“Will you tell these stories in your papers?” Amala squints up at Reva’s oval face. She really looks very much like her sister Meera. Only, taller, like Amala. But impatient.
“Auntie, this is all part of history. Some I may tell, whatever is relevant.”
That’s how American universities think, Amala makes a face. Relevance is not what these foreigners know. They always look for unfamiliar stories, strange tales and faraway faces. Relevance is what Amala cherishes. Like the dream she has now and then.
Reva finds a photo. That’s grandpa! Now even grandpa will be material for your paper, Amala gestures. “Tell me what he was like. I never saw him. Come on, auntie!”
“A-m-a-l-a!” Her father’s deep baritone was to make sure Amala was gone by four on designated days. Pleased with his eldest daughter’s diligence, the gray-haired, clean-cut college professor would sit smoking his flavored water pipe. That’s how Baba was, Reva’s grandfather. That evening, Amala wrapped around a muslin sari – gourd green, with a dull silver lining (she wasn’t wearing frocks any longer). Her pulled-back hair exuded the fragrance of jabakusum oil, and her round face beamed with the simplicity of her new youth. Amala left exactly at four that evening. She, unlike other girls in those time, was encouraged to read novels, sing songs, paint and even meet male guests in the house (some of them Sacchidananda’s young students). “Hare Rama! Sacchida Mitra’s gone crazy aping Western ways, totally overboard,” whispered outraged neighbors, most of their chatter brought in by servants. “And having that Muslim judge as a friend is no good.” Having a willing accomplice in friend Amanullah Khan, Suraiya’s father, Sacchidananda often dressed up his children and their friends and photographed them. In fact, he enjoyed spending hours developing photos and making family albums. “Those girls should be married by now.” Neighborly concerns spilled over and over again. “They hurt the eyes!” Sacchidananda cared differently, he wanted his daughter to be matured in the souls’ beauty. “Mrs. Hamilton, have you heard that Baul song? One must have special eyes to see what the soul looks like,” he’d say. “Take a dip o my mind, into the sea of beauty …” he hummed his favorite line.
“Search, o search on, for you’ll find love, that precious thing …” Ruth Hamilton would join in, clapping hands. An Indophile, she was familiar with Bengal’s traditions.
Among all this, Amala’s mother stayed indoors like most women in the Bengal of the 1940s. Pretty, soft-spoken, and with a steamed-and-sweetened-curd complexion, she looked at her eldest and sighed often quietly. Amala could guess why. Mrinmoyee goaded her now and then. “Do remember to apply fresh cream on your face and arms Amu. I skimmed the milk just this morning.” Amala scowled. True, she envied Suraiya for her peachy skin. She’d never say it though her mother probably understood. Fresh cream, they say, made the skin fair. Did Amala really care for fair skin? God, no! She was her father’s daughter. Tall, dusky and creative. Besides, her English was better than Suraiya’s and she embroidered prettier lace handkerchiefs. Her father was proud of all that. “Mrinmoyee,” Sacchidananda would call his wife when Mrs. Hamilton visited. “Come, have your `jalpaan’ with us here.” Jalpaan or evening snack consisted of flattened rice soaked in plain yogurt with a sprinkling of sugar or cane jaggery. Mrinmoyee disliked the taste of tea and never ate the tea biscuits either. But sometimes she obliged. Entering the room, she did a quick ‘namaskar’ to the memsahib and smiled shyly from behind her ample red-bordered veil. One of these sessions, Amala took special care to turn herself out. Sitting like a filigreed flower in a vase, wearing a self-stitched brocade blouse and sheer Dhaka jamdaani that vied with Suraiya’s exquisite muslins, she recited her recent favorite read. “What will it be today Amu?” Amala chose William Butler Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Her recent discovery. Suraiya had not read this one yet, Amala was sure.
“I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
Mrs. Hamilton oohed and aahed. Sacchidananda smiled and nodded with serene pride. Friendly rival, a friend nonetheless, Suraiya clapped too. Amala’s reward!
