Variously accused of being a thinker, smoker, antisocial and married woman, Sucheta Dasgupta works in an Indian newspaper, is cared for by a kind person and, predictably or not, wants to change the world.
Forty and full-bellied, or, How I became a man
In 1999, the iconic Charminar came at four rupees a pack. It was 9.30pm. I was striding along SN Roy Road from the street-corner shop to my grandma’s where I put up while I did my computer course and job-hunted in the city, the newly-purchased Charminar and matchbox buried deep inside the left pocket of my trousers, purse folded in sure hand. As I turned the corner from the sodium-lit thoroughfare into the neon-lit street where her house still stands, a motorcyclist appeared out of nowhere a couple of metres behind me and braked next to my side. A genial-looking young man was seated on it. He was tall and broad shouldered with a gentle paunch. He greeted me and said he wanted to be my friend. I was quick to decline. I said I don’t really live here as I am only job-hunting and will go where my work takes me and that I really don’t have the time of day or mind-space to be with him; therefore, I cannot be his friend. It was forward of me to say all of this at first sight but I wanted to be blunt and I am kind and I wanted to also minimize the interaction so as not to give out any false signal as I had been bred and had bred myself to—given the right occasion—do, so not many words passed between us. There was no double entendre, but there was also no humour. At least, not expressly—though this curious routine of mingling of opposite sexes that I had known of (till that point) second hand, I had always found amusing in my mind. He was nice about the refusal and I never saw him again.
But that in no way warranted the following experience. That did not imply I had to take the 5.30 local home, ride for four hours with luggage, which comprised mostly books I had stored here that I was taking back because I was sure to crack this interview tomorrow for some software development work near College Street and come all the way back from Durgapur the next morning studying on the 8.30 passenger, not thinking too much about getting soaked in the sudden rain. Hanging from the window of a far-too-overcrowded bus on Howrah Bridge loose—I was seventh on the footboard and actually pushed out on the road for the first and only time in my life (and none too gently) by my co-passengers as I was obstructing traffic and had not even a toehold. Scout out the venue to a dingy backroom in a rickety, old building filled with some clerks catering to a business in spices and sewing machine parts—they said they had diversified though I was in no mental frame to process that information—and present my papers. I remember they asked me to stay for tea after. Someone had called my grandma with this address for a job interview which had put me on this wild goose trail. That someone had clearly played a joke on me and I would later put it down to the guy who had met me in my Behala neighbourhood on that sodium/neon-lit night. When I walked out on the street 15 minutes later in the now nagging mizzle, I remembered it was my 25th birthday.
* * *
The day I turned 18, I was riding home from RE College campus on the back of my father’s moped; worried, bored, angry and listless as I would perpetually be during those times. Reader mine, don’t ask me why. You would be, too, if you were shabbily and ridiculously advertising nonexistent shame in name of conservative dressing (conserving what?), not finding a way to play or watch your favourite sports (I was to miss all the cricket World Cups, Grand Slams and soccer matches for the next decade or so), finding yourself behind the boys you have been pitted against for engineering entrance as their school taught the XIth syllabus in classes X and IX and hating the fact that they all had their own vehicles while you were not even allowed to take the bus or simply walk un-chaperoned after dark. Another forgettable day it was; as I was still having to be escorted to my destination. There were four to five shanties on either side of the road leading out of the college campus exit and we were passing them on our two-wheeler when a stone hit me almost gently on the centre of my sternum, just above my heart. My first thought, it was a good hit. A heartbeat later, I realized it had been flung from the direction of the slum but we were past the spot whence it came from. I would now have to turn around and holler a reply, have my father stop and search for the culprit—but his sociology said I was to blame and he would let that prevail, hence the ride—or let it go. Wait to win your freedom, every dog has his day, but I swear this hope had just then taken one more blow and was far from my mind. So instead of bothering my father, indeed also making him sad on my account, protective, but not angry enough to decide in favour of my logic, I chose the last option. No shame, but no pride. The same moment, I felt a dull pain in my chest. It was very slightly sore, the spot on the top of my heart. It is my 18th birthday, was my thought in that moment of my life.
Tokey amra chheler moto manush korechhi —Ma when I was in my first standard and again my sixth. Ei ei, tor dada kothaye? Tor dadake bal, tor dadake bal – My beloved Dadu to my small sister, towards the end of his days. I am the elder sibling.
On my 40th birthday, I accomplished several firsts. I kissed my husband instead of him kissing me and I responding clumsily and enthusiastically, dog-like. I baked my first cake in my first oven. I socialized with a good friend from work for the first time in years – it was I who asked her out, properly. I also watched a movie on TV and drank some sweet wine. Today I have work; and I also do not suffer from any income insecurity or absence. I look pretty sharp and can run 5km nonstop without getting too badly winded. I am proficient in my own chosen field of work and find my profession engaging. I also find the time to read and write. I have the chance to live with my best friend and how many people get to do that?
