202

14

10 days in Calcutta

DAY 10

 

                                                          Up and Down/In the Hills 

An eagle soars like a hammer in the sky. We were on a ridge half the width of a catwalk, staring down at a drop of two thousand feet. My cousin, Tracy, clicks a selfie and I warn her India has the most number of selfie-related deaths in the world. She thinks I’m joking. Tracy’s high-pitched laugh scares a zipper of Scissor-tailed flycatchers out of an oak tree. Our guide, Prakash, calls her a churail that means witch in Hindi. We laugh and Tracy’s mother, Aunt Jenny, high-fives the guide. If he thought our family was weird, this just confirmed it.

                                                                             *

Only this morning, mother went around distributing pamphlets from our Church. She had all the material translated by my Hindi teacher back home. ‘They need to find God,’ she says to no one in particular as she gives them out to locals in the woods. Including a man lying on a donkey carrying two sacks of sugar on either side. Timmy, our dog, licks up the sugar crystals that fall through the small holes in the sacks. She has one bundle of pamphlets left and my sister, Margaret, and I plan to steal it before she pisses everyone off at this hill-station. Marion- The Missionary from Hell. Father’s words, not mine.

                                                                            *

We return from our hike past the makeshift badminton court under a fig tree. Father emerges from our cottage with a jug of rhododendron juice in his left hand. Blood red in the morning sun. He staggers down the stone steps, hands me the jug, and gathers all of us in for a group hug. He is singing Under My Thumb by the Stones. People in the other cottages are peeping from the windows. Mother is fuming. As she chases him up to the cottage, Aunt Jenny and Tracy look awkwardly away. Margaret and I take large swigs of rhododendron juice laced with local whiskey. ‘Not bad,’ says Margaret. The refreshingly sweet taste of this flower-juice is perfect with the bitter alcohol. To make matters better, we find mother’s last bundle of religious pamphlets on one of the steps. Margaret buries it under a mound of dead leaves and twigs for tonight’s bonfire.

                                                                           *

As the sun disappears and the plump stars stare out from the navy blue sky, we sit around the fireplace in the cottage. Mum is calm now and she pours herself whiskey in a stainless steel mug. Tracy is dozing off and Aunt Jenny sits in a rocking chair near the window, her back to us. This isn’t her being rude. She just doesn’t like anyone seeing her cry. I know she is because I’m sitting closest to her and the outline of a plump cheek is lit up by the bulb hanging outside the window.

Dad is making another mix in the jug and Margaret is licking her lips. ‘How about a walk,’ he says, looking at mum. ‘My corns are killing me,’ says mum, rubbing the sides of her feet. Margaret wakes Tracy up by tickling her nostril with a pigeon feather. We’re about to leave when Aunt Jenny cries out and lunges towards the open window. I grab the waistband of her skirt, but she’s heavy. Dad jumps onto the sill to pull her back and we fall in a heap on the carpet. ‘Go,’ orders mum. I latch the window. Tracy wants to stay but mum kisses her on the cheek and shoves her gently towards the door. As we walk down, we can hear Aunt Jenny sobbing and my mother talking to her softly. ‘Did you see me run faster than your mother, today?’ ‘Not now, dad,’ says Margaret.

                                                                         *

I shouldn’t have let him drive back alone,’ says Jenny, in between sobs. ‘It’s not your fault, Jen. God works in mysterious ways, and who are we to...’ ‘Where was your God when he let my Karl drive over the bridge, Marion?’ ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ says Marion. Jenny looks up and knows her sister actually believes that. ‘Let us pray,’ whispers Marion, taking Jenny’s hands in hers. ‘I don’t want to fucking pray,’ shouts Jenny. ‘Would you like a drink?’ Marion pours out four fingers of local whiskey in two mugs and they sit huddled on the bed talking about Jenny’s husband, Uncle Carlyle, whose car was still at the bottom of the river back in the city. The police diving squad was on strike till the day they left for the hill-station.

                                                                       *

In the lawn with pine trees on one side, the other families were lying on cushions and bean bags. A giant white sheet was set up for a silent film. As the opening credits faded to the first scene, the wind blew against the sheet and the movie looked like it was being projected onto waves at sea. No one seemed to mind, but dad snorted and laughed loudly when a bird flew straight through the makeshift screen and tore a small hole in the centre. Adults looked back at us disapprovingly so we got up and walked to the ledge near the hammocks. As we passed the jug of juice and whiskey around, dad wrestled with Timmy in the dusty grass and we all pretended to lay bets on who would win. It ended when Timmy snapped at dad’s ankles and ripped a hole in his brown trousers.

