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“Beautifully packed with detail . . . Does for Bangladesh what Rushdie did for India.” —The Sunday Times
Philip Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, was born in late 1970 in Dacca, then a regional capital of Pakistan. In the months following his birth, the eastern part of the country split from the western side in a war of independence of savage violence. In December 1971, after the deaths of millions of innocent victims in the civil war, a ...
“Beautifully packed with detail . . . Does for Bangladesh what Rushdie did for India.” —The Sunday Times
Philip Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, was born in late 1970 in Dacca, then a regional capital of Pakistan. In the months following his birth, the eastern part of the country split from the western side in a war of independence of savage violence. In December 1971, after the deaths of millions of innocent victims in the civil war, a new country was declared: Bangladesh, the home of the Bengalis.
Scenes from Early Life is the story of one upper-middle-class Bengali family, told in the form of a memoir narrated by Zaved. It is an autobiography, a novel, and, in part, a history of one of the most ferocious of twentieth-century civil wars. Despite the violence and upheaval, this is also a book about love and the way that stories bind people together. This new book from one of Britain’s finest writers “shows for the first time what Hensher has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes The Independent. “It is one of the most delightful and engaging descriptions of family life to have been published for many years.”
"Scenes from Early Life is a triumph, an astonishing feat of empathy and narrative virtuosity. It deserves to be garlanded with many prizes, and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent." —Amitav Ghosh, author of River of Smoke and Sea of Poppies
"[Hensher] does for Bangladesh what Salman Rushdie did for India with Midnight’s Children." —Phil Baker, The Sunday Times (London)
"Hensher has created a greater thing than just a record of childhood, or war. It probably isn’t Zaved’s story anymore, but it’s great just the same." —Bella Bathurst, The Observer
"One of the most delightful and engaging descriptions of family life to have been published for many years . . . Saturated with gentleness, humour and affection." —Amanda Craig, The Independent on Sunday
"Hensher proves himself a literary god of small things, from chillies drying on [Saadi’s] grandfather’s balcony to the oppressive clutter of Saadi’s parents’ first marital home . . . As this book movingly shows, appropriation is sometimes an act of love." —Adrian Turpin, Financial Times
"A richly depicted saga of childhood joys and sorrows . . . This is [Hensher’s] most purely pleasurable novel to date." —Michael Arditti, The Daily Mail
"A book suffused with tenderness, yet altogether free from sentimentality. One feels the writing has been a labour of love. Perhaps this is why the experience of reading it is so delightful." —Allan Massie, The Scotsman
1: At Nana’s House
Even the shit of a dog smells good to you, if it’s English.
(Ingrazi kuttar gu-o tomar khache bhalo.)
My grandmother used to say this to my grandfather. He was very pro-Empire. That was my mother’s father, who used to call me Churchill when I cried. At first I did not know who Churchill was, but my grandfather would explain to me, and after a while I knew who he meant when he said Churchill. He meant me, and often he would ask to have me sit next to him at the lunch table. ‘I want Churchill here,’ he said, and I would be led up by my ayah, not crying at all. I felt very proud. The theory was that when Churchill was a little boy, he used to cry very much. All the time. He was a great reader of biographies, my grandfather.
When he went out to a friend’s house, we would drive there in a big red car – a Vauxhall, I think. He was an income-tax lawyer, the president of the East Pakistan Income Tax Lawyers’ Association. Later, the Bangla Desh Income Tax Lawyers’ Association. There, at one old man’s house or another, I would be allowed to stay in company for a while. He liked to show me off, and would call me Churchill in front of his friends. I don’t believe that, as he said, he thought I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh when I grew up. I think he mainly called me that because I cried.
My grandfather’s great friend was called, by us, Mr Khandekar-nana. He had been a friend of my grandfather’s from college, all the way back in the British time. They used to share a room when they were at college, a long time ago in the 1930s, and ever afterwards, they were friends with each other. They had gone on being friends when they moved to Calcutta to be lawyers. (That was where they were in 1947.) And afterwards they had both moved to Dacca. My grandfather was Nana to us and his friend was Mr Khandekar-nana.
