Just Looking by Sampurna Chattarji

Banerji Aunty was the third person to go into the community hall. I know, I was watching. First, Munshi Aunty, then Ghosh Aunty, then Banerji Aunty. They all wore saris. Yellow saris. The sky wore blue. Powder blue. It was Saraswati Puja and they would be cutting the fruits, before the anjali began.


My mother was sleeping. She always slept late and then woke up around eleven looking as if she could have slept for another eleven hours. She didn't cook. I did. Or the days when Didi still lived with us, Didi did. Didi-Dada. Funny. How could a strange man not known or seen whisk Didi away in his cheap Ambassador car and expect me to call him Dada, just like that! 'Don't call me Jamai-Babu,' he said, 'just call me Dada.' Absurd. I plain refused to call him anything. That time he tried to tease me saying 'Now, Mala, it's your turn! Have you found your man or should I find him for you?' I told him straight away 'As if! I can do my own looking, thank you very much!' And then Didi had kissed me, suddenly, in a way that made me feel it was actually intended for 'him'.


How I hated all this coyness. What made her go away, my sweet and sensible Didi, my only friend? What did she see in that short man with the giant moustache he tugged compulsively? Was it a dog on a leash or what, the way he kept tugging. Giving himself airs and notions. All he was, was a salesman for 'foreign pharmaceuticals'. The way he said it, as if it were something grand! He might as well have had a chemist's shop in Bondel Road for all I cared. And the car belonged to his elder brother who worked in Siemens and had no wife. Bringing it around and playing the band on the horn every time he came to visit, as if he expected us to rush out with a reception committee of garlands! Idiot. If only Didi had not agreed to meet him when Ma's friend had said to Ma, 'There's a nice boy, would your Madhushree be interested?'


I remember it well – Ma walking into the kitchen where Didi and I were making aloor porotha and asking Didi if she was interested, and me going hysterical. Only, Didi didn’t laugh with me. She looked strange and said, ‘Okay. No harm. Ki bolish, Mala?’ and I stopped laughing immediately, alarmed. She had meant it.


Maybe Didi was no longer my friend.

More aunties headed into the community hall, to create noise and confusion more than to help, I’m sure. Don’t they have anything better to do than stand around showing off their starched yellow aanchols and slyly checking out who’s wearing what kind of jewellery? Women. Thank god I’m not like that. Neither is Banerji Aunty really. Wonder how come she went. Someone must have said something nasty about never seeing her around. I like Banerji Aunty. She’s very, how do I say this, refined. And friendly, without being nosy. Whenever I came back from college and her door happened to be open or she’d be out on the landing watering her plants, I’d stop and chat with her. She’d always ask how things were, how my mother was, and when Didi would be visiting. And then, she’d tweak my cheek and say, ‘And you? Pretty girl like you has got to have a boyfriend somewhere, tai na? Or is it a secret from old fogies like me?’ And her own cheeks would turn pink as if I had pinched them! Somehow it didn’t irritate me when she said such things. And then Banerji Uncle would come out, having heard us laugh I guess, and say ‘How are you Malati?’ and I’d say ‘Fine’ and he’d say ‘Good!’ in that nice English-speaking voice of his. I liked them both.


Banerji Aunty was coming out. She had tucked her sari aanchol into her waist. She untucked it and came towards our building, which is directly opposite the community hall. Sometimes that’s convenient when you have to run and pay the society fees or write in the complaint book tap leaking need plumber or please send electrician to flat C-1/7. But other times, being so close is a bother. All the meetings happen there and the sound of men shouting instead of speaking normally comes straight into our building. Why can’t grown men talk without shouting? As if anyone listens anyway. Men. My father never went for community meetings. He wasn’t here. He lived in Siliguri. Government job. Every two months he sent a colour TV bigger and better than the last one, or an AC or a sofa-set too big for the house or a cordless phone. He never came with the things. Only during the pujas and that too not this time. My mother went and stayed sometimes and came back sleepier than ever. ‘What a big house,’ she’d boast, as if a big house was a special blessing. What did he do all by himself in his big house? Couldn’t he get a job in Kolkata, where his family was? ‘Transfers are very difficult, you don’t understand,’ he’d say, when I asked him over the phone, long distance. He was happy there, my father, and every new thing he sent us was a plea to be left alone. So the only man in the house went for the meetings. Mama. Ma’s younger brother. He went and never said a word about what was discussed. He didn’t say much, my Mama. Neither did he do much work, my Mama.


The anjali was about to begin. Banerji Aunty changed her mind about coming home and headed towards the stage where Saraswati stood. Heads bent. Flowers flew. I watched it all. I didn’t stir. Mama made tea and kept my cup next to me on the sofa near the window where I was kneeling. I didn’t say a word. I learned that from him. He had his cap on already, though he had only just woken up. His filthy yellow monkeycap, rolled up above his ears. He always wore that cap, my Mama, and a cloth bag green and brown on his shoulder when he went out. His beard grew. I knew all the aunties laughed and talked about him. They thought he was peculiar. He didn’t think. Just tucked his monkeycapped head between his shoulders and went.


The balcony. If I went out, I could say hi to Banerji Aunty. There she was, coming back across the grass. When she came closer, I saw the petals in her hair, thrown by the praying hands behind her. I felt like calling out to her – Aunty! Flowers in your hair!


