Another: Tanmoy Mukherjee

Ashutosh-babu made his blunder as he was rushing to get on the tram at Ballygunge Phanri. Missing his footing, he went down in a heap. Evening crowds, the street choc-a-bloc with buses and taxis, auto-rickshaws whizzing past. As he was wondering whether his mis-step would send him under the wheels of a tram or whether it was a minibus tyre that fate held for him, he fell headlong on a wooden floor.

What was this? How could the tarred road of Ballygunge Phanri turn into a yellow wooden floor? Looking around him, Ashutosh could only see impenetrable darkness. Nothing much was visible. This was magic. He had been in Calcutta earlier, but where was he now? Had he died, then? Had a bus come from the back and smashed his head to pulp? This was too much pressure. It wouldn’t have hurt to have died at 42, but the LIC policy was due to mature next month. What if his wife couldn’t manage things properly?

He felt a sharp pain in his side. Should he have been in pain if he was dead? He had no idea. There was no blood on him or anything, but then a spirit shouldn’t really have bloodstains. Still, Ashutosh-babu was astonished at the shabby appearance of the afterlife. There was neither the gloss of heaven nor the frenetic activity of hell. Just this yellow wooden floor.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness Ashutosh-babu discovered that all kinds of objects were strewn on the floor. A comb, a wallet, a spear, tickets to the cinema, a pen, a mortar and pestle – an extraordinary variety. Ashutosh felt deeply intimidated. Was he dreaming, then? He pinched himself.

Benu-mama from Bhadreshwar had taught Ashutosh as a child how to deliver a lethal pinch. He groaned in agony.

Ashutosh got to his feet slowly. He needed to walk around and survey the place. But how would he walk, the floor was littered – books, bottle-caps, old inland letters, cigarettes, tonic water, and so much more. This was making him very uneasy.

‘New here?’

The high-pitched bellow caused great consternation to Ashutosh-babu. Turning around, he discovered a decrepit old gentleman lying less than five feet away, a blanket drawn over himself. His age seemed beyond human reckoning, he could well be ninety. All he had by way of physical features was yellowish skin drawn taut across his bones, and not a single hair on his scalp. Clouded eyes, sunken cheeks. He seemed to be trembling.

‘And what might your name be?’ the old man asked.

‘Ashutosh Mitra, sir. I was on my way to Park Circus but I slipped while trying to get into a tram. I don’t know how I got here. Who are you? What is this place?’

– A different dimension.
– I beg your pardon?
– A different dimension.
– What’s that?
– Meaning. Two dimension. This dimension. That dimension. None of those. This is another dimension.
– Pardon?
– Why can’t you understand? Let’s say you put a pen on your desk. But it’s nowhere to be found two minutes later, although you’ve searched the desk with a toothcomb. And then half an hour afterwards you discover the pen exactly where it was. Doesn’t this happen all the time?
– Yes sir, it does.
– So the thing is, many objects frequently slip out of the dimension we occupy on earth to arrive here in this different dimension. You could call it an exception-cum-error of nature’s.
– A mistake on nature’s part?
– Right you are. Most of the time the error is corrected by nature’s own laws. And so the lost pen finds its way back to the desk. Things that disappear unexpectedly are also restored equally unexpectedly. But once in a while they remain trapped in this dimension till infinity.
– My throat is dry.
– Don’t worry. It’s an illusion. Physical sensations like hunger and thrust do not slip into this dimension. There’s no illness or disease either to speak of. How else could I have been hale and hearty even at the age of a hundred and fifteen?
– Er, did you also slip from Earth to this other dimension?
– Yes, I did. Not that too many people make it alive into this dimension, for their dimensional equilibrium is very high. Once in a while they do, though, especially when they’re flung downwards from a height, there is a slender possibility in those cases. In the past eighty years I haven’t seen more than seven or eight humans arriving here. But in most cases they returned to their original dimension, a few in a couple of minutes, some in a couple of seconds.
– But you? You stayed on?
– Yes, what can one do. Destiny. I had nurtured many dreams for my original dimension. All gone to hell. Exceptions like these are not very common. But what to do. I’ve been an optimist since birth, but the trouble is that optimism has no value in this dimension.
– Er, sir, how did you arrive here? Like I missed my footing when trying to get on a tram…
– Air-crash. I made a calculated jump from the burning plane a few seconds before it was to hit the ground. There were definite chances of survival. But who can protect you from god’s will? I landed directly on this yellow wooden floor.
– When did this take place? And where?
– In ’45, I think. I was on my way from Saigon to Manchuria. The plane lost control suddenly when flying over Formosa…
– You…you’re…you’re…
– Subhash…Subhash Bose…
– Ne…ne…ne…

