The pine trees did it. They moved such an unlikely person as Manoj Prasad to compose a poem. As they drove up the pine wood lined, winding road, his heart beat faster and all his sleeping senses revived. And with that the pain, buried deep down and covered by thick layers of time, rose to the surface. He got out note pad and ball pen, and wrote as well as the moving vehicle would allow –
Pine trees, pine trees,
Sweet cruel chain,
You bind me
I strove to get free
Of lost love’s shackles.
But you bring back
Love heals and hurts.
You are his agent,
I, your willing captive.
“What are you so busily writing?” asked the talkative, small man sitting next to him. Manoj only smiled and put away the notebook. He was in no mood for conversation. Thoughts crowded his mind. Wasn’t it silly of him to have come all the way to visit Shillong, with no business at all there? Wasn’t he a romantic old fool? Perhaps he was growing senile. Who would have thought that the fifties man, happily married and with two grown up daughters, would be so sentimental as to wish to see again the place where he last met his old sweetheart many years ago? Would she be still in the town? Were they to meet, would she recognise him with his potbelly and balding head? Would he recognise her? He could picture her only as the twenty year old he used to know; dark brown eyes, nose tip slightly tilted up, small sensitive mouth, olive complexion with ruddy touch around the cheeks, long silky brown-black hair and petite figure. She would be forty one, nearly forty two now. Wouldn’t she have become wrinkled, grey haired and stout?
They reached the town, the cab stopped at Police Bazaar. Manoj got out, crossed the road and started walking towards Wards’ Lake. Shillong had not changed as much as he had expected it to have in twenty one years. The December sky was partly cloudy and the air was chilly. He put on his warm jacket and walked on. It was on a whim that he had decided to visit here after completing his business at Kolkata, for which he had flown over from Delhi. During the last many years, he often came to Kolkata, sometimes even up to Guwahati, but had not been further up to revisit Shillong, where he had spent most of his youth. Even now, he was strangely reluctant to halt there, so he had put up at a hotel in Guwahati and taxied up the next morning, planning to return the same day.
He walked down the lake. The place was much the same as when he last saw it, except that flowers were few, it being winter. He walked over the bridge. Fishes still surfaced to catch the grains people fed them, as they used to do in the old days. He crossed over and sat down on dry grass around the spot he had met her last. The scene came back to him clear as if it had happened only yesterday. She was standing there in her lemon yellow dress, sunlight and breeze playing on her hair, tears in her eyes, saying “Then it has to be Goodbye, Manoj, Goodbye for ever”.
They had disagreed over Maria’s new friend, who used to be notorious for loose living but got ‘born again’ at a gospel meeting. Maria had brought her to church on Sunday. Later, Manoj had upbraided her for it. “I won’t have my future wife seen around with a bad character”, he said.
“She’s not a bad character any more. She’s changed”, she argued.
“All the same, people know about her past. I can’t let you spoil your good name by associating with her”.
“Who’ll associate with her then? I’m the only friend she has. Would you have her go back to her old friends and old ways? Lord Jesus made friends with sinners. A reformed sinner’s a good enough friend for me”.
“All right, make your choice. Your friend or me”.
Tearful but resolute, she had made her choice. He had not expected it of her, and hoped she would relent. But when she did not contact him to apologise after three weeks, he wrote to her, asking her to forget the incident and to continue their relationship as before. She wrote back saying that the incident had opened her eyes to the fact that their outlooks differed too much for them to be happy together, and that their parting had better be final.
Unable to bear the pain and humiliation, he wound up the garment business he had started and left for home in Delhi. Within a few months he married a woman his parents selected for him, took up garment business where he prospered, and lived a comfortable life. Four years later, he heard from a friend that Maria also had got married to one of her colleagues, a school teacher. He had felt both jealous and contemptuous. He knew teachers don’t earn much, so she would never be rich. He wondered whether she had regretted rejecting him.
As he reminisced thus, his eyes travelled to the far side. The next moment he rubbed his eyes in disbelief. There, on the path beside the lake was Maria in person, walking between two lanky teenaged boys, shaking with laughter at something one of them said. There was no mistaking her. That gait, that petite figure, belonged to her alone, and his heart confirmed that that was she. She was in a red sweater and black skirt, hair worn in boy’s cut. Still laughing, she turned and took the bridge, coming towards him with the boys in tow. Manoj felt anger rising in him. How dared she laugh like that in public and how dared she look and dress like that at her age, like a teenager! Then he remembered he had no claim over her, no right to feel offended.
They came nearer and reached quite close, but she did not notice him at all. She was about to pass when he stood up and addressed her -
“Excuse me, aren’t you Maria Lyngdoh?”
She turned, a smile still playing on the corners of her mouth and answered, “Yes, I am”.
“Can you recognize me?” he ventured.
She looked him up and down for a while and asked in a doubtful tone “D’you happen to be Manoj Prasad?”
“Yes, yes”, he said enthusiastically, happy she could recall him.
“How you’ve changed!” she exclaimed. They briefly exchanged news. She introduced her two sons to him then soon took leave and walked away.
For a long time after she left he stood there thinking. Maria thoroughly puzzled him. Physically, she had changed little. Her once long brownish hair had turned jet black, probably dyed, and cut short. Her figure and face had remained the same, except for some wrinkles around the eyes. But she seemed totally changed somehow. There used to be a certain wistfulness about her which had been replaced by sheer life and merriment. In the old days, she was lovely like a pale rose lit up by the rays of setting sun. Now she was more like a rippling stream dancing in sunshine. What could have brought on the lively change? It couldn’t be age that did it, as age rather weighs and slows one down.
Was it then the doing of marriage and family life? He didn’t see such an effect on his own wife. Though living in affluence she had turned decidedly middle aged in body and mind by the time she reached her early thirties. Could it be her husband? He became quite curious about him. What kind of man was he? He, along with their sons, must be responsible for Maria’s youthful and buoyant spirit.
With something of a shock, Manoj realized that had he and Maria married, she would never have turned out this way. He would never have allowed it. He would have thwarted her freedom and growth, weighed her down with traditions and dos and don’ts. He would have stifled her personality, throttled the laughter and choked the joy out of her. He now saw that his ‘love’ for her was motivated by a desire to own and control, not a seeking after her welfare. When he wanted to marry her, he had planned their life together. He expected her to obey him in everything and serve him tirelessly. That she might have her own dreams and aspirations never occurred to him. The question of her individual ideals never arose in his mind. If he had his way, she would have been merely his shadow.
For the first time in his life, he was glad, truly glad, for her sake, that they were not married to each other. As he walked back to the taxi stand, he told himself that the trip had been worth it.