The Old Masters

Amit Chaudhuri

He glanced at his watch and made an attempt to finish the tea in his cup; he was waiting for a call, and it was his second cup of tea. Five minutes later, the phone began to ring.

‘Pramathesh?’ said the voice at the other end; and he could tell, from its slight note of insouciance and boredom, that it was Ranjit.

‘I was waiting for your call, old man,’ he said, trying to muffle his irritation with his usual show of joviality. ‘You were supposed to call half an hour ago.’ He didn’t know why he even bothered to mention this, since Ranjit, who was never known to acknowledge he was late, would take this to be an unnecessarily pedantic remark, a remark that pointed to the actual, if generally concealed, gulf that distinguished their temperaments.

‘Trying to send the boy off to school . . . didn’t want to go this morning,’ he muttered. ‘That boy’ll cost me my job one of these days.’

‘Come, come, don’t blame it on poor Mithu. He has enough troubles being an innocent bystander in your life. Are we ready?’

‘Of course I’m ready! Should we say ten minutes?’ As an afterthought, a change of register: ‘Sorry I didn’t call earlier.’

You can’t choose your colleagues in the office; he hadn’t grasped the significance of this until a few months ago. And to pretend you were friends – that, too, was a fiction you couldn’t bring yourself wholly to believe in, but couldn’t entirely dispense with either; you did ‘things’ together, sometimes outside office hours, you visited each others’ houses (he’d been to Ranjit’s place in New Alipore only the day before yesterday), got to know each others’ wives and children, the kind of food the wife, affectionately referred to as the ‘grihini’, cooked, and, yet, you made a pact to keep all that was true and most important about yourself from the colleague, in case the desirable boundary between private life and secret nightmare and employment ceased to exist. Meanwhile, your real friends, those mythological beings, who by now had embarked on lives and careers of their own, fell obligingly by the wayside, they became things you put inside a closet and meant to recover, some day, in the future. In other words, you were alone, with your family, and your destiny.

Pramathesh Majumdar had joined the company three years ago, soon after coming back from England in 1964 as a chartered accountant. A brief honeymoon period with office life and work in Calcutta ensued, which also saw this makeshift arrangement, this friendship, with Ranjit Biswas come into being. Ranjit had never been abroad; he’d been born and brought up in Calcutta. He had the ease and the unquestioning expectancy of routine repeating itself, and of things continuing to fit, that belong to one who has never been removed from his original habitat. Pramathesh belonged nowhere; he came, originally, from East Bengal; his sights were probably set somewhere higher. Although Ranjit Biswas was still, strictly speaking, a colleague, both knew, though this wasn’t articulated, that Pramathesh, in his unassuming way, was preparing himself for the race people called ‘professional life’, while Ranjit, with his impatience over keeping appointments, was perhaps going to stay in the same place for some time, feeling, now and then, bitter, without being unduly bothered to do anything about it. It was the strength of Pramathesh’s British degree that gave him a head start, of course, but it was also something else, a meticulousness which might be called foresight. In fact, Pramathesh had been transferred to the Delhi office in June this year, and since the Delhi office was now the head office, this move had been interpreted as a promotion.

Today’s mission was the outcome of a chance remark made the day before yesterday. He’d been sitting at Ranjit’s place after dinner, contemplating returning to the guest-house; he said, stretching his arms: ‘Well, I’m returning to Delhi next week. Have to get down to some shopping.’

‘Like what, Pramathesh da?’ asked Ranjit’s wife, Malini, as she was putting away the dishes.

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