Alak went to an extraordinary length.
He met Tara on the first day of college. He knew right away she was the right person for him. He went and introduced himself. She was polite to him, no more. She didn’t evince the slightest interest in him. I know this because he told me so himself.
It might have deterred a less sturdy soul, not Alak. He kept talking to her at every opportunity. At every college event he kept his eyes open for her. He hovered around her. She could not but be flattered by his attention. But it did not seem to mean much to her. I saw her moving around with other classmates. Clearly, she enjoyed their company, for I saw her with them on several occasions.
This seemed to bother Alak little. He seemed content with the little parcels of time Tara spared for him. Occasionally, she deigned to accompany him to a restaurant. On a very rare occasion, Alak breathlessly reported, they went together to the theater. That made him ecstatic.
We friends were not lacking in counsel for him. Some advised him to drop her all together. Other suggested that Alak should cool it or at least go out with other women in the class. His reply was that they simply didn’t understand her. She was a highly sociable person, he said, and she simply liked being with other people. The fact that he was rarely among the ‘other people’ she liked to be with either escaped his attention or he thought it did not matter.
He came three days later with happy news. Tara had said that she was not perfect, but she “cared” for him. She had added that she liked others’ company and admitted that some might feel they were being encouraged. She valued Alak’s companionship nonetheless. I did not find his report reassuring, but for him it was clearly as good as he wanted. It would have been useless sharing my misgivings; I kept them to myself.
After college I couldn’t be in close touch with Alak, but I kept hearing parallel stories. I heard from Alak and others that he was going steady with Tara, but I also heard from others that they had seen Tara with others. Those looked like dates, said some; others claimed these suggested affairs. I did not know what to think but felt concerned about Alak.
Five years later Alak and Tara married. I came from another town to attend the wedding and met many old friends. It was a joyous occasion, and Alak appeared euphoric. He was marrying the girl of his dreams. The only discordant note was when I had a quiet moment with Tara and said, quite innocently, “Tara, you look so pretty and so happy,” and Tara instantly turned somber and said just one word, “Happy!” I didn’t miss the tone of quiet sarcasm, but I didn’t know what it meant.
That comment came back to me when I heard three years later that Tara had left Kolkata and gone to work in Pune. Friends said she had left Alak, though it wasn’t clear whether they had divorced. I called Alak and he said they had had ‘difficulties’ but did not elaborate further. I heard rumors that Tara was living in Pune with the head of an engineering startup where she worked. I was not sure whether to credit that or Alak’s claim that he periodically visited Tara.
Twelve years later, on a visit to Kolkata, I had dinner and a long discussion with Alak. I asked about Tara. Alak confirmed that Tara was living in Pune with another person, but said, most mysteriously to me, that he visited her from time to time. For what? Wasn’t it time for him to end that nexus and start other relationships? Alak seemed exasperated by my edgy questions. Didn’t I know that he loved Tara? That he had always loved her? He simply had no interest in other women or other relationships.
Alak and I talked infrequently on long-distance calls, but I refrained from asking about Tara. I was in town after seven years when I met Alak again. I was waiting in my hotel, expecting to have dinner with Alak and an extended conversation. I was astounded when he turned up with Tara.
As Alak and I sat at the table with Tara between us, I said with genuine feeling that I was so happy to see them both – and together. It was then that Tara explained the situation.
“I still live in Pune most of the time. The reason is that I have a daughter with my second husband. He is a good man and looks after me and my daughter.
“Every other month, I come for a week or two and live with Alak. He has always loved me. His persistence once bored and exasperated me. But I have grown. I know now what I didn’t know before: in a world of fleeting links, it is precious to have someone who cares for me just as I am, with all my warts.”
In the flickering candlelight, I was looking at her chiseled oval face framed by undulating dark tresses, a face that had mesmerized Alak through the years. I saw her large eyes moisten, as she said softly, “I need devotion as much as I need romance.”