Before she left for Mrs. Hamilton’s house, that afternoon Amala sat playing with her four siblings. Atri, Abhi – the boys – were six and twins. Of the younger sisters Maitri was four and Meera was two. Amala’s mother was busy setting up one of her numerous little ceremonies of the week where she prayed to the multitude of household gods and goddesses for the well being of her family. She also liked to remind Amala of the Punnipukur Brata, the ceremony of Sacred Pond that a maiden alone should perform. The brata fulfilled the desire for a good husband, Amala should know. And she should learn the brata song:
“Tulsi, Tulsi, Narayan
Tulsi, you are Brindaban
I pour water onto your head
When my life ends, give me a place within you.”
Mother, will you please stop! Amala frowned. Where was the time for silly brata prayers to sundry gods? For a husband! She’s been teaching Atri and Abhi English alphabets, singing nursery rhymes to Maitri and Meera, or showing the kids pictures from English magazines her father shipped directly from London. No time for other things.
“Didibhai, is your homework done? I know today you’ll go the mem’s house,” Atri said lisping that afternoon. He had heard Amala order Alaaram. He was also a boy big enough to notice she was pensive, Amala thought.
“Sacred pond, I worship thee with a flower garland of wood apple blossoms,
I am Sati Kalavati, I’m the sister of Bhagyavati, of the seven brothers.”
Mrinmoyee’s persistent singing didn’t divert Amala’s mind. “Oh dear, I’d be so alone today. Suraiya is visiting her aunt. I’m sure Ruth memsahib will be angry with her for missing lessons.” Amala looked harried.
“Listen, something very bad is coming and we’ll be in trouble.” She confided in the siblings who gaped at her like open-beaked fledglings, not understanding anything of her prophecy. Amala, who wasn’t inclined to share her mother’s fervor for prayers, nonetheless got drawn to interpreting her dream. She had heard that dreams foretold of things unknown, unseen. And the ghost ship surely had a message for her. In her dream, she also saw her best friend Suraiya draped in a black veil waving at her from the ship. Sue was crying. Amala never saw Suraiya in such mournful attire. That upset her most.
“You really loved Suraiya, so you saw her in your dream, auntie.” Reva looks concerned. “Did she become a professor like you? What became of her?”
That isn’t an easy question to answer. Amala’s forehead folds up. Sue’s father Amanullah Khan, a local judge, had hoped to send his daughter to London for higher education. “She’ll be a judge too. Unique for a woman in our society in these times,” Amanullah Khan used to say. After all, the Khan family was one of the most forward-looking and educated Muslim families of the area. Whenever Sacchidananda and Amanullah talked about their children, their works and the volatile politics of the times, they’d concur it was time for the goras to give up ruling India and go back to England.
“Oh,” Reva says looking up from the album. “What a time it was for you!”
It was indeed. Heady, Amala says. She only got whiffs of it from the talks her elders had. Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement was in full swing. People were rising in a great tide to march unarmed, singing full-throated and waving the flag of Indian National Congress. The British were packing to leave. Gandhi’s charkha wheel kept spinning yards not only to cover the body, but also to provide warmth for thousands of enchanted souls. Amala closes her eyes, sees those things in her head.
“Well, a period of agitation, sublime in places, I know auntie. But ghastly and brutal in others, don’t you think?”
Amala nods. She knows. Riots between Hindus and Muslims had broken out in smaller towns and faraway villages. Even as a teenager she was aware of the looming tension.
“Then, your friend Suraiya…?” Reva switches on the bedside lamp and lifts up the album to get a better look at one particular photo.
Oh of course, whatever went on, Suraiya and Amala remained the best of friends and Sacchidananda Mitra continued to share his elegant water pipe with Amanullah Khan. But their town – so far peaceful – simmered with rumors during that time and then came her dream of the ghost ship. My eyes fail so much these days. Amala brushes away fallen graying locks from her forehead and tilts her chin upwards to look at the picture Reva scrutinizes. Sacchidananda Mitra, dhoti-clad and clean-shaven, and Amanullah Khan, smiling through his dark beard, with an ornate water pipe standing between them like a shared scepter.
