Short story – The Star Girl by Debasis Tripathy
There is something about the autumn air in India, a general sense of leisureliness. The slow air touches you in a fashion that launches and fills festivity in your senses. No doubt there are so many festivals that queue up in the Indian calendar during this season.
Bidyut had joined the Durga Puja mass celebration near his ancestral home in his lane in Cuttack. There is a distinct trait to how people in old cities celebrate their festivals. The thousand-year-old city, where he had spent his childhood, was draped in a shawl dotted with countless lights. There was none in the city who was left untouched by the thrill. Everyone was soaked in the mood of the festival. But Bidyut was one who liked time alone. He preferred sombre darkness over light, which doesn’t let you hide. He knew many people in the city and was not really a shy person, but given a chance he liked to keep a distance. He enjoyed watching people celebrate but could never be a part of the party.
He moved away from the luminous surrounding to a hazy corner and lit a cigarette. The smoke that swirled up from his mouth formed different shapes. He raised his head, at an obtuse angle, to recognize the shapes – a human female without a head, very slender at the waist, followed by a broad exclamation mark, and then an irregular circle. Nothing finite, a figment of his imagination. He loved the moment.
“Got a light?” a female voice intruded into his zone of seclusion.
He passed the matchbox to the lady without a word. She was about the same height as he was. Maybe an inch smaller, but she had an erect posture and that, combined with her slim body, made her appear taller. Her hair was short and her head was a lovely egg shape. She must have been no older than twenty-five. She wore a pale yellow dress with a sapphire blue cotton jacket with lots of embroidery on it. She didn’t wear lipstick and her lips clearly indicated that she smoked a lot. She exuded confidence and freedom. An astonishing buoyant character. The first impression.
“Mind if I stand next to you?” she asked.
“Not at all.”
A minute or two of silence. Then a shrill alloy sound of conch shells, bells and hulahuli cries of women from near the Durga pandal, tore the stillness into hundreds of pieces. Both of them turned behind to the dissonance. Reflex action.
They nodded and smiled together. Bidyut folded his hands together as an obeisance to the goddess of divine Shakti, an old habit since his childhood. Though he was not religious, he loved the fun element of following a harmless tradition.
Bidyut made it a point to be in his hometown with his brother’s family during Puja. In this big world, they were the only ones he could call his own. His mother had succumbed to cancer while he was studying in Cincinnati and his father died a couple of years back. There was no way he would break his connection with his blood. His brother had a seven-year-old daughter and Bidyut was extremely fond of her. She was the main reason he kept coming back to Cuttack frequently, at least once in three months.
“Never seen you here before,” the lady remarked. Cuttack is like a very big village and everyone seems to know each other.
“Yeah right, I don’t live here,” he answered
“Oh I see,” she said, as she lit another smoke “I don’t live in Cuttack either, but I keep coming back here to visit my sister. Where are you from?”
“I am originally from Cuttack but have been staying away for the last twenty-two years.”
“You mean you’ve been away since your childhood,” she said. Bidyut understood that she was trying to flatter him. If you looked closely at his face, his eyes and his thinning hair, you could easily deduce that he was in his late thirties or early forties.
“You make me laugh. I am forty-one,” he said
“Really? I thought you’d be thirty-something,” she said, blowing the smoke out of her mouth in a manner you would call carefree, the smoke masking the flirtation.
“I can’t ask you your age. Let me ask you something else. What do you do?”
“Why not? I don’t mind revealing my age. I’m twenty-eight.” She took another drag of nicotine, looked away, exhaled the smoke and said, “Do you mean what I do for a living?”
“Nothing really much. I gaze at the stars. And space. The whole night. I am an owl.” She laughed with a roar.
“Interesting. I also like watching stars. And the moon. There is something dreamy about them.”
“Well, I look at them in a very practical way, an unromantic way. But I love what I do and won’t let anything come between me and my work. This is the only thing I know, the only thing I want to do all my life,” she said. They fell silent for a while and looked up at the sky.
There was a touch of cold in the autumn night. The ruddy moon was alone, right above the branches of a coconut tree. And around it were the staring stars, like pomegranate seeds sprayed in all the directions.
“What do you love more, the stars or the moon?” she asked, now looking at him.