As it grew colder and the silver moon was hidden behind the mist for a second, we saw two plump figures walk towards us. Dad was still sprawled on the ground and he looked up at mum standing above him. The sisters sat on a hammock that touched the ground with their weight. Tracy hugged her mum, who was trying to smile, and we sat quietly for a while looking at the inverted pictures from behind the sheet. The wind was stronger now as we passed the jug around and there was a loud snap. The large sheet had broken free of the pine trees it was moored to and the wind sent it soaring over the ridge. The hill-station staff ran about shouting at each other but it had flown out of reach. A white ghostly sail floating away in the dark towards the Himalayas, families lying on their cushions looking stupidly at each other, a projection caught in the trees, and my family whooping and laughing till we were crying. ‘I wish I was that sheet,’ said Aunt Jenny, half-laughing, rubbing the tears off her cheeks.

                                                                  THE END

Day 9

Today I noticed the half-open door of the momo shop opposite the Daughters of St. Paul Library. A man wearing formals and a maroon sling back exited as I held mum’s hand and went inside. The old Chinese couple never spoke to their customers. You walked into their small one-room shop- that was also their apartment- told them how many plates you wanted, and waited for them to serve you. There were only two items on the menu- steamed pork momos and fish ball soup.

A tube-light lit up the apartment and behind their stove was a black-rimmed photograph of the couple when they were young. It was blurry with soot and the steam made the walls slightly wet. Mum and I sat on a wooden bench and waited for the lady to serve us. You didn’t even feel like hurrying them up. There were six momos to a plate and they served it with an orange paste made of peanuts and red chillies. By the time mum and I would finish our share, there would be puddles of sweat below our eyes and I’d be sniffling. But, In India, flavour trumps spiciness.

Mum paid for two plates and I picked up my borrowed books (Hardy Boys and Fright Night). We left the shop in a cloud of steam, crossed the curving tramlines and waited for the right bus to take us home.

Day 8

Today I noticed Mincy sitting on the top step at the entrance of the church. Behind her, a little distance away, the sacristan was filling in for the man who washed the marble floor daily. He held the long hose in his bony, right hand and picked his nose with the other. When the water splashed too close to her paws, Mincy got up and walked towards me. I held her under her jaw and she had a wide grin on her brown face- baring all of her yellow teeth. The church bell began to toll and it stuck out among all the horns, vendors haggling and kebabs being fried on mud grills.

I walked out of the church gate with Mincy in front of me. Stepping over a turd on the pavement Mincy had already deemed unfit for consumption, we reached the tea stall that had her favourite biscuits. It was a mix of arrowroot and a little sugar in the shape of a flat flower. I liked them, too. I ordered a cup of red tea and picked out six biscuits from the glass jar.

Day 7

Today I noticed an eagle falling like a hammer from the sky. We were on a ridge half the width of a catwalk, staring down at a drop of two thousand feet. The wind was blowing against us. My cousin, Tracy, clicked a selfie and I wondered if she knew India has the most number of selfie-related deaths in the world. I tell her but she thinks it’s a joke.

She has a high-pitched laugh that scares a zipper of Scissor-tailed flycatchers out of an oak tree. Our guide, Prakash, mutters something that sounds suspiciously like churail. It means witch in Hindi. We laughed (except Tracy) and Tracy’s mother, Aunt Jenny, high-fived the guide. If he thought our family was weird, that just confirmed it.

Only this morning, mother went around distributing pamphlets from our Church. She had all the material translated by my Hindi teacher back home. ‘They need to find God,’ she says to no one in particular as she distributes them to locals in the woods. Including a man lying on a donkey carrying two sacks of sugar on either side. She has one bundle of pamphlets left and my sister, Margaret, and I plan to steal it before she pisses everyone off at this hill-station. Marion- The Missionary From Hell. Father’s words, not mine.

As we return from our hike and pass the makeshift badminton court under a fig tree, father emerges from our cottage with a jug of rhododendron juice in his left hand. Blood red in the morning sun. He staggers down the stone steps, hands me the jug, and gathers all of us in for a group hug. He is singing Under My Thumb by The Rolling Stones louder than Jagger. People from other cottages are staring down. Mother is fuming. As she chases him up to the cottage, Aunt Jenny and Tracy look awkwardly away. Margaret and I take large swigs of rhododendron juice laced with the local whiskey. ‘Not bad ’, says Margaret. The refreshingly sweet taste of this flower-juice is perfect with the bitter alcohol. To make matters better, we find mother’s last bundle of religious pamphlets on one of the steps. Margaret buries it under a mound of dead leaves and twigs for tonight’s bonfire.   

(This was inspired by a recent vacation in Jilling. A small hill-station in Northern India.)

Day 6

Today I noticed the chickens were missing from their coop, save for one sitting in the corner. There were no signs of a struggle, no blood and the one left behind stared at me as if to say, ‘Look, I slept right through it.’ In the trees facing the farm, was a rabbit path that wound its way down to the black sand beach. I whistled to Timmy as I entered the foliage and I spotted a red muffler on a branch, hanging limp.

Just ahead, was the old mango tree. Fruit and leaves- a rich dark green. As we neared the end of the path, I could hear the waves breaking on Small Hill. I licked my lips and it was salty. Timmy ran all the way to the edge of the water as I climbed down the slippery rocks. Under the sun making the black sand glisten like snake skin spread out, I saw the chickens walking in a line along the shore. They seemed to have figured out the exact point where the waves break, and were making sure they kept their feet dry. I joined the queue at the back as Timmy howled at father’s boat falling over a wave.

