He had come back in April, the aftermath of the lawsuit and court proceedings in two countries still fresh, the voices echoing behind him. But he felt robust.
‘Here,’ he said to the taxi driver that day in April – it was a Tuesday – when he arrived. His son was staring out of the window, as if the taxi were a most natural place to be in, apparently unaffected by its rusting window-edges and its noise. It was 11 o’clock in the morning; it should be 10 o’clock now the previous night in America. ‘Stop here,’ said Jayojit to the taxi driver. ‘Kitna hua?’ he asked. Vikram – that was his son’s name, his maternal grandfather’s choice – said, ‘Are we here, baba?’ Though they spoke to each other in English, both Jayojit and his wife (ex-wife now? but she had still not married the man she was living with) had decided to retain, as far as their son was concerned, the Bengali appellations for mother and father: ‘ma’ and ‘baba’. Ironical, thought Jayojit – he thought more and more about these questions these days; indeed, he could often hear himself thinking – that we did not think to teach him, at least in practice, the other things that surround those words in our culture. He himself had learnt those meanings from the lives of his parents. It was curious how often he returned to his childhood and growing up these days, involuntarily, to their apparently random and natural sequence.
‘Seventy five rupees,’ said the driver, turning his head and smiling; the man hadn’t shaved for a few days. It was as if the taxi were his home and he had long not stepped out of it.
‘Seventy five rupees,’ repeated Jayojit with a chuckle, while the driver smiled with a strange but recognisable demureness; the coyness of a struggler taking something extra from a person he considers well-to-do. Jayojit knew, from glancing at the numbers that had appeared on the meter, that he was paying more than he was supposed to, but he silently rummaged the new rupee notes in his wallet; he had changed fifty dollars at the airport. ‘Yes, Bonny, we’re here,’ he proclaimed cheerfully to his son; Bonny was his pet name, given him by Jayojit’s mother, a strange Western affectation from the old days, to call children names like these – though his mother was not westernised. The boy, his pale face red with the heat, with one or two darker streaks – evidence of the journey, of plane seats, uncomfortable positions, attempts to sleep – on his cheeks, was looking quietly at the gates. A sound, oddly lazy but determined, of a plank of wood being hit again and again, could be heard. The watchman at the gates of the multi-storeyed building and the indolent, shabby chauffeurs of the private cars, lounging in the shade, their backs leaning against their cars’ bonnets, seemed to be intent on watching the occupants of the taxi and listening to that sound. ‘E lo,’ said Jayojit, handing the driver the money, who took it and began to count the notes. Experimentally pulling the lever that opened the door, he said to his son, ‘Bonny, that’s the way to do it.’
They had come with one heavy suitcase and a large shoulder bag slung around Jayojit’s neck; in one hand he was carrying an Apple laptop and a one-litre bottle of Chivas Regal in a duty-free bag. The boy was wearing a bright blue T-shirt and shorts, and on his back there was a kind of rucksack; he walked with the mournful, loping air of a miniature expeditioner. The two or three part-time maidservants who always sat by the entrance steps looked at the two arrivers casually; it was as if they were used to the sight of huge itineraries, arrivals and departures, and it no longer disturbed the monotony and fixedness of their lives. A faint smell of stale clothes and hair-oil came from them. Jayojit was a big man, five foot eleven, and fair-complexioned and still handsome in a bullish way; he was wearing a red T-shirt and off-white trousers on which the creases showed, and two Bangladesh Biman boarding cards stuck out from his shirt pocket.
The flat was on the fourth floor, number 14; a long corridor led to it, and then became a kind of verandah before it and its neighbouring flat. The nameplate on the door said: ‘Ananda Chatterjee’. He pressed the doorbell, which was really a buzzer with a prolonged droning sound which he associated with an immemorial middle-class constrictedness; and his son stood facing the door, staring at the one-inch ledge at the bottom. It was Jayojit’s mother who opened the door; immediately, on opening it, her face, a rainbow of late morning light and shadows, of tiredness and alacrity, lit up with a smile, and she said: ‘You’ve come, Joy!’ ‘Yes, ma,’ he said jovially, and bent his big body to touch, in one of the awkward but anachronistic gestures that defined this family, her feet. ‘You’ve put on weight, have you,’ she said. ‘There, let it be.’ Then looking at Vikram she smiled, widening her mouth, so that her teeth showed, and said: ‘Esho shona,’ and then, remembering he might want her to speak in English, ‘Come to thamma.’ For the first time Vikram smiled.
