Rijula Das was born in small town West Bengal and has since gone on to live in different parts of the world. She has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she also taught writing classes for two years. She currently struggles daily with her recalcitrant first novel in faraway New Zealand.
Notes from a Passing
It is morning and you’re sitting on that rickety armchair by the window, combing the newspaper. This is the earliest extant memory of you that I have. Your tea grows cold before you gulp down its last, and Mother fills it again. What is this dance you two have? There’s never a word spoken, never any calls or demands made for tea. Yet she comes out of the kitchen at exactly the right time, kettle in hand, the brown liquid steaming into your waiting cup. Instead of love, you have impeccable timing.
I learn quite early how to coexist with the dead, not all of them have quite left this house. Once a year my grandmother starts keening at the break of dawn and Ma grumbles a constant litany under her breath. You are distant, and quietly fretful. I’ve been told by the old maid the story of my long dead uncle, your brother, though neither you nor Ma will speak of him. The maid shakes her head and whispers my mother’s unflinching conviction that such unearthly longing can only be evil, that grandmother is calling out to his ghost who will only be too keen to return. “There are children in this house, but does she care?” Ma hisses from time to time. My grandmother, who often does not recognise me, remembers each year the day of her son’s long forgotten death with preternatural accuracy. But my mother’s reluctant mourning is more cautious, protective. On this day her daily prayers are said a little louder, with a little more incense, a fresh garland covers his picture in the living room, and she slathers holy Ganges water on the doorsteps to keep out the spirits. “Those that die untimely deaths,” the maid portends in a low voice, “the forgotten ones who left their lives behind, are never really gone.” I badger her for stories about him. She is perplexed by my morbid fascination with a dead man but she’s an entertaining storyteller. Perhaps inspired by all the matinee shows, she has managed to create quite the revolutionary for me— the bright student shot by the police in ’71, the lone Marxist in the family, the daring one, and perhaps the son my grandmother loved a little more. Did he really make bombs in the attic? Were you really woken up one night when the police broke down the front door? Did you really see him shot dead?
It isn’t long before you and some neighbours have to take grandmother away one evening to the hospital. It is late when you come back, but I am awake and watching from a doorway. You’re only a silent spectre in this childhood, your life ticks like clockwork: your tea, and dinner, and newspaper, and television, till it’s time for you to go to work again. Ma is like a boring performing monkey, trained to do only the most unexciting of tricks; her appearances on your stage functional, unfussy. But that night, your quietude rings, resonates against the steel in the kitchen. We’re all waiting. You refuse to emerge from the bathroom. I can hear the water running for nearly an hour. Ma is standing in the penumbra of those low-watt bulbs you buy so regularly. She’s a cobweb in darkness. She pushes me forward to see what’s wrong with you.
I can see you under that dirty yellow bulb, you’re scrubbing viciously, scraping and soaping as if you’re made of dirt. I’m afraid to call out to you. All I can do is to stand there, unable to run away, while Ma whispers frantically from behind, what happened? What happened?
We’re all waiting.
The next day, my grandmother’s cold body lies in the living room, her forehead decorated with sandalwood, her nostrils plugged with cottonwool, and perfunctory tuberoses pile up for days. We’re unable to shake off the smell, it follows us everywhere. I feel special. We’re grieving. But only the old maid cries.
For the next few weeks, I don’t know who you are anymore. When you emerge from the barber’s hands, your head is shaved but your face is stubbed with grey. You wear nothing but white cloth wrapped loosely around your body. The rituals of grief are unfamiliar to me, but the after-rituals of death feel like a festival. For days afterwards, relatives and neighbours visit us, bringing fruits and sweets and their children. I play all day in the cloying smell of piles of flowers, incense and rotting fruit. Mother begins to give them away. They go from this house of passing innocently into another like insidious things, ticking like a bomb, waiting for more deaths to come.
One of those evenings I am thankful to my grandmother for dying, for suddenly breaking down my little orderly world, for taking my custodians away to deal with relatives, and visitors and priests and death-rituals. I wish more people would die. In my unsupervised evenings I’m pretending to be my uncle on the roof tops, jumping from ledges, detonating bombs, leading the battle for freedom. But sometimes I also play the police. I hunt down the vagrant revolutionary elements, let them run through the dawn-fields before shooting them down like rabid dogs. Either way, there is no more keening. I feel a strange, suffocating sort of shame. Mostly, because I have no sense of grief even though I know somehow that I must. That night I cry so much that I wake Ma. I don’t know you anymore; you, and mother, you and the adults, you with whom I associate everything that must be and is and will be stable and sure, you, are bewildered. And I am scared.
