Malati was not a big name in the industry. She was a mediocre performer at best. But the role that he had in mind for her was not a prime one either. It was a minor role of the familys youngest bride, the mother of a sick child and the wife of an unemployed man. It would call for a couple of days shooting at the most. But even for this, a B-grade actress would ask for a hefty sum. Malati would do the job for a much smaller amount. That is what Animesh came to know from friends. But when he arrived at her house after dusk, Malati was not at home. Khantamani, the maid, smiled and said, The mistress has left with a babu in a car and I dont know when shell be back. Please leave a message for her. A little miffed, Animesh scribbled the name of his studio and a good time to meet him, and walked out of the place.
The evening looked like a complete waste of time. He decided to drop in on a friend, Binoy Chakrabarty, who lived in Jai Mitra lane. His wife, Labanya, usually offered him tea and snacks whenever he visited. Animesh also reciprocated by getting them complimentary passes to the movies sometimes. It had been a long time since he had looked them up. The house was in a narrow lane through one of the back-alleys. It was the ground floor of an old house. Binoy was not doing too well for himself. Yet, Animesh enjoyed spending time at this needy friends house every once in a while. He got a taste of unadulterated, genuine affection at this place. Labanya could seldom offer him anything more than a cup of tea, some roti-sabzi or perhaps some sweetmeat, if it was during the early days of the month. But she showed such concern and joy when he went there, that Animesh felt like an honoured guest of the household.
There was an argument going on inside that stopped abruptly when Animesh knocked loudly twice. Binoy opened the door and asked, Who is it? When he saw who it was, he said, Come in. But there was no warmth in the invitation, and his face seemed rather listless.
Labanyas face was also sullen and things were scattered all around the room. Binoys shirt lay on the floor and each of his shoes in a different corner. His dark, shaven-headed, thin little boy had picked up one of these shoes onto his lap. A few other newspaper packets lay strewn on the floor and one of them had burst, spilling some pink lentils onto the ground. It was quite obvious that Animesh had walked into the eye of a storm. Labanya took one look at him and rapidly began to pick things off the floor in an effort to clear up the place.
Animesh said, Did I just spoil the fun? The lovers tiff seems to have been at its peak. Have you two made it a habit, fighting like this?
Binoy gestured to the bed and reached into his pocket for the pack of Passing Show, offering one to Animesh. I have cigarettes, Animesh said, and flipped open his pack of Gold Flake.
Binoy lit a cigarette, took a couple of puffs on it and began to speak, Do you think I like this daily battle, the sparring and so forth? But if the lady of the house is so unreasonable, what choice do I have? Tell me, are we the only people who have a son? Or is it that children should never ever fall sick. Show me another man whose wife takes him to task like this over a childs medicines. One can only do as much as he can afford; if you pressurize him beyond that --
Who is pressurizing here, Labanya reacted sharply, The boy was nearly done in by the typhoid attack. Everyone turned away at the time and no one thought I would be able to bring him around from it. Labanya suddenly grabbed the boys hand and yanked him forward, placing him right in front of Animesh, as she said, Just take a look at whats become of him, Animesh-da. Does he look even remotely human to you? He still cannot walk properly without dragging one foot. Yesterday I took him to the doctor. He said, unless I can feed him nutritiously, there is no cure. If his general health improves, the foot will also heal automatically. So, -- I had asked for a tin of Ovaltine. But that brought on such furious wrath, such a storm of swearing --
Labanya stopped abruptly. The child was perhaps hurt by the unexpected jerk and he made as if to cry. Immediately Labanya picked him up and crooned to him sweetly, Shame on you, dont cry in front of this uncle. What would he say? Hell tell everyone what a cry-baby you are. Do you know this uncle is a great film-maker? Animesh-da, you must take a grand photograph of my Bintu here. Labanya smiled.
Animesh suddenly found this slight, unanticipated smile very appealing. Compared to Binoys son, his wife could almost be called attractive. Fair, with pretty eyes and nose, she was about twenty-five or twenty-six years old. Her face had a certain beauty and she was gracefully built, in spite of the poverty and privation. Such a sickly child was a misfit on her lap. But motherhood cast a pleasing glow on her serene charm.
