Tuesday, 15 September 2009

I do not live in this house anymore.

The decision, surprisingly, wasn't hard to make. Packing didn't take more than some hours. I was done by lunchtime and had time to sit around on a dusty floor, looking around me, at walls that would never talk. Everything I wanted to take along was already outside, packed into easy-to-carry boxes.

I opened the red cardboard matchbox. It was all that remained to be done.

A spark, a match dropped onto the threadbare straw carpet, and the smell of sulphur dragging itself through the house. Upstairs and downstairs, into the basement and up to the attic, finding every knothole, every square of wallpaper, every empty bottle and broken candlestand and creaking doorless cupboard. Smoke trailed into every bedroom, wreathing the mothball curtains, discovering the old bicycle in the kitchen, the doll's cradle in the nursery. Fire danced around the boxes left stacked in corners, boxes packed to bursting and sealed tightly shut, many more than the ones saved. All that was outgrown turned into cinders. Evidence of lives past crumbled into ash. After I was gone and the key buried in the backyard, nobody should be able to find a trail.

I couldn't do it.

My old house still stands as and where I left it. Maybe I will come back one day. And then again, maybe not. Funny thing is, I'm not afraid. If some stranger like you were to walk through the woods and find my house, you would see the door standing open and a waiting fireplace. An umbrella hung in the hall. An untouched piano. And maybe as you drink a cup of tea and look at the pictures on the wall, you will see a glimpse of what was my home. You might as well. Think of me when you do.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The newspapers say Kumartuli is dying.

Today is Sunday. The Metro carried pictures of three old men- one barechested, another spectacled, a third reportedly ninety years of age but not looking it. The last of the great masters of Kumartuli. God makers. Men with magic fingers who live and work in the backlanes of North Calcutta, in nondescript godowns and teetering sheds. A people warren, complete with shifting bazaars, ancient shops with handlettered signs, chalk coloured houses through which cows and dogs pass freely, and a railway line running through the very heart of it all. They say the light changes in Kumartuli every six hours. I don't know the place intimately at all and hence love it as if I did. I've entered a stranger's house there, played with her baby, climbed a twisting wrought iron staircase to look down on rooftops that touch each other and touch the sky. I've felt the noonday sun there and seen naked children racing across the railway track, propelling themselves off the ghat and into green water in one liquid burst. Clay streaked children with dazzling grins who jostled for attention as I asked for a photograph. They say novels are born here every day.

Kumartuli is dying. Nobody wants their sons to become idol makers anymore. Not when there are art colleges you can send your children to. Not when Bollywood hires set designers and theme pujos demand statuary in fibreglass, plywood, plastic. Not when the government harasses you with paperwork and environmentalists lobby for lead-free paints, soluble raw materials, a cap on bishorjon in local water bodies. No one comes to the masters to be apprenticed these days. Old men with arthritic fingers squatting in the same hovel for generations with wood and straw and clay. Near-sighted eyes behind plastic-framed glasses work quietly, creating the kohl-lined gaze of the goddess one more time this year, then another year, and another, until darkness falls.

The boudi whose house I had invaded "for the view" offered me water and mishti because it was my sixteenth birthday. Her child, son or daughter I don't remember, peeked at me from behind its mother's sari as pigeons gurgled around us on the open roof. I refused the mishti but said I would return, certainly, maybe in the monsoon to see the para become a living flood, or on any evening for the lighting of the lamps. A year and a half ago that was and I haven't gone back. I was so sure then, and in the days following it, that I would return, wander the bylanes of another city and wait for the stories to come alive. This is not a story and it was a long time coming. It is all I have to offer to the artists I saw but couldn't speak to. My offering to gods I don't believe in. Gods of colour and clay who in their earthy human beauty showed me a spark of the divine.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

I'd like to go down to the river on such a day, vanilla day frosted over with snow and a quiet blue sky. Clumping through puddles and climbing over the rail fence with numb, tingling hands until there's the river, winding sheet of ice gleaming between the bare skeleton trees. And I'd kick off boots and pull on skates and let loose. What a sight. Me in my overstuffed jacket, rainbow gloves, arms outstretched like some awkward scarecrow because I've never done this before, laughing, tottering by the curving bank, a sudden glide that sends up a fine spray of ice, eyes screwed up against the blinding white sun, laughing still.

I didn't know then that the water was frozen over only three and a half inches thick. There was shouting and laughing and you calling to me to be careful and I didn't hear the ice creaking under my blades. I sailed triumphantly to the opposite bank and sprawled on the hard-packed earth. Come along, I urged. It's easy.

But you knew. The minute you'd step down, it would give way under your uncertain feet, huge chunks crumbling around you, pulling you into the bitter dark water. You knew. And you couldn't come. So, petulantly, I left you there and went off on my own to explore the woods. Later, I decided, before a roaring fire, I would tell you about all that you had missed and demand that you come. Next time, you must come along.

Now the winter is gone. Slow waves go crashing down the river, breaking the last floes of ice, heaving against submerged boulders. I still cross the water for the sake of the newly green woods, the smell of moss, the swallow song. I come alone. The river unfroze, but did not allow you across. Me, I knew I would be safe.

I come alone. And it doesn't surprise me anymore that the woods and the sky and the smoke-tinged mountains are just as I had once found them. Unchanged. Glad to be mine.