Cruel, Depressing Love

Standing there, unable to find him, she felt a new solidarity with him. The bond of not existing.

Published in 2013, The Lowland: A Novel was Jhumpa Lahiri’s fourth book after The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth.

It starts back in the sixties when inseparable brothers Subhash and Udayan part as Subhash moves to USA for studies and Udayan decides to stay in Calcutta and participate in the Naxalite movement.

In Calcutta, Udayan has a grave secret that is buried when he is killed one afternoon. However, before his death, he made his wife Gauri a party to it.

Gauri spends a lifetime guarding their secret from the rest of the world. It nauseates her, eats her up, annihilates all her relationships including the one with her daughter and leaves her alone for most of her life, but for some short flings and experiments here and there. In her self-induced solitude, she forges solidarity with her dead husband. Despite Udayan being dead since she was twenty three, she spends a good four or five decades with their lamp of love burning strong, the flame getting firmer and stronger everyday, without ever compromising their secret.

People have always raised concerns regarding Jhumpa Lahiri’s inability to describe Calcutta, calling out her citizenship. I always find these claims preposterous. Not only does she accurately describe life in Calcutta, there are even some accurate geographical and climatic descriptions at times.

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Till Death Do Us Unite

The following story is my 1266-word entry to a 1200-word short story contest with the Lodhi empire as its theme. The winning entry can be read here

ACP Singh hated peeing in public. He hated killing human beings as well. However, when properly compensated, he would pee without a flinch. And kill.
A rain that subsided just before sunset had left south Delhi’s troughs and contours brimming with mucky water. It was almost an hour past sunset now. Singh, along with inspector Yadav, chose a puddle in front of the Lodhi Garden entrance to splutter their rueful bladders’ contents. The two constables, the driver and Irfan waited inside the Innova.
Irfan, with the numbing succinylcholine forcefully injected earlier, lay like a potato. It was raining when the policemen picked him from Batla House and shoved him in the car. They also looked for his roommate Anwar. The latter’s phone’s GPS traced him to Lodhi Garden and brought the party here. Although Irfan vehemently denied it till the drug rendered him dumb and senile, the policemen were convinced that the two Kashmiri scoundrels were in Delhi to execute some godforsaken separatist mission. Singh’s men were to hurl them to heaven. The plan involved utter secrecy. And a million rupees that had already been transferred to Singh’s account. He had checked the transfer earlier. Sitting beside him, Irfan had watched and noted his bank account password. In fact, the ACP had let him watch. The youngster would die anyway.
The air was tangy yellow wherever the streetlights reached. However, behind the walls or the trees, or far away from the lights’ reach, black trounced yellow. Thus, there were blackish brown tree trunks or blackish green grass where some light seeped in. And pitch black where the light was completely thwarted.
As their tinkles dwindled down and their eyes adjusted to the black zones, Singh and Yadav noticed a minute quiver at one of the black corners not too far inside the garden. They squinted. It was definitely a couple.
Ten minutes later, the car sped past Hauz Khas metro station. Singh sat on the passenger seat, Yadav and the constables were in the backseat. Irfan, a tall guy believed to be Anwar and a girl were huddled in the bench seat in the trunk. The girl was covered head to toe in a turquoise burqa. She was picked from inside Lodhi Garden, along with Anwar, and shoved into the car. Anwar nonchalantly obliged when Ratan craned back and injected him with the drug. They now had to let him talk. His speech would slur in around ten minutes. He would then slabber and go mute in another ten-fifteen minutes’ time.
Ratan attempted to prick the girl and she screamed, “Wadrega.”
Yadav instructed, “Leave the girl alone, smarty-pants. We don’t need drug to use her. Work on the boy.”
Ratan turned towards Anwar, “Anwar, how do you feel?”
“Who’s Anwar? My name is Raoff.”
Ratan chuckled, “Ok, Raoff. Where do you live?”
“Khairpur.”
“In Kashmir?”
“You picked me up from Khairpur.”
Ratan craned back again, “And where’s your Anarkali from? The same place?”
“She’s from Sirhind.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Khan-i-khanan Bahlol Lodhi.”
“Weird name for a terrorist. Where did you meet Anarkali?”
“In Sirhind.”
“Talk about the first meeting.” Tired of asking questions, Ratan hoped for an elaborate answer.
“It was a stormy night. Our army was on the way to Delhi. We were close to the borders of Sirhind when the khan-i-khanan noticed a light from a hut a stone’s throw away. The light glowed unfazed despite the storm. An amazed khan-i-khanan checked in the hut while we waited outside. It belonged to a hermit named Amir Sayyid. I noticed another hut not too far away. A woman stared out its window. Her pale, surreal face smote me. Our eyes locked. We stood like that for close to a minute. I guess she then heard a flutter inside the hut and vanished.”
Singh frowned, “I hope you’re not talking about someone related to Ibrahim Lodhi?”
“I believe Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi was the khan-i-khanan’s grandson.”
The policemen guffawed.
JNU’s long wall ran parallel to the car. Ratan urged, “Carry on. How did you unite?”
“A spate of treachery saw the khan-i-khanan annex the Delhi throne two nights later. This is exactly what Amir Sayyid had prophesied. The khan-i-khanan was elated, and went back to meet the hermit a week later. He carried tons of fruits, flowers and his daughter Taj Murassa to bestow on the saint. The hermit was also conferred the title mir-i-miran. I accompanied the sultan this time as well. While the sultan supervised his daughter’s nikah, I walked up to the other hut hoping to meet the owner of that pale face again. Much to my relief, I didn’t wait too long. She had been out on some errand, and appeared a while later. Our eyes locked again. We stood still for a few noiseless moments. I mastered courage and was about to speak to her when a noise from the hut drew her inside it. Later that night, on my way to Delhi, someone accosted me. Although the stranger was covered head to toe in a burqa, I knew it was she. We shared a horse ride all the way to Delhi.”
The car swished past a roundabout ahead of DLF Promenade.
Singh asked, “Ratan, what’s going on?”
“Sir, it’s all horseshit, but is a good story.”
“I’m not talking about him, idiot. Was it succinylcholine that you inserted or crack? His speech is still intact.”
Ratan frowned, “Raoff, what happened later? Did you get married?”
“We didn’t. We reached Delhi by afternoon. Love was in the air. Her pale velvet skin, that amazing body and a mellifluous voice left me transfixed. We made endless love through the night. The next morning, a relentless knock at my door jolted me off sleep. She clung to me. I carefully unclasped her arms off me and opened the door to a weird rotund man with shoulder-length hair and beard resembling a bird’s nest. I squeezed my groggy eyes and saw him stab me with a knife. He happened to be her husband, and stabbed her as well. We died a blood-red death.”
There was a peal of laughter in the car that now stood beside a jungle.
“Enough of his story,” Singh hissed. “Let’s do Irfan first. We’ll think about Anwar later.”
The driver stepped out to open the back door and folded the left seat. Three policemen effortlessly tugged Irfan out of the car, laid him ten feet away on the road and sat back in the car. Still in the passenger seat, Singh rolled down his window glass and trained a pistol at Irfan. A row of LED bulbs glowed atop a wall not too far away with a signboard on it that read “TERI”. It was otherwise dark and desolate. Irfan shut his limp eyelids. A few raindrops cuffed him. He failed to see the brutal white rope of lightning that cracked the sky, split the air and banged the car. He did open his eyes to a scorched car with five men trembling in agony. A booming thunder rattled the earth. He then saw the couple glide off the car.
The woman removed the burqa to reveal a beguiling oval face and mouthed an electric smile. Raoff said, “Khuda hafiz.” His eyes were calm.
The drizzle gave in to a heavy shower and the duo melted in it.
By morning, media was abuzz with news of ACP Singh and his associates killed by lightning.
A hands-to-mouth fruit-seller returned to the picturesque valley, bought a chain of houseboats in the next few months and mostly led a contented life.

