Video is the second outing of Tin Can Productions. The play is written and directed by Soumyak Kanti De Biswas and produced by Tanaji Dasgupta, and is showing today at G.D. Birla Sabhaghar at 7pm. I saw it yesterday.
If you are planning to see it, you probably shouldn’t read this, as it’s a play packed with surprises and I’ll be giving away many of them. If you think you might be there tonight, all I will say is you must not miss one of the most significant productions Calcutta will see this year. Go thou and buy tickets, and read this afterwards.
The play is quite dark (in all senses) so I had to take pictures with a very slow shutter speed, hence the blurring in some of the shots. Sorry.
Visually stunning, full of surprises and high on energy, the production makes lavish use of technology and innovative stagecraft, particularly back projection and lights. Written in three languages, English, Bangla and Hindi, the play unites the high tech resources and slick production values of English language drama with the hard-hitting topicality of Bangla and Hindi theatre culture. It weaves together the stories of two young men: Debu in Calcutta (Anubrata Basu), jobless, desultorily involved in politics and thuggism, ganja-sodden and aimless, the other (Tanaji Dasgupta) a ‘struggler’ in Bombay, hoping to make it in the film industry, instead witnessing Bombay’s periodic, paroxysmic violence. The play jumps from scene to scene, interleaving the two cities.
The prologue, a little selfconsciously apologetic cum defiant, nevertheless ably spoken by Surjo Deb, segues into a scene of rioting on campus which the cogniscenti will recognise. This includes (sorry to give away the surprise) a jeep on stage, and the action takes place lit only by the headlights. This is followed by a quieter scene between Shayani Bhattacharya, who shines as ‘Boudi’, a woman migrant to the city from rural Bengal, and Anubrata Basu playing Debu, the young man high on ganja and politics. This frames much of the chaos to follow and allows some narrative progression to take place. Shayani’s character tries to hustle Debu into some sort of life, but he sidetracks her with magic tricks (and a cameo appearance by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and she gives up and leaves him to his chillum, when news arrives with the erstwhile rioters (or rather riot-stoppers) that he has won the election.
Cut to Bombay, where a story of several aspirants to moviedom unfolds. One of the young men is Dan, the liveliest and biggest hearted of the group, who wants to be a star. However, violence erupts in Bombay, and Dan loses his life trying to protect his drink-sodden friend Aslam from the rioters. In a brilliant touch, there is then a spooky press conference where Dan talks about the absurdity of it all. In between, there is a magic show by Debu, and an absolutely stunning song by Anjum Katyal (who also wrote it). There is also a rather gratuitous in-joke where a scene from Waiting for Godot (with Debu as Didi) interposes. For this JUDE culture is probably responsible (my apologies), hardly surprising since so many of the cast and crew are from Jadavpur.
Finally, there is a scene of puja merrymaking with Debu and friends back in Calcutta, complete with five dhakis. In another brilliant touch, this is invaded by the enemies, there is a tiny pause in the drumming, and then everyone proceeds to fight savagely to the beat of the dhaks. Debu is shot, and the last thing we hear is Boudi’s grief-stricken voice wailing for him. The last tableau shows Tanaji in silhouette with a hanged man behind him.
Although very smoothly produced and hugely entertaining, the play doesn’t quite have the feel of a finished production. For one thing, the story involving Bombay is much better worked out and presented than the one about Calcutta; it has most of the words as well. In fact I recognised some of the words as being part of an early story by Kanti (called ‘Bombay’) which he wrote for my Writing in Practice course a year ago, so these ideas have been roiling around in his head for a while.
Perhaps because Cal is the group’s hometown, and the engagement with Bombay has happened later on a more adult level, Bombay’s story is told more maturely, while the calcutta scenes with the exception of the first one are more non-verbal. Presumably the title ‘Video’ refers not only to the continous projection on the cyclorama but also to the choppy, cut-scene structure as well.
It would be wrong to say that the play does not have a story; there is an incipient narrative in it which comes out strongly at points. But there are also moments when sheer inventiveness causes the play to dally by the way and do things purely for spectacular effect. As such the play gives the impression of being more a proof-of-principle than a fully formed piece of art.
On those terms, it succeeds sensationally: it proves that young people in this city can produce world class art on stage that will rock you like a hurricance, and do it in three languages and with full tech equipage as well. If Tin Can go on producing plays as they mature, they can only get better. This instrument must not be allowed to lie still and gather dust: we want more of the same from them, only harder and better.
Yesterday the Citizen’s Initiative Group met at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, 10 Lake Terrace to hear two papers and discuss the implications of Nandigram and recent events for civil society in Bengal.The two papers were by Dilip Simeon, whose title was ‘Ethics and Contemporary Political Culture’ and Aseem Shrivastava, who Spoke on ‘SEZs and the Cost of Development’.
Dilip Simeon’s paper concentrated on the wider moral aspects of Indian political culture and the ways in which corruption has been institutionalised in many of our practices. He lambasted the left and the right equally for their totalitarian tendencies, citing the erasure of the Gang of Four from Maoist history, while the right has, among many other things, the abuses of Fascism and of the recent wars laid at its door. He criticised especially the culture of ‘outrage’ that has become institutionalised in India, where a group (usually allied with conservative interests of some kind) has only to express ‘outrage’ at something, whether it is female sportspeople’s costumes or writers’ confidences or the ethnicity of taxi drivers, to legitimise their moral, political and legal campaign against them, even so far as to include violence in the streets.
Dr Shrivastava pointed out that development as we know it is a construction of the World Bank and is predicated on Third World debt. Debt has accomplished by other means the domination of ‘developing’ economies first dreamed of by the British Empire. In fact debt is a very cost-effective way of strangulating developing economies. Dr Shrivastava showed how the so called ‘free market’ operates on one-way freedom: the freedom of the West to sell in the East (or the North in the South, depending on your geographical preferences) but not vice versa. The introduction of foreign financial institutions to India’s stock exchanges has produced a bubble powered by the repatriation of earnings from India to the West. The Indian stock exchange offers a return of 43 percent on investment, about four times what western exchanges offer. The areas where companies want to get in are those of basic infrastructure: healthcare, education and basic consumer goods. Hence governments have been persuaded to disinvest in these areas (actually they didn’t need much persuasion). India’s population being so large, even the small purchasing power of the average person will guarantee large returns.
Dr Shrivastava questioned the relevance of SEZs since they had all but failed in China, and only a handful of the thousands once set up are still in operation. The idea is being sold to India’s politicians for two reasons: one, the return in big bucks is far higher from SEZs than from any other kind of development, and two, the SEZ is an experiment in urban planning, designed to produce regimented fake townships such as those run by the American corporations of the 1950s.
Rural India patently needs a kind of development that will soak up labour using minimal capital and knowhow, that will be spread out, decentralised and run by people for people, but we have been conned into believing that this big business corporation-led kind of development is the only development in town. And while the governments have been pushing SEZs with one hand, with the other hand they have been sabotaging schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme which have the potential to solve the problems that fuel the anger behind things like the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Samiti. Whenever rural India has had access to the press, which is almost never, their representatives (and again the question of who gets to represent whom and why is fraught) have said they want only one thing: the freedom to farm.
The farmer as a category of worker is almost extinct in the West, but the Western model is untenable here. We have to accept that people will live on the land; we cannot turn the Indian countryside into aseptic kilometres of ‘scientific’ agriculture. We can try to address the reason why we have so many people on the land (patriarchy is the foremost one) but we can’t wish them into thin air. Whatever solution we propose for rural Indian’s problems has to acknowledge these people’s right to exist.
The speeches were ably summed and translated into Bengali by Arnab Banerji. In the questions session people kept asking: so where do we go from here? This was an issue which neither speaker addressed; indeed, they didn’t talk much about current political events at all. Since both speakers were from outside Bengal, they couldn’t really be expected to have much to say about this; that discussion had to be reserved for the evening, but unfortunately I couldn’t attend the evening session. However, on the strength of this discussion I would like to propose some suggestions of my own.
One thing we can do is actively search for and create alternative models of development. For this we would have to collaborate with technologists, NGOs, farmers and cultivators, citizens of rural India and financiers. This would answer the rather helpless questions fo laymen who reject the SEZ-corporation model of development but don’t know what else there is.
Form strategic alliances or support-bases with existing politicians. Dilip Simeon said that people need not belong to political parties body and soul in order to work with them; an idea that should be obvious, but which in Bengal is rather conspicuous by its absence. In response to Trina’s account of a woman in Nandigram, who belonged to the Congress, was married to a TMC member and whose father was in the CPIM, and who asserted that this fluid political heritage was her right, Simeon said that the idea that people ‘belong’ to parties, that they are born and live and die in them, is a religious, not a political idea.
Democracy can’t work unless people can shift alliances, and band together on specific issues. Since it does not look likely that we can in the near future form a party to put our (that is civil society’s) views forward, we will have to find individuals who will and can, regardless of their party affiliation, and back them as long as they remain loyal to the ideas we are promoting. Having said that, I have no idea who these people might be or how we could deal with them. But it’s an idea.
Have more discussions. This is absolutely essential. And we have to involve more young people. I think the generation that grew up in the seventies and eighties was so crushed by the cultural and economic mediocrity and insularity of India in those years that they have been gorging on global kitsch like kids munching McNuggets. They were the left-behind generation whose best was carefully exported to the West; and now suddenly the West is right here, at discount prices, displayed like never before at your neighbourhood mall in a welter of traffic snarls and discarded bubble-wrap blowing in the wind.
They’re the people who bought Hyundais with Fifth Pay Commission money and holidayed with package tours in Malaysia won off FM radio stations. I don’t think we can do much with them. But the next crop of young people will have taken all this stuff for granted. They will see the seediness of fast food joints and coffee bars that play MTV on mute with a PA soundtrack of Bollywood muzak.
But unfortunately, these clear-seeing kids will be urban. Rural India still has plenty of permit-quota-licence raj casualties. Go to Hiland Park on any day and you will see rural India, fifteen strong and giggling, experiencing escalators for the first time. For a certain section of mofussil wannabe urbanites, the new glitz will be powerfully tempting. The result will be a cultural (as well as literal) civil war in rural India, between those who want to keep the old ways and those dazzled by the new. Again, all we can do is talk to them. You can’t surgically remove people’s aspirations.
The afternoon concluded with songs by some of the younger members of the Citizen’s Initiative Group, including Arnab, Trina Nileena Banerjee (one of the most active organisers of this event) Madhura Chakravarty, Dibyajyoti Ghosh, Mirna Guha, and Aditya Vikram Das.
Mirna Guha also sang solo accompanied by Vinayak Das Gupta on the guitar. Abhijoy Gupta sang and played a song he wrote himself.
I will be in conversation with Neel Mukherjee, author of Past Continuous, at 6pm tomorrow at Crossword.
Here is the report of the launch (finally) in the Telegraph Metro.
It has been drawn to my notice that many of these reviews and reports go offline after a period, so I’m crossposting the text here as well:
|Rimi B. Chatterjee (sitting on the ground) at the launch of her book. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
A â€œbook launchâ€ does not simply end with releasing yet another story into the world. Along with the book, the emotions that went into its making, the intangible forces that filled out the authorâ€™s toiling spirit, also make their way into the readersâ€™ imagination.
It was precisely for this reason that the release of Rimi B. Chatterjeeâ€™s second novel, The City of Love, in mid-January, touched the assembled crowd deeply. Organised by Worldview Books at their Jadavpur University shop, the evening brought together students and academics, among others. Author Amitav Ghosh was also present.
The book was released and introduced by Amlan Dasgupta, professor of English at the university. Dasgupta feels that Chatterjee (who also teaches at the department) offers us something more complex than a historical novel. The City of Love, which is set in the turbulent 16th Century and spans across Europe to Bengal, â€œtells us about ourselvesâ€. In it, history is entangled with destiny: trade, commerce and intrigues along the silk route are tied to Vaishnavism in Bengal, the cult of Tantra and other esoteric, indigenous traditions. With her characters â€” the Italian merchant, Fernando Almenara, Pir Baba, the vagrant mystic, Bajja, the tribal girl, and Chandu, the Shaiva priestâ€™s son â€” Chatterjee puts a human face on this labyrinthine history. The vast repository of Indian Ocean scholarship that has gone into the writing is transformed by the authorâ€™s urge to tell a human story â€” of love, music and passion.
Since music is one of the themes that holds the novel together, Dasgupta chose to play a haunting extract from a Sufi composition sung by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. More music came from veteran singer Moushumi Bhowmick, who presented songs ascribed to Chandidas, Lalan and the bauls with great feeling and perfection. She was accompanied by Satyaki, who sang a couple of soulful melodies himself. The final musical offering was from Sourav Mondal, who gave an accomplished performance.
(Contributed by Mohua Das and Somak Ghoshal)
This is the story I sent to Neel. And before people start posting dumb questions, I’d better declare that this story is entirely fictional, and all the characters and incidents are totally made up.
*********â€˜Your hair! What have you done? Are you mad? My God … if Ma sees you like this … . Woman, have you no sense? You were supposed to get Mamoniâ€™s head shaved. What possessed you …? Canâ€™t you think for a moment before …?â€™
__Nishaâ€™s lips quivered as she tried to marshal an explanation in the face of Arunâ€™s barely controlled anger. Her eyes flicked to her daughter, but the five-year-old had skipped up to their front door and was playing with the scarf that covered her little gleaming bald head.
