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.

 

 

The trunk

Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

-Omar Khayyam

 

There are times when I just want to randomly select and take out a newspaper from amongst the piles stacked up in the little place next to the terrace.

There was a time when we did not have a specific place to store those things that we did not need anymore and yet had not decided if they could be done away with. But this place certainly had to be outside the viewing range of the men of the house, lest their already reputed temper led to some sort of an explosion. Enter a trunk.

Big enough to fit a full grown cow minus the holy head, we placed it in that little place, which remained quite dark unless one of us opened the door right next to it leading to the terrace, during the day. Once painted black, it has had patches of the paint come off from several places revealing a layer of brown beneath the original layer of paint. But it does not matter to the trunk, because you cannot see it anymore. With newspapers flocking in by the hundreds, the trunk has sheltered more than it can before getting lost somewhere in the midst of the fast growing gargantuan.

But a newspaper does not qualify for a berth in the trunk until it has done time in a cabinet in one of the rooms in the ground floor of the house. There, very newly discarded from usefulness, they ease into a word or two with their new companions: empty bottles of whisky my father has had. They stay there, peacefully coexisting and completely unaware of what their consumers have gone on to achieve both instantly and in time. The newspapers may have been read. The whisky in the bottles may have kept the regrets at bay. But now they have been rendered useless alike. And the melancholy that surrounds them is palpable. But do these empty bottles, much like the new newspapers, wonder where the old newspapers go to when the cupboard can take no more and therefore vacated?

The distinct smell of paper wafts out of this place. Just like that smell that pervades into the deep reaches of your lungs when you have crackled open a newspaper at the break of daylight. Covered in dust and infested with silverfish and the occasional lizard trampling away at the slightest disturbance, this is the place where you would find yourself after having been in the sun in the terrace and right before taking a bath, if at all. But if I am anywhere near this heap of mess, and do not have anything to do anytime soon that would need me to be clean, the idea of wresting out a newspaper from the bottom of the pile and looking at the date at the top seems ineluctable. I look at the date, and then look away, trying fondly to remember what happened on that day and marvel at being able to live past the end-of-the-world events which were always deemed imminent. Once just another object that was thrown hard aimed at the face by a questionable man as he rode away on his bicycle while we sipped on the first cup of tea in the balcony alert and ready to dodge, was now some sort of a relic of the day gone by, dripping with nostalgic potential. This bygone day may have felt like any other when I had no other option but to live it, but not now. Not today. The date seems to bring forth a surge of feelings, entailing a period of time.  It is strange how much of the news on the paper, like some of the events in our lives, are all but irrelevant now.

Not before long, I had a newspaper in my hand, taken out from somewhere at the bottom of the stack, dated 14th January, 2015. I look away, through the door, out as far as my two eyes can see. But I couldn’t see too far thanks to the even taller houses that have reared their heads to surpass ours in height, if not in soul. I carefully rest the paper on top of the pile. It looked displaced, even naked, devoid of the fabric of dust under which the others of its kind took refuge.

It was cold and I think I lit a cigarette in the balcony as she made a makeshift bed for us, out of one of the mattresses that were laid out in the drawing room for visitors and a pillow from the actual bed pushed up against the wall in her room. This bed, though big enough to accommodate us when we have cuddled up into one, promised peril for when one of us teetered on the unwalled edge later having pushed each other apart to focus on the sleep at hand. She may have then lied down waiting for me silently, facing half the pillow she saved for me to rest my head, expecting little. Closing the door behind me, I slowly slipped in next to her and held her, more out of habit than love. We may have watched something funny on her laptop before this, she turning to me and kissing me on the cheek every time I laughed. And the next thing I remember is dragging myself into the kitchen much after she had not left a place on my face unkissed, in an unsuccessful attempt to wake me up in the morning. She packed her lunch for work, and then parted with almost half of it lest I reach work hungry.

The newspaper will disintegrate into nothingness, earlier than a few, and after the rest. But the memories from the day will not follow them. They march into a little box, waiting to be pried open at the slightest nudge.

