“What a perfectly horrible start to the year...” thought Ramola as she looked up at the clock one more time. Its hands were perfectly poised, one covering the other.
It was five minutes past one in the morning, the first day of 1937. Ramola Devi, star of Indian films, sat at the Victorian desk in her tastefully furnished bedroom, staring out of the window at a deserted Elgin Road. The lamp at her bedside illuminated her fair complexion and delicate features, her silky tresses hanging around her face, reaching almost to her slender waist.
Without any make-up she looked almost unreal, her slight frame resting on the velvet cushion of a mahogany chair. Her window overlooked a street lamp and she watched it flicker slowly, as she caught snatches of a telephone conversation in the next room.
“Bad lot, Sir, these ones, but we have to make do with them, that’s how the business is...very true, Sir, gives us a bad name, though we do try our best to better their lot, these girls...educate them...I’m sure you will understand...quite, quite...”
Then a minute or two of silence, the person at the other end was having his say.
Then once again, the voice in the next room broke in, “He should never have opened the gate at that hour, I was very angry myself. We have imported machinery, cameras, all very expensive...but possibly because he knows the studio girls...[laughing], he might have thought he stood a chance with her, if he let her in. You know these classes Sir...though it should never have happened...and I can assure you, we will not deal with it lightly...”
Then the other person spoke briefly before the voice at this end was heard again, this time a markedly relieved tone, “Absolutely, Sir...this is much appreciated...we have good relations with all the papers...that should be no worry at all...”
The clock in the next room had fallen behind again. It struck one, and Ramola lost Shankar’s words in the loud chime.
“Tea, then, any day that suits you, Ramola and I would be delighted to see you again...”
The conversation had ended, and Ramola heard the receiver touch down on the cradle with its familiar tinkle-clang. But almost at once the instrument whirred back to life as more numbers were dialled in.
She had told her maid to make a cup of her favourite Darjeeling tea and as she waited, nursing the hot cup in her cold hands, she shivered a little bit in the morning chill. Her husband Shankar Chattopadhyay, head of Bharat Talkies, was in the next room, making these untimely calls, the last one to the city’s police chief, whom he happened to know well, and who had been located at his favourite haunt at the Bengal Club.
Luckily for Shankar, if at all one could say that under the circumstances, it was the early hour of New Year’s Day, and several among the city’s notables were still up and about, ringing in the New Year, and he hadn’t needed to rouse people from their beds.
That moment, as Ramola was finishing her tea, he was trying to place a call to the police thana. And Anil, his deputy would be on his way there by now. Anil was good in any predicament. He had a way of talking things through with people. He would know how to handle the police. Subol, the accountant at Bharat Talkies who lived inside the premises, had telephoned from Shankar’s office at the studio, about an hour and quarter minutes back.
Menoka had hanged herself in the bathroom of the women’s dressing room, wearing one of the costumes from her new picture.
The very thought of it made Ramola feel sick in the stomach. She couldn’t, simply couldn’t for all her life, fathom the kind of despair that made people take their own lives, leaving behind everything that they had lived for.
“I couldn’t do it, if even I wanted to die,” she mused. “Maybe...it is a thing with these classes, not able to think through a difficulty...excessive in everything, uncouth... dramabaazi, dramatics in death even...”
She couldn’t but think harshly of Menoka’s breed, though of course she was horrified at the girl’s fate.
Menoka was Ambarish Dev Burma’s newest find, and had moved very fast from being chorus girl in one of the theatre companies to one of Bharat Talkies’ best new faces. She was a fast learner, and had delighted in being in front of the camera. Menoka had quickly picked up the ways of the studio para, the studio environs of Tollygunge in Calcutta, and even some social graces in the time that she had been at Bharat Talkies. Under Ambarish Dev Burma’s direction, she had appeared in two of last year’s hits, and had become rather a favourite of the variety papers.
Though, of course, Ramola herself had never acknowledged Menoka in any way. Menoka, not too long ago, had inhabited a house of disrepute in Bowbazar, a beshyabari, and all respectable ladies kept their distance from such girls even if they had made a name for themselves.
Even that night, Ramola, in her mind, rehearsed what would be her declared indifference to the whole thing. “So many of these unfortunate women come to us for a better life,” she would say if asked about Menoka. “We do try our best to uplift them from their fallen lives, but alas, their past often returns to haunt them...”
It was a line that one mouthed, keeping up the façade...one that was so carefully crafted and maintained in this “line” of theirs. But really, how inopportune that this should happen on the first day of the New Year, a time she always looked forward to, when everything seemed so nice somehow. What a very horrible start to the new year.
It had been the night of 31st December, and the city’s elite were raising their toasts in the hotels and clubs around Park Street and Chowringhee. Ramola and Shankar had been invited to the year-ending ball at the Grand Hotel, a magnificent affair attended by England-returned Bengalis and nouveau riche Marwaris. Her Excellency, the Lieutenant Governor’s wife, the evening’s distinguished patron, had taken a great liking to Ramola and they had spoken about making pictures for public instruction.
Ramola had worn a shimmering chiffon sari with a short-sleeved blouse, and diamond chandelier earrings and slender diamond bracelets. By far she had been the most beautiful woman in the ballroom, and she had acknowledged it with quiet grace.
Menoka had been out that night, with whom no one knew. She had arrived at the studio sometime after half past ten, woken the night guard and forced him to open the gates. She had been drinking, the guard had said, but seemed in her senses. She had made her way towards the women’s dressing room, where costumes were laid out for the rehearsals.
A half hour later the guard had found her in the bathroom, hanging by the sari she had worn that evening. Ramola and Shankar had just gotten home from the ball, when the telephone rang, and Shankar had rushed into action so the matter did not get into the papers and no names from the studio were dragged in.
Excerpted with permission from Menoka Has Hanged Herself, Sharmistha Gooptu, Simon & Schuster.