Leena lovingly fingered the book that she had found in the bookstore after much searching: An English translation of Ashapurna Debi's "Prothom Pratishruti", or 'The First Promise". Finally, a chance to read a book that had haunted her all these years, not because she had read it, but because she hadn't.
Those were the days in college, when her closest friend Priya had handed her a book to read, promising her "It's a wonderful story! You must read this". The book was a Malayalam translation of "The First Promise". But Leena's reading was pitifully slow- growing up in schools all over the north had cramped her ability to learn her mother tongue. She struggled through the first page with its impossibly tiny lettering, shoved the hard-worn, covers-missing book into her shelf, and forgot about it for the next five years.
Then there was that day at work, when Leena caught sight of Joseph at the office. He had joined the same company recently. Leena smiled and waved at him. He had been a classmate during the college years, always stopping by every now and then for friendly chitchat with her and Priya.
One evening as she walked from the office to the bus stop, Joseph paused his scooter next to her on his way out. "Leena, how are you? I wanted to talk privately with you, could you spare a few minutes?"
Leena was puzzled, and a bit alarmed. What could this all be about? He continued earnestly, "Do you still talk to Priya sometimes? "
"Yes, but not so often now, after college days."
"Leena, I need your help. Could you get this letter to her somehow? I have been trying to reach her, but she isn't responding to mailed letters. Promise me that you will get it to her, " he pleaded.
Leena didn't dare ask more. She quietly took the letter, placed it in her purse, nodded a good bye and walked off.
Thoughts were abuzz in her head. How was she to accomplish what Joseph had asked of her? Something was afoot, even if she didn't know precisely what. All that mattered was keeping her word.
She called Priya's home. Priya's mother answered the phone. After some light pleasantries, Leena asked if she could stop by to return Priya's old book, long overdue as it was. A little hesitation on the other end, and the lady assented, " Priya will be home tomorrow evening."
The next evening, Leena stopped by the house. Priya rushed to the gate to open it, and Leena handed her the letter "From Joseph". As they walked toward the house, Priya crumpled it into her housecoat pocket. A moment later, her mother appeared welcomingly at the door.
"Tea, auntie. It's been so long since I had the pleasure of meeting you all. By the way, here is the book that I borrowed from you, Priya."
Priya's mother took it in a smooth swift move, intercepting it before Priya could put her hand out. "Oh, so that's where it went ", she glided towards the kitchen, casually riffling through the pages.
Leena headed home after the visit, content that she had been able to keep her promise. As to what it might have been about, she didn't care to ruminate too much over it, though she could guess. Come to think of it, why had she been so blind to the furtive affection between Priya and Joseph? Maybe because she didn't want to see what didn't concern her. Or was it the sheer inattentiveness of being young and completely busy with her studies?
Until a week later, the phone rang. Leena picked up the phone. At the other end was a screaming and lambasting she had never heard in all her twenty-two years. "How dare you break up my family! See what my daughter has done! Run off with that good-for-nothing Joseph! What about the prestige of our family! Just wait and see what I do to you if I ever set eyes on you!"
Trembling, she set the phone down.
Seeing her looking a bit upset, her mother asked."What was that call about?"
"Was it Priya's mother? She called earlier today and complained that you had passed on a letter from some Joseph to Priya. Did you do that?"
"No, I just returned her book to her. I don't know what was in that book."
"Hmmm....Be careful about these things, you shouldn't be interfering in other's family matters."
Joseph and Priya got married in secret.After several months, their families eventually reconciled with them. Leena didn't hear from them until many years had passed.
Leena opened the book: "I did not make up Satyabati's story. I took it from Bakul's notebook. Bakul told me. 'You can treat it as fiction, or fact - whatever you wish!"*, she read, and smiled quietly to herself.
* Lines quoted from "The First Promise" by Ashapurna Debi, translated from the Bengali by Indira Chowdhury, (c) Orient BlackSwan Pvt. Ltd., 2009