Abandon – The Beginning: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

And then we proceed to wander around the city in search of shelter. We drift through the morbid yellow afternoon. Before our eyes, dusk descends like the trilling of a fire-engine bell and night falls like flames being extinguished by jets of water, a night as conspicuous as the whirling black skirts of desert gypsies. As for us, we are still spinning on our feet. We, that is to say, Roo and I. I, Ishwari, and Roo, who is my soul, stall for a moment in mid-air on our downward plummet. And when it is eleven-thirty (not midnight, for midnight is the hour of extreme longing for injured birds), a hallucinogenic silence surfaces on the city’s streets from the netherworld. Roo digs his nails into my thigh fearfully as I climb without hesitation into the taxi parked in the darkness beneath a tree, and ask the driver, ‘Will you take us?’ The young man, his hair like a bunch of black grapes, nods: he will take us. The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins. A malevolent, repressive, unpalatable novel. It begins—to answer the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And by the time it ends, a virtual human being with transformed proclivities will have to admit that…

‘Life… is constantly being a murderer!’

Roo has asked me several times, where shall we go now? I haven’t answered. I have decided to look at him with impenetrable eyes if he asks again. That will be enough to shut him up. The next moment he asks me again, gazing at me with his big eyes, and I am unable to be as curt as I had planned. Instead, I draw him closer. My famished love showers blessings on him and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that is imperative in this predatory novel as feral as an owl with beak and talons. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishwari continuously slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window. ‘We’ll get there, we’ll find a place,’ Ishwari is saying. ‘We’ll get there eventually, don’t worry, Roo, I am with you.’

‘But where, ma?’ Roo asks like a germ.

Had it been me, I would have said, ‘Nowhere except a place where my art will find fulfilment.’ But Ishwari says, ‘Where we are going now,’ and Roo feels even more beleaguered by this riddle. He is already weakened from lack of food and sleep; an overdose of vulnerability from wandering on the roads has left him even more lifeless. A grave sense of crisis has made him slump on the seat of the taxi, his head drooping on my arm. He looks as though he has been beaten up unmercifully. And indeed he was: in the early hours of morning his arm was trailing outside the train window when the heavy wooden shutters slammed into his wrist. His screaming woke me up. Roo’s wrist swelled up within minutes. For ten hours he has wandered about with me, his wrist a poisonous blue. He screamed just once on impact but hasn’t cried at all since. Perhaps he has inherited my traits in this respect. I don’t cry either, I never have. When Ishwari cries I purse my lips. Every time I have the urge to cry I tell myself the present outcome alone isn’t sufficient reason to cry. I need more time, for time matures the outcome, and it is this tolerance that creates the atmosphere of this novel—this novel of truth and lies, this novel that resembles a bird of prey.

The taxi speeds down the road, I look out of the window. Ishwari has not managed to tend to Roo’s wrist, though several hours have gone by. It is bitterly cold and so late at night—the city roads are empty, bereft of human bustle, everyone seems to have sunk into a melancholy hibernation, it is as though no one will wake up ever again. Things seem about to explode. I found this taxi a few steps from the house of someone I know, someone I approached for shelter as a last resort and was rejected by moments earlier—the third time today that this has happened. I turn to look at the house from the taxi, and from behind a curtain, someone seems to be watching us.

There was no hope of getting a taxi at this hour of night, especially on this road deep inside Jodhpur Park. I would have had to walk, holding Roo’s hand, if I hadn’t found this one. I know where Ishwari would have walked on blistered feet late on this freezing night with her child. She might have been raped on the road and robbed, and even if the midnight predators had left her alive, Roo would still have been separated from his mother. Ishwari would never have found her son again.

I close my eyes for a moment. Lifting his head, Roo asks, ‘They won’t tell us to go away from where we’re going now, will they?’

What answer can I give? I am about to say. Why did you come away like this with me? I only went for a glimpse. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city. Can you tell me where I should take you now?

But Ishwari doesn’t give me the chance to speak. Kneading Roo’s soft cheeks with both hands, she says, ‘We won’t go to anyone’s house any more, Roo. We’ll go somewhere where we can pay to stay, stay as long as we like.’

