Once upon a time, in the land of British India, there lived this man, called Anil Chandra Mukhopadhyay, my great grandfather. Educated in English, he was born with rare negotiatory and oratory acumen. In those days it was not every Indian that worked for the British Government in a high post like his, and in the civil constructions business, he did flourish well, gradually he creating himself a vast empire of black money, thus planting the seed for the evil called corruption in India.
But at the same time he did look after his Indian fellow mates, his people, and with his skills of winning over people with his words, he succeeded in forming a string Indian co-operative society in his area, which we now know as Chandrapur, named after the famous Chandras of the Mukhopadhyay’s, although neither my grandfather, Amitabh, nor my father, Alakh, nor I, Aditya, use Chandra as our middle name, we still feel proud to announce that Chandrapur is our land.
Now, Anil Chandra Mukhopadhyay, was arrested by the British in 1946 for his anti-British activities, and his sons and wife were left alone, with nothing but a few thousand rupees hidden in the locker.
A year later India got her independence and Anil Chandra was acquitted. But he never got back to his family again. He had met some kind of sadhu in jail, who kind of ‘transformed’ him, and deviated his mind from making money and fighting for independence to the ultimate purpose of looking for the meaning of the journey of life and finding the real happiness. His wife, Mahamaya, understood the situation and in order to save the money from the new Government officials, she built a huge mansion by the Ganges and named it Mukhopadhyay Mansion.
The Mukhopadhyay Mansion is the grandest and biggest building in Chandrapur town, running over miles. It still stands proudly and firmly, for over 68 years now, and I look at it, my ancestral home, mesmerized. After passing through the big green gates, you will enter the garden area of the house, where still a fountain, two years younger than the mansion, stands and greets its guests with the same fervor and warmth as it did on this very day, 50 years back, when my grandparents got married. That day, as I have heard from my grandma, the entire house was immersed in the odor of marigolds, and the lights, used to decorate the house reflected upon that fountain like wrinkled gold. The weight of life and energy among the many people in the house far surpassed the weight of the heavy gold jewellery she put on herself on that special
But it was my grandma who further escalated the beauty of the garden by planting many different flower plants in it, she told me stories how the garden changes its mien with every passing season; with spring, the garden reawakens with new life, the trees put forth new leaves, and the many dazzling flowers color up the garden, the bees get busy with their work, humming all day long, the cuckoo becomes mad with joy, and it is like all the earth is happy, hailing joy from the heavens, and the garden is its paradise. In summer, the blooming of marigolds and sunflowers and petunias and zinnias, the garden is colored in yellow and purple, and it was for the cultivation of lotus that a small pond was created at one corner of the garden, which serves nowadays as a source of water for the many thirsty birds around.
My grandma was more fond of the cockscomb plant, its colorful leaves never failed to enthral her, “With such beautiful leaves, it doesn’t need to wait for the flowers to adorn it”, she told me. Then comes the season of the rains, the trees get covered with new leaves. New grass grows in the dry fields and they look like turf of green velvet.
“What can look prettier than the sight of a scarlet flower amidst gray weather? Gulmohar flowers along with green leaves always brought in a contrast that is sure to give a lot of hope and cheerfulness”, and she didn’t forget to tell me about the huge trumpet shaped hibiscus flowers that always reminded her of the elephant ears of Ganesha!
Then with the sound of drums and conch-shell, and with the smoke of dhunuchi, the shiuli flowers would appear like another unavoidable member of the Durga family. The season of primary harvest, she used to tell me, how slowly, with the departure of autumn, came winter, and everything would turn bleak and gray, the trees would shed their leaves and they would stand, like an old feeble man, shivering in the cold of winter.
But apart from all these flowers and many plants, my grandma’s favorite was the rose plant at the south-eastern corner of the garden. She used to tell me that no matter what the season was, that particular shrub would always be painted red, there was something magical about it. And as I heard about it more and more, I grew a fascination for that particular plant, owing much to the air and expressions she made whileshe described it to me
Today, as I peek through the many flowery bushes, I see that plant again, that magical rose plant, but it seems to have lost its mystic prowess, it is plutoed to only a thorny shrub, with only a few leaves tangling here and there, and with no sign of any red on it. The magic is gone.
