In the warm glow of fires that lit the clearing at the centre of straw-roofed mud huts, palm-leaf cups of toddy flew from hand to hand. Men in loincloths and women in saris had begun to dance barefoot, kicking up dust. Smoke curled from cooking fires and tobacco. The drums, the monotonous twanging of a stringed instrument, and loud singing obliterated the sounds of the forest.
A man with a thin, frown-creviced face topped by dark hair combed back from his high forehead sat as still as a stone image in their midst, in a chair that still had its arms but had lost its backrest. His long nose struck out, arrow-like, beneath deep-set eyes. He had smoked a pipe all evening and held one polite leaf cup of toddy that he had only pretended to sip. His kurta and dhoti were an austere white, his waistcoat a lawyerly black.
He did not appear to hear the singing. But his eyes were on the dancers: wasn’t that girl in the red sari the one who had come with baskets of wild hibiscus that she had flung carelessly into a corner of his factory floor? And that man who was dancing with his arm around her waist, wasn’t he one of the honey-collectors? It was hard to tell, with their new saris and dhotis, the flowers in their hair, the beads flying out from necks, the firelight. The man leaned forward, trying to tell which of the sweat-gleaming faces he had encountered before in his small workforce.
The brown-suited, toadlike figure sitting on a stool next to him nudged him in the ribs. “Something about these tribal girls, eh, Amulya Babu? Makes long-married men think unholy thoughts! And do you know, they’ll sleep with any number of men they like!” He emptied his cup of toddy into his mouth and licked his lips, saying, “Strong stuff! I should sell it in my shop!”
A bare-chested villager refilled the cup, saying, “Come and dance with us, Cowasjee Sahib! And Amulya Babu, you are not drinking at all! This is the first time people from outside the jungle have come as guests to our harvest festival. And because I insisted. I said, it’s Cowasjee Sahib and Amulya Babu who give us our roti and salt! We must repay them in our humble way!”
A tall, hard-muscled man stood nearby, listening, lips curling with contempt as his relative hovered over the four or five friends Cowasjee had brought with him, radiating obeisance as he refilled their cups. Beyond the pool of firelight, cooking smells, and noise, the forest darkened into shadows. Somewhere, a buffalo let out a mournful, strangled bellow. The drums gathered pace, the girls linked their arms behind each other’s waists, swaying to the rhythm, and the men began to sing:
A young girl with a waist so slender that
I can put my finger around it,
Is going down to the well for water.
With swaying hips she goes.
My life yearns with desire.
My bed is painted red.
Red are my blankets.
For these four months of rain and happiness
Stay, stay with me.
Without you I cannot eat,
Without you I cannot drink.
I’ll find no joy in anything.
So stay, stay, for the months of rain,
And for happiness with me.
One of the girls in the line of dancers separated herself from her partners. She had noticed Amulya’s preoccupied expression, wondered how a man could remain unmoved by the music, not drink their wine. She came forward with a smile, her beads and bangles jingling, her bare shoulders gleaming in the firelight, orange sari wrapped tight over her young body. The toddy made her head spin a little when she bent down to Amulya. As he tried to scramble away, she stroked his cheek and said, “Poor babuji, are you too pining for someone?” She leaned closer and whispered into his ear, “Won’t you come and dance? It wipes sorrows away.”
Amulya looked up beyond her childish face, framed by curling hair which smelled of a strong, sweet oil, at the flamboyant purple flower pinned into her bun. It had a ring of lighter petals within the purple ones, and a pincushion of stamens. Passiflora, of course. Yes, certainly Passiflora. But what species?
Despite the haze of alcohol that made her eyes slide from thing to thing, the girl noticed that the man’s gaze was not on her face, but on the flower. She unpinned it and held it out to him. A deep dimple pierced her cheek. The drums rolled again, a fresh song started, and she tripped back to her friends with a laugh, looking once over her shoulder.
“Hey, Amulya Babu, the girl likes you!” Cowasjee cried, slapping Amulya’s thigh. “You can turn down food and drink, but how can you turn down a lusting woman? Go on, dance with her! That’s the done thing in these parts!”
Amulya stood up from his chair and moved away from Cowasjee’s hand. “I have to leave now,” he said, his tone peremptory. In his left hand he clutched the purple flower. With the other he felt about for his umbrella.
Amulya understood he was an anomaly. When still new in the town adjoining the jungle, he had tried to make himself part of local society by going to a few parties. Songarh’s local rich, they too had hopes of him, as a metropolitan dandy perhaps, laden with tales and gossip from the big city, conversant with its fashions, bright with repartee, a tonic for their jaded, small-town appetites. He had had many eager invitations.
After the first few parties, at which he refused offers of whisky and pink gins, and then waited, not talking very much, for dinner to be served and the evening to end, he had realised that perhaps his being there was not serving any purpose. Was he really becoming a bona fide local by attending these parties when his presence emanated obligation?
Today – these festivities at the village whose people were his workforce – he had thought it would be different. He had, for a change, wanted to come. He had only ever seen tribal people at work – what were they like at play, what were their homes like? The opportunity had seemed too good to miss; but Cowasjee, in whom the bare-shouldered village girls seemed to unleash more than his usual loutishness, had ensured that this evening was like all the others.
Amulya looked around for someone to thank, but everywhere people sat on their haunches drinking, or they danced, enclosed in worlds of private rapture. The drums had speeded up, the twanging could scarcely keep pace. Where was his umbrella? And his office bag? Was his tonga waiting for him as instructed? Was anyone sober enough to light his way to the tonga?
“Oh sit, sit, Amulya Babu,” Cowasjee said, tugging Amulya’s sleeve. “You can’t go without eating, they’ll be sure their food was too humble for you, they’ll feel insulted. The night is young and we have stories to swap! Have you heard this one?” Cowasjee cackled in anticipation of his punchline.
Amulya sat again, annoyed and reluctant, barely able to summon up a strained smile to the yodelled laughs that accompanied the ensuing discussion about why a woman’s two holes smelled different despite being geographically proximate. “Just like the difference between Darjeeling tea and Assam!” one of Cowasjee’s friends shrieked. “Both in the hills of eastern India, but their aromas worlds apart!” The third said, “You bugger! More like the difference between the stink of a sewage nullah and a water drain!” They nudged each other and pointed at the girls dancing by the fire. “She’s for you,” giggled one. “How ’bout taking her home and confirming the Assam–Darjeeling hypothesis?”
The tall, muscular villager stepped out from the shadows, one fist clenched around a long bamboo pole. In two rapid strides, he and his weapon were towering over them. Cowasjee shrank back on his stool. The obsequious middleman noticed the threat and scurried out from a corner. He said something over his shoulder to the drummer, then to a woman tending a cooking pot. The drums fell suddenly quiet. Confused, the dancers stopped mid-stride. The woman called out, “We will eat now, before the chickens run out from the rice!”
The stringed instrument played on, its performer too rapt to pause. The man with the bamboo pole stepped aside, not taking his expressionless eyes off Cowasjee.
* * *
Far away, Kananbala heard the faint sound of drums, like a pulse in the night. Another night of waiting. At nine-thirty the neighbour’s car. Slamming doors. Shouts to the watchman. Ten. The whir of the clock gathering its energies for the long spell of gongs to come. The creaking of trees. A single crow, confused by moonlight. The wind banging a door. Ten-thirty. The owls calling, one to the other, the foxes further away. Then the faint clop of hooves. Closer, the clop of hooves together now with the sound of wheels on tarmac, whip on hide. A tongawallah cursing. Amulya saying, “That’s it, no further.” His voice too loud.
Kananbala dropped her age-softened copy of the Ramayana and went to the window. She could see her husband hunching to release himself from the shelter of the tonga, too tall for its low bonnet. She turned away and returned to the bed, picking up her Ramayana again. When Amulya entered the room and looked around for his slippers, she did not tell him she had put them under the table. When he asked her, “Have you eaten?” she pretended to be immersed in her book. When he said, “Are the children asleep?” she replied, “Of course. It’s so late.”
“They only served dinner at ten. They wouldn’t let me leave without eating, what do you expect me to do?”
“Nothing,” Kananbala said, “I know …” Something caught her eye and she stopped.
“What is that?”
“What? That? Oh, it’s a flower.”
Amulya’s voice was muffled beneath the kurta he was pulling off over his head. She could see his vest, striped with ribs, his stomach arcing in. She looked again at the flower, dark purple, wilted. He had placed it under the lamp near the bed. In the light of the lamp she could see one long, black strand of hair stuck to the gummy edge of its stem.
“I know it’s a flower,” she said. “Why have you brought it home?”
“Just wanted to identify it … “ he said, leaving the room.
She had often asked him before: were there women at the parties he went to? The host’s wife? Her friends or relatives? Why could she, Kananbala, never be taken? He always laughed with condescension or said, exasperated, “I have never met women at these parties, neither do I aspire to.” And what of today, the festival at the tribal village – could she not have been taken? If she were a tribal woman herself, she would have needed no man’s permission.
