andeep woke in the sharp light of morning to shouts coming vague and muffled from the distance. He rubbed his eyes, knelt upon the pillow, then jumped sideways from the bed to the window. His cousins were already there, watching something with deep patience and interest. It was their father. He was late as usual. He was sitting at the steering wheel of the old Ambassador, one arm casually hanging outside, one arm on the wheel, glancing backward enquiringly, as if he were checking some crucial point no one else could see. A few idle men had gathered around the decrepit car.
"Okay boys, start pushing," Chhotomama commanded without turning his head, looking keenly at a private landmark on the horizon.
The idlers were quite unexpectedly altered into purposeful, energetic men, as if someone had turned a key in their backs. They took position, like a small battalion--two by the window, two at the back, and another reserve, who would do the indispensable work of shouting from the rear. At Chhotomama's words, the team strained forward, and the recalcitrant car, after some stolid silent thought, decided to concede a few feet into the road. People had come out on the balconies, and were watching with sympathetic curiosity. Their eyes followed the car's reluctant progress; their lips parted to pass a few well-considered comments; husbands and wives who had quarrelled the previous night were reunited in their avid appreciation of the spectacle; brothers who could never agree about a single point reached a brief consensus about the condition of the vehicle; astonished children who had never spoken anything but thickly meditative nonsense uttered, to the delight of their mothers, their first word as the car belched twice into motion and then stopped again.
Sandeep and his cousins stared out in embarrassed silence. As they watched, their heads turned together in exactly the same way, tilted at an identical angle; their necks craned with painful tension as the disgruntled car moved beyond view. There was an apprehensive hush, then a faint rumble, then excitement as they saw the car returning, this time facing the other side of the road.
"Harder, boys, harder!" persuaded his uncle.
He looked almost heroic and serene, in complete control of the troubled situation. Sandeep's aunt, who had been in the verandah on the first storey, surreptitiously entered the room. She glanced shyly out of the window, then turned away, covering her eyes.
"Why don't we stick to horse carriages?" she whispered.
Chhotomama had passed out of view again. Sandeep tried to insinuate his head between the gaps of the mullions, but failed. Then there was a sudden throbbing in the distance, culminating in a long, drawn-out roar, an affirmative crescendo at the end of a tiresome musical. The engine had come to life. The five men returned, sweating, talking loudly and rapidly, showing off, playing to the gallery.
"Boudi!" they called. "Boudi!"
"Yes?" said Sandeep's aunt, hesitantly approaching the window.
"We sent Dada off, finally!" announced the reserve, who had shouted the most because he was gifted with an impressive voice. "The car's all right!"
Sandeep's aunt nodded and smiled. She knew that this kind of thing occurred too frequently in the mornings, and the derelict, geriatric car changed into a difficult, obstinate animal. It was one of those beasts that the people of Calcutta had been unable to domesticate--better, perhaps, to go back to the horse and the horse carriage. On bad days like this, when the fans stopped turning because of a power-cut, when the telephone went dead because of a cable-fault, when the taps became dry because there was no power to pump the water, and, finally, when the car engine curtly refused to start, it seemed a better idea to return to a primitive, unpretentious means of subsistence--to buy a horse and a plough, to dig a well in one's backyard, to plant one's own trees and grow one's own fruit and vegetables. Calcutta, in spite of its fetid industrialisation, was really part of that primitive, terracotta landscape of Bengal, Tagore's and the wandering Vaishnav poet's Bengal--the Bengal of the bullock-cart and the earthen lamp. It had pretended to be otherwise, but now it had grown old and was returning to that original darkness: in time, people would forget that electricity had ever existed, and earthen lamps would burn again in the houses.
There were two rooms on the second and topmost storey. The first was the large one facing the road; here, Sandeep and his cousins slept and woke, and here they wrote and rewrote themselves into their imaginary expeditions and adventures.
There were two beds, one big and one small, on which they voyaged daily into nowhere. The cupboards rose like ugly reefs from a fictional ocean, casting long, rectangular shadows in the evening. At one end of the room, there was a mirror and a dressing-table; the mirror imaged the room and gave it a sense of extra space. Next to it, there was a wooden clotheshorse, with several horizontal bars running parallel to, and on top of, each other. One would have expected to find it in a gymnasium, but here it was--it was called an alna, and all kinds of clothes and garments hung from its ribs. A lizard lived behind it.
