I came home on the first of May. The train pulled into Sealdah station fifteen minutes after its scheduled arrival time, at 10:45 AM. Platform number 9B was a petri dish full of the city’s live culture of people, teeming, bustling, and sweating, profusely sweating. So that each and every shirt and blouse were darker than its actual colour. The faces were smudged, as if from the hard scrubbing they received from soggy handkerchiefs, creating an emollescence on their skins. I had asked my mother not to come to the station or send anyone to pick me up. As I stepped out of the train, with a small backpack slung on my shoulder, I decided to play a little game with myself. I would pretend that it was the first time that I had come to the city and see it with a stranger’s eyes. Easier said than done, the game was up in two minutes as I instinctively elbowed a corpulent elderly woman in trying to get ahead, dodged a sleeping dog curled up on the platform, and cursed a coolie under my breath for exhaling the smoke from his beedi to my face while I was passing by him. In a city where I have lived for more than twenty years, being a Calcuttan was as simple as a reflex action. And it has always been Calcutta for me, never Kolkata, as those of us who have loved and loathed the city will tell you. History has always been the millstone around our necks, and literature, our refuge. In memory, it was Calcutta, but Kolkata when it was under my feet.
I walked out of the railway station towards the main road and caught a bus, 45B, to go to Gariahat, from where I would take an auto and get off at Kathgola. The conductor, a tired looking man, was loudly calling out names of the places where the bus was scheduled to make a stop, three times for each name as if uttering a charm to summon them to reality. But as the bus driver, my co-passengers and I knew better, the bus never stopped where it was supposed to. It always pulled in at least ten feet ahead of the bus-stop and the running to get on to the bus was often the only form of physical exercise that the commuters performed every day. The bus wound its way around central Kolkata lugubriously, stopping at every single traffic signal, and taking on more people without expelling an equivalent amount. I settled into my window seat, the backpack on my lap, and watched the reel of the city unravelling outside. It was cluttered with billboards, vehicles, ramshackle teashops, makeshift markets on footpaths, crumbling buildings, gleaming malls, and people. There were lots and lots of people, a piece of the sky in each of their eyes, full of aspirations. The city reeled under the weight of their relentless footsteps, going nowhere.
The second-last phase of the legislative assembly elections in West Bengal had just been concluded yesterday. The billboards were plastered with blow-ups of Mamata Banerjee, the incumbent, captured in her trademark white cotton sari, an effervescent smile on her face that was glistening with sweat, as she looked away from the camera. I had boarded the Sealdah Rajdhani yesterday afternoon and gone straight to sleep, and woken up late into the evening to find pictures on my phone, that my brother had sent of the entire family except my grandparents, showing off their fingers marked with indelible ink. The mark was proof that they had voted, presumably for Ms. Banerjee, thinking that she deserved at least another five years as pentinence for more than thirty decades of Communist rule. I have often introduced my dead father as a Communist to non-Bengali lovers in the past. The label held a touch of old-world glamour, the promise of wild revolutionary ideas running in my blood, which at best was hoped, would be translated into action in bed. I had done so because it was the easiest way to label a Bengali man who came around to adulthood in eighties Calcutta, read Marxist literature, took a government job, devoured his daily dal bhaat machher jhol with unwavering relish, married a woman ten years younger than him because his mother told him to do so, and inculcated a love for Russian literature in his daughter, who read the tales of Alexander Pushkin first and Hans Christian Andersen much later. He was a man who would have cried the day Jyoti Basu died had he not died earlier, at the age of forty-five. The three of us, my mother, brother and I, moved in with my maternal grandparents and their two sons and their respective families after my father’s death. I moved to Delhi for my postgraduate studies after six years of living with ten other people in close proximity in that house in Kathgola. I wanted a room of my own; it was as simple as that.
It has been four years since I left home, and I have not had a good night’s sleep for all of those four years in Delhi. Delhi refused to go to sleep, while Kolkata woke up late, took an afternoon nap without fail each day and called it a night at an hour when most of us staggered our way home from work in the Delhi metro. Even the train journey to Kolkata had a somniferous effect on me, and I would sleep for most of the nearly seventeen hours that it took to come back home. It was a state of lassitude, torpor, and listlessness, which afflicted me when I was in Kolkata. When I was away, the city was always out of focus, in bokeh, a picture framed by a rainswept windscreen.
