Love Letter by Madhumita Roy

Priyambada Sen was contemplating proposing to the caretaker of Marigold Apartment, which would, even by conservative estimates, create a stir. The caretaker was barely educated, married with two children in the village, twenty-nine years old or so, physically attractive, six feet tall, and had a monthly salary of three thousand rupees with nominal perks. Priyambada was forty-one, taught English literature in Prafulla Chandra College, a spinster orphaned at the age of thirty-nine, had rarely given a thought about her physical appearance, owner of a flat in Marigold and so, technically the caretaker’s boss, and earned more than ten times than him. This was, most people would say, a mismatch.


It was the beauty of the caretaker that had struck her like Cupid’s arrow or Durvasa’s curse, depending on one’s judgment. Three months earlier, the doorbell had rung. She opened it and saw a tall, well built man wearing a faded black pair of trousers and an orange checked shirt with the heartiest grin she had ever seen. She smiled back. Now, this was rare. Priyambada Sen was famous for being staid, and did not believe in smiling for its own sake. Her point was – give me a genuine situation and I will think about it, but to smile and laugh because the world considers it to be obliging or decent or cheerful were certainly not reasons enough. To be fair, Priyambada was protesting the ways of the world. First, she found there was nothing to smile at. Second, she was saving herself for the thing or the person which was beautiful or humorous enough to deserve her smile; because when she smiled, not only her face, but her body and soul transmuted into something better, higher and more noble. So, these two very different people had one thing in common – both of them smiled beautifully. But after smiling, a strange thing happened. Priyambada began to feel dizzy and to this day, she attributes it to the lack of breakfast and a heady adrenaline rush. She fainted. Surjo, the new caretaker, picked her up, cradled her, rushed down stairs where Mr Banerjee was removing his car to go to the bazaar, and placed her there and pleaded to take her to the hospital. A few other members of the flat were called and she was driven to the local hospital, where she regained consciousness in no time, but was diagnosed with low blood pressure and depleted haemoglobin and advised to spend the day under observation. Surjo was lauded for his prompt action although a few eyebrows were raised due to the physical contact it had required. One cannot predict Surjo’s motive for such an act of courage and intimacy, but Priyambada had fallen in love.


What would this do to her exactly? Over the last three months, Priyambada had taken stock. First, there would be a huge scandal and she was prepared for it. In fact she anticipated it with a certain amount of excitement. After having lived in the periphery for long – as long as she could remember – she would be the central character, the protagonist of her own story. It was good that her parents were dead because otherwise they would start their old rant – an intelligent and good girl like you should study hard and eventually teach in a college and not mix with useless boys. Once, she had not paid attention to them and had actually gone out with a bespectacled class mate for few months, but was eventually discovered, scolded, sequestered in the house and spied upon for months. She lost the will and felt insulted and refused to marry. Her parents tried to persuade her but could not. Priyambada would have of course relented had they found someone pleasant, but the ones they paraded before her were the epitome of boring Bengali respectability – uninterested in anything but the office, unread in literature, unsure of their likings and even of their own identities, unthinking, and in short unattractive. Priyambada was harsh, but in hindsight, that was her first war of independence against Bengali middle class respectability; this would be the final.


Her parents died one after the other; she did not have any siblings; did not maintain close relations with relatives; was distant from her colleagues; and led an introverted and quiet life, which was still better, she believed, than getting married to a pot-bellied engineer and mothering his two obnoxious children. But nonetheless she did not see any one even after her parent’s death and thus saved in the process not only her smiles but also her virginity.


Yes, the scandal would be good. She would be spoken of in the third person in hushed voices and compared to a femme fatale such as Eustacia Vye or La Belle Dame sans Merci, that is, if anyone still read. She would even be able to teach those texts with more passion and perhaps the students would finally pay some attention. She would emulate the transgressing yet larger than life heroines of
proper English literature of the Romantic and Victorian age. She clearly distinguished herself from the postmodern cougar types such as Madonna and Demi Moore who were unsure of their ontology and did not know if they were image or corporeal. She did not like unsure people.