Amulya returned to their room with a large, hard-covered book. He sat near the lamp and opened it, then put on his black-framed spectacles. He picked up the flower in one hand, turned the pages of the book with the other, looking once at the pages and once at the flower, saying under his breath, “Passiflora of course, but incarnata? I’ve never seen this vine in Songarh.”
Kananbala turned away, lay back against her pillow and shut her eyes. She could hear pages rustling, Amulya murmuring under his breath. She wished with a sudden flaming urge that she could stamp on his spectacles and smash them.
Amulya laid the flower against an illustration in the book and whispered, “Incarnata, yes, it is incarnata. Roxburgh has to be right.”
* * *
In about 1907 , when Amulya moved from Calcutta to Songarh, he could still see the town had been hacked out, maybe a hundred years before, from forest and stone. The town perched on a rocky plateau, at the edge of which he could see, even from the house, a dark strip of forest and the irregular, bluish shadows of the hills beyond. In the distance were broken-down walls of medieval stone – the ruined fort, the garh from which the town took its name. A few walls and one domed watchtower, enough to fuel Amulya’s fantasies, could still be discerned in the ruins. In front there was a shallow pool with inlaid stone patterns around its edges. Beyond the fort lay an ancient, dried stream-bed that separated it from the forest and hilly mounds. It was said that an entire city would some day be found buried around the fort. Some claimed Songarh had been one of the centres of Buddhist learning in the ancient past and that the Buddha himself had rested there, under a tree, on one of his journeys. On his first visit to the fort, Amulya saw that there was indeed an ancient, spreading banyan tree with its own jungle of stone-coloured aerial roots. The tree had a knot on its main trunk that in a certain light looked like the face of a meditating man.
When Amulya brought his family to Songarh, it was no longer a centre of learning, but it had acquired new importance after the discovery by the imperial geologists of ores of mica. There was even more lucrative material below the forests somewhat further away: coal. Among the patchy fields of millet and greens there grew a tiny British colony of people who supervised the coal mines and the nearer mica ores from the salubrious climate of Songarh, which was chilly enough in winter for log fires. Before long the town had a white area near the fort where the handful of miners lived, forming a compact society of their own.
Over time, Songarh acquired a main street with a few shops. One of the earliest, Finlays, was run by an enterprising Parsi who supplied the needs of the expatriates for the exotic: coffee, fruit, fish in tins, lace and lingerie, treacle and suet, cigarettes and cheese. Indians went to the shop for fabrics and buttons, medicines and cosmetics, and returned with tins of peach halves, wondering what to do with them.
The forest watched. It was well known that leopards wandered its unknown interior. There were stories of tigers and jackals drinking together from streams that ran through it over round, grey and brown pebbles. Cows and goats disappeared, and sometimes dogs. It was useless looking for their remains. Until the mines came, and with them the safety of numbers, nobody from the town was foolhardy enough to venture into the wilderness at the edge of their homes: green, dark, alien, stretching for miles, ending only where the coal mines began.
The forest was still the domain of tribal people with skin as shiny and dark as wet stone and straight, wiry bodies. Flowers with frilly petals nestled in the black hair of the women. They were poor; many looked as though they were starving. Yet they kept to the forest, venturing out only occasionally, in groups. Some were forced into the town when the mines gouged out chunks of their forest. They lived in makeshift shanties, working at whatever they could find. Amulya employed many of them.
He had heard of Songarh in Calcutta, come on a visit, walked all over the little town and its surrounding countryside, and the knowledge that he would live there came to him like a benediction. Just as some people speak to you immediately without saying a word, and you feel a kinship as real as the touch of a hand, Amulya felt a connection with Songarh. He knew that if he turned away from it then, he would never be able to stop thinking of it, that all his life would feel as though it were being spent away from its core.
In Songarh, among people whose language he did not speak, he set up his small factory to manufacture medicines and perfumes out of wild herbs, flowers and leaves. The people of the forest knew where to find wild hibiscus flowers for fragrant and red oil, flowers of the night for perfumes, and the minute herbs for smelly green pastes that could bring stubborn, hard boils to tender explosion overnight. With a persistence he was not aware he possessed, Amulya learned the language of the Santhals, as well as Hindi, and learned enough from them of their plants to be able to expand the range of his products.
His relatives in Calcutta regarded Amulya with amused puzzlement and some irritation. He had done nothing he needed to run from, why then the self-imposed exile from a great metropolis into the wilderness? Was there anything in the world Calcutta did not offer a man like him? Submerged just beneath the surface of their talk was the sense that his departure was a scorning of their lives, the redrawing of a pattern that had already been perfected.
* * *
The house Amulya built in Songarh looked out of place: a tall, many-windowed town house in the middle of scrubland and fields that were sparsely built upon at the time. He designed it with the help of an Anglo-Indian architect trained in Glasgow, whose plan seemed to provide a judicious mix of West and East. The house was to look southward, turning its face from the road. Verandahs all along the southern façade, and the north would have rows of windows. To the west there would be balconies and terraces to let in the setting sun. These balconies would overlook a courtyard next to the kitchen, on the ground floor. The south and the west would be skirted by a garden planted with trees and flowering shrubs. Where other people gave their houses grand names, Amulya gave it a number. Although there was only one other house on that road, he stuck a board into the empty plot that said 3 Dulganj Road in tall black letters. The “3” stood for him and his two sons.
A large house, “A house for a family to grow in,” the architect had said, satisfied, when he had completed his drawings. Despite all the windows and balconies, however, it turned out to be a secretive house once translated to brick and plaster – nobody appeared at the front door of 3 Dulganj Road, Songarh, on impulse and said, “We thought we would call to see you.” The northern side that faced the road, with its rows of shuttered windows, seemed to tell visitors that it would be nicer to stand upstairs and watch them go rather than welcome them in.
Right across the road was the only other house in the immediate vicinity. It was one of a number of bungalows the mining company had built for its administrative staff, and the name on the gate was Digby Barnum. Mr Barnum was rarely to be seen. The house had a porte-cochère, from the privacy of which every morning Barnum ascended the car that would deposit him where he worked. He left at precisely nine-thirty, looking neither right nor left as his car swept out of his gates and onto the road. Nobody in the neighbourhood had ever caught his eye.
Amulya first saw Barnum on one of his early days in Songarh, when he was spending most of his time out in the open getting his house built, hours in the sun watching men work. On one of those days, Barnum’s car had spluttered in its smooth getaway from the portico and come to a silent standstill only a few yards from the gate. Amulya, waiting on the road for a delivery, observed a man open the door of the car at the back and emerge, muttering English curses. “Bloody hell,” Barnum said, aiming a kick at the car’s bonnet, and then, folding his hands and trying a different tack, “Please, you ruddy jalopy, just this once …” In the bright morning sun, his skin grew more vivid every minute. Strands of hair stuck to his balding head in damp stripes. His cheeks shone in the heat, and bright pink folds of flesh ringed his neck.
Amulya turned away despite the temptation to stare.
The driver disappeared under the bonnet while Barnum got behind the wheel to turn on the ignition. It would not start. The driver brought out a crank, stuck it into the front of the car and began to turn it as Barnum stamped down on the accelerator. The car cleared its hoarse throat a few times, but there was no roar that held.
Barnum got out of the car again and stared worriedly at the empty road. He had given no sign of noticing Amulya’s presence. Amulya, knowing the mining office was a few miles away, on the other side of the town, allowed himself an invisible smirk.
But now there was a sound that made Barnum look up.
In the distance, unmistakeably, the clopping of hooves.
Amulya stole a look at Barnum’s expectant face, relishing the predictable way it fell when the man saw where the clopping came from: not a tonga, but a ramshackle cart laden with bricks. Barnum waited as the cart emptied its bricks, the men working slowly in the heat, disguising lethargy as method. The driver had given up cranking the car and stood slouching in the shade of a bright orange bougainvillea.
Barnum rushed into his house and out again. He did not look at Amulya but cast an irritable glance at the labourers who were taking their time, and at the stringy horse snuffling inside a nosebag. Somewhere a cow-bell tinkled, the leisure of the sound at odds with Barnum’s snarling face and tetchy movements. “Juldi karo,” he yelled at the labourers. “Hurry up, you buggers. Empty out this ruddy twopenny jam tin, juldi karo.”
Eventually, the cart was empty and the workmen turned away. Perched on bits of half-built house they lit their beedies with sighs of exhaustion. Amulya paid the malingerers no attention for a change, fascinated by Barnum’s portly efforts to heave himself into the three-sided cart through the rear. He had to sit on the dusty floor where the bricks had been, his back to the driver, trousered legs and shiny shoes dangling from the cart, facing Amulya and the labourers but managing not to meet anyone’s eye. The cart returned slowly townward.
A few days later, as Amulya watched a well being dug into what would be his garden, a servant from Barnum’s house came to him and shouted above the thud of the heavy hammer and the loud, chorused chant with which the labourers timed their digging, “Sahib has forbidden this!”
“What?” Amulya said, trying to hear above the din. He shouted to the labourers, “Wait. Stop!”
