novel extract

Young Prufrock
- Rajorshi Chakraborti

It had started out such an amazing day. First, the wonderful car-ride to north Calcutta with Kunal and Amol, two of his favourite cousins, as well as the gorgeous cousin from their father's side he'd heard so much about, who was finally here, visiting from Paris – the near-mythical Diya, whose existence he'd only half-believed in until today. And who would have thought that she would be quite so open and friendly on a very first meeting: for once, with her sitting beside him in the middle row of the rented Toyota van, chatting away as though they had known each other for years, Rajeev wanted the long and usually exasperating journey from Ballygunge to Baghbazar to be one endless traffic jam, gridlock every inch of the way, even though it was his mother they were all going to see.

And then, strange as it was to see Ma living by herself in his grandparents' house (his widowed grandmother had passed on two years before), there was the great warmth of her welcome, and the unexpected ease of talking to her after all his apprehensions, though they hadn't seen one another in almost two months, not since his birthday in late February. His father had forbidden any contact throughout the period leading up to his final exams, saying he couldn't take an entire weekend off from studying just to visit Baghbazar. If his mother wanted to see him so badly, she could come over. She had no job to go to or exams to pass. And of course Baba's favourite mantra, that leaving home had been Ma's idea.

Then, after the strange but delicious lunch Ma had put out for all of them – full of things she'd ordered from the club, nothing home-cooked – while she and Mashi (Kunal and Amol's mother, Ma's younger sister) talked next door in the main bedroom, everyone had got on Rajeev's case about a half-in-jest suggestion Diya had made whilst flipping through a pile of his mother's fashion magazines, that he would look cool in a full-on Mohawk, sides and back shaved, with only the stripe of hair running back to front across the middle of his head. This idea had excited his cousins immensely, and they'd egged him on to go for it: it was summer holidays anyway for the next five weeks, and everything would grow back almost to normal by the time the school year started. Diya was from Paris, she'd seen plenty of people in the flesh with that look, so she knew what she was talking about when she insisted he had the ideal face for it. Rajeev would be the first to bring the style to Calcutta. It would blow people's minds on the street: everyone here had only seen it in movies until now, or while watching European football games on TV.

He hadn't even noticed it while Kunal and Amol were pestering him, but Diya had left the drawing room for a while. Now she was back, and she had unearthed the most unlikely gadget – an electric hair-clipper, such as they used at the fancier saloons instead of scissors and combs. She simply said she'd thought of asking Aunty (Rajeev's Ma) if she happened to have one, and Aunty had pointed to a drawer in her dressing table. Diya had also brought with her an old newspaper, and was now smiling angelically at Rajeev, the same smile she'd flashed at him so often during their dream-like car-ride conversation, the one that said this is the smile I bring out when I really connect with someone, when even a first meeting feels like you're picking up the thread with an old friend.

Long story s., Diya had done the job herself, in under half-an-hour, wielding the clipper expertly along with a pair of scissors, and after chasing out Kunal and Amol from the bathroom midway through the process when their laughter became actually intrusive, even as they photographed every stage and angle of it with their phones. Rajeev had made them swear on the way out, with Diya as a witness, that they wouldn't send anyone the pictures. He couldn't imagine ever going to school again if even one of those photos made it onto Facebook.

But yes, after those morons were gone, within three hours of meeting this vision, he had been alone with her in a bathroom, wearing nothing but his underwear, while she sat on a chair behind him, touching him unselfconsciously all over his face and neck. And although he had paid the maximum possible price for the privilege, effectively agreeing to give up fresh air, natural light, and flesh-and-blood human contact for at least the next two months, he would always cherish the memory of these blissful minutes, during which he could sense her happiness as she worked away on his head. She was an artist, he her means: wasn't this worth any number of disastrous haircuts?

Of the look itself he remained extremely sceptical, even after the shower, when he cleared away the soggy newspaper sheets from the bathroom floor and had his first chance to view himself undisturbed for a couple of minutes in the mirror. When he eventually came out, Diya insisted he looked fantastic, exactly how she'd imagined him in her head, and that all he needed was a little time to get used to the style, and to the sight of his newly-exposed skull, which in her experience always took people by surprise. But what Rajeev now really wanted was to ask his mother for a cap. Not wishing to hurt Diya's feelings, he said he would go over to his mother's room to talk to her for a while. The others could take a walk around the area without him: Kunal and Amol knew the way to the river.

Ma loved the look, as Rajeev had somehow expected she would. It was the kind of thing she relished people doing (stick it to the school; stick it to the city; stick it to anyone who is ignorant or intolerant and will not let you live the way you please), and she gave him a long, tight embrace, saying his scalp still smelt exactly the same as when he was a baby. And even though Rajeev knew that this was no real gauge of the kind of reception he would have to stare down or ignore any time he stepped outside for the next several weeks – what some chick from Paris thought, or his ultra-unorthodox mother – it was nice to be told for the second time that day what great and prominent bone structure he had, albeit by the very woman who'd passed most of it on to him, and just nice to be hugged again by Ma. They lay in bed side by side for a long time after that, talking about everything that had happened the past couple of months, both of them speaking freely, lying together close, until he fell asleep at some point, with no remaining doubt about how much his mother still loved him.

