Space time conundrum
By RK Biswas
9 November 2016
A short story
It has taken me decades to understand the significance of the space that grandfather left behind. A rectangle, not more than four feet by six feet, in the shape of a queen size four-poster. One that had seen better days.
Grandfather loved spaces, carved out from the good earth, the larger the better,. He took long strides on leather-shod feet looking outwards from beneath his fine cotton dhoti, pointing towards grassy, sandy or cement-covered spaces, walled or reaching freely for the horizon. Spaces that he either already owned or intended to some day.
When I was around four or five, he began telling me stories from his life. He also told me other stories plucked from books and then flavoured with his own additions and changes to the original narratives, as well as those that he had made up himself. He spent his nights writing, sleeping only when it was almost dawn and then made up for it with a two-hour nap after lunch. Grandfather wrote in longhand on red cloth bound copy books, similar to those used by accountants in shops and offices. He had taught me a few poems written by him. These were children’s poems, but he wrote political satires too, and poems on social issues. He had written a number of books and had them published by obscure publishers. His stories and articles, mostly concerning minor players of the freedom struggle, had been published in equally obscure magazines. Still, these were enough to make him an intellectual in a small town. He was a committee member of various cultural clubs and organisations until he became too feeble to attend.
Before he became paralysed from hip downwards, thanks to a series of strokes that he suffered, he was quite active and being a typical Bengali bhadrolok in his tastes, he preferred to buy the vegetables and fish himself. I would accompany him in the mornings, before I was old enough to attend school, and afterwards during Sundays and other holidays. I also went with him on his monthly rounds of rent collection from his tenants. Grandfather striding forward with the help of his carved mahogany walking stick. And me, small and frail, almost jumping at every step to keep pace.
One of his tenants ran a sweetmeat shop and never failed to serve me a dish of savouries and sweets. Grandfather drank only a glass of lassi – more to keep me company than anything else. He was a teetotaller, unlike his sons, and he never drank tea or coffee either. He enjoyed a Bengali or English movie now and then, abhorring the lurid Hindi movies and dismissing them as the work of philistines and vulgar artists. When he sat in the movie hall, he enjoyed a newspaper cone of warm roasted peanuts. He would tell me often that peanuts were his only vice, and also that the British called them monkey nuts, just to be disrespectful to Indians. The British also called the Indian style loos monkey-pans, but grandfather who spoke grammatically correct English with a strong Bengali accent, didn’t seem to realise this when he called the Indian toilet by its Colonial British name.
Grandfather’s monkey-pan days were in the past though. After his first stroke, the doctors advised him not to squat any more. A wooden chair with an aluminium pan was kept aside for him in the toilet which, ours being an old house, was large enough to accommodate extra buckets and even a piece of furniture, like a chair. The monkey-pan sat bang in the centre of the red floored room, elevated six feet above the rest of the house because before the sewage lines were laid, a low-caste woman collected the night soil from an opening on the other side. There were two medium-sized windows on two walls, while the third had a cistern and metal chained flush attached to it, and the fourth had the door. Grandfather’s chair stood beneath one window. My own baby toilet chair, white with bright flowers painted all over it, occupied a corner, just a few feet away. I often thought that it would be a grand idea if grandfather and I could use the loo together. He could continue to tell me stories and defecating wouldn’t be such a boring exercise. But his potty times were much earlier than mine, and besides, at that age I had no system to follow, and went whenever nature called.
Grandfather was a great story-teller. But in spite of being a writer, he could never lay down his own life on paper with the expansiveness that narration demanded. He could only tell me, initially with gusto and lucidity when I was not old enough to understand half of what he said, and then later, as his health steadily failed, with a few laboured words whistling through his thin parched lips, the stories from his life like news bulletins from the archives of All India Radio. He told me the same things over and over again. Once in a while he would add something new, delving into the pockets of his mind, as if rummaging for toffees, and bring up an anecdote or two. These were added to what he had already told me. But the drama and passion never diminished for me.
I enjoyed listening to him, whenever he had the energy to talk. I would sit there beside him with a long beaked water jug for him to sip from, listening with an achy heart. As time went by, grandfather’s stories began to lack the cohesiveness of a linear narrative. Sometimes he would jumble his details, but he never got his dates wrong. He would begin something and leave the rest unsaid. His breath was too short, and heart too full. His body lay wasting on his four poster – the burnished wood of the pillars stoically listening. I wonder how much of grandfather’s stories the pillars had absorbed. Had the wood colour changed beneath the polish? Had the wood grains rearranged themselves to accommodate the stories? One thing I know: other than the four poster and me no one else absorbed his stories; no one else claimed them. And even then, what I have today are mostly the dates that he used as pegs to keep his life tied down to those he had sired in the hope that his life would create some meaning in theirs.
