Maan looked around himself forlornly. He had returned from an enforced trip to Benaras, taken more to get away from his father's occasional but empathic realisations that his younger son was still unmarried and likely at this rate to remain so, than from any actual professional concerns. The cloth business in Benaras was bringing in a steady if unremarkable income under the careful, cautious supervision of the men Mahesh Kapoor had hired, and Maan did not do much when he was there besides have dinner with creditors with whom he amiably ignored past debts, and avoid those circles of society wherein he might encounter his abortive in-laws.
Now, in the warm spring afternoon, the gardens of Prem Nivas were covered with brown, curling leaves; that they had not been promptly swept away into a pit to be turned into fertiliser indicated the apathy that now infused all household activities. Mahesh Kapoor spent his days busy with one or the other of the five different commissions, committees and boards he had been appointed to after he decided that neither the Congress Party nor any splinter faction deserved any more of his time and energy. There were weeks when he was not home at all; travelling in a jolting car over dirt roads to visit villages grappling with the practicalities of the land reform acts being actually enacted.
The train from Benaras had arrived at Brahmpur Station only an hour late, and so he had a long evening still in front of him; the sun would not set till eight, and the wind was spicing the air with romance. After taking a bath that washed off not just the actual grime of the train journey but also the false skin that he felt so trapped in while in Benaras, Maan set off for Baitar House. He expected a fond, affectionate welcome from his friends there, and an anticipatory smile curled at the edges of his lips.
When he arrived, however, he found out from an austerely respectful servant that Burré Sahib and Chhoté Sahib had not yet returned from their various employments. Feeling quite at home, Maan threw himself down upon a diwan and had a glass of sherbet while waiting for his friends. He wondered idly who would return home first — Firoz he imagined hurrying home as soon as the courts closed for the day, with a look of general well-being that would brighten with the specificity of seeing who was waiting for him. Or perhaps Imtiaz would come in, looking forward to a warm meal before needing to make another evening call, and happy to share a drink with Maan.
When voices sounded at the front door, Maan bounded up with a smile on his face. 'Come in, come in, think of it as your home only,' he said in the exaggerately hospitable Hindi of the conventional housewife he was parodying.
But instead of the delighted beams and shoulder grasps Maan felt his extended absence entitled him to, Imtiaz just gave him a polite nod before rushing up the stairs to his room. Firoz did stop and say, 'Oh, so you've returned then? That's good.' But his smile was harried rather than happy, and instead of sitting down next to Maan, he chose to hover indecisively near the door.
'Yes I am back!' said Maan with his most charming grin. 'So, what would you like to do with me on this fine, fine evening?'
'Oh, Maan,' Firoz sighed. 'I'm very busy tonight. Imtiaz and I have to go to the tailor's, and then there is a dinner at Safiya's uncle's house.'
Maan frowned. 'So the marriage is on, definitely?'
Firoz gave his friend an annoyed look. 'Really, Maan, the wedding is in a week. In fact, I thought you had come back specifically for that.'
Maan sighed. 'Yes, fine, let's just say I did that, shall we?'
Looking at Maan's sulking expression, Firoz told himself that he did not have time to indulge his friend's petulance. With a hasty gesture for Maan to continue making himself comfortable, Firoz rushed upstairs to change from his constricting court clothes to a comfortable chikan kurta and churidar. By the time he came downstairs, Imtiaz was glancing up impatiently, and Firoz extended a rather lukewarm invitation to Maan asking him whether he wanted to accompany them.
At Maan's grumbled, 'No, I'll just be in the way,' Firoz could not entirely suppress his agreement, and threw Imtiaz a rueful look as the brothers stepped outside. Imtiaz just laughed; the upcoming wedding had left him feeling even more amusedly benevolent towards the world in general, and to lovers in particular.
Five minutes later, Maan stepped outside the house himself, hailing a tonga with a dejected air that, if left to itself, would soon turn to belligerence. Maan was an affectionate soul, and after his tumultuous prison experience, his family and friends noticed that although his temper had softened, it was accompanied by an uncertainty that looked for reassurance and company at every turn. Maan thought of visiting his sister, who would, he knew, be honestly and expressively happy to see him returned, but something held him back. There was a half-yearning, half-jealous feeling churning inside him at the thought of Firoz and Imtiaz going off together, so handsome and happy amidst wedding festivities, and Maan was swept by a wave of memory.
The past few years had doused the horror and sorrow that Saeeda Bai's image held for him – undoubtedly Firoz's unequivocal love and forgiveness for him played a vital part in the gentler flame that now predominantly burned in his heart. But with time, too, came a creeping awareness of how much he had to be ashamed of. Maan flexed his fingers uneasily, and in the same impulse, directed the tonga driver to take him to Pasand Bagh.