This is not a house of gifts. When I return from an evening’s football, you are already home and call my name. I fear I am being pulled up for doing something I can’t remember. I am used to mother’s admonishing, to her grumbles. In the insouciance of my adolescence, I hardly notice her anymore but summons from you are rare and my intrepidity vanishes. You hand me two books. One says Chander Pahar and the other Kalpurush. We stand there awkwardly since neither knows how to give nor receive. I have no idea what to say to your uncharacteristic largess. It is not my birthday; I have not come first in my class. I accept them like a thief caught in the act.
Not so far away Ma clicks her tongue calling out to the stray mongrels on the street—“Tu tu tu…aye aye aye…,” scraping the grains of rice and fish bones from our dinner plates and piling it under the street halogen lamp.
In my dead uncle’s room, I flip through the pages. I wish I could tell you that I didn’t read much. That when you slept in the other room I did things I am sure I ought to be ashamed of. Things I imagined then, didn’t ever happen to you. In a loveless house I was the one burning in flames.
Everyday I sit on a bus and make my way across this city into another world. I cannot wait to get out of this house, nor delay coming back enough. The roads are narrow here, the houses cramped together. I wake up every day to the neighbour’s alarm clock. The cement has peeled off of the bones of red bricks. From stained walls stencilled Che peers at passers by. The bus winds its way through other people’s laundry clinging listlessly to their windowsills.
When I sit with Medha by the university lake, all of that is unreal, immaterial. She’s listening to Creedence Clearwater, reading Slaughterhouse Five. She’s a gateway to another planet.
Which I enter, one day when she takes me home. Her posh address is stamped all over her body, on her casual pants and on the rare prints on her wall. Her father plays Ravishankar’s sitar on the vinyl. I’m spellbound on her chess board floors with her long hair falling like a pall around my face hiding everything that isn’t her and her glorious life, alternating black and white, I’m wildly reinventing a fantastic being I can no longer recognise.
I cannot find the words to dissuade Medha on the day she decides to come home. She’s polite, and tries to hide her surprise. But around her the scene collects and I’m suddenly aware of the distance between her and I. All that is familiar, she throws into sharp relief. You look up from the television screen but say nothing. Ma doesn’t know what to do. We have silenced her evening feud with the maid; They stop their sparring to peek outside, confused and hostile, perhaps even vulnerable, at the arrival of this new female— better dressed, her hair done up fashionably.
I don’t know what to do with Medha here in the middle of the two of you; Shall I take her to my room? Would that be improper? Ma’s curiosity singes me as if my skin has acquired eyes. I’m dreading the needling questions she would ask Medha: “What is your last name?” (Not a brahmin!), “What does your father do?” (Well, that’s good), “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” (Never marry an only-daughter). I’m hoping she’d not display herself so openly in front of you. I think I’m beginning to understand the shape of a deep down difference, deference, neither of you bothered to surmount. Perhaps those are not the right words either, but she never abandons propriety in your presence. She reserves her impropriety for the maids, sometimes her mother-in-law, me when I was younger, but you’re not a cruel man and I have seldom heard you raise your voice. But in the end, we flee to my room.
Medha’s sentences have strategically placed Bangla words; she arranges them like bric-a-brac, like her collection of Joplin records. I’m half-occupied gambling on her next vernacular incantation, it’s a chancer’s game. She speaks of Zarathustra, remarking on the pretentious book I left on my table. In this house, it sounds laughable.
Before leaving she says “Goodbye” to you. You’re caught up in the evening news. The only thing you can think of asking her is whether she is Bengali. “Yes,” she says, and you fumble, “but you don’t speak any.” The TV chants the day’s litany of missing people. Their flickering mug-shots beam on our faces. She is as alien to me as she is to you. For the first time but not the last, I wish I had different parents. You are a handicap. I realise I’ll never go too far, having sprung from your loins.
Nietzsche is laughable. Not when I am at the university, looking at Medha’s lips as they move, but the minute I am home, here in this house of ours. I come bearing signs of Medha, CDs and Simone de Beauvoir. In the dead uncle’s room I tip-toe around these unearthly delights, stealthy, in my abstract betrayal of you. But the rest of the house remains unsympathetic. I’m shown for what I am, an impostor.