This garden still stands, we have left this place long since, but this mansion didn’t leave us, it still stays in our hearts, and especially for my grandma, this garden, which she made up with all her heart, is left with the old gardener, and his son, who haven’t done a very bad job so far it seems! Through this magical garden, runs a path, full of pebbles, that after winding its way in between the many flowers and shrubs and fallen leaves, smelling the various perfumes that riddle our nostrils and seeing the many bees and other I-don’t-know-which insects buzzing around you and leaving the fountain behind, leads us to the main door, or rather the main entrance of the house, where my grandpa’s younger brother, Shyamal, and his wife and son, Soumyasree and Arpan, greeted us with open arms.
So as it is quite clear by now that we are here to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th marriage anniversary, and all of our big and scattered family have agreed to meet up and relive and indulge in the reminiscences of the past days, that are lost in our memories like small white wisps of cloud disappearing in the Autumn sky.
And here I am, in this old building, my home. From the window of the room allotted to me, I can see the Ganges, the gray ripples made on it by the many boats… Well all of this was my creativity that I could actually come up with after staring vacantly at its vast expanses for quite sometime, no doubt poets are talented!
I am basically all alone here, here there’s no WiFi and the internet connection on my phone is very slow, therefore all forms of contact with my friends may be considered severed. I didn’t bring any such book with me to read, I can go out for a walk in the town, but the Sun is too hot today, the people here with me are all grown ups and their topics of interest don’t match with those of mine by miles. So with no one to talk to and nothing to do, I go to the veranda from where the garden can be seen directly. I stare at the many plants below me, and try to recognize them, but except a few, I don’t know most of their names, and I just stand here for some time.
There is the gardener’s son, Gopal, watering the plants, I don’t understand, the plants look all fine and good, they will not die out if they aren’t watered now, the Sun is really hot, and I feel a bit sad for Gopal, barefooted he walks to the plants and diminishes their thirst, and look, he is even taking care of that rose plant, man it’s dead, it can only be used for burning now, what’s the point in looking after a dead plant! But he did water it, and he examined something closely on that shrub, and he went back smiling.
I go downstairs now, to the courtyard. It’s empty, as expected, everyone is asleep after that awesome lunch. I sit on a wooden bed, this bed is the birthplace of my grandfather, and now his grandson is sitting on it and badly trying to tap on it an english rock song! In front of me there is the courtyard. The courtyard is actually at the center of the house, on its four sides there are the four ways in and outside the house, on one side there is the way outside, i.e., towards the garden; now on the left there is the thhakur dalaan where Durga puja is held, well, it continues to this day too, but obviously the elan and excitement associated with it has decreased considerably, for example, I, myself have never been to this manor during the puja in the last decade; going more towards the left now, there is the stair case going up to the first and second floors where there are the rooms and to the third floor, the terrace; and on the remaining side of the courtyard, where I am sitting, is Mahamaya’s room, crossing which one will go down the stairs to take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges. I have heard that Mahamaya herself decided upon the architecture of this house, and every morning at dawn she would go and bathe in the Ganges, and here, her great grandson can’t even think of waking up before at least 9 a.m.!
I walk into Mahamaya’s room, it is still quite well furnished and dusted. Although no one stays in this room, in case of overload of people in this house this room comes in real handy. The many cosmetics and utensils used by her, all lie in their respective places, keeping a room so clean is still a dream for me! Almost everything in the room is for showing, except for the one book shelf, filled with many Bengali books, that is used by others. A few gaps in between reveal some books are being read at the moment. I ran my eyes through their names, it’s been a while since I last read in my vernacular, so I am feeling quite thrilled at the thought of reading some nice book again. The authors ranging from Tagore to Sharadindu, from Sukumar Ray to Nazrul Islam and what not! This book shelf is like a treasure for bookworms like me. After some close inspection and choices, some biased and some unbiased, I go up to my room, with a book of Tintin clapped under my arm.