Admiral Chatterjee was sitting inside on the sofa – a heart condition and diabetes had made him slow; but he was a big man, too. He looked like a sailor, his longish grey hair and beard suggesting voyages, deck-parties and a sea breeze; a painting by a minor artist, bought many years ago for 500 rupees, hung behind him. ‘How was the trip, Joy?’ he boomed as he got to his feet. ‘All right?’ They – Jayojit and his father – communicated, except for a few words and sentences, in English, establishing a rapport, a bluff friendship, which excluded the tenderness of the mother-son relationship; the latter found expression in the mother’s homely, slightly irritating Bengali, and talk centred round questions such as whether her son was hungry, or whether he had had a bath. ‘Bloody taxi driver took extra money from me,’ said Jayojit with a large smile, and then bent to touch his father’s feet. ‘Pranam karo, Bonny,’ he said. The boy, who had been slipping off his rucksack so he might put it on a chair, interrupted himself, turned to walk gravely but obediently, with a light-footed sneakertread, towards his grandfather, to touch his feet. ‘Let it be, let it be, dadu,’ said the grandfather, who always seemed a little uncomfortable with others, whatever the situation. To his wife he said, ‘Ruby, give the child something to eat!’
It was not easy to be intimate or relaxed with the Admiral. He was one of those men who, after Independence, had inherited the colonial’s authority and position, his club cuisine and table manners, his board meetings and discipline; all along he had bullied his wife for not being as much a memsahib as he was a sahib. She had adored and feared him, of course, and paled beside him. Only before two things had he become strangely Bengali and native. The first was his in-laws; in those days when his wife and he still quarrelled and his in-laws were alive, his wife, crying softly, would pack her things and go away for a week to her parents’ house; and he would be left dumbstruck, unable to say anything. The second was his grandson – Vikram: Bonny. He could not reconcile himself to the fact that the boy had to tag along part of the year with Jayojit, and then go back to his mother, who was living elsewhere on the vast American map, with someone else. He could not comprehend the loneliness of the child, or why the loneliness needed to exist. Yet, in spite of this, and in spite of the fact that the old India had changed, and he himself had grown somewhat decrepit the official air still hung around him, like a presentiment.
Jayojit’s mother disappeared into the kitchen, while Vikram said pleadingly to his father, not very loud:
‘Baba, I’m not hungry!’ There was a faint American broadening in the child’s vowels.
‘Baba, he’s right – we’ve been eating constantly on the plane – eating and sitting. Our body-clock’s gone completely awry!’
‘Have a bath, then, you two,’ said Jayojit’s father.
Vikram was in the balcony, looking at the potted plants which were placed half in sunlight and half in shadow; geometric shadows from the grille fell on the wall and the floor, giving a kind of visual relief; in his hand he held a small unfinished carton of pure orange juice he had taken out of his rucksack, whose dregs he sipped contentedly through a bent plastic straw whenever he stood still.
‘But Bonny liked the Bangladesh Biman chicken curry!’ said Jayojit. ‘Didn’t you, Bonny?’
The boy turned to look back, in surprise. Then, as if the words had reached him an instant late, he nodded.
Now Jayojit’s mother emerged again and said to Vikram: ‘Come on, we are going to have nice Bengali fish for lunch. So let us have bath now.’
‘All right, tamma,’ said the boy, stepping out of the shade of the verandah into the drawing room.
He was her elder son’s only child – her only grandchild, born seven years ago. Last year he had written her a letter beginning, ‘Dear thamma ...’, and it should have been occasion for great pleasure, and it was, but that night she had lain thinking of what was happening, and the reasons why, and she had cried.
He took off his blue T-shirt, which looked soiled and tired, and darkened at the sides, and laid it on the bed; divested of it, he looked surprisingly fresh, his upper body pale, he erect and ready for the bath as his grandmother took him into the bathroom. Barefoot now, he seemed to be enjoying walking on the cool floor of the flat, his toes curled a little at the thrill of the coolness.
‘Come – I will bathe you,’ said his grandmother, tying the aanchal of her sari around herself.