__â€˜Mamoni … Iâ€™m sorry, Arun, I couldnâ€™t help it, she cried so loud, I couldnâ€™t keep her quiet. She kept throwing herself out of the barberâ€™s chair. I was so afraid sheâ€™d hurt herself; you remember how Ma was for days after she fell off the windowsill and cut her lip. I tried so hard to distract her, I really did, but she didnâ€™t pay me any heed. Finally she agreed to have her head shaved only if I did it too. Nothing else worked, no chocolates or caresses .â€¦ Iâ€™m sorry, I couldnâ€™t think of anything else. Did I do wrong?â€™
__Arunâ€™s mouth jerked as though sheâ€™d hit him. With difficulty she realized he was laughing, a laugh so bitter it almost choked him. â€˜You really donâ€™t know.â€™ he said in wonder. â€˜You havenâ€™t a clue, Nisha. We give you the tiniest responsibility and this is what you do. And you really mean it, donâ€™t you? You truly canâ€™t see the heinousness of what you, a married woman, have done. If I didnâ€™t know what an utter memsahib you still are underneath that sindoor and sari and shankha-pola I would never have believed it of a grown Bengali wife.â€™ He raised a hand as her lips parted in the beginnings of protest. â€˜Donâ€™t say a word. I know you try in your own way, but this is too much. Maâ€™ll think youâ€™ve done it deliberately to hurt her.â€™
__A little trickle of fear touched her heart. â€˜But I hardly go out, itâ€™ll grow back before anyone notices …â€™ Arun snorted, and went on in a singsong of irritation. â€˜Do I have to tell you that adults only shave their heads when someone dies? And a woman only when her husband dies? Whatâ€™s Ma going to think of that? I had enough trouble over your short hair; she was so sad that you couldnâ€™t wear her hair ornaments at the wedding. Have you forgotten? How long is your common sense going to live in Hong Kong, eh?â€™
__Nishaâ€™s hand flew to her throat, to the mangalsutra they had given her six years ago, the night before the wedding, and which had never left her throat since. â€˜Oh.â€™
__â€˜Oh, indeed.â€™ Arunâ€™s voice was bitter. â€˜Now Maâ€™s been particularly bad ever since Mamoni had malaria, so I think Iâ€™d better break the news to her, though itâ€™s more than you deserve.â€™ He sighed. â€˜One day Iâ€™ll get sick of bailing you out. When will you grow some sense, for godâ€™s sake? Stay out of the way till Iâ€™ve told her.â€™ And he turned abruptly and strode indoors. Mamoni had been watching them from the doorway with a bright clever smile on her face, her head a red and yellow triangle in the silk scarf with a picture of Big Ben on it, a relic of one of Nishaâ€™s fatherâ€™s trips. As he passed Arun scooped his daughter up and she screeched with delight. Nisha stood there uncertainly for a while, then crept indoors, the end of her sari clutched tightly round her bald head, covering even the streak of sindoor like a wound in the center of it.
__There was a central hall just inside the door, from which the doors of all the ground floor rooms led off, as well as the grandiose, crumbling staircase. Upstairs the rooms had been divided and subdivided; some parts belonged to distant branches of the family that had severed all ties with theirs; they had added spiral iron staircases to their wings, turning this veranda into a bathroom, that niche into a kitchen, till they were nothing but self-contained noises on the other side of straggling whitewashed walls. Arunâ€™s family had successfully retained this part of the ground floor; but the three rooms were all used as bedrooms, one for Ma and Baba, one for Arunâ€™s sister whose in-laws lived in Malda, and one for their widowed Pishima who would stay whenever she came down from Hooghly to visit Belur Math. That left only this dank, windowless hall for use as a â€˜drawing roomâ€™; it was just big enough for a table with a portable TV set on it, the familyâ€™s tiny sofa and the rickety glass-fronted case that held Nishaâ€™s mother-in-lawâ€™s prized collection of plastic Disney animals. Beside this case Nisha waited, the dank air caressing the skin of her head with unpleasant intimacy, and heard the voices from the other room playing out the drama of her transgression.
__Why had she given in to Mamoniâ€™s screaming? Mamoni was always screaming. It was a tactic that worked with her grandparents, and God knows it always worked with her mother. Never having faced bullying as a diplomatâ€™s daughter, Nisha was now under the thumb of her own five-year-old child. When all was quiet, she would lie awake and resolve to be a better mother in future, to be kind but firm and not give in to the barrage of irrational demands, tantrums and scenes. But such thoughts evaporated when that screechy voice split the air, and when Mamoni contorted her body like a living corkscrew it was always only a matter of time before Nisha retreated.
__Now, she knew with sinking certainty, she had given up her peace of mind for weeks to come, in return for those few minutes of respite while the barber had shaved Mamoniâ€™s head. Nisha hadnâ€™t wanted Mamoniâ€™s head shaved; it had been Maâ€™s idea; apparently all children had their heads shaved at age five; to make their hair grow better. How was she, Nisha from Hong Kong, to know that such an act was taboo for adults? She had seen Hindu funerals, in Singapore and Fiji, and no one had shaved their heads. In fact she had not associated head-shaving with ritual at all. Her own hair had been thin and lifeless; why not shave it off and start again? It wasnâ€™t as if she ever went out, and it would grow back soon.
But she should have thought of Arun, she reflected guiltily. Not that he looked at her much these days; her work in the grimy kitchen under Maâ€™s scolding eye and in the corners of the old house where dirt seemed to mushroom and conspire had not added to her meagre stock of personal attraction, but nevertheless, how would he feel with a wife who looked like a cancer patient turned domestic drudge? Now this would give him another reason to despair of her. How could she have been so foolish, so spineless as to give in to the whining of a child in such a matter? In the half-light Nisha began to chew the end of her anchal, a nervous habit that was becoming second nature.
__A shriek rose from the kitchen. Nisha tensed. They would call her soon, to assess the damage and impress upon her the seriousness of her crime. For a wild moment Nisha contemplated rushing out of the house and taking a cab to New Market to buy a wig. But she only had twenty rupees in her handbag; besides, the ancient padlock on the gate was so stiff and temperamental that only the men of the house could open it.
__â€˜Moni! O Moni!â€™ That was Maâ€™s name for her. Ma hated the name Nisha; it was too â€˜non-Bengaliâ€™. She wrapped the sari tightly round her head and watched her feet as they walked, so steadily, into the kitchen. â€˜Ohhhh!â€™ Arunâ€™s mother clapped her hands to her eyes. â€˜What have you done, what have you done, my daughter! You have brought the evil eye down on my son! Donâ€™t you know the palmist said his lifeline was broken at age thirty-five? Where you should be mending it with your care and love, you are opening the door to the messengers of Yama himself! Have you no sense, girl? See, I knew this would happen. Mamoni only listens to her Didua, no? I should have known this mem wouldnâ€™t know how to humour such a child. As if you didnâ€™t know what you were doing! Even in Singapore, did your friends cut off their hair and walk around like this? Uncouth creature! You could have cut off a lock or two and tricked the poor little thing into being scraped bare. And given her a sweet afterwards. Married for so long and doesnâ€™t know how to deal with a child! When will you grow up? This is not your abroad; this is our country. Do the wives of abroad wish for their husbandsâ€™ deaths? Evil girl! Oh, my back hurts like fire today, younger brother-in-law is coming, I want him to have my special mustard ilish, but how can I cook it now that you have put this fear for my jewel son into my breast? My hand will shake with terror as I grind the mustard … â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™ll do it, Ma,â€™ Nisha interjected, seizing her chance with relief, but to her surprise she only got a narrowed look of anger. â€˜You have come here with the face of a thing from the burning ghat. How can I let you touch the familyâ€™s food? Here, take iron and fire. And go and bathe, donâ€™t bring that uncleanness into my kitchen.â€™
__â€˜Ma,â€™ Arun interrupted wearily, â€˜thatâ€™s enough. Be reasonable. Let Moni grind the mustard and forget it. Her hair will grow in a few weeks. Weâ€™ll keep her out of everyoneâ€™s sight until it grows; weâ€™ll say sheâ€™s ill. That way you wonâ€™t be shamed in front of the neighbours. Donâ€™t cry, Ma, Iâ€™ll tell her what a terrible thing sheâ€™s done, yes she must be made to realize…â€™ Arun took his motherâ€™s arm and led her to the sitting room. Over his shoulder he ordered peremptorily, â€˜Make some tea.â€™
__Nisha filled the kettle; her arm stung as the water splashed on it. Holding it up to the dim light of the window, made dimmer by dirty netting and oil-choked cobwebs, she saw an inch-long scratch above her wrist. Mamoni had been very angry at the prospect of losing her curls; she had beaten her mother with her doll. Nisha sighed and ran her arm under the tap.
__Spineless. They were right. Nisha felt tears pricking the backs of her eyelids and blinked angrily. She thought not again: but the choking tide rose nevertheless and swelled her throat like a physical mass. Why had they agreed at all to take her as the wife of their house? â€˜They are good people,â€™ her father had said at the time of her marriage. â€˜Not very wealthy, but warm, like in the old days. Family people. You must fit in with them, look after relatives, be a family person. They donâ€™t understand individualism; thatâ€™s for the West. But theyâ€™ll look after you like a jewel.â€™ And, as she and he had sat on the darkened verandah the night before the wedding, both seeking a momentâ€™s respite from the crowds of excited relatives and the shrill hubbub of the preparations, he had regarded her sadly. She had heard rumours of his reverses, but his early years in the diplomatic service had ingrained in him the habit of shielding his wife and child from the real state of things in his work. Nevertheless, within a year of her marriage she had learned how drastically the business he had started in his retirement had failed; when he died she had been left with the incredible tangle of his affairs to clear up. As her fatherâ€™s only child she had had no escape; Arun had had to ferry her to the lawyers so many times while things were being settled.
__Arunâ€™s family still remembered and reminded her of those days of selfless service to hers. They had offered to take in Nishaâ€™s mother, but Mummy had refused, preferring to stay in the flat in Bombay on her husbandâ€™s pension. This had caused a certain amount of comment among the Sens; Ma had shuddered and said enviously, â€˜Living alone in Bombay! Iâ€™d die of fright.â€™
__The pot boiled; she jumped to turn it down before it spilled overâ€”too late. She mopped at the mess with a dirty rag, scalding her hand. The smell of roasted milk filled the air. â€˜Sheâ€™s burned it again,â€™ came Arunâ€™s motherâ€™s voice. Flustered, Nisha wrung the cloth out under the tap, rinsed it and spread it out to dry on the side of the slime-blackened mosaic sink. Arun came in. â€˜Strained it out? Well, hurry up. Iâ€™ll take it in to her. Sheâ€™d almost forgiven you when you burned the tea. Canâ€™t you do anything right?â€™
__â€˜I didnâ€™t burn it; it spilled.â€™ But he had turned his back on her and was getting the teacups down from the rack. He held the cheap pyrex cups from Gariahat for a moment in one hand, then put them away and took out two from the Royal Doulton set that Nisha had brought with her as a bride. â€˜Must make Ma feel special today,â€™ he said, noticing her eyes on them. â€˜You hurt her pretty badly. She had almost come to believe you were one of us, and then you do something as incredibly stupid as this. Donâ€™t you appreciate how delicate this all is?â€™
__She hung her head. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry.â€™
__His mouth jerked again. â€˜ â€œSorryâ€ is not a word in any Indian language,â€™ he said dryly. He went out with the tea.
__A tremendous weariness broke over her like a wave. She felt a physical longing for the bed in the cramped room upstairs, but to get to it she would have to cross the drawing room and face her mother-in-lawâ€™s round, reproachful, slightly exopthalmic face with the perpetually smeared vermilion bindi and the strands of graying hair forever escaping from her
bun. She pulled out a piri and sat down, leaning her head against the gas cylinder. She couldnâ€™t keep her legs doubled up like the other women; she had to stretch them out, but then the sari rode up her calves. She compromised by covering her ankles with her anchal, hoping fervently that Ma would not come in and see her. The metal of the cylinder was cold, its touch a hard shock without her hair to shield her. Her scalp crawled.
__She jerked awake suddenly at the clatter of cups being put in the sink. She sprang up. â€˜Iâ€™ll wash them!â€™ But he was already holding one ruefully in his hand. â€˜I thought youâ€™d come and collect them. Ma called you but you didnâ€™t come.â€™
__â€˜I fell asleep.â€™
__â€˜So I see.â€™ He showed her the tiny chip in the cup. â€˜Iâ€™ll tell Baba to fix it with Araldite. Youâ€™ll hardly be able to see the crack.â€™ He put it away in the cupboard. â€˜Youâ€™re tired. Why donâ€™t you go to bed? Ma says she wonâ€™t need you for another hour. Itâ€™s only three; you can sleep till four. Iâ€™ll send Mamoni to wake you.â€™
__â€˜Thank you.â€™ Suddenly overwhelmed by relief and gratitude, she wished she could hug him but he disapproved of such gestures outside the bedroom; besides, his mother might come in. â€˜Arun, I … you know I didnâ€™t do it on purpose …?â€™
__â€˜Of course I know.â€™ He smiled. â€˜Thatâ€™s what makes it worse. Because everybody will think you did do it on purpose, out of spite. Itâ€™s inconceivable to us that anyone canâ€™t know such things …! Anyway,â€™ he rubbed her sari-covered head, making her wince at the rasp of the cloth. â€˜I know my little mem, even if no one else does. Donâ€™t worry about it. Go on up to bed. Maâ€™s gone to lie down as well.â€™ Gratefully, she went.
Their bedroom was hardly the size of a closet; there was just room in it to walk sideways round the bed. At one corner stood an ancient steel almirah, with a full length mirror which was nevertheless too close to the bed for her to see the length of her sari in it. Intent on her own exhaustion she walked in and stopped dead.
