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Anu Kumar

Journeys of a Lifetime

A Street in Tanjore by Jan Ciaglinski

Casablanca is a film I can watch over and over again. There’s a scene I remember vividly. First: A narrow irregular street, crowded with small stalls. Camels and goats ambling amidst all kinds of people. Shopkeepers in turbans, or with fez caps, and kaffiyehs, smiling as they offer for sale lamps, cane baskets, and trinkets of various kinds. Distinctly foreign looking people also mill around curiously: men in suits, women in flowery dresses and hats; policemen in high square hats, and knee length pants; constables in smaller hats, a feather toggling on top in the low, hot breeze. A sudden stillness followed by the appearance of an open-top convertible that surges past too quickly.

This is a small boxed-in scene, in black and white, framed by minarets, the mosque walls white in the blinding radiance of the sun. The brash light on faraway desert stones making one blink instinctively.

I always imagined I could see my grandfather. Spot someone like him walking in these streets. Casablanca was made in 1942. Three years later, one cold July morning 1945, in the waning days of the Second World War, my grandfather left behind his family and his sprawling brick home in Singur, miles out of Calcutta in India’s east, and set off on his long journey for the United States.

My grandfather, a doctor who specialized in public medicine had been awarded the prestigious Rockefeller scholarship to study public health systems in the US. He was leaving behind a young and growing family. Besides his wife, that is, my grandmother, whom he had married when she was only twelve, there were five children. The youngest, my mother was only five months old when he left, and my younger uncle hadn’t yet been born.

The train he boarded from Calcutta took nearly two days to reach Bombay as it traversed the country, the railway line trundling across the country’s waist for the cities – Calcutta and Bombay – lay on either side of India. The War still raged in this part of the world, and India was then under British rule.

Two years before this, in early 1943, the Japanese army had made quick advances, moving up from southeast Asia, then Burma (Myanmar), toward the northeastern Indian towns of Kohima and then Shillong. There were rumors that Calcutta would be next. To preempt this, the British followed a series of cruel and terrible “scorched earth” tactics. It caused a famine of epic proportions in Bengal, of which Calcutta was the chief city. Till 1911, Calcutta had been the capital of British India, and it was still a center of industry and trade.

When boats were destroyed under British orders, and the rice crop deliberately directed elsewhere, hordes of starving people – men, women, and children – flocked to Calcutta in desperation. My grandparents, young parents themselves, had seen it all: other parents, driven weak by hunger, dragging themselves door to door, hands cupped helplessly, pleading for anything to slake their children’s hunger, even, as my grandmother later told me, begging for the water used to cook the rice with. ‘Don’t throw away the rice water, ma,’ my grandmother recalled. ‘Give it for my child so he may live for another day.’

And still they perished, the children with their bloated stomachs and parched lips, lying on the road next to mangy street dogs. If it wasn’t hunger that claimed them, it was the mosquito-borne malaria, or cholera caused by contaminated water. Life drained away, while their parents sat listless and dry-eyed, their pain numbed by hunger. Instead, the police sirens, long-drawn, ever alert to war, and the fighter planes overhead, as British, and US forces tried to get a head-start over the Japanese land forces, sounded like the wailing of a thousand people. My grandfather, a young doctor then, witnessed all this, and his impressive degrees, framed and hung on the wall, only stared back in mockery.

As my mother and aunts recollect, Singur to the north of Calcutta was a pretty and sylvan spot. At that time, it was two hours or a bit more from the city, served by a train with an irregular schedule. It was almost rural, with a bunch of villages around a main school, and a primary health center. There was a temple to the goddess Kali, made of red brick, with a gateway formed of curvy arches and stumpy columns.

In Singur, my grandfather hoped to set up a prototype of a district level healthcare system, one that would ensure essential medical facilities to the surrounding villages. So the villagers wouldn’t have to rush to Calcutta, the nearest city with proper medical facilities. Nor would they succumb to most basic illnesses without timely help. The center would be modeled on what some US states were then doing, and what the US wanted to introduce to countries recovering from colonialism and the War. In my grandfather’s vision, the model he set up in Singur would serve as an example for similar initiatives across Bengal, and India as well.