“Sahib says no noisy work in the afternoon. He comes home for his sleep and lunch. No work from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.”
Strutting with borrowed British authority, the servant gave Amulya a conclusive look and was gone before he could react. Amulya seethed at the servant’s departing back, filled with impotent rage, knowing that he would have to obey.
When finally they occupied their new house and Kananbala wondered aloud one day if it was rude not to call on the neighbours at least once, Amulya snapped, “No need. What an idea! Have you forgotten they’re British? To them we’re no more than uncouth junglees.”
Amulya was the only Indian to have built his home in that area, in the wilderness near the miners’ dwellings and fox lairs, far away from the bustle of the main market, from the drums of Ram Navami, the speeches and tom-toms of patriots, the nasal calls of the maulvi, the discordant bursts of trumpet music at wedding processions, the sparklers and explosions of Diwali. He heard these noises all day at the factory. As his daily tonga clattered him towards his home each evening, he waited for that miraculous moment when the shouting town would slide behind, replaced by dark trees and an echoing stillness broken only by calls from the forest and birdsong at dusk.
Except now, these past few months, scars had appeared on the smooth surface of his contentment. He had begun to recognise that he was considered an outsider in his very own Dulganj Road, and he knew that while his yearning for isolation was cause enough for him to want to remain an outsider, for his wife it was a different story.
* * *
The silence that to Amulya meant repletion locked Kananbala within a bell jar she felt she could not prise open for air. She had disliked it from the start: the large house with echoing, empty rooms, the wild, enormous garden where leaves rustled and unfamiliar berries plopped onto the grass. The want of visitors, the absence of theatre shows and festivity. Instead, cow-bells tinkling, the occasional clopping of a horse’s hooves, the ghostly throb of tribal drums far away. The croaking of a hundred frogs after rain, the inscrutable sounds from the forest at night. In Calcutta, in her rambling family home crowded with siblings and aunts and uncles, there was always the possibility of a chat, the comforting sounds of nearby laughter, gossip, clanging utensils, squabbling sisters-in-law, the tong-tong of rickshaw bells, the further-away din of the bazaar, the cries of vendors, the afternoon murmurs of a decrepit goldsmith who visited them with boxes of new trinkets and a tiny silver balance to weigh them on.
The first few months after coming to Songarh, the silence of the place – silence in which she could hear herself inhale, in which she could hear sweat trickling down her face, in which she could hear leaves fall and flowers open – the resonant quiet had startled her into an unexpected garrulity.
She had no-one to talk to, however. There were hardly any neighbours who were not British, and had there been, Kananbala, who spoke only Bengali, would not have had a language to talk to them in. There were three Bengali servants who had come with them from Calcutta, one of them a maid who massaged Kananbala’s head every drowsy afternoon. Kananbala babbled without end to the maid, stopping only when one day she overheard the maid and the gardener sniggering about something she had said. After this she began to wait for Amulya to return home from work, and the instant she heard the gate unlatch she ran down the stairs to ask the servants to put on his tea, then rushed to the gate to start chattering: “What happened today? Did I get any letters from home? What do you think we are having for dinner? Do you know what Gouranga said to Anubha today when she was washing the clothes?”
And so on, until one day Amulya, exasperated, snapped at her, “Leave me alone, can’t you leave me alone for a little while? Just a little while!”
He seemed that very night to have forgotten what he had said to her as he caressed her hair and drew her to himself. But she had not. She turned her face away slightly so that he could not kiss her on the lips. She had felt something twisting, writhing and changing inside her with his “Leave me alone!” She was withdrawn the next day, not herself, thinking too hard to be able to put any of her thoughts into words. Then, in the quiet afternoon, she dug out the old keys she kept still, out of both hope and attachment, the keys to her unused Calcutta rooms, and, clutching them tight, she walked to the well, paused, drew a deep breath, and threw them into the deep, black water.
* * *
The years passed more quickly after that act. Their elder son Kamal had been married off, the younger one, Nirmal, had crossed the awkward threshold that stood between boy and man, and her own small frame had acquired the uneasy bulges of late middle age. She should have been as close to contentment as was possible. But now, a long twenty years after their migration to Songarh, the garrulity had begun its siege on her afresh, threatening to break down the barricades she had erected against it.
Amulya was at the factory longer and longer. These days, he left early in the morning and did not return until after dark. He grumbled that there was too much competition now from imitators. The smallest gap in supplying the shops, and someone else would occupy it.
“Even so,” she asked him as they lay in bed one night, “couldn’t you come home a little earlier in the evenings?”
“Don’t be silly, Kanan,” Amulya said, “I don’t enjoy lingering, there’s work to be done. When you need to send your family their twenty-five saris next puja, where will the money come from?”
“I didn’t mean that,” Kananbala faltered, “I was just remembering when we first came here, how you used to come home and we’d sit by the window every evening with our tea.”
“It’s been about twenty years since that tea,” Amulya replied as he turned on his side. “The factory was smaller then, there was less to be done.”
“It feels so empty, Nirmal at college, Kamal at work with you all day: not that sons are company for mothers.” She sighed, “How I wish I had a daughter.”
Muffled by his pillow Amulya said, “If you had a daughter she’d be with her husband, not holding your hand. Why don’t you talk to your daughter-in-law? Manjula has plenty to say.”
“It’s not the same.”
She waited for a reply, then mustered up all the decisiveness she was capable of. “It was better living in Calcutta,” she said. “My family all around, the house so lively all the time.” Then she stopped, feeling the old uncertainties return with the sound of her own voice.
Amulya smiled. “If you were in charge,” he said, “There’d be no America, and no Australia. No-one would take ships and boats to distant places, they would just sit cuddled up in their mothers’ laps all their lives. Wait and see, in a few years there’ll be people from your Calcutta crowding this place.”
Amulya settled deeper into his blanket, breathing in the cold air of the night and uncurling his warmed-up toes.
“Why didn’t you ever ask me before we moved to this town?” Kananbala continued, almost in a whisper. “Why didn’t you ever ask me about building this house? I’d have liked being closer to my relatives. Did you never think of that?”
Kananbala had said this many times before, and she wanted to stop, but she could not.
“Are you asleep?” she whispered into the night towards Amulya, “Did you hear that owl?”
She heard a gentle snore and then a whistling sigh.
The night creaked and rustled. The cold air carried to her the urgent whine of a fox. Answering foxes echoed its call and their barks multiplied across the forests and fields, drawing circles of sound around the house. The foxes were the companions of her long, wideawake nights now. She recalled how, when Amulya had declared his intention to live in Songarh, everyone had stared at him in disbelief and Kananbala’s father had laughed: “Arre, all you will hear there are foxes, Amulya.” Not just foxes, she had wanted to tell her father later. In her lonely, wakeful hours she had stared out of the window as the roar of what she thought was a lion reverberated in the forest.
The lion’s roar was a secret she could not share with anybody else. The others slept on, oblivious to the throbbing wakefulness of the jungle. Sometimes she felt she was looking at the house from the outside, with the impersonal, measuring gaze of a jackal, or closer, at the windows, swooping owl-like through the night, finding her husband sprawled on the bed in their room, Kamal and his wife Manjula entwined in each other’s arms in a corner of their double bed, and Nirmal, open-mouthed in sleep in his rooftop room, his cigarettes hidden at the back of a drawer where he thought nobody knew. It was only at Nirmal’s window that she lingered briefly but then flew away, shaking off the house with every slicing motion of her wings.
One day she would disappear into the trees, she really would, never to be found again.
“I feel alone here,” Kananbala whispered into the darkness and then, embarrassed by the sound of her voice, turned to stare out of the long window by the bed, which framed a moonlit neem tree hazy through the mesh of the mosquito net.
* * *
The year was 1927, an early summer day. As usual Amulya had woken at four-thirty and left for a walk in the half-light, almost before anyone else was awake. It was how he had always been in Songarh – though he recalled wanting never to lift head from pillow in Calcutta. This was a time when the forest, the cool air, the purple sky, all of it was his alone. He watched the low ridge in the distance beyond the ruins, a shadowy hump at first, begin to reveal the dark points of trees across its spine as the sky paled behind it, preparing for the sun. Some days the ridge looked not like a ridge but like the remains of some prehistoric animal which only he could see. As the sky paled further, he turned back for his cup of steaming, straw-coloured tea and two buttered toasts. By eight-thirty he had left home in a horse-drawn tonga. He would be at work an hour before anyone else, look over the accounts, inspect his factory in solitude.
That morning, however, he had barely stepped off the tonga when a man sprang from nowhere and flung himself headlong into the dust, clutching one of Amulya’s ankles as if it were the edge of a precipice. Trying to drag his foot away, feeling one black sock lose its grip around his calf, Amulya looked down at the back of the man’s head. Until the man raised himself from Amulya’s polished, black-leather pumps there was no way of telling who it was.
“Let go, arre baba, kindly let go,” Amulya snapped, “What’s the matter? Can’t you get up from there!”
“You’re my father and my mother, Sa’ab, you are everything I have in this world! I have nobody else!”