__The sari slipped from her shoulders. She stared at the stranger in front of her; a balloon of raw skin with a smudged red streak above two wide, frightened eyes. The bones of her skull stood out starkly; she saw the recessed lines of the sutures of the temporal and frontal bones below her naked skin; her ears had the delicacy of fungi or of coral. How strange and frightening was the human skull, a shape moulded by aeons to hold the mystery of a mind, as curiously wrought as some hieratic ritual bowl. Without her hair she was out of herself, she was sense and thought, she was strangeness and terror. The squat gold earrings in her ears looked incongruous, trivial, crude, as did the vermilion streak and the bindi on her forehead.
__Slowly, hardly breathing, she raised her hand to wipe them off, but her familiar hand with its red and white bangles next to this monstrous, pitiless shining face made a shudder of horror run through her, and she tore the sheet from the bed with trembling hands and fixed it over the mirror with the two magnets in the shape of Ma Kali that Arunâ€™s mother had stuck to the almirah on the first night Nisha had spent there. Then, in the strangely whitened light of that tiny space, she lay down to sleep.
__She awoke with a jerk of guilt. It was dark; a sliver of moon hung in the window. Her heart sank. The cooking would be done by now and no one had come to wake her. She should have woken by herself, but this too was one of the things she often failed at. She felt that mass in her throat begin to swell again.
__She swung her legs off the bed and the unfamiliar shock of lightness clutched at her heart as she raised her head. She pressed her hands to her temples, afraid her brain would whirl off into the sky through the dim barred window imprisoning streetlights and crumbled cornices.
__Crows cawed into the twilight outside, circling. The sound seemed to strip her senses. She looked at her hands in wonder, almost expecting to see the nerves sticking out of them like fine, iridescent wires. Then she realized she had no power to stretch her legs, push the bed away, get up and go into the hall. Suddenly it seemed the hardest thing in the world, to lift this lightened head and drag it twenty paces into the space of light where, she knew, voices were talking, guests were being entertained. Perhaps itâ€™s better if they donâ€™t see me like this, she thought, slowly letting herself fall back on the bed. Maybe thatâ€™s why they didnâ€™t call me, and she felt a guilty flash of pleasure at being spared. She watched the fan rotating slowly, smears of orange light from the street outside caressing each blade as it revolved, grinding a regular murmuring song.
â€˜Get up, Iâ€™ll be late for work.â€™ Arunâ€™s voice, impatient. She started inside herself, sleep fragmenting like the stillness of a pond to a fishermanâ€™s spear. Why was his voice so rough?
__Then she opened her eyes to the realization that she had been hearing that edge of exasperation in his voice now for many months. She had not noticed it. â€˜Get up!â€™
__â€˜Sorry, sorry,â€™ he mimicked. â€˜Do you think that makes it all right? Canâ€™t you get it right for once? Iâ€™m sick of your sorrys. Why didnâ€™t you help Ma last night like you promised?â€™
__â€˜You were supposed to call me.â€™
__He threw his hands out in a gesture of annoyance, scattering a faint pall of talcum powder from the can he held. â€˜You should have the sense to get up anyway. I was busy with Mamoniâ€™s homework. I didnâ€™t want to break her concentration by sending her to call you. You know how important it is to Ma that she does well.â€™
__But sheâ€™s my daughter, Nisha thought. Shouldnâ€™t it matter to me? And realized with a shock that it didnâ€™t.
__Arun shrugged himself into his shirt and went out. She followed, going downstairs and into the tiny courtyard at the back of the house to brush her teeth in the outdoor sink. She was the only one who used the sink for this purpose; the rest just spat suds of toothpaste into the drain, where it congealed. Arunâ€™s mother always inspected the sink pointedly, so Nisha cleaned it when sheâ€™d finished, not that cleaning made much impression on its pitted, slimy surface. Most of the little black stone chips in the grey cement had been ground away by daily hard use, leaving a mass of tiny craters full of slime and dirt like the skin of some obscene fish-eating coral. She could hear Arun calling for his breakfast. Usually she made it and his mother served him, but everything was upside down this morning. She went into the kitchen to find her mother-in-law frying eggs. Without a word Ma thrust a plate of toast into Nishaâ€™s hand and motioned her into the hall. Arun was sitting there, pinning down errant sheets of newsprint with both hands under the fanâ€™s breeze. She put the toast down on the table and began to butter it.
__â€˜I may be late back from the office,â€™ he said, biting into a piece of toast as she buttered another. â€˜Youâ€™re to stay indoors, do you hear? God knows how long itâ€™ll take to get you looking like a human being again. I donâ€™t even want you showing yourself on the porch. Weâ€™ll be a laughing stock among the neighbours. Look at you! Why have you taken off your earrings? Donâ€™t you know they belonged to my grandmother?â€™
__â€˜They looked strange with … without my hair,â€™ she faltered.
__Arunâ€™s look was cold yet curiously smug, as though he had expected no other answer. â€˜Why donâ€™t you wipe off the vermilion streak and wear a white sari as well? That would be very stylish. You could pose for fashion plates.â€™
__To her shame she felt tears invade her eyes.
__Mamoni ran into the room, holding the ends of her scarf high above her head like wings. She frowned when she saw her mother. â€˜Whereâ€™s Didua?â€™
__â€˜In the kitchen.â€™ Mamoni ran in with a shriek of delight. Nisha could hear her mother-in-law talking to the child in her special childâ€™s voice. Once again, for the millionth time, she wished she could unbend with the girl like that, but something always stopped her, a kind of shrinking into herself. With a start she realized that Arunâ€™s plate was empty and she was sitting idle, butter dripping onto the table from her knife. She bent her head to her task.
__The doorbell rasped. Her mother-in-lawâ€™s voice exploded from the kitchen. â€˜Kamala! That woman! Sheâ€™s late again. Late! Moni! O Moni! Open the door, will you? Iâ€™ll give her a piece of my mind, thinks she can walk in at all hours and weâ€™ll wait on her whims …â€™
__Arun grimaced as Nisha dropped the knife on the table, making a butter smudge, and scurried to the door. She wrenched at the latch (the padlock was left off for an hour in the morning to let the various morning staff go in and out) and threw the door open.
__It was Kamala all right. Her thin-lipped mouth fell open as she took in the sight of Nisha, her shining head, the sari slipping on to her shoulders.
__Arunâ€™s mother rushed out of the kitchen, spatula in hand. â€˜Kamala! Stop staring at the foolish girl. See what she has done! See!â€™
__â€˜Who of yours has died?â€™ Kamala asked, her eyes still wide.
__â€˜No one,â€™ said Nisha, before her mother-in-law could stop her. Arunâ€™s voice cut in, â€˜Moni is ill, Kamala, donâ€™t bother her with questions.â€™
__Kamala gave them all a very odd look and went into the kitchen without a word. Arunâ€™s mother glowered at them both. â€˜Donâ€™t put ideas into that womanâ€™s head. You know everything she hears gets retailed all over the neighbourhood.â€™
__â€˜Would you rather tell her the truth?â€™ Arun fastidiously picked up the smeared knife from the table and handed it to his mother. â€˜Please wash this. Iâ€™d ask Moni, but sheâ€™d have to go in the kitchen …â€™
__â€˜What shall we tell people then? Your father is yet to come back from his club. Moni, go and look if you can see him … oh, forget it. Sit down. Oh this will be the death of me.â€™ She shook her head mournfully. â€˜What to tell people? Everyone knows she has no near relations except her mother. Young people these days are so â€œliberatedâ€ they donâ€™t even shave their heads for their fathers when they die, and everyone knows Nishaâ€™s father is long dead. What can we say? Who will believe?â€™
Nisha let herself fade into the background. She was used to being talked about as if she was not there. Head bowed, she stared blankly at Arunâ€™s half-eaten breakfast as Arun toyed with his toast. He pushed his plate away. â€˜Iâ€™m late, Ma. Nisha, you stay indoors today, and see no one, you hear? Weâ€™ll talk about this in the evening. Ma, donâ€™t worry. It will all sort itself out.â€™
__â€˜Oh! You canâ€™t go without eating!â€™ His motherâ€™s eyes widened. â€˜Moni! You havenâ€™t buttered the toast. Quickly, quickly, or heâ€™ll go with an empty stomach! Those slave drivers wonâ€™t let him be even fifteen minutes late.â€™
__Glad to have something to do, she went back to her task, not letting her gaze stray from the knife in her hands. Shortly afterwards Arun left for work. She ate her own half-hearted breakfast and crept upstairs. There she sat and stared out of the window, waiting for the creak of the front door that would announce Kamalaâ€™s departure.
__She shut her eyes. If she had known it would feel like this she would never have allowed it. It was not her hair but a layer of skin that had been scraped from her body, leaving her open to things that had scrabbled in vain for her heart till now. How simple an act it had seemed then, just a gesture to please a childâ€™s whim â€” no, she should have realized the implications of what she was doing. Why had she not? She could see now what a terrible blow it was, to her husband, to his mother, even to Mamoni. Was her identity as wife of the household so loosely set upon her shoulders that she could mislay it in a fit of absentmindedness, like a torn shawl? She raised a hand automatically to smooth her hair and jerked it back when she felt skin against skin. Already the needle points of new hair were embedded like ground glass in her head, though they were yet to pierce the skin. She could hardly endure the touch of the pillow. Restlessly she paced the narrow gap by the bed, not caring that she bumped her knees on the heavy wooden sidebeams of it.
__She heard voices downstairs; Haru Doctor had come to give Mamoni her certificate excusing her from school; the school frowned on head-shaving, alta, bangles, earrings â€” all the things indispensable to a young girl growing up, to her mother-in-lawâ€™s indignation. Mamoniâ€™s appearance sans hair would mean another meeting with the principal. Arunâ€™s mother got around these irksome regulations by the simple expedient of feeding Haru Doctor â€˜like a daughterâ€™s husbandâ€™ every time he dropped in, and extracting bogus health certificates when necessary. This time her fish fries would get Mamoni a week of official fever. Once the haze of fine black down softened the creamy tan of her scalp she would not stand out so much in the line of little girls. With luck she might go unnoticed.
__Nisha took care not to come down till she was sure Haru Doctor had gone.
Arunâ€™s parents were sitting on the broken down sofa when she finally crept down the stairs. Arunâ€™s mother had her embroidery spread out on her lap; a pinafore for Mamoni on which she was appliquÃ©ing a picture of Mickey Mouse. â€˜Come, here, Moni,â€™ she said, patting the dun-coloured cloth beside her. â€˜Are you angry because I shouted? Silly girl; you are such a child.â€™ She stroked Nishaâ€™s back, then carefully arranged Nishaâ€™s sari to cover her head. â€˜Wear it like that for now. And Moni, for the next month or so wear those wide bordered tants I gave you, they will cover you nicely. There! Now you look like a proper Bengali Bou.â€™ She sighed. â€˜I shouldnâ€™t have sent you with Mamoni. Tch. Not everyone can do everything.
You grew up in abroad, with no brothers and sisters; you never learnt how to manage children. Next time Iâ€™ll go. Iâ€™ll make Kamala stay and Iâ€™ll take Mamonshona myself. Donâ€™t worry, your hair will grow back. But for now, we will look so foolish to the neighbours! Theyâ€™ll be laughing at you. And what will I tell them then? What face will I show? You know I hate them to have a chance to speak badly of you. That is only why I was angry.â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™m sorry Ma, I … I should have known better. It was so silly of me. Iâ€™ll … stay indoors and make sure no one sees.â€™
__Ma sighed. â€˜Iâ€™m afraid Kamala will make that impossible. Itâ€™s probably all over the para now. I will just have to stay home and avoid them all for a while.â€™ She broke a thread with her teeth. â€˜Provided I can stop them coming to see me.â€™ Nisha knew how much her little trips around the para to see her friends meant to Ma.
__Nisha glanced at Baba. Normally when he came back from the club he was full of politics, which he made a point of retailing to her because she had education. The talk was making him uncomfortable; he had buried himself in the paper and had forgotten to take off his white canvas shoes. She wondered if she should point it out.
__â€˜We must do a puja,â€™ said Ma with sudden decision, â€˜to avert any evil that might come from your action. Are you listening?â€™ Nisha knew the last comment was for Baba to pay heed.
__â€˜Puja!â€™ Baba sounded thunderstruck behind the sports news. â€˜What for?â€™ Then he pointed angrily to the paper. â€˜This English Prime Minister has had another son. Another! The fourth! And they come here and preach to us about population control! What Indian wouldnâ€™t give his right arm to have four sons?â€™
__Nisha kept quiet. She had once made the mistake of objecting when he had come home and announced that AIDS was a hoax put about by America to discredit the Third World; she had learnt then that her job was to listen; that was what her education was for. Occasionally she would be asked to clarify a fact or supply some tidbit of information, but the opinions were non-negotiable. In the beginning she had tried, but she soon realized that she was hurting Baba by questioning his judgement, and that was not to be borne.
__Ma sniffed. â€˜They are all hypocrites. Listen, we must have a puja. We will tell the neighbours that Nisha has sacrificed her hair to the goddess so that Arun will have a son next time. Yes!â€™ Her eyes shone with the joy of having found this brilliant stratagem. â€˜A Kali Puja. You must tell the priest to drop by so I can make all the arrangements.â€™
__Baba grunted. His opinion of pujas was less than complimentary, and he usually handed over the priestâ€™s portion with an angry glare of affronted rationality. â€˜Bloodsuckers!â€™ he would mutter for half a day afterwards. But his objections never extended as far as forbidding his wife her observances. To him they were an unpleasant necessity, like income tax. Then he said, â€˜Kali Pujas are expensive and the priests are always high on ganja. Canâ€™t you do something more civilized? A Lakshmi Puja?â€™
__â€˜Donâ€™t be silly, no one sacrifices their hair to Lakshmi.â€™
__â€˜Well, canâ€™t you just go to Kalighat and do it there?â€™
__Inwardly Nisha cringed. She hated Kalighat; she had been there only once to have her bangles consecrated before the marriage, and the dirt and noise and the crowds had oppressed her. She hoped Ma would refuse.
