“I’ve always been famous. It’s just no one knew it yet.”— Lady Gaga
Looking at the phone on waking, Shubhro yawned to push the remainder of his sleep away from himself, as if it was a blanket that had become unnecessary with the change of season. The light from the phone fell on his face in the early morning darkness of the room –– it stained his skin a sleepy blue and made him look like someone in a movie.
If Shubhro had known that, he’d have been happy. He was a performer. He played Shubhro every moment. On the phone screen was a new Facebook post from Deep Mukherjee. Embarrassed that he did not completely understand what it meant, he clicked on “like”. Then he read it again. He’d be like Deep Mukherjee one day.
This trigger for daydreaming was interrupted by his mother blowing the conch. Oh, it must be Thursday – Thursday already? he calculated. Thursday was Lokkhi-bar, when Lakshmi was worshipped with fanfare, with sweets and a surplus of devotion.
Shonkho bajiye tomaye ghar-ey enechhi
Shugondhi dhoop jeley aashon petechhi...
Esho maa lokkhi bosho ghar-ey
Amar ghar-ey thaako aalo korey.
His mother had begun muttering the panchali – tales of good wives being rewarded by Lokkhi. She knew the words by heart, but reading them from a book through her foggy glasses made her feel important. She prided herself on being almost identical to the ideal woman described in the panchali. Lokkhishri – it’d become an adjective for the good, kind and domesticated woman.
This was the only book she’d read in her life – she was grateful that there was at least one book about an ordinary woman like her. All the other books, unread as they were, seemed to be only about important people. That word came to her in English even though she did not know how to read the Roman script. Important people, successful people. She didn’t like them.
Shubhro saw her – actually a part of her, her hands folded in prayer – through the gap between the curtain and the door. In the background was the damp green wall he’d seen all his life. He hated it. It signified to him all that he wanted to reject about his life – the poverty and the lack of sophistication that he’d unfortunately been born into. He believed in self-fashioning, he was his own artist and model, he’d turn himself into someone as attractive as Deep Mukherjee.
He moved his eyes away from the corridor that his mother was filling with her chants and incense sticks to the walls in his room. That was the first thing he’d done after getting a job – getting the walls of his room painted, not cheap lime-wash but with Asian Paints and Jenson & Nicholson. Even the names had gravitas, the sound of elsewhere that he wanted for his life. The conch was blown again, thrice. It irritated him. How stupid his mother was. Lokkhi’s days were gone. It was the time of Deep Mukherjee.
Leaving the pink-and-purple painted room – three of the walls were pink and one purple, as it was in the catalogue – he came to the bathroom. His father, who’d been trimming the sharp ends of his moustache with a tiny pair of scissors, one that seemed older than him, hurried out. The small rectangular mirror that he’d hung from the bathroom door fell to the floor. It seemed as nervous as the aged man.
Shubhro’s parents were scared of him. God had been kind, he’d given them a son. And not just a son; he’d given them a son they didn’t deserve, far too smart and educated for them. They felt it most in his proximity. He made them nervous, and they made mistakes they wouldn’t otherwise.
“Why don’t you shave off your moustache?” Shubhro asked his father.
His father took it as an instruction and replied, “Maybe...since you say...But it’s an old friend. I’ve known it even before I knew you.”
The past again! Shubhro hated this urge to give everything a history. Shubhro hated history – it was a monster, it was biased against people like him. It only cared for ancestry and pedigree. He didn’t have a moustache – no successful man in the world today had one. He’d shaved it soon after it’d appeared on his upper lip. Successful people were clean shaven – the Ambanis and Sachin Tendulkar and Salman Khan. It was the first step towards success, and he’d taken it.
Everything since then – he was twenty-seven now – had gone according to plan. Everything except the problem with language. He’d identified this early too, that language was the new caste and the new class, that how one spoke and what one said decided how the world saw – and rated – him. But he wasn’t scared. It was only language, a thing that could be learnt and mastered, not a face one couldn’t change.
He shaved before brushing his teeth – that he kept for the end. The leftover smell of the toothpaste made him feel polished. He pushed the air out of his mouth occasionally, and it made him feel different from those around him, men he imagined as clerks and daily wage labourers or, at the most, school teachers. He was an assistant professor at a government college, the only one from Balurghat who’d managed to crack two difficult examinations in succession to get the job.
The gravity of the job had made the “assistant” redundant – relatives and acquaintances said he was a “professor”. He’d stopped correcting them. It was, after all, only a matter of time before he became a professor – a PhD degree and fifteen years, that is all it took.
