At all times, a student’s life is most difficult: the war-like attention to details during exams, the guilt of failing to wake up at six every morning, the shame of not following the ideal student’s routine, the tentative search for the perfect future, the secret worship and imitation of a senior, the bird-like attention span, and the mixture of joy and agony at the realisation that of all roles played in a lifetime – child, employee, spouse, parent – this was the most temporary. And yet, like all students who forget their roll call numbers within a year of passing examinations, she anticipated the forlornness of a life without the busy-ness of annual examinations, year-end trials of commitment to a life that seemed unnecessary to those who lived it, and felt sad without knowing it. She also did not know that she was a devotee of the examination system: she liked to “get” good marks on her report card. It made her feel important and worthy – a few numbers (not without reason was it called “grand total”) could do what no word of praise could. (Much later, when her children would accuse her of being a “Marks-ist”, she would keep quiet. She knew their importance – one mark less and one could end up being buro, always arriving late at one’s own birthday party.)
But that year there would be no exams.
Or, at least, that was the rumour.
War had been declared; it did not matter who had declared it. India or Pakistan, it was all the same. It didn’t matter who had begun the quarrel, mother or father; either way, it was like her parents fighting. (No, she didn’t like the analogy. She could never be a writer.)
The violence of living up to a regime set by unseen paper-setters and examiners was gone. And with it the indolent silence that followed exams. But there was no peace. For the familiar sound of rustling paper that accompanied exams like breathlessness was everywhere. It wasn’t the sound of pages being turned, the hurried gulps of knowledge that was an accompaniment to examination eve. Instead it was something more brutal, more urgent, and less temporary.
(The sound of paper being torn: to her that was worse than being slapped. It was the sound of her mother’s anger at the poor “marks” in her report card, her cursive writing workbooks torn into shreds and fed to the clay oven from where they hissed, first loudly, then softer, till at last they went lame, like wrong love.)
They were tearing all the paper they could see – newspapers, magazines with thicker pages – all kinds, the literary Desh; Nabokallol, Ulto Rath, Cinema Jagat, full of the make-believe gossip of the film industry; the latest issues of Khelar Maath, filled with metaphorical descriptions of the Indian cricket team’s first success in the West Indies and dull grainy pictures of a young Gavaskar, then still without a skull cap; even old examination questions compiled as “Test Papers”, the typist’s diaphanous “copy paper” and the imitative but always helpful “carbon paper”. (Her mother later told her that only toilet paper had been spared.) Paper would turn Calcutta into a dark continent; paper would, like a magician’s handkerchief, fool the enemy; paper, like a womb, would hide and protect them from planes and bombs and men and martyrs. Everything changed during the war and the world went topsy-turvy without informing its gatekeeper: rice, so long eaten with fish curry, turned into glue, and paper, on which lies became truths and land became lines on maps, suddenly became curtains.
So they sat all day, all nine of them in one room, and cut out pieces of paper to fit into the untidy squares of the windowpanes. They became paper-tailors, tailors on paper, cutting and stitching their lives from danger. “No, this doesn’t fit,” shouted one; “Smaller, smaller,” said another; “Oh, this is too tiny to fit into the big square here,” said yet another. No one seemed to be able to cut out the perfect size of paper for the window-squares. They shouted at each other, exchanged roles with those sticking glue on the backs of the paper pieces, and shouted back in turn when the new paper-tailors failed to cut out perfectly fitting squares. When they met for lunch, happy and sad at the same time, like children who had lost a game but were just happy at having been allowed to play by a strict mother, they confessed and consoled: they were bad at Geometry; it was good that their parents had forced them to take up Home Science; if they couldn’t cut out perfect squares from paper, how could they have ever calculated perimeters and areas and a hundred other complicated things of ‘real’ squares which had names like ABCD or A’B’C’D’? “Home” was, after all, no “Science”, they knew; it was cruel, they said (though what they really meant was ironic), that the boys from Science College lived in a hostel just next to theirs. Never would they quarrel with the boys again when they said that “Home” was only an abstraction, like a “Pi”, a 22/7, a “black hole” which sucked people (especially women) in, who, in turn, sucked other things and people – everything, sleep, dreams, ambition, food, water, soap, money, and lies.