Amulya thought he recognised the man at last from his voice, although it was tear-cracked and distraught: just a few days before, as he had entered the bottling room in the factory he had heard the same voice say, laughing, “The old bastard hasn’t come poking his nose here today. Think he’s dead?”
The man who had spoken was scratching himself under his dhoti.
“These shrivelled-up, thin ones go on for ever,” his companion had said.
“Then we’ll live a hundred years, won’t we?” the first man had chuckled.
He had stopped as Amulya entered. Amulya had not smiled. He found it difficult to attain any kind of easy familiarity with his workers. Impossible to say, “Arre Ramcharan, and how is your son? Is your wife still away in her village? Sure you’re not chasing any pretty girls now her back’s turned?”
Amulya tugged his foot out of Ramcharan’s grasp. “What is the matter, Ramcharan?” he said, his voice curt. “Stop all this weeping and wailing.” He fitted his brass keys one by one into the three Aligarh padlocks on the factory door, entered, hung his umbrella on its customary hook, and then, turning towards Ramcharan, noticed for the first time that they were not alone.
There was a woman standing a little away from the door, her dark skin set off by the grubby yellow of her old sari, her sun-paled hair straggling out of its bun. She was slender and young, little more than a teenager, with a smile that seemed to lose its way when Amulya looked in her direction. He recognised her. He could never have forgotten the face of the girl who, at that harvest dance in her village two years before, had given him the purple passion flower from her hair. But where was the vivaciousness he remembered, the glow of her dimpled face, the teasing laughter? This woman had a famished look, the kind stray, starving bitches feeding pups often had. She held a small bundle in her arms, so languidly Amulya thought it might fall any minute. When it moved he realised it was a baby.
“My son got her pregnant, Sa’ab, she says, and she arrived this morning with the baby … it can’t be true … my son is married, he’s a good boy, he has children of his own, but the coward wouldn’t even come out of our house to throw her out … what am I to do, Sa’ab? If I return her to the forest those jungle people will slaughter us for this with their sickles … they’ll excommunicate her for going with an outsider … she says we must take care of the baby … but what are we to do, Sa’ab, we are poor people, we already have eight mouths to feed and one salary, and what will our relatives say!”
Ramcharan’s voice rose and rose until Amulya said, “Quiet! Be quiet!”
Ramcharan sat on his haunches in a corner of the room and, burying his face in his knees, began to moan, “They’ll kill us … they’ll kill us all if we send the baby back.”
Amulya flipped through the order book and his diary. Decided there was no help for it, he would have to write off the day. He scribbled instructions for his accountant and then, with the woman and Ramcharan squeezed alongside the tongawallah in the front, he sat at the back watching the road give way to fields and then scrubland as they clattered to the Christian orphanage mission beyond the edge of Songarh.
That evening he returned home well after dusk and washed off his day-long deposit of sweat, pouring mug after mug over his thin, nutcoloured body, sighing with relief. He walked out of the bathroom in a soft, unstarched dhoti and kurta, feeling something within him unfurl at last. He knew his daughter-in-law would have left him a large cup of tea and some food. Amulya ate alone, gazing down the room that ended in a full-length, stained-glass window in the east, a window he had positioned thus; he sat at a round table with brass lion paws at the ends of its legs, a table he had bought at an auction. As he chewed, the knot inside him seemed to loosen, and the anxiety of the day’s events began to recede.
After he had drained his cup, he wandered into the garden. Now, where there had been weeds and bathua, there grew a soft carpet of doob grass. The kitchen garden was dark with the enormous, olive-coloured warts of jackfruit clinging to the sides of the tall trees. Green coconut clustered far above and sometimes the afternoon quiet exploded with the noise of their falling. The saplings had seemed tiny when they were planted, impossible to imagine those twigs with four or five leaves storing the power to soar thirty feet. Their branches now jostled for space, and the sky was barely visible through the canopy the leaves had created high above.
In the shadow of these trees was a low swing-seat, and it was here that Amulya came that evening, as on all others, after he had walked all around his garden. Usually he inspected each tree in turn, noting every new bud, every yellowing sapling that had given up the attempt, every cutting that had begun to hold up its head. He would look at them tenderly, wanting to stroke and pat them as if they were pet animals. He had created a garden where there had been wilderness. He had cleared weeds, planted fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and creepers. He had not been indiscriminate, however. He had disdained the flamboyance of pink kachnar, the rich orange of tecoma. Instead, he had planted his garden with flowers that would gleam white in the darkness and scent the night-time air. His only concession to colour was low bushes of the yesterday-today-tomorrow, the Franciscea hopeana he had found with great difficulty, which turned from purple to almost white over three days, perfuming the air around it. The rest of the garden had pure whites: a spreading Magnolia grandiflora, its petals creamy against shining green leaves, the snowy blooms of Jasminum pubescens tumbling over the well area, and a Jasminum sambac to provide scent and flowers for Kananbala’s gods. A few gardenias. Two shefalikas, which he thought of as Nyctanthes arbortristis, that let fall showers of their small, scented flowers – orange-stemmed, but that brief appearance of colour beneath white petals was pardonable as a kind of poetry. Against the wall he had put Cestrum nocturnum, said to harbour snakes, but Amulya was willing to risk poisoning for the fragrance of its white sprays of flowers.
That evening, though, he failed to notice that the buds on the gandharaj were beginning to open and that the mango would very soon burst into flower. He could think of nothing but that tiny bastard baby swaddled in a torn, brownish sari, and of its mother, who had stopped it crying by wrapping her sari around it and putting its mouth to her breast with an ease that seemed born of weeks rather than days of practice. She had been apathetic, almost sleepy, until the time came to part with it. And then she had begun a series of gasping, high-pitched sobs that had lasted throughout the tonga ride back from the far-off orphanage into town. Now, hours later, it was still her sobs he heard, not the birdcalls of dusk. He had gazed stoically at the road as Ramcharan hissed, “Shut your weeping, you stupid woman!” while the tongawallah had spoken throughout the ride only to his horse as if oblivious, or disapproving, of his passengers and their unholy errand.
I’ll have to look after that baby, Amulya said to himself, settling into the garden bench, taking out his pipe and hunting in his pocket for matches. There’s no other way. The fees … better remember to tell the office to pay the orphanage on time. Then he wondered if he needed to add the business of the fees to his will, stipulating that it should be paid for as long as required. He made a mental note that it had best be done. No need to tell anyone at home about the child though, not even Kamal. No need to expose them to something so unsavoury.
From the upstairs verandah Kananbala could see the white of his cotton kurta, smudged in the fading colours of the evening. She never broke into his evening solitude in the garden, but that day, powered by some urge she could not have identified, she went towards him, barefoot on the grass. He did not see her come, and when she was before him, asking, “What are you thinking?” he looked up as if bewildered by her presence. It took him a moment to focus on her face, his eyes at first as startled as if he were looking at a stranger. Then he replied, “Oh, it’s you. What is it?” And then, as she said nothing, he returned to mapping out the financial arrangements for the orphan, sucking on his pipe as he visualised the columns of his bank book.
Kananbala stood there a minute or two, and then turned to walk back to the house, wanting Amulya to call out to her, half expecting him to. But he did not. She looked back once at his still, angular frame, a shadow on the garden bench, lost to her. He might as well have been one of his trees, she thought, walking away. The few hundred feet separating the upstairs verandah from the garden bench became a vastness impossible to cross.
* * *
In October that year, they had their first house guests after a seven-year interval. Relatives were visiting from Calcutta for the puja holidays: there was Amulya’s cousin, his wife, and three children. Kananbala, unused to visitors, had spent all of September planning for their arrival. She was more anxious than eager, she discovered, but could not admit it to anyone. Amulya would have said, “You’re always complaining. You say you’re lonely, then when visitors come, you say you don’t want them.”
So Kananbala complained to herself. More and more, she found solace in talking to herself. She found she could effortlessly become two people and have conversations that sometimes went on a whole afternoon.
There was an additional worry. The relatives had come with a marriage proposal. Nirmal was twenty-four now, and he had just got himself a job in the district college teaching history. It did not pay very much, but it was a government college, and besides, he was the son of a reasonably wealthy man, which made him an eligible groom.
“Why put off something that needs doing? He’s old enough. What’re you waiting for? I tell you, Amulya, gentle, shy, good girls are as hard to find as …” – Amulya’s cousin was picking at the fish on his plate – “as good, fresh river fish in Songarh!” He laughed at his little joke, then, noticing no answering smile, explained in a conciliatory tone, “Boudi’s cooking is wonderful, but what can you do about the fish you get here? It just is not the same as … ”
“Yes, not the same as fish from the Ganga,” Amulya said, trying not to sound testy. The visit was nearing its end and he had heard the fish commented upon several times.
“Nihar’s niece – you remember Nihar, don’t you?”
“Well, Nihar’s niece – is her name Shanti or Malati? – Shanti, yes, Shanti – she’s sixteen, and from what I hear, a pleasant, home-loving girl. I met her a few years ago, pretty girl. And what a house her father has, on a riverbank. Beautiful! It’s a well-to-do, good family, same caste as us, naturally. Nirmal could not pick better … this tomato chutney, it’s good, but I think there’s nothing like chutney … ”
“Made from Calcutta’s green mangoes? Yes, I agree,” Amulya said.
