This novelette (10,000 words) initially appeared in Fairlight Shorts in November 2021, and was refeatured as Story of the Week in February 2022.
Over the airport the sky yawns wide, grey-brown with rainclouds gently weeping. As we land from Mumbai, this wide prospect dismays me. Has Calcutta grown up too?
But it’s the same old diesel-stinking, sunshine-yellow Ambassador taxi that carries Ma and Mohan and me cross-town. The same old double-decker buses – saggy-tired, wheezy-breathed, precariously lopsided – that block our view. The same old cycle-rickshaws – with their fragile plywood-and-rusted-nails frames, and seats half as wide as a piano seat, each vehicle yclept a two-seater – that struggle behind us.
Mumbai’s changing so fast I can see it, even though I live there. And that’s exciting. But Calcutta is still the perfect holiday-spot.
Through the windshield and windows, Ma scrutinises her city. The taxi driver updates her. Eight-year-old Mohan gazes out the other window. I took the window seat on the flight, but I’ll make it up to him. I always make Mohan fill the bit-parts in my show. This time I’ll give him a choice. Surely I can find someone else.
I don’t know what show I’ll stage this summer. I’ve already done a play, can’t do that again. Perhaps if we were staying with Pa’s side of the family – they’ve not seen my play. My very own adaptation of Julius Caesar, with me as Caesar and Antony. But no, I wouldn’t repeat it even then. Repetition bores me. Should I adapt and memorise a new play? That’s a lot of work. Ma’s family applaud anything I do.
Fronting Chhordi’s lane, last year’s construction site still gapes, skeleton-cheeked, its sand-mounds and gravel-piles now part of the road’s fabric. For our last visit before we move to Boston for Pa’s new job, Chhordi has marshalled the tribe full strength: as we crawl up the cul-de-sac, aunts and cousins lean into the first-storey enclosed balcony’s butter-yellow cage, frantically waving. They run downstairs, fighting with Ma to pay the driver and to carry our suitcases upstairs. I cling to my backpack. This hospitality, verging on violence, frightens me always.
We’ve sat all day – cab, flight, cab – but Ma’s relatives insist we must be exhausted, and pile us into baths – the water’s yellow from iron, and pungent with chlorine – and make us rest, around the black dining table under the loquacious, arthritic ceiling fan, before confronting us with our first challenge: mounds of shingara and roshogolla. Deep-fried potato-stuffed dumplings, and syrup-drenched milk-sweets. Doctor’s orders after our arduous day.
A new maid bustles upstairs with these evening snacks, and then in from the kitchen with plates – white china plates, for today is special. Chhordi always has a maid-in-residence, a new one every year or two. I catch her name: Maya. She looks barely older than me. All my cousins are younger than me – Mohan’s age, easy to bully into bit-parts – but this year I may have a proper playmate. Bossing kids gets dull fast.
‘And, shona?’ Chhordi folds my hands into the lap of her white, super-soft widow’s cotton sari. ‘How d’you feel about spending your last summer in India with us old fogies?’ I murmur that I’m enjoying myself, and that we’ll keep visiting. ‘God grant I may live to see you again!’ Sixty-three-year-old Chhordi speaks with her generation’s matter-of-fact sentimentality. Besides my grandma, Chhordi has lost four siblings, two of them in childhood. She’s one of five who remain.
Before we left Calcutta, Chhordi was my favourite storyteller. Twinkle-eyed, hoarse-voiced, she recounts again her tomboy mango-grove adventures in her father’s estate, in what is now Bangladesh – before the Partition of Bengal displaced the family, each fleeing the bloodbath carrying or wearing what she could. The same old stories. I nod politely, but resolve that I will never repeat a performance.
In Chhordi’s round, dark-skinned face, behind her bifocals, her eyes, no longer black, harden as Maya stacks the empty plates to carry them back. ‘Take them two at a time, can’t you? Why d’you have to be so lazy?’
‘Yes, Chhordi.’ Per custom, Maya addresses Chhordi as if she were her kin.
‘All these girls are the same,’ mutters Patu Mashi, thirty-three, Chhordi’s only child: in English my sort-of-aunt, in Bengali just ‘aunt.’ ‘Their hands are here, their minds are in the cinema-hall.’ Mashi is plump and dark, but has good features: straight nose, big eyes, arched eyebrows plucked overthin to sharpen her face, and plump lower lip. Her upper lip, however, looks pinched, underlining her philtrum. But her sneer relaxes as she turns from Maya to me. She doesn’t know me as well. She asks me how Pa’s doing – he’s fine, busy winding up business – and whether I’m excited about Boston. I simper and prevaricate. How d’you know how to feel about change?
Meanwhile Chhordi’s telling the grownups, ‘We only recruit village girls since that incident.’ The grownups clear their throats and study their white china gilt-edged teacups, side-eying us children. I know this story. Too hot to sleep under the nylon mosquito net, I eavesdropped on it three summers ago. All she’d done, this infamous maid, was elope with a boy. ‘But even these simple girls get spoiled by the metropolis. We keep having to let them go.’
The grownups settle into an evening’s gossip about friends’ and family’s illnesses, domestic blowups and financial troubles. I struggle to stay awake. The windows were closed at dusk against mosquitoes. The humid July heat is a never-ending blow between my eyes. And here there’s no AC.
I’m awoken by a wetness on my big toe. Peering under Chhordi’s best tablecloth, I find that another aunt’s baby has crawled out of the bedroom, under the table, and – toyless on this visit – is exploring my foot with her mouth and with now her tiny, razor-nailed fists.
An outcry. A fuss. The baby, plucked screaming from her play, is laboriously pacified.
Mohan’s sleepy, too, and he’s the mosquitoes’ favourite target – one or two always sneak in. Miming Chhordi, an expert mosquito-slayer, Mohan claps his hands at his tormentors, studies his palms to check for a kill, nil, follows the agile long-legged droners with his food-and-heat-drugged eyes, and jerks them away from his ears. Watching Mohan play with the mosquitoes keeps me awake.
Chhordi comes to my rescue. ‘What a grownup little girl our Progga has become, sitting so quietly!’ Pragya isn’t a Bengali name, so Chhordi doesn’t bother trying to pronounce it, settling for ‘Progga.’ ‘And how long your hair has grown! Why, you’re a regular beauty!’
I face Chhordi, half-annoyed, half-flattered. Every summer for four weeks, I hear nothing but how wonderful I am. Are my relatives lying or stupid? Sometimes I want to know. For I want to really be wonderful. I want never to wonder whether their applause is merely affectionate. Other times I wish everyone were all praises, and my ambitions were in hell.
Ma’s eyes widen, advising caution. ‘I’m just listening, Chhordi,’ I simper. ‘These stories are so interesting.’ I don’t relish lying, so I ham it up, so Chhordi can see my lie if she wants to.
‘Aha! Your love for gossip comes from your Bengali side.’
This time I ignore Ma’s warning glance. ‘No, Chhordi. Even in Mumbai, grownups gossip.’
