Sometimes, the simplest premise is all you need. Like this one. The setting is Tundla Station near Agra in north India on a frigid December night. In the first-class waiting room four middle-aged men sit, bundled up in their winter coats, as long, bitterly cold hours stretch before them. A derailment on the rail line ahead has forced this unanticipated stopover and now all they can do is wait. This is the unfortunate predicament that sets the stage for a warm-hearted take on the Decameron in Bengali writer Buddhadeva Bose’s 1951 novel My Kind of Girl.
The four delayed travellers include an exceptionally large-framed contractor leisurely making his way back from a business trip, an established bureaucrat from Delhi with an urgent and important schedule to hold to, a well-known doctor from Calcutta on his way home from a conference and a man on holiday who described himself as writer, if, the others might have wondered, writing could even be considered a profession. As they prepare themselves for an unwelcome and uncomfortable sojourn, the doors to the room slide open, briefly revealing a young man and woman, clearly newlyweds, looking for a private place to settle. This moment changes everything:
That couple, who had only given them a glimpse of themselves at the door before disappearing, had left something behind; it was as though the bird of youth had shed a few feathers as it flew by: some sign, some warmth, some pleasure, some sorrow or tremor that refused to dissipate, something with which these four individuals – even if they did not speak, if they only thought about it silently – would be able to survive this terrible night.
First love—that joy, so fleeting, but never forgotten. As if they have been awakened to memories long assigned to the past, the men decide to pass the time by sharing, in turn, stories of their own first loves. As each man slips into his own youthful reminisces, the story he offers emerges with a distinct setting, character and voice. The contractor goes first, refusing to own the account he shares, saying it is only one that he heard of, but the young man he describes as burly and powerful, but admittedly a little thick-witted, seems to be only a faint effort to camouflage himself. Perhaps the sadness is hard to acknowledge; it is the tale of a family that builds a successful manufacturing empire right through the worst of the Japanese attacks on Calcutta during the war and the enterprising son whose mother is endlessly obsessed with securing for him the hand of the daughter of the neighbouring professor, all for envy of their library no less. But money, it turns out, cannot buy everything.
The Delhi bureaucrat’s story carries him back to his adolescence in rural Bengal and his first intimations of love, barely spoken, with Pakhi, a girl he secretly adored. Over the years, as life leads them both in different directions, to different cities, they chance to meet from time to time, and her actions lead him to wonder if she might have once cared for him in return. His tale asks if the embers of love can still burn even if busy lives, marriages and families separate the two people who may have shared that early spark. He thinks back to a night long ago when they had walked home from town together, ahead of their families. Pakhi says:
“I was thinking – I was thinking, this walk is lovely, but it’s because we’re walking on it that the road will end.”
Back then, I found this funny. But now it seems that fourteen-year-old girl had, without knowing it, spoken wisely. Our existence is like that: living eats into our life, all the roads we walk end because we take them.
The doctor, when his turn comes, takes the subject in yet another direction. He promises a happy story, one in which his first love becomes his wife, but the route by which that end is reached is a strange and convoluted one. Suffice to say, when he meets the woman he will eventually marry, her focus is on someone else altogether. Finally, the writer, almost reluctantly, takes over. His poetic, tragic tale is one in which he and his two best friends are all completely besotted with the same girl, collaborating with and competing against one another to win her favour in sickness and health.
This gentle, affecting novel is a thoroughly entertaining read, always feeling fresh as it moves from speaker to speaker. Each man reaches deep into his own memories to share youthful passions and vulnerabilities that, by the light of day and in any other circumstances, would have remained half-buried in the mists of time. Everyone marvels at how their emotions have been stirred in this unexpected interlude—until daybreak returns each traveller to the road he was on the day before.
Buddhadeva Bose (1908–1974) was one of the most accomplished and versatile Bengali writers of the twentieth century. He was also celebrated for translating Baudelaire, Hölderlin and Rilke into Bengali. My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose is translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha and published by Archipelago Books.