Like air and freedom, light, too, is suspicious of prison cells. Here, muscularity, minacious, well-oiled, prowls around the clock, a wild cat in command of its turf. Women petrify into grinding stones too heavy for new sorrow.
Juicy allegations buzzing with mendacity test the nerve of testosterone. Old friends discover each other anew as if they had been separated for years. Porous prison walls are the only true ally, at times smothering, closing in, like an obsessive lover.
Here, children lick more darkness than milk and try to believe the sky to be a true story. The rainbow is a fairy tale. Long conversations conserve grey cells and crumble invisible walls more solid than concrete.
You gave me a gold-plated fountain pen And a cornucopia of writing equipment. A small walnut-wood desk. Letterheads in different designs. Silver paper with an enamel finish. Scissors, knife, sealing wax, ribbon. A glass paperweight. Red, blue, green pencils. A letter must be written every Other day, You ordained for me.
I finished bathing in the morning So I could sit down to write a letter.
But I can’t decide on what to write. There’s only one news — That you have left. This, you already know. Yet, it seems like You aren’t really aware of this. So I think of letting you know — You have left. Every time I begin to write Something tells me this isn’t easy news to share. I’m no poet — One who can give voice to a language; Or vision to words. The more letters I write, the more I shred them.
It’s ten o’ clock already. Your nephew, Boku, is ready for school, I need to feed him first. This is my last attempt — Let me write to inform you That you have left. The rest is only a jungle of Doodles crowding the blotted ink.
দিলে তুমি সোনা-মোড়া ফাউণ্টেন পেন,
কতমতো লেখার আসবাব।
আখরোট কাঠ দিয়ে গড়া।
ছাপ-মারা চিঠির কাগজ
রুপোর কাগজ-কাটা এনামেল-করা।
কাঁচি ছুরি গালা লাল-ফিতে।
লাল নীল সবুজ পেন্সিল।
বলে গিয়েছিলে তুমি চিঠি লেখা চাই
একদিন পরে পরে।
লিখতে বসেছি চিঠি,
সকালেই স্নান হয়ে গেছে।
লিখি যে কী কথা নিয়ে কিছুতেই ভেবে পাই নে তো।
একটি খবর আছে শুধু--
তুমি চলে গেছ।
সে খবর তোমারো তো জানা।
তবু মনে হয়,
ভালো করে তুমি সে জান না।
তাই ভাবি এ কথাটি জানাই তোমাকে--
তুমি চলে গেছ।
যতবার লেখা শুরু করি
ততবার ধরা পড়ে এ খবর সহজ তো নয়।
আমি নই কবি--
ভাষার ভিতরে আমি কণ্ঠস্বর পারি নে তো দিতে;
না থাকে চোখের চাওয়া।
যত লিখি তত ছিঁড়ে ফেলি।
দশটা তো বেজে গেল।
তোমার ভাইপো বকু যাবে ইস্কুলে,
যাই তারে খাইয়ে আসিগে।
শেষবার এই লিখে যাই--
তুমি চলে গেছ।
বাকি আর যতকিছু
হিজিবিজি আঁকাজোকা ব্লটিঙের 'পরে।
In ‘Bateshwar’s Contribution’, a short film by Sandip Ray I recently watched, Bateshwar Sikdar, a veteran writer, suddenly finds himself in the company of visitors and advice – both unsolicited. Over the course of three days, as many individuals, supposedly Sikdar’s fans come to him with the same strange request. They all want him to make the ending of a novel he’s writing, a happy one. Based on a story by Rajshekhar Basu, often hailed as the greatest humourist of the last century, the film, or rather that peculiar request, struck a personal chord with me in what has been my nascent journey into published authorship so far. I am coming to that in a bit.
