‘I don’t know how fear, like an enzyme, triggers a chemical reaction of memory and imagination. Perhaps it plays such tricks: it not only paralyses the present and casts long shadows on the future, but also cuts up the past and exhumes strange phantoms. Fear alters the past in more insidious ways than a battery of lathi-wielding fanatics in a museum…’ [Excerpted and adapted from Dyanchinama.]
Thamma, my grandmother, would sometimes talk about Sajid Mian who visited the house every winter to sell gur, date palm jaggery. A landless farm worker, he lived in the village of Bhabagachhi, around eight kilometers from our ancestral home. Sajid Mian took the date palms around his village on lease before the onset of winter, tapped their juices and thickened them in slow wood fire to make gur. He was, according to Thamma, the finest gur maker in the district. Like most members of her tribe, my grandmother too was a great storyteller who could bring to life the quotidian things of a lost world. The way she described it, we could almost taste the sweet, granular, amber-coloured liquid that Sajid Mian supplied to our house in slender terracotta pots. But how could Thamma, an orthodox Brahmin widow, allow in the kitchen, let alone taste, a food item prepared by a Muslim is a mystery. Perhaps the holy edicts that guided all her actions exempted gur from the list of polluted food since it contained no cereal. It never occurred to my mind to ask her.
During the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, Sajid Mian visited our house along with his family, his wife and five children. They were skeletons wrapped in skins, Thamma used to say, the skins so dark and wrinkled that they resembled burnt paper that could be blown away. Following that visit, his wife would come to our house every evening, trekking the eight kilometers from their village, carrying a terracotta pot, to collect the watery starch of boiled rice. But after a few weeks, as the famine peaked, her visits ceased. Our family too had stopped eating rice. Bengalis had had their first taste of rooti – flattened bread and a frail cousin of North Indian roti – made of wheat that had begun to arrive in ship-loads from Australia.
Did Sajid Mian take his family to the city? One could never know. Every day, endless streams of famished village people were turning up on the streets of Calcutta. Feeble voices begging for runny rice starch buzzed in neighbourhood lanes through the day; as night fell, barking street dogs fighting with humans for scraps of food in garbage dumps rent the air. The city people could catch some sleep early in the morning, when it grew quiet, when the phantom men and women died silently in footpaths and parks. Packs of jackals came from the vast eastern wetlands, their teeth and nails flecked with the first rays of the sun, before the municipal dumper trucks could clear away the bodies.
Nobody knew where Sajid Mian had vanished. Grandmother never touched gur for the rest of her life.
In the year 1943, the joint family of my late grandfather and his brothers split up. They continued to remain in the same large ancestral house, but the running of the household was separated along fraternal lines. Thamma, recently widowed, and her seven children got a separate kitchen.
A mysterious incident from that period has since become part of our family lore. It was an unbearably muggy evening in the autumn of that year. Under the dim light of a castor oil lamp (kerosene had vanished from the market due to the war, and electricity was yet to come to our house) my little uncles and aunts were trying to do their homework. A few of them were listless, from hunger and heat, had even turned in on the floor. My father, the eldest of them, was not at home. The dinner was yet to be cooked. Chhotopisi, my youngest aunt, had started to speak a few words that summer. She was toddling around her siblings, prattling to herself, scrawling on the floor with a piece of chalk. The oil lamp flickered and cast big shadows of hunched children on the walls, coils of smoke hung in the still air. Chhotopisi crept up to a window that opened to a tiny, weed-choked garden. There, in pitch-darkness, fireflies danced and crickets chirped in arum bushes around a ditch. Chhotopisi, it has been said, stood there gazing out of the window for a long time, holding the window bars, and intoned softly:
The word, that she uttered for the first time in her life, set off a frenzy. My uncles and aunts began to scream hysterically and thrash their limbs on the floor. One of the aunts had a convulsive fit: her jaws were locked and lips turned violet. People gathered in no time carrying sticks and lanterns, and the garden was thoroughly searched. But nothing could be found there.
All the uncles and aunts were very young then. Father, the oldest of them, was barely seventeen. War and famine, followed by the split in the joint family, had forced him to give up his studies and enroll as an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) warden. People were fleeing Calcutta fearing Japanese bombs dropping from the skies. As an ARP warden, my father’s job entailed patrolling the streets after the air raid sirens rang in the evenings, carrying a torch and a whistle that he would blow if lights were seen in the windows. In the city and its suburbs, people waited with bated breath in their darkened homes for the sirens to sound all clear. All the government buildings were painted black.
