Soumili was barely awake when the beep alerted her to an SMS from Chitrabhanu Sarkar, the famous artist, “Ranajoy Chatterjee is no more. Check TV for updates.”
Soumili fumbled for the remote. Last night, scurrying from a movie premiere to a celeb-wedding, Soumili had experienced acute exhaustion. Her knees and back had begun to kick in long ago. Her heart had, however, consented to a job she loved deeply for its creative scope. Till her colleagues alerted her to an advertisement in an English daily a month ago — Young, dynamic CEO and Programme Head required for leading Production House. Walk-in interview on…
“They advertised for your job without informing you!” her Girl Friday Sohini whispered in horrified awe, “They refused to show the basic courtesy of informing you that they were looking for your replacement. And 20 years you gave to the organisation!”
Thrusting her shaking hands beneath the table, acutely aware of her red face, Soumili had tremulously replied, “Okay, hardly the time or place to discuss this. I need time to work things out. In the meantime let us resume work. Bring me the Sunderashan account.”
That night she had locked herself in her room. Tears refused to come. She had had premonitions, and she had repeatedly pleaded with her regional head to confirm her status in the house. “Please give me time to look. At my age jobs don’t come easily,” she had requested.
“No Soumili, you are adding value and that is what matters,” he had blandly assured her. And then they had gone behind her back and taken out the advertisement. And these were the people with whom she had holidayed in Rome, Florence and Barcelona. Big boss Sanjib da had handpicked her for the Uffizi Gallery tour when the rest were lolling in hotel-rooms doused with booze.
“Only you have the depth and intensity to appreciate the Laocoon,” he had whispered conspiratorially and she had trembled with inchoate love. Today, her SOS s had gone unanswered. He didn’t even have the courtesy or courage to return her call.
Soumili fumbled beneath her bed and drew out a fistful of magazines from her collection. Old, yellow pages, blurred pictures of Rajiv Gandhi, Imran Khan, Charan Singh, Jimmy Amarnath and Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi; forgotten advertisements of Farex, Gold Spot, Vimal and Khatau Sarees; witnesses to the sunny dream-kissed Sundays of her childhood. Sundays, Illustrated Weeklys, Sportsworlds, Sports Stars; Soumili had a humongous collection of old magazines. She cherished their feel, their faded pictures, thin, boyish, grinning faces of the now superannuated Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Prakash Padukone.
Soumili had always been a collector. It had begun from the time when her mother would wait at Exide crossing for Soumili to walk down from LMG. Together they would commute to Eden Gardens to watch practice sessions of cricket-stars. Mother and daughter shared a passion for sports and current affairs.
Around 10 years ago her mother had helped to curate Soumili’s magazine-collection with polythene sheets and pesticides. But in the last few years the lady had become severely arthritic. The house now resembled a hospital with traction equipment, a flux of incoming and outgoing maids, rows of med-bottles. A substantial part of her salary went in funding her ailing mother’s keep.
Now that she was months away from losing her job, Soumili quaked to think how she would survive. She had tried enlisting the cook’s help to clean and dust her magazines, but the woman resented it. The collection was mildewing. Soon it would be reduced to pulp. With a sinking heart Soumili realised she would have to find a home for her collection, bequeath them to a deserving individual.
A tear rolled down her cheek as Soumili watched the morning news. Around seven, Ranajoy Chatterjee’s servant, bringing in his morning tea had repeatedly hammered his employer’s door. When he finally knocked it down with outside help Rono da’s corpse had grown stiff. A freak cerebral had felled Rono da in his prime.
Soumili and her crew had visited Rono da’s house many times to discuss nascent film ideas or simply to listen to the exquisitely talented director air his learned opinions on music and cinema. Rono da’s living room was a magical space. Curios from all over the world; tanjore statuettes, ivory houseboats, Morano-glass dolphins and sandalwood ganeshas were perched in vantage points artfully lit by concealed lights. The curtains were ruched ochre and the divans had Jaipuri hand-printed bed-sheets thrown on them.
What would happen to Rono da’s exotic masks? Who would inherit them? Who would stroke the bronze Nataraj absent-mindedly while mulling over a script problem? Would Rono da’s exquisite angrakhas, turbans and ivory buttons be raided in the aftermath of his death?
Mallika looked at Soumili compassionately. Soumili had taken the day off to visit her friend in her spacious Baruipur house with its mango and jackfruit trees. Her face was flushed with the effort to explain herself. To Mallika she said, “You are the only one who lives in a house. The rest of us all live in flats. You are inculcating reading habits in your children. Your husband plays the esraj. Your family is solidly traditional. Your children will cherish my collection. I have cataloguing scrapbooks. There are priceless articles by stalwarts like Pritish Nandy, Manohar Malgaokar, Bacchi Karkaria and Khushwant Singh. Young people need to read them. Write-ups, interviews, pictures make the past come alive. Young people need to know, to visit… the past,” she finished lamely her eyes tracking Mallika’s teenaged son Phalguni ambling away, eyes glued to his phone. Following Soumili’s gaze Mallika scolded her son, “Phalguni, when will you stop tinkering with the phone! You are dimming your eyes and rotting your brains! The least you can do is greet Soumili mashi. She’s come from so far and you people don’t even care!”