‘No!’ said the boy, in a voice that was small but clear. Shyly, he added, ‘Just show me how to work the shower.’
Although she felt a great urge to wash him, she restrained herself, for she sensed around him a wall of privacy he had grown up with – no fault of his, he was not even aware of it – which Jayojit did not have.
‘Last time I bathed you – you remember?’ she said. ‘We had so much fun!’ She advanced a few steps to the lever on the wall with the hot and cold water knobs on either side, which to the boy probably looked antiquated, and she said: ‘I turn it like – this – and then I turn on the water like – this!’ She was standing to the right, her left arm straining as she turned the knobs, and her two bangles, her iron wedding-bangle and a gold one, clashed against each other.
‘Wooo!’ said the boy as it rained on him, and he burst out laughing, a long series of delighted giggles. His grandmother, standing just outside the shower area, looked at him and smiled. His eyes and face were shut tightly. His arm reached out for the crevice in the wall where the soap was placed, and his hand closed around a new, waxy bar of Lux.
‘I have kept clean towel for you, Bonny,’ called out his grandmother, as if he were further away than he really was. He nodded vigorously, spitting out water, his hair plastered to his skull, his eyes still closed. ‘I’m going now,’ she called again, and this time he did not respond. He had begun to play, quite independently, with the hot and cold water taps, adjusting them with his small hands. He hardly required any hot water; in April, the tanks became so hot that warm water flowed out of the cold water taps.
Later, as Bonny was drying himself, and investigating a scab on his elbow which had begun to itch, Jayojit came into the room; the conversation – the ‘adda’ – outside between father and son had temporarily come to an end; both had had to temporarily tear themselves away; how Jayojit thirsted, without knowing it, for the pleasures of adda when he was in America! ‘I’ll be back to continue this conversation from where we left off,’ he warned his father as he rose from his chair; now he sat on the bed, untying his shoelaces with a look of great satisfaction, as if it were the climax to his journey, ready to go in for a bath himself. ‘Had a shower, Bonny?’ he said. ‘Uh-huh,’ said the boy. ‘Baba, I don’t have any clothes,’ he added, the towel covering his head like a hood. ‘All right,’ said Jayojit, with the air of one who is familiar with and used to such situations, We’ll take your clothes out right now,’ and he bent down on his knees to unlock the suitcase, and retrieved a new T-shirt from an apparently prodigious store of folded T-shirts, and a pair of shorts, and laid them carefully on the bed. The boy stared interestedly at his clothes.
In the kitchen, Jayojit’s mother was setting pieces of rui fish afloat in burning oil.
In the afternoon, when the meal was over, Jayojit’s father sat on a chair for some time; he was not supposed to lie down immediately after eating. His wife brought him pills which he swallowed noisily with a glass of water.
Now, in the afternoon heat before siesta, they seemed to feel the incompleteness of their family, and that it would not be now complete. Someone was missing. Both mother and father were too hurt to speak of it. In a strange way, they felt abandoned.
‘Won’t you rest?’ asked the Admiral after a while. ‘I think I’ll go and lie down,’ he said. ‘You do that, baba,’ said Jayojit, getting up himself. Vikram was playing with two toy dinosaurs in the corridor; his father passed him on the way to the room.
Inside the room, Jayojit began to unpack the suitcase. He did not want to sleep; if he slept now, he would be asleep till midnight. So he began to hang up his shirts and trousers in the cupboard, and put handkerchiefs, vests and underwear in the drawers; Bonny’s things went into the drawers as well. He was not as familiar with the house as he should be; his parents had moved here eight years ago, and he had visited only three times since then. His own feelings towards the flat were thus partially ones of familiarity and trust, and partially a complex of other feelings – of amusement and amazement at the mass-produced design, of both pity and avuncular affection for its bathrooms, tiles, furniture, verandah, and a basic admiration for, and acceptance of, its reliability. He realised that neither his mother nor his father could see any of these things, and thus he, too, could not see them separately from the flat they had made their own.