‘Surely, surely,’ says Chhordi. The whites of her eyes look washed-out too: yellow-tinged, pink-flecked. Never settling on anything, they look either dreamy or wandering. Dreamy, I decide – she looks happy. ‘But true gossip – adda – that’s a patented Bengali skill.’
I draw breath to dispute this; I wonder why, if Chhordi wants to appropriate something for Bengalis, she wants to appropriate gossip. But Chhordi has a fit of coughing. I pat her back, reach for her inhaler and stand solicitous. Wet-eyed she pats my hand.
Playing at being domesticated, and demurring at praise for my school performance and politeness and mere existence, has dulled by dinner. Chhordi, who’s sat down last – after everyone else has been plied with third helpings of a dozen dishes – finally finishes her meal-ending sweet mango chutney. I spring into action. I seize her plate and dash kitchenwards over Mashi’s protests not to ‘strain myself’.
‘She really has grown up,’ Chhordi tells Ma.
Maya sits on the grey stone kitchen floor, eating, from a dented steel plate, a mound of white rice, with tiny servings of the vegetable and fish side-dishes and no serving at all of the chilli chicken. She’s rising to see if I want anything. Forestalling her, I squat opposite, and roll my eyes towards the fusspots I’ve escaped.
‘Hello! I’m Pragya.’
She tries to pronounce ‘Pragya’; she can’t; we laugh. I’m touched: she’s the only one that’s tried. She makes me teach her. There’s no ‘gy’ in Bengali, but she manages.
‘I came thirteen weeks ago,’ Maya whispers. ‘I’m from a village near Malda, where your mezdi lives.’ That’s one of Chhordi’s older sisters, who visits seldom, but rings often. ‘My village is fifteen kilometres from Malda by the bus that leaves twice a day, except Sunday, when it’s only once a day.’
‘Thirteen weeks ago, that’s… three months,’ I venture. ‘You must be good at maths.’
‘No,’ says Maya. ‘Only I’ve been counting because they might let me visit home in another thirteen weeks.’
‘Oh.’ I pause, sympathetic.
But she’s not wistful; she continues chatting. ‘How old are you?’
‘I’ll be sixteen next month. D’you only have one brother? No sisters?’
‘Less talking, more working, Maya!’ Chhordi’s stentorian voice knocks at the kitchen door. Then, coaxing, ‘Progga, darling, won’t you come sit with us?’
I’ve found my summer’s friend, my companion for my last show before we leave India. Obediently I rejoin the drone of grownups and mosquitoes.
Some of Chhordi’s other guests spend the weekend before dispersing to their homes across Calcutta. Drowsing, I listen to their droning. It hasn’t rained in days. The air in my nostrils is water, the blood in my veins sludge. The first-storey rooms overlook neighbours’ walls, which shields them from the sun but also from the breeze. Monday morning, after fighting my sheets all night, I cool my back on the balcony’s stone floor. When I roll over to do my front, the sun streams in. I drag myself up to the roof. The sun only peeped out to displace me – now it’s ducked behind shapeless grey clouds.
The kitchen sink is small, so Maya’s carried the washtub piled with dishes to the roof, and squats washing them at the water-tap built into the cement water tank. Cotton saris, starched stiff, hang from the iron clotheslines. Maya looks grim; I wait for her to finish work; her face relaxes. I’d be angry too, doing other people’s dishes. In the tank’s shadow, with a breath of breeze, the heat is bearable. She lays out the dishes to dry.
‘Mashi says you stage a new show every year.’ Maya’s voice is high-pitched and coaxing. ‘What’ll you do this year?’
‘I’ve not decided.’ A bright idea: let Maya decide. ‘Well, I could do a play. But I did it last year, and it’s in English…’ Maya’s waiting; I plunge onwards. ‘Or I could recite the first chapter of the Iliad, but that’s in Ancient Greek, and nobody understands that, though it sounds beautiful…’ Maya looks impressed, but still expectant. Perfect. ‘Or I could write some poetry and read it out, but that’s also in English. Or I could dance kathak—’
‘I don’t dance very well,’ I explain, alarmed. ‘Plus, they’ve already seen that years ago.’ And I’ve learned no more since then: for you have to dance barefoot, and it hurts, so I quit. ‘Or’ – I wait for her to lay out the last bowl, and face me – ‘I could do a magic-show.’
‘Yes.’ Maya claps. ‘Do magic!’
‘Your Chhordi and Mashi went to see P. C. Sarkar’ – India’s one big magician, pride of Bengal – ‘and I couldn’t go because somebody had to stay home.’ Ever since Chhorda died, they’re wary of burglars: in this houseful of women someone must be home always, and the lights on. ‘I was so disappointed I wept all evening.’
‘Well, I’m just a beginner. Don’t expect anything fancy!’
‘No, Mashi says your shows are splendid. She says you’re a role-model, so talented and obedient—’
‘Obedient’ snaps me out of the trance I was falling into. ‘They’re silly. They praise me for the silliest things. Just for sitting still and listening, or not cutting my hair. I wonder if they think I’m stupid.’
‘Rubbish!’ Maya mimes my pose, half-lying, legs stretched out. Her readymade, overlarge salwar-kameez of flowered cotton – minus dupatta, since she’s indoors – can’t disguise her slender, shapely figure. Maya has sparkling black eyes, curving cheeks, a pert chin, and a childlike vivacity that animates her prettiness into beauty. ‘Your relatives only see you once a year, and they don’t know you well enough to really talk about anything. But they love you. That’s why they say nice things. Not because they’re stupid, or you are.’
‘Ye-ah.’ We’ve decided my show for this year, but ambivalence about my relatives’ unconditional applause swamps me again.
Finding a new hobby is, I imagine, like falling in love, only less silly, since a hobby is something you can take charge of. Every hobby’s fun at first, quick and easy, and I want to stay up all night doing it. Then I encounter my first obstacle, and then it becomes a chore, and getting up in the morning is boring again. And then I must choose: whether to persist, or to try something new. And there’s no end of new hobbies, a pile of glittering toys.
No matter. Before my family audience I can keep staging a new show every summer. I’ve years to choose whether, someday, I want another audience. Big, strange, cold, honest. They will want one thing, and want it done well.
‘I wish I were talented.’ Maya follows an eagle across the sky.
The last thing I want is for Maya to misappraise me too. But I’ve not the heart to disillusion her, to confess that I’m a jack-of-all-trades. Rushing to change the subject, I ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ Next moment I could bite my tongue out.
Maya doesn’t mind. She giggles and won’t tell. I make her. ‘A beautician,’ she murmurs.
I’m about to snigger. Beautician isn’t a respectable occupation. Then I realise this opinion comes from the snobbish, gossipy grownups downstairs. ‘That’s wonderful,’ I insist.
‘You don’t think it’s silly?’ she says shyly.
‘’course not! Now, how does one train to be a beautician?’
