[Photo Credit: Niladri R Chatterjee]
ARJUN went to the loo. He usually did that before leaving for work, like he would take a moment in front of the assorted photographs on the living room wall – where a simpering Mahatma Gandhi and an earnest, ample-cheeked Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, wearing military gear and decorations, appeared in the company of the dear departed of the O’Flaherty family.
He was about to unzip himself when his eyes were stuck on two firm pieces of turd, perfectly sculpted and smooth in their rotundity, gently floating in the water at the bottom of the commode, like necking pigeons.
Arjun was known to have an unbelievably high endurance threshold – taken, sometimes, as a sign of pliability by those who did not know him that well. Only a few could imagine that like live wire ticking away under the overflowing Calcutta streets after an hour and half of rain, wounded hubris could strike one unawares. But Arjun was like Lake Placid. He let the injury splinter within, invisible under the waves, lapping heavily against the pavement.
‘No wonder you are such a loser,’ Kirstie would tell him. ‘Why do you always let people sit on your head?’
Such conversation would, invariably, be followed by a round of vigorous lovemaking, with Kirstie riding him full throttle and Arjun, struggling, unsuccessfully, to hold out. And then Kirstie would roll over and flop down beside him, exasperated with Arjun’s failure to measure up. In her unguarded moments she could be almost tender towards him for making the effort.
Arjun’s pacifism was an acquired skill. There were early signs though. The very first of these being the way he had silently and consistently rebuffed his dad, who, for the twenty-two years that Arjun lived with him, made him feel like a petty thief who didn’t know how to cover up his act. For as far back as Arjun could remember, Ananta was always a middle-aged cop who dyed his hair an intense shade of boot-polish black, stuck in the middle ranks for lack of drive and networking acumen. Ananta believed in the curative properties of corporal punishment. He knew, from experience, that young people were probably better served when kept on a tight leash.
He would pass pencils between the fingers of his children like a wicker weave and press hard. While Arjun’s brothers howled and begged for mercy, Arjun remained impassive, gulping down dollops of pain, without letting it show.
It was as good as hitting a wall.
Ananta had, in his time, seen quite a few hardened criminals, even those he knew to have friends in high places, crack up at the prospect of ‘third degree’ torture. But his youngest offspring had turned out to be quite a stiff-necked bastard. Ananta felt Arjun got a kick out of defying him. The war of nerves between father and son was officially terminated only after Arjun dropped out of college to work as an income tax lawyer’s apprentice and moved in with Kirstie to a ground-floor flat off the Park Circus connector.
Arjun flushed the bowl, finished his business, flushed again, washed and walked out the bathroom door. On his way out he stopped to put on his trainers. Mahatma Gandhi stared at him from the wall through his trademark annular glasses, sizing him up.
‘Hi there,’ said Arjun. ‘How are you doing this morning?’
‘Is everything alright?’ Arjun asked again. ‘Blood pressure, pulse rate, bilirubin count…’
Gandhiji looked pleased, like a compliant grandparent, enjoying the one-sided banter, kicked even, perhaps, at the prospect of more coming his way.
‘What was this method of yours to help clear one’s system at one go? You should teach me some day.’
As he squatted on a low stool to strap his feet in, Arjun couldn’t resist looking inside the room on his left. Its occupant had taken off his glasses, trying to read a book smaller than an android phone through a slit between scrunched-up eyelids. Crinkly layers of loose flesh hung in the way of his vision like Dali’s soft watches. Dustin was trying to read a racing catalogue by holding it less than an inch away from his eyes.
‘Good morning,’ said Arjun, mentally debating if he should ask Dustin to be more careful about cleaning up his mess.
‘Morning,’ said Dustin, trying to rotate the bean bag he sat on like a swivel chair but ended up getting more embedded in its limp surface, stuck at an angle, like a brush in a can of thick paint. ‘Going out?’
‘Yeah, I’m running late, in fact. There won’t be any meat left in the market by the time I get there.’
‘Go then. Run. What will the poor Mullahs eat?’
Arjun ignored the barb.
‘I don’t suppose I would be back for lunch,’ he said. ‘Will have your meal sent. Your breakfast’s ready on the table … toasts, margarine, bananas, apricot jam … Is there anything else I can get you?’