So when I am home I no longer read the Germans. I have unearthed our home-grown arsonists’s red manifesto. And the digging has yielded more: Ten Days That Shook the World, The Origin of the Family, The Wretched of the Earth. The Revolution Betrayed. Germinal. The old editions are useful in the university greens. Medha can almost understand my unfashionable nylon pants when I trot out the Trotsky, I must have a creed, but here the charade is too much. I seek out your books and read them like an antiquarian, looking for clues in your sudden gifts. In Chander Pahar, a boy younger than me goes to Uganda and finds a mountain full of diamonds, and Kalpurush turns out to be an urban epic of the socialist dream, a jumble-fumble of the giant middle-class. Did you want these to be warnings? Did you mean them as hope? Did you wonder, where between you and your revolutionary brother I would fall? Fortunately for both of us there were no more bombs left in student revolution, only guitars, and some manifestos. You gave me both of them at the same time. I think of you standing at a bookstore all those years ago flipping through the pages, unable to decide whether your son was a grown man yet.
I have followed Medha out of this city into another. What I tell you, and sometimes myself is that I moved for the job, I moved for the opportunity. I’m a translator. Medha is an editor. She files away with a chainsaw words I chase with a butterfly net, always on the quest for the right one. You don’t really understand. My job bewilders you and in your bewilderment I find a tiny triumph. It feels as though in some small way I have escaped you and the long line of ineffectual people I come from. I have no delusions of grandeur, but it is something you would never have thought of doing. I am going to get paid at the end of each month. That is all you ever dared hope for your son.
It is in those days of departure that I see your tenderness. This jovian affection that I vaguely apprehend between us, at once dwarfed and giant, although I do not know who between the two of us wants to protect the other more. You have come to the train station much against my wishes. You fret quietly in that familiar way unable to do anything else, you buy me bottles of water and I accept the added burden without protest. These cold perspiring things you have thrust into my hands.
I’m staring out of the window while you stand there. Have I ever looked at you closely? The narrow doorways are crammed with travellers, each saying goodbye. Palms glued flat to the plate glass windows, fingers twirling through the iron grille. Some of them cry and smile again and are asked to take care of themselves. Neither of us waves. We have deferred to those who have more to say.
You call me ritually. I feel no urgency to be home. The truth is that for the first time the playing field has been levelled. In this city of another language I play Catching-Up-With-Medha. It’s incredible what an empty sheet will do for the two of us. It feels as though we have a shot at making a life that is uniquely our own, our differences and distances momentarily forgotten, our left-behind addresses kept on hold, held at bay, quarantined from the present of possibilities.
Yet, you call. We have nothing to say to each other. You ask me if I am well, I ask you if you are well. You ask me if I have money enough. Enough for what? I want to ask, but I always say yes, I have money enough. I’m not sure if you know that I already live with Medha, you don’t ask, and I don’t tell.
When you call one night, I can hear the rain, and somebody pounding on a door behind you. Our well-rehearsed lines are interrupted and I ask you where you are. “A phone booth,” you reply, “the phone at home isn’t working.” I wouldn’t know, I never call. It’s raining, I look at the watch, it’s quite late for our neighbourhood. I imagine you making the trip out of home, umbrella sheltered, half wet, waiting in line to call me. You emerged from the world of your armchair into this portal and I didn’t have anything much to offer. Why do we never say ‘bye’ in Bangla? The formal word is too heavy, too poetic for common usage. As a child I was taught never to say, ‘I’m leaving,’ instead we say quite literally, ‘I’m coming.’ What is this stubborn refusal to acknowledge parting? We’d rather lie, than close the circle of coming and going. In the end I keep quiet and give way to the static of the line.
You walked back in the rain, in the dark, to your armchair and the television you knew so well. And in the middle of handcrafted rugs in our Delhi home, I felt like a stranger to myself. That night, I tell Medha, we ought to ask you to come and stay. She turns over on her side and says, “Who’d do the looking after?”
The next time I’m home, you shock me with age. As if in deference to your retirement you have punctiliously slipped into the overcoat of being old. More frail than I remember, with more grey in your hair, your gait slower, as if you have put yourself beyond the needs and demands of your days. I fear you are waiting for the exit line, your purpose served, for now. I want to say, “Take up a hobby.” I want to say, “Do not go gentle into the good night,” but those are words from another world. My tongue coils around the unfamiliarity. We remain silent.
On the other hand, I become a stranger with every passing year. I’m breaking up with you in the manner of tectonic plates, cracking the spine of the earth, as slow and ponderous as old glaciers. I am afraid of the change, especially now that it can no longer be hidden under daily contact, the shifts are so much more visible, now that we see each other after so long.