‘I don’t know, really… I guess I’ll need to learn some English. And maybe there’re training courses. Or maybe I just practise hair-cutting and brow-plucking by myself.’
‘Splendid!’ I jump up. ‘Let’s start.’
‘What?’ Maya sits up. Lounging has undone her bun; her curls straggle across her cheeks.
‘I’ll teach you English. That’ll help you with beauticianing. And that way you can also be my magic-show assistant. If you want to.’ It’d be nice to do a show with someone new, with someone who wants to be there. ‘You just have to hand things about and say a few English phrases.’
‘Yes!’ Now she’s on her feet too, clasping my hands.
‘And you can cut my hair and pluck my brows for beautician practice.’
‘Rubbish!’ Scared, she lets me go. ‘Children don’t get their brows plucked—’
‘—I don’t mind—’
‘—and your hair’s already short.’
I suppress my irritation. She’s only a village-girl, with the same antiquated notions as the fogies downstairs. ‘I want it shorter… No listen, I cut my own hair whenever it drops below my shoulders. Ma shouts every time, for she says girls should have long hair. But that’s old-fashioned… D’you really want to become a beautician? Or are you just playing?’
Maya looks excited and scared. She looks how I feel when I’m facing a new hobby. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I do.’
I barely know her, but I could hug her. I restrain the impulse. I’m going to teach her, and a teacher must keep her dignity. ‘Then you can’t be old-fashioned. Short cuts are in.’
‘But cutting your hair?’ Maya surveys my face, trying out various haircuts by holding swatches this way and that. ‘I do think some short hairstyles are nice. Even some Bollywood actresses have short cuts now… But Chhordi will scold me awfully!’
‘No. Cut a half-centimetre every day. And pluck five eyebrow-hairs every day, per side. That way nobody will notice.’
Maya gapes at my sneakiness, then laughs, and jumps back onboard.
In my notebook – which contains my Ancient Greek, then my Julius Caesar adaptation, then two blank pages for this summer’s magic-show programme – I begin teaching Maya English. I write out the alphabet. Maya recites her ABCs right at the fourth try – except she calls S ‘esh,’ V ‘bee,’ and Z ‘jed,’ for Bengali doesn’t have these phonemes. She also calls Q ‘kwee,’ which puzzles me, for Bengali does have all the phonemes for Q.
Remembering she’ll probably only need spoken English, I shut my notebook and teach her the numbers one to ten, Good Morning afternoon and night, Hello Welcome Thank you and Please. These phrases are hard, for no Bengali says good morning unless they’re being funny, or thank you unless they’re being rude.
Maya’s progress delights me. Besides Hello and Tata, English is as foreign to her as Ancient Greek was to me. But she’s learning a new language faster than I did. Envy stings me. I know just how to soothe it. Nobody taught me Ancient Greek, whereas I must be doing a splendid job teaching Maya English. Shall I make Maya my show this year? That’d be worth applauding.
Next: haircutting practice. Under the overcast sky, mynahs shrilling, sparrows chirruping – there’re still sparrows in Calcutta, slow, kind Calcutta – the comb massaging my scalp, the rusted iron scissors sticking in my hair, the metal’s reluctance rousing Maya to overcome her own, I almost fall asleep.
‘Ma-ya!’ Chhordi’s voice awakens me, startles Maya and almost sends the scissor-ends into my eye. Maya dashes to the balustrade and casts the hair-clippings overboard. Then she darts towards the dried laundry.
‘Wipe your hands down first,’ I hiss, brushing my shoulders clear. ‘Hair sticks.’ She scrubs her hands on her hips. I help her pluck the saris free, drape the stiff lengths around her shoulders, then run to help Chhordi upstairs.
Chhordi leans on me. At each step she fetches up her left leg. Then, trembling and arcing sideways, her stiff-kneed right, onto the same step. Then a pause for breath. Then repeat.
Upstairs at last, Chhordi surveys the laundry and dishes. They’re just satisfactory, nothing to talk about. She scolds Maya for forgetting to come sort rice downstairs. The rice and lentils from the grocers are full of grain-sized pebbles; they must be sorted for every week’s cooking; today was sorting day, and ‘my poor mother,’ says Chhordi, had to help instead.
Maya hangs her head. I wink at her, but she looks sincerely ashamed. I picture Ma, bored stiff, begging to help. Ma’s always wanting a vacation, but never really taking one. I watch Maya head downstairs with half the laundry, hang-headed. What’s the fuss? Maya isn’t a slave, and Chhordi has hands too, and 63 isn’t so very old.
I lean beside Chhordi on the balustrade. The cul-de-sac is middle-class, but the back of Chhordi’s house overlooks craftsmen’s cottages and kitchen-gardens. ‘Can you name these plants, shona?’ Shona is gold: a unisex endearment. Bengali is an unsexual language; there isn’t even ‘he’ or ‘she.’ But there is ‘girl’ – and girls are to grow their hair long and beautiful, but to keep it up and hidden always.
‘That’s papaya,’ I reply. ‘And that’s spinach.’
‘Yes! You’re so smart.’ Chhordi takes my hand. Now I feel how rough it is, stiff and calloused. And she’s still wheezing from the stair-climbing. Reluctantly I grant that she’s earned the right to relax.
‘And that’s banana, and that’s coconut,’ I continue.
‘Good!’ As if half the trees in India weren’t bananas and coconuts.
But then what I call ‘datepalm’ proves to be betelnut – I explain that we’ve neither betelnut nor datepalm back home – and what I call ‘guava’ proves mango. Chhordi corrects my mistakes, laughing. Her laugh becomes a hacking cough, which she eases with rolling, rhythmic moaning, as one might rock a child. I prepare to run for her inhaler. She seizes my wrist and pats it, keeping me by her, managing her cough with pranayama breathing. Chhordi treats medication as a last resort. Maya’s come back for the other half of the laundry, but Chhordi redirects my attention to the greenery.
Farming is one of my longest-running hobbies. On our balcony in Mumbai, I grew a batch of tomatoes in tubs: tiny and tart, but fresh and mine. But the second batch got blossom-end rot, and I discovered video games. Now, in the gloaming, I make Chhordi name every plant in sight. I commit the information to memory – forgetting to wonder where, in Boston, I’ll see papaya trees and betelnuts.
A cuckoo, invisible, à la Wordsworth, amid the greenery, breaks into a resonant solo. He warms up with a dozen rapid-fire rising scales, then issues into the twilight one long, coaxing, inquisitive note. He waits for a mate to respond. The midnight-blue silence, dispersed by his call, regathers, abuzz with mosquitoes and crickets. He repeats his call. Still silence. His questioning notes race higher and faster until, his sweet voice broken, he assaults the world ceaselessly, no longer pausing for reply.
Chhordi sings back to him. A poor imitation, but he falls for it, directing his desperation towards us. I try whistling at him. But whistling is one skill that eludes me.
‘We call him the mad cuckoo,’ says Chhordi. ‘Endlessly he calls, all through the night, for a mate he never finds… The mosquitoes are biting. Come downstairs, shona. Maya, close the door behind you. The kitchen-counter needs washing. Properly. Last time you left dirt piled in the corners.’
