by Nayana Chakrabarti
The woman is wearing a cotton nightie. It is striped and even though the fabric has faded from use and age, Suparna can make out blocks of yellow, orange and black from across the road. She has pulled her hair into a bun, scraped it back, away from her forehead. Nevertheless, a halo of frizz frames her face like a cloud. Absentmindedly, Suparna pats at her own hair. The woman has wrapped a lilac dupatta around her shoulders. It keeps falling down her arm, she keeps on adjusting it. The woman is carrying all the bags that she intends to sell on both her arms. She has totes festooned across both shoulders, yet more nestled in the crook of each arm. The bags fan out from her body, giving her the silhouette of a butterfly. With her free hands, she steers her child so that they stay in between the pillars of her legs. Together they stand, moving a little, swaying a little, right on the curb.
Cars are not allowed here. In their place, people teem endlessly down the avenue, for that’s what it once was. There used to be trees here. Suparna remembers them. She has memories of walking up and down the avenue, looking for the perfect pair of shoes with her father. When she saw him, blinking in her mind’s eye, she sees him here, walking a few steps ahead, framed by trees.
Across the road, the woman and her child continue to stand. The woman has that blank expression of hope writ large across her face. Suparna begins to lift her camera. It is hefty in her hand. She doesn’t hold it with practiced ease. She had bought it off Facebook Marketplace, taken possession of it beneath the benevolent gaze of an alabaster statue and promptly put it in the cupboard because it was easier, more efficient to take pictures with her phone. Nevertheless, she had brought it with her to Kolkata – not a holiday because it is another life – because it seemed like the right thing to do, something a better Suparna would do. But the camera is alien and she hasn’t learned its settings, so she sets it down again, the weight of it dragging on the strap that she has looped around her neck.
Instead, she uses her phone. The photographs are raw, rough around the edges, uncomposed. But it is part – she thinks – of their charm. One day, Suparna would like to take portraits, ones that speak of life through lived-in lines. On Instagram, she has bookmarked everything that she can on finding one’s passion in later life. She will be ready to share her work soon – beyond her handle – when she has come up with a better name than Suparna.Sengupta.Photography. She broached it over the dinner table and the children had laughed.
Just because you have a DSLR, Maa, you don’t have to be so bangali about it, Ishaan had scoffed. Priya and Diya had agreed while Manas laughed into his evening whiskey. She marvels at them, these tall, lithe mercurial creatures.
Priya has taken to mocking her every time she sees her Suparna ‘Sue’ Sengupta nametag dangling on the end of her lanyard. Priya has accused her of whitewashing herself to fit the colonialist narrative.
Diya is convinced that she never should have been born, that three children is one too many, if not three too many. She says that one day Suparna will roll around in her grave, agonising over her carbon footprint. Manas usually chips in at this point, observing that as a Hindu, Suparna will be cremated rather than buried. When Suparna told them both that it took two to tango, all of them – Priya, Ishaan, Diya – told her to stop being gross.
Trauma, Ishaan had said, trauma, Maa, you’re going to send me to therapy.
They are always at edges and angles, chafing at each other and her – especially her – the wrong way. Together, they are the pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit.
Whatever her children say about her photography, Kolkata has been a dream. Kolkata, she likes to say, is her muse.
Suparna wonders what she will title the photograph. Her captions always come to her late at night. Roadside Madonna, perhaps. She will sit with it, let it fester, let her mind trace over its consonants.
She is hungry. She left her in-laws’ home in a mad rush, desperate for this one morning to be by herself. Without her usual routine bus ride followed by a train ride into central London, time that she uses to gather herself, she has felt unmoored.
It is February and the air that thumbs across her face as she crosses the road towards Jayashree Mistanna Bhandar – renowned if she remembers rightly for its kalakand and mishti doi – carries both the balmy softness of Kolkata’s ever-residual humidity and a chill that reminds her that winter is not quite over.
At the shop, Suparna peers at the sweets through the thick, double-plated glass. She traces her fingers through the air, pointing at and then dismissing each successive option until she lands on the most excessive sweet she can find. The dorbesh. She can feel the ghee-filled promise of it rolling in her mouth. She is glad her friends, back home – back in her other home – can’t see her. They don’t even like it when she orders herself a full-fat Coke. They say that they don’t like the cloying taste of sugar. But she knows that they are lying. Everyone likes sugar. Everyone else is just better at denial.
