By Ankita Banerjee
The skyscrapers along the nameless street grew four times bigger that afternoon, like a dozen of Hulks coming to life all at once. I picked up pace, but tripped over something and fell down on the sidewalk. The result was a palpable twinge on my left arm. There was a clothesline tied across what seemed to my eight-year-old self as two gigantic green skyscrapers and on it hung my mother’s petticoats and a pair of her old red ribbons. “Slow down, it’s going to pour,” she called out to me from faraway. But I was so close to where I wanted to be; I couldn’t wait.
“Fresh catches for only 50 taka (rupees in Bengali) per kilo!” fishmongers cried from the ferry terminal down the street. I walked down gingerly through its slushy stairs. Across the mighty river, Chandannagar sparkled with lights that brought to life mythological birds and animals and vivid blooming flowers sketched on display boards. And then I saw the silvery hilsa (fish found in the Indian subcontinent) — gleaming with a touch of regal pink, stacked all around.
I was still eight, sitting at the doorstep of my mother’s old kitchen and watched her fry ring-shaped pieces of the hilsa in mustard oil. She put two heaped spoons of steamed rice on my plate and mixed it with the oil of hilsa roe and a pinch of salt with her turmeric stained peaky fingers. “Let me pick out the bones for you,” the warmth in her voice echoed from the other end of time and coiled into a globe of ache in my chest. The pain on my left arm was no longer obscure.
“Pardon my intrusion, but you need to wake up right now, Paro,” Smith purred from my bedside table. The sleep recorder badge on my chest felt unusually warm under the soaked nightshirt. It took me a while to realize that I had woken up from the dream.
“Let me sleep, will you?” I snapped at my nosy virtual care assistant.
What if it was my last dream? The doc said one of the most evident side effects of the treatment could be memory loss. What will I dream once my consciousness goes through the reboot? But he said a clean memory palette is just what I need for the age reversal to work.
Perhaps it was the tranquilizers he gave me the other day or because I have been floundering about in the hollowness of desolation in search of a fantastic chaos for so long, I believed in the process.
“Going by the AHI report you were having more than 30 events per hour. You were on the verge of having a stroke,” Smith explained from the watch OS 18.1, interrupting my chain of thoughts.
Sometimes I consider buying one of those artificial sleep inducer eye pads for apnoea, but they cost $500 now. According to Smith’s research, a Noida based start-up has announced to launch it by the end of 2051. I’m waiting for the price to drop then.
“Or you can take care of the Mars property before the real estate saturates over there and get the pad any day,” Smith proposed. I hate it when the artificial intelligence(AI) comprehends my thoughts.
I went to the kitchen, opened the blinds and put water in the electric kettle for tea. A man filled his tub from the water ATM across the street under the canopy of pink sky in a city that looked like a surreal concoction of cacophony of the past and the futility of its ensuing.
Emptiness of Calcutta at this hour creeps into my aging bones whenever I wake up this early. Strange to say, I hardly ever think of the old allies of Naihati. But I still remember each crack of damp on the wall of our old house the way one remembers the gentleness of summer vacations in her lonely twilight years.
The day I left home to come to the big city for college mother said in a brittle voice, “You will forever be a Calcuttan now. You will forget all about this small town.” She sighed the way all mothers sigh over children’s hard choices.
But, sometimes, when I close my eyes to focus on my breathing as the doc suggested, I can still hear howls of the jackals that populated the cemetery on the far side of our old house. Even the clink-clanks of evening street vendors selling friend lentil cakes are still frozen in my memory, but I could no longer remember the girl I once was.
The doc said the ghoul in my genes feels haunting melancholia even when she gets free rides in the amusement park. “In most cases, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is genetic. But the age reversal treatment could also detox your mental health to some extent,” he had faintly assured me.
“Let’s skip the mind chatter, Paro. Today’s going to be a good day, don’t worry,” Smith barked from the machine, intruding into my introspection again.
I hate to admit, but his programmed compassion filled me with an uncanny comfort. It was closest to a fulfilling relationship I’d had in years.
“Thanks. Could you play some Hemanta Mukherjee songs for me? Have I told you the ones mother used to like?” I asked.
“You sure did, but I will play the list on our drive to the ghat. We don’t want to be late.”
The AI calculated the time right. I was told they run out of fishes soon after the sun is up.
I took a sip of basil tea gazing at the familiar quaintness of my city through the heat resistant glass window and pictured my mother’s turmeric stained fingers picking out the fish bones from my plate.
It was her death anniversary. She would never know how miserably I miss her and her hilsa.
