Sucheta. Short story writer. Sees the world through the three lenses of freedom, history and dream. Horror is her favourite genre.
Chet feels electric. At last, at long, long last, she knows. The world is in its place and she(!) has the key to it in her own two hands.
She finds this particular key lying on the mattress in the upstairs room of her mamabari, days before Granddaddy dies.
The morning Granddaddy dies, however, her cousin turns up at the apartment house of Mrs M at Shibnath Bhavan, fifth floor, bang beside the landmark railway overbridge on Gariahat Road, where Chet lives as paying guest. Chet has just landed a job giving computer lessons to rich housewives and bored kids on their summer breaks and today is her first assignment. She is also, at this juncture of her life, seeing a gentleman, who will later become her weirman, meaning the person who would have as one of his perceived duties the task of husbanding her not-so-meagre, neither-overly-ample energies and resources for a considerable part of his life. Mrs M receives her cousin courteously as apposite to her generous nature and informs Chet with suitable gravity that her elderly relative has breathed his last.
Outside the terrace, up the street bordering the flyover, urchins that live in shanties by the railway tracks swagger and lope to school, swinging their satchels and banging their mini tin suitcases all the way to their destination. Their parents finish loud ablutions by tube well on the wayside. Monday morning walkers step briskly and sedately homeward even as teashops serve their first tea to early customers amidst much newspaper reading, the occasional repartee, scent of fresh gasoline exhaust and the nonchalant rays of a cool, yellow sun.
A minute and a half later, Chet and her cousin are out Mrs M’s door, seven minutes and they are on a bus, fifteen and they are at Lake Market flower mart, scanning the winsome blooms with a clinical eye, Chet noting the abundance of funereal whites amongst the fare for the first time. Half an hour later, they arrive together at the Behala house, ready to pay their last respects to the dear departed, ready for more errands. Two hours later, Granddaddy makes his very last journey to the crematorium that, not counting a brief visit to the hospital more than two years ago, also happens to be his first in three years. Chet does not accompany him. Being female, she is not asked to. Being a grown up, she does not feel the need to prove a feminist point or any point whatsoever, and because she has been trying so hard all along to attain what she so envied in her peers, that semblance of a morally normal routine of daily life, and what is her morality, her feminism, all about if she has to depend on the enemy—the rest of the world—for her rice, fire her gun from their shoulders, she decides to attend instead the first assignment of her new job, not without and notwithstanding the slightly superfluous blessings of her ever-contrarian mother.
Such is the day that Granddaddy passes away, not wholly unexpectedly, considering that he has been bedridden for his three past octogenarian years, and not happily either, leaving Chet and several others feeling only slightly grounded by the reality of his mortality and a trifle nonplussed for no one can be perfectly cold-hearted in the face of the grand facts of life.
But who can completely comprehend all the facts of another’s life? Even though that effort comprises much of our journey as an individual and a race, there are but few points of contact, indeed, between ourselves and our surroundings that can portend accurately irreversible changes about to occur in our life or tell us immanent truths about our own mettle, present the future like a picture book or provide a key to our very souls, show us who we really are. And after all that has transpired between her and Granddaddy only that weekend, Chet, for one, knows at last what she is like and what she is not and that knowledge will not change in the entire span of her life. For cold-hearted Chet had touched her grandfather with the sure-fingered steel of a young woman’s insight.
Two days ago, on Saturday, Chet had made her choice between limited-but-flawless knowledge and blind action that has plunged her forward by several orbitals (remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? It equally applies to the psyche) in the aforementioned journey of life.
Two days ago, it is Janmashtami at the devout Vaishnav household. One of the four brothers and their wives who have set up family is an avowed ‘saint’, one other is a (god)believing rationalist, and all four have received initiations from the sole representative of some certain branch of the various Vaishnav subsects that followers adhere to, Granddaddy being the eldest of the quartet. Not a square foot of the four walls of the two-and-a-half rooms of the two-storey family home that makes up Granddaddy’s section of the house, therefore, are void of framed photographs prepared out of old calendar pictures, religious calendars in their original, mounted idols or some such representation or the other of the blue god and his cohorts and consorts. All books in his wall cupboard library are Vaishnavite texts. Chet is a reader and can vouch for that fact.
