Where new writing finds its voice
Featured Author

Unreal City

Pia Chatterjee


As part of Pen Pusher’s dedication to finding the best new writing voices, we will now be exclusively showcasing longer stories and chapters from talented, up-and-coming authors.

Our featured author for PP12 is Pia Chatterjee. Pia’s short story My Stalker was published in Pen Pusher 10, and we received a record number of emails from readers saying how much they enjoyed the piece. 

She has recently completed her first novel Unreal City, set in Calcutta in the early nineties. Having read a few chapters, PP feels sure that you will be hearing much more about Pia in the very near future. Enjoy.


* * *



The monsoons were late this year. On Monday afternoon, three days after the rains had been expected, Jita was leaning out on the terrace, her elbows grooved with the patterns of the wrought-iron railing. Rajiv Gandhi, the youthful ex-prime minister of the country, had been assassinated and even though the curfew had lifted in Calcutta, the city was uncertain of its peace. There were still riots in Punjab and Bihar, and while these places felt very far away to sixteen-year-old Jita, her stepfather Ashoke had been uncharacteristically strict about staying indoors.

‘Bengalis are way too timid to riot,’ Jita had argued, yet again, this morning.

‘They rioted well enough in 1942,’ Ashoke had said, turning the pages of The Statesman

The front page featured a black and white picture of Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral pyre, with widowed Sonia and the children watching the flames. Below, the title of the story professed: ‘Growing fears about the world’s largest democracy’.

‘Bapi! That was almost fifty years ago.’ Jita cried. ‘Forty-nine, to be perfectly exact.’

She had inherited her turn of phrase from her mother and her love of mathematical preciseness from her stepfather.

‘Hmmm.’ Ashoke sipped tea from his gold-edged porcelain cup, and Jita knew that she was not going to win this argument. 

So she whiled away the afternoon on the terrace, watching the activities in Deshapriya Park, ragged, homeless children playing football, and shirtless peddlers resting under the gulmohur trees. Parallel to the park, with its asphalt melting in shiny patches, ran Rashbehari Avenue where the silver-and-blue state buses were operating on the regular schedule, and a hand-drawn rickshaw was ferrying a middle-aged woman back to her home or maybe to the market. Things were totally back to normal, Jita thought, squinting into the sun. Bapi lived in some other world.

Truly, these had been the worst holidays. The assassination had happened right at the beginning of her summer vacation and she had been forced to cancel her trip to Goa. It would have been the first time that she’d travelled with Neha and Simran, her best friends, without the presence of interfering parents. Jita had been so very excited about the holiday; in fact, even now her backpack sulked in the corner of her room, still full of cotton skirts, swimsuits, and flip-flops. She had looked forward to swimming in the ocean and lazing about on the beach with her friends. Instead here she was, stuck at home.

Below the terrace, the vast house was silent and dark – the slatted wooden windows shuttered against the relentless Calcutta afternoon, the curtains still in the airless quiet. The maids had retired to the veranda, leaning against the cool metal of the grilles, cracking betel nuts and gossiping quietly. Jita’s mother Suhashini was in the big room, asleep or reading.

Jita should have been asleep too, taking her after-lunch nap. It was expected of her. Many things were expected from the women in her family. And her cheerful disregard of all the rules was beginning to puzzle her tolerant, affectionate stepfather. To him, it seemed that by spending her afternoons on the terrace, under the desperate glare of the sun, Jita was not only ruining her complexion, but also refusing to participate in the small rituals that made up the fabric of family life, as Bengalis in Calcutta knew it.  

But Jita hated sleeping during the day. To her it seemed a terrible bore, and something best undertaken after one turned sixty. Instead, from her post on the terrace, she watched a young man as he made his way across the dusty expanse of Deshapriya Park. Often, he paused to look up at the burning sky, not with the distress of a native Bengali, but with interest and curiosity. He was clearly foreign. One of those odd birds of paradise who find their migratory way to India in December, the bands of foreign-born desis who winter in Calcutta. But what was he doing here in June?

