When the doctor looked at his latest report and told him he had about six months to live, Akaash Didwania stared at the red bird in the calendar on the wall. It was an ordinary-looking bird in an ordinary-looking calendar that suddenly looked strange; its colours seemed to scream out of the letters and numbers. OCTOBER 29. The car horns outside seemed to have stopped suddenly, replaced by the slow sound of something falling as the doctor muttered through the AC purr. ‘I feel obliged to tell you the truth.’ Truth. A word Akaash had never quite liked for it had mostly caused him a great deal of trouble. And loss. The doctor rattled on. Akaash kept staring at the October bird.
Walking out of the doctor’s chamber, Akaash wandered aimlessly till he came by a massive open drain that stunk of human waste and sewage. The sun was setting above the rusty iron drain pipe which extended onto a track of train lines. The railway crossing was closed and a goods train was chugging in, cutting into an orange sky. Blending with the shit smell and the sunset spreading across car tops, the brown bogies became the slow sound of something falling in Akaash’s mind, for the second time. He walked off the main road and went down to the drain to smell it more fully, to see what waste looks like when it floats freely, waiting to be decomposed by sunlight and slow time. He leant close enough to the drain to see his own reflection. A pair of round glasses on a scared face; swimming with shit. Blending with waste. For twenty minutes, more or less, then his reflection was suddenly smashed to smithereens by a stream of water gurgling into the pool. A middle-aged man stood beside him, pissing into the drain. Akaash got up and smiled at the stranger. The bogie sounds were coming to an end.
Akaash worked in a chartered accountancy firm in South Kolkata that advised people on how to store and invest money. Rich men and women with hidden assets and accounts that suddenly became ticking bombs. Like when the Government of India suddenly declared that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would become useless. Demonetization Day. Akaash remembers seeing a brawl in his neighbourhood grocery store that night where a crowd of people had gathered to change their 500 rupee notes on the pretext of buying biscuits, stale bread loaves and cheap toothbrushes. Almost everyone looked confused, angry and helpless as the government ordered to go cashless. The local grocery shopkeeper didn’t have a TV in his shop. He hadn’t seen the news and had happily accepted 500 Rupee notes until he overheard someone speak about the change. Then he panicked and stopped giving change. But by then a crowd of people had gathered demanding grocery goods. Even as the shutters were being quickly pulled down the angry mob stepped in, breaking in the cash box. Some local policemen who had come earlier in the evening to buy cigarettes and had got rid of their notes turned up to beat the mob. Akaash had stood and watched it all. He remembers the Demonetization Declaration Day viscerally as that night in bed he first felt the sickness in his lungs that would gradually grow into a grotesque body with cells. A growth that now left less than six month’s life in him. Next morning on his way to office he saw a man being beaten up by another mob. In front of the greying Greek Church in Kalighat. Apparently, he was a pickpocket who had nicked someone’s wallet the night before, a wallet that supposedly contained a pile of hundred rupee notes that were now missing. The man began to cry and said a friend of his had exchanged the 100s for four 500s which he was ready to return. Nobody listened to him. Everyone wanted 100 rupee notes. Walking to the Kalighat metro, Akaash heard a beggar woman wail for food and money. He stopped and gave her the only two 100 rupee notes from his wallet. His sickness was growing into something solid, dropping heavily, invading his lungs by then.
That day, in Aakash’s office everyone talked about demonetization; the keywords in those conversations – cashless, corruption, UP election – started banging against Akaash’s brain by afternoon. The office phones and mobiles kept ringing. Panicky clients called, seeking advice on the cash that was suddenly declared illegal. Nobody knew anything so there were lots of names and noises. The sounds were sonorous, the syllables slow, the pitches low. Akaash sat listening to the word bombs that exploded in the empty space in his brain where his attention had spread earlier. He felt like a sound magnet numbed by the noise, unable to attend to addresses. There was a greater strangeness in the air – the country had been suddenly directed to become cashless, nobody paid attention to Akaash’s behaviour. Until he fell. Akaash collapsed on his way to the gents’ washroom, swinging and smashing against the little litter bin where the waste waited to be thrown away. That too was the sound of something falling, but Akaash had long since passed out by then to listen. The last sound he had heard was one of nervous laughter. As somebody tried to explain to a client over the phone what could happen thereafter.
