Beyond the Waters of Time
You dip the sugar-speckled Parle-G in your tea and take a bite of the mushy biscuit, savoring the milky memories, watching the rain peter out to a mizzle in the garden outside the verandah where you sit in your bamboo cane chair. After the incessant spells of kalbaishakhi showers, the earth smells of rain, as it does every April. You let your thoughts travel back to April seven monsoons ago, then the previous, and then the previous, your mind a train stopping at every rain-soaked station. Every monsoon, the gulmohars in your neighbor’s compound burst into wild flames, and the clustered modhumonjori—their vines draping the arch of the iron gate outside your yard like crimson shawls—unfurl, leaving a lingering fragrance, the rain washing the dust from their tremulous, heart-shaped leaves. The aroma of mustard and poppies wafts into your consciousness; every April, when rain would patter against your sleepy green-shuttered window, Piali would cook her signature preparation of steamed ilish, and every meal of fish and rice would lead to languorous afternoons spent listening to Salil-da on the cassette player.
You pour some tea into the gold-rimmed saucer and slurp, the taste of cardamom on your moustache. Some of the tea spills on the front page of The Statesman and puddles in a brown pool on the chief minister’s shirt. You re-read the headings—“Thirteen persons shot dead by police at Youth Congress rally,” “Mamata Banerjee assaulted,” “Vince Foster’s death linked to depression,” “Louis J. Freeh to succeed Sessions”—and you sigh at the unpredictability and tumult in the world. Your neighbor’s feral calico has been wandering your garden again, and she enters the verandah, rubs her flank against your thigh, and you offer her some of your biscuit which she refuses. You sip the last of your tea, soggy dregs of dissolved biscuit clumping at the base of the cup. Then you rise to your feet, your knees cracking, and make your way to the glass-fronted book-cabinet beside the mirror that is now speckled with age. You reach for the second shelf and extricate a grainy photograph from between the yellowed, bethumbed pages of an anthology of Jibanananda Das’ poems, which you stuff into the pocket of your kurta. It is a photograph of Piali as a young bride draped in a banarasi saree, a mukut crowing her head, her forehead patterned with kumkum and sandalwood paste. Memories lap at the shore of your mind’s eye, and as a wave of sudden grief builds and threatens to break, you tame your thoughts, forcing them to recede into the sea of placid sadness whence they have risen. Looking into the mirror, you fix your hair—whatever is left of it at least, the sparse silver streaks running thinly across your bald head. You adjust your horn-rimmed spectacles, pick up your walking stick from the alcove, unplug the pedestal fan, and hobble your way to the door.
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral.
Outside, the sky is still slate grey, the massed clouds brooding, bloated with rain. Sparrows twitter and cheep on the guava tree that reaches up to your terrace. The money plants that Piali had grown ten summers ago now entwine the trunk and trellis the red-brick walls. After closing the latch of the rusty gate behind you, you walk outside and fill your lungs with the rain-laced air. Prasanna—the newspaper boy—greets you, and you say “hello.” Down the street, beside the bazaar where Piali would haggle over the prices of fresh vegetables every morning, you stop by the little tin-and-wood kiosk. The shopkeeper, sitting behind a row of grubby glass jars full of savories, smiles and hands you a box of Silk Cut without you having to ask, offering his daily tidbit of local news, as usual: “Didi has called for a rally here in Golpark.”
“Yes, I am aware,” you reply as you take out a cigarette, your hands quivering, purple veins prominent against your paper-thin skin. “This has become a weekly affair,” you add, lighting the cigarette with the burning end of a braided coir rope that hangs at the side of the paan-shop like a limp brown serpent. The shopkeeper hands you your change, but you refuse. “Buy some sweets for the kids,” you say, and continue down the footpath. Thunder mutters somewhere in the distance. The gullies and sewers around you are rivulets of turbid, swilling water. You stop by Bimal-da’s porch and peep in through the window of his blue bungalow, the slatted panes ajar. You see him on his rocking chair, slivers of mosambi-colored sunlight striating his white dhuti-kurta. He sits slumped, his eyes half-closed, the morning daily on his lap, his spitz asleep like a shaggy rug by his feet; the sight is a daily fixture, and stopping by his house a daily ritual; one you have performed religiously for the last forty of your seventy years, ever since Piali and you moved to South Calcutta from Shyambazar when Tirthankar was five and Shayak just born.