It was not at all unusual that this stranger had worn a black T-shirt when any Bengali with half a brain would wear pale cotton kurtas and know to walk along in the shade of the trees instead of crossing the park through the centre, as this idiot was doing. What was odd was that he had ventured out in the hottest part of the day – surely even a firangi had to have more sense.

So, at first, it was out of lazy curiosity that Jita watched him; and then, as he drew closer, because he was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. She watched him as he walked along the grass, and then leaned over the railings to see him cross the road, and amazingly, make his way down to the street to her own front gate. The young man got out a scrap of paper from his pocket, consulted it and as he reached for the bell, Jita heard the silvery chimes ring out melodiously through the house.

When she finally comprehended that the address the stranger sought was her own, Jita rushed from the terrace, scalding her soles on the burning cement, and sped down the marble curve of the magnificent stairs of her family home, telling herself that there was no way at all that this awfully cute guy could be looking for any of them. 

At the bottom of the stairs, Jita took a deep breath, smoothed down her cotton dress, tried to mimic her mother’s stately expression and opened the door.

Anil smiled before he spoke and, ducking his head, wiped off the sweat that had trickled on to his lashes.

‘Hey, so sorry to bother you at such a weird time,’ he said in a clearly American accent. ‘I’m Anil Banerjee, visiting from California – I was wondering if I could meet Suhashini Chaudhuri? I’m her nephew – Raja Banerjee’s son.’

He made a mess of her mother’s name. Yet, incredibly, and for the first time in her life, Jita found herself tongue-tied. She had not expected to be related to this hunk and his introduction was a bit of a shock. Flapping her arms in the general direction of the front room, she fled with a burning face to find her mother, astonished and annoyed at her inability to construct a sentence. 

Her mother, always the perfect homemaker, had begun to make her way down the stairs to greet the unexpected guest. That afternoon, saffron sari wrapped about her long frame, her hair a gleaming rope behind her back, Suhash blinked her sun-dazzled eyes at the stranger, and smiled her signature ‘welcome to our home’ smile. Looking into Anil’s stunned face, Jita felt a rush of satisfaction at the effect of her mother’s beauty, mingled with the stirrings of envy that Suhash’s physical presence unfailingly inspired in her.

Her mother was saying, ‘Really? Rajada’s son? Yes, of course, how like him you look. When I last saw you, you were only a boy!’ 

Speaking in English for Anil’s benefit, her voice had taken on what Jita teasingly labelled her posh British accent, as it always did when she spoke of England or of Jita’s father, who was now suddenly also Anil’s Uncle Rabin. 

Rabin, whose story Jita knew like the back of her own hand; who, fourteen years ago, in the university town of Oxford, had crashed his bike into a bus on his way back from the Covered Market, where he had gone shopping for the groceries for the week. He had been rushed to the hospital, and her mother had waited there, at the Radcliffe Infirmary, to hear the doctors pronounce him dead. He had been dead when he was brought in, they’d told her. Twenty-six years old, with the rest of his life beckoning like a shady path on a summer’s day, Suhash’s first husband died on the corner where Cornmarket Street met Broad Street.

His last words to her had been, ‘Do we need more milk?’

And Suhash’s last words to her young husband had been, ‘No.’

They had both been busy, her mother washing up the dishes from the night before, getting ready to go into the library where she worked part-time. And Rabin had expected to be back in less than half an hour, and then he would have taken Jita into the park to feed the ducks.

Instead, he died. Jita had been told this tale a million times by her elderly grandparents, Dadubhai and Didi, and by Naraner Ma, the maid, but never by Suhash herself. On dull moments, Jita played around with the idea of how different life would have been had Rabin not died in that most irresponsible manner, and they had continued to live in Oxford. She always thought of him as Rabin, as opposed to Baba, or Dad, and never as an adult, but only as a young scholar, riding a bike through cobbled streets. 

 Had their life continued on in Oxford, Jita thought irritably, surely she would not have been so easily dispatched to wake the maids for such an appallingly late lunch, and upon her return with a glass of lemonade quaking on a flowered saucer, find her mother and Anil settled in the front room, smugly delighted to discover that they had both read at the same college at Oxford.

