Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee
I did. A boy of thirteen with fine features and the beginnings of a masculine chin and jawline and large eyes stared back at me. His hair was carefully arranged with a curl resting on his forehead. He wore a light-brown shirt with a high collar and dark drainpipe pants. He looked remarkably like Rajesh Khanna, I thought. I pouted my lips and tilted my head to one side, just like him. I was pleased with what I saw.
My mother smiled at me, and I said, ‘Ma, you always look pretty. Just like Sharmila Tagore.’
She giggled self-consciously, patting the bun piled high on her head. ‘When you grow up, all the girls will come after you, asking you to marry them. You are a lucky boy.’
‘What if I don’t want to get married?’ I asked, feeling no excitement at the thought of being chased by girls.
‘Oh, you silly boy!’ My mother laughed. ‘What an absurd question! Everyone has to get married. It is the normal thing to do. Come on now, your father will get upset if we delay any more.’
I wanted to tell her so badly that I was not like everyone else. That I was different from the boys in my class. That I might have been doing something really wrong. And that I did not want to get married. But I was sure she would not understand. This was not like the time when I had refused to play cricket with the other boys and she had argued
with my father to let me stay at home and help her in the kitchen. This time, she was clear about what was normal and what was expected of me. I turned away from her, feeling very alone.
We quickly walked to the car and I tumbled into the back seat next to Rani. My father was at the wheel, looking annoyed. ‘Oho, Mr Late Latif,’ he snapped irritably. ‘Always late. I don’t understand why you can’t be like your sister.’ His jaw tightened and he started the engine.
As we drove out on the long driveway—always dark and covered by a canopy of trees—I sat at the edge of my seat my head close to the window, ready to watch the sentries enact their ritual as we left the palace. They looked like toys from the veranda. I loved the way they would spring to attention every time we passed, their rifles held upright, the bayonets gleaming, a warning to the world to stay out. No one was allowed to enter the Mint House unless they were visiting us because it was a secured area.
As we drove towards Mallika’s house in Banjara Hills, we crossed the secretariat building, tall and imposing. The Khairatabad neighbourhood sundry store and café, named Café Irani, was filled to the brim with the Saturday late-afternoon crowd. The traffic was crazy and cars drove by ignoring lanes and traffic lights. Scooters and motorcycles only added to the confusion, and cycle rickshaws and bicycles continuously rang their bells. Stray dogs expertly waited for the right moment to cross the street and cows moved placidly in the traffic, their expressions inscrutable. As we approached the main road that led to Banjara Hills, the traffic thinned out and cars drove in a more disciplined fashion. The crowded neighbourhoods around Mint House had smaller houses and flats, crammed together.
But as the roads widened, stately trees lined more elegant neighbourhood streets. Peepul, gulmohar and neem trees towered high above, blocking the light from the sun. Soon, we were climbing up the steep roads of Banjara Hills. As we got close to the house, we saw lots of cars in the driveway. The gates were open and the chowkidars, in their navy-blue uniforms, were on guard as always. My father parked a little distance from the house and we all had to walk a steep path to the house. Finally, I rang the doorbell.
Binesh Kaku came to the door and we saw a crowd in the background, their words tumbling towards us in the torrent of sweetness that is Bengali. Trying not to look at the woolly tufts sprouting from his ears, Rani and I chorused together: ‘Nomoshkar, Binesh Kaku.’
‘Rahul, Rani!’ a glowing Mallika exclaimed as she came running into the foyer dressed in a light summer frock, followed by her sister Shyamala.
Mallika’s hair was thick and lustrous and flowed down to her waist. She had a lovely smile, radiant and impish, that made her dimples show and her eyes sparkle. It was like the full moon peering from a break in the clouds, breathtaking every time. With her oval face, doe-like eyes—slanting slightly, like Goddess Durga’s—and soft complexion, she was the most beautiful person I knew—next to my mother, of course. ‘If I ever marry anyone, it will be Mallika Didi,’ I had once told my parents, who laughed as if it were a good joke. She was eighteen now and had just started going to college.