In Sikdar’s case, when the first reader, a young man, approaches him on one of his morning walks, there isn’t much to suspect – he’s seen gushing with praise for the senior writer and shows great interest in his current serialized work ‘Ke Thaakey, Ke Jaaye?’ (Who Stays, Who Goes?). In fact, he seems so involved with the story that he’s eager to find out the fate of a female character. He asks Sikdar about the same, referring to the character as the novel’s heroine. Sikdar reminds him that there are two heroines in the novel, and when the young reader specifies he’s referring to Aloka who is fighting a serious illness, Sikdar tells him that she’s going to die. Our young reader seems heartbroken and pleads with the author to let her live. Exasperated, Sikdar tells him off and continues on his walk. The next morning, the entreaty turns into a mild threat when another man, a renowned surgeon, drops by at Bateshwar’s house with the same proposition – to let Aloka live. As with the first petitioner, Sikdar turns down the physician’s request and remains firm on his stand to eliminate Aloka to have Sharbari, the novel’s other heroine, take her place. He would have a third and final requester – a woman who introduces herself as a film actor – who comes to him with the offer of buying the film rights for ‘Who Stays, Who Goes?’. She’s eager to play Aloka in the film she informs Sikdar, but he has to ensure she’s cured of her illness and continues to live. Sikdar, though excited at the offer, still remains reluctant to change his story’s ending. It’s only when the lady threatens to jump ship and make a similar offer to a rival author that he reverses his long-held decision to let Aloka die.
As she hurried for her train, a blast of snow slapped her cheeks, reminding Aruna of when she had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for the first time. The extreme weather had made her question her decision to come to Canada. It was too late, she had reminded herself.
When she landed in this haven for immigrants nine years ago, Aruna had been nervous. At their parting, her husband Raghu assured her, “It’s only a matter of a few months, maximum a year, Aru. I will be there after that.”
But those few months had multiplied into as many as it took to make nine years. Years that taught Aruna that time was as slippery as her husband’s promise to join her in Canada. Between trying to make a living and raising twelve-year-old Vishnu, she had aged by two decades instead of one. Looking at the mirror one day, Aruna tried to make sense of how it turned out to be like this—three lives that were supposed to make a family now fragmented like left-over noodle strands on a diner’s plate. Those early years they had spent together contained no suggestion of the later distancing. Her husband had seemed caring and involved, if excessively guided by his quest for a “good life.”
Now, snow and coffee — once alien to her– had become second nature to Aruna. And her good life had little to do with what her husband had imagined. She reflected on how time changes a person’s inner landscape in accordance with the outer one.
The train sped past white houses, streets, trees. Aruna planted her cheek, covered with the woollen scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, to the window. The thickly snow-decked walls that vanished and re-appeared on the horizon were home. She rubbed her glove-clad hands and sipped coffee from the paper cup that danced slightly to the train’s motion on a tray table in front of her.
Arriving in the province, she had felt confident of getting a job. Her many years as a lifestyle journalist in India couldn’t have been for nothing. So she consumed herself with the other variables—managing her son’s education, getting a health card made, securing a driver’s licence, and all the other minutia of moving to a new place.
But she rented a damp basement apartment and managed the other details with ease. Only the job eluded her.
In three weeks, the city had turned from an indifferent host into an unforgiving master. The city demanded labour from Aruna in order to grant her an extended stay. A conversation with her widowed landlady made the prospects look bleaker than the foggy winter mornings.
“Beta, I would suggest you try to find something at a grocery store. Or Tim Horton’s or McDonalds.”
“But Aunty, I worked in…”
“I know,” the landlady had interrupted, “you were a journalist. But this country doesn’t hand out jobs in your chosen field so easily. Maybe if you had a degree. But you don’t. You’ll have to be more humble, my dear.”
Aruna felt a dampness envelop her entire body. The very idea of working in a grocery store behind the cash counter made her bones stiff. The dullness of the job, the ominous possibility of turning into an automaton numbed her. Yet, college at her age was nonsense. There was no money. There was no time. She had a child. She tried to adjust to the idea she would have to get started somewhere, even behind a counter, even wearing a funny uniform.
