By Tanushree Ghosh
Sourav sounded worried. Weirdly enough, he also mentioned his father had been missing for the past three days. You don’t expect to hear that sort of a thing from the Sourav Biswases of this world. Some more probing revealed that his father, a man not too different from Sourav at the core – nervous, conventional and unremarkable – had been contacted by the Central Bereau of Investigation of India (CBI) to appear as a witness in a mysterious case. Details of which Sourav was unable to provide. The case seemed to be related to accounting. He was asked to appear in front of a court in Lucknow, and he had dutifully boarded the train for there. Or at least had reached the station with the intention to do so.
That was when he called his wife and communicated his wellbeing. No one had heard from him since. His phone, which he had agreed to carry after some resistance because of his unfamiliarity with the device, was switched off and numerous attempts to contact him had failed. When he heard the news, Sourav strolled uneasily in his Rochester apartment, even indulging in a few larger pegs of alcohol as he debated whether or not to break the news to his wife. She wasn’t home at the time. She had enrolled in a training opportunity that could possibly lead to a full-time employment in New Jersey. Sourav decided against calling her.
Moumita was already worried and upset about her job prospects. When she quit her productive and busy IT job in Kolkata, all she hoped for was to be able to have a blissful life of a housewife with her husband in the US. But that sense of happiness was marred by loneliness and boredom, when she spent long afternoons alone in the apartment. Of late, this frustration had begun showing outward manifestations. Sourav had decided not to bother her with more worrying news, more so because he hadn’t fully comprehended the implications of the news himself yet. He changed his mind the next day. Two days had passed without any word from Mr. Biswas. In a country punctuated with STD phone booths on every block, it was unlikely that the lack of contact was intentional. This was a family used to calling to give assurances of wellbeing, especially when travelling. Even after years in the United States, full of long weekend drives traversing across states, Sourav’s subconscious needed the comfort and consolation of receiving updates from people who were travelling. He always remembered to call home when boarding a flight and once again on arriving at the destination. Mr. Biswas was not too different from Sourav Biswas. Sourav called Moumita in New Jersey.
The conundrum started immediately. Panic was widespread; what everyone was hiding internally all this while started coming out. Sourav’s mother and brother undertook numerous trips to the law enforcement offices, starting with their small town police station. In spite of the reluctance of law enforcement officials to help them, having a big circle of relatives ultimately paid off and a relative, who had cousins with in-laws in Lucknow, was tracked down. Sourav called them personally, hoping a call from the US will move them into action quicker, and they assured to help out.
Sourav didn’t have the details of what the CBI investigation was about. All his mother described was a letter from the government they had received with a date for appearance in the Lucknow Central Court. Other details, like names of contact persons in the letter, had slipped off her memory as her 65-year-old mind was mired in fear and confusion. His father had taken the letter with him.
They came up with the most rational strategy possible under the circumstances. They would send someone with a photograph of Mr. Biswas to look for him around Lucknow Central Court. Sourav scanned and emailed multiple photographs using his research lab scanner to their daughter studying in Lucknow University. Sourav’s mother couriered a few photographs to their Lucknow address too, although those would only reach after Mr. Biswas’s court appearance date. Sourav decided to buy his tickets to India the following Monday, if his father didn’t return on the 3.45 p.m. train, which he was supposed to take. Now back in Rochester to be by her husband’s side during this moment of crisis, Moumita started crying on hearing this decision. The thought of being alone in the U.S. while Sourav travelled back to India overwhelmed her.
Kolkata station was two hours by train from the small town they called home. Ratul boarded the early morning train that would get him to Kolkata around 8 a.m. It was almost eight hours before his father’s train was scheduled to arrive, but his mother had insisted he reach Kolkata as early as possible. Howrah station was one of the most crowded places on earth, and he needed to circulate pictures of his father to kiosks and transitional vendors in every platform, just in case someone else spotted him before Ratul.
The Lucknow search hadn’t yielded anything; it seemed the missing person complaint lodged with the local police station continued to be low on the priority list. This was the final hope and the floodgates to tears and grief would fling open if he didn’t show up in his proper yet slightly yellowed kurta and pajama, holding his treasured US traveler roll-on that Sourav had brought home few years back.
