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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Letter from a School Girl and Chocolate by Biswaranjan

The Letter from a School Girl and Chocolate by Biswaranjan

Originally written in Odia by Biswaranjan and has been translated into English by Dr Gopa Nayak

“After being rejected by girls from the college I fell in love with a girl from a school.” 

This was a line from one of the stories written by Priya Ranjan during his college days. The title of the story was - ‘The girl from a school’. In the early seventies when his first collection of stories was published he had included this story. Did he ever imagine that after almost twenty to twenty two years a school girl would read the story and would indeed fall in love with him and write a letter to him? However, sometimes these kinds of things happen. Things which are beyond the imagination of anyone and yet they come back to reality in flesh and blood. These things help to establish a relationship with life. 

Today such as an incident which is beyond imagination has taken place in Priya Ranjan’s life. He has a letter in a closed envelope in his fist. His name along with his address has been written in beautiful round letters in pink sketch pen on a deep yellow coloured envelope. After a long time he discovered the letter in the lifeless wooden letter box placed in front of the gate to his house. Most of the days, the box remains empty.
However, every day he opens it and closes it. He never gets any letter bearing any clue of life or excitement inside the box. Almost all of his letters come to his college address. And most of the letters are request letters either for a personal favour or from journals and periodicals to send his writing. Who has time to write a letter purely out of friendship? Sometimes, of course, there are some courtesy letters from readers. He did not have face to face interaction with such readers. Only the letters either applaud or criticise his writing. Priyaranjan even fails to write two lines in reply to these letters. Letters come only if you send letters. Then again when letters come, you have to write letters. However, for Priyaranjan writing letters and receiving letters had become a thing of the pasta story with pleasant memories.

Are those memories coming back to reality again after so many years? The letter written in pink ink in beautiful handwriting in a closed envelope sent to his address was a pleasant surprise to Priyaranjan. As soon as he held the letter in his hand he felt the shiver running through his heart like that of a young lover. He could not open the letter immediately. Who knows what mystery would be there inside the letter. In reality as soon as he opened the letter he realised the uniqueness of the letter. Before finishing the letter his eyes went towards the end of the letter. Instead of the regular ending there was ‘yours affectionately the girl from a school’. 

Who was this school girl? How did she know Priyaranjan? Hope she was not Nisha from his college days, the girl who would keep on waiting for him after coming from school. When Priyaranjan was in the third year of his college Nisha was a student from the eighth grade. That was a long time back. The school girl of the past now must be waiting at her doorstep not for Priyaranjan but for her beloved husband and her daughter to come back from school. Priya had kept track of her and knew that she was staying with her husband and her three daughters far away from Odisha in Durgapur.

The letter was local. It was posted from Baripada. Priyaranjan had come to this town almost a year back. It was a transfer by choice. After living in Bhubaneswar for a long time he wanted a change. He was becoming restless in the light and colour of the capital city. And when he thought about transfer Baripada came to his mind. He remembered the great literary figures and academicians like Mahapatra Nilamani Sahoo, Chandrashekhar Rath and Hrudananda Ray. They had told him many times – ’Dear academician, do go to Baripada once in your life time. During your working life you must have stayed in different places. However, you will find that the experience of living in Baripada is unique, especially for a poet and writer like you.’ He had come to Baripada to pursue that dream of uniqueness. He wondered around in the library and in the nooks and corners of the small town. He wrote if he wanted to or just whiled away his time not write anything. Time passed easily. He was free from the chains of his family for a long time. 

Amidst that freedom the letter from the unknown school girl came with signs of chains. Priyaranjan was reading. The girl had addressed him as ‘sir’. She had started the letter abruptly without following any protocol of letter writing. She had written- Do you remember, Sir, you had come to our school last month as the chief guest of our Annual Function? No I am mistaken. You came as the chief speaker. Some minister was the chief guest. In the name of giving speech the minister spoke some nonsense in a loud voice. We were very irritated. It was so hot that we were sweating. What could we do? We just sat like obedient girls. No one was interested in listening to your speech. Then it was your turn. The senior teacher in our school had put you in a pedestal. It seemed you were a good writer, good academician and things of that sort. During that introduction our senior teacher told us she was your student when she was in college. After listening to her praises for you my friends sitting next to me said that- ‘our senior teacher must have been in love with this sir’. 

Anyway it was finally your chance to speak. It was as if someone fanned my body full of sweat. Really, even after you finished your speech I felt as if you had something else to speak. I was looking at your face with rapt attention. Unlike the Minister, you did not talk for a long time neither you gave any advice. At the end of your speech you said, ‘Learn to love. Learn to smile. Learn to live with a smile.’