It’s a fairytale, whispers Amala to herself, their story. Her eyes cloud up. Remembering the past is definitely tougher than spending lonely days in this Calcutta house. Her sisters or brothers keep calling – Maitri from New York, Meera and Atri from Boston or Abhi from Singapore – to find out if their eldest is doing fine. And now Reva is here. So Amala has the energy to look at the old album after years. She taps a slender finger at the corner of the album. A former professor in an elite Calcutta college, she has never really initiated a conversation on her distant life with anyone like this. She did mention about her dream once to her faraway siblings, but the story was received with chuckle and chagrin, and it stopped right there. Premonitions? Who’d believe that? “You already knew things were becoming terrible back then,” Atri had said. “You must have already heard Baba and Amanullah uncle talk about readying boats to get us out. Ma did tell us things were expected to go even worse.” The youngest Meera, a physicist by profession, sometimes didn’t feel the need to mince words. “Didibhai, all that dream stuff is a product of your stressed mind.” And Abhi’s banter hurt: “We understand, you’ve been a Yeatsian scholar!” None of them realized how the dream had spun real tragedy for Amala. Especially, dreaming Sue on the boat, which was unbearable. Even Amala’s parents never discussed it later. And anyway the younger ones had very little memory of Suraiya, Amala’s best friend. None of them really ever knew what happened when they moved to Calcutta in 1947. Or why Amala turned out to be so suspicious of strangers, newcomers, neighbors and even suitors (it was too much of a coincidence, but she later heard that Amanullah uncle could not persuade Sue to marry).
Will Reva understand if I tell her? Lying on her mother’s old mahogany bed covered with overflowing soft white linen she herself crocheted in flower motifs, Amala examines her own hands silken and crumpled with age, and the right thumb and forefinger gone permanently lined and hard from obsessive sewing, a pastime when she is not reading. Not everyone is a perpetrator. Then, some are. That changes lives.
“What are you saying auntie?”
“Nothing, just stories that don’t leave me.” Amala reaches out for her glasses.
“Oh, please tell me more. Mother always says your driver was kind of a star. Brave, loyal, like you just described, in that picnic incident.”
“Of course, Alaaram! You must have his photograph somewhere too? Anyway, tell me more about this Alaaram.” Reva adjusts her tape recorder.
Amala lets the white-walled room do a sharp twirl around her, closes her eyes and sees that day when she was returning from Ruth memsahib’s house. Oh, Alaaram, I am scared these crazy people will overtake our car and hurt us.
That evening on the way to Ruth Hamilton’s bungalow, when a seething late summer sun waned in the west and Amala’s devoted driver Alaaram negotiated the turns, mobs started running amok in the town, and came upon their vehicle. Amala never imagined she’d witness such ferocity. Thank god Suraiya wasn’t with her. Sue would have thrown up to see such savagery. And cried and cried. As Alaaram tried veering the car through narrow lanes, a frightened Amala noticed that the mob was actually chasing a little boy – about Atri-Abhi’s age – wide-eyed and wailing. “Do away with the heathen boy!” Screams bounced off the nearby concrete eaves. “Brothers, finish these scoundrels, and strengthen our faith!” A tall man in a long white shirt and a white cloth cap – not the Gandhi caps Amala was used to seeing – caught hold of the child and threw him against a street wall. Amala heard a clear cracking sound. The boy’s wailing stopping instantly. She peered through the window to make out a split-brained head and blotchy blood on a wall. Alaaram kept yelling: “Duck down mistress. Do not look out!” swearing heavily under his breath, untypical of Alaaram. Next thing she knew was that the mob spotted their car and began chasing it. They even threw a few stones. Amala shivered, crouched up, weeping. Alaaram managed to find a safe route back home.
“I barely ate anything that night. Alaaram was very quiet and, gloomier than ever. Also I was very frightened, so I told him not to tell Baba about this incident. He just went away.” The whirling walls stopping for a moment, Amala’s face becomes a crumpled satin screen.
