Tuesday 10 August 2021

Jyotsna Jha, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Romantics

It happens only on such wet afternoons. When doors and windows are shut with urgency, the streets of Calcutta are turned into muddy streams, and the sullen sky tells you that the day is already down to its last dregs. A memory steals in like the spray of fine rain between closed windows. I am at my window, ignoring the files on my study table, watching the first rainfall of the season. Though I am seven floors above, I can see feel the excitement of the people scurrying for shelter below and the happiness of the trees washing off their dusty coats. But the rain does different things to me.

I seldom think about those days. I am comfortable without the hazy figures of my past, in the relief of living without secrets, but on days like this take me back to another day, when it had rained like it would never stop. It was the summer of 69. There was poetry in red flags, impassioned speeches, and long marches under a blistering sun. A time when people believed that they could change situations shaped through centuries in a few months. Or even days.

June 1969

I wasn’t surprised to see my friend Aparna at my door at six in the morning, completely drenched despite the umbrella she was carrying. I knew something had gone terribly wrong last night. I tried to calm myself, focusing hard on the words pouring out of her.

“It was around ten in the evening. I heard the sound of people shouting and running. I was standing at the window, looking down, when my mother rushed in, terrified and angry, asking me to shut the windows immediately. I couldn’t sleep till late in the night. I was sure I heard the sound of gun shots. In the morning the milkman told us about a body lying just below our house. Later my brother told me it was Dhrubo.” Aparna took me inside to my bedroom before my parents could see the effects of her words on me.

Dhrubo died on Jessore road, just two crossings away from my house, on the turning where the road loses itself, narrowing into serpentine alleys, running into one another, just below the closed shutters of Shyam Grocers, and Aparna’s house on the 3rd floor. It was also the place where Dhrubo usually saw me off, when we returned from college. When people found him in the morning, his clothes were nearly cleared of the blood, washed by the thick, night rain. His face looked white and fresh, even peaceful. He looked like a drunken man sleeping on the road; except for his right leg, which was twisted at an awkward angle.

After Aparna left, I lay slumped on the bed staring at the wall in front of me for hours, waiting for the tears which did not come. Despite Aparna’s insistence, I did not go with her to see his body. The police came to collect it, in a faded red van, long after the entire neighbourhood had come down to pay him a last visit.

My hands and feet were cold in that humid June afternoon. My eyes frequently travelled to my shoe rack. Only a few months back pipe-guns, hidden inside Bata shoe cartons, had been pushed into its farthest corners. My ears dreaded the ring of the door bell, the thud-thud of heavy boots walking into the house, followed by questions and threats. I could see my cupboards beings stripped, furniture overturned, and things being thrown on the floor in heap. But no one came that day.

I joined my parents after repeated calls for dinner. My father was very disturbed. Dhrubo was after all a boy from our neighbourhood, and my college-mate. “Did you know him well? He was just a year senior to you.” He asked me twice during our meal.

How little parents know about their children!

“Why should she know him after what he and his gang of hoodlums did to us? They deserve it, these misguided, desperate boys. They have killed and looted enough.”

My father stared at her. “They are just boys Mita.”

“That boy topped the higher-secondary exams with a gold medal in mathematics. I heard the poor chap is survived only by a widowed mother.” He continued, shaking his head. “How could they leave him on the road, like the heap of rubbish piled on its sides!” his voice was trailing.

“What else can you expect from the police”, my mother shrugged her heavy shoulders. “They are doing this every day, in some part of the city.”

“It was not the police. They wouldn’t leave the body on the road. It could be a rival group or party. Many criminals have now joined the movement.” He was quiet for a while. “On second thoughts, it might have been the police in plain clothes.”

I had not heard from Dhrubo for months, since our last meeting after he returned from Nadipur. I had not phoned him and was relieved that he did not either. I didn’t know that he was in Calcutta. Partho was the only person who could have told me, but he was in jail.