The War delayed things, but he looked forward to going to the USA. The Rockefeller fellowship would help him see the US systems first-hand. The photos in the first passport he was issued show him beaming through his thick, black-framed glasses, a cowlick straying across his forehead. One could tell he felt awkward, and terribly self-conscious, posing for an official photograph.

‘Was he nervous?’ I asked my third aunt, the third of my mother’s older sisters. It was a long flight, after all.

‘No,’ she said, abruptly. Third aunt always looked sad to me, she lingered over old memories, and found it hard to talk about them. ‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘he had, you know, swum across the Brahmaputra. He was much younger then, of course.’

The Brahmaputra is one of the longest rivers in Asia; the 15th longest in the world, as I learnt from Wikipedia. The river began from the inaccessible snowy reaches of Tibet, moved east and then southwestward toward India, where every monsoon, in the months of July and August, it turned wild, changed shape, overran its banks, and left, over the years, its stamp on the land. Entire villages moved elsewhere seeking safety, islands turned up where they had never been, and as decades passed, it seemed, the river flowing south toward the sea grew bigger and wider than before. Somewhere in the river’s middle, in a place known as Mymensingh, my grandfather had swum across it, as a young man. He must have been in his early twenties.

In 1947, two years after he left for the US, India became independent, but was partitioned into two countries, and the land where he had grown up, the town of Mymensingh, the river that flowed by it, became part of Pakistan. Partition was expected, but sudden losses, sudden realities never really are, and the loss of home is an uncurable loss, one that overrides everything else. And all I ever knew was that my grandfather had once swum across a big and mighty river. It was from this one image that I learnt all I could about him.

For his trip to the USA that would last about two years, my grandfather had a couple of suits stitched, he bought ties, and some sturdy shoes. He had been told that the USA could be cold, but when he sailed down the Arabian sea, past the Suez Canal and up the Red Sea, for the first time in life he felt the warm gentle touch of the temperate sun. Every time he strolled the deck, only in the afternoons – for being a tropical person, he couldn’t bear that early morning nip – the sun felt soft and fuzzy on his face. He had never seen birds like the gulls and swallows that circled high over him, around the ship’s funnels, or swooped down at great speeds, calling out long and raucous. They sounded as if they were calling for someone, a cry of half-pain, of longing. Maybe they longed for shore, he once told my mother, some years after his return, the time before her marriage.

In his letters home, that were mailed only when the ship docked at certain ports: Aden, Marseilles and last, Gibraltar, he didn’t mention such things. That might mean he was enjoying it all, that he wasn’t thinking of his family, or worrying about his children and his wife. Perhaps he missed them, the food his wife cooked, his children’s endless chatter, but such things were never mentioned or talked about openly then. In my grandfather’s time, and even afterwards, for ordinary people, those who existed outside books, and lived in real life, there were no words for such things as missing someone. To acknowledge that you missed someone was an emotional luxury. You just got on with life. As a boy, you worked to get a good job and be secure in life. Girls, like my grandmother was once, hoped to be married securely to a husband of a good family.

My grandfather in his letters provided a studious and meticulous account of every stage of his journey. The other doctor with him, a woman called Muktha Sen, was doing fine. She sometimes sketched on small bits of paper and slipped them into the envelope along with the letters she sent home. It was for her daughters, she told my grandfather. “Children always like to see funny things,” she said. My grandfather, who had no such artistic inclinations, now made the effort to remember and narrate interesting things in his letters home.

The Mediterranean was blue like a gemstone, and he frequently glimpsed warships that passed like sleek gray creatures in the distance. He wrote of the food, dull and banal, like the cold sandwich, and eggs on toast he had for breakfast, the unfamiliar peppery taste of the salmon and other seafood that became part of the menu once they were in the Mediterranean, and then at last he disembarked at Gibraltar, a British port.

The last stretch of his journey was especially memorable. He had never traveled so far out of his country. He had travelled on a steamboat before, smaller ones that plied along the rivers of his boyhood. But after an overnight stay in Gibraltar, a ferry ride across the Mediterranean, and then a train journey across the desert region of French Morocco, what awaited him at Casablanca was a flight on a US military plane. This would take him across the Atlantic, a journey that then took over a day, with a stopover in south Britain. It was a journey he had never made before. When he talked about this last part of his journey, he could never quite describe the amazement and shock he had felt. But the shine in his eyes gave him away, and he faltered often, always trying hard to look for the right word.

