A muggy, summer Calcutta afternoon in 1986. On the way back from school, a fifteen-year-old boy and the driver of his father’s company car are stuck in traffic. The road has no lane markers, and shows its age with every pothole, crack, dip and slant. Just ahead, a No. 2 bus—also ancient—exhales passengers and black exhaust. On its roof, fastened by jute rope: a yellowish oak almirah and matching rocking chair, crates full of lychees and mangoes (then in season), and also crates full of live hens, feathers flying. Behind the car, passive-aggressive auto-rickshaw and car drivers wait, unnecessarily honking their horns, while aggressive-aggressive bicyclists ride past the car, squeeze by the bus, and disappear out of sight.
“What’s happening up there?” Uncle Prakash says, pointing to my head, in between drags from his No. 10 Filter. He smokes only when my parents are not around, and always with the windows open, this habit of his being a secret between us.
Prakash appears in my life during Class Nine—after Uncle Jaswant, his predecessor, catches pneumonia and dies—and comprises one-half of the status symbol my parents cherish the most, the other, of course, being the car itself: an Ambassador Sedan, in powder-blue, with dark-blue checkered terry-cloth upholstery. It is not German-made, but that will change with my father’s next promotion, I’ve been assured. Baba’s department has come up with another new curative that makes vulcanized rubber even less sticky, which apparently makes tires a little safer and will consequently help his multinational company steal even more market share from its competitors. The bigwigs all the way in Birmingham, England, know who my father is.
We start moving. In between shifting gears and nimbly navigating traffic, Prakash turns his head momentarily, raising his mirrored sunglasses to wink at me.
“I was asking you about your problem.”
“You know, Ma thinks that you drive too fast.”
“I drive too fast? Half the drivers on the road don’t even have licenses, and your mother thinks I drive too fast! You’ve seen this, right?”
He reaches across and pats his license inside the laminated package taped to the dashboard. As he does this, his bell-bottom gabardine trousers and unbuttoned-to-the-belly, tight-checkered, silk shirt make scratching, squishing noises, and the gold chain and locket that are normally nestled within his talcum-powdered chest hair dangle like a jhoola swing.
“Your proudest accomplishment–I know! It took you years to acquire it, during which you had to do all kinds of odd jobs. But Ma still thinks that you drive too fast.”
He lets out an exasperated sigh. “You know what? Forget your mother, let’s talk about you. Come on! I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Yaar.”
“Maybe I’m pissed because Baba will miss my birthday again this year.”
“You mean when he’s traveling next week? When’s your birthday?”
“Ok, I’ll get you something.”
“He did this last year too,” I vent, “when he made his big speech at that conference. Got me the new tennis racket and jeans from New Market as an apology.”
“Your parents really like that place, don’t they? What brand jeans?”
“What the hell difference does that make?”
“What brand jeans?”
Prakash Mandal comes from Mohanpur Village near Bardhaman; his is a respectable farm family—he insists—that fell on hard times during the great floods of 1977, which is why he had to leave home. Now he wears his hair like Amitabh Bachhan, the famous movie star, and arrives at our house early mornings to pick up Baba for work (when Baba is in town), then comes back to take Ma to the radio station and me to school. His afternoon routine runs in reverse: dropping me off first and then going to pick up Ma, and finally Baba again. In between, apart from taking Baba to meetings and lunches, he claims to spend the time on his hobbies, which are activities I can only fantasize about: checking out the latest hit movies, betting parlays at the race track, catching matinee football games, and attending workers-union rallies.
Turning left into our street, now ambling past corrugated-iron fenced homes with manicured lawns and gardens, he exhales languidly, and shakes his head sympathetically while making a “tsk, tsk” sound by pressing his tongue behind his teeth.
“Home is not just a place, I say. It’s nothing if not for the people you grow up with.”
We pull up to the house.
“Uncle Prakash, where do you get all this communist bullshit?”
“What? There’s no such thing! Why would you even think that?”
“Ma says you’re full of it and has asked Baba to fire you and get another driver.”
Thereafter, Prakash washes the car every morning, refrains from speaking around my parents except deferentially, and never leaves pamphlets or ash inside.
By the time a new wave of riots envelope the city an year later, my father has risen like a streak to the post of General Manager of his company’s largest tire manufacturing plant in India, and my mother has been appointed Secretary of the Calcutta Chapter of the OPW–the Organization for Professional Women. We now get around town in a jet-black Mercedes, but somehow, our driver remains the same.
