Abhijiit Dasgupta is an Indian editor with over twenty five years. He currently works in Kolkata as the editor of India Today. He has recently completed his debut novel The Vice Song.
Anirban always thought he was like a flower. Small, pink, slightly soiled, the sort you see lying unheeded beside some trees in a park or on desolate roads, trampled upon by some indifferent traveller. Or, as later Anirban reasoned, one of those which would have fallen off from a handmade garland without anybody noticing the difference.
When he was a child, barely a boy of six or seven perhaps, Anirban, tiny and pink himself, used to sit beside his mother who cooked the two-member family meal in an old, worn-out stove; from time to time, even as he listened wide-eyed to the stories that Ma told him, he picked from the broken, chipped aluminum bowl which he always kept beside him and where his mother kept serving him whatever she was cooking. It could be a spoonful of steaming, frugal vegetable soup or may be just a few oily, potato chips. Sometimes, on better days, chingri bhaja, the almost friendly-sounding Bengali equivalent of small, little-as-grains fried prawns.
Anirban relished these small offerings immensely. They added spice to the tales that he heard on those days he didn’t go to school. Which was every Thursday and Sunday. Anirban, friendless even at that age, looked forward to those hot forenoons in Kolkata, the easternmost, impoverished city of India which had attained cult status after Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy or, for better reasons, for its association with Mother Teresa.
He had never seen his father. During one of those oily, potato-chipped humid story sessions, made more interesting for the young boy by the wet sweat falling off his pink, bare back and forcing his glasses down every time he bent to pick a morsel, Ma, as he simply, like all children his age and at all times in Kolkata where he lived, called the woman who gave him birth, had told him his father’s story. Anirban found no particular interest in the man’s life that had sired him. Even at that tender age, failures forced him to look the other way. His father had been a clerk with the Food Corporation of India, came over as a refugee from East Pakistan much before the riots, married Ma when he shouldn’t have, and died of a strange, undiagnosed illness shortly after his son was born.
His father was 43 years when Ma was widowed without a penny to fall back on. She was 32.
But Anirban was fascinated by one little story which Ma told him about the man whom he never got to call Baba. When Anirban was born at the Campbell Hospital, now named after the famous Dr Nilratan Sarkar, and even as the tiny, pink baby lay sleeping in the dormitory cot beside his mother, his father, who had spent the better part of the day borrowing money from relatives and friends to buy medicines for his frail, anemic wife, had arrived
for a first look at his son.
Ma always told this story without changing a word; it was as if she had, like a born actress playing out her part, memorised the lines. Even the pauses, the blank, faraway looks at suitable intervals, the moist eyes, one hand bent with indifference towards the cooking pot, another stretched over her knee, always touching some part of his body when she spoke; it was, as if, she was in some sort of a communion. Sometimes, Anirban tried his own little tests; he would shift his leg or his hand where Ma would be touching him. In an instant, she would reach out to another part of her son. Anirban was convinced that this was not coincidental.
His father, a shy man, had entered the Campbell dormitory. Ma would tell Anirban later that he wouldn’t even look at his son. Natural shyness, may be. Nobody else in the packed dorm gave them any attention. There were too many babies lying around, anyway. And far too many relatives and new parents. They were alone. The frail woman with a smile for her husband and pride in her eyes; the man, who had just become a father but had no means to celebrate, had carried just a packet with him. A small, tiny, brown wrapper sort of thing usually reserved for flowers and sweets with little dreams inside them, like those which the temple priest forces on you before you enter the sanctum sanctorum. Tied with thin, red strings that Ma always used when she was tying little things that had to do something with her gods and goddesses.
Ma’s lines were rehearsed; this had been told so many times before. “He came in, I could make out he was happy, proud also…but he would not show it. He sat beside me: ‘Madhu, you have given us a son. I have nothing to give you but this. Tomar bhalo lagbe bodhoi. May be, you will like this.’ I opened the wrapper. There was a small, pink Madhabilata flower inside and a pair of tiny slippers… padukas…made of sandalwood. I had never known your father to be religious; nor that he loved flowers so much either. But…this had a different meaning. My name is Madhabilata, was it because of that? But the slippers? Janish, ami ekhono jani na keno tor Baba amakey ogulo diyechilo. I still don’t know why he gave me those….”