Feeling rather squashed at the ease and the adult elegance of the other two, Jita tried to insert herself into the conversation.

‘So what brings you to Calcutta, Anil? Vacation?’ Jita asked. 

She deliberately did not append da – or big brother – to her guest’s name as convention dictated. Had Bapi been around, he would have corrected her. 

‘I wish,’ Anil said, looking at her at last. ‘I guess for a vacation. I would have visited in winter, as my Lonely Planet tells me to – it’s so much hotter than I expected it to be. I’m actually here on work. It’s my first job after journalism school.’

Anil paused to gulp down his lemonade while Jita tried to not stare at his slender, long-lashed face. 

‘I’m supposed to write about the socio-economic situation in India. California’s had this sudden influx of Indian engineers, and my paper wants to increase readership among them. I was picked because I speak Hindi,’ Anil explained. ‘Mom made sure I learnt Hindi and Bengali. All those lessons are finally paying off.’

‘But why Calcutta?’ Jita questioned, finally shedding some of her awkwardness. ‘Why not Delhi or Bombay? Bombay’s pretty great.’ 

‘Because I have family here. I’ve never been to any of the other Indian metros, but I’ve visited Calcutta before. My first trip was when I was five, about which I remember nothing, but I was here again at seven, to attend a wedding.’

Anil paused, looked at her mother who opened her mouth to speak, but seemed to think better of it. Anil too, shifted in his seat, before continuing, ‘I really had a fantastic time, staying up late, eating too much, riding my bike around the house without anyone telling me off, but then I got really, really sick – typhoid from contaminated water – and had to be hospitalised for weeks. My parents never let me visit India again. But I always intended to come back and get to know my family, get acquainted with you guys.’

‘Us?’ Jita asked, incredulously.

‘I’ve always wanted to get to know my Indian family.’ Anil was smiling. ‘Dadubhai’s not getting any younger, and I wanted to spend some quality time with him. I’ve heard so much about him from my Dad. Besides, Calcutta seems such a storied city – the British capital…’

‘The capital moved to Delhi, Calcuttans were too troublesome – too many freedom fighters,’ Jita interrupted, flaunting her knowledge of Indian history. ‘Like Dadubhai,’ she added, referring to the fact that her grandfather had joined the Independence movement in the early 1940s.

‘The Communist Government, Presidency College, Mother Teresa’s orphanages, the IIT campus so close by,’ Anil continued, obviously having read his guidebook.

‘Jita is applying there next year,’ Suhash said.

‘Really?’ Anil turned to Suhash. ‘She must be so bright! I’ve heard that only the super smart go there.’

Suhash smiled and looked away. She fingered the fringe of her cotton sari.

‘Let’s hope she works hard,’ Suhash said. ‘Please, you should eat your lunch before it gets cold.’

The small group proceeded to the dining table and after lunch, Anil left, promising to be in touch.

From the living room window, Jita watched as Anil descended into the street. He looked in the wrong direction up the street and sauntered across Rashbehari Avenue, causing a taxi to come to an abrupt halt. Jita felt quite certain that they’d never see Anil again – he’d move to Bombay as soon as he’d figured out how dull, dull, dull, Calcutta was. 

Jita stayed by the window, watching her new-found cousin cross the park, as her mother went in search of the maid. ‘The dishes need clearing and the roses are drooping,’ Suhash said to no one in particular, pausing at the foot of the stairs, fingers on the polished balustrade. She looked absently at the door from which Anil had just departed. ‘He does have a passing resemblance to your father, Jita, especially around the mouth, when he smiles. It’s a bit disconcerting, really.’

And then she shook her head, and disappeared up the stairs, leaving Jita in her seat by the window, feeling confused and faintly guilty – but for what, she could not quite say.


* * *


On his way back from Suhash’s mansion, Anil overheard a young man scolding another for spitting on the street. ‘Do you want Calcutta to be called a dying city again?’ the stranger yelled, and Anil slowed down to eavesdrop on the conversation. 