I woke up in the evening with the Black Island on my chest. I went to the living room, well not really a living room, it’s actually a long balcony facing the Ganges, and at one end of the balcony, there’s a table and a divan, and some chairs, but the thing that fascinates me the most is the T.V., the first T.V. of Chandrapur, my granddad told me stories of how this same old balcony would be filled with a crowd, gathered to watch Pataudi play, and then Gavaskar, then the ’83 final, and God knows how many Mohun Bagan – East Bengal derbies, and how with time players and sports improved and the balcony audience lessened and this unique stadium ceased to exist. This T.V. doesn’t work nowadays, obviously, but it is, sort of, the last symbol that remains of the energy and overwhelming atmosphere that once prevailed in this very balcony.
I am late, tea has already been served, and the guests have already arrived, the house is full, and I ain’t ready for this, who is that girl? I haven’t seen her in my life, who is she, is she a Mukhopadhyay, no, and look at me, I haven’t even splashed water on my face yet. Cursing my rotten luck, I stop staring at her direction and go and sit beside my mom.
Then followed the “How are you”s and the “How big you you have grown”s and the “How are studies going”s. I had a plan for going out for a walk in the neighborhood, I whispered my plans to my mom, and one stern stare from her is enough to cancel them right away. But who is that girl. She is not a Mukhopadhyay for sure, an unknown couple is also present here, so they are a family, but what are they doing in this Mukhopadhyay reunion? Are they neighbors, or are they some old friends. My dad did introduce me to them (and the girl too), that I am his son, South Point, now SRM Chennai, and a future Civil Engineer.
It’s okay, but it is incomplete, I was Superman, then a WWE fighter, then a film star, then a music composer, the lead guitarist of a band, and now stuck into being an engineer. Perhaps what my dad said is my actual identity, and the rest are only my dreams, my fantasies, and they should remain private, they are for my own self to cherish.
I got to know them too, they are the Paul’s, the father is a broker, the mother is a teacher of Economics, and the daughter, Angela, is a 12th standard student of La Martinere for Girls. They are friends of my uncle, my dad’s third brother, and they are here to celebrate along with us.
And now, it’s time to get Bengali, with the ladies going inside and discussing what I don’t know, and outside in the balcony, the men begin to discuss and comment on their very favorite topic, politics. Now, my knowledge of politics is restricted to only who the current Prime Minister and President of India are. So what they all are talking about is making absolutely no sense to me, I just sit here, in between them. But not for one single second am I feeling bored, I am actually enjoying myself. I like staying involved, but not being actively involved at the same time, I just like looking at people, and listening to them, just observe them, and laugh at them or respect their ideologies inside me, from a distance.
I don’t know why I like being so, like, sitting at a distance and observing people, seeing them doing things I have no whatsoever interest in. I guess it’s because I have a personal hatred for complex stuff, and what they are discussing is really very complex for me, and I have to study some very complex stuff at college, therefore, I am feeling happy at the thought that this is a place where I will not have to take an active part in the complexities of the topics.
It is something where I will just be sitting and observing, I don’t have to keep things in mind, I will not have to produce them in examinations, I may just sit here, and relax, munching onto my snacks and sweets and sipping my tea, I see the grown-ups, see how they really argue with each other on things that I have the least idea of, the passion with which they speak, the aggressive, exaggerated and prejudiced comments that they pass, how they put forward new arguments, how they try to prove each other wrong, how they site new incidents to support their views, how they oppose to someone else’s views, how they smirk after every unquestionable statement they put forward, how they nod after their argument gets beaten, that soft little swirling of the eyes as they say, “But you can’t deny the fact that…”, and in all this, people don’t forget to show their own might, “I have been there myself…”, or “He called me himself, but…”, how they softly punched the air with “But he did it…”, yes, the debate is fiery, it is the people of different time and different ideas and different mindsets locked in an intensive tangle of words and actual incidents to prove their words, but this whole situation is very fiercely happy, this is a relaxed debate on a tensed topic.