They both lived in the Dhanmondi area, very close to each other. It was the best place in Dacca to live. Nana’s house was in road number six; Mr Khandekar-nana’s was in road number forty. Both of them were two-storey houses with glass walls to the porch and flat roofs, both intricate and complex in their ground plan. It was only a ten-minute walk from Nana’s house to Mr Khandekar-nana’s, and it was a pleasant walk. The roads of Dhanmondi were quiet, and lined with trees, all painted white to four feet high, to discourage the ants. ‘Ants can’t walk on white,’ my mother used to say. ‘They are frightened of being seen. So that’s why they paint the tree trunks white.’ I still don’t know how true that is. On the walk from Nana’s house to Khandekar-nana’s house, you would see only the occasional ayah, or mother, walking with her children, only the occasional houseboy loafing outside against the high, whitewashed walls of the houses, in those days. But my grandfather had a big red car, a Vauxhall, I think, and we drove the short distance to Mr Khandekar-nana’s house.
Among the keen interests they shared were plants and flowers, and they kept their gardeners up to the mark. In front of their houses were roses, jasmine, dahlias, even sunflowers – English flowers, often. The two of them took pleasure in choosing flowers together, and their gardens were only different in small details. They were planted neatly, in rows, against the neat white Bauhaus style of their houses, and the mosaic in ash and white and green on the ground. The flowerbeds were in the sunniest part of the garden, away from the tamarind tree at the front of my grandfather’s house, the mango tree at the front of Mr Khandekar-nana’s.
The visits to Mr Khandekar-nana’s followed the same sequence. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would go up to the balcony, shaded by the mango tree, and I would be allowed to go up with them. The tea would arrive and a plate of biscuits. My grandfather and Mr Khandekar-nana would take one biscuit each – one, one, judiciously, carefully, as lawyers do. Then I would be allowed to eat the rest. My grandfather would boast about how many books I had read, and as Khandekar-nana’s wife arrived, to greet us and bring my grandfather up to date with her grandchildren, he would mention that he thought in the end I would be the Churchill of Bangla Desh.
A great friend of mine was the daughter of another friend of my grandfather, a child specialist who lived quite opposite Nana’s house. She was ten years older than I was. When we visited them, she would take me to her living room and feed me biscuits from her own tin. It had English pictures on top of it, of a house with hair for a roof and a pony eating from a lawn. She had a lot of books and a phonogram; still, it is the biscuits that I remember. I wonder now whether I was notorious in the neighbourhood. But I will explain why I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted when I come to it.
He had a driver, my grandfather, which always very much impressed me. The driver’s name was Rustum. Rustum stayed in the family for fifteen years, living with his family just next to the garage, outside the courtyard of the house. He was always very friendly to us children. I got to know him not because of our Sunday trips to my grandfather’s friends, but because of what happened during the week. My grandmother would often ask Rustum to go to market for her. Rustum, too, liked me, and he would ask me and sometimes my sister to go with him. We always went because he slipped us a lozenge or a jujube at the end of the trip.
It was important that we would slip off with Rustum without mentioning it to anyone – the trip, like the secret jujube, was no fun if the grown-ups knew about it. But when I and my sister Sunchita were missed, my mother would start to shout and panic. My second aunty, Mary-aunty, would start to shout and panic. I know this because when we returned home, they would go on shouting and panicking at us, and at Rustum. ‘Why couldn’t you tell anyone that you were taking the children?’
We were kept under close surveillance, Sunchita and I, because we could never stay still. We were always chasing the chickens, climbing the mango tree in the garden, sneaking off to the market with Rustum, who conspired with us against the grown-ups. In the end, Rustum was sacked by my grandfather and died of tuberculosis.
My grandfather and my grandmother fought a war of attrition over the balcony on the first floor. My grandfather thought it his possession, the place he could retreat to from the noise and crowd elsewhere. He had an image of his balcony as being like Mr Khandekar-nana’s balcony and, I believe, thought of himself sitting on the cool open space, a cup of tea and biscuits to one side while the grandchildren and children, cousins and nephews and visitors from his village on business rampaged through the rest of the house.