‘Sure, muffins for breakfast and brownies for tea, not that you’d be able to tell the difference; you halaal chicken ki bacchi …’
Halaal meat was what they were having for supper since the last few days. Arjun did not want to run out of stock in the month of Ramadan. At around 5.30 in the afternoon a beehive of skull-cap-wearing heads would collect outside his Bentinck Street eatery, queuing up for takeouts. This was the season when the ever-popular instant teenager-feed kati roll and the more elaborate biriyani cooked on slow fire and topped up with cashew nuts and raisin had to make way for haleem and chicken stew – the fast-breaking broth into which thick, fleshy naans were dipped to absorb the goodness of tender meat, sautéed in the juice of clove, cinnamon and black pepper.
Arjun was never the spiritual sort. But of late he had taken to watching his cook Ashraf and handyman Naseer offering prayers every afternoon, stroking their temples, forehead and closed eyelids to the rhythm of an unheard symphony, led by an invisible conductor. The quaint intricacies of a ritual of faith seemed to hold a seductive mystique – like that of the woman one saw at the bus stop on a regular basis but probably didn’t stand much of a chance with. For all Arjun knew, A and N going down on their knees, foreheads touching the floor, getting up on their toes, again, in an instant, like they were doing a synchronized drill, could well be a code for something non-believers like him would never find out.
Abstinence had a hypnotic pull about it. Arjun often wondered how some of his patrons – those who went about their businesses as usual, carrying the experience of self-denial in the pit of their stomachs, did so all through each day in the month of Ramadan. Arjun pictured himself trailing them to their cubbyhole workstations in offices around Dalhousie Square, pushing files, taking clients out to lunch, driving under the glaring midday sun in early August, sitting in near-empty shops, watching over untested merchandise without consuming a drop of water, sweating under the sweltering heat but careful not to swallow the layer of spit rising from underneath their tongues until the sun went down. He imagined them filing into the Tipu Sultan Mosque, putting their heads down to kiss the cold white Makrana marble in its courtyard. He did not know if the courtyard was paved with marble, having never stepped inside although he walked past the mosque every day on his way to work from Dustin’s Grant Street residence.
The only Muslim seat of worship he had ever visited was the Jumma Masjid in old Delhi. He had ambled in casually, with his cousin Nirupam, after a heart-warming meal of chicken boti kebabs at Karim’s. Nirupam, who was a local and older than him by six years, was slightly apprehensive, not sure if they wouldn’t be held for trespassing and thrown in jail, but at nineteen Arjun, like his namesake, the warrior hero in Mahabharat, had an irrepressible appetite for adventure.
They covered their heads with pocket handkerchiefs and walked in, Arjun plonking his feet more heavily than usual on the dusty pink steps to demonstrate confidence and Nirupam, tip-toeing, gingerly, behind him. They washed their hands and feet in the rectangular pool in the middle of the courtyard, and, despite Nirupam’s silent entreaties, Arjun dragged him on to the raised podium where the Maulvi was leading the prayer. When the music started playing and the paean propagating Muhammad’s glory tumbled out of the public address system, rising and blending into the flame and grey late afternoon cityscape, the two discretely withdrew from the assembly lines of the devout, not entirely unnoticed. But nobody said a thing.
Arjun was aware that the squeeze in his heart for fasting Muslims, at least in part, was because he would never get to experience it himself. All he could do was to ensure no one went back unfed from his door. He would normally have the meat prepared in excess of requirement, and carry a part of it home for supper.
Dustin was a tidy eater. He would mop his plate clean, using a slice of bread to absorb the viscous blobs of gravy before inserting it inside his mouth and chewing rhythmically, pushing the fibres from side to side, determined to suck in the ultimate drop of succulence. But halaal meat three nights in a row was a bit too much for one who wasn’t into it out of devotion. This was their first Ramadan together, but Arjun should have known better.
‘You really didn’t think I would eat this, did you? It looks like shit in cat piss, for Jeez’s sake,’ said Dustin, whose shrunken figure made him look like a mischievous schoolboy who had suddenly grown loose flesh and wispy white hair – a ruthless reminder of the person with solid wrists and neatly-arranged slabs of flesh on his torso and upper arms he was not that long ago. A near-lethal lung infection last year had turned his body into a desiccated apple rind.