The morning the news of yet another violent massacre breaks, Ma fumes during breakfast. Pushing aside the newspaper in disgust, she says, “Okay, not putting us on the front page—I understand. But not even the back page? After me repeatedly reminding them that it’s Mother Teresa we’re raising money for tonight! And yet, they have us buried here on page seventeen, next to some disgusting construction announcement that no one cares about.”
Baba, about to go out of town that morning, starts to say something, then stops. Letting out a slight sigh, he adjusts the knot on his tie instead.
Ma grunts and roll her eyes. “I forget sometimes,” she tells me pointedly, “you do not achieve as much success in your career as your father has by not learning when not to speak.”
“My mother taught me that to be a virtue,” Baba replies.
“Your mother is a housewife who’s spent her life catering to an imbecile of a man. Your wife, who is just as educated and smart and successful as you are, on the other hand, thinks of this so called ‘silence-is-golden’ gimmick of yours as nothing more than a weakness.”
“Can one of you please explain to me,” I intrude, “what happened? What were those people protesting? And why couldn’t the police stop so many people from dying?”
“Don’t you worry about what’s going on,” my father replies. “These things happen all the time, all over the world. Let the shopkeepers, the office peons, and everybody else get hysterical about them, but there’s no need for you to do so. You just worry about your grades.”
Anjali Auntie, our maid, pokes her head in the dining room to tell him the driver is there.
Baba gets up. Resting a palm on the table and gently pressing my back with the other, he says, “Once again, let the common man worry about these common things, right? You, on the other hand…now you are supposed to be the real future of this country. Just focus on school. And speaking of which, do you know what Ashok’s father told me when I ran into him at the club last week? Ashok can already recite The Triumph of Life from memory, Kumar!”
“Well, Ashok told me that you told his father I can already do calculus, even though I can’t. I know you’d like it if I could, but calculus, really?”
“Then shouldn’t you finish eating and work on your math?”
He tousles my hair and leaves.
Naturally, it is Prakash I turn to for an explanation later that afternoon. Nonchalantly blowing smoke out the window, he says, “Class warfare – it has happened since the beginning of time, and it will happen until the end of mankind. We are all merely playing different roles depending upon the situation in which we find ourselves.”
“That makes zero sense to me. Will you cut this crap and explain plainly what’s with all these riots?”
“What if I told you that people are protesting the fact that they are underpaid, have nothing to save and little to eat, while just a few like your…well, you know, get more and more rich? Why else would you think thousands of people would go march the streets every day?”
“Every day. There’s a protest happening right now–you bet. I don’t even need to read tomorrow’s paper to tell you that.”
A strange excitement seizes me. “I want to see it. Let’s go.”
“No, Kumar. No! I’m not going to lose my job. Forget it, okay?”
But I haven’t watched my mother’s relentless needling of my father for years to have learned nothing from it. It takes some cunning words and wily facial expressions, but eventually Prakash agrees that this is precisely the type of field trip that I need if I am ever to acquire his kind of street smarts. He parks in a spot behind a dinky bar near Park Street, leaves the car running and asks me to wait while he runs inside. A few minutes later, he emerges with a smile and bad breath.
“I’ve never downed a beer that fast,” he says, “but we’re good to park here.”
We walk the last kilometer or so to the Maidan grounds. Prakash wasn’t lying–there are thousands of people here. They spill over the sidewalks and onto the streets. They carry their placards and banners, chant slogans, march toward the parade ground. The buses, the lorries and the cars have come to a mutual misunderstanding with them and stand idle, belching smoke.
Prakash guides me up three flights of a rusty, wrought-iron staircase on the side of a bank building. The rooftop is full of other bystanders. We elbow our way through for a better view of the action below. The air is clotted, and the smell of sweat of the people surrounding us makes me gag. From near the edge of the roof, I watch a sea of men foaming at their mouths. Their raw energy takes my breath away. Something very important is happening, I know, but what that is seems just beyond my grasp, like the pre-calculus that my private tutor tries to teach me during our weekend sessions.
Then sirens blare, and the marchers below comes to a complete standstill. At the end of the street where we cannot clearly see, a melee breaks out. Loud bangs are heard.