“Why sigh for a star / Better bay at the moon / Better bay at the moon . . . / Oh moon, moon, moon,” he recited a few lines from “The Stars Are” by Samuel Menashe.
“Nice, how you respond. Hey, you didn’t tell me what kind of work you do?” she inquired.
Before he could say anything, she said, “Let me guess?”
“Sure,” he agreed.
“You are a writer?”
“Well, kind of…”
“Either you are or you are not.”
“Right, but I am not sure. I would like to believe I am a poet, but till now I’ve not written a single good poem. Do you read poetry?” he asked.
“Not really. If you ask me about a poem, say on stars, the only thing that comes to my mind is – Twinkle, twinkle little star…,” she squealed like a kindergarten student.
“Not funny,” he said
“I know. Sorry, I couldn’t help it, may be because I am a little drunk.” After a little pause, she continued, “You know what? I’ve never met a writer in person, Mr. Poet. Oh sorry, I never asked you your name.”
“Bidyut,” he said, stretching his right hand to shake with hers.
“Suha,” she said, “you know it’s the name of a star.”
“So you are a superstar!” he said, with a wink.
“If you say so, I am one.” She burst out laughing. Her laughter was contagious. Bidyut had not felt this familiar with anyone in many years.
It was Suha’s idea and Bidyut readily agreed. They spent the rest of the evening roaming around the old city in a rickshaw. There were scores of Puja pandals erected along the narrow lanes. They were either golden-themed or silver. She liked the golden ones and he liked the silver themed ones.
“Hey, where do I read your poems?” She asked, suddenly.
“A few of my poems are on the internet. I self-published two books, but I don’t think they sold more than a few copies. I doubt if anyone reads them. Probably, they just bought them because they are my friends.”
She gave him a look which said cheer up.
“I’m sure you’d be a great poet one day.”
“How do you know that? You’ve not read a single poem of mine.”
“A sister-star just whispered that in my ears. Anyhow, I’d love to read them.”
“Sure. The next time we meet, I’ll give you my books. Make it a point not to throw them in the trash bin.”
A slight hesitation, “By the way,” she asked, “are you married?”
Bidyut shook his head. “Who will marry a poor poet?”
“Neither am I,” she said, “but I’ve decided never to get married. I love my work way too much. I don’t think I can be in love with anyone except my work.”
They spent an hour more with each other, on the rickshaw, chewing zarda paan, a Cuttack specialty. A few more pandals, a few streets and more conversation.
“Hey listen, I have to go now. My sister must be worried. Get in touch with me if you like.” She shared her cell-phone number. He shared his.
“Let’s stay in touch,” Bidyut said.
Bidyut went back to Bangalore, where he worked as a part-time faculty of a creative writing course at a college. Suha left for an unknown destination. A week went by, then a month. Bidyut tried calling Suha, but her number was not working.
Now, it was the first week of November.
One day, Bidyut got a call.
“Hey, I am in Kavalur Observatory, just a few hours from Bangalore. Why don’t you come down? They have some rooms for guests here. I can book one for you.” It was Suha.
“First tell me, where were you? I tried reaching you many times. Your phone was unreachable.”
“Staying connected can be a big distraction sometimes. So I switch it off. You come down, we’ll talk. And yes, get those books along,” she said
After travelling in a bus through a forest in the hills, by the time Bidyut reached Kavalur seven hours later, the sun had gone down and the sky was filled with stars. The moon was nearly full, bathing the surrounding in an enchanting hue that you never see in the cities. In the moonlight, the observatory, which was dome-shaped, looked like a large white egg.
Someone who is a poet, a dreamer, and who has got used to staying alone knows how to lose track of time in silence. He lit a cigarette and waited.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Suha said when she saw him waiting for her in the garden in front of the observatory with its neatly trimmed lawn. She had made him wait for over half-an-hour.
“No worries. It’s a lovely evening,” Bidyut responded.
They went straight to the guesthouse where she had arranged a stay for him. It was a large room with a large window that looked out on the observatory, which looked even bigger and whiter from a little distance. Bidyut placed his bag next to a large desk that stood by the window; beside the desk was a wooden sofa. Suha plopped into the sofa and Bidyut sat on the bed.
“You look tired,” Bidyut remarked.
“Oh yeah. I’ve been on something, non-stop, for the last three days. Let’s go to my room and have some beer. We can have dinner later,” she replied.
