“Evacuation is necessary!” The crackle of Akashbani was now coming through in snippets. Calcutta was enraptured by the romance of the last lap of India’s freedom struggle. The Raj was being dealt a severe blow by the Great War of this century. Amidst the fire and explosions, the speeches of the two Bose-s, Subhash and Rashbehari reverberated across the huge quadrangle of her parents’ house. The most recent scare was that the Japanese had overrun the buffer of Burma, and were heading towards Calcutta. There were rumours of locations where the first bomb could drop. She was only a schoolgirl then but old enough to understand that her life was floating on a simmering volcano. The blackouts and the deafening sirens were growing more frequent. Raising her saree above her knees and fashioning a tin foil into a sword, she would often ask Rakhshasi, her dog to accompany her to battle.
This was the turbulent 1940-s. An era of Dwijen Mukhopadhyay’s soulful renditions of Tagore alongside Talat Mehmood’s cadences. All India Radio was naturally a chiaroscuro. She could not sing like her older sisters, but was blessed with an artist’s genes. Calcutta, even at the clutches of the Great War looked promising for an aspiring artist. Then the rumours started coming true. When news of the Kidderpore massacre reached them, her father decided to relocate. It would certainly have been thrilling to stay back and watch the country ascend into a night of freedom, and Bordi and Mejdi, with their fierce loyalty for Gandhiji insisted on staying back, but Mintu and Monu were just kids. Father put his foot down. The Rajnarayan Biswas Lane dead-end house was put under lock and key. Mother kept a tiny lamp kindled in the Thakurghor as she descended the stairs, wiping away tears. Saying goodbye was not easy. Rakshashi was to be given away.
They passed by Harilal kaka who stood with his entire paraphernalia of jhalmuri arrangements on the side of the Rajbari turning. Harilal was a familiar face. People came from far off lands to see him. He would not only serve the best jhalmuri, but would entertain his customers with Salil Chaudhury numbers all day. It was a different song each day. He proclaimed himself to be an atheist and Chaudhury shaheb was the only God in his pantheon. Often his little corner would feel warmer and more special than the captivating musical evenings at the Rajbari Natmandir. Tonight however, Rajbari smelt of raw paint. The month of Sraavan was just around the corner. Amidst everything, our very own Dewan-princes were gearing up for the grandest Durga Puja of the city.
They passed by the silent book markets and the huge arches of Presidency College, where her brother-in-law was a professor of Physics and her didi studied as a student. Some student union leaders were crouching near the dim lampposts of Sanskrit college, their shadow casting myriad shadows on the walls of the University Institute Hall where messages of revolution glistened. It was really not a time to go away.
My grandmother and her family returned to their Calcutta home in 1948. She always claimed that Calcutta had changed radically after Independence. Harilal had disappeared. There was a distinct air of gloom around Rajbari. People all around were bursting into patriotic songs and singing praises of Mahatma Gandhi. There was no trace of Netaji, her only hero. She felt betrayed every time she walked by Netaji Bhawan.
“A few years later, Government Art College happened to me. We had to submit an “outdoor” and an “indoor” work every week. I knew the murals and miniatures of Indian Museum like the back of my hand. The guards often fed me Jhalmuri, and no it was never as good as Harilal kaka’s.” She would reminisce with a sad smile. She would tell vibrant stories about the things she discovered in her city that her peers were not aware of. Once she had stumbled upon this strange looking church in Park Circus that resembled partly temple architecture. She told me that this was the St. Gregory’s Armenian Church and that a sizable population of Armenians had been living here since their migration from Persia ages ago. Everyone had heard of Armenian merchants in legends and stories, but she had never encountered an Armenian establishment before. She claimed that she had befriended a handsome Armenian man and even got invited to a rugby match, but she declined it as it “could have meant something.” However while in college, when on a project to paint an advertisement for Charminar, she had very deftly punned on “Charmahal”- an Armenian village of which she had heard of. Later on after her marriage, she visited the Armenian club a few times, but her ears being trained to listen to ghazals, Hindustani classical, Bhatiyali and Tagore, she did not like their folk music.
