Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
An Evening Like No Other
By Susin Munshi
So many things combine to make a memorable evening remembered and recalled for ever and ever. I was a senior in college when I befriended Dipankar, a chance acquaintance, which led to my being present one evening in his apartment. Why Dipankar had an apartment all to himself while the rest of us lived in our family homes, or, like myself, in a student hostel is no mystery? You see, Dipankar’s father had a transfer job, that is, he travelled frequently to different cities and towns where he was given living quarters for himself and Dipankar’s mother. The apartment was there for their visits during vacations and breaks. An arrangement that perfectly suited one of Dipankar’s pastimes, a band that met to practice at the apartment. The apartment was on the top fourth floor of a new and upcoming construction of apartment style living complexes in Park Circus, a swiftly developing residential area of Calcutta, now Kolkata. Their proximity to the cities business hubs in Dharmatala and Dalhousie made them attractive for up and rising executive types. They were also fairly close to the city’s shopping hubs at New Market, Chowringhee and Gariahat, Ballygunge. Finally they were really close to Park Street, the city’s strip for classy restaurants and nightclubs.
Each floor had two adjoining apartments with access from a common elevator and stairwell. Each apartment had a long balcony that overlooked the street and faced the other apartments across the street. Unless you were really from the neighborhood you couldn’t tell one apartment building from the others. The developers had decided to whitewash all the apartments in sunflower yellow with green doorways, so they all appeared the same to a first time visitor. However, they were clearly numbered and one could easily locate a friend’s residence. Dipankar’s next door neighbors were Rekha and Dolly, two college going sisters that lived with their parents. Rekha who was going to Rabindra Bharati University was getting a master’s degree in performing arts. Rekha was two years older than Dipankar, myself, and Dipankar’s other close friend at that time, Ragish. Dolly was a freshie at college.
Which brings me back to Ragish. His name means “the man of song” but the slightest hint of femininity ended right there. Because besides being a Ragish, Ragish was in every way a true Rajeshwar, the Raja of good looks and masculinity. Now I have never been attracted to men though I do admire the fine looks of several movie stars, sportsmen and athletes. I found Ragish especially admirable and attractive, especially his singing, specifically Rabindra Sangeet, and one song in particular, “Eki labonye purno praano,” which translates to the English – “O Lord of all Beings / What grace and beauty /Pervades my whole body / In so glorious a spring” ( From Rabindranath Tagore’s, “Geetanjali”, Puja, Song # 539). No wonder both Rekha and Dolly would regularly swoon over him. Even Dipankar and I felt attracted to him in a Platonic way. Perhaps because of Ragish, and Rekha, Dolly and Dipankar that one evening has remained permanently etched in my memory. Dipankar had warned me that once I entered the apartment complex to be aware of the many cricket, football and badminton games and matches that were all going on at the same time on the long streets that wound up and down the apartment complex. It was so important to use up all the available acreage to construct the apartment buildings, for which there was an increasing demand, that the developers didn’t think about playgrounds. No problems. In short time the residents, even if there were playgrounds, would use up all the streets for the different matches, true to the age old tradition of Calcuttawallas. Any ways, I was able to maneuver through all the activity and arrive at Dipankar’s address without upsetting anyone.
That evening the band was off. Instead we listened to duets and solos. Rekha and Dolly were fine singers too. Dipankar sang, played the keyboard and sometimes a soft rhythm on his drum set. I had never been blessed with a singing voice or singing lessons. But over the years listening to my mother and cousins singing Rabindra Sangeet and performing Rabindra dance dramas in our home I had developed a keen appreciation for his songs and plays. The real magic that evening was in Ragish. With every song he lived up to his name, “The man of song.” I could also sense that there was a special attraction between Ragish and Rekha. They sang for each other. They sang to each other. Dolly, Dipankar and I were invisible to them or they had relegated us to the shadows. Indeed there were shadows. As so often happened in those days, people in Calcutta lived through long evenings of power shortage called load shedding. Entire neighborhoods went dark. Citizens restored to candles and kerosene hurricanes. If the breeze was silent, hand fans came out. None of this mattered to Ragish and Rekha as they sang one song after another, echoing their love and longing. The evening belonged just to the two of them. Rabindranath echoed what was in their hearts – “My heart is secured with yours my love with a musical garland.” (Bengali, Aami tomaro songey bendhechi amaro pran.)
I too was not above falling in love with a Rekha myself that evening. The songs were too heady and the jui flowers she adorned her hair with cast their own spell. Fortunately, Rekha was all eyes and ears for Ragish only. When night approached, I made my excuses and headed back to my dorm. The power came back and street lights came on. Several badminton enthusiasts began to set up their gear for a night time game. I avoided them deftly, made my way out of the development and headed for the bus stand to catch my return ride to Park Street. A few strains from a favorite Rabindra Sangeet filled my heart and soul –
“Oh, how you sing
All I can do is hear in awe
Your melodious glow pervades the world
I cannot say why my heart cries out.”
(Bengali – Tumi kemon korey gaan koro he guni, Geetabitan, Puja, #4)