And then we proceed to wander around the city in search of shelter. We drift through the morbid yellow afternoon. Before our eyes, dusk descends like the trilling of a fire-engine bell and night falls like flames being extinguished by jets of water, a night as conspicuous as the whirling black skirts of desert gypsies. As for us, we are still spinning on our feet. We, that is to say, Roo and I. I, Ishwari, and Roo, who is my soul, stall for a moment in midair on our downward plummet. And when it is eleven-thirty (not midnight, for midnight is the hour of extreme longing for injured birds), a hallucinogenic silence surfaces on the city’s streets from the netherworld.
Roo digs his nails into my thigh fearfully as I climb without hesitation into the taxi parked in the darkness beneath a tree, and ask the driver, ‘Will you take us?’ The young man, his hair like a bunch of black grapes, nods, he will take us. The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins. A malevolent, repressive, unpalatable novel. It begins to answer the question, what is the meaning of life? And by the time it ends, a virtual human being with transformed proclivities will have to admit that life is constantly being a murderer!
Roo has asked me several times, where shall we go now? I haven’t answered. I have decided to look at him with impenetrable eyes if he asks again. That will be enough to shut him up. The next moment he asks me again, gazing at me with his big eyes, I am unable to be as curt as I had planned. Instead, I draw him closer. My famished love showers blessings on him and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishwari continuously slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window. ‘We’ll get there, we’ll find a place,’ Ishwari is saying. ‘We’ll get there eventually, don’t worry, Roo, I am with you.’
‘But where, Ma?’ Roo asks like a germ.
Had it been me, I would have said, nowhere except a place where my art will find fulfilment. But Ishwari says, ‘Where we are going now,’ and Roo feels even more beleaguered by this riddle. He is already weakened from lack of food and sleep – an overdose of vulnerability from wandering on the roads has left him even more lifeless. A grave sense of crisis has made him slump on the seat of the taxi, his head drooping on my arm. He looks as though he has been beaten up unmercifully. And he was: in the early hours of morning his arm was trailing outside the train window when the heavy wooden shutters slammed into his wrist. His screaming woke me up. Roo’s wrist swelled up within minutes. For ten hours he has wandered about with me, his wrist a poisonous blue. He screamed just once on impact but hasn’t cried at all since. Perhaps he has inherited my traits in this respect. I don’t cry either, I never have. When Ishwari cries I purse my lips. Every time I have the urge to cry I tell myself the present outcome alone isn’t sufficient reason to cry. I need more time, for time matures the outcome, and it is this tolerance that creates the atmosphere of this novel – this novel of truth and lies, this novel that resembles a bird of prey.
The taxi speeds down the road while I look out of the window. Ishwari has not managed to tend to Roo’s wrist though several hours have gone by. It is bitterly cold and so late at night – the city roads are empty, bereft of human bustle, everyone seems to have sunk into a melancholy hibernation – it is as though no one will wake again. It feels like the moment before an explosion. I found this taxi a few steps from the house of someone I know, someone I approached for shelter as a last resort and was rejected by moments earlier – the third time today that this has happened. I turn to look at the house from the taxi, and from behind a curtain, someone seems to be watching us.
There was no hope of getting a taxi at this hour of night, especially on this road deep inside Jodhpur Park. I would have had to walk holding Roo’s hand if I hadn’t found this one. I know where Ishwari would have walked on blistered feet late into this freezing night with her child. She might have been raped, and robbed, and even if the midnight predators had left her alive, Roo would still have been separated from his mother. Ishwari would never have found her son again.
I close my eyes for a moment. Lifting his head, Roo asks, ‘They won’t tell us to go away from where we’re going now, will they?’
What answer can I give? I am about to say, Why did you come away like this with me? All I wanted was a glimpse of you. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city. Can you tell me where I should take you now?
But Ishwari doesn’t give me the chance to speak. Kneading Roo’s soft cheeks with both hands, she says, ‘We won’t go to anyone’s house any more, Roo. We’ll go somewhere where we can pay to stay, for as long as we like.’
Pleased at this, Roo rubs his chin on Ishwari’s breast and tilts his head. ‘Do you have money?’ he asks. With a quick look at the taxi driver from the corner of her eye, Ishwari places a hand on her son’s head like a hawk spreading its wing. But will it really be possible to secure a roof for the night in exchange for money at this hour? Will any of the guest houses in this city agree to rent a room to a woman unaccompanied by a man on this winter’s night? The five-star hotels may not ask questions but will certainly ask for identification, and what identity could I possibly offer so that I am accepted by an ancient civilization? Besides, do I have enough money to seek shelter at such a hotel?
I am ravenous, but not once has Roo mentioned being hungry. I gave him a couple of biscuits before entering the last place we tried, but even that was an hour and a half ago. I wasn’t thinking straight, or I could easily have got hold of bananas or chocolate. It is far too late now. There isn’t a shop open anywhere.
I am surprised. How has Roo learnt to control hunger?
Roo is staring out of the window, his back stiff, but I know he isn’t looking at anything. His eyes have been empty since yesterday. When he threw himself into my arms yesterday, crying out ‘Ma!’, his eyes brimmed with tears, but his joy disappeared soon after I put him down. I know what he is thinking with his back so rigid. We spent the previous night on the train – tonight the night has closed in much further on us.