Labanya was a little abashed at the appraising glance from Animesh. She dropped her eyes and said, You dont come to visit us these days at all. We heard that you are now a director -- Animesh laughed, That I am now.
Then he turned to his friend and said, Really Binoy, this is not right -- at such a time you should give some more attention to the boys health. He is still convalescing. If Labanya asked you to bring some Ovaltine, why didnt you?
Exasperated, Binoy replied, Why didnt I indeed. Was it just that Ovaltine which was on the list? Some biscuits for the child, some lentils for the household, some tea . . . and it is the end of the month; how can I bring all that? Whatever Ill miss, she is bound to kick up a row over it. And speaking of the boys health, for the household of a clerk on a seventy-rupees salary, Id say it is getting enough attention. Binoy shook the ash off his cigarette onto the floor and gave a peculiar smile, If you wanted to make such a fuss over your child, you should have gone and borne him in a rich mans house instead of a clerks.
Labanya said, Just listen to him now!
Animesh chided his friend, Shame, Binoy, what a thing to say. Since when do you have such a foul tongue? Shame on you.
A little embarrassed, Binoy was silent for a while.
Animesh cast a sympathetic glance at his friend; it wasnt just his tongue that had grown foul, his face too had changed radically. He was hardly thirty or a few years over it. But his cheeks were sunken and his jowls stood out, making him look way past forty.
Animesh asked, Have you been able to get a part-time job, Binoy?
Binoy shook his head, Nah. I told you to look out for me
Animesh said, I did try a lot, my friend, but in my line of work
Labanya picked out two cups, some sugar and tea from the shelf and walked towards the kitchen. The little boy limped after her.
Youre following me again?
She glanced back at Animesh and smiled a little, He will not let go of me for a single minute, the little beast.
Animesh didnt fail to notice that Labanya picked him up as soon as she went past the doorstep.
Binoy said, Animesh, now that you are a director, why dont you hand me a small role here and there? The little extra money would really be handy.
Animesh couldnt help laughing, A role and to you? How would you act on screen when you cant even speak properly in front of people! For you the only possible role would have to be that of a face in the crowd.
At this raillery, Binoy fixed his friend with a steady gaze and then laughed slightly, How would you give me that role afresh, when I am already playing that part to the hilt! You have just managed to blur that face a little more, thats all.
Labanya entered the room with cups of tea and smiled, So now he has started quibbling with you as well. He has grown into such an irritable soul, I tell you. Not a day goes by when he doesnt pick a fight.
Animesh took a sip from the cup of tea and looked at Labanyas smiling face as he said, Not quibbling really, Binoy was asking me for a role in the film. But you know something - I rather think youll be able to do it, even if he cant. I am sure of it. Would you?
Now Labanya also laughed, Is that so? Fine, just sign me up. Since you are the director, I should definitely act in that film.
Animesh said, I mean it; its not a joke. He looked at Binoy and spoke again, I am serious, Binu. If you are game, then I can give a small role to Labanya.
Binoy smiled, Really?!
Animesh now laid out his plan before them. There was no reason for Binoy to laugh. It was quite respectable nowadays for women from decent families to come into this field. It was a very small role and no funny business about it. Animesh was handing her a role that was immensely suitable for Labanya - the mother of a sick child. The whole thing would amount to nothing more than three or four shots. The dialogue was not much either. Her husband would figure in just one scene. The rest of the scenes would be with her child and the elderly doctor. Both Binoy and Animesh would be present at the studio and there would be no trouble at all. Animesh was even willing to have Binoys son, Bintu, in it. Labanya would have to do nothing more in front of the camera than what she always did at home: looking after and taking care of her son. She would have to leave the house for a maximum of three days. Animesh could speak to the producer and swing the deal for them at three hundred rupees.
Three hundred rupees! Labanya held her breath in silence. That was a lot of money. She could pay back all the debts that they had incurred for Bintus illness. With the rest of the money, she could arrange a good diet for Bintu, new clothes for him. She could open a twenty-five rupees savings account in the childs name too. She had heard that rich mens children had money in their name in the banks. That money would be out of bounds for Binoy. But of course, if she got three hundred rupees altogether, she would be able to buy something for Binoy too, -- jealous soul that he was. He didnt have nice clothes to wear outside -- thatd have to be fixed. Binoy always hankered for a nice cigarette-case; Labanya would buy one for him. She herself didnt have a decent sari in her trunk. Of course, she wouldnt ask for it herself -- Binoy could buy it if he wished. However, she knew that he would pitch for a sari for her, if they came into so much money suddenly.