The cousin looked a little unsettled, but only for a minute. “If you like,” he continued, “I’ll go back to Calcutta and make some cautious enquiries. What do you say? I’ll write to you as soon as I find out what they think. Then Nirmal can go off and see the girl. I can go with him, it is Nirmal’s wedding after all!” The cousin drank a glass of water with noisy satisfaction and rose.
“But this place you live in,” Kananbala’s visiting sister-in-law said later that evening, picking up a shingara and biting into the warm crust, “I don’t know, but I couldn’t live here – in Songarh, I mean. Yes, I know, it’s clean and empty and Calcutta is dirty and crowded and noisy. But the crowds and noise keep me alive! It’s so soundless here, I thought for a moment I’d gone deaf!” Kananbala’s sister-in-law looked in her direction and said, “And I don’t think it’s doing you much good either.”
“What can I say?” Kananbala replied in a hurry, to deflect the threatened analysis of her health. “I know you can buy shingaras in shops everywhere in Calcutta now, but not here. In Shyambazaar I’d have had someone run down the lane and conjure up a feast from all the sweet shops. Here Manjula and I make them.”
“Oh well,” her sister-in-law said contentedly, “They are delicious, and home-made is always better, isn’t it? I tell you, we can buy everything, but catch your brother agreeing to eat a shop shingara or cutlet. He can smell anything stale a mile off.”
Kananbala felt confused, simultaneously put down and complimented. She got up and shook out her sari. “Manjula,” she called out from the head of the stairs down towards the kitchen. “Bring some more shingara if you’ve finished frying.”
Already, it was twelve days since the visitors had come. The Songarh ruins, they had declared, did not compare with the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, nor the forest with the grand Botanical Gardens. The ridge was too tiring to walk to. At Finlays they chuckled over its provincial selection. “What would this Finlays say to Hogg Market, eh?” Amulya’s cousin had asked his wife, and then said to the puzzled sales boy, “Never heard of bandel cheese? B-a-n-d-e-l cheese? No?”
Soon, they had run out of things to do and spent the holidays sequestered in Dulganj Road, exhausting even their fund of gossip about relatives. Confronted by her visitors’ boredom and scorn, Kananbala had begun perversely to long for the solitude of her daily life.
The fortnight ended, and it was time for the visitors to go. Two tongas had been called for four o’clock. Amulya and Kamal were to go to the station along with a servant carrying a hamper of food for the overnight journey: dinner and breakfast had been packed, and an earthen pitcher of cool water. There was some confusion when one of the horses was discovered to be lame. A servant went in the other tonga to get a third.
As they waited, Amulya’s cousin said to Kananbala, “Boudi, I will send you a picture of the girl as soon as I reach Calcutta. I’m sure you’ll like her. I know your household, she’ll make a perfect daughter-in-law. Shanti is her name, I’m sure … sings well, cooks well, and has lived a secluded life always. So unspoiled. Not like our Calcutta girls. And as for this rascal,” he said, chuckling at Nirmal who stood looking at the empty road, willing the tonga to appear, “he needs someone to keep him in line. I will make all the arrangements!”
Kananbala retreated upstairs after the tongas had left, and stood at the window with the remnant of her smile of farewell. As she turned away, she caught sight of herself profiled in the shining teak front of the cupboard. Her head was invisible, lost in the elaborate carvings that began halfway up its doors. Headless, the body was that of a stranger, grotesque in the bumps that it was made up of: a large – no, hillocky – bump of a chest, an almost equally bulbous curve at the stomach, and then the falling away of thin legs beneath a cotton sari.
Kananbala turned to the mirror next to the cupboard. When had that double chin settled there? When had the chin sprouted those two hairs? When had her skin turned the colour of her husband’s tobacco? She stared at the reflection, feeling herself grow breathless, her throat contract.
* * *
Their visitors had, in the manner of all visitors, made a detailed note of their appearances. “You’re growing fat already, Kamal, that’s quite a paunch you’ve got yourself, eh? The first sign of wealth and ease!” they had observed in one direction, and in another, “My goodness Amulya, the sun has blackened you so much you’re invisible in the dark!” But it was their comments about his wife that had touched a raw nerve in Amulya. He had overheard their sister-in-law saying to Kananbala, “Didi, I had only heard from here and there that you’re not well … but look at you! You seem a hundred rather than fifty! Of course you were always dark, never had your mother’s fair colour, but look at you now! Skin like dried-up leather, and is it your scalp I can see through your hair? Songarh’s water is bad, I know, I can see half my hair’s fallen out in just two weeks here! Come to Calcutta with me and I’ll look after you, I really will. Oil massages, cream and flour for your face, baths in rosewater … when I send you back Amulya Babu will think he has a new bride!”
Amulya remembered a time when Kananbala was petite and pretty, with curling hair that refused to be pinned down, and heavy-lidded, lustrous eyes she lined with kajal morning and night. She would race up the stairs at Shyambazaar – those were steep, old-fashioned stairs, dark and undulating – she would run up the stairs two at a time balancing bell-metal plates of food and once even a harmonium – always too impatient to wait for the servants to do their work. A time when she would step out to the terrace to watch him walk down the narrow lane towards the house and ask as soon as he arrived, “Did you remember to get my lace?”
And now? It took no time to digest his relatives’ comments. He could hear them in his head for days after they had left. He realised that over the last two months he too had noticed changes in her, and not just in her appearance. All these years – setting up the factory, building the house, planting the garden, the busy years – of course he had not forgotten about Kananbala. “How could I,” he thought, “living with her every day of my life since I was nineteen and she sixteen?” But it was true, he admitted: just as your tongue obsessively returns to a painful tooth rather than a healthy one, now that Kananbala did not seem quite herself, he seemed to be thinking about her all through the day, even at work.
He began to make notes in his diary; it would help, he thought, to understand exactly what was happening, systematise it a little. He chose a page that was for a Sunday and so would not be required for work, and made observations in his angular, jerky handwriting:
K shuffling rather than walking. Yesterday saw her holding wall when going down stairs to kitchen. Asked what matter. Said dizzy, unstable, knees weak. Seems healthy, but complaining of being ill.
Saris looking crumpled or stained, with turmeric etc. Unpleasant. Told her last night, and she said, Do I smell?
Notice lips moving even when she thinks she is alone. Talking to herself? Disturbing. Also fingers move restlessly, on furniture, her own body etc. even when she is spoken to, as if writing something all the time. Try to decipher, but impossible. Complaining less, but more silent. Does anyone else notice? How to ask?
Entries of this kind crowded the page for Sunday. The next page said: Ordered coconut oil, 25 gallons; paid Salim; order book up to date, orphanage payment made for this month. And so on. Wednesday had just one word scrawled across the page: Doctor.
Amulya called in the physician, who checked Kananbala’s blood pressure and asked her about constipation and gas. He tested her knees and made her walk in a straight line across the bedroom floor. In the end he turned to Amulya and said, “Nothing wrong, sir, nothing at all. Simply in the mind. Ladies get bored in small places. Madam needs amusement!”
“Maybe you should find something to do,” Amulya remarked grimly to her as the doctor’s tonga clattered away. “All this comes from having too much leisure.”
“But I work all day,” Kananbala said. “Do you know how much I have to do to keep this house going?”
“That’s not enough,” Amulya said. “You should do something else. Why don’t you cultivate a hobby? Sew? Knit? Draw pictures? Look at Brahmo women: they read, play the piano, talk about anything under the sun, just like men.”
“Would you let me do all that Brahmo women do? You don’t even let me go alone to Calcutta. Kamal has to go with me – or even Nirmal. And they never want to.”
“You’d never be able to go on your own. I send them with you for your safety.” Amulya pushed his feet into his slippers. “Tell me,” he continued in an indulgent tone, “can you find your way anywhere? You may be fifty, but you’d still be a lost little girl on the roads of any big city, what with your Shyambazaar at the other end of Howrah Station. Come now, tell Manjula to bring me a cup of tea.”
He put his pipe into his pocket and walked out to the garden.
* * *
A month after the relatives had left, there arrived an envelope thicker and stiffer than usual. Inside were two sheets of blue notepaper closely scrawled upon, and a photograph. Amulya handed Kananbala the picture and began to read the letter. As she looked for her spectacles, which she had still not got used to, he exclaimed, “What a coincidence, the girl’s father used to be my uncle’s lawyer before he retired! He helped him win that Pukurbari case.”
Kananbala brought the picture of Nirmal’s prospective bride into the wavering yellow circle of lamplight she was sitting next to. She reached out and raised the wick a little and put on her glasses.
Amulya said, “Apparently that house they have in Manoharpur by the river is like a palace, and this girl Shanti is the only child. There is no mother, and no other brothers and sisters. It’s good when a girl doesn’t have too many relatives.” And, after a short pause and the satisfaction which comes with finding the right word, “Uncomplicated.”