During the scandal, she would smile enigmatically at her next-door neighbour Nishant, who at twenty-three was a struggling poet. Perhaps he would adopt her as his future muse. She might snap at nosy neighbours like Mrs Banerjee and tell them to look in to their own matters such as the philandering ways of Mr Banerjee. Of course, she would not be rude but put it in a sarcastic and clever way. She would fall, but in the process redeem her irredeemable self. Some people manage to pass every day because that brings them closer to death and death is possible if one accidentally falls over the low boundary wall of the terrace while adjusting the clothes hung on the clothesline, but is postponed every day in the hope of a better tomorrow.

There were only two impediments. The first was moral – what would happen to the poor wife and children of Surjo? This question lay outside narrow Bhadralok morality and looked at a larger human compassion and ethics sort of morality. These three people were more peripheral in the larger text which lay beyond the scope of her own little story. She would definitely give them financial compensation. She could do nothing else. She was hopelessly in love and all love stories are unfair on some one.


The second impediment was more fundamental to the love story itself. Did Surjo love her? Did he like her? Did he even care that she existed? And if not now, would he ever love her back? These were more relevant questions. Priyambada had tried to interpret each and every move of their shy caretaker. He did not even look into her eyes and would evade all her efforts to engage him in what might have been a conversation. But he smiled whenever he saw her and Priyambada smiled back and if there were any onlookers they would stop for a while to watch the divine performance. But that apart, it seemed there was no spark. But Priyambada might have missed something due to inexperience.


Priyambada, as stated before, disapproved of the unsure. So, she proposed to settle the matter through a proposal, not face to face because she might faint out of exhaustion and he might run away out of fear. She would write a letter; first in English and translate it in to Bengali.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ had the lines ‘I love thee to the level of every day's/ Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.’ Priyambada was one step ahead because she did not need to love anyone by sunlight or candlelight as she was in love with Surjo – the sun himself. The love was both domestic, nestled in every day, and expansive, as the rays that illuminate the dark earth daily. However, the disadvantage was that Surjo, who was barely literate, was nowhere near being an influential poet of anytime or anywhere, and the age gap between them was double the six years between Elizabeth and Robert Browning. So, ‘sun,’ rather annoyingly, reminded Priyambada of its homophone – ‘son’. But Priyambada like Elizabeth was sickly and Surjo like Robert was an optimist, or at least had a wonderful optimistic smile. So, there were similarities and dissimilarities. But the important thing was to write a letter … in English.


Surjo would not understand English; he would not even understand anything written in slightly difficult Bengali. So, Priyambada would have to translate worlds. Sometimes she would think in Bengali and write in English and vice versa, but that sort of a translation was needed because she was somewhere between the real identity of her lived Bengali life and an imagined identity learnt through Victorian English literature. Both these identities were dinosaur identities, obsolete in the present Bengali or English worlds but completely new to Surjo who still existed outside the refined worlds of all literature. Writing was also one way of establishing the surety of her own strange self – more manly than womanly in her active role as a suitor, more past than present, more introverted than extroverted, more fictitious than real. Will he want to be part of this world – discarded, stuffy, borrowed, disturbed, archaic, cloyed, narcissistic? Priyambada would have to very cautious to make her love letter attractive. She would revise it every day till it was ready for Surjo. The language needs to be ready so that there is no misreading and he does not lose his urge to reply or does not fail to see the point of replying. If one is an inexperienced suitor, one needs to put ones best foot forward, or in this case, both forward and backward. The love letter would definitely be ready and Priyambada was ready to work on it.



Madhumita Roy is a graduate student shuttling between Kolkata and Kharagpur, India. She has a BA, MA and M Phil in English, and is pursuing a PhD in English at IIT Kharagpur. This is her first short story to be published.