There was a wooden armchair on the balcony, an orange-brown plantation chair with extendable limbs on which you could rest your legs. But it was generally pushed to one side, because my grandmother had her own ideas for the balcony. She encouraged the cook to see it as a useful space where things could be stored or placed to dry. Almost always, jolpai and mango were laid out there for drying, covered with dry spice on banana leaves; against the wall, rows of bottled pickles in mustard oil. It drove my grandfather mad with irritation that the balcony was being used in this way. ‘This house is like a pickle factory,’ he would mutter as, once again, he retreated from his balcony and went back downstairs to his library.
My challenge was to get on to the balcony while my grandmother was busy with other things. The tamarind tree was old, and thick-leaved; its boughs thrust beneath the roof and into the balcony’s space. If nobody was about, I climbed the tree and dropped softly on to the balcony. Or sometimes my sister Sunchita and I would conceal ourselves behind a curtain, or underneath a table, waiting for the servants to go by, and then we would run up to my grandfather’s room, and afterwards on to the balcony.
There, we hid. I liked to taste the pickles that had been laid out; I liked the pucker they made on my tongue.
We did not live at my grandfather’s house, but we went there for the weekend, almost every weekend. We especially went there if there was a good movie on television. We knew that there was a movie on television every Sunday afternoon and Saturday evening. It was often a Calcutta movie, an old Satyajit Ray film or something of that sort. Still, my father refused to buy a television for us, and so we went eagerly to Nana’s house.
The television was placed in the dining room, at the end of the polished mahogany table, which could seat, and often did seat, twelve people. Only Grandfather and Grandmother, Nana and Nani, had their own allotted places.
As well as having no television, my parents had, at that time, no car. We would arrive in a rickshaw at lunchtime on Friday – a cycle-rickshaw, with room for four. There was always a fight between me and the younger of my two sisters, Sunchita, over who would get to sit on my mother’s lap. My elder sister was above such things, and my big brother, Zahid, too. He was aloof, and came when he chose.
At lunch on Friday there would be guests from my grandfather’s village, his cousins or sisters, on a journey to Dacca for purposes of their own. The faces came and went. There would be hilsha fish, rice, some of the cook’s pickles, such as a mango pickle from the mango tree at the back of the garden, or jolpai. Jolpai is a small sour berry, about the size of an olive. My grandmother, with her sharp tongue, ruled over the lunch table on Friday. It was a time for children and for the women, of whom there were many in our family.
After lunch, we children went to bed. At night we slept downstairs, but in the afternoon we were put to bed in an aunt’s room, upstairs. It was Mary-aunty’s job to get us to bed, and she shouted at us: ‘Go to bed – take a book.’ But we did not rest. My sister Sunchita and I would spend the time fighting. We always wanted to read the same book, though Sunchita was a better reader than I was. I liked books with pictures in them; Sunchita read a novel by Sharat Chandra Chattapadhaya when she was only eight, a novel for adults. (‘Why are you reading this book? This book is not for you,’ my grandfather said, surprised but not angry.) In the hour of rest, I would demand that Sunchita read her book out to me, or if I was crotchety, that she give it to me. And so we fought.
My grandfather came home from his lawyer’s chambers at five, or half past five. The creak and gong-like echo of the opening gate; then his red car, a Vauxhall, driven by Rustum, with its engine noise unlike any other engine noise; and then my grandfather’s voice downstairs. ‘Is anyone here?’ he said, his voice hardly above conversation pitch. But, of course, there was always somebody there. It was a game between him and me. Of all the people in the house, I called, ‘Nana, I am here.’
Then he would say, ‘Churchill! You are here. When did you arrive?’ That was the signal to get up and go to greet my grandfather.
My grandfather was a very competitive person, and once he had changed out of his Western suit into what he liked to wear in the evening, a white Panjabi and white pyjamas, he might tease my mother with stories of what my father, his son-in-law, had got up to during the day. As my father and my grandfather were both lawyers in the same field of income-tax law, they sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of a case. My grandfather never let this opportunity fall.