__â€˜You always make a fuss about my pujas. Do you think Iâ€™m getting in a taxi with Moni looking like that? Everyone will see!â€™
__Baba pursed his lips. â€˜If you can manage the puja in under three thousand rupees, then fine. I still havenâ€™t paid off Bara Kaka for our trip to Digha last year. Do you think I have a money tree? Now Iâ€™m going to get the dry groceries.â€™ And he flung down the paper and stamped off. Nisha sat and stroked Maâ€™s back as she buried her face in Mamoniâ€™s half finished frock.
__Mamoni came running. â€˜Didua! Didua! What has happened? Why are you crying?â€™ She patted her grandmotherâ€™s shoulders; Ma flung her arms around the child. Mamoni squealed, â€˜Iâ€™ll tickle you! Iâ€™ll tickle you!â€™ Soon they were laughing and chattering, heads together.
__Nisha picked up the embroidery and folded it carefully away.
Donâ€™t flinch, she told herself. Look straight. Youâ€™ve done this hundreds of times. Why should it be so hard now?
__â€˜Hurry up with that mirror, I need to comb my hair,â€™ said Arun, struggling into his pants.
__She stood motionless, her hand with the sindoor-laden comb poised above her bare skull. All she had to do was draw the thin red line along the parting of her hair that defined her as a married woman. This had been her morning ritual now for six years. Yet her hand was stuck fast as though the joints had been frozen in place. Of course, now there was no parting. All there would be was a thin red line marking something that was gone.
__Arun came up behind her and tapped her playfully on the shoulder. â€˜Statue!â€™ he yelled. â€˜Now Iâ€™ve broken the spell. You can put your sindoor on and let me get …â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™m not going to.â€™
__â€˜Now where did I leave … What?â€™
__â€˜I said Iâ€™m not going to put this stuff on.â€™
__â€˜Why not, woman?â€™ he exploded.
__â€˜It looks silly.â€™
__â€˜Yes, you said. Well you should have thought about that then, no? Surely you had the imagination to see that sindoor on a bald head looks weird? But women donâ€™t wear the stuff to look nice; I hope you appreciate that basic fact? Not that I care, but donâ€™t you think you should avoid hurting Ma till your hair grows again? After which problem solved, of course.â€™
__â€˜No?â€™ Arunâ€™s face darkened in the mirror. â€˜What do you mean, no?â€™
__She turned sharply, sindoor from the open box in her hand spraying across the bed. â€˜I donâ€™t see why there should be any pride in wearing a glorified nerve toxin!â€™
__â€˜Do you know what is in this stuff?â€™
__â€˜In it? Itâ€™s sindoor, thatâ€™s whatâ€™s in it. Look at the mess youâ€™ve made. Go and fetch a cloth. And stop behaving in this ridiculous fashion. I really have no time for this. Who told you itâ€™s toxic anyway?â€™
__â€˜Shall I analyse it and show you?â€™
__He stared at her. Then slowly his lips twisted. â€˜How could I forget you have a degree in chemistry? No, Madam Lady Scientist, that will not be necessary. Iâ€™ll take your word for it over the experience of millions â€” billions â€” of Indian women whoâ€™ve been proud to wear sindoor as a sign of marriage. Obviously you know better than them. Anyway, Iâ€™m not asking you to eat the blasted stuff. Just put it on, like a good girl. And give this bedcover for washing. Maâ€™ll have a fit when she sees it. Look, Iâ€™ll do it for you. Iâ€™m supposed to put it on, arenâ€™t I?â€™ He took the comb from her and drew a ragged line on her bowed head with the sindoor-powdered back of it, marking the partition of right and left hemispheres. â€˜There. Remember when I put it on for you first? When we were married, but that was in front of everyone. And in Ooty, on our honeymoon. You were so naÃ¯ve then.â€™ He sighed. â€˜Sometimes I think you havenâ€™t learnt a thing. Now clean the bed; Iâ€™ve got to rush. Tell Ma to set my breakfast out.â€™
__She went downstairs with the soiled bedcover. As she crouched in the bathroom, scratching at the red stains with a stiff plastic brush that hurt her fingers, Ma poked her head around the door. â€˜You know what?â€™ she beamed. â€˜Baba has agreed to let us hire a luxury car to go to Kalighat! With curtains, so no one can gawk at you. Weâ€™ll do the puja and tell everyone that Kali has blessed you. You will certainly have a son next time. Weâ€™re going tomorrow; you must get Mamoni up and dressed by seven. You know she loves going to the temple, and she needs some new bangles …â€™ Maâ€™s voice receded down the corridor as she hurried back to the kitchen, so engrossed in the thought of her outing that she hadnâ€™t even noticed the ruined bedclothes. Nisha gave a guilty start; she had forgotten to tell her to set out Arunâ€™s breakfast. Stuffing the wet bedcover into a bucket, she ran to the kitchen after her mother-in-law.
The car was an ancient Ambassador, and belonged to a former colleague of Babaâ€™s who had fallen on hard times. Officially Baba was â€˜borrowingâ€™ the car; money would change hands only in some ethereal and unobtrusive way, decently covered by a manila envelope. â€˜Thereâ€™s no car like an Ambassador,â€™ Baba proclaimed, thumping the seat. â€˜Fits seventeen at a pinch, can be fixed by any roadside mechanic, tough as a camel. Eh? Where will you get legspace like this? All these newfangled cars, they look like frogs, you can dent them with your thumb, they go phut in two years. This is the only car for us.â€™ And he looked proudly out of the windscreen over the little green plastic trishul that wobbled on the dashboard on its spring.
__Nisha tried not to fold up into a foetal position. The back and seat were rexine cloth stretched over a hard wooden frame which dug into the backs of her knees; the inside of the frame was filled with ancient prickly coconut husk and rusty springs that creaked. She could feel an ache start in the back of her neck, which was propped on the frame at the back, while her body bounced on the weak springs in the cavernous hollow below. Maâ€™s weight beside her had produced a declivity which threatened to fling Nisha into her lap every time they turned a corner. Baba, in front with Mamoni who had insisted on being propped up with a cushion so she could see over the dashboard, was giving directions. The front seat of the car was hazy with regurgitated exhaust. Faded green curtain turned the back seat into a murky cave.
__The car stopped in yet another traffic jam, on a humpbacked bridge. The brake discs groaned as the driver stamped on the pedal to stop the heavy car from sliding. The crumbling cement railing was just inches away from the door, and beyond that were the turbulent waters of a canal, an incredibly virulent grey-green. Naked children played, coating their bodies with slime as they jumped, shrieking, one after another from the parapet, then struggled back up to the line of garbage-walled hovels in order to jump again.
__â€˜Look Didua, they are playing!â€™
__â€˜Yes, Mamoni, but you must never do that.â€™
__Baba said, â€˜Amazing, no? Do not the little creatures feel any disgust? If we did that we would be dead in a week. But they thrive on it. Theyâ€™ve grown in it from birth; they have become immuned.â€™
__Nisha felt her jaw move before she could stop herself. â€˜We think they are because their deaths donâ€™t get mentioned in the Statesman personal columns.â€™ But then she decided she must have imagined the act of speaking, because no one reacted.
__The car began to move again. Nisha was stifled behind the thick curtain, which was drawn on her side. The city flickered crazily behind the flapping polyester. They lurched over a bump, and Nisha felt momentarily sick at the unaccustomed lightness of her head. She started to play a game with herself; an old game she had invented in childhood when she was given her first watch, an Omega. She promised herself to sit quietly for five minutes, after which she could have a peek out of the window. And for the five minutes after that, and then she could shift her position. Another five minutes and she could move her feet. In this way the time would pass. After all, even the worst ordeal was only a matter of time. As long as you were alive, time would pass. One way or the other.
__In five more minutes, she thought, I can scratch the itch on the back of my head.
â€˜Wonderful,â€™ said Duli Kakima. â€˜An excellent thing youâ€™ve done. Yes, itâ€™s high time the goddess gave you her blessing again.â€™
__â€˜Indeed,â€™ said Ma, with a cunning smile. â€˜Do you know I have been saving up to send them on holiday again? The seaside this time. My poor Arun gets no leisure here, heâ€™s so tired when he comes home in the evening. We will have to live without him somehow for a week or so, but itâ€™s all for the good, no? Anyway, Bouma doesnâ€™t do much around the house;
Iâ€™ll manage, as always, thereâ€™ll be no problem. Itâ€™s not good if the gap between the children is too wide; they told on TV yesterday.â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™ve always said you are a very thoughtful and considerate mother-in-law, Purnimadi. Who else would scrimp and save to send her son-and-wife on a second honeymoon? Youâ€™re an example to us all.â€™
__â€˜Itâ€™s good youâ€™re working so hard to teach her our ways,â€™ Shonali Mashi said. â€˜After all, she wasnâ€™t brought up like us. We were taught from girlhood how to behave with our in-laws. She hasnâ€™t had that training, poor thing. And to grow up in phoren, in such privileged surroundings …â€™ Shonali Mashi sighed. â€˜It must be so hard for her here with you, Purnima.â€™
__Nisha came in to serve the tea, her face almost hidden in her sari. The women exclaimed, â€˜Doesnâ€™t she look just the little Bouma! You look straight out of a Ray film, Moni. No, donâ€™t hide. Purnimadi, why isnâ€™t she wearing any jewelry? Only this little chain? Sheâ€™s looking like a widow!â€™
__Ma smiled a martyred smile. â€˜You know how she is about jewelry. These modern girls …â€™
__â€˜Nonsense, Purnima. My daughter-in-law is convent-educated and sheâ€™s delighted every time we give her jewelry. Itâ€™s got so she sulks if she doesnâ€™t get a necklace every puja. Girls are always girls. Donâ€™t try to tell me your Moni is some sort of saint. Sure she feels the urge, itâ€™s just that she doesnâ€™t want to embarrass you by asking for it. After all, only your Arun is working.â€™
__Maâ€™s large round eyes bulged a little more. â€˜Moni, go and put on that set I gave you last puja. The one with the red stones.â€™
__They watched her, too thin in the wide-bordered tant, cross the living room and go upstairs.
__Mamoni whirled round as Nisha pushed aside the curtain in the doorway. She was sitting on the bed, the contents of Nishaâ€™s costume jewelry boxes scattered around her. On her forehead a huge red bindi had been surrounded by various stick-on jewels. Her arms were laden with bangles.
__â€˜What are you doing, Mamoni?â€™
__The girl scooped up everything and dumped it in the box. â€˜Playing.â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™ve told you not to play with my jewelry. What happened to that necklace I gave you last Rother Mela?â€™
__Mamoni pouted. â€˜It broke.â€™
__â€˜Why didnâ€™t you tell me? Iâ€™d have got you another.â€™
__â€˜You always buy me such silly things! I donâ€™t want plastic beads. I want a real necklace, like this.â€™ She held up a string of cultured pearls.
__Nisha laughed, and held out her arms. â€˜All right. Iâ€™ll get you one.â€™ But Mamoni was unimpressed. â€˜Youâ€™ll only buy those pearly plastic ones. The paint flakes off. Do you think Iâ€™m a silly girl? I want real ones! Iâ€™ll look after them really well, I promise. Can I have these?â€™
__Nisha sat down on the bed next to her daughter. Mamoni earnestly took her motherâ€™s hands in her own. â€˜Please?â€™
__Nisha caught sight of them in the mirror. Two bald heads. Hers, with the wandering vermilion streak. Mamoniâ€™s with the silk scarf slipping off. She adjusted the scarf. Mamoni tossed her head impatiently.
__â€˜All right.â€™ She undid the clasp of the pearl necklace and slipped it round her daughterâ€™s neck. Mamoniâ€™s eyes sparkled. â€˜Youâ€™re a lovely Mummy!â€™ she cried, flinging her arms around Nisha. Nisha tried to hold her, but Mamoni squirmed like a puppy in her motherâ€™s arms, then looked up and laughed. Some of her stick jewels had transferred themselves to her motherâ€™s neck; Nisha picked them off and returned them to her daughterâ€™s forehead. Mamoni dashed to the mirror to adjust the pattern.
