it looked like it was going to rain. flashes of lightning lit up the frosted window pane every now and then. the quiet but ominous rumbling of thunder could be heard, approaching. deepa typed away, her mind suffused with a world she had been trying to find words for the entire day. her fingers moved swiftly over the keypad, then halted as the letters began to form a word.
no, it wasn’t right, it didn’t say what she was trying to capture, to bring into being, to portray accurately, correctly, without any falsehood, any lag. a volley of taps on the keypad, and the letters vanished from the screen.
incorporeal tendrils reached out from somewhere behind her ears, above her head, near her neck. wispy, floating, singeing.
why did they always feel warm when they touched her? an uncomfortable kind of heat in them. could these sinuous invisible tendrils be called memory? or were they something else? like a claim, or maybe a complaint? as if they wanted to remind her of some lack of faith or grace on her part. but why?
why were they crowding her today? even bright daylight hadn’t managed to dispel them. they lingered about her, around her, within touching distance.
she’d woken up feeling their bind. hazy, colourless, insistent tendrils getting taut suddenly when they caught a part of her, wrapping around, holding on. and just as she’d try to throw them off, they’d lighten mysteriously, vanish. but they wouldn’t be gone, soon she’d feel the touch again; the tug, the wanton possessiveness.
“go away…” she’d muttered to herself while brushing her teeth, hoping they would, half knowing they wouldn’t.
she had a deadline. the first draft of the website had to be ready by tomorrow morning; meeting at nine thirty with the client. she’d barely started attempting the hard stuff, all those details and things of the inner pages. website copy had a different rhythm, it was not like the ads and commercials she’d written most of her working life. the medium was relatively new, unexplored, not really understood even she often felt as she worked. no wonder they called the writing “content”.
“huh!” she’d shrugged inwardly as the word had come to mind. the shadowy ties had jumped up at the sudden exclamation and melted away.
she refused to use that meaningless word. content… what was that? copy. it was copy. even text was fine. she had grinned remembering the look on her partner’s face. mei li was worried she would have a protracted argument with the client over this. she couldn’t blame mei li, she did tend to be not very circumspect at times. deepa shrugged again, and amended: not at times, often.
the phantom swirls returned and stroked her cheek. deepa had a feeling the day was going to be difficult.
on the window sill by her desk, the african violets were in bloom. the intense blue purple flowers made her smile a little. she’d been worried the plants would die again. but this time they hadn’t, the ones on the kitchen window were also full of flowers. she was hoping they’d be around when the girls came home for summer from college.
she sat down at her desk and started to write. the website would have to wait.
for some reason, she remembered the beams first. lying on the sprawling bed in the middle of a large room that was neither a bedroom nor a hall nor a pantry, nor dining room – but where they slept, they met guests, her mother and grandmother cut the vegetables for the day’s cooking, and they often ate sitting on the floor – she would stare at the long beams all the way up in the ceiling. they were made of solid iron, painted pale yellow, though now they were a dull grey. it would cost a lot to paint the house, and the money just wasn’t there, so no one spoke of painting or repairs. she wondered if the hefty beams might decide to part ways with the concrete some day and fall on their heads.
they were not supposed to be living in that house; they hadn’t, till she was nineteen. then circumstances had come along, the way circumstances do, and they’d had no choice. well, maybe they had, but their mother had decided this was the right one. and so, the house they’d visited every year, where their paternal grandparents and the rest of the family lived, had become home. her sister maya was almost seventeen then and ajay, their little brother, a few months past thirteen.
deepa felt the tendrils grow warmer, pulling her in, calling her to what…?
her grandmother was sitting in her plain white saree on the red floor. there was a lost look in her eyes. the cataract had turned her irises a cloudy grey, but she didn’t want an operation. what if something went wrong? she sat on the red oxide floor with its cracks and scars, rocking gently, her jaws moving as though she was chewing something with her toothless gums. deepa could tell she was nervous. her mother and her youngest uncle, he was actually her father’s first cousin, had determined grandmother had to have that operation.