Granddaddy is ill for a long time. He loses his mental proficiencies and vocabulary, his memory and speech, his grasp of day-to-day functions. Grandmammy or Deeda, as she is called by her pride, prepares a special puja, over and above the mandatory rituals she observed past midnight. Granddaddy has been sent upstairs to Shejdadu’s quarters, the abode of the third brother, yes, the rationalist one, so that he can rest undisturbing and undisturbed, safe and cared for.
Deeda, an energetic 71-year-old, who never stops working except to go to bed for a few hours every night, has made extensive preparations for the whole performance and, after the usual dinner and tucking in of Granddaddy, arisen, bathed and changed for the prayers. She is now downstairs in the attaché puja room, chanting pre-worship purification mantras.
It is five am. Chet has been lying in bed awake listening to the sounds of the house, when she is abruptly summoned and packed off upstairs as are the mores of any brusque Bangal household (every smallest detail of a decision there, and you could break up any minor act into an infinitesimal sequence of actions and judgments and decisions, is a collective quest, during which everyone will whip up a scrambling pandemonium as best as she can that makes reaching any semaphore to the solution of it almost an accident-by-chance and next they must immediately execute the decision in the same second it was accidentally stumbled upon) to keep granddad company, watch over him and, above all, keep him in bed.
So Chet climbs up the house staircase that is located at the north end, the one that, with its red stone banisters, has always looked like a sari hung sideways on a slanted indoor clothes line while outside it rained, that sometimes morphed into the blowing-in-the-wind aanchal of a model in a handloom sari on a television commercial or the border of the same sari twisted around the head of a woman and falling like a sash across her chest in her imaginings when she is away from the house. The room in question is at the east end of a semi-open terrace.
Months before Granddaddy commences his three-year descent into dementia, there has been, Chet is told, a spat over the organization of another domestic worship gathering. Tempers had gone flying, as is recollected with sick relish by some, and Granddaddy, a timid and habitually amicable person, is said to have been too overwhelmed by the injustice of an argument or several to have offered an offence or a decision. The second party had their day and, soon after they left, Granddaddy had engaged in some spectacular behaviour, the less said of which the better. Which ended in a spell during which he lost pages of his mind. Among other things, Granddaddy, a brilliant scholar, has had to relearn to write. And when he emerges out of the fugue, Granddaddy has lost the prestige of the house. His opinions now no longer matter as much as they once did.
Chet is duly briefed about this development when she steps into the household for a one-year stay prior to when she leaves for a paying guest apartment once she gets herself her first job. But she notes and remembers the sweet precision with which her helpful Granddaddy had kept, unexpectedly, an unobtrusively made promise of waking her at four am one day so she could make the one-hour journey to the railway station in time to catch the early morning train to her hometown for a brief-but-then-urgent visit. One month later, when Granddaddy again began to lose his mind, it was a steep tumble that deposited him in a matter of months in his current state from which he has scarcely reappeared.
Chet remembers this contact most of all for now, thinking back, it represents the last days of relatively good health in Granddaddy’s life. More importantly, to Chet, Granddaddy’s helpfulness, his quietly volunteering to ask her to rise, the gentle reserve with which he did it, his kind smile as she went out the door felt better than a thousand tearful Bless You’s by the women of the house that, for some reason, cloy at one’s sensibilities, if naught else, and it all contributed to an opulent yet casual exchange, that disarmed her then-habitually-prickly self because it occurred at a place where she least expected it to have.
All this passes through Chet’s mind as she flits up the staircase of her childhood that leads to the first floor, soundlessly so as to not disturb the still-somnolent members of the house.
Some time ago, a college friend had put Chet through a pop quiz about learning one’s own personality. It contained questions like what pet one would choose—dog, cat or bird—and what one’s first instincts would be upon finding oneself behind locked doors in a space large enough to be comfortable—to make a break for freedom or meditation. One of the questions had to do with finding a key by the wayside. Should one find such a key, would it preferably be an ancient piece with metal carvings and history or a shining new one? Chet always found this one difficult to answer. The answer apparently has to do with one’s sense of self—one’s preference directly indicates whether it’s old or newly-forged.
