ditor's Note: A little boy brushing his grandmother's hair while she tells him bedtime stories is a heart-warming image. But in novelist Saikat Majumdar's hands that scene is imbued with darkness and deception, yet not devoid of innocence. In The Firebird a young boy knows his mother gets dressed every night to go on stage entering a made-up world of love, romance, tragedy. He also knows the rest of his family views that life with suspicion and distaste. Trapped between the two, fascinated by one world, but needing the comfort of the other, Ori gets an early lesson in love, sex and morality and how the manipulation of make-believe can be more devastating than reality.
Before going to bed, Ori combed and brushed his grandmother's hair. Every night. He loved to play with the grey white strands. He would undo the neater braids woven by Maya earlier in the evening, comb out the sparse strands, make uneven, odd-shaped plaits. Suddenly, his Mummum seemed small and weak and breathed the sad smell of an old woman in bed. The smell of coarse cotton and old wrinkled skin made his heart ache.
Sitting behind her, he couldn't see her face. For that he was glad, as the wrinkles on her face had a life of their own; they could speak a silent language that made people to do as she wanted. He was scared of her face but loved her nightly voice.
As he braided her hair, she told him stories. Scottish romances spun in Bengali, found in the brittle pages of a massive tome in the library of a small town several hours from Calcutta by train. The terrifying origins of the Arabian Nights, stories spun by the fear of death, grown to life in a rich landowner's library in village in Hoogly district, in a sprawling mansion where his grandmother was growing up, many, many, many years ago.
Stories that needed no paper or libraries, stories that floated in the air through time. The gods and the demons churning the ocean for the nectar of immortality, the gods cheating the demons of their fair share.
She gave him endless stories, his Mummum. As she spoke, she taught him to possess the twists in the tales, the rhymes in the poems, even the moments of climax. She drew him into riveting worlds so that he could be a storyteller too, slowly, handing over to him the reins of the stories and the poems, bit by bit. By listening, he too became a teller, and there were many tales they told each other, one line at a time.
But sitting on her bed, slumped over a pillow with its stale old-woman smell, Ori sometimes wanted to cry. His mind kept running to his mother. She rarely came back before he fell asleep. He would see her in the morning, laying out his ironed clothes, preparing his school lunch. But for the night, he was left with stories in the soft voice of his grandmother, and fallen strands of white-gray hair.
She was ready with one of their favorites today.
"He was to board the ship,” she said, "and set sail across the Arabian Sea.”
It was the story of his grandfather's trip to England as a student. A story that never grew old. She spoke so often about the past that over the years he could see everything clearly. She spoke of his grandfather's whimsies, how he had appeared in the royal court of George the Fifth when he passed the barrister's exams, dressed up like a prince with a massive turban exactly as in the giant oil painting across Mummum's bed.
"When you've seen nothing but blue-green water for weeks, the stillness of the sea becomes scary. And the phosphorescent glow at nights! He couldn't bear to look out at the sea or to smell the salty wind, and for days he would curl up on his berth, in a tangle of blankets, getting sicker and sicker as the soiled smell of the bed seeped into him. "I thought I would die,” he told me so many times.
Ori knew the lines by heart. Often, he would give her a line as she groped for it. Sometimes, he knew, she deliberately missed a turn in the story so that he could draw her back on track; it pulled him deeper and deeper into the story, made him fall more deeply in love with it. Yes, Bikash, that was his name, the other Bengali co-passenger. Loosening the hair from the tangle of Maya's braids, Ori felt a closeness to Mummum he could not imagine was possible between two people. He wanted to be the perfect boy. He wanted to braid her hair beautifully.
"He didn't even know how many days passed that way.” Mummum went on. "Later, Bikash would tell him that he had been sick for two weeks. Then the day came when he groped his way out of bed, his head still reeling, trying to walk around in the cabin, even stepping out on the deck. I would sometimes go and sit near the rails, somehow keep my eyes open. I would inhale the salty air by the lungful. But slowly, I was getting better.
It was on those evenings that he saw Kartar.”
"Mummum?” Ori said. "I'm making the braids with four plaits tonight.” The four-plait braid was trickier than the standard braid with three plaits. You had to remember the order in which the parts had to be woven into one another, beginning all over again after you finished a single loop, carrying on till you came to the end of the strands of hair to create a pattern like the carved border of a silver bowl. He wanted to do something beautiful today with her wispy gray hair. He wanted to make her happy. Very happy.
"Yes, why don't you?” Mummum always let him do her hair any way he felt like. "And then slowly, he could never quite remember how exactly, he started talking to Kartar.”
"Kartar was from Punjab,” Mummum spoke slowly. "Your dadu said that his Hindi sounded more like Punjabi. "Often, I'd no idea what he was saying,” he would tell me. "But it didn't take me long to realize that he was made to work alone because of the hatred sweeping over the ship.”
The bed creaked with the weight of a human body. Shruti. Right next to him. She had slid into the room silently, bringing with her a familiar metallic perfume and the coarse smell of cigarettes.
Shruti did not smoke. The cigarette smell was of Filter Wills, Abir's brand. The smell sickened Ori. Why was she here? She stayed out of Mummum's way whenever she came home late.
