Grey walls of waiting – Fiona Mukherjee

Illustration by Shristi Singh

I did not know you.

You say it was a lemon morning in February, mother and you were inside the one big room that served as a makeshift drawing room hall bedroom kitchen. The transistor had just been turned off after the morning bhajan programme, which mother never failed to tune into. A spell of sunlight had intruded through the gaps of a greasy curtain stretched across the only window, jovially lighting up the third floor rented block of some unnamed middle-class colony.

Father was nowhere to be found.

I wouldn’t say it was anything unusual about the family. Sundays were like that. Father was seldom to be found, he was burdened with all the work of the world. Of course, mother understood, who would, if she didn’t?

You would be barely seventeen, though there was too little left of the usual adolescence. You were up early, in this unclaimed piece of rented land, already studying for annual boards. I lay sleeping with my sister by my side in some bygone piece of land too, far far away, comfortably oblivious of your existence. We were preparing for the same boards though.

Since I have talked to you, I have gone through various versions of how I should start my story, or what could have happened early, or later that morning. There is one where I part your curtains and introduce my seventeen-year self to the awkwardness of your mother hiding the rice she has just put on the humble stove and your startled expression, and take you by the hands out of your room. Out into the terrace, under that piece of sky, we must have shared. I could hold the thread, while you flew your favourite scarlet kite, unashamed of your untied breasts, dancing in the shameless glee of your neighbour’s gaze, too predictable to tame you. This one is my favourite.

But there I was, miles away. And you never came out of those walls shedding old paint in rebellion, having been neglected for ages now…never came out into the chrome streets of your forgotten colony to see the fruit seller’s tiny boy, with his little paraphernalia of a notebook and a thin dog-eared book, hovering his eyes along the outlines of Rani, the perfumed lady on the ground floor. Neither did you come out to see Mangesh, waiting for you just down the stairs, ready to take care of everything.

But I can’t go back to you that morning and ask you, “What’s wrong?” One can never slip into the same sleep twice.

So you go on grazing through the same set of notes tried and tested ad infinitum, you go on, as you have done all these years, planting seeds of plenty on days of nothing. Like one of those kids who suddenly go off the grid because their soul abandons them, and no one knows why.

We have never built a fire or set a camp together, but your eyes are a burial ground of secrets and skeletons of the past, not different from me, quite distinct and familiar, on the contrary.

So when I try to go back to that morning, all I do is to put little time bombs underneath the sleeping cemeteries of your childhood memories, and it all comes back in a flash.

Ever since the train left Kolkata, I have been waiting for a post card full of rain. Sometimes, people are most desirable when they’re moving apart. But I shall not drift back to my story, this story is about you. Mother remains a dark cloud in the verge of breaking apart, if you dig through her hope chest, you will find a goodbye stitched to every hello, “you don’t have to be back in this filth, just to see me…” she’d mean.  But  I know how you want everything to her, the sad drowsy depths, that round box of vermillion, her conch shell clangs, the overused rummaged and torn synthetic saris she has abandoned, her smell, her hair oil, her only book of Urdu poetry, all of it. If someone were to fold your enchantment and put them into paper boats, then somehow, they would sail towards her, and not your lover, I know.

Our sorrows are unnameable, and our despair drips like infinite drops of water leaking from a neglected ceiling. Your teenage rebellion had the swagger of a street artist and the stillness of a sleeping river. I did not know you then, but you beat inside me like a lightening bug inside a glass jar, with enough holes to shine through. We have resonated through our childhoods, never quite in phase; we have searched frantically for that one frequency to hit the right channel, for once.

It is only a matter of time before your story begins. You meet someone and suddenly you are rain-sane and puddle mad in love. Like Solomon and Sophia, you find your favourite song of songs. I walk my goose bumps to those long corridors and classrooms; each time I hear you go, to meet him. Your dreams are gone, and that part of you will be a ship wreck with no survivors…You will be Tereza to Thomas everywhere.

When it gets noisy inside I flip through those stations of me that depend entirely on your signals, because the quiet part of you is the part of you that sings.

Life isn’t subtle enough to play its part, and that is where art comes in.

Adulthood is a strange new morning you wake up to. One morning, things are no longer the same. You see mother and your sister, packing your stuff up, suddenly you have to leave, that land is not your land, then on. So you leave, but leave off the childhood things that could not make into that one big rucksack, mostly your innocence…We never see this kid, except in photographs again, you remember her like the last line of a poem you used to know.