Sense of self… aah, now, that’s a wonderful thing to contemplate. It is younger than memories, while being one in itself, yes? It grows and transmutes with time. It may be old, but it can be newly-formed. And, just as he has retained his English vocabulary as those words were of a language for which he had such love, Granddaddy is sure to have that faculty, much unlike Chet herself—why, she is so often called aabodha by Deeda, for her surprising lack of shame and sensibility, and her generally wild ways. No wonder she always finds it so hard to answer the key question.
Chet enters the room and, expectedly, finds Granddaddy awake; he has never been one to sleep in the wee hours of the morning especially when there’s a puja brewing in the house. In a granddaughter’s reciprocation of regard, she slips into bed beside the old man, hugging him warmly, like she used to in the old days and then, just as Deeda would once do to put her to sleep, initiates a light massage on his arms, bare chest and shoulders. Instead of closing his eyes and relaxing, however, Granddaddy’s bearing seems a little tight. The expression on his face borders on a smile but when she speaks to him, his eyes look at her askance.
Whatever she says and however she repeats herself, they remain gazing askance. Then Granddaddy begins frowning at himself and fidgeting a little. When Chet asks him what is the matter, he looks a bit confused and then smiles again. And just like that, realization strikes Chet. Granddaddy is shy.
Chet had forgotten two things. One, her grandfather, who had loved her so well in her childhood, had been in touch with her only sporadically over her growing years and was not quite familiar with her as she had now turned out, physically and otherwise. For during the year of her stay at his place, she had withheld communication with and from most people including himself because she had, herself, been going through a phase of her own that had brought about that extreme introversion.
Second, when Granddaddy was losing his mind, he would consistently refer to her as a male child, an act spurred by a cultural mindset and her being bright and the first grandchild of the joint household, with a protected upbringing yet expectations of a career of startling dimensions. That was before he lost his nouns. Among the first to go were the proper nouns. When he lost most of his nouns and before he stopped speaking altogether, the person he would most ask after was Chet, referring to her unvaryingly as the big brother of some sibling or other in the household. It became a standing joke in the house. Which all goes on to indicate the degree of said unfamiliarity.
Granddaddy is shy. He does not really know the young woman next to himself. He feels faint stirrings deep inside himself and part of him wants to answer that call. It has been ages since he has done that, he supposes, bravely and strongly and truly so that he could emerge the better of himself. And it promises just what he has been desperately trying to achieve for the last few years. Emerge the better of himself. Yet though he gathers all this with the last remaining vestiges of his senses, the remains of his memory tell granddad a different tale. Surer than the first instinct that is only an instinct after all, for what if he cannot follow it and then it turns out to be false, Granddaddy knows that the young woman next to him is a close relative, once familiar, from a time when he carried notions such as identity, and one whom he should not take the advantage of, should any exist, if that identity is to be respected, if not recreated. Especially not without her knowing any of it, that would be like stealing on top of everything else. Granddaddy resists his longing and his mind’s new messages. He feels helpless and shy, helplessly shy.
Chet is far from shy. She feels electric. A thrill from knowing and deducing Granddaddy’s state of mind permeates her own. It is the thrill of new knowledge. She is not experienced in the science of feelings, especially others’ feelings, and it flatters her to think that she can spark off such emotions and dilemmas. She strokes Granddaddy’s shoulder again; this time it is a firmer stroke, and looks at Granddaddy once more to assess his expression. And Granddaddy knows that Chet knows.
And as Chet looks into Granddaddy’s eyes, their look becomes open and, for the first time, intelligent and then quickly they are speaking, telling her, firmly yet mildly, the kind-hearted soul that he is, that, no, he does not want to follow through. But Chet herself is high on the thrill of her new knack. She wants to see how far she can go, how far they both can, without crossing a line. She persists and her will slowly overpowers Granddaddy’s fledgling spirit and soon she feels it rise and respond to her fingertips. Then Granddaddy closes his eyes as she continues to stroke him and play him, and appears to rest in a mindful peace.
Chet continues to work on Granddaddy. And as she does, she spies a copper key lying on the mattress within easy reach of her fingers. She picks up the stray key intending to return it to Grandmammy. She looks at Granddaddy and reflects how surprisingly alive and strong his flesh feels under her circling fingers.
