“So,” Puwali pehi asked, “what are your plans for the day?” Keteki, sitting at the corner of the kitchen table, grinned. In the house in Guwahati where her father and Puwali pehi, his youngest sister, had grown up, this had been the children’s table. Puwali pehi, who hadn’t married, had kept the table and the L-shaped bench that went with it in her ground-floor apartment in the old house.
“You might as well ask what are my plans for my life,” Keteki said.
“Well?” said her aunt.
Keteki shrugged. “Arts and Crafts at Home, over. Now, the next thing. Go through emails, reply to people I should have replied to months ago. Sit with Manek-da so he can prepare my tax return. Email other people to remind them I exist in case they want to use me in a future project. Post pictures online of things we did. Think about what I would like to achieve in this human birth.” She laughed at the last remark, and tried to stretch out her shoulders. Her body was still getting used to having arrived.
Puwali pehi sipped her tea. “I’m so happy to see you,” she said. “But lately, every time you come back to Guwahati, you seem to be having a personality crisis. Maybe you’d prefer to take up a normal job again.”
“Maybe,” Keteki said. She had a flashback of the industrial estate in northern Bombay where she’d sat drawing designs for horrible furnishing fabric in her first job seventeen years earlier. “No, not that. I hated that. But, something, you’re right, I have to change something. The way things are, going off, helping other people with things, making them happy for a while, then starting again, it’s getting boring.” She considered. “People like having me around.”
“Including me,” said her aunt. “By the way, how is your Joy mama?”
Keteki smiled. “I must phone him,” she said. “I want to go to Jorhat soon and see him. Maybe after Puja is over.”
That evening, sitting on the bed in her room with her friend Pia, Keteki complained. “What’s a reasonable use of a life, anyway?”
Pia’s eyes went round. “What do you mean, Ketu ba?”
“Who decides?” Keteki said. “What else should I be doing? Get married, have some children, worry about their schooling? Join my husband’s business, start a business of my own...open a shop. No, a boutique.” She brooded. “Join a ladies’ business organisation. Refer to myself as a ontro-pron-oor.” She laughed. “I can’t decide whether to be annoyed with everyone else or just take nothing seriously.”
The room was dim, with only a table lamp on. Its red silk shade provided a warm glow and extravagant pools of shadow.
“But don’t you ever want to get married, Ketu ba,” asked Pia. “I mean, haven’t you ever been in love?”
Keteki sighed. For a moment she considered explaining that since she had been four years old, she had trusted almost no one, that falling in love was, she had found, a dubious blessing, and that even if she did fall in love, she had no illusions it would clarify anything else in her life. On the contrary: she’d then have to deal with not only her own unwise decisions, but someone else’s too.
But Pia had come to tell Keteki about her engagement to a man her parents had found, who had a good job managing a tea estate in upper Assam. There was no point in being a drag. “I’ve fallen in love now and again,” Keteki said, and smiled apologetically. “But nothing ever worked out somehow. Pia, should we have a toast? I seem to remember there was some good brandy somewhere.”
“A brandy? It’s so late,” Pia began.
“Let me see,” Keteki said. She began to root in the bottom of her cupboard, removing one long leather boot at which she made a face, before replacing it. “Here we are. Not champagne, but champagne cognac. There was a fellow from the French consulate in Delhi,” she explained. “Jean-Luc? Jean-Pierre? Anyway. They get things in the diplomatic bag, you know.”
She left the room and returned with two tumblers. “Not the right glass, but it’ll have to do,” she said. “Oh, it’s still good.” The liquor was amber and smelled of caramel.
“Happy Puja, and congratulations,” she said.
“Aren’t you even going to come for the anjali today?” Pehi asked the next morning.
“You look nice,” Keteki said. Her aunt was wearing a green- and-gold mekhela sador. “No, you carry on, I think I’ll go for a walk before things get crazy in the evening.” She made some coffee and wandered around the front room, near the window. Outside, there was the sound of drums and the scent of rain. She thought of the large idol of Durga at Barowari, looking at her devotees from slanted eyes.
Keteki took a bath and got dressed. The weather was cooler; it seemed to be the first day of autumn. As she walked in the drizzle of the morning, she heard car horns. By evening there would be long traffic jams and angry drivers. It was strange that Puja, supposedly about worship, should bring such chaos and aggression. What can you expect, she heard her uncle quipping, from a Bengali festival.
But she also remembered the first time she and a cousin had visited the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, a disorienting process of queueing, waiting, going inside the rock-cut building and down to the sanctum, where there was an opening in the rock and iron-reddened water – the goddess’s menstrual blood – to drink. The place had an enormous, impersonal charge; it had felt like sticking your finger in the electrical socket on top of a volcano.
During Puja, people suddenly began to behave in ways unusual for peaceable Guwahati – road rage, drunk men harassing women, an aggression that didn’t normally surface. Ved Ved crossed Keteki’s mind for an instant. For all his flailing to impress when they’d first met, he’d seemed essentially harmless.
A few days later, it rained all night. When Keteki woke, it was still raining. She heard drums: the beginning of the immersion processions. From the window in the stairwell, she saw floats pass, sedate lorries bearing painted plaster idols of the goddess vanquishing the demon Mahishasura. People followed the floats, chanting and dancing. After breakfast, she went out to look at the float from Barowari. In the knot of people on the street were some of her relatives and friends. Pia waved at her.
Her friend Babu put an arm around her shoulders. “When did you get back?” he asked. “We haven’t seen you.”
“I’ve barely left home,” Keteki said. “Jet lag maybe.”
They followed the float, drummers dressed in white urging everyone on to dance. At Latasil, they turned the corner to skirt the playing field, and two bearded youths who looked like Calcutta University Marxists from the sixties danced forward into the road, dropped something and shimmied back. There was a deafening explosion.
“You’d think we would have had enough of this in the nineties,” murmured Keteki to the nearest person, who happened to be her aunt. Puwali pehi giggled.
At Fancy Bazar, the road widened, and other processions mingled with theirs. A little ahead, Keteki saw the river and remembered walking here, lovelorn, blinking back tears. But she was no longer that person. The river, blue and serene, bowled onwards. It had places to go, new names to assume: after crossing the border in Bangladesh, it would become the Jamuna, then the Meghna.
Keteki felt a tiny release inside, as though in her heart a minuscule elastic band had snapped, an old moment of pain been released. She began to laugh. Nearby, Pia caught the mood. “Look,” she said. Their own float was passing them. It made a U-turn and approached the river bank. They walked closer. The air was thick with Hindi music from huge loudspeakers. A set of pipes spewed festive red powder. Through the crimson mist, they gazed on the bright, indefatigably cheerful face of this year’s goddess for the last time before she teetered down to the water.
Excerpted with permission from Keeping in Touch, Anjali Joseph, Context.
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