I had missed voting by a day. Five years ago, I like so many others in the city and state, had voted for change, ‘poriborton.’ But I moved out of the city soon after and during phone calls with my mother, she would tell me that nothing has changed, except that the city was all blue now. “As in sad and depressing?” I would ask. “No, just blue, the colour blue. She is painting everything blue,” she would say. “I like blue. It’s a nice colour,” I would reply and the conversation would soon turn to something else. Voting in Bengal was a meaningless parley with the future, a conversation carried out at cross-purposes. I had not had the time to follow the election news from Bengal this year, working overtime with a publishing company and finishing my thesis in the hours that I was supposed to sleep. Kolkata receded into the past, where it was most comfortable staying anyway, when I was in Delhi. But I had kept myself abreast of some of the latest developments, most importantly, the story of a watermelon and a pumpkin. Perhaps as terminally-ill patients reach out to each other in the intensive care unit before death, the Bengal unit of the Congress, in a coma since Siddhartha Shankar Ray had died, had teamed up with the CPI (M), diagnosed with a cancerous growth since Jyoti Basu’s demise and finally put on the ventilator after Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s departure. The All India Trinamool Congress, the one-woman party ruling West Bengal, had called out the Congress to be like a watermelon, green on the outside but red on the inside. As a fitting retort to this inane name-calling, the Congress had likened the Trinamool to a pumpkin, a vegetable that was green on the outside but ‘saffron’ at heart, referring to their nascent alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, even though pumpkins were orangey inside. A nuanced argument has never been the forte of Indian politicians. I had read the article on Firstpost.com, and then watched a video where a female journalist, perhaps a tad too earnest in her work, had ventured into Gariahat Market to investigate which was more in favour and if that could foretell the political future of the state. I had laughed long and hard, and I would laugh every time someone even mentioned the words, ‘watermelon’ and ‘pumpkin.’ I liked both, and that meant nothing for the state.
The bus dropped me off on the footpath opposite Pantaloons and took off for the flyover which connected Gariahat to Golpark. The day was getting hotter, my shirt stuck to my back, and I was already thinking of next Saturday when I would be travelling back to Delhi. The day being a Sunday, most shops along the Gariahat stretch were closed and I could walk on the footpath where there was shade. I walked until Gariahat junction, hopped on to a passing auto going towards Haltu, the stop before my stop, and reached home ten minutes later. I crossed a narrow stretch of road at Kathgola, walked few paces to the green gates of my house, or, mamarbari, maternal uncle’s house. As I opened the locks on the gate, I looked up, hesitantly, and was relieved to find dadubhai, seated in his usual spot, at the living room window overlooking the front yard. I waved up at him and in response a mass of confusion bloomed on his face. Then he turned his face away, in all probability to appeal to a responsible adult in the house, like a child would do if a stranger, such as a salesman, came along. I understood what had happened and did not wait for any further reaction from him and he did not look out again. I noticed that the mango trees in our yard were laden with fruit, juicy little suns hung from the branches. Dadubhai used to keep a count of the mangoes growing on the trees and when the kalbaishakhis came, he would venture out and collect the mangoes before they fell to the ground in the storm and were smashed beyond recovery. I looked up at the window again and saw ma waving her hand at me, she beckoned me to go inside. I nodded and walked into the house.
We lived on the first floor, a part of the ground floor was the living quarters of my younger mama, his wife, and their school-going daughter and the rest of it had been rented out to a pharmaceutical company. The three of us, ma, bhai and I, came to occupy the portion of the first floor where my grandparents lived. The other part was inhabited by my elder mama, his wife, and their son who lived at home and was studying for his MBA entrance exams. Ma did not work anywhere, we had taught ourselves to survive on my father’s pension. For a short while after baba’s death, she had tried working as a receptionist in a small-time brokerage firm on Swinhoe Street, but that had to be stopped once my indefatigable mother was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She had never worked a day in her life until she became a widow and our family doctor advised that it was better if she did not in the future. Even now, I have not understood how a woman who has lived through distressful times like when my father was unemployed and we were in school, when he moved his family to Bangalore, then to Chennai, again to Coimbatore, and finally, back to Kolkata in his failed search for a new permanent job, when he fell sick and was lying in a coma in the hospital for two months, and eventually, when he died, how could she after all this have been felled by something as trivial as the ups and downs of the share market.
