AD INFINITUM :SOMNATH BATABYAL
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Somnath Batabyal is a Research Fellow pursuing his
PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
and works on news production practices in Indian television.
* * *
Shantum loved the September mornings
in Kolkata. He always preferred to call the city that - Kolkata.
Even before the official name change, Calcutta never really
appealed to Shantum. The city brought out his bangaliana
his father would say, laughing at his sudden interest in kurta pyjamas
and Bengali women. For the rest of the year, he and his friends listened
to Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead in school.
He smiled at the memories as he walked past Lake Market. Seven in the
morning, with a week left to go for Puja, the place was already teeming
with buyers and sellers. The smell of rajnigandha, fresh roses, lilacs,
he loved the flower market here. I should buy some for Shumona, Shantum
thought. She will be surprised, he laughed not remembering the last
time he had tried to woo his wife of eight years.
Koto kore?How much? he asked, pointing
at the rajnigandhas. Seventy rupees for 12 sticks.
Less than a pound. I wouldnt get a packet of biscuits
for that in London, thought Shantum. Diye Dao, he said to
the surprised boy who was anticipating a bargain. Seeming deprived of
a fight, the boy sullenly packed the sticks in a newspaper, before wrapping
it with a white thread.
The stretch from Lake Market through Gariahat to Ballygunge station
was Shantum's favourite part of Kolkata. As a schoolboy, every summer
when he came to visit his grand parents, Shantum would take this walk
in the mid morning heat, before taking the metro from Rash Behari to
Park Street. He remembered how gratefully he would climb down the steps
of Kalighat Metro station, escaping from the sun and welcoming the shafts
of wind, which every corner of the underground seemed to unleash. In
London, people cower against the drafts, the icy wind chilling the bone
and soul, penetrating clothes and mind. In this city, the underground
tunnel was nature's way of lending a helping hand when you could not afford
Now as he walked passed the familiar footpaths, yet to succumb to the
hawkers cries, the known signboards, Deshapriya Park and Priya
Cinema, Shantum was filled with an immense urge to share this with his
Today I should take Arghya out, he thought, the same walk, the same
restaurant, the kulfi faluda at Rallis on Esplanade. Its not very
hot this time of the year. Arghya loves the sun. Deprived of it in London,
the boy spends hours happily in their second floor Ballygunge house,
basking in the late afternoon glow with his grand mother.
Ma refuses to leave Kolkata. Even five years after his fathers
death, his mother clings to the house. Sell it, ma, and come with
me. We can look after you in London, Shantum had pleaded.
But she wouldnt budge.
She was never this stubborn, thought Shantum as he stepped over the
tramlines and turned on to Ballygunge Station Road. In fact, she had
been the easy going one in the family, the one who always smelled of
good food and love, sweat and joy. Her behaviour was completely out
of character, he thought as he walked past the teashops lining the railway
The conversations at the tea shops sounded familiar, cricket, the non-inclusion
of the Bengali captain in the national team and the coming elections
in the state. Shantum looked at his watch. Seven forty. He had time
for a quick tea.
Arre dada, aashun aashun, a tea stall owner called out to
Shantum, seeing him look around. Two men made space for him on the one
bench at the stall. More a shack, really, amongst many others that line
the Ballygunge station road, made up of sticks and straws, tarpaulin
and trauma. Biscuits, cigarettes and tea, basic fare but every teashop
had their regular customers each morning. He ordered for a tea. Dada,
cigarette? Why not, he thought. He hadnt smoked in several
months now, part of the strict routine he had been put on by his doctor
Again he wondered why Ma had become so obstinate. It made him feel guilty
to leave her here. I cant come to London to assuage your
guilt, Shontu, ma had quietly told him last night and there the
matter ended. It was perhaps in the way she got the house and reclaimed
her space in Kolkata that makes her so attached to this place. She had
stayed away from Kolkata for too long for her to move again. Not that
Shantum wanted to sell the house. He liked it, its oldness. Its
the English in me, Shantum smiled to himself. The love for all things
big and old, archaic and colonial.
And then again, why not. He had grown up in two small rooms with his
parents and sister in a town indistinguishable from the hundreds which
people cross on trains on their way to somewhere else. He remembered
the constant fights of the neighbours, the slum across the window, his
mothers tired face. Privacy came at a premium in the house, hiding
on the terrace amongst old and worn out furniture and other cast-aways.
This terrace was his own space. A space where a mat could be spread
out and the entire sky became accessible. Watching Star Trek serials,
Shantum had wanted to be an astronaut, crisscrossing across the Milky
Way. It was here on summer evenings his father told him stories of impossible
daring, of romances that stretched across the seven seas and the thirteen
rivers. These were his spaces.
But reality refused to fade. The two rooms, the incessant noise, the
bickering of family, they clawed back. His friends now tell him that
most memories of their childhood were inflated, made bigger as time
passed. He thought of Anton, his Greek colleague who laughs every time
he speaks of his fathers boat, which, as a child to him seemed
bigger than the Titanic. Seeing the same boat, thirteen years later,
after the ship had been firmly etched in memory, courtesy Hollywood,
Anton had been shocked at its smallness. I had no such luxury, thought
Shantum. Everything I knew was small, or short, or tiny.
Thus his craze for space! He remembered how much he loved the Enid Blyton
stories. George of the Famous Five had an entire island to herself.
