Roads of Gravel – Sneha Subramanian Kanta
It seemed like the Thames had colored the carpets inside the room with a tinge of brown. There was a porcelain jug with fine pink flowers, in their miniature glory all around it. Dada had brought it from one of his trips to Kashmir. A merchant of spices, he had been all over the world. The dust jackets of cities were familiar to his blood. It was a tea-cup set he had brought in 1955, when Kittu was not born yet. “Come along with me to Calcutta”, he had said then. “We will go to Darjeeling from there. I will hire a chauffeur. We get very good tea.” She was his only grandchild, the lone survivor of his family after her parents had died in one of the uprisings. He was against their social activism and moved shores to forget the atrocities of memory.
Kittu had willfully agreed and traveled from England to India on one of Dada’s business trips. There, she saw his ancestral haveli and remarked of its eerie silence.
“Dadu, are there ghosts here?”
“Ha ha, no beta. There is nothing such as a ghost.”
“…but Maushmi di, the housekeeper, says that there are sounds of payals heard every amavasya. They echo through the pillars.”
“Ha! Uneducated people — beta, do not engage in idle gossip. I say, you must read some good books. I will get you some books of Virgil and Shakespeare.”
“Who are they?”
“You must know them. They have produced the finest literature.”
“Better than my nursery rhyme notebooks? They make me sleepy.”
He patted her head and said, “No more thinking about ghosts, OK?”
She reluctantly nodded.
Kittu was not convinced and thought she would fetch answers herself. It was fifteen days before amavasya, and the holidays were long. She prepared herself to the situation that if a ghost indeed does appear, she’d keep her calm.
On the afternoon of the fifteenth day, she was enjoying the shade of cold trees and a blanket of sunbeam when she heard a glass crack. She ran indoors to see that a stray cat had come in and collided against one of the glass cups on the table. Maushmi di had the cat out soon, and Kittu smiled at her.
“You must not feed stray animals, baby.”
“I am sorry, di”, she nudged. “Isn’t today amavasya?”
“Haan, baby”, she said. “I have work now. I have to light the chulha so sahib has hot water for bath.”
“Please tell me for two minutes, I want to hear about the ghost story.”
“Baby, this is no time.”
Kittu did not relent. “Will you please tell me the story? I promise to have okra and bhath for lunch, I will not waste a morsel.”
“OK”, Maushmi smiled. “First, let me get the water ready. Bhalo? You wait in a chair on the dining table. I will tell you the story when I am cutting the vegetables.”
Kittu abidingly sat on the chair, playing with the large velvet patterns of its cushion. The purple, yellow, black and pink looked pale because of its texture.
“OK baby”, Maushmi returned. “I will tell you the story. Come here”, she looked at her, “Your hair needs to be tied into a plait.”
“…but I never tie my hair in England.”
“You must know, baby, if you don’t tie your hair, you will lose so many strands every day. Listen to me.”
Kittu did not want to argue. “OK, please tell me the story now.”
* * *
Maushmi took a rubber band in her hand and placed the edge of the comb in-between her lips. When she finally started combing Kittu’s hair, she began the story.
“Many years back, there was a dulhan in this haveli. She was newlywed and there was great pomp and ceremony with which the marriage was conducted. I was one of the new helpers here, very young myself. The memsahib had given me plenty of gifts and sweets.”
As she caressed Kittu’s hair, she looked into the folds of yesterday and continued, “The dulhan’s family were well to do and were from Ballygunge. On the day of their engagement, there was the finest of cutlery and food varieties of all types — there were special assistants brought from Europe to make special food.”
Kittu heard her intently.
Maushmi smiled, “There was all kinds of juices and fruits transported from all over the world. The Roy family, my previous sahibs, was very rich and had ties across seven seas. Still, madam was very religious and believed in God. She went to the temple every Sunday to pray for baba’s marriage. He was the only heir they had got, and wanted a beautiful bride for their haveli.”
“Why was the baba not allowed to choose his bride? In England everybody has free choices.”
“These were those times, baby. The karta of the family took major decisions. These days, everything is different. Time changes the face of everything.”
