By Square on the Hypotenuse(09 Mar 2010)
This is a haunting but improbable love story involving three shy people: Snehamoy Chatterjee (Rahul Bose), an Arithmetic teacher in a school in the interiors of riverine West Bengal; Miyage (Chigasu Takaku) the Japanese girl who became his wife through a strange sequence of letters, and Sandhya (Raima Sen), a widow forced by circumstances to take refuge in his home.
It had all begun when Snehamoy was a student in Serampore College, living in a hostel and preparing for his B.Sc examination. Too shy to make friends with his rowdy classmates, he had sent off a letter to a name found in a magazine under ‘pen friends’.
The answer had arrived a month later resulting in an abiding friendship between two people who did not know each other’s tongues and were forced to communicate with the aid of dictionaries in a foreign language – English – often with hilarious results.
It would probably have continued in this vein if it hadn’t been for Snehamoy’s aunt’s God-daughter Sandhya.
Sandhya is brought to their house because Mashi, the widowed aunt who had brought Snehamoy up, is trying to find a prospective bride for her nephew. When Snehamoy writes to Miyage about her as he does about every important and unimportant event, a letter arrives that changes the course of his life.
In the letter Miyage has offered herself to him as his bride. If he agrees, they will be married. After weighing the matter over for a month, Snehamoy finally agrees to Miyage’s proposal.
Tokens are exchanged between the two, making them man and wife – at least in their own eyes. She sends him a silver wedding ring with her name engraved on it. He sends her a pair of conch-shell bangles and a packet of vermillion powder – the traditional signs of marriage among Bengali women.
His aunt, outraged at first, comes in time to accept her absentee niece in-law in the same way that the neighbours’ taunts and jibes give way to an acceptance of the Arithmetic teacher’s Japanese wife. She sends him photographs, gifts…once even a huge box of traditional Japanese kites.
He sends her rain-drenched champak blossoms carefully wrapped in plastic with the hope that they will retain their fragrance until they reach her.
In time, the urge of a lonely letter writer gives way to the fullness of a lasting bond. Yet, even after fifteen years of marriage, the two have not met!
It is always a question of not having enough money or Miyage’s sick mother or Snehamoy’s Mashi’s health. But their physical absence in each other’s lives never comes in the way of their sense of belonging as a couple.
Snehamoy feels every inch a married man and Miyage takes her responsibility as a wife very seriously, admonishing her husband for not wearing socks in cold weather or tying an Ema at a shrine to pray for him when he is ill.
But, soon after the arrival of the kites on their fifteenth wedding anniversary, there is another arrival in Snehamoy’s home, subtly changing the course of his life a second time.
Sandhya comes back as a widow with an eight year-old son in tow, and no one to turn to after her mother’s death except Snehamoy’s Mashi – her God-mother. Even though Sandhya never crosses his path, she takes up the reins of the household in her own unobtrusive way.
Snehamoy’s room which had always been a mess of papers, unmade bed, discarded clothes and over-spilling ashtrays, is now tidy and fresh-smelling when he returns from school with his clothes folded neatly on the clotheshorse.
With Sandhya Snehamoy discovers a bond of domesticity as they gradually start sharing household chores. With her son Paltu he discovers the joys of fatherhood. Paltu becomes his pet and together they organize a fantastic kite fight in their village between the Japanese kites sent by Miyage and their locally made rivals.
Yet Snehamoy remains Miyage’s devoted husband at heart. When Miyage falls sick and has to leave her home to live with her brother, Snehamoy is frantic with worry. He would have flown to Japan had he the money to do so.
As it is, he takes six months’ leave (without pay!) from his school and spends agonizing days consulting a range of doctors with his wife’s symptoms. His proximity with Sandhya grows as well, as he becomes aware of her tragedy – living the lonely life of a widow.
The shy school teacher is caught between the pull of his marriage – a long standing intimacy devoid of domesticity -- and another undefined relationship that offers a comforting domesticity without any possibility of intimacy – thus becoming an unwitting partner to two solitary women.
As days pass by and Miyage’s health worsens, it becomes clear that Snehamoy will need to visit an oncologist in Calcutta to get a proper assessment of his wife’s condition.
A storm strikes as he makes his way over to the city and he returns disheartened and severely drenched. He tries to call Miyage on a local phone but a poor connection comes in the way of a proper conversation.
He falls sick with pneumonia and the flooding makes it impossible for him to receive proper treatment. The fever rages while their village remains marooned in the grip of a tormented Bay of Bengal.
The local homeopath prescribes sweet white pills that neither bring down the temperature nor ease the labored breathing.
Sandhya sits by his bedside pressing cold compresses on his forehead and massaging hot oil into his chest while his aunt prays fervently at the family shrine and the boy flits nervously in and out of the room.
The postman had come knocking once the ferry service was able to bring in the mail, but Miyage’s letter, which the boy had pressed into the patient’s hand, remains unopened. Snehamoy’s fevered brain imagines his wife’s letter: I am right there beside you Snehamoy…can you not feel my hand on your forehead…?
Far from his wife and desperately worried over her health, Snehamoy’s life hangs by the thread as he is tended by Sandhya, just as any beloved husband would be by a loving wife.
Will the widow find her solace with Snehamoy? Or, just as in their letters, will life finally unite Snehamoy and Miyage as husband and wife?