fiction

A Bridge across Time
- Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Durga and I meet at a coffee shop three years after my return to Kolkata. She looks taller, attractive but unadorned, her clothes cosmopolitan in their appeal. We put an arm around each other in cool acknowledgment of our long acquaintanceship. And then, as I pull out the chair and bend to sit down, not knowing why we are meeting across the years, she touches me on my shoulder.

I look up at her.

She smiles; I notice her laugh lines just as she draws me into a long, warm embrace.

Surrounded in a mall humming with noisy shoppers, I feel my qualms at meeting Durga drain away, leaving behind quietude I had not expected to find.

Will words suffice now that we've known this silence?

'Heard from Arjun?'

Her question is sudden.

'No.'

'Did you try to connect with him?'

'Why would I?'

'So much lost.'

Her tone and words bring up past memories in abrupt dissonance with the present.

The refugees of a division, my grandparents travelled across a land that had once been whole, but born anew with a serrated line that sundered east from west, making a country out of each half. They left their property and house in the care of neighbours who eventually wrote back to tell them how all had been claimed by the new residents of what was once their village ... the Hilsa in the Padma, the paddy in the fields, the house with its north, south, east, west wings. 'Nothing is ours any longer; they have taken it all away. Everything.' My father described, perhaps re-lived in his enactment, how grandfather had leaned back in his dark teak reclining chair with the letter in his hand and muttered, so much lost, so much taken away.

The neighbours who wrote the letter were Durga's grandparents.

Grandfather died long before Durga and her parents knocked on our door. I was in Arjun's house at the time, across the garden, chatting with him and his mother. When I reached home, in the drawing room where mother kept her crystals and antiques, three strangers sat on the sofa. Loitering in front of strangers was unacceptable, I was aware of that, so I waited in the dining room, overhearing snatches of conversation.

'...yes, Mr. Chowdhury, I know all .... but what to do?' Baba's voice was soft.

'Roy Babu, we need help; can't keep the girl with us any longer. Don't know when they'll convert her.'

'Mr. Chowdhury.' Ma's voice had an edge. 'We have our own daughters to bring up; who takes up another's responsibility these days? What if something happens to her here? And think about it; how will she settle into a completely new life? She's past the age of adjustment; I'm sure it'll be too much to expect of her or us, too many differences to accommodate.'

'My daughter is well brought up, boudi. And "difference" is only a line of division. You know how it is, Roy Babu, you come from there. It's just that living among them ... we are scared of the future, any day they may compel us to give her away, convert her...

'You should have moved when other families did. Anyway, this is an old fear, Mr Chowdhury, something we should learn to live with.'

Ma's family hadn't experienced the ravages of loss, of being uprooted. Isn't that why her family had objected to her marriage with Baba? 'You should have seen how your grandfather turned up his nose at me,' he would wink across the table and tilt his face, his chin and expression stiff, nose wrinkled in mimicry. Ma was not amused. 'He said he could make out my origin by looking at my elbows.' Elbows? Much later, in a burst of anguish, he explained. It was an old joke about those who'd crossed over, how, as refugees, they were supposed to have crawled their way into India.

I'd laughed at that time. For us of another generation, the unwilling heirs to an estrangement we hadn't experienced, east and west were parts of a map, different denominations. We'd grown up on stories of bifurcation, become carriers of history's deadweight that had no place in our collective psyche, were bereft of the sense of belonging that made one live in one Bengal and yearn for another, the golden one.

That night, we had dinner with Arjun's family. The subject came up again.

'We should discuss this clearly before taking any decision.' Baba said. 'After all, they are scared and have come to us for help.'

'There's nothing to discuss,' Ma said.

'There is,' Arjun's mother replied.

The tide turned. Ma wouldn't fight Shanti aunty, the friend-who-was-almost-a-sister; we knew that.

'As a social worker,' Shanti aunty said, 'I understand the issues that plague minorities, everywhere.'

'But you don't even know them, Shanti; how can you vouch for the authenticity of their insecurities?'

Ma's reservations shrivelled into impotent excuses. Shanti Aunty ticked her off for being parochial, thinking in terms of boundaries and divisions rather than the fundamentals of life ... of basic 'human values'.

Durga moved across the border, from east to west; in Baba's eyes, from one 'east to another'. She brought in a way of talking that was new to me, her Bengali a little drawn out, different in its vocabulary and inflexion.

'What will be her status in your house, Shanti?' Mother asked.

'Why, the status she wants.'

'What if she wants something you can't give?'

'We'll cross the bridge when we come to it.'

'She doesn't realise,' Ma told Baba. 'It's not in our hands always; bridges crumble, disappear under raging rivers even before we have erected them.'

