“ You remember too much,
My mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that?
And I said,
Where can I put it down?”
~ Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
The metal accordion-gates with a giant padlock that looked as if it had been smelted in the previous century was common to well-to-do country houses in that area. The verandah , an enclosed porch with metal grillwork overlooking the circular drive, was secured by the accordion gates. Years ago, you simply walked up the few stone and cement steps, onto the verandah or baranda (an Indo-Portuguese term that became part of the vernacular of Indian English in the early twentieth century) and into the house. I rattled the gate; hit the padlock a few times against metal as hard as I could, all the while hissing, as loudly as I dared, calling to my father. I didn’t want to wake my mother. Within the minute, I heard the shuffling behind the wood-and-glass door that faced me beyond the metal gate. The door relieved from its latches swung open and my father, wrapped in woolen shawl over his cotton kurta and pajamas, said my name, first as a question and then repeatedly as almost an incantation as he fumbled the key into the padlock and freed the collapsible gate. He pulled my arm and I swayed into him, my head alongside his chin, reminding me that he had many inches on me, and my body finding the warmth of his. “Are you back?” he whispered. “Yes,” I said. “How long?” he asked, practical as ever. “I need to go away from here. Leave the country,” I said. “Okay,” he said and kissed me deeply on my forehead.
Homecoming. This was just that. Except, what I’d fled this house to attain remained elusive and soon would be in convulsive disintegration.
My father’s calmness that morning was in merciless contrast from when he was not. That was my dilemma and uncertainty as a child. Once, I was around ten or eleven, I was throwing a tennis ball high in the air and then running to catch it, except this was in the garden alongside the house where there were lots of mango trees. I was barefoot and, with my eyes skyward, missed seeing the sharp-edged rotting root of a tree that had been cut down months ago. My left foot landed squarely on the angled, razor-sharp nubbin. I yelped and screamed; the foot was gushing a dark red stained with crimson, and I could see part of the spindly tree poking out. My screaming had rousted one of the servants from his midday nap. He took in the scene and rushed to get my father, who without a word wrapped my foot in a towel and pushed me into his car and we were at the local doctor’s in minutes. All this with not a raised voice or yelling except for my loud sobs.
Consider the scene I just told you about with this one, a few years before the foot incident. It’s Sunday and we had a midday meal as a family. Probably the only time we did have a meal as a family. My father was often out for work in the evenings and not present at dinner. Whether it was work or something else, I will never know. So, Sundays were special, at least in this small ritual. The table was a Queen Anne’s polished oval, bought as part of a set in an estate auction. My mother had put a linen tablecloth instead of our usual placemats, and the dishes, were clean white and filled with Anglo-Indian cuisine, breaded ground meat with lentils and rice and chicken stew (which Bengalis called eeshstew, following the mispronunciation from decades ago when the Raj ruled).
I was hungry. I sat obediently waiting for my parents to arrive. My older sister had raced from the Radiogram’s, a popular combination radio and gramophone unit, shortwave signal of Radio Ceylon noon programming on a Sunday. My parents enter arguing over something I’ve long since forgotten or even knew then. What I remember is the swirling dark comic-book cloud over their heads. My father reaches the table, sits down while still saying something at my mother. My mother responds. Was it in anger? Gently? A retort? No memory. My father grabs the tablecloth edge and yanks it, and everything flies in many directions, before the dishes shattered on the ground. I leap up and run to my room upstairs, taking the stairs, two at a time, metamorphizing as Floyd Patterson decking Ingmar Johansson in the fifth at the Polo Grounds in New York to regain the world heavyweight championship.
My mother, Ma, grew tired of the yo-yoing, I figured. She developed regular migraines and took frequent naps. She would drink a lot of seltzer water (what we called soda water) and sent me out to get her some almost every day. She said it helped her migraines. As with so many of my childhood memories, this seemed entirely plausible and I probed no further.
I don’t know when I started plotting my escape from this household. But escape I must. The pincer hold on me was not simply that my parents paid my bills but also how closeted my fears of chaos and lack of trust for my parents were.
My parents, who had both grown up and spent the majority of their adult lives in the bulging city of Calcutta, had grown very fond of a place called Hazaribagh (hazar from the Persian for a thousand and bagh for garden. The place of a thousand gardens). It was about 244 miles from the port city, in a state then known as Bihar, deep in the mineral-rich, coal-opulent area that was forested and hemmed with low hills, rivers for thermal power, and wildlife. As a young boy, my happiest as well as some very anxious days were in Hazaribagh. We’d go each summer for many, many years. My cousins would visit; I’d read and read, mostly because I was alone and away from my school friends, and sometimes to duck verbal shrapnel explosions that would erupt between my parents or simply my father raging at the gardener for not cleaning the car properly. One summer I read fifty-five Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries, sitting in the shade of the garden, next to the circular gravel driveway, with its rock garden center piece.
It was this house that I’d left to go to Delhi and into the villages beyond, for the escape I’d planned.
There’s a black and white photograph I have of my family from those years. My father and I on one side, me standing on the front fender, and he sitting with his arm around my waist, in front of a gleaming silvery Austin Princess. My sister sitting a few feet away from me and my mother at the far end. Was I close to my father and my sister to my mother with a gap in between? I think it was my sister and I together with my parents apart. But photographs, I now know, are not memory frozen in time. They are set pieces, a diorama, of how the world saw us. Who knew of my memories?
