My room has a corner that functions as some sort of shrine to the gods. It’s essentially a beautiful framed poster of the Dalai Lama bearing the quote, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves”. A quote I believe in and exercise. Above the poster is a verse from the Koran that Billy gave me one time when he was convinced my house in Cardiff had ghosts in it. (It did, but that’s another story.) Under the poster there’s a small wooden table scattered with what I suppose over the years have become my gods. There’s a clay Durga, a wooden Rio Jesus, my baby Krishna (my first crush), Ganga jal and a cotton turtle (the one upon whose back the Earth once sat). There are also guitar strings (some sort of teenage offering).
From time to time I forget this is a place of worship and when I return home, drunkenly place random objects here. This morning I noted with some irritation the presence of a pair of keys on the table. I had asked my dad to take them back to Calcutta with him. I’d said to him last night on the phone, “Go to my room and look at that puja thing…the keys to the Calcutta house are lying there. Please take them back when you fly out tomorrow morning.” He’s always doing this. Forgetting silly things.
The “Calcutta house” is where he grew up…a small apartment on the corner of Elgin Road, for those of you who know the city. For those who don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s an apartment in a building that’s crumbling like any other in that city. I guess it’s never mattered to me that it’s a bit decrepit or that the bathrooms always seem damp or that the doors have no locks, because it’s a house full of stories and I have lived in those stories like the princess of my own fairytale. From the first room on the right that my father shared with his brother; where he couldn’t fall asleep one night because he thought the spider on the ceiling would come eat him…to the balcony from which his bunny rabbit jumped to death. The same balcony through which a thief once climbed. That was when they put the grills up. It’s a house with history. Four girls went to their weddings from there. It’s where daddy took mama after he married her in that small ceremony in Germany. It’s where we learnt how to be grandchildren. It’s where the shelves are always full of pickles and lime and no one is allowed to sleep beyond nine. Where the maalish-waali comes twice a week with her oils, and where tea is always served on time. The furniture has never changed. The style has always been the same…velvet couches, pictures of gods collecting dust, tiny windows encased in iron wrought into what someone in the 70s thought was an attractive repeat pattern. The house has always been full – visitors dropping by unannounced at odd hours – for breakfast, for tea, for chatter and gossip. It’s a house where every single one of us has dreamt of love. The kitchen is always a-bustle except at siesta. And there is always siesta. The house smells of spices and looks like old people live there. Which they did, up until recently.
Dada was the first to go and I still miss his gentle hands and smile of angels. The couch in his room still offers up indents for his back. Then the surprise one, his eldest daughter. When she went the whole world went quiet and the house was the dark heart of all that silence. And then, exhausted from loss, my grandmother left. I packed away the saris and love letters, the photographs and medicine bottles. The weight of memories. And I did not cry.
I went back two weeks ago. It was a quick trip: paperwork/ kitchen work/ pieces of my heart that needed closure. But those three days became a lifetime. And then I left with the key, a soul that was whole again, and a chapter closed.
I’m glad I did, because it seems tomorrow my father will hand the apartment over to the building again, where it will become just square feet again. And next month a builder will tear it down so that by the time I visit in November, glass and steel will have replaced my grandmother’s meals.
It was only half way through the day today that I realized something with a start, and I bit down hard on my palm when I did. He hadn’t forgotten. It’s not something he forgot to take… I recall now the forlorn way he had said, “Okay, okay beta,” when I’d shouted over the phone from a noisy bar, “Take the key!”
I had forgotten.
The key isn’t clutter on a wooden table.
It is in its final and rightful resting place.
Goodbye Calcutta you dusty star, you elegant mistress of phantoms…bleached dress of vintage, patient denizen, articulate old lioness. I have closed the door, but in the apartment in my heart, the light is always on and the kitchen forever a-bustle. And teatime is as ever at four, for anyone who comes knocking at our door.