The Turtle-Pushpanjana Karmakar

Illustration by Nabeel Ahmad

She sat on the ivory-coloured sofa in Bengal Club. A picture of Sir Outram hung on the wall behind her. She wore a black dress in a cut that exposed her shoulder blades: soft, puffed as though these were revealed for the first time.  Her shadow fell on Outram’s picture appearing like a road slick with rain at night. She saw her hair tied into a puff at the top. The rest short, teasing hair lay loose over her shoulders. It gave a filigreed spectacle of her soft, lithe shoulders.

She detested the hairstyle made by Ma. Instead, she liked it tied into a bun with a frill of a little hair let loose on the nape of her neck. She twirled it around her index finger when she needed to reciprocate in a conversation. Reciprocation in a conversation was exacting and tiring for her. She never talked about herself. She listened to others and did more listening with each passing day. Talking is necessary to survive and to be evidenced as a human being. She did not like speaking – intervening or stalling a conversation by her bits and shreds- when another person talked. She neither expressed alarm or empathy. A conversation is a space for mutual discovery. But she found it hard to colour or mount others’ words while they spoke. Some knotty force always prevented her from speaking. The force of unspoken lips.  The force of repetition of human fate.  The force that builds another force. A wall grows within another wall from where there is no running away. The unseen shadow of an arriving flower walks into the lap of a dying flower. She went behind the wall and slipped beneath the shadows into a wilful, unquestionable withdrawal.

A lonely person turns into a soliloquist. A person in the company of a ceaseless talker turns into an obscurantist.

Rimi, Purnima’s mother, came looking for her, holding a plate of fish finger, with a remnant of a smile seated on her lips from a passing greeting or compliment. “Eat, you won’t easily find this in Delhi” – she said thrusting it on her palms. The brown-crusted slender fish fingers lay on the plate holding no lure for her. She didn’t feel hunger until it singed her stomach. Hunger first rose like a sharp pain, then gutted her insides, leaving her feet tremble and nerves of left cheek making snapping sounds.

She took a small bite and then put the rest back on the plate.

Some hours later her Ma came, wearing an orange Assam silk, and glanced at the plate. “Why didn’t you eat” –she asked picking one piece up, holding it like a pendulum. “Did you do anything with your hair, Purnima. Earlier it was plain, some strands of hair are uprooted now, it looks like loose cable wires of Calcutta streets. Have you forgotten the triple PPP – Poignant, poise and Precious of a full moon?

She was named Purnima because of her archetypal fair-skinned beauty. Her Ma also wanted to instil the attributes of the moon which according to her was PPP. Purnima, however, found the allusion silly and onerous.

She looked up at Ma and then slowly removed her hands from her shoulders with a slight jerk.

Purnima had let loose her hair from the clutch of brown hair clip and pulled one strand of hair upwards, making it look ungainly and starkly unacceptable to her mother. Her Ma stood there elucidating different kinds of freshwater fish – koi, pabda, tangra, chitol, boyal animatedly. Even if you find these varieties in Delhi, those are not as tasty and succulent as the ones you find in Calcutta. “Aladai shaad”, she exclaimed.  Purnima has heard this several times figuring in conversations among Bengalis in Delhi barring those who refuse to be identified as Bengali, rather a Bengali from West Bengal. Something about West Bengal unsettles them or perhaps besmirches their reputation. She has heard this aspect also in conversations taking place on Rajdhani trains. There is a clan which had put the entire map of West Bengal in the clutch of Calcutta, whether it is Bolpur or Kharda. They just wanted to be looked upon as metropolitan city-dwellers.

“Why don’t you move to Calcutta Didi, then, if you appreciate its food, culture and people?” Rimjhim, Purnima’s youngest aunt said.

“Many of us know that the job situation is bleak in Calcutta. Who wants to put their careers at stake?”