We entered the foyer and scattered in different directions, on different missions. In the sitting room, I was surrounded by a sea of white dhotis and kurtas, heavy black-framed glasses, tussar silk saris with red borders, clinking bangles of gold and conch with dragon heads, and an unending stream
of ‘nomoshkars’. Conversation about politics, football and gossip swirled around me. The air was redolent with the smells of Priya perfume and mustard oil. I had to greet the Roy Choudhurys, the Banerjees, the Bhattacharjees, the Senguptas, the Mukherjees, the Chatterjees and the Gangulys as they entered the house for the Puja Committee meeting. Kitchen-calloused hands and well-meaning pats ruined the carefully arranged curl on the middle of my forehead as I bobbed and weaved through the crowd, trying to get to Mallika’s room.
As I emerged from the crowded sitting room, I stopped. I had to straighten my rumpled clothes. Rani and Shyamala were chatting with some other girls at the bottom of the stairs and I could hear the excited buzz. As I approached, their voices dropped to whispers.
‘Rahul, go and play with the boys, not the girls,’ Rani said to me. ‘The Sarkar boys are playing outside.’
I was fed up of being urged to play with boys and participate in their inane games of football and cricket. Being a Bengali male meant that I had to show my prowess at these games, kind of like how Indian males wear the moustache with pride. While I loved to play hide-and-seek, I hated the idea of running around on a field, getting my shoes dirty and being pushed around. The last time I played with the Sarkar boys, they let the bullies on the other team trip me several times. After that, I swore to myself that I would never play football again.
To hell with the Sarkar boys and the stupid girls, I thought as I climbed the stairs to Mallika’s room. I had Mallika to myself and could not care less about their idiotic secrets.
I entered the room without knocking. She was lying on the bed with a dreamy smile, holding something to her chest.
As I entered, she jumped and thrust what she was holding under her pillow. I heard the thin rice-paper crackling.
I loved Mallika’s room. It was elegant and eclectic, just like her. I looked around, taking in the colourful posters of my favourite film stars, Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. I lingered for a moment, savouring Paul Newman and Gregory Peck. Our ritual at each visit was to play one of the board games kept in a well-stocked old chest. At other times, a steady supply of books from the crammed bookshelves fed my voracious reading appetite.
We had a lot of fun when Mallika would shut the door and play albums of The Ventures from her collection of records stacked on top of the phonogram. We would dance to ‘
Walk, Don’t Run
’ or ‘
’ and sing along loudly. Soon Binesh Kaku would be at the door, asking us to turn the music down because it gave him a headache. Even though we were sent to school to be educated in English, our fathers did not like us listening to western music. But Mallika was in college and was a good student—also very stubborn—so she had her way.
After she had regained her composure, Mallika looked at me and smiled. ‘Are the girls being mean to you again? Don’t mind them. Let us play Snakes and Ladders.’ She pulled out the game and rolled the die.
We enjoyed our game. Mallika chatted with me about school the whole time. She loved to read just like me, and asked, ‘What book are you reading now?’
The Five on Kirrin Island Again
,’ I replied.
‘I love that book.’ Mallika’s eyes lit up. She reached over and put her hand on my cheek, gently patting it. ‘Would you like some dal, rice and butter?’ she asked.
I had an insatiable fondness for hot, steaming rice, heaped with fragrant, freshly made tuar dal—the flavour of the dal mingling with that of the Basmati rice—and the best part was a dollop of Amul butter melting on top.
‘Why don’t you wait here while I get you a plate of dal and rice?’ Mallika said to me. I nodded, not really wanting to deal with the annoying girls as Mallika went downstairs.
I thought of the letter that Mallika had put away so hastily. I got up from the foot of the old, teak bed and went around to the headboard. One end of the pillow was folded under where Mallika had hastily hidden the letter. I pulled out the crumpled letter and saw the words, ‘My dearest, darling Mallika’, written on top, followed by pages of declarations of undying affection and devotion. I quickly scanned it. There were references to trysts at different places in Hyderabad and even on campus at Osmania College. On the last page, I saw the inscription, ‘Your dearly beloved, Salim’. Then, as I heard footsteps, I stuffed the letter back under the pillow and ran back to the other side of the bed and picked up a mystery novel lying on the end table. I stared at the writing on the pages, but could not read a word. Mallika was seeing a boy. His name was Salim. And Salim was a Muslim name. Mallika was having an affair with a Muslim boy. It was frightening enough that she was breaking the rules that all good Bengali girls were supposed to follow by seeing a boy, but this was crossing the one line that no Hindu family would stand for. What would Binesh Kaku and Anjali Mashi say if they found out? I knew that if Rani had a boyfriend my father would never tolerate it. In my parents’ and Mallika’s parents’ world, dating was considered to be sign of a ‘loose character’. Only ‘fast girls’ dated and others gossiped about them.
