The morning air is laced with coriander.
Thick white fog creeps up my bare arms,
The wet cold licks make me shiver
Despite the spring heat.
Crows whine on the rooftops,
Shedding black feathers as they scavenge
There is a sense of expectation in the air,
As if the fog has veiled something,
A truth that is waiting to show itself
As soon as the remains of winter lift.
This is a story in set in post-colonial Calcutta, India, about an Englishman who abandons his country to become a hermit in the Indian Himalayas, and then returns to the daughter, and lover he left in Calcutta 20 years before.
Even in the cluttered urbanity of a densely populated city you will still be run over by wild things if you sit still long enough. There are intruders, imposters carrying wilderness on their backs. Like big grey-whiskered monkeys they will make faces at you and pull at your coat, thinking you are harmless to them. In the evenings they will beg for your attention, they will stare at you with sorrowful eyes and croon and keen their misery, and in the morning they will stamp their feet, unspeakably wise in their persistent begging. But what will you do? Will you bow your head at them, and run alone into the night? Will you share in their fire, coming alive with curiosity, or will you swing off with rabbity ears, going with the shadows and low suspicious calls?
I lived under a white floor on Shakespeare Street, not far from the South Park Street Cemetery and St. Thomas Church. Mrs. Banerjee, the Landlady, was an old croon, but her daughter Rimpa and I had become good friends. Rimpa was fascinated by me, an English unmarried woman living alone in a foreign country! The idea held for her both fear and admiration. I travelled to India on a cargo ship two years before to join the Mother Theresa mission, but grew weary with the depressing work after falling ill with dysentery over and over again. I don’t know why I didn’t go home, perhaps because I had forgotten what home was or felt like. I loved walking around in the old city feeling its rich history and the many battles that had been fought here, I loved visiting the ghats to see the people gathering there to perform their sacred activities and conduct mundane business meetings after a cleanse in the muddy water. The ghats were also the mooring base for hundreds of fishing boats with colorful huts and dirty sails. I never bought any fish though; I never liked that salty taste of the sea.
I had never met Rimpa’s father, he was a business man who lived somewhere in Delhi. I had my suspicions that Rimpa had never met him herself despite her twenty something years. How the two of them managed, I could never tell, perhaps it was my insignificant rent that paid for their meals. I could have lived ten lifetimes in Calcutta on an English monthly salary. Shakespeare Street was a quiet street compared to the neighboring Park Street, it was a street dedicated to the English families who had stayed behind after India’s separation from the English crown, and to the rich Anglo-Indians who now ran their offices. Rimpa, with her fair complexion and European eyes could have been one of them, but Mrs. Banerjee insisted that Mr. Banerjee was a Rajasthani high-born Hindu. Rimpa had an apt for the English language and never tired of talking to me. Sometimes I suspected I was her only source of entertainment, all cooped up in her mother’s quiet house as she was. When Rimpa asked her mother where babies come from, the answer was that they sprung out of Lord Vishnu’s navel. Mrs. Banerjee knew all there was to know about the gods, but had received very little formal education. She cooked, cleaned and prayed, that was her life. Rimpa was different, she wanted to learn, and she had an open curiosity that she poured out on me. “Didi, where does the water come from?” she asked me one day we were sitting under a Banyan tree in the courtyard, watching muddy channels of rain pouring from the leaves of the enormous tree. Mrs. Banerjee had just lit the incense sticks for the evening puja and the soft sweet fragrance wafted down from an open window.
The rain lasted for a week, and then the sun came out and dried up the foul-smelling holes in the cracked asphalt filled with filth and brown water. “Ohm, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” crooned Mrs. Banerjee from the open window, “Peace be with my moon-faced lover.”