Years later, I pieced together my grandfather’s story, fitting in disconnected parts to make a coherent whole. He was my mother’s father and already an old man by the time I knew him. He was short, bent a little, wore black-framed glasses that appeared in his every photograph, and stooped as he walked, always with an absent-minded air.

To me, he had always been a distant figure. I came to know later of the sadness that weighed him down, that made him stoop even more.

Calcutta, where my grandparents lived, was a place we visited rarely. My other cousins, children of my mother’s other siblings, saw him more often. My grandparents lived in a big apartment, on the third floor of a building in a posh part of Calcutta: Ballygunge. The apartment had old red stone floors, the kind not seen any more, an old-fashioned living room with cane sofas and flowered cushions, and big four-poster beds in the huge bedrooms.

Whenever they had holidays, my cousins, for several of them lived in Calcutta, came over to my grandparents’ house. There are photos of this time that my aunts sent their sister, my mother. My aunts too were all young then, and my mother was close to her siblings. As their children grew, so did the demands on my aunts, and they moved places, which made keeping in touch somewhat difficult.

But then, in my grandparents’ house, my cousins played on the long balcony with white walls that ran the entire length of the apartment. There were flower pots on the parapet, and in some photos, my cousins look unhappily at the camera as they hold onto a leaf or a flower. They had been warned not to pluck anything. My grandmother had a temper and while it was never on show during the time my cousins were there, my mother and aunts had stories they shared. My grandmother was strictly conservative and had never allowed my mother or her sisters, when they were even younger and unmarried, to go out on their own. She didn’t allow my cousins this freedom, either. She remembered the time of violence during India’s independence, when the country had been partitioned, and riots were frequent, breaking out on some pretext or another. There was a playground right across the road, but the children couldn’t go on their own. According to my grandmother’s rules, they had to be accompanied by an adult, and of course, the adults were always busy, catching up on the news or doing other adult things.

In that long, far-stretching verandah, there was also a parrot. He lived all his life in his cage, on that verandah. He was an unusually quiet parrot, for unlike others of his ilk, he had never picked up any human sounds or words. Parrots were, we had learnt, smart and intelligent, gifted in the art of mimicry. But this parrot was quiet, he did not even protest at all the torment and indignities he was subjected to, from my cousins and from us too, when we were at our grandparents’ house. We brought our faces close to the cage and mocked him, called him names, and waited for him to react. But the parrot simply hopped around on his perch, looking at us from the corner of his eye. Sometimes when grandmother was otherwise occupied, one of my cousins would take the cage, with the parrot in it, to a water tap at one corner and proceed to give him a bath. The parrot then had a terribly drenched look, the yellow feathers on its neck looked like small thorns, and the ones on his tail turned stiff like hardened paintbrushes.

There were rare occasions when the parrot did protest. He would let out a series of high-pitched squawks and my grandmother would emerge from one of the inner rooms. She reprimanded us, mildly enough, with even a half-laugh, and we left the parrot alone for a while. We kept our distance from him but never for long. If the parrot could read us, he would know what we meant all right: Wait. See what we do next. The parrot hopped on his perch, his eyes warily following us, his head always turned around, a full circle, intending never to let us out of sight.

As for me, everything about the parrot excited my adolescent curiosity. I watched him closely, looking at his beady small eyes, black dots in a white circle, and we stared at each other for long seconds. Once I pushed a bit of soft cream cheese through the bars, and the parrot lunged forward and took a bite. I felt his beak, sharp and cutting on my finger, and the scratch appeared moments later like a thin angry red line.

As I looked at the parrot’s mark on my skin, I heard shuffling steps behind. It was my grandfather, small and stooping, with a hesitant smile on his face. He had appeared at the door to his room, the faded pink curtain pulled away with one hand. The parrot was suddenly more clamorous; he jumped around, fluttered his wings so hard that I was accosted by a bouquet of unfamiliar smells – things musty, cloying, and old. The smell of Calcutta that remained with me on the train back home, the dampness that lay over the balcony, and the thick heavy clouds that never seemed to lift. The parrot broke out in loud squawks, his head lifted, and my grandfather’s smile faltered. I saw other things, the clouds, the corner of another apartment building looming beyond the parapet, the swinging frond of a potted plant, and it was difficult for me to see the expression in my grandfather’s eyes.

