Dear Maliwan

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Malini Mukherjee

Dear Maliwan,
I was wondering if I should write ‘Dear’ against your name. It is, in our culture, customary to write Dear only to someone who is endeared to you. I don’t even know you. You don’t know me either. Yet I am writing this letter because we had known someone who had connected us in some way.

I am the wife of Anirban Basu. Yes, I know you would know me now. It is strange how we had been aware of each other’s presence for so long without having met even once or spoken to each other. You had probably known about me even before I had. I have often wondered how you look. I have met no Thai woman in my life. With my limited technology skills which I had acquired from my son, I tried to look for images of Thai women on the internet. I tried to draw, in my imagination, some resemblance between the faces I saw on my computer screen and you. I was not satisfied.

Have you wondered the same about me? Or did Anirban show you my photograph? I am 48 now. I had always known that I am exquisitely beautiful by Bengali standards. (You would probably know, that Bengal is the province in India to which Anirban and I belong.) It was because of my beauty that Anirban’s rich family picked me up from a not so affluent family and got us married, even though I was twelve years younger than their son. They were into business, as you probably know. Is it during one of his business trips that he met you?

After marriage, his father took care that I completed my studies. Anirban had already been managing the business by then, and was very busy travelling all over the world. I concentrated on my studies, having nothing much to do. Did I miss him? I don’t think so. Since childhood I was told that I would be married to a tall fair handsome prince, and here I was married to a person who was much older to me, not handsome in the conventional sense and did not share my interests of reading or music. No, I did not miss him. I had my books, my friends in colleges and numerous admirers, who kept me busy. We met, in bed, mostly, when he was back from his various trips. He wanted to find out about what I was doing, whether I was scoring well in my exams, whether I had friends or if I had watched the latest films. At times, he would ask me to invite over my friends when he was there, which I did, reluctantly. The parties flopped. He was a man of few words and even fewer interests. My friends felt awkward in the presence of a person who was years older and had nothing to share with them. He realized that soon too and stopped asking me to introduce him to my friends’ circles. He brought gifts for me from several of his visits: ornaments which did not interest me, clothes which I wore only once or twice or a fancy thing or two. Once he bought me a flower vase with intricate carvings, much to my delight. I remember he was somewhat surprised that I so marveled the gift.

You must be wondering why I am telling you all these. Maybe I want you to see him as I had seen him as a young girl. Maybe I want you to understand our relationship. And maybe…even I want to understand it better than I had done in all these years.

After three years of marriage, we had a child. Sapru, that’s what we call him, was a quiet child, always. At times I feel that he is too quiet for his age. He had never raised any tantrum, not even when he was a toddler. He had few friends and was good at studies. At times I felt sorry for him. And myself. He reflected my relationship with Anirban. Quiet, unattached, without any complaints or expectations. As Sapru grew up, Anirban observed him from a respectful distance. He would often say, “Sapru is like you. Good at studies and everything else.”There was no father son bonding as such. Sapru was busy with his school, tuitions, martial art and piano classes when Anirban was around. Anirban had never demanded his son to bunk off his classes and go to the zoo with him. Nor did Sapru ever ask his father to. But there was some kind of an understanding between the two, a mutual respect, I reckon. But it flowed like a hidden stream under the façade of a rock stiff communication between them. Sapru completed his studies, and is now staying in another city.

So you may say that we led a peaceful (yes, I am carefully avoiding the term ‘happy’) married life, no big fights, no demands, no expectations. I had joined a college when Sapru was three years, had a number of short affairs and one or two serious affairs with my colleagues and friends (By then, my in laws were dead) and led a contented life. If you ask me about Anirban, I am not sure. Perhaps he had affairs, perhaps not. But I must admit he had always taken great care of me.

And then you happened. Was it three years back? I started noticing that he looked happy. Not that he had not been happy all these years. He had smiled and laughed with us, gone on vacations, fairs and for shopping, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. But this was different. It was as if his entire entity was suddenly consumed by bliss, heretofore unseen.

I had not paid heed until one morning. I was in my washroom early, as had been my habit for years. I had left my sari in our bedroom, and had come to get it. As I walked in, I saw Anirban standing in front of our old almirah, where he had started keeping his office papers after I bought a new wardrobe for my clothes. He held in his hand a photograph. The early morning sun from the east window flooded a side of his tender smile as he gazed at the photograph, his head bent a little to his left. I stopped at the door. Now when I think of it, I don’t think I was curious. It was the smile which struck me. Very rarely had I seen that smile. Or never at all. It was a different Anirban. The affection for whatever was there in the photograph surpassed all the emotions I had ever seen in him. He did not notice me at first. But probably I shifted on my feet and he lifted his eyes, the smile still on his face. He found me looking at him. His smile changed to a more apologetic nervous smile and he quickly, a little too quickly perhaps, kept away the photograph in his locker, to which I had no access (not that I had ever wanted any access). I did not ask him anything. I could not. I had never asked about his whereabouts.