“Teargas, already?” Prakash laughs. “Pull out your handkerchief and cover your nose.”
Now we see the policemen. Rapidly they disembark from a pair of vans, take up their positions and form a barrier across the entire width of Park Avenue, three columns deep. Some of them are in all-white uniforms, others in khakis, but they all wear dark blue helmets, and they wield batons in one hand while holding a shield with the other. They march slowly, deliberately, toward the protesters.
The protesters chant with more intensity. Rocks start flying through the air toward the policemen. Some of the policemen pick up those rocks and hurl them back into the crowds. Then one, then two, then a mass of protesters rush the policemen and pandemonium breaks loose. The protesters try to break the barriers. The policemen start swinging their batons, they push the protesters back. But at least one protester breaks through the barriers and runs to the other side like a streaking meteor, policemen giving chase.
Then one of the protesters slips and falls. Immediately he is surrounded by a swath of policemen. They swing their sticks at the man as he cowers on the ground, arms covering his head.
The bystanders around me gab excitedly. “There goes one,” a stranger says.
This is where I lose consciousness.
When I come to, Prakash is splashing water to my face, patting my cheek. A woman holds a bottle of water, while other faces leer at me.
“Weirdo,” someone says. “There’s not even that much blood on the street.”
Prakash helps me sit up. He uses his handkerchief to fan me.
I am finishing up Class Ten when my parents separate, but they do not divorce. The separation happens passive-aggressively, not aggressive-aggressively. Baba takes a posting at company headquarters in Birmingham. Ma does not move with him, but a friend of Baba’s—someone I’ve known for a while as an Aunt Megha—will discreetly join him in a few months. Before Baba’s move, a decision is made that it is best for me to attend high school in Calcutta’s most prestigious boys’ boarding academy, which in turn will prepare me for all the top colleges in the world. I take an admission test, the mathematics section of which lays bare my ineptitude in pre-calculus, and in the essay section of which I pen a venomous rant against the world at large. But a discreet, sizeable gift my father makes to the school still ensures that I get in.
My parents never get a divorce.
“There’s no need for scandals now, is there?” Prakash says in between blowing smoke circles into the air. “This way, everybody wins. Like I say, scandals are for vandals, Yaar!”
I have never heard him say that before, but I do not tell him that. Instead, I mutter, “Fuck them. Just fuck them.”
“Language, Kumar!” He grins and winks. “But don’t you worry. I’ll get a new boss now, yes, but I’ll still come visit you in hostel whenever I can.”
“I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Yaar,” Prakash says.
It’s Sunday, his day off, and having spent the early afternoon catching Amitabh’s latest blockbuster at the Metro, we are now seated on the dilapidated bleachers of Curzon Park, eating bhel-puri bought from a street vendor and watching a spirited pickup cricket match, killing time.
“I got into a big argument with Uncle Kalyan last week,” I tell him.
Kalyan is my mother’s brother, my real uncle, with whom and whose family Ma and I spend our holidays and count our blessings during our countless Bengali festivals.
“You know, the usual. He didn’t like something I said, so he called Baba some sick names and made it sound as if by virtue of being Baba’s on, I’m the same.”
Prakash lets out a soft whistle. “Asshole! What was the point of telling you that? What else did he say?”
“Um, we didn’t talk much after that. But come on, Uncle Prakash! Don’t you feel the same way about Baba? You just don’t say it to my face, that’s all. Tell me the truth.”
He does not. Instead, he stares straight ahead, his eyes hidden behind those mirrored sunglasses, but the rest of his disposition—the pursed lips, the clenched jaws—make him look as handsomely angry as Amitabh in the movie we just saw.
A small cheer goes up on the field and a ball—its covers frayed, seams breaking—rolls up near us. Someone must have hit a four. Instinctively, I jump down from the bleachers to reach for it so that I can throw it back to the pitch. But as soon as stretch my back, I feel the pain from the scalding lines that has been lying dormant. It makes me wince.
“So, nothing else happened, right?” Prakash asks. When I turn around, he’s taken off his sunglasses.
I’d like to tell him that more than words were exchanged with Kalyan. But what holds me back is the knowledge that despite all his bravado, Prakash can do nothing to Kalyan, who has a thriving medical practice, a chair at the Medical College, a vice-presidency at a prestigious private club. While Kalyan, on the other hand, can cause all sorts of problems for Prakash: quite possibly have him fired, or at least put on probation (he does belong to an union, after all), and perhaps even evicted from his tenement building.