You are joking, Labanya said faintly.
Animesh replied, No, no Labanya, I am serious. If you all agree, I can make the arrangements. Labanya said, But what will people say?
Animesh said, Why should they speak ill of you? There is nothing wrong in it. Besides, if you wish you can always use a different name, instead of Labanya.
Before he left, Animesh placed his proposal once again before his friend. They should give it a serious thought overnight. They would have to give their final word before ten oclock the following morning. If Binoy was not agreeable, Animesh would have to sign the contract with someone else. He didnt have much time on hand. The film was nearly complete and the rest of it would have to be done within the next month.
Labanya and Binoy came with him up to the main door of the house, But Animesh-da, are you sure Ill be able to do it? Will you teach me what to do? Labanya asked.
Animesh said, Certainly. It wont require much effort to teach you how a mother looks after her child, what she goes through when faced with a serious illness of the same child.
The following morning Binoy went and informed Animesh that Labanya had agreed to take it on. Binoy said, But you know, my friend, I do think she should have a different name.
Animesh smiled, Is this your wish or hers? Eventually one day when she will be famous, both of you may regret changing her name. Anyway, the name comes right at the end. Well decide on it later.
Malati arrived at the studio around mid afternoon. She was a little over thirty years old and her face bore the signs of a dissolute life. She tried her best to cover them with thick layers of makeup. There was a valiant effort at passing off as a younger woman with a dark-coloured sari, jewelry, a fashionable hairdo and heavy lipstick.
Animesh frowned and said, You are too late, Miss Mullick. I have already signed on someone else for the role.
Malati said, What? But you asked me to come to the studio around noon and there is still five minutes to noon. Malati raised her wrist and waved the watch in front of Animesh.
Animesh said, I had to sign the contract by this morning. I am in an awful rush. You see, we begin shooting from tomorrow. Besides, on second thoughts, I dont think a mothers role would have been appropriate for you. If I have anything suitable for you in the future, Ill certainly --
Extremely annoyed, Malatis face changed colour as she said, I have seen enough of the likes of you, Animeshbabu. You were just a photographer and now you are a director. Talk about inappropriate! What do you think of yourself? Not appropriate, he says. `And why not, may I ask? If I so desire, I can play the role of not only a mother, but aunt, grandmother, stepmother and whatever else there is out there. Until now nobody could get me to do one of those roles. I actually wanted to do it in your film willingly. Fine, if you dont want to sign me up, its your loss. But let me tell you, it takes more than a single role to make an actress.
She screamed for a little while longer and then stomped out angrily.
Binoy came with Labanya and the child, and Animesh gave them a tour around the studio so that they could have a basic idea about the place. Labanya was wonder-struck with all the costumes, sets and equipment. Even the frail and listless Bintu seemed to come alive. From his position in his mothers arms, he waved his arms and legs and spoke volumes in his unintelligible gibberish. There was just one day in hand and no time for rehearsals. This was how it was in this industry. Animesh was used to the rapid pace when it came to production arrangements. Yet, he went to Binoys house the day before and took Labanya through her paces. There were a few lines for the little boy. But Bintu had not yet learnt to say anything beyond the basic baba and maa. So, Animesh scrapped those lines. For the film, Bintus deformed, misshapen body was an asset in itself. There was no real need for him to say anything.
The following day, Animesh himself took the car and picked up Binoy, his wife and child. At the entrance of the studio they ran into Malati.
Animesh gave a polite and sympathetic smile and said, Oh, Miss Mullick, you are here too. Are you working here today?
Malati said, I came to take a look at your new star. That is work too. She peeped into the car and threw a resentful glance at Labanya, who turned away.
After Malati left, Labanya said, Who was that woman, Animesh-da? She has such a rude way of staring. And the makeup, oh my, my. Quite shameful, Id say. Who is she?
Animesh smiled a little, Tough one, she is. In fact she nearly took away your place. You didnt notice, Labanya, but Binoy was all eyes for her.