Ratul was sweating. Howrah station was a place where everyone sweated, even on the balmiest of days but his reasons were not the jostling crowds or sweltering humidity. He was nervous. Working in IT in Hyderabad, he had gotten over his awkward lack of confidence that had troubled him all through his regional engineering college days, where the boys from the city spoke better English than him and sported shirts that looked similar to his but had Lacoste logos that were real. But today, even in his genuine Van Heusen shirt, he wanted to disappear, especially from the legless beggar crawling around him for the past hour. Just then, he spotted his father, walking towards him, in his usual, slightly hurried yet unmindful strides, carefully holding up the US traveler roll-on to avoid getting the station grime of human spit and leftover rainwater on it. Ratul started yelling and running towards him, realizing soon that his father was completely unaware of his existence and was walking not towards him, but towards the main exit.
Mr. Biswas was genuinely surprised to see his younger son. Ratul worked in Hyderabad; how would he be in Kolkata? He guarded his vacation days like a watchdog, skipping most celebratory occasions where his presence would be cherished at home. Since was planning to get married this year, three weeks were not going to be enough. Why would he be travelling through Kolkata? Mr. Biswas tried to remember if Ratul had mentioned an upcoming business trip which he was forgetting about, but none occurred to him.
Mrs. Biswas was sobbing constantly. The sobs were of relief, but it was hard to infer that from her disheveled appearance and swollen eyes. The situation had pacified a bit; Mr. Biswas was well rested and had changed out of his sweaty travel wear and was sipping a glass of ice-cold lime-water nervously. Only a handful of neighbors and relatives now remained, mostly whispering in the kitchen or backyard; his two brothers were the only ones in the living room. Ratul was on phone talking to Sourav in the U.S. It was 10 a.m. there, but Sourav had been up all night waiting for this call.
Moumita couldn’t believe the news. Based on her reading of newspaper reports and watching Investigative Discovery that kept her occupied in the afternoons, she had been expecting the worst. She feared he would be murdered. Most kidnap victims were killed within the first 48 hours, and in this case, she believed the goal of kidnapping was not ransom, but to eliminate a key witness of the mysterious CBI case. The silly reason her father-in-law provided for his three-day-long absence was indeed hard to digest. In this day and age, who can’t possibly figure out how to charge and use a cellular phone or at least find someone to show him how to use one in a country of a billion people? How difficult is it to find an STD booth where calls could be easily made? Anyone who has spent some time in India knows this was implausible. But Moumita didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what to say anyways. What was the alternative explanation? The kidnappers had let him go after three days of captivity and he wasn’t voicing anything out of fear? That sounded fantastical too, especially for someone of her father-in-law’s bearing. She hoped Sourav would hang up later rather than sooner. That way, he would be too late to leave for his morning class and might end up staying for lunch.
Mr. Biswas entered his room and flipped the dark black bulky switch on. Nothing much seemed to have changed since he left, except for a thin film of dust on the table by the window and on the bed posts. This suggested that his lady had been preoccupied with something so completely outside her regular domain for the past three days that the tasks she meticulously attended to for the last 30 years had become irrelevant. He wiped off the dust on the bed-post and lifted himself up with its support. It was a high bed to climb on. Now that they were both in their sixties, it seemed higher than it had ever before. He rested against the post and closed his eyes.
The last three days had been beautiful. He had never ever comprehended doing something like this. If someone told him he could, he wouldn’t have believed that person. But as he got down from the train in Lucknow, something had pushed him along. For some time, it had felt like he was sleep-walking. Something had made him oblivious to the consequences.