Time always crawls back and clings in circles, like the reckoning of alphabets to words, but someone always, has to leave the story, while wild wind blows past some unknown face. I’ll write you a story, a familiar one.

So, there you were, sitting right in the middle of your master bed, in the master bedroom, amidst a pile of sheets and books and pages and prints and pens and an old geometry box scattered in small instalments, over hours.

I have an entire day to go before Chemistry paper tomorrow. Father has asked us to wait for him till 9, in the evening, after which, he has said, if he didn’t return, he wouldn’t.

I remember seeing him for the first time, two days after the mother brought me to light. He was a fine handsome man, I immensely took a liking to, but unlike my two older sisters, who were jolting and laughing and trying hard to make me laugh, pronouncing all sorts of incorrect words in some weird language, this man was different! He did not show his teeth, which was my usual first encounter with all other humans except mother, she had some kind of a liquid rolling down the eyes, and there was much of it, so, I remember even tasting a bit of it. I didn’t like it, it was salty. So except for mother, who seemed to be a storehouse of fluids, yeah it was only this man, who did not show his teeth.

He had big eyes and his temples were knit. He was talking loudly, louder that everybody else, I remember and never tried to speak to me in any language. He said something which made ma secrete this fluid, no, the transparent one, the one I don’t like, one that rolls down the eyes and nose, and then he threw a very brief unusual glance at me and trod off.

It has been a long time hence, and I know those expressions better now.  My mother kept telling us, “Be happy, kids” indeed, it is good to be happy if you can, but father kept beating her and us, several times a week; while raging inside his well built handsome frame, he didn’t understand what was carving a hole inside him. My mother, a poor cow, wanting me to be happy, beaten two three times a week asked me, “Why don’t you ever smile?” she would cry still, and at the end of it, she’ll sit and teach me to smile, and how it’d be the saddest smile I might ever see.  So I’d smile. I’d be the clown of my class.  I promised myself.  And there I was, playing Shakaal one day, Basanti the next, and Pyaremohan on the third, and so on until the day, he came. Then I was me.

Bubbling Bollywood inside, I was growing, a distant idea of childhood I was outgrowing. Bronze Bipasha I was growing, unibrow Kajol, I was outgrowing. I remember how playing Reema Lagoo, with my neighbour’s infant boy, Ishu, would be my favourite pastime till he aged from one to four years, after which he could walk and eat and poop on his own, and he didn’t need me.

It was one such morning when I was out the shop just down the lane, with Ishu clutched to my bosom; I was barely fourteen, clad in a little red frilled frock, which even if I had outgrown I wouldn’t part with easily. I was my usual self, Reema Lagoo, all smiles et cetera. Ravinder, one of my father’s uncannily close associates was there in the shop. He’d always be there, but ma never allowed him inside the room. I didn’t think he was bad looking or anything, nor did I feel he’d start beating me; so I wasn’t afraid when he signed me to introduce Ishu to him with his small slytherin eyes. Before I could figure any other thing, he was holding Ishu with on hand, his weight half resting on my waist, and his palm and fingers were pressing my breasts with the other. I did not understand what he was doing; I was just very, very uncomfortable, despite my curiosity, even I had not done it with myself, till then. I was very, very silent, even when he escorted us to the stairs, and laughed.  I have never said this to anyone.  He never stopped lingering around the fruit shop, and I wouldn’t go to school for half a week pretending stomach ache, after which I was forced to.

The room smelt of rice and daal and patience and anxiety, I kept my nervousness to myself as I flipped through the pages of Nootan for the last time. After this, we ate silently. I made space for ma to lie down a little, while I went back to revising notes and keeping count of the seconds.  Outside it was deep yellow, outside it was crisp. I would sometimes think of Kumar, my chemistry teacher at school. Honestly, he is going to be my lover in a couple of months from now.  How I liked talking to him, how we both were tired and solitary. How, both of us were awkward. We had both, at first, laughed at Sharmila when she eloped with our school bus driver, and our eyes, in such occasions would always meet on the sly, I secretly kept looking for such opportunities. And one fine morning he replied to one of my ardent forwarded motivational sms-s’ . There was only one subject in the universe worth my time, Chemistry, there was only of man worth my attention, Kumar, I knew. This went on quite for a while and I cherished my feelings as the days rolled by, I kept bagging all our moments secretly, stealing glances and memories from here and there, only to find out, the feeling was reciprocated!