What was complicated was mastering the language that people like Deep Mukherjee spoke. He’d studied at the same university as Deep, and covered the same syllabus in school, but neither of these had taught him to speak this language. The grammar books – Brighter Grammar, PK De Sarkar, Wren and Martin – he’d gone through again and again; texts too, Shakespeare and Milton, Donne and Defoe, Tennyson and Browning, Yeats and Eliot, Woolf and Lawrence, Auden and Spender and, in the Special Paper, Achebe and Rushdie.
None of these writers wrote in this language; their writing gave pleasure, this new language created bewilderment. He kept the bewilderment to himself, not just from his colleagues in college but from the world – for Facebook was a universe that he’d created for himself, sending friend requests to people he found in the bibliographies of books and essays he read, sending messages of appreciation (always the same message to everyone) to scholars from Europe and America he found commenting on mutual friends’ posts. He was a soldier, he was building a bridge.
Today, he’d write a letter to Deep Mukherjee, invite him for a seminar and, after his acceptance, he’d request Mukherjee for help to go abroad, and if that wasn’t possible, to at least help him get a research paper published in England or America. UK-US, UK-US, tick-tock, tick-tock – he was in love with the way people like Mukherjee used the acronym.
The wind rushed in from the mustard fields – was it the smell of cow dung or a co-passenger’s vomit? Shubhro stood up to close the window. His hair, set carefully by his fingers and a wide-toothed comb, was being blown away. He wanted to get into the examination hall with students, particularly the girls, admiring how the hair fell on his forehead.
It was true that Balurghat was changing, he thought to himself as the bus braked through the streets. There was a crowd in front of Big Bazaar. A balloon-seller so early in the morning? Three balloons – red, green and yellow; the rest were air-filled cut-outs of Chhota Bheem, Doraemon, Ben Ten and a few more characters he couldn’t recognise. He blamed his parents – how they’d never bought him any of the comic books that children in the cities read.
His childhood, once happy, seemed impoverished in retrospect – no Archie, no Enid Blyton, no Nancy Drew. He’d read them later, but it was like comfort food. There was a time for conditioning, for impressions to solidify to taste and the instinct for taste, and that time had gone.
He regretted it often – if only he’d been his parent, how well he’d have raised himself. But there was still time – that was the best thing about time, about how generous it was, how some of it always remained, not just for the living but also for the dead.
The bus was filling up. He felt like he was watching a video. He’d seen something called a “time lapse” video once, a camera recording the blooming of a bud into a flower, time on speed. The bus was filling up like that, the seats being taken, the sounds and smells amplifying. And just as the bud wouldn’t become a flower until all its petals had bloomed, the bus wouldn’t start until it had filled up completely. He waited, like a cook waiting for the gravy to come to a boil.
He took out a book from his bag. The energy in that action cheered him – he was the only person in the bus who’d be reading. He felt educated – that was more important to him than being educated. Deep Mukherjee had once posted a photo – was it of England or Germany? – of his co-passengers reading on the metro. Why was there no such culture of reading in India? he’d asked.
Now Shubhro felt like he was one of them, the cultured and the enlightened, the book reader. It was an accident that he happened to be on this bus and not the Tube. That would change soon. It was only a matter of time.
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. A fat book – was it this and not the bottle of water that was adding to the weight of his bag? He’d have to teach it next semester. Why had the Syllabus Committee chosen such an obese book? He’d mentioned it to the Head of the Department once – “It’s a great book,” the man had replied, as if greatness must be measured in size.
Eighty chapters! What was it? An encyclopaedia of provincial life? What was there about provincial life that needed so many pages? Ignoring the epigraph from Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy, thinking it to be a show of unnecessary information – not self-aware enough to realise that this was a mark of the provincial’s life, the inconsequential display of knowledge – he read the first line. Twice. He couldn’t make much sense of it.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible – or from one of our elder poets – in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.
He hadn’t read the Bible. He’d read Paradise Lost. He didn’t know the Italian painters – was Michelangelo Italian? Picasso? How did it matter? It was as useless to him as Archie comics and Nancy Drew. What did Nancy Drew look like? Mona Lisa? Leonardo da Vinci – he knew the name of one Italian painter at least!
Comforted by that thought, he studied the sentence again, telling himself that he couldn’t afford to read every sentence thrice, particularly in a book of eighty chapters. His eyes chose two words from that long sentence – provincial fashion. What did it mean? He studied his clothes. Brands, he declared to himself. Everything except the muffler – no, he would teach himself to say “scarf” instead of “muffler” – which his mother had bought from Siliguri’s Bhutia market.