That week, my now-grown kid sister passed me a link to a documentary on texts banned from the Bible. Watching it, I was reminded of how a nun back in our school sex education class would incorporate quotes from the scriptures in her lessons to explain her philosophy on the importance of the real and corporal in the path to light. In Hebrew tradition, the study of Kabballah is permitted only to married men. There is another stipulation. One has to be over forty and one’s belly must be full of meat and wine. Scholars say that by meat and wine the ancient teachers meant lived, worldly knowledge—more evolved than mere experience but one that to be wisdom must be more refined.
All this time, woman, not in the sense of the oxymoron it has been made out to be but in the best sense of the word, has been an intangible to me—a Schrödinger’s cat, being who I am. Everyone knows, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, one cannot know the position and velocity of a particle at the same instant of time. But being a man is concrete, quantifiable, and in your hands alone; it is being the adult that every woman must also be and I had consciously aspired to that. Today is when I can safely say without fear of being proven less than ingenuous: girl, you are a man now. I have gone the distance, I have paid all my dues, twice over, sometimes, and I have also seen things for what they are; today it is time.
Pink Salwar Kameez
Our campus was on edge of town. The GT Road passed close by, leading out of the city through the `plants’, as we familiarly called them, to Bhiringi Mor—the start of Benachity—and right past. It then blasted through the coalfields of Andal-Asansol, charged through Kulti-Barakar and reared out of the state.
Close to GT Road was a brothel referred to in common parlance as KT Road and that’s where she came from. A prostitute had befriended a girl from our hostel and had taken off with her. Word spread by mouth and that’s how we came to know of it—a prostitute had kidnapped a hostelite and was probably going to force her into that life. Though, `for all you know’, she may have gone with her of her own free will. She had told her friend she was going out to meet this `lady’, who had recently brought her a present, and since not returned. And what had that present been? Everyone wanted to know. It was a pink salwar suit.
Now the seniors in our hostel were a resourceful lot. They got together their friends and boyfriends from the boys’ hostels (these were five in number) and told them that we had to find and rescue the girl from her fate. But we would keep it entirely to ourselves; the warden and the teachers were not to hear a word. Those were pre-mobile, pre-telephone days but it was done quickly enough. A search party was arranged, split up and dispatched in likely directions.
They found her at one of the bus stops. She was in the company of two unknown men, mounting a motorcycle that had the engine revved up and running. When she saw her college fellows, she walked calmly and, apparently acquiescently, over to their side. The boys in the group then picked a fight with the men and had struck a blow or two before the pair pushed one of them, causing the striker’s friend to fall, and drove off on the motorbike. The girl returned to the hostel and no one in the authorities ever went on to get any wiser.
In 1990s middle-class Bengali suburbia, I, as many others I am sure, loved and preferred and loudly argued in favour of girls wearing trousers—not a frequently done thing then but appealing to that not-so-rare type of rational women who are ready to forgo sexuality for the nobler, more important and certainly more interesting pursuits. So, for a long time, I regarded a pair of pink salwar-kameez as the perfect symbol of depravity voluntarily taken upon themselves by young women suffering from the social Stockholm syndrome as their unmitigated lot in life. I had not known at that time but in less than five years I would lovingly be bestowed upon that exact same gift from another prostitute and woman, although it can also be said that I received it from a certain odd gentleman and his lawfully wedded wife.
And so it transpired that I was at 25 a virgin, having lived inside a culture that did not lend itself to much socializing between boys and girls, being of an avowedly ascetic nature until I achieved emotional security as far as my work was concerned and having been turned down two years ago by the love of my life.
* * *
I had moved out of my grandma’s house in Behala to a PG near Gariahat. I trained people in database software at my workplace in Gurusaday Datta Road for a paltry pay packet that barely covered my rent. I had been told that I would be absorbed in the new development project that was in the pipeline and redesignated and I lived in that hope. But it increasingly appeared that the project was on a bumpy road and the bosses had all but forgotten. My landlady encouraged me to look at Free Ads, a paper advertising tuitions and odd jobs, and, under the mistaken impression that they would lead to more substantial engagements, I regularly flipped through its yellow pages.
One of the ads I answered to belonged to a language study group involving English-to-Bengali translations located on Mirza Ghalib Street—the famous Free School Street of Calcuttan lore. I traced the address to the ground floor of an import-export office and it was there that I met the redoubtable Mr Qureshi, a romantic down-and-outer, a former writer, thin, fair-skinned and balding, well-spoken and once published by The Sun. He treasured those cuttings close to his living room drawers and his heart. He was supposed to be my employer but the assignments? Those were under preparation.
All through the interview, the study group more and more seemed to comprise just him and me, but he—gracious as he was—declined to give direct answers to any of my questions and asked me to return with some original writings the next day. He introduced me to the office owners, a young man named Hashmat and Kaif, his friend. It was late evening and he was leaving for the day. Upon his insistence, I walked with him, first to his home near Creek Lane where I met his sons and wife, Waheeda, a strapping young woman with coal-black eyes come home from work—she works in a film studio, he said, and then to the bus stop where he bade me goodbye.