Ma had old animosities. 'Our culture is a little different, we eat differently, speak differently, cook differently too. How will they adjust to one another? Will this solve a problem or give rise to another?'

Shanti Aunty was amused. 'People from East Bengal cook better than us, Anima, that's what my mother used to say. So perhaps you'll enjoy the meals at our house a little more from now.'

Durga missed her birthplace, had difficulty understanding our corrupted Bengali and disliked the fish that tasted of anything but 'swollen sweet river water'.

She missed her neighbours too.

'But weren't they responsible for your coming away, for harassing your family?

'Not really, they are nice people.'

'Then why are you here?'

She hunched her shoulders and drew back her hair in a bun that hung loose and large at her plump nape.

'Didn't your parents send you away to protect you from your neighbours?' I persisted.

She smiled and turned her back to the sun. She looked over her shoulder at me and said, 'If you think I'll harm you, you'll begin to believe it one day.'

Durga rarely spoke, almost a phantom presence. Ma ignored her, but her bias was never more prominent than at the dining table, pushing away the posto Durga would cook or wrinkling her nose at the lack of pungency in the mustard curry, the jaggery she'd put in the paayesh.... it was an endless list and we learned to ignore it and relish the food instead.

*****

After all these years, the dichotomy of countries and identities no longer hold my attention. We owe this meeting to Facebook where Durga tracked me down. The past is alive in me today, but nostalgia holds no fascination.

'You're lost. Have I reminded you of the past?'

'It's quite the albatross, isn't it?'

'Not only the past. Even relationships. Arjun and his mother, for instance.'

There again. Are we here to talk about him? My adolescent and youthful love for him had shape shifted; my unilateral feelings had sought unilateral closure, or did I find closure, did I seek it any longer? He hadn't bothered to love me back and I had moved on. Living in Mumbai, away from my roots in Kolkata, in a city different from the one that had nurtured me, I had changed, become resilient and learnt selfhood, cast away my languor and reoriented myself to demand and pursue rather than wait and pine.

But by the time I realised this new potential and put it into practice, Arjun had changed much more than I was willing to accept. I got to know of his homosexuality all of a sudden, through a mail he meant to have deleted, he said; it reached my inbox as if it had taken the decision on its own. Couldn't he have called? How had I missed out on the signs? I, who had had unbridled access to his life and thoughts, who had grown up with him?

Yet, proximity had blinded me.

'Is he still gay?'

She laughs; a full blown, throaty laughter, or is it censure?

'Durga, when did you first come to know of his preferences?'

'Umm, let me see, around six months after coming to live with them, or perhaps a little later than that, but soon enough.'

'That was quick.' I too had been around at the time.

'Yes. Sometimes otherness brings greater clarity. I knew it right away from the way he looked at Dhruv and the way he did not look at you.'

So she had known about me too.

How I used to envy her those days, for her presence in Arjun's house and for her much-lauded culinary skills, the same ones mother so abhorred. At least I didn't have Ma's cultural conditioning. Free of bias, I was prejudiced only as a woman. I couldn't fathom the depths of my jealousy, my fear of losing Arjun to somebody who had erupted out of the wilderness, who could not measure up to me in any way, leave alone the way she talked, rounding and prolonging her vowels, licking fish curry off her palms, pining for the fatty Padma Hilsa, as though life was just that, the river and its fish. She knew of Ma's dislike for her, so why did she go out of her way to cook whenever we visited?

'Arjun and I could have had the perfect relationship, or so I thought at that time; an equal relationship, something only the two of us could have had.'

She sipped her coffee, stirring it between the sips. 'You know what I have come to believe? There are no equal relationships. All that we have are the little bridges we constantly build, real life engineering.'

'So his sexuality is a burden now.' She did mention something about Arjun's burden, didn't she?

'Not his sexuality, but what it has done to his sense of being a son. When did you speak to him last?'

'We didn't speak. He sent a mail to me he had no intention of sharing with me. I read about his homosexuality, and was disgusted.'

She looks at me, and looks away, swiftly. Why? Coming from the back of beyond, wouldn't she have been more scandalised by his predilection? Yet, I feel the need to justify.

'I know what you'll say. My response was clichéd, expected, but that is the only feeling I remember from those days. Repulsion. We'd grown up together, Dhruv, Arjun, and I. How could they? I had weird dreams of them together and would wake up nauseated, retching at the image of Dhruv and Arjun, of finding Dhruv where I should have been. I burnt up with jealousy, could have accepted you in my place, but a man? I didn't want to understand, Durga, I wasn't brought up to understand it.'

'Do you know Arjun proposed to me?'