One by one, he hung his shirts from the hanger, where they took on, inside the cupboard, a fleeting resemblance to his proportions. A sense of potential being, simple but true, now inhabited the cupboard. Some of the shelves were covered with newspaper; peering at them while arranging the clothes, Jayojit furrowed his eyebrows and snorted humorously. Something about Marxism and liberalisation: the paper couldn’t be very old. The hard-core Marxists and trade unions wanted to know how the Chief Minister would reconcile liberalisation with Marxist beliefs; Basu had offered China as an example. Then the paper was covered with clothes.
Next, he unzipped the shoulder bag and retrieved his shaving things and his and Vikram’s toilet accessories, Aquafresh toothpaste, Head and Shoulders shampoo, Bodyline deodorant, a cylinder of Old Spice shaving foam; a Backwood Insect Cutter which he’d bought in case of mosquitoes; these things gleamed the most and looked the most foreign and desirable; even the toothbrushes were different and, curving oddly, seemed to belong to the future and some fragile, opulent culture. Jayojit kept padding off, barefoot, with an intent air, to the bathroom, and placing them on the small ledge of glass above the basin.
Early in the morning, when the Admiral and his wife woke up, they didn’t at first say a word to each other; it was as if they didn’t feel the need to. Mist and light swam around them; and, above, the fan turned at full speed, giving the Admiral, for once, mild goose-flesh as he emerged from the night’s sheets. They had it planned between them; that Admiral Chatterjee would go in for his bath first, and then be the one to open the doors to the verandah in the sitting room. Two or three loud coughs administered his entry into the sitting room, refamiliarised him with its tidiness, its claim to be accessory to his present life; these coughs were physical but ritual in nature; in the other bedroom, neither Jayojit nor Bonny heard him over the internal hum of the air-conditioner. When they weren’t there, the coughs were directed at a nervous sense of absence, at the faraway. The Admiral then went in for a bath of cold water, water gathered in a bucket with which he then drenched himself from head to bottom, which he believed would keep him cool and sane for the rest of the morning; even his sacred thread, which he neglected to remove, became pleasingly soggy. He didn’t like being disturbed in the midst of his quick ablutions, but this was more an idea than a reasonable suspicion, because there was no possibility that he would be. In the bedroom, Mrs Chatterjee, very softly, as she often did these days, or ever since she had grown used to this negligible but returning loneliness, turned on the transistor radio to listen to devotionals. Something about these bhajans was apposite to her semi-wakefulness of the first half-hour of getting out of bed.
Then they went to walk in the lane with the air of those who’d grown, lately, accustomed to a routine, but still weren’t entirely reconciled to what the day might bring. They looked bourgeois and ascetic; as if walking in the silence were a polite activity not unrelated to some unrealisable desire for completeness. There were no cars to disturb them now; and if a car did enter the lane from the main road, the Admiral stood aside gravely to let it pass, while Mrs Chatterjee, unmindful, last morning’s vermilion faded in her hair’s parting, went a little way ahead; though no one saw them, the Admiral behaved with an impatient propriety, uncommunicable to her, in relation to his wife, as if someone who mattered to him were watching them. They walked to one end of the lane, the birds shrieking above them; nothing had begun; only a couple of cleaners were in view, who, with buckets, had just begun washing the parked cars and wiping their windows.
It was impossible to tell from what it was like now just how hot it would become in two hours; this was one of the small deceptions of this time of the year. Even the trees and leaves and the sudden burst of gulmohurs kept them from this fact as they walked underneath them.
Seven years ago, with the mild stroke, there had been a fleeting fear of paralysis; the Admiral’s right arm, the old saluting arm, had been mildly affected. Then, with physiotherapy and a gradual rationalising of that fear, that had passed. Ridiculous – to have survived the Indo-Chinese conflict and the Pakistan wars, not only survived them, but to have contemplated them from some distance; and then to be cut down, not in battle, but by the excesses of one’s past – drinking, hypertension! Now these new and old buildings, the new ones looking quite unfamiliar at this time of the day, rose around them. The Admiral remembered Mrs Gupta’s husband who used to live on the seventh storey of their building, flat 7C, who’d had a stroke and one side of his face paralysed; and lived like that for six years. No longer here; he had died last February.
The vibrating sound of trains was not far away; he’d been advised to take walks by two different doctors, one in the Army hospital and another one, Dr Sen, who lived in this building. ‘You can walk your way into health, sir,’ the Army doctor had said. And he felt like a young long-distance runner, cut off from both onlookers and competitors, engaged in a personal struggle; he felt this need to see Jayojit through; Jayojit was too hotheaded for his own good, that had become apparent.