On the first day of Sharad, as the expanse of paddy stalks bent with rich harvest and blue peacock feathers fell from the rooftops, the bookbinder’s wife, Mirza, died. “It is a good time to die,” said Mrs. Banerjee and gathered her best fruits to join in the funeral rites. People hurried into the street to pay their respect to the late woman. “Leave none behind!” A voiced called out. And then the wailing started. Rimpa and I sat on the floor in the kitchen sipping cardamom tea and laughing. “Is there really such a thing as a good day to die?” chuckled Rimpa.
But Mirza’s death was just an event in a series of what Mrs. Banerjee called bad omens. There was a sigh in the air that autumn. The cows stopped lactating, the flower beds dried up too quickly, water, stored for drinking, was declared contaminated by the municipality, a band of street dogs attacked a little girl and left her lame. And the city dwellers, one by one, crept out of their houses to pray before the mighty Kali, which only resulted in an increase of taxes imposed by the chief minister. The city was in an uproar. The pandits said: “It is a punishment. You have all lost your piety and made money your new god!” People rushed to the temples declaring their devotion with gifts of flowers, sweetmeats and incense. “It is not enough,” declared the priests, “you need to appease the wrath of Kali by raising a new temple in her honor.” Before the month was ended a new temple was raised. Then an earth quake struck the city, a mighty shrug from the Himalayas sent shivers down the spine of the entire country. Little makeshift huts collapsed in submission to the mountain god’s decree of anger, even sturdier brick houses bent in silent obedience. Business meetings at the ghat stopped and were replaced by intricate cleansing rituals involving a thorough mouth-rinse in the holy water. Contaminated water was gargled and spat out into the overcrowded river, followed by an outbreak of sickness and more despair. But it was the arrival of Rimpa’s father that stirred up the mightiest quake.
I had my suspicions of course, but seeing the white sahib walking along the red loopholed railway-line that hot afternoon, clad in dazzling white rags, made the hairs stand in the back of my neck. A swarm of hungry mosquitoes clung to the top of his head and his gray-spangled hair was matted and damp with sweat. “I shall hate him,” said Rimpa, full of spite and shock, and locked the door to her sleeping quarters. Mr. H.M Ford had once been a respectable English gentleman, a trader and businessman with such a wealth that even the prime minister of India would have envied him. But that was until he left his home turf and fell into the arms of Bharat. He swooned with desire, not for a woman, oh no, that would have been the making of the young reckless Mr. Ford, but it was the temperamental Maa Ganges who had lured and teased him out of his English shell. Such things can happen to a young inexperienced youth, they all knew it, but to an Englishman! How could he have heard the lustrous call of their life-giving goddess? The hermit, Mr. H.M Ford, now to be referred to as Sri Gora Shankar looked over the face of his old lover and saw that it had changed. In place of a young maiden was an old sour-faced hag wrinkled and weary with life’s many disappointments. He shrugged and opened the door to his house.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” said Sri Gora Shankar with a smile. “You were a beauty in your youth.” Mrs. Banerjee turned her back on him and cursed him. “I think we’ll go to the temple together.” Sri Gora Shankar put his hand on her brown fleshy shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
Once the secret of Rimpa’s mysterious father was out, people stopped visiting the tall white house on Shakespeare Street. I hardly ever heard the stomping of heavy feet against my ceiling. It was always quiet. Too quiet. Rimpa became a teenager again, throwing tantrums and shouting at her mother. I tried many times to talk to her, but she had come to see me as a foreigner, as her father’s accomplice. She was at war with the white race, at war with herself, and was no longer proud of her delicate fair complexion. The heart-breaking delay in the revelation of her father’s identity brought on an angry reckless fever, and put the fear of god into the neighbors. Or perhaps it was the fear of the white god-like man they refused to prostrate in front of. Sri Gora Shankar watched over his daughter with sorrow-filled eyes. Days were long and hot and the violent and awful rage of Kalika seemed to have no end. “All is well,” he finally told me one day. The fever had broken; the goddess had finally shown some mercy.
