Born and raised in Kolkata (India) and partially nurtured in Delhi (India), Pushpanjana Karmakar Biswas has contributed poems to magazines in the likes of Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi’s bi-monthly journal) The Harvest Millennium, Kritya, and Poetry India: Enchanting Echoes (All India Poetry Competition), Coldnoon Poetics, The Sunflower Collective and one piece of fiction each to Indian Review and The Bombay Review. She currently resides in Bangalore and works as a corporate lawyer. She continues to be a part of a poetry group Moonweavers in Delhi. She likes to read works by Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Dom Moraes, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She examines laughter and the lack of it.
I AM HUNGRY
My father turned on the engine of the blue Premier Padmini. The train “Canning Local” has just passed through. He honked fiercely to alert the rickshaw sidling past from blocking his way. The railway gate was about to be lowered again. This was the time for “Baruipur local” to pass. The cyclists, rickshawallahs, pushcarts, and the bike-riders taking advantage of their ability to meander through narrow spaces jostled ahead of the car. Various expletives were mouthed which meant nothing to me at that age, but my father looked at my face each time there were such obscene exchanges. I was 8 years old. Expletives were as good as political harangue. We managed to be in the second spot in the row of cars from the railway gate. ‘If you can manage to drive a car smoothly at this Dhakuria railway crossing without let a rickshaw chafe your car, then you can drive anywhere on the earth,’ he said, with right hand placed on the keys at the ignition. My eyes veered towards the canary yellow coloured name board “Dhakuria Station.” This was the colour of my dried and flaky yellow water colour in my palette. It looked like any other railway stations. People milled around on the platform. There were vendor cries. My mother would have bought some lemons – “gondhoraj” in winters or “kagji lebu” in monsoons. The egg tray always made some space for lemon. He was going to drop me at Shubho’s place in Jodhpur Park, like always whenever my mother used to go and visit my grandparents’ house in Liluah. I did not even understand at that age that it was outside Calcutta. We boarded the local train from Howrah and reach Liluah. How could it be different from my house in Dhakuria? There were trains, railway crossing, vendors with cane basket, jostling and elbowing of the passengers during rush hours. The trains rattled, the tracks glistened in the sun so much so that I had to open and shut my eyes in quick frequency, and sometimes squint, to look at the tracks. I used to hold my mother’s hand and play this with my eyes, traversing between worldly and unworldly. It was like as though a train encircled my house. During winter nights when sounds of the surroundings pillowed themselves, distant honks of train would pass through my windows interspersed with echoes of performer’s voices. I hopped onto one and disembarked at a station from where we would go through a posse of people, a clutch of shops and rickshaws. Everything as I write now is so condensed and fitted just like a shoe insole. On our way to Pablo’s house, we bought some sweets and chocolates for them. The street was lined by row of trees and the pond on our left sparkled in the afternoon sun. The algae glided slowly in our way as though it was guiding us to his house. It was quiet only broken sporadically by the squeals and high pitched voices of the schoolchildren in brown skirts. They clasped paper pouches of puffed rice in concoction of black salt, red chilli powder and other spices and moist in mustard oil and chatted boundlessly. At that age I did not understand “etymology” until I had met Pablo. But I wondered if instead of a Latin or Greek word begetting English words, a sight could have been the origin of a word, then this sight would have been the imagery of the word “freedom.” His was a lime yellow house with a balcony facing the pond. His mother, unlike mine, was fond of plants. His room also faced the pond. We spent many afternoons perched on the red oxide window sills, eating mangoes. Pablo had a piquant persona with his restive nature and withdrawal symptoms. Some days, he was loquacious and invented new games and some days he would just be quiet, loll around in a red t-shirt. Luckily when I visited him that day, he was effusive. When I entered his room, partly sleepy, his mother was sitting there reading the newspaper. Sighting me, she got up from the bed as the sunlight beam streaming through the body lost hold of her body, and said “let’s eat lunch. You all must be hungry.” While having lunch, Pablo shook his legs restively, beaming and looking at me. While eating he scattered the rice grains, spilled the dal on the table mat; he made things messy while at table. I used to frown at him. He would smile back at me. He scurried to the washbasin, washed his hand and then rushed back to the table and stood by my chair, telling me to finish my food quickly. Having hovered over by him, I could not eat peacefully. He stood there and started counting the bones of “tangra” fish. His counting feat was jarring to my ears. I got up and finished my food in quick gulps. ‘Come Munia, will show you something.’ We went to the terrace and climbed the spiral staircase. He pointed out to a small house with corrugated roof strewn with dry leaves. The door was padlocked. A layer of moss covered the outer wall. There were pots of dead plants and wilted flowers. The gate was ajar. A small pail in front of the house indicated inhabitation. I contemplated the number of people who inhabited the house, while he referenced to ghosts occupying that house. I used to get scared of his surmises. He would tell me that at night he had seen a candle flame flickering inside and somebody used to step outside to hang clothes. I used to believe him in that house was a godforsaken place, only getting alive at night. At this age, while on my way back from college, I am infusing all my irrational fears with some reason and logic. “I have grown up” like the people back in hometown say when I go back. As soon as I reached home, Maa gave me a glass of lime juice speckled with jaljeera. Nothing can be more heartening than a glass of it on a hot summer day when the sun just ploughs itself on your head. Sitting on the chair opposite mine, and shuffling the Outlook magazine, she said ‘your Dadu (grandfather) is forgetting everything now. He is not able to identify anybody now. He mutters “pain” sometimes which he has got from the fall last week. That’s it. His memory is completely failing him. Earlier he could at least identify us and recall a few good memories. Now his brain is barren’ ‘When did the doctor last visit him?’ ‘Yesterday. Your uncle has got him all the medicines. The nurse seems to be not mindful. Last week, red ants scurried around his body; biscuit crumbs lay underneath his ear. The bed sheet was not changed. Mimin was saying over the telephone. When she visited him, he was scratching his face and hands madly. Somebody from the family has to be around him 24 hours, otherwise he will die in the hands of the nurses. I am thinking to visit him next month. I spoke to your father. Ruhin will cook food for the two weeks’ The last time when we visited him in Liluah, he showed little signs of abnormality. When we rang the doorbell, I could see him through the grille gate. Crouching naked, he was collecting something that looked like some grains of rice from a distance. I was aghast to see him naked and could not think of any reason justifying it. Ma was a little behind me talking to one of the neighbours. While talking to them, she told me “Munia don’t run into the big bedroom and start playing music.’ When Dadu heard me saying “ok” to her, he looked calmly at me and smiled, without realizing that he was naked. When he got up and started walking towards the gate, I called Maa. When she peered through the gate and saw her father naked, she alarmingly said ‘Baba, wear your pyajama.’ He shuddered and rushed inside. I am sure my mother must have talked about this with her siblings. It was detected as slow degradation of memory. ‘You must be hungry, Munia. I will get the food. Wash your hands and feet. I have filled the water cooler’ – said she, pacing up to the refrigerator. Behind it was a lizard, sauntering out towards the living room window. These reptiles are so cold-looking that it seems as though it is a spy working for some country in the mould of a lizard. The next visit to Pablo’s house which I could call to my mind was when I was 12 years old. I used to pay intermittent visits to his house. But many of those memories stand blurred in my mind. He sat on the window sill clasping the rod with the patina of mossy green. Munia gave a tap on his shoulder. ‘Aren’t you hungry,’ I asked. I was afraid that he must be in that state of lull, when he showed no enthusiasm to play games with me. Had he been in an effervescent mood, he would have leapt out and ran to the kitchen asking for a quick serving of food so that we might descend into our matter and element of time, a monochrome, a stage of our play which transcended the order of permanence. But after washing his hand, he stood behind the beige curtains, casting a soft glance at me, without tricking me into leaving the food on the plate. As I entered, he shot another mellow glance at me and said ‘we will play a game today.’ I readily agreed. ‘You have to tell me a word. I will try to show it to you either in real or in sketches. If I can’t sketch that or that is something already present around us, I will show it to you,’ he explained it tugging at his blue T-shirt. ‘Ants,’ – I said, thinking that he would sketch it for me. Clutching my hand, he took me to the kitchen. There was a mark of bruise on his knuckles. It had dried up; flakes of the bruise had scraped of his skin in parts. It looked like a river dotted with silt beds. Pushing the turmeric container to the right on the rack beside the window which had to be shut in the winter afternoon to prevent entry of mosquitoes, he pointed to the jar of date jaggery behind it, rich brown in colour. Morsels of it are lying around the jar where a colony of ants was scurrying towards one indistinct destination behind the cabinet. ‘Look, here are the ants, voyaging to their world with worker ants and a queen ant. There is a dark room, perhaps damp and mouldy, where they live,’ he said, his face plump with joy as though that of an archaeologist after an excavation finding. ‘How can they see in pitch darkness,’ she asked to which he did not have any answer. ‘Ashur is from the east, Asia,’ he once said with so much conviction. ‘Is he? I thought he shared space with the Gods and Goddesses. Believing in his discerning nature, I ran this in my mind and thought how all the T.V. shows depicted him in a gold-rimmed black dress above his knees walking among the Gods. There is no specific name of the place ever mentioned in those. ‘Maa, is Ashur from any country in Asia,’ I asked ‘Ashur is from Asia. Who told you this?’ she looked non-plussed. Later she figured out from Pablo’s mother the source of this misinformation. His father used to teach Geography at home. He had an extraordinary way of teaching through storytelling. He emphasised the etymology while teaching. In one class, while telling his students about Asia, he conveyed to them that “Asia” was derived from the Assyrian word “asu” meaning East. Pablo used to pass by his room when he taught and earned snatches of knowledge from those classes. Being a child, he was unable to temper that earned knowledge with rationale, and derived that “Ashur” is from Asia, the East. My mother, while explaining it, laughed and told me ‘Your friend is sweet, but be cautious of such dump of false facts.’ I was in my third year of college when one day my mother forgot to pack tiffin for me. Yes, I used to carry tiffin even during her college years. When I returned home, I saw my mother distraught and repented incessantly for forgetting to pack the freshly cooked food. I was surprised to see my mother in that state for such a trivial reason. ‘You must be really hungry. Get refreshed, come and quickly grab a bite’ – she said, her face crinkled in guilt. I was unable to balance the gravity of regret and her trivial act of forgetting to pack me lunch. Even when I was in school, the only thing my mother inquired of me was “food.” She obsessed over my hunger. Irritated, I once shot back ‘ I have other forms of hunger as well, Maa… friendship, books, dancing, why don’t you ask me whether my friend Rituparna is doing good, what we talked about in college – Harry Potter or Sabyasachi, the freedom fighter who assumed different appearances to deceive the British… ask me something else.’ ‘If only you are truly hungry and the stomach rumbles but you have no food in sight, nor have the power to buy, will you realize that without assuaging hunger you can’t move and throw tantrums. Pete khele, pithe shoye (It’s only you’re your stomach is full, then can you labour)
I typically visited Pablo’s house in the afternoons. It was a winter afternoon, but the intensity of the cold has weakened as it was past Saraswati Pujo. A pushcart of “kul” (Ziziphus Jujube) crossed past me. No Bengali student would dare to eat it before Saraswati Pujo, fearing that the goddess Saraswati would curse them with poor marks if they fail to restrain themselves. This myth is a shadow of the rationale: unripe Ziziphus can lead to a sore throat which will impact the health of the students before their exams in March. I loved the “topa kul” or Ziziphana spina-christi when mashed and flavoured with rock salt, red chilli powder and mustard oil. The fruit is said to have originated in West Asia. When I expressed my love for “topa kul”or “ber” in Hindi to Pablo, he dismissed it of as feminine inclination to love the sour stuff. The next day when I visited him, I got some mixture in a small plastic container for him. While opening the box, I said ‘I am already salivating. You know Jesus Christ was crowned with thorns of this “topa kul.”
