Shantanu had come to a decision. He still wanted to give Tania one more opportunity, just one more. People do crazy things in fits of anger; later on they realize their mistakes. So he would give Tania one more chance to apologize. This would not change his final resolve. He was firmly determined as he picked up the phone and dialed Tania’s number.
Tania was sleepy and grumpy, “Why are you calling so early? You know I sleep till late.”
Shantanu was taken aback. How could she sleep so soundly after committing such a heinous act! He couldn’t sleep a wink. This was how she repented? Shame!
He said sweetly, “Sorry, I didn’t realize.”
Tania sounded even more irritated, “How can you not realize? God! You are such a dork. We’ve finished first year, ready for second, you need to understand me by now!”
Shantanu was shocked, she was telling him to ‘understand’! After committing such impropriety?
Tania yawned, “Why so quiet? Say whatever you called to say. Make it fast. Saw ‘Roman Holiday’ till very late last night. We laughed so much, my tummy is still hurting. So I’ve decided to take a break today. No laughing at all. Have you seen the movie?”
Shantanu was even more surprised. Was he hearing her right? This girl actually saw a movie last night? And laughed so hard that her tummy was still sore! No, there was no hope for this girl!
He said in a serious voice, “No, I’ve not seen it.”
“Definitely do see, if you get a chance.”
“Fine. Will do.”
Tania smiled, “Good. Now tell me quickly what you wanted to say.”
Tania’s laughter sounded piercingly painful to Shantanu. How could she laugh at this time! He asked, “Tania, can I ask you a question?”
“Question? You called me up so early to ask a question? Only crows discuss their questions at this hour. Are you a crow Shantanu, that you started so early?”
Shantanu suddenly lost his temper. He was a crow? And after the incident of yesterday she probably would think of herself as the cuckoo! Tania stopped laughing and urged him, “Hey, ask me quickly, don’t hog the phone. I’ll try to sleep some more. No college today. Got a lot of errands to run in the afternoon. I want some beauty sleep before that.”
Shantu realized he should not say anymore and just hang up on her. It was a mistake to call her in the first place. Serious mistake. But he couldn’t gather enough courage to hang up. One time when he hung up on her she screamed at him non-stop for seventeen minutes. He controlled himself with some effort, “Tania, don’t you think you did a very improper thing yesterday?”
“Improper? What thing?” Tania was surprised.
She was playing coy. As if she couldn’t even remember!
Shantanu lowered his voice, “About that shirt. What you did with it…”
Tania cut him off, “You are calling that improper? Shame on you!”
Shantanu stumbled at her rebuke, “No, no, not improper, perhaps a mistake? I know you were angry at that time and perhaps didn’t mean to do it. I was just asking that, just to confirm, you might say.”
Tania came back aggressively from the other end, “Mistake? Never! I did what I wanted to. I would do it again.”
There was no point in carrying on the conversation after this. He ought to hang up. Even if it angered her more. He ought to make her see that he wasn’t going to be cowered by her temper. But he didn’t get that chance. Tania had already hung up on him. Shantanu was relieved. He did his part, gave her an opportunity to say sorry. If Tania had said, ‘I am so sorry, I really didn’t mean it’ he would have had a bigger problem about what to do with his hard resolve. As it stood now, he didn’t have that problem anymore. From this moment on he would cut off all relationship with her. The end. Shantanu checked his watch. It was six thirty seven in the morning. He must note down the exact time of all important events. He did the same yesterday also. It was exactly four eleven in the afternoon.
Shantanu was sitting at the table. There was a textbook of chemistry open in front of him, but not a single word was penetrating his brain. No surprise. He had made a decision, now he needed to know, as soon as possible, how it would work. That girl needed to know about his decision and its after-effects. But how to accomplish that? How about calling her later in the day and tell her, sternly, ‘Enough is enough Tania, I can’t have any relationship with a girl like you. You go your way, I’ll go mine. You may go on singing like a cuckoo if you want but please don’t come bothering me again.’