‘Mahmood tried to be very intelligent today,’ he would say, waiting for the tea, biscuits and nuts – he was very fond of nuts – to arrive. ‘But it all fell very flat.’
‘Which case was that?’ my mother asked. Before she married, she, too, had started to train as a lawyer; she still helped out with legal research. She liked to talk about the law with my father, and her father, too. My grandfather explained, going into detail. ‘I’m sure he made a very good case,’ my mother said loyally.
‘Mahmood tried to be very intelligent today,’ my grandfather said, laughing, ‘but it didn’t succeed at all.’
These are the names of the aunts who came to dinner at Nana’s house almost every Friday night.
Mira-aunty had moved to Canada, so she did not come.
Nadira-aunty was in England, in Sheffield, with her husband.
And Boro-mama, Big-uncle, the eldest of Nana’s children, had his own house in Dacca and his own family, so he did not come, although he had left one of his sons behind with Nana and Nani, as if absent-mindedly.
Those aunts and that uncle did not come for dinner.
But Nana sat at the head of the table, and to his left sat Nani, my grandmother. She had a highly polished teak stool for her leg to rest on; it had a long hollow on it, which I used to imagine had been worn away by her leg, over hundreds, thousands, of family dinners. But I think it was really made that way. From time to time she would call for a servant to give her a massage in the middle of dinner.
My grandmother loved to talk about food, though for her the best food was always food she had eaten in the past, and not the food she had just eaten. She allowed a certain amount of time to pass – years, usually – before she would award a compliment. The only daughter who loved food as much as she did was Bubbly, and they could keep up conversations about individual long-ago dishes for hours. Bubbly could remember, in quite specific detail, the dishes her sisters had had at their weddings, and she and her mother would happily go over them, or food they had eaten at other times.
‘Do you remember?’ Nani would say, her leg resting on the teak footrest. ‘Do you remember the steamed rui that Sharmin taught Ahmed how to make when everyone was living here? Do you remember, Bubbly? It was so good, that steamed rui with lemon and ginger. And she taught him, and he never got it right afterwards. I don’t know why. But it was never so delicious ever again. He didn’t listen properly, or he made some changes of his own, wretched boy, and completely spoiled the dish. Oh, I loved to eat that steamed rui. I could have eaten it every day.’
‘It was so clever of her,’ Dahlia would say, calling from half a table away. ‘It is so strange that it was her to be so clever with fish, being Bihari, and not liking fish as much as we do.’
‘Well, Dahlia,’ Nani said. ‘She didn’t like fish at the beginning. But she came to like it because your big brother likes it so much. And now she likes it as much as anyone, and she has such clever ways with it.’
‘Because, of course,’ Bubbly said, taking no notice of her mother, ‘there was not always a great choice of things to eat, that year, but you could often get rui when there was no other fish to be had. I wish Sharmin would come back and teach Ahmed how to make it again, but she says she can’t remember, and she says she doesn’t know what’s wrong with the way Ahmed cooks it, so that would really be a fool’s errand.’
Nani and Nana had the best view of the television, which was at the far end of the table, on the sideboard next to a little fridge for all sorts of odds and ends. Dinner took place at eight, because that was when the television news was on.
Next to my grandmother sat Mary-aunty. She was the eldest of the sisters, after my mother. It was her job to keep the children under control, but she could often be tearful when faced with determined opposition, and I wonder if she was very good at her household task.
Next to her sat Shibli, who was Boro-mama’s son. I was very jealous of Shibli. Whereas we only came to visit Nani and Nana at weekends, Shibli lived with them all the time, and visited Boro-mama, his father, only occasionally. This seemed to me the height of glamour, and it made me sick to see the ways in which Shibli was spoilt by my grandparents.
Choto-mama, Little-uncle, came next. His name was Pultoo. He was not much older than the bigger children, and was still at college. He was not a lawyer; he was an artist. In an odd way, my grandfather was rather proud of that: he used to say, ‘If Pultoo wants to, he wants to.’ Some people assumed that Choto-mama had to sit next to Shibli, with his spoilt ways, as a punishment from my grandfather. But that was not true: my grandfather had given Pultoo a large room with sunny windows on the ground floor of his house as a studio. He was rather proud of him, as I say.