‘Can’t take it anymore, Sonny,’ said Dustin, shrugging, making a sad smiley face.
‘Can’t help it dickhead,’ said Arjun, silently, ‘Got a living to earn, if you don’t mind.’ ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, adding volume. ‘It’s a bit tricky, this month of Ramadan. We get such a rush of customers sometimes. It’s difficult trying to guess how much we might need on a given day …’
‘If you can’t sell this garbage, why don’t you try shoving it up your arse instead?’ said Dustin, dragging the ‘a’ and drawing back his nasal orifices sharply to touch a pitch so high that even at that moment it made Arjun wonder if the old man might not have a future in playback singing in mainstream Indian films if he tried, except that Dustin was totally unaware of his gifts.
THE sight of the new fluorescent-lit signboard upset him. Arjun didn’t particularly fancy the name, to start with. The word ‘factory’ conjured up images of cogs turning, spiral-shaped pistons rising and falling through tunnels in machines smeared with grease, levers clanging down and molten metal being poured inside the mould to come out the other end in rows of neat hexagon-headed screws. ‘Biriyani Factory’ sounded dull-headed and arbit, suggesting a total lack of effort towards thinking up something remotely reflective of the diner’s character.
Arjun had thought of re-naming the eatery, but Rashid, from whom he bought it, said it was already a brand and it made sense to not lose fifty-nine years of goodwill. It was one of those restaurants opened in the first flush of a free and secular India to cater to the Muslim consumer’s need for biriyani and gosht – an economic and sometimes healthy alternative to the Hindu-run ‘pice’ hotels that served luchi and mutton curry, dripping with saturated fat and a libidinously red-hot egg curry that threatened to set one’s palate on fire. Arjun bought, rather, inherited, Biriyani Factory from Rashid for a paltry compensation when he decided to wrap up and immigrate to Dubai, where his son was thriving as any hard-working Indian journalist based in Dubai would.
As if the name wasn’t damaging enough, it had been spelt wrong. Huge blue Doric letters shone above lean plates of fried rice, chicken roast and kebabs, literally overshadowing the lonesome victuals. They looked even more pathetic when the white lights at the back of the glow sign were switched on. It made the reds and the blacks more repugnantly prominent and washed out the yellows and the greens. Arjun thought the whole thing was gross.
‘You finished secondary school, right? Didn’t they teach you basic English spellings?’
Badal, who was still trying to figure why a normally imperturbable Arjun was making such a fuss over spellings, quietly owned up to the mistake, which was really the painter’s who, obviously, spelt everything phonetically.
‘Why didn’t you give it to him in writing? Idiot,’ said Arjun, swallowing the last word. He was still quite outraged at the mauling of the Queen’s language in the hands of a two-bit signboard painter, but preferred to not let his anguish show. Not, at any rate, in front of a motley audience of restaurant staff and clients who listened with ears pricked, enthused at the possibility of a rare outburst from a man known for his equanimity even when things looked rather dire.
He scrupulously avoided looking at the neon-lit board the next few days, but would still be bugged by its crudeness, until Kahliluddin Chowdhury found him a way of rationalizing the fortuitous re-christening.
‘You heard about the tree of life, right?’ he said one afternoon when Arjun began complaining about people’s lack of respect for the written word. ‘It’s a metaphor suggesting all life forms on this planet are interconnected. There’s a sculpture in the Mitchell Boulevard Park in Milawaukee. Kalamkari painters in Andhra Pradesh draw a lot of these too.
‘This little eatery of yours too is like a tree, where strangers stop by to share a meal. And when they leave, they are leaving a bit of themselves – on these yellowing marble-top tables, over there in the wash basin, in that soap dish with its diminishing Lifebuoy bar and the thin runnels of pink accumulating at the bottom, at the cash counter, in the bowls of roasted fennel seeds and candied sugar cubes.’
Arjun was not sure he got all of what Chowdhury was driving at but he liked the sense of the separate and its avowal conveyed through the telling. Listening to the stories made him a little sad, as the experiencing of all beauteous things must do.
