Rajan whistled as he walked briskly out of his one room and kitchen rented house. His cheery mood was further brightened by the mid-November morning sunshine. His dark face and bright eyes looked radiant with delight. Indeed, Guwahati looked beautiful under the autumn sun. Houses, trees, roads, even garbage heaps on the roadside seemed to wear a hallow.
He reached the Zoo-road bus stop and waited. The first bus that came was overcrowded, with several passengers hanging over the footboard. He boarded the next one that followed immediately. Here, too, he had to stand along with several others as the seats were all occupied. By the time they reached Chandmari Colony the bus was jam-packed. When they stopped at Guwahati Club a girl's voice behind him said "Please let me pass." He moved aside the best he could to make room and turned to look at the speaker. He caught sight of her as she passed him to get down. A slim figure of medium height, clad in mekhela-chaddar, long hair worn in a single braid. A fair, sweet face. Inexplicably, her picture etched itself in his mind.
He reached early, it being the first day of his work. Cotton College was no new place to him, as he had studied for his degree there. Many of the lecturers, now his colleagues, had taught him. He was warmly welcomed. Some shook hands with him, some thumped him on the back. Some commented jovially "Aha, you have sported a mustache. Grown into a man, eh?"
But then, someone struck a discordant note. He overheard a remark "How come they appointed bahira manuh (outsider)?" That stung. But he set it aside as he got busy meeting people and attending classes.
On the way back home in the afternoon, he assessed his day. He was happy on the whole. He managed the classes alright in spite of his nervousness. His new colleagues had been kind and encouraging. But then, with a twinge he recalled the discordant note—'outsider'. It struck a nerve. Why was he always an outsider everywhere? When he was a child his cousins in Kerala, his father's native place, used to call him 'Hindi walla' because he spoke Hindi with his parents. And in his mother's hometown in West Bengal he was a 'Madrassi'. In Assam, his family's adopted land, where he was born and brought up, he was called an outsider by some of the 'local' people. His father had taught him since early childhood to be an Indian at heart. But no one else he knew seemed to recognize the existence of an Indian in real life.
Perhaps his parents were responsible for his plight. By their inter-cultural marriage they had offended their respective families, and caused him to belong nowhere. His father, a Convent School teacher in Dibrugarh, upper Assam, had created quite a furor in his family circles when he decided to marry his colleague, a Bengali girl. Being very 'Indian' minded, the couple had adopted Hindi as their family language which became their only son's mother tongue. But growing up in Assam, Rajan spoke Assamese also as well as any local. In fact, he unconsciously identified himself as an Assamese.
Life went on, Rajan liked his job and was becoming quite good at teaching. Saturday was his off-day from work. In the afternoon he went to the District Library to read. As he walked in, his heart missed a beat. He saw her—the same girl he had noticed in the bus the other day. He passed her by as he would any stranger. But on the spot he made up his mind to come here every Saturday, in the hope of seeing her again.
All through the next week he was restless and impatient for Saturday to come. His thoughts were dominated by dreams of a fair, sweet face and graceful form in mekhela-chaddar. Sure enough, she was there again the next Saturday. This time a half-smile of recognition passed between them but he did not dare talk to her yet. The next time they met again he summoned up the courage to address her.
"Excuse me, are you a student?" he asked lamely. He cursed himself inwardly for his awkwardness, for his lack of the dashing romantic hero's air. But she answered politely "No, I'm a teacher. I work in P.C. Girls' "
"I see. I work in Cotton. My name is Rajan Nair. May I know your name?"
They parted, neither having anything more to say.
But meeting 'accidentally' every weekend at the library, they soon became 'friends'. Once they even found an excuse to visit a restaurant together and then went for a stroll in Nehru Park. They chatted and laughed, looking into each other's eyes. From that day Rajan classed himself a happy lover.
The next Saturday she did not turn up at the library. He was crestfallen. He sat there a long time pretending to read, in the hope that she might show up. At last he despaired and went out. He had no way of contacting her either. Naively confident of meeting her every time at the library, it had not occurred to him to ask for her phone number or address. He spent a tormented weekend.
Come Saturday, he went to the library as usual, hoping to meet her. As he entered the compound a young man accosted him asking "Are you Rajan Nair?"
"Yes, I am. What was it?" he responded.
"I've brought you a message from my younger sister, Dipika. She does not wish to see you any more. Her marriage has been fixed."
In shock and pain Rajan blurted out "I was hoping to marry her!"
In polite words but cold tones the man replied "I am sorry. She could never marry an outsider."
Rajan's world became dark. He rushed home, fell flat on his bed and sobbed like a child. "Dipika, am I an outsider to you, too?" he murmured to himself. Then a thought formed in his mind. 'Was her brother speaking the truth? They may be only forcing her to keep away from me'. He decided to meet her by hook or crook and find out the fact from her.
On Monday afternoon he took leave from later classes and waited outside her school. When she came out he begged to have a word with her. She hesitated, but agreed on sensing his desperation. They found a quiet restaurant and went in. The moment they were alone he asked "Is it true that you are getting married?" She looked down and did not answer.
"Tell me, Dipika, just tell me the truth", he urged.
"Is this your own wish or is your family forcing you?"
"They are not forcing me."
"O Dipika, how you fooled me! I have given you all my heart", he sighed.
"I'm sorry, Rajan. I like you a lot too. Had you been an Assamese I'd never marry
anyone else. But it can't be helped. We have to consider what society would think."
That harsh, jarring note again. Coming from her. It tore his heart. They walked out with a grim air. He escorted her to the bus stop.
"Take my best wishes. Happy marriage!. As for me, I'm an alien here as anywhere else. I can't stay here after this. I must leave the country."
She looked at him with pity. "Where will you go?" she asked.
"My uncle in Canada has been inviting me. I had refused, saying I wanted to stay here and serve my country. Perhaps I should reconsider and try my luck."
"But if you feel an alien in your own country, will it be any better in a foreign land?"
"It will be different, at any rate. You'd go there expecting the alien treatment."
The bus came. She boarded. He walked off in the opposite direction.