Letter of appreciation for those who miraculously escaped the manhole
5 June 2018
A short story
The footpath of my memory is lined with manholes. It seems wherever the masons ran out of cement, they decided to leave a hole, an uncovered hole. I am not scared of manholes. In fact, whenever I encounter them, instead of getting off the footpath like some people do, I walk straight towards them and gallop exactly at the right moment so that I am not swallowed. My mother says manholes contain shit. Everything we eat goes out this way: we chew our food well enough to not mess with the digestive process, then we swallow whatever we eat (less spicy the better), then our stomach churns and we remember we should be careful about the spices. Depending on whether we were careful or not, we shit on a level between constipation and diarrhoea. After that comes the process of disposal. I did not know anything about this when I was younger. Until I found out about Salim kaku.
Salim kaku was a thin man with an amply muscular body; the upper part of his body was especially remarkable. So much so that when, in my adolescence, I thought of myself in a gym body, I imagined his muscles chunk by chunk on mine. I limited my imagination to the upper half of our bodies. When the imagination got out of hand, when it trickled down, it got really embarrassing. I would see my mother down on her knees, with his penis in her mouth. It wasn’t what I intended to see, and the image only became clearer the harder I tried to resist.
I knew my mother would never go down this path. It was she who had told me that Salim kaku was the person who carried our shit away before it could overflow from our septic tank. “What does he do with all the shit, ma?” I would ask her. “He eats them; eats them all,” she would tell me – the same thing her parents had told her when she was too young to understand even the fact that actors don’t live inside televisions.
Salim kaku visited our house occasionally without the ulterior motive of eating our shit. At times, my father, who has a long history of generosity, would want to donate a shirt or two of his to the man. “Why give it to the sweeper? Don’t we have poor relatives?” my mother would ask angrily. However, it was obvious that she was also proud of her husband’s generosity, which came to the fore especially in front of strangers.
These matters of pride would figure prominently in their fights, in a negative way. “You will do things for strangers only,” she would say. “You two-faced man,” she would call him. I would imagine my father with faces on either side, one of them the face of Ravan, always ready to perform at Ram Lila, though I had never seen one. “What, you think I don’t know? You only do it to keep this godly image of yours going, so that when I tell them about who you really are, no one believes me.”
I would like to clarify that my mother also was cordial with strangers. Even when Salim kaku visited, she was cordial with him. She would ask him about his family – his two wives and a daughter. “How is Ruksana? How is your new wife? What is her name? Does Lila go to school now? How old is she?” Her kindness, though, had its set boundaries. She would teach us the same. “Never touch the sweeper. He picks up shit. He does not bathe.” If Salim kaku had to be paid, it was to be done from a distance. You always dropped the money and he always caught it in his palms. You always stopped breathing the moment he stood outside your door. You would inform him about your dad’s absence in Hindi, with hand gestures and all – “baba ghar pe nahi hai” – although he spoke fluently in a Bangla dialect you could communicate in but never cared to know.
You maintained a healthy distance even when you came across Salim kaku while walking on the road, making your trek on the footpaths, doubly precarious with the manholes already waiting to swallow you whole.
There are troubles you can dodge, but then there are those manholes that you encounter on footpaths on dark nights with no vehicles nearby flashing their headlights. Though it is a rare occurrence, none of us has escaped this reality. I had a school friend who once vanished from behind me as we were returning from our tuition. It was a dark night on a pitch-black road with no street lamps. On such nights, I usually feared stepping on the tail of a dog and the dog running after me to rip me apart. My friend and I decided to halt at a shop to buy our favourite chaat-flavoured Uncle Chips. As we picked it up and started walking towards my house, I started telling him about Lila didi and her puzzling behaviour that often irritated me. “She refuses to play cricket with me.” He said all girls are like that and we laughed knowing it was how it was.
Then I started telling him about the other interesting thing about Lila didi that I was slightly afraid of voicing. He interrupted me, asking why I call her didi, even though we were of the same age, to which I had no answer. I laughed thinking that’s how it was and we knew it; why were we even wondering. But just when I was about to tell him my secret, he vanished.
“In the afternoon, around 2 pm, if you switch on the TV and navigate to CITI Channel, you can watch sex. Fully. Naked people. Not censored like ZEE MGM or HBO. You know how I managed it? When my mother was asleep by my side, I made sure she was facing the wall. Lila didi was sleeping on the floor; I could hear her snore. I kept one finger of mine on the swap button of the remote and made sure I had covered my mother’s vision entirely. I lay on my elbow with my head on my palm, my back facing my mother. I was worried about her peeking through the gap between my head and my arm. So, I moved myself further up on the pillow. I made sure the volume was muted. You need to make certain sacrifices. I very carefully slid my hand inside my shorts. I would have preferred a blanket, but in the middle of summer it might raise suspicion. I waited for the people on TV to strip and slowly move my finger over the vein on the lower side of my penis. I usually cum quickly, then and there. My strokes are usually gentle, but when in a hurry I tend to go fast and it doesn’t help. You know what I did then? I am ashamed of telling you this. Don’t tell anyone. I looked under the bed pretending to search for my tennis ball. I was actually looking under Lila didi’s frock and trying to see as much as I could see. My heart was beating very fast. Would she wake up? If she woke up, would she be wanting to have sex with me? I have never seen a fully naked body, you know? Not in real life.”