My magic-show preparations don’t take long. I’m no good at (didn’t want to practise) sleight-of-hand, so I rely on mechanical tricks. A shoebox, paper-covered and painted – painting was my first hobby – becomes the mindreading device for my grand finale. My programme finalised, my patter scripted, barred from going out alone – ‘you’ll get lost, shona’ – I wander the stuffy stone-floored house, looking for fun.
I sneeze at Mashi’s dumbbell-sized, microscopic-font college history textbooks. I watch Mohan amusing himself endlessly with Mashi’s old Lego set. They call Mohan pigeon, meaning peaceful. I wonder if he’s a little slow – I tired of Lego years ago.
For a change, Mashi takes me to work, my hand grasped in hers. ‘Have you ever ridden a Calcutta bus?’
‘Yes, years ago. And I’ve been on Mumbai trains too, so I know it’s crowded.’
‘You’ve no idea how crowded! If you get an itch – say, in your chin – there’s no room to lift your hand to scratch yourself, for you’re packed in like sliced bread. So, what d’you do?’ I look up. Eyes laughing, Mashi draws out my suspense. ‘You just rub yourself on your neighbour’s shoulder.’ She makes like a cow rubbing her chin on a fence. Torn between giggling and dignified silence, I chortle.
But in the bus, staring at the wide back of a woman in a low-cut blouse, sure enough, I feel my forehead inexplicably itching, and sure enough, I can’t free my hands. Sternly I tell myself I’m just playing at itching. But then my itch isn’t in my chin, it’s in my forehead: surely that means it’s real? Before I can decide whether my itch is real, I’m rubbing my forehead on the stranger’s back, like a bull headbutting a red flag. The wide-backed woman spins furiously around – where did she find the room? – but, when she sees it’s just a girl, smiles and nods. Ostentatiously, with my hand no longer trapped, I scratch my forehead no longer itchy.
Mashi works in the West Bengal Electrical Corporation. Her father was a manager here; after his sudden death, they awarded her a clerical job. Work is slow. She tells me again the story of his death. Chhordi, Chhorda and Mashi were on their first holiday in years; he had a stroke; he never regained consciousness.
Tears stand in her eyes. I weep, too. Her lips quiver and briefly she looks like a child, open and baffled. Then someone brings her a file. She wipes her kohled eyes carefully and prims her lips. As she examines the file, never have her overplucked eyebrows looked more poised, her philtrum more forbidding. And that’s when, from the tears we’ve shared, the truth flashes at me. Mashi’s not cold, she’s too warm: thus the sneer. I resolve to get to know my aunt better in the fortnight that remains.
But after the rice-heavy lunch, in the cool high-ceilinged room, with fans hanging from long steel rods, I doze the afternoon away at her desk. At 5.30pm I resurface, ill-tempered from day-sleep, my resolution left behind on sleep’s ocean-floor.
Next, Mama, Ma’s younger brother, takes his turn to amuse us – or me, since Mohan inexplicably sleeps through the nights. Mama arrives early, before work one morning. He’s an engineer at the Electrical Corporation. In 1999, the public sector is West Bengal’s main employer.
Mama carries a sunshine-yellow kite. ‘At dawn there was a hint of breeze,’ he explains.
But the hint has vanished. I run from end to end of the balcony, flinging the kite skywards. It refuses to fly. ‘Never mind,’ says Mama, mopping his brow. ‘Maybe another day. You’re drenched, poor child. Go take a bath.’ I do. But he must go, dewy-browed, to work: repairing the transformers, which break down like clockwork.
I give up seeking other entertainment. Ignoring my relatives’ hints (would-be questions) about my spending a lot of time with ‘that silly girl,’ I haunt Maya.
Chhordi scolded her roundly this morning for leaving the teapot unattended, overbrewing. But it was Chhordi who’d called her away to sweep the bathroom. Maya’s been tightlipped all morning. Now, leaning over the back balustrade, chattering about Chhordi’s humbler neighbours, her face relaxes. ‘This,’ indicating the house with betelnuts and mango – or was it guava? – ‘is a potter’s.’
‘Oh.’ That explains the rows of terracotta plant pots. Somehow the backside neighbours never enter the grownups’ adda. When Chhordi was naming trees, she didn’t acknowledge the houses they surround. ‘Pottery sounds fun. I wonder if he’d let us practise on his wheel.’
Into the midmorning from the potter’s two-room flat-roofed cement cottage erupts a voice. No, it’s a duet, the two voices similar in pitch: a man’s shriek and a woman’s hoarse alto. They’re quarrelling; the woman’s monopolising; the man can’t get a word in edgewise. But it all sounds gibberish.
Maya giggles. ‘Yes! Bangal.’ That’s the dialect they speak over the border, in Bangladesh. ‘Can’t you understand it? Your Chhordi’s family came from Barishal.’
‘Well, I didn’t… What’re they arguing about?’
‘She’s calling him lazy, and he’s inviting her to walk out.’
‘Oh!’ Should we call off afternoon English? I’ve never witnessed a real-life breakup. ‘Finally, something exciting.’ I look around for a chair, then frown with concentration, turning my head for a better listen.
‘Oh, no,’ Maya laughs. ‘They’re always fighting. It’s just for fun. They get their anger out and go on living happily together.’
‘That’s silly! They should just get a divorce and go their own ways and be actually happy.’
Now with Maya’s ears I hear the relish in the woman’s voice, the husband’s lavish melodrama as he curses his own simplemindedness. Under the papaya trees’ tiered umbrella of hand-shaped leaves stands their ten-year-old, a toddler on her hip, playing mother. She puts him down to fill a steel bucket at the hand-pumped borewell standing in a little courtyard: the stone water-eroded, slippery-smooth, the water-stagnant edges mossy. Abandoned, the toddler’s lip trembles. He soothes himself cry-humming, windmilling his arms towards mother-sister.
In Maya’s free hour before lunch prep, we have our English lesson. How d’you do? Very well, thank you. I fancy going at lessons all night. In this heat I can’t sleep, so I imagine Maya can’t either. And never has hobby of mine raced so smoothly forwards. But Maya’s interest flags, so I adjourn school.
We sit in the shade eating dried tamarind. Maya tempers hers with salt. I tell her that defeats the point. She scrunches up her face watching me bite into a whole pod saltless. Truth be told, the acid has flayed my tongue, and when I bite into solid food later, my teeth will shiver. But it’s worth all that to watch Maya admiring – and in this admiration there can be no feigning – my tart resistance.
Out come the blotched mirror and iron scissors. The iron’s all rust: this pair’s a spare, which Chhordi’s forgotten and Maya’s reclaimed. Tetanus? I think I’m vaccinated. Anyhow, if I did fall ill, the hospital might have air-conditioning. Have you ever been so hot, so long, you can’t think of anything but how to get cool, just for an hour?
