“To Sherlock Holmes she is always ‘the woman’. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
The opening lines of A Scandal in Bohemia. Not perhaps as famous as the celebrated introductory lines of Pride and Prejudice or any other novel. But for some strange reason they left an indelible impression on my 11-year-old mind.
Years later, when I first saw Nishat, I repeated these lines in my head. It was as if someone had burned them in my brain. And I could almost feel a pair hot tong as I stared unabashedly at her.
She had pearly white skin. Her slender fingers played with her long curly hair. The kohl-lined almond-shaped eyes were cold yet inviting and there was a hint of a smile on her thin lips. An oval shape framed the details of her face. When she caught my eye, her left brow rose up voluntarily questioning my audacity. She looked at me almost defiantly; challenging me to lower my gaze. A silent war waged between us.
At lenghth she rose from her seat, a cement slab, one of the many strewn near the Arts Department. She picked up her embroidered jhola from the ground. I could hear a faint jingling as she moved. The black cotton kurta clung to her taut frame in the light breeze. She stood up straight and adjusted her jeans. Then she walked. The jingling became louder.
“Rey chol na bhai, pore dekhish (move brother, gawk later)”, the guy behind me was visibly agitated, I tore my eyes off her and proceded to the desk. A shaggy haired boy was collecting the forms. I held out mine and he took it from me with a genial smile.
Out of the queue, I searched for her. She was nowhere to be seen. I slowly headed towards the gate. A while later I was on a bus back home.
…………she eclipsed and predominated the whole of her sex.
I am sitting beside a scrawny boy on a wooden bench under colonial arches and high ceiling. The fans which dangle precariously from the beams revolve at a painfully slow speed. A premier institute indeed!
“Can anyone give me the proto-type of a Byronic Hero other than Dorian Gray please,” Prof. D’Cunha’s thin voice aks.
There is a faint murmer and then a girl’s voice answers. “All of the Bronte sisters’ heroes sir, Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester”.
“Excellent, young lady,” D’Cunha’s visibly delighted.
The cacophonic bell rings. I hope to catch a glimpse of her. The scrawy boy turns to make conversation. He has a face spotted with freckles. I notice the sparse facial sprouts below his nose. He opens his mouth to speak. I spring up from the bench as if someone had pinched my bottom. The boy scowls and turns his skinny torso towards the next bench.
I wander about on my own on the corridors. Laughter, unprintable slang, gossiping girls climbing down the stairs at a snail’s pace, bored faces lounging in some obscure corner but no jingle.
The bell rings again. Dejected I return to the side of the scrawny boy,
“Hi….sorry about earlier,” I say superfluously. The boy looks at me sceptically.
I was about to enter the campus. I felt a little disoriented after the jostling to get down from the bus. But I stopped in my tracks.
There she was clad in that same black kurta right beside the gate. I could see the source of the jingling now. Silver trinkets on her partially covered left arm. Everytime she raised it to push away her unruly hair from her face, they jingled. Our eyes met…….again. She excused herself from the nearby crowd and strode towards me. I was rooted to where I stood. She was inches away from me now.
“What’s your name……kid,” the pause was deliberate, mocking and enticing.
“Aishik,” I replied.
“I am Nishat and I passed out a year back,” she said unable to supress her contempt.
I nodded and proceeded towards the building not knowing what else to do.
Then onwards I saw her almost everyday. She was perched on her usual seat. The cement slab. There was inevitably a crowd around her. Mostly guys and they all looked doped. Sometimes I saw her puffing on a joint. But she seemed to be in her senses nonetheless. I seldom ever saw her in anything other than monochrome cotton kurtas which covered her milky white arms till the elbow. Her ears were mostly barren. The trinkets on her arms were always in place and I did not notice the jingling any more. As she sat cross-legged with her feet dangling, her kolhapuris fell off her small feet. The nails were devoid of paint. She pulled her legs up and rested her chin on her knees. Her hair fell over those kohl-lined almond-shaped cold eyes.
She never looked at me.
“Have you heard,” the scrawny boy wimpers.
I have just entered. The heat today is abnormal. I can feel my t-shirt plastered to my body. I sit down and look at him quizically.
“She was beaten to death……inside the campus. They have made arrests. Didn’t you see the police vans?”
I am suddenly very alert. “Who was beaten to death and why,” I ask in a quivering voice.
“That girl who hung around, what’s her name now. They say she was a bad character. Frankly I didn’t think much of her either. She had no business bunking classes and smoking pot. Serves her right, I say,” he rattles off.
“She was a pass-out,” I almost scream, racing out of the room.
“But…………,” I do not wait for him to finish.
There are vans right outside the gate. It didnot seem out of the ordinary when I had entered. I try to look inside through the small netted windows at the back of the vans. I don’t know who am I looking for. As I cross the last of the three vans, I hear a familiar jingle. My entire body freezes. I step back and press my face to the netted window. She sits there absolutely poised, a cryptic smile playing on her lips. She senses my presence and turns her head. Now she’s grinning.
I walk back in a daze.
“They have arrested Nishat. You said she was beaten to death,” my voice has no emotion.
“Nishat…so that’s her name. They were referring to her as the ‘pass-out’. How would I know. She apparently beat the girl’s face to pulp screaming ‘You can’t take my place’,” the boy finishes with triumph.
Nishat. Nishat. Nishat.
Didn’t you know? No one could ever take your place.
“It was not that I felt any emotion akin to love for her. All emotions, and that one particularly, are abhorrent to my cold, precise but admirably balanced mind…….. and yet there was but one woman……..”