When Maan got down at the beginning of the lane leading to Saeeda Bai's house, he hesitated in an uncharacteristically introspective examination of those memories that rose to the forefront of his mind. Crisp white sheets smoothed over low mattresses, and rose petals, the yellowed keys of a harmonium and the pink and green paper of its bellows, a picture from a book he once owned on a wall that he could see if he turned his face away from the window and the woman making love to him. These were all warm like coals in his heart, stirring him to a pleasant heat, but not to an unbearable burning. He looked for the watchman with unaccustomed fondness. But when he arrived at the gate he found himself surprised by how matter-of-fact it seemed. He had been afraid, perhaps of how much this would mean to him, perhaps even more, of how little.
There was a new watchman at the gate, and the house seemed to be lit up beyond the usual. He strained to hear the music of a sarangi or harmonium, but the only sounds wafting out on the early night air were girlish giggles, and chatter pitched high enough to travel towards him. When the watchman glanced inquiringly at Maan, he thought for a moment, and then asked in subdued Hindi, 'Could I talk to Bibbo for a moment?'
There was a harsingar somewhere in Pasand Bagh; its fragrance resounded in the darkness as Maan stood there in an attitude of anticipation so familiar to his body that with it came the memory of arousal. When the sounds of anklets moved closer, he smiled a trifle hesitantly, and indeed, Bibbo herself was not sure what she was going to say until she called out in surprise, 'Maan Sahib!' Almost, she had said Dagh Sahib, and the chasm between his old name as a lover and the formality of his present position stretched out between them.
'How are you?' Maan asked politely. 'How is… everyone?'
Bibbo had grown more plump in the intervening years, and more assured. Now she glanced at the prudently closed door behind her before replying, 'Oh, we are all well, though we had not thought your feet would ever remember this road again.'
Both of them were silent for a moment, and then, at the full-throated laughter that came through the door, Maan asked with an absence of injured aggrievance that told Bibbo how permanent his distance was, 'Is there a mehfil tonight?'
'No.' Bibbo had both watched over her mistress with both romantic sympathy and loyal fervour, and she had seen how long it had taken for the stain left by Dagh Sahib's actions to fade from the household. 'Oh no,' she emphasised. 'Not at all. It's just that we all are getting ready to leave for the nikah.'
She used the same word specific to Muslim wedding rites that Firoz had used, and Maan blinked, dazed.
Bibbo continued in equal parts malicious and playful. 'We are catching the night train to Delhi. Bilgrami Sahib should be arriving any minute now, with the car, so you should not stand around for too long. He is coming with us, of course.'
The door opened, and a voice, achingly familiar to Maan, ordered Bibbo to hurry up and take the parrot's cage before Tasneem forgot it in her enthusiasm to get married. The figure at the door was silhouetted, Maan could not tell what colour sari she was wearing, or read the expression on her face, but he realised that he recognised the curve of hip and waist as she angled one hand by her side. It was how she used to stand in the moments she thought she had to herself, when he lay, so drowsy as to be thought asleep, after making love.
Maan retreated to the shadows, as Bibbo turned back. He did not press any coins in her hand this time, but perhaps even more than his open-handed gesture, it was his open, sober expression that prompted her to walk back to the house without comment, informing neither the watchman nor her mistress of the man who was once a lover, standing stationary underneath a laburnum tree.
There had been nights in Benaras when Maan would walk to the great, ancient ghats, and stare moodily at the moon out over the vast silvery river with its reflection rippling below. He realised that he found the sliver of moon glimpsed in between the terraces and electricity poles of Brahmpur infinitely more beautiful.
A car drew up in front of the gate, and in due course, he saw Bilgrami Sahib escorted by the watchman to the house. In a few moments, Saeeda Bai's ever-faithful benefactor returned, this time carrying the parrot's covered cage with more gallantry than ease. Bibbo and the watchman followed, both well-burdened with various cloth-wrapped bundles. Then a tall, slender figure in a black burqa stepped over the threshold. Her face was uncovered and Maan caught his breath. She stood looking at the house with her head tilted and a small frown on her fair, beautiful face, and Maan saw a photograph of a small boy with a fair beautiful face tilted towards whomsoever might be lying on the bed looking back.
Saeeda Bai came out, and as she closed the door behind her, Maan could see how rich the green sari was that she was wearing underneath her brown burqa. Her face was uncovered as well. She tucked her keys away inside her purse, and turned towards Tasneem. Tasneem smiled back radiant under the hand cupping her check. Saeeda Bai had touched Maan in many ways, over the course of their ten months together. She had playful touches, loving caresses, passionate grasps. And yet when Maan saw her now, bending close and kissing Tasneem on each closed eyelid, he remembered with sudden and aching longing not any current or former lover, but his mother. Mrs Mahesh Kapoor had been especially affectionate with her youngest child, and she had brushed an unruly lock of hair off of Maan's forehead with the same assured tenderness as he saw in Saeeda Bai.