She places her order, hands over the money, allowing the once familiar coins to slide through her fingers. Nowadays, she has to look at the money before handing it over when once she knew it by touch. When it comes to Kolkata, there is – she feels – such a thing as muscle memory. The city rises to the surface in her bones, having been pressed down into her marrow the rest of the year.
The dorbesh is handed over to her in a little bowl woven from the leaves of the saal tree. Once, not long ago, she had lain awake with Manas hatching a plot to import saal bowls and plates from India and distribute them to the local businesses as a sustainable alternative to plastic. Once the moon faded and gave way to the day, that plan faded too. She still thinks about it sometimes just like she thinks of all their other plans: the Kolkatan street food cart that they would open at the station; the travelling Indian handicrafts emporium that they would tour around all the farmer’s markets.
Suparna takes her bowl, stepping out of the shop. As she brings the dorbesh to her mouth, she sees the woman and the child that she had photographed from across the street. The child is a girl, with hair shorn short, bare feet, dressed in baggy pantaloons and a woolen vest. She is holding a phone. Suparna is surprised and smiles. Looking up, she catches the woman’s eye. She too is different. Younger.
“What to do, didi?” The woman smiles. “She won’t let me work otherwise”.
Suparna smiles. Wider, this time.
“Oh, I know,” Suparna says. “I know how it can be. I had a little girl once.” Then, seeing the stricken look on the woman’s face, she feels embarrassed for misspeaking. “Two actually. They are not so little anymore. All grown. Their brother too!” She laughs. The woman laughs too.
“Three children, didi! Nobody these days has three!” The woman says, steadying her daughter against her leg. The child is buffeting her back against her mother’s knee. A nursery rhyme jangles out from the phone’s tinny speaker.
“Where I live,” Suparna says, “it is not so difficult but here…” she gestures around, “no, it is very difficult.”
“Yes, didi,” the woman says enthusiastically. “It is what our parents did. They never thought once about us, how they would feed us, clothe us…They just had us.”
Suparna nods. She knows. For a moment, she has forgotten who she is, where she is, who the woman is and where they are. This could be any one of the conversations that she has had over the years. It is always the same story, weighted with the same gist. Three children? That’s a lot.
“So many mouths to feed, didi! How do you manage?” The woman continues conversationally. “You stay abroad. Over there, it’s easy.” She speaks as if she knows.
For as long as Suparna has lived abroad, she and Manas have made it a point to not look, to not sound like they live abroad for fear of being fleeced by the greengrocers, street vendors, hawkers and tailors of Kolkata. They have even instructed their children on the importance of never breaking this one rule. Ultimately, Suparna thinks, there is something so satisfying when haggling with a street vendor. Bartering, it’s one of India’s not-so-secret joys. And here, today, she has been found out. She wonders now what the woman will want.
“It is easier,” Suparna concedes, “but children are the same everywhere. They all love cartoons.”
“Yes, didi. But I show her rhymes so she will learn English, go to school, get a good job,” the woman says, smiling. She strokes her daughter’s hair, nudging the bags up her shoulders with infinitesimal shrugs.
“What is her name?” Suparna asks.
“Manisha, didi. Like the actress,” the woman says.
“Manisha Koirala?” Suparna asks. And, once again, for a moment, they could be anywhere, they could be friends. “I thought she was so beautiful.”
“Yes, didi. Very pretty,” the woman beams. She pauses, suddenly shy. “Will you buy one of my bags, didi? Very good quality, didi. My vendor, he brings them from Bombay. Look, machine printed, machine stitched.”
Suparna hesitates, wondering if this was where it was leading to all along. The prattle, the patter, the familiarity. She walks closer and inspects the tote bags. They are the kind that her daughters occasionally use, with quotations printed on them.
Live. Love. Laugh.
No bad days.
Good vibes only.
Each phrase is framed in pastel wreaths that speak of Midsummer, Shakespeare, flower crowns, of worlds away from here.
They are terrible, too twee. Priya and Diya will hate them. Suparna can feel their eyes rolling.
“Yes,” she says brightly. “I’ll take two!”
“Two, didi? Just? What about one for you too?”
“Oh yes! One for me!”
Suparna finds herself holding a black polythene with three tote bags neatly folded inside, even as she wonders what she will do with them.
When she looks down, she sees the little girl eyeing her dorbesh.
