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The Secret Sky
Day of Protest

Excerpts

The Secret Sky

I can see the streets through windows, the red-hued streets I haven’t stepped out on in ten years, maybe fifteen, maybe more.

I lose count of time here.

They say the wives of this family pass the marble lions of the main gate only twice. They enter as pre-pubescent girls, tiny, shy new brides, eyes red and swollen from crying, drowned by the shower of flowers and music and wedding-chants. They leave in the dusk of their lives, through the hushed fragrance of sandalwood and white tuberoses, the name of God sung again, pale-dead bodies bundled on fragrant wood, on the way to the crematorium where their mortal bodies meet fire, to rise in smoke to the heavens, to be scattered as ashes on the holy Ganga river.

Fierce marble lions guard the entrance to this palace, the stucco pillars, the turrets and the wings. They say it looks like the palace of the Queen of England. I wouldn’t know it so well, I never get a chance to see the façade from outside, not since that full-moon evening in July I entered this house as the third wife of my husband, God bless him, with music and ululation and a shower of sweets.

Inside, it is something of a dream, something of a nightmare.

The high-arched hall in the corner, threshold of beaten gold, with the eight-metal alloy icon of the tiger-riding resident goddess of the house. She has blessed the family through generations, looked over their fortunes, the movements of stars and planets in their zodiacs, their love, wars, and prosperity. A family I was fortunate to be married into.

The icon is covered with gold jewellery, and diamonds and rubies. The priest is a Brahmin of the highest caste, learned in the Sanskrit hymns and prayers.

The entrance hall is paved with marble, cool and shiny in the summer heat. The wide stairs are of veined marble, walls covered in rich tapestry. Huge oil-paintings of the landlords, in Queen Victoria’s court, on the decks of the ships sailing the seas. Done by English portrait painters. And the stuffed hide of the ten-feet Royal Bengal tiger shot in the tropical forests near the Bay of Bengal. It growls at you in silence.

Jardinieres in the hallcorners, sculpted vases and statuettes, nudes holding lamps. Crystal chandeliers with a hundred candles inside, swaying in the breeze and the rhythm of music, the dancing girls. Persian rugs, carved mahogany and shegun-wood, Burma-teak furniture. Thick soft bolsters and pillows scattered on the rugs. Console tables, wall brackets, huge Venetian mirrors. But the house is silent, very silent. It is so big that it scarcely seems occupied. People are lost in the maze of the rooms, dark corridors, hidden away, appearing now and then, droning bees pouring out of their shady, sweet hives.

Inside, through windows, we see the streets ghostlit with ornate, drooping gas lamps and the neighbourhoods swim in the luminous lives of the titled and the wealthy, the lords of the land…the fine silken dhotis, the horse drawn carriages and the troops of liveried servants; the pigeons and the bulbuls the aristocrats fly for leisure, the singing courtesans trained in the old classical traditions of Hindustani music, the rosewater and the liquor and high-class prostitutes.

Our courtyard is much older than all that; much, much older than all our mothers-in-law, older than my husband’s grandmother who tells us all the stories, stories that seem only half-real, even when they are true. Does it go back to the days before the British took over our land, our country, before the last Muslim ruler of Bengal lost his throne at the battle of Plassey? Who knows?

It is the inner courtyard of the mansion, surrounded by the various wings of the house, a colossal rectangle of marbled floor under the open sky. It offers the one glimpse of the sky above we ladies of the house can get, as we never leave the house. The outside world lives in our memories, getting fainter and fainter by each day, each year, the brisk winds of gossip brought in by maidservants deepening the aura of the unreal around all that outside the lion gates of the mansion, a beautiful fairy tale, not of the present, not of the future.

In the morning, we sit there in scattered circles and chop vegetables – huge heaps of them, for the colossal lunches cooked everyday, for over two hundred members of the family and the countless dependents and waifs and vagabonds who always seem to hover around this family. Dozens of maids scurry around, pushing a pot our way, carrying heaps of vegetable skin and seeds and shells away, daring to join in the giggle and gossip. This is also the ripe hour to catch up with the buzzing grapevine, in the house, in the neighbourhood, as this is the only time of the day when all the women of the house get together. From the north and the south wing, from the branch of the elder cousin with land in Hoogly district, from the branch of the younger cousin with jute mills along the river.

The men of the house or the menservants rarely come this way, and outsiders are never allowed so much as a glimpse of our faces. We are high-born ladies.

Much of our time of the day is spent tending to our men – preparing and serving betel leaves to them, massaging their feet, demanding more jewellery. But this is a time when we are left to ourselves, to gossip and giggle and curse and cry on each other’s shoulders. One’s husband isn’t paying her as much attention as he should have been, and she suspects that he has a favourite whore in the singing women’s district of the city. One is still childless, after three years of marriage. One has to grit her teeth everyday, against the poison-tongue of her in-laws daily for having brought a poor dowry from her father’s home. The widow of the Mitra family, those who owned most of the land along the north-eastern stretch of the city, seems to be having an affair with her estate manager – Radhu, the dairy maid who served our house and theirs, is certain, from the way things looked at the Mitra Mansion. And you know what Debi, the fourteen-year old, newest bride of the family said after her first night with Mejothakur, her fifty-year old husband? None of the wives in this house have ever said something so delightfully scandalous, not in a hundred years!