I climbed up the stairs and found ma waiting at the door. She opened the door, pulled me to her chest and hugged me tightly, our bodies swayed as she gently rocked me from side to side. She was slightly shorter than me, round-faced, with hair thinning at the crown, dark circles under her eyes and crow’s feet walking all around them. She looked older, much older and more careworn than when I had last seen her a year ago. I usually came home for a week once every year. It was not as if I did not miss home, or my family, what I really tried to avoid was the city and the way its miasma coated my skin, or so I explained to myself. I did not know exactly when I had begun to associate the city with loss, and now when I thought of Kolkata, it came to me as a pale sad reflection on the murky waters of the Dhakuria Lakes on a dreary grey winter morning. I missed ma, and often felt guilty at the thought that she was growing old by herself, with neither her husband nor her daughter to relieve the tedium of time’s slow maturation. We exchanged a phone call in the evening every day when I was in Delhi, and listened to each other’s voices attentively. I could tell when she was sick, her voice became thicker, and she could figure out when I was feeling low. “Your voice is different today,” she would say and that would be the cue for me to unburden my heart to her. We imagined ourselves sitting across from each other, and talking as if we were in the same room, and the distance became a mere figment of reality.
Ma touched my face, ran her fingers along the length of it and tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear.
“You have become thinner,” she said while looking me up and down, her patented statement for each time that I have come home in the last four years. I had always been thin, but you would not have known from the frocks she bought for me when I was growing up, always two sizes larger. She had hoped that I would have gradually filled them out. Or so I had thought then, but it was really because we could not afford new clothes more than once in every two years, as I realized later.
I chose not to respond and asked instead, “Where is bhai?”
“He has gone out for his Maths tuition, then he will go for his Physics tuition in the afternoon and Chemistry in the evening,” said ma. Bhai was in the final year of school and preparing for his engineering entrance exams.
“When does he study on his own?” I asked.
This time ma chose not to respond. Instead, she took the backpack off my shoulder and went inside, asking me to follow her without saying so. In the years that I had been away, the house had begun to grow quieter. The children had grown up or were in the process of growing into solemn, and often somnolent, adults. I was sixteen and my brother was nine when we moved into our mamarbari, and my cousins, Bitan and Tara, were thirteen and eight respectively. We grew up together, calling ourselves the Fantastic Four, cooking up adventures where there were none, mostly under the dining table or shooting up to the terrace while one or the other adult shouted after us. Winter was our favourite time when the sun was mellow and we could play for hours in the yard, working up a sweat rather than sweating even if we kept still, as in summer. We used to play kumirdanga in the front yard, skipping between spots of cemented ground and avoiding the ‘water’ where the alligator lay in wait for us. We also played lock and key, sister-sister, midnight in the graveyard, and colour man, if we could go outside. At home, on rainy evenings when the power invariably went out, we would light a candle and the four of us would sit around it and play ludo or chor police. I was the self-appointed leader of my merry band, for no other reason than that I was the oldest, and entrusted with the task of either devising new games or adding different twists and turns to the tried and tested ones. But in growing up, all of us had grown apart, and become too involved in our individual charades of adulthood.
There were two rooms to the left which were occupied by five of us, the living room where my grandparents slept at night and watched TV for the rest of the day, and the bedroom where ma, bhai and I slept. The bedroom had a large bed, just about right for the three of us, next to that was the shrine where dida performed the daily worship, and a table which had served as my study area and was now under the dominion of my brother. Dida was finishing her pujo when I entered the room.
“She’s here,” ma said, announcing my arrival to dida. Dida turned around and winked at me, I could see that she was still muttering the prayers under her breath. Dida was smaller in stature than both ma and I and shrinking further in old age. She raised a finger to indicate that she would be done shortly and then meet me. “Go meet dadubhai while dida finishes here,” said ma. I turned around to go to the other room but she clutched my hand and said, “He is not the same anymore so he might not recognize you.”
“I know. He didn’t recognize me when I waved to him from the gate,” I said.
“I was folding the clothes when he called me and said that someone who looks like Nila is standing outside,” said ma.
“Does he have trouble remembering everything?”
“Nila, he has trouble because he cannot remember anything.”
To some people, that might have been a gift. Not to dadubhai, his memories had been his most cherished possessions. His history was a trail of smoke that rose from the fire of the sleeping sun, embedded deep beneath the floating forests of Bangladesh. He had come to Calcutta during the partition, the youngest of four sons of a poor family in Faridpur, taught himself to read and write, and apprenticed himself to a neighbourhood jeweller, learned the craft and eventually, opened his own shop. He had married dida soon after, a quiet, intelligent, poised young woman, whose family had migrated from Barisal to Bankura during the famine. Together they had built the house in which we lived now, put three children through school and college, settled them in marriage, changed the nappies of their four grandchildren and had thought their work was done. But my father died, and dida and dadubhai decided to take us in. As the eldest grandchild and the first to be born in the third generation, dadubhai had always singled me out for company. He used to take out a dog-eared, much thumbed through, exercise book, which apparently contained his life’s story and referred to it while narrating his experiences. We never discovered the secret location of the book after dadubhai fell ill and forgot about it.