I sit against the water tank, legs outspread. Maya sits on her knees facing me. First, she trims my hair. I told her a half-centimetre is about as tall as my thumbnail, so she measures my hair with my thumbnail. Yesterday I discovered, by Mashi’s old primary-school geometry ruler, that my thumbnail’s actually a whole centimetre. Maya would be upset; I don’t tell her. Anyway, I want my hair short, and nobody’s noticed.
Maya’s worked out how to make the scissors cut. They’re long, but she makes short snips, at an acute angle, with the blades’ middles. Sharp and smooth, snip-snip, and with the triple potion of heat, boredom, and firm comb-teeth and light fingers on my scalp, I doze. The sound of Maya’s heels, bounding to throw my hair overboard, awakens me.
Next, Maya tries on fake hairstyles. With hairclips – her own, plus a few borrowed from Mashi, a motley crew – she fastens my hair this way and that. She makes it look like I’ve got a bun. I marvel but shake my head. ‘No long hair for me, please, thank you,’ I say slowly in English.
Maya studies my lips, head on one side, and smiles. I demand a translation. ‘I don’t want long hair?’ Maya offers.
‘You already knew that. Literal translation?’
She gives it to me. I grunt, withholding excess admiration. Next, Maya parts my hair over my left ear, makes it poufy over my crown, and pins it back at my nape.
She moves the mirror in my hand, this way and that, giving me a tour, backside not included. ‘You like this short cut?’
‘Very nice work, it looks good, but too stylish for me,’ I say in Bengali.
Maya laughs. ‘Shouldn’t I urge my clients to be as stylish as possible?’
I don’t know, but I’m teacher, and teacher must always have answer. ‘I think you should do what the client wants.’
Maya’s still assessing and adjusting my hairstyle, quick-eyed, light-fingered. ‘Even if the client’s as unstylish as you?’
‘That won’t happen, for I’ve never been to a beauty parlour.’
Maya sits back on her haunches, perplexed. ‘But if I give a client a haircut they want, but that doesn’t look good, they won’t come back.’
It’s too hot to sit. I lie down, head raised on hands to protect my hairstyle. It looks good, and I wish I could show it off downstairs, but they’d scold Maya. ‘Well, your supervisor will tell you what to do… You know, Ma says parlours sell every client the most expensive things. Dyeings, straightenings, serums and whatnots. That’s what you’ll probably be doing.’
‘But that’s awful,’ Maya cries. ‘Shouldn’t I find out what each client wants?’
‘Ha! You just said you wanted to override unstylish clients.’
‘Hmm!’ Maya lies down beside me. ‘I hadn’t thought about that – do I work for the client or my employer?’
I turn. Her wide face is pinched with worry. ‘It’s hard isn’t it?’ I sympathise. ‘Picking one thing, and accepting all the good and bad about it? And all the while you’re looking across at another job, thinking that looks all smooth.’
‘I guess… But I’ve never felt that way about my job.’ I glance at her, surprised. ‘I mean I’ve never thought about my job at all, I’ve just done it. I never realised I had options. The beauty parlour was just a daydream, till now.’
Unease accelerates my heart. I pat her arm. ‘We’ll get you the job you want. Don’t worry.’ But I don’t know if I can, and too late I wonder if this was the right thing to do. I’m relieved when Chhordi calls ‘Ma-ya!’
Maya and I gather the laundry and draw out the folds of sari stuck together with rice-starch. Standing twenty feet apart we have a nice tug-of-war. But we can’t be too rough, lest the starch-glued fabric rip. Maya will iron out the small creases tonight, when everyone’s in bed, the dining-room floor cleared. We fold the laundry and stack the dried dishes. We lean over the balustrade. Maya quizzes me about the plant-names Chhordi taught me. I’ve already forgotten.
Up here it’s cooler, almost cool as the day yellows. Lying on our backs we watch the grey day turn a faint, even yellow, our arms and legs outspread. For it still hasn’t rained, and our body heat, humidity-drugged, refuses to travel forth: it lingers heavy on our skins, a blanket unsheddable. Our sweat doesn’t cool us, only prickles us, as annoyed as we are. Maya, who complains about the heat only when I do, distracts me with stories about her family.
‘I’ve two older sisters, then me, then another sister. And then finally my parents had a son. He’s only ten.’ Her sisters Maya calls plain Lokkhi, Dugga, and Moushumi – but her brother wades in nicknames. Shona, moti, chandermookh: sun, pearl, moonface. ‘Lokkhi got married three years ago, and Dugga last year, and soon it’ll be my turn.’
Maya’s parents farm a quarter-acre, mostly rice and greens. To make ends meet, they’re also selling water from a borewell. All over the farm districts, Maya says, all the water has become saline, so they’re digging, digging deeper into the good earth’s bowels.
‘What did your older sisters do before they got married?’
‘Lokkhi helped out around the farm. She was bright, so she also took tuitions for kids. Dugga got a job like mine, in Malda. When there was enough money for their dowry, and when my parents found a boy, they came home to get married. They’re both settled near home, and they’ve already got kids… Moushumi wants to go to college, but my parents are saving for my dowry and for Shona’s college… Though Shona’s quite lazy!’ Maya laughs. Even her brother’s flaws aren’t flaws. ‘I send all my money home, we all do, and I tell them to use it for Moushumi. She’s bright, too, she can get a scholarship soon… As for saving for my dowry – I do want to marry, but not straightaway.’
‘’course not. Sixteen’s too young… D’you send all your money home?’
‘I get board and lodging here, so what do I need money for?’
‘How much d’you get?’
‘Rs. 3000 a month.’
‘Ma-ya!’ Chhordi calls.
‘Shit! Grocery shopping!’ Remembering, Maya slaps her forehead and clatters downstairs.
I lie stunned. In Mumbai, our maid only comes an hour a day, to mop and do dishes: for that she gets Rs. 3000. Well, but in Mumbai you can’t get ten shingara for Rs. 20. So maybe Maya’s salary is fair. But then I remember Pa gets Rs. 60,000 for sitting in an AC office all day. Pa has a degree, but I suspect Pa couldn’t’ve learned English as fast as Maya’s learning it – if he hadn’t already learned it in school.
Stalled in my armchair appraisals of the fair wages of labour, I yawn at a glossy black raven intelligently tilting his head at me from the balustrade.
Next afternoon, as Maya’s pouring the rice from newspaper packets into glass jars, Chhordi counts the change Maya’s brought back from the shops. It’s ten rupees short. There’re recounts, questions, explanations, protests and tears. ‘Try to remember where you left it,’ concludes Chhordi, sternly – refraining from adding ‘thief,’ perhaps only because we’re company.
Afterwards, I sneak upstairs. In the mosquito-whining, starless night squats Maya, sobbing quietly, doing another herculean load of dishes.
‘To accuse me of stealing,’ she cries, ‘And a piddling ten rupees!’ I squat by her, my arm around her shoulder, the dishwater lapping our feet. ‘I’ll run away!’ she cries. ‘I’ll leave your Chhordi and Mashi, and my parents too. I’ll wait for this month’s salary, and I’ll keep it all for myself, and I’ll take a train – somewhere!’