That somebody was Megha Sethia, a colleague Akaash had been in a relationship with two years ago, until she saw through him and what she perceived as his insufficient empathy. They had known each other as kids, growing up together in families who were once friends as well as competitors in buying new cars and going on vacations. Megha and Akaash both studied Cost Accountancy, lost touch briefly in between then met again as they joined Mittal’s Finance Firm as colleagues. After a brief period of being competitors in attracting clients, they began to go out, first as friends and then as people who got closer. Both preferred non-vegetarian meals despite growing up in conservatively vegetarian Marwari families of North Kolkata where even sweetmeats shaped like animals were not allowed inside the house. Both loved the Kolkata rock bands and enjoyed rum with Coke. Both had moved out of their abundant ancestral houses in North Kolkata and lived in rented apartments, Megha near Ruby Hospital, Akaash near Hazra. Soon they started spending time in each other’s places, cooking mutton korma together and sipping rum as they played their favourite Fossils songs. They had broken up formally and finally when Akaash failed to respond to Megha’s proposal of marriage. It was right after they made love. Her phone was playing one of her favourite songs, as they stood together in Megha’s apartment balcony that overlooked the Kolkata Eastern Metropolitan Bypass where cars slid like atoms of light into the skin of a thinning night. They had been together for five months and seemed to grow in love for each other although Megha often complained that Akaash wasn’t emotional or communicative enough. She was evidently more intelligent, intuitive and creative, with a balance of brilliance and emotional depth that Akaash feared as well as admired. He was 29 but still unsure of his abilities and attributes, professionally as well as personally. He had seldom been sure of anything. So he stood staring at Megha blankly that night after she suggested they get together for real. Really. Perhaps that was the word that had unsettled Akaash. He had seldom experienced anything real. He felt frozen as he listened to the swishes from the E. M. Bypass where the atoms of light were ballooning up, becoming cars. The 3 a.m. sky was showing scars. The song in Megha’s phone was dying. Nobody seemed to have anything more to say. Megha sighed at the silence and walked away.
They stopped calling each other and going out. No words were spoken. No break-up rituals. Through an unequal mix of bitterness and pain, Megha and Akaash turned into competitors again.
There may have been various reasons for Akaash’s emotional alienation. His inability to hold onto anything with emotional longevity. His disturbed detachment and lack of depth. The most obvious one seems to be lack of love. Akaash knew his mother had died while giving birth to him and then saw his neurosurgeon father increasingly become a withdrawn alcoholic, always spending more time in his neuro-clinic at Ganesh Talkies than he required to, always giving Akaash more money than he needed and always making sure he was left alone. His father seldom knew what he was studying or how he was doing. He never turned up on the prize days in La Martiniere for Boys where Akaash would win medals in Maths Olympiads. Dr. Sooraj Didwania was a big handsome man who towered over Akaash and stalled all efforts at affection. Akaash grew up unloved and guilty for the dead mother, a sweet stranger who smiled at him from photographs, who somehow seemed familiar, a shadow in some faded field in his mind. So when he cleared the Cost Accountancy test and joined a job at the firm four years ago, he quickly moved out of the many-roomed spectral Didwania Mansion in Jorasanko into a small apartment near Kalighat metro station to help him commute. Away from the shadows and smiles of a dead mother. Away from a three-storied ghostly gallery of a house near the Jorasanko Thakurbaari where Tagore grew up. A slice of old Kolkata where temples, sweetshops and brothels blended smells of sandesh, cheap perfumes and incense sticks; where one man could be both pimp and priest; where hand-drawn red rickshaws would tinkle across evening street lamps through rotting garlands and open drains, carrying flowers, believers and brothel-goers, sometimes together. A house where he grew up feeling unwanted and unwatched, tended to by many servants who seldom spoke unless spoken to, where nobody mentioned his mother. Where his best childhood memories included making human sketches on the walls of his room and then shooting those with an airgun a distant uncle had gifted him when he came to visit them with his very good looking daughter who happened to be Akaash’s cousin. They had kissed some years later while smoking together under the rusty old iron water tank in their massive terrace. A house where his father now lived alone. They met once a month in an old cold restaurant in Park Street. Where they would have a drink, suffer a formal conversation, order vegetarian meals and then quietly eat.
Akaash started smoking when he was fifteen, finding in cigarettes what he seldom found in people: warmth, intimacy, togetherness. He loved the feeling of burning together with tobacco, inhaling the smell of slow fire rolling into his lungs like the breath of someone he loved and lost. He had his first cigarette stealing one from his father’s coat pocket, the greatest gift his cold unloving doctor father had inadvertently given him, the warm, slow smell of decaying matter, one that quickly consumed loneliness. Soon, Akaash was smoking one packet of cigarettes per day, then three. He covered his cigarette costs by teaching maths to little boys and girls in his neighbourhood. He found love in maths at an early age; it was the closest he had ever come to knowing how to navigate his way to truth through signs and numbers. Maths taught him to long for truth, through a distrust of words and faces. Cigarettes deepened that distrust through the smell of tobacco on fire. Smoking showed him true love in burning, through the smell of something slowly coming to an end. He mixed cigarettes and maths quickly and constantly, often staying up all night smoking and scribbling away signs and numbers in blank pages that stared at him hoping to be filled in.
