of heartbreaking lucidity.
“Forty,” Pragya had said, running her fingers through his hair, “is for artists to come into their own.”
Except, Ronny was quite quite sure he hadn’t been within sniffing distance of Art (or art) in the last two years, and now, with his so-called magnum opus, he was going further and further away, so much further that all he could see were the wasted years behind.
In front, everything was blurry.
Excerpted with permission from Friends From College, Devapriya Roy, Westland Books, to be published on June 30, 2019.