The other room, facing the backyard, a few palm trees, a field, and a professor's house, was much smaller, with one double bed in it. Near the window, there was an ungainly study-table, with Abhi's textbooks on it and metal boxes that contained pencils, rulers, and erasers. But no one who studied at this table would ever read more than a page because, just by the open window, almost at arm's length, was a palm tree wearing its rings of coconuts like jewellery, balancing a crow on its broad, fan-tail leaf, and behind the palm tree was the professor's house, with two daughters always getting in each other's way, a rooster, an educated-looking dog and a cat without a conscience, and the professor's son, who performed such enviably intricate exercises in the morning. You just had to watch that window.
Within this room there was another room, hidden away in the corner. Three steps rose to it; it was a world within a world; a world, in fact, more richly inhabited than the sparse outer husk in which it was enclosed. If you sat at the study-table, it was just on your left. It was the prayer-room. Different gods and goddesses reclined or stood in various postures within. Krishna was there with his flute, his peacock plume, and his mildly flirtatious smile; Saraswati sat thoughtfully upon her swan, playing her veena endlessly and attentively; Lakshmi was accompanied by her mascot, the white owl; Ganesh, with his humorous elephant head, had been afforded a place as well with his unlikely mascot, the giant rodent. Durga, the mother-goddess, had been given a slightly more prominent place than the rest. Elegant and self-contained, she rode a fierce lion. Of all the gods, Sandeep liked Ganesh the best, because he seemed so content with his own appearance.
After her bath, Sandeep's aunt would wrap a sari around herself, not wearing the blouse as yet, so that her bare shoulders showed above the borders of her sari, gleaming, a little moist. She would not approach the gods until she had bathed; then she must rub Jabakusum oil vigorously into her hair, till the black hair reflected the sunlight and turned almost silvery. It was a sweet-smelling oil, dark red and rich, like wine.
She entered the prayer-room and lit two incense sticks, then stuck them, like slim pencils, into a perforated brass stand. She arranged slices of cucumber and oranges and sweet white batashas on three brass plates and placed them in front of the gods. The gods too are hungry, she said. They too need nourishment. Sandeep smiled politely but contemptuously when he heard this. But when do they eat? he enquired patiently. She muttered something incoherently--not an answer, but a mantra she had begun to repeat to herself as soon as she sat upon the shatranji on the floor.
Sometimes it was a mantra; sometimes it was a long incantation about the exploits of a god or a goddess--how, for instance, a demon had been outwitted, or a demon's sister had been embarrassed. Or it was a description of a divine wedding: how a god had won an earthmaiden, or how a goddess had been won by a mortal king after a prolonged and wasteful courtship. They were an irresponsible lot, jealous of each other, doing silly, petty things at times and silly, spectacular things at others--not unlike Sandeep and his cousins.
Sandeep himself did not believe in God, much less in gods. Like most children, he was the opposite of innocent: he was skeptical but tolerant of other creeds. What he enjoyed about the act of worship had little to do with belief or disbelief in divinity; it was the smell of sandalwood incense, the low hum of his aunt's voice, the bell ringing at the end of the ceremony, the white batashas, clean as washed pebbles, taken out of a bottle hidden in a small cupboard, the cool taste of the offerings that were distributed after the prayer, in fact, the general, dignified uselessness of the whole enterprise. And he liked the sight of his aunt surrounded by her gods in that tiny room, like a child in a great dollhouse, blowing the conch eloquently; it was a strange sight, to watch a grown-up at play. Prayer-time was when adults became children again.
At lunchtime, at the dining-table, Sandeep asked his aunt:
"Mamima, what did you pray for today?"
Separating some tiny and particularly persistent bones from the fish, she replied:
"Oh I prayed the car would start in the mornings."
"Didn't you pray for a new car?" asked Abhi, a highpitched inflection of disappointment in his voice.
They went on eating, inspecting the fish, searching for the fishbones, the tiny, tiny fishbones. Babla sat with his mouth open, into which his mother put little balls of fish and rice. What you prayed for mattered least in the prayer-room; all that mattered was the vivid entertainment of the instant. The gods, in their supreme, all-seeing inadvertence, forgot to answer the prayers, and the devotees didn't care. All that was important to the gods and the mortals was the creation of that rich and endlessly diverting moment in the small chamber, that moment of secret, almost illicit, communion, when both the one who prayed and the one who was prayed to were released from the irksome responsibility of the world. Oranges, white batashas, cucumbers.
Excerpted from Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri. Copyright © 1998 by Amit Chaudhuri. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo credit © James Brabazon