Perhaps smoking was what caused his illness, this rapid growth of unnatural cells that were now driving him to an early death. Perhaps Megha was his biggest chance to be normal, to be fully emotional, to live, but Akaash could never blame it on cigarettes nor lambast himself to miss the chance to be together with an intelligent, impressive woman. His life had started with loss and had grown in loss. The deadly cell-growth inside him now was also the growth of loss. Burning was the way he could be truest to his life, to his unloved guilty self. Words were only words, seldom something else.
Three days after he fell following the Demonetization Day, Akaash went to a doctor. His lungs had become a heavy blanket by then. He was asked to go through a series of increasingly painful and expensive medical tests: CT scans, bone scans, PET scans. He came by strange sounding words: Metastases, Carcinoma, Extensive Stage SCLC. Three weeks later his doctor called him and told him he had less than six months to live. Apparently he was running the last lap of life. Slowing down. Quickly crossing a closing gate. The doctor and his medical machines could only do their best to defer death.
After the brown train disappeared from his view with the sinking sunset, Akaash started walking towards the railway crossing. The knowledge that he will not live for much longer seemed to grip him with an unbearable lightness, as if his body had become a massive cigarette whose tobacco-filled core had burnt away, about to be flicked off, tossed, wasted, lost. He remembered Megha had held his face and asked him how he was, as he came to after his fall in office. He remembered he failed to say anything to Megha again, despite feeling her anxious strain. He looked at his watch and saw it was quarter to seven. Then he looked at the date again. His dinner meeting with his father was approaching. Another month was coming to an end.
When Akaash called his father, Dr. Sooraj Didwania sounded less distant than usual, suggesting they meet the next day, 30 October. He also suggested a different place, a better place. Akaash quickly agreed, not asking why. He hung up and waved down a passing taxi. The car horn screeched against the sky.
‘There’s a reason why I suggested we meet today and not the beginning of the next month.’
Dr. Sooraj Didwania, 64, still at the helm, still going strong, sat in a sofa, sipping Scotch. The band inside Trincas was playing Lennon’s Jealous Guy. The glass window stuck itself to a slice of Park Street sky.
‘30 October. It happened to be Aneesha Didwania’s birthday. The woman I loved. The woman who went away. She would have turned 60 today.’
Akaash had never known when his mother was born. No birthdays were ever celebrated in their sad Jorasanko house in old North Kolkata where the marble staircases brooded like ancient storytellers who have lost their voices. Ever since he turned ten, his father would leave an envelope each year on his birthday with an increasing number of 500 rupee notes for him to spend. Always 500s, now rendered redundant by the government. There would always be an envelope on his study table before he woke up on his birthday. He would seldom spend it all, saving it for later, for cigarettes.
‘Do you want a repeat of your drinks, sirs?’
Akaash stared at the waiter for a while and suddenly realized that he looked like Sam from the movie Casablanca. The one who played the piano. Sang As Time goes by. The one who couldn’t lie. The similarity had sprung on him, uncanny, almost funny. He remembered seeing Casablanca as a boy. He then realized his mother looked like Ingrid Bergman. From the photographs he had seen. This had never occurred to him earlier. But the more he thought of it, the more he realized how much his mother looked like the actress. Dr. Didwania ordered more Scotch for himself.
‘Aneesha had never grown old. She went away when she was 30. Happy birthday to my beautiful wife. Who never grew old because she died.’
‘I just realized she looked a lot like Ingrid Bergman, from Casablanca.’
Something rolled on the floor somewhere near. Like a big bottle cork suddenly free. It rolled on for seven seconds, more or less, smoothening the other uneven sounds across the old wooden Trincas tables warming up for evening footfalls. This was perhaps the most informal thing Akaash Didwania had ever said to Dr. Sooraj Didwania. He was surprised at himself, at the suddenness with which he said something so unbecoming of him when he and his father spoke to each other. He had planned not to speak much in order not to cough, not to give away the illness that left six months’ life in him. The two men sat across a table in Trincas remembering a dead woman on her 60th birthday. They sat shaken out of their usual stiffness, nervously nibbling something they had never shared between them, unable to figure what to say next, sipping Scotch and rum. The band had started playing Annie’s Song.
