These extracts are from ‘Phantom Lovers’ comprising two novellas ,‘With Fate Conspire’ and ‘Wait!’ The tales make four lovers face despair and ordeals as they travel across the frontiers of space and time to fulfilment.
EXTRACTS FROM ‘WITH FATE CONSPIRE’
A monsoon storm shortly hit the bajra, which began swaying. The table was laid, candles were lit; food cooked in the nearby kitchen was served in the main cabin. Julian and Radha sat opposite each other, happy but pensive, as they toyed with the food. The nurse Mukta watched them from a distance, staring at the tall flame-haired Angrez saheb. She wondered how her “little mother” was going to live with the foreigner. The bride and bridegroom went to the jasmine scented lamplit cabin. They lay awake on the flower decked bed as the bajra rolled and pitched on the churning water. The howling wind drew them close. When the violet light of a monsoon dawn broke, they saw the barge sailing on the broad sweep of the river Ganga, towards the district headquarters where Julian was posted as district magistrate.
Julian sat at his desk for a long time. He did not call for his horse but walked home through the hot coral-hued dusk, stopping to gaze at the river where fragile fishing boats floated towards the Bay of Bengal. Women drew water in brass pitchers and children frolicked in the cool water. Standing there, he wondered why Indians– who had endured so much suffering and plunder, who accepting their fates, passed from existence to eternity without a cry– why had they now erupted into a violent Mutiny?
An autumn wind blew around us as we sauntered down majestic Kingsway. I, Alexander, led you, Madhusri, to a jewellery shop. As I pushed open the gleaming door, you stopped and asked, “Why are we here?”
“Don’t make a scene, Madhusri. I intend to buy an engagement ring for you. Come inside. I am not taking you to a lion’s den!”
Standing there, you looked at me as various expressions passed over your face.
I led you inside the shop. The modish manager came forward to greet us. I told him what we wanted. He handed us over to a stylish, heavily made up woman who brought out black velvet trays which displayed eternity rings and diamond circlets. Shaking my head, I said gruffly, “No, these won’t do. My fiancée is from a princely family. The Maharaja, her father, will be furious if I give her a tinselly ring.” I paused. “He may even withdraw his consent for our marriage.” You, Madhusri, looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses.
The now anxious manager glided over and brought out another tray on which glittered several solitaires. He moved away to make the selection. A coruscating emerald ring that rested quite apart from the others caught my eyes. I felt an inexplicable excitement because I had searched for this ring through Time. My fingers trembled as I picked up the exquisite piece. The emerald solitaire was held up by two golden letters – J and R –Julian and Radha – on either side.
Staring at it, you, Madhusri, whispered hoarsely, “I wore it…long ago… someone removed it from me when I…drifted into another world…where a beloved awaited me.”
Sliding the ring onto your finger, I murmured, “Wear it again, my love, until the end of Time.”
Turning to the manager, I asked, “Would a cheque on Barclay Bank do? The bank is next door, if you wish to verify my account.”
Convinced now that I was an adventurer who had seduced an innocent “native princess”, he murmured, “It will do, sir.” As I drew out the cheque book from my jacket pocket, I saw one of his purring lady assistants skip across the road and enter the bank. To gain time, the heavily made up madam brought us two cups of tea. After sipping the dismal tea, I wrote out the cheque, allowing time for the purring lady to return with affirmation about my cash-worthiness. Thus reassured, we exchanged the formality of purchase. You, Madhusri, watched the proceedings in distracted silence.
“Where was this ring made?” I asked the manager.
He replied. “I can’t rightly say, sir. The ring is of Indian origin as one may see from the chased-gold band. An Indian gentleman sold it to the owner of this store many years ago. He said it belonged to a young lady in his family who became a widow during the Mutiny. He thought it to be…”
“Inauspicious?” I asked sharply, angry that anything connected to Radha could be inauspicious. My thought took me by surprise. Did I know Radha? Who was this unseen being continually intruding on my thoughts?
The manager nodded. “It stayed in the velvet box for a long time. Quite by chance I brought it out today…if you wish to exchange it, sir…”
I glanced at you, Madhusri. It seemed as if you were trying to assemble fragments of a puzzle.
Images of Julian Ruthven ordering the ring for Radha at Cavendish Jewellers at Calcutta’s Chowringhee Road, flitted across my vision. I saw carriages trundle along the “Sahebi Para” or European area, where memsahibs under parasols walked to swaying crinolines. Indians were forbidden there. Then came the image of Julian pressing the ring on Radha’s hand on their wedding night in the storm-tossed barge. I felt dizzy again, as if that barge was swaying beneath my feet. I clutched the table and rebuked myself for these crazy thoughts which had taken possession of me.
“No,” I replied shakily, “we have been searching for this ring for a long time.”
The store manager gave me a long appraising glance. He seemed to muse, “This is not an adventurer. He is an educated bloke who has lost his marbles and the young lady is under the spell of this loon.”
I, Alexander, saw you, Madhusri, gazing at your slender hand that housed the emerald solitaire with the initials of J and R – as I had once seen – long ago.
EXTRACTS FROM ‘WAIT!’
I have nothing more to live for,” Rustom thought miserably.
But the human mind plays tricks with its owner. No sooner had he thought this when he decided: “I have to find Mama and sister. I have to reclaim our mansion. Most of all, I have to avenge Baba’ murder.” Then he admitted to himself, “I also want to live for life itself…to see the sky and trees, smell unfurling flowers, walk over hard packed snow, feel the cold breath of wind on my face, read books, hear music and…” He paused in pain. “Beyond these elementary desires lie the danger of dreams…of love and happiness that I plucked out from my mind even before the carnage began.
Every afternoon the jailer’s seventeen-year-old daughter Dilnaar went to the roof of their house to collect dried clothes, and to gaze at the prisoner who, despite the shabby clothes lent by her father, looked more like a prince than a dangerous prisoner. Watching him walk or read newspapers, she longed to go to the yard and ask him about the big world outside but dared not because her father had warned her not to go near Rustom, who was considered an enemy of the PDPA regime. “This learned and dignified prince cannot be dangerous,” Dilnaar mused, and daydreamed of running away with this prince to a safe land where he would make her his princess.
Gazing at the flowers swaying in the summer breeze, she sensed a presence that emanated inexplicable warmth.
“I knew I would find you here,” the presence murmured.
Afraid of the eyes’ deception, Minoti looked up slowly and saw Rustom standing before her. He looked thinner and his once bright eyes were dark with grim memories. His tawny hair was now woven with grey strands. He noted the sad changes Time had also gifted to Minoti.
“You are a phantom. You are not real, are you?” Minoti whispered hoarsely.
Rustom sat beside her. “Decide for yourself. Take my hand and see if this is the hand that caressed you. Touch my lips and see if they are the same which kissed you. Feel my breath on your cheek to verify if I am alive.”
She clasped his hand tightly, then traced his features with trembling fingers, and gazed at him with tear-brimmed eyes.
“From where have you come?” Minoti asked inaudibly.
“From where I thought I would never return.” Rustom replied.
Extracted with permission from Phantom Lovers: Two Novellas. Written by Achala Moulik and published by Niyogi Books.