Did Ishwari ever imagine that doors would be slammed one after the other on their misfortune? Everyone Ishwari turned to was well-established, safe in their respective home, all of them pillars of society living within a ring of security – although Ishwari now knew that none was any less helpless than she, nor any less ineffective. They were just as afraid, terrified, callous and self-centred as the destitute Ishwari and her child. And they had no conscience. Despite the peaks these people had scaled, their assets were devoted only to shoring up their own existence.
The first person I went to after getting off the train is a respected businessman in this city, exceedingly wealthy. The person I turned to on my second attempt is an influential lawyer. The third – the resident of Jodhpur Park – is a great poet, a lover of children who writes distressed poetry for the exploited: those evicted for poverty, robbed of their land, bombed, turned into victims of war. But like the awakening conscience of society, even this poet offered only compassionate rejection.
As we wandered around, it occurred to me over and over again that the relationships that form between people every day are actually small, flourishing dreams – short-lived, as fragile as glass. Like the other three, Ishwari averts her eyes from the helplessness of her limitations. Roo has not looked at me accusingly even once. He is probably the only one by my side during this terrible time. He came with me even though I did not want him to. He was eager to reclaim the mother who once abandoned him. I cannot understand how the five-year-old Roo can trust such a mother.
Roo was waiting for me on a secret road, holding a storybook. He is a baby, after all, he forgot to put on socks with his boots, and now he has blisters on the soft skin on his ankles. In the evening I saw the blisters had burst, the pink flesh visible beneath the scraped-off skin. Roo has endured it all in silence.
‘Does it hurt very much, Roo?’ Ishwari asked, turning his face towards her.
Roo shook his head quickly, no, it wasn’t hurting at all. Ishwari’s eyes smarted and I remember that it is time to tell the taxi driver where to go.
I remember a small guest house on Lansdowne Road and request the driver to take us there. As I speak, I realize my voice is trembling, as is my heart, with all kinds of anxieties. How deserted these roads are. I feel a surge of anger as I observe the countless dark, indifferent houses on either side – don’t any of them have a little space for me? Ishwari is freezing Roo had come away without warm clothes and she has wrapped him in her own shawl. By way of a second warm garment, we have a sleeveless jacket, which I am wearing. I have discarded many of my possessions in the hope of shedding my burden. I have a light blanket – but you can hardly walk on the road wrapped in a blanket. And why not? Is it because it’s different from what society considers normal?
Shaking off the dominating cold, I give instructions to the young man driving us and the taxi arrives at the guest house. The word ‘lodging’ is written in small letters in one corner of the neon signboard. It appears extremely significant to me. I count out forty rupees for the driver. Forty rupees is a lot of money for me now. Roo gets off the taxi after me, awkward in the shawl wrapped around him. As I accept the change, I wonder how long Roo and I can survive on the money I have. I wonder but cannot make an estimate. Then again, what’s the use? I never think too much of what’s possible and what isn’t; on the contrary, I’m more interested in the performance a person puts on when poised between the possible and the impossible. And precisely for this reason, I feel a sense of satisfaction from comparing intellect, genius and foolishness when I come across a flawed individual. By those standards Ishwari is my least favourite person, for she is everything I am not. Ishwari is Roo’s mother – the same Roo whose touch is unbearable to me.
Walking up to the gate of the guest house after retrieving her suitcase and canvas bag from the taxi, Ishwari found it padlocked. There was no one to be seen anywhere. Putting her luggage down on one side and motioning to Roo to stand next to it, Ishwari swept her eyes over the gate, trying to spot a doorbell. Rattling the gate, I say loudly, ‘Anyone here? Hello? Anyone?’ No one responds.
I realize the taxi hasn’t left. I should have asked it to wait, I tell myself, because if we don’t get a room here we’ll have to go somewhere else quickly. We have no choice but to find a sanctuary or spend the rest of the night in the taxi looking for one.
I glance behind me and am surprised to see that the young man has got out of the taxi and is leaning against it, observing us closely. The sight relieves me and also makes me frown. Without deliberating over it too much I go up to him and say, ‘I’m glad you didn’t leave. It doesn’t look like we’ll get a room here it would really help us if you waited a little longer.’ ‘I’m here,’ came the brief reply. It was enough. For the moment, Ishwari just needed a little assurance, a little support. Some sort of third presence besides her own and Roo’s. It was freezing outside – Roo should have remained in the taxi, the shawl was unable to protect him from this bitter wind. But Ishwari was forced to reject the idea in the very next moment. What if the young man started the car and sped away with Roo? And sold him to an Arab sheikh? And made him a jockey for camel races in the desert? And Roo fell on the sand as soon as the camel leapt up to gallop off? And kicked by hundreds of galloping camels, was tossed about between their hooves like a lump of flesh in a dust storm? Forgetting where she was, Ishwari remained rooted to the spot for a few moments – the young man suddenly appeared terrifying. I scold Ishwari, I force her to lower her eyes and return to the locked gate of the guest house, where her son stands. I rattle the gate with all my strength. I keep rattling it. At the core of this auto-deconstruction within the vortex of speculation lies a recent incident. An incident that is a story.
From ABANDON. Used with permission of Tilted Axis Press. Copyright © 2017 by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.