One afternoon, as specks of sunlight sneaked in through the shoe-box windows of her drawing-cum-bedroom, Aruna got out of the house, armed with her trusted jute handbag and the resumes inside it. The snow outside had melted only a little, and black ice lined the streets. The knife-sharp chill had turned the sun into a frosty pale-yellow orb. It bit into Aruna’s skin right through her thrift store jacket.
She walked into the shopping plaza in front of her. With lunch hour drawing near, several cars entered the parking lot. The passengers were headed for a pizza joint. A few stores away, Aruna saw some activity—a new store seemed to be opening. The men offloading furniture from a truck looked to be from her part of the world. She approached one of them, a hefty, mustached and sun-glassed man, wearing a long black jacket and smelling of cologne.
“Er, excuse me, is a new shop coming up here?”
The man turned to her and adjusted his glasses before replying,
“Yeah. We are opening a restaurant.”
Aruna allowed a sheepish smile and reached for the resume inside her purse. A crumpled piece of folded paper came out. By the time she straightened it, the mustached man had already moved on and was almost inside the new restaurant.
Aruna nearly ran to catch up with him. He turned around and stopped at the door.
“Here,” said Aruna, huffing, “my resume.”
The man took the paper from her hands and invited her inside.
And so she found her job–at the South Indian vegetarian eatery, right in the heart of the suburb that had been swelling with South Asian population. Being a Tamil Brahmin helped–in the end, it wasn’t her qualifications or experience, but ethnicity that mattered.
Nausea and nauseating people were what Aruna could recall when she thought of the initial days of her job. Serving the same combinations of gravies and lentils infused with tamarind, curry leaves and coconut, throughout her long shifts turned her stomach. She thanked her luck that daily breakfast was part of her job perks. By the time the shift ended, she hardly had appetite for anything.
But she would take that over the gut-churning invitations some diners extended to her.
“Join me for a late-night movie with drinks.”
“Hey, my wife is vacationing in India. Care to spend the weekend with me?”
“What day is your weekly off? I can come over to your place to keep you company.”
Aruna knew Raghu’s absence made it easier for these passes to be hurled at her. With time and some help from her co-workers, she learned to cite an activity with Vishnu as a credible excuse. Conjugal armour wasn’t necessary. Her son was both her shield and compass.
She couldn’t learn to deal with the apparition of longing, though. The one that showed up frequently, especially on weekends, when she served families huddled at table after table. She would imagine sitting at one of them, being teased by Raghu and Vishnu and giggling in the self-absorbed, vain way she saw some younger women do. After nearly two years, it dawned on her that Raghu probably didn’t want to come to Canada at all. His response to her entreaties in this regard had a tone of measured yet affectionate indifference.
A year later that suspicion was confirmed. The then-teenaged Vishnu had been caught in a drunken brawl close to their home. Aruna had received a call from the police at her workplace. Her boss reluctantly allowed her half a day’s leave. She rushed to the hospital where her son and two other kids had been brought for treatment. An inquiry had begun. Though her mind was spinning with the possibilities: trial, imprisonment, expulsion, worse; in front of Vishnu, she remained normal and even sporting, “Beta, you wanted to have a drink? You should have asked me. This isn’t how you take it–on an empty stomach. Wait until you are legally ready. We’ll have it together. Deal?”
He seemed to understand, his own fear making him receptive. She called Raghu the next day, still suffused with worry. He said:
“Hey, all this happens, Aru. It’s his age. Cheer up!”
“But you do realize that I am all by myself here. I have to face his teachers, the police, maybe even…”
“You will manage it all, my feisty lady,” Raghu had interrupted. “I am confident you will tackle it fine.”
Aruna had broken down over the phone, unable to accept her husband’s phony reassurance, his unconcern. Raghu had yelled that he was forced to be far away only because of Aruna and Vishnu. So he could give them a “good life.” Silently, she had thought of her lean bank account and wondered who, in fact, was getting that “good life.” But she had said nothing. If this crisis wouldn’t bring him to her side, she sensed then, nothing would.