No, this wasn’t provincial fashion. He was wearing the kind of clothes that wealthy actors wore in their movies. He closed the book. He’d read it later, in the examination hall.
The phone stirred in his pocket. The noise had drowned its beep. A Facebook notification. Deep Mukherjee had “liked” his comment. He read his words again, with pride.
Yes, the subaltern can speak, but only on Facebook.
If only Spivak had seen this – was she on Facebook? –it’d be worth more than even his PhD degree. Just before he was about to leave the page, he saw someone’s post about weekend plans. The phrase spoiled his mood. It made him feel deprived. What exactly was a weekend?
Many things had been imported to this country, to small towns like Balurghat, but not this thing called a weekend. It was an invention, and as useless an import to poor countries as the bathtub.
He felt sad without reason. The memory of taking an online quiz came back to him. How many of these 100 great books have you read? 63/100, said a student from Delhi University. 72/100, declared a girl who’d studied at Jadavpur University. He’d read only 18 of them – they were the ones that had been prescribed on the university syllabus.
He hadn’t even bought a hundred books in his life. And there was no public library in Balurghat. How was he expected to read them? Privilege. He said the word really loud in his mind, as if he were shouting a cuss word. (He remembered the time when he’d shouted the word out at home and his mother had come running, assuring him that she’d kept his favourite part of the fish, the lyaj for him. Privilege, he’d told her, not lyaj, the tail, and she’d returned to the kitchen feeling illiterate about the name of some fish in English.)
Not one to be cowed down by such invisible bullying, he calculated with all his might – 82 more to be read; if he began today, as he just had, and finished a book a week, he’d need about one and a half years. It wasn’t impossible at all – he’d cut down on his sleep, an hour borrowed from there, and another from Facebook.
Was Middlemarch in that list? He’d lost the link now; it didn’t matter. He’d have to read the novel anyway. How else would he teach it? With that sense of utilitarianism pushing him, like a tongue through a bubblegum, he opened the novel again. And again the first line.
Okay, Miss Brooke was very beautiful. Couldn’t George Eliot have just said that? He read the second half of the line, the words after the semicolon (he hated semicolons – they were useless, like speed breakers).
...and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible – or from one of our elder poets – in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.
The impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible. Now, it was this phrase that stuck in his head. He’d ignored it before, from an amorphous sense of guilt, the guilt of an underprepared examinee, but it was sticky, like a cough in the throat. The last nine years of a life in literature, first as a student and now as an academic (that word pleased him – it was a prop, a make-believe halo that he took off only when he went to sleep), had taught him the value of the quotation. It was more powerful than name-dropping.
Facebook was full of quotations, from books and essays. When he came to it first, three years ago, his mind had likened these to medals of honour on an army man’s uniform. He’d asked his father, a clerk in Hili High School, about all the quotations he knew. A few everyday proverbs, that was all. How the world had changed – his father had gone through life without needing very much, not clothes, not quotations, but here he was, when everything seemed insufficient.
He’d hidden the ambition even from himself. But now, that wispy phrase, “the impressiveness of a fine quotation”, had made him aware of the desire – he wanted to be the creator of sayings that people would quote to validate their thoughts and arguments. He felt a philanthropic urge – to be useful to people in debates. To have his thoughts held between quotation marks – that was the greatest respect one could pay a scholar; no, a person.
He temporarily forgot all his difficulties with learning quotes for examinations, how he’d relied on three dots to cover up for his memory, forgetting words and phrases. He was working on his doctoral dissertation. Below every page was at least one footnote. Not for nothing was it called a footnote. The words wouldn’t walk to the next page without it. In them was the display of hard work, of learning, of a family of ideas and thinkers with whom one was claiming a relationship, in them was an acknowledgement of gratitude.
All this he understood, but what he didn’t was the obsession to attribute every thought to someone who’d come into the world before him. Though they called it plagiarism – thievery – what it actually meant was that no one would take responsibility for their thoughts – someone had said it before him, he was just quoting people, it wasn’t really his fault.
When he mentioned it to his father once, calling it, at first, “the anxiety of the footnote”, then simplifying it for his comprehension, the aged man couldn’t make out what the fuss was about. Shob boi-ey aachhey (everything’s in the books). Didn’t we say that once? the poor man asked.
It was true, just saying that was enough once. Now no one believed you. So you had to show who had said what and where, on which page in which book and in which edition. That culture of distrust had come to them from America, where this culture of citation must have originated.