It had been a while since Chowdhury had dropped by at the diner. Arjun missed him but was not unduly anxious. Chowdhury travelled all the time, to places with tuneful names like Nubia and Chiang Mai – so quaint that they might as well have fallen off the skies with the pouring rain, plonking down on a location on the map that sounded conveniently inaccessible.
Arjun would wonder about the names even as he picked up fresh beef from New Market, tip-toeing on broken tiles in a river of sludge. Samut Sakhon, which was a small but thriving fishing town on the coast a few miles from Bangkok, could well have been a female soprano. The Indonesian xylophone, Gamelan, sounded like it could be a rolling valley – echoes ricocheting between the two ridges cradling it when played on. When Chowdhury spoke, it was like watching a glassblower tweezing out the contours from a red-hot lump.
‘I never imagined the hijaab would get this popular,’ Chowdhury said the other day. They were watching the leader of a Kashmiri women’s group talking about the Muslim woman’s moral obligation to follow the shariat, with impassioned zeal, on TV. The set was perched high on the wall, to the right of a multi-lobed arch on which the words ‘In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful’ were written in Arabic. The line, with its squiggles and crescents, looked like a caravan, plodding along a desert ridge. The woman on the screen wore a black hood. Her sparkly pupils, visible through thin slits cut into the black cloth stretched tight, covering her face and head, shifted constantly with impatient energy.
‘I saw more women in east London covering their heads this time – more than even ten years ago, certainly more than the first the time I was there in 1972. Their mothers never wore the hijaab,’ said Chowdhury, distractedly.
Kirstie was in London now. The other day she mailed Arjun a set of photos in which she was posing in front of rows of decapitated mannequins in off-shoulder dresses on a shopping street in Camden town. Kirstie wore a leopard-print flimsy little wraparound skirt and thigh-high boots. She had cut her hair Sixties style, trimmed just beneath the ears. Or it could have been a wig. The strands shone unnaturally, like nylon bristles on a new toilet brush.
The photos were meant for her father, who refused to go near the computer, so as to not upset the magnetic field created around the pacemaker lodged inside his chest.
Arjun had to get a few snaps downloaded on a memory stick and printed at Narayani Studio. He had hesitated before printing the one in which Kirstie appeared in a cropped vest top and cycling shorts, the fluorescent orange of her sneakers colour-coordinated with the satchel slung diagonally across her torso. A blue rose was tattooed around her belly button from which three small rings dangled and teetered.
Dustin looked at the snap, casually, and returned it to the bunch, without reacting.
‘That’s so Anglo-Indian of him,’ said Satyaki, when Arjun told him about Dustin’s apparent lack of attachment to his only child. ‘Give the old fart a bottle of whiskey, and I’m sure he’ll get talking about things you would rather not know.’
Satyaki taught history at Maulana Azad College and would sometimes drop by at the Bentinck Street eatery after work. Like certain other academics in Calcutta whose political identity was hard to fathom, Satyaki too was generally dismissive of the Left, its opposition, the pro-industrialization lobby, the Gandhians and the Islamists.
He loved haleem though. The lentils-lamb combo, slow-cooked on red-hot clay ovens, in a soup of whole wheat and barley, garnished with lemon rinds, onion rings and mint leaves, Satyaki said, was the perfect high-protein prize at the end of a day of fasting. In the month of Ramadan Satyaki became a regular at Arjun’s eatery, without necessarily having to go through abstinence to claim his bowl of stewed nutrition.
Typically Satyaki would refer to an individual as part of a collective, which is what he did when Arjun, after months of prevarication, finally owned up to the fact that Kirstie might not return.
‘These Anglo-Indian chicks, I tell you. Gold-diggers, that’s what they are!’
Typically for a jaded academic who had been teaching the same text for a dozen or so years, Satyaki was somewhat voluble. He could be repeating the same idea, and not even feel the tedium.
‘How could you have been so blind, Arjun? How could you not see this coming, you dunderhead? She’s obviously over and done with you and moved on to greener pastures. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Didn’t I tell you so many years back that you two did not stand a chance? That you won’t last beyond Kirstie’s next grocery shopping trip to Spencer’s? I still can’t see what made you fall for that over-made-up cad. Really Arjun, how at all could you think of hooking up with a woman who’s never read anything beyond Robert Ludlum …’
‘I read Ludlum too Satyaki. And Stieg Larsson as well. You are forgetting I am a small-time restaurant-owner, trying to make a living out of selling halaal chicken.’