Bimal-da seems to be immersed in stupor, but when you rap on his window once, and then twice—his dog’s ear perking up at the sound, its limp tail twitching—Bimal-da rises as he always does when he sees you, his face brimming with happiness, and he comes to the window slowly, a twinkle in his eyes that are cloudy with cataract. “Hello, Arun-da. Good morning,” he greets in English. “Shubho Noboborsho!”
“Happy New Year to you too,” you reply, reciprocating the Pohela Boishakh greetings.
“How are the boys?” he inquires. “Are they visiting in the winter?”
You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral. Ever since Tirthankar and Julia had their second child, they’ve been busy raising the kids, only calling from Atlanta every other month to check in on your health. And Shayak? He is a senior partner at a consulting firm in New York and is focused on promoting strategy and growth in Asia-Pacific. Unlike Tirthankar, he’s never considered settling down and starting a family of his own; his job, his business travels, keep him preoccupied. You feel pride well up at the thought of the big man Shayak has become, and this pride momentarily overwhelms the other feelings tamped-down inside of you. You wonder what it’s like in that foreign continent they now call home; you’ve only ever seen fragments of it in postcards—the streets lined with gold and vermillion-red leaves in the fall; the steel and glass buildings towering into curlicued clouds; the park with the dancing musical fountain where Tirthankar had proposed to Julia; the Ferris wheel across from the park. You think of your grandchildren, of the grandchildren you’ve only ever seen in the photographs they occasionally send you; you picture their mops of cherubic golden locks… Their eyes cerulean like distant seas… They’ve got Tirthankar’s features, though… The dimpled chins… Piali’s chin…
“I am looking forward to seeing the boys,” Bimal-da continues, his spitz waking up from its nap and panting in the humid heat. He still calls your sons boys, even though they are grown men now. “And Tirthankar’s boys as well. They must visit Kolkata! This is their home, too.”
Your thoughts still and settle like sediment, come to rest on that word—home. You think of what home means, and what it means to leave a home to find another. You feel… No, you know somehow, that you will never see your boys again. For this home that was once theirs, is, to them, like an island shrinking, shrinking, as one leaves an island behind and drifts, unanchored, out into the open ocean; an island shrinking until it is a speck on the horizon behind, an island finally disappearing in the distance.
They always promise to visit. “Yes, Bimal-da; I believe they will be visiting in the winter,” you reply, smoke hanging in the air like the hope of your children’s return.
You spend an hour on Bimal-da’s porch, talking about his granddaughter’s wedding in Delhi.
“The wedding is in Saket,” Bimal-da informs. “They are jewelers from Lajpat Nagar. I am happy that Subarna is going into such a cultured family.”
You remember Subarna as a little girl, with her lispy voice and her cascading curls; you remember how Shayak and Subarna—who is six years younger than him—would go knocking on neighbors’ doors collecting chanda together during Durga Puja, would serve khichdi and chana dal to guests as bhog on ashtami, before dressing up and performing skits and songs during the evening festivities. You share Bimal-da’s joy at this new chapter in his granddaughter’s life, but at the same time, there is something that is eating away at your insides like a colony of white ants.
“I can now die in peace, Arun-da!” he says dramatically, to which you reply: “Why do you speak of dying, Bimal-da? You are a young man still!”
The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket.
He laughs and then insists: “Please try your best to make it to the wedding,” and you want to say that yes, you will, but you’d rather not commit to promises that you can’t keep. You leave, but you make sure to turn around and see him standing on the steps of his porch with his furry white dog, make sure to wave goodbye. You linger outside stores selling exquisite shawls and rainbows of stoles, glimpsing Piali in every window. You stop briefly outside a boutique selling handloom sarees in brightly-colored hues and you recall how her eyes had lit up like terracotta lamps when you had bought her the parakeet-green cotton saree for her sixtieth birthday. She always did love hand-spun cotton. A pack of pariah dogs wrangle and gambol down the street. A coconut vendor in a threadbare loincloth is pushing his rickety wooden cart, calling out “daab, daab.” You continue walking till you reach Southern Avenue and then stop at a shanty selling deep-fried fritters—eggplant, onions, chilies. A rotund woman sits on her haunches on a gamchha, coating the vegetables in gram flour with hardened hands. You ask for aloor chop, and she drops pieces of potatoes into a large cauldron, the oil crackling and spitting. Crows caw from atop the blue tarpaulin sheet covering the shanty; some peck at rubbish below that is heaped beside the gutter.