Reva’s mouth remains open. Amala knows why: she thinks, I’ve documented and read so many such stories but to picture my own aunt in such a mess. But her expression changes as she turns the album page. “That’s you! And Suraiya?”
“Auntie, this photo is just too good!”
“You think so?” Amala smiles at last. “Just two old-fashioned girls!”
“No, this shows more auntie. I mean, look at the clothes, the furniture, the ambience. Oh, mom never told me you have such great photos with you. I’m so lucky!”
The two smiling girls stood near a heavy mahogany table, the sepia tone of the photo highlighting their smooth skin. One had her wavy hair pulled back, a silken sari lovingly draping her bust. The other sported two long plaits, the rich folds of her velvet garara skirt swaying by the flowing tablecloth. A pile of books, an ivory inkpot and a little brass vase with chrysanthemums decorated the table. That was the day we read Toru Dutt together. And Baba took our photo later, remember Sue? Amala recalls.
“But nothing can be lovelier than the ranges
Of bamboo to the eastward, when the moon
Looks through their gaps, and the white lotus changes
Into a cup of silver. One might swoon
Drunken with beauty then, or gaze and gaze
On a primeval Eden, in amaze.”
“So, what’s the Eden this poetess is talking about? Any of you?” Ruth Hamilton had smilingly asked. “Amala?”
“Her own garden maybe?” Gingerly, Amala had looked at Suraiya for support.
“Could it be her own land Mrs. Hamilton?” Sue had said, her face suddenly lit up. “An Eden with bamboo and lotus flowers. Isn’t that quaint?”
“It is my dear. And hence, so precious.”
Reva points at the photograph. “I’d love to have this picture auntie.”
Take it away? Amala doesn’t have the heart to say no, nor part with it.
“I’ll get a copy done. Just look at you two! My supervisor will love this.”
Reva’s supervisor is American. Reva herself is so American, born and brought up in Boston. Meera may think this is so educational, to have her graduate student daughter come to meet her old aunt, dig her photos out, rake her memory up. Why does Reva want to research on the Partition? Why not on American history?
“Come on auntie, I like it, South Asian history and politics. Besides even mom and dad wanted me to take up this research. It’s about their roots.”
Amala still wondered, don’t Americans have their history and politics? Meera raised Reva as an American girl. Why is then there the need for this child to scrounge for her parents’ roots? How absurd. Amala herself has been teaching medieval Indian literature, not because she belonged to that period. Reva laughs, as if there is something Amala needs to educate herself about: It’s just research for me auntie, nothing personal, so relax. For her niece, it seems history is an artifact. Amala sulks.
“So after that evening’s incident, all was quiet auntie?”
No, it wasn’t. That same night, there were hectic parleys between Sacchidananda and Amanullah. Messengers ran back and forth. Amala’s aunts packed up and left, escorted by unknown people. A stunned silence hovered. No one sang the evening hymns. After a frugal dinner her father summoned Amala to his chamber. Mrinmoyee as usual sat preparing her husband’s post-dinner paan and betel nuts. Calm like a floating leaf in their courtyard lily pond.
“Amu, we’re going away.”
She waited to hear more.
“Mother and you will leave tomorrow early morning. With your brothers and sisters. Alaaram will take all of you to a boat. Be brave. Will you?”
Amala was still feverish from witnessing the gory scene from that evening. Was that what people call murder, rioting? She had read in her favorite author Tagore’s Home and the World of violence between Muslims and Hindus. Amala needn’t worry, her father kept assuring. She’d soon start her music and studies in a new place. Make new friends.
“Suraiya? Is she going to be there too?”
“Why not Amu? You can meet her later.”
“And Ruth memsahib?”
“Mrs. Hamilton won’t be teaching you for a long time. We’ll invite her later to our new home, if she wants to come, if she doesn’t go back to her own country.”
“New home? So are we going away forever Baba?”
