The marble table stood on the first floor, by the window looking out on the road to the south. Neither perfectly square nor round, it had a wavy edge. A lot like those ritual patterns drawn on the floor. It was set lightly on a rather baroque frame. Its own weight kept it in place. The marble slab was about seventy kilos in weight. A wooden lattice was attached to the frame, which was also surrounded by numerous small, wooden balls. Like circular dumbbells with tapered ends. A lot like well-polished pieces of patol. They whirled furiously when spun. The four legs were like embellished pillars. A broad foot-rest lay at the bottom.
When my father was in his salad days, with a head full of curly hair and a parting like a gash, sporting a butterfly moustache above his upper lip, when he was at the age at which he used to put on his burnished shoes every evening to put the greyhound gifted to him by Mr Young on a leash and take it for a walk by the river, the table was also in its prime of life. Baba had bought it himself at an auction. The table had entered our house at the same time as a swing to be hung from the beams.
When I grew tall enough to rest my chin on the cold marble, I saw my father squatting on a chair every morning, shaving before an egg-shaped mirror with a contorted face. Baba used to get very angry if anyone stood by his side when he shaved. In any case, he ruled with an iron fist. It was the age of the redoubtable Bengali. He was just as bad-tempered. When he came home every evening, he thrashed each of the two young manservants with his shoes on alternate days before sitting down at the table to drink his tea with an infuriated expression. And my docile, sociable uncle – the younger of my father’s elder brothers, whom I addressed as Mejo Jethamashai – used to occupy the chair without armrests to his left. Wrapped in a bristly towel, he would dye his hair. It was partly black and partly copper, with a few streaks of silver.
Anger was bad, Jethamashai would explain. In particular, this shoe business first thing after getting home from office sucked extra energy out of the body. Servants always tended to be slightly callous. Baba didn’t pay much attention to the mild-mannered Jethamashai. It was difficult to say which of them was the elder brother. ‘Mustn’t poke your nose in here,’ Baba would say, putting his cup down with a clatter on the table. ‘Discipline, first and foremost. Have to think of the boy. They have been using foul language all afternoon. Referred to the offspring of a horse and a donkey.’ Baba was a Puritan. He would not utter the word khachhar, literally a mule but actually a choice Bengali abuse. I was the one who had presented the report the moment he came home. And the action was instant. Baba chased Niranjan down the long veranda, beginning the flogging at the eastern end and throwing his shoe away after reaching the turn of the staircase at the western corner.
Jethamashai was fond of Niranjan, who lovingly prepared his fishing bait every Sunday with rotten bread, bits of paneer and ant eggs. That was probably why he had tried to lobby for Niranjan. But he couldn’t say a word now, departing slowly for the bathroom. Baba could never tolerate obscenities. My grandfather, whom I addressed as Dadu, and Baba were sitting at the table one holiday morning, eating muri and telebhaja, rice puffs and deep-fried vegetable fritters. The father-in-law and son-in-law were in animated discussion. Dadu has used the mild invective ‘shala’ several times. This word was permitted. Suddenly Dadu used the Bengali word for ‘arse’. Baba stood up in silence and fetched a paper packet from another room. Transferring Dadu’s share of the puffs and fritters into the packet, he handed it to his father-in-law, saying, ‘Eat this in your own home or outside on the stoop where loafers congregate. You’re not civilized enough to eat at the table. Your sphere is distinct from ours.’ Dadu was a senior citizen. His complexion was ruddy, his build, like a wrestler’s. His face became redder at what Baba had said. ‘What’s the matter?’ he blurted out childishly. ‘What’s got your goat all of a sudden?’ Dadu had not yet understood his crime. ‘Your language is improper,’ Baba told him. ‘Oh, you mean the ar…’ said Dadu, looking guilty.
‘Don’t repeat it,’ Baba broke in, raising his hand. ‘What should I say, then?’ asked Dadu, now flustered. ‘Can you not refer to it as the behind or the cheeks!’ Baba responded. Dadu still didn’t give up, attempting a weak self-defence. ‘I’m an old-fashioned man, you see, Parameshwar,’ he said. ‘These were the words we used in our time.’ Without giving him the opportunity to put up further arguments, Baba abandoned the marble table for his own room. Dadu remained sitting wistfully, the packet in his hand. He didn’t know what to do next. Finally he said, with a tragic smile, ‘Parameshwar really is very angry.’