During his research, Anil had read of the indignation that Rajiv Gandhi had caused by labelling Calcutta a dying city, but he had not realised that the comment had left such a lasting wound. On the pretext of reading a poster, Anil stopped and watched the interaction.

As the stranger glared, his friend looked ashamedly at the spot of phlegm on the sidewalk. ‘There’s nowhere else,’ he muttered. 

‘So what? Would you piss on your bed if your bathroom was occupied?’

Anil began to laugh despite himself. The two men looked at him angrily and walked away, muttering in Bengali, leaving the spot of phlegm gleaming jewel-like on the grimy pavement, lit by the last rays of the late summer sun.

Anil was overwhelmed by Calcutta. Not just because of the heat, though he was sweating like an animal, but because the teeming, mammoth city – so dense with people that the crowds often seemed to consist not so much of humans as of ants or sheep, jostling busily, unthinkingly, on their way to somewhere else – felt wholly alien to Anil. Thick with petrol fumes and dust, lit by the fierce, unfriendly sun, and raucous with opinions, laughter, conversations, and scoldings that Anil overheard constantly and unwillingly, this city was a different being altogether from Berkeley or San Francisco, calm Californian cities that respected Anil’s privacy and love of peace.

Calcutta, in these few short days, had shown no such respect. Its potholed pavements tripped him as he walked, its thick, soupy air made him cough and sneeze, and its cacophonous, urgent cries – peddlers hawking colourful, useless wares, armless beggars pleading for coins, touts whispering temptations in some unintelligible dialect, honks, whistles, rattles, thumps, Calcutta caught Anil by the collar and shook him each time he left the peace of his sealed, air-conditioned hotel lobby.

And the smells of this city! Never before had Anil’s olfactory nerves been so assailed. He quite liked a number of these smells – the sharp ripeness of mangoes, the citrus of the limes being juiced right outside his hotel gates, the spice of the gugni cooking in the Esplanade. But a whole gamut of other scents were less salubrious: the stinking armpits of shirtless men who ferried monstrous bundles of unknown goods on their heads and cursed Anil as he got in their way, the cheap perfume of the whispering touts as they sidled up to him on the pavement. And then there were the wholly putrid smells that made Anil gag and hurry away as quickly as he could – the rotting stench of the dog carcass on Park Street, the sour reek that rose from the gutters, the fumes of urine at the edge of New Market. 

Anil had taken to carrying a small hand towel with him and he had learnt, when encountering the worst of the stinks, to wrap his nose within its folds, and breathe through his mouth. Already this had made his life a bit easier, as the towel came in handy to wipe off sweat on the hottest days, for the much-anticipated monsoon had still not arrived, and the city continued to swelter. 

 And, Anil wondered, with growing anxiety, where in this noisy, frantic, overheated city of a thousand smells could he find a place to live? Descending from the plane, he had checked into a five-star hotel, telling himself that he deserved a treat for landing a job, but now he needed to find a permanent place to stay. When converted to rupees, the stipend from his writing job was just about enough to pay for his upkeep, but not if he lived in the Grand Hotel. 

He had begun to look around for a rental, first desultorily and then with growing concern. No one would rent to a stranger. The papers were full of details on how the terrorists who had blown up Rajiv had a largish base in the city, and all landlords were openly suspicious of Anil.

‘If you have family in the city, why don’t you live with them? Why spend good money on a room?’ the last landlord had asked, frowning behind a barely open door. But Anil wanted a place of his own. A place where he could write uninterruptedly, get in late at night, maybe invite a few friends, and hopefully entertain a girlfriend or two.

Every day he scanned the rental section of The Telegraph, made calls from the local phone booth – the hotel charged a ridiculous seven rupees per call – and took taxis to increasingly remote locations, where open gutters gushed with soapy water and the narrow lanes got curlier and more residential, as they moved away from the business centre of Park Street and Camac Street.

