He saw the lane. Small houses, unlovely and unremarkable, stood face to face with each other. Chhotomama's house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows. A boy stood clinging to the rusting iron gate, while another boy pushed it backward and forward. As he did so, the first boy travelled in a small arc through space. When the taxi stopped in front of the house, they stared at it with great dignity for a few moments, then ran off in terror, leaving the gate swinging mildly and illegally. A window opened above (it was so silent for a second that Sandeep could hear someone unlocking it) and Babla's face appeared behind the mullions.
Chhotomama and Saraswati, the maidservant, came down and helped them with their bags. Sandeep ran up the stairs with his cousins, not looking back. There was a thrilled impatience about his movements, as if he either wanted to finish or begin something quickly. His aunt, by contrast, stood at the head of the stairs, in a place that was half sunlit and half shadowy, with immaculate serenity, seemingly not having moved from where she had said good-bye to him about a year ago; she said:
"How have you been, Mona?"
When she saw Sandeep's mother, she went down the stairs and grasped her hand in a relaxed way; all the excitement shone in her eyes.
"Didi . . . ," she said.
They went up in a procession, Abhi, Babla, Sandeep, his mother, his uncle, his aunt, as if they were going up to a shrine on pilgrimage. Later, they sat on a wide bed beneath an ancient fan which, as it rotated, moved unreliably from side to side, like a great bird trying to fly. The holiday mood transported them with its poetry; they could have been anywhere--on a hillside on the Western Ghats or in a cave in Kanheri. Sandeep's mother now opened a suitcase and distributed gifts she had brought from Bombay.
Gleaming objects, clothes, perfumes, emerged from the suitcase.
"And here are saris for you," she said to Sandeep's aunt. "Though Calcutta saris are the loveliest."
"Oh but these are beautiful," replied Mamima, unravelling a sari, which broke out into a galaxy of hand-woven stars, a cosmos of streaking comets and symbolic blue horizons.
"She's right," said Chhotomama. "Calcutta saris are
the loveliest. Though this is nice," he said grudgingly, touching the cloth.
Near them, Sandeep and Abhi silently wrestled with each other, looking vaguely like the two angry, rumpled pillows at the head of the bed. The grown-ups, who made a little shifting arena around their bodies, paid them scarcely more attention than they paid the pillows. Both arms pinned down, Abhi stared into Sandeep's eyes in mock exhaustion and with a distant affection.
"Give up?" cried Sandeep.
"No," whispered Abhi. "No I don't give up."
Irreconcilable as two conflicting principles, they fell to struggling again. It was, actually, an excuse for embracing, touching, exploring each other's presence; not having met for a year, they, great friends, wanted to do these things, and fighting seemed the only acceptable way toward intimacy. Babla, meanwhile, sat listening to the adults talking; his eyes darted from one face to the other, then back again, as if he were following a game of tennis, as if he could see questions and answers, like white balls being tossed from one end of the court to another.
The morning passed in a wave of words. Sandeep's mother talked about Bombay, about Sandeep's father's responsibilities in "the company," about how he worked too hard, and how he never had time to go anywhere. Chhotomama, whose problems were more ordinary and also more difficult to solve, loved listening to the remote complaints of his sister's life, objecting to or agreeing with, now and then, a phrase. Sandeep, an only child, felt the shared background of brother and brother, and brother and sister, throw upon him a shade like that of the cool, expansive branches of a rooted banyan tree. He wandered in the shade, forgetting it was temporary. Mamima brought his mother and Chhotomama cups of tea, which they stirred thoughtfully in the middle of a discussion; Saraswati went to the market and returned with a large, dark boal fish for lunch. The grown-ups never fell short of subjects for discussion; in the kitchen, as Saraswati worked, the pots and pans also held a different, but no less urgent, dialogue. Sandeep, doing something or the other with his cousins, gradually adjusted his senses to Chhotomama's house, to the pale walls, the spiderwebs in the corners, the tranquil bedsheets on the old beds, the portraits of grandfathers and grandmothers, the fans that swung drunkenly from side to side--all so different from the quiet and perfected apartment he lived in in Bombay.
After they had exhausted all their games, they had a bath. They stood naked in front of the bathroom; their clothes lay in a heap at their feet; their testicles hung silently and insignificantly like small, unplucked fruit. Babla's penis was hardly visible, a sleeping beetle everyone had forgotten to notice. He wasn't aware that anything unusual had happened; having spent only six years on this planet, clothes were still a relatively puzzling and uncomfortable phenomenon to him.