As the clock ran from 7 to 9, as the discussion slowly started to die down, and now the same old topics of “So, what are your future plans…”s and “What about that job you were doing…”s comes up, I saw Angela coming out of the other room, and she went to the veranda opposite overlooking the garden. I seize this opportunity, and before the elders can turn to me to ask about my studies and all, I get up, and here I go to that very old veranda, where at some point of time, my grandmother stood, scrutinizing the plants, and giving orders from above how to tend which plant, and admiring the beauty of that very particular season, alone in the moonlight, murmuring some unknown song, enjoying the wind carrying the smell of her flowers, eyes closed, in her own very fantasy world, she would stroll, wondering about the various amazing things that fascinated her, ranging from where to where someone else doesn’t even know, but must be a vast something, and listening some creek at the door, her trance would be broken, and she would be dragged down to the real world, and with a sort of disgust, she would look back to see who dared to disturb her, and she would see me, startled for a second, Angela said, “Hey”, that doesn’t sound very hey-ish.
“Hi”, I said, sitting up on the new railings, steel has replaced the wood of the railings.
She raised her eyebrows, and faked a smile.
“Where do you stay?”
“Oh, that’s great, beautiful place.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Yeah, I’ve friends there.”
“Where do you stay?”
“Village?”, she smirked.
“It no longer is”, I smirked.
“What’s your favorite subject?”, no, she didn’t, I asked this, girls never start a conversation.
“You have that subject in school?”
“No, but I like it. I did read about it sometime before.”
“What’s yours?”, she reciprocated.
“History”, I laughed.
“There’s nothing yuck in it. It’s more interesting than science”, I protested.
“Perhaps. But, don’t get me wrong, I don’t really hate history, it’s just that it is such a burden, I cried every night before my history test, and I ended up getting the highest marks in class.”
“Wow”, I said, running out of topics now, “So what do you want to do? I mean as a profession?”
“Journalism, I guess.”
“Journalism, wow. My dad hates it.”
“Your dad’s a journalist?”
“He looks more like a professor though.”
“Yeah, he does.”
“So why does he hate it?”
“The same reason why I don’t like engineering.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like we, never wanted this life, it’s just that we have been pushed into this situation by the conditions around us.”
“So you and your dad are quite the same.”
“The only difference is that he does his job beautifully, I don’t.”
“So what do you like to do?”
“Study history perhaps, I mean, I’m not sure, I don’t know, I like to roam around, I have a knack to cook, I just want to do various things but engineering.”
“You like history, so you’ll also like historical buildings like this one too.”
“I anyway love this house.”
“So how do you feel now that it is being sold?”
“Sold?”, now that’s a nasty shock to me.
“Yeah, that’s the reason why we are here. My dad’s a broker, he’s gonna look after the selling and all.”
Wow. This house will be sold. I don’t know why, but my heart felt vacant for a second.
“Bunk it, it’s getting too serious and complex, and I simply hate complex stuff, especially when I’m involved in it”, I said, trying to evade this awkward situation. “Tell me what’s your dream?”
“Dream? As in?”
“As in, what you actually want to do in your life, your passion.”
She laughed a bit uncomfortably. “I don’t know about my passions but if you ask me about my dreams I’d say it’s to just sleep and eat and hang around with friends, do everything I love, and money just flows in, just like that, I will not have to do any work. That’s my dream”, she laughed comfortably now.
“Sounds perfect”, I smiled.
“What’s your dream?” she asked, “Excavating some unknown land under the Sahara?” she joked.
“Yeah that would actually be nice. But I’d like to be a guitarist some day.”
“You play the guitar?”
“That sounds great. So you have a band too I suppose.”
“Well you can still make bands in college, right?”
“I lost practice.”
“Oh c’mon, it’s like driving, you never forget it, you just need to get used to a bit again. That’s all.”
“Do you play any instrument?”
“Me? No, never. I’m just a silent admirer of people.”
“You can also be silent haters.”
“Well yeah, right, actually, I’m a not-very-easily-pleased kinda girl”, she smiled.
“So, what pleases you?”
“Why will I tell you that?”
“Because I asked you.”
“I’m not bound to tell you that.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Wow, now that’s fast”, she laughed.
“What’s fast?” I blushed.
“You don’t directly ask that question.”
“Okay”, I said, not knowing what else to say at this.
“College is fun right?” she asked.
“Hostel life is, college life isn’t”, I answered.