I would return to Mr Qureshi’s office the next evening after work with a piece I had composed a while back arguing for legalizing cannabis as evidence of my writing ability. I was an inveterate smoker having started in the last year of college and then given up for over one-and-a-half years—it was one of the material and (as I see it now) moral reasons that fuelled my strife for economic autonomy as my parents would never approve of it on their watch—and, by extension, penny, however few they might have to expend on it.
Mr Qureshi was away and it was Kaif I found at the desk. Flush with the urge to share my craft, I showed him my article. He did not make any fatuous comments which disposed me kindly towards him but I had the distinct sense that he was no reader even as he made no attempt to conceal the fact. But he enquired with interest about my ganja habit and was friendly without prying or presuming in any manner. He also offered to arrange a smoking session for me in the near future (I had only asked for a place to smoke) and I returned to my PG feeling marginally comforted.
I continued to meet Mr Qureshi—for a trip to the American Centre, for an iftar get-together with the wife and boys, a walk in Rabindra Sadan and, much, much later, my 26th birthday party which was also attended by an American poet at the 12th floor flat of one Arun (`call me Aaron’) Banerjee, an Anglophile engineer residing in Camac Street. It was a sweetly memorable evening with a poetry reading, quiz and cake.
One evening, Hashmat and Kaif dropped me off to my Gariahat home, cruising through Southern Avenue, on Hashmat’s motorcycle.During the ride, I found Kaif, who was at the back of me, with his nose in my hair that was tied in a pony tail. Rough and waist-length and full of static, it stuck out straight behind me in the wind, unavoidably. I worried it would be unpleasant for him to have my hair in his face and tried to remember the last time I washed it. But, of course, if you chose to be on the same bike, small discomforts such as these shouldn’t matter. The next time we met, Mr Qureshi scolded me for having allowed them to accompany me. He said it was unbecoming of a woman `like me’. I was nonplussed and on repeated querying learnt that he thought that Kaif must have tried to press up against my ass.
Kaif did have a reputation. Smaller than Hashmat, lean, clean-faced and unassuming, with flashing eyes, he was seen chatting up girls on the street and the internet. Hashmat spoke of him indulgently. I met two other friends of theirs, a young art college-going pair—Mithun and Shiba—from Uttarpara, and it was along with them that I was invited to the party or the place to which Kaif said I should be able to bring my grass.
It was an afternoon get-together. We would meet at Hashmat’s office. Soon after my arrival, however, Waheeda walked in. I was slightly surprised to learn she was coming with us but not Mr Qureshi. I did not find it odd, though. We walked over to the studio of Waheeda’s employer, a few streets away. It was a spacious apartment. Drinks were served and I smoked my weed. Hashmat kept comparing me to Zeenat Aman’s character from Hare Rama Hare Krishna and it jarred because I was hardly retro and it was so wildly inappropriate. Then the lovebirds Mithun and Shiba got absorbed in each another’s persons and Hashmat took me on a tour of the several artworks covering the sitting area. Hashmat was being a bit clingy, I had just realized, and I was trying to be polite, telling him that he was going to blow my high if he did not stop talking soon. I did not leave. I was not confident of returning home incommunicative and with pupils blown, living as I did with three other roommates, all non-smokers. I was also just the slightest bit guilty for smoking without the emotional authority to which I so aspired and which I hadn’t earned yet. Hashmat was rambling on about the lines of a nude when I finally walked away from him and re-entered the shooting hall where I was transfixed by the sight of Kaif frotting away a prone Waheeda, the two of them looking very passionate together.
I remember I baulked. I walked back to their office where I found some alcohol and got drunk. Then Kaif and Hashmat returned and I told them I should have been warned earlier. I remember expatiating about how I was in love with someone else, the boy from my college days, so I would not possibly… They did not seem to agree at first but presently conceded that my reactions had been unanticipated. Kaif walked me to the Metro. On the way, he closed his hands tightly around my neck and seemed to try to hypnotize me with his eyes—a battle of wills, and an attempt at some breathplay, but I did not relent, and I took my train back and the evening was over.
For the next two days, the image of Kaif and Waheeda together kept replaying itself before my eyes. I thought of Kaif and wondered whether I would find it desirable to have sexual congress with him. Of Hashmat who so did not turn me on. Of Waheeda who was clearly cheating on Mr Qureshi that was so not my business. And Mr Qureshi. This was my chance to get rid of my virginity, I thought. For I was sure I was so unsocial I would never marry and so cussed in my view about arranged marriage being a euphemism for forced marriage that I would never be given in one. And my love, always hopeless, was now a thing of the past. But, mostly, I thought it was a little shameful to be 25 and a virgin when people younger than I all over the world had been doing it all this while, and I resolved to rid myself of that status. So two evenings later I was back at their office and I got Kaif upstairs and laid down my proposition. In response, he took out his cock and showed it off. I was a bit fascinated and thought about Eve and the biblical snake. He then told me to touch it which I did twice and then withdrew my hand. His breathing turned heavy and he started playing with it till I became quite bored but I politely waited until he came.