when her mother handed her the dentures, her grandmother put them on dejectedly. she always wore her “teeth” when she went out of the house. the servant had already gone and called a taxi. they had to leave, the appointment was in less than an hour. her uncle was hurrying into the room, you couldn’t be late, the doctor was a busy man, very well known, he had several operations lined up.
deepa blinked as an ad started playing on the desktop screen. she hadn’t realised she’d clicked on an open tab. why did they have these videos that started playing on their own? such bad communication design, attention-seeking… deepa shook her head, exasperated, and tried to return to the scene at the house that day.
her grandmother had a trapped look on her face, desperate. her smoky irises had turned to deepa’s mother and in a pleading voice she’d asked, “i’ve heard dr dutta is not like us, kayastha… that he is… a lower caste dutta… is it true?”
her mother had said in an even tone, “what does it matter, ma? he is a doctor.”
her grandmother had said nothing, knowing she was defeated. she’d slowly made her way to the taxi in that pristine, crisp white saree of hers. had her grandfather been alive, he might have roared about the importance of caste, refused to let a lower caste person touch his wife, and rescued her.
the operation had been successful. her grandmother had sung praises of the doctor for as long as she lived. she had never referred to his caste again.
deepa began to laugh. that look on her grandmother’s face had been funny. at twenty, she had to admit, she had not been sensitive at all. time shifted, that riff of the uncaring spontaneous laughter of her younger days effervesced inside her.
“i must tell the girls the story…” she thought, and almost immediately it struck her, they wouldn’t understand. not really.
jamini and srimoyee, jam and mona to most people, knew nothing about caste. ray and she never spoke about such things. it had no validity in their lives. the girls were twins, they were born almost fifteen years after she and ray got married. they were in amsterdam at the time. ray had been transferred to singapore a couple of years later. jam and mona had grown up in singapore, gone to an international school, and now they were in london in college. they had no idea about… deepa shook her head unconsciously as the thoughts tumbled in… oh, just about everything. a world… a universe almost. they knew nothing about it.
her grandmother had passed away just before deepa’s wedding. her mother had died when the girls were nine. her sister maya was a professor of astrophysics at cornell. she’d never married, though she had always had her “interests” as she liked to call her string of boyfriends. sometimes one of them got to be a “partner”, but rarely for long. maya was fickle. she was in therapy. the girls adored maya.
ajay had moved to bangalore, he was an artist, his wife kate was irish, they’d adopted two boys and a girl. ajay and kate loved animals and at any given time there were at least three dogs, a couple of cats, some fish and hamsters at their home. they’d just taken in an abandoned labrador. ashwatthama. that was the name of dronacharya’s son, one of the “chiranjivi”… immortals who’d live forever. ashwatthama was covered in sores when they found him and ajay had remembered the story from mahabharata their youngest great uncle had told them.
their youngest great uncle had been the repository of tales from the epics and also detective stories. he looked after the family temple, and though he had done his doctorate in english, deepa couldn’t recall ever seeing him go to work. he used to be a professor once some said, even if he wasn’t, it hardly mattered. what mattered were the late evening story sessions, when all the cousins and siblings sat around listening for hours. till mothers and aunts had to come and pull them away for their meal.
no one told stories anymore, deepa thought a little sadly. she started typing again.
they visited ajay in bangalore, sorry, now bengaluru. ajay and his wife and children came over too, sometimes a family holiday in bali… once they’d all gone to ithaca together.
after ma’s death, there had been hardly any need to go to kolkata.
and the house wasn’t almost there too. most of the structure had been demolished to make way for multistorey apartments, the land had been redeveloped. the edifice was crumbling in too many places anyway, “promoters” were willing to offer a good deal. they’d get flats and some money. the elders had agreed.
all that remained was the red oxide floor, now the cracks filled in and polished. the architects wanted to keep something from the original edifice, it would add a note of “culture” apparently to the development. kolkata people appreciated such things, it would translate to a better price for the property. the beams however were no more. they had been separated from the concrete and sold off by weight. no, they hadn’t thankfully, fallen on any heads.
all that the girls remembered from their annual trips to kolkata up to the age of nine, were the sweets and the luchi and their grandmother protecting them from her scolding. deepa bit her lip as she always did when mulling… the girls also remembered playing with jochhona didi.