“He is a very holy man,” said Sondeep Goswami to me one day. “She has had so little.” He tilted his head and looked up at the kitchen window. Incense wafted the air and a white clad man was blowing a conch. “There is always time, but he could have given her a half-day warning.” Sondeep Goswami was not the only one to give his approval of the fair-faced swami, but they all still refused to give him the same reverence as they gave their darker skinned countrymen who had been touched by the river goddess. The swami himself just shrugged and smiled.
The weather had started cooling down when she finally came to see me. Rimpa wanted me to tell her about England. “Is it as far away as Darjeeling?” she asked. “It is hundred times further,” I replied. “That is alright, I am still young,” she smiled and looked out towards the setting sun with dazed dreamy eyes. Rimpa came to me often that winter.
Stacks of sugarcane covered the fields and seem to sweeten even the moody goddess. Dew fell thick on grassy river banks, and blue lotuses opened their cold hearts wide in appreciation of the chill sobering winds. The midnight queen rode her white camel over the pale sky and snow was reported to fall in the colonial hill stations. People were shivering in their thin cotton garments designed to let the mild breezes of summer caress hot sweaty skin. Bare-chested swamis pilgrimed to Gamukh to pray at the icy roots of the holy Ganges. But our own white-faced swami stayed. He had reluctantly shaved his long unkempt beard at his daughter’s request, and now, bare-faced and clean, everyone could see the resemblance between the two. Even Rimpa’s mother had softened a bit towards her old lover.
“Mohan Ghosh has taken his nephews and gone to the coal mines to look for work,” said Mrs. Banerjee matter-of-factly one cold morning when we are all sitting on the balcony waiting for the sun to rise and bless us with his warmth. “Maybe you should go too. Rimpa needs new clothes, and she doesn’t even have gold bangles for her dowry. You want her to wed don’t you?” Sri Gora Shankar looked fondly at his daughter and shrugged. “She will do what she wants.” Mrs. Banerjee examined the soft-eyed man sternly and changed her tactics. “What will she do when we are no more? Who will take care of her? Do you really want her to be all alone in the world? This country is not safe for unmarried women.” She could see in his eyes that she had succeeded.
The next morning Sri Gora Shankar shed his pious colorless garments and stepped into a pair of loose, somewhat oversized, black pressed pants. But he did not board the train to join the exemplified initiator; he crossed the street and headed for Park Street and the English Overseas Bank. By the end of the month Sri Gora Shankar was gone. In his place stood a tall lean Englishman with a clean shaven face and trimmed greying hair. Mr. H.M Ford, employee of the E.O.B, brought his first salary to his daughter with a proud smile that did not quite reach his eyes. Rimpa hugged him tightly, forgetting the old custom that duty-bound her to prostrate in front of the holy man. He hugged her back and his shoulders relaxed under his daughter’s warm touch. Soon everyone talked of the Banerjees’ good fortune. Room after empty room was furnished, and Rimpa acquired a dowry that had the young, and the not so young, suitors lining up at her door. But Mrs. Banerjee thought none of them were good enough for her rich, fair daughter. Rimpa was just as glad. She had other plans.
She told me on a Sunday afternoon while her parents were busy with guests. “I am going to England, Didi!” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise, but smiled quickly to hide my astonishment. “When are you leaving?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know, but papa has told me he will take me.” “Do you not want to marry, then?” Rimpa looked obstinately towards the ceiling. She frowned her forehead and tightened her jaw, like a proper Englishwoman. “I am not going to marry any of these dark round-faced lackeys! I am going to marry an English gentleman!” I was somewhat taken aback by her outburst, she seemed so full of spite for these people who, up till now, had been her family and friends.