Now assistant manager at the restaurant, Aruna was able to take the time she needed to attend the court hearings for Vishnu’s violence. They went on for a year. Those hearings, weekly meetings with his school counselor, and her increased responsibilities at work–tracking the accounts, preparing budgets, taking stock of inventory–all silvered her once kohl-black hair with a vengeance.
While she longed for the cocoon of a loving family, her middle age offered a different reality. Finding too little time face-to-face, cell phone texts and emails became her allies in raising Vishnu. Through them, she was privy to the heartaches, acrimonious debates, and insults edging on slurs that were at the core Vishnu’s growing up. But somewhere along the way, the rough edges of adolescence smoothed out, and Vishnu turned from an errant child into a friend. Aruna thanked her gadget gods.
“Stop working like a donkey, Amma,” he counseled.
“Oh and what’s going to fund your fancy professional keyboard?” she would quip, thinking of his musical aspirations.
“Maybe that will have to wait. I can practice at Karan’s. You cut your hours at any rate. You are going to collapse if you carry on like this.”
Slowly, Aruna stopped feeling Raghu’s absence. In fact, she began to wonder if she would ever be able to live with him again. Acquaintances and even regulars at the restaurant would ask questions about her husband. She knew that her silence suggested that he was perhaps living a good life himself, not working toward giving one to his wife and son.
Over liberal sips of wine and unrestrained laughter, her closest friends heard more than silence: “Know what? I couldn’t care less. Who is stopping me from bringing a man into my bedroom?”
But in truth, she had found in loneliness a better, more trusted partner. She had, to her surprise, become at ease with being alone in the bed. And as years piled on years, it didn’t seem to really matter.
The restaurant staff–the suspicious and glassy-eyed accountant Sethuraman, the helper boys, Gopal and Dinesh, and all the chefs–from the bulbous-bellied, middle-aged Bala to the bony, soft-smiling young Manoj–had become her extended family. Sethuraman confided his fears and reservations to her, whether at his son’s craze for violent video games or the “lack of etiquette” among nouveau riche diners. The chefs considered her a big sister and sought her advice on important matters like which insurance policy to buy and what made a good gift for a wife’s birthday.
But for all that, Aruna felt glad that the restaurant hadn’t turned into her home. Despite the chaotic dust-storm blowing through her life, she was determined to find a nest: A haven not just for her own trapped soul, but also for Vishnu and his mates to flap their hormone-charged teenage wings with slaphappy abandon.
After the fallout had settled from Vishnu’s brawl, once all the court hearings and counseling had ended, she had found them a town home. Her restaurant family had worked as moving crew, packing and transferring items from her chilly basement with care. Vishnu had saved some money out of his weekly allowances and bought knick-knacks as surprises for Aruna–a small Ganesha figurine, a wind chime for the entrance, a couple of guitar-shaped key hangers.
Evenings, which began at 10 pm when her workday ended, were a combination of m’s: music and masala. Vishnu had recently joined a local South Asian band and was composing music on his keyboard, which he would then test on Amma’s “unreasonably tolerant” ears. He would rebuke her at times,
“Amma, how can you find this nice? It sounds so amateurish.”
“Yes, but you would agree this is much better than what you played last time, wouldn’t you?” Aruna would say.
“Hmpff! You’re not paying attention. Never mind, go back to your cooking.”
And so she would. The kitchen of their new home had become her creative laboratory, spa, and refuge, all at once. The earthy whiff of cumin seeds as they spluttered in the hot oil in a skillet assured Aruna all was well. The pungency released by garlic crushed in a mortar- pestle or asafoetida in searing oil alluded to the spunk and excitement lurking within every seemingly insipid day.
While chopping onions for a Kerala-style fish curry, she smiled at the thought of how her palate had been transformed by Canada and its long winters as well as her son’s rapidly-evolving gastronomic index. Growing up, she would twitch her nose at the mere mention of fish; now she not only cooked it, gently simmering it in a creamy coconut milk stew, but also enjoyed biting into its flesh, spooning in some steamed rice and curry as well.