__â€˜Mamoni,â€™ Nisha said to the little back, stiff with concentration. â€˜Would you like to go on a trip with me?â€™
__â€˜Where?â€™ she asked, frowning as she teased a crescent-shaped jewel into the middle of her forehead.
__â€˜Oh, just anywhere. Weâ€™d pack our bags and go down to the station and buy tickets for whatever train is leaving, go wherever it takes us. Would you like that?â€™
__Mamoni thought about it. â€˜How would we know itâ€™s a nice place itâ€™s taking us to?â€™
__â€˜We wouldnâ€™t know until we got there.â€™
__â€˜What if it wasnâ€™t a nice place?â€™
__â€˜We could come back.â€™
__Mamoni made a face. â€˜That doesnâ€™t sound like fun. Iâ€™d rather go to Poonamâ€™s and watch Kaho Na Pyar Hai. Anyway, Daddy hates wandering around. Heâ€™d complain and complain and complain.â€™
__â€˜Yes he would, wouldnâ€™t he?â€™ Nisha smiled a little. â€˜But we could leave him behind.â€™
__â€˜Could we take Didua?â€™
__â€˜We could. But she canâ€™t walk very far, you know? And sheâ€™d miss Dadu.â€™
__â€˜Can we take Poonam?â€™
__â€˜Why not just you and me?â€™
__Mamoni put her head on one side. â€˜But if Daddy doesnâ€™t come, who will call the taxi and fight with the coolies and tell the beggar children to go away?â€™
__â€˜Moni? Moni? Where is she now? Canâ€™t ask her to do the simplest thing without … Moni! Everybodyâ€™s waiting. See I had to come looking for you leaving everybody waiting? Hurry up now. Oh you useless girl Iâ€™ll get it out for you. Where are the keys? Never will you save my face before that poisonous Shonalidi! Thinks sheâ€™s so great just because her son works for some foreign company. There! Now put it on and come downstairs. And then make some more tea. Really, you must make an effort, Moni. This is too much.â€™
__Not looking at herself in the mirror, Nisha jabbed the thick wires through her ears and struggled with the screw-thread stops. The necklace pricked her neck. One of the bangles bent as she tried to force it over her large square hand; she turned it so the distortion was towards her. Ma would notice anyway. Pulling her sari back over her head, she went downstairs.
â€˜Well?â€™ Arun said finally. â€˜What was it you wanted to say?â€™
__She looked out across the crumbling rooftops. Arun had come home early. She had asked him to come up on the roof, not knowing why she asked, fully expecting him to refuse and get started on Mamoniâ€™s homework. But he had agreed, and thrown her into an abrupt seizure of thought as he led her upstairs, dangling the heavy key between his inkstained fingers. The fresh warm air had shocked her senses; tenderly he had placed her sari over her naked head to protect her from the last of the afternoon sun and the curiosity of the neighbours. They stood now by the low parapet wall. With a kind of idiot precision, her eye took note of the lines of drunken TV antennae marching silently into the sky.
__â€˜Why did you marry me?â€™
__Arunâ€™s brow furrowed. â€˜What sort of a question is that? I thought it was something important.â€™
__â€˜Well, yes, but I would have thought the answerâ€™s obvious. I mean, itâ€™s not as though youâ€™ve suddenly discovered some mystery about it.â€™
__â€˜Oh, all right.â€™ The singsong lilt of exasperation entered his voice, the tone she realized she dreaded. â€˜There I was, in Maâ€™s opinion old enough to carry the family torch, and no one to complete my life and hers. So out came the Statesman matrimonials. And there you were, third column, fourth ad. The seventh girl we tried. Right caste, good background. And then of course we met at your house, and a month later we went to Fluryâ€™s with Mashimoni. Remember? And the rest, as they say, is history.â€™ He smiled with half his mouth, and picked at an ancient gob of wax left over from some Diwali on the cracked brick surface.
__â€˜But you said … you said I was different.â€™
__â€˜Of course. Otherwise why do you think we chose you?â€™
__â€˜No, afterwards … in Ooty. On our honeymoon. You said …â€™
__â€˜Oh for godâ€™s sake thereâ€™s no need to quote all that stuff.â€™
__â€˜You seem to have forgotten. Arun … do you remember what you said then? About your life? About freedom? You said my difference could be your life preserver. You said you were sick and tired of … of being Arun Sen of Senbati, S.M. Mitra Lane. You said you wanted me to help you be someone else, someone you could admire. You were attracted to my … my ignorance, I now realize, but then you said it was my freshness. That I didnâ€™t and couldnâ€™t know the world you came from, what you call its rules and regulations. I thought you wanted that from me, that way of looking at things, and now …â€™
__â€˜Oh, Nisha, Nisha, you still remember all that? That was years ago. Weâ€™re all older now. Now we have responsibilities, a place in the world. Why are you thinking like this? Arenâ€™t you happy here?â€™
__â€˜You have a nice secure home, a lovely daughter, a mother-in-law who works hard to spare you and wonâ€™t hear a word against you, youâ€™re free from want and worry, you have all we could give you even if weâ€™re not as well off as your father once was, but you knew that, even then.â€™
__â€˜And a husband?â€™
__He laughed. â€˜Of course. Without me you wouldnâ€™t have all these things, would you?â€™
__She lowered her head, feeling the weight of the sari against her ear. He went on, â€˜You have all the freedom we could give you. Yes, I admit we havenâ€™t seen the world like you, we live in our own small way, we know so little, but weâ€™re kind. Doesnâ€™t that count? Your father said the heart was more important than …â€™
__â€˜Arun, what is there in your heart for me?â€™
__He smiled, put an arm around her and drew her close. Perhaps here on the rooftop in the heat of the afternoon he felt less constrained in showing her affection. â€˜My neri,â€™ he murmured, patting her sari-covered head. â€˜My baldie. Of course youâ€™re different. Who else would do a thing like that?â€™
__She jerked convulsively, breaking his grip, â€˜Donâ€™t patronize me!â€™
__They stared at each other. â€˜So,â€™ he said slowly, â€˜thatâ€™s what you think Iâ€™m doing.â€™
__She felt the tears pricking deep behind her eyes. â€˜No! No, Arun, Iâ€™m trying so hard to understand. Iâ€™m trying, but I canâ€™t! I canâ€™t!â€™
__He sighed. â€˜What more must I do, tell me? You know I canâ€™t leave my family. Thatâ€™s what you want, isnâ€™t it? Do you really think that would make you happy? I canâ€™t turn away from them, they have no one else. Ma … sheâ€™s suffered so much. Only now Iâ€™m beginning to earn enough for her little luxuries. Would you take them away from her? I know sheâ€™s not elegant like your mother, but sheâ€™s spent her whole life scrimping and saving. She never had the chance to learn how to be elegant or to have taste. And Baba, he worked so hard for his parents. Without him my aunts would never have been married as well as they were. You know Maâ€™s family was richer than his, but still she settled down, lived as we lived; she never grudged her husbandâ€™s family their share. Canâ€™t you do the same?â€™
__â€˜And become like that?â€™
__He cocked his head on one side. â€˜Whatâ€™s got into you, Nisha? Are you angry about what Ma said when you came home with your head shaved? I explained to you; you shocked her deeply by what you did. Please try to see her point of view as well.â€™
__â€˜Thatâ€™s not it,â€™ she said dully. â€˜I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s it. Oh, why canâ€™t I shut my mind like I used to?â€™
__He turned away, rested his elbows on the wall. Not looking at her, he said flatly, â€˜Youâ€™re not happy here.â€™
__â€˜Arun, I am. Itâ€™s just …â€™
__â€˜Donâ€™t argue. Iâ€™m not a fool. If you have to â€œshut your mindâ€ to stay with us, this is the wrong place for you. We shouldnâ€™t keep you here. You should know Iâ€™m not that kind of man. Tell me, would you feel better if we moved out? You know Bhola next door is knocking down his house and putting up flats. I can book the first floor one. Weâ€™ll have our own house, and if Ma needs us she can just wave from the verandah. Yes, that would be a good solution. Can you wait just a couple of years? I promise you itâ€™ll happen. Just let me work out how much I can take from my PF …â€™
__â€˜You canâ€™t touch your PF,â€™ she said in a small voice. â€˜Ma said itâ€™s for Mamoniâ€™s wedding.â€™
__He grinned, and put his arm around her again. â€˜See, you can think like us, if you put your mind to it. All right then. Babaâ€™s LIC matures in three yearsâ€™ time. We can make the down payment from that. The rest Iâ€™ll pay from my salary. Anyway, this house is disputed. Who knows how long Ma and Baba can stay here? Then if we have our own place, they can come and stay with us. Wonâ€™t that be nice?â€™
__â€˜Thatâ€™s not the point.â€™
__He looked at her then, but the sari hid her face. â€˜Just what do you want, woman? Iâ€™m doing the best I can with the available resources. What do you expect me to do? Play the stock market? Iâ€™m just an ordinary office-goer. You know how much I make …â€™
__â€˜No! No! No!â€™
__He sighed, turned her round to face him. The sari slipped, exposing her grayish, stubbled scalp. He made a face, but did not replace it. She stared furiously at the top button of his shirt, aware that she could not meet his eyes. Where was her old courage? Only let me survive this, she thought. Only let me survive.
__â€˜Nisha, do you want a divorce?â€™
__She shut her eyes. No words came.
__She shook her head.
__â€˜Iâ€™ll admit it was a mistake if you will.â€™
__He shook her violently. â€˜Talk to me!â€™
__She gasped. Her head lolled, jerked out of balance, against his shoulder. He held her. She felt nothing, as if her body had soared out over the TV aerials and was being speared by the simultaneous broadcasting of the theme tune of the afternoon soap, shouting from a thousand electronic throats, â€˜Motherland! Motherland!â€™ She moaned, a long, unmeaning sound of despair. The wires on her head rasped against his throat. Electricity jabbered along her nerves, making pictures of impossible faces and worlds that broke into scanning lines talk to me to me to me to me … .
__â€˜Youâ€™re ill, Nisha, youâ€™re shaking. I think youâ€™re coming down with fever. No wonder youâ€™re spouting such nonsense. Come, Iâ€™ll help you down. Ma! Ma! … .â€™
__â€˜Let me go,â€™ she said, but the words never reached her throat.
She woke to find the sun shining in her eyes. She jerked upright. It must be past eight! Mamoni had to go … . Then she remembered Haru Doctor and the fish curry. They had respite till Monday; this was Saturday. Slowly she let her shoulders sink back, wincing as the pillow scraped her head.
__Foolishness, she thought. What else was there in life? She had no one. Mummy had enough problems. What was so bad about this? There had been worse in her life, hadnâ€™t there? Like the time when her father had disappeared without warning, just failed to come home one day, and her mother had cried all night, afraid that the Chinese had caught him. Sombre men in suits had come to see her; Nisha had been kept in her bedroom with the Malay maid. That was the first time she had heard the word â€˜intelligenceâ€™. Her father had come back, but she heard that word again, later, on occasions that chilled her heart, for she knew each time her mother would spend the days without him in a grey haze of fear. Even now, the word didnâ€™t mean to her what it meant to others. They thought it mean cleverness, but for her …
__â€˜Feeling better now?â€™
__It was Arun, bearing a cup of tea.
__â€˜Arenâ€™t you going to work?â€™
__â€˜Just on my way out. Thought Iâ€™d see how my neri was sleeping. Iâ€™ll be late back tonight. Itâ€™s Sutapaâ€™s birthday. She said to bring you too but I donâ€™t think youâ€™re up to it, and frankly I donâ€™t want to have to explain what happened to your hair.â€™ He laughed. â€˜Did you buy that present?â€™
__â€˜Yes, itâ€™s in the almirah locker.â€™
__He took it out and looked with amusement at the fancy wrappings, done with all the care of someone for whom even craft class had been a respite from monotony. â€˜I donâ€™t know why you bother. If I know Sutu sheâ€™ll be calculating the bhoris before the ribbons are off.â€™
__He left. They had put sugar in the tea again. She drank it anyway. Haru Doctor had left some antibiotics; listlessly she swallowed the morning dose. She wasnâ€™t sure what was supposed to be her malaise, but it had all been sorted out. She stared at the ceiling, trying to remember how to get up and dress. Another day to get through. Briefly she considered the option of going to Ma and begging for something to do, some little task. Anything to feel less useless. But she was supposed to be ill, and with Ma in this mood nothing she did would turn out right and Ma would insist on doing it all over again. She couldnâ€™t face that.
__Maybe she should spend more time with Mamoni. Yes, that was what she should do. She had made no effort to try and share the little girlâ€™s world, she told herself sternly, wrapped up as she was in her own miseries. She tried to remember how her own mother had been when she had been five. But all she could dredge up were the faces of servants; in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur. Impassive faces, speaking always English to her, other languages among themselves. She had not been a child but a responsibility, part of the state apparatus in a foreign land. How far from Mamoniâ€™s safe tight little shell, circumscribed within this tiny island of narrow alleys in the heart of the city, of giggly secrets about phuchkas and dollsâ€™ weddings among her five-year-old friends, all of them, even the non-Bengali ones, speaking Bangla. She had tried, before, to interest Mamoni in stories of the places she had seen, but they raised no echoes. â€˜Is that where Star TV comes from?â€™ one of Mamoniâ€™s friends had asked, and then they had gone back to their games. Places meant nothing for them, not even exotic locations in the latest Govinda film. The only place that could be interesting was here, because here they were. From cradle to grave, except they would have neither cradles nor graves. kantha to pyre, then. Here, never to leave, except to hop a handful of streets when the marriage party arrived and took them away.
__She got up and staggered to the bathroom. A roiling nausea held her throat. She vomited up a mixture of sticky sweet tea and bitter antibiotic. Her mouth felt raw. She washed away the mess, then stared blankly at the tap. The only drinking water was in the ancient water filter in the kitchen. She couldnâ€™t face going down there. She turned the tap on, drank from its trickle of yellowish water. She knew it was dangerous, but at the moment going down those narrow dark steps seemed worse than any disease she might catch. A dark, murky joy filled her. They said cholera killed quickly. A few hours of pain, and then peace.
__Donâ€™t be silly, she thought. Hardly anyone gets cholera these days.
__Carefully she dried her face and head. Quite certain she intended to go in search of Mamoni, she nevertheless found her steps turning towards the roof. She let her feet carry her up there, knowing fully well that the door would be locked. She could then touch the bars and come down again, and another five minutes would be gone. But she was wrong. The door was open.
__She stepped out into the sunlight, blinking. Kamala was there, snapping a wet sari in the wind, her mouth full of clothes pegs. Nisha watched her throw the saris over the rusty wire with a practised flick of her hand, then spread them out in double folds so that their ends were clear of the ground. Once they were fixed in place, she began putting up the smaller clothes, skewering each with a cheap plastic peg.