Then his sister, Bubbly-aunty, the youngest of my aunts, and then Sunchita and Sushmita, my sisters. They sat at the end of the table, next to the television, which they could not see very well, and the fridge, which they often had to open and fetch something from for my grandfather.
The far end of the table was not a good place to sit, and there might be placed a village aunt or uncle, a cousin travelling to Dacca on business. And next to them, working back on the other side of the table, might be Dahlia-aunty, my favourite, and Era-aunty. And I was between them and my mother. My grandfather called me Churchill; the rest of the family called me Saadi. Dahlia would lean over and encourage me to eat, especially delicious little things; she would talk to me about pickles in her memory. Nadira I loved, because she was such a good singer, though, of course, not at the dinner table. And my mother sat by my grandfather, as the eldest daughter.
Two uncles, Boro-mama and Choto-mama, Big-uncle and Little-uncle; six aunts, Mary, Era, Mira, Nadira, Dahlia, Bubbly. Dahlia was my favourite and I was hers.
Once, Pultoo-uncle was late for dinner. He was expected, but had gone out in the afternoon and had not returned by the time my grandfather came back. Pultoo had a wide circle of friends at the college of art, and occasionally he was seen in a café or ambling through a park, gesticulating and talking in the middle of ten friends. He was the only one in the family to wear traditional dress all the time, a long shirt and pyjama trousers. The rest of the family were proud of him, and thought that he could dress as he chose. He was thin and dark, with hair that swept back like a film star’s and big eyes set deep in his face. When he was excited, as, in conversation, he often was, his hands chopped the air, like a cook’s at work.
It was understood that Pultoo-uncle had gone out to a class at the college of art that morning. My sister Sunchita and I had been allowed to watch the television in the dining room. We had seen Double Deckers, and Tom and Jerry, and a new programme made in Bangladesh. My sister, who liked to lie on her stomach on the dining-table when she watched television, had been shooed off when the table was set; the children’s programmes had come to an end, and the adults’ programmes begun. Soon it would be the news and dinnertime. About the house there was the sense that the kitchen was ready and waiting, the dishes now being kept warm. My grandfather was not a stickler about mealtimes, but he liked to know if someone was going to be late.
‘I hope nothing is wrong,’ Mary-aunty said.
‘Wrong?’ Era said, alarmed.
‘Nonsense, nothing could be wrong,’ Dahlia-aunty said, although everyone remembered the time, not so long before, when young men had failed to come home and were never seen again. That possibility lingered for many years, and people did their families the kindness of being punctual, on the whole, to save their nerves.
But Pultoo-uncle came in, as the clock in the hall struck eight, brushing his hair back with his hand and depositing a table-top-sized folder by the front door, apologizing as he came. Warm, he smelt of geraniums, and his long shirt was dusty with the red dust of the street. He had two friends with him, two other artists. Their names were Kajol and Kanaq. Kanaq fascinated me and my sisters because she came from a tribe; her appearance was highly exotic, with her slanted eyes and sleepy air. It was not unusual for Pultoo to bring friends for dinner, and these two often arrived at my grandfather’s house in the late afternoon on a Friday, and stayed for dinner with only a little urging, only one diffident invitation. They lived in lodgings, and I believe they enjoyed the chance of a family dinner. My grandfather did not really care who came for dinner; my grandmother, on the other hand, liked to be given the chance to offer an invitation.
‘Can we find space for these two?’ Pultoo said, when he came back from washing, his face wet and glistening, his white teeth shining. ‘I’m sure there is space.’
My grandmother muttered something, and went off to the kitchen with the bare appearance of graciousness.
‘I do like them,’ my sister Sunchita said, in her adult, mature, book-reading way about the guests, as we went back to the dining room to catch the rest of the television before the news started. ‘But their painting is awful.’
When the news was finished, my grandmother asked Pultoo what he had been doing at the art college that morning. He asked her permission to get out the drawings from his life class, which he had left in the folder. He passed them round the table; they were charcoal drawings of a naked man sitting on a box. ‘I think this one is the best,’ my grandfather said simply, when they got to him.