Pleased at this, Roo rubs his chin on Ishwari’s breast and tilts his head. ‘Do you have money?’ he asks.

With a quick look at the taxi driver from the corner of her eye, Ishwari places a hand on her son’s head like a hawk spreading its wing.

But will it really be possible to secure a roof for the night in exchange for money at this hour? Will any of the guest houses in this city agree to rent a room to a woman unaccompanied by a man on this winter’s night? The five-star hotels may not ask questions but will certainly ask for identification, and what identity could I possibly off er so that I am accepted by an ancient civilization? Besides, do I have enough money to seek shelter at such a hotel?

I am ravenous, but not once has Roo mentioned being hungry. I gave him a couple of biscuits before entering the last place we tried, but even that was an hour and a half ago. I wasn’t thinking straight, or I could easily have got hold of bananas or chocolate. It is far too late now. There isn’t a shop open anywhere. I am surprised. How has Roo learnt to control hunger? Roo is staring out of the window, his back stiff , but I know he isn’t looking at anything. His eyes have been empty since yesterday. When he threw himself into my arms yesterday, crying out ‘Ma!’, his joyful eyes were brimming with tears, but his joy disappeared soon after I put him down. I know what he is thinking with his back so rigid. We spent the previous night on the train, tonight the night has closed in much more on us. Did Ishwari ever imagine that doors would be slammed one after the other on their misfortune? No, she couldn’t possibly have. Everyone Ishwari turned to was well-established, safe in their respective home, all of them pillars of society living within a ring of security—although Ishwari now knew that none of them was any less helpless than she, nor any less ineff ective. They were just as afraid, terrified, callous and self-centred as the destitute Ishwari and her child. And they had no conscience. Despite the peaks these people had scaled, their assets were devoted only to shoring up their own existence.

The first person I went to after getting off the train is a respected businessman in this city, exceedingly wealthy. The person I turned to on my second attempt is an influential lawyer. The third—the resident of Jodhpur Park—is a great poet, a lover of children who writes distressed poetry for the exploited: those evicted for poverty, robbed of their land, bombed, turned into victims of war. But like the awakening conscience of society, even this poet off ered only compassionate rejection.

As we wandered around, it occurred to me over and over again that the relationships that form between people every day are actually small, flourishing dreams—brief dreams that can be shattered like glass. Like the other three, Ishwari averts her eyes from the helplessness of her limitations. Roo has not looked at me accusingly even once. He is probably the only one by my side during this terrible time. He came with me even though I did not want him to. He was eager to reclaim the mother who once abandoned him. I cannot understand how the five-year-old Roo could trust such a mother.

Roo was waiting for me on a secret road, holding a storybook. He is a baby, after all, he forgot to put on socks with his boots, and now he has blisters on the soft skin on his ankles. In the evening I saw the blisters had burst, the pink flesh visible beneath the scraped-off skin. Roo has endured it all in silence.

‘Does it hurt very much, Roo?’ Ishwari asked, turning his face towards her.

Roo shook his head quickly, no, it wasn’t hurting at all. Ishwari’s eyes smarted and I remember that it is time to talk to the taxi driver about where to go.

I remember a small guest house on Lansdowne Road and request the driver to take us there. As I speak, I realize my voice is trembling, so is my heart with all kinds of anxieties. How deserted these roads are. I feel a surge of anger as I observe the countless dark, indiff erent houses on either side—don’t any of them have a little space for me? Ishwari is freezing; Roo had come away without warm clothes and she has wrapped him in her own shawl. By way of a second warm garment, we have a sleeveless jacket, which I am wearing.

I have discarded many of my possessions in the hope of shedding my burden. I have a light blanket—but you can hardly walk on the road wrapped in a blanket. And why not? Is it because it’s diff erent from what society considers normal? Shaking off the dominating cold, I give instructions to the young man driving us and the taxi arrives at the guest house. The word ‘lodging’ is written in small letters in one corner of the neon signboard. It appears extremely significant to me. I count out forty rupees for the driver. Forty rupees is a lot of money for me now. Roo gets off the taxi after me, awkward in the shawl wrapped around him. As I accept the change, I wonder how long Roo and I can survive on the money I have. I wonder but cannot make an estimate. Then again, what’s the use? I never think too much of what’s possible and what isn’t; on the contrary, I’m more interested in the performance a person puts on when poised between the possible and the impossible. And precisely for this reason, I feel a sense of satisfaction from comparing intellect, genius and foolishness when I come across a flawed individual. By those standards Ishwari is my least favourite person, for she is everything I am not. Ishwari is Roo’s mother—the same Roo whose touch is unbearable to me.

