“you can’t go back…” whispered the summer wind brushing against my temple.
“what? what did you say?” it was nine in the morning, my mind wasn’t fully alert yet.
“you can’t go back home,” a ring of quiet assertion in the palmate leaf of the plant on my desk.
“it didn’t matter then… it matters now,” the white tea cup said.
the cup was almost empty. i longed for a sip of tea. how many years was it now that I’d had the tea cup? poured brown hot tea into it every day, watching as the milk swirled in? it signaled morning. awake. darjeeling tea. home.
“why didn’t you ever imagine this? you know anything can happen,” the tall green door between the bedroom and the verandah asked.
i hadn’t opened the door in a while, i hadn’t felt its slightly rough surface beneath my fingers, scratching my memory. was the wood underneath smooth actually? planed and polished? or had this bright parrot green always been the mantle of the tall green door?
my grandmother was sitting on the big bed in the centre of the room. her jaws moved incessantly, almost compulsively. she was chewing down on some betel nut bits with her toothless gums. didn’t it hurt her?
her saree was crumpled, fine white cotton with a bright red border. i struggled in my mind to see her in a red bordered saree, but i couldn’t. she was in plain white. she had acquiesced to the way prescribed as right all her life. even when she’d known it wasn’t. she was no fool. she knew why these prescriptions and prohibitions had been conjured, but she had gone along anyway after dadu died. perhaps in some corner of her neglected mind, she had a feeling for her husband that was precious. even if he had never known. even if he had never wanted to know.
she’d met my grandfather ramani ranjan bose when she was barely eight years old. he was a young man of seventeen, studying to get his degree in engineering from shibpur engineering college. she hadn’t known, of course, what engineer meant. just that her aunt, her father’s eldest brother’s wife kept saying, “injineear patro, injineear!”
patro can mean many things. a man, a container, a pot. in matrimonial matters, it means the bridegroom, prospective or actual.
“engineer bridegroom, engineer!”
ananya, my grandmother, had felt very important hearing her boro jethaima’s obviously proud tone. “injineear” must be a particularly grand thing she’d surmised, maybe he was even better than a rajputtur, a prince. she had been quite pleased at the idea of getting married, dressing up as a bride, in a red banarasi saree, with a mukut on her head, and pretty necklaces and bangles, even anklets on her feet, and alta. she had spent a lot of time wondering what her doll muniya would wear to her wedding.
i remembered my grandmother, i called her thamma, telling me the tales of her wedding as i lay next to her at night on our trips to kolkata. she had always worn white sarees, then they would have a border, it was often in a shade of red. but, now no more. not even in my imagination.
“promise me, you won’t come back, didu,” thamma was looking at me directly, i could see her greyish irises. cataract. she had refused to have it removed.
didu, that endearment, with its playful note. as if i were her elder sister or grandmother. both thamma and dadu called me didu, rarely was i addressed directly by my name. no one calls me didu any more.
“i never said you must follow the rules, i never said you cannot become injineear, i never said your patro couldn’t be different…” she was shaking her head slowly, in a dreamy gentle way, as she spoke.
she had been the first person i’d confided to. i had met this young man in college, we were in the same class. he was tall, he had thick beautiful hair. he seemed to like me.
“thamma, i think i want to marry him!” i’d blurted out.
“is that so, didu?” thamma had started laughing. i had grimaced.
“taa… does he want to marry you?” she had countered, her eyes glittering a little.
“i’ll make sure he does…” i’d muttered.
“won’t you tell me his name?” she’d enquired, tucking a pinch of betel nut in her mouth.
“mordecai!” it was a relief to tell someone at home at last.
“what’s that? i’ve never heard that name before…” said thamma.
“nor had i, till now,” i shrugged.
“it’s not safe, not safe at all!” a gust of wind blew around me.
“stop saying such things!” i turned and admonished the wind.
“it’s not the wind’s fault,” said ananya quietly.
i glanced back at her. she was sitting up straight on the bed, holding out her arms. i sat on my chair and refused to enter the room beyond the green door.
“you know i didn’t listen… even though muniya tried to tell me. you know, she was angry with me when i married your dadu, don’t you?” ananya said with a sigh.