As Anil sped from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, he saw young maids lugging home fat bags of groceries, grandfathers going for walks, leaning on canes and gossiping quietly to each other, and children returning from school, with carelessly carried satchels and bright water bottles slung from small shoulders.

Even further away from the city centre, the lanes became narrow and dark, and yellow dogs gathered about the garbage that lay in street corners, and Anil, shuddering at a sight of a rat unhurriedly crossing the street, asked the cab driver to take him back to the hotel.

The longer he spent on the streets of the city, the more it seemed to Anil that Calcutta in 1991 was a city reinventing itself. He had taken himself to the archives of The Statesman and read some of the old newspapers. He discovered that Rajiv Gandhi’s comment a few years ago about Calcutta being a dying city had indeed deeply offended its denizens, but the government had unwillingly conceded that there was some truth in the statement. So while the politicians publicly derided the then-prime minister for his ignorance of Calcutta’s historical context and architectural beauty, privately they called many urgent meetings, and a beautification campaign was launched.

As Anil spun about Calcutta in search of a rental, the evidence of the makeover was all around him – around Esplanade and Dalhousie Square, the old colonial architecture was being given a new coat of paint by brush-wielding men who precariously clambered on wobbly scaffolding. All around him, Anil saw roads being cleaned and repaired, street corners used as urinals suddenly sprouting brightly coloured portraits of the goddess Kali to dissuade its habitual users, and trees being planted along the pavements. 

But, despite his trips around Calcutta, and his growing familiarity with the massive city, at the end of the week Anil still had not found an apartment. And the analysis of the situation in the local papers was growing depressing. Just today, there had been a report on how Rajiv Gandhi’s death had left India without a leader who might have been able to chart a moderate course between BJP fanaticism and Janata Dal casteism. Anil was unsure as to what exactly these two parties represented, but the piece had felt ominous to him and every day, waking in the posh hotel he could no longer afford, Anil felt panic rise in his throat, and wondered whether he’d made a terrible mistake in moving to India at such a violent time. 

His decision had been impulsive. All his friends were doing exciting things after grad school: one was moving to New York, the other to Paris, one friend had signed up with the Peace Corps. Anil, who had always wondered what his life would have been like had his parents never left Calcutta, had thought why not move there? A year in India in his late twenties would be quite an adventure.    

Typically, he had not considered any of the practical matters – he had not read the papers about the economy nor questioned whether the country was safe for a foreigner, and had instead gone about his job interviews believing that all would be fine and things would easily fall in place. And, a few months afterwards, things seemed to do exactly that, and Anil had gleefully accepted this temporary job as an ill-paid foreign correspondent. 

Now, the glamorous, exotic India of Anil’s imaginings had given way to this chaotic city that seemed on the brink of violence. The colours and sights and sounds of India were much less appealing in person than they had seemed in his guidebook, and Anil was growing tired of the smoky air, the constant noise, the over-spiced food. On Saturday, after days of anxiety about money, safety, and nameless regrets regarding his poorly planned move to this difficult, insular city, he called Suhash’s number. Ashoke picked up the phone.

Anil pleaded his case. Ashoke said he completely understood but would still like to offer Anil an alternative. 

‘You are sure you don’t want to live with us?’ Ashoke asked. ‘There really is plenty of room in the house, and Suhash would love to look after you. I’m very busy with the business, and the house gets quiet. It would be nice to have you here. Really, it would.’

Anil thanked Ashoke for the offer, but felt certain that he wanted an apartment of his own. However, he would truly appreciate it if Suhash would help him with the rental hunt. Would Ashoke ask her? But Ashoke did not need to ask her. He already knew that she would love to help – Ashoke could assure Anil of that – and he would provide an air-conditioned car and driver to make their task easier. He sounds like a nice enough guy, Anil thought, hanging up. 

Walking back to his hotel, he could not help but wonder how Ashoke had met and married Suhash, and whether theirs had been one of the arranged marriages that were so popular in this part of the world. It must have been difficult for a widow – even one as stunning as Suhash – to find a match, especially when accompanied by a small child from a previous marriage.