Mamima now kneaded Abhi's and Babla's bodies with mustard oil. She twisted them, took them apart, put them together; they surrendered to her as plasticene surrenders its infinite forms to a child's fingers. When she rubbed an arm or a leg, it appeared to detach itself from the body, with a wonderful absence of pain, and come into her skillful hands, a live, grotesque appendage. She would oil it till it shone, and then fix it, with a grim, satisfied smile, where it belonged.
A sharp aura of mustard oil flowered, giving Sandeep's nostrils a faraway sentient pleasure--it wasn't a sweet smell, but there was a harsh unexpectedness about it he liked. It reminded him of sunlight. In Bengal, both tamarind and babies are soaked in mustard oil, and then left upon a mat on the terrace to absorb the morning sun. The tamarind is left out till it dries up and shrivels into an inimitable flavour and a ripe old age; but the babies are brought in before they get too hot, and then bathed in cool water. With their frantic miniature limbs and their brown, shining bodies, they look like little koi fish caught from the Hooghly River, struggling into life.
The bathroom was a small square room, with a basin on one side, and a window on the right. The windowsill was cluttered with shampoos and soaps and unguents. On the other side of the closed window, pigeons sat through their afternoons with a serene lack of urgency, and sometimes shifted to look in uncuriously at a nude bather. One could hear mynahs and shaliks singing outside, though one could hear their fragmentary chorus more clearly from the toilet, which was next to the bath. An obsessive, busy music repeated itself behind the frosted glass. Sometimes, one heard the shrill cries of their young, and felt surrounded and safe.
There was a tap in the middle; at the top, a round eye sprinkled with orifices protruded from a pipe that was bent downward like the neck of a tired giraffe; this was the shower. There was no hot water and no bathtub, but no one seemed to miss what was not there. Sometimes, in the afternoon, Saraswati would wash saris and sheets, tedious yards of cloth, beneath the running tap, sitting fixedly on her haunches, rubbing the clothes, banging them repeatedly with a loud watery "pluff" on the floor. As she banged them, the bathroom echoed with a strange rhythm. Later, she would wring the saris into long, exhausted pythons of cloth. She would notice the boys observing her with dark, inquisitive eyes from behind the door, and she would say:
"What are you looking at, you hooligans?"
When they had had their bath, they trooped out like naked ruffians on an island, spattering the floor with their wet footprints. Later they went down to have lunch in the dining room; they dangled their feet ferociously from chairs round a large, shabby table with pots thronging in the centre.
Pieces of boal fish, cooked in turmeric, red chilli paste, onions, and garlic, lay in a red, fiery sauce in a flat pan; rice, packed into an even white cake, had a spadelike spoon embedded in it; slices of fried aubergine were arranged on a white dish; dal was served from another pan with a drooping ladle; long, complex filaments of banana flower, exotic, botanical, lay in yet another pan in a dark sauce; each plate had a heap of salt on one side, a green chilli, and a slice of sweet-smelling lemon. The grown-ups snapped the chillies (each made a sound terse as a satirical retort), and scattered the tiny, deadly seeds in their food. If any of the boys was ever brave or foolish enough to bite a chilli, their eyes filled tragically with tears, and they longed to drown in a cool, clear lake. Though Chhotomama was far from affluent, they ate well, especially on Sundays, caressing the rice and the sauces on their plates with attentive, sensuous fingers, fingers which performed a practised and graceful ballet on the plate till it was quite empty.
Later, after washing their hands, they went up to the second and topmost storey of the house. Sandeep's mother and Mamima reclined on the large bed. Their conversation was a transparent stream that occasionally trickled into desert patches of silence. Chhotomama turned on the radio, which began to babble immediately like the local idiot: "Both grandson and grandfather love eating Thin Arrowroot Biscuits."
"Nothing's as kind to your skin as Boroline Antiseptic Cream."
He lay back on the small bed, secure as a soldier in his trench, with the newspaper in his hands; he folded it several ways and made it crackle festively. His face and his arms drowned in the black-and-white ocean of the newspaper, surfacing intermittently. Sighing regretfully, Chhotomama fell asleep, the newspaper covering his face. When the breath came up from his nostrils, the newspaper rose and fell lightly, as if it were breathing as well. On the big bed, Mamima and Sandeep's mother began to dream, sprawled in vivid crablike postures. His aunt lay on her stomach, her arms bent as if she were swimming to the edge of a lake; his mother lay on her back, her feet (one of which had a scar on it) arranged in the joyous pose of a dancer.