“Are you okay?” He asked with concern. It took me a second to understand that he was talking to the parrot. “Don’t trouble him too much,” he told me then, his voice softly hoarse and slow. Then he withdrew, the curtain dropped into place, and I saw only my grandfather’s feet, his stubby toes in rubber slippers, and then there was only the parrot and me. He looked back at me, a certain triumph in his round white eyes, the black dot of his pupil moving excitedly right in the middle.

It was the first time my grandfather had spoken to me. The next time he would say anything to me came about a decade after.

My mother came from a large family. She had five siblings including three older sisters, and two brothers, one of whom was younger was her. When she was thirteen or so, her oldest sister got married. Soon after, the other two sisters in line were married, but it would be a while before my mother’s turn came.

Her sisters were married to men much older than them; there was at least a decade of difference between them, as it was between my own parents. My grandmother was meticulous and methodical in how she made her plans. Daughters had to be married off and quickly, the sons had to be well educated, well qualified enough to get good jobs. And at least one of her two sons had to become a doctor, like their father. Once my grandmother had made these plans, they were set in stone and it seemed she would let nothing get in the way of her plans working.

There was one thing I realized growing up. That it was hard to bring up girls. Having a daughter imposed great burdens on the family. One had to begin saving up quickly for their dowry. This meant other expenses had to be carefully monitored. Of course, there could be no compromises on giving sons a good education; that mattered for the family. And so most middle-class families, at the time across India, made sure the girls learnt essential home management skills. Parents considered themselves lucky if their daughters were married off early – and easily. My aunts and my mother were all in their late teens when they married.

The parrot came to his home soon after my three older aunts were married. It was my grandfather who came home with it holding the cage in one hand, while the driver followed behind, holding my grandfather’s leather valise, and his files. As mother told me later, my grandfather looked sheepish, as he stepped in through the door. My grandmother, my mother and her younger brother stared back at him. It was very unlike him to do such a thing.

But that was not really the truth. He had done other unusual things when he was younger, things my mother had only heard about; things I came to know of later. Now he was busy at work, looking after the patients that trooped in at all hours at the medical center, who queued up hoping he would have a cure for all their ailments. My father spoke in a soft tone, at times lisping, and when he looked at a patient through his thick-lensed black spectacles, they had his full attention. He was also writing the book that became a textbook for medical students in the university.

In the long silence that followed my grandfather’s entry into the house, my grandmother said nothing. It was the parrot that let out the first welcome screech, a hello of sorts.

The parrot came as a welcome distraction. The house, now that three daughters had been married, had gone suddenly quiet. My grandfather kept late hours, and my older uncle, their eldest son, was always closeted in his room. He was studying for the important civil service exams. My grandmother kept him supplied with hearty, full six-course meals, and strictly monitored all visitors, especially a couple of his female friends from college. It was this absence of distractions, grandmother told us, that had helped him succeed. My uncle cracked the very difficult exams, and the high standards he set, in clearing a difficult examination, became enshrined for the rest of us to follow.

But the quiet stretched in my grandparents’ home, and the three of them – the parrot, my mother and younger uncle – kept each other company. Sometimes it was very frustrating. The parrot only squawked. He refused to learn anything despite the best efforts of my mother and younger uncle. They stretched out in front of the domed iron cage, looking through its square windows, trying to teach him, hoping they would get him to talk. Years later, my cousins and I adopted a similar pose, as we bothered and irritated the parrot no end. By then of course the parrot was getting on in years. He had been just a fledgling when he first came home with my grandfather.

My mother and her aunts wanted to have a conversation with him and thought it would be easy with a young parrot. “But the parrot proved extraordinarily stupid, and we scaled back our ambitions,” mother said.

They tried to get him to greet people with a good morning, or a namaste. My grandmother too did her bit. She stood near the cage, every time she passed through the balcony holding up the brass plate with all her puja-related paraphernalia: the sandalwood paste, the joss sticks, and some simple rice offerings, and she would cajole the parrot, repeating the names of the gods she worshipped. Rama, and Krishna, whom she often called by his other name, Gopal. But the parrot hopped around, and squawked, with only more indignation. Grandmother gave up too, and the parrot was left quite alone. Unlike my mother, and her siblings, who could never stand up to grandmother, it was the parrot who did as he wanted. And he never learnt to talk.