“Yes, Mashi. It seems as if the city belongs to senior citizens. I see them everywhere- hobbling, with the walking stick, wearing clothes that come off their bodies. Their children have moved to other cities or countries to seek jobs. They are dependent on neighbours or a local shop vendor for telephone, gas bills. They live bamboozled by progress in technology. Here in our para  Shombu,  the cell phone recharge vendor helps an old woman in understanding the basics of the functioning of a cell phone. She has no knowledge of contact lists, the log of phone calls. He has prepared a list of the important phone numbers and tied it around the phone with a rubber band. She comes every week with some issue, either her phone gets switched off, or the volume of calls go significantly down. She is hardly able to get in touch with her son, and when she does, she is barely able to hear.”

 “Bengalis living worldwide are well attached to their culture. Politics and ego deepen the crisis. Colleges and educational institutions are a hotbed of politics. Education takes a back seat. The private companies and startups wind up. The restaurant business is booming. You fill your bellies and enjoy afternoon naps. Calcutta is in a decadent state now.” Rimi said, her nostrils flaring up.

“Many live here, earn and survive. If the city is in a decaying state, take stock of the situation yourself. Why unnecessarily blame and do armchair criticism. I run a business and sell handicrafts and saree, I help the saree weavers survive. I give them the rightful money.”

Rimi, threw a piece of a fish finger into Purnima’s mouth like a spade throws earth around a new sapling. Purnima winced and gulped it down without chewing.

A few minutes later, Purnima’s other aunts gathered around her, wearing Dhakai, Ikkat, Kanjeveeram sarees. They were visiting Calcutta after two years. Their faces feverishly beamed to see each other. The sticky issue of family property had subsided under the mellow light of Bengal light. But this didn’t bury the rift among them. It was waiting to surface on the slightest mention of gold and their ancestral house.  The last time she visited Calcutta, her eldest aunt has conspired with her uncle, hoodwinking him into getting a bigger share of gold. Deceit finds its way bitingly and discreetly. Rimi had found a note on the floor of their house which evidenced the collusion between her sister and brother.

Purnima sat on the sofa, looking through the passage filled with people eating, dazed by phone screens, placing hands around each others’ shoulders in affection, gazing up and down, blinking away the disagreeable parts of a conversation. A man wearing a grey full sleeve shirt, skin hardened from shaving over the years, face populated by black blotches just stood and clicked pictures of people as they were: always living in the periphery.

At the end of the passage, the food was kept in steel cauldrons on a long table covered in a white sheet. People milled around there in anticipation of delectable food, the smell coming in through helping them make surmises about the food: whether it is fish or mutton. The waiters paced up and down with obliging yet furtive expressions. The one waiter who had brought Darjeeling tea had coal hidden in his pocket. His grey hair shone like cement under sunlight. He had a broad nose and a forehead forming the genesis of his structure, and greasy eyes. As he placed the tray on the table, the coal fell out of his pocket. The fire of secret possessing him burnt his insides. Purnima, in the inferno of a spilt secret, rushed to the washroom.

Two posters hung between the mirrors, which read – “Mirror, mirror everywhere, who’s the rarest of them all.” and  “Bee, bee do you want to doll up.” She cried throwing herself forward entering a bathroom. The turtle slipped into the sea after laying eggs. The sea was inside her, where the turtle is resting. The sea was where the secret will find a harbour amid remnants of a wrecked ship, sea anemones, flotsam, ghost fish-nets, beds of coral reef.

She came back and sat on the sofa with legs spread wide apart, one hand clasping her stomach and the other cupping her head. A wave of torment crept into her. It was an ominous feeling of others looking at her; at her incommunicable part. The mellow yellow light of Bengal Club comforted her insides. “Stitch your legs together,” – Rimi said, arching her eyebrows. “Oh Didi ! This is not a Victorian era. She doesn’t have to observe etiquettes. Show your mother the cut on the nape of your neck. Is it a bruise, it’s not, right Purnima,” — said her youngest aunt, Rimjhim, twitching her lips.

“She neither has manners nor emotions. Her nociceptors don’t react to the pain stimuli. When her uncle passed away, did she shed a tear? I thought she was attached to him. He used to tell her stories about termites, cleaner fish, and turtles.”