Ashutosh opened his eyes to the sensation of water being splashed on his face. He realised he was lying flat on a pavement in Ballygunge Phanri, surrounded by at least a dozen people. The man who was checking his pulse said, ‘It was a near thing. Very lucky.’

Overwhelmed, Ashutosh declared, ‘Jai Hind!’

Shardulshundori: Sirsho Bandyopadhyay

Singapore, 1920: Curtain Call

Priyanath was slowly sinking into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass of sand had the tight consistency of mud. The dense, impenetrable, yellow sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.

Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he had a view of black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to stake its territory.

Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra, mad Fatik, who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. ‘So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,’ he had brayed one day.

The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out. His fingers sank into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognised at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewa had gifted them to Priyanath. He used to give them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths.

Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew as soon as Priyanath went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.

Where’s Lakshmi, where are you? Why can’t I see your face? About to lose consciousness, Priyanath tried to keep his eyes open with great effort.

But what was this? This wasn’t Lakshmi! The body was a tiger’s, but the face was a woman’s. Was it a woman or a demoness? What did she want? Why was she slithering up to him like a giant python, bringing her face so close to his?

‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Priyanath screamed.

The woman’s lips tried to form an answer, but all Priyanath could hear was a purring. The kind that his tigers made when they wanted his attention.

But what was she saying? Listening closely, Priyanath detected her slurred speech. ‘Will you kiss me? Give me a kiss. You’re so brave. Why don’t you kiss me?’

The words sounded like groans, but they seemed familiar. Who was it who used to talk this way? Who? Someone he knew very well.

The woman’s face was inches away from Priyanath’s now. Suddenly she said, ‘Kiss me here, right here…’ and turned her face away.

Priyanath gasped. One side of her face was all but gone. Someone had ripped off part of her jaw in a fury, leaving only a misshapen lump of flesh where her neck and shoulders should have been.

Opening his mouth to shriek in horror, Priyanath realised that only a rumbling sound was emerging from his throat. The mangled face was still bleeding profusely. His white vest was soaked, turning red with blood.

He tried to push the face away with both his hands, but his hands only passed through air. The woman broke into peals of laughter, which turned into maniacal rage the very next moment. Heaving with anger, she said, ‘You can’t, Priyababu, you can’t. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t push me away.’

She clung to his neck with arms that ended not in fingers but in fearsome claws. Priyanath tried in a frenzy to extricate himself. He was panting, desperately trying to draw deep breaths. The bed, the entire room, was awash with blood. It flooded into his nose and mouth, suffocating him.

A terrified Priyanath woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep in the comfortable wicker chair next to his desk. His clothes were sopping wet with perspiration. Beads of sweat streamed down from his face.

He sat there for a while, trying to normalise his breathing. My god, what a horrible nightmare.

An electric bulb was burning brightly in the room. It was hurting his eyes. These lights had been introduced to Calcutta a few years ago. They must have come to Singapore even earlier. But Priyanath was not yet accustomed to them. He had always travelled with his circus from one village to another, performing in the countryside. The glare was painful. He couldn’t open his eyes properly.

Priyanath squinted at the adjoining bathroom. He needed to wipe off his perspiration. The towel was in there. But he staggered as soon as he got on his feet. His head began to reel.
He clutched the side of the desk to save himself from falling. Sheets of paper were strewn on its surface, all of them prescriptions from European medical practitioners. Doctors in Singapore had tested his blood and diagnosed jaundice. He had led an indisciplined life for years, with irregular meals, on top of which there had been frequent bouts of fever, along with searing headaches. He used to swallow fistfuls of painkillers, which had apparently harmed his liver severely. Visiting Penang with his troupe, he had fallen so ill that he had had to be taken to Singapore for treatment. The doctors had grounded him after a thorough examination, warning him that he wouldn’t survive unless he was treated immediately.