She and her cousins went to beaches and solved mysteries in lighthouses
on stormy nights. He laughed aloud at himself. Every time he saw a lighthouse,
he still thought of sinister smugglers.
His sudden laughter shook the cup he held. He felt hot tea on his hand
and sat up exasperated. One more, sir, the man behind the
stove asked. No, it was getting a bit late. Shumona would be up and
Ma would soon be leaving for school. He paid and started walking briskly
Four years since ma retired from the neighbourhood school. But she still
goes twice a week to teach the students music. The staff doesnt
mind, and the children love her. Sixty nine this year and she still
hasnt lost an iota of melody.
My nightingale, baba would call ma. Her voice would fill
up the house, push back the walls, fill up every nook and corner. Even
the neighbours stopped their quibbling when ma sang. Baba had many stories
of ma singing. He insisted that ma had wooed baba in college by singing
him old romantic hindi film songs. Baba was a sucker for old film songs,
Shantum thought as he stepped into the bylane leading to his house.
We always went out in groups, you know, baba would say.
None of this new fangled dating for us. But when your mother sang,
I knew she sang for me. Ma would laugh and say never, it was Arijit
whom she fancied. Bloody capitalist, baba would retort of
Arijit kaku. Baba loved his communist pretensions, along with his love
for the English and Nirad C Choudhury, thought Shantum. More English
than the English, you know, baba would say admiringly of Choudhury.
That was a long walk. Ma just left, Shumona said reproaching
as he came in through the open door. I know, I had crossed the
Milky Way to get you these; he said handing the flowers to his
surprised wife. King of overstatements, arent you,
she laughed unable to hide her pleasure. A trait I have got from my
father, thought Shantum as he went into the shower. I am taking Arghya
out today, we will go and have a kulfi at Rallis, he shouted to Shumona
through the door. She was going to her sisters place in Howrah
for the day. A father and son excursion, thought Shantum happily.
The water was refreshingly cool after the long walk. Shantum closed
his eyes. Yes, baba always overstated, he thought. Even the small things
had to be magnified, oversold. The same excursion he was about to undertake
with his son, his baba and he, they had done the same. How many years
ago was it? He must have been around Arghyas age. Thirty four
He recalled his baba telling him the night before about the size of
the kulfi. This big, baba said, hands at least a foot apart.
Do not eat too much break fast. Otherwise you will not be able
to finish it. Shantum not only refused breakfast, he remembered
sitting for an inordinately long time in the loo trying to empty his
stomach of every food particle possible. He really wanted to finish
the kulfi. Baba had promised it was heaven.
Kolkata in those days were yet to experience the pleasures of underground
travel. The bus ride was joyless. It must have been summers, or I could
not wait to get to that big kulfi, Shantum thought ruefully.
After more than two hours on the bus, when they finally reached Esplanade
and weaved their way through the teeming millions to Rallis, the place
was crowded to the point of bursting. Shantum clearly remembered waiting
in line to be seated alongwith other people. Dont we get
a table of our own? Shantum had asked his father, clearly disappointed
at the shared tables. He had conjured up visions of grandeur from his
fathers talk. At least the kulfi will be big. Forty five minutes
later, when the kulfi came, Shantum was bitterly disappointed. Where
was the foot long slab of heaven which his father had promised? What
was in front of him was not more than three inches in size. Kemon,
asked his father expectantly as they both tucked into the ice cream.
Darun, baba he smiled, unable to deflate his fathers
happiness. Wonderful, he gushed.
No wonder my entire childhood seemed small, thought Shantum, toweling.
Nothing could live up to my fathers talk. Arghya, came running
to him as he walked out of the bathroom. When are you leaving,
he asked Shumona, picking up the still sleepy boy.
I am out in an hour, she replied. Can you please give
Arghya his cornflakes and make sure he brushes his teeth first,
she called out from the bedroom. Putting tooth paste on the childs
brush, Shantum handed it to him. Ma said we are going out baba.
Yes, said Shantum. We are going to have an Indian
Whats that, the child asked. Well,
you will see for yourself. I hope you will like it, Shantum said smiling,
watching Arghya brush.
I hate the underground, baba, Arghya said. Why couldnt
we take the car? Because your mother had to go in it; the
underground doesnt go to Howrah, he told his by now slightly
sweaty son. But the underground goes everywhere, said Arghya.
Not here, it doesnt. Shantum thought.
The Kolkata metro, much vaunted and the pride of the city was just a
single track covering a few kilometers of the city. Most people were
divorced from its joys, thought Shantum grimacing as he climbed onto
a crowded compartment with Arghya.
Shantum was surprised when he came to Rallis. The place wore a deserted
look. The crowds which had thronged the place of his child hood had
moved on to newer, fancier establishments. Rallis looked positively
seedy. Shantum stood outside, unsure. Arghya tugged at his hand and
said baba, can we go somewhere else?
Shantum picked the boy up. No, Arghya, lets eat the Indian ice
cream and then we will go somewhere else. I promise, he said.
The kulfi, if anything had become even smaller, the syrupy red liquid
poured on top of it, looked synthetic and doubtful. Kemon,
asked Shantum hesitantly to his son. The five year old looked up, mouthful
of cream and smiled. Darun baba, first class, he replied.
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