I was never an ardent fish lover, but I loved cooking — maybe because I grew up watching my mother spend most of her time in the kitchen. She never sat idle; mostly because there was no domestic help or a car to make her life easier.
The year I turned 14, father took us to the beach for the first time. On the first night there we had dinner at a local dhaba (small street side restaurant). Immediately after taking the first bite of the egg in her curry mother said, “This doesn’t smell right”. We asked her to throw it out, but she said, “One plate costs 20 rupees! I can’t waste that money”. Next day she woke up with a horrible food poisoning. That year my mother took the longest time off from household chores; five days of complete bed rest.
When I moved to America for higher studies I took along my mother’s recipe journal, just in case I missed Bengali food. It stayed inside my cupboard for years, until I moved in with Asim after marriage.
I cooked Sorshe Pabda with Dijon mustard, nigella seeds and lots of green chillies, Prawn Malaikari with coconut milk, cream and cashew paste in the weekends and felt complacent about my homemaking skills for a brief period of time.
Eventually as we got busy dealing with the after-effects of financial crisis of 2008, salmon and tuna replaced pabda (fish found in South and South East Asia)and katla (South Asian carp), lean meat replaced mutton kosha (dry preparation of goat meat), couscous salad replaced puffed rice snacks.
But whenever mother called I could hear the echo of a longing for the aroma of her spices fused to the clanking of iron spatula.
“Do you get fish roe there?” one day she asked during our lunch time phone call.
“They were selling fresh rohu fish roe in the market today. I thought of buying some, but then changed my mind.”
“Why is that?”
She fell silent for a while, and then slowly said, “Do you remember how you would insist me to fry the roe with poppy seeds?”
“And you would scowl at me saying those are too expensive to use on whims in a lower middle class home.”
I realized I had poked the dragon, but it was too late already. She started sobbing.
“It’s been three years since you came home, Paro. Don’t you wish to see your mother? You are so far away…it pains me so much…”
“Come on, Maa, you know my creative arts degree from NYU would be a total waste in India.”
“I understand all that, but my heart doesn’t. You won’t understand the pain yet.”
“It’s just because you are getting old.”
She paused again. This time little longer. “Will you be coming home for Durga Puja?”
“I’m not sure. We are planning to go on a cruise vacation during Christmas holidays. I don’t think we can afford two big trips in one year. May be next year…”
I lied to her.
Asim and I were already living 2,710 miles apart. After I was fired and took off my honeymoon goggles, I realized I didn’t want to live like a middle class millennial, doused in the cracks of damp walls and global job insecurity. I craved for a change.
But by then Asim had invested all of our savings in a start-up with one of his old colleagues. “Things will look up very soon, don’t worry” he assured me. “May be its time you take a break and think of starting a family.” But I wasn’t ready to walk on someone else’s path, let alone bringing a new life in this messed up world.
“Creative entrepreneurship is no joke,” Asim once said during one of our heated arguments. “I had a list of 13 clients in hand before we even completed registrations for the start-up. What do you have?”
“Designing works differently.” My voice dried.
“Look around! Is this the time to take a professional risk?” he sneered.
“If not now, then when, Asim?” I stood alone in the rabbit hole.
A few weeks later I left our home in Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles to attend a year-long fully-funded artist residency program. I started working on my first editorial illustration there, which later ended up winning a national award.
But when my heart turned colder and the crease between my brows grew taller, I would remind myself why I first left my home, then my country and my marriage. I would remind myself I was the daughter of a woman who couldn’t waste a rotten egg. I would remind myself I wasn’t ready to walk in her shoes in a crumbling economy.
That year instead of going on the fake Christmas cruise vacation, I visited a gynaecologist. Going through the abortion was the biggest price I will ever have to pay for being pragmatic, I thought.
I was wrong.
Two years later, on the fifth day of southwest monsoon, my mother died in her sleep.
I couldn’t see her when she was alive and longed to see me and I couldn’t be there when she died. When I finally reached home, she was turned into a bowl of ashes and bones.
My mother’s tears were the swash marks on a blotting paper. On the day I received my visa to study in America, she handed me a bundle of crisp Gandhi notes and said, “This is to keep you going until you find a part time job over there.” But all her money went towards paying for my college already. “Don’t worry, I have enough to get by,” she said gently.
But I wasn’t convinced.
“I sold off a few of my ornaments and the harmonium your grandfather gifted me on my wedding day.”
She lightly stroked my hair and said with a crack in her voice, “You will buy me a new harmonium once you’d become a big artist, won’t you?”
That day I promised myself I would buy her the world when I was big enough.
