Translated from the Bengali by Mousumi Dutta Roy
As I reached Iowa City for the second time, only one name was humming in my heart, Marguerite! Marguerite!
What a different story between my two trips! The first time, I had just turned twenty-eight, a bachelor, an unheard of, a budding poet filled with high hopes and aspirations, who had just managed to publish a book of poetry with the help of a friend. Nobody knew me outside my legion of comrades, who were aspiring poets themselves. Somehow, I got noticed by Paul Engle. Paul was then the Chairman of the University of Iowa’s English Department and the Director of the International Writing Program (IWP). He came to India and was visiting India’s larger cities, convening with many vernacular poets and writers for his nominations for IWP. He came to Calcutta for a couple of days. There was a list of illustrious writers to select from, but surprisingly, he invited me to attend the first IWP. But why did he select me? It was really a difficult answer to fathom.
I bet many were surprised by my nomination, but none more surprised than me. I was a wandering bohemian at that time. My life was anything but stable. I was the eldest son of a refugee family. After a long struggle and much toiling, I had managed to earn a Master’s Degree and subsequently, a desk job as a clerk. I started giving private tutorials to earn a few extra bucks for the publication of my little magazine Krittibas. Since my childhood days, my only passion was to travel and traverse the world, but I had little means. It was like the poem by Dwijendranath Tagore!
Wishing to travel the world, but have no means
My mind flies away, but shackles on my feet,
What a punishment of destiny!
Dwijendranath might have written this with a sharp sense of humor. He was a zamindar’s* son, could have easily traveled around the world three times if he wished, but for me reality was stark. Whenever I had a little change to spare, ten or twenty rupees, I just headed off to Murshidabad or Santalparganas. When resources went dry, I even slept under trees, but those were my limits and boundaries.
I often thought about becoming a stoker and sailing across the seas. I had been born in to this world—shouldn’t I see it before I die?
At this point in my life I got an invitation to travel across seven seas and thirteen rivers. It seemed like holding the moon in the sky. My dad had passed away two years earlier. I was the eldest son and had the responsibility taking care of my mother and siblings; still I dared to break out and sail across the world.
It was not as simple and easy to cross borders as it is now. The government of India had tons of restrictions on foreign travel. It was even difficult to get a passport. They scrutinized every detail of my invitation letter. The Chief Minister of Bengal, Mr. Prafulla Chandra Sen, was overwhelmed too and repeatedly asked me why an American university would invite and pay for a young poet like me, especially one who wrote in Bengali.
* A revenue collector under the bhuiyan land tenure system.
He couldn’t believe that they were paying for my travel expenses and stay and would give me a scholarship just for writing poetry in Bengali. Really, it could all be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of Paul Engle. And how could others understand that?
There was a strict quota for foreign exchange for Indian citizens. The government used to provide only eight dollars for travel purposes. I hopped on to a Pan Am flight from Calcutta to my final destination, Chicago, via Karachi, Beirut, New York. I stayed a night at the Chicago airport and had not a penny to spare from the eight dollars that I had brought with me from Calcutta. The next morning, I boarded a small commuter plane to Iowa. Honestly, my heart was pounding fast. It was my first ever plane journey—and across the seven seas—and now I had no money, nowhere to go unless someone came to the airport to pick me up. I was so tense thinking about what my next course of action would be if nobody came to the airport. How would I reach the university? How would I pay the cab fare?
As the plane touched the ground, I could see a tall man standing on the tarmac waving with two hands to greet me. Paul Engle!
This time around, it was different. There was a long hiatus of seventeen years, and I was no longer a young poet. I wrote prose too, and I had gotten married. I had planned this trip long ago and had ample spare time. This time I even knew a lot of people in the United States. Dollars were not so scarce. Swati loved travelling too. On our way we had already spent a couple of days in London and Paris, and then to Edmonton, Canada. My friend Bhaskar lived in London, Asim in Paris, both of them well settled. Swati’s sister Jayati lived in Edmonton. Her husband Deepak Saraswati was a physics professor at the University of Edmonton. Hospitality was found everywhere. Deepak drove three thousand miles, stopping at interesting places on the way to California and dropped us off at Dr. Madal Gopal Mukherjee’s place—very kind-hearted and indeed a literature lover.
Madan put us on a Greyhound bus to Iowa. It was about a day and half’s journey and we were dramatically saved from a fatal accident credited to my smoking. (I have written all about it in my travelogue “Tin Samudra Satash Nadi” and abstain from repeating here.)