Soumili came away from her friend’s house deeply disappointed. She had hoped that Mallika would covet her collection. That would have been a solution. Now she knew she was being unreal pinning her hopes on a generation that only cared for the here and now.
Obviously, she had been living in a fool’s paradise. Soumili’s was a lost generation with defunct interests. Her boss’s words thrummed unpleasantly in her ears. Finally the man had gathered courage to stage a meeting with her. “Soumili,” he said carefully avoiding her eyes, “You’ve proved to be a valuable but costly resource for the house. We debated long and hot on the subject of your retention since the value you have added and the awards you have brought are unquestionably prestigious. But unfortunately there is nothing more for you to contribute in the way of ideas or service. You will understand that since we are looking for someone much younger and in a smaller salary-bracket, we have to let you go. We shall however grant you a six-month window. You may see it as our sponsorship of your job-search. I am confident that with your talents the time gap will be enough for you to relocate.”
Soumili’s ears burnt. The man had deployed every conceivable highfalutin management phrase to smokescreen the fact that they had used and thrown her away. Neither of them mentioned the heartlessness of the ad that had been placed without prior information. Soumili was tired of her brain-spool incessantly running over mistakes, omissions and laxities that might have led to her humiliation. Fact was she was no longer young. The entertainment industry was about youth that could be exploited for its inventiveness, improvisations, inexhaustible energy; for its firmness.
But that way lay bitterness and insanity. And anyway, beauty had never been her unique selling proposition. At the height of her career she had been teased for her mannishness. Deeply hurt, she had confided in her friend and Mumtaz had calmly assured her not to pay the slightest attention. “If you were conventionally beautiful they would have said the woman has slept her way up the corporate ladder. Since you are not, they talk about your ‘mannishness’. Patriarchy will always find a way to pull you down.”
In between job-hunting and scheduled meetings, Soumili contacted Pablo Mitra, the famous sports journalist. “Pablo, I have this fantastic magazine collection dating back to my early childhood. Would you be interested?” Pablo Mitra asked her to bring certain samples to his office. Soumili spent an entire Sunday hunting up the edition on the 1983 World Cup and the Illustrated Weekly edition on Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s marriage, two of her prized possessions. Tears fogged her specs lenses but she angrily wiped them away.
Pablo Mitra gave them a cursory glance before getting busy with his laptop. “Here, Soumili, look at this digital archive here. New state-of-the-art technology, you cannot possibly beat that, can you?” Soumili peered into a crystal-clear digital facsimile of the faded article in her hand, and Pablo threw back his head and laughed.
On her way back, Soumili was tempted to throw the magazines into a vat. Pablo’s had been a knowing laugh. Did he know that Soumili Majumdar was no longer a force to reckon with in Sunshine Productions? Was the news already public? Soumili’s stomach caved with mortification. Had been a time when the likes of Pablo were eager to fix meetings with her as early as nine o’clock in the morning: any which place you want Soumili, any hour of the day. Today she distinctly sensed his disparagement.
Her phone beeped. It was Avantika Jaiswal, an old friend from the fraternity and one who had resigned from Sunshine Productions last year when things got too hot for her.
“Soumili, heard the news from the grapevine,” came Avantika’s brisk voice. Soumili’s heart sank. How many more knew? Who all would she have to face?
“Tell you what, this is the best thing that could have happened to you girl. You need a change. You have intellect, experience, wisdom, exposure and class. How many people here can equal your expansive reading? Let me be frank with you. I am coming up with my consultancy. I have little capital and I shall tap a few contacts. I shall give it my all. If I had a company you would have been on board by now. But my doors are always open for you.”
“You know my situation, Avantika. I need a full-time job…” mumbled Soumili, her heart lifting nonetheless. Amid lowering clouds Avantika had gifted her a sliver of light. At least someone had come forward.
“You need a game-plan Soumili. Get into the PR portals. Redo you CV. Scout the market. You’re bound to get something. So many media schools are pouring in. Won’t they have a slot for you? And I need your part-time services. I don’t know how much I shall be able to pay you, but things are bound to look up. We have to think positive.”
Soumili carefully stowed her magazines into her bag. Now was not the time to obsess about her collection. Rono da’s death was untimely and shocking. But she planned to fight as long as she was alive. Her servants, her two dogs and majorly her poor old sick mother looked up to her for support. She would go home, brew hot tea and get down to business as Avantika suggested. An opening was bound to come up.
Till that time she would have to have to tighten her belt. Her years in Sunshine had bequeathed on her experience and a capacity to endure pressure. She was not calling quits any time soon. They wouldn’t shame-talk her into leaving. She would utilise the full six-month window to job-hunt.