Kananbala examined the photograph in the light of the lamp. It was an oval face that could have been a little less bony. The girl’s hair was pulled back in a plait that returned in a snaky curve over her shoulder to the front of a simple, narrow-bordered sari. Not the latest fashion in either hairstyle or clothes – though, Kananbala thought, I hardly know what the latest fashions are. There was nothing remarkable about the face except its thoughtful expression and the eyes which seemed a strange, light colour, she could not tell what. The irises unusually large, filling up the eyes; the lashes overlong. The gaze was slightly unsettling because of the straight, thick brows that pressed down on the eyes. Kananbala wondered if the picture had been touched up in a studio.
Nirmal was almost eight years younger than his elder brother, an autumn flower, more precious to Kananbala for being late. She still caught herself examining his every feature in as much loving detail as she had when he was a baby. Where Kamal had turned out rather nondescript, ill-humoured, dyspeptic, and already showing signs of jowls, the sharp lines of Nirmal’s face, his quick movements, his air of irresponsibility and a sudden, noisy laugh which made his eyes dance, convinced Kananbala she was not being biased when she felt he had grown into a handsome man. She knew mothers were not supposed to have favourites, but it was Nirmal who came straight up to her room first from school, then college, and now from work, to tell her stories of all that had happened during the day. He would do nothing without consulting her first, and their dependence on each other was absolute, this she believed.
She looked again at the picture in her hand, the picture of the woman to whom Nirmal would belong. She felt too tired to think about it all.
“Let’s see the picture,” Amulya said, reaching out. “What do you say? I think Nirmal should be sent off to see the girl. I have a good feeling about this match.”
Just as you did about Songarh, Kananbala said to herself.
* * *
Nirmal married Shanti in March 1928 . The wedding was in Manoharpur. The bride’s father, it was said, had roused himself from years of isolation to invite all his forgotten relatives and the neighbouring villagers. He lit up the riverbank with a hundred and one oil lamps. From a week before, shehnai players sat in bamboo machans at the entrance to the house, playing their pipes. Bikash Babu disliked the shehnai’s wail, but was determined to fulfil every conventional expectation the groom’s family might have. The groom’s party – Amulya, Nirmal, Kamal, and Manjula – left Songarh on the overnight train to Calcutta. They were to join up with other relatives there and then take the train to Manoharpur in a merry, festive group.
Her prospective daughter-in-law’s magnificent house, its wooden staircase, its mirrors and chandeliers, its riverside setting and splendid garden were to remain a story for Kananbala. Though some women disregarded such superstitions, she knew as a good mother that her presence at his wedding would only bring Nirmal bad luck. So, heeding tradition, she stayed back, alone in Songarh with the household’s two servants and three temporary cooks, resigned to custom but anxious and feverish, preparing for the wedding party to return. For the two weeks they were away, she did nothing but order the servants around, have food cooked, and ready the house with an energy she had to dredge up from her past. She rose early and went to bed exhausted every night. The rossogullas had to be creamy enough to dissolve on the tongue, the salty snacks crunchy enough to be heard in the next room. There had to be great quantities of everything. The Oriya cooks hired from Calcutta were instructed to cook the best lobster they had ever made. The fish was to be brought from Calcutta on the overnight train, packed in ice. She made lists of things she needed to remember.
In quieter moments, after the servants had locked up for the night and left her alone with the drowsy maid, she pulled out her jewellery box and began to put aside all the ornaments from her own trousseau that she would give the bride. She lingered over her heavy gold bangles with the snakeheads that she loved, with their solid round feel and emeralds for the snakes’ eyes. Nirmal’s wife must wear them. She held the bangles in her hand and tried them on one last time before setting them aside.
The night before the wedding party was to arrive, an owl’s call interrupted Kananbala’s half-awake dreams. She was breathless and thirsty and tangled up in the bedsheet when she awoke. It was dark outside, but she felt the urge to step out of the house and go to the forest.
As if sleepwalking, Kananbala rose from her bed and sidestepped the maid who slept on the floor. She opened her bedroom door and went down the stairs. At the front door she came upon a heavy padlock on a chain. The older manservant, Gouranga, was sprawled before it, snoring. She had forgotten how securely the front door was locked each night. She tried to think where the key was kept – the servant’s waist, of course. She remembered the side door and half ran to it, but that was locked too.
The stillness of the night, punctuated by the owl’s hoot, cracked open with a roar: the lion! The lion no-one else could hear! She ran up the stairs, forgetting to shuffle, and went out onto the roof.
At last she was out in the open, black night, under a nail-paring of a moon, looking into the shapeless gloom of the jungle. The lion roared again. No owl or fox answered it. She stayed there, her mind crowded out with thoughts that allowed her to think nothing, till the horizon paled and the first bird sang.
* * *
Nirmal and Shanti were given the room at one end of the top-floor terrace, the only one on that side of the roof. They spent their first night together on a bed prickly and damp with the traditional flowers, the noise and ribaldry of their visiting cousins seeping into their sleep. In the cold hour just before dawn, Nirmal found, half awake, that he and his new bride had curled up against each other for warmth. He gathered courage and kissed her on the forehead. Shanti slept on.
Soon after, a thunderous knocking made Nirmal throw Shanti’s arm away and run to the door. Shanti sat up, surreptitiously wiping eyes sticky with sleep. When Nirmal opened the door, his mother rushed in.
“Come on, it’s late,” she exclaimed, “Can’t you see the sun high up in the sky? Your father will be back from his walk soon.”
“Ma, it is only … “ Nirmal peered at the clock on the wall, “ … five-thirty!”
“Don’t argue,” Kananbala snapped. “The house is full of relatives. They will all be up soon and do you want to be caught still snoring? There is so much to be done!”
Nirmal looked in amazement at his mother, who had now begun bustling about the room, tidying up. He saw his mother picking up and beginning to fold the sari Shanti had let fall on a chair the night before. Next to it on the floor were the clothes he had worn, his silk kurta and dhoti twisted up and thrown in a corner as if he had been in a tearing hurry. His embarrassed gaze went to the bed with its crumpled sheets, the two pillows on it bunched close together, still indented where their heads had been and, all over the room, the squashed flowers that had begun to smell of rot. He could not look at Shanti who, he saw from the corner of his eye, was making futile attempts to mimic her mother-in-law’s efforts to clean up.
Before he could stop himself, he said, “There’s no need to do all this, Ma, you never clean my room, so just let it be! I’ll do it later.” He wanted to bundle his mother out and slam the door on her. He wished he lived on an island far away from his family, his parents, his cousins’ sly glances waiting downstairs.
“My grown-up son, already telling me what to do, a day after his wedding!” Kananbala said with a mocking smile. She swung around to Shanti, who had now begun to smooth out the bedsheet and brush off the flowers. “Shanti Bouma, go, have your bath, the water is hot. The servant can’t heat it again and again.”
She turned to Nirmal. “You too, have your bath, go to the downstairs bathroom. And send Manjula up. Manjula will show you where everything is, Shanti. She will bring you downstairs for breakfast when you’ve finished.”
Kananbala stood by the door sentinel-like, watching as Shanti rummaged for the keys to her new cupboard. Then, in a confused moment when she felt she was regaining consciousness, or emerging out of deep water for a lungful of air, she saw Shanti’s growing desperation: at her new home, at the new people around her, the new man who was her husband, at her distance from her father and from everything she had known, at her failure to find the right key. In Shanti she glimpsed herself at sixteen, the morning she had woken up with Amulya next to her, bony, unknown, overnight her husband, a man she had only glimpsed through her veil the evening before at her wedding. Tenderness surged through her, transforming her scowling face. She went across to Shanti and took the keys, picking out the one that was needed. In the gentle voice she kept for children, she said, “You’ll soon know your way about, and then things won’t seem so strange any longer.”
Shanti had been stoical throughout, even at the leave-taking from her father, her room overlooking her river. But at Kananbala’s unforeseen sympathy she felt her lips tremble, and before she could stop herself she had buried her face in her sleep-crushed sari and burst into tears.
* * *
Two weeks later Kananbala sat waiting as usual for Nirmal with his evening tea. The house was empty of wedding guests save for one lingering relative. Things were beginning to return to normal, but not quite, Kananbala knew. Nirmal had begun to return home earlier, even though his job was a new one; what must his students think, Kananbala wondered, seeing Nirmal slip out of college half an hour or even an hour earlier some days? Surely the boys he taught, clever fellows only a little younger than him, were making fun of their teacher who was in a hurry to be home with his new bride?
As every evening, Nirmal came to his mother’s room first and sat chatting with her. But she could see his heart was not in the tales he was telling her about his day. He was sitting on the edge of the chair, as if settling into it would commit him to more time. He stole glances at the clock on the wall in the corner and then, half rising, said, “I’m tired, I need a bath,” before he fled to his room. From the evenings that had gone before, Kananbala could predict he would not be seen again until dinner time.
