Evenings spent in the glare and noise of rehearsals, shows on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in the local theatre halls. Bright-lit evenings and the warm, perfumed smell of greenrooms and the rowdy energy of men and women whose limbs swam in the lilt of music. It created bitterness at home, great dark swathes of it.
They tried to hide the wound but it spilled over everywhere. His grandmother, his Mummum, never mentioned it; she nursed it in silence. His aunt Rupa muttered about it, grating words inside her mouth.
He remembered the men who used to dash into their house when he was little.
They were men who smelled of wild grass and cigarette-smoke, with stubble on their cheeks that hurt when they kissed him. ‘Uri Uri Bahbah!’ They would whistle. They would tickle him and swing him in the air; he would see the blue sky below him and the bannister of the balcony above and shriek in fear. But they never stayed long.
Sometimes they just crowded the landing of the staircase, thickening the air with smoke and song and strange cuss words while waiting for his mother to come out, dressed and ready for her rehearsal. Inside the house, the maids lowered their voices to a whisper and a cloud fell across Rupa’s face. Sometimes Rupa’s maid answered the door and called Ori’s mother: ‘Didi, your babus are here.’ Ori hated the way she said it. He wanted to run out of the house, leave with his mother, with the wild and smoky men.
But these days, his mother left the house alone. Sometimes, a car came to pick her up, but no one ever stepped out of it.
The smell of violence always floated in the air.
Back when he was seven or eight, he remembered an old man who sometimes came to see his grandmother. Mr Tarafdar, a retired barrister who had worked with his grandfather. Even in his late seventies, he had the manner of the stern English magistrates you saw in movies. Ori’s grandmother never forgot to cover her head with the end of her sari, pulling it low over her forehead, like a shy newly-wed before a stranger.
‘I’ve never really cared for plays, Manashi,’ Mr Tarafdar had said one evening in his rich voice that filled up the room. ‘But my daughter and son-in-law dragged me off to see Bar-Badhu at Rangmahal, and what can I tell you? Your bouma, Garima, she is magic on stage. Pure magic, that’s what she is.’
Bar-Badhu was a funny play where a man and a woman pretended to be married; apparently the woman did this for money, play wife to men who needed to look like they were married. Garima was such a natural, such a genius in the role of the fake wife, so full of tears and laughter and domestic bliss, that you forgot that you were watching a play inside a play. The old man had sipped at his tea noisily as he spoke, his aged eyes dreamy, and Ori’s heart had swelled with so much pride that it hurt.
But moments after Mr Tarafdar left the house, a hiss of words between Rupa and his grandmother struck a slap on his cheeks. The barrister was such a dirty old man, they said. Ori had stared at his grandmother’s stricken face, the sari-anchal slipping of her head, and he heard Rupa chew out bitter words against the shameless Mr Tarafdar. Slowly, Ori’s anger had swelled – against the old barrister who had watched his mother on stage, and then, against his mother. Great, fuming burst of fury that had made his eyes well up.
It was wrong of her to pretend to be someone else’s wife.
They hated it, his aunt and his grandmother. Sometimes the maids giggled with strange, star-struck eyes. He remembered the photograph that had appeared once in a newspaper, a close-up shot of his mother’s face and that of another man, looking at each other with a strange kind of fear in their eyes. White and intense, the faces did not seem fully human. But it was a picture from a play he had seen her rehearse, where she was married to a young and handsome landowner, a rich zamindar who drank whisky all the time and lost his estate.
The spotlight and the make-up had made their faces scary. Everyone at home hated the picture, throwing away the day’s newspaper like it was touched with disease; he had seen the maids pick up the rubbished page, smooth out the creases, gaze at the photograph with a shine in their eyes, whisper to each other.
Some evenings, he tagged along with his mother to her rehearsals, full of anxious actors and musicians.