A few days ago Purnima had read an article in the Sunday Guardian: –

A Scary World without pain is a scary place authored by Steve Connor

“About one in a million people are thought to be born without a sense of pain, which results in severe self-inflicted injuries from an early age and can lead to premature death. Scientists studying the condition have now identified mutations in a gene called PRDM12 that was already known to be involved in activating genetic switches. The ability to sense pain is essential to our self-preservation.

The SCN9A gene provides genetic instructions to one part of the sodium channel involved in transmitting nerve impulses via pain neurons called nociceptors to brain and spinal cord. People born with congenital insensitivity to pain tend to chew their tongues, lips and hands and harm themselves in all possible ways. It is important to understand how pain is perceived than expressed. “

She had described this to her Ma and since then Rimi had been using this word “nociceptors.”

Pain is the locked house which when opened suddenly after years, gives you all its tremors withheld for years. Pain is a storm which never breaks free of its body.

“Rimi had sent a picture of you on my phone that day. Your hair looked like a keekar tree. Do you never comb your hair? How have you come here today with neat and combed hair?’ Rimjhim asked expecting a flutter in Purnima. She remained quiet, her eyes trailing the gaunt waiter.

“Well, I saw your picture on friend’s profile. You look dull, pallid of the all. And please Purnima, stop carrying the jute bag. The sight and smell of jute makes me feel nausea. Why don’t you dress up in colours. Stop wearing white all the time. Even being a widow I don’t wear white much”, he said clasping the cup of Darjeeling tea with firmness. Her bony cheeks jutted out under the tension of her tightened, inward lips which protested the sudden tears.

  “Are you attracted to somebody? Or, have you lost somebody, I mean a friend. Love and loss bring out the cold terrains of a human heart. Purnima, I know you are hiding something from us.

“No, Mashi. I am not.”

“You can tell me. Your mother will take you through a coercive arranged marriage. She will never pay any heed to your emotions. She believes in structure, plain structure. She mocks my marriage. She says just because I didn’t honour your Dida, Dadu’s wishes, he died an untimely death. I can’t bear the smell of jute. It suffocates me.”

“I noticed how you were repulsed by Rimi’s touch on your shoulders. You jerked them off. I see you are growing distant from your mother.”

Purnima sat as quiet as a tree-root. She looked up at one of the sketches on the wall near the exit door. The turtle crawled past her, towards the ‘gaunt waiter’. He looked up away at her while helping one guest to tear the sugar-free sachet. Stirred up by his gaze, she started rummaging in desperation for an object to escape his gaze. The sketch on the wall in front of her had one man pulling a rickshaw, another carrying a load on his back and three more human figures trudging their paths against the backdrop of a row of houses sharing a common wall. The rich abandon of a fatigued labourer in the sketch struck her. The stipple, black dots around the labourer’s forehead were done delicately which conveyed struggle and self-healing of a human’s face. She had seen plenty faces matted by sweat in Chadni Chowk in Delhi, pushing and pulling sack-full carts, coolies’ heads as hard as the carapace. Labour is a detention in odds for survival. The struggle comes out in tight, swelled veins of wrists trying to clasp a handle on local trains, buses, feet coiled amid feet of overcrowded transportation. Every man’s way of survival surpasses every another man’s.

Her Aunt, Rimjhim was still sitting beside her, giving a sweeping glance at Purnima’s father’s male friends and wives. “Hasn’t that lady with the dessert bowl in her hand recently got a breast removed, Purnima? Rimi told me so. That lady stays morose because her husband has started being indifferent towards her ever since she had removed it. It is better to have a dead husband than an indifferent one,” Rimjhim said closing her fist.

Rimjhim, hollow-cheeked, her hair reduced to a small shrubbery at the back, ears with a wide gap between tragus and anti-tragus. Rimi said her sister was an archivist of gossip. She can hear frequency of sounds through echolocation as sharply as a bat does – Rimi joked. Purnima looked at her mashi’s tragus. The word “tragus” traces its origins to the Greek word “tragos” which apart from meaning “he-goat”  is also  the foundation for the word “tragedy.” A whistle, a bird call, an asphalt-laying vehicle, a cough will be muted before or after our death. Listening is carved out of tragedy.  So if a human ear listens to every word: kind or disparaging, intended and the unintended, the person will experience nausea, a convulsion inside. Much of the human interpretations of our condition are loaded with empathy or inquisitive envy. The other person is ill-equipped with the heart of the sufferer. The tragic occurrence is not what passes through the ear, but what stays inside and corrupts our will and decays our conviction.