The terrace was a darker, emptier stretch that night. Kananbala walked to its end and stood at the low parapet. From here, she could almost look into the Barnum house, where lights blazed from every window and the lawn filled and emptied and filled again with people holding glasses. Beyond the house, in the memory of the day’s light, the ruins of the fort were still discernible to those who knew it was there. She walked back across the terrace to the room which Nirmal and Shanti occupied. It had long French windows, four of them, giving onto the terrace. The venetian blinds were as tightly shut as sleeping eyes.
Kananbala pushed open the door. Nobody in the house knocked; besides, it was only seven-thirty, no time for locked doors.
Nirmal was on the bed, his head half in Shanti’s lap. She was singing something, her fingers in Nirmal’s hair, her face close to his. Her sari had slipped off her shoulder.
They looked up as Kananbala entered and, startled, moved quickly away from each other as if to say that they had not been touching at all. Shanti stopped singing mid-syllable. Wide-eyed, she sprang off the bed and then turned away flustered, busying herself with something near the dressing table.
“Ma,” Nirmal said after pause, “we were about to come down.”
“No need for you to come,” Kananbala replied. “But Shanti, it is time you started helping us with dinner.”
Kananbala woke the next morning, heavy-limbed, yet hollowed out by the dark space within her. She could scarcely lever herself from her bed, exhausted by her night-time battles. The ceiling had pressed upon her, iron rafters and all, and then the serpentine posts of the bed, fleshy and pliable, had tried to choke her. She had been jolted awake, gasping for breath, her heart pounding. Looking across the bed she realised it was not the depth of night, for Amulya’s space was empty: he had left for his walk and so it must be dawn.
She thought of the relative who had stayed on after the wedding, a cousin they called Chotu-da. They were finding it difficult to get rid of him, although he was a doctor and everyone expected him to be a busy man. He was rotund and garrulous, waiting for mealtimes and sleeping in between. Kananbala decided to put aside her distaste for him and tell him some of her symptoms.
Chotu-da pressed a stethoscope to her chest, admiring afresh the soft, enveloping bulk of her bosom.
“Only palpitations, normal at your age,” he pronounced, at the end of what Kananbala thought was an unusually long examination of her lungs and heart, “And maybe a touch of gas. Tell Amulya to get you fruit salts. Or maybe something from his famous factory – he has a cure for everything, doesn’t he?” Chotu-da laughed. His round, jocund face gleamed with sweat, his eyes bulged behind thick glasses. He wondered why he was hungry so soon after breakfast.
“Perhaps,” he enquired in a careless tone, “Manjula could make me some sherbet, and … such fresh air, in these parts. One never feels this way in Calcutta.”
“Even the rice tastes better, doesn’t it, Chotu-da? One just can’t help oneself!” said Kananbala in a flash of her old impertinent self, the one she thought had dried up for good.
The doctor gave her a wary glance, but then thought he had heard wrong: the woman was looking as harmlessly preoccupied as she always did. He rose to go. He thought he would wait in the verandah for the sherbet, hoping it would come with a little something.
“I ought to leave,” he said to Kananbala. “My practice must be suffering. But you have not been letting me go! And this child!” He chuckled at his young son, who was hunched outside at the table glowering over a book. “He’s got so fond of you!”
He showed his topaz ring to the boy and said with the growl that usually accompanied this ritual of his, “See that’s the eye of a tiger I hunted and killed in the forest last night. The other eye is still in the tiger’s head. Both the eyes can still see, and they find naughty boys!” The boy, now nine and lost to make-believe, looked at his father with disdain.
* * *
The upper dining room had along its length large windows that washed it in the still-cool morning light. It was the morning after Chotu-da had left. Kananbala had finished bathing and changed into a fresh sari. She began the walk towards the stairs, holding the walls and chairs along the way and then the banisters for support. She climbed down the thirteen stairs of the first flight and the fifteen of the next. The walls seemed to tilt too close to her. On the landing, she paused and panted, staring unseeing out of the window that lit the stairs and framed the tree over the small terrace on the first floor. She could hear Shanti singing in the kitchen. The girl was petite and soft-spoken, but when she sang it was a low, rich voice that emerged, as if from a much larger body. She was singing of holidays, and clouds in the sky.
Kananbala dragged herself towards the kitchen, then paused outside in the corridor to get her breath back. She could hear Manjula, who sat chopping vegetables, saying, “Ah, I used to sing that too, long ago when I still had a voice. Sing another one. At least now there’s some entertainment in this dull old house. You’ll know in a while how stifling this little hole of a Hindustani town can be. How I miss all my relatives, I hardly see them once in three years.”
Shanti’s quiet voice said, “I’m used to small places. Whenever I went to Calcutta I always felt like running back to my village by the river.”
“Oh, just wait and see. You’re happy now, all newly married, Nirmal rushing home to come to you, sitting with you, talking and doing God knows what else, hm … ?”
“Oh, no!” Shanti seemed to giggle.
“But wait until you’ve been married a few years, then this place will show you its true colours.”
No-one spoke for a while. Kananbala heard the grinding stone going across its slab, a soft sound, as if something wet was being crushed. It must be the mustard for the fish, she thought. She wondered, trancelike, if the fish had been cut. Her mind rehearsed the daily ritual. Gouranga would come early in the morning with the fish he had bought – in Songarh it was usually carp – and he would show it to Manjula for approval. Manjula would stand away from it, protecting her fresh, post-bath sari from fishy impurities. Her lips would curl in an impatient sneer, and she would say, “Rui again! And Gouranga, couldn’t you find any smaller? Or more dead? Eh? Tell me: did they starve these fish before they sold them to you? Did they suck out the blood first? Oh, for some live fish that swim in a bucket for a while and show real blood when they’re cut!”
Kananbala swayed, sickened by her memory of the daily fish-cutting ritual. She held the door to steady herself. She had delegated that work to her daughter-in-law as soon as she had one. She had always been nauseated by the raw, fishy smell, by the sliminess of cut fish. She had never been able to make herself wash or cook it, though she ate it – all parts but the head – with tolerance if not relish.
Now, with that old sensation of tossing her head out of water for air, she gasped and became aware of her daughters-in-law’s voices in the kitchen.
Manjula was saying, “Go on now, sing us another.”
Again, that low, husky voice snaked out from the kitchen, this time with a melancholy song. Kananbala edged closer. Shanti sang on, cutting a messy jackfruit, as if oblivious of her oily hands and of the others in the kitchen. Damp, hessian bags of vegetables lay around her, spilling out their contents. Ponytails of spring onions stuck out of one, alongside creamy heads of cauliflower. She sang as if transported to a different place and time, chin resting on her raised knee, eyes focused on the jackfruit she was cutting, but far away from it, from Songarh and from Manjula who sat slicing potatoes nearby. Shibu ground the masalas just outside in the courtyard, trying to make less noise than he usually did.
Kananbala stood by the door, massaging her knee and looking at the tranquil scene. “What a voice,” she said. “You whore, why don’t you get a job on the streets?”
Manjula’s bonti clattered and fell to the floor. Shibu ran in from the courtyard and stood at the door, his mouth open. Shanti’s song stopped and turned into a brief, horrified gasp as she leapt up and ran out of the room, her oily hands smearing her new sari.
“Is the jackfruit cut? Let me see what spices you’ve ground, Shibu. Why is everything such a mess today?” Kananbala went on as if she had said nothing at all out of the ordinary.
The next day, as Amulya was dressing to go to the factory, Kananbala asked him, “You dandy, who’re you fucking these days? Is it a Brahmo lady in a georgette sari?” She turned away before the stunned Amulya could say anything, and went into the verandah. Amulya rushed after her. Nirmal was sitting at the dining table at the far end of the verandah, the Statesman crossword beside him, abandoned again without a single square filled.
“Do you know what you said?” Amulya looked at her as if at a monster who had sprouted four heads in place of two.
Nirmal got up from his chair so quickly it almost fell back. He lunged out to stop it falling. “Baba,” he quavered, “I didn’t say anything.”
Amulya paid him no attention. He seized Kananbala’s arm. Nirmal stared at them in disbelief. In his twenty-four years, he had never seen his parents touch except once, a lifetime ago, when he had run into their bedroom one afternoon in pursuit of a marble.
Amulya was shaking Kananbala’s arm. “Do you know what you said?” he repeated, his face contorted beyond all recognition, inches from hers. Strands of his waxed hair stood up where he had clutched it.
“I just asked when you’d be back,” Kananbala said, looking bewildered. “Why are you so agitated? Will you be very late?”
“That is not what you said!” Amulya shouted.
“Why are you shouting? What did I say?”
“What did you say? Don’t you have any shame? How can I repeat it before other people?”
“But there’s no-one here,” she said, “Only Nirmal. Do we have secrets from our children?”
* * *
Shanti had stopped singing.
She had stopped singing once before, when her mother died. At that time she had thought she would never want to smile again, let alone sing.
But slowly the songs had come back. Her father had coaxed her as soon as he felt able. “I need to hear your songs,” her father would say. “It’s bad enough having to get used to your mother’s absence, why your songs as well?” She had tried, her voice breaking every few lines at first, but then she began fiercely to school herself, walking alone by the river every afternoon, singing to the water. Unknown even to herself, she had begun to hum under her breath as she did her chores. One day, catching her father looking at her, she realised what she was doing and turned away to hide her shame at being happy again.
