Impatient from having waited the entire morning, Mr Chatterjee got up from his chair and walked out to the balcony adjoining his office. As he lit a cigarette and watched wisps of blue grey smoke dissolve into the mist laden afternoon, he tried to pacify the unease in his heart. Far into the distance, the crystalline cerulean of the Kanchenjunga lit by slanting rays of winter sun shone intermittently through breaks in layers of passing cloud.
Somewhere in that glassy panorama lived Giti—Mr. Chatterjee or Soumen babu as Giti called him, always thought of her house in the tea gardens as an exotic locale, mysterious and indecipherable, like Giti herself, like his own feelings for her. She had come to his new office one day soon after he had moved to Darjeeling as a young new sales tax commissioner; there was an advertisement posted outside the brand new two storied office: Mr Chatterjee needed a ‘qualified’ secretary, she was in town buying medicines for her father, and strode in as Soumen babu had just bitten into a half cooked potato prepared by Dileep, the careless, arrogant cook handed over to him by the local municipality as the overseer of his new bungalow and his lonely life in this new place, Mr Chatterjee despairingly thought.
She made him nearly choke with her impromptu delivery made in flawless English and the most matter of fact way, without any attempts at formal introduction: “I can type, I have finished college, and I can bring you tea fresh from the valley.” Even as a petite 20-year-old in a faded salwar kameez and an oversized parka, Giti was authoritative, exuding a quiet confidence that was hard to contradict. She spoke of herself without sentiment and with a precision of approach that Mr Chatterjee would soon find indispensable. She had grown up in the tea plantation, her mother had left for work in Calcutta when she was a child and never returned, her father was an unskilled worker in the tea factory, but for Giti he had dreamt a better life, pouring all his meagre earnings into sending her to school and college. Shankar Rai was well known even in town as one of the plantation’s most loyal and warm hearted senior workers, and ever since his multiple sclerosis had become too advanced for him to go to work, Giti had taken over the house, doing odd jobs, teaching in local schools and giving painting lessons to children in town. “You paint?” the art lover in Mr Chatterjee was curious. “Not enough” Giti replied tersely, her voice slightly aquiver Mr Chatterjee thought. Mr Chatterjee’s inherent penchant for fairness made him hire her although he had wanted someone older and more professional. But something in her stoic seriousness made him want to confide in her right away. “I must remember to show her the painting when it arrives” he made a mental note as Giti settled to filing a fresh set of papers on Mr Chatterjee’s desk.
To celebrate his promotion and transfer to the hills, his colleagues in Calcutta had gifted him a painting, an original, sourced from a collector in London. He hadn’t had the chance to see it before he left for the hills. It would take another couple of weeks to arrive at his office. It had been painted by a local artist, a Rinpoche whose works had gained prominence through the efforts of a collector and critic from London who lauded them for their secular subjects and vivid depiction of everyday life in the hills. “I must remember to ask her about the scandal,” Mr Chatterjee thought.
Mr Chatterjee looked at the road below, a narrow, rugged lane crammed with houses on both sides, tucked away from the busy thoroughfare of the chowrasta with its crowded shops and clamorous tourists. On that lazy Saturday afternoon, the lane was almost empty. An occasional cycle creaked and clinked its way up the road, dogs lay rolling in the sun, a weather-beaten tourist with an oversized rucksack and boots too thick for the season walked aimlessly gaping at the local houses. Mr Chatterjee hoped to see Giti’s lithe figure making its way up the road, a black umbrella efficiently poised in her hands, her old but impeccably laundered and always fashionable clothes giving her the air of determined purpose. He found himself longing for Giti’s company, her reassuring voice, the way she would listen to him ramble and complain about bureaucracy and corruption, interrupting only occasionally with “don’t worry Soumen babu, God has a way of restoring things to their rightful place”, her naïve faith which though alien to his own atheistic cynicism, was almost comforting. He craved that comfort now, for, despite the innumerable differences that set them apart and divided their worlds, their minds were alike—Giti with her unassuming passion for learning, her orderliness and reverence for work no matter how mundane, her disregard for pleasantries and her dart-like directness had given him an intellectual succour amid his bitter loneliness, more than any of his friends or colleagues had.