The man she fell in love with, shared his surname with one of her childhood heroes, Bose. He was her senior from Art College, apparently a black sheep of a famous bonedi family in the city. She got a job as a drawing teacher at her old school- Giribala Sircar Balika Vidyalay in junior classes. Her fascination with the military life was quenched somewhat when her school made NCC training compulsory for students and teachers. Every time she put on her uniform shedding her saree, she felt she was finally being part of a revolution she had missed because her father forced them to evacuate. When I was growing up, she incurred a serious breed of Dementia, and memories of her youth survived in curious patches. Her chronologies got jumbled, but anyone she took a fancy to, would be treated to stories of how her NCC troops took part in the freedom struggle and they responded fervently to Netaji’s historic call to march to Delhi. “Your lives are a little too comfortable. We fought the Ingrej, mind you.”
“The Rajnarayan Biswas Lane house had many inhabitants at one point. Most of my elder sisters were revolutionaries and did not marry. The house felt weird without the din that I was so used to hearing. There were so many locked rooms- it was definitely a breeding ground for ghosts”. She gave birth to a beautiful daughter soon after; but their busy schedules prompted them to keep an Ayah for her. When Khuki was one year old, Mary mashi came to look after her. She had her house in a Santhal village of South Bengal, and her family had been loyal Christians for generations. When Khuki turned 5, Mary mashi offered to take her to her village when she learnt the songs of the “Lal mati Khor khor” and “Diejel-gari puncture”.
My father was born when my aunt (or, Khuki) was seven. He was infamous in his locality as a mischievous brat, stealing boiled potatoes from the Phuchkawala’s cans, and falling sick too often. He had a pair of fiercely intelligent eyes, and a penchant for causing trouble. His mother used to teach maths to one of the daughters at the Rajbari and he would often accompany her just to damage her toys.
My father memorialised the Rajbari natmandir as a public stage for organising para plays with his friends. While crowds thronged the theatre houses of Hatibagan and Grey Street, my father was setting his little “majestic” stage on fire with adaptations from his Russian books. He grew up not on English or Bengali literature, but Russian stories for children that multiplied prolifically during the Left Regime in Calcutta. Moscow’s progressive press published many illustrated books for children of different ages comprising barnyard animals, talking cars, animated kitchen utensils, etc. Books written by Arcady Gaider were popular too. Baba was a natural painter and the influence of these illustrations on his paintings were much too evident.
My grandfather passed away while on tour in North Bengal, when my father was just 11 years old. It was a difficult time for the family, and my grandmother’s school job was crucial to sustain the household. Most of the house was empty by then, so they started keeping tenants. My aunt was forced to drop out of Art College and take a job. My father continued his education in Don Bosco Park Circus.
Years later, when I was a teenager, my grandmother would tell me about the supernatural adventures she started having around this time. There were underground séance groups scattered around the city, news spread that the spirits of Tagore and Netaji had successfully visited them in their afterlife. My grandmother’s depression of being widowed so early in her life and the stress to raise her children led her to one of these meetings. She was not looking for her childhood heroes however, her only concern was to communicate with her late husband.
People who have studied and believe in paranormal activities, warn strongly against tampering with unearthly energies, otherwise a certain organic balance gets hampered. My grandmother at this time started having strange dreams. Her daughter was working in Delhi then. One night she dreamt that my aunt was severely ill and was asking for help. The next week, she arrived at my grandmother’s doorstep unannounced, claiming that she had had the same dream about her mother.
My grandmother lived a full life. Even when she was uprooted from her home at the fag end of her life and brought to my father’s flat in South Calcutta, her enterprising spirit was indomitable. She introduced me to the lesser known food haunts of Calcutta like Chitpur, the old Eau Chew’s restaurant and Dekkar’s Lane. She revelled in adventures both in this world and beyond. Her city lived in her. She revelled in adventures both in this world and beyond. Her city lived in her. When she breathed her last at the Columbia Asia hospital, little did she know that even in death, she was giving birth to another story.