Anirban had seen those little slippers, not an inch bigger than his school eraser, kept on the shelf where his mother had her gods and goddesses lined up. Every day, after her bath, Ma would light up an incense stick, fold her hands and mutter a silent prayer. And, the little boy did not fail to notice, after every prayer, she would look at her husband’s photograph which had, since he died, also become part of that sacred shelf. Since she did not get any Madhabilata flowers in the market and, actually, because the maid did not care, Ma put the brown wrapper which her husband had carried to the hospital on the first day beside his photograph, not forgetting to weigh it down with a small coin.
She had kept that wrapper, only shreds of them as the years passed, till the day she died. Ma loved his father very much.
Ma would look far away. Then, the story would take a totally different turn. Far away from the man who gave birth to him. Mandrake, Phantom, Superman, sometimes, even Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne. And he loved Ma’s version of Lorna Doone. She, merely a high school passout, was well-read.
Anirban, picking from his bowl, continued to listen. Till it was time for his bath and lunch. Mother and son would sit together and eat. And then, holding tightly on to his mother’s saree, the little boy would fall asleep. Thinking of a small, pink flower which he had never seen, a young woman on a hospital bed, two tiny wooden slippers and a shy man whose face he could never remember once he woke up.
Anirban never dreamt. He woke up only when there was load-shedding. And the beads of sweat started gathering on his face and shoulders, wetting the thin, stained yellowish pillow. And that was sharp at 3.30 every afternoon. Those days, you could time your clock with the load-shedding hours. By then, Ma would be ready with his milk and a large plate of puffed rice. Anirban didn’t have much use of the plate; he put all the rice in the milk and, using a wooden spoon, made a paste as he crushed the cereal in the milk. His mother watched him do this every day as she sipped her tea. This routine continued till the day Ma died. She was not even 40. Anirban never quite understood why both his parents had to die so young.
The lane where he lived reminded Anirban of the TV serial, Nukkad, which he loved because of its street characters who were so real-like that he at times he even talked to them while watching the show. The lane- the Corporation address qualified it as a bylane leaving Anirban trying to figure out the difference- was grandly named after Raja Harishchandra or Harishchandra, the King ; whether it was a tribute to the first Indian talkie or the King himself, nobody was quite sure. There were rows of shops jostling for space on either side of the lane which had just about enough room for a rickshaw and a small car to pass through together and there was talk among oldtimers that when the going was good and the world was not such a bad place to live in, neighbours actually exchanged teacups and banter across windows of different flats. And wives, drying their wet, bathed hair, chatted one-to-one on balconies separated only by a partition wall.
Anirban lived alone in a tiny one-roomed first floor flat but what he liked most about his home was the small, squarish balcony that overlooked the dirty, dingy lane below. He did not socialise with any of his neighbours and, anyway, he was hardly home, leaving at 9 in the morning and returning late at night, sometimes not at all. The neighbourhood was somewhat wary of him; old men looked at him with disdain, the middleaged refused to acknowledge him and those, who could have been his friends had Anirban given them some hint that he was willing, gave him various names behind his back. His only communication was with the local stationery shop-owner, Bihari, who gave him cigarettes “on account” and never bothered about prompt payment and some local boys who lived on the small, lean pavements and escorted him up the stairs when he came home late at night, obviously too drunk to make it to his flat. Anirban was a sub-editor with the fastest growing English daily of Kolkata, a job for which he slogged, sometimes double-shifts a day, and which, at the end of the month, gave him just enough money to eat a little and drink a lot. Most of the time, Anirban drank with willing colleagues who, like him, had nowhere to go but his preferred regimen was drinking alone. He drank only rum which he bought from the store just next to where the bus dropped him, and he made it a point to open the newspaper wrapping and carry the pint of rum in full view of the conservative neighbourhood as he walked down the lane to his flat. At times, stopping at Bihari’s, he even opened the cap and deliberately took a swig or two, lit up a cigarette and then proceeded on his brisk walk home. He loved to shock Raja Harishchandra Bylane.
The locality hated him. But nobody told him anything either. He didn’t bother. This lane in North Kolkata had seen drunks for two centuries. As long as you didn’t make a pass at any of the daughters or sisters of the locality, you were just mere garbage. Nobody bothered.