Walking up to the gate of the guest house after retrieving her suitcase and canvas bag from the taxi, Ishwari found it padlocked. There was no one to be seen anywhere. Putting her luggage down on one side and motioning to Roo to stand next to it, Ishwari swept her eyes over the gate, trying to spot a doorbell. Rattling the gate, I say loudly, ‘Anyone here? Hello? Anyone?’ No one responds.

I realize the taxi hasn’t left. I should have asked it to wait, I tell myself, because if we don’t get a room here we’ll have to go somewhere else quickly. We have no choice but to find a sanctuary or spend the rest of the night in the taxi looking for one.

I glance behind me and am surprised to see that the young man has got out of the taxi and is leaning against it, observing us closely. The sight relieves me and also makes me frown, but without deliberating over it too much I go up to him and say, ‘I’m glad you didn’t leave. It doesn’t look like we’ll get a room here—it would really help us if you waited a little longer.’ ‘I’m here,’ came the brief reply. It was enough. For the moment, Ishwari just needed a little assurance, a little support. Some sort of third presence besides her own and Roo’s. It was freezing outside; Roo should have remained in the taxi, the shawl was unable to protect him from this chilly wind. But Ishwari was forced to reject the idea in the very next moment of this cruelly predatory novel. What if the young man started the car and sped away with Roo?

And sold him to an Arab sheikh? And made him a jockey for camel races in the desert? And Roo fell on the sand as soon as the camel leapt up to gallop off ? And kicked by hundreds of galloping camels, was tossed about between their hooves like a lump of flesh in a dust storm? Forgetting where she was, Ishwari remained rooted to the spot for a few moments—the young man suddenly appeared terrifying. I scold Ishwari, I force her to lower her eyes and return to the locked gate of the guest house, where her son stands. I rattle the gate with all my strength. I keep rattling it.

Sahana or Shamim: by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Even when 9/11 took place, Sahana had bought fish regularly. Also when the Godhra incident had taken place in her own country. Taking advantage of Paramesh’s absence, she had bought fish every single time, overcoming her hesitation. So many people were dying every day in Kashmir, America was tearing Iraq to pieces. Militants nurtured by the ISI were taking shelter in Bangladesh, even Kolkata wasn’t safe any more. The air was thick with rumours, you felt afraid to step out of your home, being in a crowd was uncomfortable, the cinema-hall made you claustrophobic – but still, skirting all these truths, Sahana had continued buying fish. When she entered the market, she looked around, then casually approached the area where the fish was sold. She bought the fish, put it in her shopping bag and went home. She did all of it with her mouth clamped shut. Cautiously. Even rinsing the fish slices made her hands shake.

It happened every time – from the moment of buying the fish, through bringing it home in her oversized shopping bag, rinsing the slices gingerly, gathering the scales and the other parts to be discarded with an unerring hand, till she had thrown them away from the high-rise she lived in into the thicket of fig trees on the grounds of the British bungalow next door. Her hands shook, she found it difficult to breathe, her head reeled!

And how self-flagellating the act of frying the fish was. Constantly she felt as though Paramesh were standing next to her, crying, ‘Flesh, flesh!’ She started in alarm every now and then, certain that her fear would lead her to cause an accident. Her own carelessness would make her burn to death. The stench of her roasting flesh would mingle with the flavour of fried fish.

But death would not bring deliverance. The forensic report would definitely indicate that she had been burnt while frying fish. Paramesh’s heart would no longer harbour the detached respect and love that people customarily felt for the dead. If there were any photographs of her in the flat, he would throw them away, damning her as a traitor. And then, he would hate her as long as he lived.