The thought of his other son, the younger one, Ranajit, married (happily, he hoped!) for four years and living in the arborous suburb, Vasant Vihar, in Delhi, disturbed him only remotely, as would a story he was reading with interest, but mainly to get to the end. No sign of children as yet; his daughter-in-law, Anita, was 27 years old; couples waited and waited these days for the opportune moment to arrive as if it were some kind of secret, as if they were gamblers hedging their bets endlessly. Of course Ranajit didn’t tell him everything, and he wrote infrequently; he and Anita might be planning something – you ‘planned’ everything these days, the husband and wife not so much conspirators but like bureaucrats in a command economy; unlike thirty or forty years ago; Ranajit and Jayojit hadn’t been planned or expected, they’d just ‘happened’ – and neither the Admiral nor his wife would know until later.
He’d like Jayojit to marry again. Joy was 37; he wasn’t young any more. If he married now, the Admiral believed, it would be like attending to a wound when it was still fresh.
It was probably tendentious to think of it in that way, but if it hadn’t been for Bonny the match they’d organised last year might have worked. It wasn’t Bonny’s fault of course; it was just the way these things were. The Admiral was not orthodoxly religious – though he believed in the laws according to which providential happiness was given or withheld, and would sometimes return from a temple with a tilak beneath the mane of hair that had not long ago been hidden by a naval officer’s cap – and yet he’d hoped for an alliance with both the devotee’s humility and his serene expectation of disappointment; when the disappointment came, it took him by surprise. But that girl, Arundhati, had insisted that she found Bonny perfectly charming. ‘What d’you want to be when you grow up, Bonny?’ she’d asked him, sitting forward on a sofa as he stood before her, plates of onion savouries on the table, a pale glass of lemon sharbat in her hand; and when he answered, at last, ‘I don’t know,’ they’d laughed as if it were the most knowing, canny answer to the question.
Jayojit and Amala had married 11 years ago; 11 years and seven months precisely. That was when that evening pleasantness had set in, the month of Hemanta on the Bengali calendar. They had been divorced at the end of the year before last in a bright, clean Midwestern summer. It hadn’t been an easy or even a civilised event; the court had ruled that Amala, who’d taken the child with her, would have full custody. His first reaction was that all was lost. Then he’d decided he must fight; not just his studied determination but his natural belligerence had guided him. He employed a new lawyer; ‘I’m sorry, Gary, but I have to think of other eventualities,’ he’d said to the old one on the phone.
Hundreds of miles away, the Admiral quickly grasped the legal niceties. Examining the loopholes and details helped to lift him from the depression that he felt at almost all times during that period.
‘But can it be done, though?’ the Admiral had asked over the telephone at well past midnight – meaning moving the case to the Indian courts.
‘Why not?’ Jayojit had asked, out of breath with agitation. Their child was gone; six miles away, but further away than India. ‘If it hasn’t been done it will be now.’ Pause; the roar of the long-distance line that swallowed voices and sometimes sent them back. ‘I’m an Indian citizen, aren’t I?’
Another deliberate pause; because if you interrupted the speaker the words cancelled each other out. You had to be sure the other person had finished. Sometimes there was an echo.
‘But Bonny’s not,’ the Admiral offered. ‘He’s not, is he?’
‘He’s too small to be any kind of citizen,’ Jayojit had said. ‘Anyway, we’re not talking about the son here, but the father. The father’s prerogative.’
It was at that time, the Admiral remembered, that the question of what it was to be an ‘Indian’ had had to be addressed. It was not something that either Jayojit or Admiral Chatterjee had bothered about, except during moments of political crisis or significance, like a border conflict or elections, or some moment of mass celebration, when it seemed all right to mock ‘Indianness’, if only to differentiate oneself from a throng of people; but this was a legal matter.
‘You never stay till September,’ said Jayojit’s mother, her smile private and ironical; this was what they’d been talking about when her husband was downstairs. ‘You always go before.’