But as I went back to the washroom, it kept lurking in my mind. Whose photograph was it? Why was Anirban so engrossed in it? Why did he hurriedly keep it away? I kept thinking about it all day. I did not try to open the almirah. I did not have the keys. It occurred to me now that he had been very jovial last three or four months. Unusually cheery and full of life. Sapru had come down to Kolkata, where we stay, for a week. I had found father son debating on politics, sports and on issues I had never thought Anirban was interested in. Anirban even took us by surprise one night at dinner table by asking Sapru, now that he was a big boy, did he have a girlfriend. Sapru was taken aback. Such conversations with his father were not the norm. He almost choked on his food and then laughed. Sapru rarely laughs in this house.

It all came back to me now. I tried to make sense of his behavior. What could have brought such changes? Most importantly Who could have brought about these changes? I recalled that he had been making frequent business trips to Bangkok in the last two years. Sometimes he extended his stay. Someone there? Has he started an affair? I had heard not so good stories about your city. They say that men do not go there just for business.

I had never been a jealous wife. I never thought that I could be one. But these thoughts kept moving inside me like an incessant churning wheel, grinding my confidence. I told you that I had quite a few affairs in my life, some of which, I would assume, Anirban had known. I am still considered very beautiful and was far more accomplished than him. This was like an affront to all that I had thought I personalized.

Thankfully, he was out on a small trip for the entire following week. This gave me time to contain my confusions, anger and my frustrations. I felt small at the brooding thoughts which, I realized, belittled my long cultured upbringing. Yet it was difficult, very difficult. All my endowments had not been able to keep him, and can you blame him for that? We had never had a marital relationship. And can you blame me for that?

He returned on a Sunday. That evening I cooked his favourite fish with mustard and a sweet porridge we call payesh, despite my cook’s insistence that I should take rest because I did not look good. Yet I could barely look into his eyes when we sat at the dinner table. It was as if, I was ashamed, when, in reality, he should have been, if there had been any promiscuity. He must have noted the difference in cooking, but did not mention anything.

It was strange. We had spent almost twenty five years together. And though both of us knew that there were many things which had not been shared, we had not felt that we were hiding something from each other. It was… embarrassing. We avoided each other for sometime. Yet, I felt he was bemused at my dilemma. I could not bring myself to ask him anything. I wonder what he would have said if I did. Strangely, I started spending more time in the kitchen. May be to avoid him, when he was at home, or maybe… now that I think of it, to win him over with my culinary skills.

On one such evening, I found a novel by a famous Bangladeshi author on my table. He happened to be one of my favourites. Anirban saw me picking up the book. He smiled at me and said, “Hritthik (his friend) asked me to buy you this. Said you would like it.” This was the first time that he had ventured into my territory and bought me a book. I did not know what to feel. I started reading the book that night, as he sat reading the old newspapers next to me, which he had missed out on. I had read the novel twice before. One copy was inside my bookshelf.

So that’s how it all began. I started cooking for him everyday, and he started buying books for me, many of which were already in my possession. I understood that this was his apology and probably I was apologizing in my own way too. He started acknowledging my culinary skills for the first time in life, and I started reading out from the collections he bought. He listened patiently and would also make small comments at times, and I was surprised that some were not so out of context.

There was a lot of pretence in trying to make up for the heartburn, yet, I must admit this was new and it felt nice. Our communication reverted to normal and even better than ever before. I waited to read out passages from my books, and I knew he felt the same way. It was the new spring of our marriage, you may say. I was confident that he would now never go back to Bangkok, ever.

Yet it was not to be so. Within two months his tickets were bought and he was ready to fly. And surprisingly, he looked happy and unapologetic. I was crushed. The day he flew, I think I cried.

He came back within two weeks. I tried to keep my distance. But late in the evening, he brought out a collection of short stories by Thai authors. I was not impressed. But I wondered if you had selected it. My eyes burnt. I knew I could not be as normal as I had been earlier.