My mother shrank back under my father’s tyranny over the household. On holidays she did not appear to be a living being, going about her chores almost like a shadow. She used to make tea for my father about two dozen times during the day. Serving Baba his tea demanded complicated technique. Spilling even a single drop from the cup into the saucer would ruin the whole thing. The cup had to be filled to the brim and then brought, carefully balanced.
I believe one of Ma’s legs was shorter than the other. Every doorway in our classical era house had a raised doorstep, which made things difficult for her. When she brought the tea she appeared to be carrying a liquid bomb, which would explode at the slightest tremor.
When she brought the tea in, Dadu was still sitting at the table, clutching the packet. The oil had seeped through the paper. ‘I’m not staying for the tea, Tulsi, your husband is very angry.’ Ma knew what had happened, since I had reported the events to her already in the kitchen. ‘Have your tea and leave,’ she whispered to him.’ ‘I would have left by now,’ he said, ‘but I’m stuck.’ ‘Stuck to what?’ Ma asked in surprise.’ ‘It’s awful!’ Dadu replied. Ma was worried. Dadu was reckless when it came to food, he would do astounding things like knock back the juice of an entire jackfruit with two litres of milk, or down half a bottle of raw ghee with daal. Ma thought Dadu might have done it in his clothes. This had happened a couple of times in the past. ‘Have you gone and done it!’ ‘Oh no, nothing awful like that,’ Dadu asserted boldly. He seemed quite proud of not having done it. ‘What have you done, then?’ Ma was baffled. Dadu began to resemble a naughty boy. Shifting in his chair, he said, ‘My finger’s stuck in the table.’ ‘Let me see,’ said Ma, bending over. The index finger of Dadu’s right hand was wedged into one of the holes amongst the hearts and clubs and spades patterned into the wooden frame of the table. ‘Why don’t you pull it out?’ Ma said. ‘It won’t come out,’ said Dadu helplessly. ‘How did it go in?’ Dadu described the events. ‘Parameshwar had left in a huff, leaving me here. I was running my fingers across the holes in distraction when it suddenly slipped into one. I had oil on my finger. And now I just can’t get it out. He put the muri and telebhaja into the packet with such care. There are still a couple of fritters to go. And now my right hand’s stuck.’
Ma paled in fear. ‘What do we do now?’
‘I could break the frame and pull my finger out, but what if Parameshwar gets angry,’ Dadu said childishly. ‘Oh no, the frame can’t possibly be broken. It’ll lead to Armageddon. You’d better try again.’ ‘Afraid I can’t, Tulsi. Been turning my finger round and round so long the skin’s come off.’ Putting the teacup down on the marble table, Ma went off to the veranda in the north. Baba had a kitchen garden on a handkerchief-sized plot. It didn’t get enough sunlight. Still, Baba’s efforts were unflagging. All kinds of trees were to be found on that small plot of land. All of them grew tall because of the lack of sunlight. A few papaya trees were about to reach the second floor parapet. Baba was in the garden. With Niranjan as his assistant. Mornings, Niranjan had no equal. Evenings, the same Niranjan was thrashed. The roots of the trees were being watered from a rotting husk. The slightest mis-step would make Niranjan tread on seedlings. Baba kept howling frequently, ‘Damn, there goes the daffodil.’ ‘Not at all, Chhotobabu.’ Niranjan was unperturbed. ‘Bloody bugger, you’re standing on it, you crystallised idiot,’ Baba said through clenched teeth. ‘That’s why they say everyone needs a minimum education.’ ‘Plants everywhere,’ Niranjan said, ‘how do I avoid stamping on them?’ ‘Why, is your big toe paralysed, this is how you should walk, don’t you know how to move around on tiptoes?’ Baba attempted a demonstration, ‘Oh dear, now I’ve trod on it myself, there goes the fuchsia, blast it.’ Niranjan offered assurances. ‘One or two are bound to die, sir. Not every child you give birth to survives, does it? One or two are bound to die.’ ‘Right you are,’ Baba said. ‘Keep planting, keep planting them. Six inches apart, don’t forget.’ Ma knew this would go on till noon. Baba would handle mosquito bites as well as several cups of tea without budging from his garden. Then, trying to prune the branches, he would nick his hand and rush upstairs with shrieks of imminent doom. Iodine and bandages were always kept at hand.
