Amit Chaudhuri

On Sundays, the streets of Calcutta were vacant and quiet, and the shops and offices closed, looking mysterious and even a little beautiful with their doors and windows shut, such shabby, reposeful doors and windows, the large signs – DATTA BROS., K. SINGH AND SONS – reflecting the sunlight. The house would reverberate with familiar voices. Sandeep’s uncle, whom he called Chhotomama (which meant ‘Junior Uncle’), was at home. Chhordimoni, Sandeep’s greataunt, and Shonamana, his eldest uncle, had also decided to spend the day here. If you overheard them from a distance – Sandeep’s uncle, his mother, his aunt, Chhordimoni and Shonamama, all managing to speak at the top of their voices without ever making a moment of sense – you would think they were having a violent brawl, or quarrelling vehemently about the inheritance of some tract of land which they were not prepared to share. And, indeed, they were engaged in an endless argument (about what, they did not know) beneath which ran a glowing undercurrent of agreement in which they silently said ‘yes’ to each other.

Much of the talk concerned relatives scattered all over India and all over the world. Much of it was about money and the cost of living. Sandeep’s uncle’s business ran in fits and starts, like his car. It had to be pushed before it worked; it was unreliable. There was no demand for this and no demand for that, this supplier had let him down; that partner was unscrupulous and lazy; the times were not conducive to ... In short, money was short. ‘Today the palm of my left hand’s itching,’ said Sandeep’s aunt. ‘God, God, I wonder – it means I’ll have to spend more money – on what, I wonder.’ If the right hand itched, it meant one was going to get money – but it seldom itched, and when it did, money seldom followed. Someone was not playing the game.

The subject would switch from money to people ‘who need money more than we do’, and these people were usually poor relations, or, to be more accurate, poorer relations, old men and widows whose sons were too young to earn or who themselves had lost interest in working for a pittance. The second case was more frequent among men : there seemed to be something masculine about giving up one’s job and dignifying one’s idle hours by speculating about existence. So they had to be helped and supported, while constantly being assured that they were not being helped and supported, to which they would reply, with different degrees of sincerity, that of course they were and how could they forget it? They were helped and supported, not necessarily because they deserved it, but because money was meant to flow from the hands of one member of the family to another.

This kind of talk, whether at the dinner-table or in the bedroom, did not become oppressive: it was too full of metaphors, paradoxes, wise jokes and reminiscences to be so. It was, at bottom, a criticism of life. And there were unpredictable breaks, when Sandeep’s mother and his aunt would begin to murmur conspiratorially about the colour of a sari. And there were unpremeditated instants when everyone would suddenly stop talking, perhaps to think, each one about something different, and there would be a gap of hushed clarity, in which a crow cawed outside. And the children would be arrested in whatever they were doing at that point of time: one swinging by the window, one lying on his stomach reading a comic, and one sitting on the ground, listening and comprehending nothing. And then they would resume their argument, very loudly, as if they were early 20th-century actors in some green, neglected village in Bengal, where there were no mikes and no electricity, and every actor had to bellow his speech melodramatically before the large village audience would hear and applaud what he was saying. One would have almost expected Sandeep’s uncles and aunts to have been attired in the splendid, vibrant costumes that folk-artistes wore in keeping with the dramatic excessiveness of their gestures. Yet his uncles wore white pyjamas and nothing else, and the women were draped in faded, handwoven cotton saris – their bodies cool even in the cumulative heat of conversation.

Sometime during the day, probably not too late, nor too early, as on week-days, Sandeep’s uncle would take a bowl of water and other equipment to the verandah, place them on a chair, perch himself on a stool, and shave. This was one of Sunday’s simple-minded pleasures and self-indulgences: to shave at what time one pleased, and as long as one pleased, with the children nearby, watching, convincing one that a morning stubble was an amazing thing, and that the shaving instruments were holy tools, and that the act of sprinkling water on the face was somehow profound. When he would look up from the mirror, he would sense the stillness of the street around him, the endless, enduring world of pigeons and crows, the perpetual movement of pariahs, beggars and vendors, and he would feel, simultaneously, the warmth of the sunlight and the coolness of the brush on his cheek. The boys would stand around, noting his movements the way passers-by here in Calcutta break their journey to work to stare at acrobats or a monkey-show on the pavement. With curiosity and envy, they followed the determined attentiveness with which he put the cream on his brush, and then swished the lather with a flourish on his face, white and frothy, till it gained a rich uniformity that looked both ornamental and delicious, and then carefully ploughed it with his razor in primitive agricultural fashion.