__â€˜Well, didi,â€™ she said, when the last peg was out of her mouth. â€˜Are you looking forward to your trip?â€™
__Kamala looked sly. â€˜Your … trip!â€™ she said, eyes big. â€˜With Dada. To the seaside. You know: honumoon!â€™
__â€˜Donâ€™t you know? Mashima is sending you two on a trip. Of course,â€™ she went on, â€˜you canâ€™t go looking like that. Whatâ€™s the point of a honumoon if the bride looks like sheâ€™s recently lost her suhag? People will give you funny looks. They might even think heâ€™s your second husband! People always say such things. Tch!â€™
__Nisha was aware that she was being got at in some fashion. â€˜I donâ€™t understand,â€™ she said helplessly. Kamala gave her a critical look. â€˜You know, with my Mantuâ€™s wife, I never let her take her alta off for the whole of the first year. Only when we had the third grandson did we let her sleep without her jewelry. Didi, why donâ€™t you let me give you a rub with cream and flour? Itâ€™ll do your skin a world of good. Look, if you go around looking like a dishrag how can you expect your husband to be interested in you? He comes home tired, and then thereâ€™s all the troubles of the house waiting for him. You need to make him feel heâ€™s come home. Take care of yourself. After all, youâ€™ve only got the dear little girl. The real work hasnâ€™t even begun.â€™
__â€˜Not you, too,â€™ Nisha mumbled.
__â€˜Iâ€™m telling you this for your own good,â€™ said Kamala in tones of reasonableness. Nevertheless, a spark in her eye said she was well aware that no wife â€” no real wife â€” would tolerate her speaking with such freedom. Kamala had very definite ideas on how the household should be run. Nisha had once, early on, bought a non-stick frying pan; Kamala had systematically scrubbed it because â€˜it was all blackâ€™. The pan was now used to feed the street cow that Ma maintained on vegetable peelings in the name of Ma Lakshmi. â€˜Iâ€™ve brought six sons into the world and I have more grandchildren than I can count. Didi, you must take yourself in hand. Why havenâ€™t you changed your sari?â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™m not well,â€™ Nisha mumbled, furious with herself for answering the question.
__â€˜Tch. He sees you like this every morning. Thatâ€™s all right if you have all your family, but you donâ€™t, do you? Youâ€™re throwing away your chances. Why donâ€™t you …â€™
__â€˜Stop it! Shut up!â€™
__Kamala stopped, shocked by the savagery of the words. Nisha rounded on her, her eyes huge with rage in her denuded face. â€˜Dishrag, you said? Itâ€™s taken me months to achieve it. Months of toil you canâ€™t imagine! You wait and see. Iâ€™ll destroy this body! Iâ€™ll be ashes, Iâ€™ll be dry twigs. Thereâ€™ll be nothing left for the rats and crows! Iâ€™ll leave nothing behind, they wonâ€™t even have my bones to suck the juice out of …â€™
__â€˜Didi, Didi!â€™ Kamala cried, backing off, â€˜You really arenâ€™t well. Wait here, Iâ€™ll call Mashima.â€™ And she bolted down the stairs.
Nisha stood silent among the billowing saris. Why did you go and do that? she asked herself. I only wanted to shut her up. And now god knows what sheâ€™s going to do.
__But its true, said a tiny voice inside her. If he touches me Iâ€™ll shrivel up like a leaf in a flame.
__No! she thought. Whatâ€™s wrong with me? Donâ€™t I love him? Hasnâ€™t he been good to me? He has.
__Then why do I feel like this? What has changed? Everything is the same. Why, we made love only two weeks ago, and he joked and laughed with me.
__He laughed, anyway.
__Why am I thinking like this? What has happened to my mind?
__Am I going mad?
__She waited for a long time, but no one came.
Arun sat on the park bench, watching the cigarette burn between his fingers. That was another thing they didnâ€™t know about, at home. He had thought once to tell Nisha, but she would have been shocked for different reasons. Best to keep quiet. That was always the easiest way out.
__He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, and half turned. â€˜Mrinalda.â€™
__â€˜I thought Iâ€™d find you here.â€™ Mrinalda sat down beside him; the fragile bench creaked under his weight. â€˜Youâ€™re too young to take up morning walks, my boy. What ails you?â€™
__â€˜Need you ask?â€™
__Mrinalda smiled slightly through his thick beard. â€˜These things happen. Sad, tragic, and all that, but one puts it behind one and moves forward. Thatâ€™s the only thing to do, at the end of the day.â€™
__â€˜Why did she do it?â€™
__â€˜I never ask questions like that.â€™ Mrinalda shook an admonitory finger. â€˜Something she saw on TV, some story she read, some desperate counsel from a so-called friend, who knows why women do these things? The key thing is, itâ€™s not your problem. You were not to blame.â€™
__â€˜Yes,â€™ said Arun bitterly. â€˜But that was only because you helped to hush it up.â€™
__Mrinal laughed, shaking prodigiously. â€˜Of course. Canâ€™t have the middle classes washing their dirty linen in the corporation hydrants. What would the dear bourgeoisie come to? Anyway, it was a simple case, just a question of a few papers. I promised you youâ€™d only have to appear in court once, didnâ€™t I? Youâ€™ve had a very narrow escape from notoriety. Just be thankful and donâ€™t expect me to hold your hand as well.â€™
__Arun lit another cigarette from the butt of the first. â€˜No, Mrinalda, itâ€™s not sympathy Iâ€™m looking for, but I want to understand. I mean, I had no idea things had got so bad. Apart from all that business of cutting off her hair. People donâ€™t take such steps on the spur of the moment.â€™
__â€˜Arun, youâ€™ve got to understand something about the world. I, as a lawyer, see the dirty side of life far too frequently for my own comfort, but Iâ€™ve evolved a defence against it. And that is: every morning as I face myself in the mirror, I tell myself, however dirty all those ugly bastards are, I am clean. I didnâ€™t make the world, and I wonâ€™t change it. I am responsible for my hands alone. What the hands of the rest of the world do is on their head. If you get my drift.â€™
__â€˜Bullshit!â€™ Arun jumped to his feet, scattering cigarette ash and sparks. â€˜We were responsible. We have to be! Otherwise nothing makes sense. I canâ€™t believe she did it just to spite us. We must have done something wrong.â€™
__â€˜What? You gave her a home, you loved her. Didnâ€™t you? You had a daughter. You could have had a son. You had a future. And now, put it behind you,â€™ said Mrinalda kindly. â€˜Youâ€™re still alive, you could have a future, you could find someone …â€™
__â€˜Mamoni needs a mother.â€™
__â€˜My mother is quite capable of looking after her.â€™
__â€˜All right, you need a wife.â€™
__â€˜You need someone who can share your life, your hopes, your values. Someone who wonâ€™t have to consciously try to fit in. And Nisha, whatever good qualities she may have had, and she had plenty, just wasnâ€™t your type.â€™
__â€˜I asked her first, I said, do you want to leave, and she …â€™
__â€˜Yes? What did she say?â€™
__â€˜Would you have agreed, had she answered yes?â€™
__â€˜I donâ€™t know … no one in our family had ever been divorced.â€™
__â€˜Rubbish, thereâ€™s that cousin of yours with the big teeth.â€™
__â€˜Yes, but she was brought up in Dehra Dun. And they married her off to a pilot. Ma said at the time it was a mistake. Everyone knows …â€™
__â€˜All right, all right, no one in your family of any importance had ever been divorced. But no oneâ€™d ever married a diplomatâ€™s daughter either. That was a bit ambitious of you, I think.â€™
__â€˜But they had no money. She had nowhere to go. It was a kindness really. Her father practically begged …â€™
__â€˜Well thereâ€™s your problem. Never trust a diplomat when he begs. Look at Pakistan …â€™
__â€˜Donâ€™t joke, Mrinalda! This is life and death weâ€™re talking about.â€™
__â€˜Melodrama doesnâ€™t suit you, Arun. Stop striking a pose.â€™
__â€˜Itâ€™s not funny, is what Iâ€™m saying.â€™
__â€˜OK, serious mood. But youâ€™ve got to make yourself understand: itâ€™s over. Itâ€™s finished. Thereâ€™s nothing you can do now. Thereâ€™s no point working out whether you were to blame or not, because you canâ€™t turn back the clock and undo whatever you did that was wrong. You now know the fundamental mistake you made; it was built in from the start. Now stop beating yourself over the head with it.â€™
__â€˜No, just practical. Like I told you, I see filth all day, every day. Try doing my job for a week. If I believed filth was important, Iâ€™d slit my own wrists. So I believe it isnâ€™t. And filth ceases to bother me, and I can do my job without puking my guts out. Nisha did a nasty thing to you. Shrug, and move on. Donâ€™t give her the added triumph of taking your peace of mind.â€™
__â€˜But what about what she went through? Can you imagine what that was like? I saw her face when …â€™
__â€˜Why are you wasting your sympathy on her? She made her choice. OK it was a hell of a choice, but it was hers and thereâ€™s nothing you can do about it. And so it ends. There can be nothing between you now. Let it go.â€™
__â€˜I canâ€™t forget her.â€™
__â€˜You have to.â€™
__â€˜Yes, but, suppose it happens again? With someone else? How will Ma stand that?â€™
__â€˜Look, there are plenty of girls whoâ€™d give their right arm to be married to a fine young man like you. Youâ€™re only thirty-five. Advertise again. And this time make sure itâ€™s someone from your own background.â€™
__â€˜Iâ€™d only get a divorcee or a widow or someone with some problem. Why should I want to marry one of them? I didnâ€™t do anything wrong. Why should I be punished?â€™
__â€˜Aha, youâ€™re thinking better, boy. Much better than trying to blame yourself. Listen, my Mamaâ€™s daughter is unmarried, sheâ€™s twenty-nine, sheâ€™s a doctor, has been studying all this while, they couldnâ€™t get around to it till she qualified. Everyone says sheâ€™s too old now. Want me to put in a word?â€™
__â€˜A doctor! Iâ€™m only a B. Com. Ma wouldnâ€™t like it. Sheâ€™d want her daughter-in-law to stay at home.â€™
â€˜Yes but think of the money. I know youâ€™re not too well off. Itâ€™s just your income and your dadâ€™s pitiful pension. Once your mother realizes what two incomes mean to your household, sheâ€™ll come round.â€™
__â€˜Yes,â€™ said Arun slowly, â€˜and we could think of making the down payment on that flat …â€™
__â€˜See? Never say no to life.â€™
__â€˜Whatâ€™s the catch?â€™
__â€˜Damn you, Mrinalda, why would she want to marry me?â€™
__â€˜Er … she has leucoderma. But not so youâ€™d notice. I mean …only youâ€™d know. Mainly.â€™
__Arun made a face and lit another cigarette with shaking hands. â€˜You bastard.â€™
__â€˜Just trying to be helpful.â€™ Mrinal slapped his knees. â€˜So Iâ€™ll be off then. Iâ€™ll tell my Mama to call up your dad and arrange a time. She has duty every day except Wednesday. Wednesday evening should be about right.â€™
__â€˜Hang on, I havenâ€™t said yes.â€™
__â€˜No … I mean, I need to think about it.â€™
__â€˜You do that.â€™ Mrinal brushed the dust off the seat of his pajamas. â€˜See you around.â€™
__He was almost on the corner when Arun called after him, â€˜Mrinalda! Whatâ€™s her name?â€™
__â€˜Bonolota. Talk about poetic justice.â€™
__â€˜Oh.â€™ Arun smiled. â€˜Thanks.â€™
__â€˜Donâ€™t mention it.â€™
__Arun stubbed out the cigarette, dusted himself off and headed home.
Here is a review of City of Love in the Deccan Herald by S. Nanda Kumar. A fairly intelligent and perceptive appraisal. This is how I hope the intelligent layman will react to the book.
Past Continuous, Neel Mukherjee, Picador India 2008, Rs 495, ISBN 978-0-330-45150-5
I had to read this book twice to come to terms with it. This is partly because I was there for so much of the lived experience that the book was born from, and partly because it rips the skin off things with such breathtaking savagery. It is strange to think that Neel, gentle Neel, has such fires in him, and yet it makes sense, because of the circumstances of his life here. Anyone who came in contact with him could feel the steel of a singleminded resolve under both the fluff and the exalted (if slightly precious) intellectual rigor. That resolve is the same he gives his protagonist in this book: an all-consuming desire to escape. Having touched that desire myself, I know how strong it is, and how weak as well, how close-ended if unsupported by positive purposes.
I once sent Neel a story I had written in 2000, just after my divorce. He wrote back to say the story ‘made him shiver’. Just why and how is something I have understood fully now, after reading this book. I also now understand, afresh, the basis for the camaraderie we shared some twenty years ago, or rather that part of the basis that did not rest on literature and reading. The Bengali middle class and its lifestyle, to those who are even a tiny bit foreign to it, gives the impression of being a gigantic, ongoing, enormous crime. This crime only occasionally erupts into overt violence or wrong-doing; equally important are the little evils, the small injustices and petty deprivations of which its clinging fabric is woven. Neel and I both hated it with visceral passion, but Neel was more unfortunate than I, in that he lived in closer proximity to it, and it had, whether he liked it or no, played its part in moulding him. Accordingly, he was sometimes more vicious than I against its standard-bearers, but with reason (We must have been quite intimidating as students. No wonder everyone gave us a wide berth).