At first she thought that it would last only a few days. To be honest, she was inwardly grateful for it: a break from the monotony of student-life, she thought that the war would be like a holiday. A few red-inked days on the calendar and it would be over, in four or five days, like Durga Puja. But it didn’t go according to plan, at least not hers.
First it was the strangeness of the familiar. After sunset and the prayers, their hostels grew darker with the hour. Not allowed to switch on the lights and shielded from the enemy planes by paper windows, the place suddenly became unfamiliar to them. The routine of “study hours” was gone, and with it the charm of untimely gossip. Dinner began to be served early, the chewy rotis, which they called Bata sandals, and a curry of the cheapest seasonal vegetables (nothing was cheap now, the Oriya cook would declare at lunch, nothing except men’s livers), and this they ate without pleasure, warding off mosquitoes with one hand and stuffing the roti hurriedly into their mouths, as if this was a punishment they wanted to be relieved of. “Thank God it’s winter,” one of them would say occasionally, imagining a life in this darkness in a sweltering summer in Calcutta, and immediately someone else would respond in this single candle-lit darkness, “Oh, I’m sure the enemies wouldn’t be able to make us out from the humming of our ceiling fans”. They said all this without hope, without joy, often without will. They spoke because it was the only activity that was possible in that darkness. Perhaps they also spoke to distract attention from the tastelessness of the food. War-food was always bad, the students of Home Science told each other while washing their hands, as if they had seen and survived many wars in their lifetime. But then, one war was exactly like the other: everyone, loser and winner, went hungry.
Then they banged into tables and chairs and beds and water-jugs and glasses and they almost fell and luckily regained balance by clutching onto the tail of a friend’s shawl and then they stood there and let their breath crawl back into themselves: and all this because of the darkness. Then they huddled together, like it was only possible in winter in Calcutta when someone’s feet warmed someone’s back and someone’s hands begged for the warmth of someone’s bodies. They climbed on two beds, making sure they were never completely comfortable there, their bodies always asking for a little more space than what was available, and in these peculiar postures where their bodies looked broken but happy, they cursed the enemy together. Someone inevitably knew someone whose relative had been killed in the war and then they clicked their tongues and said “Ish” for the widows and fell into a silence. They were incapable of feeling the sadness left behind by war and for this they felt sad. A little later they felt scared because they were really not scared of the war.
Words dried gradually, not into sleep as they had done earlier, but into repetition, for what was there to talk about in such times? They were all women, scared of talking about the dead in the dark. And just when it seemed that the conversation had died, someone would mention Debdulal Bandopadhyay’s inspiring talk on the radio at half past seven that evening and then they would begin talking again. Yes, he was right, we should donate the little jewellery we have for our country, they said; then, being Bengalis, a few of them would recite a few lines of patriotic poetry self-consciously, a few others would slap themselves in vain, not out of appreciation for those lines of verse but in a futile attempt at killing the troublesome mosquitoes. And suddenly she would ask a strange question (a habit her daughter would inherit from her), something like “Do you think the people in East Pakistan too would be inspired be Debdulal babu’s talk on the radio…and their women would also donate all their jewellery like us? Then?”
Everyone would fall asleep, only she would be awake. In that darkness, she would take out the inland letters from her pillowcase and touch them. There would be the sound of paper; somehow the sound of paper always sounded different to her ears in the dark. Unable to read even her name on it – his name for her, “Tooki”, a Bengali child’s colloquial for hide-and-seek – she would count the number of inland letters with her fingers. Nine: one every week. Two weeks ago they had stopped coming.
Bengali, the language which gets most of its beauty from the luxuriousness of the unnecessary, was stunned by the war into the language of a telegram. The residual – the metaphors and the idioms, the poses and the postures – dripped into letters so that the finest letters in the language are perhaps those that were written to distant loves during the war. She was one of those letter writers. She preferred this to being a ‘real’ writer; a real writer would never know what feelings his words had elicited in the reader while her words in a blue inland letter would bring other words in turn. This she liked most, that letter-writing, unlike novel or poetry writing, was a trade, a barter of words, that these words were more ‘real’ and had more power than even the language of Rabindranath Tagore or Debdulal Bandopadhyay.