On my several visits, Pablo improvised the game sometimes by enacting the word or instructing me to find the word from some designated pages of a novel. When I failed to do the activity, I was told to sketch whatever I could in his sketchbook, so when he flipped pages, he could see alternatively his sketches and my amateurish strokes. Our adolescence was filled with luminescence and contradictions. He wore a brown sweater. As I walked into the room, I saw him glugging some water from the jug. His mother sauntered in the room with a cough syrup. ‘Dry cough, very irritating, it seems somebody has put a sand paper in your throat,’ he said, coughing up a few words. ‘Let’s play the game’ ‘Oh, you are not well. So, I was thinking if we should just sit and read whatever you have’ ‘No. I need a churn in my mind. When you are here, I can’t just sit.’ The last sentence ruffled Munia. She blurted out “Yes, let’s play” with immediacy so as not to attach her thoughts to that last sentence. ‘Hmmm, “earthquake,” she gave the word to him. ‘Pablo started shaking and quavering his body’ Munia let out a guffaw. ‘Why are you giving such stupid words?’ he sat on the bed, annoyed and wistful. ‘Seismos. Isn’t it lovely to pronounce? It is the root of the word “’seismic,” meaning “shock from earthquake,” perhaps derived from “seisin” meaning “shake.” Munia pronounced it after him, emitting an initial hiss and then warm enclosure and delightful last part “mos.” Like this, he indulged in etymology on Munia’s subsequent visits to his Jodhpur Park home. ‘Look, my uncle got these postcards from United States’ he said taking those out of the drawer from the mirror table strewn with lipsticks in round plum cake boxes, brown comb, a perfume and the mirror dotted with bindi. Those had images of Grand Canyon- majestic, huge, amorous rufous canyon. Munia instantly fell in love with the images especially the ones where the sun shone on the ruddy Canyon with a spellbinding hue. ‘Would you also go here,’ she asked non-plussed. ‘No, silly… if I ever happen to visit my uncle’s house in U.S.A, I might make a trip there.’ ‘Can you please take me here,’ Munia said still poring over the images. ‘Grand Canyon was formed by the Colorado River curving its way through the Colarado plateau. Two billion years ago… everything: the formation began’ he began in a very pedagogic way. Perhaps, all his days when he stood outside the room when his father taught batch of students, he imbibed this structural, strict way of standing and a classicist voice of a teacher. ‘Two billion years ago…that’s a long time…’ Munia appeared startled. ‘The Kaibab limestone which is the topmost layer now, was at the bottom. It is through elevations and uplift through tectonic motions of the plate that it came up’ he continued with a firm voice. I was enamoured of the huge rocky structure. I liked things which are primal and archaic. I so much wanted to see Grand Canyon, that when I was in my room I imagined it be swirling around me. Pablo instilled an ecstasy in me; he attached himself to me in elusive ways, words, and actions; he understood my grace as much her anomie. I loved Pablo with a quiet fierceness like matchsticks inside a matchbox. ‘The word “solitude” is derived from “solus” meaning “alone.” Again the word “solace” is derived from an Old French word “solas” which travelled from Latin “solatium” (comfort) to “solari” meaning “to console. Both “solus” and “solas” sound so phonetically same, as though there is a great solace in solitude, removed from everything.’ I did not understand as to why Pablo has suddenly started to seek solace in his own space. Did that mean that he has stopped appreciating my presence? Is this another way of telling me that I should stop visiting him even when I looked forward to spending time in his company? For me, he curtained the wonder world from the mundane influences of life. Like this he told me once that the root of the word “love” is Old English “lufu” which further travelled from Old German “lube” to Old English “leufe” meaning “dear” to Latin “lubere,” “libere’ meaning “to please.” The word “fruit” has been extracted from Latin “frui” meaning “to enjoy.” On this particular visit of mine, he demanded that I enact a word he tells me. He slowly took a position with his back against the window which faced the pond. I could see the algae floating on it. I stood near the dressing table. Between us on my right lay a single bed strewn with pencil and his sketchbook, and books of Oscar Wilde, a collection of poetry by Thomas Hardy, Jorge Luis Borges, Kamala Das, Alice Walker, Mahasweta Devi. “Which book was he reading” or was he reading the bookmarked pages of all the books?” I wondered. I was excited to enact the word as in most of the times it was Pablo who would be enthusiastic to enact the word. I never could turn down this part of the game. A beam of sunray filigreed on the crochet cover of the landline