‘Oh cut it out Arjun, now you’re trying to suggest selling halaal chicken was infra dig to teaching history to a bunch of disinterested kids. How absolutely, totally, politically incorrect can you get? You’re worse than your father-in-law.’
The next moment Satyaki asked Arjun if he had thought of what he should be doing with the old man.
It was one of those questions claiming renewed attention every once in a while, fizzling out almost as readily as they resurfaced. Like China’s role in accelerating climate change to which there wasn’t a ready solution, and likely never would be, it lingered like a not-too-pleasant aftertaste.
Dustin came down with a bad case of lung infection last October. He lay barely conscious in his bed for a day and a half. The part-time maid, back from her weekly off on a Monday morning, stood outside the door, knocking for a solid fifteen minutes. She was familiar with her cranky employer’s ways and stood patiently outside, not wishing to risk her ancestors being linked into a string of absurdly incestuous relationships, made to take the blame on her behalf for not showing up on time for work.
Later, the neighbours called Arjun’s home. It was providential that he should have been at home at 6 in the evening at a time when the restaurant started readying for the next round of action after a post-lunch hour lull, and even more so that he should be tinkering with the girlie stuff that Kirstie had left behind. He was looking for a spare length of copper wire as the fuse had blown off when he found a set of duplicate keys to Dustin’s flat in a pouch kept inside a drawer, snowed under a mini mound of discarded butterfly grips, quite by default. Kirstie had her hair cropped really short before leaving, the logic being that haircuts were expensive in London.
The X-Ray showed a string of wispy candy floss clouds, nearly obscuring the outline of Dustin’s lungs. The pacemaker Dustin had been wearing since the last ten years was barely visible, the wire connecting it to the heart peeping out like a grasshopper’s antenna from behind the expanding white growth, a thin reminder that the machine lodged inside his left ribcage was still ticking. Looking at Dustin, who sat like a junkie, eyelids half-closed, on a reclined bed in the intensive care unit but could not really see, it was difficult to tell if he still had any use for it.
Arjun called Kirstie once the technicalities of admitting Dustin to the intensive care unit were taken care of.
It was 10 am in London. Kirstie sounded groggy and faintly exasperated. ‘Oh shucks! Is it serious? Should I come over, do you think?’ she said, probably still trying to breach the distance between the smiling daisies on the walls of the council flat in Tower Hamlets where she was staying with a friend and a father suddenly in hospital five thousand miles away in Calcutta who could be dying. And then she was angry. ‘Trust Daddy to not tell anyone he had been so ill. It couldn’t have gotten this bad overnight!’
A little later, she told Arjun she was auditioning for a show on Sunrise TV in a week and in any case wouldn’t have the cash to make a second round trip in three months.
‘I’m sorry Sweetie but this just isn’t the right time for me to leave London. And in any case you would do a better job of looking after Daddy than me … you know I can’t stand the smell in hospital corridors … You’re probably better off on your own without me getting in the way.’
Satyaki said the audition story was total bull. ‘You mean to say she’s got an Equity membership already? Well, give me another.’ Satyaki was convinced Kirstie had a man in London, or, at least, was on the lookout for one.
For a split-second Arjun remembered his wedding day. After they had signed the papers at the marriage bureau, the registrar, a man with a disposition more like that of a senior secondary school headmaster had, practically grudgingly, declared them married. As soon as the paperwork was over, Satyaki had, rather shockingly for Arjun, monopolized Kirstie. He held her in a prolonged bear hug, kissing her repeatedly on the forehead and cheeks. Arjun’s own chances with Kirstie looked doubtful.
‘Looks like you’re saddled with the old jackass for the rest of your life,’ said Satyaki, trying to nail the last little raisin left at the bottom of the squat earthen bowl of vermicelli custard. ‘Might still have been worthwhile if the bugger cared to show he was grateful. You saved his life. I’ll put my hand on my copy of Das Kapital and say this: he didn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for you.’