“How are you?” she wrote to him, the first line of the letter, just below “God is Good”, which is what she usually wrote at the top of the inland letter. (She had learnt it from a friend: this wasn’t just her brief character certificate for God, but something else. It was a mark of the power of “O” without which the sentence would become meaningless: “God is God”.) She didn’t address the letter to him. It was part of the code of a Bengali woman’s love: she could not call him by name since he was older than her. He, like other Bengali men, would be nameless to her until he would become a father and she would begin referring to him as “Tirna’s father”.
“How are you?”
This was the first time she really wanted an answer for this question. The war had turned the rhetorical into a literal question. How was he? Where was he? Why hadn’t he written to her for two weeks?
“How are you?” she wrote for the third time and paused. She didn’t have anything else to tell him at the moment. Then she got up from her chair and looked out of the window. A dead crow was hanging from an electric wire. Was it, too, a war victim? she wondered.
Would this letter reach him?
A sparrow came and sat on the window sill. “Ish,” the sound escaped from her, and the tiny sparrow flew away. She was superstitious: “One for sorrow, Two for Joy …”. She would have to begin looking for the second sparrow. Otherwise her letter would never reach him.
Winters were so dusty, she said to herself; there was a film of dust on the window sill. She had wiped them yesterday evening but… Perhaps this too was also because of the war. The war was, after all, like a ghost, an invisible presence that did things when one was away.
“How are you?” she wrote absent-mindedly on the dusty window sill with her first finger. Then, suddenly conscious of the presence of her roommate behind her, she wiped the dust with her cotton sari and began thinking something that had never occurred to her. “How are you?” What kind of a question was this and where had it come from? How old was this question in human history? What had made the first man ask this question? Wasn’t this actually a doctor’s question? Why, then, had it become a civilisation’s bird-call? What made people pick up words like these and put them in history’s gizzard? “How are you?” Did the two warring nations ask each other this question every morning before they began fighting?
Perhaps this was also what the war did: it filled even the simple words with violence.
She had many things to tell him but she would wait. After the three “How are you?” questions, she only wrote one sentence more. She did not like being a student anymore, she said; she would be a better wife than she was a student. And then she signed her name: she drew what she thought was a parrot, “Tiya”. She did this not only because it was her nickname but because this was what she thought would be her role as a wife – to repeat after her husband, to copy and look at the world with his minus 2.25 glasses.
Then she opened her tiny Santiniketan batik-leather wallet and looked inside. Yes, it was there, just one remained from the five she had bought. A red on white “Refugee Relief Stamp”, worth 5 paisa, that the government had recently made mandatory postage. She looked closely at the grave faces of the imagined refugees on the tiny stamp: no, she didn’t want to be a refugee, not even love’s refugee; that was why her letter would have to reach him. They were not just on her stamp, they were everywhere. The city suddenly became crowded; forced to accommodate the swelling numbers who crossed the border for a “future” everyday, it had become what she feared most – an ugly carbuncle.
That was also what the war did: it changed the face and character of Calcutta forever.
One her way to college, she looked at them from the corner of her eyes. The smoke from the clay ovens in makeshift kitchens, a life of bathing and defecation in the open, an infant at a mother’s breast, and common to everyone, a disbelief in destiny in every man’s eye – a direct gaze was impossible during the war. What scared her most was the abruptness of it all and the realisation of how a man’s destiny was inextricably tied to his land, how the wares of sophistication could turn into a luxury overnight, and how war in winter was so much worse than war in summer. But more than anything else the war made her realise how useless she was and how utterly useless were the life of a student and education.
Numbers and other unnecessary details filled her life as she waited for his letters to arrive. The numbers of the dead, growing each day in newspapers (What if everyone in the country was killed? Who would publish The Statesman then? 9, then 99, then 999, then 9999… there would be no space left for the growing numbers on the front page of the newspaper at last. These were her thoughts as she read the newspaper every day after lunch.) and the number of days growing in her head every day, counting the days, sometimes twice, since he had last written to her.
