For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not

 

My son was lying in a coffin somewhere in the same aircraft that took us home. The car that he was driving hours back sped off the track and hurtled into a tree, cracking open his skull. Denying himself to my advice, he drank deep into the night. And with every passing kilometer, he pressed harder at the accelerator lest his friends seated around him thought he was less of a man.

“Sir, would you care to eat something?”

The stewardess, her bearing erect, sported an impersonal smile. My wife, her eyes closed and her head facing the isle, was too tired from crying all night.

“Two sandwiches please.” My eyes had welled up suddenly and a drop of water, which had lingered on the right eyelid for a while, crashed down. There was a burning sensation in my chest. A void created that nothing promised to fill. I regret taking that sandwich, the very sight of which is making me retch now. I sleep sporadically, every time waking up to hope this is all a bad dream. Life as we had foreseen, had been turned on its head; unless the bastard is up to a prank. Unless he comes back from behind me and tells me how I look better when I keep that beard. I cry uncontrollably, not caring to be consoled. A little boy, standing on the lap of his father in the seat ahead of mine, reared his head to face me, bereft of an inkling of how painful life was to become. I wish this beautiful thing wasn’t born.

Some of the moments I hold closest are the ones where Pablo was still small. Reaching home early, I made for the chair in the corner of the room, just to watch the boy be. Throbbing with life and scratching compulsively at his drawing book with the colored pencils, he raised his head when I pushed open the door and resented my fatherly advances towards his neck and cheek with his tiny soft fingers. As I release the first gush of smoke and look at the boy going back and forth between the drawing book and the new synthesizer, I feel, though briefly, how good it is to be alive. Then, when I nipped the butt and made another advance towards him, it is not to take off his pants and ask him what that little thing between his legs is. I pick him up and swoosh him around to hold him upside down by the legs until he stops giggling and tells me he loves me. He then sits on my lap poking at my paunch, asking me what I hid in there. One of my greatest regrets is that he grew up.

A grey cloud had formed above us. The leaves on the Banyan tree were still. The white paint on the façade of the house next door shone whiter.  On the road, a crow dragged the carcass of a dead rat towards the footpath, one eye always alert for a vehicle. The cat on the fence raised its head seeing me. Though it slowly placed its head back between its front legs after a while, it kept its eyes on me.

But my son is dead now. And as I placed my palm on his chest and looked at his peaceful face for one last time, tears hurtled down my face onto his white shirt. I shudder with every outburst, trying to think of one good reason to live.  As they take him away, I sit on his bed, next to the guitar he often played; next to a decrepit Gitanjali he never read. I wonder if they feel the strange quiet. I wonder if they cry.

What if I had him for one more day, I wonder. Though this arrangement would have me savor every little bit of him I do not otherwise, a new part of me will die with each tick tock towards the next day. Now before his cupboard, I cry straining at his shirts. They smell no different than what he did when I held him the very first time.

Sitting by the window of a train, I take my hand out over the sill and through the metal bars to tap the excess ash off my cigarette. The landscape closest vanished faster than the ones far and distant.

 

A Self in the Crowd

“Fine, I do not understand art, culture and literature. I may not be as romantic as any of you. But I appreciate whatever little I do understand. She should acknowledge that, if nothing else,” said the guy in the striped shirt and denims as he walked past me. He had a half-rimmed pair of spectacles balanced unevenly on his nose and a beard that seemed to have got the plot wrong, growing more on the neck than on the cheek. “Also I told her, as opposed to what she thinks, not all Marwari chicks are ugly. Some are sexy as fuck. Remember Arpita from Math class? Woof!” He wore a beautiful watch with a paper-thin white dial and black leather strap. Walking with him was another guy in a yellow T-shirt two sizes bigger than what he should’ve worn, tucked shabbily into a pair of khakis. He was taller and the streetlight gave away the stubble. They were both in their mid-twenties.

I was standing under the same streetlight they walked past. I was there waiting at the main gate of Banerjee Dadu’s house where my mother worked. She cooked, cleaned, washed the dishes and did the laundry here, as did she in several other houses in the neighborhood. If I was in luck, she would come out of the door with some mouth-watering food the fat kid in the house decided not to eat, to order pizza and garlic bread instead. Else, we will walk home where my mother will make us a modest assortment of steamed papaya and rice.

My mother, Archana, as Gouri Dida fondly calls her, is not your typical maid. She works deep into the fabric of the everyday to put together some money and take it home to our little garage, where Tuhina, my sister waits for her, sometimes with a random person my father owes. She pays him, just like she has paid for everything else around here, with a smile on her face and song on her lips.