Sahana mused about all of this as she cooked the fish. She usually felt overwhelmed when she was done with the cooking. Unable to control herself, she ate the fish with rice, experiencing an acute sense of satisfaction. But as soon as she had eaten, she began to pant. Fear seized her, weighing her down like a huge slab of stone. She didn’t even blink till she had washed and scoured the utensils, the ladles, the table, the oven – the entire kitchen, in fact – until they gleamed. She sprayed freshener in every room, poured phenyl into the sink. Picking every single bone with her nails, she put them in a polythene packet and threw them out into the thicket next door. She poured soap on her hands, rinsed her mouth out with mouth-freshener, shampooed her hair – she showered! She showered!

Not a trace of the smell remained. Still she sprayed the freshener once more in every room, sniffed both sides of her palm. Sometimes, unable to handle such anxiety, Sahana pounded garlic into a paste and fried it in oil. All smells were certain to be buried.

But the situation had not been remotely like this when they had met and exchanged hearts. Fish had not appeared a significant issue during those early days of their romance. In fact, she had never felt as though she were treading a path of sacrifice in the process of linking her life to Paramesh’s. She had accepted the whole thing without protesting. Although she realised now that she had indeed wanted to protest – but hadn’t been able to.

‘I’m vegetarian,’ Paramesh had told her. ‘You mustn’t eat anything non-vegetarian at home.’

‘What about elsewhere?’ she had asked.

Silent for a couple of seconds, Paramesh had shrugged. ‘I don’t mind chicken. But as for fish, you’ll have to give it up everywhere, at home or elsewhere. I simply cannot tolerate the smell of fish, Sahana. I throw up on the spot. It makes me so sick that I’ve had to be hospitalised in the past. I hate fish. Moreover, Sahana, I cannot dream of kissing or making love to someone who eats fish. I can’t enter someone who, in one way or another, is fishy.’ Holding up the middle fingers of his left hand and shaking them, Paramesh had conveyed both meanings of the word fishy to her. ‘So you have to give it up.’

By then Sahana had fallen in love with Paramesh. If it had been only love, it might have been different, but actually she had also become psychologically dependent on him. She had realised that she would have to give up fish if she wanted Paramesh. Inevitably, she had effortlessly uprooted the very desire for fish from her heart. She had trained her sights instead on all the other kinds of food in the world. For two years she had not eaten any fish. Then she was possessed again by its taste.

And she began to eat fish in secret, and she started to fear Paramesh. For she was only too aware that if Paramesh came to know, their relationship would end. Alternatively, a conflict would erupt, the kind of conflict that we are familiar with. The more Sahana began to fear Paramesh, the more she began to loathe him too. Hatred. Or, one could say that the more she became aware of Paramesh’s abhorrence for fish and those who eat fish, the more determined she become to retaliate with a proportionate degree of abhorrence for those who did not eat fish. She seemed to feel a certain responsibility to do this. She found her self-awareness offering ammunition for her opposition to, and disillusionment about, Paramesh. ‘Those who eat fish and those who don’t are poles apart, separated by a deep gulf of mutual contempt.’ When she grew deeply emotional about fish, she argued with trepidation, ‘Why should I be deprived of fish, Paramesh, just because you don’t enjoy it, just because you cannot stand the smell of fish? Why should you impose your behaviour on mine? I’m not you, I’m a person of my own, I shall remain a distinct person. Isn’t this a mistake on your part, Param?’ Paramesh became furious, telling her about total surrender. ‘Even if I’m wrong,’ he replied, ‘I expect unquestioning submission from you in this regards. Remember that there is no alternative if this relationship is to be maintained in its most peaceful possible state. Or else, as you know, terrible things may happen, you’d better not blame me then.’

Sahana’s former lover Manish returned to her life at this precise juncture. Because hate spirals upwards and the reasons for the hatred fade while the object of the hatred becomes the most important thing, Sahana entered into an illicit relationship with Manish more or less needlessly, simply out of loathing for Paramesh.