In photos in the family album, my mother’s mother always holds center-stage, just like in real life. She was tall, and held herself erect, with a gaze, despite her old-fashioned square glasses, piercing and shrewd, and I remember her teeth, neatly proportioned and perfect. So that when she smiled, one knew her pleasure had been justly won, and that it had been grudgingly given.

Once, even before I was born, my grandparents had driven up all the way to Sambalpur, a town in northern Odisha, where my father then worked. Odisha is a state in India’s east, and my father, like my older uncle, was a civil servant too, the district superintendent of police. My grandmother and my older uncle took turns at the wheel. At the back, squished together in some discomfort, were my aunt–newly married to older uncle—then, my younger uncle, and my grandfather. This story was always recounted when family gatherings stretched long. Of how my grandfather had edged as close to the car window as possible, so that there was some respectable physical distance between him and his new daughter-in-law, my aunt. We laughed fondly and spoke in soft tones.

My grandfather in photographs of that time, the few days he spent in my parents’ house looks a frail, small figure, frowning and squinting at the camera. Grandmother next to him, easily appears the more dominant partner. She had to be, I learnt later. She was a practical, worldly person, and my grandfather was dreamy, and impractical, lost in his own world.

For my grandparents, it was their first holiday as a family, or what remained of it. It was four years since my mother, their youngest daughter had been married, and my younger uncle, the youngest in the family, born two years after my grandfather’s return from the US, had just graduated with a degree in medicine. He would follow his father as a doctor. Things were happening just as my grandmother had planned.

The photos in my father’s album show all of them together for that last holiday. My grandparents, my two uncles, my mother, and her new sister-in-law. My father after taking these pictures with his small box camera, put away these developed pictures in heavily bound photo albums, a set of four black and white photos to a page, covered by flaky gray translucent paper. My father cared for these albums obsessively, always cautioning us to turn the paper with care, for it could tear too easily.

Everyone posed for the camera, sitting on the cane sofas, with cushions of pink and yellow flowers, against a light gray background. In these old photos, I can make out the shadow on my grandfather’s face. He is wearing the traditional dhuti-panjabi. The gracefully folded cloth is wrapped around his legs, and he wore a long knee-length shirt over it. His eyes through his heavy, black-framed glasses look gentle, his hands rest on the sofa’s armrests, and his feet, in black buckled sandals are firm on the ground. My older uncle is next to him, with the easy assured confidence of someone who knows his place in the world. As a civil servant, in charge of administrative decisions in a district, he was at an early stage of his career, and he would go through life with that same easy confidence he shows in this photograph. Nothing would ever take him by surprise.

My younger uncle was always on his own, and that is why in most photos he is by himself, the times my father was able to surprise him with his camera. In one of the last photos of him, he is standing on a stoop of a kind, leaning against a wall, with an embarrassed half-smile. A creeper wafts against his trouser leg. He wears the same kind of thick, black-framed glasses that his father and older brother wore. He looks very relaxed in this photograph, for he had just finished his medical studies. Soon, as a matter of course, he would begin his post-graduate studies at the same hospital my grandfather worked in.

Two years after this photo my younger uncle fell suddenly sick and died a few hours later – in the same hospital he had studied in for his masters, and where my grandfather headed the department of public medicine. It was a death so shocking and unexpected that the family never spoke about it, and my mother could only talk of its aftermath, of what happened later.

She spoke of the long days of silent grief, of missing her brother, who had been, at one time, her only childhood playmate. The times she was angry with me, and as an adolescent, I did trouble her often, she blamed me for younger uncle’s death. I was born three months before it happened, she said, and with me had come bad luck to the family. I realize now that sadness can easily change to anger and leave behind lasting injuries.

From then on, my grandparents’ apartment with its huge cave-like rooms, red stone floors, and the windows, iron-barred with floating curtains in round iron rings, went very quiet. Except for the parrot, who looked on through the bars of his cage and squawked to draw attention. My grandmother wasn’t ever the kind to show grief, she had after all given away four daughters in marriage, all married in their late teens. Over the years, when the marriage ceremonies were over, as her daughters, one by one, left for their marital homes, I can imagine my grandmother standing by the window, a floor above looking down, witnessing the farewell scene below. I cannot imagine her crying. Though she must have felt a haunting sadness, at the emptiness in the house, the vacuum that settled in. For no longer would she hear the chatter of her daughters, the laughter, the whispers that had been a background to her life all these years. Or did she feel an overwhelming relief? Did she check off the list she carried in her mind, of the things left to do, the responsibilities still left to manage?