The last time I visited, I had rented a second floor studio apartment on South Capitol Street. The rent was $50 per month. My scholarship amount was $250, and I had to save at least $100 to send to Calcutta for my family. Even so, it had been enough for my lifestyle. Cigarettes and drinks were affordable. This time around, they put us up at an apartment in a high-rise called the Mayflower, quite spacious and well furnished. Swati liked it.
During my earlier stay, I had shared my days with Marguerite. We used to cook and eat together. Days and nights were filled with talks, discussions, arguments, and counter-arguments over any little thing that we could think of. I was her disciple in French literature. I really had never seen a girl so madly in love with poetry alone. We spent hours and hours together reading and discussing poems and poetry. Though she never approved of my love for whiskey, she vouched to make me a wine connoisseur. Memories of Marguerite abounded. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of Marguerite. The sultry Iowa River used to meander along the road and froze completely during the winter. However it was precarious to walk on the river’s ice. She never listened to any statutory warnings. She carelessly crisscrossed the river reciting Paul Verlaine’s poetry.
My wife was with me, was it right to think about another woman? No, they were not secret fantasies, Swati knew all about Marguerite. The first time, many had pressured me to stay. Immigration laws were not so stringent at that time. There was no problem getting a job and settling down. A few of the IWP invitees did find jobs, married and never went back to their countries. Maybe I was stupid. I loved reading, writing and even talking in Bengali, and so I longed for my own folks in my own country. I went back to be in my own milieu.
Marguerite had asked, “Won’t we meet again?”
It was nearly impossible for me to come to Europe or America for a second time on my own then. I did not know what path I was about to embark on. Marguerite had told me “If you can’t make it, I will surely visit. After my graduation, I will take a job at the Alliance Française and choose Calcutta as my first post. Won’t it be great?”
Marguerite was working on her doctoral thesis and was a teaching assistant at that time. Her plan to come to Calcutta kept getting postponed as she had problems with her thesis work. We still communicated regularly through long mails—the long letters of a “mad” girl. She once wrote three letters, one after the other, on the same day.
She knew everything about me. She knew about Swati, our relationship. Then, within a year, my marriage to Swati was arranged. She was so happy to learn about our wedding. Swati too knew everything about Marguerite and our relationship. Swati could have learned it from somebody else and that could have complicated matters. So it was rational to let her know from the beginning. Swati’s response was terrific. “I really don’t care who you had relationships with before you met me. I had some little crushes here and there too. Also, I think Marguerite is really a nice girl and kept you from going astray!”
I thought “Swati is right.” I was so reckless, but Marguerite kept me under control.
Marguerite used to take care of me at parties and prevented me from getting drunk and protected me from young ladies trying to get closer to me. Often she lectured me saying, “You are a poet, not an average man.” I even started drinking less and got sober. I used to write every night. I wrote all the poetry in “How I am living” during my stay in Iowa.
Marguerite used to write to Swati. Swati replied to her letters. My son Puplu was born with in a year after we got married. Marguerite was very excited to get learn the news of his birth. She sent some dollar bills by regular mail as a token of blessing for him and claimed the right to be the godmother. She didn’t even care that it was illegal to send money like that by regular post.
Soon afterward, the letters from Marguerite stopped. There was no reply to my mail. I was losing her. The telephone was not easily accessible like now. It was expensive and there was no direct line. Still I tried calling her a couple of times. She couldn’t be reached. What had happened to that girl?
In the following years, the poets Jyotirmoy Dutta, Sankha Ghosh and Dipak Majumdar visited Iowa. Everybody met Marguerite. Dipak, as he is, never used to write to his wife regularly. Supriya was worried and did not get any reply from Dipak. She was worried about his health and whereabouts. Unlike these days, communication meant letters only. Supriya got Marguerite’s address from me and wrote to her to know about Dipak. Marguerite responded promptly. Her handwriting was not so easily legible and was quite difficult for Supriya to figure out. So, the responsibility fell on me to read out the letter for Supriya. It seemed like a secret mission when we read that letter on the rooftop of Supriya’s house. The subject of that letter is irrelevant here.
Nobody knew about Marguerite. Did she fall in love with some one else? Did she get married? That was a possibility, I consoled myself. But then why she would not let me know of this happy news? I had shared all my news with her.
Was it that she married someone who knew me well and detested me a lot? Maybe he did not want Marguerite to keep in touch with me. All these thoughts came to mind, but I could hardly agree with them. It was totally improbable that she did not have the right to even write a letter.