Since then Priyanath had remained imprisoned in this hotel in Singapore. But he was close to losing his mind in worry. He had barely managed to restart his circus after a great deal of trouble, and there was no one besides him to ensure that everyone in the troupe was fed properly and looked after, and that the animals were taken care of.

Priyanath sighed. His elder brother Motilal used to shoulder all the responsibilities of his Great Bengal Circus at one time. Priyanath did not have to concern himself with anything but the performance.

But Mejobabu was extremely bad-tempered. It wasn’t just with outsiders or with other members of the circus, Motilal had often fought bitterly with his own brother too. But then they had always made up. Despite all their conflicts, Priyanath was certain that Motilal would never be able to turn down his younger brother.

But there was no opportunity for patching up after their last feud. Motilal bid goodbye to the world suddenly.

What ensued after this was even more unbearable. Motibabu’s eldest son Motilal decided that he had come of age, and demanded to see the accounts. He even had several arguments with his uncle, claiming that Priyanath was single-handedly destroying the circus founded by his father. But he refused to accompany the troupe on its performances, or to find out for himself how such a large circus was managed.

Priyanath sank into gloom as he mused about all this. None of his own sons had evinced any interest in the circus, concentrating on their education instead. His second son, Abanikrishna, was a lover of the arts, just like Priyanath himself, and had already developed into a skilled artist. He wrote regularly to Priyanath, although each of his letters bore the same message, of the family’s financial hardship.

It was true that they were helpless, unable to cope. Just the other day a letter had arrived to inform him of mounting debts at all the neighbourhood shops. While none of the creditors was yet to visit them at home to demand their dues, they had let it be known that this could not go on.

Everyone at home was hopeful that this time, too, Priyanath would bring some money from his profits, as he usually did. But Priyanath himself was reeling under loans. Whom could he possibly tell that he had borrowed money at high interest rates to pay for this tour his circus was on? He had no idea how he would pay back his loans.

The only person aware of the situation was his friend Kazi Kader Daad, who had lent money to Priyanath in several instalments to help him overcome this difficult time. Priyanath had learnt from Abani’s letters that Kader Dead had even helped his family out in Calcutta with money occasionally.

When would he repay his friend for this favour? And how? Priyanath was at his wits’ end.
He was still discomposed. It was May, a hot month in Singapore. Priyanath felt as though his insides were on fire. He was perspiring profusely, his tongue was coated, he could barely keep his eyes open. He was overcome by exhaustion. Pouring several buckets of water over himself might bring some relief.

Priyanath stumbled towards the bathroom, only half conscious, groping for things to clutch. But halfway there, his head began to reel again.

With nothing to hold on to, Priyanath was about to lose his balance and fall. One of the posts on his four-poster bed appeared to him dimly. He tried to grasp it, but failed. His tall frame spun and collapsed on the corner of the bed.

Made in the western style, the bed had a low upright plank at its foot. Priyanath had fallen across it on his back, his hips resting on the patterned length of wood. The lower half his body was partly dangling, partly on the floor. The portion above the waist was slumped on the bed.

His head, however, had struck the floor with great force. It was a wooden surface, which was why he had not fractured his skull. But two streams of blood were flowing from Priyanath’s ears, pooling on the floor. His eyes were open, and the eyeballs had rolled upwards, inert.

The opening orchestra began to play with the ringing of the third bell. The solemn notes of the trumpet, clarinet, and English horn filled the tent.

Priyanath was still aroused by the sound of this music. it made him joyful, freeing him of all burdens. He remembered none of the financial uncertainty or the trouble of managing the troupe or the worry of how to run his household. On the contrary, he felt as though he were making a fresh start.