Those who came to sympathize and console her after younger uncle’s death, must have told her there are so many things not in your hand. It is all as God wished. My grandmother said nothing, she stared emptily back. This is what my mother remembers when she rushed to her parents’ home after she was told the news. It took her a day and a half to travel from Sambalpur to Calcutta.

My mother told me that the one thing my grandmother did, almost by rote, was to ask my grandfather over and over again, with an anguished half-cry, a demand, shrill and half-angry, was why as a doctor who cured patients, in their hundreds, he hadn’t been able to save their son. Had he even tried? Had he known? My grandfather, quiet and lost in his own world, never had an answer to that. The parrot that never learnt to say a single word, must have seen all this. The silence that grew between my grandparents stretched and deepened.

I visited my grandparents some years later, and I was left largely alone as my mother sat with my grandmother in one of the big four-poster beds. My grandfather stayed in his room and rarely emerged. I did the things I always did: I explored the apartment, the rooms one after the another, the living room with its sofas, now always unsat-on, for my grandparents rarely had visitors, the dining table with its plastic cover, looking a place abandoned and forlorn, and the astonishing puja room with its array of gods looking back at me, accusingly I thought, for coming on them unannounced. The house ended right after the puja room, and looking down the stairwell, I saw far below the paraphernalia of a child’s playthings strewn everywhere: a tricycle, some plastic toys, a cricket bat, a truck, and a pair of shoes. These things wore a look of such carelessness and abandonment that I knew their owner was very much around, maybe he had just gone to school and would come back to this small kingdom of his under a stairwell. I envied him then, partly for the fact that he had no idea of the silence in the apartment some floors above, that he had no idea that just some moments ago, I had seen my stoic stern grandmother break into tears before my mother, as together they talked about my younger uncle.

I went back then to troubling the parrot. I quietly prised open two bars of the cage so I could reach in and poke the parrot. I grimaced, scowled, and poked my tongue at him. The parrot retreated further into the cage, looking at me, with his rounded black on white eyes. I was just reaching out to pull his feathers when I heard shuffling steps behind. It was my grandfather hesitatingly making his way to the bathroom. Something in his slow gentle smile made me feel guilty, and I stepped away from the cage, leaving the parrot to himself.

No one noticed when the parrot had gone missing. But that silly parrot drew attention to himself. Barely an hour later, we heard his squawks, hollow and muffled. And my grandmother, used to his presence, sat up with a start. She knew the parrot wasn’t in his cage. And sure enough the cage sat on the gray balcony floor looking  like a huge empty mausoleum, a miniature tomb.

We began a hunt for him, feeling a bit foolish, for he never had a name. There was no point giving him a name, the reasoning went, for he would never answer back. And there was in any case no need to speak to him, for the house had emptied of all the children, everyone had married and moved away, even my older uncle who was at this time in Delhi. The parrot squawked repeatedly, like an infant calling for attention. And my grandparents looking at each other, looking for the parrot, kept on a conversation between them, oblivious to the presence of either me or my mother. Could he have flown away, my grandmother asked? There is a terrible tomcat around, she added, sometimes appearing at the kitchen window, and eyeing the bird too often. This added to my guilt, and I felt quite the predator myself. ‘No,’ my grandfather said in a voice soft and hoarse, ‘we might have heard him.’

My grandmother pointed out that his absent-mindedness often made him oblivious to things around. For some minutes, before they traced the squawks to a place under my grandmother’s bed, they carried on a conversation this way. My grandmother sounding worried, my grandfather’s soft earnest reassurances, his head always turned away from her, his eyes peering through his glasses, almost as if he wished he had x-ray vision and could probe into the house’s hidden dark corners where the parrot had hidden way. Then I saw my grandfather bend down, slowly. He knelt and placed his palms on the red-stone floor. Faint grunting noises came from under the bed.

I can still see the parrot, as he stood indignant surrounded by a lifetime of my grandmother’s accumulations. Things she had gathered for months and years, collected for various occasions, some forgotten for no reason, and pushed under the bed. Utensils, trinkets, plastic mugs, old iron buckets and old quilts. Things once used and put away in fond hope.