Her room was three rooms away, in the same guest house. The rooms were identical, her room a little messier though.
“There are just two of them in the fridge. Let’s grab these and go out,” she suggested.
“As you say. You’re my host. I am fine anywhere.”
“Okay then, let’s go out. I know a nice spot, just behind the building.”
There was a cold chill in the air. They sat next to each other, sipping beer lazily, legs spread wide, the cans between them.
“You seem to be literally aiming for the stars,” Bidyut said.
“No, not quite. I am an amateur, no formal education, not much pay either. One of my friends, an astrophysicist, introduced me to the stars. I borrowed a telescope from him and that opened a wide window to the sky. Through him, I made some contacts in his fraternity and luckily some of these observatory guys allow me to join them,” she said.
“What about you? Did you write anything new?”
“You’ve to go through your journey, anyhow. So try to enjoy it as long as it lasts. You have your future ahead of you. You can’t attain the peak right away… I am sure you’ll be a great poet.” Then she asked, “Finished your drink?”
“Yeah,” he said, lifting the can and emptying the last few drops.
“Listen, let’s rush and grab something to eat. I’ve some work, but should wind that up in two hours”.
“I thought you’re done for the day.”
“I’ve one more night after today here. I have to make the best of it.”
“Can you stay awake this night? We’ll do some star gazing together and you can read me some of your poems.”
“Sounds like a plan, but you must be tired.”
“I don’t get sleep in the night. I told you, I am an owl,” she said.
Bidyut must have slept for an hour or so when someone knocked on his door. He knew it was Suha. She held two bags in both her hands.
“Did I wake you up?”
“Yes you did, but I’m fine,” he said, a smile hedged with sleep.
“I borrowed some cans from a co-worker.”
“Wow, my lips were left craving after only one beer,” he said.
“Poets seem to have a knack of getting girls to laugh.”
“Yeah, they do. They also are also experts in romance.”
“Oh, I must be on my guard then,” she said, as she kept two cans on the desk and four more in the refrigerator.
“This is for you, open the wrapper,” she ordered.
“What is this?”
“I was in Ladakh two weeks back. I got some gifts for you from there.”
“Work or leisure?”
“Both. There is an observatory that stands on Mt. Saraswati in Ladakh.”
There were a small telescope and an hourglass in the pack. Both the gifts were handcrafted. The telescope, a small one made of brass, about twelve inches and the hourglass of rosewood, very petite.
“These are awesome.” He thanked her as he admired the souvenirs, “but I didn’t get anything for you.”
“Hey, did you forget to get those two books of yours?” “They rest in my bag. Let me open this,” he offered.
“Get me a towel, please.”
“Didn’t realize in the excitement of seeing you that you’re drenched.”
“Oh, it’s just a drizzle. It always rains here in the hills.”
Drinking her beer and drying her hair with a towel, she said, “Okay, now read me your poems.”
“What’s the hurry? Let me finish a can first, as such they are no good.”
“Let me decide. Either give me more beer or read me the poems.”
“Fine, quench your thirst with my poetry then,” he said, bringing two cans out of the refrigerator. “This poem I am reading is titled Riddles of rain.”
It always rains in riddles, / inside the closed car. / Screeching like a broken bamboo flute, / the worn out wipers wipe the windshield / of the transpicuous tracings in a trice, /before I can attempt to solve them, / leaving me puzzled on the rear-view mirror, / reflecting a spherule of sweat on my forehead.
And he followed it with another poem, one more, and one more … until he finished reading the slim book.
Lying on the bed on her stomach, eyes closed, she silently listened to the poems with full attention.
“I don’t know what to say. I hardly know anything about poetry. I just wanted to say that I believe someday you are going to make it big. And, when you do remember what I said, don’t ever stop enjoying the journey. It may take months, a year or more but that’s what I feel.”
“I’m glad and relieved that you like my poems.”
“Cheers,” she said “to our passions of life.”
They clinked their beer cans. They finished the beer. Suha picked out a cigarette from the pack placed on the desk and started smoking.
“Bidyut, remember the astrophysicist friend I mentioned of today?” “Yeah, I do.”
“I didn’t tell you that he was my boyfriend. The time we spent together was like an explosion of excitement. Of bliss!”
“Is it?” He did not know what else to say. He was more shocked than sad.