* * *


On the morning of his twelfth wedding anniversary, Ashoke recalled how, at the wedding, the guests had commented that had it not been for Jita, Suhash and he would never have met. Which, he knew, was not wholly true. Living as close to each other as they did, with only the park separating Dadubhai’s house from Ashoke’s ancestral home, Suhash and he would inevitably have run into each other at the Lake Market bazaar on Sundays, at the shops at the edge of the park, or at the pandal during Durga Puja. And as they would certainly be the only people unattended by spouses, their eyes would have met, in empathy and curiosity. But without Jita’s three-year-old presence, their conversations may have been restricted to commonplaces such as weather and cricket scores. 

Jita had literally run into him. She had been chasing a puppy when she banged into his knees while he took the daily walk that his doctor had recommended. Ashoke was smitten by the pretty child who had reached so trustingly for his hand and assured him in English that she was quite fine. ‘Doggie,’ she had added, firmly, pointing to the puppy, ‘Want doggie.’ And Ashoke and she had run after the puppy, watched carefully by Suhash from her park bench.

The next day he had found himself looking out for the child and her lovely, sad mother, and a routine had ensued. Every day the child and he, the adept businessman who was usually so immune to the cuteness of kids, played tag around the park, went in search of puppies, and chased pigeons. Ashoke found himself playing horsie for the girl, and every day he caught himself looking forward to meeting the two in the park. On weekends, he tried to reschedule his business commitments to take Jita and her mother to the zoo, to the circus, and gradually to the cinema and then to dinner. Finally, he introduced Suhash to his community of business friends.

Over the weeks, Ashoke worked out the balance of opportunity versus cost and return on investment. The child, so like the son he had imagined he would someday have, was the smartest, loveliest baby he had ever seen. She would make a wonderful older sister to his heir. And Suhash. Ashoke found Suhash, with her quiet manners and reserved ways, fascinating. She was from a good family, Brahmin, spoke English better than he did, and was absolutely beautiful despite her dark skin. She was good wife material. His dead mother would have approved, the way she never had of Ishita, the woman he had loved with all his heart. Ashoke began to woo Suhash in a methodical, balanced way. Six months later, he asked Dadubhai for her hand in marriage.

Somewhere along the way there must have been, if not love, at least the hope of affection. Or perhaps both Ashoke with his lost Ishita and twenty-four-year-old widowed and sad Suhash had grown tired of love and its winking promises, and had turned gratefully to the ordered arrangement, which, at least initially, had offered such hope of peace and harmony.

So, eight months from the time Jita and Ashoke had first chased a puppy, Suhash and he married each other. And the little girl and her mother came to live in the sprawling house across Deshapriya Park.

Now, twelve years later, Ashoke’s ancestral home reflected Suhash’s taste. The marble stairs gleamed with polish, the old brocade curtains were gone and replaced with floor-length linen panels, new couches took pride of place in the living room, and the antique Persian rugs were moved from the bedroom to a more visible spot in the hall. All the rooms were repainted in clear, pale shades making the house look airier and, to Ashoke’s eyes, somehow more full of sunlight. Fresh flowers were delivered every Friday, and Suhash arranged them herself in large jade tureens. Each sheet, towel, and napkin in the house was hand-picked by her, and every day an army of servants cleaned the house from top to bottom. Every few weeks, she would host a dinner party for Ashoke’s business associates and the cook from Sky Room would work all day
to prepare a continental feast, starting with prawn cocktail, and ending with baked Alaska or lemon soufflé. 

It was such a party that Ashoke was discussing this Monday morning. 

‘I heard something shocking from Roy at the party last night,’ Ashoke said, buttering a piece toast for Suhash, forgetting that his wife hated butter.

‘Hmmm,’ said Suhash. ‘I think I’ll start subscribing to The Telegraph regularly. Let’s get rid of the Bengali paper, no one reads it.’ She smiled as Ashoke placed the bread on her plate. She took a tiny bite from the unbuttered edge and let the rest grow cold. ‘Though it would be nice if Jita read some Bengali, just once in a while.’

