It was in 1955, outside New Empire Cinema, that my friends and I spotted these foreigners. They somehow seemed a strange sight, rather awkward and not quite fitting the ambience. Few days later was our premiere show of Pathan. As a backstage assistant, I had the privilege of peeping through the curtain, just before the show, to evaluate the audience. As I did so, I noticed these phirangis again. Dressed in bizarre clothes and colourful beads, they looked attractive today. Especially one pretty face. Fresh as a dewdrop, the girl was wearing a red top and tiny Tibetan ear-rings. She was beautiful!
Later, I came to know that the bautiful girl and the phirangis belonged to the `Shakespearana' group and were in fact in Calcutta to stage their play, The Tempest, to be performed at the very same auditorium. Two days before their show, the phirangis sent us complimentary tickets. We went happily. Myself, dressed to kill. After the play, Sabiraaj, the theatre's assistant manager introduced us to the Kendalls. The beautiful girl, I soon discovered was Jennifer, Godfrey Kendall's daughter.
Before Jennifer, my mind was never occupied with women. But for the first time, I was thinking about a girl all the time. This, even though I was exceptionally busy. We were staging Kisan and I was handling the production. I was only eighteen then, but was literally a slave-driver. Everything, including the costumes were my responsibility. I would wake up at 5 a.m. Catch the 5.30 train from King's Circle. It was called the milkman's train and travelled to Opera House. My day ended late in the night. One day at the rehearsals, somebody mentioned that the `Shakespearana' group had returned. (They had in between gone back home) and were staying at the Fair Lawns Hotel. For the first time, I felt very deprived that Prithvi Theatre' was poor and had to put up at a poorer hotel like The Grand. So sad, for had we too had been staying at Fair Lawns, there were chances that I would have bumped into my dream girl and asked her for a date.
I never mustered the courage. Unlike my two brothers, who had to only look in the direction of the girl and she was trapped, I was painfully shy. I told my conflict to Sabiraaj, who promised to work out something. And he did. A date was organised at the Nankings. A rather expensive restaurant but since I was earning Rs. 20 a month now, I could afford it. I blew my entire salary that day and the date proved a total disaster. Jennifer and I had nothing in common. She ate with chopsticks, was gregarious and I was awkward and shy. She was well-read, could discuss books and authors, while I was the lallooram. The only book I had read was The Fountainhead. Fortunately, it turned out to be Jennifer's favourite book. Yet, I returned home feeling a buddhu and gave up all dreams of winning her over.
What helped the relationship was that slowly and very gradually an
easy camaraderie was growing between Prithvi Theatre' and `Shakespearana.' We artistes had started socialising in groups. Films were a common obsession with everyone. We travelled by train, third class. Once, when we were travelling to V.T. the train was overcrowded. In this mad rush of passengers falling over each other, I still don't know how, but I happened to hold Jennifer's hand. It happened accidentally, in my wanting to be protective, but it made me so nervous, so extremely nervous, that now, I could not get myself to let go off her hand. Not until we came out of the V.T. station. It was only when Jennifer gave me a stern look and shrugged her shoulders that I panicked and almost threw off her hand...
Those were crazy days. Can you imagine, a man taking a whole month to hold the hand of the woman he loved. And that too by sheer accident. It's crazy. Today, they do so, within five minutes of introductions. But then our times were different. Women didn't sit on the scooter clinging to their men, as they do now. We longed for our women to cling on to us. We even frightened them with, "hold me, or you might fall off," but they preferred to hold the handle. Today, boys don't have to say anything, but girls are willing to lock them in their arms. So sad, all this didn't happen in our time. That is why, I was surprised when out of the blue, one day, my grandfather, keeping ill-health summoned me to his room. "Kudi soni hai," he said in my ear, winking at me. Imagine him, at his ripe age, approving of a foreign girl. I was embarrassed, came away blushing... I often wonder what prompted him to say that, for at that time, there was nothing brewing between Jennifer and me.
In 1957, `Shakespearana' got into trouble. Their juvenile lead took ill suddenly and they needed a substitute desperately. They approached my father and requested him to lend one of his leads who could go with them to Singapore. Coincidentally, I was the only youngster at that time not playing an important role in any play. In short, the only one who could be spared. "Will you go?" my father asked me. I nodded my head. Destiny was guiding everything with a strong hand, and much against my mother's wishes, my father packed me off with the phirangis.
Once with the phirangis, I realised how different the atmosphere could be, even if both — they and we —belonged to the theatre world. Their priorities, culture, lifestyles were different. The way they ate... what they ate...how they dressed... how they expressed themselves, was very, very different. As it is I was very shy, and with so many new influences, I was going further inward. Besides, frankly, there was no time. I was playing something like 36 roles in 3 months, as a result of which my every waking minute of the day was spent in mugging lines... Dinner time was particularly depressing. The foreigners have a habit of discussing something or the other all the time. I wondered where they found so many topics? So many expressions? Every time they spoke, argued excitedly, I felt more and more inadequate. In the evenings, I often felt desolate. I was away from home for so many days... I recalled small joys back home... Like our food, our family chatter. But whenever I was lonely, Jennifer pulled me out of my melancholy. Soon things started blossoming between us and though there were lonely times, I enjoyed my stay thoroughly. Both Jennifer and her mother were warm, generous, supportive. They understood my feelings of an outsider, and went out of their way to help me.