“We will have to get rid of the bed,” Bimal says.
His wife Sumitra does not answer immediately. They have been close to discussing the subject several times in the last two months. It has hovered on the rim of their consciousness, dangling just beyond the circle of their increasingly testy conversations about what would be the last big change of their lives. They have decided to sell their house.
It is too big. They cannot manage it anymore. With servants hard to come by, even daily maintenance has become tough. Often, there is no one to sweep the driveway. The leaves shed by the neem, mango and jackfruit trees murmur and swirl in the dust. The ground floor remains permanently shut now. Soot clings to the curlicues of the ornamental grilles on the stairway banisters. In the hall upstairs, the vast velvet sofas and tasselled pouffes are covered with dust sheets. The antique chairs are derelict. They haven’t been repaired and polished in years.
Besides, the house shows its age. It springs new leaks and cracks every day. The plaster falls off here and there, and the walls look bleached and scabbed. When a storm comes or the rain blows hard, the windows have to be tied to the grille with bits of string to keep them from slamming – the fasteners are out of whack and won’t slip into their slots anymore. Many of the glass panes have slid off their frames and crashed down. The stuff that held them in place is all shrunk and brittle. Bimal has got some window panes replaced, and some have been simply boarded up.
There is a slow hollowing out, a creeping sense of corrosion and decay about the house now that leaves Bimal and Sumitra dazed. And the house feels its sickness too. It rattles and creaks, beseeching its occupants to look to its spreading malaise.
Bimal and Sumitra do their best. Every spring, they call old Faridul, the mason, to stop the rot and stall the crumble.
“What kind of work do you do that the leaks come back bigger every year?” Sumitra demands.
Faridul cackles, laughing through his hennaed beard and rotten bidi-stained teeth.
“This house is too old, Ma. How much can I do? Go on, call the fancy construction people – they will slit your throat with their fancy prices. See if they do any better!”
They don’t call the professional roof repair and renovation companies, of course. Bimal has gone through that exercise already. Some years ago he studied the internet for hours and drew up a list of such outfits. Glib, sharp-eyed men who treated the old couple with contemptuous deference came over and studied the house.
When they gave their estimates of the costs of the repairs, Bimal winced and quietly shelved the plan. So they go back to Faridul every year and the old man and his grandson do what they can to hold the house together against the coming rains. The house stands like a wounded sentinel, a bleeding hulk of weary pride.
When their children come home for their short annual visits, Bimal and Sumitra raise the subject of the repairs. Their son stays in the US, their daughter in Mumbai. They come with their families and the laughter of children rings through the house, quickening the shuttered rooms with the smell of life. Sumitra takes out the bottles of preserves she made last spring and summer. Kuler achaar and aamer morobba. The children love it. She makes koraishutir kochuri and the children stuff them into their mouths with their small grubby hands. “My puri is greee-nah,” they shout, dancing around the mahogany table that Sumitra’s father-in-law had bought when he became the mayor of Calcutta.
Their son and daughter are not in favour of spending a lot of money to repair the house. “I kind of like its ruinous appeal,” says their son, who wears a thoughtful air and teaches comparative literature at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. Their daughter, a brisk and efficient woman, says, “What is the guarantee that after spending so much money, the seepage will stop? What’s the guarantee that one year down the line you won’t be back to square one?”
“It’s not just the seepage from the roof,” Bimal says. “Have you seen the outside? The walls? We have to carry out extensive repairs. The house hasn’t been painted in 14 years.”
His daughter doesn’t beat around the bush. “But can you afford this huge expense? I know you want us to help out, Baba, but we really can’t. We have a growing family. Our finances are always tight.”
Her husband nods his bullet head in agreement.
So Bimal and Sumitra start talking about selling the house. At first it is an impossible kernel of thought. Then slowly, they accept its possibility, and finally, its inevitability. There is no other way, they sigh and tell themselves again and again. It’s got to be done. The house is a white elephant, Bimal says. His pension and savings are not enough for its upkeep anymore. Many of their friends and relatives have also sold their ancestral homes to builders. Selling is the last refuge of Calcutta’s genteel Bengalis, ceding privilege of location part of their slow scuttle into the margins.
Their children are shocked when they tell them about their decision. They are even more shaken when they hear that Bimal has decided not to accept the builder’s offer of two flats in the high-rise that will come up in place of the old house.
“Are you crazy,” splutters his daughter. “You want to totally move away? “And where will you go? Baishnabghata? Patuli? You’ll leave this Elgin Road house and move into a poky flat in some downmarket area? Come on, Baba, you can’t do this – we ought to have a say in the matter too,” she exclaims. “You should have taken the two flats!” Her fury fills the room like a stench. She turns to her husband as if to tell him, knock some sense into the head of my obstinate father. But her husband, who is a fund manager, knows a lost cause when he sees one. He says nothing and studies his phone’s screen like the balance sheet of a company he is about to invest in.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” their son says coldly, speaking over the phone from the US. “It’s our ancestral house after all. We grew up there. It’s our roots, our home. It’s one thing to unlock the value of the house and develop it. In fact, it’s probably the right thing to do now. But why won’t you take the flats? I know legally the house belongs to you and you alone, and you can do as you please. But it’s also our inheritance. I think you should have taken our views into account instead of presenting us with this fait accompli.”
Bimal listens to his son and then replies in his thin dry voice: “As you rightly point out, this is my house and my decision. I refuse to live like a nobody in what was once my own property. Live here along with a 100 other people in a place that belonged to us? No, thank you. I’d much rather take more money and move away.”
After he hangs up, he turns to Sumitra and says, “They’re livid because they were waiting for us to die so they could sell this prime piece of real estate and divide the money between them. Or at least have two flats between them. Well, that’s not happening now,” he says with satisfaction.
Sumitra rebukes him: “You always think the worst about your children! They are right! It is their inheritance too! Besides, what about us? We could have at least come back here after the new house was built. I would have liked that much better. To let go of...of...” Her voice breaks and she makes a gesture with her arm as though she were about to sweep everything up and draw them close.
She looks at her husband of 42 years. His slight stoop. His furrowed brow. His head of sparse white hair. The set of his jaws when his sense of duty and affection towards his family gives way to that hurtful crustiness. Her eyes brim over. These days she often feels as if she were in the midst of a car crash in slow motion. There is a smashing and shattering going on all around her over which she has no control.
“We have gone over this a thousand times, Sumitra,” Bimal says, trying to look patient. “We are letting go of everything in any case. Don’t start all over again now.”
After the sale agreement is signed with the builder, they start looking for a flat. The one they choose in Southend Park – with needless haste, in Sumitra’s opinion – is a compromise on a hundred fronts. She doesn’t like its smallish rooms, nor the verandah which overlooks another one opposite their house. “No privacy,” she says, looking miserably at the rows of wash on the balcony in front.
“Why do we need privacy? Are we newly married,” Bimal jokes.
But their mood does not lighten.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Leaving’ from The Love Song of Maya K and Other Stories, Shuma Raha, Niyogi Books.