The thought came to him as soon as his train pulled out of Howrah. Based on images from his favorite movies, he tried to imagine how Lucknow would be. He remembered a story he had heard quite some time back. One of his neighbors, a rather unusual man amidst the unremarkable local regulars at the evening bench by the park, was sitting with a woman. The others two friends present that evening were fitted awkwardly on the other end trying to maintain as much distance as possible from the uncomfortable situation they found themselves in. The reason for their discomfort was obvious. The lady companion of Mr. Paul was not his wife but they were holding hands. The lady was dressed not in a pale cotton saree, or even in a salwar and dupatta that would still be acceptable. She adorned khaki trousers and a sweat shirt. Quite remarkable for the place and time. Mr. Paul introduced her as his eyes caught a glimpse of Mr. Biswas trying to walk past briskly pretending to be absorbed in his thoughts. “This is Camille, my travel partner,” he had said. Not quite sure what a travel partner meant and too polite to ask, Mr. Biswas had smiled sheepishly greeting her with a namaste, only to realize too late that she had extended her hand for a shake.
Days later for an invitation over tea at the Pauls’, he had summoned the courage to ask Mr. Paul what a travel partner meant , making sure Mrs. Paul wasn’t within hearing distance. Mr. Paul had mentioned in quite a matter-of-fact manner that he had been a member of a club in Hrishikesh for many years, where like-minded individuals went on trips together. The trips could be selected based on one’s interest, and often ranged beyond activities middle-aged Bengali men in India had an opportunity of participating in – rafting, parasailing and rock climbing, yes, but also hiking and camping for the less physically adept. Mr. Biswas had flinched a little at still being categorized as ‘middle-aged’ as he thought of himself and his friends more in the ‘past the prime’ category, having thought of himself old since his mid-thirties. But he was mesmerized by the prospect of getting to participate in unconventional ‘middle-age’ activities. He thought of the illustrated book on action sports he had purchased at the Calcutta Book Fair quite some time back, the one with pictures of foreign locales and westerners performing such acts and posing smilingly afterwards. To imagine the small roundish guy in front of him, who looked so similar to him, doing such stuff was hard for him.
Next day, Mr. Biswas brought the book with him to show his friends. Mrs. Biswas, who viewed everything foreign to be extremely valuable and in need of protection from dust, kept it locked in a glass case. Mr. Biswas had quietly unlocked the glass case and retrieved the book hiding it underneath his brown shawl. Mrs. Biswas was busy preparing her tea in the kitchen.
As soon as he opened the page showing white water rafting on the gushing stream with beautiful pine-covered mountains in the backdrop, his friends sighed. Mr. Biswas pointed out a red raft with individuals in red floaters and helmets downstream posing with their oars amidst the tumultuous waters. To his astonishment, Mr. Paul confirmed that is what he had done with his travel group, bursting in laughter at his disbelief. The sights were less spectacular of course, he remembered to mention. After all, Hrishikesh couldn’t compare with vistas of upstate New York. But the adrenaline rush was the same, he said. Mr. Biswas forgot to ask more about Camille, which was his original intention, but learnt later from Mrs. Biswas that she was his ‘friend’ whom he had met through the same club. Camille had stopped by for a day while visiting Kolkata for a conference. It was obvious from Mrs. Biswas’s tone that she thoroughly disapproved of the friendship, a feeling that must have resonated with the circle of local ladies from whom the information had come.
Mr. Biswas was not so sure anymore that he agreed with the disapproval. Like white water rafting and para-sailing, being friends with a lady outside the norm of knowing her through her husband was becoming more and more acceptable to him. His acceptance was not driven by a physical need, a question he had chastised himself with several times. His acceptance was driven by the inability to find any reason against the friendship. If given a chance, would he go on a trip in a gushing river in a red floater, befriending any man or woman in the same boat with him? The answer was yes; a tiny, shy one squeaking from somewhere under his belly wistfully, but it was a yes.
A few days later his son sent him some pictures via Facebook, a site he had trained himself to learn with the help of his next door neighbor’s daughter, Srirupa, if only out of a desire to be a part of their son’s day-to-day life. He pulled a chair up to the dresser and removed the lace covers lovingly knitted for the PC and adjacent speakers. He hooked up the wires and established the internet connection. Initially Mrs. Biswas complained about the phone line being inaccessible during the internet sessions. After all, friends and relatives needed to get in touch to discuss matters of importance – housemaid schedules and water shortages. But the complaints abated when Facebook started displaying a plethora of pictures. Snapshots providing glimpses into her son’s and daughter-in–law’s life – from a specialty dish she was proud to have cooked to happy trips the son had embarked on. She was now worried of evil eyes being cast on this fortune. So she remembered to offer a special prayer during her daily evening puja every time she got a glimpse of the Times Square with a smiling Sourav and Mou in the forefront.