Saeeda Bai held Tasneem's hand in her own as they walked down the path. The voice that had once so enchanted and tormented Maan was now teasingly singing - not a ghazal, but a bhajan by the weaver mystic Kabir.
'Naiharava, hum ko na bhaave'
Tasneem laughed. Maan had never heard such a sound from her before. Indeed, he didn't think he had exchanged two words with her, or heard her raise her voice in song, or call out to Bibbo, or make any transgression against her enforced muteness at all.
But now she was laughing, and it was mirth that bubbled out of her from joy and excitement. 'Apa,' she chided Saeeda Bai playfully, and the older woman, addressed so lovingly as sister, smiled back without artifice, proud and affectionate.
Maan watched the two siblings walk eagerly towards an anticipated wedding and wished then that he had something he could give to them, some gesture that would include him within this circle of happiness and hope. He wondered what Firoz would say to the news that Tasneem was getting married. He knew he would never mention it himself.
It was a beautiful, winter sunny day in Delhi, and Lata intended to take full advantage of it. She telephoned Malati to invite her to the picnic that Kalpana was in the midst of cooking for. 'We are going to the Tuglaqabad Fort,' she told her friend. 'The children can climb and run about, and Kalpana has made so many pakoras and chutney sandwiches that we need all the help we can get to eat them.'
Malati laughed and said she would see if she could get away from the Institute for a day.
'It's a Sunday!' Lata exclaimed, and then sighed resignedly at Malati's rather smug observation that Rajkumari Amrit Kaur went to her office on Sundays as well as all other days of the week.
'Alright,' Lata said. 'If you can possibly tear yourself away from your guruji, give me a call back and let me know. We plan to leave in an hour or so. Kalpana has a new Ambassador, so one car should be sufficient for us all.'
This reference to Kalpana's new car was made in self-defence, since Kalpana was apt to bring it up in even the most tangential of conversations. She was extraordinarily fond of its gleaming cream solid steel exterior and blue velvet seats, and proud of her ability to drive it amidst traffic that terrified Varun. Her husband had bought the car upon his posting to the capital city with perhaps a slight desire to brag to Arun about driving it on the wide Lutyens Delhi roads and roundabouts. His unaggressive and retiring disposition prevented him from enjoying taking on rambunctious truck drivers and cyclists and rickshaws with the same competitive fervour that inspired Kalpana, and so he hired a driver. His mother approved of this respectable status marker for an IAS officer who was doing so well. Special Secretary in ten years, and every chance of retiring as a Chief Secretary in one of the more important departments of the Purva Pradesh Administration. Mrs. Rupa Mehra also preferred the driver to Kalpana's brashly enthusiastic style of taking on the roads. Eight years after her son had married Kalpana, Mrs. Rupa Mehra had learned to appreciate and even take pride in Kalpana's vigour, especially as applied to boosting Varun's professional meekness, but those emotions did not extend to her driving.
Lata was far more sanguine about her sister-in-law's steering skills. She was more concerned about the bad habit that her son had picked up, in imitation of the big city bus drivers he saw whose North Indian exuberance differed considerably from Calcutta's more subdued work ethic. Haresh's son, as his mother was wont to refer to him as when she was annoyed with him, would stick his head outside the window and look back, thumping his arm against the door to produce a satisfyingly peremptory sound that told cyclists to move out of the way. His cousin, two years younger, duplicated the technique with the ardency of an acolyte. Kalpana's daughter, who was younger than them both and acted twice her mother's age, ignored everyone in favour of the book she was reading. Lata could not understand how her niece could read in a moving car without feeling queasy and sick, but Varun and Kalpana both indulged her, and she constantly had a new book to secret herself away in.
They reached the Tuglaqabad Fort a little after noon, because Malati had said she could come, and then made them wait for fifteen minutes as she took three urgent, unavoidable phone calls. Lata looked over her friend as they spread a large golden and red chattai over the rocky courtyard and unpacked the food. She had not seen Malati for several years, and letters between them became more and more infrequent as they both became engrossed in their lives. For Lata, this consisted of teaching English in a private primary school in Calcutta, and then the vicissitudes of pregnancy and child-rearing. Her perambulations took her from Calcutta to Brahmpur more often than they brought her to Delhi, because she found vacationing with Savita and Pran so much more comfortable than visiting Haresh's complicated, conservative family in Neel Darwaza. But now that Varun was in Delhi, she could stay with her brother without giving offense to her in-laws.