Binoy was abashed as he said, Rubbish.
Animesh had already spoken to the producer. If they got Labanya to do the role, they would save some money. Besides, it would come in handy for the promotional campaigns. What could be better advertisement for the film than the fact that a gracious wife and mother from a decent family had come forward to act in it, with her own son to boot?
Animesh introduced Labanya to Baikunthababu. She had a really sweet face. Baikunthababu looked pleased on the whole. He said, Thats good. Well, the goddess Lakshmi herself has stepped into my home today. Oh dear, she looks quite drained out. Please take her to the refreshment room, Animeshbabu, and have her eat something.
The set was organized. No big arrangements there. It was the household of an impoverished, lower middle-class family. Animesh set it up almost identical to the room that Labanya had just left behind. The weak, sickly child lay on a threadbare bed made on the floor. The irresponsible, coward of a husband was nowhere to be seen. And the doctor had refused to come unless he was paid his fees. There was no one who could go and call the doctor; there was no money in hand. The mother hesitantly touched the child and drew her hand back a couple of times. She herself had nothing but the married womans conch-shell bangle and the iron bracelet on her wrists. All that was left was the thin sliver of a gold chain around the boys neck. A little while ago, he had insisted on wearing it and so she had given it to him. Now how could the mother snatch that away from the sleeping child? Could you possibly steal the gold away from your precious, priceless little child! But yet, she had to do it. She slips it off his neck and sets off in search of the doctor.
This was the scene for the first day. Animesh explained the situation several times to Labanya. He even took her inside, to the set, and tried to rehearse. But Labanya didnt seem to quite grasp it. Her face was really quite inexpressive and neither sorrow, despair nor grief seemed to manifest on it. A face truly devoid of any expression whatsoever. Sometimes a shadow of embarrassment crossed her face when she became aware that a lot of outsiders, mostly male, were looking at her. She tried to pull the sari end over her head to cover her face several times. Eventually Animesh lost his patience and his temper, You dont have the time to feel shy! he chided her, Your son is suffering from malignant malaria. It is more serious than even typhoid. He could be dead within twenty-four hours. You should go and sit close to your son, stroke him, look at him lovingly.
But on the set, Labanyas knees shook, her hands trembled, and her lips quivered. A strange fear held her in its grip. It was not the fear of her sons imminent death. Even after they managed to get her to sit by her son, there was no taking away the stiffness of her stance. She picked up the hand-held fan made from palm leaves, and immediately dropped it again. Animesh scolded her, Is that how you fan you child? He is dying, for gods sake --
Labanya just shook her head, No, no, no.
After one full hour of struggling like this, Animesh eventually got her off the set, looked at her helplessly and said, It didnt work.
Labanya lowered her head in shame and embarrassment.
Malati Mullick was sitting right next to Baikuntha Poddar. At the sight of Labanya and Animesh, she held the handkerchief to her mouth, trying not to laugh. But the sounds of her muffled giggles were quite audible.
Baikunthababu said, Miss Mullick, please do us the honour, just this once. I dont want the shooting to be delayed.
Malati said, I have no objections to that. But I want nothing less than one thousand rupees.
Baikuntha said, Sure, sure, that is not an issue here. If the shooting goes on until late in the night, I shall go and drop you off at your home personally, -- so dont worry.
Malati took one look at the gray-haired old man and hid a smile as she said, Fine, you can do that. But for now, please hold my purse and hand me the contract form.
Malati was out of the makeup room within ten minutes. Clad in a tattered, ordinary sari and the symbolic conch-shell bangles, she looked the part of an impoverished wife alright. She looked at Animesh and said, Okay, Mr. Director, where is the child?
It was decided that Binoys son would have to do for that day. There were no other children on the sets at the time. In view of the situation, Binoy agreed reluctantly. Malati took one look at the boy and turned up her nose; Really, Mr. Director, is this what you call a child? After all your efforts, is this what you managed to produce? Of course, what else can you expect from an inexperienced director. But how will I actually play his mother? Id hate to even touch this excuse of a child. But on the sets, it was a different Malati altogether. Bintu had just started crying a little. Malati handed him some toys and coins and got him to keep quiet. Then she began to tend to the ailing child. The audience was spellbound by the mothers anxious expression, her face overcast with worry and concern. Everyone thought Malatis suggestions were better than Animeshs directions for that character.