Neel left when we were in the first year of the MA course at JU; everyone agreed that the UK would be infinitely better for him than India. He was not then formally out; but it was clear that no straight man could be so surrounded by beautiful women all the time as Neel always was. There was furthermore a piquancy in the mindboggling contrast between Neel himself, erudite, la-di-la, poised and stunningly beautiful, and the squalor and haphazard beastliness of life in the tiny flat in the lanes behind Jadavpur that he shared with people that seemed to have stepped off a different planet. By the time I knew him, Neel had learned to play up this contrast with acid humour and finely tuned mockery, both qualities that sparkle in his writing. Perhaps if I had been more mature, more perceptive at the time, I would have appreciated the journey necessary to get from this stifling world, spite-poisoned and forever teetering on the knife-edge of screaming drama, to what Neel had made of himself. In this book, a tortured bildungsroman about a boy called Ritwik whose life begins in the same Bengali lower middle class cul-de-sac as Neel’s but diverges along the way, Neel has finally, heroically, exorcised his ghosts.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
What he’s done in this book is compile, point by meticulous point, a case against that way of life and its entourage of iniquities. In doing this he has stuck, with sometimes painful exactitude, to the facts. This is what makes it hard for me to read the book entirely as fiction, as if I’m continually afflicted with double vision as I read. Perhaps to offset this grinding factuality, he has woven another strand of narrative into the ‘real life’ story of Ritwik. Ritwik, like his creator, is writing, or attempting to write, a novel. This is the story of Miss Gilby, a peripheral character in Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, made by Satyajit Ray into a film) whom Ritwik makes the central character in his incomplete work. Passages from Ritwik’s novel interleave his ‘real life’ story; they are told in a more stately, lapidary style and are set in a different, nineteenth-centuryish font. As he writes this novel, Ritwik moves to the UK, escaping, like his creator, from an intolerable life that will not let him go: in Oxford he struggles, through study and random sexual encounters with strange men, to come to terms both with his past and its legacy. Freed at last from the outward tyranny of Bengali morality, he still has to vanquish his own guilt and conditioning.
But primarily, what the story deals with is the loss of innocence. In spite of all his tortured self-discovery, Ritwik remains the sheltered boy from Calcutta, who, when picked up by a wealthy and dangerous man in London, persists in questioning him where a less innocent being would have shut up and done as he was told. Perhaps it is this innocence that attracts this powerful protector to him. But in the end, it is this quality that finishes Ritwik; an inability to believe in the dangers of the wider world. All his life, it has been the people closest to him that have hurt him; he appears touchingly unable to conceive of strangers wanting to do so. The horror of the end can perhaps only be appreciated by people who have faced racism as small children; another place where the narrative touched a chord in me. Ritwik is so involved in his own innocence, it is so much a part of him, that he cannot survive its loss. Unlike Miss Gilby, whose story (and not Ritwik’s) closes the book, he cannot see the mechanism in which he is caught and mangled. Perhaps, also, this is because of his inability to ‘see beyond the margins of his own shadow’. He has the self-absorption of the very young, but the world will make no allowances for it. His mother, having beaten a craven dependence into him when he was very young, has left him profoundly orphaned with her death, and throughout the book he searches for parent-substitutes: Anne Cameron, whom he lovingly tends in spite of her crotchetiness, and Zafar al Hashm himself, who explicitly associates Ritwik with his curly-haired son. But al Hashm exploits him sexually, and Anne Cameron has little emotional reserve to spare for him.
Although there are many errors in the book, factual and stylistic, these are only errors, not blemishes. What I mean is, though the grammar is sometimes awkward and occasionally plain wrong, nevertheless the spell is not broken, and the story pulls you on with its relentless seeking, its rich texture of flashback and encounter, of chance crossings and bad luck. The characters are complex and evoke a nicely varied graph of reactions in the reader: none are wholly likeable, but they are interesting in their angular strangeness. This might, partly, have something to do with the author’s habit of drawing from the life. One does, moreover, get the feeling that this book is THE book for the author; this is the story that has been roasting on a slow flame for many years in his head, and subsequent stories, if he writes them, may bring a sense of anticlimax with them. But that is a risk the author must take.
The most endearing thing about the book is its honesty. It goes into Ritwik’s life with a searchlight, and it does not spare him when it dissects his motives to stay on in the UK, or the little deceits he practices on his friends out of shame at his origins, his poverty. Neither does it sentimentalise his experience of abuse or his long struggle with its residue; Ritwik’s similarity to the author does not get him off the authorial hook. Refreshingly free of the mawkishness that so often marks ‘diasporic’ writing, Past Continuous insists that Ritwik’s excuses for escaping be given only as much weight as they deserve. The UK is neither inherently better nor worse: it is different, and its difference perhaps suits Ritwik better than home. Ritwik himself feels no sense of exaltation on reaching Oxford; this is no city of dreaming spires. For him, the Paradiso of Nirad C. Chaudhuri is faulty heating and the public toilets at St Giles.
In this first decade of the twenty first century, when the balance of cultural power seems slowly to be tipping between us and them, we may be ready for this cold-eyed perspective on the NRI predicament, although I cannot somehow see an Indian publisher jumping at the chance to produce a book like this. It would immediately have been dismissed as too ‘literary’ by an Indian publisher, and the author sent away to trim fifty thousand words off it. It is good to see that the UK still has publishers with a bit of integrity who are willing to gamble on a risky first book. Having said that, Picador India would do well to let go of its obsession with uniformly hideous covers. Whoever put the little blue parentheses on the cover should be shot at dawn. The cover photo, of Ginsberg in Calcutta looking like a Bengali babu, is interesting but irrelevant and rather sells the book short.
Finally, why do publishers always send out defective copies for review? So far most of the review hardbacks I have been sent have been missing pages. This book too had sixteen pages gone and one forme repeated. Are publishers so cynical that they believe reviewers never read the books anyway, so why waste a perfect copy?
Be that as it may, the launch of Past Continuous is on Friday, 15 February, at Crossword Bookstore, at 6pm. Amit Chaudhuri and I will be in conversation with the author.
Here are some more wacky images from the Kala Ghoda festival, and from my rambles around Bombay. To a Calcuttan, Bombay’s north-south orientation feels like home, and the density of the city’s heart contrasts with the Dil of Dilli, which has many empty spaces.
If you venture into the areas around Connaught Place in Delhi, for example, you will feel like you’ve stepped off the brightly lit, meticulously crafted stage into the wings, and that you’re now surrounded by the odds and ends, ropes and pulleys, scaffolding and frameworks that hold the whole thing up, and moreover you’ll realise what a facade it is.
Although Delhi has moments of grace and beauty, particularly when you round a corner and find, nestled between swank shops and massive apartment blocks, some gem of medieval India by an ancient kund, none of it feels particularly loved. There is always a faintly forlorn pall over everything, like an office after everyone’s gone home.
Bombay by contrast feels lived in, and it doesn’t feel as if bits of it are at war with each other. Students of an art college recreated the Bombay skyline in this installation, using bathroom drain covers on wire frameworks to simulate buildings; this installation was called ‘City of Lights’. As the day progressed, the changing angle of the sunlight created different effects on the steel.
Pace Raj Thackeray, whose name seems to be mud among the Mumbaikars twenty four hours after his little escapade in Shivaji Park, Bombay is quite happy to be a cosmopolitan khichripur. Its old buildings are better kept than Calcutta, and its parks and esplanades have a grace that Calcutta lacks.
Here’s the roof of Elphinstone College with dabbawala cycles and a street lamp; three symbols that coexist on the Bombay skyline with no sense of incongruity and only a little irony. It was thanks to Kala Ghoda that they all got into the same frame, but they rub shoulders less visibly even at other times.
Bombay can deal with its failings with humour, something that even we in Calcutta often fail to do. Here was a wire sculpture of a ‘Mosquitoman’, symbol of the many insects that suck people’s blood there (and the Bombay specimens are particularly ferocious). Kind of like black Spiderman with plasmodia.
Instances of this kind of self mockery can be found in Calcutta in the light shows that are put up during Durga Puja. Illumination artists create immense pictures out of wire frames and fairy lights which are usually topical if not satirical, Greg Chappell having been everybody’s favourite whipping boy last year. The Calcutta artists, who in fact are usually from the districts, those of Chandannagar being especially famous, also do famous scenes from topical movies such as Titanic, and in 2002 many of them did the Twin Towers. Rizwanur was said to have been another popular theme last year, but I didn’t actually see any of him.
However, it is rare in Calcutta to see serious artists attempting satire or humour, unless its the tired old unfunny political satire where one has to laugh dutifully at the enemies of the state.
It was thus very refreshing to see a little exhibition put on by a group caled Artquest on the pavement around the Fort area in the vicinity of the Jehangir Art Gallery. This is an area often used by artists to showcase their work, apparently. Again, we don’t have a comparable scene in Calcutta. The Academy garden is sometimes used, but it’s not really a public space like this. Ordinary people were walking about beside the exhibit, and even street children were having a look at it.
The theme of the show was addiction, and the artists dealt with addiction to shopping, television, the internet as well as the more usual smoking, gambling and drinking.
While some of the exhibits were a little preachy, most nevertheless used visual jokes and metaphors to shock and amuse at once.
The guy with the horn stuck through his head was particularly good I thought. You can’t see it very clearly, but the TV screen is plastered with pictures of Bollywood stars. Behind the shot on the left you can see the Shopaholics corner.
Another successful idea is the cyborg boy being seduced by the internet; look carefully at his arms and legs. The various temptations should have included Facebook and blogging, but this clearly wasn’t intended to be up to date. Also one would have thought games would be a bigger draw for a kid this age than cyber sex sites; maybe his daddy should have been there as well.
The fibreglass arms and legs were also a theme of the show, with variously modified mannequins at the centre of every exhibit. It looked to me as though they had recycled old fashion model dummies and given them new heads and occasionally new hands and feet, but I may be wrong.
The No Smoking exhibit was a bit predictable, since every government and NGO has one, but the saw and chain were a nice touch. The mannequin is covered with Chutki wrappers, and appears to be contemplating sawing his own hand off to get rid of the giant cigarette. The red and blue things on the ground are ashtrays with ‘Tuborg Beer’ written on them: two birds with one stone. The picture on the wall in the background is titled ‘The Smoker’s Body’.
One problem with all the exhibits was the very small text of the notices, which were too far away to be read easily (or at least by someone as blind as me). Leaning over the rope was uncomfortable and inadvisable. But the tableaus themselves said it all, pretty much.
Then it was back to the Kala Ghoda festival where Tibetan dancers held the stage. There were quite a few Tibetan events on the first two days of the festival.
On the way there were some great big plastic sculptures pretending to be soft drink bottles, in keeping with the vaguely environmental theme of the installations in general, and sponsored by Chemould, ironically enough.
As dark fell on Sunday, the crowds grew. There were quite a few foreign tourists, some of whom had come specially for the festival. There were also a cross section of ordinary citizens, most of them families with children. The fashionable types were there to buy, and they bought things like aromatic herbal soaps, reed mat bags and designer lamps.
The stalls selling food were rather expensive and this puzzled me until I realised they were just extensions of the swanky restaurants on K. Dubash Road (the street where the fair is held) which had just built stalls in front of their usual frontage and were selling their usual items at slightly lowered prices. Clearly it wasn’t authentic street food. Not surprisingly, they didn’t have many takers, although as the evening progressed and the young professionals descended on the grounds, the queues got longer.
The fair was beautifully lit up in the evenings, but I couldn’t stay for very long, as I had my reading to go to, and later I went to the Blue Frog. (Note: there are lots of Blue Frogs all over the world. Googling it will only land you a bucket of them.) This was courtesy the friend I was staying with, Rayna Jhaveri, who is in charge of corporate communications for Blue Frog.
Blue Frog is a club set up by five partners who wanted to create a venue for a different kind of music to reach audiences, and also to create premium studio space for recording. The club is very new, barely two months old, and the studios are still a little way from completion. However, in this short time, Blue Frog has acquired an impressive word-of-mouth popularity, as I saw on the second day I was there, when it was so crowded we couldn’t get in at first.
On the first day (Gary Lawyer et al), that was Sunday, it had been almost empty. This must have been in response to the gig that night; publicity for both events was the same. In fact on the second night (Zakir Hussain, Bela Fleck, Taufiq Khureshi and friends) there had been only 36 hours to announce the show, and it had all been done by SMS and word of mouth. Goes to show the power of the buzz.
In fact Zakir & Co. were a little surprised to be facing a standing-room-only crowd that threatened to overflow the bar and land in the bartenders’ laps, as they had been expecting a ‘private’ gathering. The Frog is small: the stage isn’t built for more than about six musicians, and the dance floor is surrounded by tables, called pods, half hidden in a Swiss cheesy kind of structure that has changeable lights in it: very trippy.
The Zakir group comprised the good and great of the Indian music world along with the great Bela Fleck and several others whose names I didn’t get; it was almost as crowded on stage as it was down below, and people had to take turns to play. In the space of six there were about twelve. along with a double bass, two drum kits, Bela Fleck’s banjo, Zakir Hussain’s tabla, a sitar, two flutes, an esraj and various other walk-on parts. The experienced musicians had no trouble with this; they jammed in conversation style, since music to them was just another way of opening their mouths and speaking their minds, but the younger people looked a little uncomfortable at the lack of cues.
Be that as it may, they proceeded to produce this absolutely magical jam session. People threw challenges at each other, played games of musical catch, talked to and over each other tried out stuff, broke strings with passion, cursed, sailed serenely over howlback problems and tuned on stage while other people hogged their mikes.