‘Yes, you should. But hush, now, we’ll plan it out properly later. Don’t cry. Your snot’s dribbling into your mouth – and it’s salty, isn’t it?’
Curiously Maya licks her snot, screws up her face, wipes her tongue on her wrist, and laughs. Dismayed, I remember it’s from Chhordi, years ago – after she pulled out a milk-tooth that I’d nursed, dangling by a flesh-thread, all week – that I learned this diversionary tactic. Well, stolen though this trick be from our enemy, it works on my friend.
Afterwards, sedated by her own tears, eyes swollen, but face peaceful, Maya says: ‘You’re the only person who’s ever believed in my dream… I mean I only told one other person, and she scolded me, so I never told anybody else.’ Under me the stone is cool now, the breeze gentle. If only they’d let us sleep up here. The mosquitoes deny us the night.
‘Forget them, Maya. We only get one life. We must follow our dreams.’ This sounds weak, and Maya only hmms, so I add, ‘You know what you want to do. D’you know how much I envy you that?’
‘You envy me!’
‘Yes. I don’t know yet what I want to do.’ I will soon, of course. Someday. ‘You should run away… Perhaps we can both run away.’
‘What!’ Maya laughs. ‘But you’re going abroad. You’ll have so much fun!’
‘I’m not sure I want to go. Maybe I won’t make friends, maybe I’ll be bad at school, maybe I won’t understand the accent… Listen, you know all about farming, don’t you?’ Maya nods tentatively. ‘Well, we can start our own farm!’ I sit up. Suddenly I see it all before me. ‘Yes! You’ll teach me farming, and I’ll teach you English. That’ll be useful to, uh, well, get better prices. People don’t cheat you if you speak English… And we’ll do exactly what we want!’
Maya hesitates. I make allowances: naturally a person can’t jump into a brand-new scheme right after they’ve been crying. I fetch the railway timetables and an atlas.
Maya warms up to our project. By the flickering yellow roof light, we scrutinise the map for a good riverside place to buy some farmland. I’ll borrow the money from Pa. How much can a wee plot cost, and how hard can growing wee tomatoes be? We design a house with my writing room facing east, and Maya’s beauty parlour facing the street.
It’s the most awake I’ve felt all summer. Afterwards I realise I even forgot the heat.
Afternoon by afternoon, my brows grow imperceptibly thinner, my hair shorter. Pa, seeing me back home after a month, might notice, but Pa doesn’t care about such silly things. I make sure to sit with the grownups every night at adda, playing at adulthood, half-hoping they’ll notice, relieved that they don’t. I’ve delivered Caesar’s speeches, and done portraits of Napoleon – but, minus swords and guns, my own revolutions are sneaky.
Maya’s English progresses too. We rehearse the lines she’ll say when introducing tricks and passing items around the audience. Aided by Mashi’s stack of Femina magazines, we continue learning hairstyling lingo.
‘She’d scold me no end if she found me with this,’ Maya giggles. ‘She says such things turn girls’ heads.’
‘She’d scold me too… I don’t understand grownups. They want me to grow my hair, and use a mask for my pimples – but simultaneously I must pretend not to care about my appearance. Until a certain age. And then suddenly one day spend thousands of rupees on a bridal makeover. Ugh! No use puzzling over those old fogies.’ I’ve made another misstep quoting the price of bridal makeovers, so I blurt, ‘Translate “He’s a good boy and his sister’s a bad girl.”’ I coo ‘good,’ and snap ‘bad.’ I’ll phase out these cues; for now, they make us laugh.
Maya translates, haltingly but accurately, this and a few other sentences I invent. Impressed, I propose to teach her to write English. That way, we can stay in touch. For I can’t write Bengali. Maya didn’t learn English in her state-board school, and I learned neither Bengali or Punjabi in my international-board school. I can speak my parents’ mother-tongues, but can’t read them.
‘Me, write English!’ Maya giggles, then looks sad.
I’m hurt. Does she doubt my pedagogical skills, or my loyalty? ‘We are going to stay in touch, aren’t we?’
‘Of course,’ says Maya. ‘But, I mean, I don’t even know where I’ll be next year…’
‘That’s why you should learn to write, then it won’t matter where we are.’ But I shelve this project. We’ve only ten days left: probably too little time. If only I’d started the day I arrived! Teaching an almost-grownup spoken and written English in four weeks – would that have been a world record? I eye my promising pupil, hope and uncertainty tussling.
‘What’re you staring at?’
Friendly stars dance in her night-black eyes. She told me, and she’s letting me help her. If I can tell anyone, it’s her. Teacher’s dignity be damned. ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ I blurt. ‘I do well in school, and my teachers say I’m promising, but… Everything I try is fun at first, then it gets hard. I can’t choose one thing, I feel scared. What if I choose wrong?’
‘Yes, that is scary,’ says Maya. ‘It’s like choosing who you’re going to spend your life with. At least you’re going to have a choice about your career. My parents are probably already looking for grooms for me.’
‘Hmm…’ I disapprove of child marriage, but Maya hasn’t promised to stay in touch so I withhold my disapproval. ‘How did you decide to become a beautician?’ Perhaps there’s a moment I need to have. If I know Maya’s, I can look for mine.
Maya still giggles discussing her vocation. I face her steadily; she settles down and hugs her knees: a cosy ball of dreaming. ‘In the village, we only had a naapit, who went around every morning shaving men’s beards. The first time I saw a beauty parlour was when Mashi took me, a week after I reached Calcutta. I’d never seen the metropolis before. Even now, sixteen weeks in, I’ve barely seen more than our neighbourhood… Anyway: Mashi was showing me around the various grocers, what item to buy where. I was already feeling dazzled. Then she remembered she had to get her eyebrows threaded for a friend’s wedding. So, we entered the parlour. It was so different from anything I’ve ever seen! Big mirrors, new and clean. Bright lights. Scissors and spray-cans and potions and basins, all clean and shiny. It was a fairyland. And the girls working there are like me. My age, and dark like me, clearly fighting their way up. But they were smartly dressed, and they chattered with their clients so confidently, with English words thrown in. And they stood up straight. And nobody scolded them.’
I watch Maya, wondering if I’ll ever feel about anything as she does about beauticianing. That’s when I realise I already do.
‘Who did you tell about your dream?’ I ask. Maya looks puzzled. ‘You said that before me you told someone and they scolded you.’
‘Why’d she scold you?’
‘She said it was silly.’
This coincides with my opinion, so I’m outraged. ‘How dare she dismiss your dream! They just want to keep you under their thumb, underpaid and overworked.’ I prepare a Marxist lecture to demonstrate my good faith. I think beauty parlours are silly because they’re girlish; Mashi thinks they’re silly because she’s a class oppressor. Surely my view is exonerated.