“Would you like one?” Suparna asks, crouching.
The little girl nods shyly, hiding her face in the folds of her mother’s nightie.
“Oh no, didi!” the woman gasps.
“I want to,” Suparna says, smiling.
Suparna heads back into the shop and orders a little bit of everything that she thinks Manisha might like, relying on the tastes of her own children. For all their posturing, Priya, Ishaan and Diya love bonde, so she orders a little of that. And then, she adds gulab jamun, chocolate sandesh, roshogolla and a little pot of mishit doi. She comes out of the shop and hands over the box triumphantly.
“Oh, didi! All her favourites,” the woman says, looking younger still. “Say thank you,” she says to her daughter.
“Thank you,” Manisha parrots.
“Oh, how sweet!” Suparna exclaims. It occurs to her to ask to take another photograph. She can see the caption now: Manisha with her mithai. Or Mishti Manisha.
“May I take your photo…?”
“Shumi, didi. My name is Shumi, and of course. What is your name, didi?”
Shumi poses herself and her daughter. She looks regal, Suparna thinks, in the way that she adjusts her bags and her dupatta. It is as if she is not carrying fifty tote bags all at once, dressed in a nightie on the street in the broad daylight, but dressed in robes fit for a queen. Manisha holds her box in her hands but doesn’t take her eyes off her phone which continues to jangle nursery rhymes into the cacophony of the street. Suparna takes her phone, lifts it, sets it to portrait mode, and takes a picture.
“Won’t you take a picture with the camera, didi?” Shumi asks.
“No, I can’t,” Suparna confesses. “I don’t know how.”
They laugh together.
“Phone is best, didi,” Shumi says. “Easier to use. Even Manisha can do it! Can I see, didi?”
“Of course,” Suparna says, showing her.
“Will you post it on Instagram, didi?” Shumi asks. “Tell your friends to come and find me. I have the best bags. Many didis buy from me.”
Assuring her that she will, Suparna smiles and walks away. She looks back at them, mother and daughter. Shumi is smiling at her. She waves back.
This city, she thinks, it lives in her blood. Whenever she says Kolkata is her muse and someone laughs, she will tell them about this day.
It is only later, when she is selecting scarves and stoles to give her colleagues at Christmas, that Suparna realises she never paid Shumi for the bags. Her enthusiasm over kalamkari prints stall, her blood runs cold. She plays over her conversation in her mind. She remembers taking the bags. There they still are, stuffed into a little black polythene, and she remembers going back into the sweet shop, paying for that. But she can’t remember taking her purse out for Shumi. She has no memory of money in her hands.
Suparna’s breaths run shallow. She couldn’t have just walked away without paying. Why, she wonders, didn’t Shumi stop her? She can see Shumi’s smile in her mind’s eye. Shumi ought to have said something, Suparna thinks angrily.
She leaves the scarves at the counter, ignoring the cries of the shopkeeper, and she runs back to Jayashree Mistanna Bhandar.
Shumi and her daughter are not there, outside. She squints, willing them to appear. She goes into the shop again.
“There was a lady,” she pants, “selling bags, and a little girl, they were just here. Where are they?”
The shopkeeper shrugs. “What lady?”
“What Shumi? Manisha? Am I expected to keep tabs on everyone? As if I have nothing better to do,” he grumbles. “Come back tomorrow and you’ll find more.” He laughs at her as she stumbles outside. “Look,” he calls, “there are bags down that way, down that gully.”
“It’s not about…” Suparna trails off.
The street is teeming with people but she cannot find the two that she knows. If she saw them now, she thinks, she would hug them, greet them as old friends. But they are not there. Swallowed up by the crowds, they have vanished.
On the way home, Suparna knows that she cannot post the photos. So she deletes them, one by one.
Bangali – the Bengali pronunciation of the word ‘bengali’
Mistanna Bhandar – often found in the names of sweetmeat shops in Kolkata
Kalakaand, gulab jamun, mishti doi, bonde, dorbesh – names of Bengali sweetmeats
Didi – older sister, an appellation often used to describe older women, attributing sibling status to them, even though they are not related, as a mark of respect
Kalamkari – a type of subcontinental artisanal fabric, craft and handloom
Born in Kolkata and brought up in Cambridge, Nayana seeks to make sense of the immigrant experience in her writing. She currently lives in Zurich with her husband and two children.