BY SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA
Plymouth, U.K.-based Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in India, which inspires and informs most of her short stories and poetry. Copyright is held by the author.
MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER DIED at the age of a 102. She had been pickling mangoes on the terrace on a sluggish May afternoon. We found her with a piece of mango in her mouth and a satisfied smile wrinkling one cheek.
Boroma, was one hell of a woman. The terrace was a steep climb and she climbed it everyday. She had outlived her husband and her son by decades and yet she was so optimistic and yes, very famous for her razor-sharp tongue. After my grandfather died, we moved to the ancestral home, a cavernous house with surrounding gardens shaded with fruit trees. As a child, I loved to listen to her stories of the legends of each tree in the garden. They all seemed to have illustrious lives, most of all the mango trees, which had never failed to flower and bear fruit for as long as she could remember.
My mother was relegated to being the kitchen helper, while Boroma cooked and fed the family. It was difficult at first, my mother not adjusting to playing second fiddle to an old woman, and my father having to listen to her moan all the time. But the situation was such, we couldn’t afford to live in our flat any more, and Boroma refused to sell the house. But I profited from the deal, as the house had so much history and hiding places and secrets, that it made up for most of my free time.
After the last rites, I moved into her room. It faced the east, overlooking the temple towers and the pond. One could spend the whole day just looking out of that window, watching the bustle outside the temple gates and the placid gliding of the ducks and geese on the waters. I spent my childhood perched on this window, sketching figures and trees and animals. Eventually I studied art in college, which once more I could only thank Boroma for, arguing for my case with my parents who wanted me to become a doctor instead.
“Let the child do as she pleases. Life is too short to compromise on what others want.” She had said to my father.
“But who will marry her?” My mother complained. “We’ll have to pay less dowry if she’s a doctor.”
Boroma clucked her tongue and pushed her thick glasses up her nose. “You didn’t have to pay a big dowry, did you? And you can’t even cook a hilsa fish right.”
I think Boroma would have liked me to occupy her room. I was the rebel in the family. I was an artist and I followed my heart. Something I began to understand I had inherited from her. My parents never deviated from the norm, and even then they seemed to struggle with everyday problems. The room had been cleaned and sanctified and I felt robbed of her presence. It no longer smelled of coconut hair-oil and jasmine. I missed seeing her tiny body bent over her flower-laden gods and goddesses, her spider-web hands ringing the prayer-bell as she chanted her mantras. My mother had relegated Boroma’s idols to the back of the puja room, while hers were now basking in new found glory.
I lay down on the four-poster bed and spread my arms. How many times I had slept here beside her, while she stroked my hair and told me stories of the past: of life during the Raj, the struggle for freedom and the climax of independence. She had been a freedom fighter who had marched alongside her husband, shouting slogans, sewing clothes, attending to the wounded along with other brave women. She would show me scrap books of newspaper cuttings and other memorabilia she had collected. Many featured my great-grandfather with Gandhi at the Satyagraha marches, eminent freedom fighters who looked so unlike their god-like posters and portraits that we were familiar with. She would touch the faded newspapers and laugh. “See how carelessly I touch his face now,” she’d laugh mischievously. “When he was alive, I could only touch his feet.”
But Boroma had been very western in her upbringing. Theirs had been an influential zamindar family, enough to make the British want to keep them happy. Her father entertained many of the British and made sure every member of his family could speak English. She had learned to play the piano and sing arias. She had a Scottish nurse who taught her to wear a corset and write poetry.
She married when she was 13. An old maid, she would cackle. Her sisters were married off when they were seven or eight. But she had retaliated. When it was her turn, she had played up an enormous ruckus. With the prospective groom’s family sitting in the front room, she had screamed and bitten her mother’s hand when her mother tried to drag her out of the cupboard.
“I will not go to the monster’s house,” she had screamed.
Even when she told me this story a 100 times later, her eyes would still well up as she laughed at her memories. She was dragged down anyway and the groom’s father had held up her chin and smiled. He agreed to her demands and said that she would be betrothed to his son, and only after he returned from England would they get married.