Paramesh came out sharply against eating meat and fish one evening at a small party at a friend’s house. ‘The most extreme form of enjoying meat is cannibalism,’ he declared. ‘Human flesh is the most delicious of all!’ Sahana wept buckets that evening, sitting on the toilet in the friend’s house. Finally, she ground her teeth – ‘So it’s hatred? So much hatred?’ On the way back Paramesh’s face appeared to be composed of nothing but a glutinous green substance. The next day she not only cooked some fish, she ate it too in Manish’s arms. Then, drawing strength from ultimate hatred for the first time in her life, she let Manish have her. But she could see that this hatred was working in its entirety on her and her alone. Since Paramesh could perceive nothing of it, since he had no inkling of this nightmarish loathing, the only person who had to bear it was Sahana herself. Poor Sahana! Not only was she the one to hate, she was also the one to suffer from its impact. Just like cheating – as long as the person being cheated is not aware of being cheated, they don’t have to bear the burden of being cheated, it is borne entirely by the person doing the cheating. And again, the moment the person being cheated gets to know everything, they’re no longer being cheated. And yet the person who had done the cheating continues to bear the entire burden, as before! In other words, people can cheat, but people can never be cheated – it really was entirely one-sided.

In the same way Sahana cheated Paramesh, but Paramesh wasn’t cheated. Sahana hated, but Paramesh did not feel hated. Sahana remained perpetually drenched in her own loathing. Yet whenever during the day or the night Paramesh wanted to be intimate with her, he smelt strawberry, gulabjamun or mint on her breath. He was able to relax his body completely and kiss her fervently. He could say, ‘Don’t you love me any more, Sana? Why is your mouth so cold otherwise?’

On the other hand Sahana frequently discovered when trying to cook the fish she had bought that it had rotted. Rotted completely! When having sex with Manish she discovered she did not want him, during intercourse with Paramesh she suffered from guilt, disquiet and fear – and she filled the rest of her hours with hatred. It was an unarticulated, unstated hatred, which progressively crossed the limits of forbidden pleasure to rot just like stale fish. Yet Sahana could not simply separate the scales and bones and throw them away. She could not forget that Paramesh and she were repulsively unlike each other.

Paramesh had been in London on 7/7. Sahana didn’t know anything about the explosions till Pubali called her in the afternoon with great anxiety, for she hadn’t switched her TV on.

In a frenzy she tried to call Paramesh on his mobile. But a pre-recorded voice kept informing her that ‘the subscriber is out of reach at this moment…’

Their friends gathered one by one. Manish, Pubali, Tushar, Vasundhara. Each of them tried in their own way to get some information about Paramesh. But evening stretched into night, there was neither any news of Paramesh, nor any communication from him.

Despite their collective efforts her friends could not calm Sahana down. Her behaviour was out of control. Although they could make out her words, none of them could understand what Sahana meant.

‘My hatred has killed Paramesh,’ Sahana was shrieking, ‘my continuous hatred.’ In tears, she continued, ‘Was it necessary to hate him so much?’

The day passed in a whirl. Paramesh did not return. A week later Sahana took a flight to London, along with her sister and brother-in-law. And returned without Paramesh.

There was no trace of Paramesh anywhere. No sign. It wasn’t even obvious whether he was dead.

A couple of months later Manish visited Sahana. She seized his arm. ‘I’m converting, Manish,’ she told him. ‘I’m going to become a Muslim.’

Manish was so astonished he was unable to say anything. He could not grasp how this was related to the grief resulting from Paramesh’s disappearance, or whether it was at all related. ‘Paramesh used to talk of complete submission, Manish,’ Sahana continued. ‘We cannot live together until you become me, he would say. I could say that to you too, Param, I used to reply angrily.

‘He would shake his head. Ultimate submission means unquestioning surrender, he would say. Where there is no scope for asking questions. Where questions don’t even exist.

‘Now that I don’t know whether Paramesh will be back, Manish, I have found only one way to offer the ultimate submission he wanted. Only one. In a couple of days a senior Muslim priest will convert me. My name will be Shamim.’

Possibly understanding some of what Sahana was getting at, Manish reached out to move a few strands of hair away from her face. ‘Is there no other way, Sahana?’ he asked.

‘No, there isn’t, Manish. There’s no shortcut. No room for bargaining. I cannot become you with anything less than this. All effort will go waste. This is what complete submission means, Manish. When Paramesh comes back he will realise that, even if it took time, I have been able to accept him with my heart.’

Don’t raise any questions about this story, reader. Before you can, I would like to remind you that this is a story of unquestioning surrender.