Not even when Anirban and Kaka played antakshari from the balcony. A game of songs in which one player took the queue from the other, beginning his version with the last syllable. It was a game vastly popular in India but not a game which was played in the dead of night across a balcony and a still pavement. It was also a game, naturally, of music where defeat came when any of the players failed to continue the strains with a new song. It was, also obviously, a longish game with no set time limit.
Anirban and Kaka played this game every night.
Anirban had a dream. Someday, sometime, he wanted to write a story. He had no idea what he wanted to write, he had no clue why he wanted to write and, also, he was totally unsure whether he would be able to write at all. Finally, and this was the most difficult of them all, even when he had snatches of some story to tell, he would rack his brain through the day to come up with an opening line. And always, absolutely always, he failed. The first line always eluded him. His story continued to remain a dream. Anirban was now quite sure that he would never make it.
He had a passion. He loved Hindi films. He loved the music more. And this was where Kaka came in. And the antakshari.
Kaka was a character you didn’t find even in story books. He wore chrome yellow trousers which glimmered in the moonlight, he wore bright, fluorescent red shirts which made him look like a dancing, elf-like flickering ember, and he always had a thick, blue polka-dotted tie which swayed like a wizard’s wand as he sang. He never wore shoes; he said bare feet helped him dance better. He had a scar marring his face; that did not stop him from borrowing heavily from superstar-hero Rajesh Khanna whose nickname he adopted or behaving like actor-villain Shatrughan Sinha whom he thought he resembled, if only for the scar.
In reality, he was neither. He was simply a thin, impoverished man who sold tickets in black wearing a striped cloth wrapper which ended at the knees and a white shirt and hung around cinema halls through the day; but once the night shows got over, returned to the lane to get dressed for the night. And the game.
When Anirban returned late at night and poured his drink in the only stainless steel glass that he had, the neighbourhood had fallen asleep at least a couple of hours back. The crows were frozen on the treetops, Bihari had closed his shop long back and even the boys had pulled up the available piece of cloth over their heads and gone to sleep. The lane was lined with rickshaws on either side with the men who pull vehicles during the waking hours now sound in slumber. Nobody walked the lane to even reach any other destination. The streetlights, if ever there were any, were out. The windows of every family were closed. Except the open, jagged corridor-like sky above, and Anirban and Kaka below, nobody was awake. Raja Harishchandra Bylane was deserted and empty.
Tonight was the day of the full moon. The game, as with any other game, would begin with a toss.
Anirban was on the balcony. Kaka fished out the old Victoria from his box which reminded Anirban of a wrinkled magician who used to sit on the pavement outside New Cinema theatre near the huge media house Ananda Bazar Patrika with a black box, persuading people to buy con cards. The Victoria was a copper coin which Kaka had got from where even he did not remember but it shone under the moon and had a face of Queen Victoria on both sides. For both of them, the coin was a “She” and the name, simply Victoria. Unknown to even them perhaps, it gave their game a sense of royalty and pomp. Victoria, as well as the moon, was their mistresses of the night.
Kaka always tossed. And Anirban always let him win. For both of them, this was a ritual which needed to be played out in the darkness. As the coin went up to come down with a silent whir, and Anirban smilingly, confidently lit up yet another cigarette, the moon changed sides. Like a beautiful, sleeping wife. The game had begun.
Kaka began singing. His voice, as Anirban reckoned, was not all that bad but he never got the words right. The pitch was high, sometimes he went totally tuneless, but the tuneless mirth left Anirban asking for more. The level in the bottle went down with every song, Kaka swayed like a merry ghost.
Even the moon was in full splendour; Anirban, his fingers tapping the balcony railings, his feet moving noiselessly with Kaka’s music, was convinced that the moonlight was happy too.
Suddenly, he cupped his hands and drank some moonlight. He took a deep breath. The balcony moved. Kaka seemed to come near. It was as if he was on a swing, moving towards Kaka and then swaying away as quickly; never touching each other. Like Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and Amal. On the garden. One singing, the other in bliss. A permanent visual image for the Kolkatan. A point of reference.