Something else he’d discovered about America without going to it. Everyone discovers a wrong America first, like Columbus – Deep Mukherjee had once said that in a Facebook post. Ever since then, he’d been careful about imagining his impressions about America (he still couldn’t say “US” or “the States”).
It was while reading Provincialising Europe, a book by an Indian historian telling the truth about Europe, that it was, in spite of its show of great cosmopolitanism, actually exceptionally provincial, that the thought had occurred to him – that America was the most provincial place in the world. He’d soon tell the world why. The title of the book had made a home in his consciousness – Provincial America. It’d make him famous, it’d turn his words to quotes.
It didn’t matter to him – for the real world didn’t infringe upon his imagination – that the students he taught in the college in Raiganj, where he was now travelling to, spelt “quote” as “coat”.
“Quote,” he’d said to a boy during a viva-voce examination last year.
The student had been answering a question about Robinson Crusoe. “I don’t have a coat, Sir. It’s summer,” he’d said in response.
No one had understood the relation between “quote” and “summer”, not until the student had left and tea had been served.
It didn’t strike him as odd, the difference between his ambition and where he was. He wouldn’t repeat the mistake his father and uncles had made – of growing roots. Roots were old things. He wanted to be new. Roots were invisible, like his father and grandfather had been. He wanted to be the focus of attention every moment, he wanted to be visible, he wanted to be not a root but a flower, to have the flamboyance of flowers.
His father had spent his life looking at his image in the handheld mirror – he hardly looked at it. But Shubhro was his own annotator – he wanted his mind to be available to the world in quotation marks, he wanted to be revealed, his face recognisable to acquaintances and strangers.
He took out his phone again. He’d post something. Everything needed riyaz (he liked to say “riyaz” instead of the Bangla “reyaj”), Haripada Sir, his Mathematics teacher in school, used to say – everything, singing and listening, English and Mathematics, even walking. To become quotable needed riyaz, too – so many practised it on Facebook. He’d do the same.
He looked out of the window – the bus still hadn’t left Balurghat. Everything moved slowly here, time and people, even the bus. An old man was selling tamarind – the pods stuck to each other in a way that resembled a beehive. As the bus crawled towards the corner where the man was sitting, a shivering statue with nothing moving except his teeth, the smell of tamarind throttled the bus. They seemed unable to move – the bus, the driver and its passengers.
Shubhro swallowed the rush of saliva in his mouth. He was embarrassed that he had no control. It was a sign of his provinciality. Would a sophisticated man have succumbed to the sight and smell of ripe tamarind? In all likelihood, they’d never even have tasted it. He was angry with the University of North Bengal.
Titora – five rupees of that sweet-sour thing that one sucked out of a tiny plastic packet; the Nepali girls had got him addicted. Then it had seemed so cool – the girls with their straight hair and model- like faces sucking something from a packet. He’d copied them. How he’d changed from that person.
It was because his ambition had changed – he didn’t just want to look smart, he wanted to appear sophisticated. He wanted to spit out the saliva. But that’d make him even more plebeian. He swallowed it again, surprised by the resilience of the body, how it could accept everything. If only his mind were more like his body. That would happen. It was only a matter of time.
The bus had become crowded. The driver was braking to make more space, the way his mother beat a container against the table to make space for more moori to get in. He hadn’t noticed that a young girl was sitting beside him. It wasn’t the girl that surprised him as much as what she was doing. She was reading a book in English. It filled him with mixed emotions: maybe the bus in Balurghat was gradually turning into a metro in a European city. He surveyed her book from the corner of his eye. Charles Lamb.
Was she a student taking an English Honours exam in a college nearby? If so, he was angry that she hadn’t recognised him. He had the record for the highest marks in English Literature by a student from Balurghat in his name, but, quite clearly, it was a useless distinction. He longed to be recognised, to be asked for his opinion, or to pose in a selfie.
Dream Children. The page in the book was open at this essay. The girl was muttering something to herself, in a rhythm that wasn’t very different from his mother’s Lokkhi panchali. He remembered something and suppressed his laughter. At a viva-voce examination, he had a question for a student: “Name one essay by Charles Lamb that’s been prescribed for your reading by the university.”
The answer was prompt. “Dream Girl”. The name of the Hindi film alongside the potency of that youthful expression had had him confused.
“If there is no Dream Girl, how can you have Dream Children?” he’d replied.
He returned to his phone. He wanted to post a quote, something that was seemingly simple but deeply philosophical. He looked for inspiration outside the window. “Blow Horn”; “Buy One Get One Free” on the blue shutter of a store that still hadn’t opened; “Where will you go?”, from the bus conductor; “What’s your size?”, a hawai chappal-seller; “Dekhbi, jolbi/Luchir mawto phoolbi” (“You’ll watch and burn with jealousy, and swell up like a puri’”).