The first stride was in 1967, I turned 17 and headed to college at Delhi University. Earlier that year, in February, there had been a famine in Bihar and several students from my college had gone to Bihar to work as relief workers, sponsored by our college.
I came to know most of them. They were one to three years my senior. For some of them it changed their lives forever. One of them told me that the day he saw a long line of children waiting for kichadi (rice and lentils) at a food kitchen, when their families were eating leaves and raw mango seeds, he started, in earnest, to seek a way to change that. And like so many, myself included, it changed the way we thought about economic and political relationships.
1967 was 20 years after India independence. Were lives better now than under the colonizers? The jury was still out. However, by and large corruption, inequality, nepotism, lack of opportunity and the bleakness of the future for the vast majority had simply grown. The landless suffered like medieval serfs. Without social media then, we can only guess at the state of caste hatreds, religious bigotry, the corruption and caste strangleholds of village councils, and the stink of daily oppression for thousands upon thousands.
My college mates and I were possibly the top 1-2% of that society. We were educated, never wondered about hunger, the future was rolling out in front of us, unfurling without a crease and we laughed often.
As a child, when I sat in the back seat of our car as it wound its way on Calcutta roads, I tried not to look at the children, my age and younger, who lived on the sidewalks. But then again, my child’s conscience had an extraordinary balm—-my family ran an educational institution where 99% of the students were poor and blind. This institution was founded and run without government aid for generations. So perhaps I could get a pass? As I finished my first year in college, I couldn’t find a good answer to how I would contribute to making my country better. There didn’t seem to be many options—-civil service, corporate companies, a small and influential journalism sector for English-language publications and academia.
Then Naxalbari, a village in the foothills of the Himalayas, the terai region, erupted in the summer of 1967 and by the summer of 1969, the political party that pushed for the first wide-scale revolution for land reform in post-Independence India was banned and its followers and sympathizers went UG (underground), disappearing into the vast maw of the rural and urban working class, or so was the plan.
At its most elemental level, the hundreds of thousands who joined this upsurge in the late sixties were people who wanted to do something toward justice, equity, and human dignity. Many middle-class students poured out of the universities, especially in the eastern section of the country, and went to the rural hinterland in an effort to “do propaganda”, work with the landless to secure better returns for their crops. It was complicated. Indian society is highly classified and the gap between the rural landless and the city-bred was a huge canyon of a difference. I, for one, wore glasses, and my spectacles were an instant signal that I was from the city. Hygiene was terrible. You defecated in the fields and carried a tumbler of water to wash up. Once I tried to cajole a schoolboy to part with a page from his notebook to use as toilet paper. He pleaded that the pages were numbered and the teacher would punish him if a page was missing. As with all conflicts, hindsight is always 20-20 and perfect. In hindsight, the work that was required to mobilize the sharecroppers into a viable political force and the city-born a trusted member of that society was cast aside in favor of vigilante-like groups that attacked large landlords and their private armies. The bloodshed turned the earth’s color and the response of the state, both in the hinterland and in the cities, was titanic. But the catastrophe was more than a misadventure. Our failure was a tragedy. Whispered for generations later. Still.
In the anvil of a pivotal moment in history, my role was decisively quixotic. A few day trips into the villages, a few overnight stays with small farmers who treated me like a visiting dignitary, perplexed by my aims. With special branches of the constabulary keeping close, almost perfect, surveillance of us, the last thing I needed was to become entangled in an intra-group squabble. And that’s exactly what happened. Two groups squared away on local tactics and leadership and instead of fighting for justice and equality, we fought each other in a vicious and clumsy way, like teenage gangs fighting over urban turf, in full view of the security forces. And this is where I interject how class and privilege works the world over. People like me, who had the choice, would most likely flee under pressure, according to the intelligence officers. In 1970, Calcutta (now Kolkata) had the following message throughout the city on billboards. “If you are a student or any young person led astray or living under pressure and wish to return to the path of decency and discipline, please feel free to ring up 44–1931, and you will get friendly counsel and personal attention.” (From New York Times, Nov. 26, 1970.) So, they simply waited for me to do that. To leave the country. And I obliged. But first I had to go home.
The nearest railhead to Hazaribagh in those days was about 44 miles away. Among the mainline trains, was the Howrah (Calcutta)-Delhi Grand Chord Line. I took the night train from Delhi headed southeast on that December night toward Calcutta. Built in 1906, the British, who connected India via thousands of miles of railway tracks to move goods, left a permanent legacy of rail travel. Sitting on a wooden bench in a third-class compartment, leaning out the window that had two parallel bars across it, I only tried to think of getting home to Hazaribagh. I was carrying only a cloth satchel with a few clothes, a couple of books and a pair of sneakers. Everything else that I owned, including a motorcycle, was left behind in Delhi.
The train stopped at Hazaribagh Road for only a few minutes in the middle of the night. I hopped off, ran to the bus stand, in the dusty, unpaved road, and claimed a seat on a bus going in the right direction. An hour later, the sun was inching up on the horizon, a purplish gold, blow-torching the darkness away. I was at the main gate of my parent’s house. The gravel driveway neatly lurched to the left of the gate and I could see the verandah, the grillwork, the collapsible, accordion-like gate. I inhaled the air ---fresh, clean, hibiscus-tinged from the flowering tree near the gate. I had escaped to what I knew to be home.