Helen of Troy

Fiction

By Devapriya Roy
  • Published 10.06.18
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Dear readers,

We bring you for the first time a serial novel, which will unfold over the next few months, every week in t2oS. The Romantics of College Street, by Devapriya Roy, is essentially a love letter to Calcutta of the Nineties — the decade in which ‘Gen X’ grew up, made friends, became lovers, drifted apart and sometimes left the city for good. Like our heroine Lata Ghosh, a management consultant based in London. But Lata has some unfinished affairs to settle and that’s where our story begins... 

Everyone says you’ll get used to the weather. Of course you’ll get used to the weather, thought Lata Ghosh annoyedly, but you never do. 

London, sliding greyly past her window, was predictably rainy, chilly, and, giving off its signature wet winter scent: beer and smoke (and this at eleven o’clock in the morning!), mixed with the characteristic smell of drizzle on stone. She wiped the fogged-up window with her palm, imagined the November wind outside, and London instantly became greyer, smokier, trees collapsing into each other as the water drummed down, now hard. 

Even though there was a fair bit of time to her flight, Lata Ghosh was Ubering her way to Heathrow from the client’s office in the suburbs — a fat amount even for successful management consultants like herself — since she couldn’t bear the thought of reaching the airport with bedraggled hair or a fussy umbrella, heaven forbid a mac smelling of the underground. 

If there was one thing Lata had learnt from her mother Manjulika, it was that when you travelled you put your best self forward. Life — that everyday thing of running out of milk and forgetting to pay bills on time and unremitting grocery-shopping and crying inconsolably some afternoons — that thing could well be lived in fits and starts, bursts of planning and good housekeeping mixed indiscriminately with un-ironed clothes, unwashed hair or unmade beds, but travel was something else. A superior state to living, Manjulika contended. Stepping out of your own small life into the vast cosmos, into history and geography? You’d better be dressed for the occasion. 

(Manjulika Ghosh taught history and geography in middle-school. She also only wore the finest Dhakai saris on her annual journey to London, where, unlike the other passengers who emerged from Heathrow like crushed paper towels, she glided out like Aparna Sen on set.)

Lata craned her neck and caught the driver’s mirror. Her shoulder-length hair, coloured freshly at Martha’s yesterday — at a price which would give Manjulika a heart attack — was, luckily, still salon-fresh. She saw a gently brown, heart-shaped face, the cafe au lait complexion as blemish-free as it was on her fifteenth birthday, the legendary bee-stung lips creamed lightly with Chanel’s velvet allure, L’amoureuse #47, her signature colour. Lata smiled at her own reflection, tentatively testing its effect with her new hair, but, mid-smile, her chestnut eyes behind the oversized Chanel spectacles accidentally caught the driver’s. 

It was awkward. 

Smilus interruptus, she quipped to herself, and quickly looked away to hide her amusement.

The poor cabbie, though, promptly found himself blubbering mildly, as men were wont to, when Charulata Ghosh — for that was her real Tagorific name — flashed them a smile, however unintended. She had that kind of beauty.

“Nasty weather, innit?” he said first, and then, buoyed by her agreement, took a couple of wrong turns, despite what the GPS said, blushed deeply at his own inadequacies, and eventually sputtered to silence. Lata looked impassively out of the window.

***
After a childhood and youth spent as a geek in an all-girls’ school, when Charulata Ghosh (it would be years later, in London, that she dropped the Charu formally, much to her mother’s annoyance) first stepped into Presidency College in 1997, exactly two decades ago, at the ripe old age of 18, she was gobsmacked by her strange ability to make boys do ridiculous things. Within three weeks of college, she had received five heart-wrenching proposals, three sets of complete notes and photocopies from outgoing third-year toppers — not just those pursuing economics, which was her discipline, but from mathematics and statistics, merely her pass courses — and two letters written in what could be either a lurid red ink or blood. Freak-magnet, her classmates began to mutter. (Most of the girls agreed, in private, that they just couldn’t understand the secret of her SA. She was of medium height and build and boobage. Good in studies. Cotton kurta-jeans. Where was the mysterious SA located?)  

