Welome. Did you take a tour of my garden? The roses haven’t bloomed yet, it’s barely May. I have seven shades of roses: two of yellow, two of pink, two of red, and one white, of course. Each of them grows to the size of my fist. The rose is my favourite flower. Do you know why? Because though it was imported, it’s ours now. From Iran it spread across the world: the Mughals brought it to India. The original name, gulaab, is half Persian, half Sanskrit. You could call it a symbol of international union. I believe in internationalism.
Oh no, you’re not disturbing me at all, I have nothing to do—take a seat, stay as long as you like. People often come to see this house, this garden of mine, it’s a tourist attraction in Ootacamund now. Did you see the Japanese garden on that side? There’s a winding lake, the cherry trees are budding, a few spells of rain and the blossoms will appear. Lots of people take a walk there at sunset. I don’t stop anyone, how much can I take in alone with these two eyes of mine anyway? Beauty is for mass enjoyment, isn’t it? And I still crave the appreciation of other people. But no matter what people say, there’s nothing extraordinary about it, there are thousands of gardens like this in the world. I haven’t been able to add an eighth colour to the seven, have I? You know, I had this fancy once—I wanted to create a rose of a different colour. Blue or purple or black—why not black, after all? I had lots of books sent to me from Japan, from Holland. I couldn’t sleep for nights in excitement; trembling, as though I was about to get a key to a hidden chamber. Why are there no black flowers in the world? Flowers, fruits, grain—whatever springs from the earth is limited in colour to the seven shades of the rainbow, but why? White, which is a mixture of all colours, is still available as a colour for flowers, but black, where the colours have disappeared—why don’t we see black flowers? Don’t they exist, or is it just that we haven’t found them yet? Wouldn’t the first person to make a black rose bloom be considered greater than even God? What if it were me? Don’t be afraid, I haven’t gone mad, even while I dreamt of a blue rose I knew it wasn’t to be. You could call it a game with myself, a way to pass the time, something interesting to do, that’s all.
Excuse me for speaking in English with you. Yes, of course I’m Bengali. From Dacca, in fact. But I’ve been living outside Bengal for a long time, I haven’t used the language in ages. I don’t read Bengali books either. If I lapse into English now and then, assume it’s for convenience, out of habit. As a matter of fact, I don’t talk much these days. Don’t have to, either, except once a week with my steward. I live by myself, don’t go anywhere; I’m a widower, both my sons live abroad.
Pardon me? Oh, yes, the name of my house. Bonheur. It’s a French word, meaning joy, happiness. The name was chosen by Nellie—Nalini, my wife. We used to discuss the location of our final residence. At first we had decided to continue living in Malabar Hill, close to Nellie’s father’s house. He was the one who gave Nellie the house. At one point we were inclined towards the Riviera, but on a vacation to Ootacamund, Nellie fell in love with this place. The designs for the garden, the plans for the house— everything was hers. The house was built, it was named Bonheur. But within two years she wasted away to death, struck by a mysterious disease. She left me memories, her unlimited wealth, and her dowry. Her father was Gujarati, her mother, Kashmiri—she was what people call gorgeous. Her goodness was incomparable too. I was very fortunate to have a wife like her. Would you care for some tea? Nilgiri, or Darjeeling?
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Tell me about Calcutta, about Bengal. They’re very unhappy, very troubled there, aren’t they? I read about it in the papers sometimes. But then, where do you find people living happily in India? Nobody knows just what they want, all they do is stir up trouble on any pretext: internal conflicts, hunger strikes at the drop of a hat, trains being burnt, riots, killing. On top of that, throw out English, bring back the Middle Ages, build a monolithic Hindi kingdom. What do you think? Will India be fragmented into many bits all over again? And then will some other superpower occupy our country again? And the British, whom we got rid of with so much fanfare, must be laughing themselves silly on the other side of the ocean. We’re now using the same weapons we wielded against them, to attack and wound one another— one another, meaning ourselves. It’s a joke, isn’t it?
You know, I too had believed that all it would take to turn India into a heaven on earth was to drive out the British. I was reading for my MA in Dacca at the time. Oh, you too, really? When was that? But I was there at the same time! Do you know Bakshibazaar? The orphanage? What! I lived near the orphanage too. Very ordinary middle-class Bengali-Hindu family—born and brought up in it, but there are many things I hate about them: far too constricted, too poor, too claustrophobic. It isn’t just economic poverty, their minds are like cesspools. When I read English literature, history, I wonder whether these extraordinary feats were really achieved by the same people who were nothing but plunderers in our country. Was it because they were a formidable nation, or because of some fatal flaw in ourselves? You know, I wanted to be ‘like them’— independent, reckless, powerful. I wanted to free myself from the shackles of our family-bound lives, where even joys and sorrows are measured, where not even hope can extend very far. And I even found a way out—when I met Mitu Bardhan, when I became acquainted with Arthur Jones. Here’s your tea.