Food–not the grub people stuff themselves with to satiate hunger, nor even the gratifying ingestion of chosen foods to fill one’s ego and belly on special occasions–but the unsung yet care-sodden home meals, the mothers’, grandmothers’ and distant aunts’ creations—had become Aruna’s lodestar in a territory that offered her unparalleled freedom–to be messy, to fail in experiments, to not stop experimenting. And it gave her the ability to make her son happy.
“When I move out, I am taking you with me. I don’t want to miss this awesome food,” he said one morning as he sipped from a glass of mango shake. Every summer, Aruna would buy boxes of mangoes, expensive as they were, having been imported from India or Pakistan, to make sure that Vishnu could have his mango shakes and lassis for breakfast.
“Why would you need to move out at all?” Aruna asked. “This house is all yours, Beta. But you will give me the third floor, won’t you?”
“The entire third floor? Nah, Amma, you can’t have my music room, no way.”
Laughing, they argued over the proposed division of the house for half an hour, before agreeing on letting it be the way it was–with Vishnu deciding what part of the house belonged to him. That sometimes included his mother’s bedroom. Contrary to feeling betrayed or wronged, Aruna found her son’s near-feudal sense of ownership to be a snug blessing. Anything to make him stay in the house–even if that meant sleeping on the living room couch for nights on end.
Things had started falling into a pattern, like the predictable rhythm of seasons in Canada. Aruna particularly cherished the fall, when leaves changed colours faster than a painter’s brush strokes–as sensuous reds flirted with boisterous yellows and fiery oranges, the thermometer’s dipping mercury made bodies seek the embrace of jackets and light cardigans, sunset morphed into huge pumpkins and descended on grocery stores and maple syrup flowed indulgently over pancakes at breakfast tables. And schools re-opened after the summer break. For a mother of a teenage son, what was there to not love about fall?
Autumn also awakened the writer in Aruna. At first, she fed long nights that refused to bring sleep with DVDs of the latest Bollywood flicks. But she tired of them. On those restless nights, she wrote, remembering the career she had left behind years before. If food acted as her release, writing was her plunge–the deep-sea dive that took her on secret, often uncomfortable journeys. In writing she was compelled to confront and listen to the many women within her–those whose roles she played in real life and those whom she could never be. The single mother, the survivor, the lonely spinster, the comforting cook. The charming partner, the dependant wife, the fighting feminist.
When a freelance opportunity to write for a lifestyle magazine came along, Aruna grabbed it with her raddled hands. An occasional article on parenthood, a sometimes report of a cultural event, an infrequent restaurant review–the writing wasn’t exactly soul-lifting, but it was better than washing dishes at the restaurant, which she had continued to do even after becoming a senior manager.
Then, Bharat, the restaurant owner started complaining to Aruna about finances. He had incurred a substantial debt and would be cutting down on staff. The words dropped on Aruna’s ears as a whipping hailstorm. She knew what it meant. She told Bharat she wouldn’t survive without the restaurant; that it had become a part of her. The continuance of her job had become a reality as simple as the nonexistence of her husband. Losing this “normal,” which had taken years to make, scared her.
Bharat had tried to calm her, “I don’t want to let go of you either. I can’t. We’ll find a way.”
As a start, he suggested part-time work for her. Aruna understood that would also mean part-time salary and didn’t know what to say. She hated the idea of asking Raghu to send additional money: for nine years, he had paid their electricity and phone bills, but no more. And Vishnu was at least two years away from making his own money.
Her hours were cut. The numbers told her that adding the expense of college education didn’t make sense. And yet, a sense of vindication surged within her as she ran: not away from her Canadian life, but deeper into it.