A stretch of stubborn silence followed as Dr. Sooraj Didwania sipped more Scotch and looked at his son in the eye. A son who grew up unloved, unforgiven. As he spent long OT hours tending to other people’s sons and daughters, making them, their nerves, healthier and better while his own child grew in loss. After a while, he looked away. Gently scratching his whiskey glass, flickering his gaze across the old furniture inside the restaurant. And then outside onto the passing car tops through the long Trincas glass. Slowly, a smile started to emerge in his eyes, then travelled to his lips. Five seconds later he began to quietly laugh.
‘That was the first thing I noticed about her. The first thing I said to her when we first met, as we chatted in an airport lounge while waiting for a flight.’
‘I thought the waiter who came to our table looked like Sam from Casablanca. And then I remembered the movie. And then . . .’
‘She looked exactly like Bergman. I used to call her Ingrid when we were alone. She had a cinematic grace. As if there were a black and white camera top light that never left her face. Even when she was sick and miserable; even when she lay dead.’
The two men were leaning across the old Trincas table by then, remembering a woman who never grew old. The words were warming up between her husband and her son, with bits that had never been told.
‘There’s another reason why I wanted to see you today. It was to tell you something. It’s unbelievable that you mentioned Ingrid Bergman today. It just made me so sure – that I am about to do the right thing. You never got to know Aneesha. It wasn’t your fault that she died. Far from it. You’ll now know why. Today is a special date. She died when she was 30. And that’s 30 years ago. So she’s been dead for as long as she had lived. You must be 30 too. Something seemed to add up on this date. So I wanted to see you. To tell you…’ ‘Are you ready to order your main meal sir?’
‘Can we please have something non-vegetarian tonight, something sizzling? Aneesha and I always had wine and meat sizzlers together whenever we went out.’
Dr. Didwania sipped more Scotch, in his third peg. The waiter had gone away with orders for two mixed meat sizzlers. The band was on a break. Another stretch of silence followed. But this time it was the stillness between men beginning to listen to each other with remembering minds. In a shared slice of emotion and slow time.
‘This was our favourite place. Trincas. I never came here again after Aneesha died, never in the last 30 years. Till this evening. I am so glad nothing here has changed. I have never had meat since she left me, although I tried drinking to take me away from the pain of never seeing her again. I also tried going out with other women. Of course that didn’t work. It never does. Not if you love the way we did. I could never unlove, never unremember. The roots had gone too deep. And they continued to grow. So I just ended up being an alcoholic who cheated on his dead wife. Pathetic bastard! I am 64 now. Not very old medically speaking but dying quickly. Though I may not look like it. Weak manly bastards like me never look like what they are really inside. So I just wanted to see you today… on your mother’s birthday… You’re as old now as she was when she went away… something seems to be coming to an end, I don’t know what exactly but I wanted to see you, you know, and confess something… you didn’t kill your mother. Aneesha didn’t die as you were being born, the story you have known. She died three weeks later, after you both returned to our place. Not in a hospital bed. In a car crash. She and I had gone out. I had forced her to go out with me. For a quick drink. She didn’t want to. I begged her. And then I drank. She didn’t. She insisted she’d drive back. I didn’t let her. I was too much of a man. Said I could hold two pegs of whiskey behind the wheels. I was singing, celebrating, enjoying every moment of our first drive alone in almost a year. We were almost home when the car hit a divider and overturned. I tried to swerve but couldn’t. I was drunk. I was speeding. Aneesha was sitting uneasily, still uncomfortable with her body after her pregnancy. Her face smashed against the window, broke the glass and then half her body leapt out of the car and her head hit against the railings. She was dead by the time we reached the hospital. I waited in the lounge outside, my right arm broken, my forehead bleeding, refusing to leave, refusing to be treated. When the doctor came out of the ER and stood in front of me, I understood immediately. I stood that way too after patients died. I got up, without saying a word. I stood for a few seconds, turned and then began to walk down the lounge, with my broken body that was suddenly hollow and heavy, walking towards the elevator. Then I saw a big open window and darted towards it, climbing it, trying to jump out. I hadn’t planned it. It suddenly seemed the only thing left to do. It was the fourth floor. Three men rushed towards me, I was still drunk, still slow, so they reached before I could leap. When I came back eventually, you were crying, probably hungry, probably missing your mother. I stood there staring at you. I couldn’t hate myself beyond a point, it was too painful. Too toxic. You never knew what really happened. Nobody in the house, in the family, ever talked about it. My parents had passed away before I married. My uncles, my father’s younger brothers, the ones who live in Burabazaar, came over and handled things. Someone must have phoned them. I was too numbed to know the details. The servants and the drivers were summoned and forbidden to speak about it, to mention how Aneesha really died. The police were paid not to file a case against me. And I lived, have been living, the rest of my life as an ashamed animal trying to look large. Slowly emptying out. Of life and love. Not of the loss and the shame. Those remained. Grew like cancer inside me. I killed my wife, your mother. To you I had been cruel. Clinically cruel. I was always too ashamed to get close to you. A part of me had killed a part of you. So you know, I wanted to see you on your mother’s 30th birthday and say that I am, you know, I am very…’
Dr. Didwania’s Scotch-soaked voice was drowned dramatically by the arrival of two noisy plates sizzling with mixed meat with veggies and chips. It was the small guy, the one who looked like Sam in Casablanca, who sang As Time goes by.