Grandfather had left home as a young boy, about twelve, after his elder brother rebuked him. He travelled to Calcutta with money borrowed from a kind friend, and after that took to selling cigarettes and cakes of yellow clothes-washing bars to pay his way through night classes. He aimed for a life that he hoped his brothers would envy. This was during the first part of the twentieth century, when the British already knew that their days of Raj were numbered. But some still took pity on hardworking homeless boys and encouraged them to meet their goals. Under the benevolence of various British and anglicised Bengali masters and mentors grandfather survived and grew, earned an engineering diploma and found himself a good job.
As the years went by, he grew prosperous, and went around acquiring any piece of land that caught his fancy. Yet, towards the end, his personal space was confined to a mere bed, shrouded by a mosquito net. Lying there, grandfather would raise a feeble hand and mark each milestone conquered in his life with a date, against the backdrop of dull, damp space, patch-worked with sunlight and blue sky whenever someone opened the windows. It was as if his biography was made up of scraps of paper impaled one above the other on a long piece of wire projecting from a lump of seal wax. Each paper carried a date relating to a specific event – a land deed, a book sale, a marriage, a child birth, purchase of gold. Maybe he believed dates were necessary to keep his history from being washed away by time. But dates are merely points in space-time pinned down by memory. Then again, they are his legacy to me.
1912. Grandfather’s eldest brother kicks his plate of rice away saying that twelve was no age to enjoy free meals. Grandfather leaves home that night. His close friend Gobindo, who helps his father run a grocery store, surreptitiously hands him some loose change quickly pilfered from the cash box when his father’s back was turned. The money enables him to buy a pair of shoes, some food and a train ticket to Calcutta.
1913. Grandfather enrols himself for evening classes at a Calcutta college. He continues working during the day and studies at night. Despite his hectic schedule, grandfather can’t stop himself from being caught up in the whirlwind of the freedom struggle all around him. The speeches at political rallies fill him with anger. His anger is not directed at any particular person, but an amorphous entity called the Raj. He finds it hard to hate the white men he personally knows. Grandfather oscillates between guilt and angry defiance.
1914. Well-meaning relatives, who have kept in touch, and have continued to act as go-betweens for his mother and him, fear for his defilement and loss of caste, and get him married to a twelve-year-old girl.
1915. Grandfather escapes being caught by the Gora Polton or the troops of often drunk white soldiers let loose by the government. He spends the night mulling over his options. He has a freedom fighter’s heart, but one can’t survive on pamphlets and speeches alone. Especially with a young wife.
1918. Grandfather, now a qualified engineer, starts working in the city of Calcutta. He enjoys taking part in arts and cultural activities. He also starts to write the first of his verses. Soon he is spotted by a Cambridge-educated young Indian industrialist.
1920. He lets his head rule and leaves Calcutta for greener pastures, for a princely salary of three hundred and fifty rupees, a house and other amenities. He leaves behind his writing career, a dead wife and an intellectual milieu. He takes with him the documents of some real estate that he had bought speculatively.
1922. Grandfather marries again and spends the next sixteen years siring nearly as many children. The first four die at child birth. Four more die between the ages of one and five. Six survive, out of which the eldest, a boy, is doted on by his wife.
1938. His second wife dies giving birth to the last; a slow witted girl. Grandfather hires cooks and butlers, and nannies for his children.
1939. Grandfather sends the oldest two to British-established boarding schools. His eldest, wilful and capricious, is rusticated after beating up white boys. Disgusted, grandfather places all his children in local Bengali medium schools, where he hopes they will acquire wholesome Bengali culture. His other children adapt slyly, but the boy remains a misfit, neither fully Sahib nor fully a babu.
1942. His eldest gets into trouble again, this time with the law, for walking around with a rifle during a political rally. Grandfather’s daughters tell him that their elder brother is irresponsible and sure to squander his hard earned money. Grandfather refuses to bail him out at first, but finally relents after 36 hours. By then, however the boy, now an adolescent, is scarred for life.
1950. Grandfather’s fortunes dip when the management suspects him to be a union sympathiser and demotes him. Jobs are not easy to find in the three-year-old Indian democracy. Besides, his daughters have begun to grow into womanhood; grandfather’s retinue of poor relatives talk of the shame of keeping marriageable daughters at home. Grandfather has no choice but to continue working in the same firm. He becomes a stoic, spending more energy and time in enhancing his properties.
1956. Grandfather’s eldest son adds to his shame by joining the same company in a lowly post. He compounds it by beating up his white boss and losing his job. He runs away for a year, but returns again to work in another department of the same company.