After they had finished eating, the boys ran off to climb the weathered stone walls and ramparts of the fort. There was no one else around except a Jat goatherd and his yellow-eyed charges, and Kalpana set out a pair of badminton racquets to ward off bored complaints. Then she stretched out on the chatai drowsily chatting with her daughter until the sun's warmth and the good food eased her into true somnolence. Malati and Lata walked a little way apart so as not to disturb her with their chatter.
'You really haven't changed much,' Lata said consideringly. 'Your face, I mean, and your weight and all. Do you still have all the medical students making eyes at you?'
Malati laughed, a little distant and thoughtful. 'I am not sure I would notice if they did. My work keeps me very busy.'
'No more time for love affairs?' Lata teased. 'It's a shame that your mentor does not understand that just because she wants to stay unmarried does not mean everyone else feels the same way.'
'No more time for medical students who make eyes,' Malati corrected with an inward smile, and a purported non-sequitor – 'How are Firoz and Maan?'
Lata furrowed her eyebrow for a moment, trying to discipher Malati's mood. 'They must be fine. Imtiaz and Safiya have had two daughters, and Firoz brings them over quite often when he wants to discuss some legal matters with Savita. He seems quite happy to play Mamu to everyone. You know that Zainab has been living at Baitar House for a few years now, right?'
Malati nodded. 'Will she get divorced, do you think?'
'I doubt it. Hassan and Abbas are grown up now enough to take care of their mother, she doesn't need to find another father for them.'
The wind blew, reminding them that though shawls might be momentarily forgotten in the honey-thick sunlight, it was still winter.
'And what about Maan?' Malati asked lazily. She did not really care about him much, except that other people she liked and respected cared about him.
Lata frowned. 'You must have heard about that actress from Bombay.'
'When your mother was here visiting Varun she did mention that. But I thought it was just another one of Maan's love affairs.'
'Well,' said Lata, 'They got married. Apparently she's even more dramatic and foolish than Maan, and so they went off to her family temple somewhere near Hyderabad, and got married. They didn't invite anyone because she told him the director she worked for would be angry. And of course he believed it. They came back to Brahmpur, and Savita told me that the girl tried to cook dinner for Maan and there was only lots and lots of rice and some watery daal. Of course, ever since Maheshji passed away no one was really cooking much at Prem Nivas. Savita says Maan would eat lunch at either their house or Veena's, and was at Baitar House almost ever night anyway.'
Malati laughed delightedly. 'Of course he was. So then what did he do, take his filmi bride over to Firoz and ask for help feeding her?'
'No,' Lata said. Her nose crinkled a little disgustedly. 'It seems that the woman was already married! To that director fellow she was lying about. And she wanted to go back and keep making films anyway. I think Maan would not have minded about the other man as much as he did her returning to live in Bombay. He told me once that all that soggy sea air makes him feel like he is stuffed with ghee.'
'His brain is stuffed with cottonwool,' Malati snapped. 'But I suppose he has the money to waste on being a wastrel.' She used the colloquial Hindi word phateechar, which denoted a rags and tatters sort of bum that struck Lata as very contradictory to Maan's dandified demeanour.
Lata decided to change the subject, and they spent some time talking about Malati's work helping Amrit Kaur set up the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. 'It's a lot of administrative work,' Malati said sadly. 'I hardly get a chance to go to the clinic and examine patients. The women from the Punjabi Bagh jhuggi are the worst – they come find me at home and tell me what has happened to them since I last visited. And the problem is, I can't even scold them for not letting a male gynaecologist examine them because the last resident was an incompetent rascal who shouldn't have been allowed to touch patients with a stethoscope, much less a speculum.'
Lata realised that Malati was not the only one who had changed. Ten years ago she would not have known what a speculum was, much less talk about its uses. But if experience had educated Malati through the purposeful joy of her profession, for Lata, the education had been far more bitterly inscribed into her.
When Malati gently brought up the daughter who had died five excruciating days after contracting typhoid, Lata was able to talk about it with detachment that was not dangerously brittle. She had done her crying years ago, in the arms of her mother and sister and husband, and on one occasion never mentioned to anyone else, in Amit Chatterji's. He had been startled and diffident, she remembered, but only after her raging monsoon had stopped thundering around her. While it had happened, he had held her close and murmured meaningless kisses in her hair in the way that only someone who has once been in love with that body can. It had been a poem of Amit's that had triggered her tempest to begin with – a silly, frilly babble not worth much more than a Kuku-couplet. And so Lata did not feel too bad about kissing him, once, after her tears had subsided. She knew that it was all she would do, and moreover, that she was not going to want to ever do it again.