Arjun smiled. He loved Satyaki. When life seemed like being stuck neck-deep in a septic tank that hadn’t been cleared in ages, Satyaki was the man to reach out to. He was better than Hugh Grant and Laloo Prasad Yadav put together.
‘What’s that smirk for?’
‘Since when did you start swearing by Marx? I thought you were glad to see the Left government go.’
‘I was always a sworn votary of Marxism, didn’t you know? Look at Chomsky, look at the New Left in China… Marxism is the only way left for us, man. Granted, Bengal’s communists have made a right royal mess of their political inheritance. But even a closet right-winger like you, Arjun, would agree it’s unfair to hold Marx responsible because the Left Front government in Bengal was trying to cheat its farmers.’
ARJUN had gone home to get Kirstie’s school-leaving certificate. For some reason she wanted it mailed to her London address. Arjun did not ask. She also asked him if he could transfer two thousand pounds in her name, which she meant to return in due course. ‘Else you could sell my diamond earrings. You know where to find them,’ she had said.
It worried him. A part of him wanted to drop his guard, call London, ask Kirstie to come back at once. Sometimes he imagined Kirstie caught with drugs on her on the cobble-stoned streets of Soho, mugged and left bleeding on the roadside in a shady plane-tree-lined lane in Highbury, visible intermittently, lit by the blinking orange and yellow neon signage on closed shop windows. He had never been to London. After Kirstie went away to live there, Arjun spent hours googling London trivia.
What came between Arjun and the un-dialled long-distance call wasn’t just injured pride. If Kirstie was really bored with him – and she was never the sort to keep up a pretense – Arjun was not so unreasonable as to not appreciate her lack of hypocrisy. What held him back was a resistance to show himself up for who he really was. For a reason that remained unexplained to him, Arjun could never bring himself up to saying what he felt, especially when he had to say it to those he cared for the most.
The bathroom reeked of beer piss. Inside his lair, Dustin sat cross-legged on the beanbag, like a yogi. In front of him, on a low glass-topped rectangular table with lion legs lay a plate containing succulent slabs of beef on which bubbles of fat left from deep-frying still shone. Three bottles of Budweiser rolled and tinkled against each other, swayed by the afternoon breeze. A light band cut into the near-total darkness, entering through the parting between the drawn curtains, illuminating the never-ending swirl of particles in its way.
Arjun walked in and pushed the windows apart. The house was an un-restored Georgian red-brick edifice with green slatted windows and trellised grills around the balcony. The floors were paved with dark oxidized red cement, which, now illuminated, seemed to create doubles of everything that stood on it in a blurry edition of the original. Arjun bent down to pick up the empty bottles. Dustin pinned an onion ring, dipped it in a blob of red hot sauce and chewed, watery-eyed, drawing the saliva in with the heat.
‘Like to try some kebab?’ Dustin said, finally.
‘No, thank you,’ said Arjun.
‘It’s from Olympia … not as good as they’d make it when I used to go there… would drop by on my way back from the race course.’
‘I might go again this season,’ said Dustin, after a while, trying to extricate himself from the leathery layers and reach out for his walking stick, a chrome rod ending in a four-pronged base of moulded plastic. He had a hip replacement about four years ago, which shortened his left leg by half an inch and gave him a wobble.
‘Vicky says he could drive me there.’
‘Is he also the one who got you the beer and the steak?’
‘He did. Do you mind?’
‘Not particularly, except the last time you were in hospital, the docs said you had a sensitive liver… ‘
‘Oh, cut it out, will you? You think I give a flying whatever about what your two-paisa worth shrink said? You don’t really expect me to live on Mullah-eat day in and day out, do you?’
‘Certainly not, I was getting chicken stew specially prepared for you at the restaurant.’
‘Baba, real men eat beef. How can I put this in your fat little head?’
‘That’s why I brought you haleem. It’s fresh, light, cooked in lentil soup which is pure protein, although you’re supposed to go off red meat completely, that’s what the doctors said, still, goat meat is better than beef.’
‘It’s your chance to shove the leftovers from your crappy eatery down my throat. Don’t I know?’
‘That’s absolutely not true, Dustin. I have your lunch cooked separately and sent across on the dot of twelve, when it’s still steaming hot. You know that.’