Attendance everywhere was poor: in banks, schools, colleges, even on the streets and, increasingly, also inside homes. They cut classes telling each other that it was because of the war when they all knew that it was only because of the cold-nosed winter. So she sat in her hostel room, wanting to become something more than a Home Science student and preparing to be the wife of a banker in the future. She sat learning numbers and their significance, as if some numbers, like men, were more important than others. 1969: nationalisation of banks; PL 480: a free wheat agreement with America; and such things which she thought would make him love her more and make her a better wife, a perfect banker’s wife. She thought of inexpensive things she would cook for him, inexpensive furniture and whether they would be cheaper in a town or the city, inexpensive utensils (aluminium, not steel, at least not now), inexpensive saris (she was beginning to hear of something called “Janata” sari, coarse thick cotton saris produced in the mills, aptly called “Janata”, meaning public), everything inexpensive, because that was what she thought a banker’s wife ought to do – cut on costs, just as a professor’s wife (Mou, who came first in their class, would make a perfect professor’s wife, she was certain) ought to lead her life by the Gandhian motto of “Simple living, High thinking”.
A solitary cry and then silence.
It was the Bengali child’s call during hide-and-seek, a less challenging “find-me-if-you-can”.
It couldn’t be him. No one knew his nickname for her, and what use was a love-name if the world called you by that word?
She opened the window pretending to throw the hair that had fallen from her head and which she had gathered into an ill-formed circle. “Thhoo,” she said, spitting on the mass of hair; it was a ritual of condemnation of the act of hair falling off a Bengali woman’s head. I’m spitting on you, don’t do it again, the woman seemed to be saying to the hair.
It was him.
She was so ashamed of herself. What had she done? Welcomed him by spitting?
She grabbed her cotton towel and ran to the bathroom. War or not, she needed to smell good. Perhaps he would take her to watch a film. She had seen a poster of Guns of Navarone on the way to college. It had come to the Lighthouse perhaps. Or was it the New Empire? She wasn’t sure. But he was here; he would find out all the details.
She didn’t like watching these English films. When he had taken her to see Sunflower, the first film that they watched together, she had, at first, enjoyed the experience. It was like going for a holiday, going to places and observing details; from time to time she would look at him from the corner of her eye and try to see, in that artificial darkness of the cinema hall, what he was really looking at. She was certain that he was looking at the woman’s bare legs and hands and all that he wanted to see in women like her but couldn’t. These two parallel experiences – of watching a film and trying to guess the effect the series of moving images had had on her lover – exhausted her. But the Guns of Navarone was, she expected, a war film. It was a film suited to the mood of the times, possibly about war and fights and canons and blood and all that she hated, but they – and everyone – needed to watch it.
As she scrubbed the oil off her hair with a broken piece of red soap, her mind wandered to her wardrobe, of the limited possibilities. That was the problem with these English films. When she went to watch a Bengali film, or even a Hindi movie, she tried to dress like the main actress in the film. A puffed up bouffant hairstyle like Sharmila Tagore or a simple plait hanging till the hips like Jaya Bhaduri’s, a Mumtaz-style tight wrap of the sari around the legs or wearing it the ordinary Bengali way like Suchitra Sen, a watch on the right hand like Supriya Debi instead of the usual left, a back-scooped blouse like Tanuja’s or what they called an “airhostess” blouse worn by smart looking actresses – the simplest of things, noticeable only to those who wore them. But it made women like her happy, to emerge from the cinema hall looking a bit like these actresses, and she liked to believe that it made their men proud to be with them.
But when she watched an English film and came out of the theatre she remained unchanged. There was no actress whose style she could copy – she wasn’t like them at all and they were not like her. She couldn’t, after all, wear those dresses or cut her hair short up to the ears or walk with her chest held tight outwards. The English film did not change her at all – she emerged from the experience, her being unaffected, like a tourist.
But then, her experience of the war was also that of a tourist.
“We will be showcaused,” he said without looking at her. All six of them, for closing the bank and running away.