'I heard from Kabir the other day', Malati mused. Lata shrugged, disinclining the invitation to talk about him. She knew why Malati stayed in touch with Kabir, and the reason had something in common with why Lata herself did not. They had met twice, after Lata's marriage. Once at Bhaskar's graduation party, and once in England, when Haresh had gone on a working holiday with her. Kabir had been posted to the Embassy there only two weeks before their arrival, and he had been taking his own wife on a tour of London aboard the bright red double-decker bus that Lata and Haresh had stepped onto. Lata knew – had heard, and now seen - that he was very happily married to a nominally Muslim socialite from Lahore whom he had met in New York and married in Cairo. That knowledge did not make her happier, though she felt slightly ashamed of herself for not letting it.
Lata chose instead, to talk about sex, which was a much more informed and amused conversation between the two friends now that one had a husband and child, and the other a flourishing medical practise in, as Malati said with mischivious solemnity, problems pertaining to yaun sambandh.
After a while Kalpana woke up, and then the talk became more social. Convival gossip about mutual relatives was sautéed in household remedies for children's diarrhoea. The children, having broken one shuttlecock and lost another, clambered about happily chasing and being frightened by the goats.
It grew chilly past four, and Kalpana wanted to reach home before it got dark. When they reached Malati's house, they had to stop to let Lata's son use the toilet. Malati told them to make themselves at home, but she seemed a little preoccupied by the papers on her desk.
Then the doorbell rang, and Lata, who happened to be the closest, and who had picked up Haresh's habit of not waiting for a servant to do something, answered it.
She started in almost-recognition, and stared suspiciously at the visitors until Malati, coming out of the kitchen with a tray of hot tea in mismatched cups, looked over her shoulder and greeted the family warmly with an adaab. Then Lata remembered to smile, and step back, and let Malati introduce her. It seemed that the modestly dressed Muslim woman was an M.P.'s wife – her husband being a political and personal friend of Malati's own mentor Rajkumari Amrit Kaur.
Three children accompanied her – a boy and a girl who were clearly twins, and a small, moist fraction of humanity that nestled into her mother's neck but cuddled agreeably up to whomever she was handed to. Lata ended up holding her the most, since Kalpana had her hands full trying to keep her son from bullying the younger two children, who clearly felt themselves to be at home in their Malati Chachi's house. Malati had taken her friend into her small study, to look over some books.
The baby began fussing, and Lata did everything she knew to calm her, even though she knew what the problem was. Finally, Lata took the baby inside to her mother, and watched her unbutton her burqua, arrange her dupatta over her breasts, and nurse her daughter. When Mr. Abdus Salaam leaned over to tenderly draw his wife's sliding dupatta back over her shoulder, Lata suddenly felt a hollow clenching in her stomach. They were in love, she realised with the same dawn of awareness that told her how beautiful this Tasneem Begum was. Malati leaned over and playfully tweaked one of the baby's perfect, lotus-pink toes, and the wave of envy that gripped Lata was like a hot wind on a dusty day.
As Kalpana and Lata herded their children out of the door and onto the springy back seat of the car, Lata almost turned to Kalpana and said, 'That beautiful woman with three perfect, living children and adoring, charming husband. I know who she is. I have heard Saeeda Bai sing once, and I have seen the Old Nawab's other children and grandchildren.'
Almost, but didn't. She would be returning to her home in Calcutta tomorrow, and it was even further away from Brahmpur than Delhi was.
The parrot is a lonely bird
Colonised and choked of song
Because poetry does not belong
To barterers of bankrupt word.
And so instead he must need squawk
Verbiage that is not talk;
A babu and a bureaucrat
Taught to by-heart this and that.
Praise he earns is worth him naught
Like the nothing he was taught
To whom and how can love be sung
Robbed as he is of native tongue.
The parrot vomits fractured words
Not so much to speak, as to be heard.
Everyone clapped politely as the portly academic assigned to introduce their chief guest finished his laborious recitation of Amit's poem - which, amongst the ones in that particular collection, he found the most unbearable when read out loud. Then they clapped with a little more feeling as Amit stood up and then hesitated as the professor seemed about to continue his concluding remarks which had started some five minutes ago. Finally the man made an earnest and collegial gesture towards Amit and said, 'Poet par excellence who has wrested the foreigner's most dangerous weapon, I mean to say – language, away from them. And wielded it with such beauty and skill as might a swordsman. And also versatile, sombre novelist, who is recognised by the West as one of the most eminent voices in the literary landscape, but what of the West? Whose own people are moved to the true tears from suffering of reality woven into fiction. May I invite to the stage, Shri Amit Chatterjee!'