The next evening, I was taken to the studio by Kaif and Hashmat. Waheeda was present and she copulated with a kneeling Kaif on the carpet in front of us. I was being tagged with Hashmat which I did not care for. I wanted to lose my virginity to Kaif but he didn’t seem to think that that detail was important. But I remembered what I had read about how an adult male could not subjugate an adult female sexually unless there was coercion or desire, and about how it was possible to perfectly regulate one’s bodily responses through meditation, and I thought about my own theory of nature being against self-pollination as the philosophical basis of asexual friendships, and I decided I would simply wait it out till Kaif took his turn. It worked. Hashmat could not penetrate me try as hard as he may have because, apparently, I was too tight. Then Kaif took over and Waheeda held my legs at the right angles and massaged them as I willed myself to relax and a few moments later he was inside, albeit with difficulty, and it was over.
There were no fireworks. I lay on the carpet perpendicular to the position in which I had had my first sexual intercourse as Kaif dropped a cigarette to my chest and then handed Waheeda some pills. They were monthly birth control pills, not the iPill or the 72-hours-later. Waheeda would explain to me how I had to take them and it was she who walked me to the bus stop. There had been the smell of resin that would find a place in my long-term memory—I later came to know it belonged to a deo, a slight pain in my pubic muscles (like, aah, they exist) and, in my underpants, very little blood. My father, a doctor, once said that physical exercise tears the hymen bit by bit and I had been a vigorous cyclist (though I was never allowed the moped or the bike) and a physically active woman.
Over the next two weeks, Waheeda would introduce me to her employer, a famed artist and a very well-connected man and a couple of his friends. One of them one day attempted intercourse with me even though I did not find him attractive and tried to tell him that. Again, I got frigid, and it failed to work, so he gave up trying after a while. It seemed mutual desire was the key to at least my vagina. Waheeda’s employer was a kindly but reticent man. He took my CV and later wrote to my parental home.
Waheeda, herself, I grew to trust. One day in the studio, she put on my jeans and plaid shirt just to check out how she looked and felt in them. She showed me how to use a vibrator. Always, always, there would be the smell of the resin on the studio floors. I never saw her squirt.
There was a party one night where I got down and dirty with the lady. Her body was soft and yielding, warm and ample, dark, generous and redolent of the earth. There had been sparks and she admitted them but she firmly said that Islam precludes homosexuality. Afterwards, I bought her blue glass bangles. Hashmat, who probably secretly desired her, was quite vocal in his corroboration of her stand.
There was one eminently forgettable episode of intimate physical contact with Hashmat which some would describe as bad sex, only I wouldn’t glorify it by use of that term. There was one other encounter with both men at their office during which I gave head to Kaif while Hashmat had intercourse with my thighs. On the second day we met, Kaif had told me I had sexy thighs.
The last time we met, a laughing Kaif told me he could not make a woman out of me even though he had tried. I remember he was serious, though, and I remember that I thought that somewhere in my mind I had agreed. After all, it was Waheeda, whom I had tried to woo with partial success, he desired. Defeat wasn’t bitter though. Nor was it empty. I had found a new job with Webel Electronics and I was scoring my grass from Anwar Shah Road; earlier I scored from Sealdah. The Sealdah people had taken me to Pagla Babar Mazar at the back of Tollygunge Police Lines where I smoked pot every other day. I remember I spoke to him of hearing about Ghuntiari Sharif, an equally famous and infamous Sufi shrine, notorious for being a site for homosexual prostitution and abuse of hard drugs. He said I should go only if invited. I would get several invitations later all of which I would decline, again for lack of mindspace.
During my weeks with Waheeda, I once got drunk and high by myself at the studio and followed her home. When Mr Qureshi came in, Waheeda had a quiet word with him. I was lying on their communal bed close to the wall with the lights off when Mr Qureshi walked in. He said Waheeda had said she found me on the streets and my clothes were dirty, so she brought me home. It was evidently false and I denied the latter bit. The first part I did not as that would have entailed giving away her secret. Or, having to make up my own story, which I am not good at when it comes to real life. My response made for a plausible explanation, nonetheless; a partially subservient wife trying to gain the support of her husband for an independent act of friendship by making an excuse. I don’t know if Mr Qureshi saw it that way but I do know that he tried to kiss me. When he asked me how the kiss was, I said it sort of repulsed me. Your reply, even if it were true, is inappropriate, he said. Why? Because it has injured my feelings. I said I was being honest but he said I should have used different words.
I stayed over. Waheeda told me she had married Mr Qureshi at 14, that her religion permits all post-pubescent marriages. At one point, she asked me what I thought of Mr Qureshi and informed me without my having asked that he was quite good in bed “in his time”.