Ma came back from the north veranda to Dadu, who was stuck to the table. Sanatan’s tiny picture-framing shop was just across the road. Tall, dark and gnarled, he hammered away all day with a small implement. When he took breaks to take a bidi out of a small aluminium tin and gazed at our house, his eyes looked a murky yellow. ‘Can you quietly ask Sanatan to come over?’ Ma instructed me. ‘What do you want, Ma?’ he came and asked. He may have been thin, but he had a stentorian bellow. ‘Softly,’ whispered Ma. Lowering his voice as much as possible, he asked, ‘What is it, Ma?’ Ma showed Sanatan what had happened. Kneeling next to Dadu’s chair, Sanatan said after examining the table carefully, ‘The wooden border is attached with a couple of screws. If I remove the screws it will be detached automatically.’ ‘Then detach it,’ said Ma. ‘Quick. Without a sound.’ Sanatan clomped down the staircase in his clogs. On Ma’s embarrassed request he took them off and went off barefoot to fetch his tools from his shop.
The screws were ancient. The screw-head had been rusted over. Sanatan had to struggle quite a bit. The table couldn’t be moved, since Dadu was stuck to it. Sanatan was engaged in performing the impossible in a dark and narrow hole. Dadu looked rather amused. Ma’s expression betrayed suppressed anxiety. Her ears were cocked for sounds from the garden. Whenever she didn’t hear Baba’s voice she tiptoed away for a look.
Suddenly a heap of wooden balls cascaded to the floor like a stream of patal. ‘Oh dear, what’s happened now?’ Ma asked, advancing. Sanatan looked up with a smile. ‘I’ve removed the frame on this side.’ ‘Why did you have to loosen these?’ Ma asked. ‘They come away with the frame, Ma. These balls were held in place by the pressure from the frame above.’ Sanatan concentrated on removing the rest of the frame. Dadu realized it wasn’t right to remain silent. ‘You’re good at your work, I see,’ he applauded Sanatan. ‘You’ve got it to come away.’ Ma gathered the balls and hid them at the end of her sari so that they weren’t caught red-handed.
Eventually the frame forsook its relationship with the table and came away, along with Dadu’s plump index finger. Dadu’s joy of freedom was a sight to behold. He seemed to have been released from prison. Spinning the frame around his finger a couple of times, he said, ‘It fits rather well, Tulsi.’ Ma couldn’t quite participate in Dadu’s celebrations. I knew what was playing on her mind. Baba would soon come upstairs all sweaty from his handkerchief-sized kitchen garden, emitting all sorts of strange noises. Baba used to exhale loudly if he had been working hard. Hiss…s. Hiss…s. A lot like today’s pressure cookers.
The second major task on Sunday was to scrub the marble table clean. He had deliberately skipped it the previous Sunday. That was quite an episode too. My friend Bipul had written his name on the table with a copy pencil: Bipul Roy. In a large, clear hand. Baba spotted it the day after he had written it. Drawing an arrow pointing at it, Baba wrote in even larger letters: bloody bugger. Baba always got agitated whenever he saw something written or drawn in chalk on the door, or the owner’s name on the first page of a book, or doodles in exercise books, or the display of one’s name on the marble table. Psychological treatment for the writer would begin at once. A graffiti battle was being waged outside our front door for quite some time. Anyone about to enter was sure to be surprised if he were to notice it. The first words were ‘Tiger’s Den’. The writer had probably expressed his honest intention to dub our house ‘Tiger’s Den’. ‘Scoundrel’, wrote Baba. ‘Theatre of Lunatics’, the invisible writer countered. ‘Swine’, Baba responded. ‘Butterfly’, came the response. Possibly the writer had commented on my father’s moustache. ‘Stupid,’ stated my father. There was no lack of space by our enormous front door for writing. The weekly game of accusations and counter accusations had warmed up nicely.
Bipul’s writing wouldn’t make any more progress on the marble table. For, he had personally seen the epithet ‘bloody bugger’ and was unlikely to set foot in this house again. Can you tell me what ‘bloody bugger’ means, he had asked. I didn’t know. Bipul had left with a miserable expression.