Would that be a wise decision? Perhaps not. There was a risk. She could still be asleep. Waking her up twice would not be safe. He would rather write a letter that would be safer. He could give the letter through someone in the college. It would be a short letter, not carrying on about anything, just the gist of his decision. Shantanu started making a draft in his head,
‘Tania, last evening you did something that would be the most insulting act for any person. If you think about it, you will understand what I am trying to say. Ok, I will remind you. My birthday is next week, so you bought me a shirt. Sitting in the coffee house with you, I opened the packet and saw its color. A disgusting pink! A pink shirt! I asked in surprise why you got me a pink shirt and you said that it was an interesting story. Some evening when you were returning home you saw the sky turning a beautiful shade of pink. It was so lovely that you wanted to reach out and touch it. That’s what prompted you to search hard and find this pink colored shirt for me. I said please return the shirt or find another color. I said no man would wear such a color. People would laugh at me. You became serious and said ok, give it to me, I would change it. Then we chatted about other things and walked till the metro station. You even stopped halfway to have snacks on the roadside and exclaimed that it was too hot. All this was normal and as usual. But then you did something awful. There was a wino sitting on the steps of the station. You dropped the shirt on his lap and stomped off to the trains. I’m sure the man sold that shirt for a few rupees and bought more liquor. You wasted all that money and insulted me terribly. All because I didn’t like the color pink. You did it deliberately, wanting to hurt me and insult me. Still I wanted to give you a chance to explain and apologize. That’s why I called you in the morning. I didn’t mind being the first one to call. Our phone has been acting up for sometime, you mightn’t have gotten a connection.’
Shantnu thought the letter this far and stopped. No, it didn’t sound right. It was too long for one thing, and it didn’t sound like he was ending their relationship. It sounded as if he was the one giving explanations, as if he was scared of her. What was there to be scared of? Nothing, nothing at all.
No, he would forget about the letter. There was no reason for writing a letter when he had already ended their relationship. Besides, he wanted to jolt her hard. This letter wouldn’t do that. Shantanu kept thinking.
Shantanu was still sitting at the table. But instead of the chemistry book, he had a blank sheet of paper in front of him. He had realized the best way to hurt Tania. He would return all the gifts she had ever given him. He was trying to make a list. Now she would realize that this crow didn’t just caw but also could peck painfully. But, was he being too childish? Was giving the pink shirt to the beggar that big a deal? Yes, Shantanu imagined a vengeful laugh. But making the list was not so easy. He could not remember many of the items. And how could he. Tania was always generous with her gifts and never followed any limits or restrictions. She gave random gifts beyond the expected birthdays and anniversaries. Last monsoon she gave him a folding umbrella with a cassette. Shantanu was surprised, “Why the cassette?”
“Don’t be a dork!” Tania said, “Use the umbrella outside in the rain, and at home, listen to the monsoon songs by Tagore.”
Shantanu started the list, ‘umbrella’, next he wrote ‘cassette’. Yes, he still had the umbrella, but where was the cassette? Was it with his sister? Or aunt? He couldn’t remember. Next in the list he wrote ‘pen’. She had given him many pens. They were all in his drawer. Most were empty. That’d be even better. Giving back a bunch of empty useless pens. Next were ‘books’. They could easily be returned, but there too was a problem. Lest anybody at home asked embarrassing questions, Shantanu had deleted his name on the front page and wrote his male friends’ names in the messages. Like, ‘To dear Shantanu, from Bishwanath’, ‘To my dearest friend Shantanu, from Kaushik’, or ‘I love you Shantanu, Debanjan’, or ‘Only to you, Bhombol’. His sister once saw the books and said, “These boys in your class sound very girlie.”
He had somehow convinced his sister but what would Tania think looking at those partly deleted messages? She would be convinced that he was a coward. To hell with it all. He was over and done with her, so it mattered nothing what she still thought of him.