My mother-in-law called me a whore. Her mind churned with the thought. She saw me singing to her son, she burst into our room, not once but twice, and the next day she called me a whore. That servant boy, what must he think? Being called a whore before everyone by my mother-in-law. And Nirmal – how can I tell him this? Would he believe me? He adores his mother. And he hardly knows me. And I? I hardly know him, really. Despite all the things he says to me and all the things we do. They’re all strangers. What is this household I’ve been married into? What am I doing here, without a single friend? If I could run back for a day and see everyone and be in Manoharpur in my own room! I wonder if they’ve changed anything in that room. And Mala, Khuku, Bini, do they ever think of me? Has some new friend replaced me for them? Do they still walk along the river laughing about everyone in Manoharpur? Should I tell Baba about this? No, that would only worry him. Is he all alone? What is he doing with his time all alone? Does Kripa remember that he liked the lemon pickle I made? And his mango saplings? Does he still measure them every week with that foot ruler?
She sat down with a thump on her bed and rested her head in the crook of her arm, exhausted.
* * *
The next ten days passed with no further outbursts from his wife, and Amulya began to think he had dreamed what Kananbala had said to him that unbelievable morning. Had she actually said “fucking”? Was that possible?
Was it possible he had imagined it all, a waking dream perhaps? It was true that his memory was wobbling these days. Sometimes, things he needed to remember would slip past him like the morning mist: he saw it, knew it – that fact, that phrase, that word, that name he needed – but when he tried to grasp it, utter it, it was no longer there. Wasn’t it a fortnight ago that he had said to Shrikant, his accountant, “I made the monthly payment to that orphanage. Where’s the receipt?”
Amulya had been meticulous about paying the orphanage the sum he had settled on, to ensure the child was properly looked after.
“You didn’t make the payment,” Shrikant replied, not looking up as he continued to tot up his columns of figures.
“What nonsense, I wrote out the cheque here at this table. I remember doing it along with all the salary cheques.”
“Sir,” Shrikant hesitated, “you said you would, but it was late and you left it … “
“Bring me the cheque book, I’ll show you,” Amulya said.
Shrikant was right. Amulya had not written out the cheque.
In his garden that evening Amulya’s anxiety over his wavering memory prevented him noticing anything, even the baby mangoes that had begun to replace the flowers on the mango trees. He was so troubled by the incident that he remained cocooned in himself all through dinner as each member of his family tried separately to recall if they had done anything to ignite his wrath.
It was the day after his argument with Shrikant over the cheque, he now calculated, that Kananbala had uttered those unspeakable words. She had said nothing unusual since. Amulya found it harder and harder to believe she had indeed said what he thought she had said; perhaps, like the unwritten cheque, it was his imagination alone. Chaos seemed to retreat to the cloudy, cobwebbed corners of the ceiling. Like all the secrets it seemed able to wrap into itself, the house had soaked up Kananbala’s singular outbursts, hiding everything from the world outside its walls.
That was not the end of it, of course, thought Amulya, memory proves all too accurate just when you wished it had failed.
It was two weeks later that Shanti watched as her mother-in-law told Kamal he was a donkey with syphilis.
The very next day she said to Manjula, “Milk-white skin, hm, just like a marble cow. Nobody vainer than this simpering slut in all of Songarh!”
The week after, at dinnertime, Kananbala spoke pleasantly enough to Amulya, but her words were, “If I chopped your head in half with a cleaver, I’m sure I would find nothing but cowdung inside.”
By now it was no longer a secret. Amulya was sure that the two young women, his daughters-in-law, were comparing notes. More than Manjula, he was concerned about Shanti. Picturing her certain disillusionment and bewilderment, he felt especially culpable: a new bride he had brought into the house … to be insulted the way she had been! And then the servants. It was unlikely that they valued discretion and loyalty over the human urge to tell a juicy story – and even less so in Songarh, hungry for happenings, where the illness of some neighbouring cow or a squabble between relatives provided conversation for days.
“Do you know what she said today?” Manjula sighed to Shanti one afternoon soon after as she sat on her bed, folding betel leaves into neat thirds and chewing on a paan.
The fragrance of the tobacco in the paan wafted towards Shanti. She picked up a bolster and put it on her lap, getting comfortable. “What?” she enquired as the paan reduced Manjula to mumbles for a moment.
“I heard her telling Kamal’s father he has the testicles of a goat! And then downstairs, in the courtyard, she stroked Shibu’s head. Imagine! Stroked the servant boy’s head! And said … “
“Oh yes, I heard that as well,” Shanti said, not wanting to hear it again.
“ … that he is her only true child, the only boy who cares! Her other sons are bastards born of the tongawallah!”
Troubled, Shanti looked up at Manjula’s merry face. “Don’t you think it’s worrying?” she said, “What will happen now?”
“Oh nonsense, what’ll happen? Nothing will happen. The old woman is losing her marbles. They all do,” Manjula said. “We’ll have to do a lot of looking after, just wait and see, she’ll get her pound of flesh. Apparently she had to slave for her mother-in-law – and that one was completely senile by the time she was fifty-five. She used to smear her shit on the wall and our ma-in-law had to clean up. No wonder she’s gone mad now – she’s getting herself a five-year head-start, she’s only fifty.”
Manjula stuffed another paan into her mouth and with her mouth full, said, “You know that saying, don’t you?”
Shanti never knew any of Manjula’s sayings and could seldom make sense of them; she thought Manjula made them all up.
“What saying is that?”
“When the silent begin to speak, the mango will fruit in winter.”
* * *
She is not mad, she cannot be, Amulya said furiously to himself that afternoon as he strode along the rutted fields to the edge of the forest, even as Shanti and Manjula sat gossiping on Manjula’s bed. He had not been able to calm himself to do any work at the factory and, to Shrikant’s astonishment, had got up, collected his umbrella, summoned a tonga, and left.
He was on his way to the ruined fort. It comforted him to sit soundless among the fallen stones, thinking of nothing in particular, waiting for his sense of calm to return. The fort was his ivory tower; he went to it whenever he needed to think anything through in solitude. Perhaps it was the suggestion of evanescent empires, the grittiness of centuries-old stone, or perhaps the memory of people who, in those ruined rooms and dark passages, had lived lives as real as his own. It might have been the twisted grey-brown bark of that tree with its suggestion of the Buddha’s face.
He reached the rim of the fort and sat on a block of fallen stone, a tall, greying, angular figure watching the blue and brown flash of a kingfisher swooping into a large shallow pool at the edge, which at this time of year had some water still. The folds of his dhoti spilled wavelike on his stone, lifting a little at times in the breeze, picking up dust. Amulya did not notice. In an hour or so the sun would begin to set. The birds would know and begin to call out to each other.
He willed himself to listen to the birds and think of nothing else, yet wave upon wave of yearning churned his insides as he longed for the Kanan he had known to return. How had he let her slip away? To him she was still the teenager he had married, her collarbones jutting out, dimples piercing her cheeks, her spine ridging her back when she bent, her eyes doubtful when he joked about something, with that second’s delay as she understood, and then laughed. I’ve watched her grow into a woman, a mother. She’s always been so sensible, so full of common sense, so gentle. She’s hardly ever argued with me, never said anything cruel even when scolding the children.
Am I forgetting? Were there signs all along … ?
He tried puzzling out what had happened to her, blamed himself, forgave himself, blamed it on her age, her difficult time of life, thought he should have spent more time with her, thought he should not have taken her such a long distance from her family in Calcutta.
At last he stood up and straightened his stiffening back. He began to walk home. She would not be allowed to wander the house any longer, he had decided. He would not let her become the local joke.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
On the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, a family lives in solitude in their vast new house. Here, lives intertwine and unravel. A widower struggles with his love for an unmarried cousin. Bakul, a motherless daughter, runs wild with Mukunda, an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family. Confined in a room at the top of the house, a matriarch goes slowly mad; her husband searches for its cause as he shapes and reshapes his garden. As Mukunda and Bakul grow, their intense closeness matures into something else, and Mukunda is banished to Calcutta. He prospers in the turbulent years after Partition, but his thoughts stay with his home, with Bakul, with all that he has lost—and he knows that he must return.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Set in the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, in the mid-20th century, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a multi-generational novel that weaves together a family’s story of romance, abandonment, forgiveness, and desire. Told in three powerful parts, the book explores what it means to live with the ghosts of the past, deal with an ever-changing present, and strive toward a blissful future that always seems just out of reach.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- “The silence that to Amulya meant repletion locked Kananbala within a bell jar she felt she could not prise open for air.” (p. 16) The move from busy Calcutta to secluded Songarh is life-changing for both Amulya and Kananbala, though in very different ways. Discuss how each is affected by the change.
- “He would look at [the plants] tenderly, wanting to stroke and pat them . . . He had created a garden where there had been wilderness” (p. 23). Describe Amulya's relationship to nature thro