Onek din aage, which simply means ‘a long time ago’ in my mother tongue but then I like the flow of words in Bengali so I would like to start the story with it. Papia Shundori Sen had been my neighbour for over three days and four nights when she took a fancy to my garden, or so she said, and invited herself to tea one evening. Tall, luscious hair, big oval shaped eyes with a hint of curiosity in them and attired in cotton sarees with colourful borders. That’s exactly how I remember her. She walked straight in through the main gate of the house and seated herself on the empty chair next to mine. ‘’I am your new neighbor and I simply couldn’t resist the urge to meet someone to talk to. I would be lying if I said your garden is the sole reason for my unwarranted visit. It is but more so because I have not spoken to anyone since my arrival here.’’
I smiled at her. There was unadulterated innocence in the way she had been so forthright in her demeanour and I found it pleasing. Too many people are forever wanting to put out what they presume to be the best version of themselves while she had simply put it as it was.
I called out to Kanu, my house help, and asked him to get some tea for Papia. ‘’Are you new to Darjeeling?’’ I asked.
‘’Not new Didi… can I call you Didi or is that an insult of some sort? I am only twenty-three and I presume you to be older than me,’’ she said.
I smiled again, and she continued, ‘’So Didi, jano toh ki, I am not new to Darjeeling. My maternal grandfather owns this house. My husband is expected to join me in a few days but I couldn’t bear the heat in Kolkata so I came early.’’
Kanu arrived with a tray. I asked her to have some home-baked cakes along with the tea. She took a bite of the cake, pronounced it as delicious and continued, ‘’I am expecting, you know and I haven’t seen a soul around the house since my arrival. The local house help is delayed for reasons unknown and I simply needed someone to talk to. So, tell me Didi, how long have you been here?’’
‘’I have pretty much spent my entire life in Darjeeling,’’ I replied. ‘’My husband was a school teacher in a convent school for girls and we had a son together.’’
‘’A son. Is he as good looking as you Didi?’’ I looked at her and smiled again. Papia was the only person who had managed to make me smile so many times in so little time.
‘’He would have been, I think.’’ Her face changed colour while I continued. ‘’We lost him to a rare disease when he was seven and last year my husband passed away. So now I have too much free time which is why the garden looks so beautiful.’’
Papia was genuinely sorry for my loss and to cheer her up, I offered to give her a tour of my garden. She delighted over the variety of flowers and the neatness of the shrubs.
Three days later, and by which time, Papia and I were sharing dinner every evening, her husband arrived, and the dinner table had an extra plate laid out. Kanu was happy to be able to cook for more than one person. The arrival of the couple has suddenly opened up possibilities for me. I cherished their company, looked forward to our dinner time and even took Papia around the hill station. Her husband, Nabin, left for Kolkata after a week’s time. By then, their house had a gardener, a cook and a driver, none of whom had too much to do because Papia spent most of her time with me.
I had once been a very good cook but had stopped the therapeutic process entirely after my husband’s demise. With Papia’s arrival, I took to cooking again. I began visiting the local fish market to delight her with new delicacies and she revelled in the attention I showered upon her. She was like the daughter I never had. We spent cosy evenings watching Uttam-Suchira classics, enjoyed Rabindra Sangeet while I taught her the tricks of gardening. Our evening cup of tea is what we looked forward to most though. Somehow that had been the bond of knowing and liking one another. Nabin made it a point to visit every two weeks, the most he could do as a business man and I think he might have gotten a little relaxed with my presence as well. Three beautiful months passed this way till Papia reached the eighth month of her pregnancy and had to leave for Kolkata. I was sad to see her go but the big city had better facilities for child birth and Nabin wanted to leave no stones unturned in this regard. We cried and hugged each other and she promised to be back as soon as the doctor would allow her to.
Onek din aage, and it genuinely seems Papia had been a physical entity of my life a very very long time ago. Twenty minutes into their journey, their car met with an accident and the husband wife duo were declared spot dead. I was seated on the same spot where she had first met me when Kanu arrived with the news. Call it a coincidence but may be Papia wanted me to keep safe our first meeting together, to honour her presence in my otherwise mundane life, to be seated in the very place where I had first met her, my cup of tea for company. I have tried to cry over her death, but I still haven’t been able to. I have never known her spirit to leave me. Twenty one years it has been and Papia and I still remain friends. Kanu has left me to return to his hometown in Kolkata and his nephew, Kodom, is the new house help. Kodom has been instructed to serve two cups of tea every evening. I can sense the confusion on his face but he is too scared to ask for fear of being reprimanded and I am too scared to tell, for fear of accepting her death.