I would stand for hours at length in front of the almirah, wondering what was inside. Not that I wanted to look inside it. But its very presence inside my bedroom was an affront to my world. And one day, I found the keys to the almirah hanging from it. It was not many days after his return. I found it there just after Anirban left for his office. I stood in front of it. This was my chance to unlock the Pandora’s Box. But I knew, for sure, that the keys were not left there by mistake. It had never been left there by mistake, ever. I locked the door without looking inside. In the evening, when Anirban returned, I handed him over the key casually and said that I wanted to read an interesting story from the book he had bought. He looked up at me and smiled. Nothing was asked. No explanations offered. Our communication went back to normal.

In the next two years I had known the happiness I had never known before. It was, as if, I had discovered a new friend. Now that Sapru was on his own, we spent more and more time together, reading books, going out to watch plays or to our friends and relatives whom we had ignored for years. I saw him most previous year, received an award. He came to the award function with me. That night, I returned a content woman.

Within two months he was gone after a massive heart attack.

I know he had many friends and colleagues in Kolkata who traveled with him to Bangkok once in a while, if not frequently. I hope you had common friends and my letter is not the first to inform you about our loss. If it is, I want to let you know that he was in the hospital for two days, unconscious. And he passed away in his sleep. Once again I do not know if it is proper for me to send sympathies to you. It’s difficult, you see… Yet, I wanted you to know. I thought you had the right to know. But I had no contacts of you.

So, I opened the almirah months after his death. I had no interest in it anymore. I knew I had had the best time of my married life only after I had discovered you. Maybe it was rooted in jealousy. But, I did not regret it. Nevertheless, I opened the almirah, to see if I can get any contact address. I felt guilty, having to encroach in his territory which was so far locked from me. I gradually sieved through his papers, his business documents, letters from his parents, all letters from Sapru since he had moved out, our marriage album and some others. Nowhere was the photo I had found him looking into. I would have known if I had seen it again. Its size was grafted in my memory. Then I knew it. It was in the locker of the almirah. I looked for the key. It was not there. Later I looked for it amongst his other belongings. It was not there. Just as he had wanted me to look inside his almirah one day, he had not wanted me to look inside the locker.

No, I was not hurt. I had loved him too much in the last two years to suspect that he did not trust me. But yet, I found three letters, tied with a small ribbon from you. I knew it was you, by instinct. The letters were short, more like greetings on Christmas. The “Love you” s and “Take care”s did not perturb me. But the “Waiting for your next trip” fanned my curiosity again. I realized that I still wanted to know who you are.

I just realized that I have poured out my heart to a very unusual person. There is no one to share my story. I do not have a sister and my so called close friends would denounce me if they come to know that I had accepted my husband after having found out about his second woman. I hope you will have the patience to read the letter. I hope you will understand why I am writing to you.

I collected your address from the letters you had written to him. I must admit that I am looking forward to a reply from you.

Lipica Basu

Dear Mrs. Basu,

Hello. I am Maliwan . I received your letter. Thank you. It is a strange letter. You have a very nice style of writing. My English is not so good. I want to just say that I wish you good luck.
I am sending a letter of Mr. Basu with this letter. It was written to me sometime back. This will explain a lot.
Yes, I know about Mr. Basu’s death. I am sorry for you. We miss him a lot too.
With very warm regards
Maliwan.

Dear Maliwan,

I have arranged this letter to be delivered to you through my friend. I had been having some health troubles recently, and I fear that it might take a bad turn.

I miss my little Kavi a lot. Tell him that I am sorry for not having attended his Birthday Party this year. He is four now, isn’t he? Give him a lot of love and my blessings. I pray to God, that I get another chance to meet my darling, who has brought so much of joy to my life. I am glad that he is called by the name I gave him.

Maliwan, I have a request. You know that for the last six years I have considered you my daughter and told you a lot about me, as well as family. I have a request for you now.

I will not tell you how, but it was Kavi’s photo, which you had sent me after his second birthday, which had brought about an unexpected turn of events in my life. It is a very private matter, and involves someone else. Otherwise I could have told you all details. The turn of events was very happy for me and I had played a game for the last two years, the key to which is inside this envelope. Preserve it, and when I am gone, send it to my wife. You have her address, isn’t it? Tell her that I have asked you to give this to her.

As I write, I remember the day Kaushik took me to your home when I fell sick in Bangkok, six years ago. Your nursing had earned me a second life. Give my best regards to Nikom. You have a fine husband, dear lady.

I send my blessings to you and a lot of affection.

Anirban Basu

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Malini Mukherjee writes and publishes for children, primarily. But she takes great delight in writing and directing plays for children and adults alike, writing travelogues or short stories. “Mundane” and “Everyday” strikes her as fantastic, which she tries to pen down. She is an educator by profession, and founder member of Uraan, an educational organization.

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