Later, the next year, Paul Engle returned to Calcutta. He was now divorced from his first wife and married to a Chinese writer. With his newly-wedded wife, Paul was bound to China to visit his new in-laws. The very first day, I enquired about Marguerite. Paul knew Marguerite quite well and used to tease me about her. He used say “Sunil, you’ve become enamored by the magic of a French lady! No other woman could draw your fascination? You didn’t even come to know any American beauties in America.”
This time, Paul kind of cagily answered me saying, “Really I don’t know. She is not from the English Department and I haven’t seen her for a while…”
By then, the famous Ray had already made films from two of my novels. Paul had never seen any films by Ray. Fortunately, the Goal Park Ram Krishna Mission Institute was screening “Pratiwandi” (aka The Adversary). Paul was eager, so we went to see the film.
What a scandal that was! It was the beginning of the 70s. Blackouts were a regular phenomenon in daily life. Within the first few minutes of the film, there was a power outage. They tried to resume the show with a generator. It ran on and off for some time. It was such an embarrassing situation. Paul looked at me pitifully. He was losing his patience. There was no air conditioning in the hall, even the fans were not running by generator, and it was summertime in Calcutta. Humidity was at its max. He was sweating like a pig. Then I said, “Let’s move, I don’t think there is any chance of it continuing!”
As we walked down the dark staircase cautiously, Paul suddenly put his hand on my shoulder and whispered “Sunil you had asked me about Marguerite Matthew, and I didn’t answer you properly. You will be disheartened to know that something terrible has happened to her. Please, don’t ask me anything else. I won’t be able to say any more.”
Even today, I can vividly recollect Paul Engle’s exact words. “Something terrible has happened to her.” What did that mean? Did she die? Have an accident or mishap? Did somebody kill her? I never got an answer. I couldn’t find out what happened to my Marguerite.
When I returned to Iowa, this was haunting me. I would never ever meet Marguerite again. How did a lively soul like her vanish into the blue?
Marguerite had never finished her studies nor had she packed up to go back to her country.
I knew her French address. She was from Ludres, a small village in France. She once wrote to me from there. Her parents were alive then. After a couple of letters with no reply, I had even written to her parents. I never got any reply from them either. Perhaps they couldn’t read English. But it didn’t make sense not to write to me even if she had returned to her homeland. Nor could I believe that she would just be a homemaker after all the years she spent at graduate school.
And “something terrible” could not justify her return home.
I wanted to take Swati to my old apartment. One day, Swati and I were strolling down the main road to find my old pad. Iowa City is so small, yet I wasn’t able to find that old nook of mine. The address, I clearly remembered, was 303 South Capitol. There every university has a very similar dome-shaped, tall building which is referred to as the Capitol. I could view the Capitol, but where was the road?
The road that by-passed my old house had the river on its left. There was a bridge behind it, a big weeping willow with pendulous weeping branches, and a rounded broad crown by the side of the bridge. I used to take the road on the right to the university, which was about five to seven minutes’ walk. I couldn’t make out that road either. The whole area had developed. All the small quaint buildings had been replaced by modern tall buildings. What a makeover!
There was a supermarket named A & P, where I used to get all my groceries. I wasn’t able to find it. Where had it gone? I started asking around. Some people had never heard of A & P. Finally one person confirmed that A & P had gone out of business. So many businesses come and go. A & P stood for Atlantic & Pacific, encompassing east to west. A retail chain store, now extinct. New retail stores had replaced A & P, like K-Mart, Woolworth’s and many more. Even the old rail station had disappeared. Can you believe even a railroad station could go out of business? Everybody now travelled by car or plane. Very few preferred trains.
I paused there for a moment presuming that was where my apartment had once stood. I used to run down to the mailbox every morning expecting letters from home. Any letter from home used to make my day. They were such great pleasures.
Swati, suddenly asked, “Did Marguerite live here too?”
I replied, “No, we never lived together. Living together was not common in those days, especially in the Midwest. Marguerite used to live in the university dorms for women.”
In those days, they had separate dorms for men and women. This time there were unisex dorms as well. It was so easy, if anybody wanted to visit his girlfriend or boyfriend, he could just drop in from one room to the other. It saved time going crosstown. Even in the university accommodation, Mayflower, where we were staying, many students, both men and women, lived on the same floor. Nobody cared or gossiped about who was visiting whom.
Swati again asked, “Don’t you know anybody from that time? Can no one help us find out what happened to Marguerite?’