Her husband eventually became a highly regarded barrister. They led a lavish lifestyle in this very house, which was then stocked up with the finest of things, until one day my great-grandfather crossed paths with Mahatma Gandhi and he was converted. He gave up all his English airs and joined the fight for independence.
I wondered often what Boroma had to say about this ideology: her meat-eating, ballroom-dancing husband suddenly becoming vegetarian, giving up his silks for linen and following the Mahatma through the countryside. She had resisted for some time, unable to sacrifice her piano and her Burns, but one day her husband came home to find a blaze of fire that he could see from miles away. She had set fire to her piano, her gowns and a library full of English literature. When he asked her why she had done this, she fell at his feet and asked for forgiveness: for loving the English more than her own kind. She then fought to oust them from her country.
I loved these stories. She told them as if they had happened just the other day. I’d make her describe her gowns and perfumes. I couldn’t believe my Boroma in such finery. She was always dressed in a white, coarse sari, the dress for widows. She would smile mischievously and say that she allowed a wayward dream where she’d be in her taffeta dress, playing the Moonlight Sonata. Why did she renounce them then? Surely she could have kept her piano? Boroma always smiled and said it was for the best.
One night, as I slept on this bed, I felt her bony fingers caress my cheek. She was singing softly. It was one of her favourite Burns’ compositions.
Why, why tell thy lover ?Bliss he never must enjoy? ?Why, why undeceive him, ?And give all his hopes the lie? ?O why, while fancy, raptur’d slumbers, ?Chloris, Chloris all the theme, ?Why, why would’st thou, cruel- ?Wake thy lover from his dream?
I waited till she finished her song. The temple lights were shining on her face and I saw tears.
“Why are you sad, Boroma?” I asked her.
She continued to stroke my face. “You have his eyes, my lovely. Definitely his eyes. He had such beautiful eyes.” She whispered, and stared out into the night.
It was true. My grandfather, her only son, had had beautiful eyes: like the colour of the sea after sunset — a deep grey with diluted hints of gold that shone as the waves ebbed and flowed. Only if you looked deep into his eyes, could you see the golden sheen behind the grey.
He died when I was eight. His death affected Boroma very severely. She would sit in her room and stare at his photographs for hours: pictures of him as a child, sitting erect on her lap in a khadi kurta and as a young man, in his air-force uniform. He was tall, well-built and with a good sense of humour. He was treated differently by everyone, as if he was someone regal. His colouring, his stature, his demeanour were fit for a king, everyone said. My father did not inherit his stature or his looks and that was a disappointment for Boroma. “Gone towards his mother’s side of the family,” she’d mutter, clicking her tongue.
Now I had those eyes. I was her only great-grand-child and had inherited her son’s looks. My eyes, she told me, were an artist’s delight and sorrow. The artist would delight in the challenge to paint such beauty and then break down in defeat. He would never be able to capture the essence and the magic held in them.
My parents decided to sell the house and so they started to sell the furniture. One by one, the mahogany and rosewood pieces disappeared from around the house. Eventually it was the turn for my Boroma’s bed. It was dismantled and stacked on the floor. I looked at it guiltily. It had stayed in this room for eighty-nine years. My great-grandparents’ marital bed. The mahogany still gleamed. I ran my fingers along the silk-like finish. I felt the textures of the carvings. Smooth. So finely chiselled, my fingers glided across intricate rose patterns. As I caressed the wood, I felt something wedged between the wooden slats. Carefully, I prised it out.
It was an ivory-coloured leather glove. It looked frail and discoloured with age. The golden trim was moth eaten. I felt around the slats and found its pair. They looked like they had been cherished, not forgotten in the depths of this cavernous bed. Did they belong to my Boroma? Were these the only Western possessions that she had saved from the fire? Something she held close to her and reminded her of the glorious days of being a ‘memsahib’? I read the label inside. Made in England. The gloves felt soft and powdery like butterfly wings. They crackled in my hands, and I discovered some bits of paper folded inside them.