‘Recycled leftovers from the previous night, that’s what it is.’
‘I can’t believe you just said that.’
‘I could say a lot more. Don’t rib me.’
‘No, go ahead, let’s hear it.’
‘You think I don’t get why you’re still hanging around here?’
‘You know Baby’s never coming back. She’s walked out on you. So, why are you still here?’
‘You tell me.’
‘You want my house, that’s why.’
‘Surprised, are we now?’ said Dustin, arching his salt-and-pepper caterpillar brows and dilating his eyeballs like a performer who’s beginning to enjoy his hold on the audience. ‘I heard you talking to that nerdy schoolmaster friend of yours. Did you think I won’t get it if you said it in Bengali?’
The last time Satyaki visited Arjun he said something about the house’s potential as an art gallery. Its unusually high ceilings, the proliferation of French windows which brought the lights in, extravagantly, the be-calming pairing of red oxidized cement floors and white walls, he said, was just the right combination for displaying art. Even the wall along the staircase, girdled by rows of cast iron figurines of lamp-carrying, conch-shell-blowing women who between them held up a sabre-green wooden banister, could be used to put up old family photographs to underscore the fin de siecle feel.
Satyaki was forever getting ideas. He had once thought of adapting the Bhagavad Gita into a multi-media theatrical production with special effects and staging it in a shopping complex that had a lot of un-roofed spaces, corridors and open terraces, constructed at different levels, linked to each other by half-hidden staircases. Talks such as these were more like diversions. They meant nothing.
‘It’s no use, Mate, you’re not going to get it. You’re not getting a bloody paisa from this house or Sergeant Pepper, I can promise you that,’ said Dustin. ‘I’m going to sell everything before I go.’
‘Makes sense,’ said Arjun. Even in this moment of unwarranted humiliation, he couldn’t stop himself from feeling a tinge of tenderness for his diminutive adversary. Dustin thought he owned a horse, a young colt with a name inspired by The Beatles, which would soon start making money for him. He also assumed he had a share in a two-storied house with six bedrooms and a private swimming pool, off Claremont Park in Esher, Surrey, where a cousin of his lived. His rather spare conversations with Arjun, almost inevitably, culminated in a talk about Dustin immigrating to England, as it did now.
‘I’d sell all my property here before I move to Surrey. I’d get to see Baby sometimes when I’m there.’
‘Good for you.’
‘So if you thought you were doing me, or yourself, a favour by hanging around here, that you were going to patao me into leaving this place to you, take it from me: You don’t have a hope in hell.’
‘Thanks for letting me know,’ said Arjun. ‘Would you want me to wait until you bought a ticket to London Heathrow or would you rather I went now?’
‘Go, by all means. What good have you been up to anyway? Messed with my diet and ruined my system, that’s all I got to thank you for.’
‘Right. You won’t have to put up with that any more. I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘Where do you think you’re taking my whiskey? You got any idea how much a bottle of Signature costs?’
‘You already had too much to drink this afternoon,’ Arjun said. ‘Shall we save these for later?’
‘Give it back,’ said Dustin, struggling to get up.
‘If you really want to burn a hole in your liver, you could do it tomorrow, after I leave.’
‘Don’t try to teach me what to do with my darned liver, you arsehole,’ said Dustin. A pungent rage released a wave of electric current inside him. Dustin’s slight body convulsed and shuddered. He had managed to pull himself up on one and half feet but still groped around the treacherous surface of the beanbag, gripping and losing bits of leather by turns. The quad cane stood a few meters away, near the glass-paned showcase on top of which medicine bottles, metallic strips containing tablets, a clock embedded in the middle of a bisque Tudor cottage, a music system with two sound boxes and a now defunct CD drive, wads of racing catalogues and a phosphorescent rosary with a cross attached to it were piled up, strung together by an invisible thread, defying the pull of gravity.
‘Put those down, immediately,’ said Dustin. ‘Don’t you dare take my whiskey out that door.’
‘I told you already, you’re getting these back tomorrow. You can mess up your liver and the toilet as much as you want to after I am gone.’
‘I’ll bloody mess up anything I wish. I’ll crap right here in this room if I want to.’