Next on the list were perishables, foods and drinks. Tea, coffee, potato chips, Cadbury’s chocolates, ice creams, Chinese. Really he did feast a lot on her money. And none of these were returnable. What to do? Well, perhaps he could pay it back in money? But not yet. She might get really mad and do something crazy. No need to be too courageous. At the bottom of the list Shantanu wrote ‘thirty two letters and seven photos’. He underlined this in red ink. Returning these would hurt her the most, hence the red ink. It would really irritate her. He felt much lighthearted after finishing the list. Now he needed to collect it all in a bag and visit Tania’s place. It will be a heavy bag. A heavy bag and a light heart! He was sure Tania’s mom would open the door, ’Oh, Shantanu, come in. Haven’t seen you for ages. What will you have? Tea or Sherbet?’ And Shantanu would reply very politely, ‘No auntie, not today. I’m in some hurry. Can you please call Tania for a minute? I’ll wait here.” Then when Tania came, he would give her the bag and should he smile? Yes, a smile would really get her goats.
Things seldom work out as planned. Some of it goes as planned, some go exactly opposite. In this case the entire plan went bust. Shantanu did ring the doorbell but Tania’s mom was frowning, “Why are you ringing the bell so many times? Wait here. I’ll call Tania, she is waiting for you.”
Right away Shantanu was caught off guard. Tania was waiting for him? Why? Did he hear right? He never told her anything before. Tania came out laughing, all dressed up, ready to go, “Why so late? Didn’t I tell you in the morning that we would go out this afternoon?”
Shantanu wanted to laugh and annoy Tania, instead Tania’s laughter irritated him. Did she think he would rush in just because she wanted to go out? Perhaps, till yesterday. But not any more. He hid the bag and said, “Tania, I have something important to tell you.”
Tania gave him a look, “Forget your ‘important’. We can do that later. First go grab that taxi. God, we are going to be late. Run, run.” Shantanu really did run, somehow managing the heavy bag.
Tania really did have many errands. Whole afternoon they roamed around, changing books in British Council, putting a new card in her cell phone, then she got some notes on political science from her friend Shreya, got a pair of earrings matching with her outfit, changed the band of her wristwatch, bought a history book for her brother, then at last sat down in a coffee house and smiled, “Here, order some cold coffee now.”
Shantanu placed the order and realized he had messed it up. If he was going to end their relationship, he shouldn’t have spent so much time with her. Perhaps he shouldn’t have gone to her place at all. Tania was right. He truly was a dork. And it got worse in front of her. He should have ignored her urgings and smiles and just given her the bag. Should he do it now? She would pull out the umbrellas, letters and pens right in the restaurant, that wouldn’t be pretty. Perhaps it would be best to give it to her at the end, just before saying goodbye. Then she could cry, laugh, whatever, he wouldn’t care. Now he must not let her guess anything.
Shantanu ordered two prawn cutlets along with the coffee. Not that he was very hungry but it was better to be full before a big break up.
Tania was savoring the cutlet, ”You know Shantanu, today we will see an interesting thing.”
“Nope, not telling. First I’ll take a look, then.” Tania smiled.
Shantanu too smiled but only in his mind. ‘Today I too am going to show you something. A bagful of something’. Shantanu moved the bag under the table. The umbrella was poking his leg.
They were late at the metro station. The sun had set. A soft light was sliding along the sky. A soft pink light.
Suddenly Tania stopped on her track. Holding Shantanu’s hand she whispered, “See, isn’t it just beautiful?”
Shantanu hardened his resolve. He would not yield at her hand holdings. He gave her the whole day to apologize, she had ample time but she never even mentioned the incident.
Ouch! She pinched him near the elbow, “There, look, right there!”
To avoid another pinch, Shantanu looked up. And was stunned.
That begger was still sitting on the steps of the station. He was swinging his legs, looking up at the sky. He had the same uncombed hair, light beard. But today he was wearing something new. That pink shirt. Every so often he was dusting off his shirt. It looked like a pink man was sitting happily, bathed in pink light.
Shantanu mumbled, “Lovely, isn’t it.”
“Hey Mr. Dork, now tell me what you had been wanting to say. And hurry up. You have only one minute. My train is already in.”
Shantanu woke up at that, “It’s nothing” he said shyly, “You go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
That night his arm ached. Naturally. He had been carrying that heavy bag around whole day.Published in Parabaas, November 2015
The original story The Pink Shirt (গোলাপী জামা) by Pracheta Gupta is collected in in 50-ti Golpo ('50 short stories', '৫০-টি গল্প'; আনন্দ; ২০১০) (Ananda Publishers, Kolkata; 2010).