Between Staying and Going away (2)

For my farewell from the Huchukparah mess we made that trip to the lava mounds of Tulin with the lac trees growing among the boulders. We drank Mohan Meakin’s Saki (a blended whisky) sitting on pure geology and stared down at the lakes scattered among the green fields like the red earth’s blue, placid eyes. There’s a worm in those waters which eats into the skin between the toes and works its way up through the body.

The railway line and the Hindal aluminium factory on the other side of the highway looked like the history of civilisation but we were sad. We were sad because I was going away from Purulia – forever. Unless I returned as the Branch Manager some day. All my mess mates wished that I would. It’s the way human beings fool themselves when parting becomes inevitable.

I, we, the expat family, used to go to India every other year and I remember my mother’s face the day that we arrived and the day that we left. Like sunrise and sunset. Like that song in Fiddler on the Roof.

You see, human beings were nomads first, who stayed together wherever they went, it was the earth that moved. And then they built the villages, each village so far away from the previous one that they wouldn’t be able to see the smoke from each other’s fires and distance and absence and forgetfulness were born.

Mother never blamed me. Nor my siblings. Nor my father. Nobody in the family. They all left me alone with my guilt merely asking: ‘When are you coming next?’ And it was my turn to lie. Whereas I had disembowelled the family when I went away, I had taken away its centre, that’s what I believed. My elder sister heard that one and laughed: ‘Just who do you take yourself for?’ Her eldest son has migrated to Australia now, serve her right.

Mother standing on the landing in front of the entrance while we piled into the taxi, two taxis, as a matter of fact, would be ‘Taxen’ in German, as I was explaining to my younger brother, as if it was a joke, as if all languages were a joke, countries, jet flights and ‘When are you coming next?’ were a joke. Mother had her aanchal, that’s the border of her sari, to her mouth, covering half her face. Like all Bengali mothers, she knew it would be inauspicious to cry at the moment of departure. At what other moment should she cry, should we cry, can someone tell me? While writing a blog eight years after her death, perhaps?

If you want to kill a blog, try getting sentimental about your dear departed mother, or father, or even your youngest brother who was in a hurry to meet His Maker or maybe His Maker was in a hurry to meet him. God will know what do with such a soul, clever, compassionate, generous, gregarious.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to return to my theme, which is between staying and going away. I thought I was going away, huh! Mother didn’t even tell me when she went away, they rang me up later. My youngest brother told me when they were taking him to the hospices and we did talk a few times after that. But even he didn’t tell me when he’d be coming next.

I’ll come and see him when the time comes, he knew.

 

Between Staying and Going away

The fundamental problem with the modern world is that we are all getting more and more mobile as the world turns into a global village and people are constantly being confronted with the choice of either staying or going away – a choice not exactly unknown in the olden days but not half so acute or frequent as today, as you can well imagine.

People used to go abroad for higher studies and return in due course to the country of their origin to take up teaching posts and other posts of responsibility and importance. Something about their dress and their manners revealed to the end of their days that they’d been abroad. They were not quite Indians, Bengalis or Kolkatans any more. Maybe the pipe that they smoked; maybe the foreign car held on to until it disintegrated; maybe the foreign wife turning roly-poly like a Bengali masima (aunt) because of all the rich food – but that was about all. It was like eating curry and rice with a fork and a knife off china plates from a ‘proper’ dining table – remember that we Bengalis learnt how to eat the blighty way long before the sahibs learnt how to eat a mango anywhere other than in the bathtub with a bib around their necks and a towel around their midriffs.

What I mean is: (a) you went away – abroad; (b) you returned from the queen mother country to your native land; (c) you cherished the memories of Oxbridge and Charing Cross and the Inner Temple but were not necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied that you had returned to your ‘roots’.

The difference between those who go away and those who stay is as old as time. The moment you have a human settlement, it puts the sons of that settlement in the age-old quandary: do I stay or do I go away? The daughters of the settlement might get married within the settlement or away from it, creating other kinds of tension and other kinds of agony or distress. And then: what about those sons and daughters who were only too happy to get away – I mean to go away? Centripetal and centrifugal, see? The same forces at work.

When I was with the State Bank of India in the ’seventies, I used to get sent to various mofussil, that’s suburban towns on training. The first thing that I noticed when I turned up at the ‘Treasury’ in Purulia or Jalpaiguri was the subtle difference between the clerks who would or could remain posted to that branch till they retired, while the officers were liable to get transferred to some other branch or maybe to the headquarters after a stint of two to three years.

The clerks stay while the officers go away. They have to. They have no choice. I’ve seen head cashiers with ten times more influence than the ineffective branch manager simply because the head cashier was a local – potentate, almost. People feared him more than they loved him, but the entire cloth business of that place would have come to a stop without that head cashier. I was lucky. Bidhan-da decided to treat me, a greenhorn probationary officer on training, as a kind of wayward nephew from the moment I arrived.

I was going to stay at the Huchukparah mess with the clerks, I informed the Branch Manager. An officer, even a P.O., staying with the clerks? the BM frowned. It was my first turn away from home and I’d be damned if I was going to stay alone or in a hotel, I told him. So he had to agree.

A mess is a chummery, of sorts. Ours boasted some of the most colourful characters I have ever met in my earthly existence: Subhash with the unforgettable comment, for instance, that long hair was like a coconut tree on the bank of a pond, tall but with little soil at the roots, no wonder that they fell off! Satya used to slow cycle around our wooden cots when he had nothing better to do, winding in and out of the rooms on his Raleigh – otherwise he used to sing devotional songs to Goddess Kali in his spare time.

Mornings that unbelievably tall and lissom and jet-black and pretty Santhal girl used to turn up at crow-crow and cry out in her melodious voice: ‘Need dried cowdung cakes?’ As fuel for the kitchen fire, not for eating, of course. We’d still be lying in our cots, unmarried young men with the unfulfilled sexual energy of ten King Kongs – but polite as hell!

‘How much for you together with the cowdung cakes?’ we intoned unisono, making her laugh, I’m a fool not to have married her. I went away, you see.

(To be contd.)