India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
The long summer afternoons stretched before us like empty roads, winding and dusty in the heat. My brother and I, trapped in the apartment, wandered from room to room as if expecting one of them to have been magically transformed into a white marble palace where we could escape from the unbearable heat. But there was no getting away from the Calcutta summer, schools shut down for most of May and June, shooing us away to fend for ourselves. In the street corners, the day laborers gathered under the shade of the flame-of-the-forest tree to sip iced sherbet in thick glasses. The sherbet-seller with his underage helper and his painted tin-cart would arrive at dawn and usurp the shadiest spot. As the day progressed, he would move his cart from east to west following the dense shade as it moved with the sun. The street dogs would lie panting by his side, till he chased them away with jagged pebbles. The beggar woman with her child would sit on the other side of the street under another tree and croon her songs softly. Most streets were completely empty, no one was foolish enough to venture outside in the unforgiving sun, and all socialising was postponed till July, when the monsoon made life bearable again.
My brother and I took endless baths that summer. Maa’s absence and Baba’s work schedule gave our summer holidays an unstructured freedom where we had an uncertain peace denied to most of our friends who were slaves to their parents whims. Cosseted off to swimming lessons and piano classes, their summer holidays progressed with military precision. Bhai and I, on the other hand were left completely to our own devices and sought to entertain ourselves. This we did with a great deal of zeal and fervour. A brimming bathtub quite easily became the Pacific Ocean, and my brother and I were deep-sea divers, searching for the man-eating shark. As the bathtub was white porcelain and of ordinary proportions, its transformation into a bottomless ocean with dolphins and mermaids required a lot of imagination.
“Look at the shiny fishes!” Aashish would cry.
I’d respond, “And the blue seaweeds and the green algae.”
“Green what?” a frown from me and then hastily, “Yes, very nice green albies.”
We would dive into the Pacific, retrieving treasure, drowned seamen, and our lost happiness. As the bathtub only allowed a foot and a half of water, diving was a task not for the fainthearted. Our compromise was to bob our faces under the water, hair floating gently about our heads and the rest of the body sticking out above the surface.
“Look at the mermen,” Bhai would cry, wet hair getting into eyes, and splash his face back into the tub, hands flailing to create waves that broke around us.
“And the mermaids, too,” I would say, not too be outdone as I gazed upon my brother’s wet behind jutting out like an island. But my brother was not to be interrupted. He threw himself into these games with an abandon that I could never muster. In turn through the day, he was student while I played teacher, he was the beggar boy while I pretended to be our absent mother, stopping to give him money, and sometimes he was our father coming home late at night, short tempered with tiredness. But his favorite game was to pretend to be runaway children, who were chased by big barking dogs, but who always managed to escape into a magical, protected forest. It was during these games that my brother became again the joyous, confident boy he had once been, barking orders to me even though I was three years older, and losing the hangdog expression that I was growing to associate with him. At other times, he and I would prowl the recesses of our apartment, looking for treasures with which to while away our vacation.
One day we found a tattered volume of poetry from behind the kitchen cupboard. “Fi e Rom ntic oets” the moth-eaten cover proclaimed. Romantic poets! The forbidden portals of love! Maybe the book would have pictures of men and women kissing.
“I think it’s a book for big people,” my brother said disapprovingly as I turned the pages.
“So?” I said.
“So you shouldn’t read it.”
“Nor should I be home alone looking after both of us, ironing clothes, cooking food …”
“I’m the one who cooks.”
So he did. Toasts, eggs, tomatoes sliced unevenly on buttered bread, my seven-year-old brother had taken on the responsibility of feeding the two of us. Coming home from school hungrily looking forward to a meal, we would come home to find what Pishimoni considered a proper diet for neglected children: cold rice, cold dal, and cold boiled vegetables.
The rice would be the thick puffy kind, not the fragrant long-grained Doon rice that Baba was given at night. And anyway, we both hated rice. Maa had always had parathas or chappatis waiting for us. But that seemed a long time ago. Last month, we had returned from school to find a cockroach crawling over the food. As we had stared with a mixture of horror and resignation, the insect had paused, feelers still and pointy, and gazed back at us. That was when my brother had first ventured into the kitchen and fearfully lit the stove.
“Cooks are allowed to read romantic poetry,” I said. “A cook is not a child.”
“But I’d rather be a child than a cook.”
I looked at my little brother with a surge of love, pity, and annoyance. He made everything so hard. This was how things were. Of course he’d rather be a child than a cook, and I would prefer to be like my friends at school, whose greatest worry was the exams at the end of term. Instead I incessantly worried that the next time I saw my mother, I would not recognize her. Already it had been more than eight months since she had left Baba and us. I worried about how she was getting along. I hoped she was eating properly and had not lost even more weight.
“She’s filing for divorce.” I had overheard my father talking on the phone a few months ago. He had sounded exhausted. “I guess she wants to be the first good Brahmin girl to leave her husband. My sister has moved in with us to help out.”