Something Other Than Books

It was the late nineties. My teenage sister, a magnificient dancer, had been picked up to train students at a reputed dance school in south Calcutta. She used to train them thrice a week. So, once in three weeks, she would be back at our home at the extreme end of north Calcutta well after eleven at night.

Hopping to present day. My sister-in-law (wife’s best friend, to be more precise) teaches an evening school after work. Every weeknight, the last metro drops her at around a quarter to eleven and she walks another half an hour to finally reach home.

What happened in between? On 5th February 2011, a lady, while riding in car with four men she had met a few hours earlier, was brutally raped by one of them. Her attempt to lodge a complaint was initially laughed at by some policemen, and her cause was seriously looked at only when the media took it up. Later, the chief minister of West Bengal slandered the victim in public, tagging it a “sajano ghotona” –  a staged incident. The state was jolted. Whether its two pm in the afternoon or two hours past midnight, a woman has the right to say no, to be not threatened and to be not treated like trash. This and a few other related incidents planted a question in the people’s heart. Was the government deliberately making it a hoodlums’ heaven? Were women not safe anymore? As my wife (whom I had met in 2014) says, they would go about their usual life and change practically nothing. However, they walked with a fear instilled by the media reports. The truth is that all but one involved in the Park Street gang-rape case were nabbed within a week of the complaint being lodged. The main accused, who managed to shun the police’s eyes for close to six years, was arrested in September 2016.

Here are a few obvious questions (and answers) about the incident:

Was it really a “sajano ghotona”? …no

Was the CM’s statement in bad taste? …yes

Did her statement demoralise an entire state? …yes

Were the criminals caught? …yes

And now a not so obvious question:

Would a police complaint have seen the light of day had it been any of the BIMARU states ruled by Rupa Ganguly’s party? …a firm no.

Now coming to another perverse statement made yesterday, by the fabulous actress:

Was her statement in bad taste? …yes

Was she under influence while making the statement? …can’t tell

In what planet is the statement justified? …certainly not in this one.

The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel published in 2016.

Mr Nguyen has set the narration in a fabulous manner so as to depict the war and its after-effects from both the imperialist and Vietcong points of view. The trick he has applied is to present it through a narrator who apparently works for the military and, all at the same time, is a mole implanted by the Vietcong. Also, he is Vietnamese and is European as well, being the love-child of a Vietnamese mother and a European father. His mixed blood reflects in his appearance as well. Besides, having studied in the US, he speaks English like a US native.

The author has maintained an even face throughout the novel, vindicating the absurdities in both sides’ approach to the war. As he tries to portray throughout the novel, none of them is an army of saints. There is massive breach of human rights across both ends. Both sides’ objectives are also absurd in their own ways. Towards the later part of the novel, the narrator even observes that the leader of the imperialist-backed force looks exactly like the Vietcong leader Ho Chi-Minh.

Through its 384 pages, it carries us across Vietnam, US and even Philippines on a sympathising journey. While the narrator ends up as a sympathizer for both the warring sides, we sympathise with him.