Priyanath swung cheerfully on his trapeze, his head pointing towards the ground. The upside-down face of a 12-year-old girl approached and receded alternately. She was also swinging upside down on her trapeze. Her nose-stud glittered, and stray strands of hair were stuck to her sweat-covered brow. Fervour shone in her dazzling eyes.

Priyanath called out to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Sushila, let go. Let go at the end of the next swing.’ With a covert smile Sushila said, ‘Why should I be afraid? I know you’ll catch me, Priyababu.’

Fire of my reverence: Shakti Chattopadhyay

Fire of my reverence
Incinerate me
First, torch the two feet that can no longer move
Then the hands which hold no love or order today
Now icebergs of flowers in the crook of the arms
No more responsibility settling on the shoulders
Burn them in proximity to life
Stop a moment, then destroy
The silent seat of knowledge coloured by truth and lies
Save the pair of eyes
Maybe they still have
Something left to see
When the tears have stopped flowing crush the eyes
Don’t burn the garlands and bouquets dishevelled with fragrance
A loved touch lives on their bodies
Let them drift on the river freely, wilfully
Fire of my reverence
Incinerate me

From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,

The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.

But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.

Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.

There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.

Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.

Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.

The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.

Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.

This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?

How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places.  Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.

‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.

Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.

Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.

Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.

The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.

The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?

Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.

Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.

This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.

My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman  in this area.

Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.

 

Every Sunday: Binod Ghoshal

Oooh, how scared I was at first, god! Don’t blame me, OK? Isn’t everyone a little scared on their first plane ride? When the plane suddenly left the ground and zoomed into the sky, I shrank back in fear and grabbed his hand tightly. I had taken the window seat so that I could look down. I was reassured when he put his hand on mine lightly. He… who?

My husband, who else? This wasn’t his first time on a plane though. He has to fly to Bombay or Delhi on office work every two or three months. He’s been to America too, twice. As soon as I heard I decided to ask him to take me along next time. He would have no choice. I’ve been dying to see America ever since I was a child. He’s a ‘handsome Brahmin, senior post MNC, 29/5’9″‘ I’ve seen very few men as fair-skinned as him. A full head of thick black hair. His cheeks turn a light green when he shaves, because he uses some brilliant ideas to add style and impress the ladies. How handsome he looks then. I wish I could… no, but his body always gives off a lovely fragrance. I start smelling of it too after he’s been by my side for a while. What IS this fragrance? I wear perfume too, but the scent is never as good. We’re going to Bombay now. We’ll spend two days there and then go to Goa for our honeymoon. Hee hee. We only just got married. We completed the eight-day rituals a couple of days ago and left today. He won’t get leave later. I’m going so far away for the first time in my life. I feel funny – both joy and anxiety. Restless. I must remember to call Ma as soon as we land in Mumbai – I must, I must. She worries for me so much. She’s worried for me all her life. The plane is so nice. A very lovely air-hostess served us coffee a little while ago. She smiles constantly. She seemed to bend over a little too much when serving my husband. No, it’s just my weird ideas. I look down through the window. Oh my god. Everything is so small. How high up are we?

The roads, the land, the people, the rivers, the hills, the seas… everything’s tiny. I am ‘below 23, exquisitely beautiful, convent-educated’. My heart trembles at the thought. I lower my eyes.