The birthday party took place at the end of those weeks. There was poetry, quiz and cake. Soon, I would join my position with Webel and be unable to find the time or reason for anymore visits. The night I stayed over at Waheeda’s, she showed me her “favourite” dusty pink salwar suit, removing it with care from inside the dark confines of her steel cupboard, packed in light pink wrapping paper. She asked me if I found it pretty and I smiled. Later I would remember that it was indeed a very pretty suit. Some time after I had stopped seeing either her or Mr Qureshi, a package arrived at my doorstep. It contained some more birthday greetings from the couple. And that pink salwar suit. I now wish I had worn it at least the one time as I can’t remember where it is now.
The Raven and His Lenore
The ravens quarrel in the dim evening light. Smoke from the pyre, no chullah, obscures the western horizon. She has flowing grey hair and eyes as grey as the Ganga. An arthritic limp that comes off a stiff right knee hurt in a fall. Soon she would stop contemplating the birds and lope back to her mud hut. Her fingers would wrap around the end of a coconut broom. It’s a clean broom, the one she uses to sweep her bed space after she rises everyday before mopping it with water, cowdung and jute fibre and leaving it to dry. She would break off a small stick from the edge of the broom and stick it into the Indian pipe, scrape it swiftly along its brown innards from end to end and side to side. Her cheekbones would cast long shadows as she would blow, emitting a low, whistling snort. She would then pick up a black pyramidal stone chip–the gitthi or tthikre, as in common parlance it is known to the cognoscenti–and drop it into the pipe. It would settle broad side up at the narrow end with a satisfying clinking sound. A powder of earth-smelling cannabis leaf and brown tobbaco would be then dropped into the pipe. It will be as smooth as velvet or dust. The top of the pipe will be sealed off with a roll of coconut pith, like light brown coloured wire. She would strike the match and drag the smoke from in between the circumference of a cup made by her left thumb and right forefinger, and release it in twin streamlets from her nostrils into the redolent air. To her left and right, her companions would wait, two young boys and a girl who are her friends from other city neighbourhoods, who have sought out her company and her smoke. She would pass on the pipe. The ground would squelch under your feet. The late evening rain has left it moist and pliant, and it would expand and rise in the distance in mounds of seven-colour earth. Beneath it would turn the bones and essence of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of villagers, chieftain, citizen, princeling, as surely as the earth would turn. There will be little space left to bury their dead for the locals near Wajed Ali Shah Road, Kolkata, but they would yet flock to the old lady `caretaker’ of the dead, wearing the white dhoti not of widow but of undertaker. As darkness falls in the hut on what was once the edge of town, she would presently wrap up her smoke and trudge out to meet her first dead man of the day.
My dark lady lives in my soul. She speaks to me in my wakeful moments. But, beyond the high walls of the KMC Muslim Burial Ground, I dream of a tall mansion where her young companion lives, whose walls she tries to scale with her friends to escape the attentions of her elders to reach the dark lady me in the burial ground. She could also have been me with her strong young thighs and high, vulnerable energy. But she isn’t, for her parents are giving her away in forced marriage, mine have given me my freedom at least in this and some other important matters like what I would read, with whom I would mingle though not go to bed, where I would go though not at what time. Giving her away in forced marriage to the king of the brothels of Charu Market, where they indeed have hash instead of grass, but not she, because she is never to be on her open, dusty streets again. For she has dared to love the smaller of the two boys and the other thin boy—he loves her. Though they never get to fully learn or share these motivations, her keepers know. And are swift in their retribution. Not much happens to the boys save the odd thrashing or two, but it is as if someone cuts out from their bodies their hearts.
For dreams are like movies and movies are films about ghosts, wrote a poet in later times. But for me in those days dreams are sometimes Hindi movies. Exaggerated. Larger than life.
I share the first part of the dream with my father. I don’t remember but may be I share, too, the latter part. But he pays attention to the first, he calls it Kafkaesque and I am immediately curious about Franz Kafka, and Metamorphosis and The Trial, which I am yet to read, and his words spark my interest in those clever treatises though this is just one dream among others like those of Shah Rukh Khan and I rescuing seven-year-olds from being given away in forced marriages and hiding them on bungalow rooftops rappling up and down the sides holding on to the pink madhabilata climber, I repainting my mother’s old mint green sari for the little girl’s new wedding and Shah Rukh Khan getting glued to an old rocking chair by the bed in my uncle’s room in the colliery manor house because there was Quickfix on the seat; he begs me to keep a secret of his presence and predicament from the prying eye of the paparazzi.
Dreams of the family lying covered in white shrouds on the floor of a room lit by a single candle and I, waking up, pass through a square trap door in the ground to a town where a train drops and me and my father, a skeleton sitting with knees drawn up atop the engine and waving as it chugs past. It is a ghost town and my father and I go on a merry adventure meeting its inhabitants until the train arrives and we are returned to immediately take up our positions under our respective bedsheets, the room still bathed in candlelight.