With the exception of Ahmed Uncle and Shabnam Aunty, we had no Muslim family friends. Throughout the years, I had heard people say bad things about Muslims—that they were dirty and cruel, ate beef and didn’t like Hindus.
‘Here you are, Rahul.’ Mallika was at the door, the plate of food in her hand. She sat with me while I ate with great relish.
As soon as I had finished eating, Anjali Mashi’s voice floated up the stairs: ‘Mallika, Shyamala, come help me take the food and tea out.’ We heard the clinking of cutlery and crockery from the kitchen.
Anjali Mashi smiled at me with great affection when she saw me. ‘Rahul, you grow taller each time I see you. Soon you will be taller than all of us, just like your father. May the Goddess bless you.’ Her heavy, gold bangles chinked as she embraced me. I beamed. Dressed in the traditional Bengali style, Anjali Mashi wore a large, red bindi on her forehead and her sari was looped in from the front with the household keys tied to the end of the pallu. She never followed the hairstyles and fashions of actresses like my mother; instead, she wore her hair down, oiled and fragrant.
We helped bring the food out to the dining room. The boring meeting was over and the president, the secretary, the treasurer and other officers of the Durga Puja Committee had been elected.
The guests feasted on samosas, kachoris and all kinds of Bengali sweets. I was too full to eat and was preoccupied with my scandalous discovery. After the Bengali Association members left, we sat around the dining table, planning our summer vacation activities.
‘Are you coming for pickle-making this year?’ Rani asked Mallika and Shyamala as we rose to leave.
‘When are you going to make pickles?’ Shyamala enquired.
‘In a couple of weeks, as soon as we start our vacation.’
‘I will be there,’ Mallika promised.
‘I have to go for my Rabindra Sangeet practice every day for the next few weeks, so I can’t join you,’ Shyamala complained. ‘Music practice is so boring!’
‘You girls have no respect for your culture. Rabindranath Tagore is like a saint to us and you do not appreciate him. I don’t know what kind of people you will be when you grow up,’ Binesh Kaku snapped.
My father nodded his agreement and turned to us in warning. ‘Why don’t you children follow our traditions and make your parents proud instead of going to watch movies and listening to all that nonsense English music? Don’t forget your culture and start imitating others. I don’t want to hear anything about going to school dances and dating, do you hear? Or I will put an end to all of this nonsense. You will go to school and come home and study. That’s it. Understand?’ Binesh Kaku and he walked ahead, turning away from us.
Mallika looked nervously at my father and then quickly looked away.
Binesh Kaku saw us off, muttering about the unappreciative boys and girls of the new generation. We waved goodbye to Mallika and Shyamala and Anjali Mashi. Mallika could barely muster up a smile.
On the way back, I thought about Mallika’s stricken face as we left. The rules that we had to follow were not just a matter of keeping a good reputation. They were about family honour and our parents’ ability to walk in society ‘with their head held high’. Having a love affair,
and with a Muslim boy at that, was as big a transgression as Amit Puri’s love letter and the consequences would probably be as humiliating as his expulsion. Fear for Mallika paralysed me in the way that was fast becoming familiar to me.
To relieve my anxiety, before going to bed, I looked for the dictionary in the bookshelf where my father’s engineering books were kept. It was old and heavy, the clothbound covers frayed and dog-eared. I opened the dictionary to the letter ‘h’. Running my finger down the page, I finally found it. It said:
–, [N. Amer.] [Brit.], slang for
l [N. Amer.] [Brit.]: Someone who practices homosexuality; having an attraction to someone of the same gender.’