phone. The fountain pens and the pencils seemed mute spectators. I looked at the table and the cornices where hammocks of spider webs hung while he pondered on. There was a strange silence in the room. Pablo stood there for a bit too long. “Is he thinking too hard?” In no time, he shot the word “breasts.” I stood transfixed and looked into his eyes. Non-plussed, I neither trembled in nervousness or showed any sign of resentment. I continued to gaze into his eyes, as though his wish was justified, and affirmed our secret communion. My armpits sweated and I could feel sweat trickling down my spine. “Can you please enact it by showing” Pablo begged. I noticed incontinence in his eyes which made him shrink, and appear like a wilted flower. I unbuttoned my maroon blouse which I wore over a pair of beige trousers. I stopped dithering and removed it from clavicle pushing my fingers underneath. Then I unhooked the black bra and took it off. I noticed Pablo looking at my rounded breasts against my upright, confident stature. ‘Cover them,’ he said. Delhi I returned home in Delhi after meeting a friend in Connaught Place. I sat on the sofa, beaming. ‘I had banoffee pie today at the cafe’ ‘What is that?’ ‘A pie made of smashed digestive biscuits, toffee, which is caramelized condensed milk, and banana. It is yummy, Maa’ ‘All I can make is a chocolate cake. Every birthday, you remember I used to bake one for you. And then when you grew up and needed your space, you started celebrating your birthday outside and you liked us buying cake from shops’ ‘Yes, I liked eating the cake batter more than eating the cake. The creamy batter sticking on the walls of the mixing bowl…. You always kept one bowl of it aside for me.’ I squinted my eyes in an affectionate manner. ‘But you only had a pastry for lunch. Aren’t you hungry,’ my mother kept referring to banoffee pie as pastry. ‘Aren’t you hungry, Munia? You haven’t eaten rice for lunch. Nothing “solid”’ By now, I knew that her mother equated only rice to a food item which is eligible for a wholesome meal. Rice was like the conveyor belt which satisfied my mother with all types and sizes of happiness. From my countenance, she realized that I didn’t appreciate her query and I would have liked her to do away with this obsession over my hunger. ‘In 1943, when the famine struck Bengal, Medinipur was badly affected. People there survived on “bulga” - soup made from discarded wheat, “gira shaak,” “shapla” …. some aquatic plants. Many sold their wives and daughters for sack of rice. That famine was orchestrated.” Munia’s mother said in a doleful manner. I failed to understand as to why she was drawing parallel with an extreme situation, a calamity in massive proportions, and an historical fact which continues to be invoked with a sense of horror. Did she know anybody who was impacted by the infamous famine? Or was she trying to justify her obsession with her daughter’s hunger and like a mother communicating dangers to a three year old about not eating when it protests entry of a morsel of food, she was alerting her about the ills of hunger? ‘Baba could not recognize me at all in his last days. There is nothing more disheartening than this; he would just blankly stare at me and utter “byatha.” Munia, thank heaven, that you won’t have to face this with your father. I do not want to see a day when I can’t identify my own child,’ she said, veering the subject so as not to annoy me with her queries about my hunger. ‘Perhaps, Dadu stopped being hungry for his past. He was eating the fruit of each day. He did not remember anything from the past. He did not feel hungry… he had no memories to recount, he was happy with the present and slowly each day, as it passed, did not only become a mere past to him but a remote past to him, some astronomical distance from him,’ I bent forward and looked into her eyes.
Only when you are aware of the taste of the past, you feel hungry and want the glorious heydays to recur in your present time – be a moment shared with your loved one or a sly moment when you have escaped and done something gutsy, taking refuge in a lie and escapades. These broken, fragmented moments remain in your mind like treasures remain in the secret burial mounds of the royals. My grandfather lost his memory and as a resultant he ceased to remain hungry for the past. Each day was new filled with new faces, like on each birthday of a child, its house gets filled with new toys. He didn’t crave for the past; the past was without a meaning and significance, only a small trace invoked by accident or strong admonition from his people. The present eclipsed his past; the past deserted him. I did feel a tinge of sorrow when I left Calcutta. But soon my friends in Delhi made me forget the city. It was not an act of wiping or suppression; but the city with memories of Pablo’s were held in abeyance. When I remembered Pablo, I would often say to myself “I am hungry.”