Before he began to slam my freedom of movement and choice of clothing, music and activity, my father taught me all the important things in life. The Atomic Theory at age 6, the hidden stories of the Indian nationalist movement, how to appreciate cricket. It was he who coached me to smoke at age 4 (I would wonder if the cigarette got smaller by burning itself then why put it to one’s lips and why burn it in the first place and he said the trick is in the drag; I remembered enough to be actually able to inhale and understand the second time I tried it alone in my granddaddy’s antechamber during summer vacation of Class I; my mother later commenting on how I could smoke without coughing one afternoon when she had asked my father for a post-lunch puff to make up for the lack of mouth-freshener in the house but found herself choking on the uptake) and at his friend’s place, all grown at 24, I had my first whisky–a scotch brand called Valentine, on his benign watch.
My father is a rationalist and a math aficionado whose career path had been decided by his elders, so he ended up being a doctor, a good one but one over-fond of ministrating to his children thanks to mother who liked having me sick or at least on medicine because it meant having me under her control; so she would make me swallow analgesics and chew digestive pills as part of my daily diet–a Bengali habit or, rather, a habit common among Bengalis. Our house overflowed with prescription drugs. And so when I started smoking pot and gave up after college because I would only do it “under my own steam” as he had officially disapproved but I was yet to get a job, I also gave up popping pills, eschewing them altogether for the rest of my life.
When I inform my father of my intention to move away from the PG, where I shared my room with three other girls, had a 10.30 curfew and meals, to an independent one-room flat at Garfa, not exactly close to Tollygunge Police Lines where I had “made friends among some anti-socials in a teashop and we met there” (I omitted the detail that the teashop was in fact inside Pagla Babar Mazaar and my chief attraction there was not the tea but the pot), he throws a fit. He says he forbids it and my Mejomashi, whom he respects for being the only professional woman in my mother’s side of the family, decides to play patriarchal woman at that very moment, walking in to lecture me (she was a college teacher to boot) on how dangerous it is for a woman in the city to live alone and how the men whom I call my friends really have no regard for me and would take advantage of me to gratify their lust which, not so obviously to her it seems, was never in the equation. I am appalled by how she decides for herself not only the nature of my relations with them but their depth and merit with no benefit of information. Not to speak of the extent my abilities to take care of myself and others.
Not being fashion-savvy to that degree and not having studied formal philosophy or humanities at college level, I am yet to get wind of the western sociology of breaking from the nest, but even as she speaks I brace for the inevitable hurt from the blow my father would be sure to deliver if he seizes upon the alien geography of this lifestyle and interprets it crassly, for it would not only be not true but so very false. My motives have been shuddh desi, I have no need for custom though I could easily cite famous examples of Indians and Bengalis striking out on their own—writers, travellers, et al, but I had made the decision guided by the sound philosophy of nature and the animal world. It is why I still work to earn my living to this day. And it was why in the end I wouldn’t have minded that hurt. It made sense of all my offerings to and interactions with the world.
Bengalire kohi padaho!—Manuel da Assumpcao, Portuguese missionary who wrote the first grammar of Bengali language.
Though it had been the subtext of his argument, that blow never falls. Instead, my father, who had been so focused on my career and had worked so hard on giving me `the right education’, surprises me by gently proposing a new idea; the plan of a marriage in which I, his favourite daughter, who resembles the mother he lost at the age of three in his Potuakhali (then part of Barisal) home (often hair-raisingly so as recounted by relatives during marriage get-togethers), would give birth to him all over again (“Imagine,” he said, “A mini-me”, who would live on to fight our good fight? That was the idea), and I demur!
Indeed, in a fair world, the girl should ideally wish for a boy when she becomes a parent and vice-versa because a husband and wife would also want to interact with each other at that level if the pull drawing them to each other is strong and the promise binding them substantial. Dear reader, have you ever wanted to have met your lover as a little boy and check out how he used to be then? Having a son off him gives you that chance. So there is nothing wrong with the idea at all, but I demur. I want a space of my own first which I need to earn with my own sweat and blood.
So, determined to make that break soon, I go back to my PG though not to my life in the mazaar. Much has happened in the past year. I had not finished my training period in Webel, but had started freelancing with The Statesman during that time, writing on ‘The Transsexual Question’ after interviewing a transgender professor of Bengali from Naihati and ‘The Pied Piper of Calcutta’, the pathbreaking musician Gautam Chattopadhyay. I had also landed a job on the desk of M J Akbar’s The Asian Age. I had done campaigns against large scale dissection of frogs on lab tables at school level (when I had carried the heart of one in my blouse pocket to show off at home but forgotten all about it until the ants came) and travelled on foot to the interiors of South 24-Parganas to report death by superstition. All this left little time for the dargah and the pots. Besides, thanks to the piece on Gautam, I would also meet the man whom I was going to marry in some more months’ time.