Mr. Biswas came across the photographs exactly five days after the discussion with Mr. Paul. His own son and daughter-in-law clad in the same red floaters from the book, with red oars in hand, in a yellow boat on a gushing stream. White water rafting trip on the Hudson, was the album title. Mr. Biswas felt an interesting sensation near his chest – pride definitely was a component of it, but there was something else too. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He yelled out for his wife to come to the bedroom for a minute, eager to show her the pictures. She came muttering how the meal would get burnt because of these interruptions Mr. Biswas put her through during busy cooking hours. Maybe we will do this too when we go to visit them next year, he said to his fascinated wife. She looked at him astonished. Have you lost your mind? That’s all there is left to do at this old age as if everything else has been taken care of? She chided him gently. If anything, she would have liked to go on a religious trip to Benaras after coming back from the U.S. Benaras is quite close to Hrishikesh, Mr. Biswas had thought to himself.
The Paul family was moving. Mr. Paul wanted to go settle in Darjeeling for his retirement to fulfill his longtime wish of being in the mountains. Mrs. Paul vented to the ladies how her social life didn’t matter to him and the hardships she would face adjusting in a community that might not have Bengalis. She was consoled – Darjeeling was in Bengal, too, after all, and even if the place was dominated by Gorkhas and other mountain communities, Bengalis had to be there. Bengalis were everywhere; even the cities in the US had Durga pujas. The ladies were well-informed and confident, thanks to Facebook photos of their children posing in traditional sarees with the goddess in the backdrop year after year.
Mr. Biswas stopped by at the Pauls’ that evening with sweets as a little farewell gift from his family and remembered to ask the address for the club in Hrishikesh. Mr. Paul was a little surprised, but wrote it down for him. Well aware of the awkwardness in the air as he accepted the piece of paper, Mr. Biswas quickly put it into his pocket. Tea was brought in, along with singaras and sandesh.
His cell phone started ringing as he stood outside the crowded tea stall lost in a haze. Not realizing that he was staring at not-so-decent magazine covers displayed across the cracked glass, he was startled by the man nudging him – Your cell is ringing, Sir – his voice had a sneer in it, as his mouth curled up in amused ridicule. Even Mr. Biswas, in his gentlemanly attire and clouded glasses, looked unlikely yet likely to be staring at semi-naked foreign ladies on display across dusty, sooty, broken glass-racks. Mr. Biswas scuffled away embarrassed, realizing the incoming call had disconnected. But somehow he didn’t feel like calling back. He was way too familiar with the voice and the conversation that awaited him. Anxious enquiries were not interesting to him anymore and he walked towards the unfamiliar with a rumpled paper in his hand. He paid careful attention to the garbage and occasional animal feces that seemed to appear from nowhere, punctuating his path forward.
Three days later, Mr. Biswas got down from the bus from Hrishikesh at the Lucknow station. He didn’t look back, just as he hadn’t when he had boarded. The road to station from here was a familiar one and he was in a slight hurry to catch the train back home.
Currently working in Tech as an engineer and engineering manager, Tanushree Ghosh is a mother, an activist, an artist and a writer. Her education has been primarily in the STEM fields (She has a PhD in Material Science and Chemistry from Cornell University and has worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratories) but she has pursued ‘the arts’ defiantly throughout her life and continues to do so. She is an active and past member of several international NGOs and is currently working on opening her organization – Her Rights and One Extra Meal (OEM) – to facilitate resource mobilization for women in need and help impoverished children. Her blog posts and stories are an effort to provoke thoughts towards social issues, especially issues concerning women. Immigration and related acculturation are also of close interest to her. The latter is the topic of her first book. She is also a blogger for the Huffington Post. You may read her first post on Huff Post here. Link to her personal website for more info: http://www.thoughtsandrights.com.
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