But her ashes were transmuted into ether by the time my 3D illustration of the headless crow received 4 million shares on social media, when I became the avant-garde editorial illustrator in the West Coast and had enough in my bank account to build a new world for her.
What if the age reversal treatment really works? Will Maa stop coming to my dreams? Worse still, what if she comes one day and I fail to recognize her?
The ghat ( riverside) woke up before dawn. Hindus lined up to worship the river through a barricade; priests sat in a line selling buckets of holy water for the devotees to cleanse their feet and mouth. Except the priests and a select few, nobody was allowed to wash their sins in the river any more. The barricade in the ghat read: “Trespassers will be fined”.
“300 taka for one glass of ganga jal! 700 for a bottle!” the priests cried in unsynchronized chorus. I looked at the sooty water and tried to imagine how different life would have been if we had taken water contamination seriously when there was still time to save what was left. And my doc thinks not everything in life is morbid, eh?
“It’s sad, really,” Smith remarked.
“Stop being spooky or I will change your settings once and for all.”
“I know you won’t. I am your friend.”
I scoffed at his battery controlled chutzpah.
I walked past the crowd and took the alley behind Shiva temple.
“Wasn’t it a cobbled street?” I murmured to myself.
“That was years ago,” Smith chimed in again. “Things change when you are away for too long.”
I carefully stepped on the moss and mud covered path with trembling feet and prayed that I would not to fall on my face or break the hip.
“Are you sure you are going to do this?” Smith popped the question that had been bothering me all this while.
“I must,” I hissed at him and continued walking towards the fish smugglers.
Every household has a story that turns into a family classic over time.
My maternal grandfather was a fisherman in Dhaka before he came to India during the Partition with his family and 10 kilos of hilsa fish. They had lost everything on the other side of the border, except catches from the night before. My grandfather sold the fish for 100 rupees when he reached independent India to start a new life. “Had it not been for the hilsa we would have died begging for a plate of rice and lentil,” my mother would say near the end of that story. One day the story really got to me and I sneered, “I think we Bengalis make too much fuss over fish.”
She smiled at me and said, “We have our reasons, silly girl. Unlike the ones you find at the sea, hilsa from the river mouth has a unique sweetness. But most of all…”
“What?” I asked vaguely.
“It brings you closer to your long gone home.”
I stood in the midst of mud crabs, oysters and jellyfishes. My calculations had gone amiss. I was told it was the only up and running black market in the city where hilsas are smuggled these days, but now I couldn’t see any. When I asked around, people laughed. “Are you new here? All the hilsas died long ago” they said. One poacher got nostalgic. “I caught the last one in 2042. A 1.8 kilo one, can you imagine? But those days are gone, didi (elder sister). You can’t get a single hilsa even if you turn the river upside down now,” he said.
He was right. Even the freshwater carps are now sold at a price of delicacies. Bengal is no longer allowed to sell fish and seafood in the open market. But I couldn’t give up trying to find the last piece of hilsa. I owed it to my long gone home.
“I was told there is a guy who might have one or two for sell. Do you know any such poacher?” I asked him.
He paused for a while and then said in a hushed tone, “You know you could be jailed for this, don’t you?”
“Today is my mother’s death anniversary. I need to do this.”
I don’t know if he too had lost someone, but he gave me a kind smile and said, “Go behind the last tarpaulin shed and ask for Ronie.”
Sometimes in the middle of the whirlwind of life and beyond, I see my mother struggling to sprawl out of a jar. I think it was the one where she used to store her sweet mango pickle. I question my sanity when I think of this. But then again, aren’t all memories eventually metamorphosed into redolence? Like the menthol in the mouth of your first lover, onions in the chow mein from the lunchbox you shared with your favourite friend in the dark days of high school, the earthy aroma of that moreish afternoon when you curled up in the arms of your man and watched the most fabulous sunset together, or the smell of your mother’s sweat when she tucked you into bed at night…
There comes a time in every woman’s life when she can no longer see herself in the mirror without seeing a reflection of her mother in it. For me, that moment never arrived.
But when I came out of the black market holding 50,000 rupees worth of smuggled hilsa in my hand, I saw the refugee in my mother smirking at my extravagant redressal, with a twinkle in her eyes.
“You won’t forget the sparkle, Paro. I have saved it in my memory.” Smith beamed from my Apple watch.
Ankita Banerjee is a short story writer and poet based in Pune, India. Her works have appeared in The Bangalore Review, Coldnoon – International journal of travel writing & travelling cultures, Eunoia Review, Matter Press, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine,Women’s Web and others. Her first short fiction series has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2019. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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