In the end, having been constantly occupied by experiment, struggle and strife, I never truly learn to nurture. It is true I love people but I lose all the puppies we try to save from the bigger dogs in the locality (even though dog politics is matriarchal in the end it doesn’t matter), and whoever I come close to becomes my opponent; it is as if I alone, single-handedly, singularly inspire bad behaviour directed at myself in whoever comes into my life. With exceptions. But I almost kill my mother during childbirth, so I forgive her the later bitterness. I am alakshmi, the witch—and would in time be paired off by Chand Mian, keeper of Isha Ali Baba’s chador on his tomb at the mazaar, as Shetala to the Kali of Khukudi or Shipra Das, a feisty 45-year-old New Alipore ex-table tennis player, criminal and fellow smoker with leucoderma and black, narrow eyes on Baba’s Urs or death anniversary day.
Along the way to Pagla Babar Mazaar, there would be clusters of often-headless Shetala images in various stages of disintegration by the roadside. A three-legged dog that was tall and broad-shouldered, had impeccable balance and could outrun its mates. Little slum girls who played ball. The handsome goddess on the ass is not immersed after puja but left in places not directly frequented by the householder, to be claimed by the ravages of time. Spread of city had clashed with abiding custom and the periphery of the cemetery, almost at Bangur Hospital’s backyard where one would not go to for a casual walkabout but which is in full view of passersby, had become the chosen spot for dumping her images. Both alakshmi and the Shetala are forms of Dhumavati Devi, whose vehicle is the raven and who is my primary muse during those times.
Blame it on protracted economic insecurity followed by inertia but, boy or girl—I never give birth to a child. Never grow to learn the changes it would bring in my body, my hormones, the make of my mind. Of what it is to have a body grow inside you. Or a mind. Of being part of Bhuvaneshwari, the Roman Ceres or the Greek Demeter myth of creating life. I never give birth to that son my rational-minded father had wished me to birth, a boy who would have been a mini-he, returning to him the good fights he had once fought, the missed chances and the opportunity to fully be who he still strived to be, and to experience the mother that I looked like, he said, and shared my genes and nature with, for he also said, I did possess the same qualities `Renu’ was said to have; Renubala, a charismatic woman who killed herself when my father was just three years old one rainy night. My father had told me one other time he did love the rain.
And so I never keep that almost-promise, and the way he didn’t have me promise, was also so fair; I never give him the only thing he ever asked for himself from me in his life.
* * *
The bald fair lady sweeps the courtyard, folds of her dhoti falling low between her legs but wound tight around her long calves, large feet clacking away in wooden mules that go by the common name of khadam, right hand slapping the uttariya back and forth across her left shoulder in time with her morning mantra. Humorist Tarapada Roy writes of her in a 1984 Desh edition: She is apanditain in a late 1890s Bengali village or city neighbourhood and an Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar crusader. She is also the only known woman in Bengali history ever to have worn a shikha or atiki, the tuft of hair on a true brahman’s crown.
My moment of truth arrives in four phases. The first is when I believe or rather figure out there’s no God. One of the last hurdles to my comfort with this idea, having crossed which is really the key for me to have been able to hold it as successfully as I have, as I am sure, it would be to many others, is the fear that death and dire consequence should befall my parents and sister, the people that I love, should I draw that conclusion for on the outside chance that God exists, He/She/It might punish me for forsaking them. It is then that I decide that if God is good, they would reward my intellectual honesty and if they are not, well, it is my duty to fight them above the call of family, of personal love, and if they don’t exist the question does not arise, and in the end, it is truth that matters foremost. The second moment comes independently but incidentally a month ahead of my reading of Ayn Rand in engineering college third year, coinciding with my second experiment with substance, though had God existed they would have known I’d been racking my brains for way over a decade and all contemplation has an end. I take comfort in my thinking for myself. I take onus for my decisions and their consequences; break through the paralysis of all the what-ifs and could-have-beens. Move away from the collectivism of the family, from that atavism, the need to compulsively argue, re-argue, endlessly, argument upon argument upon argument upon false counter-argument, so that I may convince and obtain sanction on how to feel or think or breathe or walk—this sanction I feel for the first time is unnecessary as I am a free woman, though my ancestors’ ideals are now a microcosm of my universe and indeed it is I who is being true to them, and this has been proved enough number of times at my sole expense not theirs, so I can move on. Whatever they say, it is my choice to show the others the error of their ways or not as much as it is theirs to see it—and I have tried enough, will try later, but now is the time to take care of my integrity, to be that person who does what she thinks and she says, and from across time and space Rand’s words give me comfort and courage as I set out on this journey to right the past; the third moment comes when I experience substance for the first time—in the form of siddhi, a paste made from the leaf of the cannabis herb—it is then that I know nesha or intoxication (as distinct from addiction) is neither false nor faked, that it is possible to achieve an altered state of mind and being and the last comes when I learn that romantic love, as they call it, too, is real, much like that Lennon song.