The moon changed sides again. Anirban squinted. Kaka knew the rules of the game. Anirban never sang. Kaka would go on and on; one after the other, he sang the songs. Mostly popular Hindi RD Burman numbers, sometimes a Salil Choudhury thrown in, to keep alive the Bengali tradition, as it were. This was a one-sided antakshari. But with two players. Always. Like the Victoria with the same face on both sides, like the moon-wife which changed sides, like the moonlight which happily gave herself up in Anirban’s cupped hands.
Anirban poured another drink. The measure was now going awry; it was time he got rid of the stainless steel, he thought. The moon was a speck of delight in the red, unseen, deep rum. Anirban drank.
It was then that the first window flung open.
It was like one of those countless films that he had seen. Or even similar to the old, very old, Pramathesh Barua’s Mukti where the titles began with one door opening on to another, and yet, another. One after the other. Or Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool where that shaft of streaming light in the empty studio illuminates heroine Waheeda Rehman’s face in a mysterious, sensual black and white beauty. Anirban never quite felt the need to go beyond popular filmic metaphors and images whenever he needed to describe something to himself.
The light from the first window struck the lane like a moment of sudden truth. And then, another window. More light. And then, yet another. And then, all of them. The lane was awash with light. Yellow, goldlike, streaming across the lane, all over the frozen crows, the sleeping rickshaws, the boys whose faces were covered with cloth.
Kaka continued , trancelike, with his songs, swaying more as light after golden light, hit him like sharp rain. Anirban could not see much; he simply thought.
She needs rest.
He looked at his cupped hands.
The moon again changed sides. The Victoria glittered on the lane.
And, suddenly, they began. The people at the windows, on the other balconies. Applauding. Clapping. Cheering. Currency notes flying down from as high as four stories, in slow motion from terraces that Anirban never knew even existed, coins tossed from all rooms, people emptying their pockets on the lane. Like the Biblical manna from heaven, like the sweets that came down from the skies as Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Bagha sang and danced during wartime in that all-time classic.
Rupee notes blocking out the corridor-like sky as if a huge kite festival was in progress. The tinkling of the coins falling on the ground making a noise drowning the sudden alert calls of the crows, their sleep broken by a non-existent dawn.
And then, as suddenly as everything had begun, it stopped. The windows slammed shut, the lights went off, the crows went back to sleep, the rickshaws stood lined as before, the boys slept, their cloths covering their faces as if nothing had moved.
Kaka was not to be seen. Anirban cupped his hands again. But the moon was gone. She was resting.
The next thing he knew was the wail of the siren, announcing that it was 9 o’clock in the morning. He was late, terribly late, for work. The Darjeeling Accord. It was to be signed today. To supposedly quieten the hill frontier of Bengal, of which Kolkata was the provincial capital. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and hill rebel leader Subhas Ghising. He had sheafs of overnight telex as well as agency copies to sort and arrange before the chief sub and the news editor walked in. The junior sub-editor’s job in the morning was to do just that; keeping the meal ready for the bosses, they joked in the office canteen.
As he rushed to the loo, Anirban prepared himself for an assault in office.
It hit him like a first orgasm. Inexplicable, misunderstood, just the moment remaining forever etched in your mind like a Pissarro painting. Only the points making up a whole, not all of them visible, waiting to be touched.
Everything was in place like the last time he left it at night. The lane was flooded with currency notes, like a carpet neatly stitched for royalty to walk on. Anirban didn’t believe his eyes. Even the coins were all there, some even neatly placed on the rupee notes to prevent them from flying in the wind. Small, round paperweights. The small, dingy bylane littered with money. This, Anirban thought, as he tiptoed on the road, trying to avoid smudging any rupee, was the ultimate fantasy.
And then, something else hit him. More potent, more incomprehensible, more mysterious. Raja Harishchandra Bylane was indifferent. Everything was as should be; nobody even as much cared for the money floating around. There was fat, pot-bellied Chandu walking quickly to the market, jute bag in hand; Mr Mullick trying hard to maneuver his huge, anachronistic Ambassador car out of the lane; the wives, already in deep chatter across balconies; Bihari, welcoming him with his packet of Wills Filter, noting down the date for his account to be settled later when Anirban got his pay packet.