A mournful song now came on the radio. It was an old radio, a wedding gift, shaped like a box, with outdated knobs and dials. When Sandeep was younger, he had thought there were little men, talented homunculi, inside the box of the radio, who performed those songs. But that seemed long ago. Beside the radio, there was a clock with a white face which always ran ten minutes fast. Every night, the time was readjusted, and every morning, with great accuracy, it had gained ten minutes. At about half-past four, when the clock said twenty to five, the grown-ups woke and stretched their arms like reluctant children. The Sunday lunch, then the Sunday nap--and the thought of Monday, that difficult day, was aborted. The radio crackled with the nervous, breathless sound of football commentary; dust had settled on the floor and furniture of the house.
Calcutta is a city of dust. If one walks down the street, one sees mounds of dust like sand dunes on the pavements, on which children and dogs sit doing nothing, while sweating labourers dig into the macadam with spades and drills. The roads are always being dug up, partly to construct the new underground railway system, or perhaps for some other obscure reason, such as replacing a pipe that doesn't work with another pipe that doesn't work. At such times, Calcutta is like a work of modern art that neither makes sense nor has utility, but exists for some esoteric aesthetic reason. Trenches and mounds of dust everywhere give the city a strange bombed-out look. The old houses, with their reposeful walls, are crumbling to slow dust; their once-gleaming gates are rusting. Dust flakes off the ceilings in offices; the buildings are becoming dust, the roads are becoming dust. At the same time, dust is constantly raised into startling new shapes and unexpected forms by the arbitrary workings of the wind, forms on which dogs and children sit doing nothing. Daily, Calcutta disintegrates, unwhispering, into dust, and daily it rises from dust again.
A house in Calcutta must be swept and scrubbed at least twice a day. Once, in the morning, Saraswati polished the floor with a moist rag, and Mamima religiously dusted the tables and chairs. The dust rose in the air in breathless clouds and seemed to evaporate and disappear. But by evening, it would condense, like moisture, and resettle on the surfaces of things. A little before sunset, a woman called Chhaya came to clean the house a second time, smiling at the boys as they waited impatiently for her to finish. She had a serious cultured face with a serious smile, the face of a kindly and understanding teacher; it was hard to believe she lived across the railway lines, in the clump of huts called the basti, from which whiffs of excrement rose on windy days.
She would sweep the floor--unending expanses, acres and acres of floor--with a short broom called the jhadu, swiping away the dust in an arc with its long tail, which reminded one of the drooping tail of some nameless, exotic bird. She would collect the dust in a corner, and here there would be an accumulation of unlikely treasure that had blown in from outside or had gathered, unnoticed, inside: a single elegant pigeon's feather, a page lost from a book, a dead spider which ants had forgotten to carry off, the long, black, tender loops of Mamima's and Sandeep's mother's hair.
Then she would dip a grey rag into a pail, and sit on her haunches at one end of the room, and swish the rag around the floor. Carefully, deliberately, she would begin to advance to the other end of the room, swiping the floor with the moist rag, her right arm moving regularly and automatically, like a fin, till she had reached the other end. Her odd movement forward on her haunches had an amphibian quality, half human and half of another world. It was laborious, and yet had the simplicity and poise of a tortoise's amble; when she finished, hardly a speck remained; the floor was bright as a mirror or a lake on a calm day. Then, at last, she would unbend her body and straighten her back. Most of the time she worked, her body was slightly bent, as if in obeisance to an invisible god.
There are several ways of spending a Sunday evening. You could drive to Outram Ghat, and then stroll with your family by the River Hooghly, watching balloons floating volitionlessly in the air, the steamers in the water, the smoky outline of the Howrah Bridge, like an altar on the horizon. You could stay at home and listen to plays on the radio once the football commentary was over: comedies, melodramas, whodunits. The heroine's voice would quiver like a note on the violin; the star-crossed lovers would frequently cry "Never!" and "Forever!"; the murderer would murder accompanied by drums and cymbals; the funny man would mispronounce words and fall in love with the heroine. It was like Shakespeare, and yet it was not like Shakespeare.
Sometimes Chhaya would come in and say excitedly: "They're showing a seenema in the field!"
"Seenema! What seenema?" Mamima would ask.
" she would reply, or the name of some other such film made forty years ago in the New Theatres.