‘God’s sake, that’s what the year’s like,’ said Jayojit; his mother seemed hurt, though she decided not to show it, at the outburst. He read her face; he was sorry. There was an anger in him, a frustration; whenever there was reason to be angry, he cut himself off. Instead, he reacted with impatience at some innocent remark, some item in the news; he’d come to a junction in his life where, over-alert, he was no more confident of being understood or of understanding others; but with his mother, especially during this visit, he had successfully held himself in check.
‘You’ll miss the Pujas,’ she said. Last year they’d sat at home and listened to the drums beating downstairs and in the distance. They didn’t visit anyone; instead, they’d spoken to Jayojit on the telephone.
‘What are you doing, Joy?’ his mother had asked. It was nine o’clock in the evening; a flurry of drums could be heard in the background, and the light that illuminated the balcony moved and had a tinge of colour to it.
‘Nothing,’ said Jayojit, sounding slightly at a loss. ‘Of course, there’s no holiday here, but I didn’t have any lectures today. I’ve been at home.’
‘Rana phoned today,’ she said.
There was a small pause as those words travelled across continents.
‘Really? What did he say?’
‘He said they had guests and Anita made payesh.’
‘Really, made payesh? Rana’s a lucky fellow.’
When he was married, Amala and he’d go to Detroit (either Detroit or Cleveland; but they preferred Detroit; they knew more people there) for the Pujas. Last time, the Detroit Puja Committee had hired two school buildings for the festival; and he’d bowed before the pratima with her large eyes, placed at one end of the hall near the portraits of the school founders.
How fervent Amala used to be during the anjali! He used to wonder what she was praying for. She’d open her eyes after the anjali with a startled look, like a swimmer who’s come up from underwater.
He didn’t believe – belief did not come into it, as he’d explored the hall, cradling Bonny in one arm, or pausing clumsily to put him to sleep. (Half-asleep in that din, he’d grown heavier in his arms.) But, over the last few years, he’d begun to believe in the efficacy of prayer; of aloneness, which is what prayer was. That, to him, in the centre of the noise, had been a discovery.
‘But this is what they do after it rains a little,’ grumbled Jayojit’s mother. She didn’t explain who ‘they’ were. ‘It’s a good excuse.’ The maidservant hadn’t come.
‘Where does she live?’
‘Oh – not far away!’ said Mrs Chatterjee, waving the question of distance away. ‘Ghugudanga.’ It sounded like a village; difficult to believe it was in the heart of Bally-gunge. There’d been some waterlogging the past two days; that might have made things hard; but he was silent.
When he was a boy he’d come home from Ooty before the rains began. Some of his classmates were English, sons of diplomats, or of managers of companies still, in those days, 60 per cent British-owned; they took the changes in the weather cheerfully, ‘Absolutely first-rate storm!’, as they did their teachers: ‘Chatterjee, I can never pronounce that man’s name, yours is so much easier.’ Come the rains, they’d vanish as if they’d muttered a mantra that made them dissolve into the atmosphere. The monsoons, like some messenger hurrying through the land, throwing his moth-like shadow, would have come to the South before he made his journey, so that he’d already have seen the large drops on his way to Bangalore, from where he set out for Delhi. Home was different places; Vishakapatnam, with the sea lashing the harbour, known by that quaint name at the time, Vizag; then Cochin; and Delhi, in Janakpuri, not far from Mrs Gandhi. ‘Whatever you might think of her, she’s gutsy,’ the Admiral had said. The Russians respect her, the Americans fear her,’ those words returning to him like the lines of a nursery rhyme. Even now, his father believed that India had declined since ‘that woman’s death’. Coming ‘home’, the habitation of the next four or five years in his adolescence, to these certainties; when his father was made Rear-Admiral, he recalled Nehru nostalgically, as if he were somehow responsible for all the good in people’s lives: ‘Met him, you know. Saluted him in ’66. Broken man, but handsome. No truth to what they said about him and Edwina.’ One would never have known that he was a Commander at the time, and had been in Nehru’s presence for only five minutes. Coming back from boarding school to a slightly altered set of parents, Joy’d still find some things unchanged, for instance his mother frequently reordering furniture in the bungalow, her movements as focused as a bird’s, moving the Taj Mahals and shikaras. Outside one of the houses, there was a garden with oleanders in it; that was either in Vizag or in Delhi. A Navy cadet stood outside the house all day. And Joy would lock himself up in his room, with the air-conditioner on, because it was sweltering in Cochin and the cleverest way of battling the heat was not moving. He was reading books he was too young for. Sometimes Ranajit, who was left to wander about the bungalow, would begin to bang on the door with primitive urgency to be let in – ‘Dada! Dada!’ – the cry strangely plaintive.