Amala sighs. Reva looks worried. Is that what happened auntie? All of you left?
Fifteen-year-old Amala did not ever remember seeing such an eerie dawn sky. The sun was not up yet but distant flames enraged the sky into turning red and orange. Alaaram parked at the riverbank and she saw two giant panshi boats waiting like a pair of twin birds looking to fish in that misty river. Ghost ships, not one but two! She saw Amanullah Khan’s car pull in too. But something chaotic happened next. The orange glowing sky became an infernal burst of fireworks, deafening. Shadow-people came charging from nowhere. Amala got jostled and pushed into one panshi. The soft clay of the riverbank wet her little shoes as one of her uncles dragged her on to the boat. Just then she heard a familiar cry. Sue. In the reddening morning, a raucous group was seen invading the other waiting panshi. Amala’s ears heard thundering shouts of ‘Don’t let the impious bastards leave’ and ‘Kill the villains, or else they multiply’, and many more cries of fear and pain. Cries of Suraiya, Zareena Begum and umpteen others. Mrinmoyee forced Amala’s head away from the sight of the mobbed boat and their panshi started plying slowly through the muddy waters. At that point, very clearly, Amala saw Suraiya on the other panshi, held back on a mast by two shadows. She was covered in a black robe from head to toe – the black robe of her dream. Only her face was visible, terrorized. As Amala’s panshi started picking up pace, one man ripped off Suraiya’s clothes and kneed her down. The other bent over her. “Ammi!” Suraiya’s cry sliced the pallid morning breeze. Amala fainted. Their boat sailed fast. Like a forsaken lighthouse whose ghostly lights might never go out – at least not in young Amala’s head – the other panshi kept burning on the gradually fading riverbank.
Listen Reva, no one knows, I knew Suraiya’s attacker.
Amala murmurs. She’s sleepy. She sees the old town in her head. How will Reva ever record those sights, sounds?
The river runs by the town. Sometimes gentle, sometimes rough. Little yellow government bungalows dot faraway greens. She lives in one of them. The redbrick courthouse building is right behind, next to the post office. That’s where her friend lives and plays. The mission school is farther north. From the riverbank one can hear cascading laughter at noontime. “Enough running girls, recess is over!” The sister superior huffs shouting commands. The girls laugh. Is the school still there?
“Yes, I’m listening auntie!” Reva smiles.
Amala hears a ring somewhere. She wakes up. Is it Meera calling? But Meera or Maitri or the brothers are not interested in her story. Reva is. “Yes, I’m telling you, I’m telling you Reva darling.”
A crinkled yellow photograph rolls out from her right fist. Reva’s eyes fall on the crumpled bit. She picks it up. Amala and Suraiya again – arms around each other – sitting in an odd-box car. A lean, turbaned and mustachioed man stands near the vehicle – head held high, hands locked in front in obedience. Our driver, my father’s right-hand man, after he left us at the riverbank that morning, no one knew his whereabouts. But I saw him through that mist before I fainted. He was the one who had held Sue down.
Amala follows Reva’s eyes, murmurs again, in a voice that no one will comprehend. “Alaaram.”
An excerpt from The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped by Nabina Das, published by LiFi Publications (New Delhi, 2013). Available here.
Nabina Das is the author of a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, DK House of Books, Delhi) and a poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, Kolkata). Her debut novel Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, Delhi) was longlisted in the prestigious “Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011” and her debut poetry collection Blue Vessel (Les Editions du Zaporogue, Denmark) was nominated as one of the best of 2012. Nabina’s poetry and prose appear in several international journals and anthologies, the latest being The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians (Queen’s University, Belfast). A contributor to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prairie Schooner literary journal blog, Nabina is the winner of the 2012 Charles Wallace Fellowship in Creative Writing, University of Stirling, UK, and the 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellowship besides other prizes in major national poetry contests. With a background in journalism and media, Nabina has an MFA from Rutgers University, US, is trained in Indian classical music, teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops, and occasionally blogs at nabinadas13.wordpress.com.