All of these lines had resonances besides their immediate meaning. Like poetry or philosophy. Putting them in quotes would give them gravitas. Should he do that? He spent time on Facebook posts and comments, weighing them, as one would an examination answer.
The girl sneezed. A water droplet fell on “M” – “Lamb” became “Lab”. She didn’t say “Sorry” or “Excuse me”. English Literature hadn’t taught her manners.
Comedy of Manners, he thought. The girl sitting next to him wouldn’t know what it meant (a question on the subject hadn’t been asked for the last few years – students only studied for important questions in exams). She also wouldn’t know that she and many like her, whose ambitions were incongruent with the roots of their lives, were living their lives as if it was a Comedy of Manners.
Ah, that was it, that’d be his post.He juggled the words in his mind,feeling nervous about making a mistake, aware of the destructive gravitational pull of bad grammar. Dissatisfied with the permutations inside his head (All the world’s a stage, and we actors in this Comedy of Manners – this was his favourite, and it hurt him slightly to abandon it), he took out all the words, like his father sheared a coconut. Just the kernel. And so only the phrase from where the thought had begun: Comedy of Manners.
Gangarampur. The girl got down. So she was a student of Gangarampur College. As he stretched his legs slightly, he felt relieved without reason.
A man took the vacant seat almost immediately. Shubhro turned away from the smell of hair oil. He tried to guess the brand – Dabur Amla or Parachute? He knew this smell but couldn’t identify it – it was like a school friend whose face he could remember but not the name. Was it an insult to those whose names we couldn’t remember? Like the old classmate one wants to forget and has therefore forgotten.
He grew slightly impatient to post something. Angry that life gave him so few opportunities to represent it as interesting to the world, he, by default, thought of his parents. How ordinary they were, how lacking in beauty and humour and interest, how non-photogenic, both they and their surroundings. That proverb about lotus and the dung had to do with exceptions – he was that exception.
He’d be the first breakout, the first person from Balurghat, from his family, both pathetically unremarkable, to arrive into the world. The PhD was a side dish. It was like a comb, giving his hair form. His real energy – he called it “mangsho-bhaat energy”, in contrast to “doodh-bhaat energy”, meat-and-rice energy, not baby-food rice-and-milk energy – was in what he was doing every moment: self-fashioning.
At moments it felt that he was really like Sisyphus – it was impossible to fight destiny’s obedience to its own laws of gravity. But he wouldn’t give up without a fight. That is why every moment was important to him, containing the germ of a victory. The opponent was an abstraction, it was true – though his father, an amateur astrologer, saw it clearly drawn in the lines on palms – but so was the reward: the future.
There was such great hope in the assurance that the future was elastic, that it could hold so much, the possible and even the unimagined. It was perhaps this that gave him secretive energy of a seed – but it also made him feel trapped inside himself, crouched, shrunken, waiting for time to water him to fullness. Every moment was a stop, a station that wasn’t his.
But, for now, for the present, a moment for which he had little respect, he had to reach Raiganj. He was the exam invigilator.
‘Aaj ki baar?’ the man sitting next to him asked.
Shubhro wondered whether his mother had ironed his hankie. Had she put it in his back pocket? The man’s breath was stained by beedi.
“Thursday,” he said, looking out of the window. “Third day?” the man repeated. “Ki baar?”
Shubhro had found his post. “Brihaspati-baar,” he said, moving to the Facebook page on his phone. He’d report this conversation, about “Thursday” becoming “Third day”. He’d seen Deep Mukherjee post about such things; also Professor Seturaman and Dr Singh, the latter from America.
But how did Rita Banerjee, in Jalpaiguri, more than 500 kms away, know about this?
“Third Day.” That was her Facebook post. Shubhro was bewildered, and, almost immediately, scared. Had he been mispronouncing Thursday all his life? Was the “s” silent? Only a couple of years ago – or was it last year? – he’d discovered the correct pronunciation of “Wednesday”. Not Wed-nas-day. He was filled with embarrassment thinking about the number of times he’d mispronounced the word.
Was “Thursday” actually “Third Day”? He unzipped his jacket to his stomach – the nervousness made him hot. He was counting the sequence of days on his fingers: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...No, it was the fifth day, not the third. Not even if one started counting from Monday.
But he had to know, he had to find out. So he commented: “Third day?”
Rita Banerjee’s response was prompt. “Yes, third day of my period.”