There was no response as I talked to him. I turned around and my friend had vanished. He had been momentarily swallowed by the manhole before he made his way back to the ground, grumbling and cursing loudly as I laughed at him. What did you see inside?
“Your sweeper making love to your mother.”
When Lila didi came to our house, she must have been 10 – or 15 as my mother said. “Women like her mother do not know the age of their children. They just give birth. Their children are always older than their mothers say they are.” She was dark, like the night my friend fell into the manhole. But Lila didi had the neon lights of our house on her wherever she went. She was always visible. My mother said, during their early days, they are to be kept under strict surveillance. “Isn’t it wrong to say that she is a thief, ma?” It made my mother angry. My mother was always angry when faced with questions she had no answer to; she was angrier if I posed the no-answer questions to my father. It felt like an insult to her, an attack on everything she thought he was. I, of all people, should not be the attacker of her beliefs. My father was a man of patience and reason. He explained, calmly, “Baba, even people like us end up stealing if there’s plenty in front of us. It isn’t their fault,” benevolent giver of clothes that he was.
It could very well be that it was because of the clothes that Lila didi was in our house. One time I asked her why she was working at our place for a meagre sum of 150 rupees and she replied, “What do you think? It is all the shirts that your father gave to mine, you smart-ass.” I knew that could not be it, but I liked the idea – my father and her father now being connected by shirts. Her father transforming through the touch of the fabric; one thread at a time, he became eligible to touch. Lila didi and I connected by fabric. When touched from outside, we would feel the same. Our outer covers helplessly flailing with the wind of the afternoons, there but not there in the storm of my parents’ quarrels. Us looking at each other and not knowing why we ended up here in distinctly different ways but now being able to finally locate in the fabric of our common shirts a reason. Of course, I was very much aware of the disparity between the new and the worn out.
As much as I liked to think this way, the shirts weren’t the real reason. The truth was that Lila didi stank. She stank of the manhole we were able to escape so skillfully with our available talent. Lila didi stank of things we wanted to escape and the stench was unbearable. You had to hold your breath when she was around. She stank more than Salim kaku did. Which is why, perhaps, even though we let her live with us and treated her as our own, we had to make her sleep on the floor.
However, Lila didi also sat on the sofas and the bed. This I am telling you. When my parents weren’t around, she would pretend that it mattered to me that she sat on the sofa, dangling her skinny legs. “Tell your father, your mother,” she would dare me smugly, “tell your parents when they are home.” Then she would land on my head an averagely powered blow, a smack making sure that it wasn’t so soft that I took it for a jokey gesture.
Those days, I took them all and did not complain. I did not complain even when I found multiple sketch pens of mine with their nibs broken by someone who visibly hated me. There was a tacit agreement. We did not talk about things that brought the wrath of my parents on either party. It was an unspoken rule. Some amount of violence was allowed in relations like ours, since we both knew that violence is inherited. She did not say anything when she saw me wake up and break the alarm clock that my mother had inherited from her father – an attempt at creating a fracture in time. I did not ask her if she understood that. Perhaps she understood that if the alarm clock breaks, no one wakes up, and if no one wakes up, no one wakes us up from our sleep in which we hope not to dream of places we have never seen.
I would exact my revenge for the blow at an opportune time.
I was never fond of visiting my grandparents. Not because I hated them, but there was too much peace at their home and too much quiet. I could deal with quiet, I could not deal with peace. Peace forces us into thinking, investigating the reasons for it. In chaos, one is comfortable. Peace is demanding. It requires constant conversation to keep going.
In my head now, my grandfather’s house is green in colour. It is green outside and green inside. In my head, I spend most of my time looking out the window. I see a stork and then another sitting near a pond, feeding on duckweeds. Looking outside does not take you outside. Even when you go outside, in search of dust and pollution and non-peace, duckweeds and pond still block your view.
That house always stuck to its routine. It had a bowl made of bone china which my mother and her mother owned proudly but never took out for the fear of its breaking. Its residents had the memory of goldfish, unlike us who were koi maach with knowledge of the inevitable, yet struggling to fight it. The house was fragile, held by silence. They feared their breath could shatter their peace. If we were scared of manholes, they hadn’t even known of their existence.