It was a new word; perhaps it was a military term, she thought. Also, she thought that “we” was Indians, she and his countrymen and “showcausing” was something like “shelling”. She would go back to her hostel and stick a few more pieces of paper on the window – that would perhaps protect them from “showcausing”.
“Oh,” she said gravely and looked at his feet. There was a film of white dust on his feet and his sandals.
He then told her about the deserted town of Balurghat and how they – a handful of bankers – had been the last to leave the place. His family had left for Pakur, a small stony town in Bihar where his eldest sister lived in a joint family of ninety three members; his father and his brothers, all goldsmiths, carrying gold biscuits with them in their underwear. Even the cows and the goats were dead; the tulsi mancho in the courtyard had also been destroyed. His mother, he had heard from a relative, had stopped talking ever since that journey. No one knew whether they would ever be able to return; no one was sure whether they wanted to return either.
He would later tell her other stories, about discovering the dead bodies of seven hundred Indian soldiers in a railway station in Bangladesh. That station was also called Hili. In brackets, however, was the important difference: this was Hili (Bangladesh), not the Indian Hili. But the story that she liked to remember was about him: he had hidden a pair of gold earrings that he had bought for her, for their wedding, in his underwear. The sharp edges had pierced his testicles all night, making him scream in pain every time the bus jumped on the bad roads. Here it is, he said putting it in her hands. He wasn’t sure whether they would be able to get married; he wasn’t sure whether they would be alive. Who was? he asked her. Do you know anyone, he asked, anyone who is sure that he won’t die in the war?
“Indira Gandhi,” she said, suddenly proud of herself.
No, even she’s not sure, he was sure.
“Put them on. Let me see how you look,” he said sadly.
She didn’t open the thin dark pink paper wrapping; instead, she tried to guess their design by feeling them with her fingers.
“Wear it, Tooki,” he said again.
This nickname in his voice brought tears to her eyes. She looked at him.
“They are not dirty anymore. I washed them with soap and water this morning.” Both of them smiled, him allowing the smile to change into gentle laughter.
The earrings made a little tinkling sound as she walked, as if they were cow-bells. This was his comparison and she pretended to be angry for a few moments. I’ll be your cowherd, he said, your cow-bell earrings will call me back home at dusk. (Many years later, when her daughter would ask her to recall the most romantic thing he had ever told her, she would name this incident. Baba called you a cow and you think it’s romantic, Ma? her daughter would taunt. But it was the times – love was always a metaphor. They never told each other how much they loved or whether they loved at all. Language was all gesture, in spite of the war.)
She sat talking to him, flirting with her earrings and holding them with her hands, looking like a girl whose teacher had punished her by asking her to hold her ears. She was happy. The sound of the earrings, innocent and unchanging, oblivious to the currents of time, made it possible for her to believe that the war would one day be over.
He shelled peanuts for her and they ate together, he rubbing the peanuts between his palms and blowing the husk away into the evening breeze, she eating them whole, like her Home Science professor had asked them to.
“Where will we live after the war?” she asked him, the evening light increasing the forlornness and gravity of her question.
He wanted to say that he didn’t know but that would have been too cruel. Instead he said, a place where both of them had never been to, of which we they had no memories, so that everything would be new for them and they would discover this newness together.
The answer pleased her, but only partly.
“Here?” she asked, meaning West Bengal. That word, of course, would gain wings over time so that when, twenty years later, she would ask her children whether they would move from “here”, it would mean a journey abroad, away from definitions.
And suddenly they felt married.
He touched her earrings and her earlobes. She wanted a little more.
And suddenly there was the sound of the airplanes. She, who had so long held her ears affectionately, out of love for the new earrings, now held it tight. The noise was deafening.
He pulled her away to below a cycle shed.
After the plane had gone, he touched her earrings again. But the sound was lost in the fear.
“We’ll get married,” he said, “war or no war”.
She looked at him, touched his day-old beard and asked, “Even if we are showcaused?”
Sumana Roy lives in Siliguri, the Chicken’s Neck region, West Bengal. Her poems, fiction and essays have been published in Guernica, Asian Cha, Pratilipi, Seminar, Biblio, Open Magazine and Himal Southasian, among others.