But the myth took a life of its own. 

Boys from various departments, and even from colleges as far down south as Asutosh, would lurk outside the department library where Lata was often found, and her classmates were regularly sought out and bribed with chicken samosas at Pramod-da’s canteen to make introductions. 

Eventually the rumours reached professors.

One day in end-November, several months into her first year, renowned economist K.D. Sen who headed the department bestowed upon Lata the cruel moniker, Helen of  Troy, when she failed to answer a simple question in his microeconomics seminar. It was shortened to H.O.T. and institutionalised by her classmates even before the two-hour lecture ended. 

Later that afternoon, Ronny Banerjee found her weeping on the canteen roof. The twin discovery of her beauty and stupidity had confounded no one more than her, especially since she’d been an ace student with ugly braces all her life. Ronny fished out a large blue checkered handkerchief from his pocket and told her, “Don’t mind these old men, Charu. At least he’s given you a daak naam. Helen of Troy is memorable. It’s better to be memorable than nothing, no?” After a whole month of classes, K.D. Sen still didn’t know of Ronny’s existence.

“I’m sure you’ll get the highest in micro,” he had predicted (correctly), flopping down next to her and fishing out his fancy camera from his bag. He always carried the damn thing around. “Look through the lens,” he prodded her arm, “There’s a couple kissing in the maths department.”

Charulata Ghosh had wiped her eyes and nose, stretched out her arms for his camera, and allowed the beginning of their
friendship to unfold on that sun-dappled, damp-handkerchiefed, canteen-roofish note.

Ronny Banerjee; Shomiron. 

Prominent chin dimple, goofy smile and acute obsession with books (never any that had to do with the syllabus), Ronny had scraped through exams without caring a whit for marks.

As the years rolled by, though, it became clear that K.D. Sen had been wrong in his assessment. It was Ronny — and not his favourites who had aced math and micro or gone to DSE or IIM or Cornell — who emerged as the most memorable face of the Class of ’97. After dabbling for a decade or so in advertising, a few years ago Ronny moved back to his parents’ flat in Tollygunge and began to make documentaries. A prize here, a magazine article there. That sort of thing. Then came the films. 

Ronny’s first feature film, a wordless story about the end of a marriage, was nominated for something somewhere — Lata had forgotten exactly what. Silver or Golden Lion? Bear? His second, an adaptation of a children’s classic, had run to full houses in Calcutta for 50 weeks. Awards and encomiums, Cannes and Venice.

Almost spitefully, to prove that not everybody had to leave Calcutta to follow their dreams, Manjulika followed and reported on Ronny’s victories with relish. A leading production house in Calcutta had apparently signed a three-film deal with him; Bollywood was sending feelers; Vidya Balan had expressed an interest to work with him... “Humph,” Lata remembered reacting to her mother at that point, eyes firmly on her laptop, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Ma.”

However, Manjulika had continued without registering Lata’s input, Ronny was staying put in Calcutta. 

“Here we go,” the cabbie said, parking outside the terminal. 

He unloaded her suitcases reverentially and lined them up by height, three matching cloud-like confections in ivory, as Lata gathered her bags and wits. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks glistened in the pale, washed-out sunlight that had appeared in a half-hearted way to give her a gracious goodbye home. And in that half-shadow of sun and cloud, half-annoyed at the salty rush of memories, Charulata “Helen of Troy” Ghosh wondered, as she walked into Terminal 2 on her pointy stilettoes, of the two warring men she was leaving behind in London, who had both messaged her in a half-hearted, too-little-too-late sort of way in the last two hours, and wondered, idly, whether her train wreck of a love life made her the second-most memorable Class of ’97 alumna after all.

(To be continued)

Devapriya Roy’s latest book is Indira, co-written with Priya Kuriyan. Find her on Facebook and Instagram @DevapriyaRoy