The house reminded one of an illustrated Grimm’s fairy book scene – greens and gardens on all sides – exotic floras of our Gangetic heartland, all trimmed to perfection; yet there were a few places where it seemed untended since parthenium had grown; perhaps, it was intended. I have known people to love those white weeds; my own feeling was rather mixed regarding this flora about which I refuse to digress now; the patio was filled with a variety of climbers and creepers, even sunflowers were growing next to the main gate – it felt like one was walking in Eden except, there was no bargain – perhaps there was one, I couldn’t smoke weed here. I must say, in the most apologetic tone, that we did smoke the occasional marijuana back then, it was legal in some parts of the world and hell, as long as you are not an addict. This was someone else’s house, a family house. You don’t expect such pretty houses in a city, a house with such luxuriant greens. In my experience, city people are always threatened by trees, yet by all accounts, Ranchi was a city, a rather small one by our Indian standards – not like those American ones where you need to walk a mile (1.6kms) to reach any place of significance. I remember stepping into a sparsely empty railway station, it was evening, and there was a chill in the air – my rucksack was visibly light because it was December and most of the clothes that could go inside were on me. I took an auto-rickshaw to the outskirts of this town where the house was located, this was before Uber and I was still not into digital navigation – there was still a sense of wonder, a feeling of being misaligned in unfamiliar geography. I had a fair idea about the people I was expecting in that house – it would be a day’s stay before I went out in the field, to the nearby coal beds, the dead and gone forests from long ago when India existed in the Southern Hemisphere and it was summer in December.
In the year 2013, I was still a student and I used all my student connections to save money wherever I went, it meant finding any distant relative or acquaintance in any corner of India; saving lodging money is the first requisite of a good traveller and as a hunter of stories I never had a problem befriending people, even for a brief while, only to forget a little later that I had promised to keep in touch with them – selfishness was my prime moving force, and I never felt sorry about it. It never occurred to me that I could come back and revisit them. In my lonely and astir life, I never imagined that someday I will sit down and think of all the faces I passed by in a blip, why would they even remember me? Neither did I suspect, that someday, years down the line, I too will think about a certain someone and it won’t leave my head even when I fell asleep; that after drowning hours in social media pages and conniving small talk – the false promises I made would hound me, one casual remark that ‘someday I will write about her’ will chastise me; my unseasonal guilt surprised me because I stopped writing long back – the sun rose in the east, fell in the west, seasons changed, the IPCC published their reports on our warming planet – a clarion call for climate action, and I didn’t write a single line in the past five years.
What are promises, anyway? Words that are mostly not meant.
I have come a long way with that attitude,
and now I am stuck.
The house was inhabited by three people, a man in his fifties (the first thing I noticed about him was his hair which was partly white and he had more of it, you know the hair, than I in my early twenties), a woman in her forties (her face was that of the face of a quiet provincial mother, full of depth and a city boy like me would always keep guessing what she thought until she spoke), and a little girl of six or seven (she is the one, who changed their lives, the man would tell me). They greeted me with repose and it didn’t take me much time to feel comfortable especially since the man was a professor of English literature in the local college. Her wife was once a school teacher but now she mostly spent her time in her home garden. They called me Rishi’s friend – my dopey eyed friend from Dehradun, who taught me how to hold a chillum when I was just out of school and also introduced me to Henry Miller; to be honest, I first learnt about Henry Miller in a Polanski movie – Bitter Moon, but from time to time I give Rishi his due credit in pushing me towards dangerous habitats.
I have long forgotten the couple’s name, and I am too lazy to google it, since they were both members of the Ranchi Cultural Club, a fact I remember because I was big on culture then and held a high opinion of people who took part in cultural forums and other allied hubbubs (that feeling has changed over the years). Anyway, they would prefer anonymity; but if I were a better person, I would perhaps ask their permission, not for their names but for this narration – it is their story, a part of it, and I am writing only for myself. When you write, you only write for yourself, and if you are lucky, someone feels you wrote for them too – could you write for the entire human race? That’s what great artists do. Someday, some A.I. will decipher the language of dolphins, they would write for them too, or sing a few songs apologising for our entire human species. But I was just a B-school graduate who used the word ‘deep’ when he read Milan Kundera, so you couldn’t expect art from me, art that moved, but I was conscious about my intentions and they were always honest, and my writing? Yes, that was honest too, there was no other option. The little girl whose name I remember is intertwined with everything that has been happening to me – Subarnarekha – a river, a streak of gold, a daughter who was picked up from an orphanage – after another had been claimed by the waters – by Subarnarekha.
In 1965, the Bengali auteur Ritwik Ghatak’s movie Subarnarekha was released. From what I read about it was Ghatak’s usual theme of dealing with the refugees, their lives, the migrants who lost their homes overnight, the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal. I am yet to watch it, but Mr. Professor had. That’s what he told me. If I were to get into the details of that conversation, my memory would probably trick me into additions and subtractions, but I will try to narrate whatever I remember in a succinct manner.
After his daughter and his wife had slept off, he had climbed out of his usual self-assured and reticent self to a confessional mode of communication – he probably desired a male company. The house was small, and there were two bedrooms, one study, and the dining room was separate from the living room -which wasn’t too large compared to modern homes, but each had books in it. I were to sleep in their study room, which had a single bed and a table, but mostly it was filled with books – a library of sorts, yet I had chosen not to use that word with him, for he could as well be a snob who wouldn’t take kindly to such extrapolations. I mentioned how I was a big fan of T. S. Eliot and that in my so-called technical institute I had once given a presentation on how mining creates ‘Wastelands’, used literary metaphors in a very ‘science-y’ subject matter and had received mixed responses, from students and professors alike. It was after this information sharing — that our conversation took a new turn.
The Dean of Placements had told me, this presentation where I criticise industries (capitalism in other words) won’t help me get jobs, the market doesn’t want to do anything to do with business hampering forces. The market doesn’t care about the environment. ‘Have you read the tragedy of commons?’ he asked. ‘You must be smart, and passionate but if you want a paycheck, listen to the market. Use those keywords.’ And that was that. He didn’t advise me to write poetry or go to Bombay and sell stories to Yash Raj, and that’s how I know he thought well of me. ‘Serve the nation to your best abilities. Don’t talk about hocus-pocus.’
The man seemed to lighten up a little and spoke about the tribes, and the history of mining in the area, the mafia, how his father worked as a railway contractor and fell in love with this area and never returned to his native Bengal, how some Japanese tourists who had come for the Buddhist tours had once stayed over at his father’s place when they were young. The recurring theme of his monologue (at this point, I was only listening) was how his love for literature was never discouraged even though everyone in those days was looking for engineers. By this time it was quite late, and I really wanted to doze off, when he spoke of a certain Nobel laureate in Literature Kenzaburo Oe, who had raised a differently-abled, son (and he apparently often wrote about him). This man had changed him, he told me, as a person, and as a professor.
‘Do you think, you can replace one person with another?’ he asked.
For a 21-year-old, I never much thought about things like these; we were all hedonists, serially jumping from one experience to another, one feeling to the next. People, for me, were like that too – one after another, serial love affairs, flight at the first insignia of problems, survey more dating sites: looking for god knows what. Haven’t you seen enough people in their naked self – baring their soul out, hoping there will be some connection, something to last till the end of time? Nothing ever really lasts, but we hope against the odds, and that counts.
To this man and his wife, I was not Rishi’s friend. Just a passer-by, a guest from a tenuous connection. Not many people would invite a stranger into one’s home. Once upon a time, Rishi’s uncle was a student in St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi and this man was his teacher, and that was how the thread of my connection to them went. I must have been a little shameless to be in their home, after all, I am on the request of a favourite pupil, but I was honest about my intentions, hotels were expensive — this man who was a professor was apparently quite strict and didn’t like students wearing cool t-shirts or flaunting Beatles haircut: Rishi’s uncle’s words. He also had a personal Moped (which I didn’t spot in their Eden home), that made a rather grand entry and women students would often giggle at his sight – a different era without mobile phones, an era when you did get a chance to look around. The man I was speaking to now, didn’t fit into that description of a strict college ‘Master-moshai’, the one who carried a personal cane – I think the years had toned him down, if not literature, and I was partly correct in that assumption. That was the only information I had received from Rishi, so I was in ‘here there be dragons’ territory. But as Rilke said, most dragons are just Princesses, and that was the way I chose to look at the world as long as I got my way – I mean, I got to save money.
‘I have never really thought about it,’ I said.
‘You know our daughter is adopted, we had an elder daughter who passed away when she was fifteen. We were devastated, and five years went just like that, and then we brought her home. She was just three years old then; she hasn’t been with us much longer. Only five years. We named her Subarnarekha, because it was that river that took our elder daughter. Some people would find it harsh and ironic, but we think it’s nice. After all, she lives on in the Subarnarekha.’
That was a lot of information for me to handle at one go, and I suddenly rose from my torpor, I didn’t feel any sadness or empathy at first, I was just curious as to why this man would tell me all of that. Perhaps this was how it was; these days we often speak our hearts out to strangers on the internet, people we meet on dating sites (that’s not my personal style, since it rarely works) but here in the real world, real people spoke to real strangers half their age, a stranger whom they invited in their home – maybe this was the burden, ‘carry my grief,’ he was whispering to me in silence, but maybe not. At least here was a man who was treating me like an adult – asking me if ‘one daughter could replace another.’ The age difference between the couple and their little daughter suddenly made sense. One was touching her fifties, and the other had probably passed it (from the calculations I did earlier) and although it’s not a biological impossibility to have children at their age, I hadn’t thought much about it before this revelation. The Eden suddenly seemed much smaller, a dense fog had settled outside, the thickets had vanished from sight, even the light outside didn’t have much power. The fog had stayed for the night, just like his words, and we stayed like that for a while. I didn’t know what to say then, and after a while, I asked him, ‘What was she like? Your elder daughter?’
Parents who outlive their children, especially children who pass away like that – unnaturally – often blame themselves. As if it were their duty to protect them and they couldn’t. Not having children is infinitely better then. It’s not always about genetic continuity or selfishness of proliferation, but to raise someone in one’s image, to give them everything you couldn’t have – sometimes that drives one too, it is one of life’s fulfilling quests. In 2013, I was too young to understand all that. So I listened and I listened, as he narrated the stories of his other daughter, the one Subarnarekha took – the dazzling daughter, who was a state-level swimmer, but in the vortex of precarious currents, we are all too human – and so she was, a wasp trapped in amber. The details about her accident, which I read later, were a bit fuzzy. It was the rainy season, the Indian monsoon. A bunch of school students from Ranchi had gone on an excursion near Ghatsila; stepping into the river was not allowed, yet a few students, teenagers, had duped their teachers and done exactly so. There was no alcohol involved but a flash flood had washed away six children, all of them found downstream, a few days later, swollen and beyond recognition. It’s a common theme with flood victims, the news report said.
Subarnarekha, the one who arrived at their home five years ago, was nine years old. She called the woman Ma, and the man Bua. I had only been in their home for a few hours, and an early dinner was served – and then off she went to bed with her mother. I was due to leave early in the morning the next day, and although I knew a lot of things about their elder daughter Manika, I knew nothing about Subarnarekha. Nine-year-old children aren’t interesting, but his father told me that I will never teach her how to swim.
‘Only swimmers drown,’ he said, ‘they don’t respect the water enough.’
In my father’s village which was on the Matla river, every year many people drowned; some were swimmers, some were non-swimmers. In the deluge of these fat rivers of Bengal, no one was safe; not even the Royal Bengal Tigers. I didn’t tell him that. I only listened, and then he broke down. He wept for a while, something he probably never did in front of a woman, and I didn’t know what to say, so I stayed quiet. He got hold of himself and started speaking again with the diction of a scholar.
‘You know when they found her, there were some yellow streaks in between her teeth. Only she had it. Not the others. The forensic doctor said it was gold, she had swallowed some. It was quite unbelievable because the known mines upstream had all gone dry for quite some time, it was probably from some residual sediment already circulating in the water – but gold is heavy, it doesn’t stay in the water long.…you must know all that… and this wasn’t reported in the news. A local geologist took it up, and a few years later the survey reported the existence of a deposit, a little south from here. Underground streams link it to the main river.
They came to me, the bureaucrats and the geologists, they wanted to name the deposit Manika. We were just recovering, we didn’t want anything to do with that. We said no. Maybe we were right, maybe we were wrong. We didn’t want the memory of our dead daughter with a gold mine, but I know it’s irrational, and that’s why I named our younger daughter with every reminder of her, I know it doesn’t make sense to you, maybe someday it will.’
We kept quiet again, and finally, I said,
‘Someday I will write about her. Manika.
Is it okay if I write about her?’
He looked at me and smiled, and said, ‘I will wait. As long as your technical brain doesn’t make her a tool in gold exploration-err… and no gold digger analogy,’ at which I bit my lips trying to conceal my embarrassment at his sudden outpour of jest.
‘I wish I were creative, then like Eric Clapton, maybe then I would have written my own ‘Tears in Heaven.’ We both smiled at that statement; I didn’t say much, lest we started speaking about English rockstars and it was quite late, and I really had to doze off; I had an early morning bus to catch. He wished me goodnight, and I didn’t see him again in the morning. His wife served me breakfast and showed me out, and asked me to come again soon, the usual pleasantries, and as I walked out of Eden and into the foggy and chilly morning in Jharkhand, I could only smell the parthenium; the house looked like a ghost house when I looked back; shrouded in an envelope of white and green. And then I looked ahead. I didn’t forget my promise, it stayed with me, rested within me for all these years.
‘And I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
Somewhere nearby the Subarnarekha flowed, witnessing the passage of time, as rivers often do; witnessing history as hordes of men, dipped in her to become prosperous; a local adage in Jharkhand went like this:
They dip in the Ganga to wash away their sins,
They dip in the Subarnarekha to sin.
She was kind to some, the men with pans and pots, with fish-nets that entrap gold nodules, the men who dreamt adventure, who risked all or nothing, all for nothing.… She was unkind to most; for some went home mad, some went home to poverty, some couldn’t go back so they drowned, some sold themselves for less than a penny. She gave gold only to the few, but she gave life to almost everyone, occasionally furious, especially when it rained. When she took Manika and five of her friends, people had stopped looking for gold, and then once again, some did. Gold is not easy to come by in the Universe they say, let alone the Earth. Only Supernovas make gold – explosions of stars, neutron star mashups – something extraordinary making something rare in the cosmic petri-dish, and then some ending up in our backdoor and when a river carries gold in its belly, it carries a heavy weight – it carries something rare and sacred, something so heavy that it often carries a curse. It’s not an easy name for a daughter to carry, but she carries it with grace, the daughter of an orphanage, now the daughter of a loving family about whom I had all but forgotten. And then seven years later, there was a pandemic, and for a while, the world skipped a beat. A few beats.
Summer in Calcutta. Staring at screens. The new normal. Social distancing. Zoom. WFH. COVID. Keywords, initialisms, acronyms etched into a generation busy disrupting the Earth’s climatic balance. In the afternoon, suspended in disbelief, I sat behind a computer screen, as my mail window pops up a notification – not my manager; sender ID, unknown.
I remembered that name.
The mail read:
I am writing to inform you that my father passed away last week. He had misplaced your number or else he intended to call you, he had been battling cancer for all this time. I found your email id from your Linkedin profile and intended to call you – you are very dear to us, especially Bua. He was quite cheerful all this time, even after cancer struck. He said he will meet Didi sooner than the rest of us. You probably don’t know this but he printed that little draft poem you left on his desk all those years ago about Manika Didi on a big canvas, and it hangs in our drawing-room. You should come and see it someday after this pandemic is over; we still live in the same old house, and it would be a pleasure to see you again. You probably don’t remember me, I am in class 12 now, and I want to study History in college. Hoping to see you soon, dada, take care.
There was a pandemic raging outside; death was the new normal. My hard-boiled ways made me digest the news with equanimity, but what poem is the little girl talking about? I hadn’t written any poems, not back then. I didn’t leave anything on anyone’s desk. All I remember from that night in Jharkhand is a dream, an illumination, a product of my weed addled brain that craved some. This was nothing new. I was quite familiar with the habit of nightmares – later I learnt to make the most out of it.
Could it be true though? Manika’s photo hung in that room I slept, I remember smiling at it with sadness as if she was looking at me, she was beautiful, what a loss I must have thought, if she were alive she would be my age, almost, her eyes moved, was she winking? Was I awake? The familiar foe, my nightmares – how often did an aeroplane topple out of the sky, and how often did I see women swinging in wicker chairs by my bed, my makers and my destroyers – pitchfork in one hand, band-aid in another- those were the days, those were my dreams. In that dream Manika must have come out of that photograph and sat by the table, I remember words falling out of her mouth, and I was scared of this illusion, or I wasn’t. The uncertainty of memory.. she wanted to tell her father something, absolve him of his guilt, swim with the current of loss and forgive himself; loss is natural and the words kept pouring, so there was the poem formed in her mouth, gurgling bubbles out of the water, and it had to be a dream because you have to believe me when I say that I didn’t write anything, I couldn’t have and there are no ghosts, only grief and its children.
Sounak is a Geologist (PhD-dropout) and a freelance writer, based out of Calcutta. In his free time he loves to climb the Himalayas and quote Hemingway to strangers, although his favourite writer would be Michael Ondaatje, if not Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is an alumni of Presidency College, Calcutta and also did a brief stint at IIT Roorkee.