The restaurant went on, and so did she. Through the bleached, bleak Ontario winterscape she rode a train into the city. Thrice a week she attended classes at the college alongside students half her age: broadcast journalism. On two other days, she volunteered at a local TV station. Restaurant work now meant just a few hours in the evening. The digits on her salary cheque had dropped.
For the first time in nine years, nonsense made total sense to Aruna. She was in possession of her power and her possibility, and for the first time she allowed herself a solo flight over an uncertain territory.
The frosty surroundings reminded her that the white always changed to green, no matter how old or young the trees were. As she glided above the ennui of routine and the relevance of marriage, Aruna breathed free. So did all the strands of hair on her cigarette-ash head.
First published in Stealing Time literary magazine (print) in 2013.
Home is a kidnapper who has finally made you submit to its territory, mapped and unmapped.
Home is your first partner in crime who, by introducing you to its hidden corners, gives a toddler you a taste of what manipulating adults with pranks feels like.
Home is the no-nonsense courtroom, where, you, still a toddler, take the gods to task by bashing up their idols at the altar for denying your grandma her own house.
Home is the compassionate table fan that breezes through the room on a hot summer day as Rafi and Geeta Dutt croon aankhon-hi-aankho-mein on the radio and two children – your brother and you – sprawl on the cool cement floor of a government quarter to hurry through your summer holiday homework.
Home is the indulgent playground overlooking that same government quarter where children make friends over hopscotch and their mothers, knitting buddies, on charpaais.
Home is the confused late-entry hero that is finally grandma’s own house. Its dust and half walls hold you in a perplexed daze. Your brother, yet to reach his teens, brings you back to reality as he returns with a pot of rice he’s managed to cook in the half-baked kitchen of this unfinished structure.
Home is the jealous new paara, neighbourhood, who estranges you from old friends and the loving playground with its consolatory offer of a cricket-colonized back street and stock loneliness.
Home is the keen, encouraging listener of your early-morning and late-evening riyaaz that mother helps add melody to with the harmonium she buys you off months of savings.
Home is the generous open terrace that grows in personality as you do in age – as your study-time ally in your yet-to-be-teen, mellow winter afternoons; as the host of a star-draped night sky beckoning you to let go in your ambivalent early 20s; as your gym and fitness partner later, when you do learn to let go.
Home is the comforting pal your grandfather brings you back to from the bus stop every evening after school. It’s where grandma waits with hot food and a listening ear for all your school stories, helping you bridge the interval until mother returns from work.
Home is the trusted ally you make your way back to, having survived an attack by gunmen in a public space, to hug your grandma, sick with worry. In the days to follow, home makes you an accelerated learner of what political revenge means even as your eyes adjust to the sight of blood on the streets you call paara.
Home is the saboteur who smashes that trust and hurtles you into the dark, suffocating dungeon of an empty house after making you witness the deaths of your grandparents for two years in a row.
Home is the traitor who makes you grow up while you’re still an adolescent without allowing you the time or the technique for the messy transition.
Home is the embarrassing hole in the bedsheet you cover with a folded quilt that you desperately hope wouldn’t shift when your university friends come over to your house to plan a trip.
Home is the sterile mate you’ve lost all love for but continue to live with, your days drained of élan vital, your nights a concert hall for sleep-snuffing nightmares.
Home, after years, no, a whole decade, is finally the conciliatory collaborator who invites you to work from home – with your mother, now retired from work, filling up all the hollows your grandparents’ departure had cleaved into its spaces.
Home is the humble plot of land your grandma bought, even if it’s no longer the house she built. Her breath moves through the guava tree she planted, still rooted to the faithful backyard soil and alights on your skin as a butterfly every time you fly back.
Home is a detective plot that can only unravel in back stories. Each flicker of memory is evidence of the scraps that went into constructing this labyrinth. Every solution is wisdom distilled only in hindsight.
Chintan Girish Modi interviewed me about my debut novel. The most rewarding part of the interview was his reference to a blog post I wrote in 2011 regarding home and what it means for me. Read the interview in Firstpost.