I met Dhrubo Banerjee, three years back. It was around the pujos, the Bengali festive season. We had just moved into our two-storied house in a new locality. One evening I saw my father caught between a group of arguing boys, demanding that we pay five thousand rupees because we had bought a new property in the neighbourhood.

“For what? For whom? I don’t understand why I should give anything more after paying my dues to the municipal corporation?” My father’s voice was firm but far too soft to be heard in the clamour.

Dhrubo stepped in from behind. He was of average height and built; fair, with a handsome, somewhat delicate face. But his eyes did not belong to his face. Today at sixty-two, I still feel Dhrubo was the most intense person I have known all my life.

“This may mean a few sarees less for Mashima’s Pujo shopping,” he pointed towards my mother, “but this amount could feed an entire factory of striking workers for days. Or stop a retrenched worker from committing suicide.”

I stared at him, partly shocked, partly fascinated. I was struck by the choices he presented to us—sarees vs peasant hunger. Only my mother would have preferred the sarees. I wanted to stay there, to hear more, but she pulled me inside. My father relented rather easily, I thought later. But it had nothing to do with his fear of those boys as my mother insinuated. I later discovered that he was a second-year student in my college, majoring in Mathematics. Fascinating stories floated about him inside the college.

A few weeks after that incident, I found him standing ahead of me in the queue for filling up examination dues. He had been avoiding my eyes and tentative smiles despite many efforts at familiarity with him. I was not used to this indifference from the opposite sex. My friends were mostly boys and girls despised me for the effect I had on them. I took solace from the thought that Dhrubo was probably uncomfortable about that evening in my house.

“You showed me a different view of the world that day.”

It took him a few seconds to register the meaning of my words. I squinted up at him as we stood under the white heat of the May sun. The sky was bereft of clouds, pinning everything under it a layer of oppressive humidity. A look of surprise and bafflement passed over his face before he managed a smile. I waited for him to take the conversation further but we both just continued to stand there silently, suddenly awkward with the awareness of each other. The queue was so tight that I frequently brushed against him. A breeze rose suddenly cooling the sweat on our bodies and making me aware of the smell of his skin. Never before had i felt my entire consciousness focussed on only one person, making the rest of the world around me melt away into nothingness.

It didn’t take me long to inch my way slowly into his circle, but unfortunately in owed my growing closeness only to my interest in his ideologies. I was the only girl in our group of four. The other two were Shaibal and Partho.

Partho was the boy with fiery speeches, free-flowing expletives, and twenty stitches on his head. He had earned them while saving a student from police lathi-charge. He was tall and well built, with a slouch that seemed artificial, and a contrived air of menace about him. He wore his curly hair long which added to his cavalier attitude. It was a boyish face which seemed perpetually on the verge of a sulk. His father was a school teacher with a salary that could barely support his four children and old parents. The entire college lionized Partho; even the bookish ones, who had no interest in the pro-communist movement growing inside the college. When he spoke he could put feelings inside a stone. I frequently got into long arguments with him as he tried to defend the inherent contradictions in Marxism. He told me about how grim the situation really was inside the villages. Though he enjoyed our conversations we shared, I could sense his antagonism towards me. He was not comfortable with my increasing involvement in the group. I knew he didn’t like me and I think he always knew that I was in love with Drubo, though I tried my best to hide my feelings from them, including Drubo. He thought I would weaken Drubo. “All this is not for you” he told me many times. It took me a very long to accept it.

Shaibal was the quiet one, who knew how to put things inside his mind on a hold. We often had to goad an opinion out of his reluctant lips. Partho found him too soft to qualify for being a revolutionary. “He is too quiet. I can never trust anybody like that.” But I think it was more to do with his background. Like me, Shaibal came from an affluent family. His father was a high-court judge. He drove a car and always paid our canteen bills. “He can never understand this hunger and this hopelessness. His ideas come from a romantic heart and not a rumbling gut.” Partho was open about his wariness. Dhrubo’s reservations about him were expressed more mildly. But there was something about Shaibal that told me, my woman’s instincts perhaps, that their fears were misplaced. In some ways, Shaibal was the one I became closest to.