University towns have unique characteristics that separate them from other towns or cities. Nobody lives there permanently. Students come and go. Even the professors don’t dare to stay at one university for long. It seems changing jobs brings more recognition. Even the permanent residents of the town keep shifting from one house to another, moving from town to town.
Paul stayed at the University of Iowa for a long time. Most of the other professors were new and I hardly knew them. Only people that I recognized were Peter and Mary. They were not professors but attached to the University. They were from India, Christians from Goa. They were not Americans. They too recognized me but could not recall Marguerite.
I was now determined to find Marguerite. I needed to know what happened to Marguerite. I also wanted to meet Paul’s first wife Mary. Where had happened to her? Mary used to love me a lot.
Paul’s previous house was a small one compared to the large mansion he had now. It’s up on a hill. There was a big deck at the back that frequently hosted parties.
The first time I came, only five writers from around the world were invited. The IWP was in its infancy. Now this program was well-known and had reached its adulthood with twenty-five writers visiting. Many of these writers were well-known and spoke Russian and Chinese too. Before, these two countries were not considered because of their political affiliations. Usually, writers were invited only once, I was the exception, invited for a second time. I was a special case; Paul was always partial to me, that’s for sure.
This time, the writers were not all young and fresh; there were some of them who were already famous and celebrated: writers from Hungary and Greece. The Romanian writer was supposed to be the best playwright in his country. There were a few fresh faces too: participants from the Philippines and Argentina, not only young, but also beautiful, stunning women. Men were always buzzing around them. But the best in the class was Anna. She was gorgeous and the wife of that famous Hungarian writer. She was very young, probably twenty¬-five years younger than her husband, a case of a young reader who fell in love with her favorite writer and got married.
Anna was attractive but not dazzling, not like sharp-featured white Caucasian women, slightly taller than the average woman, very fair, doe-eyed and charming with long hair casually caressing her back. She got along with both of us. She often visited our apartment, showing lots of interest in India. She believed she had Indian ancestry and thought that her grandmother and mother were gypsies and had migrated from India to Europe.
We used to meet at Paul’s place regularly—parties filled with interesting discussions, songs, dancing, food, and definitely drinks. Swati was very popular there. She charmed everybody with her new saris every day. She looked young and fresh, and nobody believed that she had a toddler boy at home. Young fellows showed more and more interest in her. Compared to her, I was unattractive, so I sat in a corner with a glass in my hand, observing quietly. I didn’t talk much to anyone. A few people inquired “Are you bored?”
Paul also said, “Sunil, what happened? Last time you were so lively and bouncy. You used to talk so much and were dynamic, what happened to you? So quiet and sober.”
Why I have changed, what happened to me? I don’t know. Was I thinking of Marguerite all the time? No, that’s not even true. I thought of her sometimes, but it wasn’t an obsession. I had already realized that there was no chance of meeting with her again. Last time, I was a young bachelor. There was no past nor did a future await me. I was full of curiosity and vigor. Now I was a middle-aged married man with a kid and responsibilities and more composed. I was no longer wild, boisterous. I used to sing all the time, in tune or out of tune. Now, I didn’t open my mouth at all.
Paul’s second wife was Huang Lee. She was an ambitious writer, and all the time beating the drum about her writing and had already published a few books. She was stout and well built, a very accomplished hostess too. Her resume noted she was a prize-winning cook who took pride in serving all the food at parties and a professional hostess who took care of her guests with near perfection. Everyone was charmed by her hospitality.
I remembered Mary, Paul’s first wife, whenever I met Huang. Mary was slim and graceful. Frail, I guess. Not a hostess by any measure. She was always dressed in shirts and trousers exuding a mannish manner. I don’t remember Mary in skirts or dresses. She had no interest in cooking or hosting. During parties, I remember a maid used to come and set the tables for the guests and Mary would come and ask the guests to make themselves at home and help themselves to food and drinks. She herself used to sit in a corner with a glass of tonic and gin and was inebriated most of the time.
Paul was fifty or fifty-one when I first came to Iowa. He was tall, handsome, dynamic, always joyous and filled with life. He used to keep everyone occupied and engaged with his talks and humor. Women really liked him. In contrast, Mary was like a fragile old lady lacking the zest for life.
Paul used to raise funds for his dream project, IWP, by visiting the rich and prosperous farmers of the Midwest who had private jets on their driveways and hung real Picassos and Matisses on their walls. When Paul set out on his mission for two or three days, Mary used to invite me over for dinner and company.
She told me her and Paul’s story. Indeed it’s a story of its own.