Amit realised with a jolt of displeasure that he was actually finding comfort in the plodding formality of all award functions, literary lectures, commemorative ceremonies and sundry public events at which he was invited to be A Writer. This would not do, he lectured himself, when he realised he was making the audience laugh to the same silly, trite story about Tapan and Amit's notebook and a plate full of ripe mangoes that he had narrated a month ago at Aparna's school annual day to which he had been invited as chief guest. A pretty girl in a pink sari asked him a question about his process, and looked very disapproving of Amit's playful response.
I write and write and write some more
Unless that day it is a bore
He missed someone who could appreciate the fleeting bubble of joy that was a good Kuku-couplet. Another young man, who described himself in great and time-consuming detail as Amit's biggest, most great fan, asked a rambling and effulgent question that seemed to boil down to the problem of whether it was true love only if it was great poetry (or vice versa).
'I am not sure that being able to write about heartbreak in rhyme makes my self-pity any less pedestrian or ordinary than that of someone who doesn't necessarily have the words. Or even, the painfully earnest or pompously mediocre poet.' Amit frowned thoughtfully, 'Which, of course, there is no objective rubric to tell me I am not.'
The number of playfully probing questions regarding the sources for his authority on love were, he reflected, unique to Bombay. Delhi would have leered or scowled, he thought, and Calcutta been too gracious or absentminded but Bombay was businesslike and briskly to the point.
Towards the end, there was some unpleasantness when one gentleman asked a very pointed question about his opinions on the Emergency, to which, since Amit had grown tired of being overtly political in what he liked to call his years of graceful balding, he made a rather diplomatic response. This immediately prompted an even more vehement and assertive counter question from a gentleman in direct disagreement with the previous one. Amit removed the plastic plate covering his water glass and took a sip. He wondered how many people in the audience would call him a traitor or a coward for spending the majority of the last three undemocratic years in Germany, writing a delicate love story between two musicians in a South Indian court while Kakoli's daughters played rock and roll records on their turntable, and Meenakshi, who had taken to extended travels in Europe from relative to relative in lieu of an actual separation from Arun, occasionally popped in with spitefully amusing stories of foolish men and careless women.
He wondered how much he would agree with those who might judge him thus.
During the reception, while he tried to hide unobtrusively behind a potted palm, Amit realised that he was a little tired, and that in such a state of fragility, he missed being away from the various places he called home.
The definition of Alone
Is to have no one to call Home
Someone interrupted his idle rhyming to ask him to sign a copy of The Fever-Bird. He smiled.
'It's nice to see someone still caring about the poetry, especially the out of print ones.'
'I have read your books, all of them, because I did not want to read the poetry in translation, even if it had existed. But I learned English very late, along with my children, and so it is very possible that there are many… details that I miss.' The woman's voice was soft, and had that cautious dignity which he associated instinctively with English speakers who in their own mother tongues spoke with cultured fluidity. He signed, and then looking up, thought to himself, this is how I wish I could have aged.
'You're probably the better off of us two,' he said, switching to his atrociously Bangla-flavoured Hindi, and continuing in it as he saw her relax with the familiarity of the sound. 'Reading in English would only give you Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Ahmed Ali, to indulge my conceit – me. But with Hindi, you can read Premchand, Meera, Rahim…'
She laughed and said, 'Oh, but we are both in the same boat, for I did not grow up reading Hindi either, but Urdu.'
They conversed for a little while about Hindi literature, of which he had read little, and Urdu, of which he had read even less. She was obviously an extremely well-read and educated lady, for her references to various Urdu and even Persian poets was unaffected and instinctive. He pulled out a notebook to write down a couple of book recommendations, and thought to himself, what a strange thing language is. Here is this beautiful woman around my age who loves books and words as much as I do, and yet, even if we had met when we were both younger, we would not have been able to find that commonality, because we were already married, like proper traditional Hindus, to our languages. Amit thought about how he could distil the many complicated debates around the English/regional language divide to the mental image vivid in his head of a particularly unpalatable book written by an Indian living in New York that had a glossy hardback cover, sitting in his unread books pile next to a thin, drab Hindi book with a dull dun cover made of marginally thicker paper than the pages inside, containing some of the most exquisite sentences he had ever read.
'I don't have the breadth of comparative reading to know if my opinions have any weight to them, but there is one book in Urdu which I read in a Hindi translation. Very painfully, and I might not have persevered with it had not an old friend – my brother-in-law's sister – not told me to read it. Have you… you must have read it? It's called Chaar Deevaarein. And it is a collection of linked short stories, told by a parrot who lives in the bedroom of a young girl. I only could read it once because someone borrowed it and lost it – I can never figure out the magic balance of sharing and guarding bookish wealth.'