During the Indo-Pak war in 1971, pieces of black paper were pasted on the window panes in our house. Streetlights, too, were put out. Swarms of fighter jets scrambled from nearby Palta airbase and flew over the blacked out neighbourhood. They left behind bands of silvery smoke across the murky sky, that began to warp slowly and gave the sky the appearance of a striped tiger skin, strangely alive and pulsing. The image is etched in my memory like a linocut. Or did my mind make it up? I don’t know, I was too young at that time.
I don’t know whether the hullabaloo that evening in 1943 was a case of mass hysteria that children are prone to in difficult times, the kind of which have been reported in schools and orphanages in Rwanda, Jaffna, and even Kashmir and Gujarat. I don’t know how fear, like an enzyme, triggers a chemical reaction of memory and imagination. Perhaps it plays such tricks: it not only paralyses the present and casts long shadows on the future, but also cuts up the past and exhumes strange phantoms. Fear alters the past in more insidious ways than a battery of lathi-wielding fanatics in a museum.
In her old age, Thamma’s eyesight failed; her body too was wasted and bent. She would sit on the floor with her legs stretched forward, her shoulders almost touching her thighs, and tell us tales in a rasping voice with lots of wild gesticulations. The last time Sajid Mian’s wife visited our house to collect rice starch, Thamma would say, her eyeballs bulged out of their sockets so horribly that the lids couldn’t cover them. Here Thamma would suck her cheeks and flash her own eyeballs: they looked like a pair of grey spotted eggs in a nest of lines.
The tiny, weed-choked garden at the back of the house, where Chhotopisi had gazed out on that evening in 1943, belonged to our grandfather’s elder brother. In his will, he had bequeathed that piece of land to Chhotopisi. It was an absurd gift: the plot was too small to build a house on it. Moreover, it was hemmed in on all sides by buildings, and the only entrance was through another brother’s portion of the house. Perhaps the intention was to give her an entitlement on something that she could call her own. Chhotopisi, a spinster, stayed with us for most of her life; my brother and I grew up under her strict care. Her garden, always in the shadows of the surrounding buildings, was full of rank vegetation, a wild custard apple and a date palm tree. It was littered with discarded odds and ends. A fat female mongoose lived there with her family.
In late middle age, Chhotopisi suffered from a type of amnesia. She would often be seen lingering somewhere inside the house, trying to recall a thought that had occurred to her in that very spot earlier in the day, that she had eventually forgotten. She waited there, sometimes for an hour or more, her face creased in anxiety, until she found the lost thread of memory. But her ailment grew, and my brother’s tiffin began to turn up in my lunchbox, my sister’s hanky in brother’s trousers’ pocket, my marbles in sister’s harmonium box, and so on. One would often run into her in the courtyard, in staircase landings, or in the corridors at any hour of the day, desperately searching for something. Moved by her suffering, sometimes we would search Chhotopisi’s lost thoughts in the patterns of sunlight on red cement floors, in the heat on caste iron railings, in the musty smells of alcoves or in patches of mould on limepainted walls. We would find armies of brown ants coming out of cracks in the plaster and marching on in single file following the scent of pheromone. A swipe of the finger across the invisible line would send them scurrying about in all directions, like Chhotopisi’s dismembered thoughts.
The house we lived in was more than two hundred years old. It held together plans and ideas, many of them unfinished and half-executed, of five generations: there were corridors that led to nowhere, flights of stairs that terminated at blank walls, doors that opened onto the void, roofless columns that sprouted rusty iron rods. Chhotopisi’s little garden was our secret empire. We would slip in there through a deserted part of the house that belonged to Nadadu, grandfather’s middle brother, who lived in a distant city. During long summer afternoons, Chhotopisi’s garden remained cool and shaded, like the bottom of a well. Sunlight shimmered on leaves of banyans that broke out of the cornices of tall decrepit buildings around it. The silence of the place was sometimes nicked by the tweet-towhee of a pair of sunbirds who appeared when the telakucho creepers bore blood-red fruits. We stretched ourselves under thick putush bushes to let the verdant smell and the faint orchestra of insects lull us, until we could feel the sap of the wild custard apple tree coursing along our veins.
But the way to this paradise was closed one day; Nadadu returned to take possession of his portion of the house. We were too young to know what exactly had happened, but one afternoon we returned from school to find a brick wall, still wet and muddy, down the middle of the courtyard. The door that led to Chhotopisi’s garden had also been bricked up.
Nadadu, a widower, lived all alone. Rarely did we have a glimpse of him: a stout old man with a white mop of hair dressed in a maroon dressing gown, a permanent pout upon his lips. The excess mortar between the bricks in the hastily erected wall resembled Nadadu’s sullen lips. Pressing our ears on them, we heard the radio news trickling in from the other side: the reports of a war going on somewhere, of an army platoon marching from Agartala to Dhaka, of heavy damage inflicted on a Pak airbase in Tejgaon, of INS Vikrant leaving Chittagong port and sailing to Cox Bazar. Sometimes, late in the evenings, we heard the faint ooze of recorded music. I cannot recall what music it was, but the strains echoed in the labyrinths of Chhotopisi’s brain and made her restless.