Ashoke looked up from The Statesman and shook his head. ‘None of her friends read any Bengali, nor any Hindi as far as I can tell. She’s listening to Suman, though, and I guess we should be thankful,’ he added, referring to a new Bengali pop singer. 

‘I think she’s hoping to go to a concert next week,’ Suhash said.

‘Doubt that it will be possible,’ Ashoke said, his eyes still on the paper. ‘I don’t want anything to happen to her – it’s still not quite safe. I heard that there’s going to be yet another bundh next week. Bloody communists – using the assassination as another excuse for laziness.’ Ashoke frowned at his paper, reading: ‘Look, listen to this, it’s a reprint of Rajiv’s speech in 1989.’

He began to read aloud from the paper: ‘“As I travel around the country, I feel the seething tension of expectations, I see a glaring contrast between the vast sums of money being spent on development and the spectacle before my eyes.”’ Ashoke rustled the paper and looked up at his wife. ‘At least he spoke good English.’

Suhash smiled. She was always polite. Ashoke appreciated that about her. 

‘What was the shock you were telling me about?’ Suhash asked, bending to sip her tea. 

‘Oh. Roy’s sister-in-law is leaving her husband.’

Suhash sat up. ‘Permanently?’

Ashoke was pleased with the effect of his words. It was rare to get Suhash’s attention. ‘I doubt that very much.’

‘It would be a scandal. I don’t think that anyone in Roy’s family would be supportive. And I doubt that her parents would let her stay with them, it would be a terrible shame for them. Is it an in-law issue?’

‘Ah – don’t know, exactly. Roy wouldn’t give details.’

‘Poor man. Of course he wouldn’t. I am surprised he told you anything in the first place. He must have had too much to drink. Reena didn’t say a thing to me. She must be wrecked with worry, and who could blame her.’

‘Why don’t you visit her one of these days? Roy is very involved in most of my upcoming deals, and I’d like him to feel certain that nothing will change from our side because of this scandal. But, to be fair, I doubt that things will get very serious with Reena’s sister. The girl will come to her senses soon.’

‘What other choice does she have?’ Suhash asked.

Ashoke looked at her for a moment. ‘No choice,’ he said. 

For a second their eyes met. 

Then Ashoke said, ‘So you are going looking for apartments for Anil today? See if you can convince him to stay here with us. Jita is getting stir-crazy, it’ll be nice for her to have some company.’

‘Mmmm. It’s nice to see her study for a change. She’s got her heart set on the IIT. Talking of Jita, I think she is still asleep, can you imagine? It’s almost nine. I wish you would be stricter with her.’ Suhash got up to go in search of her daughter.

‘Ah, let her sleep. She’s very annoyed at being stuck in the house. It’s her holidays after all.’

And Ashoke, chuckling, left the table too, resolving to take Jita somewhere really nice for the Puja vacation to make up for the last month. Maybe she should go to the Suman concert after all, Ashoke mused walking back to his bedroom to dress for work. It was the first time that she had expressed any kind of interest in Bengali culture. Besides, in about a year she’d leave for college and he’d rarely get a chance to spoil her. Ashoke felt a twist of sorrow at the thought. His little Jita-ma, he thought affectionately. He would return earlier tonight, he resolved. They could watch TV together. It’d be a cold house without his little Jita-bird in it. Only a year left, and then off she’d go. Ashoke sorrowfully got ready for work and forgot to wish his wife a happy anniversary.


* * *


Suhash was in the shower. She had waited until everyone was done so she could use as much of the hot water as she wanted. She lathered a generous amount of the new sandalwood body-wash – between her breasts, under her arms, and along her thighs.

‘Poor baby,’ she murmured, her voice tender. ‘You’ve not been popular for a terribly long time. No one wants you, baby.’

She turned the water on as hot as it could go, and watched her skin redden under the heat.

‘Never mind, darling. We’ve had our day in the sun, you and I. You were very wanted once, remember?’ She washed her hands and contemplated how much time she had.

Boudi?’ There was a knock on the door. ‘Anilda on the phone.’