‘No, she’s right,’ says Maya, drumming her fingers on her ribs. ‘She doesn’t want me to dream big dreams, then be disappointed.’
‘But why should you be disappointed? You can do anything you want.’
‘No, I can’t,’ says Maya, gravely but not sadly. Her fingers still; her hands rests on her ribs.
‘’course you can!’ I sit up and stare down into her eyes. I thought she was all cried out, but Chhordi’s scolding has depressed her. ‘You’re learning English so fast. No, listen. I’ve never taught anyone before, but I can tell you’re a quick learner. I tried teaching my friends and family Ancient Greek, and none of them even wanted to. And you’ve picked up English so fast, you’re so interested in it, though English doesn’t sound half as wonderful… Learning a language is supposed to be hard for grownups, and you’re almost grown up, but you’re fast. Why on earth can’t you become a beautician? People do. People slower than you.’
‘Yes, people do. It’s not that I think it’s impossible. But for me it is.’
‘Why? Don’t you want to run away?’ I laugh. Did I dream the last three weeks? ‘Come on, after what just happened?’
Maya’s silent so long I’m about to shake her impatiently. ‘I can’t leave my family, Pragya-di.’
‘Don’t call me ‘di.’ You’re older than me. That’s another class oppression device. Why can’t you tell your family you have this dream?’
‘They wouldn’t understand it. They’d be furious, and then heartbroken.’
I shrug. ‘Then you’ll do without them. If you want to do something, you have to give up something else. It’s simple.’
Maya’s still on her back, but her face works unhappily. ‘I’ve nobody but my family. I don’t know anyone here. I’ve no savings.’
‘Oh, money!’ I wave. ‘I’ll give you money. No, listen. I save all my pocket-money, for my parents buy me everything I want.’
‘Pragya-di! Sorry, I mean, Pragya, no di!’ She sits up and squeezes my shoulders. ‘You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. But I can’t take your money.’
‘I don’t know when I could return it.’
‘Just take it and go, that’s what I’d do, I don’t want it back, and anyway how could I track you down?’ I’m about to say – but, remembering, I hold my tongue.
This morning, Chhordi found the ‘missing’ ten rupees in her purse. Mashi told her she was getting forgetful. They decided not to tell Maya, for an apology would lower their dignity, and an employer must keep her dignity. All day I’ve wondered whether to tell Maya. But she still hasn’t promised to keep in touch, whereas my relatives I’ll see again.
‘If you won’t take my money, then save your own,’ I urge. ‘Don’t send everything home. That’s your money. Save it, and then – well, you needn’t run away, but enroll in a training-course. Some grownups study while they’re working.’
Maya laughs softly. ‘If I told my parents I was keeping back some money to train as a beautician, they’d order me back and marry me off straightway, and I’d never see Calcutta again.’ She looks wistful, but her face is relaxed again.
Panic grips me. Another thing is slipping from me. But this time it’s more than a hobby. Suddenly I can’t stand it anymore. ‘So, what’s your plan?’ I demand.
‘Plan?’ Languidly she disentangles her curls. ‘No plan. I’ll just stay here, I guess.’
‘No!’ I pound my thigh. ‘No… This is what you always do. You get upset, then weep a bit, or start making a plan. But then you get this dreamy look on your face – like right now! You look happy, as if you’ve already got the thing you want. But you haven’t. You’re like that silly couple quarrelling every day, and then just all normal again. No! You should stay angry, and make proper plans when you’re calm, and carry them out… This life here, slaving for these people, who accuse you without proof,” – I still can’t bring myself to say ‘falsely’ – ‘this can’t be your life. You only get one life. And you’re bright. Don’t tell me you accept this.’
Maya shrugs. ‘I guess I do accept it now.’
‘You always accepted it,’ I accuse, swallowing my tears. ‘You were just playing at wanting to be a beautician. Weren’t you?’ Maya shrugs, but looks so gentle that my own anger dissolves in tears. ‘Then – give up your fantasy. Kill it!’
‘Then I’d go mad, Pragya-di, and do something awful. If I pretend sometimes that I am a beautician, or can be one someday, that I’ve something all my own – that keeps me happy. D’you grudge me that?’
‘No,’ I blubber. Suddenly I’ve made up my own mind. Now forgiveness is easy.
We weep. We embrace, drooling snot onto one another’s shoulders, for Maya, like me, weeps primarily with her nose. Afterwards we stand drinking, in the soul-deep peace of post-cry, a cool gust that promises, at last, a thunderstorm tonight, relief from this torpor.
The mad cuckoo, smelling on the thunderstorm perhaps his mate at last, starts his song suddenly: like a man awakening from a choking sleep with a sudden snore. Higher and louder, shorter and hoarser, the cuckoo calls. Poor invisible inhabitant of the asylum of his own loneliness.
We laugh at him. Maya sings at him, I try whistling at him, again unsuccessfully, my snot dribbling into my mouth. To our chagrin the thunderstorm passes us by. Another sedentary day, another sleepless night. This time I don’t mind it: I turn over my new resolution, watching it concretise.
The magic show’s going well. Chhordi’s gathered the tribe again.
For the grand finale, I request each of my thirty guests to write the name of one famous person, and drop their folded chits into my painted shoebox. Maya returns the shoebox to me. I open it, display thirty folded chits, reach in shut-eyed, declare ‘Julius Caesar,’ open my eyes, and pass the chit to the spectator nearest me. ‘Julius Caesar,’ she reads, and holds the chit up for the audience to see. I open another, declare ‘Napoleon Bonaparte,’ and ditto. Of course, all the chits in the box are Caesars and Napoleons. The audience’s chits went into the secret compartment under the lid.
For our farewell party, the grownups have allowed light makeup. This morning Maya made up herself and me, eager and experimental, as if she still had her dream. I only smiled: I didn’t want to fight on our last day.
Now Maya and I, in our finest clothes, faces lipsticked and shimmer-powdered, bow to our thunderously applauding audience. Is the applause genuine? Would strangers applaud so? This time I don’t worry. I hoard the applause. I’ll need it. I’ve made my decision; in its afterglow of wisdom I know that however brightly I may succeed, I’ll never again get applause so enthusiastic.
Collecting plaudits, and saying goodbyes, through Chhordi’s crowded drawing-room, I glimpse the end of another romance. I’ve put up my last magic show. Time slows. In the sudden light of my sense of finality, every moment lingers, long and unbearably meaningful. This meaningfulness mantles me at the end of every year’s show, like a little death. I half-embrace it, half-escape it. This Sunday morning I feel particularly strong, particularly vulnerable. I’ve put up my last show of any kind.
In the background Maya circulates with trayfuls of experimental hors d’oeuvre that’re Mashi’s contribution to our party. They’re delicious, but too small. Our flight’s at noon, and Ma protested against a seven-course breakfast before our day-long journey.