The night is darkest and the stars shine with vigor and virility. Dreams, however grotesque they may sometimes be, seldom fail to fulfill the unfulfilled.

I decide not to smoke. She doesn’t like the idea of me smoking. But I am in the balcony now, so I look through the clothes hanging on the ropes connecting one side to the other to the person pacing from one side of his balcony to the other with a phone in one hand, in the house bang opposite to the one where I was. Then I walk inside, help her with the bed and hug her tight once I had her stand up on the bed. This way I can place my head against her chest. I looked at her a little while longer than I usually do through the meshed steel gate when she opened the wooden door at the sound of the bell a while back. The mesh, though successful at keeping burglars away is rather ineffective when it comes to thwarting love. I arrived early from work. But she knew it was me who rang the bell. And she galloped her way to the door like I was her pizza, delivered much before thirty minutes. She had saved some food for me, by eating less herself. That hunger coupled with the chagrin of her friends, the other tenants, who too may have had a bit more to eat if it wasn’t for the share she parted with me. Later, when we watched that show on her laptop, I turned abruptly cutting my laugh short, so I offered my lips to her, instead of my cheek, surprising her. Then, dropping the idea of sleeping on the mattress, we sleep on the bed instead. And though her back moves further away from the wall and I move further towards the edge as we slip deeper and deeper into the night, she makes sure she has one hand around my back, and one around my neck. She can never let me fall.

 

 

Time

As I sit here and type, I bleed. Just as Mr. Hemingway in his infinite wisdom expected of someone who has ever decided to write something.  For one, this feels much better than bleeding on the inside while I lie on my bed tucked away in a blanket. I tried to sleep, for hours on end. But I just couldn’t seem to get any. So I rolled from one side of the bed to the other, several times, pretending that it was in the posture that the uneasiness lay. Nothing in the vicinity could comfort my thumping heart. So I decided to get up, wash my face and type away.

Any relationship that has stood the test of time has the knack for travelling a circular trajectory as opposed to a straight one. Seldom is there a clear end. Most of us go back and forth not just for the comfort of the familiar or fear of starting anew but also because it becomes special with time and even too precious to part with. One tries of course, if the situation demands.

Passion rekindles when you least expect it to. It was almost impossible in these ‘rekindled moments’ to remember how nauseating our very presence had become for each other when we had fallen out of love. There were times we took each other for granted, not treated each other as well, even showing the door to one another without a valid reason. But as nature would have it, it wasn’t before long that we gravitated back towards each other. And there were no explanations put forth and no questions asked. That’s the effect of ‘time’, which would much rather prefer a silent assessment that a dust-up. One can’t help but hark back to Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby for reference, a relationship rife with Tom’s unabashed misdemeanors and extramarital affairs. But the surge in Tom’s emotions when he feels Daisy slipping away from his hands into Jay Gatsby’s, is more than palpable. This is clearly more than misplaced ego on part of Tom. This is platonic love, imperfect though it may seem. He tries to come back stronger and reminds her of the times he did truly ‘love’ her. Reminds her of those little moments, those that were all but lost in the pages of time. That, coupled with Jay Gatsby’s irrational demand that she should tell Tom that she NEVER loved him and that her marriage to him was just a ‘filler’ before she could finally be with Jay made the situation all the more difficult for her. Daisy drifted away further into Tom’s arms, never to return.

Condescending and unapologetic, Tom Buchanan was the husband few women aspire to spend a life with, but one that most of us turn out to be with regardless. Jay Gatsby on the other hand seemed like the ideal man, waiting several years to find his feet and ask for Daisy’s hand in marriage only to blow it in a matter of seconds.

Life doesn’t always tip the scales in favor of the good, probably because ‘good’ is nothing if not a matter of perception. What is good according to one person might not be quite so according to another. It just seems like ‘time’ almost always has a pivotal role to play here. A relatively average proposition that turns up at an opportune moment looks so much better than the best proposition which raises its head when the time is not quite right.  Or maybe we haven’t been able to tell the good and the bad apart. In that case we will just have to see a lot of either until we can tell the difference.