My husband has a huge jewellery shop on B.B. Ganguly Street. Everyone knows the shop. They advertise so much. White and yellow lights glitter on the glass walls all day. He’s ’43/5’1″, a little shorter than me. Never mind. His complexion too… but forget all that. He’s rather… er… fat – but you can’t have everything. He spends all day in front of the fan in the shop (very thrifty, no air-conditioner yet), beads of perspiration on his face. The back of his kurta, his underarms, the creases in his neck are all sopping wet with sweat. He has flowing locks like on the idols of the gods, and greying sideburns. A gold chain dangles around his neck, going down all the way to his navel. Four gold rings with thick stones inset on his right hand, and two on the left. I am encased in ornaments too. They have their ‘own house in N. Calcutta’. As old as it is large. There’s a sleepy, lazy, dank smell as soon as you step in. A dark staircase leads to the first floor. A pile of dirty dishes beneath the tap on one side of the square yard – such an enormous house, but perpetually quiet, like a summer afternoon. Only when the maid comes does it wake up to the sound of the dishes being washed. This house has many owners, many families, but these people are the only ones who live here. All the other doors are locked. Their family is extremely conservative. The women are not allowed to go out on their own. Here I am barely thirty. I’m a ‘W.B. Swarnabanik, genuine fair beauty’. Although they had ‘no demands’, my father had to give them a lot of things. This husband of mine has become a dullard, measuring out gold and counting notes all day. No interest in anything. At night… never mind. I was introduced via ‘photo and correspondence’. I had sent the same one that I send everywhere, the postcard-sized photograph in a green sari. They were happy with it. The negotiations and wedding took place quickly. They don’t know I’m a divorcee. They weren’t told before the wedding, and they’ll never come to know either. I was married off from my maternal uncle’s house in Uttarpara. None of my neighbours in Diyara know of this marriage. So how will these people come to know? They think I’m first-hand. You know, hiding the facts scares me. But I keep it under wraps…. But my daughter? My six-year-old daughter?… I look at the floor again.

This husband of mine has an income of ‘six lakh annually’. His ‘first wife died in an accident’. They have ‘two two-storied houses in Calcutta’. One of them has long been given out on rent, however. He’s a ‘computer engineer 30/5’6″‘. His first wife died within two years of their marriage. I still don’t now how – and I have no wish to know either. Let sleeping dogs lie. I’m fine as I am. They had said ‘widow or divorcee preferred’. ‘Homeloving slim minimum qualification graduate genuine fair beautiful girl wanted contact on phone 7-9 AM.’ I got my father to call at once. They liked everything about me – my height, figure, complexion, hair, nails, teeth, gums. This time I did not hide the fact that I was divorced. Why should I? That was what they wanted. And it wasn’t my fault. Who doesn’t fall in love and get married these days? The boy was from our neighbourhood. My friends tried to convince me that he was a bad sort, a scoundrel, don’t fall into his clutches, you’ll be ruined. Let him go. I couldn’t. Within a year and half of our getting married, it was he who left me, our daughter still in my arms. I used to live the way ‘genuine homeloving’ girls from middle-class families are forced to live when they slink back to their father’s house after being kicked out by their husbands. At least my daughter was going to school, getting decent food. I don’t blame my parents at all. They had tried to persuade me, but I hadn’t bothered. Love is not just blind, it’s deaf too. My father’s old-fashioned stationery shop opposite our house limps along, panting like a tuberculosis patient. My brother is in his second year of college. So many stomachs to fill. How long could the shop and the paltry interest from the post-office savings have sustained us? I didn’t hide a thing – I told my husband everything. They had said they had ‘no demands’. Indeed they didn’t. Just the shankha and sindoor and a sari and, on my father’s insistence, a ring for my husband. He had bought a car just a few days before the wedding. A silver Santro. A real eye-catcher. I didn’t allow the plastic seat covers to be removed – it would only mean dust gathering on the seats. How dusty it is in Calcutta, my god. The two of us went for a drive the night after the wedding reception. When the car was racing past Victoria Memorial down Red Road, oh god! I can’t explain how it felt. He was driving. A saxophone (I learnt the name from him afterwards) on the car stereo and driving at high speed – I had goosebumps. But I realised in a couple of days he isn’t particularly interested in me physically. I wonder why. Maybe he has another girlfriend. Maybe he’s been pressured into marrying me instead of her. Or is it something else – because of which his first wife had died or something? To hell with it. I don’t worry, frankly. He hasn’t even touched me all these nights. I haven’t asked either. I don’t have those needs anymore. They vanished long ago. It’s enough not to be a burden on my father. I don’t fret about whether he likes me or not. They had wanted a divorcee, but ‘childless and unencumbered’. Is my daughter not my encumbrance? I have to leave him too.