This garage where we live was about half-a-century old and was built keeping a smaller car in mind, like the Austin Somerset, Bimal dadu’s first car. But Mehul dada, his son, has bought himself a much bigger car now, a sedan, and any attempt to pull it into this garage leaves the rear sticking out like it needs to be spanked for being a bad girl. So he decided to park the car outside. My mother pounced on this opportunity and asked Gouri dida if she could have us move into this place now that the car was not going to. In this part of the city, if you slave away for somebody for far too long, you may be granted a second class citizenship in the form of a garage to live in. Yes, the place that marks the end of the driveway and is built to shelter a car. From just another cleaner in the household, she was elevated to the ranks of a distant stepdaughter of sorts, and Gouri dida, looking at this as an opportunity to have her within the premises of her house and thus at her relentless beck and call for more time, had no reason to object. And thus continued our journey from one garage to another.

They love me in school and Tina madam thinks I should be a doctor. Protim loves Piyali enough to inscribe their eternal love right on the surface of the wooden table I place my answer sheet on. As I struggle to draw a straight line without tearing the sheet that is right over the inscriptions, I wonder where those fucking bastards are. In the morning I walk Ankur dada to the bus-stop, with his school bag on my right hand and his water-bottle on my left. There are some of his other friends too, bedecked in their fancy uniforms. I try to listen as they speak to each other, but they talk in English. Mark my words, if I could speak English, they would not stand a chance against me.

My garage is half the size of your bedroom. And with three other inhabitants you would wish you had four eyes when you touched yourself looking at a half-naked woman on the paper trying to sell you a bra, or molten chocolate. A tin roof at the top and a metal gate guarding the facade, concrete walls make the three other sides. It can get very hot during the summer with the tin retaining the heat and leaving it there much after the sun has set. And it gets extremely cold during the winter with the cold wind blowing into the little place through the window that does not shut properly.

The big bed, shouldering the weight of four at night, was duly given the pride of place at the center of the garage. Outlining the inside of the garage from the right corner to the left were the table fan, stove, a small fridge, TV and a cupboard that housed everything from my father’s threadbare vest to a half cut pumpkin my mother would cook the next day. There is a yellow light in one corner that lights half of the room that is nearest to it. The rain, so passionately romanticized by the girl on the third floor of the house next door, sometimes flood our floor with water before we can fold the carpet and keep the stove away.

But we know when it’s raining. Lying on the bed at night, we can tell if it is raining gently or heavily, by the patter of raindrops on the tin that sometimes intensifies into a drumming as we slip into the darkness. Asleep, the rich and poor are vulnerable alike. One morning, after the rain of the night has left behind clean leaves and quenched birds, baba caught me looking at the girl on the third floor of the house next to ours. She raised her face against the sky as she rested her arms on the railing, her eyes closed and her lips pursed into a smile as if to itch the part of the upper lip where a drop of water had fallen, probably from a leaf. Her hair unfurled like a national flag, proud and jubilant, as she let the cold monsoon wind in her hair. “What are you looking at?” he asked me with that sly smile of a man who has had his share of fun back in the day. And though that made me smile while I was wondering what her hair might smell like, she was too rich and I too poor. And not even in the most escapist Hindi cinema do we meet.

Often, the sound of airplanes that fly above our garage rattles the tin roof. It is then that I might abruptly wake up to find my father dismounting my mother and pulling her sari down her thigh to the ankle, all in a split second. This flutter might also wake up Tuhina, lying furthest from them. Now they have to wake up till we go back to sleep so they can start all over again. Life isn’t easy.

 

My name is Aparajito

The tone of my voice might make you feel that I hold something against you, that maybe I blame you and your like for my plight. If I do, it is because despite having no control over what I was born into, I was born less than you. My math is better than you, and it could’ve been even better if my drunken father had not turned up the volume of the TV into a stupor every time one of our batsmen hit the ball for a six. I am not embarrassed to admit there are times when I contemplate a painless death. But given the number of boxes of KFC under Ankur dada’s bed, I know I will have bigger things to worry about if I am to be reborn as a chicken. My mother slaves away in the heat of the kitchen and the stench of the toilets while Ankur dada’s looks into the mirror eating at her gluten-free supper, contemplating a new haircut. But that is fine. We are all entitled to a healthy meal and a luxurious haircut. But when his mother raised a hullabaloo about my father stealing money from her almirah, she crossed the line. It left him broken and days went by before he said a word.

It was just a few days back when mother came home and sat on the bed, pensive. It looked like she had cried on her way home as a new set of tears welled up. No sooner had I sat down next to her and kept my palm on her cheek lovingly than a drop of tear hurtled down that cheek and into my pants, the same pants she bought me for the occasion of Durga Pujo last year. Rita aunty told her off for asking for some hot water to wash the dishes at five in the cold January morning. Just some hot water.