“i was sure an injineear was wonderful. i’d be happy. everything will be good. but just wishing for something, does it make things happen that way? no didu, no…” the sadness in her voice travelled all the way, past the door, across seven oceans and thirteen rivers, over time and ether, and seeped into me.
i looked again at the bed. a little girl sat there. she must have been eight.
“muniya refused to come with me. she didn’t even dress up for my wedding. such a naughty doll. i was very angry.”
i watched the child, she had my nose… or maybe i had hers.
“didu, i have seen a lot in my life. both inside the home and in the world outside. muniya knew my injineear was not perfect, i’d never mean much to him… not because he was a bad man or anything, but he just didn’t know how to find happiness with another human being,” ananya picked up a book by her side. i had a distinct impression she was trying to hide her expression. i looked at the cover of the book.
she was always reading that one.
“upsidedownturn,” she said softly, the child with my tilt of head, flipping the pages of the great book, looking for something, “upsidedownturn has come again. it will end our universe. it will destroy everything in its path. please don’t come back.”
upsidedownturn. a simple play word made up by a child. why did it sound like apocalypse? like pralaya? the great dissolution. My mother used the word a lot when we were children, apparently my siblings and i were good at creating that.
“i know it hurts,” said the palmate leaf of the cassava plant. it has sat next to my computer for almost six years, steadily growing in a tiny pot.
“you don’t know,” i would have snapped, but i could just feel a heaviness rise in my chest, graze against my wind pipe, choking me.
not go back home? my home? our home?
mordecai and i had been married now close to thirty years. our daughter was born several years after our marriage, thamma had died the year before. i’d thought of calling my daughter after thamma’s doll. then something had held me back. sara, we’d decided to call her that. of course, since her mother was bengali, a pet name had to be found and given. i’d thought it up one day while sitting right here, designing a school gymnasium. hrida, from hriday… heart.
hrida was almost sixteen now. she was preparing for her “o” levels. she was planning to study history and music for her international baccalaureate. she was addicted to smoked salmon these days.
hrida. i felt a shard of something unfamiliar in me. could it be fear? it was all getting unreal. my daughter had never lived in our country, where mordecai and i had grown up. it felt strange that our child wouldn’t play on the same earth, breathe in the same air, sing the songs we knew. she wouldn’t know the smells of our land, good and putrid. the taste of it. she wouldn’t see and touch all the colours and hues of our land scattered and shimmering all around her.
she’d grow up far from it.
the thought always made me a little sad, but it couldn’t be helped. mordecai’s work took us to many parts of the world. i started freelancing, working on projects. i didn’t mind not having a steady job, not really… in fact, i quite enjoyed the freedom. hrida was born in oslo. then, when she was around two years old, we’d moved here.
all along i’d thought, no, i’d planned, often in great detail, we’d go back home one day. we’d build a small house on a hillside, with a garden. hrida would live there for a while… she’d live in the land where we all belonged. her father’s family for four generations, her mother’s, for who knows how many generations… fourteen, perhaps many more? who knew, who was keeping count? we belonged here.
no need for permanent residency anywhere else. citizenship of another country? no question. my home. i was going back home.
“the mob caught the man and asked him his name,” said the wind.
“they told him to speak a name he couldn’t. he wouldn’t. for his faith didn’t permit it,” the tree murmured.
“then they tied him to a tree and beat him…” whispered the tea cup.
“till he died,” said the door.
“they recorded it all on a video camera,” thamma mumbled.
upsidedownturn. i shut my eyes tight. no, this couldn’t be happening. not in my country.
when i opened my eyes at last, everything was silent. i looked in. thamma wasn’t there. but was that a doll on the bed?
beyond the window on the far wall, there was that house on a slope, flowers had started blooming in its garden.
i hope you enjoyed the story. a few bengali words, here’s what they mean: “thamma,” with the “th” a bit like in thames or thomas, is a child’s take on “thakuma” or paternal grandmother; “dadu” is grandfather; “boro” signifies big or elder, “jathaima” is an aunt who’s married to your father’s elder brother. a house that lives in memory comes calling as my country slides into upsidedownturn.