I removed them to see if these gloves would fit me. The papers were thick and glossy. Unusual to stuff gloves with, I thought. I unfolded one, and just as I had expected, it was not stuffing at all. It was a thick letter-paper. The words were in neat copperplate, black ink that had faded to a purplish-brown tint.
You were an angel descending from heaven, when you walked down the stairs last night. I could only hold my breath and watch…and my lips held a prayer in your name. You are not real, my love, because I cannot touch you. I cannot feel the gossamer of your skin. You are a vision to me. Gliding in front of my eyes, but when I reach out to touch you, you flit away. My chest hurts in disappointment, and my arms hunger for a stolen embrace. How I burn when he takes you in his arms and whirls you around the room. But when I look in your eyes, I feel assurance. They are empty. They search the room frantically… and then they stop when they find me. That is all I want from you.
I stared at the note and wondered who it was addressed to. Why it was hidden in a glove in my great-grandmother’s bed, I had no idea.
I pulled out another piece of paper.
It is mango season again. I delight in the first bite of its sweet flesh. The fragrance stays with me all the time. Its juices burst into my mouth and tease my tongue so. The mango taunts me: of flavours forbidden to me. And you? Do you think a bottle of your pickle can satisfy my longing? Why must you punish me, and leave me to hunger for you in my mind? Come away with me. I’ll give you my life.
The raw sexuality of this letter washed over me, and my skin prickled in response. Erotic visuals danced inside my head as I wondered who the dancers in this dreamscape were. John, an Englishman and …?
I searched for other letters in the bed, but couldn’t find any more. My attention went back to the gloves. They looked so fragile and vulnerable on the smooth, hard wood. I held them close. They smelled musty and faintly of the mahogany bed. I pulled out all the bits of paper tightly rolled into each finger of the gloves. There were ten in all. I flattened them out and read them. I read and re-read them. The words made love to the paper. I surrendered myself to them.
By now I was beginning to see. This love-dance was being danced by my Boroma and John.
I know that you will not go against your husband, or your religion, or your country. The stars are against our union, but what is done is done, and no one can undo it now.
I prayed for you to come away with me. I am returning home to Devon next month. My passage has been confirmed on the S.S. Duchess. My time here is done, but yours is just beginning.
Everyone has left our cantonment and the district commissioner has said there is no more future for us here. There will be bloodshed, my beloved. My heart aches to think what lies ahead. It is a terrible thing that the people of this land must die in order to regain their freedom. And you, dear heart, I can see you marching alongside your brave husband… towards your freedom.
But my heart also rejoices in the freedom. You will have your identity and pride restored to its full glory. You will know happier times, my dear. I promise you. Accept my parting gift with love. And perhaps in another lifetime, we will be reunited again. In a different land, in happier times…
I will love you forever
Captain John Everett
I read every word until I could see the naked truth between the lines. The proof of what the letter seemed to suggest. Did Boroma burn her Englishness to mourn the loss of her true love or did she do it to remind herself of her reality? She had deceived my great-grandfather. She had marched with him, fighting for their freedom, fully knowing that she loved an Englishman. I found that I was shaking… but I had no name for my emotions.
I thought of my beloved Boroma. A fiery, outspoken woman. Her never-say-die attitude. Of course she would have had an affair with ‘the enemy,’ if her heart led her to it. There was more to her than just taffeta gowns and ballroom waltzes. Or linen saris and hunger strikes. All the time, there was one secret burning inside her. Ninety odd years of secrecy. Of remembering and hurting. Yes, I was sure of that. That was her punishment. The price she paid for her secret. How I wished she had kept one of her letters. I wanted to know her feelings, I wanted to see her handwriting.
I realized then, that night, when she had cried and stroked my face, she had been looking into my eyes and remembering. She had said I also had those eyes… those deep grey eyes flecked with gold — the eyes of her English lover, who had been lost to her forever.