1957. The prettiest of Grandfather’s daughters gets a marriage proposal. This leads to more proposals coming in for the others and they leave the house one by one, dividing their mother’s jewellery amongst themselves, leaving nothing for the sons. The married sisters return from time to time to check on the properties, which are considerable by now.
1959. Grandfather’s eldest son gets married and begets three children in quick succession, much to the derision of the sisters, who are too sophisticated to bear more than one or two. The sisters start to worry about the property. They take the other son into confidence.
1965. Grandfather manages to get his youngest daughter off his hands by marrying her to an impoverished man, after writing off a considerable sum of money for her upkeep in her matrimonial home. He suffers his first stroke soon after.
1968. The other son gets married and moves into one of grandfather’s houses. Grandfather is blackmailed into living with him. Grandfather suffers his second stroke.
1969. Grandfather suffers a stroke again, and this time he becomes almost completely paralysed, and remains bedridden for the rest of his life. His grandchildren from his eldest son visit him regularly and give him what joy they can for the remainder of his life.
1974. Grandfather dies.
This is where the dates relating to Grandfather end. This is the point where his history dissipates, crumbling like the books he wrote; books that were used as gifts for weddings to save on the expense for presents. The things that he left behind – the properties, the bank accounts, jewellery and documents and deeds relating to money in a bank vault – all these things were taken as the sum of his life and achievements. His children did have stories to share though, when they needed to impress listeners, including me. As for me, the lowliest offspring from his first surviving child, his delinquent son, I think I understood what he had wanted for each one of us, what he wanted us to be and he wanted us to have in our individual lives.
His daughters, our aunts, believed they knew what our inheritance was. They set about focussing all their energies into acquiring the squares of brick and cement and chunks of wild-with-undergrowth fallow land that grandfather had chased all his life, as well as the contents of the bank vault. Not satisfied, they went on treasure hunting sprees in grandfather’s several houses, and even the house where we lived which belonged to the Company our father worked for. Anything from a carved marble topped dining table to a Burma Teak sofa set to the skeleton of a coral to gold pieces carelessly left by my mother on her dressing table were taken away in stealth. They claimed the copyrights to his printed books, and would have fought tooth and nail for all the rights, except that Grandfather’s books had lived their allotted time and there was no market for them anymore.
I remember Grandfather lying on his mahogany four-poster, unable to even turn and look at the child beside him that was more often than not, just me.
“Little angel, my life is like a story, a great saga of a story. You should write it. You should.”
Grandfather believed in his own story the most, more than anything he had ever written. Yet, when he had been healthy and strong, it had not occurred to him to write it. Biographies are written when one has already spent one’s life, at least most of it.
During his last years, bedridden, he helplessly watched his daughters and younger son scheme and plot, fight and bicker. He silently observed the comings and goings of people. Those that fed, bathed and slid fresh shirts over his head, those that brought the doctor to see him, those that read to him from newspapers; all those people that never spoke to him, never offered to write down the stories and poems as he uttered them in whispers. Lying on his bed, Grandfather watched time flow like dust on a dry river bed. He used the hours to catalogue time whenever breath gave him the chance to contemplate aloud. I went to see him whenever I could, after school and during vacations. But being a child meant I had to depend on the caprices of the grownups. Most of the time grandfather spoke to the crows sitting on the shutters of open windows. His audience of crows was most faithful during breakfast and lunch hours.
After his death, soon after the rituals were over, fresh fights broke out. The acres of land changed hands, and wills were destroyed. Deceitful dealings by the aunts and my uncle – my father’s sole brother, and equally delinquent in his own way – continued, even years later, and even after my father died. Not satisfied with their purloined wealth, they were aghast that we, the hated children of their elder brother, Grandfather’s irresponsible son, had managed to survive and move on with nothing more than Grandfather’s blessings. At times it seemed to me that our nonchalance about Grandfather’s wealth had robbed the spice from their collective victory. They did not know that our mother had taught us to be strong and steady. As strong and steady as Grandfather’s old mahogany bed, which had changed hands and locations several times, and seen more bad times than good, but never lost its sheen, and never wobbled on it legs.
Looking back now, I realise that Grandfather’s dates are my true inheritance. They are the smooth white pebbles in the forest that help me, even now, find my way back when the nights turn too dark, and the road ahead too unsure. And when I step out, I think of his face, glowing like the gibbous moon, somewhere high up behind me, where I can’t really see him, but am bathed in his light. I walk with faith towards a world that somehow holds promise in spite of its shadows. I tell myself that his death was not the end, and that there is one more peg left to hammer down, on the space and time allotted to him. I tell myself that his history is not yet over.
~ RK Biswas is the author of a novel Culling Mynahs and Crows and a short story collection, Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women. Her third book Immoderate Men will be released soon.