When he woke up, it was because Kunal was yelling in his ear: the others wanted him to go back out with them and trial the haircut immediately on an unsuspecting public. Even in his drowsiness, Rajeev knew that Baghbazar was the very last place he should attempt such an unveiling – it was one of the oldest parts of the city, light years even behind South Calcutta in its acceptance of changing trends and norms. No one ever wore his (or her) hair here in an unconventional way.

But the insistent power of three against one is hard to resist; and also, he didn't want to look like a coward in Diya's eyes, or worse, come across as though he were embarrassed by her handiwork. The first few people outside didn't pay him much attention, because the light had faded by then, they were moving along quite briskly, and he was walking in the middle of the group. And because the men were most likely all staring at Diya.

But then, unmistakably, even though he refused to look to either side and steadily increased his pace until the others almost had to run to keep up alongside him, came the first few catcalls, and soon after people in the narrow lane were openly stopping or turning to stare, whether they were walking past, standing outside stores, or trundling along on rickshaws, cycles and bikes. Rickshaw pullers were putting down their bars to consider this unprecedented phenomenon before them, leaving their passengers to slide off the seats. People in front of the foursome were forgetting to get out of their way: children were following them as though mesmerised.

When Kunal whispered to Rajeev, entirely as a joke, that they could claim he was a visiting French footballer out sightseeing with his girlfriend, and then watch people scramble to be photographed beside them, was when he could bear it no longer and took off back to his grandparents' house, leaving the others slightly flabbergasted, before they too began jogging homewards in his wake. By now Rajeev didn't care one bit if he was hurting Diya's feelings: all he wanted, as an emergency measure, was to rush back to his Ma's bedroom, grab that electric clipper and shave off the offending stripe. At least this way he'd be a slightly surprising baldy for the next few weeks, but baldies this town had seen millions of before. Baldies didn't invite any extra attention, especially if you wore a cap. People might even be nicer to baldies, assuming they were devout souls who'd just returned from pilgrimages to distant shrines, or bereft children shattered by the loss of a parent.

Even though he'd been running up that stairway to his Dadu and Didima's second-floor home for fourteen years, at first Rajeev thought he had the wrong floor, or perhaps, in his distress, even the wrong building. He was about to head back down when Ma came through the front door, and the woman setting up the big crafts stall in the landing turned out to be Gauri Mashi. When Rajeev took a closer look at the pieces of pottery already arranged on the two tables and the paintings leaning against the wall, sure enough, he could recognise her style right away. Two of those pictures used to hang in her living room. She was one of his mother's best friends, and was apparently holding some kind of exhibition here in the landing outside his grandparents' home, in deepest North Calcutta.

'So that's the haircut I've been hearing about. Come closer, let's have a look,' and Gauri Mashi put down the sculpture she was carrying, and came forward to embrace him. 'Shona, you look fantastic. Your mother's right: you have incredible bone structure.'

There was that dreaded 'bone structure' again, the bone structure he couldn't recall hearing anything about his whole life until a few hours ago this afternoon, the bone structure that only certain specially-gifted women apparently noticed (perhaps you needed bone-structure-vision to see it: a special sort of third eye), the bone structure that would sooner or later surely be the death of him: 'Freak drops dead from sheer embarrassment', or even more likely, 'Freak killed by sheer force of staring.'

Because unfortunately there were very few people with that sort of third eye out on the streets of Calcutta, which is where people like him had to catch the bus and go to school, at least until Diya married him for his wonderful bone structure and whisked him off to Paris. And so Rajeev – without another word, without succumbing to this pointless flattery for a moment – wrested himself free from Gauri Mashi's grip, and moved towards the door in search of that darned clipper, the very instrument of torture that would also be his mode of deliverance. He didn't need Diya for the shaving-off, he exultantly realised; even though he'd never used one of these beasts before, this he could probably handle himself. All he had to do after finding the thing was lock himself into the bathroom before the others returned, so that the deed would be done before anyone could ask him to reconsider.

The front door had an inside curtain across it though it was open, and Rajeev was so immersed in his vision of imminent deliverance that he didn't realise someone was coming through the curtain from the other side, and walked straight into him. Fortunately, although the other person appeared to be carrying something heavy – which turned out to be another of Gauri Mashi's sculptures – he didn't drop it from the impact of the collision. Instead, there was an even greater surprise for Rajeev when the man turned around, and it was, believe it or not, his maths teacher from three years ago, Mr Welcome. The surprise was a double whammy, because a) he couldn't imagine any reason why Mr Welcome would be in his mother's house, and b) Mr Welcome had migrated to Australia two years before.

Mr Welcome however was far from surprised, and in fact treated Rajeev like an old mate. 'Oh hi, Rajeev,' he said breezily, showing no signs of anger at the collision, 'your mother said you and Kunal were here. So nice to see you. Will you give me a hand with this? We need to place it on that table.'

Rajeev was too stunned not only to speak as he helped Mr Welcome with the sculpture, he also momentarily forgot about the urgency of his head-shaving mission. Instead, he rushed inside without another word, looking only for his mother, who would explain what exactly was going on with Gauri Mashi and Mr Welcome in the landing.