Amit saw that she was smiling with the sort of surprised joy that he knew he felt when he discovered a connecting thread between him and another bibliophile.
'Of course you've read it! And you do like it? Because so do I! When I first read it, I was baffled by my fascination for the book. Especially because at the time I was writing a complete monster of a novel. Everything happened in it; war, famine, love, murder, political assassination. And then here was this book where nothing really happens. But it happens with such exquisite grace and beauty.'
Amit remembered how the quiet of that book had stayed with him as he walked around the garden trying to figure out the complex beats of plot and characterisation. It was written by a woman, he knew, though the pen-name Ghazal had a certain ambiguousness about it. He had been very grateful to Lata for bringing it for him, and it was his relationship with Lata that the book reminded him of.
'There are other books written by the author of that book,' the woman said, 'but they have not been printed in Hindi.'
'No,' he nodded. 'I know, I looked. Perhaps I should get myself a tutor to learn the script; after all, there can't be that much difference between Urdu and Hindi, can there?'
She smiled. 'When I was a young girl, the state I was living in decided to remove Urdu as a state language, and someone I know who used to pay his college fees by giving Urdu and Arabic tuition lost a number of his students. Not all of them, but enough that it made a difference to his life. Eventually, I think it made a rather large one.'
He laughed. 'Yes, you're right of course, I shouldn't talk lightly about regional languages. I have heard enough lectures about Bengali's voluptuous superiority and Tagore's genius to know better.'
They spoke for a few moments more about poetry and literacy; he was a little surprised by how staunchly progressive she was. She spoke of Chugtai and Manto as personal friends, and he imagined her growing up in a nawabi, moneyed family, encouraged by her brothers and father to step out of the veil along with an emerging independent India. Socialising with the cultured and artistic elite of Bombay, possibly with a husband or two in the background. I could write about her, he thought, and then he pulled back, because he did not want to cannibalise the conversation.
She translated a poem of Mast for him in halting, hesitant English, and he thought about how vast the difference was between a town like Brahmpur, and a city like Bombay, and how only monsoon clouds and trains and poetry could sometimes, momentarily, bridge it. The instinctive grace when she raised her wrist to her forehead to bid him farewell made his mood dwindle to a twilight sort of nostalgia. He thought he might pay Tapan in his forest lodge a visit after he reached home, and perhaps start work on the new book.
The next day when he was checking out of his hotel, the clerk at the reception desk handed him a book. 'It was left for you, sir,' he was told, as he unwrapped the newspaper tied around it with the thin white string used by everyone from flower sellers to fishmongers to secure their packages.
It was a copy of Chaar Deevaarein. Four Walls, he automatically translated to himself, by Gazal. Opening it, he saw the inscription. Written in a childishly copybook cursive, it said:
For Mr. Amit Chatterjee, With Warm Regards.
And next to the name of the author which was printed in Hindi, danced a flowing stream of curves and dots. Below the Urdu signature, she had printed her name in small, neat parenthesis.
The monsoon rains had finally reached Baitar last evening, as announced by Doordarshan's regional news weather report. The first rain of the season always sent steam rising from the earth like water flicked onto an iron tawa, and the heady scent had filled the air; the mixture of dust and freshwater and heat and satiation that ittar sellers called saundhi. Firoz had kept his blue and grey rubber Hawai chappals on through the train ride, and when he got down at the station, he decided not to change them. The autorickshaw he took to the graveyard was going to get his pristine white kurta dusty anyway, and everywhere he looked, brown melting puddles beckoned open toes and unwary travellers to themselves.
The Muslim graveyard, as opposed to the Christian one, which was small and on the rare hill and overgrown and mouldering, was in a large field on the side of a tiny mosque. It served both the desperately poor indentured labourers as well as the more modest zamindars who did not have an ancestral burial ground of their own, and the mosque was neatly painted with powdery whitewash on its walls and a glossy dark green dome.
He walked inside, and saw Tasneem standing beside a grave. Its oblong stone seemed to have recently sunk into the ground. It had been, in fact, four months and ten days since Tasneem's son and grandsons had buried her husband there.
'The train came on time,' she said now, to Firoz. She did not say, 'You came.'
He nodded. Moving slowly, because the arthritis in his fingers and elbows did not allow him ease of gesture, he opened the cloth bag he was carrying and took out his white cap. Putting it on, he recited the Janazah prayer. He could see Tasneem's lips moving soundlessly alongside him.
After he was done, he walked to where he had taken off his shoes. Tasneem leaned on his shoulder for support as she slid on her own sandals.
'Come bhaiyya,' she said in the casual Hindustani of her childhood. 'Apa is expecting us. Bibbo gets irritated if she has to wait around to serve the food.'