Day 5

Today I noticed strangers in my house. It all started when mum and Margaret left for church. I was in the bedroom catching up on sleep I had missed out on in the last three days. First, I heard a group of people talking in the living room. When I got there it was empty and the front door was wide open. The compound was wet from the morning rain and as I went to shut the door, a man carrying a naked baby walked out from the back lane. Two identical old ladies on crutches followed and they stared at me as they left the house. I tried to scream but my mouth would not open.

A lady in a saffron kurta, smoking a cigarette, was the last to leave. I shut the door and sat down on the red chair near the dining table. From the corner of my eye, I could see dark shapes moving behind me. The neighbourhood was strangely quiet for a Sunday morning and even the birds were missing. The compound was dry now but the soles of my feels were wet. The maroon concrete floor was cold and I knew sleep would not come now.

Day 4

Today I noticed the plaster on my ceiling looks like wet cotton, lumpy around the edges. When my eyes adjust to the darkness, it takes the shape of summer clouds. Jango, the apso, was in the wrong place at the wrong time when one corner came crumbling down. He squealed as the debris fell on his head and jumped into bed with me. I haven’t been able to get him to move since.

Ours is an old house and the ceilings are higher than the matchboxes one gets to stay in nowadays. The workers made a ladder out of bamboos and they chipped away at the ceiling till all that was left was bricks and rods. For a week our three-room house was enveloped in dust and Jango had to be chained to the main gate. He didn’t appreciate the treatment and bit the heel of one of the plasterers. Apsos are not known to be ferocious so I blamed the victim. In protest, they didn’t finish the work so now I’m sleeping in a room with a ceiling that is half white on one side and bare bones on the other- an architectural version of Two-Face.  

Day 3

Today I noticed a lump on dad’s elbow. It was the size of a mosquito bite and it grew bigger through the day. Over breakfast, as he passed the scrambled eggs to mum, it did not look too bad. By the time the grandfather clock struck twelve and the crows were in the shade of the casuarinas, the lump was half the size of a hard-boiled egg. “Are you going to have that looked at?” asked mum over her book (How To Win Even When You’re Losing). He shrugged and I followed him out to the garden. He broke two leaves off the neem tree, ground them to a paste in a bowl and applied it to his elbow. The swelling was gone by the evening.

Load shedding in the evening and our solar lamps flickered to life. In the off-white light, we sat on the porch and peeled lychees. As dad carried the scraps to the compost bin, I noticed another lump on the side of his neck. The electricity returned and for a few seconds our home was in complete darkness, as the solar lamps were replaced by the incandescent bulb swaying in the June breeze. This lump glowed red in the dark and I followed it as he walked back. A red dot moving silently, mother drumming her nails on the armrest of the rocking chair and the smell of chicken roast from the kitchen, door left slightly ajar.

Day 2

Today I noticed my orange juice is low on pulp. There aren’t enough bits to chew and I bite down making my jaw line look like a young Schwarzenegger. I swivel in my navy blue chair and roll myself to the cubicle on the left. ‘Less pulp today.’ Angie turns from her computer screen and nods. She is grinding her teeth, too. ‘You think it’s a new vendor?’ We stare at each other and know there is only one way to find out. So as my computer comes to life, I scribble the first draft of a canteen query on an over-sized post-it. Angie peers over my shoulder and nods, again. ‘That’ll do.’ As we wait for a reply from the canteen department, I bring another glass of orange juice from the vending machine. Angie takes out a bowl and I pull out a sieve from my rexine bag. Zero pulp this time.

We shake our heads in disappointment and log out from the mainframe. ‘How can they expect us to be productive if there is no pulp?’ Angie has a point and we share this thought with Mark from Human Resources who is passing by. He places his file on my desk and we walk out to the smoking area. Angie lights up and Mark tells us about a rumour that the company is going to shift to apple juice. ‘It’s been a long time coming. Change is inevitable,’ he shrugs.

Day 1

Today I noticed a long queue at the public restroom near the park. It snaked its way along the pavement and ended near the autorickshaw stand. At the front of the queue was a lady wearing a light blue tricel skirt and she kept running her hands over the pleats. From the back to the front. The light turned green and cars from the flyover spilled onto the pot-holed road. The railings on the pavement rattled as the queue moved along slowly.

I was the last in line and I lit a cigarette, puffing slowly, trying to make it last till I got to the front. I was three cigarettes down by the time it was my turn. I entered the stall closest to me and there on the tank was the light blue tricel skirt, neatly folded. I relieved myself, took off my trousers and slipped into the skirt. It came down to my shins. I tucked in my white shirt, folded my trousers, placed them on the tank and left the stall. On the pavement, the queue was thinning and the light turned from green to red.

 

Comments

Please sign in or sign up to comment.