Unable to enjoy his relief of knowing that he actually hadn’t been mispronouncing Thursday all his life, he grew anxious about what he should say in response. He’d read articles in Huffington Post and Buzzfeed about the need for women to talk about their period openly, as if it was nothing more than a headache (no, no, not a headache, something more normal). But he didn’t know what men were supposed to say in response.
He decided that he’d stay offline for some time – he imported his strategy from real-life quarrel situations into his online life often. But he was also two different people – the Shubhro Mitra on Facebook wasn’t the same person as the Babu who woke up in the house with damp green walls in Rathkhola.
He’d never heard the word “period” being said in his life. His mother had kept it a secret from him. He was still without a girlfriend – he longed to hear her say the word. There was such a difference between reading a word and hearing it being spoken.
“Look at what’s happened to Gangarampur,” said a male voice.
“Population problem,” said another, in English; the phrase had sneaked into Bangla a couple of decades ago.
“I used to take a morning walk on this road. Even three years ago...”
“Yes. And an old brinjal-seller would sit there – right over there, under the lamp post (it was wooden then) – with the best Panjipara brinjals. You know, those that melt in the mouth...”
“My mother, if she were alive, wouldn’t recognise this Balurghat...”
“It is good that Mashima’s not alive. Think of the pain and confusion it’d cause her.”
Shubhro hated such conversation. He was not a nostalgist. His attachment was to the future, not to a past over which he had no control.
The vegetable market – less a market, and more a street lined on either side with baskets of fresh produce – would have looked like a painting (Gauguin, he said to himself, pronouncing it like “penguin”, then correcting himself) had it not been for the smells. It had once been full of wonder and beauty when he would accompany his father to the Saturday haat as a child.
He remembered the smell of fresh vegetables bursting out of his father’s bag, the stems of the young bottle gourd creeping out of it like an infant’s curious fingers from a cot, and, returning home, his dusty feet. The dust-soaked water running from his feet towards the moss-mouthed drain – what a thrill there was in watching these journeys of things flowing out of one’s bodies (the urine on the dry bathroom floor, no less colourful than his mother’s alpona).
How gross childhood was. He congratulated himself on having reached where he was, unstained by it. He looked at his maroon socks briefly – his feet would never get dirty again.
He felt pity for the vegetable-sellers, how they’d not see the world beyond this street, and how the world would never know of them. Did such a life have any value at all? Was it really true, as an American professor lecturing in their college had said, that a vegetable-seller affected more lives than a teacher?
Did the man selling brinjals know that “begoon” was called “brinjal” and “eggplant” and “aubergine”? Would it have made him happy? It was, after all, like having London, New York and New Delhi editions of one’s book. Poor man, he thought: Ish.
The smell of his co-passenger’s hair oil brought him back, not in space but in time, for he lived more in the future than he did in the present. He was addicted to the future, to the rewards it held and which the present continued to hold back. Resisting the urge to sneeze, he turned towards the cause of the sneeze and asked, “Where are you going?”
The response was prompt. “Goose-rat.”
Shubhro knew what it meant. Gujarat. Gravely, he said, “There are no z sounds in Bangla. Only j and jh. Gujarat. Not Goose-rat.”
The man was startled, not by the piece of information, which didn’t mean anything to him, but that the barrage of English was directed at him. It reminded him of the time he went to a restaurant and the waiter thrust a menu card in front of him – how could this be food, all these things in English? English could only be medicine, those difficult names on bottles and strips of tablets.
In response now, he uttered the longest English sentence he knew. It was in a song – Amitabh Bachchan coming out of an egg, in a hat, a stick in hand, saying these words like koo-jhik-jhik, in shai-shai-shai speed.
You See The Whole Country Of The System Is Juxtaposition By The Haemoglobin In The Atmosphere Because You Are Sophisticated Rhetorician Intoxicated By The Exuberance Of Your Own Publicity.
Shubhro was shocked – it might have been that shock which had turned “verbosity”, the last word of the utterance, into “publicity”. Again, not by these polysyllabic words coming out of a man with peeling dry skin, in a sweater and lungi, not to mention the stink of his hair oil, but the epiphany in the words themselves.
He recognised the nonsense in them, the arbitrary arrangement of the words, their rejection of meaning – they’d been chosen and then set beside each other only because of their polysyllabic nature and their comic foreignness. And then he saw, though still as a blur, the way one sees things immediately after waking up, that the symptom had been diagnosed much before the disease had turned into an epidemic.
Everyone spoke like that now, college teachers and PhD students, collating words together without creating relationships between them, so that the sentence seemed not like a home, a place of rest, but an inn, where people were unrelated to each other, where there was no conversation. He decided to post this on Facebook.