The two men stared at the smoke out of the burning meat, listened to the crackling veggies. Their spectacles became misty quickly but neither of them made any effort to wipe the vapour. Both wanted the wetness to stay, for different reasons.
After the mistiness of the glasses had melted away and things looked clearer, Akaash looked up and saw a weak man breaking quietly. At that moment he felt a degree of pity he had never experienced earlier. He felt stronger, surer, healthier, despite the dangerous cells inside him, despite the very little life left in him. Everything seemed to make sense suddenly, beyond maths and cigarettes; suddenly words were not so bad, his life did not seem so sad. He wanted to get up, go across and touch his father who had turned tiny by then, like a guilty child, breaking down after a long lie. The sizzle on their table had died.
The tinkle of forks and wine glasses in Trincas was beginning to blend with the quiet conversations across the tables. Akaash’s eyes caught a glimpse of the little waiter who seemed to stare at them from a corner of the restaurant, kindly, like an assurance of things becoming better. He did not kill his mother, something else did. He suddenly realized why his mother’s face seemed vaguely familiar to him from the photographs, like a faded memory folded away in some corner of his brain. He must have seen her before she died. And some part of him must have remembered her in some form, in some face. He had not been entirely motherless. The two men stared at their plates.
‘Thanks for arranging this meeting on this date, for telling me what you did. It does mean a lot. It does change things. Bon appétit. And happy birthday to Aneesha Didwania, my beautiful ma, who looked like Ingrid Bergman from Casablanca.’
Akaash managed to mutter without coughing and knifed the meat pieces that were perfectly done. Sooraj Didwania nodded nervously as he slowly forked a chunk. The unchanged smell of burnt meat inside Trincas took him to the memory of a place and time that was very dear, one which suddenly seemed very near. The father and son ate quietly, but this time feeling more free; the mists in their eyes having cleared away, they seemed planted in a corner by a Trincas window that suddenly seemed lit up in a special way. As if a black and white camera top light softly fell on their heads. Like a comforting caress.
By the time the two men stepped outside Trincas and stood on the cobbled kerb of Park Street, it was beginning to drizzle, the typical late October rain that marks the beginning of the coolness to come to Kolkata in winter. Sooraj Didwania tried to call his driver who had parked in the Loreto lane. Akaash saw him fumble with his phone and suddenly realized he is older than his father, older because he had less life left in him. Older because he knew more, because he had reached closer to death. To being dead. Like his mother. This realization seemed to seize him with an emotion he hadn’t experienced earlier, an unequal mix of pride and fear. He was in essence already a dead man. A dead star of human cells. In his afterglow. His father and he will probably have one more dinner together. And then he will become too weak to walk, to step out of a room, and those cells inside will grow into a full body, eating up his own. By that time he will also look older than his father who will come to know then. In six months Akaash will be dead. Like his beautiful mother. Dr. Didwania will continue to treat other people’s sons and daughters, making them healthier and better.
As Sooraj Didwania’s red sedan pulled over, Akaash walked up to him and the two men hugged, for the first time. His father was frail beneath his frame. Akaash felt sorry for what the man had known all his life. For what he did not know now. They hugged, the son with a silent smile, the father weak like a child. Akaash had never felt so sure, so warm, so full of life.
He grew fuller, mixing his newfound knowledge with the heavy hollowness inside his veins. There was that sound of something falling. An afterglow about to end.
Avishek Parui is Assistant Professor in English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He researches and has published academic articles on masculinity studies, memory studies and embodiment. He is also a published poet, writer and creative writing resource person trained and certified by the British Council. A list of his creative and academic achievements and publications may be viewed at his website http://avishekparui.wixsite.com/webpage