Both Mary and Paul were Iowa-born. They were of the same age. They knew each other from childhood and grew up together. They had shared the same playgrounds, the same friends and the same school. They were childhood sweethearts and got married at a young age of twenty-two or twenty-three. Mary was pregnant at that time. Paul was a bright and brilliant student aiming for higher studies. Mary supported her husband throughout. She had a little girl and took up odd jobs to support the family so that Paul could continue with his studies. She worked as a waitress. This was the norm. After high school kids were independent and tried to support themselves and continue their college education by taking student loans. Paul completed graduate school and started teaching at the university. He visited England to pursue his academic endeavors while Mary stayed behind, taking care of her child and family. Mary sacrificed a lot for Paul to become an established and respected academician. Mary only gave to the family and denied herself of all pleasure and slowly lost her youth and beauty and appetite for life. How long could they have stayed together?
I was in my twenties, and love and romance captured all my fascination. I had deep faith and trust in love and life. But that strong belief was shaken after listening to Mary. Was it possible to survive based on love alone? Love, marriage and having a family, it takes a lot more attention to detail to live. The pillars that bind and hold a home together are compassion caring, humor and the ability to depend on one another. Sex may not stay as alluring but humor can always drive away the cloud that sometimes casts its shadow over the roof. There was nothing like that between Paul and Mary. Paul was wandering away, and Mary was becoming more and more irrational, bitter and jealous. She could not stand Paul talking to other women. She became vicious. She could no longer tolerate guests at their home, humiliated them and was becoming alcoholic. There were reasons for it too. She had discovered love letters in Paul’s coat pocket.
After I returned, I heard the news that Paul and Mary had gotten divorced, and that he had married a Chinese lady. Divorce was not so common in those days in Midwestern, conservative Iowa. Sometimes we have the wrong notion that divorce, Hollywood style, is a common practice. It’s not, especially in conservative God-fearing middle class American families. So, Paul indeed did take daring step in his life.
But where was Mary now? She had lost her youth, her health, wealth, everything. How would she survive alone? I couldn’t ask Paul about Mary, it was impolite to ask about ex-spouses. It was immodest to pry in somebody’s family life. I just heard here and there that she was still alive but had moved to another town.
Mary had known Marguerite well. I think she was jealous of Marguerite too. She saw Marguerite and me together at a couple of parties. Once, Marguerite answered my phone when Mary called my place and got upset about it. She had told me, “How do you spend time with that French woman? They are very easy lays and change companions frequently. They are dirty and filthy, seldom take baths and add perfume to cover it up. Aggh!!”
Neverthless, I wanted to see Mary.
One day, I saw an unknown face at Paul’s house. He was of Paul’s age. It seemed I knew him from somewhere. Was he a famous writer, whom I had known? Had I seen his picture? I just couldn’t recall. Not at all.
Paul introduced me and said “Sunil don’t you recognize him? John Lambert!”
It didn’t set off any bells in my head. He didn’t know me either and just said “Hi” in a dry voice. Paul then continued, mentioning that John was his colleague at the university. Now he was teaching in Texas. He had a house here and had come to sell it off.
John said, “I am really not getting any good offers on it!”
Paul replied, “This is a beautiful house in the forest. If I had the money, I would have kept it for myself. Sunil, don’t you remember, when you were here the last time, we had a big party at his house. You went with me.”
A big bang went through my head. Yes, a beautiful house, deep in the forest. A lot of chipmunks were playing around. Originally Jean Lambert, he changed his name to John Lambert in America. He was the chairman of the French Department at the University of Iowa and had been Marguerite’s thesis supervisor.
I stayed close to him at the party. When I noticed his empty glass, I practically ran and fetched another glass of red wine for him and asked “Dr. Lambert, do you remember your student Marguerite Matthew? I know many years have passed, and you’ve had so many other students in between, but she was doing research under your supervision.”
Smoking his pipe, Lambert answered very indifferently, “Yes, I do remember Marguerite.”
I asked again, “She’s no longer here. Do you know where she is now?”
He said, “No, that I don’t know, but do you know Dory Katz?”
I said, “Dory?”
John said, “Yes, the two of them keep in touch with one another. Dory must know her whereabouts. I will surely give you Dory’s contact number. She lives in Arizona.”
He took out his planner and flipped through some pages. “Sorry, I don’t have it here. I definitely have it at home. I’m going back tomorrow and will let you know Dory’s number. Do you know, Dory can’t walk anymore?”
To be continued…