Ma was in the kitchen with his aunt: they were warming up cheese puffs and prawn pakoras from the club. Mashi was happy to see Rajeev and asked where the others were, because they would need to be leaving shortly, she said, after they were done putting out the food. Rajeev mumbled something about the others being on their way, and asked his mother what Gauri Mashi and Mr Welcome from Class VI were doing here.

'Oh, Gauri Mashi is having an exhibition here tonight, and Mr Welcome has moved back from Brisbane. He needed a place to stay temporarily, and of course the second bedroom is free, so he is my tenant for the moment,' his mother replied without even turning around from whatever she was doing with the microwave.

'Get ready, sweetheart, we'll leave as soon as the others are back,' his aunt added, while bringing out some pastries from the fridge.

Rajeev realised it would take much longer than he presently had to find out how exactly Mr Welcome and his mother had known to get in touch when, to the best of his knowledge, they'd only ever met one another at two parent-teacher meetings three years ago. He could find out more about that later, on the phone, although Mr Welcome was perhaps the single most unlikely 'tenant' he would have picked Ma to have. What he needed right now, before the others were ready to leave, were five (maybe ten) golden, uninterrupted minutes with that fucking clipper.

'Ma, where's that hair clipper Diya used?'

'In my dressing-table drawer, darling: will you take these puffs outside? Gauri Mashi will tell you where to put them.'

But Rajeev was gone, he couldn't care less about transporting puffs. Within the next two minutes, he had located the clipper, locked the bathroom door, and stripped completely. He'd forgotten to lay the floor with newspaper, he belatedly realised, but that would just have to do. He could hose it down later using the bucket and the mug.

Standing there naked in front of the mirror brought back memories of Diya, who'd been in here alone with him just a few hours ago. The thought of her touching him all over his upper body, talking and breathing so close to his neck, and the fact that she would certainly have checked him out while appearing to be focused on his hair, now suddenly made him grow. He even shut his eyes and started on a quick one, arguing to himself it was too good a chance to pass up while such priceless details were fresh in his head, and besides, he was going to shower and wash down the floor anyway. But within just a minute, Mr Welcome hollered out something to Gauri Mashi particularly close to the bathroom door, which brought her soon after into the bedroom, and Rajeev gritted his teeth as he listened in on them and soon gave up on the idea. He could wait until he got home – these details deserved a leisurely savouring. They were too heady to be squandered here in his mother's bathroom amid such a raucous environment, with strangers yelling outside and him still looking like a human rooster. No, good orgasms came to those who waited, and the priority just now was righting that dreadful mistake.

The clipper worked perfectly in his hands, and it was even strangely satisfying to watch it mow down his hair, like someone trimming an overgrown lawn in the suburbs of the West. It took him just five minutes to deal with the front half of the stripe, and he could hear that the others had arrived by now and were shouting about something in the kitchen. Well, he'd be out very soon with a surprise for all of them, and if Diya decided to take offence, that was what destiny dictated, and it was simply never meant to be.

Then suddenly the clipper died. It had lost all power without any warning and wouldn't restart. Rajeev checked desperately to see if there were any batteries, but it appeared to work with a power cord. But he hadn't seen any cord in the drawer, he could (almost) swear with certainty. When he looked around, there was a plug point next to the mirror, but he would need someone to find the cord and bring it to him, and he would need a pair of rubber slippers. There was no way he was going to stand on a damp bathroom floor wielding an appliance connected to a socket.

The question was, who was going to bring him the cord and the slippers, and how was he going to convey the message? Because, with the house so full of people, and more expected shortly to attend Gauri Mashi's exhibition (for whom all the puffs and pakoras were being laid out), he couldn't go outside with the one thing more ridiculous and impossible than a Mohawk – a half-Mohawk, which had left him looking like some kind of hip-hop version of Narada or Chanakya.

Would you believe that two hours later little had changed, except now the house was swarming with visitors, and Rajeev could hear them murmuring and clinking glasses. But he was still in the bathroom, even more resolute that he couldn't come out until he'd fixed his hair. No one had found the clipper cord yet although many were claiming to be searching, his mother had no memory of when she'd last seen it, and his aunt was begging him to appear because the rented van was threatening to leave without them. Nobody would see him in the dark anyway, she pleaded, he could go first thing in the morning to a barber, and Mr Welcome would be happy to lend him a cap to tide over the car-ride home.

But Rajeev was impossible to convince. It was too late for caps: no cap was shield enough for him to walk through a living room and a landing full of guests. In fact, even if they found the cord now, he couldn't come out until all the visitors had gone. Meanwhile some of them wanted to use the bathroom, and knocked to see if it was free, only for Rajeev to roar at them to go to the smaller one beside the kitchen, because there was obviously someone using this one already.

Rajorshi Chakraborti is the author of the short fiction collection, Lost Men, as well as four novels. He was born in Kolkata, and grew up there and in Mumbai, and presently lives in Wellington, New Zealand. You can find out more about his work at www.rajorshichakraborti.com.'Young Prufrock' is an extract from a novel-in-progress.