He turned to Shruti and mouthed silently: Where were you? Shruti's face was flushed with happiness. Cinema – her lips formed a silent answer. She seemed kinder, softer than ever, nicer to Ori than she had ever been. What movie – he whispered, leaning closer to her, inhaling more deeply the coarse odor of Filter Wills. Back to the Future – she whispered back. They had gone without him. Had not even cared to tell him that they were going to a movie. Why? Not that he cared. How was it – he whispered.
The movie? I have no idea. Lazily, Shruti rolled her eyes and whispered, a careless laughter spilling through them.
Ori's fingers stiffened on Mummum's hair. He lifted his eyes to look at the ancient clock on the wall to the right, above the blue water filter. It was past ten o'clock and still his mother wasn't back.
"Putli,” Mummum said coldly, using the baby-name that Shruti hated. "How many times I've told you not to sit on my bed before changing out of your outdoor clothes? God only knows where you roam till late in the night and what kind of muck you bring home. Go wash up.”
Shruti looked like she had been slapped. Ori thought she was going to say something bitter and nasty. But she curled her lips in disgust and left the room.
"You know what Kartar told your dadu?” Affection cradled Mumum's voice. "They can kill us and throw our bodies overboard and everything will be hushed up. They were the white seamen, full of venom for the black and brown men working on the ships, at the docks of London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff.”
But Ori dreamt not of ships but the dark bowels of cinema halls. Where did they go? Where were they showing Back to the Future? He wanted to hug Mummum, bury his head in her neck along which green veins stood out like fault lines on an ancient rock. The grandfather clock struck ten-thirty. His mother was still not home. He felt his eyes well up with tears.
There was a scraggly knot of boys from the senior classes in school who claimed to know all about the cinema-halls in central Calcutta. About every movie they showed, even the booze they served in the attached pubs. Sometimes they would scurry into the darkness and sit behind the couples. The stuff you see there is hotter than porn. The movie on screen? You're funny. They have no idea.
The acrid smell of Filter Wills cigarettes clogged his brain. Abir's brand. Shruti never smoked. And nobody could smoke inside the hall. But Abir was always coated with the smell. How long was the movie? Was it just the two of them there? Did anybody else go with them? Did the scraggly knot of boys sit behind them, mesmerized? Nausea shot through his blood like an electric current.
"But dadu was still ill, wasn't he?” He tried hard to clear his voice. "He was terribly homesick now, right?”
"He missed them all.” Mummum said tenderly. "I just wanted to go back, get back to the firm soil of Calcutta. I missed my mother.”
The cluck, cluck, cluck of the lizard in the room echoed in Ori's brain.
"Mummum,” he said, pausing on a breath, his fingers frozen still over a braid almost done.
"What is it, Ori?”
"Mummum,” he repeated, fear and excitement battling within him. "Ma and Samiran Uncle were in bed. And they were kissing.”
She swung around with a sharpness that he feared that wisps of her hair, locked in his fingers, would get wrenched from her scalp.
"Where did you see them?” Her face looked ashen. "When?”
He remembered the scene. It had been a slow and strange play. In that scene, they had ended their evening in bed. They came back together after a long day's work, entered the living room after a shower. She had rubbed her shoulder-length hair with a towel. Her homely nightgown had hugged her body like an old dress.
"They were in bed together, kissing.” He repeated, mechanically, staring at the mocking hands of the clock. "Where? Where?” Mummum voice trembled and grew faint.
He would tell her everything. The story of his mother slipping into bed with a man, of their laughing quarrel under sweaty, crumpled sheets. With the meaningless noise they had poured into each other's mouths.
He'd seen it all on the stage. Easily, he left that out.
Twice he'd watched the play, and many rehearsals of it. It showed a dull evening. Where the two stretched their limbs and cleared their tongues before an eager audience. Where they chatted through their dinner, fought over which radio channel to listen to.
"Ori!” His grandmother pleaded like a little girl. "Tell me where you saw this.”
The couple looked more bored than tired when they got into bed together. The lights had dimmed but the audience could make out the silhouette of their bodies, entangled under a single sheet. Against soft background music, they had started reciting the list of next day's groceries, their bodies fused together.
Actually, they hadn't kissed at all.
But he had ached inside to see her weave another life and home, a life of daily grocery and cooking and household chores. It had made him cry. It didn't make sense.
Half a kilo of small potatoes, remember. Loudly, she'd insisted. And onions of course, the red ones. The yellow onions are no good. And some spinach, and potol.
What kind of fish? Rui or katla?
The music rose to a crescendo. Their bodies drew closer. But for the two voices, it could have been one person sleeping on the bed. A large person who fidgeted impossibly.
"In Samiran-uncle's house,” he said aloud. "That evening they fought over which radio channel to listen to. Later, they were in bed together, kissing.”
It was as if someone had hit the old woman with a cricket bat, swung full force. He only wanted to make her happy. She was the only person who never forgot him.
Tears pooled around his glasses again, trickled down to his cheeks, and along with them, rose within him the fine thread of anger that had flared against Shruti.
"I was in the next room. Ma thought I was asleep.”
But that was true. She never knew if he was there. She didn't care. Not when she was playing her part.
Not even if he was in the first row of the audience.
Never when she played her part.
Excerpted with permission from The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette India, 2015.