“But as destiny would have it with good things, it didn’t last. Bliss, like an orgasm, doesn’t last long. It ended abruptly.”
“Oh! Are you fine?”
“Yes, I’m alright. I now do what Advait, the one I loved, was in love with. I can only love the stars now.”
The rain had stopped. A few raindrops traced lines down the windowpane. The room fell strangely quiet. Bidyut lit a cigarette from the same pack, took in a great breath of the smoke, passed it to her and gently stroked her hair.
“A few drags will help.”
“Yes, thank you. It’s been more than five years since Advait passed away.”
“Holy shit! I thought it was a breakup. How did you cope with it?”
“I’ve got used to it. I am a strong person, you know.” she forced a smile. “You know there are two hundred billion stars in the universe. I like to imagine that a bit of Advait has merged with each of these stars. Blame it on his love for stars, now I am addicted. I can spend my entire life with these stars.”
“You are a Superwoman.”
“Bidyut you know, when I met for you the first time it was my sister who asked me to go meet you. I was kind of in two minds, but now I really like you. Thanks to her, I’ve got a new friend.”
“You bet,” he said and opened the refrigerator to fetch the last two cans of beer.
“I am unpredictable and unreliable. I can’t bear happiness beyond a certain level, anymore. I like to get lost from everyone’s eyes. I switch off my phone for months sometimes. Whenever you want to reach me, just look through this telescope and you may see me.
“You will always be my friend. Let’s make a fresh start,” Bidyut said.
I appreciate what you say but I can’t give a commitment to anyone. Not just you, no one,” Suha said with a slight smile, a smile that seemed a little too distant to belong to anyone.
“I understand. I will not be the reason for your distraction.”
“Thanks. I’ve achieved a certain balance in my life now. Can’t let it slip away at any cost.”
“Cheers to our friendship,” he said, gently touching his can with hers.
“This hourglass, I hope it will help you write. When you start writing, put the hourglass in front of you. When the grains of sand trickle down, words will flow.”
“And what when the sands have escaped to the bottom bulb?”
“Simple. Invert it and start again,” she replied.
The next evening Bidyut returned to Bangalore. He placed the telescope in the balcony and the hourglass on his desk. For the next week and three days, Bidyut hardly left his house. His mind tormented him far more than he could bear. The pain was much more than what he had anticipated. He sat for hours without moving but he could not focus on work. The only thing that occupied his mind was Suha. He thought about her sleeplessly, endlessly. He even tried his hands at the telescope. Everything felt pointless to him.
A month passed and he had not typed a single word in the blank document. He shifted his writing desk to the other room. He concentrated very intensely on the hourglass. The sand grains in the hourglass refused to move. Not a grain. He lifted the hourglass, shook it vigorously, inverted it many times but the grains wouldn’t trickle down. There must be a block in the neck. There was a massive block in his mind.
“Damn!” he shouted, the loudest he ever had in his life.
For once, he felt like dismantling the glass to clear the hourglass’ neck but luckily decided against it. How could he even imagine such a mindless act? After all, this was the best gift he had received in his life. There was no way he could let it get ravaged by a stupid whim, even if it meant he wouldn’t ever write again all his life.
A month became two, and two became three. He tried calling Suha up a few times, but as expected, her phone was unreachable. Autumn gave way to winter, winter to spring. It was now the month of March. Holi, the festival of colours was around the corner. One night he dreamt of a single leaf sprouting from a seed. It was drizzling in his dream. He woke up and looked at the bedside clock. It was 03:09 in the morning. He got up from the bed and opened the windows. It was drizzling outside, ever so slightly.
He rushed to his writing desk and held the hourglass in his hand. He shook it gently. The sand grains started trickling, one by one. He sat down to write.
He didn’t stop.
In less than two months, he had finished writing his third book of poems. He knew it was something special, something different from his earlier works. He was born again. He mailed seven of these poems to the leading international poetry journals.
One of his poems was published in the summer issue of a renowned literary magazine. It was titled, “The Star Girl”.
Debasis Tripathy is originally from Odisha, a state in eastern India and he currently lives in Bangalore solely to earn a livelihood. He started writing seriously a little late, but luckily since then, within a short span he has his writings published in Former Cactus, Prachya Review, Nuances, CLRI Journal, Setu, Muse India, and Indian Review, among others.