I have been told that when baba’s mother, whom I called thakuma, came to dadubhai to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage for my father, what had really sealed the deal was that my father had impressed dadubhai with a one-on-one chat about the political affairs of the state. Baba had spoken glowingly of Communism, hailed Jyoti Basu as the deliverer of the state from all social evils, and listened in awe when dadubhai had recounted his favourite story, that time when he broke a fast-unto-death along with Jyoti Basu at Dharmatala. The frequency with which the story was repeated increased exponentially during the 2011 legislative assembly elections when Didi seemed set to win by a large margin and dadubhai was yet to suffer the cerebral attack which would torch his brain and leave behind an empty carcass devoid of memories. As the exit polls projected an increasingly green Bengal, the colour of Trinamool, dadubhai began to see red. He refused to speak to his sons who wanted to vote for change, and alternately coaxed and cajoled or threatened me with dire consequences if I did not vote for the CPI(M). I was a first-time voter in 2011 and my grandfather believed that at least the new generation should exhibit the natural intelligence expected of Bengalis and honour his wishes. “I was on the same stage as Jyoti Basu, we drank from the same glass and broke our fast together, that was a day I will never forget,” he used to narrate, starry-eyed, while dida would turn to him and remark, “Did you kiss?” Dida was the only one in the family who could poke fun at dadubhai, the rest of us just gave him a wide berth as soon as he started off on politics. Dadubhai would scowl and continue as if he had not heard, “Trinamool is nothing but a viler form of the Congress, they killed our young lads then and they will kill again.” “It is not like that anymore, baba,” ma would say, “times have changed. Young boys have other things to do than politics. They have too many tuition classes to go to.” Bhai would laugh at that if he was around and go back to his studies. Once dadubhai began to fulminate in the morning, he would not stop until lunchtime, often calling over his hoary-haired, dhoti clad, elderly comrades to the house and launching into denunciatory diatribes on Mamata and her jhee class politics, calling for a messianic revival of Communism in Bengal and lambasting the insipid and uninspiring Buddhadev Bhattacharjee-led administration. One of his friends, who had read Hamlet in Bengali, believed that the ghost of Jyoti Basu had come back to haunt Bhattacharjee, but it was the latter who was stuck in an indecisive limbo.
Dadubhai was seated on the bed, next to the window, his usual spot. His back was bent like a question mark and he had lost a lot of weight. Ma had told me when I was in Delhi that he barely ate these days and I had wondered if he had also forgotten how to eat. His face was turned towards the window, to the mango trees in the yard, but I knew he wasn’t really looking at them. The lights were going off one by one inside his mind and soon it would get too dark to look outside. He was shirtless and clad in a lungi because it was difficult to pull off his pajamas when he soiled himself which he did frequently. My eyes travelled to his hands, placed one on top of the other on his lap. The hands of an old man were landscapes of senescence; his gnarly veins were a network of dark blue rivers, carrying the poison of years.
“Kemon acho, dadubhai?” I asked, my voice already breaking under the emotional strain of seeing him this way. He was unrecognizable from the tall, barrel-chested, strapping man I remembered from my childhood, his hair black well into his sixties, and possessed with a loud booming voice, who had promised to wage the battle of Kurukshetra with my dida over the rightful sharing of green chillies. “Dadubhai?” I called again. “Nila has come, baba,” ma called out to him. At that he slowly turned to look at me, eyes gaping with incomprehension. The skin on his face and around his neck sagged, looking like the fleshy body of an ancient tortoise. I could see that he was far away from us. Our voices barely registered any meaning in his head. “Can you not recognize Nila, baba?” ma tried again, her voice softer and less hopeful. “Nila?” he finally spoke, asking a question. “Yes, Nila, see Nila is standing here,” ma said, pointing towards me. I was about to approach him when I caught a whiff of a pungent smell. “Ma, can you smell something?” I asked her. She looked towards my grandfather, studying his lungi with fierce concentration and I saw her conjecture confirmed on her face as her features hardened. “Nila, you have just come home, go to the other room and talk to dida while I clean up here,” she said, pulling up her sari up to her knees and tying the loose end around her waist. “This is the third time in one morning, baba! Third time! How many times do I have to keep doing this?” she shouted at dadubhai. Dadubhai looked up at her with a blank expression. “Ma! Stop shouting! You know he did not do this on purpose,” I cried out. “I know everything Nila. You don’t know how things are around here. You don’t live here anymore,” said ma, her voice tired now but still carrying traces of barely controlled anger. I did not know if it was directed at me or dadubhai or something that neither of us understood. “Go inside, please,” she said, her voice almost inaudible, “please.”