Contact with the Armed Forces had cured them of the boyhood make-believe of wanting to be soldiers; instead, it was something else that took shape in them. Ranajit was less opinionated than Jayojit; and he’d had a love-marriage. Jayojit, after almost topping the list at Stephen’s, had performed expectedly at a scholarship interview, where he was questioned by, among others, Karan Singh, and had been surprised by his dark, feminine eyes. The British Deputy High Commissioner, Pratt or Spratt, he couldn’t recall, had asked him who his favourite authors were, and his mind had gone momentarily blank, his authors had deserted him, only one returned to him shadowily and he uttered his name: ‘Pablo Neruda.’ That’s very interesting,’ the Englishman had said, adding wryly, ‘But wasn’t he a diplomat? It seems we do some good things sometimes.’ There was a gentle murmur of laughter round the table, in which Jayojit, just 24 years old, had joined nervously. Then the man had continued, ‘Do tell us why, Mr Chatterjee.’ Jayojit always remembered his answer with a hearty laugh later: ‘Had absolutely no idea what I was saying. Told him: “Because he’s both political and sensuous. He reminds me of the Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya.” Can you believe such utter nonsense? I haven’t even read Sukanta.’ But believe him they had, and it was he who’d turned down the opportunity to go to Oxford and accepted, instead, a rare scholarship to California: They have seasons there, baba!’ Karan Singh had, very mellifluously, asked him where he saw the future of Indian politics: ‘Do you think we’ll persist with the Parliamentary system? Or adopt the presidential system?’ Jayojit half-listened; behind those kohl-dark eyes, he could only see the paradisal land of Kashmir. Not many years had passed since the Emergency; and, risking antagonising the Congressman, he’d said: ‘I think our Parliamentary system needs to change, sir, but not towards the presidential system. If anything, it needs to be decentralised.’ Wasted words; in the end he’d found himself in America, where not everyone knew where India was. Yet that scholarship had taken some of his friends to England; one, ‘Pugs’, had become an assistant editor of a national daily with the more sonorous name, Rajen Mehra, and another a lecturer in Birmingham; yet another taught in the vast, wilderness-like campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University – news came to him from unexpected sources, from hearsay, in which these fragments revealed a continuity. Ranajit’s ‘romance’ started when the family was in Delhi, when Jayojit had already left for the US. Ranajit was an undergraduate at the Hindu in 1982, would spend nights in secret at the hostel with his friends; and then his group of friends disintegrated and his mother decided he’d spend more time at home now, that he’d become ‘serious’ about his exams. But he’d go for walks in Lodhi Gardens – although Delhi was already reputedly unsafe after dusk – with a girl called Anita who was then only in Class XII in the Mater Dei School; or have milkshakes at Nirula’s as blue-eyed tourists moved about in Connaught Place.
Jayojit could count the number of times he’d met his brother and sister-in-law after their wedding on the fingers of one hand. If anything was to blame, it was the ease of modern travel, which lulled people into believing that journeys to those closest to them could be postponed. His brother had called him ‘dada’; Anita, the few times she’d seen him, called him ‘Joyda’. They were to visit him at some point in the future in America. ‘Come in September if you must,’ he’d said brusquely to his sister-in-law. ‘The Fall’s really as lovely as it’s supposed to be.’
It never rained so hard where he lived. Not far away from Claremont, in Iowa, he’d heard there were thunderstorms; they were brought there by winds from the Gulf of Mexico. But where he lived, there were contrary influences, for Claremont was washed by cool air from Canada. Once, when driving to college, he’d being caught in a hailstorm.
The college campus was off the motorway, four large buildings, two cafeterias, god knew how many lecture theatres, and a parking lot as huge as a desert. The college produced its own T-shirts, with ‘Claremont’ in Gothic letters inscribed on them. When Amala had left him and gone to California, he used to wonder at how this town, with its McDonald’s outlet guarding the highway at night like a lit oasis, had come to be so integrally a part of his life.