Ma quickly made Dadu leave the table. It was decided that he would shift to Sanatan’s shop. Sanatan would make on last attempt to free his finger while keeping the frame intact. ‘Just a minute, Tulsi, I’ll just eat these two fritters in a second with my left hand.’ Ma was aghast. ‘Oh no, it’s time for him to come upstairs, you’d better run.’ Dadu went down the stairs in his black canvas shoes, his packet in one hand, the other with the finger stuck in a hole in the wooden frame, followed by Sanatan with his tools. Meanwhile Baba came up the back stairs, making pressure cooker sounds, followed by Niranjan with a shovel and a pitcher of manure.
It wasn’t possible to tell at a glance that the embellishments beneath the marble slab had been shed. Ma was hoping that the accident would not be spotted immediately. Perhaps it could be kept under wraps for some time. You never knew, maybe Sanatan’s amazing dexterity would ensure that the wooden frame came loose smoothly from Dadu’s finger, as thick as a ripe plantain, and be reinstated in its rightful place on a weekday in Baba’s absence. Baba demanded a glass of water as soon as he came upstairs. He had a large tumbler of thick glass, which could hold about a litre of water. He squatted on the floor with the glass in his hand at a little distance form the table. This was his special way of drinking his water. He sipped the water and glanced at the sun-dazzled blue afternoon sky, occasionally emitting a peculiar ‘ah’ sort of sound. Ma stood anxiously at a distance. The table stood in front of the window, its marble as pristine and white as a tombstone’s. The Sunday peace seemed to be interred beneath the table at that moment. Draining his glass, Baba emitted a final sound. A sparrow flew out of the ventilator at the top of the wall. He glanced at the small opening. I’d been hearing for several Sundays now that it would be blocked with a sheet of tin. Shaking the last drops of water into his throat, Baba rose. Thank goodness he hadn’t spotted it. He could easily have. The lower part of the table and its sides were visible from his position.
Baba clomped off to the bathroom on his heels. His speciality was doing everything at top speed. The only activity he had not succeeded in injecting speed into was evacuation. Constipation. If only there was a way to get rid of the intestines, he’d say angrily sometimes. Niranjan would pump his stomach from time to time according to instructions. Only when the marmelos was in season would he fuss a little less.
This meant we had half an hour or even forty-five minutes. There was no possibility of his emerging from the bathroom earlier. Ma and I ran to the window looking out on the road. Manoeuvres were underway in Sanatan’s shop to separate Dadu’s finger from the wooden frame. Sanatan was alone in his shop, but Dadu wasn’t visible. At other times Sanatan looked up at our window frequently. But now he was rapt – in what? After a long time Sanatan raised his yellowish eyes. Ma signalled a question with her hands. Chuckling, Sanatan lifted two pieces of wood to show us. Dadu had inserted his finger into a club. That was where the frame had been split into two. Ma’s faint smile was replaced by an ominous expression.
Baba issued his bulletin as soon as he emerged from the bathroom – absolutely no evacuation. Niranjan was standing before him. Even without knowing English, he knew the phrase. ‘A little pumping,’ he said at once. ‘Not now,’ answered Baba. ‘Let me try some tea.’ Ma made him a cup of tea with great compassion. Not only had he not cleared his bowels, but the table had also been broken. And that too, by her father. Maybe a well-made cup of tea would soften him slightly.
At one thirty the scrubbing of the marble began. Ma took shelter in Mejo Jethamashai’s room. Dressed in a bristly towel, Jethamashai was dying the hair at the back of his neck with an old toothbrush. He was the protector of all the sinners in this household. Liberal, ever-smiling. He didn’t give a fig for morals; he was ruled by emotion.