It was the fifth day that Giti had not come to the office, something uncharacteristic of his punctual, diligent secretary who had been to work every day of the two weeks that he had known her. No one else in the office knew of her whereabouts, and Soumen had decided that he would take the two-hour journey by bus to the plantation to enquire about Giti. He was mildly annoyed with her for her stubborn refusal to accept a cell phone when Soumen bought one for her. Perhaps Sankar Rai was critically ill, or Giti herself was unwell, she had looked pale the last time he had seen her.
Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he caught the bright blue of Giti’s salwar, she was outside the office building, how had he missed her coming up the road Soumen wondered. For a few seconds, she stood at the staircase, contemplative, her head bent, as Soumen gazed down at her dark black hair held in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, his heart pounding. Then she looked up to face him, her eyes wide and filled with tears, and her lips fighting the upsurge of emotions with the slightest of quivers. Soumen lurched back into the office and opened the door, but he faced an empty stairwell. “Giti” he called out into the emptiness. She was not there. He ran out to the balcony. Giti had left. Instead, trying to haul a heavy package up the narrow staircase were a couple of boys. Nonplussed, devastated Mr Chatterjee helped them settle the package in his office and signed the slip. It was the painting from his friends.
The commotion in the staircase had brought Rajat, his intern upstairs. Rajat had joined a couple of days ago. Mr Chatterjee had wished for Giti’s counsel many times as he looked through the applications of his prospective interns. A sense of anger overwhelmed him. Rajat was a cheerful local boy, a first-year student of commerce, and Mr Chatterjee had taken an instant fraternal liking to him. “Is this the famed last painting?” he asked. Mr Chatterjee had mentioned the local painting arriving at his office all the way from London, to Rajat that morning. “Is this the Rinpoche’s last work?” “Do you know anything about him?” Soumen asked. “Yes it has been quite a legend around here for many years now” Rajat mused.
“The Rinpoche was a genuinely gifted artist, self-taught, they say the Buddha had appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to paint. He began painting for the monastery at first, but then a young man from England fell in love with his work and began buying from him on his trips to India. Perhaps they shouldn’t have allowed him into the monastery in the first place, that too in a monk’s private workshop. Things wouldn’t have come to such a tragic end otherwise.” Soumen was taken aback at the sombreness of Rajat’s voice. “What do you mean by tragic, Rajat?” He asked. “I am not sure if I should tell you, but since you have that…” he pointed gingerly to the half-opened work “I suppose you should know”.
“The Rinpoche was painting this canvas when Steven Mason last visited India. He went to meet the artist in the monastery one afternoon and found him in the middle of finishing an exquisite portrait of a young girl of fifteen. She was a local from the tea gardens, the daughter of a childhood friend of the monk’s. She was learning Tibetan calligraphy from him. She was deeply religious and was going to take the ordination soon.
They say the Englishman was smitten by the painting and asked the Rinpoche to sell it to him. For the price he was offering, the monk could easily order the long-awaited repairs of the east wing of the monastery which had succumbed to a landslide a year ago. But Mason was not satisfied, people say he pursued the girl and even followed her to her house in the plantation. Although no one knows what exactly happened, one evening when her father was at the factory, Steven Mason was seen coming out of her house, his face red and clothes dishevelled.
He left the country the next day with the painting and never returned here.” Soumen was barely able to let out a sigh through clenched teeth. Rajat continued “Rinpoche gave up painting after that. He never picked up a brush. He left for Ladakh the following year. Somewhere he blamed himself for bringing this calamity upon an innocent soul.” “Calamity? What happened to her?” Soumen whispered. “The girl was found hanging from the ceiling fan by her father that night. Shankar Rai, he was such a gentle soul, unwell too. His daughter was all he had.” Soumen could hardly speak, his voice rasping through his throat he asked: “Do you know her name?” “Gitanjali but everyone called her Giti. They say she was a talented artist herself even at such a young age.”
Something in Soumen’s eyes told Rajat that he needed to be alone. The heart in Soumen’s chest seemed to hammer his breath out. He held the table to steady himself. With wild eyes and shaking hands, he approached the painting, tearing the Styrofoam wrapping as if trying to rip through the layers of time itself. Finally, the wrapping undone, the portrait glimmered in the fading orange light of dusk. Her stoic eyes looked back at Mr Chatterjee, and on her lips that familiar tremble as if some joke obvious only to her or a secret she had to guard were playing with her reserve. “Giti!” Mr Chatterjee admonished, as a tear rolled down his eye.