“Hmm, I see,” says Prakash. “So what about your Baba? Is going to live with him not an option at all? It’s just that you’re so miserable here! I mean, I’d hate to see you leave this place, of course, but going to finishing school in England would be quite something, yes?”
“Wasn’t it you who said beware of the evil you don’t know more than the one you do? Or am I thinking of that line from that movie Silsila?”
“You’re right, you’re right!” Prakash replies. “Forget I brought it up.”
It’s a pleasant February afternoon, the winter chill tempered by a sizzling sun. All around the park, families and friends are congregated in boisterous groups. They eat bhel-puri and kati-rolls and chana masala and jhal-muri, and drink Gold Spots and Thums Ups and Limcas and lassi and tea. The two teams playing in front of us are made up of boys my age. They play cricket with a frayed ball, in raggedy clothes and without pads and gloves and shoes, and they argue vehemently over wide balls and bouncers with unsettled judgment.
“Nice way of avoiding my question, Uncle Prakash. I’m sixteen! You don’t think I can handle it?”
“Look, it’s been years since I’ve even seen your father. I only drove him places, kept my eyes on the road, tried not to think too much and be grateful to have a fixed pay each month. That’s the honest truth.”
“I read in a story that whenever someone feels compelled to say he’s being honest, he’s being dishonest.”
“You’ve been reading too many books, and like my mother always said, there’s no better way to ruin a perfectly healthy young man for life than with too many of those book things. That’s why I still try to take you out to have some fun whenever I can. Look, I think you and I both know that your father is an ambitious fellow, but what’s wrong with that?”
“Apart from the fact that he abandoned his wife and son to pursue his ambition and take up with another woman, nothing, I suppose.”
“You see what’s happening here…see this game you and I are playing? It’s even more intricate than cricket, it is! You’re trying to bowl past me the fact that your uncle lashed your back, and I’m trying to bat away uncomfortable facts about your father that aren’t worth dwelling over. We’re each playing hard to not let the other lose.”
“I’m tired of this bullshit game. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Yes, let’s.” He gets up and dusts off the back of his pants. “But let me get something from the car first. I was saving it for myself for later tonight. But I think you’re ready to try some Kingfisher Lager. There’s a bottle of it in the back seat, wrapped up in newspapers. It’s probably warm, but you won’t know the difference, trust me! Let me grab it and some smokes, and then I’ll tell you all about how Saint Brezhnev is going to squash the Mujahedeen guerillas in Afghanistan once and for all, and would have already done so if not for the great Satan—that’s Reagan, by the way—arming them to the teeth.”
I’m in Class Twelve when Prakash starts pestering me about my future. We’ve continued to see each other at least once a month, always on Sundays. Prakash has just treated me to a sumptuously spicy meal at a truck-stop dhaba, which we have washed down with a ludicrously potent homebrew. Any dinner out is infinitely more preferable than eating at the hostel cafeteria, especially one as authentic and evil as the one we just consumed. But now I have the hiccups. It’s time to make curfew.
Walking toward the car, he cups his hands to light a cigarette, then asks, “So, what’s next?”
“I have to put the finishing touches on an essay due tomorrow.” We ignore the truck drivers, the peddlers and pimps eyeing us suspiciously as we pull out of the joint in a shiny black Benz. “It’s on Molière’s Tartuffe, about hypocrites who pretend to be virtuous. I have to dissect Louis XIV’s proclamation banning the play, in which the King acknowledges Molière’s genius, proclaims that he gets it, but fears that his subjects—somehow less capable than him of telling vice from virtue—might succumb to it and riot. So he orders it banned, while expressing grief over having to deprive himself of the pleasure of enjoying this brilliant comedy. I am supposed to draw the conclusion that such a proclamation made Louis XIV himself a Grade-A Tartuffe.”
Prakash turns and blows a mouthful of smoke in my face. “What the hell do I care about Louis XIV? I warned you to take it easy with that malt; it’s gone straight to your head, I see.” We stop at an intersection, and he whistles, a la Amitabh, at two giggling young women crossing the street. “I meant what’s next after school, wise guy!”