Purnima liked the shape of the tragus and anti-tragus of Ayon’s ears. Broad, spaced-out, the two rods stretched out in the shape of deer horns. She knew he listened to her eagerly, with a longing to hold her in a promise of immanence.

Ayon was Purnima’s classmate in college. They had struck up a friendly chord. He wrote poems of love, mysticism and the exquisite beauty of North Eastern part of India. He disliked bridges. They compelled him to reach somewhere. The destination was a pre-requisite for a bridge. He only liked sea. He wrote:

“Heart is an arriving flower

floating in the shadow of the dead flower

trying to catch its colour of catalyst.”

In college Purnima was teased for being painfully quiet. “Take this healing stone and place it under your tongue. It can set you talking.” Once a boy threw a condom on the table near which she was sitting and remarked “Now you’ll moan. You have to respond.” Little did anybody know except Ayon that her mother’s extramarital affair had silenced her beyond repair. Rimi had a separate section in her cupboard for the sarees, underwear, hairclips and perfume meant to be worn to pursue such affairs. Purnima hated the smell of the perfume she wore before meeting him. The illegitimate acts of a mother arouse more bitterness in children than a father’s.  In such moments of despondency Ayon often recited “Typed with one Finger” by Dom Moraes:-

Travel with me on the long road

into loneliness, where the hours

offer pardons to those still afraid.

Bursts of white and blue flowers

will surprise you in summer, with

denials of what is called death.

When I am not there in the maze

where the long road ends, think

of the clumsy stutter of my limp

behind you always, hindering you,

trying to help you, all my days.

She used to feel calm and restored by his reading of this poem. Poetry helps a man walk along only to be stumbled back to it.

They enjoyed walks around Camac Street, Mirza Ghalib Street, Dhakuria Lake accompanied by the clanging of bells of “Ghotigorom.” She would skip tuitions and meet him. Once she absented herself from tuition and went to meet him at Park Circus. The cross-road was buzzing with people.   A troop of skull- capped people, were on the street heading for Friday prayers.  She was unable to spot Ayon- a medium height boy with a stocky body, patches of beard, a door-knob shaped nose and eyes filled with the calm of an estuary.

She saw a spot of his head behind a multitude of others who were trying to cross the road. He took a step late, miscalculating the traffic signal time. When he took another step, the traffic signal changed its colour, and he got run over by a bus. When the bus sped away, Purnima saw his brown shoes lying apart across the road amid the discarded waste of nearby tenements; his head smashed, blood spilling out of it. The blood-splattered grey shirt clutched his body; his face marked by fruitfulness and certainty of death. In the backdrop of the ensuing commotion of people pelting stones at the bus, Purnima walked away from Ayon’s dead body. It lay like a mysterious, unclaimed shoe on the street. She did not feel any pang of sadness. The teasing sea wave rose, rolled and crashed at the beach away from her feet. She waited for this wave to touch her body. And that day she knew that the wave would touch her feet.

There is a music of terror in belief. The belief which tells us to wait leads us to crossroads of hope. We all are waiting to find a voice of powerlessness in others.

 She came back home unfazed by Ayon’s death. She answered her mother’s call for dinner. Sitting at the table, she looked at the blue-tasselled curtains and the “hatha” immersed in brown reddish macher jhol. She convulsed at the sight of food and human presence. Pain visited her like a prick. Tears frothed her eyes.

She had to overcome this loss alone. While her friends would have mocked at his stout physical appearance; her family would have warned her of immature love which could not have culminated in a concrete marriage. She had to suffer alone. Pain wrung her heart. She used to bend her index finger backwards to hurt herself mindlessly. A few days later, her uncle passed away.  She did not shed a tear. Her mother was surprised at her coldness and insouciance. The world never grants cathartic freedom.