Afterwards, as Ma’s taking leave of her relatives, and Mohan’s allowing his apple cheeks to be pinched and pulled, I bid Maya goodbye. Today we can’t get away to the roof; we convene in the kitchen. I’ve rehearsed several versions of my farewell speech. Having got those out, I’ve realised that, momentous as this occasion is, a speech of Act III-Mark Antony proportions wouldn’t fit.
‘I’ve decided what I want to do,’ I say. ‘I’m going to be a writer.’
‘Oh,’ says Maya, her face falling. She spruces it back up. ‘How did you decide?’
‘It was the right choice. It’s the thing I’m best at. Everyone says so.’ This is true, but I put a dozen chits into my shoebox last night, and I pulled out ‘writer,’ so that’s why. I’d put in one ‘teacher’ chit, the corner folded up so I’d know it, and I’d put in two ‘writer’s, and when I pulled out ‘writer’ I was surprised I didn’t feel excited, but I felt relieved, so I know it’s the right choice.
But Maya doesn’t need to know. For there’s no more talk of staying in touch. She’s not asked me to learn to write Bengali. She’s not given me her address. All I know is that she lives fifteen kilometres from Malda.
‘But the magic-show was so splendid, Pragya-di.’
‘Yes, but it’s just beginner’s tricks, Maya. Other people’s tricks, not mine… Besides, what I’ve staged today is all the magic I know.’
‘And you don’t want to learn more?’
‘Not magic, no.’
Maya studies my face, then seems to remember her own face is shimmer-powdered too. She wets her handkerchief for a washcloth, but only wrings it. ‘So you’ll be a writer… But you’ll be writing in English.’
‘Yes.’ Gathering my thoughts, I gaze out of the kitchen window. Too late, I realise this is an interesting view, one I’ve left unexplored over many summers. I shake myself focused. ‘It was time for me to choose. And writing’s the only thing I can imagine sticking with. Every story’s like a new romance. It’s like having a new hobby every month…’ I try this on; it doesn’t fit; I shake it off. ‘Okay, it isn’t really. Doing any one thing will be hard. Still, I had to choose, and writing’s what I’ve chosen. I need to grow up.’ I need to do the opposite of what you’re doing. I can’t tell you that – but I needed to tell you this. You’re growing up in your own opposite way. You’ll understand.
Slowly unfolding and refolding her wet handkerchief, Maya nods. ‘You’ll be a good writer. I won’t be able to read your books, but I’ll know.’ I don’t remind her that she’s learning English; I don’t tell her she must continue. ‘I have some news, too.’
‘Oh?’ Hope flutters in my heart. Have her parents guessed her dream and offered to free her from maidservanting and saving for her dowry? All my sophistication deserts me; all I can picture is my pocket-money waiting in my backpack to send Maya off.
‘I had a letter,’ says Maya, ‘From home last night. They want me to go home for a week, to see some bridegrooms they’ve shortlisted… I expect I’ll be married this time next year.’
I try to think of something to say. ‘I hope you’ll like one of them. And I hope he’ll be good to you. At your wedding you can do your own hair and makeup. That’ll be fun.’
We embrace. Mashi’s shimmering face-powder rubs off from my chin onto the shoulder of Maya’s best salwar-kameez: a magenta polyester pseudo-silk that darkens her skin to black coffee.
‘Let’s go outside.’ Tears streak her shimmer powder. ‘Your relatives will want you, too.’ Lingering in the kitchen, she finally washes her face. During the party the makeup was alright, but for the maid it’s safest to change quickly out of play-clothes.
Chhordi and Mashi have been running around all morning. Now I sit with them, thanking them for their hospitality. How heavy the hours lay these four weeks, as I sat with them at meals, drugged by heat and mosquito-buzzing and white rice! Looking back, I seem to have spent all that time nodding at boring stories, stories I’d heard a dozen times before. Now, gazing into Chhordi’s eyes, no longer black, not black at all, cloudy and faraway, I can’t remember a single one. Chhordi’s eyes are moist. I do my best to weep too. Why is it only now that I’m noticing her eyes are not quite there? After the ten-rupees incident, when Mashi remarked that Chhordi was getting forgetful, I thought only of the outrage against my friend. All four weeks, Chhordi has been to me only the head of a yawn-dull household, tireless teller of tiresome stories, tormentor of my new friend, my summer’s friend.
Mashi hands Chhordi her morning pills. As Chhordi swallows, a drop of water goes the wrong way. She coughs, and can’t stop coughing. Mohan and I thump her back. She’s alright soon, waving us off, eyes twinkling. But now it’s I who find myself praying, to a god we’ve not been raised to believe in, that Chhordi may live to see our next visit. Next time, I promise, I’ll spend all vacation listening to her stories. Next time there won’t be a Maya to distract me when I’m bored. Next time I’ll be a writer, a story-collector, not allowed to be bored.
Chhordi predicts her own demise at every farewell. But not until today, when I’ve bid my own former self goodbye, do I feel prepared to bid Chhordi, too, the final goodbye. I’m in the mood for forever-goodbyes. Aren’t goodbyes the way to grow up?
Chhordi never means to be sentimental at farewells, but she always is, and she’s made Ma swollen-eyed too. Poor Ma! She lost her mother two years ago, and Chhordi, her favourite aunt, is all wheezy breath and wandering eyes. In the sunshine-yellow taxi I pass my arms around Ma.
We watch a double-decker, ahead of us, veer around street corners, almost overbalancing each time. We watch a cycle-rickshaw-driver’s stick-thin legs straining, carrying uphill a large bare-backed woman.
Ma passes her hand through my hair, feeling the ends. Suddenly palpitating I realise the ends must feel crisp from my daily haircuts. I prepare to defend myself against Ma’s reproaches for another illicit haircut. But Ma merely strokes my hair, and I hug her closer, grateful for her silence, grateful for Chhordi’s forgotten rusted old scissors that didn’t snap off my hair, that gnawed it off with toothless gums.
On our return flight I’ve graciously granted Mohan the window seat. In the middle seat, under a leaden sky, the cabin-lights dimmed for takeoff, my grownupness takes abrupt leave, like a fake storm, dissolving as quickly as it gathered. I miss Calcutta, though we’re still here; I miss Mumbai though we’ve another month there; I miss Maya and Chhordi and Mashi; I miss all the things I’ll never do again; I’m not ready to bid anything goodbye; I’ll never be ready and I’m about to cry.
It’d be awful to cry before Mohan. So I swallow my tears – back down my throat, though that’s not where they came from – and, to stop them returning, pucker up.
And there, sitting in the plane, deadly quiet as it gathers breath for its takeoff roar – suddenly I can whistle. I realise all these years I was trying wrong. I was exhaling. My whistle, it turns out, is an inhaler. Once I’ve made the air sing instead of wheeze, the rest is easy. I imitate the first music I remember. The mad cuckoo.
First a set of lilting scales. Then a single sweet note of interrogation as the leaden sky glowers. Finally, as we take off into a steady shower, a rising series of interrogatory notes. Ma shushes me, but it’s alright. At last, the rain has come to cool Chhordi’s roof, and downstairs they’ll sleep well tonight.