I did as I was told. Dida had finished her pujo. She was seated on the bed in the bedroom and combing her hair. I walked in just when she was about to put the sindoor in her parting. I could not keep it together any further, so I went and hugged dida, crying with my face buried in her chest. “Nila ma, don’t cry, he does not even remember me,” dida said while stroking my hair, “the other day, it had been five hours since he had last emptied his bladder, so your mother wanted to take him to the bathroom but he wouldn’t budge from the bed. He kept saying he couldn’t go unless someone paid for him. I told him that I would. He said that I was kind to offer but he couldn’t accept money from a woman he did not know. We all found it funny and laughed. That is what we do when we cannot cry.” I stopped crying after that and resigned myself to the protean monstrosity called home. Things kept getting worse every time I came back and there was nothing that I could do to make them better again. The people I loved were frailer and more fragile than when I last left them, and when I came back, I would feel as if they were made of thin ice. I had to step around them. I used to go out on my own and walk around the city during my first two visits back home. But I had stopped doing that from last year, home was where I wanted to be and the place I desperately wanted to remember with clarity when back in Delhi. In Delhi, I was like dadubhai, emptied out. My memories leaked out and vitiated the atmosphere around me.
I went to sleep early on my first day back at home. I did not talk to anyone in the evening, choosing to read a book that I had left unfinished the last time I was home. In the morning when I woke up, I saw that bhai was sleeping next to me. He had put on weight and grown a moustache, he looked like the young men I used to know in college. I watched him sleeping for a short while and tried to remember him as a little boy, but he looked too different now so I gave up. I slid out of bed and joined ma and dida at the kitchen table for the morning cup of tea. Dadubhai’s seat was empty. “Where is he?” I asked, while joining them at the table. “An old comrade has come to invite him for his granddaughter’s wedding. They are seated outside in the verandah,” said ma without looking at me as she took a small sip from her cup. “Does the man know about dadubhai?” I asked her. Ma did not answer. She got up without finishing her tea, poured some from the kettle into another cup and served it to me. I took the cup and thanked her and she still did not respond. “He was not that close a friend of his so we didn’t bother to tell him,” dida said finally, she must have sensed the tension between us. The longer I stayed at the kitchen table, greater was the distance which seemed to open up between me and ma.
I wanted to leave so I got up from my chair, with the cup of tea in my hand, and walked towards the verandah adjacent to the kitchen area. I did not recognize the voice that was speaking and upon coming to the door of the verandah, saw that it belonged to a man as old as dadubhai but sprightlier. Neither of them had noticed my arrival. The old man, clad in a white fatua and dhoti, was talking with a sort of passionate ardour that Bengalis only reserve for politics. “I had thought that we would continue to live in the shadow of the failure of Kanu Sanyal and Charu Majumdar, but Jyoti Basu changed things, and these foolishly misguided youngsters of today think that they are voting for change. They would not know poriborton even if it hit them in the face,” the old man said, a fist raised in the air, body shaking visibly, while the cup of tea in the other hand clattered on the saucer. He continued without pausing for breath and red in the face, “Jyoti Basu, what a piece of work was that man!” Suddenly, his tone and manner mellowed, “I wish I had had the good fortune of taking the dust from his feet,” he said and looked at dadubhai with hopeful eyes. Old men loved listening to old stories.
I had noticed dadubhai listening to him intently, even nodding his head appropriately at the right pauses. I was surprised, and perhaps slightly resentful, that he remembered his politics but not his people. However, at that moment, I began to hope that he really remembered his story and any minute now he would launch into it with characteristic zeal. Maybe nothing had changed and dadubhai had been playing a little game with us all this time. I saw him lean forward, his face close to the other man, and his mouth opened to say something. It was a question that he asked. He had spoken in a low voice but I had heard him. It was then that I understood that dadubhai was really gone, like a place where you had lived once and which was still there, but when you went back to it, it was never quite the same. The old man recoiled in shock, stood up in a huff and I saw that his face was a deep crimson. His outraged eyes fell on me, “Your grandfather has gone mad!” he cried out, pointing at dadubhai, “He just asked me who Jyoti Basu is! Is this some kind of a joke?”