I said all that I did to tell you that we exist. We exist, just as we did, unheard. That despite the odds, I survive. That is all I want you to know. But I will be just as happy if you look at my plight and feel grateful for all that you have instead.

 

 

Where the evening is spread out against the sky

People who barge into your room early in the morning while you’re still in bed and sit next to you in that very bed and talk and talk about shit like you have woken up two hours ago right around the time they have, aren’t cool. They keep talking because either your mouth has puffed up so abnormally from the extra amount of sleep you have had that it is hard to read your obvious irritation, or this person just loves you too much and at the heart of hearts, is still a mischief. I usually throw my sheet aside and get up with an angry grunt, but the strength of the grunt has consistently dissipated with time as I have realized that no antic will alleviate the disturbance next morning. In fact there is a better chance of the disturbance aggravating. I tend to sap this anger from a bad wake-up shining shoes. I shine them well beyond their potential, take a shower, eat my breakfast and go to work. But I could not find a shoe to shine this morning.  Because I am back home in Calcutta and I do not go to work here. And the din I yearn to shut my ears against is thamma, the quintessential Bengali grandmother.

It’s far past noon and this part of the city is fast asleep. I’m visiting my grandmother after three months. That Bengalis cannot function without the afternoon nap is stuff of legend. And when there is no more napping to be had, they choose not to function anyway. Calcutta has had too much of life, and the city doesn’t give a fuck anymore. She makes for the gate when she hears the car park. It gets so quiet at this time of the day that you can almost hear the car from as far as a kilometer away rolling over the pebbles on the road while it takes that turn. She held me tight as I alighted the car. One could’ve called it a hug if she was a foot taller. But she wasn’t. She smelt of a Pears soap bar, and Boroline  Suthol. Taking her head away from my stomach where it rested when she held me tight, she listed her concerns. She had thoroughly studied me from the corner of her eyes as we made our way from the gate to the dining room.

She – “You have lost a lot of weight.”

Me – “You said I put on a lot of weight last time.”

She – “You have become shorter.”

Me – “That’s unlikely.”

She keeps on –“You look odd, have you been doing drugs?”

I keep up –“I don’t do drugs, maybe the odd cigarette.”

She won’t stop –“Cigarettes are worse. Wish you did drugs instead.”

Then there’s a bit of a lull as we make for her room and lie down on her bed, me facing the ceiling and my right hand comfortably sandwiched between the back of my head and the pillow, the other hand toying with the heavily rimmed spectacles she is not presently wearing. Both our legs are folded and crossed now on either side of the bed. Her eyes are fixed on me. The smell of incense hung heavy. It is a part of the ambience she deliberately creates to make the setting look pious enough to promise eternal damnation if one did not heed her words.

The ultimatum – “You have lost a bit of hair and you look old. Cut that beard. And don’t go drinking with that friend you have here.”

The first hour with her, after those months apart, have always been this way, at least for as long as I can remember. Now happiness. Now existential crisis. Now murderous irritation.  But the bed is warm, and I lay on the side of the bed where her husband, my dada got himself a much needed shuteye when he was still around. It has been a long time since then. He looked at us from a photo perched on a bureau. This photo must have been taken much before I was tumbled forth into existence and he looked half the age of the person I remember from his last days.

The excitement of being at home after long plateaus with each passing day. But even at its most mundane I would prefer the comfort of grandma’s mutton and bhaat to any ‘mid pleasures and palaces’. Hell I would rather have her tell me I look old and drugged than have my landlady in Delhi say she loves me, any day of the week. That’s home for you, and the love of your own.

Caveat : My landlady is quite presentable and must have been a piece of ass back in the day.

The breeze in the evening, just a touch cooler than the temperature of the day, brings with it the smell of earth, dead leaves and shiuli. If you have grown up in this part of the country back when I did, and ever cared to venture out of your study, you’d know that the breeze smelt the same a couple of decades back. The smell stood the test of time, through all the several events leading to the here and now.

What will be

But she is tinier than I remember her to be, not to mention much older. All that she seems to have retained from her younger body is her ear, big and always on the lookout for information within the four walls and beyond. It would have moved fetching for news if it were any more curious. When I will leave her home in Calcutta until next time, I won’t be able to help but think about our mortality. None of us will live forever and neither will she. I sip on the ginger and lemon tea she has made, much like she does every evening, sitting on a chair in her verandah. The same very place I rushed to after having dropped my school bag and loosened my tie when I came back from school, years ago. The view from this place hasn’t changed. Granted a few trees have been felled here and there, some houses redone and the couple on the balcony in the adjacent house looks older. But you can see the new shoots coming out of the barks, the paint on the newly done houses wear away by rain and time to what it once was and the couple fight as passionately as when they were younger. The difference is hard to tell. Read between the lines and one realizes, that no matter what, the show will go on.