she had come to work in their house as a child of twelve, maybe thirteen. her father had arrived one morning with her in tow; he’d said they were from medinipur, there had been a flood and all the crop had perished, there was no food; he was looking for work for his daughter. deepa’s mother had employed jochhona.
deepa still felt a wave of irritation at the memory. jochhona was a child. who made a child work? her mother had calmly said, there was always need for someone who could take care of the lighter chores: make the beds; wash the tea time dishes; get snacks, cigarettes, soft drinks from the shop at the gate; do the “phoot phormash” that is, run errands; things like that. jochhona had never lived in a city before. she’d run helter-skelter around the house the first time she heard the phone ring. she kept yelling, “o mother! o mother!” till ajay showed her the phone and introduced her to the monster.
jochhona’s rustic face with broad features, swarthy skin, and opaque expressionless eyes flashed before deepa’s mind. every month, her father came and took her salary, not a paisa for jochhona. when she was sixteen, her father said, they had found a groom for her, they were getting jochhona married, she had to go. jochhona left that very day. the house felt a little empty without her. she had a peculiar voice, guttural and big, completely at odds with her small frame.
it was while looking for jochhona one day that she’d seen her youngest uncle and her second aunt, her second uncle’s wife, in the room at the back. nothing much, just a glimpse of the two of them through the slightly ajar window. they’d been standing facing each other, her aunt was looking up at him. that’s all. deepa had felt a strange sensation along the outer edge of her ear lobes, her shoulders had gone hot. something had quickened and rumbled within her. she’d felt breathless. her aunt’s lips were just a little parted, her uncle’s hand went towards her.
deepa had turned around and bolted. she didn’t want to see what happened next. she just didn’t want to.
deepa bit her lips again. what a funny thing to remember. she hadn’t thought of it in years. she had no idea it was stored in her memory even, there were so many things she forgot. these days she kept forgetting things.
but why hadn’t she stayed by the window that day? was she trying to protect her aunt and uncle… or was it herself… from something? she knew there was no perfect world by then, but maybe she’d known if she didn’t leave, there would be more destruction. or was she just a coward?
jochhona had returned exactly two years later. this time without her father. her husband was a much older man. he had another wife. his wife hadn’t given him a son, so the old man had marred jochhona. there had been no tremor in jochhona’s voice as she stood in front of her mother looking down at the floor and said what she had to. deepa had noted her voice had changed in some way though, there was a robot like quality to it, a machine element. it was still big and guttural.
the old man was angry because jochhona hadn’t conceived. his first wife had started giving her less and less to eat. sometimes she beat her. a couple of months ago, jochhona’s husband had married again. a young girl, maybe only twelve years old. the first wife had thrown jochhona out of the house. she’d come straight here.
there was no “here” any more. the house was gone. only the red floor remained. not exactly the way it used to be, now patched up. promoters had no idea about restoration. the repair had been done by fairly unskilled labour, cheap and good as they said here in singapore. the gleam of the red oxide wasn’t quite the same any more. the floor now belonged to the “club room”, which was open to all the owners and tenants. people still slept, met, and ate there. though no one cut vegetables on a large, very sharp “bnoti” or sat on the floor fretting, waiting for their dentures and a reprieve from some ancient unquestioned fear.
she wondered what would happen if she told jam and mona about her grandmother’s white saree. why it had no border, no colour, nothing, it was simply six long yards of spotless white. all because she was a widow. that would surely start world war three. deepa grinned. an errant thought leapt and an unembodied tendril swished. why not? what better reason? if the insult of a woman could take an epic to kurukshetra, the ultimate and eternal battlefield as her youngest great uncle used to say… then surely this could be good reason for resistance, for war?
ajay had named ashwatthama not after dronacharya’s immortal son, as everyone thought. it was after the elephant. the elephant called ashwatthama that was killed on krishna’s advice, to trick the formidable opponent drona into believing his son was dead. “satyavadi” yudhisthir, who never lied, declared ashwatthama was dead, and artfully dropped his voice when he came to the part that said, it was an elephant. to put it plainly, he lied.
the thunderclaps grew louder. it began to rain.
sometimes in the deep of the night, she could hear intermittent loud crashes, sounded like thunder. she was only nine or ten years old at the time, the noise would wake her up. later she’d learnt, they were drum rolls from the western classical music her eldest uncle listened to at night. he lived in the far room of the outhouse. passing by, going toward the garage and the rose garden beyond, you could hear music playing. deepa and her cousins rima and rula would run over to the garden every day to collect flowers for the prayers. they also made garlands and bracelets of flowers and leaves.