After I listened to you I wanted to ask you a question. However, we did not have any classes with you. Whatever I could not ask there I am asking you now. Tell me, Sir, can anyone learn to love? You are a senior teacher in a college. You are well educated. You have written so many books. You are teaching grownup students. I am a girl who has not even matriculated from school. I could not understand how one would learn to love. After listening to you I did not have to learn anything from anyone on how to love. I fell in love with you that very moment. I felt nice just looking at you. I felt like- you should be talking and I would be listening. The meeting would never end.

You must be aware, Sir – That day in our school function I was supposed to get two prizes. The first prize on needlework and the other one was second prize on singing. The prizes were being distributed by the minister. However, I kept on thinking- How I wish I had received the prizes from you! The Almighty heeded to my words. The minister had some important engagements so he just distributed a few prizes and left. After that the responsibility of distributing the prizes was yours. When my name was called my heart started beating rapidly. I felt excited but I was shy as well. Anyway after receiving the prizes from you I extended my hand for a handshake rather than folding my hands for a namaskar as was the practice followed by others. My hands met yours. The feelings of that moment were difficult to explain. I wished I could stand there with my hand on yours. 

After returning home I asked my elder sister about you. She told me that you teach very well. I asked her to get some of your books if they would be available in her college library. She looked at my face. She said, “This year you have to sit for your matriculation examination. As it is you hardly sit down to study and on top of it you want to read story books?” I kept quiet. However, I knew until I read your book I could not concentrate on my studies. 

It was quite late in the night. My elder sister had gone to sleep. I had been writing to you all nonsense under the pretext of attending to my studies. I wonder what you must be thinking. Now that’s enough if my sister gets up and notices that I am writing a letter to you instead of studying then everything will be wrong. I could not trust her even though she was my sister. Had she ever shared her love story and letters with me or will she ever do that? Now I will put the letter in my chest and sleep. I can’t get any sleep. The school function, your speech- everything is coming to me....... Goodbye. I will write another day. 

Today I am very happy. I have your story book in my hand. My elder sister indeed got your book from her college library after that initial request. This is your first book. It was published twenty two years back. The cover of the book is loose. Whoever had read the book earlier had underlined some lines in the book with red pen. Almost all the stories in the book had the same theme. I liked the story ‘school girl’ the most. Did you really fall in love with a girl from a school? And had the school girl really left you? Is it really true or have you just framed the story out of imagination? Why do you defame girls for no rhyme or reason? Irrespective of whether they are from schools or colleges, girls love their teachers but they don’t want to marry them this is what you have said. Why do you blame everyone when one or two may have done that? Just see, I have not had much interaction with you. I don’t know you. I have fallen in love with you for real just by listening about you. I have forgotten all about my studies and examination and I am just reading your books. I am writing a letter to you. If I ask you to marry me, will you agree........?

That’s it, The letter had ended with a big surprise question. Not only had the letter ended but the girl’s thoughts and letters had come to an end. That was an incredible experience. The girl had asked him a question but she had not waited for an answer. There was no name or address to get the answer. 

Priyaranjan kept the letter in its place and went and stood in front of the mirror. How old is he now? The hair on his head had been receding from the front and had gathered at the end. Whatever was left of the hair had lost their natural colour. However, this letter from the school girl had as if come with the promise to return him his lost glory. 

Yet again promises, yet again waiting. Again anxiety and excitement in a stagnant life. As if there is no end to the anxiety. No end to waiting. Priyaranjan thought to himself- his life had been an endless waiting. The hope of getting something; the happiness from the hope and aspirations are always more than the sorrow of loss. The present keeps wavering between the unreal existence of the past and the future. Almost in a similar fashion, Priyaranjan had started swinging between hope and anxiety. 

Who is this school girl? Does she really love him? Then why did she keep her identity secret? What does she really want from her? When will another letter come from her? When? The excitement that had waned started to rise again. 

Priyaranjan had started reading poems from his collection of manuscripts. He had even finished writing two poems. 

After a few days Priya received his much awaited letter again the letter from the school girl. The letters begin suddenly without any introduction and in a similar fashion end without any conclusion. This is letter number three. The letter had only the number and date written on the top. 