I overheard them one day in a middle of a heated discussion. Rimpa, with a voice heavy with frustration and bitterness, was imploring, then threatening her father to take her with him to England. “You will leave me here in this godforsaken city and look for a proper mem-sahib to give you a white English daughter!” Mr. Ford sighed in resignation. He had grown tired of his daughter’s bantering and her mother’s endless demands. Rimpa cried her father into submission, but weeks went by and there was still no specific plan to leave for the longed for land of proper English gentlemen. Mrs. Banerjee was weary of her daughter too, she had become disrespectful and too audacious after her father’s arrival, and Mrs. Banerjee feared that it was the English in her that had finally come out and made her undesirable as a proper Indian bride.
“I don’t pretend to understand, Banerjee Madam” I told her one day as she was lamenting her sorrows to me one late afternoon. She had never come to me before, so I thought she must be desperate. “That is why I come here,” she said and sighed, “because you will never understand.” “Well, perhaps everything will be okay in the end, “I said and put my hand on hers. She stiffened a little, but welcomed the gesture.
Close to the verandah stood an old rocking chair made of polished wood from an unfortunate mango tree, and it was in the smooth seat of this chair Mr. H.M Ford left his pale blue oversized shirt and black freshly pressed pant, neatly folded. His dark brown patent leather shoes stood ownerless on the ground under the chair. It was a windy morning in April and the chair rocked gently in the much welcomed draft. He had taken nothing with him, except for the white rags he came in; even his razor and soap were left behind next to the new marble basin. It was such a hot day most of the inhabitants of Shakespeare Street stayed inside under their dust-laden ceiling fans, only the cows, who could not access such luxuries, prevented the Street from looking like a ghost town, relieved to find some shade beneath the trees they chewed lazily at some invisible grain or strand of grass with half-closed brown eyes. A hot fragrant wind from the sea had caused a few trees to bloom in vivid pink and orange, but most of the vegetation was completely parched by the summer heat. When the troubled call of the white conch lamented its longing for the sea, the reluctant devotees of the goddess, who was the namesake of their beloved city, opened the door to their houses to welcome their homesick deity with withering summer flowers and white grains of uncooked rice. Long before the last wail of the primitive instrument ceased the whole neighborhood had heard the warning. There was already talk of a drought, and a newlywed girl had collapsed from heat stroke near the cemetery, and the city dwellers shook their heads in fearful anticipation as they all observed the pile of clean clothes left on the rocking chair outside the Banerjee home.
“I knew he would leave eventually,” said Mrs. Mitra, “I knew, but the goddess gives no warning. She takes back her own whenever she pleases.” “Well, at least the girl has a dowry now, and a name, Ford was it?” interjected Mrs. Bhaduri. From across the city came the whistling of a train, backed by the rumble of thunder. “God help us,” said Mrs. Mitra, “Our Kalika is awake.”
Before the thunder reached the city I left. I had booked the ticket months ago, the thought of another Bengali summer had finally made me give in. I was going back to good old England. Neither Rimpa nor her mother came to say goodbye. I left the last month’s rent on the table next to my bed; the bills were neatly folded in a brown paper envelope. Before I left, I caught myself whispering a prayer, there was nothing else to do, the goddess takes no account of time, only the river marks the passing of the seasons, and she takes what she pleases, and even though she sometimes returns what she takes, you will never know in which form it will be given back to you. You can either fight until you grow weary or give in to her, and let the wilderness take you.
The women, dressed in blue and turquoise and green
Are lounging on the lawn,finally tanning a bit in the pale January sun,
They laugh louder than any women I’ve ever heard before,
It is more like a roar than a laugh.
The kids are playing cricket, sweating in long-pants and sweaters.
Pigeons are zooming overhead, diving suddenly for something no one else can see.
A plane engine, hidden behind whitish smog, drowns out the sound of bird cackle
And causes little boys to shield their eyes and stare into the white sky,
But to no avail, there is no plane to be seen.
A stray dog catches their attention instead and the mothers scold
And pretend-throw imaginary stones at the canine intruder.
Meanwhile, the pigeons have finally settled on the rooftops
And a welcome breeze grazes and silvers the dark green river,
Making tiny fish startle by the sudden absence of silence.