She sobbed with pangs trying to escape her bones. Kamola’s words came to her – Pain is a gratifying discovery of self beyond contemplation. Kamola, her domestic help, attended to her needs since childhood whether in Calcutta or Delhi. She has tailed them wherever they went. She had told how she would wade through ankle-deep mud to cut kochu-shaak from lands around ponds. She would carry an extra saree had the one she wore got besmirched in mud. “It gives you an itch in throat. But try relishing kochu with the head of Illish maach,” she would tell her to grow a kochu (colocassia plant) to observe the beauty of a water drop.

“Grow a kochu  and see how it catches a water drop in it. See how the water drop bobs in wind”

“It holds it like its secret” – she said, her eyes shone with threat of revealing the secret. She was the only one who knew about Purnima’s relationship with Ayon.

The soul is a bridge between conscious knowledge and indifference. She was sitting at the embankment of indifference. She saw a boat in the faraway distance, with its fisherman gazing at her in cool despondence. She twirled the strand of her hair at the nape of neck in times of helplessness. The turtle inside her crawled towards the sea after laying eggs, withdrawing; relieved after shedding the need to go through the bane of life – visibility.

“Purnima, you are hiding something. Do you fear the consequences?” – Rimjhim inquired.

The ‘gaunt’ waiter passed her by casting a grim gaze at her. She felt desecrated by it. In loops of pain and hysteria, she was struck by distant empathy from a stranger. According to her, the word ‘stranger’ traced its roots to two distinct words ‘stray’ and “range.” Did it describe the range of a human straying? In times of loss and despair, we stray and distance ourselves from the hammering reality. We strive to be subdued and be invisible to the world filled with consolation and promises of restoration. The stranger is the one who strays not only from the world but from the cathartic oneself. He or she grows into a playground left quiet by the slow departure of the shrieking, cheering children in the evening. Everything around is a forged reality while everything inside us is a clean disorder. The unutterable sadness inside us renders the world around us meaningless. Our body torments to stray from the vertical order of time. Time has a strange way of remaining intact, whole against the disintegration of hopes and the untimely loss of love. Time never breaks down, disintegrates. It is a continuous, uninterrupted flow intimidating the stranger who is merely looking for clarity before death, a remnant before a formation. It is as though time has whispered into his or her ears that destruction precedes a formation and a blur is clearer than death.

The tender bygones walk into our lives without us ever understanding where we are present- the past-present, past-past, present-future, and future-past. We continue to stray fearlessly. Uncertainty claims us without a pardon.

The image of the green bathroom window of her Calcutta home flashed before her. The iron-grill wore off. The rust has gathered at its foot. A brownish-black lizard with a swelled belly has found a home in the hinges of the window. It sashayed in dignity. Its eyes were full of macabre appreciations of the world. She looked out of the window, at the sky smudged with red clouds drifting around a cumulonimbus cloud waiting to break into a torrent. The leaflet of betel nut tree and coconut tree in the faraway distance appeared as a small wave of hands. The sky and the leaf of the coconut tree converged, met at a distance as though the leaf was trying to tease the clouds urging rains. It rained.  The green of the moss grew deeper. The pond quivered under percussionist rains. The water drops leaping from chaad beranda, corrugated roofs scattered to form a river of home for strangers. On the rooftop terrace of the house seen from the window, were kept a broken door of verdigris colour, a coconut leaf, a rocking chair, an iron pail and a coil of rope. Between the door and the coconut leaf, a mirror-like small pool of water was found. The fate of a mirror is dismaying; the faces abscond, the mirror remains. The mirror perceives human face as transient as a human nail, grown only to be discarded.

In that house lived a husband and wife aged between 70-75 years. Their son lived in the U.S. who visited them once a year to repair the bathroom flooring and replace the rocking chair.

Between the leaves of the betel nut tree, she could see the waiter and his grim gaze. She threw back herself on the wall, cringing her face. Tears came out of her eyes lined with thick eyelashes.