It was a sultry summer evening in the peak of June. Sitting in the lobby of the Columbia Asia Hospital, K’s aunt looked distraught. ‘A pigeon flew into the bus’s windscreen today just as I had set out from Medinipur. The bus driver seemed not to notice. The bird died instantly. It was 1.15 pm.’ At 1.15 pm, K sat stuck at a traffic signal near Kasba reading ‘Javed Khan’ graffiti strewn across the walls. An hour long lecture on existentialism and Godot at Salt Lake’s ICSA had made him contemplate eerily on meaning and the act of meaning making within human life. Couched comfortably in the backseat of a static Ola cab on the E.M.Bypass, K had made no qualms stating that his life was just fine. An eunuch had just cursed him for not shelling out any money. The signal turned green. Crossing the Ruby General Hospital, K felt a sudden pang of dizziness. Only a flitting instance. He did suffer from low blood pressure problems. At 1.15 pm, in Jessore, a communist watched on as the Friday congregational prayers broke up and the pious made their way back home.
Easing his body against a white bolster K’s grandfather was like a male Scheherazade with no impending death. A freewheeling storyteller, he would laugh and say, ‘You know son, we Pathans have a deep seated oral culture. We make meaning through memories and tales. How else would you make sense of life in a mad city like Calcutta if you did not have stories to boot! ’
The cashier at window counter 1 of Columbia Asia approached K’s aunt carefully. ‘Ma’am your bill is ready. Shall we begin wrapping the body?’
‘So son, shall we begin?’ The old man cleared his throat. ‘It was 1953. Calcutta was very different back in those days. I was a resident of 51, Baithakkhana Road. Carmichael Hostel to be precise. The roads were quieter. I used to stay in Room 33 with Mosharaf Hossain Biswas, and Rofique Ahmed. Both of them were scions of zamindari lineages. Mosharraf hailed from Shabhaipur in Bongaon, and Rofique from Budge Budge. My uncle Farman Ali Khan used to be a Congressi back in those days. It was he who had introduced me to Calcutta, a city I had slowly come to love… And yet in a few years time, the memories I had made in the city would travel eastward, across Radcliffe saheb’s pen stains, to a land they were now calling Pakistan. Calcutta was never really the same after that.
‘Utho uthi-huRo huRi is what we called the Partition. Desh bhag, Taqseem were alien to the common Bengal villager. 47 was a mad time. India had woken up to life and freedom only recently. Our ancestral taluk lodged precariously at the borders of East Pakistan was a Congress bastion. Nehru’s tryst with destiny sat well with us, as Farman chacha became President of the Union Board. That was what the panchayat was called in those days. There were talks of exchanging lands with a zamindar in Rajshahi for a while. But would you believe it, the Rajshahi family did not have enough land as compared to ours! So the deal fell through. Of course some of our relatives left for Mehrpur. But those were few and far in between. The city happened six years later. Farman chacha enrolled me at the University of Calcutta to study law…’
‘Patient in ICU 10 correct?’ the man at the counter confirmed. K nodded. ‘Cha khaben ki?’ It was 4.50 pm. So what happens when people leave a city? Does it loose its character? Is it no longer the same? Is a city made up of memories then and otherwise quite desolate? K looked at the wall clock noting the seconds pass by. The bill was paid. There was nothing more to be done. Without a schedule at hand, K felt a nauseating emptiness. He counted the tile blocks on the floor. But that ended soon enough. He segregated the room into the number of men and women in his head. The number of men being lower, he started making mental notes about each one of them. Pot bellied, bald, muscular, lanky, uneasy, and some just staring into space. ‘This is your bill Ma’am’, the man at the counter handed the bill to K’s aunt.
‘Well shall we go?’
‘Yes let’s go’
‘Shiraz used to be brilliant when I was a law student. The Golden Restaurant it was called then. We used to eat there once in a while, my roommates and I. Of course I never had enough money, so Rofique always paid a bit more. We split the bill unevenly. Young people go Dutch these days, we used to go Bengali! Calcutta was the only city in India to have trams. A dash of Lakhnavi Biryani, sometimes a Shami or two and tram rides. Ah those were the days! We were young, the country was young, the fifties were a good time son.’ The old man paused. ‘Bhishon gawrom. Please pass me the water.’