I didn’t.


Didi hadn’t called. Why hadn’t she called? She had said she’d call. I heard the phone ring in Banerji Aunty’s flat. Just below where I sat. Tring trring. STD call. I can make out. The sound that goes with my father’s STD voice. I opened the window a little so I could hear.


‘Hello? Oh Chhutki?!!’


It was Banerji Aunty’s daughter calling. I didn’t like her. Snob. Thinks she’s some big shot, living in Bombay and going abroad for holidays or work. I knew because Aunty always showed me the pictures. Ronjona – was I supposed to say Ronjona-di? I wouldn’t! – in a floral skirt on a beach in Bangkok, laughing with all her teeth. Ronjona here. Ronjona there. In her short hair and long earrings, showing off. Too much!


I tried hard not to listen. What would I hear anyway. Aunty seemed happy. Good. The tea was cold. I spat in it and put it down.


‘Mala? Aren’t you ready yet? What are you doing? Hurry up! Don’t you know we have to go to Salt Lake? Mala?’


‘I’m not coming.’


My mother was at the door, her sari almost falling off, all bunched up and crumply, like her face. She had forgotten to take off her earrings from last evening’s outing and they caught in her untidy oily hair. Her kajol was all smudged. My mother made a sight.


‘Not coming! What do you mean, not coming?’


I felt like laughing. ‘It means Ma that I have to study.’


‘Study? On Saraswati Puja? Couldn’t you think of a better way of getting big fat roshogollas for your test? Whoever heard of studying on Saraswati Puja!’


‘If I don’t, I’ll get them. Roshogollas. I need to study. I will.’


‘Let her be, bonti,’ said my Mama. His voice was like a girl’s. He stood behind my mother, smoking into her oily hair.


‘Tui na! You’ve spoilt her!’ And my mother flounced away, leaving a clear round vacant hole where she had been.


‘Aarey, didn’t drink your tea?’ My Mama was behind me and his voice was on my neck. ‘Made it with so much care. Hmm?’ His voice was on my arms. ‘What happened, Mala? Missing someone?’ His voice was on my face. ‘Is it Didi? Why don’t you come with us? Hmm?’


Banerji Aunty and Uncle were going out! So soon after the phone call. They looked joyful. I could tell by the way Aunty opened her small maroon umbrella to protect herself from the sun and Uncle put on his cap. I wanted to run and put my arms around them both.


‘Montooo!’ my mother called. ‘Get ready quick, we’ll be late.’


My Mama had his teeth on my cup.


They left. My mother said, ‘There’s pulao in the fridge. Eat it.’ I said nothing. As if I couldn’t cook that I would have to eat yesterday’s stale pulao. Who had cooked that anyway? Me.



The afternoon drew a breath the minute they left. I sat by the window just looking.


So much can happen while you’re just looking.


Downstairs, the bhog was about to be served. People were gathering impatiently. Pretending they were there for each other’s company and not for the food. Luchi, paanch-mishali, khichuri, bhaaja. The first batch was sitting down. Two aunties dashed for the same chair and stopped short. So embarrassing. They didn’t seem at all embarrassed. The fatter aunty with the shinier necklace sat down and settled her bottom firmly on the white chair. The thinner aunty looked hurt till her husband guided her by the elbow to an empty chair on the other end of the long thin table covered with a white tablecloth and shaal pata plates, one for every expectant face. Three such rows. The uncles went around serving everyone out of shining steel buckets. Heads bent. Fingers flew. Banerji Aunty-Uncle walked in halfway through the first batch. She had a jute bag in her hand. Gifts for the daughter. Ghosh Uncle stopped them from coming up. I could almost hear him saying, ‘Why go up and down so many times? Stay, I’ll sit you down for the second batch!’


They stayed. Uncle removed his cap before he ate. Aunty put the jute bag carefully behind her on the chair and sat at the edge so it wouldn’t get crushed.


Didi hadn’t called. They must have reached her place by now. They must be sitting and eating and laughing. Why didn’t she call? Had she forgotten me completely, then?


The afternoon grew blank. The thakurs washed up the big dekchis. The two neighbourhood dogs Kaalo and Shaada upset the plastic bin filled with the afternoon’s garbage and Niranjan the watchman chased them with his stick. Out of nowhere, an army of skinny workers appeared and crawled all over the pandal, taking down the coloured cloth and dismantling the bamboo skeleton with alarming speed. A few shaal pata plates blew about, weakly.


It was evening. I could tell by the way the sun fell across the other side of the buildings. It was time. The bamboo poles were tied up on the grass. I saw a crow outside the closed window. I couldn’t hear it.


I wish I could have said goodbye to Aunty and Uncle downstairs, so near me, right below my belly as I lie stretched out on the kitchen floor. The floor is warm. My head feels cold. Will they hear me through the floor? So far. If Didi calls, tell her I waited. If she doesn’t, tell her anyway. Don’t tell my Mama anything. Don’t tell Ma. Tell Baba I always hated the glasswork kurta he sent me last puja. Don’t actually. Just remember to turn off the gas after you open the door. Just that.




From Eating the Breeze and Other Stories (forthcoming Amaryllis, 2013)



Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with nine books to her credit, the most recent being her poetry collection Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) and her two novels Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (April 2012), both from HarperCollins. She is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Kent, Canterbury as the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow for 2012. More about her work can be found here.