I had turned to Jethamashai for protection several times, but without much success. It was hard to say what lay in store for Ma. As soon as he came home from office, Baba would sit me down every evening at the marble table with my books. Everyone at home would be tense, like a tightly drawn bow. Anything could happen. It started with homework. On which I tripped at once. One mistake, two mistakes. Baba’s temper rose like a barometer. Weather forecast. Incipient thunderstorm. The clouds rumbled – ‘What have we been up to all day? Marbles? Kites? Storybooks?’ Sins can never be kept under wraps. Baba rose. The first item of sacrifice at the wide-mouthed family oven was a copy of the adventure novel borrowed from the local library. It had been hidden in the foot-rest of the marble table. Baba possessed the incredible ability to unearth hidden objects and hidden thoughts. Next into the oven were the spool and kite string concealed next to the safe. The string had just been given a cutting edge. Then came the crack of the kite frames being snapped. I felt as though my ribs were being broken, to the accompaniment of Baba’s ferocious war cries and roars – ‘devil, devil, Satan, Satan!’ Ma would say to me from a distance, as though speaking to a convict sentenced to death from the other side of the bars, ‘Why couldn’t you have got the sums right?’ Having destroyed everything, having turned the place into a cemetery, Baba would return to the table. A jungle of salt and pepper hair on his chest. Flowing drops of perspiration. While, despite all this drama, my eyes became heavy with sleep. Baba would lie in wait. As soon as my head approached the surface of the table, he would slap me hard on the back of my neck. The impact with the marble would dispel all sleep immediately. The white marble before my eyes, the agony of the lump on my forehead, a hirsute parent carved in stone, black letters dancing across the pages of the open book. A macabre pursuit of light on the darkest day of life. Jethamashai’s desperate plea – ‘Let the boy go now.’ As though a tiger had me in its jaws. ‘Don’t poke your fine nose in here,’ the tiger roared briefly. ‘How many times do I have to tell you, you condensed idiot, that when the subject is singular the verb is also singular! Write it down. In large letters.’
One or two pedestrians walked along the road, as though it were late at night, while numerous dogs fought pitched battles. Ma had taken shelter with Mejo Jethamashai. It was hard to say what was coming. The hair-dyeing had been halted. From behind a door, I watched with one eye like a spy. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Mejo Jethamashai assured Ma, ‘I will face him. Ready to lay my life down for you today.’ The scrub hit the surface of the table. Baba scrubbed, walking around the table. When he reached the section near the window, he suddenly jumped in the air with a loud yell. Stooping, he picked something up from the floor. A screw. ‘What’s this?’ he asked himself. ‘Where did this come from? Which devil’s work is this?’ Ma’s face was shorn of colour. Mejo Jethamashai was prepared. He looked as woebegone as the prisoners of war whose photographs appeared in the magazine named ‘The War in Pictures’ during the Second World War.
Holding the screw in his fingertips, Baba bent to examine the side of the table, where had the screw fallen from, that was it, he found out. He looked once. He looked twice. Then he stood upright. ‘What the…?’ he muttered to himself. ‘Niranjan!’ He called out twice. ‘Disappeared! Vanished in thin air!’ Moving away from the window, he faced the door and bellowed, ‘Is Niranjan dead?’
Jethamashai emerged. The hair at the back of his neck was partly black, partly copper. Putting his hand on Baba’s shoulder, Jethamashai said softly and gently, ‘Come, let’s sit down, let’s not get worked up.’ Baba looked at him in utter surprise. ‘Come, let’s sit down. Let’s sit.’ Jethamashai repeated the refrain of sitting several times like a thumri. Stop singing, nightingale, stop singing now, stop singing. ‘But I have no time to sit down.’ Baba conveyed his lack of time to Jethamashai with a contorted face and clearly articulated words. The communication held a hint of contempt. For, Jethamashai was dyeing his hair, while Baba was cleaning the table. One of the tasks was useful; the other, useless. ‘Got something to tell you,’ Jethamashai said with a touch of embarrassment. ‘Won’t take more than five minutes of your time.’
They took a chair each. Baba just about managed contact between his behind and the edge of the chair, resting his weight on his legs. His arms were taut on his knees, his teeth were clenched, his jaws were set, his eyes were suspended towards the sky. It needed strength to confront such body language, such an expression. Jethamashai described the events. Baba listened with a faint sneer, without looking at Jethamashai for a moment. His brow furrowed slightly just above his nose now and then. Finishing his account, Jethamashai touched Baba’s hands. ‘Don’t throw a fit over all this now. Bouma is terrified.’
A few seconds of silence. Followed by action. Slapping his knee loudly, Baba said, ‘Why Sanatan, why Sanatan. Am I dead?’
‘Oh no, there’s no question of your being dead. You’re misunderstanding the whole thing. It wouldn’t be proper for you to detach Mr Mukherjee’s finger, which is why…’
‘Because it isn’t proper, some upstart has to be summoned to ruin the table! I might have been able to free him without damaging the frame. I was not even given a chance. Why wasn’t I? Can you tell me why not? Explain.’