The house woke up at four every morning. My grandmother started its day. We never saw her waking up. By the time we would be up, at eight, which is not very late, she would already have gone through half her day. We would look forward to eating French beans and potatoes and carrots carefully cooked in little oil and onion seeds. We would wrap our rutis around the torkari. We had the same food at the same time, every day. My grandfather would take charge of everything outside. He knew things about fragility and memories and houses that we did not know. In the afternoon, after he was done smelling like a marriage of memories and decay, he would go for a bath and we would know that we had to start getting ready for lunch. We did not talk while eating. When we were done with our doi, each of us would ask for permission before we creaked our chairs against the floor and got up. We drank water not with the food, but exactly half an hour after finishing it. Then the elders went off to sleep – usually my mother and grandmother in one room and my grandfather in his. In summer, we preferred to be on the floor playing games where silence would last. We liked playing hide and seek. Our version of it was quieter, though, fiercely loyal to the tradition of the house. It involved tying a dupatta over the eyes of a player and then hitting them hard at the back of their head. Her job was to identify, through the intensity of the blow, the person who was landing their hand on her. She had to be correct ten times before we moved on to the next person. We started with Lila didi. One: she got it right. Two: she got it right. Three: a much stronger blow. We had devised a plan and it worked very well. We were good with playing with her mind. We were not to follow a pattern. The dupatta never reached the next person. We took utmost care of the decorum of the house. No one could scream, no one could cry during the game.
Our house was made of sugar. Our walls were white. We only used neon lights. We loved sweets – at least my parents did. On certain days there was too much happiness. If you kept your mouth open and pushed your tongue out, your mouth would feel a saccharine taste. That is how my father got diabetes. We feared my mother would die of eating too much sugar. When we scratched our head, there was sugar. If anyone dared scratch the walls, the house would be full of sugary flakes. This explains why, unlike everyone in our neighbourhood, we never added sugar to our curries. Sugar in curry is an absurd idea, a thing Bengalis from Kolkata did, not us Sylhetis.
My mother was a fabulous cook, people would say. She still is. Occasionally, when my father cooked, he was even more fabulous given the pain he took to gather elaborate ingredients. But he only cooked when we weren’t home. This way, when we came back, we could taste the surprise and be even happier.
There were days you could see my mother dancing her way out of the kitchen. She would sing a song like “Bondhu teen din tor ghore gelam, dekha pailam na” and my dad would catch her words in the air, taste her happiness and continue from there.
Lila didi and I were their children, my mother would say. She would marry her off one day, but to no one like her father. She would marry her off to someone like my father; her husband would also turn out diabetic. She would gift her the best of her imitation jewellery and also some gold. They would have a house near ours; and we would have a pact with her husband. “We gave you our daughter, so you will let her stay with us.” He would live in a room outside our house. We will share our food that will continue to be without sugar even if the man is from Malda or wherever. She will not have children. In our house, we will save her from the pain of childbirth and the pain that comes from their growing up.
Lila didi would learn to cook and progress from curries with burnt vegetables that she once fed us and we wondered aloud, “What is this? Who can eat this? Did you try to replicate yourself in the curry?”
She would learn entirely of her own volition, though we would push her towards it like we had done in the past when my mother tried very hard to teach her how to write her name, and she gave up; or that time we sent her for sewing classes and she gave up within a month despite ample talent. She will try making shidol and fill the air with the pungency that comes from fermented flesh. Her husband would howl, because not being a Sylheti, he would not know the value of the smells that repel and attract the same. She would have to train his nose. Yes, like we did with the smell of her. Her married life would fall into place if she remembered not to repeat her mistakes while making food which extended beyond overcooking and burning and forgetfulness. She would succeed as she is being trained by practitioners of restraint like my mother. She would succeed because she would, through rote-learning, know that one should never be the first to taste the food that they cook. Because once there was a girl who lived in a house made of sugar and while she knew she should not put sugar in food she was cooking, she was also annoyingly forgetful. In some instances, she would forgetfully wander away while trying to write her own name. On coming back, you would see her holding a pen with a broken nib. She would come back sweating and, with that sweat, wash away the smell of Lifebuoy soap as if years of washing away her putrid smell had come to nothing, and she would be told and she would listen that certain things never go – shit from manholes looks and smells and is the same from all sides and angles. When left unattended, she would perch on a sofa and then another and another as if playing musical chairs with no music or competitors. She would also lie on the bed, face up, then face down, then this side, then that. She would breathe on the people she could breathe on, despite their revulsion. But that would still be nothing. Nothing in front of what she would do if left unattended in the kitchen. She would take all the masala one by one, the exotic ones, the cinnamons, the cardamoms, the fennels and the star anises; add to that garlic and onion, her cooking a mess of excess. Not for her the sweet subtlety of food of houses made of sugar. Horror of horrors if you let her finish her cooking. She would finish it by sniffing and taking away all the smell of the spices you so treasured. Stir it, stir it, with the abandon of a boatman with no passengers to carry. She would sing with no regard for lyrics or the tune her favourite Hindi song. “Rukiye toh, suniye toh, kyun hai khafa kahiye toh.” Then she would push the ladle into her curry, still simmering from the heat of the stove which had just been turned off. She would pick a large chunk of the food, breathe on it – “foo” – and fill her mouth with steaming hot torkari. Ungrateful, dishonest, born of the manhole, and that’s where she should fall. Now. Now that she had tasted the curry knowing fully well the consequences of such actions that would lead to the death of the members of her family who loved her so dear and that she would be the reason why the house made of sugar would fall.
~ Debojit Dutta is the founder and editor of Antiserious, a literary webzine. He writes short stories, and edits for a living.