‘You’d be free to do it tomorrow.’
‘You wanna mess with me? You think I am a cripple?’
‘I think you should keep your blood pressure under control.’
‘Oh stop mollycoddling me. As if you’re dying of concern!’
Well, that day is probably not too far away, thought Arjun, faintly amused at the thought of setting himself up for imminent martyrdom.
‘You really lay it on thick, Man,’ said Dustin. ‘The way you go on and on … Dustin, did you take the protein drink this morning … Dustin, your slippers’ wet, you’ll catch a cold… Dustin, you’re overdue with a visit to the clinic… Jeez, it irritates the hell out of me.’
‘You will have all the space you want from tomorrow on.’
‘Just give my whiskey back and get lost. Now.’
‘I don’t want to say any more than I already have on this.’
‘What’s going on here? Turf control?’
‘I’m late for the restaurant.’
‘You can’t keep a woman at home and you want to fight me?’
‘… I’m getting out of here.’
‘… for f***’s sake, you can’t even get it up, Man.’
Arjun had stepped outside the threshold. He turned around and came in again. ‘If you’re trying to provoke me, it’s not going to work,’ he said.
Dustin, who had hobbled his way up to the quad cane, gripped the handle, lifting it in the air. A fuschia orange setting sun scrolled down against the shiny rod. The cut upwards was performed surprisingly swiftly given Dustin’s right hand from wrist downwards was in the grip of intense arthritic pain only a couple months ago.
The cane fell, landing on the glass-top table. The top right cracked, disintegrating into three concave blades that dropped on the ground and broke into smaller pieces.
Dustin fell too. He came down on the same spot where the metal rod had struck. His left temple and cheek grazed against the broken edge. The head soft-landed on the floor, on a bed of shards and powdered glass. Treacly drops rolled down his forehead, wetting his caterpillar eyebrows, percolating through the bushy growth, accumulating ultimately in a tiny pool of dark red crystals on the ground.
ARJUN lay awake in bed, listening to the Muezzin’s call. It was still dark outside. ‘All you who believe, get up and get ready for the pre-dawn meal,’ said the voice on the public address system. ‘Fasting is prescribed for you as it was for those before you, so that you may become self-restrained,’ was repeated a few times. And then it stopped, filling up the space with an after-sound until it was jammed full.
It had rained all of last night. Arjun let the moistened morning breeze riffle through his forelock as he lay in bed, watching the sky change colour.
After a while, when the ambient light from a still un-risen sun touched the cornices of the house across the road, Arjun decided he would go out for a stroll, stock up a few cubic metres of rain-washed air in his lung.
On his way out, as he knelt down to lace up his trainers, Arjun ran his eyes over the portraits on the wall. He returned Gandhiji’s smile when their eyes met.
‘You’re a style icon now, Man,’ he said to the man in the photograph, who this morning, despite the turkey wattle jawline and shaven head, seemed to have a rather soft, almost effeminate, mouth that Arjun had not noticed before. ‘Look at you, Mohandas, the uber-sexual! Where was Lennon when you started wearing annular glasses, huh? Popping and dying one of his seven million amoeba lives…’
‘And your upturned boat cap’s a great fashion accessory, by the way. Models wear it on the ramp. And politicians too, when they’re sitting in at protest rallies. Adds to their street cred.’
‘In fact, I am thinking of switching to see-through dhotis when I go to work tomorrow. It’s cool,’ he said. ‘I mean it was nice of the British to give us the railways and stuff but we didn’t really have to take every hand-me-down they chucked at us. Trousers were a dumb choice. Then you always knew that.’
A few hours later, on his way to the hospital, Arjun picked up marzipan buns from Nahoum’s. Dustin’s been craving for them these last few days.
Chitralekha Basu writes fiction and literary essays. Her short stories are anthologized in Memory’s Gold: Writings on Calcutta (Viking/Penguin) and First Proof: New Writing from India (Penguin). Her stories, book reviews and literary essays have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Independent and The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and most recently in The Caravan Magazine, Asia Literary Review, Open Road Review and The Missing Slate. Two of her short stories were published recently in The Island Review and Cosmonauts’ Avenue. Chitralekha is an Indian-born arts journalist based in Hong Kong.