Kamola’s husband died from hooch drinking. Her husband was a violent, alcoholic person. He physically abused her. She had shown Purnima the scars and bruises on her body. She had to stay away from domestic work for several days on account of this. Many times, her employers terminated her services abruptly. She then had to start looking for another house because her husband hardly gave money to make both ends meet. She was the sole breadwinner for her children. She once said that she used to keep money inside a small paper bag pinned to the bamboo roof of her hut to prevent her husband from frittering away her hard-earned money. One scar was a long, stretching from her shoulder to bra line and the other was on her right leg. When he died, she felt relieved. She neither mourned nor felt abandoned. She felt gravitated towards her core. After his death, she blew the conch; her body trembled till she ran out of breath. The water drop on the kochu plant quivered along with her. She felt free and graceful, emptied of an ugly outgrowth. Sometimes the absence of a human being is more rewarding than its presence.

A shopkeeper, Sumon, who sold clothes and toys at Sealdah station was attracted to Kamola. She was often seen with him and once spotted by her villagers. They branded her as a witch as she didn’t show signs of grief and loss to the world outstretched before her. Her “Goj Daant” and black marks on her body reinforced the image. Rumours spread that she was suffering from the man-tree disease. Every villager would scorn and pass remarks at her.

 The shopkeeper used to go somewhere abandoning his shop in the afternoon. His co-vendors took care of the afternoon sale, compensating for his absence. The toys and clothes sold by him were of the finest quality which had retained his customers. When they came in the afternoon and didn’t find him at the shop, they left disappointed. He never deceived anybody and had always exhibited the fine things available, unlike some others who used to keep fine materials underneath the inferior ones.

Later did many realize that Sumon went somewhere in the nearby hutment areas and had sexual pleasures with Kamola. It wasn’t known whether it was a momentary outgrowth of pleasure or a weathered love, but Kamola has given herself subliminally to this conduct of hers.

“I spread my legs. He is a small worldly creature before me. He smells pheromones like male ants do. We are turned about each other. Affairs are sickly at my village. They gossip about me. I feel a wave of nausea living there but when I am with him, I am a whimsical sea”  Kamola said introducing Purnima to the world of sexual pleasures.

Purnima was gripped by her stories of escapades, blister diseases, colocasia uprooting, moon-gazing, from uthon of her house in Canning, Kamola showed marks of Sumon’s passion on her chin.

Time doesn’t heal a wound; time demystifies it; hope slackens; bygones burden you with expectations that one must forget.

Now, she sat in Bengal Club embodying the secret of Ayon’s death. She had developed a hatred towards sounds of bells from temples. She can never tell anybody how agonised she still is.

She often wakes up in the middle of the night, and his face flickers before her. She walks into the soul of the sea, like the turtle, invisible in grief, to get gripped in the tangle of love.


English Translations of few Bengali words used in the above text.

Chaad Verandah – the portion of the verandah that is outstretched with gargoyles often attached to eject water is called Chaad Verandah in Bengali.

Ghotigorom – a concoction of fried chickpea flour, onion, chilies, mustard oil, tomato, spondias mombin

Kochu Shaak- Colocassia Plant

Maach – Fish

Macher Jhol- fish curry

Para – a neighbourhood colloquially called para in Bengali to indicate known people with whom one regularly hobnob, chit-chat, gossip, and also to highlight the distinctive character of the locality marked by shops, schools, learning institutions, libraries.

Aladai shaad – conveying that the food is remarkably delicious.

Uthon – the extended part of a house without a roof where people usually sit and chatter

Dida and Dadu- Grandmother and Grandfather in Bengali

Born and raised in Calcutta, Pushpanjana Karmakar has contributed poems to magazines like The Harvest Millennium, Kritya, and Poetry India: Enchanting Echoes (All India Poetry Competition), Coldnoon Poetics and one piece of fiction to Indian Review. She currently works as a corporate lawyer in Delhi. She is also a part of a poetry group Moonweavers in Delhi. She has one upcoming publication in Kitaab journal.In pursuit of discovery of the core of a human heart, she likes to portray the unspeakable wrench seated in the souls of a human being in the backdrop of overflow of superficial catharsis on the internet in respect to human relationships, loss and resuscitation.