But Pishimoni was the opposite of our mother. She was efficient and tough, and wanted to see as little of us as she could. Both Bhai and I stayed out of her way.
I opened the volume of verse, the first poem was by someone called Blake, something about a fly, the next was about a rose, and then one about a lamb. I did not think this person called Blake had ever met a woman, let alone kissed her. And he certainly did not know how to write romantic poems. Then there were very many extremely long poems by a person called William Wordsworth. William Wordsworth. What a name, two Ws, like Willy Wonka. We had two A’s, Bhai and I, Asha and Ashish, hope and blessing, Ashish and Asha, bless and hoping.
I wondered about William Wordsworth, had he really gone about life with such an odd double W-ed appellation. Had his friends at school called him WW, or perhaps “Doublydoubly” for that was what it sounded like. And why had he written such huge poems, they didn’t even rhyme, in fact they did not really sound like poetry at all, more like someone talking endlessly.
I turned the page to a poem by someone called S.T. Coleridge. A saint! I looked closer at this poem, I had not known that saints were allowed to write poetry. Ashish’s school was named after a Saint, St. Pauls. S and T meaning saint, like Coleridge was.
The poem had two Ks, Kubla Khan.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree: / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.”
As I read on, my spine tingled, and I had goose bumps on my skin and the threat of tears in my eyes. I did not understand what it was meant to say, yet as I read I knew it was beautiful …
“A savage place as holy and enchanted”
I wanted to be there, in this holy, dangerous place. I wanted desperately to somehow enter the words of the poem and make them mine.
I read again,
“In Xanadu did …”
“Are they any good?” My brother’s voice was curious.
“This is beautiful, Ashish, come and read.”
Bhai looked up from the poem and furrowed his brows hesitantly.
Again that wave of love. My baby brother. How childish he was with his grown up ways.
“But it is not, not… y’know…”
I knew very well what he meant, but there was no way I was going to make it easier for him.
“It’s not, um, about … holdinghandsisit?”
“You have a dirty filthy mind,” I said. My brother’s mouth formed an O of protest and I went on hurriedly, “Of course it’s not about holding hands. It’s by a saint, you stupid boy.”
“A saint!” Bhai was impressed. “Is it about God then?”
“Ye … s,” I said, not at all certain that the poem was religious though it ended up about paradise. “God and holy dread,” I said.
My brother was satisfied and began to walk away.
“Now we will learn it by heart,” I said.
“Learn by heart!” My brother looked at me as if I had lost my mind, “But why?”
“It’s good to know a poem by a saint,” I said.
So we learned “Kubla Khan” by S.T. Coleridge.
The afternoon stretched its shadows onto our veranda, the flame-of-the-forest tree blazed in its scarlet glory, the cuckoos sang their summer song, and my Bhai and I, crouched before our tattered book, learned poetry.
“And ’mid these dancing rocks at once and ever / It flung up momently the sacred river. / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion / Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, / Then reached the caverns measureless to man, / And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean: / And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far / Ancestral voices prophesying war!”
Every time we got to this part, my eyes would fill with tears, and the tingle in my spine made me want to wriggle. At last we knew it all. It was time to recite. I went first, standing up. I knew it perfectly, all the words came after each other like Coleridge had written it.
“Now your turn,” I told my brother smugly, knowing he would falter, stumble, and require to be prompted again and again as he did for all his lessons.
Instead, my brother sprang to his feet, brushing his glossy hair out of his eyes, and in his movement I read an excitement and joy I had never before associated with him.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. / So twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round: / And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; / And here were forests ancient as the hills, / Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”
I wished that we could escape to that place, that flowered garden where the walls would keep us from the future that I knew was knocking on our door. But my brother seemed to have no such longing. His small body stood proud and straight in the late afternoon sun, his face aglow with confidence and delight.
“And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair! / Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread, / For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
His clear young voice rang out, reverberating through our empty apartment, ringing out triumphantly, happily. The words poured out like a spell and I sat there gazing at his flushed face as he continued without a falter, without a mistake. And as his voice called out the last words, I began to cry. He had given the poem a pathos, a longing that I had not realised it possessed, an edge of sorrow beyond our childish comprehension but available to the poet and to my brother’s rendition of his poetry.
As my brother ended, my hands clapped by themselves, and behind me I heard another pair of hands clapping. We both turned to see our father standing in the shadows, his face alight with pride as he clapped and clapped. Long after I had stopped, and Bhai and I had run to him, my father continued to clap for his small son. And in that moment all three of us heard the echoes of all the other applause that would come my brother’s way, all the awards and glory he would win in his lifetime as an actor. And in that enchanted time, as we three stood embracing in the golden afternoon light, we were magical and beautiful, for we on honey-dew had fed and drunk the milk of paradise.
Pia Chatterjee is a San Francisco-based writer and freelance journalist. She is currently working on a novel set in India.