My grandfather spoke in cajoling tones, hoping the parrot would patter out on his own. But the parrot that had never gone very far in life only looked back at him, his eyes bigger than ever. Then my grandfather stretched out on the floor and began his slow shuffling crawl under the bed toward the parrot. Moments later, the parrot let himself be scooped up in his hands, and my grandfather crawled back, his legs appearing first before the rest of him. After he stood up, my grandfather pulled down his dhoti that during his crawl under the bed had climbed up to his knees. His knees were pale, and his legs had a scrawny look. He held the parrot in his palms and looked at my grandmother. There was relief on their faces.

Years later my mother told me the story again of how her father, when he had been a young man of twenty, had swum across the Brahmaputra, a river that flowed past his native hometown. It is a river known for its sweeping currents, its vastness stretching far to the horizon. My grandfather had taken on a challenge and swum across it, unmindful of the dangers to his life. It was one of the few stories my grandfather shared with my mother. When I remember this, I see him too, crawling under the bed to rescue the errant parrot.

Some years after all this, my grandparents moved to a smaller apartment not too far away. There was no verandah for the parrot and his cage. It was placed on a low shelf that took up part of the kitchen, a place always in half-darkness, unlike the verandah where daylight had fallen in abundance, and the streetlights cast a murky fluttering purple glow every evening. The parrot must have craned his neck out, looking for the missing light. All of us had grown up by this time, and when we made the perfunctory holiday visit to my grandparents, no one troubled the parrot any more.

The parrot didn’t survive the move for long. But maybe he was just getting old. When he died at 23, he was just as old as my younger uncle had been.

I always remember my grandfather, emerging from under the bed, holding the parrot gentle in his old, wrinkled hands. The parrot lay quiet, basking in his attention. My grandfather might have guessed what had made the parrot escape. For he looked at me, his eyes hazy behind his thick lensed glasses. “You mustn’t trouble him,” he told me, his lips curved in a half-smile.

Recently, on one of those family search repositories, I found some details of my grandfather’s journey to the United States and told my mother about it. There is the record of his long flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew on a Transworld Airlines plane, on route 2940; the date September 5, 1945. It reached New York a day later on September 6. It wasn’t a big plane; there were six other passengers, including his colleague, the lady doctor, Muktha Sen. My grandfather looks young in his photos in US newspapers of the time. He’s dressed in a suit, his hair neatly brushed back, the stray forelock he could never brush away in time, and those familiar, black-framed glasses. One article quoted a US health officer saying he found my grandfather an engaging conversationalist.

The plane shook as it flew over the Atlantic, my mother once told me. Muktha Sen was afraid. She felt the plane would break up anytime in the strong winds and fall into the ocean. What would happen to her small children? Would her daughters grow up motherless? It was one of the last stories my grandfather told my mother before her marriage. She had the habit of taking a glass of water to him every night before he fell asleep. She wept on the day of her marriage knowing she wouldn’t be able to do that anymore and knew my grandfather would feel the same sadness in his heart. He had never been able to express his feelings. His sorrow at his son’s death had only made him quieter. He retreated into his room, a bit more, and became a shadow of his former self.

But that evening of September 6, 1945, as he too no longer felt the land under his feet, he knew he had to comfort his colleague, a woman from India like him, and younger to him by a few years. She had children as young as his own. At first he tried to humor her, telling her that the US diplomats with them seemed not a bit concerned. There they were, he pointed, a couple of seats ahead, stretched out on their seats, unbothered by the turbulence shaking around them. She managed a tremulous smile. He looked at her then, almost like she was one of his patients, and assured her, in his soft, practical voice: ‘We must have faith. God has brought us this far, safely. He must have a plan.’


About the writer:
Anu Kumar lives in New Jersey and earned an MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Kumar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Common, The Missouri Review, The Maine Review, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere.

Image: A Street in Tanjore (#6 in a series of 16 “Paintings of India”) by Jan Ciaglinski (1858-1913). Oil on canvas on cardboard backing. 26 x 34 cm(?). 1907. Public domain. Jan Ciągliński was a Polish painter who lived in Russia. His works are considered to be the first examples of Russian Impressionism.

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