“Oh! I am not sure, Uncle Prakash. I may end up going to St. Xavier’s. Baba did his undergrad there. Or go to America.”
I had momentarily forgotten the leftist bend of his politics—the monolithic set of ideas upon which rests his worldview. Realizing I am drunk, I lean my head back against the seat. The street lights haven’t come on yet. A school of thick, black clouds scud the fading sky, and I feel the faint rumbling of a headache marching in.
“Kumar, have you forgotten how distasteful you find your wealthy family?” He takes off his sunglasses and reaches across to poke my chest with his index finger. “Do you know how rare you are? Someone who appreciates us? People like me, who come from nothing? If you didn’t even want to think about England all these years, why America now?”
“I’m just trying to find a place to study and get away for a while. I have no family in America, that’s something.”
“But America will change you! You wait and see. It always starts with going to study, and then nobody wants to come back. It’s called brain drain, my friend. Tsk, tsk,”—that old familiar tongue-pressed-against-his-teeth sound—“our best and brightest minds going there and getting sucked into their selfish culture. That’s what’ll end up happening!”
I look at him, his face flush with sincere disappointment, and do not have the heart to tell him that the application process is already well underway.
“Tell you what…come with me to Presidency College one of these days,” he says. “I want you to meet some student leaders, leaders of tomorrow, those who will shape the country. People like you. I want you to hear what they have to say.”
“How do you know them?”
“I’ve attended their rallies and meetings. Just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I don’t know intellectuals, you know. And they are working for change, Kumar. Change is happening as we speak.”
“But right now I’m getting ready for the finals, Uncle Prakash!”
“Look, you do take a break sometimes, right? Like now? How about next Sunday? Just once, and then you can attend some more meetings after your finals.”
A week later, he escorts me past rows of old bookshops on College Street, and into the dank halls of Presidency, where it’s a lot cooler than outside. The walls are covered with multicolored, vicious looking graffiti. The place reeks of urine. A couple waits there; the man raises his hand and waves.
“Meet Kajal and Suparna,” Prakash says. He smiles victoriously. “And here’s my prized protégé, delivered as promised.”
Kajal stinks of cigarette smoke and has chapped lips. His hair is like a mop, poking through the gap above his glasses and over his eyes but that does not seem to bother him. He takes my hand, leans in close and whispers, as if he is letting me in on the gravest of state secrets, “The fight continues, Kumar.” He then proceeds to bum a cigarette off Prakash and light it, while I wonder exactly how much these two know about me.
Suparna, a spindly number with a considerable number of gray hairs for someone in her twenties and a craggy, round face, takes over from there. She does not shake my hand, wastes no time on greetings or perfumed chit-chat, but immediately launches a longwinded soliloquy about the origins of her cause: landless sharecroppers rising up in revolt in Nakshalbari up north. She imparts the history lesson with the sternness of a salty spinster, which I imagine her turning into, if she hasn’t already.
In between puffs, Prakash nods. “Like my family, Kumar…”
Suparna says, “And now let me tell you about our Charuda, about how they butchered him in the Alipore jail, those monsters…”
“America? Capitalists?” Prakash adds. “What was it that Marx predicted? That the last capitalist to be hung would be the one that sold the rope?”
“That’s right. You know Kumar, capitalists mock the government and get along when the getting-along is good, and then scream for help as soon as they’re in trouble. Heck, Lincoln even gave a speech about it. 1837, I believe. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? See, we read stuff, we know things too. I’ll get you a copy of it next time we meet.”
“Do you think these brilliant young minds enjoy meeting like this? In this smelly hallway and the underground bookstores and pamphlet presses and cutlet stations to drink tea from clay pots? It’s all they can do to think of ways to fight for the poor like us…”
Suparna hands me a severely dog-eared, falling-apart-at-the-hinges copy of Communist Manifesto, and orders me to memorize it before our next meeting.
I’ve been quiet for a while, and briefly entertain the idea of debating them by flaunting my elite, private school education. Maybe bring up Glasnost and Perestroika, now underway and threatening to topple communism in the Soviet Union itself. Maybe even throw out a few done-to-death Orwellian observations. But of course, I do no such thing. I am here to humor them, not offend my favorite uncle; and my stomach is already growling in anticipation of the wicked dinner to follow our meeting. The truth is that even though I appreciate Prakash, I just cannot imagine spending my life fighting for the common good. What I believe, or desperately want to anyway, is that circumstances do not define us as much as how we respond to those circumstances. I’ve noticed that belief to be the fundamental character trait of every hero in every formula movie I’ve ever seen with Prakash, so naturally I’ve adopted it as my own. That singular notion has kept me going these last few years. And try as they might, the Kajals and the Suparnas cannot shake my one resolve: to prove to myself that I can build a life of my own despite how miserable my family made me.