The open courtyard is a home within a home, our real home of laughter and tears and anger within the huge mansion of endless wings, endless halls, rooms and passages like blackholes which suck us in for most of our lives, in the dark tangles of our menfolk, their love and lust and whims, serving them meals and readying a comforting bed for them at night, the pain of childbearing, the happy thralldom of nursing the babies. We have to move around the halls and rooms and passages softly, silently, drawing the ends of our saris to cover our faces, stifling the jingle of our anklets, lowering our eyes before our husbands, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, taking care not to spill a drop of forbidden, impure knowledge of the female body before anybody – menses and labour and unhappiness with our husbands in bed, nursing our children. Even the frilly lightness of jewellery, the applying of alta, the beautiful design of dried red dye on one’s feet, debates over the superiority of saris from Benaras over those from Bishnupur, of cumin seeds over ground onions in fish curry. Here is our stretch of daylight, of the midday summer sun, of the star-scattered cobalt of cloudless evenings, even the turmoil of the Kalboishakhi storms of early summer. We can run up and down the courtyard, jingling the ankle bells, giggling and screaming, quarrel at the top of our voices. The silence and the murkiness of the bedrooms and the passages and the halls, the rest of the blackhole of the mansion vanishes here, all of a sudden, in the cozy sunshine, the fresh air and the smell of chopped vegetables, freshly washed saris let out to dry and the fragrance of red alta being applied on ankles, the aroma of fragrant oil on flowing tresses of black hair.

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Day of Protest

Before long, the endless line of traffic lost the last stir of motion. Buses, cars, taxis, cargo-loaded trucks stood along the road, a long jungle of metal and tyres. Bus-conductors ambled the streets, swapping smokes and stories. For them, a cup of tea at a roadside stall wouldn’t be a long shot, as this jam wasn’t going to clear before an hour at least, till the entire rally had made its way towards the Brigade Parade Ground where they would stir up the dust in anger against the IMF.

Milan got out of the bus, quashing past the solid block of sweating, cursing flesh caught in the airless interior. Waiting inside was to ask for death by asphyxiation. One could just walk the rest of the way.

He felt hungry and tired, with a desperate thirst for tea. His head throbbed with pain, and memory struck him at the wrong moment – before leaving the house, he had forgotten his morning blood-pressure pills, as he often seemed to, these days. He hadn’t eaten anything either, apart from a cup of tea with two thin-arrowroot biscuits.

Edging past the heaps of rubble from construction work, he walked towards one of the roadside tea-stalls fringing the pavement. Even better would be a slice of bread with the spicy ghoogni to go with the tea, but it was a luxury at this moment. This was hardly the right time.

Bricks had been piled on top of each other for patrons to sit before the clay oven where the vendor recycled used tea leaves, boiling them in a bitter, colourless broth, adding milk and sugar, pouring them in little earthen cups that sold for a rupee each. Milan perched his aching backside on the blistery bricks and carefully laid his Shantiniketan bag on his lap. The bricks were on fire, but he needed something under his weary body, after an eternity of standing, crushed in the grip of the crowd in the bus. The tea went down like acid on his empty stomach. But still the trickle did him good, and he felt a touch of life stir back within his body. He handed over the ten-rupee note to the woman, who counted out the change to him.

He walked along the pavements, past the dropped shutters of locked shops, the standstill of endless buses, cars and trucks that seemed to extend all the way to the heart of the city,. It took him about another half an hour to reach the tall building that housed the offices of the Calcutta School district office.

There was venom in the air, rising lazily with the summer heat..

There were perhaps close to a hundred young men and women in unwieldy knots on the pavement. From the rhythmic chants of party slogans and shiny banners all around it was clear that they were from the two opposing parties that ruled the student unions of most city colleges. One was backed by the Indian National Congress, and the other thrived with the blessing of the communist party in power in the state. Banners were strung across the poles, building facades and tree-tops, held up by sitting demonstrators, mostly with the hammer-sickle-star trinity of the Communist party. The façade and the neighbouring walls had received a fresh layer of graffiti. The loudest was a map of India contained in a giant bottle of Pepsi, in psychedelic blue, red and black mimicking the labels on the soft-drink bottle, ‘The Joy of Pepsi’ and ‘India Inc.’ the two flowing annotations in the script of the drink’s campaign flanking the carbonating country on both sides.

The tension in the air was thick, a lingering dark mist, and yet not without a touch of boredom. This was, after all, a city where rallies were both the profession and the entertainment for the swarming unemployed youth, and where political parties often chose Friday as the day of strike so as to shape long weekends. But even after countless repetitions, the pattern brought up forebodings, each one worse than the other, to the citizen who didn’t have a banner in hand or whose voice didn’t shriek along.