The letter runs like –
Today brother Ashok (Ashok Bhai) had come. He is remotely connected to me as a brother. However, actually my elder sister is in love with him. He is studying in Vani Vihar. He is in his final year pursuing a Master’s degree in Arts. He is a good student. He writes both poems and stories well. His writings have been published in different magazines and journals. He writes regularly to my sister from Vani Vihar. I have secretly read those letters of my sister many times. As soon as I saw him I asked him about you. It seems he was also your student in B.J.B College. I was delighted to know that he has a good relation with you. He told me that a new book of yours has been published recently. I have told him to get me the book. He has agreed to it. However, my sister started showing off her elderliness. She said, ‘She is now addicted to story books. Let the exams finish.’ I did not say anything. Ashok Bhai took me into confidence and asked me - ‘Have you fallen in love with our favourite teacher?’ I smiled and said, ‘Is he only your favourite teacher? Ashok Bhai said – ‘Yes after you leave school and go to college he will also become your teacher.’ How can he know that you have become close to me even if I have not yet gone to college? Can you even fathom my thoughts? I have been thinking how I will cross this obstruction of matriculation examination, reach the college building and listen to your speeches. I don’t feel like studying.

Oh God! I had forgotten what I wanted to write. Look Sir, I hope you don’t mind. I am just asking what I heard. Ashok Bhai was saying that your wife had left you. She is now living with a friend of yours. Is it really true? I am yet to believe this. However Ashok Bhai knows you well enough. You are his favourite teacher. Why would he lie about you? I feel like taking your address from him and meeting you. Just writing letters to you does not make me happy. I remember a line from Ashok Bhai’s letter that he had written to my elder sister and I had read it secretly – ‘Can the heart reconcile only to letters in the absence of sight?’ I have got your address from him. I will come over on Sunday. Make sure you are at home. ‘’School girl’’.

Priyaranjan was stunned. Really the school girl had been able to collect a whole bunch of facts about him. The third letter reached him bearing the nightmares of the past, the dreams of future, some facts, and some imagination. Who knows this letter from the school girl would not be the last letter from her? She had written that she was not contented only by writing letters without getting to see him. However, after meeting Priyaranjan she may lose her interest either to see him or even to write letters to him. All her interest in him may abruptly stop. These kinds of incidents had occurred once or twice in Priyaranjan’s life. In the beginning of his academic career when he was writing a lot of poems a girl from Vani Vihar was regularly writing to him after reading his poems. She used to send her poems for him to look into and correct so that she could publish them in some magazines. However, one fine day when Priyaranjan went to Vani Vihar with all the excitement to meet her she did come out of her hostel as soon as she got the message of his arrival but after that she stopped writing to him and sending her poems to him.

In Priyaranjan’s life there had many such stories which had ended in the middle. They had never progressed to their possible endings neither in love nor in marriage. After marrying Arunima he had thought that the despair from absence of the bond of love had finally come to an end. The new story of fulfilment had started. He thought, love may not lead to marriage but there would be no obstruction in marriage naturally leading to the development of love. He had believed that there is a deep relationship between love and the age old ritual of marriage. However, he did not know that marriage seldom gives rise to love. Love is natural and spontaneous a gift of nature. Marriage is a social institution the bonding developed through individual effort. A system thrust on the society and based on the laws, the morals, the rules and regulations of society. Marriage does not have the music of freedom found in love. There is no excitement or involvement of the heart. The love here arises from the attraction of living together. There is no certainty that when two bodies come together behind closed doors the hearts will also beat together. On the other hand, when hearts beat together the bodies naturally unite. 

Arunima and Priyaranjan came together as a result of their marriage. After a year a daughter came into their life. This new guest brought happiness to their life for two years. After that started a clash of thoughts. The crack in the hearts that had never united came out in the open. Arunima wanted a house, not a rented house, her own house. However, Priyaranjan did not want to get connected to sand, lime, bricks or mortar. He did not want to put an end to his life by constructing a house when he had just stepped into the world of relationships. Only foolish people build houses; the smart ones live inside the houses. Arunima did not have the capability to understand this strange philosophical view of Priyaranjan. In her view a person who cannot make a house for his own living is very inefficient. She had formed such an opinion and never minced words to repeat it over and over again. She considered that the pursuits of drawing and poetry writing which was Priyaranjan’s preoccupation were mere waste of time and energy. Similarly, Priyaranjan did not approve of many of her things such as – the obstinacy in sending their three year old daughter from the beautiful world of games and merriment to the prison of school. Nonetheless, priyaranjan knew that marriage is an understanding. The world is a compromise at every moment and on everything. However, sometimes with the arrival and conspiracy of a third party the temporary compromises and tryst for peace break down. Everything becomes topsy turvy. 

One fine day Priyaranjan’s childhood friend Arindam came in his life. Arindam had a house which was beautiful to look at and to show off, something that Priyaranjan did not have. It could not be termed as a house. It was a king’s palace in the heart of the capital. Arindam had all the sumptuousness of life acquired through inheritance of a successful business and Priyaranjan did not have them. He was almost stagnant in the salary and life of an academician. However, Arindam was always active, excited and restless.