“I hope you are fine and taking care of yourself, Arun-da,” the woman inquires as she sprinkles black salt on the potato fritters and hands them to you in a newspaper-bag full of puffed rice. “I do not believe that, at this age, you have too many days ahead if you go on smoking like this.” She laughs as she says this, her teeth stained red with gutka. You nod in acknowledgement as you hand her some coins.
“Any day could be anyone’s last, Madhu,” you lament, and then, straightening your walking stick, continue on your way. You stop by Vivekananda Park, and spend the afternoon watching the local boys play football in their colorful nylon jerseys as the sun climbs lower in the sky. You watch them kick up dust, and memories of your own sons and their Sunday games now bloom like bougainvillea in the muted nebulous orange of the evening. Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that has been gathering at the hem of dusk now breaks forth, a few drops striking your skin—cool, calming. The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket. Does Tirthankar teach them cricket, just the way you used to teach Tirthankar how to field and wicket-keep on Saturday mornings after he would feed the rabbits at Safari Park? Or does he teach them that other game—and you grapple with your thoughts to remember the name of it—that looks like a variant of cricket, that they play in their country… Baseball, they call it? You wonder whether your grandsons play sport, or whether they prefer to stay indoors instead, watching television or playing board games or coloring with crayons. That’s all you can do, really—wonder. They must have grown up now; they are probably bigger than what you remember of them from the photographs Julia shared two years ago. You wonder whether they refer to Piali as dadi or thakuma, or as grandma. How often do they think of her? Do they think of her at all?
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets.
The day is closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sounds of cymbals and conch shells and aarti bells. Darkness descends over the city like a veil, and you decide that it is time to move on. The heady scent of milkwood-pine laces the air. A melancholy moon has risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as Piali. You finish the last piece of your aloor chop and pick up your walking stick but, instead of turning back to return home, you wait for the juddering yellow taxis and the wabbling blue buses, the cars and motorbikes blurred by the vaporous rain to halt at a signal, so you can cross the road toward Rabindra Sarobar. Horns blare and trams clatter and chime over the trill of birds that are preparing to roost for the night. You look up into the shadowy canopies, imagining the chittering fledglings who, very soon, will leave their nests, never to return. It begins to drizzle again, and you feel grief stir and rise in waves. It was there, down the road, right beside where the jhalmuri-seller now squats in the dirt that, on the evening of Pohela Boishakh seven Aprils ago, in the back of an ambulance, Piali’s heart had stopped. They could have saved her; you were only minutes away from AMRI Dhakuria—the hospital where they were rushing her. But there was a bottleneck in the traffic up ahead, caused by a procession that the CPI(M) had called for, truck-loads of party members hooting and chanting slogans and waving red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles while your wife clung to her life and then, when she couldn’t cling to it any longer, died in your arms. The rally made headlines the next day, but you were left alone in this world to mourn her memory. At least she had you in her twilight hours, in her twilight years. There are those that have no one.
You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets. You can no longer hear the city’s din, just the rain strafing the streets, clamoring against tarpaulin roofs, beating against the lake’s dark surface. The only other sound you hear is Piali’s voice calling to you from beyond the waters of time. You feel a drenching cold that seeps into your clothes, into your very skin, followed by a serene, immovable, half-submerged solitude; the waters murmur in soft whispers, a sighing and a swishing. Tomorrow, if they find your body, the news of your death will reach your sons and your grandsons who will never meet their grandparents but will know of them through stained, sepia-tinted photographs. Tomorrow, if they find your body, your death will join the other headlines on the front page; then again, maybe it won’t, and will only make a snippet in the corner of the third page, because today’s rally will take up most of the first.