‘Such a trifle, why bother you, that’s why. Sanatan is an old hand at all this. Has all his tools. Took it off in a flash.’
‘Where are the frame and the balls?’
Jethamashai was unaware of the second half of the story. He looked helplessly at the door. ‘Bouma.’
‘I see, you do not know either. Did you call Sanatan?’
‘I… I was in my room. Sanatan is always here, isn’t he? There he is. He turned up as soon as I caught his eye. Didn’t even have to call. A signal was all it needed.’
‘A signal from whom?’
Jethamashai was in trouble. Baba had pushed him into a corner.
‘Do you see how household discipline has degenerated? Without telling anyone, the housewife signals through the window to summon a loafer posing as a workman. The table isn’t the point, Mejda, discipline is the point. Even in the next room, you’re in the dark. Even in the garden, I’m in the dark. Hide and seek. Nip it in the bud.’
Baba rose. Jethamashai made a last attempt. ‘Look, this is a request, I’m your elder brother, I’m requesting you not to make a fuss about this. It’s very delicate, you see. I understand your point.’
‘No compromise,’ responded Baba with an odd flourish of his hand.
Jethamashai seemed to be on the verge of tears. He had assured my mother of protection but my father had checkmated him with his chess moves. Jethamashai rose too. He was taller than Baba and thinner, with a slight stoop.
Far too weak to contend with Baba’s thrust out chest.
We had all expected Baba to march towards his room. Instead, he went to the window overlooking the road, suspending half his torso in mid-air through the unbarred French window. It wasn’t clear what he was trying to do. Bewildered, Jethamashai stood at a distance. I thought Baba might be trying to cool his head with fresh air. Or perhaps he would call out to Sanatan. Suddenly he thrust his hands out of the window and clapped several times. Whom was he calling? Shouting out anyone’s name was ‘out of English etiquette’. The claps didn’t work. He called out, as softly as possible, ‘Sarat, Sarat. Oh, Sarat.’ What could Sarat do? He was probably passing by. He looked up on hearing his name.
‘Bring the car round at once.’ Sarat’s reply floated up from the road. ‘Just closed the garage, I’m going for lunch.’
‘The world won’t come to an end if you have your lunch half an hour later.’
‘Can’t I eat first, Chhotobabu?’
‘You’ll get ten rupees, you’ll get twenty, get the car at once.’
Sarat owned an ancient car with a tarpaulin hood attached to hooks. Open on all sides, with half-doors. All the locks were broken. The doors had to be tethered with rope when passengers got in. There were pillows instead of seats at the back. This was the car that we hired on family trips and for celebrations. Sarat’s car was our companion through thick and thin.
Baba moved away from the window. It was obvious that Sarat had been compelled to return to his garage. Baba went into his room, clomping off on his heels as he was wont to do. Jethamashai followed him. Observing Baba gathering his dhoti, he asked apprehensively, ‘What do you need the car for at this hour?’ Instead of replying, Baba shot off like a projectile in a different direction. We saw him put on his dhoti in workmanlike fashion, followed by a white tennis shirt. He hadn’t shaved because it was a holiday, his cheeks were covered in a black and white stubble. ‘Where are you going?’ Jethamashai got no reply to this question either. Everything was taking place at spectacular speed.
A car was heard stopping. ‘Niranjan,’ Baba yelled. Niranjan materialised in a flash. ‘Put this in the car,’ he commanded, pointing to Ma’s chocolate-brown trunk in the corner. He spoke as though the Ma’s corpse had been rotting for days inside the trunk. Baba advanced towards Jethamashai’s room. Ma was seated on the bed with a wretched expression, her legs hanging over the side. She was unbelievably fair. Drained of blood, her complexion looked even whiter. Ma had been in bad health ever since my appearance.
Apparently I had not been particularly keen on being born. I had been lurking in the northwest corner of the womb, possibly out of fear of Baba. Then, seeing no alternative, I had finally slithered out, much as people slide down a diagonally laid plank of wood. At the critical moment, I had made sure to wrap a vital part of my mother’s anatomy around my neck like a ceremonial thread. This was possibly how a chip off the old block was born. They don’t need to poke their head out to size up the situation first. Still, Ma was so elated! She wanted to be the mother of innumerable children. Like guinea pigs they would swarm all over the room. Baba was just the opposite. One is enough. A second is acceptable, with a stricture.