All this by way of saying in a shamelessly self-promotional and classic Tartuffian way that the only question that remains once the admission offer-letters begin to arrive is: where is this bad boy going to get his party on?
Prakash does not believe me at first, and then predicts I’ll change my mind by the end of summer.
“I don’t think so. It’s settled, Uncle Prakash.”
“Nothing’s settled until you die,” he says, thumping my chest, “and even then, if you’ve done anything meaningful at all in life, others will continue to dig up memories of you, instead of merely storing them in picture frames and tossing them in a shelf, and locking them up at the back of the head with a label marked ‘grief.’” Then, with a wink Amitabh would approve of, he announces, “I plan to unsettle you, my friend. Get ready.”
He tries, he really does. But in the end, he is no Amitabh, and my life will never make a Bollywood blockbuster in which the hero ekes out heroic success against seemingly insurmountable odds. There is little he can actually do. I am eighteen, old enough to vote for whichever crooked politician can fool me the most, and therefore also old enough to do pretty much whatever else I want, and be charged as an adult if caught doing one of those things. I have been taught in the English medium, finished my higher-secondaries at the most prestigious school in the state, and have scholarship offers from a few of the more well-renowned universities in the world. Unlike a lot of my fellow citizens, I have a record of all my shots. I also have no record of STD, due to the fact that until now, I have only been making imaginary love to my many imaginary girlfriends, and consequently always practicing safe sex. The visa is thus rendered a mere formality, especially since I am able to show (thanks to my father’s bank statements) ample proof of funds to cover room and board, and also, as it will turn out, killer hangovers, an occasional stick of feelgood, and a low-mileage, slightly-used Honda Prelude.
After the formalities of the visa and a ticket are dispensed with, I simply vanish for a month until the departure date. And in a city with so many tea shops and cutlet houses, bookstores, movie theaters, libraries, museums, cabarets and football stadiums, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to not be found, especially during a generous monsoon season.
But I’ve also made sure to spend a Sunday afternoon with Prakash just prior to my departure. We meet at a crowded restaurant. He wears a wide grin, seems at peace and is remarkably affable, and proceeds to order enough food and beers for a squadron. I eat and drink until becoming almost comatose.
“I know you will call it a cliché, but I will miss all this, you know,” I say.
He nods. “It is a cliché. But come to think of it, I will miss all this too.”
“You can come here whenever you want.”
He flashes a cool smile. “Oh, didn’t I tell you that I’ve decided to move back home?”
“What! When did you decide that? Details, Uncle Prakash, details!”
“It’s just time, that’s all. I’ll put my body and mind into that blasted family land in Mohanpur, then see what happens,” he says casually, although I can clearly see that he is savoring this moment of stunning me more than he savored the tandoori. “There you are, moving to a place where you know nobody and nobody knows you, and here I am, moving back to where I know everybody and everybody knows me.”
I think of the technical flaws in that statement, but just sit there, mouth still agape.
“Good luck then. I’m never going to see you again, you know.”
Those words strike me as melodramatic and irksome. I let out a shrill laugh. “It can’t be! Give me your address, I’ll write to you. Besides, I’ll come back from time to time. And when I do, surely we can visit?”
He smiles benevolently while scribbling down his address. Then he pulls money out of his wallet and places it on the table, pulls down his sunglasses from atop his head to over his eyes. “Someday you’ll learn that the way you just laughed is people’s most natural response to life’s unwanted, uncomfortable realities. Then will you start recognizing an end even as it is happening in front of your eyes. And then, and only then, maybe you’ll realize that it is much better to acknowledge and accept an ending, than to pretend otherwise.”
Before I can even think of anything else to say, he shakes my hand with the formality of an ambassador acknowledging an adversarial counterpart, gets up and walks out.