To keep myself busy I begin cleaning out. All those needless things this house has amassed, I don’t dare touch yet, but I fiddle through the books I suspect no one reads in this house any more. I find antique National Geographics, I find serialised novels someone took the trouble to collate and bind together. Mother informs me that they are yours. “When I came to this house as a bride,” she smiles, awkwardly happy,“there wasn’t space in his room for all these books.” There’s so little I know of you. The one in my hand is called Durbeen, the word means telescope in English. You have collected its serialised chapters over a year or more, I presume. I’m looking at you from one end of it. But ‘telescope’ doesn’t cover what I want to express. It smells of stargazers, scientists staring at the night sky, amazed at the mad dance, death and flight of burning rocks. But ‘durbeen’ refuses to leave the tongue even after the word has been spoken, a memory of the distance it contains. I remain undecided between tongues.
I once heard a poet say that towards the end, he began taping his conversations with his father. He took pictures of his father at home, as he sat and read and walked the end of the line. The poet’s father had lived through the holocaust. The poet’s father walked at inky-dawns through muddy snow to seek refuge in another country. The poet’s father had seen the world change and carved out a different living in an unfamiliar earth.
Do we have a history worth recording? I begin to remember you, even as you are in front of me. You’re oblivious to this transcription. It feels a little bit like cheating, but I have learned to live better with shame. This, is what growing up is. And I remember a trip to the planetarium. Your voice beside me explaining the constellations— “The one that looks like a question mark in the sky, that one is called Saptarshi, the seven sages, those two figures that look like they’re dancing, that’s Mithun, the dual, and that one, that hunter in the sky, is Kalpurush.” The play-back recording at the planetarium told different names: Ursa Major, Gemini, Orion. I remember how the chairs began to spin and I threw up on the floor.
It is frailty I fear now. That and time. When I see you now, it is as though you have eroded a little bit, shrunken, shrivelled, as if you’re trying to evaporate from this world. Your one magic trick— the slowly vanishing father. I am almost sure that if I touched you, you’d disappear in smoke. We’ve had little cause or habit of physical contact, and I don’t know how to start now, now that you have began your long fade into memory.
I am afraid you are going to die. Not the fear of a child, that bewildering, earth shifting fear of death with which the weight of the world drops on a boy. But the fear of an adult who’s learned to fear time. Age is what happened to other people; in growing old, you betray me. And you’re not going alone, you’re taking me with you. No part of me, however private, will be spared. It feels personal, like a family curse. I’m balding in the same spots as you.
Dying is a hereditary disease you have passed on to me; after you, I am to follow. Son and heir, with grey in my hair, reading the Sunday papers.
I’ve never belonged to you more.
I must touch your lips with a handful of burning hay. This, tradition dictates, is my duty towards you before we place you in the wheeling tray and push you inside the incinerator. Still, I must be grateful for this new invention. During grandmother’s time, you did it with wood and fire, beating the body back with bamboo sticks when it curled sideways in the burning. We watched from the sidelines. Ma held my hand tightly as you dissolved in smoke that day and the fire made the air quiver in ripples. Your form vanished in a long-shot, into another dimension as I remembered you, burning your mother. But that was then and this is now. I, who have never needed to or had to feed you with my hands before, must bid you goodbye like this, bringing fire to your lips before you’re burnt to ashes. We have never even had a row, and still the last contact between you and I must be in such incendiary circumstances.
We cannot leave the dead alone. The body must be touched, guarded at all times by living hands as it makes its slow wade through human warmth into the cold. You’re paling as they mumble through your last rites and I’m swatting at the flies that buzz through your flowers. Afterwards, they’ll sell your death-mattress in an underground market that only the truly poor can access. Your clothes, this bedding we had to buy, this pillow. Who else will slip into a dead-man’s bedclothes.
When I return home, it is unbelievably early. You are gone, and the day has hardly moved. There is a mound of books I have not had the time to put away in the madness that was burning you, and your gifts stare at me through the debris of flowers from your last rites. Kalpurush— the Man of Time, the Man of the Epoch. What a name to have to bear through the ages of cold burning in night-skies. His hands must hurt with all the aiming.
It’s one of those rare, truly dark blue evenings, clear enough to be starry. I’m waiting for the Orion to appear. The evening takes forever to coalesce. We’re all waiting.
Rijula Das is the 2016 recipient of the annual Dastaan Award and a winner of the 2016 DWL Short Story Contest. To read more winning entries from the DWL short story contests, please click here to visit our past winners page.