Later, he would enter the toilet, armed with an ashtray, a newspaper and a pair of reading-glasses. The toilet was his study. Here, filling the room with cigarette-smoke, he read the significant news of the day; he pondered on ‘world affairs’ and ‘home affairs’; he pontificated to himself on the ‘current situation’ from a Marxist angle. He was a water-closet thinker.

This part of the daily ceremonies over, he would enter the bathroom to have his pre-luncheon bath, humming a small tune to himself. He would turn on the old, ineffectual shower and, suddenly elated, begin singing aloud to himself. He had a resonant tenor voice, a voice both strong and delicate. When he sang in the bath, the notes echoed within the four enclosing walls like rays of trapped light darting this way and that in a crystal, a diamond. He usually sang old, half-remembered compositions that had been popular thirty or forty years ago in a Bengal where the radio and the wind-up-gramophone were still new and incredible machines breaking the millenial silence of the towns and villages:

Godhulir chhaya pathe
Je gelo chini go tare.

Roughly translated, this meant

In the hour of cow dust, on the shadowy path,
Who passed by me? I felt I knew her.

Knocking on the bathroom door, Sandeep made a pest of himself by asking: ‘Chhotomama, what does godhuli mean?’

Lost in the general well-being of cleansing himself, his uncle replied patiently: ‘The word go means cow, and the word dhuli means dust. In the villages, evening’s the time the cow-herds bring the cattle home. The herd returns, raising clouds of dust from the road. Godhuli is that hour, the hour of cow-dust. So it means dusk or evening.’

As his uncle explained, his voice emerging from behind the steady sound of water, Sandeep saw it in his mind like a film being shown from a projector – the slow-moving, indolent cows, their nostrils and their shining eyes, the faint white outline of the cowherd, the sense of the expectant village (a group of scattered huts), and the dust, yes the dust, rising unwillingly from the cows’ hooves and blurring everything. The mental picture was set in the greyish-red colour of twilight. It was strange how one word could contain a world within it. Quite unexpectedly, his uncle now began a song by Tagore:

Bahe nirantar ananta anandadhara.
Baaje ashima nabhamajhe anaadiraba.

In an unsatisfactory translation, this meant

Endless and unbroken flows the stream of joy.

Its timeless sound resonates beneath the great sky.

It was a song of praise, a prayer-song. Sandeep did not understand a single word of it, but he thought that the tune and especially the sound of the difficult words communicated with him in an obscure way, and he was aware that the repetitive sound of the language had mingled with the sound of the water falling in the bath, till they became one glimmering sound without meaning. Whether the bath ended first, or the song, Sandeep could not tell. A cool spell of remote, waterfall-like music was woven and broken at the same time, as if the words of the song could not endure existing a hundredth of a second after they had been uttered. His uncle unlocked the door noisily and came out, smiling, a towel wrapped around his loins and his thighs. Pottering about for his new pyjamas and vest, he looked like the chieftain of some undiscovered, happy African tribe. His wet hair stuck out in all directions from his head, like a black, untidy porcupine. The bath, the inner temple where he had performed his last sacrosanct ritual and offered his songs for the day, was now empty and without music, except the sound of a single drop of water falling on the floor with a tone and perfect pitch of its own. Every few seconds, it seemed to repeat that exact pitch without alteration or variation.

At about six o’clock in the evening, the lights went out. The power-cuts had got more frequent with the heat, and two servant-girls and their little brother who had come downstairs and plopped shyly on the floor to watch the Sunday film on television had to be disappointed and sent home.

‘I’m sure they’ll show us a better film next Sunday,’ assured Sandeep’s mother.

‘It’s not me,’ said the girl with the unwashed hair and incredibly clean hands. ‘It’s Syed,’ nodding at the boy, who had worn an imbecilic, puzzled expression ever since the lights had gone off. ‘He’s never seen a film.’ The girl’s name was Runa. She was a Muslim janitor’s daughter. Sandeep was sorry to see her leave: he had often fantasised about marrying her one day. He noticed, from the corner of his eye, how her bright and ragged body ran impulsively down the stairs, and listened to her slightly hoarse, illiterate voice calling to her brother and sister to follow. The stairs were dark, and a gulf seemed to separate her from him. Then, two minutes later, he forgot she ever existed.