He turned and looked at her once, passing a hand over her forehead before picking up his suitcase and walking alongside her to the house on the outskirts of the village.
Abdus Salaam had been an honest politician, and had not taken a bribe in his long career as MLA and MP for the Congress Party and then the Janata Party. He had made enough however, to send home to his family, and when he retired, it was to a prosperous farm, with a tractor, and a diesel-powered bore well and a grove of Dussehri mango trees with unusually high yield. Even if it was still too rustic for Saeeda Bai, who needed more than a television to entertain her, she enjoyed her extended vacations there, with Tasneem's cheerful, chatty daughter-in-law asking questions about the latest fashion trends in the big city.
After they had finished eating, Saeeda Bai rolled up three perfect, sweet paans, and passed them around with a grace that reminded Firoz of the courtesan she used to be before she was awarded the Padma Shri and recorded as a famous ghazal singer. When a silence fell among the three old people that was somewhere between awkward and thoughtful, she spoke up, sardonically.
'So, how is our Dagh Sahib, then?'
Firoz shook his head. 'You must have heard that his wife returned to Brahmpur some years back with two daughters that she says are his?'
Saeeda nodded lazily. 'I heard they really are his.'
'Oh of course, one look at them will tell you that', said Firoz. 'Anyway, now she wants him to get them married off like a proper father should do. So he is running around trying to do that. His daughters are not being particularly accommodating about it.'
There was a moment of silence before Tasneem and Saeeda burst out with the sort of assured guffaws he was used to hearing from the other side of the zenana whenever two old women got together.
'Does he know you are here?' Tasneem asked, later, when they were sitting on moulded plastic chairs in the back courtyard. The moon was crescent enough that the stars shone even through the impending rain clouds.
'I don't tell him a lot of things.' Firoz said, slowly.
'No,' she agreed.
'Abdus was a good man,' Firoz said after a few moments.
Tasneem sighed, because four months and ten days was not long enough to stop mourning the person she had loved since she had first talked to him. A tear or two might have gathered in the wrinkles of her eyes, but she was not pained by rending grief. She knew that she would meet him again soon, and that life was an acceptable place to wait for paradise.
'When I go,' said Firoz suddenly, as they were standing on the platform waiting for his train to pull away from the station, 'Will you make sure to bury all the letters with me? I do not want him to see them.'
Tasneem smiled. 'I would have given my letters to anyone who wanted to read them,' she said. 'Even my publisher, if he were so foolish as to want them.'
Firoz shook his head and coughed with the vigour of his disagreement. 'Not foolish. Not at all. I told you, didn't I, that that last year when he was sick, I read Chaar Deevaarein out loud to Abba, and Zainab Apa also listened.'
'Yes,' she said gently.
'Zainab Apa keeps your book of children's stories next to Abba's Mir edition on her bedside table.'
'You told me that too,' she said. 'At least ten letters ago.'
'Well,' he said, 'I am getting forgetful in my old age. I should probably just use the phone to call you like Maan does whenever he's away.'
Tasneem laughed. 'We are both getting old. Am I ugly enough now to escape the danger of you falling in love with me?'
Firoz reached out then, and pinched her cheek. 'Tell Saeeda Bai to let me know when she gets back. And if she needs anyone to meet her at the station, let me know.'
'Yes,' Tasneem said. The train was pulling out, and she saw Firoz sit back into his birth with a sigh as he waved his hand.
Tasneem walked out of the station and got into the tempo that was waiting to take her home.
'Was that your brother, bibiji?' the driver asked. Tasneem hummed in assent.
'He looks very much like you,' the driver ventured. When Saeeda Bai was with them, such familiarity was discouraged with a sharp tongue and sharper wit.
'So people have said,' Tasneem replied indifferently. They were approaching the house now, and she could hear the sounds of a harmonium. It meant that Apa was in a nostalgic mood, and Tasneem would be glad to hear some of those songs again.
'Does he visit here often?' the driver asked, as she handed him a fifty rupee note, and waited for the change.
Tasneem smiled, with the abstracted, fond look that someone who has become a grandmother many times over gives to a young man who thinks he is being indulgent to his elders.
'No,' she said. 'I have not seen him for sixty years.'
She walked inside the house and went to the drawing room, where Saeeda Bai was letting her fingers meander over the keys turned yellow with age. She started singing softly, her once full-throated voice now a shadow of itself. It was a Kabir bhajan she had sung around Tasneem often, a favourite of hers.
'My beloved's city is the most beautiful of all,' she sang. 'My mother's house does not suit me at all.'
Tasmeen knew, of course, as she had grown up knowing, that it was the baraat of the carried coffin that would take the lover away, finally, finally from her birthplace.
She closed her eyes, and joined along singing without making a sound.