For the first time in my life, my books did not matter to me. We sat in the college canteen, not aware of the periods that slipped by. While our future was being defined inside the hallowed portals of our illustrious college, we were discussing the future of the world outside our classrooms: rising prices and black-marketeering of rice and kerosene, factories in the red and the attendant worker strikes, and an establishment whose intentions were increasingly suspect after frequent attacks on unarmed students and farmers.

Now when I look back, those days went by in a hurried haze that alternated between euphoria and despair. Within just six months of joining college, I had breached many walls. I grown out of the skin I had been living in all my life—Srirupa, first year student of English literature, in Calcutta’s most elite college—I was now a part of a revolution. I was oiling the wheels of history, changing lives around me.

I joined my friends in confronting retailers in markets, sometimes succeeding in making them bring their prices down, though I did not join them for stone throwing and raiding stores hoarding food illegally. We prepared actual figures about poverty, wage scales and food availability. People were keen to know what we wanted to tell them, not only the industrial workers but also the very poor and the illiterate living in the urban slums. I sat late in the nights translating Marxist literature into Bengali, creating pamphlets for distribution to the peasants Dhrubo would go to meet. We could see our dream of taking the revolution to the people turn into reality.

A year later they began visiting the villages along with some seniors from the college to spread the propaganda. The groundwork had already been done by others before them. There was no hostility and they were welcomed by the villagers. I was suddenly thrown out of the circle, waiting for some news to come in from them. I sat in a daze inside my lecture halls, caught between my longing for Dhrubo and my frustration at being left out. He never called, but I received letters brought to me by friends. He wrote disturbing things; about diarrhoea and malaria, about nights spent out in the open in a cot, under a humming umbrella of mosquitoes, and meals consisting of only rice soaked in water overnight, to prevent it from spoiling. ‘The villagers call it paanta bhat. The only accompaniment to this rice is salt, green chillies, and raw mustard oil. My bowels have turned into a fiery volcano.’ Was he smiling when he wrote this?

He returned from Nadipur after a month. With a weathered, bronzed body, and large half moons resting under his eyes. His youth had been washed away from his face. But his smile was wide. “Here I am again!”

I wanted to take him away from the coffee shop. From all our people around him. They weren’t too many of them though. People had begun to fear him inside the college. We were longer safe people to be friends with.

I asked him to walk me home that evening.

“Walk you home? It’s going to be six kilometre walk!”

“Are you tired?” I asked concerned, looking at his gaunt face.

“No. No I am not. Actually walking you home sounds like a good idea,” he replied considering the evening sun which had already begun to look weak.

On our way back, he seemed withdrawn and reluctant to talk, making only brief references to their stopping the flow of rice out of the villages.

“I don’t like your occupation and hideouts inside rural schools. By hindering their education you are compromising the empowerment of the very people we fighting for.”

“It’s only a temporary affair, a way to show them we mean business.”

Despite my efforts at conversation, it turned to be an evening of long silences. It was also the evening I tried to seal our relationship. To define it for us. Or maybe mostly for myself. Uncaring that someone might appear any moment; I kissed him on the landing below the staircase. Out of love. Out of desperation. Out of fear that I may never be able to do this again. Dhrubo was too shocked to react. His frozen arms took some time to go around me.

I was grateful for my parents’ absence when I walked into my house.

Dhrubo’s mother was a small, frail woman. I felt she was observing me all the time she went about her work silently, wrapped in her crisp white cotton saree. But the few times she spoke to me, her manner was warm, even affectionate. Meeting her explained a lot of things about Dhrubo. Like the air of raw sensitivity about him, despite his brusque manner. He had developed severe asthma as a child after losing his father at nine. This had made her very protective of him.

“You must have lunch with us” she insisted. She had already fed me singharas and coconut narus she had prepared herself.