At one point Malati even flashed a smile and said, Please dont get me wrong, Mr. Director, but you see, you are only the boys foster father, at best. But I happen to be none other than his mother personified. So I think I have a better idea about how to take care of him than you do.
Malati gave an excellent performance of the scene where she takes the chain off the boys neck. Oh, my little angel, at this inauspicious hour on a Thursday, I am committing the sin of snatching the gold away from my precious darling, and she hid her face in her sari and sobbed so effectively that even Bainkunthababus eyes grew a little moist.
The cameraman was thrilled with the shot. Everyone was of the opinion that this shot would be the best one in the film. Malati left the set with tears in her eyes and walked up to Baikunthababu. Where is my check? she said.
Very pleased with her work, Animesh said, I am delighted. Tell me, how did you play the mother so very realistically?
Malati laughed and said, Envy, Mr. Director, sheer envy. Performing is in my blood and yet I have to resort to liquor and rivalry. Now can you really tell who is Bintus real mother and who is the fake? She gave a sidelong glance at Labanya, who sat with her head lowered, and then said to Bikuntha, Please arrange for the car, Baikunthababu. It wont take me a minute to get changed. Animesh too wanted the car to reach his friends home. But both Binoy and Labanya shook their heads and refused. There was no need for the car; they wanted to take the tram home. Animesh tucked a ten-rupee note into Bintus fist. But Labanya refused to take that either. Bintu, please touch your uncles feet and return that money, you dont need that. Uncle will buy you chocolates later and you may take those.
Animesh said, I dont know what to say, Labanya.
She replied, You dont have to say anything.
After the film was released, it had a good run for nearly three or four weeks. Animeshs first film managed to break even. His friends and family whom he invited with special passes, came and saw the film and some even praised it. The only one who did not come was Binoy. Animesh thought perhaps they were feeling shy. One day he landed up at his friends home, holding two passes in his hands.
Binoy looked even worse than before. His clothes were a shade more faded. The room also looked emptier, as if some of the furniture was missing. Yet, Binoy seemed quite cheerful as he said, Come on in, Animesh. I was wondering if you remember us at all.
Labanya said, I believe your film is a great hit?
Animesh said, Why believe idle gossip? Why dont you two go and take a look at it. Then you can tell me if it is good or not even worth its salt. Bintu dear, come over here. Take this, these are your passes. Go and see how well you have performed. Since you refused to let us have your son, Binoy, I managed to get someone else with great difficulty. Animesh cast a glance at the sickly, naked little child; his legs seemed more emaciated and weak. Is he still not quite recovered? Have there been any further attacks--
Before he could finish his sentence, there was a loud knock on the front door and a gruff voice asked, Is Binoybabu at home? Binoybabu?
Binoy looked at his wife and whispered, Heaven help me. If Animesh hadnt dropped in, I would be out of the house by now and he would never have caught me.
Animesh said, Who is that?
Binoy replied in the same whisper, Our landlord, Gobinda Pramanik. He has come to collect the rent. He is really after my life and I dont have a rupee to my name. I havent been getting my full salary lately. There were some loans from the office and now they are deducting it. He looked at his wife and said, Go and tell him, I am not home.
Labanya threw a glance in Animeshs direction.
Binoy said, Its okay, you dont have to feel shy in front of him, he is my childhood friend. Go on and tell him I have already left. You know, Animesh, Labanya is a master at shooing off persistent creditors.
Labanya fixed Binoy with a steady gaze for a few seconds and then said, Why would he believe me if I said you have left? He has already heard you now.
Binoy stretched out on the bed and pulled the rug over his head, saying, In that case, tell him I am very sick.
At the front door there were the sounds of a low-toned conversation between Labanya and the visitor. Then she returned into the room with an elderly man, Come on in, uncle. He has grown so weak that he cant even come to the front door.
Gobinda Pramanik, the landlord came and stood in the room. A tall and well-built man in his fifties, he had salt and pepper hair and the shirt buttons over his potbelly were undone.