“What was the next episode, Maushmi di?”
“Haan, baby. As I was saying, memsahib went to shani bhagwaan temples on Saturdays as the family astrologer had predicted a bad row of stars bringing ill fate to baba, delaying his marriage. On Sundays, she went to Kalighat and gave alms to the poor and dried fruits to the pandits, to be later distributed as prasaad. It was — mercy of the creator that baba got such a dulhan for himself. The national movement for independence was in full force, and Nehru had called upon the Bharat to be united. During that time, just a week before the marriage was scheduled to take place, memsahib also went to Harmandar sahib to offer her sincere prayers. She brought trinkets, the finest wheat, rajma and garam masalas from there, all in many kilos. She also brought water from the nectar pool as a good omen.”
As she began chopping the okras diagonally, the chanter of the big steel plate echoed through the kitchen. “When memsahib returned, the huge red carpets were laid out and the dulhan’s joda was arranged. There were four silk sarees for the occasion, especially for the bride. Similarly, there were gifts for all near relatives. On the wedding day, I remember dulhan looking resplendent in the gold jewelry and her face had a glow. The haveli was soon filled with more noise and activity, and the new bahu had taken over her responsibilities very well. Memsahib had prayed that bahu and baba will visit the Harmandar sahib for thanksgiving. It was an ill-fated day”, Maushmi said through soft sobs.
“Why, Maushmi di, did something bad happen?”
“Life is like that, baby. Sometimes, human beings are their own enemies. When bahu and baba went to Amritsar, there were gunfire shots in Jallianwala baug. Our bahu lost her life there and baba was severely injured. He is living his life with memory loss even now. Our sahibs had no one to take their empire ahead, and with bade sahib’s deteriorating health, they had to sell their house and move in a smaller place. They say bahu’s soul is still trapped in this haveli.”
“Why do people kill each other?” Kittu asked.
“Everybody wants to dominate everybody, baby. This is kalyug.”
“What is a soul, Maushmi di?”
“It is atma – our bodies may wear off but the soul is eternal.”
She wiped her eyes with the edge of her pallu, and Kittu was silent. She looked at her lovingly, and said, “Maushmi di, when someone dies, they go straight to heaven and shine upon us as stars. Dadu tells me.”
Maushmi patted her head and took out the plates and copper jar of water. Dada was back from his bath, and asked Kittu if she wanted to go to the local bookstore to buy some books.
“…but not Virgil or Shakespeare, dadu.”
“Ha ha, then what has caught your fancy, beta?”
“Dadu, can I read about the uprising?”
With a raised eyebrow, Dada patted her head and said, “Certainly, beta. Our history is rich.”
“Why did the British rule over India, dadu?”
“You will know the more you read, beta. For resources, for power, for control. You will understand as you grow.”
“…but I’m a big girl, dadu.”
He lightly patted her forehead and said, “Come now and eat, big girl.”
The crack of dawn had brought a flurry of memories. Kittu heard the whistle of the train many years before that transported dada and her to many stations. She wasn’t able to hear the sound of payal that day night, but as far as she could remember, the temperatures had fallen drastically. She could not decipher whether the years had grown colder or if time frozen. The cold of this year had seeped into her skin. She held a porcelain cup in her wrinkled hands. It were years, and answers hadn’t yet pervaded leeway’s of understanding to her. The act of growing up – sometimes is a malady. Kitty felt that the atma resounded what the body forgot to remember.
It was strange, she thought, how a broken tea cup could bring memories.
Sneha Subramanian Kanta believes all writing is a form of dissent. Her works are forthcoming in Quidddity, Fallujah Magazine, 7×20 Mag, In Between Hangovers Magazine, Sahitya Akademi, Noble/Gas Qrtly, Epigraph Magazine and the print anthology of Peacock Journal. Her work has been published in poetry anthologies such as Dance of the Peacock (Hidden Brook Press, Canada), Suvernareka (The Poetry Society of India, India) and elsewhere. She is a GREAT scholarship awardee pursuing her second postgraduate degree in literature in the United Kingdom.