While eating we spoke about this and that before moving on to more personal things. She told me incidents about Dhrubo’s childhood and his achievements in school. We looked frequently at Dhrubo during the conversation, but he looked through us, disconnected. It surprised me that she was completely unaware of what was going on in her son’s life despite his frequent absences. She had her eyes focused only on the ambitions she had for him, on the promise of a secure future after her son graduated.

She had taken pains to prepare the lunch. I was embarrassed to be fussed over so much. I knew they survived on the small family pension left by his father.

“Now you people carry on, while I catch up on my afternoon sleep.”

“Dhrubo, you have brought me here to meet your mother. What should I make out of this? ”I teased him some time after she left.

He was quiet for so long that I began to regret my words.

“Sri, look after her for me. If … I mean in my absence. Visit her whenever you find the time. Will you do that for me?” I could only cover his cold hand with mine, unable to assure him with words.

I had collected some money for the cause during their absence, but it did not excite Dhrubo in the way I had imagined. My offerings were too trivial. My friends had moved on to a territory which was out of bounds for me. Dhrubo was against my attending the meetings they went to. Shaibal was no longer the outsider between us. The outsider was now me. Strange looking men visited us inside the college. They were rustic, wizened men from another world, incongruous with the classic ornamental structures inside our campus. I couldn’t make out much from their provincial Bengali, but I knew they were discussing country-made bombs and guns. I could feel they were not comfortable with me around them. It was an unnerving sight; watching Dhrubo with his pale skin and long fingers, as he sat and argued with the angry, excited men in his precise, academic manner.

Their visits to the villages became more frequent, more stretched. Though we were in a relationship now there were things between Dhrubo and me that remained the same. I had begun to come to terms with the knowledge that there was something about Dhrubo that belonged to him alone and I would never know him to the last detail. Sometimes I felt he expressed more in his letters to me than he did when we were together. It was Shaibal who filled in the details of their life in the country side, the things Dhrubo did not tell me.

“We have to hide now. The landlords know that we are instigating the peasants. The police have started hunting us in the villages too. On occasions we had to hide inside lofts or barns for days. We had to relieve ourselves inside tins and cans.”

He noticed my expression. “It wasn’t so revolting to us then. Not after defecating in the open for months, beside smelly ponds, earmarked for it. You know there are no lavatories in peasant homes. ”

“It isn’t easy,” he continued. “I mean you completely wrap up your life here in the city to go to these people, with Marx and Lenin in your head, with dreams of easing their hunger. But what you find there is … not hostility, but an impassivity which first confounds you, and then breaks you. And they...they just go about silently, doing their daily tasks. I think they are just too tired to understand anything. Sometimes you just want to leave. Leave them to their fates and get back.”

“Impassivity to what? To fight the landlords?

His eyes no longer looked unfocussed. “To finish them off. The directives have come. Individual killings have been sanctioned now.”

“You are … are you directly involved in all this? ... and Dhrubo?”

He took several sips of tea before answering. I stared at him waiting for an answer I already knew.

“Yes. Dhrubo too. We have been trying to convince the peasants. We cannot do it ourselves. But when they agree, we will do it. But I don’t see it happening Srirupa. Contrary to what we imagined, I don’t see many more armed rebellions like Naxalbari happening in our villages.”

It had begun to get dark. I had been told by my mother in increasingly strident tones to get home in time. I had entered my last year of graduation and my parents had now begun to consider the marriage proposals which frequently came for me. They were not in a hurry to see me married but some of these proposals seemed too good for them to refuse. I left college without meeting Dhrubo in the boy’s hostel. After a long time I looked forward to going back home from college.

I received a frantic call from Dhrubo a week later; he called me to the hostel, sounding very agitated. We argued for over an hour, but none of the things I said—his falling grades and attendance, his mother’s hopes, our future—mattered to Dhrubo.