And the blue morning glory tangled around the electric pole short-circuits itself on the high-tension wire atop my parents’ yard. Back at Pagla Baba’s, amidst the anti-socials and the so-called low-life, an unassuming dad supervises his son’s math homework on the chowk by candlelight. Saudade. Home fell short and is lost forever; but a new home has been found. Babla comes to me with his chemistry doubts. Kochi shares his football dream. Intrepid Dulal demonstrates to a room how to stop a full-speed ceiling fan from rotating with his bare hands. The pipe is full when azaan is called. Putu, Bhangor, taxi driver Bhutua, Pari, young Diamond, old Britishda (so named for his ever-punctual entrances), Haarada—the tea man, handsome Jayanta and others stand up for their five-a-day prayers. Chand Mian leads the chant.
Paanch panje panjetan ka ek naara haideri – Ya Ali!
Dilip Bhai, the one-legged gracious-mannered hitman, gives lung to the sacred fire. The pot is ready, the circle live. In the end, one grows to learn, all one needs is stamina, and a bit of heart. Heart is what you need, to wish upon a star or a dead man and have that wish come true.
* * *
It’s year 2000. A month now that Dadu has passed. I am between my Webel and Asian Age jobs and in midst of my explorations of substance and the Mazaar. I had been to Latu Baba’s and spent one night each at Dilipda’s Chitpur hideout and Charu Market. One evening, I smoked 18 pots.
Every evening, I catch shuttle autos from my Shibnath Bhavan PG (as I did after returning from work at Webel) through Anwar Shah Road to Tollygunge to reach Pagla Baba’s. One time there, after several smokes, I work up a paranoid guilt trip triggered by my unemployed state in my own mind.
A few days back, after a particularly intense conversation over phone with my father, I had put freedom over all my other morals and had wanted to join Dilipda’s gang. I had expressed that thought to Chand Mian, the keeper of Isha Ali Baba’s chador on his tomb at the Mazaar. He looked worried, and asked me to rethink. To orthodox folks unused to my presence at the Mazaar, Chand Mian would often defend my right to be there: Baba’s asked her to come here. No one comes here to whom Baba does not call.
That day, though, and not uncharacteristically, I do not speak about this guilt trip. But it gets so that I decide I can’t move another muscle without committing something terrible and I ask my neighbours to make space for me and lie on the chowk, working hard to get my thoughts back in order.
Atheist as I am, I still make a wish at that moment. E equals mc square is Einstein’s equation of mass changing to energy. But the opposite is not true; the energy of a wish can’t, of itself, become mass or quantity but may be, just may be, the power of collective intent and the goodwill of the Mazaar can do the trick! So, riding on that will, perhaps even to subvert it, I make a wish. An electrical engineering graduate, I wish to become a journalist, find work that lets me read and write and be informed while I plot my return to the academic world. I wish just this and no more.
That’s the precise moment when Rabi Pagla, whom I had privately noticed earlier for his not-inconsiderable physical beauty and who would often gaze at me out of his big, surma’d eyes, darts forth and touches the centre of my outwardly cast left foot and I see him approach but I am too occupied to move and then he touches me and I feel like I am transparent and I think I have come in my underwear.
All the sex and intimacy I had previously partaken of have been voluntary on my part but this one is not. Though I seem to have been attracted to his person, I hadn’t called for this contact. Yet I couldn’t have stopped it because I was spiritually immobilized. I had locked down until the time I would receive some emotional forward momentum. Thus it would not be wrong to say that I was raped in the middle of a Sufi mazaar by a madman once upon a night.
Shortly following this surrender, I would imagine the eighth mahavidya of the crane-faced orator, Bagala, whose mind and tongue are sharp as a double-edged sword. Toying with the basics of writing like character, dialogue and observations expressed in accurate language, I would weave an imaginary narrative in which Dhumavati is the pot-smoker undertaker, Shodashi is the girl who gets kidnapped, reborn as Bagalamukhi who is myself, ugly, clumsy, even disabled who would be raped but would go on to write a manifesto on walk-at-nighting, which I would go on to actually accomplish many, many years on. But Bagalamukhi could even have been Ucchishta Matangi, the campy, brainy girl who marries her male cousin—himself an egalitarian legal reformer in his own right—just to overturn through public litigation the Indian law on guardianship in which the woman has to be in care of her husband. Their own relationship is asexual. Would their marriage then have to be consummated for the case to stand in a court of law? How would I link Bagala to Matangi? These questions would have me seriously worried. And though I would never write it down, my first novel idea had arrived. I did not know yet, but I was also to get the phone call that would fulfil my wish not long afterward.
“Ganjar nouka pahar baiya jaye” —Anonymous
* * *
Vidyadhari: Goddess of skill, these are sixteen in number, feared to be promiscuous and hence spoken disparagingly of in folk custom.
Mahavidya: The ten essential energies. They include Kali, the supreme brahman, knower of all secrets cosmic; Tara, the blue saraswati; Shodashi or mokshamukta, the tantric parvati; Bhuvaneshwari, the earth mother; Bhairavi, the fierce one; Chhinnamasta, the beheaded one; Dhumavati, also known as Biraja, the widow or death goddess; Bagala, the orator; Ucchista Matangi, the tantric saraswati; and Kamala, the tantric lakshmi.