‘And we were late because we were planning something,’ Pultoo said.
‘Yes,’ Mary-aunty said. ‘You certainly were late.’
‘Late, yes,’ Era said. She often agreed with her sisters, in an echo; she was shy and did not venture her own opinions easily. Even her echoes of opinions were often given first in the direction of her plate.
‘We really got carried away,’ Kanaq said, her slanting eyes looking at the biriani. ‘It is such a good idea.’
‘We are going to produce greetings cards,’ Kajol said. ‘People always like greetings cards – we are going to give them something special.’
My uncle went on to explain that their plan was for hand-made cards, sketches in pen and ink, in watercolours and in pencil, and to sell them on a stall in Ramana field in the first instance. ‘After that, if it is successful, we can think about opening a shop,’ Pultoo said. ‘It is such a good idea, I don’t know why no one has thought of it before.’
The cards would be for the new year. In Bangladesh, Choto-mama said, people were always sending cards for any reason; but they were mass-produced, the same cards that were sold anywhere, and did not speak to the sender or to the recipient. ‘I saw a birthday card,’ my uncle’s friend Kajol said. ‘It was a photograph of a mountainside in the Himalaya, I expect, and the message inside was “This is what I dream of…” It means nothing, that kind of thing. Produced in factories, designed by slaves.’
‘Yes,’ Pultoo said, in his excitable way. ‘People would not buy that if they could buy the sort of thing we are going to make for them.’
‘What sort of thing?’ my grandmother said.
I wondered whether their idea was to make cards with pictures of naked people on them. I did not think people would want to buy those. But Pultoo-uncle explained that they would be drawing and painting famous views in Bangladesh, typical scenes of Bangladesh, such as a village house or a tea plantation, perhaps even well-known corners of Dacca. ‘I would much prefer to see a hand-drawn picture like that,’ Pultoo said.
‘When are your teachers coming?’ Shibli called to Dahlia-aunty. ‘The musicians.’
‘Quiet, Shibli,’ Nani said, in her stagy way. ‘Don’t you have any respect? Your uncle is talking about your country.’
‘Your country, yes,’ Era said.
The servants in my grandfather’s house held a fascination for me. I never knew how many there were. After Mary-aunty had put my sister and me to bed in the afternoons, we would often start up a row, a pillow fight, a shouting match, and soon she would come to see what the noise was. But she was somebody who could not pass another human being known to her in any degree without greeting them. So we could hear the passage of Mary-aunty through the house from her slapping chappals, and from a constant stream of greetings, and expressions of concern and interest: ‘Good afternoon, Rustum’; ‘How are your children, Timur; is your daughter happy with Mr Khandekar…’ That sort of thing. There were enough servants to slow her progress, to warn us and allow us to calm down and pretend to be asleep by the time she opened the door to shout at us.
My grandfather had a gardener called Atish. Over the years, he had become both an inside servant and an outside servant, according to need. I was not allowed to follow Atish about when he was inside, cleaning and polishing. When he was gardening, there were no objections to my walking about with him and asking him any number of questions. There was plenty to occupy him: the huge bougainvillaeas that poured out of pots and formed a blazing arch, the way that the terrace and entrance needed to be swept of dead leaves and flowers. He trimmed back the flowers in the flowerbeds; he carried out mysterious surgical operations with saw and secateurs on the fruit trees – the guava tree, the mango tree, the jackfruit tree, the banana tree, the tamarind tree, with its neatly diagrammatic leaves and its extravagant flower. There was plenty of digging and pruning and planting to do, with a small boy gazing and a chicken or two following round in the hope of an upturned worm.
Atish was a poor Hindu who was left behind in 1947. Grandfather and Grandmother had had to leave Calcutta in a great hurry and come to Dacca. Nana had bought a house in Rankin Street from a rich Hindu, who had had to leave Dacca in a great hurry and go to Calcutta. I wondered why they had not simply swapped their houses, but they had not. Atish had not gone like the rich Hindus to Calcutta: he had stayed where he was, and Grandfather had taken pity on him and employed him in the garden. It suited him.