'Are we here to rake up the past, Durga? I don't want to. He sounds confused enough.'

'He was at the time. His mother wanted us to marry, we knew that.' Durga started laughing again. 'You should have seen him when he proposed to me. Oh, the helplessness in his voice! Have you seen goats being led for sacrifice?'

'Did you see a lot of sacrifices in your village?'

'What? No!' She shakes her head. 'No, of course not, we didn't have animal sacrifice; only gourds or pumpkins in place of goats.'

'Why did Arjun want to marry you?'

'He wanted to make his mother happy, and all the time he was pining for Dhruv.'

'And?'

'When he asked me if I would marry him, I refused. I told him to come out to his mother about himself, but he took a long time. I had faith in her, you know, in the kind of work she did, in her ability to understand, as she had said, "minorities and their problems". Remember? But Arjun was uneasy and remained quiet for months on end.

'And then, one night, we had unseasonal rains, heavy and incessant. We sat around the dining table playing cards; his mother started reciting stray lines from poems she liked and suddenly, like thunder burst, he declared his gayness.'

'So you didn't marry him because you knew about him.'

'I was under no compulsion to marry him, you must understand that. Not out of gratitude or any other misplaced emotion, and then, I was already committed, I told Arjun about it, committed to my neighbour's son in Bangladesh.'

It was a day for revelations, memory-aided. 'So your family sent you away because they didn't want you to marry a Muslim?'

'That was an excuse. Do you think Arjun's mother opposed him because he wanted a man, not a woman, in his life?'

'You tell me; you seem to know much more than I do.' It's like getting introduced to my own family. What a laugh! What should I feel? Embarrassed at not connecting all these years or humiliation that Durga, of all the people, had to walk me down the path?

'I was sent away because of a perception, a fear. Saleem asked for nothing. No conversion, no dowry, no emotional sacrifices; in denying all these, he failed them in their anticipation, their anxiety. It added fuel to the suspicion already smouldering in their minds.'

'So did you marry?'

'Three years back. Saleem and I married past the flush of youthfulness. Why don't you meet Arjun?'

'We have nothing in common, Durga, not any more; the rupture is too deep, too old.'

'My parents tried for so many years, almost a decade, to convince me, to give up Saleem. There was no communication between Saleem and me; we had promised each other that we would wait, and we did. And then, out of the blue, my parents arrived at Arjun's house, to take me back and get me married to Saleem. In doing so, they gave up much more than their pride; fear, bias, resistance ... so much melted away in the wind when my father placed my hand in Saleem's, with affection and acceptance.'

'What about Shanti Aunty? Has she come around?'

'I know you don't like being reminded, but we are nothing without our memories. Remember how she'd told your mother she would cross the bridge when she came to it?'

For the first time since we met I laughed, in memory; the perspicacity of Ma's words, their irony blazing at that moment. She doesn't realise. It's not in our hands always, bridges crumble, disappear under raging rivers.

'She didn't step on to the bridge; she wanted nothing to do with what she called the "foreign ideas" that had "corrupted" her son's mind.'

The waiter brings our bill and she insists on paying. I don't refuse. I offer to drive her home, she agrees, humming Nazrul Islam's songs on the way while I keep my affection for Tagore to myself. I am loath to get into the intricacies of their penmanship. They've left us their treasure, what does it matter who is more revered?

*****

The house where we stop is an old, quaint bungalow that has obviously been renovated to modern taste, picturesque yet wild, as if it has a life of its own unshackled by human intervention.

'Will you come in?'

'Some other day, Durga. Now that I know where you live.' I smile at her.

'I live at the other end of town.'

I am willing to scream. I'd promised to drop her off, not run errands with her.

'This is where Arjun and Dhruv live.'

I turn, too swiftly. We look at each other. What makes her think she can impose?

'Now you know where to find him.'

I start the car. Kill the engine. Start again. As the house recedes, slowly, in the rear-view mirror, I tremble in epiphany. Durga and I. We have travelled, changed directions and shifted homes, taken decisions... she has spanned the distances; I have merely journeyed.

Before I drop her off, I must remember to ask her for her phone number. And Arjun's.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and independent fiction editor based in Pune. In 2008, she received Oxford Bookstores debuting writers' (second) prize for her anthology, The Jungle Stories. Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies like the Africa-Asia anthology Behind the Shadows (Amazon Kindle), 2012; Zubaan's Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction based on The Ramayana (2012); Ripples, Short Stories by Indian Women Writers (2010) and Unisun Publications' Vanilla Desires (2010). Her articles, book reviews, short stories, and a novella, Petals in the Sun, have been extensively published across e-publications such as Asian Cha, Open Road Review, etc.