“The time has come Srirupa, when we need to be more than just supportive witnesses to the cause. We cannot do it the way we have been doing it. This movement needs the blood of the oppressors.”

My mind was full of the things I wanted to tell him. This was not the way I had looked at it. Perhaps ‘a supportive witness’ was the only role I had wanted in all of this. But I knew Dhrubo was in a place beyond my reach now. He had too much of a hurry inside him. Perhaps he was just moving towards fulfilling something that had always been inside him; flinging himself at the fate predestined for him.

He was kissing me goodbye, but the only thing I felt was revulsion. I found his hands too eager, his kisses too hard, too wet. With more mouth than feeling.

I walked to the bus stop clutching my bag tightly. Two country-made revolvers lay inside its folds.

“I hate myself for making you do this. Just keep them in your house for three-four days. Partho will come to collect them. The hostel is too dangerous a place for them” Dhrubo pleaded. “I promise I will not use them Sri.”

I did not believe him.

Dhrubo waited till the bus started, watching me anxiously till I saw him become a faint speck in the loitering humanity around him.

I clearly remember the journey back home. It was a windless, humid day. The bus wheezed through the traffic, packed to its farthest ends. We were passing though some of the narrowest lanes of Calcutta. It had taken a detour because as always, Chittaranjan Avenue was choked with traffic. All around me I saw tired houses with their crumbling cornices, and blistered, flaking paint, their walls sullied by grotesque graffiti in red and black, or plastered with posters which had coalesced into a hardened papier-mâché encrusting.

The bus stopped every five-six minutes, with a sickening lurch. The windows of the bus were coated with a brown coat of dust and grime, and I could not pull up its glass panes despite my best efforts. Voices collided feverishly around me. The streets were full of tired, sweating people. I could feel the silent rage and the hopelessness inside them, flowing into them from different channels. The smell of fermenting sweat rose around me like an invisible shroud. It mingled with my fear, making me nauseous. All through the way I felt people were looking at the bag nestling on my lap. I feared that any moment someone would ask me to reveal the contents of my bag and pluck me out of the bus. I think it was during this thirty-minute journey that I realized that I needed to get away from all of this. Out of Dhrubo life’s and its attendant hopelessness. The life he offered to me did not belong to the vision I had of my future. I also realised it then that love can leave you just as quickly as it overtakes you.

It was the last of what I saw of Dhrubo. He did not come back after two weeks as he had promised. He did not write to me or call me. He knew I did not want to know the things he had to tell me. My only connection with Dhrubo was my visits to his mother. By now she knew everything. I found her staring incessantly out of the window with eyes that had learnt that tears were meaningless. It seemed that she was waiting for something to happen. She seldom spoke, but I knew she looked forward to my visits. I could sense that in me she saw the only hope of her son’s return.

A few months before Dhrubo’s death, we heard about Shaibal being gunned down while attempting to cross over to the neighbouring state of Bihar. The police were alerted before he could reach the border. I knew it then. They would get to Dhrubo somehow.

The violence spiralled. There were midnight arrests from homes. Hundreds of young boys never went back to their colleges or their homes. News about spilled blood and killings leapt out of the newspapers each day. I saw pictures with heads of landlords impaled on poles, surrounded by proud, smiling faces of the villagers. In April 71, we read the news of the first traffic policeman being killed by our comrades. They became frequent targets later, because of the guns they carried on their person. The infighting and killings of suspected informers had also begun. The movement had turned on itself. A politics shaped by empathy had turned into nihilism, attacking not the rich and the powerful, but the poor and the vulnerable. Bengal’s romance with the revolution was over, withering away by the end of the ’70s, sending most of the people involved with it into oblivion. I was one of the few survivors. And Partho.

More than a year after Dhrubo’s death Partho told me how it had happened.

“I gave him away Srirupa.” We were sitting on the terrace of our house. There was a power outage. It was dusk, but Partho had not removed the dark glasses he was wearing. His head was twisting as he held it with both his hands. “I told them that Dhrubo would be coming to meet his mother.” ‘He did not tell me he was coming’, strangely this was the first thought that came to my mind.