 Suhash sighed. Somehow, she never managed to shower in peace. There was always some phone call or someone who needed her for some unimportant thing. ‘Tell him I’ll call in ten minutes,’ Suhash said in Bengali, turning off the water. Today, they were going apartment hunting, and Suhash hurriedly towelled herself, hoping that the day would not be too humid.

Once they started, despite the heat and humidity, the search was much more enjoyable than Suhash had anticipated. After some consideration, she had dressed in her red-bordered Dhakai sari with a small red bindi on her forehead. In this outfit she portrayed a picture of Bengali wealth and good breeding. 

They went from apartment to apartment in the comfort of the air-conditioned car, the driver dropping them off close to their destination and picking them up as soon as they were done. As they approached, the landlords bent over backwards to accommodate Suhash, and, after glancing at the delicate diamond studs that she had deliberately worn for this purpose, folded their hands in smiling namastes and offered her cold drinks in special glass tumblers. With Suhash introducing him as a relative from the US, Anil was transformed into a sought-after renter. They saw three apartments by mid-afternoon and they agreed that all of them were suitable.

But it was the last that they fell in love with. They both knew it was the one the moment they unlocked the door. It was a small one-bedroom flat, perhaps the smallest apartment they had looked at so far, but walking through the door into the living room, Suhash had a sense of entering a sunlit garden. 

Open windows with thin, filigreed rails looked on to an untrimmed flame-of-the-forest tree, the flowers of which were pushing into the room. The floors were painted dark green, further enhancing the sense of being outdoors. One of the walls had built-in bookshelves, lined with yellowing newspaper. To the left, a narrow corridor led to a tiny bedroom, already furnished with a double bed. The door to the right led to a surprisingly large kitchen, equipped with a gas stove and a Godrej refrigerator. 

Anil and Suhash looked at each other in delight. She reached up and touched the fragile lamp. 

‘How absolutely lovely,’ she said, smiling.

‘This is it!’ Anil pumped his arms in delight. ‘Home!’

‘Shush, Anil! Arrey, not so loud, he’ll increase the rent.’ Suhash lifted a finger to her lips, laughing. 

Together they explored the tiny space, ran all the taps, flushed the toilet, and Anil bounced on the mattress to check its firmness. A small sparrow perched on the window and watched them, head tilted to one side. 

Suhash said, ‘You’ll have to keep a supply of chickpeas for her. She’ll be your first friend in the city.’

‘I already have a friend,’ Anil said, looking surprised. ‘You.’ And, more self-consciously added, ‘And Ashokeda and Jita.’

But Suhash had turned away to look out of the window. 

‘The living room will be quite noisy, Anil. The tree is on the pavement, bang on Freeschool Street. You won’t mind?’

Anil came to stand by her. He was wearing the same black T-shirt that he had worn when they first met, and his hair was freshly shampooed. He smelled of soap, cologne and sweat. Outside, the street-side market was noisily active, the shopkeepers loudly touting their wares in a mix of Bengali and Hindi, a red minibus honking as it moved, and the rickshaw-puller’s bell tinkling as he strained to pull forward. Suhash watched a black-and-yellow taxi draw up on the street and a young woman in a pink salwar-kameez emerge. She carried a shopping bag with a picture of Ganesh, the elephant god of success. She made her way towards the fruit stands. The individual stand owners began to clamour for her attention. ‘Ei dike, didi!’ they called. ‘Behenji, idhar!’ This way, elder sister, over here.

Anil said, ‘I think I’ll actually like it. India outside my window.’

And they smiled at each other with sudden warmth.

‘You’ll be happy here, Anil.’ Suhash said. ‘No?’

‘Yes,’ he responded, looking at her. ‘Very happy.’

Anil signed the rental agreement and then Suhash left for her house, hugging Anil goodbye. On her way back, Suhash caught a whiff of Anil’s cologne lingering on the leather seats of the car, and wondered absently whether her sandalwood scent would also cling to the air around Anil, and whether, while walking back to
his hotel to gather his belongings, he would try to identify her fragrance.