Saraswati brought lanterns into the room, each with a strong, yellow yolk of flame. Then she bent to light candles, and used the dripping wax to stick them onto chipped tea saucers.

‘Doesn’t Saraswati look like a witch?’ whispered Sandeep to Abhi. Indeed, wavering shadows from the candle-flame falling and shifting on her face gave her ordinary features a preternatural fluidity. Her cheekbones and jaw seemed to flow and change with the changing light, as if she were shedding her old face for a new one.

‘Saraswati, you took like a witch,’ said Abhi.

‘Be quiet, you little monsters,’ she replied. She had set down the candles in their saucers at intervals on the floor: one in the room, one in the corridor, one near the staircase. It made it look like there was a festival being celebrated, some esoteric myth in the process of being retold by symbols. As Abhi leaned forward perfunctorily to blow a candle out, and Saraswati rushed towards him – her intention, she said, was to drag him out of the room by his hair – Chhotomama called from the corridor: ‘Enough mischief, boys. Come on, let’s go out for a walk.’

So they went out for a walk. They went through narrow, lightless lanes, where houses that were silent but gave out smells of fish and boiled rice stood on either side of the road. There was not a single tree in sight; no breeze and no sound but the vaguely musical humming of mosquitoes. Once, an ancient taxi wheezed past, taking a short-cut through the lane into the main road, like a comic vintage car passing through a film-set showing the Twenties into the film-set of the present, passing from black and white into colour. But why did these houses – for instance, that one with the tall, ornate iron gates and a watchman dozing on a stool, which gave the impression that the family had valuables locked away inside, or that other one with the small porch and the painted door, which gave the impression that whenever there was a feast or a wedding all the relatives would be invited, and there would be so many relatives that some of them, probably the young men and women, would be sitting bunched together on the cramped porch because there would be no more space inside, talking eloquently about something that didn’t really require eloquence, laughing uproariously at a joke that wasn’t really very funny, or this next house with an old man relaxing in his easy-chair on the verandah, fanning himself with a local Sunday newspaper, or this small, shabby house with the girl Sandeep glimpsed through a window, sitting in a bare, ill-furnished room, memorising a text by candlelight, repeating suffixes and prefixes from a Bengali grammar over and over to herself – why did these houses seem to suggest that an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them? And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story – till the reader would shout ‘Come to the point!’ – and there would be no point, except the girl memorising the rules of grammar, the old man in the easy-chair fanning himself, and the house with the small, empty porch which was crowded, paradoxically, with many memories and possibilities. The ‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist.

The road ended, and it branched off, on one side, to a larger road, and on the other side to two narrower ones that led to a great field, a maidan, with a pair of poles at either end which were supposed to be goalposts. As they came closer, they noticed that the field was full of people whom they had not been able to discern at first in the darkness: now they came slowly into focus in the moonlight, like a negative becoming clearer and clearer as it was developed in a darkroom. There were all kinds and classes of people – college boys, schoolboys, couples, unemployed men, families, hawkers, groups of girls. The clammy heat had made them leave their houses or hovels in search of a breeze. It was a strange scene because, in spite of the number of people who had congregated together, there was scarcely any noise. The shadowiness of the place made them speak in low voices, as if they were in a theatre or auditorium where the lights had been dimmed meaningfully, and a film or a play were just about to begin. If there had been no power-cut, or if it had still been light, the maidan, needless to say, would have throbbed with its own din and activity. But the darkness had brought a strange lethargy and even peace to these otherwise highly-strung men and women, and there was a perceptible sense of release, as if time were oozing by, and the world happening elsewhere.

Just as Chhotomama and the boys were preparing to join the others in the maidan, to settle on the cool grass and pull the grass out luxuriously with their fingers, the lights came back. It was a dramatic instant, like a photographer’s flash going off, which recorded the people sprawled in various postures and attitudes, smiles of relief and wonder on their faces. Each day there would be a power-cut, and each day there would be the unexpected, irrational thrill when the lights returned; it was as if people would never get used to it; day after day, at that precise, privileged moment when the power-cut ended without warning as it had begun, giving off a radiance that was confusing and breathtaking, there was an uncontrollable sensation of delight, as if it were happening for the first time. With what appeared to be an instinct for timing, the rows of fluorescent lamps on the road glittered to life simultaneously. The effect was the opposite of blowing out candles on a birthday-cake: it was as if someone had blown on a set of unlit candles, and the magic exhalation had brought a flame to every wick at once.