“What’s on your mind?”
You See The Whole Country Of The System Is Juxtaposition By The Haemoglobin In The Atmosphere Because You Are Sophisticated Rhetorician Intoxicated By The Exuberance Of Your Own Publicity
As he was typing this,another minor epiphany came to him – this line, unfriendly to meaning as it seemed, was an appropriate description of Facebookers too: The Exuberance of Your Own Publicity.
The first like had arrived. Or perhaps the first liker (last February, on Valentine’s Day, he’d got an anonymous letter from someone who’d written, “Sir, I promise I’ll be a good laugher”. She’d meant “lover”, of course, but “laugher” was probably how she pronounced the word.).
He wasn’t surprised. She was almost always the first person to like his Facebook posts. It wasn’t the real Julia Kristeva, of course. A student who, like a few others he knew, used a pseudonym. Almost inevitably, the pseudonym they adopted was the name of a critical theorist or philosopher.
His colleague, Manojit, called himself Man Chomsky – Shubhro had once mistakenly said “Man Chomsky” instead of “Noam Chomsky” at a seminar. Such assumed names were disorienting ––he could no longer remember the real Kristeva’s face. When he heard the name, it was his student Pinky’s face that came to his mind.
He’d returned to Middlemarch. The bus had moved out of Gangarampur. The sun, though anaemic, was blooming gradually. It had reached the edge of the agricultural fields and would’ve reached them too had the bus not run away. The bus had picked up speed as it always did once out of crowded towns – the speed created an illusion of warmth, as if the passengers were running and would soon begin sweating.
It was a cold day, so cold that it had almost stunned the passengers into silence. There was no sound in the bus, except cell phones ringing and someone from the last row of seats, possibly a man, making a shivering sound – uuuuuuuuu.
Shubhro’s phone rang. He looked at the name of the caller (sometimes, like at this moment, he couldn’t forget his father’s face of disbelief at the name of the caller appearing on the phone screen; the old man was from a world where ordinary things were imbued with a sense of mystery – no one knew who was calling until the voice announced itself from the other end of the line).
Ashok Sir. His teacher in college, now retired. What was it this time? How would Shubhro know when his pension would be released? No, he didn’t know anyone in Calcutta’s Bikash Bhavan. He ignored the call. The phone rang again. What an insistent caller.
Hello, he said, though he was on the verge of saying “uff “.
“Shubhro,” the voice said, “Kaymon aachho, baba?”
He hated being called “baba” and “babu”. That old-world familiarity and infantilisation at the same time. Intolerable.
“I’m good,” he said, in an accent that wasn’t completely his, but one he wanted to use, to show Ashok Sir the difference between the two of them, two generations of college teachers of course, but particularly between Shubhro and the man. He was as new as America, as Facebook – his teacher an old provincial. He wouldn’t let that word taint his life.
“Will you help me with a quotation, baba?”
“Sure,” said Shubhro in his self-absorption.
“Fool? Ke?” he asked, curious. Was it any of his classmates? Himangshu?
“That Fool who says something about greatness.”
Shubhro was suddenly annoyed. “Fool?” he asked.
“Yes, that fool-like man in Twelfth Night. That man who says something about greatness...What’s his name?”
“Do you mean Malvolio?” he asked, conscious of replying in English.
“Yes, yes, baba. Do you remember the quote about greatness?”
“’Some are born great, some achieve greatness,/and some have greatness thrown upon them.’ That one?”
“Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, baba. How are you? I’ve been thinking of these lines for the last few days, but they just wouldn’t come to me. Do you know why?”
“Why?’ said Shubhro politely and without interest.
“Well, it started like this. Sadhan – my son, you remember him, don’t you? – bought me a new phone. And then he showed me something called Friendsbook...”
“Facebook, Sir, not Friendsbook.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the aged man replied; saying “yes” thrice was one of his tics. “So this is what I see on Facebook – people using quotes all the time, as if it was a quote-emitting factory. At first, I didn’t want to add to the effluent, but even to criticise it, to stop people from feeling celebratory about it, I thought I must use a quote myself. It was then that I thought of this quote.”
Shubhro was exhausted by his teacher’s English – it seemed like he was listening to a book being read, he even heard the commas and periods. Realising that he was expected to reply, he said, “You don’t necessarily have to post a quote, Sir. People share news and other people’s posts, too.”
“Yes, but news reports and other people’s posts are quotes too. Why do you think people do this, baba?”