“babul mora naihar chhuto…” she hummed, remembering the soulful strains of the song; a girl was leaving home, her father’s home, she was leaving and her boat was about to be untethered. the song of a newly married young woman setting out for her in-laws’ home, and who wouldn’t ache at her sadness as she was borne away from all she loved, knew, and called home. yet not a young bride, it was a wanton, wayward, artistic king that had written the song after the new conquerors had exiled him to another land. wajid ali shah had come to kolkata, leaving his home awadh, and while residing by a bend in the ganga at metiabruz, composed lyrics and poems filled with his longings.
no one was allowed to go to that outhouse room. but there was always the music. film songs, rabindrasangeet, atul prasad, m s subbulakshmi’s voice soaring and fluid as she sang d l roy’s “dhana dhanne pushpe bhara”, sitar, shehnai, flute, the theme of “pather panchali”. deepa’s eldest uncle was unwell those days. tb. the dreaded word was rarely spoken. doctors were trying some new medicine. he lived all by himself in that room, with k l saigal, lata mangeshkar, hemanta mukherjee, m s subbulakshmi, ravi shankar, bismilla khan, alla rakha, ali akbar khan, begum akhtar, hariprasad chaurasia, vilayat khan, pankaj mullick, sandhya mukherjee, george biswas, tagore, s d burman, sahir ludhianvi, guru dutt, wajid ali shah, and others.
at night, beethoven, tchaikovsky, mozart, chopin came by.
ma said k l saigal sang “babul mora” beautifully, but not as well as bade ghulam ali khan.
deepa kept writing, the rain was torrential now. perhaps a lot of what she was tapping out was incoherent, disorderly, awkward jump cuts. it wouldn’t make perfect sense to the girls. not immediately, at least. but she would write them down anyway. for these were not mere anecdotes, were they. even those rusty beams had made her in some way. everything had touched and shaped, cut and pruned. they were not mere content, all life was really copy.
for some reason, it hurt her acutely today that her children knew so little of her life. that her children couldn’t hear even faint echoes of her world. it was just their mother’s reminiscences from time to time, which left them with that understanding smile on their faces while their eyes said she hadn’t got through.
perhaps not a million descriptions and copy would acquaint jam and mona, would make her reality real to them in any way. but she would write just the same. deepa wondered if her mother felt like this at times, or her father? or her grandmother?
letters appeared on the screen, words formed, were deleted, were corrected.
the red passport lay in one corner. it had arrived the evening before. they’d just become singapore citizens. after so many years here, ray had said it didn’t make sense not to apply for citizenship. besides, the girls’ lives would be easier, no more visa queues, they could travel where they liked from london, and anyway, how much of india did they know…
deepa hadn’t been able to open the passport and look at it properly, check if the details were right. it lay there under some papers. jochhona looked up and made eye contact with deepa; her grandmother mashed nothing with her toothless gums; “emon deshti kotao kuje paabe nako tumi”, a country such as this will you never find anywhere… asserted m s subbulakshmi in her not perfectly pronounced bengali, beethoven’s fifth cut in with a da dada daaa; a rusty yellow beam began to fall towards her as she lay on her bed; the rose thorn pricked her finger, a dot of red oxide appeared and grew.
aery wisps and tendrils carrying moments and memory, subverting time, swarmed around.
if you’ve travelled far from home and made a life for this reason or that, you’d perhaps know this feeling. we all have specific stories, and our own universe. an old home that is physically almost gone, and one i was never too fond of, prods me to write. nostalgia though is not what drives me, something more visceral, perhaps survival feels threatened as everything moves too fast and we’re drawn further and further away from where we started. yet there’s always an anticipation of the unknown, the undiscovered, and what it brings. i hope you enjoyed the story, thanks for reading.