It was about three in the morning. Imagine a small town, the road cutting through an enormous field to one side, fog all over, and the pale radiance of a dented moon hanging in the sky. The play staged at the Railway Club had just ended – it was a major annual event – and every home was represented in the audience. The women were the eager ones, the majority of the men present merely escorts. That exalted post was mine for the night, despite my youth, simply by virtue of my being a male. The elders were reluctant, while there I was, jobless and without any examinations looming before me – entirely available in other words, which was why the womenfolk pinned me down. I wasn't very keen, but in those days it was simpler to do something, even unwillingly, than to refuse.
The women still sat behind a screen back then, but there had never been anything to block out their voices. Even if I could not see them, I could hear them, their giggling, their conversations, their bickering over seats, their observations about the play, their admonitions of their children; a mix of peculiar cries. There was plenty of shouting on stage too. As I nodded off sleepily, I felt I was watching two different plays, no, three – for since I was sitting close to the stage I could hear the prompting too, not to mention the fact that Draupadi and Bhimsen could be seen smoking on the side occasionally. This three-piece din went on and on, showing no signs of relenting – I kept dropping off every now and then – but the play simply would not come to an end.
Finally, when it drew to a close and everyone pronounced it a grand success, the only regret we had was that as it was December, we could not carry on till dawn. Then it was time to go home. There was no transportation of any kind, people began to walk home in groups. For part of the way, everyone followed the same road. Everyone knew each other, so the noise emanating from the women continued non-stop, as though the play had not really ended and kept following them all. Suddenly the judge's car roared by and then – or so it seemed to me – it was silent all round, bitterly cold, field after field stretching in every direction beneath the dead glow of the moon. You could not tell the tree apart from its shadow, and even the people trudging along seemed to be their own shadows. In a while there was no one else nearby, I was walking alone. I realized I had left my female companions behind; I must have been walking quickly because of the cold, and enjoying the walk. Just a few minutes earlier I had been on the verge of sleep, but now I felt not a trace of it – in that enormous open field, on that foggy night, I felt every molecule in my body telling me I was awake, I was alive.
But had I pressed too far ahead? Was I neglecting my duty? Of course, having a boy who had just acquired a baritone and a moustache beside them was not likely to be very helpful; on the contrary it would be inconvenient. But still, what if I was needed?
Pausing for breath, I looked behind me. The women's group lay far behind, barely visible in the fog. But it seemed someone was walking swiftly towards me. Who was it? A girl. Definitely a rebuke from my mother, or an order from my sister-in-law.
When she came closer, I saw it was Pakhi.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"Why should anything be the matter?" she replied.
"What do you mean?"
"What brings you here?"
"They walk too slowly!"
I remember being surprised. What boldness! "Did you tell them?" I asked.
"What did they say?"
"What do you suppose?" Pakhi shook her head impatiently. I looked at her with new eyes in the faint moonlight.
Pakhi interrupted me and said, "Are we just going to stand here?"
It was my first conversation with her. Suddenly I felt fulfilled, as though something heavy and profound had made its home within me.
We walked on, now side by side. But no more words the rest of the way. I walked swiftly, and not once did Pakhi say "Slower"; she kept pace with me. She was fourteen then, quite grown up by the standards of the times, rather placid too, by those same standards. But she appeared anything but gentle then; it felt as though her legs could carry her thus for ages, ages, alongside me, beyond the houses, beyond the town, possibly beyond our small, familiar world to somewhere unknown.
So many thoughts crowd your mind in your naïve youth. And why should they not? By then we had left the paved district road for the walking trail winding through the fields, slightly heavy of breath, thorns pricking our feet at every step – they felt like naughty caresses – and the smell of the grass, the dew, the earth all around. We walked thus for some time as in a dream, then the fields ended, the town narrowed into neighbourhoods; by the sleep-laden homes suddenly a pond appeared that had stolen the moon. Another bend in the road and there was the single-storeyed house Pakhi lived in. Our houses were next to each other, the families were close friends - everyone was friends back then, everyone was happy. That's the worst thing about the age we are at now, where it seems all happiness lies in the past.
Glancing back, I saw no sign of our guardians. We stood there silently as though in the wee hours of a winter morning, just when it's coldest, a spring breeze was blowing, breathing heavily, our bodies warm from the long walk.
A little later I said, "You'd better get home."
"In a while."
I liked this idea. But though all this while I hadn't worried about a thing, here in this familiar neighbourhood, before this familiar house, I remembered our guardians. Maybe I had erred, maybe I deserved to be admonished, I should wait here with Pakhi to accept their rebukes humbly.
Then Pakhi spoke.
"If only our homes had been even further... mmm?"
I said, "But eventually the road would have ended."
Pakhi glanced at me, her eyes glistening in the moonlight. Looking away, she said, "What were you thinking of all this while?"
"I don't know."
"I was thinking – I was thinking, this walk is lovely, but it's because we're walking on it that the road will end."
Back then, I found this funny. But now it seems that fourteen-year-old girl had, without knowing it, spoken wisely. Our existence is like that: living eats into our life, all the roads we love end because we take them.
Translated by Arunava Sinha.