I never thought I’d be able to leave this pathetic West Bengal and go to the USA. True, I still don’t know the name of the place in the US where we live. But how long will it take to find out? ‘Same or different caste, divorcee with child’ – they had ‘no objection’ to anything. I am ‘willing to live abroad’ and ‘smart and below thirty-five’ – so getting in touch was soon followed by the registered marriage. And then straight to this place by plane. My husband is a little on the old side, that’s all. Thoroughbred American. His grandmother was apparently Bengali. Although I talk to him in broken English now, I’ll teach him Bengali soon. He is an ‘established businessman’. He was also married earlier. The marriage broke up barely a year later. His son from his first wife is twenty-eight. He doesn’t stay with his father though. I had already realised that the old man was not looking for a wife but for a trustworthy maid to do the household work. I have no problems. I’ve had my daughter admitted to a good school. Such lovely books, and what a fine school uniform. They have computer studies even at this age. It’s so different in this country. She goes to school in a shiny bus every day. Their school bus. Cakes, biscuits and chocolate at recess…. she’s sooooo happy. She even has her own room at home. Such a little girl and a room of her own… hee hee. Of course, she hasn’t accepted the man as her father yet. All in good time. But I don’t even know these people well enough. I’ve heard people here change wives as often as they yawn. The old man still wants it, though. Even though I hate it I don’t have a choice… But what if he throws me out with my daughter when I’m no longer new? If he leaves me suddenly what will I do in this foreign country with my daughter? No, there’s no need to be so greedy. Better to live in one’s own country.

No, really, this time I actually am veeeery happy. My husband is a straightforward man. Detached from most things. Spends all his time with his books and students. ‘Permanently employed’ schoolteacher. Earns about twelve thousand. Not too bad. Apparently he had made up his mind not to marry, but eventually, thanks to the efforts of his friends, mister agreed to marry at forty-two. Tremendously ‘religious and idealistic’. On my part I’m a ‘Brahmin, good family, religious-minded, vegetarian, broadminded, below thirty-four, B.A.’ Though I haven’t actually passed. I failed in one paper and didn’t take my exams again. But then he wasn’t going to ask for my results, after all. I am ‘Thakur So-and-So’s (foremost added) disciple, reasonably beautiful.’ I was about to feel very happy because he was ‘5’7″ permanently employed, divorcee with child acceptable’… but there was a box number, and I didn’t write to box numbers anymore. A good deal of money and several ‘suitable postcard-size colour photographs’ later, I had never received a single reply. A ‘phone number’ was the best option. The rejection came quickly. You didn’t have to wither away, waiting. When I saw a residential address I did write sometimes. I take tuition classes for three children in the lower classes. I have to pay for my daughter’s school fees, transport, books and notebooks, pencils, water-bottle, shoes, and my own things out of the five hundred and fifty I earn. How many letters can I write to heaven in expectation of a reply from god? I’m embarrassed to ask my father for money for these things.

I spend all of Sunday afternoon in the ‘Bride Wanted’ columns. My eyes lap up each and every word – ticked, unticked, highlighted. My mother asks wanly now and then, ‘Any luck?’ I respond as lightly as I can, ‘Nothing worthwhile.’
The afternoon rolls on. I get tired of it all. My eyes ache. The ballpoint pen lies glumly on the mat next to me. It cannot underline any of the ads. I am same/different caste, genuinely homeloving/working, below twenty-three/below thirty-five, extremely fair/wheatish, exquisitely beautiful/pleasant appearance, East Bengal/West Bengal, Brahmin/Sunni Muslim/Gandhabanik/Namahshudra, rational/devotional, convent-educated/minimum high school, first-hand/widow/divorcee, contact on phone 8-10 AM, no communication necessary without photograph… all, I am each and every one of these. Only, I’m not unencumbered. My six-year-old daughter. So what, says everyone. Put her in a boarding school. Happens all the time these days. I can’t. I’m the only one she has. Doesn’t let me out of her sight for a moment. The first thing she does when back from the government school, perspiring in her thick terrycot uniform, is to look for me. She’s terrified if I’m not there. I don’t know why. The more she grows up, the more afraid she seems to be getting. I cannot live without her…

Afternoon slides into evening. Waking up from her nap, my daughter says, ‘I’m going out to play, Ma.’ I fold the newspaper and rise to my feet. I’ll try again Next Sunday.