“I couldn’t stand the torture. More than the pain in my bones, more than anything else, I couldn’t stand the terrible light they threw into my eyes for hours. Sometimes I would bang my head on the walls hoping it would dull the pain inside it.”

We sat there for a while in silence. Though he did not emit any sound I knew he was crying. Then I picked up my book lying on the table and went down the stairs.

November 2010

I don’t live amidst the chaos of North Calcutta anymore. Alipore is a newly-made, upper-class locality inhabited mostly by government bungalows of senior bureaucrats and well-to-do business men. Unlike the streets of North Calcutta, its wide, tree-lined roads don’t smell of history. Or of strife, conspiracies and withered hopes. At this time of the year they smell of the shiuli, the autumnal flowers that always come around the pujos. No memories lurk inside its new houses with their hard, white gleam.

Sometimes in an unhurried moment I look for a glimpse of the old Srirupa in my mirror. She seems to have never existed. Summer had left my face long back, and autumn is already upon it, rude in its ripening. I teach English Literature at my Alma mater. Amit, my husband has set up a transformer factory after spending two decades as an engineer in big corporate houses. The business is doing well and I must admit I keep a keen eye on the profits. Our son Mihir will be leaving for the U.S soon, to join a job in a software company.

Partho received clemency from the government and joined the civil services later. He is still a friend, and visits me whenever he can. He never mentions Dhrubo, or our college days. The only person he ever mentioned from our past was Dhrubo’s mother. He continued to visit her till she died, not many years after Dhrubo’s death. I cannot say the same for myself. After my marriage to Amit, I had never gone to see her.

Partho still carries his guilt when he is around me, along with his dark glasses. He is almost blind from his right eye and he still needs to cover them during the day. I want to tell him that it is alright. Anyone in his place would have done the same, that my betrayal of Dhrubo is perhaps worse than his. It goes beyond the person. It is a betrayal of even his memory. Maybe I will tell him that some day.

In many ways the life I lead today—the upper-middle class life full of its avaricious strivings, the self-inflicted exile from everything not immediately related to my life, this exclusion and this apathy—is the antithesis of all what I had believed in during my youth. There are times when I try to think of how Dhrubo would have viewed the life I lead today. How would he react to the new India, which has changed so much, and yet remains encumbered by the past in so many ways? What would he think of the journey of the red movement from the universities of Calcutta and other Indian cities to the jungles of lesser developed neighbouring states, being fed not by ideology, but only by gnawing hunger and illiteracy? Would he and Shaibal have turned out to be like me or Partho, the existential escapists?

Mihir will leave for Boston after a week so he has invited some of his friends for dinner. His friends are a happy, boisterous lot. They absorb nothing from what goes on around them. In them I see no signs of the turmoil my generation went through. There is no self-questioning, or looking within. Or without. They go about their life with a calculated awareness of only what concerns them. Sometimes I am in awe of my son’s self-occupation and assuredness. And then, there are times when I wonder whether I should rejoice or mourn the death of a long-forgotten word called idealism.

After his friends leave we sit down together for a while. Amit will come home late as always. Mihir tries to spend some time with me in the evenings, ever since his offer letter has arrived.

“Mihir, remember, I want you to call me at least once every day.” Like all mothers I am afraid of losing my boy. I have tried in vain to hold him back, to make him see the senselessness of leaving behind a decent job for the lure of more money, to give up on the comforts of familiarity in exchange for the uncertain thrill of a new life.

He tries not to sound irritated. “Mother, things have changed. There are thousands of Indians residing in the US today. I won’t be amongst strangers there. But more than that, I want to know new people and cultures. I don’t want to live my life the way you have. Steady, sheltered, without any challenges and risks. Knowing exactly what will happen, or what you are going to do the next day.”

I look up from table I am clearing.

What do children know about their parents!

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