The restlessness had attracted Arunima. Arindam did not have a wife. Within a year of his marriage he had lost his wife in a car accident. He had perhaps not thought about remarrying. But the lure of her own house rather palace was too attractive to Arunima. Suddenly one day early in the morning Priyaranjan realised that his small home and world had lost its existence inside the beautiful palace of his childhood friend Arindam. They had even taken away ‘Astha’ his only worldly treasure into their palace. 

No, he did not bring any complaint against his friend. He did not want to take the course of law and in public slur and offend himself, his friend and his wife. Whatever had to happen had happened. He accepted everything quietly. Only he felt sad for Astha. After all she was only three years old. What does she know anyway? He had kept her name Astha after much contemplation. After being tired of the rejections from many girls Priyaranjan he had finally pinned all his hope on his fatherhood. However, in the end he lost that hope also because of his wife. Astha had turned eighteen and got the right to vote. She was studying in Delhi and staying in a hostel but the identity of fatherhood had been lost from his life forever. 

After all the years Priyarajan suddenly remembered everything. The ‘letter from the school girl’ had wiped off the dust of time from the old wound. Everything was crystal clear. However, the pain of the wound was not there anymore. The blood that had drained that had once been filled up. He had once again started loving life like before. He had accepted life as it had come to him whenever, wherever and in whatever shape and colour it appeared.

Like the letter from the school girl........was not any less amazing for him; real although unbelievable. The letter was left on one corner of the table almost separated from everything. That day was the occasion for the writer of the letter to appear in person. The occasion, the hour and the day had been conveyed to him through the letter. Sunday afternoon. Perhaps she would be getting ready to come. She would come after a little while. 

The girl was coming. She put her hand on the calling bell at the door very confidently. Her soft touch filled the whole house as if with the wonderful music of a beautiful song. Piyaranjan came and welcomed the new guest to his house. The girl from the school was walking into the house holding a huge stack of books and notebooks reaching up to her chest as if she had come to take lessons at her teacher’s residence or to study at her friend’s house. As soon as she reached inside the room she kept the books and asked for some water. Perhaps she was feeling very thirsty because she had walked under the scorching sun. After drinking the water she sat quietly for some time. Priyaranjan started the conversation. Then she told her name and address. She talked about her school – the annual day in the school, the boy who lives in her street and everyday followed her to school and back. How he walked silently and returned silently. He never uttered a word nor did he comment on anything. He had never made any ugly remark or written any letter to her and many other stories. It had almost become evening while she was engaged in conversation. Then the girl got up and said, “Sir I am leaving.”

Priyaranjan handed her a box of chocolate. He had bought it earlier only for her. The girl said, “No, I don’t take chocolates. Haven’t you read in the newspapers that three school girls have fallen sick after taking chocolates?”

Priyaranjan said, “No, this is not any cheap chocolate. This is Cadbury, from the famous company. I have bought it from a big shop. It’s not the fake one.”

“Don’t you know Sir, these days there are fake things in big stores. If you truly want to give, then give me the real chocolate” the girl said with dancing glances.

Priyaranjan said – “This is real”

“No the real one is ...............”

The girl stopped in the middle of her sentence and put her face down.

Priyaranjan kept on looking at the face of the girl with a bit of understanding and a bit of confusion. 

The girl’s lips were only quivering from the smile and the coyness.

The story revolving around everything romantic – love, chocolate and school girl – makes it look like an ideal read for a lazy Sunday afternoon. How his wife left him for his rich friend and how he had almost lost hope of falling in love when a young school girl finds him admirable. The story is attention grabbing not only for the description of the romance between the narrator and the school girl but for the plot around the narrator’s wife leaving him for his friend who has a bigger house and is more affluent than he. Although the reason behind a woman leaving someone for money seems rational. But there are few real life examples of Indian women leaving the sacred institution of matrimony for money. On the other hand, there are ample examples of single women falling for older married men. On the whole, all the conflicting and contradictory emotional undercurrents are what make the story unique and perhaps thereby hold the charm of the reader.

Originally written in Odia by Biswaranjan and has been translated into English by Dr Gopa Nayak. The story revolves around everything romantic love, chocolate and school girl. However, a few pages into the story and the title deceives and the reader is weaved into a complex plot of the protagonist’s narration of how his wife left him for his rich friend and how he had almost lost hope of falling in love when a young school girl finds him admirable. The story is attention-grabbing not only for the description of the romance between the narrator and the school girl but for the plot around the narrator’s wife leaving him for his friend who has a bigger house and is more affluent than him.
Dr Gopa Nayak writes in English and Odia. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford, and is currently teaching English in Bhubaneswar.

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