A breeze blew. The rupee notes went flying, like pigeons in flight all over the open sky. The boys, the only ones who seemed to care, rushed in, like those peons you see in government offices, placing paperweights quickly on files so that the babus could turn the fans to full speed.
One by one, as if picking rags, they got the rupee notes back in place, placing the coins on them, fixing the carpet in order.
Not one of the boys, Anirban observed, was even vaguely interested in putting away some of the cash. He saw Rupa, the college girl who stayed next door and looked like Juhi Chawla, that year’s Miss India, but who never ever gave him a serious look, pass by without, yet again, acknowledging his presence. She was walking faster than usual, trampling the notes as if they were dirt which would go off the leather-soft sandals she was wearing once she returned home and brushed them against the doormat. Like him, she was late too. Bihari handed him his packet of cigarettes with the same daily question, “Matches…?” Anirban, in a daze, walked past. He saw one of the rickshaws which had still not got a passenger. There was money strewn all over the arm-rest, the seat, on the ground; the rickshawallah himself was busy mixing his khaini. Unmindful.
Chandu-da was returning. “Aaj kissu pelam na bajarey, bujhley? Not even potatoes in the market… And there’s a shutdown tomorrow , as well. Have you heard, Mr Reporter? ” Chandu, smiling, the good neighbour suddenly, for whom all journalists were reporters, had never ever talked to him before. Here he was discussing potatoes with Anirban. And tomorrow’s shutdown. Not a word about the money carpet. Wasn’t anybody interested in money any longer?
There was something seriously wrong. Anirban thought he was Alice. He looked at the sky. May be, it would rain. There were clouds, dark, ominous. Did it rain in wonderlands?
It lay unnoticed, near the garbage dump. A small, new brown wrapper, neatly tied with red, thin strings, like the ones his mother used for tying pendants with faces of gods and goddesses hung loosely around his neck. Somehow, it stood out in the money carpet, the garbage glittering with coins. Anirban knew it was waiting for him. He stepped quietly aside, letting a rickshaw clatter by. Crumpling the notes as it trudged along.Then, quietly, very quietly, he bent down, picking up the wrapper. Tenderly, as if it were a baby.
He opened the strings. Inside, there was a small, pink flower. The Madhabilata. Fresh, soft, drops of water still sticking to its petals. And two, tiny sandalwood slippers. The padukas. Not longer than his school eraser. Long deleted from his memory; forever, he had thought, lost from his mother’s sacred shelf.
Anirban took a long look. “Janish, ami ekhono jani na keno tor Baba amake ogulo diyechilo…Why he gave them to me” His mother’s voice. Beating against his head.
“Ami jani… I know, Ma.” Anirban muttered.
Without turning around, Anirban silently slipped the brown wrapper, the flower and the slippers into his pocket, taking care that they did not fall out. He held on to them tightly.
He headed for the nearest medicine shop. He had to make a call.
The phone rang only once.
“Barun, sir, It’s me, Anirban. I am not coming in today.”
“Meaning? It’s already 10. Not one copy has been sorted. I am doing that myself. This is highly irresponsible…And how can you not come today? The PM is already in Darjeeling….”
“I am quitting, Barun, sir.”
There was silence for some seconds at the other end.
“Tui ki pagol hoye geli? You gone crazy? Drunk in the morning? What’s the matter?”
Barun-da, his chief sub, sounded shocked. And concerned.
“I am quitting, Barun-da.” Anirban repeated. “How do I send the letter? I don’t want to go to office. Should I post it? Or, may be, could you ask somebody to pick it up from home?”
He did not want to prolong the conversation. But Barun, sir was not convinced. “What’s happened? Gawd! If you quit like this…What about your dues? And what about the notice period? Erom bhabhey hoye na! It does not work like this. This is not done, Ani…” Barun-da’s voice trailed off.
“I should have done this long back,” was all that he said, before hanging up.
As Anirban, his hand grasping his pocket, began walking back home after paying half a rupee to the medicine shop owner for the call, it started to rain. Heavily.
The money carpet, Anirban realised in horror, was getting wet.
For the first time in his life, Anirban had got his first line. Taking out the exercise book which he had kept aside for that day when he would get to pen his first line, he started writing.
It was a natural. It flowed like the moonlight. And the rain howling outside.
He wrote the first sentence: “Anirban always thought he was like a flower…”