Irritated by everything around him, but mostly Facebook, which wasn’t helping him to become famous in the way it had so many, he said, “To become famous.”
“Oh,” replied the old man, “perhaps they will now have a subject in school – that teaches students to become famous.”
Shubhro was eager for the conversation to end, to check responses to his Facebook post, for comments confirming his intelligence to himself. “Sir, I’ll have to get down from the bus very soon. Let’s talk later again?”
Only three likes. It had been nine minutes since he’d posted. If Deep Mukherjee had posted this, there would have been 300 likes by now.
He looked into the bus. A man was trying to insert a broken umbrella inside a plastic bottle – the Aquafina bottle would serve as the umbrella’s temporary handle. Shubhro knew the name for this – jugaad. Indians had come to be identified with it, he knew.
Deep Mukherjee had extrapolated the concept of jugaad to explain why Indian academics, particularly those who taught and wrote about literature and the social sciences, had begun to write in this strange language that neither belonged to them nor to anyone identifiable. He had likened the quotational fabric of Facebook to academic papers – their language was a practical and material problem, Deep had argued. It came from the lack of resources in the provinces.
Just as the plastic bottle was serving as an umbrella handle but could be replaced with a stick or anything else, similarly, scholars were looking for a quote from any possible theorist to make their paper stand. They had no ideological affiliation to the thinker – the quote was enough.
It was the provincial’s bricolage – it depended purely on the availability of books and texts in these small places. The Indian scholar had become a walking Facebook – reproducing quotes and thoughts. One didn’t hear his voice but the voices of those who’d spoken before him.
Shubhro knew this was true, and tried not to be this parody. But how was it possible to escape this epidemic? How else would he become famous?
The first bell had rung before Shubhro had entered the examination hall. Digonto, his colleague, who lived nearby, had distributed the answer scripts. They looked at each other but didn’t speak a word, as if they too were bound by the examinees’ code of silence. The students had begun writing their names and other details on the cover page of the answer script.
Digonto came to him and whispered, “Have you noticed how many students have coloured their hair? I’ve been teaching in this college for twenty-three years. This is a new phenomenon. I don’t understand why they have to...”
“Should we give out the question papers now? Only five minutes remain...”
“Yes, here, you take half the bunch...”
Shubhro peeled dry skin off his lips. He felt the urge to look at his phone, to check for responses. Something told him that he was on the verge of being famous. It was no longer a matter of time. It was about to happen.
It was possible that this post would make him famous – if it did, he’d be sharing the glory with Amitabh Bachchan, but did that matter? Academics co-wrote books and essays often after all.
The sun was behaving like a paying guest – it was only a few minutes past eleven, but it was checking out for the day. Shubhro’s hands were freezing. He rubbed them and started walking, hoping to bring some warmth to his body. Who’d believe that Raiganj could be this cold in January? It was too cold for him to hold Middlemarch in his hands.
Examination time behaves in a bipolar manner: it seems too short for examinees and too long for invigilators. Shubhro noticed something odd in the third row. He’d forgotten the girl’s name – was she from History Honours? – but he’d seen her on Facebook, and on the bus to Balurghat a few times.
She got down before him always. She seemed to be copying from a tiny piece of paper. Shubhro walked swiftly towards her and put his hand out – it was a friendly way of asking for what students called the “cheat chit” or “micro-xerox”. The girl pretended not to see. He stood there, his palm facing her.
“I follow you on Facebook,” the girl said.
Shubhro saw her name on the answer sheet. Prarthona. “Give me the piece of paper, Prarthona,” he said, his voice soft and calm. He’d let her go – he’d just take away the piece of paper, he wouldn’t report her.
“It’s only a quote from Ambedkar,” the girl replied. “Please let me copy this, Sir.”
He shook his head.
A silent battle continued for some time.
“You just posted a quote from Amar Akbar Anthony. Isn’t that cheating too, then?” the girl said. “I’m quoting from Ambedkar. How are they different? Ambedkar is more important than Anthony.”
Something in Shubhro snapped. He leapt at the girl, trying to get the piece of paper out of her hand. The girl had, in the meantime, put the piece of paper inside her sweater.
When Shubhro reached home, he saw he’d been tagged 126 times on Facebook. The girl’s post had gone viral:
Professor Shubhro Ghosh molested a Final Year student in Raiganj College. He pulled her by the hand, and also tried to put his hand inside her sweater. We demand his immediate suspension.
Prarthona and her classmates, who had jumped at him and fought him, scratching his face and neck, had made him “famous”.
Excerpted with permission from My Mother’s Lover And Other Stories, Sumana Roy, Bloomsbury.