He opened the gate, making a loud sound on purpose.
“Tea?” the familiar voice greeted him.
Bimal-da knew the sound of war when he heard one. This man’s voice was like a gun that had not been put to use. The carpenter cleared his throat, no answer emerged. The sound got trapped between greed and courtesy. Bimal-da ran his deductions through his head: the blind speak less; they do not understand the speed at which words travel.
And suddenly Bimal-da decided that he wouldn’t smile. Of all things, the face is the most useless to man, at least to the blind. Dogs know this. Bimal-da decided to behave like a dog. The next moment he swallowed a bark.
“So, will you begin making the bed today?” Nayan found himself saying. He knew that he was stating the obvious, but he hadn’t had any practice in small talk.
Bimal-da hadn’t built a bed in years. Everything was readymade these days. The only readymade thing he had known as a child was death. It has taken him a life to get close to earning it. He suddenly felt like Krishna, prepared to drive a chariot.
No, he corrected himself. He was Brahma, the creator of the Universe. What else was a bed but a new world, an island from this life on feet, of walking and running?
Silence moved through the room like a rope that had chained people to their places so that no one moved, not their legs, not their lips. The only sound in the room was of the loose tips of old newspapers testing the fan breeze. Tushi, with the teenager’s impatience with silence, groped for her cell phone in her cloth handbag. It might help to dissipate the numb energy of wordlessness, that terrifying world.
“Someone with you, Bimal-da?” asked Nayan.
Tushi looked at her grandfather and then the blind man. She’d been briefed about her employer and his disability the previous night, the kind of handicap that had fortuitously landed her her first job as it were. For who ever got a job for reading newspapers? Letter readers and letter writers she’d read and heard about, but newspaper readers? But it wasn’t all this that ran through Tushi’s mind then – it was the fact that the man didn’t look blind to her eyes. And now he had even seen her standing behind her grandfather.
“Yes,” said Bimal-da in an apologetic tone, “I’ve got Tushi with me as I’d promised. She’ll read the newspaper for you. Tushi...” The last word he said with a fierce movement of his eyes, asking his granddaughter to touch Nayan’s feet. But it was failed physics. Tushi would not touch the stranger’s feet. (“He’s not our relative or guru,” the girl had even given him a reason last night.)
Tushi was thinking of a word that could work as a substitute for the pranam. There was none, so she quickly responded with a question. “Which newspaper will I have to read? And where is it?”
“What’s your name?” said Nayan.
Bimal-da cringed every time the girl mentioned her full name.
His daughter had married out of caste – how could a Sutradhar marry a Saha? He had hated Sahas all his life – they were selfish misers, quarrelsome and clannish, cheats who could do anything for even a paisa. “My daughter’s daughter,” explained Bimal-da, fiercely protective of his surname.
“How is Boudi?” the carpenter asked.
“No phone call from her for the last four days now. That is why I want to know what’s going on. Tushi, will you first read yesterday’s newspaper to me? I don’t know where it is but...”
“I’ll find out where it is,” replied Tushi in a brisk professional tone, copied ably from watching working women in television serials.
Both Nayan and Bimal-da were surprised by her easy familiarity. They put it to the pliability of youth.
“Call Shibu, will you, Bimal-da? Kobita has left instructions about the bed with him,” said Nayan. Behind his words was the hurried movement of paper brushing against paper and flat fingers on them. The girl was looking for the stale newspaper in the pile.
Bimal-da disliked Shibu, particularly for the way the driver kept on referring to chauffeurs as the highest class among the successors of the god Biswakarma. He also envied the short and dark man the residential quarter that Kobita had given him along with the job – free electricity, running water, a concrete roof, even a veranda to sun pickles and dry clothes. Anyone could drive a car, even women and the Nepalese, who were, in his estimate, the people with the lowest intelligence, but to be a carpenter required special skill, even talent. Who had seen a female carpenter after all? So Bimal-da, instead of climbing down the stairs to Shibu’s apartment, went to Nayan’s bedroom and called out to him from the window, “Shibu, ei Shibu...Dada is calling you. Come upstairs at once.”
“I’ve never read a newspaper before. Please tell me how to read and I will do exactly as you tell me,” said Tushi, standing in front of Nayan with two newspapers in her hand.
Nayan pretended to laugh but Tushi heard the pretence more than the laughter. Life, the little that she had experienced, had taught her to be suspicious of the wealthy. These oppositions in her mind might have come to her as an inheritance, but she had also refined them in a way that had turned them into truisms. One of these played its part here: the poor need to pretend to cry just as the rich pretended to be amused into laughter.
Having had no answer from the man whose scalp revealed the first traces of balding – he was sitting on a chair, she had the advantage of height and consequent spectatorship of his head – she asked again, “Does one start from page one, like one begins a book?”
The question overwhelmed Nayan into silence again. Only outsiders could come up with observations like that, he said to himself. “Yes,” he replied meekly.
Tushi cleared her throat in the manner of a singer. She had decided that her role as newspaper reader was actually that of an actress – she would read the news exactly like newscasters did on television. The news wasn’t a thing of interest in their household, and this too she put to the difference between the rich and the poor: the poor were only bothered about local news, about things that affected them; the rich spent useless time and emotions in collecting information about strangers. But she had spent time preparing for her role as it were – she wouldn’t need to bother about the newsreader’s make-up and clothes, for the one-man audience being who he was; but first the headlines would need to be said in a rush, in a heap, and then the detailed reports. She still hadn’t been able to come up with an equivalent of “See you after the break”. For a moment it struck her how artificial this world was – the curiosity of the rich for people who did not invoke any emotions in them, and the way people spoke on television. Tushi smiled, imagining birds having different twittering dialects for home and office, nest and sky.
To speak in a way that seemed more urgent than the life she lived – that was her brief to herself.And so she began reading.
24 July 2012, Tuesday
ONLINE RULE FOR ALL FOETAL SCANS
The Centre has made it mandatory for clinics as well as radiology and diagnostic centres to register ultrasound tests of all pregnant women through an online form. “That is how female foeticide can be prevented, not by making a database of information on pregnancies.”
LAKSHMI SEHGAL DEAD
“Captain” Lakshmi Sehgal, who headed the women’s regiment of Netaji’s Indian National Army and later unsuccessfully fought the 2002 presidential election, died at a Kanpur hospital on Monday. She was 97.
Both the news items on the front page were about female deaths, Nayan told himself. Though Tushi’s pronunciation of “foeticide” amused him, the news reports left him slightly scared. The news of female deaths on the front page of a newspaper – was it a sign? Did Kobita censor these reports when she read from the paper for him? Did she never read the front page? Was it another of her political positions? Where was she now?
Nayan’s family had had a slight connection with Subhas Bose’s captain – Nayan’s father had met her briefly once and had been charmed by her cheekbones, a fact that had now become family lore. He was aware that he had reached an age where the news of death turned into a moral about the passing of an era, but this really was that – Netaji had disappeared, now his comrade was dead. So many Bengalis still believed that he was alive or that he would return like some Lazarus – so many historians had wasted their time on this speculation. There must be a reason, thought Nayan to himself, as the carpenter’s granddaughter – the girl’s name and her independent identity still hadn’t registered in his consciousness—read out dull details about the dead, that newspapers were spaces where the dead and deaths had been given more significance than births. “Move on to the next report please,” he said in English.
Excerpted with permission from Missing: A Novel, Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company.