After settling into my dormitory, I go by the post office one afternoon. Business inside is slow, and I exchange pleasantries with the gentleman behind the counter. He enquires about my origins, tells me he was in Nam, and pulls out a set of stamps wrapped in plastic.
“This, my friend, is this year’s commemorative set. What we call a collectible. You’ve got the perfect introduction to America right here: four classic films, all Oscar nominated, celebrating their golden jubilees. A Pulitzer winning poet. And this lady here? Part of the black heritage series. Born a slave, fought discrimination her whole life, helped start the NAACP,”—the look of confusion in my face gives him a momentary pause, before he clarifies—“that’s the national association for colored people…like you and me, my friend.”
I do not want to alienate my new-found friend by pointing out that the stamps I need to mail letters to India will have to be for more than twenty-five cents. I’ll just use two at a time, I think, walking out of there with envelopes and the set of stamps, a little perturbed with myself for having been talked into something I don’t really need.
I write rambling letters to Prakash every few weeks, documenting my new life for him. He never writes back. With each no-reply, I grow a little more despondent, and my next letter grows a little shorter. Then I get busier, make new friends, discover beer-bongs and special brownies, and shortly thereafter this thing called the GPA requires something else called a CPR. Eventually, memories of him recede to a small black spot in the back of my soul.
Two decades go by, and home becomes somewhere else, although it hurts the head to recall just how all that has come about. I am married to an orthodontist named Mina, have twins, a job that has somehow morphed into a career.
After my mother’s passing, I fall into a long spell of malaise that I can’t seem to shake out of, which is inexplicable because I was never that close to her, nor to my father, who still lives with Birmingham with Megha.
Mina is supportive, to a point. She enjoys her work, and as luck would have it, people in this great country love to laugh. Often times, their number-one criteria in choosing a mate—higher than integrity, education, or even wealth—seems to be the ability of a potential partner to make them laugh. And as long that remains the case, Mina will always make a good living. She reminds me of the flexibility that affords us, assures me that I am just going through a phase, and encourages me to “find myself.” And I try to do just that. I finally quit coffee and pick up tea, grow a beard until it gets scratchy. I learn to roller-skate with my children. I experiment with a crème brûlée recipe acquired from an ex-girlfriend and think that I’ve perfected it by adding four threads of saffron to it.
Then Mina confronts me one night when the children are asleep.
“You have to promise me you’ll stop being so down, and tell me what you’re going to do to get help,” she says. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
We discuss soul-cleansing endeavors like teaching, mentoring, working for non-profits. She is even open to the idea of my opening a corner bakery to capture the market for saffron-flavored crème brûlée. On our bedside table, the digital clock blinks two red dots every second and lurches forward in one-minute increments.
“I want to get a new clock, one of those old-fashioned ones. I love everything else you’ve done to this place, but I hate that clock, always have.”
It tries to break up time and then recapture it in small fragments.
“Kumar! Now is not the time! I’m trying to have a serious discussion here, because I can’t live like this, and there’s no way I’m raising my kids with a manic depressive.”
Will she take the kids and move closer to her parents in New Jersey? And shouldn’t I know better than to mess with someone who grew up in New Jersey? Besides, I really don’t want to lose the little ones, be an absentee father to them. Come to think of it, I don’t want to lose Mina either. Half of all marriages end in divorce—everyone knows that; and the best that can be said, if at all, about half of the other half, is that they are alliances, ceasefires, embargoes, stalemates, surrenders, treaties, truces or withdrawals. Having seen them all, I’d made a doughty resolution once upon a time that if I ever stumbled into one of my own, I’d never allow it to be described in the language of war.
That night, I have one of those dreams that, when they happen to those who believe in gods and miracles, are easily explained away as epiphanies or some other form of divine experience, but dreams that, when they happen to someone like me, are doubly disjointing, because on top of being intense, they belie the rationality which we proclaim to be the very foundation of life.
In my dream, Prakash, smoking and smirking, spits at me lurid pieces of his mind. But exactly what he says, I can’t quite hear.
Now Mina is perplexed. We used to go to India every other year before Ma died, using those perfunctory visits as the basis to undertake more adventurous excursions to exotic locales. But a village in Bengal?
“What are we going to see there, rice paddies?” she demurs. “You said he never stayed in touch. What makes you think he’d want to see you now?”
“Didn’t you say I needed inspiration?” I counter. “I’ve never had the urge to pursue anything with this kind of zeal since you gave up and agreed to go out with me, you know.”