By that time, Binoy had turned over and lay all wrapped up in the rug. Gobindababu looked at Labanya and said, What exactly is ailing him? Does he have fever? He took a few steps forward and made as if to feel Binoys forehead.
Labanya said, No, uncle, it is not fever. He hardly takes any notice of trifles like fevers or cold. But during the entire day and night yesterday, he went to the bathroom at least twenty five times. Gobindababu backed away and said, My goodness!
Labanya said, Yes, at least twenty five times, if not more. Towards the end, he could hardly get up from the bed. I was so terrified, uncle. Times are not good at all.
Animesh noticed that Labanyas face was truly marked with anxiety, fear and concern over her husbands health, as if the shadows of the previous day still had her in their throes.
Gobindababu said, Of course, of course, it is enough to terrify anyone. Was it just the diarrhoeal attacks or vomiting as well?
Labanya said, Well, towards the end of the night it was a little of both. I didnt have anyone to call upon, and we are a little short on funds too -- I was in a real fix. Finally, when I was at the end of my tether, I sent word to my uncle. Have you heard of Madhu doctor of Shyambazaar? He happens to be my maternal uncle. He took one look and seemed really perturbed. But now, thank heavens . . . just see what a toll it has taken on him in these two days, uncle. Labanya lifted the rug off Binoys body.
Gobindababu said, Was it something he ate? But theres no telling really, nowadays, when something will not go down very well with you.
Labanya stroked her husbands forehead tenderly and said, Are you sleeping, dear. See, uncle is here to see you.
Gobindababu stopped her, Its alright, really, let him have his rest. Actually, my child, I came about the rent. But we will let that be for today. But meanwhile, it is already two months since . . . Binode also came twice and he didnt get to meet Binoybabu.
Labanya said, The moment he is feeling a little well, hell go and hand over the rent, uncle. There is no need to disturb Binode, poor child. He must have a lot on his mind, what with his studies and all. She looked at Animesh and continued, A great little boy, our Binode. I have never seen another child with such a sweet and gentle disposition. Uncle often deplores the fact that he is not too good in his studies, failing twice in the eleventh grade. But how does that matter? Studies are not everything in life. Besides, I can see where studying gets you anyway and its not pleasant. Actually, it is a persons nature thats most important, isnt it Animesh-da? If he is honest, always tells the truth --
Animesh gulped slightly and said, Certainly, certainly.
At this point Labanya introduced Gobindababu to Animesh, He is a great director. You dont go to the movies much, uncle, but everyone in the industry knows his name. He is a childhood friend of my husband. He heard about his friends health and came to see him.
A little later, Gobindababu said, Ill take leave today. Please remember what I --
Labanya said, Certainly. As soon as he is well, he will come and see you. But what is this, uncle -- you cannot leave without a cup of tea. You love tea, dont you?
Gobindababu looked a little worried, No, no, its alright. The tea can wait. I dont have it much nowadays either.
Labanya said, Then I wont force you today. What with the patient in the house -- it is always good to be clean and healthy. But you must promise to come another day and have tea with us, uncle. Labanya was smiling, with an indulgent tone in her voice.
Sure, my child, Ill do that. Gobindababu exited by the main door.
Binoy dropped the rug and sat up straight on the bed, Did you see that? I am no worse than you as a director!
All this while Animesh sat in a stupefied silence. He felt a little hesitant to comment on this situation. But Binoys attitude of amused buoyancy set him at ease. A little relieved, Animesh laughed and said, Thats true. But the higher praise goes to Labanya here. A skilled performer like her hardly needs a director. He looked at Labanya and said, You are as talented an artist as Malati Mullick. Why on earth did you lose your nerve the other day?
Labanya stared at Animesh for a few moments and then gave a peculiar smile, In this situation, Malati would also have lost her nerve, Animesh-da. Such an excess would perhaps have stretched her talent to its limits too.
At the hint of tears in her voice, both the friends looked up in surprise. That smile was still lingering on her lips, but her eyes . . . was that the glint of irony or tears?
Published in Parabaas, December 5, 2003
Illustration added: June22,2004.
The original story [abhinetrii] by Narendranath Mitra is included in Galpamaalaa [Collection of Stories]- Vol. 1 published by the Ananda Publishers, Kolkata.