It was also a bit of a trial by fire for the technicians, as people kept coming on stage and taking mikes from each other, moving around, losing their channels and generally messing their values up. A channel which had vocals would be turned over to the bass or vice versa, and some people occasionally completely lost their feeds. Given the utter chaos it was commendable that the show went on with only minor hiccups, and when things went wrong the musicians only had to smile at the crowd, at which everyone went wild. People waited patiently for more magic, and clapped like demons when it came.
Sadly the gig had to stop at ten, leaving everyone yelling for more. The preponderance of Indians in the jam — ‘band’ doesn’t quite describe it — did mean that Indianness threatened to swamp the Western sounds, and the drum cadences tended to dominate. But if anyone remembers an occasion, long ago, when a young Zakir Hussein sat in the middle of the New York Philharmonic, a love spotlight on him and his tabla, while around him crashed the ponderous waves of western classical melody and he gamely struggled to keep up, will understand the sweetness of watching this marvellous chaos erupt and sweep away all those fusty ideas of ‘fusion’.
The Blue Frog is on the Ideal Industrial Estate in the Mathuradas Mills complex, in the middle of a post-industrial wasteland being rapidly colonised by malls, and if you approach from the N.M. Joshi Marg side you crawl through a maze of lanes and sidestreets occasionally punctuated by swank offices hiding in godowns. The Frog is housed in the mill’s workshop, with the original floor and sharkfin roof.
The windows are above the stage and covered by projection screens; you can just see them here. There are two sets of five with a projector each, all synched so that each set of five shows a continuous panorama. This is extremely trippy, and several times in the evening I caught myself staring at them with my jaw hanging. And this was without aid of substances, mind.
Speaking of substances, who should I meet there on the second day but the Psychedelic Warrior, who is at the Frog whenever anything good is on, since his office is in the same area. He had a gang of Calcutta people with him, and they generously offered to let us share their pod, since there wasn’t space to slip a Big Stubby between the crowd. I was there with Rayna’s mother, since her dad had taken one look at the crowd and headed back home, and wisely too.
As the evening wore on the excitement of the music prevented us from realising were were standing ankle deep in beer because some creative person had overbalanced while trying to dance through the bottles standing on the floor. Actually the press at Someplace Else on a big day is harder, but there’s no way to fall over there; SPE operates on the Calcutta minibus principle of individual instability amounting to collective solidity. People have to dance in synch there or risk disembowelment.
Note: on some days and at some times there is an entry fee for the Blue Frog club, and furthermore be warned that food and beverage prices are fairly steep, so go prepared.
And so finally I leave you with Chowpatty at dusk.
The Kala Ghoda Arts Fest is under way, and will run till next weekend. I was there on Saturday and Sunday, and a little bit of Monday, courtesy Peter Griffin and the Kala Ghoda team, who worked tirelessly to make everything happen smoothly. I had two workshop sessions on translation, which turned out to be a little mis-pitched, as I went prepared to have a high-powered talk with practising translators, but ended up chatting with a rather amorphous bunch of people, none of whom had ever done literary translation for publication.
They turned out to be very sweet, however, and we ended up talking about a wide range of subjects. On the first day, we had a guy who translates documents from French for his company’s internal use, Hetal, a student of neurobiology who was from Kachchh, Mira, an executive of a pharmacy company who had translated twelve stories by Pradip Chawla from Gujarati and was looking for a publisher, and a journalist who left early. On the second day Sangeeta, who translates TV scripts for channels like Discovery and Cartoon Network, who spoke Dogri as well as Hindi and Urdu and was a classical singer, joined us.
On the first day, we started by talking about editorial practice with regard to translation, which is what I had come prepared with, but the discussion soon moved to the practical problems translators faced, especially with regard to finding a publisher. The group came up with a set of proposals to improve the lot of the translator. One, there should be a society of translators and/or authors, on the lines of the Society of Authors in the UK. Two, we need reliable and comprehensible dictionaries and thesauri in the regional languages. Three, unicode mapping of the regional fonts should be carried out, so that we can have software that is universally readable.
We then talked about copyright and payment structures. On the second day there were just four of us, so we ended up talking about vanishing Indian languages, since we had speakers of Dogri and Kachchhi. Hetal told us that Kachchhi is written in Gujarati script but is closer to Sindhi. Speakers of it have been switching to Gujarati, probably because they want to fit in socially, and the primarily oral literature of the language is disappearing.
I was very excited to hear about the language since Kachchh was so important in the spice trade, and I’d read up on it when researching City of Love. We talked a little about the novel as well, which although written in English does not contain a single English-speaking character.
I urged my workshoppers to check out the street fair, which by Sunday was fully up and running in the road beside the Jehangir Art Gallery. Kala Ghoda includes not just literature but all the arts, including dance, drama, sculpture, installation art, painting and lots of other exciting stuff. The participants were a mix of ultra hip urban types with designer goods to sell, to village artists selling their traditional craftwork, with a sprinkling of NGOs.
There were quite a few clever ‘junk’ sculptures. As Jeet Thayil said, it was a like a carnival — with writers. Bombay was a persistent theme, with a huge pinwheel of dabbawala cycles dominating the skyline, with Elphinstone College in the background. They were still setting this up on Monday and having difficulty with the neon. Apparently the whole thing is supposed to rotate. The Bombay Stock Exchange is visible in the background; it presided over the proceedings, so that you might be watching a troupe of street magicians throwing knives at each other to furious drumbeats, and look up and be reminded that you’re watching this in the financial hub of modern India.
The park at the entrance to the fair was dominated by cars. There were several designer-painted Revas that were being auctioned for charity by the Earth Care Institute. The base price was, however, six lakhs, so I decided not to bid(!).
There were also two cars that could be test driven and I put my name down for them, but there was an enormous queue. The on-road price of a Reva is five lakhs, so it’s unlikely to be my next change, and moreover I don’t have an outlet to plug it in. In fact most people in this country don’t have garages with outlets so I guess you have to have your own house with ground floor access to own a Reva. The Reva is, contrary to rumours, a four-seater, two-door model, and it is a little cramped inside, but it must be a dream to park.
The designer cars were most luscious and made the most of the Reva’s interesting shape. Lots of people find it ugly but I think it’s kind of cute; however, the grey bumper on the basic model could be a more exciting colour. For five lakhs you ought to be able to get something a bit less stylistically challenged. But apparently they do custom colours as well, price unknown.
There was this Swift, airbrished in biker-style motifs, donated by Ed Hardy. The front was adorned by an enormous heart and the legend ‘Love Kills Slowly’, as well as a sign saying ‘Beast of Burden’ and a large Chinese dragon on the right flank. Definitely my kind of car. I sometimes dream of customising my Swift since it absolutely cries out at least for racing stripes, but am prevented by the fact that (a) so far I only own two wheels of it, the rest being owned by Citibank, and (b) the aged parents will probably refuse to set foot in it. Also the resale value will probably drop to zero. However, one day…
Next to it was the ‘Polar Bear’. The sign beside it claimed that it had grown this ‘protective coat’ after being kept in the cold for a long time; probably a commentary on the unseasonable (for Bombay) cold weather. Bombay was, however, a lot warmer than Cal has been for the past few weeks, so I soon found that all my heavy clothes were quite unsuitable and had to go distress shopping in, of all places, Westside, which was bang opposite the fair in a beautifully restored old office building.
Other installations included a ‘honeybee taxi’ in yellow and black by Hina Khan, which had ancient portable TVs for eyes, a lantern with a bulb in it for a tail, and lightbulb antennae. The TVs were tuned to dead stations, and the buzzing of static formed the background track. Recycled materials formed another recurrent theme; there were many more such items, all of which I can’t fit in here.
There was a gigantic model boot covered with porcelain ‘shoes’ which, however, looked more like ashtrays. Some of them, however, were rather cleverly done. There were larger shoes as well, including a pair in the shape of rats, with whiskers, and rollerskate wheels.
My Fresh Off the Shelf session was at six, or so I thought, having visiting the venue eariler to confirm this with the volunteers, but I turned up at six only to find the session had started and everyone was having kittens because I couldn’t be found, Orange having chosen that particular half hour to deactivate my phone. However, no harm was done and they squeezed me into the next session. Fresh Off the Shelf was being held in the very lovely David Sassoon library garden (herewith a book sculpture, Jeet Thayil and Sampurna Chattarji in the foreground).
My session had Jahnavi Acharekar, Somshukla Das, Anjum Khatija, Sridala Swami, and Jeet Thayil, and was compered by Sampurna.
Jeet Thayil stole the show, and we soon realised why Sampurna said he was a ‘wicked’ performer of his poetry. I have great admiration or people who can perform their stuff, since I’ve never been able to do it. Jeet’s poems were tough, tender and very, very good. I liked Sridala’s stuff as well, it was low key and keenly observed.
Rashmi Dhanwani very sweetly took pictures of me reading. Next to me is Janhavi Acharekar, whose book Window Seat is out in August, and next to her is Somshkula Das, a poet. Sampurna Chattarji is on the other bench. The stage had these two park benches and an ornate lamppost beside them. Very nicely done.
We were asked to stay back and sign books after the session. City of Love had been prominently on display when we went up on stage. However, by the time the reading ended, the books and the Penguin sales person had gone. Everyone else’s books were on display.
Since there was nothing to sign, I figured there was no point in staying. One of the sales reps said to me, ‘You should switch to Harper.’
The next session was on the Bhopal gas tragedy, and I would have liked to stay for it, but it was time to go to the Blue Frog.
Of which more later.
In actual fact, although my ostensible reason for coming to Kala Ghoda was to promote the book, in the end this trip turned out not to be about the things on the agenda, but blossomed instead in unexpected and unscheduled ways. The interactions during the workshop, none of which was in any formal sense to do with the topic, were a case in point. I guess if you organise something as chaotic and wonderful as Kala Ghoda in a place as unpredictable and magical as Bombay, this is what you get. It defies all programs and laughs at commerce, even though I spent far more than I planned and bought crazy gifts for people I hardly knew.
What I got from this was the start of an acquaintance with Bombay and with its people which I hope will grow. If you go to Bombay after Delhi the contrast is startling, and you realise how abnormal Delhi’s habitual glower at the stranger is.
Bombay was uniformly polite and helpful, from the taxi driver who asked me with concern (when I quizzed him about his meter) whether the taxis in VT had tried to overcharge me, to the total stranger who walked up to me and said ‘I like your hair’. In that respect Bombay’s courtesy is like Calcutta’s, except that in Calcutta that taxi driver will also tell you how his malik treats him badly and his wife doesn’t love him and try to glom a fiver off you to salve the pain of his fine misunderstood soul. This in fact happened to me on the way back from Dumdum after this trip.
And while all this was going on, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena was kicking taxi drivers in Shivaji Park, and the Bombay Police was righteously busting a ‘gay’ party in the Yeoor Hills. One can see why bombs, madmen and random crap don’t faze the people of Bombay. Or rather one can’t see why, but one would like to, over time, explore and discover whatever it is that makes this amazing city subtly and startlingly different from everywhere else. I travelled on the Central line to VT from Vikhroli to get to Kala Ghoda, and the Western line from Charni Road to Vile Parle to catch my plane from Santa Cruz airport. Total cost of trip to airport? Seven rupees. In what other city can you walk from the local rail station to your airport terminal?
But this post is becoming incredibly long, and I shall stop here for now.
As predicted, the Bookfair farce has gotten worse. The ‘token’ inauguration on the Maidan was in contravention of several legal orders, and a prime candidate for a contempt of court case. It was a provocative gesture designed to destroy any residual faith we might have had in the good intentions of the Bookfair’s so-called guardians. If the desired effect was to show the Americans that we take their literature seriously, then I doubt if it accomplished its objective. In the meantime, universities, clubs, bookshops, public fora and shopping malls have been descended on by publishers and authors from all over the world, all looking a bit bemused and trying to tailor their presentations to random grab-bag audiences whipped up at short notice. We are doing our best for them, but we can’t hide a little exasperation at having to find spaces and eyeballs for them in the middle of our day-to-day business. And they shouldn’t have to suffer this ignominy. They wouldn’t have had to, if certain people had been doing their jobs and looking after them and the event they came to grace with appropriate care.
f you arrange an international event, it is expected that you get your act together and work things out so that the courts don’t shut you down on the eve of it. Had it been a rock concert or some other such instance of ‘aposanskriti‘, the guardians of our culture would have nodded sagely and muttered ‘good riddance’. But just because it’s the Bookfair, they hitch up their dhotis and dig holes in the Maidan for the cause. This reminds me of when Saugata Roy of the Trinamul led a ‘gono-snan’ (people’s bathing) at the Rabindra Sarobar lakes to campaign for the slums’ rights to pollute the lakes with Ala washing powder and Chasme soap. The thought of Mr Roy bathing in the lakes is deeply funny, not to mention illegal. Similarly, the sight of a lot of geriatric literary hasbeens mixed up with politicos holding a defiant, angsty teenage bookfair on the Maidan and thumbing their noses at the army is comic enough to make you cry.
This is public shame. Not many people know or care that Calcutta is bidding for ‘city of literature’ status from UNESCO this year. If there could be anything calculated to show in graphic detail how unfit we are for this title, the bookfair farce is it. Coming on top of the debacle around Taslima Nasreen, it can only be another nail in the coffin of Calcutta’s image as a place of ideas and culture on the world stage. Surely the government must know this? Surely someone, somewhere in the corridors of power has the sense to work this out? In that case, how sincere can the government be about promoting Calcutta as a modern, progressive city? You may laugh about our pretensions to business acumen, but surely literature, books and ideas are right up our street?
Or maybe not. Don’t try to play cricket at your para park this weekend, the Guild may just be coming for YOU.