Quelled by honeyed memories, she agrees to set aside three days in an itinerary full of more vacation-worthy spots. The day after arriving at my hometown, we board a train at the Howrah Station for a two-hour journey to Bardhaman, to be followed by a thirty-minute bus ride to a one-stop village.
The kids are hungry and a little cold, but a passenger’s goat keeps them entertained in the train compartment until they and Mina all fall asleep.
We reach Mohanpur Village—beyond the square that houses the Uttam Market, the Union Bank ATM, and the Petrol Pump Station, lush yellow-green maize fields stretch out to meld into the blue, blue sky. At the pump station, I give the attendant the address, and he starts giving us directions by mentioning an ashvattha tree, a deserted mosque, and a popular jumping-off spot for suicides as turning-point landmarks. Eventually, it occurs to him that a rickshaw might be a better idea.
He sends the three boys loitering outside on an errand to call for our ride. When it arrives, Mina and I pile a child on each of our laps. Behind us, the boys follow on bicycles. If they have a county paper, we’ll likely make the front page, I tell my family. The boys stop where the concrete road ends, but a black pariah leads us the rest of the way, barking incessantly under an azure winter sky speckled only with a chattering of mynahs flying low, along half a mile of unpaved bullock-cart pathway past the farms toward a cluster of thatched-hut homes.
By the time we disembark and I finish paying the rickshaw-cyclist, the front door to the farmhouse has already flung open. The young man that steps out needs no introduction. I’d recognize that face, that hair, anywhere. He is sixteen, if that; a fuzzface, almost as old as his father was when he’d left this village.
It feels as if the young man has been expecting me, as if even the mere mention of my name is unnecessary. His face breaks into a wide open, disarming grin, and letting us in the front room, he folds his hands in a namaskar. A woman, hurriedly pulling her sari over her face, scuttles through the side door.
“Please tell your mother not to make anything,” I say. “We had lunch on the way.”
It takes a little convincing, but he finally relents and calls out to her.
“Well, they’ll at least drink tea then,” comes back her terse response, followed by a defiant proclamation: “and no child is leaving my house without having a sandesh first.”
“We don’t get visitors from out of town,” he says by way of explanation, before playfully sticking his tongue out at the kids, who immediately bury their faces in our shoulders.
“Your father?” I ask.
Two years ago, he says. It was painful, but quick. No. 10 Filters tend to do that.
For a few minutes nobody says anything.
Then he raises his finger, motioning us to wait, and retreats into the back room. We hear shuffling, pots and pans being moved, fabric ripping. He emerges, wearing a spider web on his head like the hair-net on a short order cook and spots of soot everywhere, holding an old shoebox. He shakes it in a feeble attempt to dust it off before placing it in front of me. Inside are yellowed airmail envelopes, neatly sliced on the left, the right corners of each bearing two identical stamps: miniature posters of Stagecoach and Beau Geste, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, portraits of Ida B. Wells and Marianne Moore, and…and I have difficulty seeing the rest, as if I’ve suddenly developed a cataract or something. I feel Mina’s hand rubbing my shoulder, and catch my son staring at me with tears on his own face; my daughter has suddenly crawled into the crook of my arm.
“Home is not just a place, my Baba always used to say. It’s nothing if not for the people you grow up with,” the young man solemnly states, wrapping the letters with an elastic band and handing them to me with a quiet, steely resolve that belies his age and makes it clear that refusing this particular gesture will not be quite as easy as refusing lunch. Then he looks me straight in the eye, brings back a touch of smile to his face, and adds, “He also said that you’d have to come back to look for yours someday, just as he did.”
The last train to Calcutta leaves shortly after six. On our way back, Mina and the children all fall asleep again; the little ones huddled on our laps, three faces worn from a day of adventure in a strange countryside. Outside the window, daylight settles its daily dispute with darkness, then an invisible hand sprinkles a saltshaker full of stars across the pristine sky.
Suman Mallick’s debut novel “The Black-Marketer’s Daughter” was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize, and published in October, 2020. His debut short story ‘Disorientation’ was published by The Gravity of the Thing. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Under the Gum Tree, and received his Master of Fine Arts from Portland State University, where he also taught English and Creative Writing. Website: http://www.sumanmallick.com/