Spreading her palm flat on the bed, Ma was quietly counting her fingers. Long, tapering digits. A white topaz gleamed on her ring finger. Baba went all the way up to her. ‘Get up.’ Ma stood up apprehensively. ‘Come.’ Baba started walking. He knew no one had the courage to ignore this command. Ma was dressed in a blue polka-dotted sari. This was Jethamashai’s last chance. He had got the opponent on his own turf. He blocked the door. ‘Where do you think you’re taking Bouma at this hour?’
‘Have you read the Panchatantra?’ Baba asked, coming to an abrupt halt a short distance away. Jethamashai was perplexed. ‘I see you haven’t. When would you read it, after all? There are just two things in your life.’ Raising two fingers, he gestured with his hand. ‘Your hair and fish. Know this, you should be ready to sacrifice an organ for the sake of your body. A locality for the sake of the village, a village for the sake of the city, a city for the sake of the country. Let them be removed for the sanctity of the family.’ As he uttered the ‘mu’ syllable of ‘removed’, Baba advanced to break through the cordon at the door. But Jethamashai stood his ground like a true hero. Back then, during the freedom movement, a particular phrase used to be heard often – do or die. Jethamashai’s valour made it seem that his mission on this day of crisis was also do or die. ‘Your tyranny knows no bounds. You’ve become a dictator like Hitler. You cannot take Bouma anywhere. I won’t allow it.’ Jethamashai speaking in English was an indication of his anger. As a gust of wind was about to blow the dry towel off his shoulder, he grabbed at it with both hands, and Baba slipped through the door like a kabaddi player. Ma kept standing, not knowing what she should do. ‘I’d better go,’ she said finally.
‘Where will you go, Bouma? You shall stay put here. Who is he? A tyrant. I shall deal with him.’
‘Niranjan!’ Jethamashai bellowed.
‘Coming, Mejobabu,’ came the response from the street.
‘Bring it back.’
‘Yes, the trunk.’
Niranjan went off to retrieve the trunk.
‘Don’t you dare bring it back,’ Baba issued counter-instructions. Niranjan flopped down at the turn of the stairs. Sitting on the chair beside the table, Jethamashai announced, ‘No one is allowed to set foot outside the house. This is a joint family. This household does not run on one person’s authority.’
‘Is it possible to live with a untrustworthy, conspiring wife?’
‘Bouma is none of these. You always make a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t agree with you.’
‘My family must run according to my rules. No lenience.’
‘What’s going on?’ Sarat screamed from the road.
‘Get the trunk, Niranjan you rascal, and give Sarat ten rupees and get rid of him,’ Jethamashai shouted.
‘Chhotobabu will whip me.’
‘I will beat you up, you rascal. What do you mean your family? We arranged your wedding. Bouma doesn’t belong to you alone. She’s the housewife of this household.’
Niranjan carried the trunk upstairs. Sarat started his car and drove off.
‘Are you getting out of those clothes or not?’
‘Your indulgence will send this family to the dogs, Mejda.’
‘Let it. Don’t forget, the household is not your office. You cannot chargesheet or discharge anyone at the drop of a hat.’
‘Let her admit her fault. I will pardon her.’
Ma approached hesitantly. She had been standing stock still near the door. Her face was drained of colour.
‘Say it was your fault.’
Baba stood with his chest thrust out, chin raised in the air. Draping the end of her sari around her neck, Ma said softly, ‘It was my fault.’
Baba continued with his nose in the air. ‘Don’t do it again. This is very bad. Punishable offence. Never take decisions yourself. Born a woman, stay a woman.’
As she turned and retreated, Ma listened to this final advice on the rights of women.
That was the slab of marble. The slab that now leans against the wall. The intricately patterned frame has been consumed by termites. The white of the marble has turned grey with disuse. Having discharged forty sizzling years like steam from his life, it is my father who now has hair as white as snow. Ma is an indistinct memory on an oil painting. Jethamashai, a dusty picture. Spider saliva on a withered garland. Dadu’s gourd-shell tambura hangs from the hook with a rope around its neck. Baba can still stand erect with this chin up, but there’s no one left in the family to kneel at his feet.