Fidgety, nervous people who pinched his cheeks and ruffled his hair and then forgot about him. All except the hairdresser Pallabi, who shadowed his mother wherever she went and seemed to secretly wait for him to arrive. She smiled and sometimes winked at him but never said anything. Ori liked her but he did not like it when she winked; he always turned his face away.
Quickly, he became invisible again, free to wander along the corridors outside or stay inside to see young actors try to get jealous or sad. Or to read a book he’d brought along. He could follow the rehearsed lines far better than most would imagine, and the most intense scenes, repeated endlessly, took on strange colours in his mind. But he rarely spoke to anyone, and the actors, too, forgot about him and got on with their rehearsal.
Every time his mother came back from a rehearsal with Ori in tow, a hushed silence fell at home.
As if everyone was holding their breath. And then the questions began to trickle out, voices dropping so low that they were mere whispers. Where did his mother go for the rehearsal? Which part of the city?
Did you see a lot of men there? Were they young like your Baba, or old men with no hair?
Sometimes their words burnt a hole through his heart.
One night after dinner as he was sitting on his grandmother’s bed and talking to her, his aunt, Rupa, had walked into the room to take care of her last chores for the evening. A woman from the neighbourhood walked in with her, a friend of the family whose raspy voice often echoed throughout the house. As the two women pottered around the room tidying up stray ends, Ori’s grandmother fell into silence.
‘Ori?’ Rupa asked. ‘How was the rehearsal this evening?’ He didn’t know what to say.
‘That play is a classic,’ Rupa chattered on, pouring water into his grandmother’s glass and covering it for the night with a small porcelain saucer. Everybody agreed that Rupa was the working nerve centre of the house.
She was the widow of Ori’s uncle, his father’s only brother, a man with weak lungs who had died when Ori was a toddler. Rupa was a dark and angular woman with a face nobody glanced at a second time in this family of beautiful, fair-skinned people. Briskly, she would go around the house making sure none of the maids shirked their duties or filched a chipped coin lying forgotten under the bed.
Her fingertips understood money; she worked all day counting crisp notes and shiny coins behind an iron cage in the local branch of the State Bank. No maid in this house could get away fooling her about change due back from the shopkeepers.
Her voice tightened whenever she spoke about Ori’s mother.
‘But it has only one female character,’ her friend said absently, her bangles clinking against each other. ‘Perfect for an amateur group in a corporate house.’
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼‘Naturally they had to hire a professional actress.’ Rupa said as she arranged the old woman’s night-time pills on a little dish. ‘No woman in the office would act. And certainly not in such a role.’
Ori’s grandmother looked out of the window. She was the most beautiful old woman Ori had seen. A marble statue in widow’s white. She looked lonely. Gazing at her deep-wrinkled hands, Ori’s heart ached with love.
She was an ancient, regal woman, his Mummum, clean and fragrant with a fresh-mint smell. She loved to read and tell stories, loved to recite hymns in Sanskrit in her trembling old-woman voice.
Rupa shot a glance at Ori. ‘Garima is the only woman in that play, isn’t she?’
Ori wanted his grandmother to look inside, say something. Urgently.
‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the novel.’ Rupa’s friend said dreamily. ‘My heart’s in my mouth whenever I get to the scene where she seduces her brother-in-law.’ She paused, holding her breath. ‘A boy half her age.’
The night air breezed through the window. The old woman’s jaws tightened.
Rupa left the room with her friend. But the air would not thaw. Slowly, Mummum turned to him, her ancient eyes unblinking. ‘What was your mother wearing today?’ she asked.
Bewildered, he still knew better than to tell the truth: that his mother, the only woman that evening in a loud group of men, had ditched her staid cotton sari to put on a skin-hugging salwar for the rehearsals. Got to live the character and move free, she had said.
Sweat thickened on the bridge of his nose. He grimaced, worrying his glasses would slip off. For a moment, he was silent.
‘Why?’ suddenly, he had turned to stare at her. ‘She was wearing a sari. The cotton one the colour of pista.’
Excerpted with permission from The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette India.