Rows of hawkers’ stalls along the stretch of Gariahat had closed shop, dark tarpaulin and plastic sheets shrouding the makeshift bamboo structures. The branch of United Bank of India on the ground floor of the tall building, was however, open for business; apparently the ire of the demonstrators had been unable to move a mulish branch manager. But the lack `of customers was no surprise, and a spindly-limbed security guard in khaki sat on a stool outside, nursing an ancient gun, a blank stare aimed at the students’ anger.

Fear trickled through his spine in slow, large drops. He should go back. Sit at another tea-stall, have another cup, and walk back.

But then, he could just sneak in and see if people were working inside. This was a working day, after all. Going back fruitless felt deadening, and the dreary, penniless month stretched long before him.

He looked ahead. The tall building rose high above. Paint and plaster had worn off from above a few floors from the ground, leaving a scarred look to the rest of the structure, from which rows of bricks jutted out like the ribs of a famine-stricken body.

One could try. Maybe just once.

As he made his way to the side entrance, a boy came and stood in his way. He was in his late teens or early twenties, and had the red badge of the communist party on his chest.

'Today is protest day. No work inside.'

Milan looked at him. The first human face of rallying protest against demons of global capitalism was young, very young, a fresh face lined with alert furrows and tobacco-stained teeth.

What did one tell them? What words did one pick? 'I really need to go inside, my son. I'm a retired schoolteacher and I haven't been getting my pension for three months now.'

Freshface had evidently dealt with much imploring of the same timbre, cheap as roadside dust. 'Not today. Go home and come back another day'

'But I just need to go up to the School Services Office for a minute. I haven't had my pension cheque for three months now.' A minute? A lie no ritual of speech could excuse. In which government office in this city did one do his business in a minute?

'All this is nothing but the vile work of imperialism.' The abrasiveness in the voice had morphed into a dreamlike rhythm. 'Surely you know of the latest policies of the IMF?

'That's exactly what we're protesting, and the man on the street needs to understand.'

Or else you'll put a bullet through him?

And Pepsi cannot sell its fizz in India without possibly adding my pension cheque to its assets! Or maybe it has been commandeered by the IMF? Milan felt like letting out the sarcasm building up inside him.

But that would be stupid, and very possibly dangerous.

'We need to stop thinking of our little petty troubles and face the large evils head on. Only then can we stop the global spread of imperialism.' The boy's words had now fully turned into a chant, in close rhyme with the drone of slogans in the backdrop.

'Join our rally to the Brigade Parade Ground today! Do something outside your own little world.' He screamed, shooting a fist in the air.

He would have never made his way past the boy's conviction, behind which lay anger, much anger, fearful clouds of it. But suddenly, uproar broke out on the other side.

One boy had grabbed the shirt collar of another and was frothing obscenities, out-roaring hymns of anti-capitalist protest. Something intense and forceful about the anger of the boy rose high above the orchestra of slogans.

The boy with the arrested shirt collar, a gangly, bearded youth, quickly broke free and slammed a fist into the face of his assaulter who covered his mouth with his palm. In a flash, a thin line of blood spilled around the palm.

Bloodyface stooped to the pavement, picked up the jagged half of a brickbat. His eyes and his stooped shoulders had the touch of a wounded animal, silent, steely, death-daring. A single lunge with the jagged end of the brick could put out his opponent's eyes, break a major artery.

The two boys were from the opposing parties, but even so, other members on both sides seemed bewildered at their outburst, not joining in the fray. This should have been a cause enough for a full-fledged battle, with knives and sticks and broken bottles, maybe more. A few voices however, had risen above the confusion to cheer in a way that suggested to Milan that this wasn't really about the IMF or foreign debt.

The boy passed the brickbat to his other hand, taking a step ahead, like in a slow dance. Milan could see the blood from his palm soaking the grainy dust of the brick's surface.

From the scraps of virulent words and phrases spat out by the scuffling pair, Milan pieced together the reason why the timbre of this fight was closer, clearer than the chants scripted by the party high command. Annotations came flying by in the form of stray comments, and the story untangled itself as the lurid tale of back-stabbing by one college student union to steal the thunder planned by another for their annual fete. A popular local rock band had been lured away by students from one college from performing at another one. The original hosts had a royal mess for their event now, and the situation had alarmed the college authorities and the corporate sponsors bad enough to worry the future of the event in the years to come. A sore point from the start, abuses had started flying as soon as the wound had been dug up, and family, ancestors and sexual behavior had been flung in, pushing the IMF and global imperialists far out of the fray.

A few cops popped up as if they had been in hiding all this time, watching from the sidelines. They pushed the boys apart, strutted up and down the stretch of pavement before the building, wielding their batons, trying to break up the crowd, who, before you could stir an eyelid, had returned to a more troubled, wider world, of dreamlike chanting of protest against global imperialism and the policies of the Central Government to welcome it with open arms.

Milan slunk into the building.

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