Then Chet remembers something else. He’ll listen now if I tell him and comprehend it, too! And so without a preamble as is her wont, Chet jumps straight to her point. Granddaddy, the treatment you have been getting consists of palliatives. You must take real medicine. Why don’t you take some of those pills that you had been taking initially when you forgot to write? They helped you relearn, yes? Forget what Deeda said about you getting hyper-excited after taking them. Why, you must learn to control that hyper-excitement, that’s the whole challenge, you see. That is what makes you process and go forward.
Excited now, and filled with a righteous sense of duty, Chet plunges on though she notices Granddaddy’s calm brow furrowing and his mouth twisting in tension and sadness. As she speaks, she can make out a little of those various practical posers that litter and limit her plans but she can make out very little of them, so little that she does not want to venture into those uncharted areas and stem her flow without finishing her precious speech. Especially as Granddaddy is unable to speak and therefore cannot help her pinpoint those difficulties. More so, not when Granddaddy is listening at long last. Chet is not a people-pleaser by contrivance but she is one by nature and a very zealous nature that is as people often vouch for.
Chet finishes her piece. It is now time to sleep, the final scene of the grandfather-granddaughter act. Both parties lie stretched out full length on the queen-size bed, Chet lightly clasping Granddaddy’s hand in her long and newly nimble digits. She feels satisfied that her task is neatly accomplished. She tries to concentrate on repose. Then, impulsively, she lets go of Granddaddy and turns on her side away from him, facing the wall-to-wall open windows that look out on the remaining length of the narrow Behala street, now slumbering in semi-darkness, only dimly lit by the grey Calcutta dawn, and flickers open her eyes. She is restless now and she feels quite energetic. A tad impatient, too, and she now waits, yes, actually waits, for her Granddaddy to reenter the world of his silence.
The moment she realizes that she wants him to sleep, however, is the moment that Chet knows that that is precisely what he should not do if she has wanted him to be, in any way, affected by his latest experience. But she is finished as far as she is concerned and wants to get back to her own struggles now. The morning is whispering to her: Those pills, they can wait until you are autonomous and have your say in the house. The onus is not upon you, anyhow. It’s his call. That is when Granddaddy suddenly turns over, grasps her by the shoulder in a thin, forceps-like grip, and speaks, quite clearly and aloud—with apparent anger—for the first time in three years: Now what Chet? Why don’t you cough it out? Why don’t you say that you’d better go to sleep?
I don’t want to, Chet replies, lashing out automatically at the anger in Granddaddy’s voice, missing a beat before the telepathic connection between them hits her. And the fact that he has taken her name, that his cognition has returned.
Why don’t you? Granddaddy is saying now, in quite a loud voice. Won’t you stick to your guns, my dear, my loyal baby revolutionary? He spits out, volume rising by the second.
Chet feels fear spill into a tight little corner of her heart. Granddaddy is right, damn it! she thinks. I must not panic. Immediately, practiced courage takes control. If I do, he will overpower me, she is still reasoning unstoppably. He has the moral right to do so. Another spurt of fear arrives with that thought. Oh no! All the while I thought he was resting… Cold jubilance mixed with a finger of regret germs inside her and that somewhat counters the fear. Chet shrugs off Granddaddy’s hand and pulls away. Pride makes her stay in the bed.
You think you can get away with it? Granddaddy rasps. I will punish you for this one. There is a moment of irrational, blind terror, followed by great desperation, and Chet is seeking to beat her retreat. However strong he might be now, he is an old man, and he has regained his faculties only to the extent an old man can, and he cannot make me stay here when I don’t want to, she tells herself, swinging her legs up over the edge of the bed, circling it and making for the door. I will tell everybody what you wanted to do to me, Granddaddy is now shouting, standing at the foot of the bed. I will tell everybody. They’ll turn you out of the house before you even get a life. And Chet is out of the door.
As Chet bounds across the terrace, hovers at the terrace door, flits back in to check and then leaps down the steps, taking several of them at one go, she feels Granddaddy’s presence metres away. Yet it is always the same distance. Whenever she looks back, she sees his lean silhouette stationary, calling out his curses in a high, keening voice. How can he cover ground so fast with no pickup at all at his age, even factoring in the recreation that just took place, for surely its effects can’t last so long, she thinks, as she now rushes down the last steps, missing a few, stubbing a toe here, bruising a knee, until she finally swings out into the corridor. The last glimpse she has had of Granddaddy is a vision of him screaming at her from the head of the stairs. Yet.