The boys would run up to the terrace and lean out to look at the field that lay beyond the professor's house. This surprising piece of empty land, which builders and contractors had somehow overlooked, was usually a meeting place for fireflies; at night, wandering with their small lights, their miniature green hurricane lamps, they turned the silent field into a lighted marketplace of activity. Servants and their children, rickshawallas, people from the basti, had now gathered in the field to watch the seenema; a great piece of white cloth had been hung between two poles at one end. After some time, giant black-and-white figures came alive on the piece of cloth, and a white funnel of light ran from the projector to the screen; the audience sat dwarfed by the indistinct majesty of the figures moving before them. Voices, loud and elemental as thunder, boomed from a scratchy soundtrack. Sandeep tried to follow the story, but all he comprehended was the sound of thunder and the darkness of evening and the dance of black-and-white phantoms.
When they came down, their eyes smarting, Chhotomama looked up from the newspaper and said: "Let's go for a drive."
And Mamima, who had been sewing a button onto trousers, bit the thread and asked: "Where to?"
"Anywhere," said Chhotomama, with childlike conviction.
"But won't you be tired driving? You have work tomorrow."
"The roads will be deserted today. The roads are always deserted on Sunday."
They went down; Chhotomama backed the car out of the small garage that was attached to the house. It was an old, grey Ambassador; its faded, mottled colour did not seem to be its natural colour, but a complexion attained with age and unrewarded industry. It was battered like an old cardboard box, and the needles on the dials on its dashboard never changed direction, like futile compasses always pointing north. When it ran, the engine and the ramshackle body of the car combined to make a grating, earthy noise, like a drunk man cracking an obscene joke in a guttural dialect and laughing at it at the same time.
Chhotomama sat at the steering wheel with superior confidence; Mamima and Sandeep's mother huddled in womanly league at the back; the three boys were crammed together in the front, Sandeep by the window, Abhi next to him, and Babla inside, between his father and his brother, where it was hottest. The best place, by the open window, was graciously afforded to Sandeep by his two cousins, and Sandeep accepted it graciously, a tyrant condescending to please his subjects. Babla, the youngest, had to be content to squeeze into the worst place. It seemed there was no democracy among children--always an aristocracy based on strength, intellect, and seniority. But seniority counted most, because a boy of ten is bound to be stronger and cleverer than a boy of nine, having spent an extra year in the world, at a time when each year is like a precious deposit in a newly opened bank account. Among boys of the same age, there would be a silent tussle, a clean, honourable contest. Once a leader emerged, however, no elections were held.
They went past the bridge in Dhakuria, past Gol Park, where a statue of Swami Vivekananda, with arms folded in fierce serenity, stood staring unflinchingly at an advertisement for biscuits; past Gariahat Market; past Rashbehari Avenue, which would be lit with rows and rows of shops on a weekday, and which was distinguished by having the largest number of underwear shops in the world; then into Chowringhee with its colonial buildings, vacant and proud, looking on Sunday evening like a black-and-white photograph of another era.
A swift, streamlined breeze, such as only blows on summer nights, came in through the window. Sandeep, who envied birds and fish because they could float in their chosen element, the fish by moving with the tide and the bird by opening its wings and allowing the wind to carry it, transport it, loved going for drives because it seemed to him the only human equivalent of floating, of letting one's legs rest and setting one's body adrift. As the car turned right into Park Street, he felt at peace as effortless images of shops and restaurants passed by him as coral and anemones pass by a fish's life. A sports shop--the red letters said castlewood (INDIA)--had its glass doors closed, but its lights were on, and he could see two tennis racquets crossed diagonally behind the shop window. Still and surreal, they had the finality of a religious symbol. The car passed Flury's, tea shop, cake shop, and idler's den in one, where young clerks came with their newly married wives, wives they had never spoken to before marriage and with whom they were still shy and unfamiliar, and with whom they tried to make halting conversation across the table, where clever young men from St. Xavier's College came to glance sideways at the young, unassuming wives, who glanced sideways at them, together with the Anglo-Indians and the Chinese from Free School Street--here they congregated, like votaries belonging to a single religious order, each morning, afternoon, and evening, drinking tea and eating sausage rolls and nodding at each other. Around the giant letters, FLURY'S, were sprinkled small, absurd, many-coloured stars, a parody and tender caricature of the stars of the universe. MONDAYS CLOSED said a melancholy sign. As the battered car drifted homeward, the rear window, in a wide-eyed ignorance, recorded the last images--empty pavements, a drunk leaving a bar, a dog at a zebra crossing--of Park Street.
Excerpted from Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri. Copyright © 2000 by Amit Chaudhuri. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.