Now, even if there is an examination tomorrow, I would go on to say, I wasn’t prepared! Who is? I went back to my Reema Lagoo mode once again and blurted out that it wasn’t right, regretting each syllable as I uttered them.  I had no idea what was to be done if a big man offered up his little soul to you. Kumar and I were standing in the ridge, his caring but course palm, just like the leaves of our old banyan tree in the complex, were touching my forehead, I had a high temperature.  He picked me up and made me lie down on his lap in a bench.  Under the cold February sunshine, his warm hands felt like the snug quit laid out in the wintry sun, I closed in on him, pretending to be only half conscious, so I’d get the tickly warmth of his body from inside his checked shirt, which he often wore to classes. It smelt of a mixture of old spice, affection, chalk and books. I brushed my nose and cheek against his stomach moving up to the chest, hair covered my red face, my dorsal neck wanted a cosy touch….and I never wanted to be well again. Then it started raining and things got blurred and then I woke up, I had spilled Ma’s evening tea on the bed sheet.

Ma didn’t seem to mind much, too lost in the hours’ hand of the desperately slow wall clock. It was almost good that she had some more work to do before dinner. I munched on my dry marie biscuits, going back to Chemistry and counting seconds.

The evening hurdled inside out little shack, today, the room smelt a little too heavily of incense. Mother took a little too long in prayer. Outside, the lamp post was proclaiming darkness through ochre hues.  Something inside me, was quivering. I had shifted unknowingly to counting minutes.

Ma had taken to making a paste of all the spices she had stalked in the kitchen, grinding them in the large heavy pestle. I could almost see her black hair strands turn grey in matters of minutes. It was eight thirty and none of us were talking anymore, it was only the wall clock that did its work, tirelessly. There was a loud bang from the verandah cum store room that knocked me back into senses, and then, ma showed up with a fat spotted house lizard in her hand. She had killed it.

She put it on the door, did not throw it, her blank eyes were almost unreadable as it kept staring at the side of the lizard that lay with enormously big eyes wide open.

The clock stuck nine. I was sitting on the bad, amidst piles of scattered notes and registers prints and pages, pens and a old geometry box. At the door, stood and old lady, in the same saree as the one Ma was wearing during the day.

The clock did not stop.  I had forgotten what date it was, that day, the day before, or after. I grew increasingly uncomfortable of the stare of Mangesh, who would still be standing down the stairs, right at the bottom. Ready to take care of everything. Increasingly uncomfortable of having to duck my head and squeeze my shoulders and bring my knees close to each other, every time I got myself out of this room. The old lady’s trembling hands reached for the second hand mobile phone and dialled up some number. It was some indifferent voice from the other side, and Ma mumbled something from here, the other things, she forgot.

Twenty-two minutes past nine, my mother came to me, at the bed, I immediately went back to repeating some words from a random note. She stroked my hair, I’ll never forget that touch, it was more like a prayer. She asked to braid my hair, I was relieved. The comb had hit my skull, but the clock wouldn’t listen; mentally, I had shifted back to counting seconds.

Half my hair was done, the other half was left. Mother left intuitively for the stairs. Nobody was in sight. I secretly put my finger in my mouth and rubbed the skin ruthlessly on a canine for a few seconds. There were footsteps.

Murmurs, and a very familiar roar, a shriek and a slap, my parents had returned. My mother had a speck of blood around her lips. But her eyes were familiar now. He came in, splashed water on his face, and sat on the stool, panting. My mother went straight into the kitchen. I was breathing unusually faster.  Father had grown old. He had wrinkles around the eyes and lips. Half his shirt was tucked out of his cotton pants. His belt was missing. I shifted back to the end of the bed to avoid a certain well known sweet smell that should not have come out of his shirt. Lali, my neighbour’s cat had come up to our floor, following the haggle.

The smell was too familiar to be ignored…too known to be kept in dark. I went up and threw the lizard to the cat. He stared.

Mother laughed uncontrollably from the kitchen, as a smell of burnt daal engulfed the room and slowly spread across the floor, to the entire complex, universe.

Fiona is a young artist from Kolkata, currently enrolled in a master degree programme, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras