‘So, I hear that you won’t be shaving your head.’
The crack of the rusk broken into two unequal halves by hand may have awakened the dead. Spirally arranged like collapsed domino tiles on a chipped plate with blue daisies and their silver stems etched along the circumference—the finest china of the house—a varied selection of the baked goods lay before them, and Bhupen counted them off silently, as his father had taught him to: —Cuboidal cookies topped with chopped cashews;
—Dry marble cakes, their chocolate swirls, slim as meandering brooks, splashed across the rectangular surface;
—Oatmeal raisins, large as a palm, with an almond near the centre seducing you with the synecdoche of a spotty boy’s cheek;
—Plain coconut flavoured flats with edges that mocked festoons of a mela;
—A special bourbon, an oblong marvel, comprising dark chocolate biscuits made with the Cadbury bars smuggled from India and milk squeezed out of a buffalo’s teats.
No tags at the Bakery at the bend of the road had christened the multitude just yet. You merely pointed at them as you flitted around the glass display and demanded “Eita” or “Oita”.
On the coffee table, by the plate, lay three possessions of the past:
—A dog-eared, yellowing, unstamped Suchitra Sen postcard from 1974 containing zig-zag recreations of Bengali alphabets arranged into sentences which would be of little comprehension to the impatient;
—A pearly-white headgear akin to conical domes of temples which a Bengali bridegroom wore at his wedding; over the years, the Topor had retained its pristine milky-white sheen;
—A half-knitted pink and white sleeveless jumper.
‘Yes, I think shaving my head will be quite unnecessary,’ Bhupen set the broken pieces of rusk on the plate and dusted the crumbs off his fingertips.
‘Unnecessary?’ Mona Pishi feigned concern. ‘To show respect to your father? Unnecessary?’ Knitting her eyebrows, she slurped her red tea from a translucent plastic cup.
Mona Pishi was a tiny, lithe widow in her late fifties. She remained thin as a knife-edge by going hungry every Tuesday—a fast made in exchange for blessings. The plethora of idols in her Puja room (yes, a room as tiny as a kitchenette had to be reserved for the dolls she worshipped) took up most of her morning, part of her afternoon, and few minutes of her evening. Her voodooing comprised the daily Dhoop-Dhuna, a strange, choreographed arrangement wherein she set fire to coconut husks in an earthen mug and distributed billowing grey smoke around the house, to asphyxiate the evil residing in the corners of the ceiling and the floor. She had tried to initiate Bhupen down the path of piety. He had placed the mug on his head and zoomed around the house acting out the role of a steam engine, instead. He was Thomas from Thomas & Friends, that’s what he was.
Tea-time with her dolls was a serious affair: minuscule stainless steel dishes and glasses as tall as Bhupen’s middle finger were the acceptable crockery for the porcelain gods. Kaju barfi, the diamond-shaped confection veneered with edible tin foil was a staple. It was an offering to her dolls who she thought were animated in her absence and blessed the sweets with an indiscernible bite. Truth be told, ants would queue their way into the barfi when she left the company of the Divine. After the evening prayers, she would collect the barfis in a thali and offer it as a replacement for biscuits during tea time, which would be met with polite rejection. ‘Firangis, all of you.’ she would scoff at them. Bhupen had always remarked how he could see a tiny black fleck or two, scrambling madly on the barfi as Pishi bit into it and washed it down with her tea.
‘Don’t worry,’ she’d say. ‘If you eat ants, then you’ll never drown.’
Mona Pishi liked her Chittagong tea leaves to be brewed in boiling water for ten full minutes until the water turned a fluorescent shade of maroon. Her tea was sugarless. It had to pass through a strainer that must always be sterilised before use. Biscuits with tea was a British (“Bideshi” was the term she reiterated) norm to her. So, she had her barfis, instead, which never found any takers.
‘Unnecessary…’ she repeated that godforsaken word which now began to sound something like a chant. ‘Didn’t you shave your head for your poité? Did you think it unnecessary then?’
‘I haven’t had my poité.’
‘Right. You father told me that you hadn’t. It had caused quite a stir, let me tell you.’
‘We hadn’t any money for it then.’
‘That’s not what your father told me.’
As a young boy on the brink of puberty, Bhupen had observed this fad from afar. Thirteen year old boys went missing for a week from school; when they returned, their heads were shaven and a white ceremonial thread peeked out from their shirts. Bhupen had seen his own father wear one at home: it was wrapped around his torso like a sash: the ceremonial thread or the poité was a construct of the olden days which congratulated young boys on their birth into the high Brahmin caste and initiated them into education wherein they would be accepted by a guru (the thread was to be their trophy or badge or whatever), stay in a gurukul until they were of age, which was usually twenty-five, and have access to uncensored facts of life.
Strictly going by the little portion he had memorised from the chapter on the Later Vedic Age in his Class Six History textbook, Bhupen counted off:
—Bhrahmacharya: Baba had been shipped off to Calcutta while his mother, father, and sister remained in Habiganj in the seventies. ‘Presidency is the epicentre of education,’ Mona Pishi claimed, ‘and you will learn a lot there. Just don’t smoke or drink, and don’t you dare be part of anything political.’ Th’amma wept into her sari upon her son’s departure. Thakurda had pushed the postcard into Baba’s hand right before he was to board the train. ‘Since you ask me every year: I’ve written out the mantra for Saraswati’s blessings. Recite them daily, early in the morning, and you’ll come home a scholar.’
—Grihastha: It had been a sudden wedding for Th’amma was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and feared she would never see the Topor atop her
son’s head. Baba’s parents had found him an Assamese girl (‘They are a harmless bunch,’ Th’amma claimed). The Topor came with the bride. They were very critical of Bhupen’s Ma, the neighbours and other outsiders who were family: ‘Couldn’t they find a fair-skinned girl for their sahib-looking boy?’; ‘That is a plump potato’; ‘She doesn’t look too fertile to me, does she to you? No.’
—Vanaprastha: the abandonment of bed, wife, and child to live a life in the woods and fend for oneself, that Vedic society condoned; Bhupen strongly suspected that the pink jumper had some association with his father in this stage of his life;
—Sannyasa: the elusive attainment of hermitage in search of moksha—the emancipation from earthly connections to be one with the Divine.
Naturally, Bhupen did not wish to conform with this flowchart. ‘Yes, I didn’t want to have my poité. It is a thing of the past.’ He had always believed he was a conjuror. He was named for Bhupen Hazarika, the Assamese who claimed in song and in Bengali that he was a “Jajabor”. Why shouldn’t he be one too? Baba had fixated on “Bhupen” even before he was married. He had confessed to Bhupen that if he were a girl, he would be named Suchitra for the actress who had enchanted Bhupen’s grandfather before they chopped off the country like the cow’s head at a slaughter house.
‘Ish! Don’t say that,’ Ma had protested. ‘Are we Musholmaan or what? Chopping off cow’s heads! Can’t you talk about the cow being the mother, the goddess in front of the boy for once?’
‘I agree with Boudi,’ Pishi joined in.
‘Your brother and I are always at loggerheads with each other,’ Ma confessed to Pishi.
‘You don’t say,’ Pishi rolled her eyes.
Every time Bhupen chanced upon Bangladesh’s outline in his geography textbook where they were covering South America this semester, he could not help but imagine a dejected, defeated cow: its head dropped, yet its ears horizontal and proud, ready to face the axe, or whatever contraption they were to slice its head with.
He had been to Habiganj only once in his childhood, when his Th’amma finally passed. ‘Did Baba cry?’ Bhupen enquired of his mother when he was ambushed with the news of his grandmother’s death as they loaded their luggage onto the train.
‘Of course he did.’
‘Why isn’t he crying now?’ he inquired as they stood out in the open, in the heat, waiting for the truck to take Th’amma’s corpse to the crematorium. She had been lain on the bed where she wheezed to death that morning. Baba, subdued, had taken two sheets of paper and pressed them against the soles of his stony mother, who was lifeless in the vermillion sari she was wed in and the bare minimum of jewellery that Pishi had agreed could be burned along with her being. The scarlet Rose Bengal that her soles had been smeared with left their impressions upon the paper which Baba studied with a stare so rock solid that in that very moment Bhupen imagined both mother and son having a run-in with a Gorgon.
Bhupen was taken upstairs to be with his toothless Thakurda. He now only had less than a year to live for Th’amma had passed in the tail end of January and he would pass next year, two days shy of her first anniversary. So, he sat on his bed, cross-legged, sipping tea.
‘You eat the biscuits for me,’ he mumbled through his hollow mouth that collapsed upon itself like ripples of a silk shirt. ‘I’ll drink the tea. Together we’ll be a complete set.’
‘Do you have any Marie?’
‘No Marie. These are all Bakery biscuits. Better than your Marie and your Parle-G nonsense. They make it with their own two hands. None of that robot stuff. Eat it. It is so much better.’
‘Can I have some tea?’
‘Absolutely not. What will I do then? I can’t eat biscuits. I don’t have any teeth. You’ll have to crumble them for me. I might as well swallow sand.’
Bhupen could ably recreate the the first bite he made into the ginger Nice biscuit that was sprinkled with crystals of sugar for it had made the tip of his tongue tingle ever so vivaciously: it was the first sign of life and motion he had experienced on that dreadful day of inertia.
The pilgrimage for Thakurda’s cremation the following year was to be taken by Baba alone. It was a month later that he returned shaven-headed and with a carpet bag full of Bakery biscuits. Until then, of course, Ma had prohibited drinking builder’s tea or tea of any other make and recipe for that matter.
‘Why?’ our hero had protested.
‘It is a grown-up drink,’ she had claimed.
‘Isn’t it made with milk?’ came the follow-up enquiry, ‘and isn’t milk a non-grown-up drink.’
‘Well,’ oh how she fumbled, ‘yes but don’t you bother me now it’ll be another whooping. You don’t ask me about coffee, do you?’
‘Who cares about coffee?’ Bhupen shrugged. ‘It’s just dirty water. And I believe we would have the same argument over coffee, too.’
‘How so?’ Ma inquired.
‘Well,’ Bhupen began, ‘coffee is made of cocoa beans, is it not? From the cacao tree. Now, cocoa beans are also used for making chocolate. Not a lot of grown-ups in our family eat chocolate. When we make social calls you take a box from Banchharam’s instead: boxes of sandesh and cham-chams and pantuas. How do you break the ice with the children of the house? Hand them a Cadbury Dairy Milk is what you do or if you think they can handle it, Bournville. Fifty percent dark chocolate. They’re older; they can handle the bitterness.’
‘What’s your point?’ Ma was peeved.
‘Well, cocoa makes chocolate and cocoa makes coffee, and if children can have chocolates, they can have coffee for there’s a non-grown-up element in a grown-up drink.’
‘Yes,’ Ma interjected, ‘but coffee contains caffeine—that’s a drug. Do we really want to turn children to drugs that early?’
‘What are you on about? You have been stealing chewing tobacco from your mother since you were fourteen.’
Ma liked her Assamese tea and claimed that the whole world drank it. She, like Pishi, had it without milk, albeit with a spoonful of sugar. Puffed rice in a steel bowl laced with mustard oil was an inheritance from her girlhood days which she invigorated every evening as she took a palmful of the rice peppered with peanuts and onion, tossed it into her mouth, and took a swig from her cup. How she enjoyed the sting of the hot tea against the roof of her mouth and the accidental crunch of the peanut. ‘Had you added a bit of milk in your daily tea, you might have been a little lighter of skin,’ Th’amma had once enraged Ma.
And then Baba pulled out a paper package from the carpet bag, ripped it open, and poured rusks onto a plate. He pushed his cup of tea towards Bhupen and schooled him on the art of dunking. First, you must hold the rectangular marble biscuit from the shorter side, judge the temperature of the tea by wrapping your fingers around the body of the cup, ascertain the length of time during which part of the biscuit must remain submerged undertea. Here, Bhupen took note of the tea staining the biscuit by ascending its body like Indian Ink spreading on paper upon coming into contact with the fountain pen’s nib. Pull out said biscuit, submerged part soaked and spongy and slightly orange from the tea that has seeped into its pores. Make a calculated attempt at biting into this soft cake. If it is too early, you run the risk of singeing your tongue. If it’s too late, the soaked portion will detach from the parent and drop to the tea with a grand splash; then, you will be left with a bottom layer of mush that will ruin the entire illusion of the perfect cup of tea.
Their first dunking experiment had been a success. No sooner had Bhupen scooped into his mouth the marriage of tea and biscuit than the cup of tea was pulled away from him.
‘It’s still a grown-up drink,’ Baba claimed.
Bhupen momentarily picked the postcard, let his fingers linger over Thakurda’s hand, whilst feeling the impress of the nib, and struggled to string together the alphabets: the curve of the vowels and the shapes of the consonants were whipped into sense. At that moment to him it was a spell that shan’t be said out loud lest the dead awaken: a rare bequest passed from conjuror to protégé. But the cadence, the rhythm, the geometric Sanskrit imitating the calculation and architecture of the tabla arrested him. Briefly, he looked up at the ceiling and mocked his own incredulity: there, at the corner of the ceiling, sat cross-legged, an apparition, incited by the silent utterance of Thakurda’s words. Translucent, as if he was staring at his own face in a tumbler full of still water before the heat was turned and the leaves were added, it was at that moment that Bhupen congratulated his father for naming him so: he was, precisely then, the most fabulous necromancer in all the land.
‘He bought a knitting book from the stand by the Bakery,’ Pishi set down her cup of tea. ‘He was hell-bent on making his own winter wear when he came. Bought needles, balls of yarn…everything. Nothing for himself, though, no. He had set out to make this jumper for you. He was telling me that he had always bought you things but he never made you things. Before he could finish it, he was…gone.’
‘I was thinking that I should have buried him. I have always wanted to bury him.’
‘Bury him? Are we Musholmaan or what?’
‘Think about it. I’ll just be polluting the air with the burning let alone the wastage of all that pyre wood. With burying there isn’t the problem of taking more from nature. The flesh rots and the earth takes away in death what nourished it in life. And then there would always be that bit of land I could visit. Return to the land from where he sprung, that’s what he had wanted, was it not? But no matter. You took care of it, of course, before I could set foot here. Electric furnace was it?’
‘He would have had a better death had you not kicked him out of Calcutta.’
‘Be careful with your words, Pishi. I have played nicely. Don’t try my patience. I am not my father. I won’t put up with your nerve.’ Taking advantage of the silence that arrested Pishi, he went on: ‘We didn’t kick him. He was having a mid-life crisis. What were we to do? He woke up one morning, and this was a few months after Thakurda passed, and said he missed the loam of his land. Said he wanted to return to Bangladesh. Make a living there. Live amongst people who spoke Bangal like he did. Fly kites, make pitha, sing Baul day in, day out. Do you know he had a Twitter account? And do you know what his handle was? Jhaalmoori_Lalon_Fakir. He had gone round the twist. What were we to do? Uproot my childhood so that he could relive his? So we let him leave us without much protest.’
‘But he was a dutiful father, was he not? He came home every February with so many biscuits for you.’
‘And stayed for a week before he realised he was dishonouring whatever promise he had made to himself. Yes, he was between two worlds. He couldn’t make up his mind. No resolution. And of course the biscuits solve everything, don’t they? May I have my tea now?’
It was as wondrous as the day Bhupen had finally selected his final signature—one that would remain with him till his death. The “B” was to resemble the bow of a warrior while the “G” looked like a careless “8” or a crude recreation of a sea-horse. The rest of the letters in his name were the coils of a telephone receiver. Baba had reiterated the permanence of it; Bhupen himself had read in the paper how there were certain “professionals” who could tell everything about you from the slashes and strokes of your signature. When Pishi asked him how he liked his tea, of which he had no set recipe, the reply was coherent and spontaneous. Bhupen rejected his father’s technique of listing out separate items on his fingers to recall them with precision despite the recipe being Baba’s:
A cupful of Amul milk, and Amul milk alone, to be boiled for two minutes. A tablespoon of sugar to be added at the lapse of that time, followed by another tablespoon of Assamese tea leaves. The contents in the tumbler to stirred constantly for about three minutes, during which time the heat was to be increased, then decreased, then increased again, then decreased again, so that the tea would rise and fall, rise and fall, until it formed a skin on its surface. Once the tea had assumed the colour of Bhupen’s forearm was it to be taken off the stove. Biscuits were a compulsion as flesh is to blood.
When the tea arrived, Bhupen inquired of his Pishi, ‘Did you shave your head when Pisha died?’
‘Why would I do that? I don’t live in the olden days when women shaved their heads after their husbands died. Or jumped into a fire. It was oppressive. So someone came and saved us from this nonsense.’
‘So, how is my situation any different? Then why must I shave my head? Is it because no one has emancipated me? It’s still a thing of the past, isn’t it?’
‘We were under the thumbs of men.’
‘And here you are clicking your tongue when I tell you that I won’t shave my head or wear a white cloth and nothing more or eat meat. Tell me which man I have to go up to so that he may repeal whatever rule this is. It’s not oppression, oh no. It’s a form of passive-aggressive blackmail.’
A brief silence ensued once more before the thump of Pishi’s footsteps caused the surface of Bhupen’s tea to throb.
Looking up at the corner of the ceiling once again, Bhupen studied the ghost of his father. Baba weakly smiled at him but it was not indulgent. He still hovered cross-legged. Bhupen dipped the broken half of the rusk into his tea and return the ghost’s smile. The piece slipped between his fingers into the tea. Both father and son clicked their tongues. Upon the ghost’s encouragement, Bhupen brought the chipped cup to his lips:
—he tasted the heat, the bitterness of the leaves, and the sweetness of the milk and sugar on the tip of his tongue all at once;
—he crushed between his teeth that one crystal of sugar that had failed to dissolve;
—he tossed in his mouth the mush of the hardened rusk which had now turned into a wet sponge.
Baba beamed at Bhupen, uncrossed his legs, and glided out of the room.