“I can understand”, she smiled too.
And before we can get to know each other better, her dad intervenes, calling us for dinner.
At night, in my room, as I lie here, and stare at the ceiling above, this old ceiling, these yellow walls, the green doors and windows, the long steel black rods on the windows, these floors, cracked and cool, many thoughts cross my mind, what will this place be if all of these vanish someday, will I ever feel the way I feel for this place if this house is sold and destroyed? What is the need of selling this house, it isn’t falling down. It is perfect.
This is the very place where one day Mahamaya ruled, this very place where ’83 world cup got one of its biggest and craziest galleries, it is the very place where my grandma built that garden that still adorns the beauty of each season, this is the very place where I love to come leaving all the other places on earth, this is my home, my very root lies here, no one has the right to touch me once I am in this house, this is my place, this is my pride.
The very thought of it no longer being on the earth’s face brings tears to my eyes, as if, all the walls and doors and windows and floors have began to talk to me, they tell me stories, their stories, about the past, their glorious past, and I listen to them, they are the best story-tellers ever, their stories never get old, their stories never get exhausted, they are so mesmerizing, they never fail to fill me with new and fascinating fantasies, and I get lost in their stories, in that world that is not real, this world is better, here I have all my favorite people around me, there I see my grandma tending the garden, there are the many different people coming in and going out, and there is old Mahamaya sitting on her old wooden bed, there the smoke coming out of the kitchen, there is young Amitabh, going out for job, and among all these humdrum and din, there in a small room with yellow walls and green doors and windows sleep, little Alakh, swimming deep in his ocean of dreams, and then suddenly, in a blur everything comes down around him, a tremendous shake disturbing the whole scene and before my grandma runs up to check on her boy, before my dad starts crying of fear in her arms, before I again go out and see that magical rose plant for one more time, my eyes open up and close instantly due to the sunlight and again reopen to see the souvenir of my mom’s cute round face smiling over me, “Wake up, it’s late”, she said as she kiss me on the cheeks.
With a plate of luchi and alurdam, I stand on the balcony for some time, but owing to the heat, I had to come in. Some thing about this morning tells me that things have not changed, times have changed but the habits haven’t, my grandpa is out on a tour of his childhood town, the others are busy with the household, but it is not like everyday, they don’t have that frown of disgust on their faces, they are happy. From the morning numerous people, the neighbors and old dwellers of the town, have been coming to greet my grandparents on their silver anniversary. Life is still present in Mukhopadhyay Mansion, it’s not yet dead.
The rest of the day was spent just like that. And I don’t know about the selling of the house and all those stuff, I don’t want to know to be honest. Although I saw the elders discussing something serious with Angela’s dad, I was just least interested to know what was going on. And no, no as such conversation with Angela took place, until, in the evening…
The anniversary party is on, and as I said, there’s still life in here and its dwellers, but now I want to add, that life is boring here, the internet on my phone is still not working properly, and this place is also very uncomfortable, especially in this hot summer, with no A.C., the fans are rotating above my head like trying to consolidate an already lost war. And there in one corner sits Angela, doing something on her mobile and chewing a gum in her mouth.
“Disturbing?”, I asked.
“My friends aren’t. So I won’t mind if you do.”
Who cares about what you mind. Who are you?, I thought of saying this, but didn’t.
“Getting bored, I suppose”, I said instead.
“Yeah same here.”
“You have anything interesting to do?”
“We can play a game.”
“The Sherlock Holmes game. I play it whenever I am alone with a lot of people around me. You have to guess what these people have been doing judging by their clothes, appearances etc.”
“Okay, you first.”
“Alright, look at my grandpa, he’s been out in the heat today.”
She looked at me with an it’s-obvious kind of a look, “We’ve all seen him go out.”
“Yeah, but the tan lines round his neck reveal that he’s been in the heat and he wasn’t wearing a shirt like he always does while going out. Feeling nostalgic, might be, him.”
“Hmm, now tell me something about my dad.”
“He’s limping, but I don’t remember him getting hurt. So might be from pain perhaps.”
“Yeah, you’ll be able to smell Volini if you go near him.”
“Now your turn.”