There, in the middle of the corridor, Granddaddy overtakes Chet from behind, gliding past her for the south porch, feet nearly not touching the ground as she watches openmouthed. Raising the skirts of his lungi, he disappears out the door at the other end, like he was once wont to do when he would rush for the toilets before he became habitually incontinent. He is headed for the open toilet beyond the porch.
Another progress, Chet can’t help observing, but as she reaches the end of the corridor herself, she sees Granddaddy crouched down on his haunches on the edge near the far end, three metres away from the toilet entrance, beginning to urinate quietly, the piss pattering gently on the ground before falling over the side of the porch onto the cement yard. Chet passes the empty anteroom—Deeda must be at the porch ritual-cleaning the idol accoutrements, she will have met Granddaddy. Hurrying into one of the main rooms, the second room from the north staircase and entrance, she sees sleeping figures, clad in white vests and pyjamas of the same colour, lying in bed and on and about mattresses on the floor, placed there to accommodate them overnight. Relatives, congregated for the puja. Strangely, though, no one has awakened. Chet sorts them out visually, as one would a stack of cluttered cards. She is looking for her parents, seeking to reach them first, before Granddaddy does. Not here. She finishes scanning and enters the other room.
In the next room which is the first from the staircase, there is only one white vest, her father’s. Chet’s father is a doctor, a good doctor and an honest man. He is quite asleep. Chet finds him, wakes him urgently and declares: He is well. He is walking. He almost peed in the toilet. And he is coming after me.
Granddaddy is urinating on the porch. This has left Chet a pocket of time in which she makes these declarations. The father takes but a few moments to gather his wits and the facts, he is a doctor and a man of sharp mind, so he knows who is being talked about. Perhaps, he is happy since Chet is stoic like him and not openly fearful, perhaps, he senses his daughter’s anxiety and, from that, some imminent danger, but he is not one to let out his feelings, so who knows. But he is smiling, and smiling with more warmth than politeness, when Granddaddy appears in the very next instant, flying in like a lean, brahmin wraith, in a dishabille and beside himself in babbling rage—something the father is perhaps slow to take note of as he has crossed two corridors and one room, made a right turn at the door of the next, entered and reached the armchair, all in the fraction of one second.
His favourite armchair. The armchair that Chet now guiltily recalls having reclined in, legs in air, brooding, thinking, fuming, fantasizing and laying arbitrary future plans, just because she had been living in that room for a year until five months ago and because everybody had access to the armchair. Just before going for the armchair, though, Granddaddy turns his head towards father. The two men look at each other. The smile has disappeared from father’s face, but he is not frowning either. He is just standing there, the aware, sensible, son-in-law, but something in him, Chet feels, does not yield.
It were as if she did not matter anymore and, if she did, she did as another adult but one of no immediate import, in an encounter between two adult and aware beings. Father did not need to know. Or if he did, maybe he respected her coldhearted role. For had she not healed and would it not be his own instinct to protect her, had he even known of his daughter’s immediate behaviour, as a father, and a doctor?
At that very moment, Granddaddy falters. He takes a few steps past the chair, turns at right angles to it, turns around when he is beside it and makes as if to sit down, completely missing the chair, once, twice, every time straightening uncertainly as he realizes if he lets go, he will hit the floor. Each time he lifts his torso, he starts to speak, each time he lowers it, he lapses into incoherence. The third time, he lowers himself beyond ninety degrees, his thighs arcing below his knees and collapses onto the floor.
During that time and later, and for a long time afterwards, Chet cannot but help replay in her mind’s eye Granddaddy’s last flight, from south porch to the armchair after finishing his urination. It had been a matter of less than a few seconds, a compilation of a handful of moments. Granddaddy’s was never a vicious, calculating mind. He had not known, therefore, that those were going to be the last and healthiest few moments of his precious life.
Chet feels electric. With the sparkling, newly-forged key she has found on Granddaddy’s bed clasped in her right, she slowly begins to stroke herself with her left hand. Just before she climaxes, Chet decides that, since no one has missed it yet, she will keep the key with her for as long as she likes.
Illustration: Madhushree Basu