One night I woke up by voices to find Chhotopisi struggling with the sealed door that led to her garden, and my parents trying to stop her.
‘You can’t go there, Khuku, it has been bricked up,’ father was saying. ‘Have you forgotten? This isn’t a door anymore, this is a wall almirah.’
‘Please let me go,’ Chhotopisi was pleading. ‘I’ll just go to my garden.’
This went on for a while until father took out a key and opened the door. It had really become an almirah: there were bare red bricks on the other side of the rectangular recess, like raw flesh, and on ranged on the shelves, among various objects from the past, were father’s ARP torch and whistle.
I shall never forget the expression I saw in Chhotopisi’s eyes that night. She had never been able to go to her garden again.
But we did discover a way: it was the dark narrow passage between two adjacent buildings where the drains lay, that the municipal jemadars sometimes used. By then, Nadadu had returned to the distant city to live with his son’s family. He had discarded a chipped ceramic bathtub in Chhotopisi’s weed-choked garden. Mosquitoes bred in the rainwater that collected there. We would dip our hands in the velvety folds of green algae to let schools of larvae dance around our fingers. Slowly, we began to build a microcosm in there – with guppy fish caught in the drains, with aquarium plants, with the tiny plastic animals that came in the packets of Binaca toothpaste, and other flotsam of our juvenile world. One day our labour was rewarded by a blue kingfisher that came to roost on the wild custard apple tree.
A question has been haunting me for a long time. Why did Chhotopisi want to go to her garden that night? Which lost thought did she want to recollect? In that rank plot the air was always fetid and moist, like heavy sighs; the ground was littered with rusty machine parts, tufts of hair, sexless plastic dolls …
Was the unforgettable look I saw in Chhotopisi’s eyes there in that distant evening in 1943?
It was a sultry autumn’s evening, there had been a brief shower earlier in the day. A warm vapour suffused with the smell of wild vegetation rose from the dark garden. The fireflies danced, the crickets chirped. And then she softly blabbered the word that would unleash a paroxysm, the word that she said for the first time in her life: fear.
What did the little girl see out there? Was it Sajid Mian’s wife? When this question began to prey upon my mind, Chhotopisi had forever been trapped in her private garden of amnesia, clinically known as frontotemporal dementia. She spent the last years of her life in a mental asylum.
When the news of Chhotopisi’s death reached us, I was the first person to go there. It was late on a February evening. Her body had already been shifted to an impersonal, blue-painted room. The asylum staff had done a neat job: a crisp white sheet covered her up to the chin, leaving out her feet, and a pair of basil leaves was placed upon her closed eyelids. I was seeing her face after a long time, and was mildly surprised to discover how age had cut deep lines on it. Her hair had turned completely white. Custom required me to sit there touching her feet, until other members of the family came to relieve me. I sat there all through that long winter’s night, alone, and watched the lines on her face mutate like in a slowly turning kaleidoscope. By morning, the skin on the face had sunk to reveal the distinctive bone structure of our clan.
It has been a long time since I have left that humongous house. The flat where I live now is small and streamlined: no amnesiac passage, no demented corridor – each square foot of space has its name and precise function. When this housing complex came up here, the whole area was a vast flat reclaimed land covered with reeds. We heard jackals calling each other in the evenings.
One day, a few weeks after we had moved in, I had a strange experience. I was standing in the bedroom balcony, looking out at the jungle of identical apartment blocks, many of them unoccupied and standing like ghosts from a future. On my right, a few yards away, there was another balcony at the same floor level, and another bedroom. From the corner of my vision I noticed a man inside the room looking obliquely at me. I was yet to know most of the residents in the complex, but somehow it seemed I had seen the man before. An uneasy feeling continued for sometime – of secretly watching, of being watched—until I turned my head to look directly at him. With shock, with faint terror, I discovered that it was me, my image, reflected in the tall wardrobe mirror of that other bedroom.
That delusion happened only once, but since that day I often have a dream. In the dream I have mistakenly entered a flat similar to my own on a wrong floor. It could have been funny, even erotic, but the dream always turns out to be terrifying, because it always takes a long time for me to realize the mistake. I wake up drenched in sweat, go to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. I look in the basin mirror to find in my eyes the same expression that I had seen in Chhotopisi’s eyes, many years ago on a night, as she had gazed at a recess that had once been a door.