Did you ever run into Arthur Jones? No? Many people in Dacca knew him. The fellow was a fresh ICS officer. Spoke Bengali, mingled with Bengalis, took part in debates at the university, even visited locals at their homes. A music lover. I met him at Mitu Bardhan’s house. Have you heard of her? That’s remarkable, that you still possess Amita Bardhan’s records. Very well, let me tell you something, I’ve been all over the world, clinging to all these old memories means nothing at all. Just like gout, just like leprosy, just like paralysis, memory is also an illness; it debilitates. Take India—we are still basking in the glory of the Upanishads, of Kalidasa, of Tansen. But after that? Aren’t all our achievements thanks to the British?
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Do excuse me for not joining you with a cup of tea, I’m having gin. A little for you . . .? All right, to each his own, can’t argue with that. It’s the same with women— pardon me, I meant wives. Oh, the prohibition—alcohol isn’t a blue rose, after all, it’s not beyond reach when you want it. And if breaking the law is illegal, following it is illegal too. That is my opinion as a legal expert. We picketed schools and colleges once upon a time, set postoffices on fire, now we block trains whenever we like: each of these amounts to interfering with people’s independence, depriving them of their rights. Alcohol is a minor issue in comparison, minor and harmless—peaceful, private, personal—no one is being harmed, no one else cares. You’re on your way to take your BA exams, I don’t let you go; you’re taking a train to see a dying relative for the last time, I gather a mob and block the train; whereas here, without coming between you and your wishes or your movement, I get a little pleasure out of having a drink in my own home . . . Can there be any doubt about which of these is illegal and which isn’t? Whether it’s alcohol or acrostics or kissing in films—all these cases will eventually be thrown out by the high court. Pardon me? Oh, I was in a government job. Seasoned criminal: an ICS from the British era. Ranajit Dutta, ICS, Barrister-at-Law. Currently retired, settled here . . . Well then . . . Cheers! Is your tea all right?
I had never met a real live Englishman before Arthur Jones. Of course, I’d never seen a dead Englishman either—although they were dying left, right and centre from terrorists’ bullets. To me, Englishmen were people I’d read about in books, seen in films. And, sometimes, figures I had seen dimly in Calcutta. The Chowringhee- Park Street area, a mere slice of an enormous metropolis, an illuminated island replete with pleasures, indulgences, wealth; beyond our reach. Tall, hearty men with flaming red necks, dolled-up women on their arm: unfamiliar, distant, majestic. Like different creatures, not human beings but something else, as though they didn’t breathe the same air as the rest of us. This on the one hand, and on the other, the books I read which said just the opposite. I was young, unable to reconcile the two. In my head I had created an incredibly fine and talented England, whose flag was not the Union Jack but Shakespeare. Whose ships didn’t take away tea, jute, cotton and gold from India, but delivered Shelley’s poetry and Dickens’s novels to every port. Shelley was a vegetarian, Keats was only five feet tall, but how glorious they both were to look at, and how much pain their poetry held. They felt so very much a part of my life, was it even possible that they were Englishmen too? The same nationality as those people who strutted around on Chowringhee as though even the stars in their sky bent to their wills? Whose Firpo’s restaurant didn’t let in anyone wearing a dhoti? The mere sight of whom in the tea gardens of Assam meant that the babus (perhaps my own uncles) had to get off their cycles? I felt the urge to explain to those bovine idiots, the tea and jute bosses that I knew their country far better than they did, since I had occasional conversations with Shelley and Keats . . . Conversations? Well, maybe not, there are no exchanges, it’s all oneway. An idea, an ideal, in other words, a toy I’ve made for myself. Shelley and Keats, perhaps as dim, as unreal, as the John Bulls on Chowringhee. But it was only after meeting Arthur Jones that I realized that Englishmen are human beings too, just like us.
# # #
I see you find this amusing. When were you born? What a coincidence, that’s my year of birth too. Don’t you remember what it was like back then? Have you forgotten it all? Let me tell you, when I was growing up, the British lion hadn’t become toothless yet. And also take into account the atmosphere at home, everyone a government servant, low or middle-level—my father, his brothers, other members of the family—almost everyone. That was their Holy Grail, the objective, beginning and outcome of their lives: a government job. No retrenchment, annual increments, a pension after retirement, and what a pleasure to work under the British! They carefully avoided any other kind of job or business or profession that had the slightest degree of uncertainty attached to it, that needed a little extra intelligence or initiative—loathsome! It makes my stomach turn. I’ve seen many of the women in my family get married; I’ve been present at the ‘display of the prospective bride’ on several occasions. Caste, sect, genealogy and horoscope; so much in cash and so much in gold; pedigrees and mongrels; this village or that; are the Ghoshes of Varakar higher or lower in standing than the Mitras . . . I had no choice but to listen to all this as a child. Even my elder sister, with an IA degree, a talented student of Eden College, had to appear in near-bridal finery before a group of unknown men and women, my mother laid out plate after plate after plate heaped with food for them, my father behaved in the most obsequious manner possible. Execrable!