Sitting up, wrapping his lungi tightly around his waist, fixing his watch, K’s grandfather uttered the word ‘tram’. ‘You know, I used to take tram rides around the maidan later on when I visited the city in the seventies and the eighties. I used to look at the places where Mosharraf and I had been, and think fondly of him. He had gone over to an independent Pakistan and settled in Jessore. His cousin, your grandmother Lailun Nahar Biswas was the only one in the immediate family who stayed on in India. I had married her just before the family had left. Her own sisters moved to Jessore, and she stayed on in India, while her siblings became Pakistanis. You should visit Jessore sometime son. It is just like the suburbs of Calcutta. Dum Dum Cantonment is much like Jessore. It lacks a Bhoirab nodi, and a Town Hall. But that is all…’
‘We leave tomorrow in the morning for Talukhuda. The janaza will leave soon after we reach there with the body’, K’s father announced. ‘The body…the body… .’ K’s father was a man who said little. And yet he teared up in this instance. K did not know how to react. His grandfather was still easing himself into stories, enthralling a young K on humid afternoons in suburban Calcutta. The man wrapped up in the hospital, that was just a body. ‘My father knew poverty. Without him we would never have been where we are today. He suffered in life and in death, and got us where we are’ said K’s father. And dinner was served.
‘In 1955, the final year of my L.L.B, I was unable to pay my hostel fees’, the old man smiled. ‘Calcutta was harsh the evening when the superintendent threw me out of Carmichael, insulting me publicly for being poor. “Poisha nei toh lekha pora korar ichhe kano?” (Why dream of an education when you do not have the money for it?) the superintendent had shouted. I shifted overnight to a Madrasa in Budge Budge where I started teaching and earning to support myself through the last year of University. It rained in Calcutta that evening. Kalboishakhi-s are for those who have the luxury of enjoying it. I am agnostic about them till this day. It was not kind that evening when it drenched me in filth. It was like Calcutta had spit on me for being poor. It was not my doing really. My father was a wandering Chishti Pir, who had passed away curing some villagers off cholera. He took the disease upon his own body and saved an entire village. My mother wrote away little by little the land that my father had in order to feed and clothe us. So by the end of it there was very little left, and one could not ask for any more money. But son, we Pathan men have always fought to get further in life. I fought my battle against poverty and overcame it. I wish I could tell the superintendent today that I retired as the District Judge of Dinajpur, the same poor boy he had banished from Carmichael.’
At 1 pm the next day, Calcutta seemed far away. It was the first Jumma of Ramzan. A crow with fluffed up wet feathers had balanced itself on the tin roof of the decked up shanty which served as the temporary resting place for all the corpses that came their way to be buried at the unfortunate parasite laden graveyard that K now faced. It lay strewn with nameless graves– an eternal dishonor in the face of the inconsequential lives that the villagers had lived. A bit further off K noticed the Idgah, with big incomprehensible Arabic letters written on its gate. He wondered if anyone knew what the words meant. The qatar which K was part of moved. The man next to K, a distant relative, gave him a small push. K shrugged clear of the daydreaming. A rectangular piece of land had been dug out for the old man. His face was covered and he was lowered into the earth. The Calcutta of K’s childhood would lay buried next to the Jalangi nodi for time immemorial. Strange as it may sound, sometimes cities exist away from cities. K would have to map his own Calcutta now. The old man’s stories would never suffice in grappling with the Calcutta of 2016. What made the city go round? Stories are all K could think of. He too would be a story some day. And then memories would alter him as the city would alter itself in the eyes of the future. It is stories that make meaning of life.
‘You know the story of the Englishman in the brothel?’
‘Tell it to me.’
‘Alright. Go ahead.’
Then almost as if it were a sport, people started hurling wet soil onto the old man, the soil filling up the grave where he would lie till the end of eternity until doomsday. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.