On my way back home from work on one of those sultry nights that have been oppressing us lately, I found Charulata sitting next to me in the auto. Dressed in her Victorian ‘jacket’ and cotton sari, she looked as graceful as ever. Surprised to find her so far removed from the women’s interiors — antahpur — of her 1879 house, I struck up a conversation.
Chitter chatter out of the way, she confessed that she could no longer live in “that house”. It constantly reeked of uncomfortable, unsaid things. She seemed to put the blame — affectionately — on Ray and his long-time art director, Bansi Chandragupta. Somehow stumbling upon the drawings and designs of the house in Ray’s letters to Bansi, she had seen through their insidious intentions to uncover all that was hidden in her inner life, all of which was supposed to remain her own.
Her indignation began with the living room. The wallpaper was inescapably oppressive. She would have liked something simpler, but maybe Ray had talked to her husband, Bhupati. She would have been forgiving still, had it not been for the sheer expense of it. The wallpaper was specially designed and screen-printed and took an entire day and night to be pasted on to the walls. As if its overbearing presence wasn’t enough, the men had crowded the living room with lifeless luxury that made her sigh.
And, there was the birdcage in the veranda. Despite her insistence on a peacock roaming free in the garden, both Ray and Bansi had conspired to hang that cage right in the middle of the house. The sight of it made her upset. But so did Bhupati’s footsteps — every time he walked away from her. She smiled ruefully and looked out in silence for a while. Then, as if a switch had been flicked in her mind, she started talking of Amal.
Charu had taken the peacock idea to Amal too and he hadn’t pitched in with an ounce of support. Bansibabu had been kinder. He had got her a maadur with a beautiful peacock motif on it. It felt as proud and graceful as herself. She also had Ray to thank for the opera glasses. They gave her something to do in those long afternoons when Bhupati was busy. At this point, her thoughts ran back to the time spent with Amal. One could sense his romantic leisure as soon as one entered his room. While Bhupati was obsessively occupied in the clutter of his study desk and editorial office, Amal’s room was clean, bare and full of sunlight during the day. Despite her objections, of which there were many, Charu was greatly indebted to Ray and Bansi. Obsessed with details, they personally picked the furniture for the house after spending inordinate amounts of time deciding colours and textures. She confessed, it was from them that she learnt that spaces and objects could be made to speak too.
The auto stopped at her new address — an Art Deco mansion with curved verandas looking out on a sprightly garden. A venerable cane armchair basked in the veranda on the portico; the wooden three-legged stool on which Bhupati had once found Amal’s letter stood next to it. After paying her fare, Charulata walked away. I could see she had changed — and why not? After all, she was now a woman who had a house of her own.