I had a personal problem too. Ever since I had passed my BA exams, everyone kept telling me ‘take the ICS, take the ICS’. Since scoring high marks in exams was one of my shortcomings, there was nothing else my family could talk of. Imagine, some of them were scribes, some postmasters, some clerks; apparently, the mere thought that one of their own could become the administrator for an entire district—that he might even become a high court judge some day—gave them ‘the strength of an elephant’, made them feel like they could ‘conquer mountains and rivers and seas.’ As though the job were a stairway to heaven, where the last rung wasn’t even visible to them. I put on an all-right-since-everybodyinsists air, although I knew perfectly well that the two things I would never go in for were a government job and an arranged marriage. What happened, then? Fate, I tell you, fate; man proposes, someone somewhere disposes.
When did you watch a film for the first time? What a pity you don’t remember, I do. I was very young then, the war with the Germans was on, the First World War. There was a free show at Coronation Park. First some random images of cannons, tanks and warships, Marshal Fosse, Lord Kitchener’s moustache . . . and then, suddenly, those horrifying scenes. Children being tossed in the air and impaled on bayonets, young girls in chains being whipped—all the Germans’ doings, of course. I trembled in fear, but still couldn’t think of Germans as ogres, because I’d seen at home that the grown-ups couldn’t stop smiling whenever there was talk of the Germans. They were ready to throw parties when the Emden kept sinking British warships. ‘They’ll go to hell now.’ ‘The British won’t know what hit them.’ ‘No more fun and games, my friend.’ But they said all this in whispers, leaning back on their bolsters on their bedsteads. But out in the streets? In broad daylight, in the open, if they so much as caught a glimpse, even from a distance, of an Englishman or an equivalent Indian, or a person of fair skin or in a high government post, their spines bent, their faces paled, they forgot where they were going and dashed into the nearest lane. When the war raged, when every family cursed the British, even then I saw in many houses photographs of Government House in Delhi, of King George V of England, sceptre in hand, surrounded by his wife and a gaggle of children. My grandmother’s prayer-room had a picture of Queen Victoria too. You’re laughing? I’m not making it up, believe me. Among the images of Radha and Krishna entwined with an Om, of Shiva with a snake round his neck, of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, of Lakshmi, was a photograph in ‘three-colour half-tone’ of that fat, dead woman who reigned over a distant cold island, who had been referred to by a Frenchman as ‘the old hag with the yellow teeth’. In my grandmother’s opinion, the days of the empress were the golden age, the ideal world. During the Non-Cooperation Movement I had managed to get rid of the photo of Government House in Delhi, but my grandmother clung to the empress affectionately—‘Oh, please don’t take her away, she is a goddess come to earth!’ However, to satisfy both public opinion and me, she added a photograph of Gandhi next to that of Victoria. She was happy if her pantheon gained more gods, but she was unwilling to lose a single one.
# # #
Let me tell you an amusing story. I saluted the governor once. It was in Dacca, on Nababpur Road. I was in primary school. The governor was visiting Dacca. After getting off the steamer at Sadarghat, he was on his way to Government House in Ramna; I stood among the crowd of people gathered by the road. Escorted by a convoy of thick-whiskered Pathan soldiers on horseback and white sergeants on motorcycles, an enormous black car approached. A ruddy face in profile, sharp nose, puffy cheeks, a grey moustache—a face no different from hundreds of other nondescript faces—flashed past me. Amidst that crowd, under that sun, a momentary glimpse of that profile blinded me as it were. As the car passed, I suddenly stood to attention and saluted. Why did I? No one else did, no one had told me to; it came to me spontaneously. Back home, I told my parents jubilantly what I had done, they merely laughed.
Pardon me? Yes, I know what you mean when you say it was just childishness; it didn’t prove anything, wasn’t even worth considering. But you know, when I started frequenting Mitu Bardhan’s house—where I met one or two other significant people too—when I started thinking about things afresh, started seeing things differently from the way I had earlier, this insignificant event came back to me. At times I felt our lives were nothing but one humiliation after another. We swallowed humiliation with our food, sipped humiliation with our drinks. Had I saluted the governor because I was an innocent child? Or was I particularly evil, a sinner, which made such base behaviour possible? Or did we all—young and old, educated and uneducated—offer salutes forever, in our heads if not with our hands? Why else was Kim one of the textbooks in our university curriculum—written by Kipling, to whom Bengalis were ‘bunderlog’ and all that you could find between Peshawar and Rangoon were animals, their keepers and British Tommies. Many such thoughts assailed me at the time—I felt pain, for more than one reason I felt pain. At times I even felt that those who assassinated Englishmen were avenging this humiliation. A fitting revenge. You can’t have forgotten all the things happening in the country at the time. First in Chittagong, then in Dacca itself: at Mitford Hospital, then in the heart of Calcutta, at Writers’ Building. Tell me, for those people whose hearts can only flutter, can do nothing but flutter, isn’t it natural for war-drums to start beating in their breasts when they see one of those formidable Englishmen slump to the ground—not in battle with the Germans, but from a bullet fired by a mere Bengali?