She looked around for quite sometime. “Nothing” she laughed, “You go on, you’re quite well at it.”
“Okay, my grandma, she’s no longer interested in the garden anymore, she hasn’t been going to the garden this time as much as compared to that of earlier times when we came here.”
“You come here often, right?”
“It’s my first visit in the last two years”, I smiled, “And now it’s gonna be even more rare.”
“With you going away to Chennai, and then after four years job and family and all.”
I stayed silent. There are still a lot of queries in my mind regarding the kind of life she just mentioned. I am not yet sure of that.
“And I make another deduction.”
“Shit. Did you smell it? Do you have any more chewing gums?”
“No. You stole them from my chhotodadu, right?
“Yeah, I couldn’t bring any myself. And please don’t give me lectures that it isn’t a good practice and all that, we all do things which are not good, we know that we are not going to gain from them, but still we do it.”
We go outside to the courtyard, it is relatively windy here. We sit on the ground, face to face, each leaning against a pillar.
“So, not going so fast now, do you have a boyfriend?”
“Why are you so obsessed with my having a boyfriend or not?”, she chuckled.
“I just want to know.”
“Just like that.”
“No. I can’t handle a relationship, I’m very bad at it.”
“But you can’t deny the fact that you have a crush on anyone.”
“That I obviously have, numerous crushes, but love, none at all.”
“Who’s your most favorite crush?”
“Wow, I love him too.”
She looked at me with a mischievous frown.
“No, I’m not a gay, it’s just that I like his attitude and his songs”, I assured her.
“So, do you have a girlfriend?”
“Maybe?”, she smirked.
“I don’t know, like, the girl I like has a boyfriend.”
“Kill him then”, she laughed.
Both of us laughed, as Gopal walks in the garden to check on the rose plant. “What’s the point of checking on something which is already dead?”, I asked myself.
“You know, I like guys like Gopal, so calm, so quiet, they have their own beauty, very pure beauty.”
I don’t know why, but I feel like my pride got wounded.
“Gopal”, I called out.
He came to us.
“Why do you go on nurturing the rose plant, it’s already dead.”
“No, dada, it’s not. See there’s a bud on it.”
After Gopal went away, I saw, there really is a bud, I didn’t see it before, but yes, there it is, a small drop of red on the brown skeleton of the shrub.
We were summoned up, and after dinner the Pauls took our leave, I did take her number.
It is late now and I stand here for a long time at the balcony overlooking the garden, and I am missing Angela beside me. I look at Gopal and the rose plant, how very stupid of me, I think, I considered it to be dead by not even giving a proper look at it. But Gopal didn’t. He believes what he can do, and he succeeds. Perhaps it is the same with our lives, we consider something dead without even checking if they are still alive in us or not, we give up even before trying it, it’s just an idea that we can’t. And Angela is right, people like Gopal are the ones who believe and they do it.
I feel sad for my own self, I feel defeated. Why don’t I play the guitar anymore? Why don’t I compose music anymore? Why don’t I look for any more chances to play the guitar? Why have I given up? Yes, there are various other guitarists in this country, billions of them, but I am also better than millions of others.
Even it applies to my family members, why are they selling this house? Why do they think that it is dead? Why do they think selling this house is going to be the solution to all of their problems? Why do they suppose every other door to be closed? Have they even tried? This is the very reason, why Angela will choose a simple gardener ahead of a guitarist who lost belief in his abilities. I laugh silently at myself, the many other plants laugh along in the wind. I feel my pride wounded.
The next morning, it was time for us to bid goodbye to the Mukhopadhyay Mansion again, for how many days I don’t know, not forever I wish. After the “Stay well”s and “Goodbye”s and “We’ll come again”s, as we walked out on that path of pebbles, leaving that fountain behind, I noticed a small rose peeping its head out from one special corner of the garden, as if calling for my grandma’s attention.
A few steps ahead, near the gate, there is this jasmine plant, a paint of white on the green turf of the garden. Jasmines, I still wonder, how can the same flower be used to adorn the girls as in Tagore’s songs, and also used to adorn the dead. I don’t know which one are they adorning now, I don’t know.