Nana liked to employ poor and vulnerable people. All of them stayed for ever. And Nana’s relations with them sometimes surprised his friends, since he encouraged the people he employed to speak their minds to him. Sometimes they developed independent habits, which could prove inconvenient to the rest of the household. Rustum, Nana’s driver, was another of these vulnerable people, but after a while, he developed the habit of taking the car out on his own, or of ignoring instructions. Sometimes my grandmother would come out after lunch, expecting Rustum to be there to drive her to a friend’s house, and would find that he had gone out with the car, and no one knew where he had gone. When he came back, I had heard him blame Dahlia-aunty, saying that she had told him to go and fetch something from a shop on the other side of Dacca. She had demanded, he would say, a particular sort of sandesh, one that could only be got in a confectioner’s shop on Sadarghat. He knew the sort of blame that could be convincingly put on Dahlia. But if this got back to Dahlia-aunty, she would fly into a furious passion. It was the first thing that came into Rustum’s mind, it seemed, and it did not occur to him that anyone might ask Dahlia whether there was any truth in his story.
‘How could he? How could he? How could he?’ Dahlia would shout, sometimes audibly from outside the gates of the house. To passers-by and neighbours, it did not seem obvious that these screams were caused only by a servant’s unreliable events; surely, they must have thought, a husband or father must have threatened a beating to the victim, at the very least. But nobody beat anyone in Nana’s house, and Dahlia screamed because Rustum had pretended she had ordered him about.
Finally there came the terrible day when Rustum had a fight with Nana himself. It occurred in the week. When we arrived that Friday, Rustum was not there. This was not unusual, but it was strange that the red Vauxhall was in the garage when both Nana and Rustum were out of the house. When Nana came home, he came home in a cycle-rickshaw, and I understood that something atrocious had happened. Rustum had been asked to leave. ‘I could forgive him for taking the car without permission,’ my grandfather said, a week or two later when he could bring himself to talk about it. ‘But it was the lying afterwards I could not put up with.’ My grandfather, however, immediately felt guilty about evicting Rustum and his family from the flat in the servants’ block, and made it his business to find Rustum another place to live and even another job. When, five years later, Rustum was diagnosed with tuberculosis, my grandfather paid for his treatment.
Atish the gardener was not as popular with the children as Rustum. He did not have the glamour of a red Vauxhall car to carry out his trade, but only a spade, a hoe, a trowel and a fork; among his tools, only the secateurs, with their terrible grip and savage slice, had the power to fascinate. But I liked to follow him around the garden, and watch him at his tasks, and he did not object. Sometimes he let me undertake a small task to help him, such as filling his two watering-cans. If it was cold, Atish used to wear a shawl about his shoulders, a scarf wound right around his head, like a sufferer from the toothache; his set face emerged from a kind of red cotton nest on the coldest days of the year.
Atish would start work at the front of the house, where the tamarind tree shaded the entrance. There were always things to sweep up here. Then he would move on to the flowerbeds at the side of the house in the full sun, and then to the back of the house, with the other fruit trees, the lawn and, underneath the jackfruit tree, the chicken house. The chickens were allowed to wander the garden, eating whatever they could find. One of the days that Atish devoted to digging and turning over the earth in the flowerbeds was a festival day for the chickens, as they could eye and pounce on a worm or a beetle that Atish’s spade had uncovered. They stood, beadily eyeing his work, like supervisors in a factory.
The chicken house had been made and painted, decorated, by Choto-mama Pultoo. He had started it when he was still at school and showing signs of artistic and practical talent. He had painted a frame, put a tidy little net in its front, and then, he said, he had wondered what he would like in his house, if he were a chicken. So the chicken house contained the dead branches of trees for the chickens to perch on, and the back wall had a landscape painted by Pultoo. ‘So that they can think of the wide open spaces of the countryside, even when they are confined in a small garden in Dacca,’ Pultoo poetically observed. The chickens seemed to take more pleasure in the dead tree, on which they happily roosted and slept, than in the landscape, which they ignored. Within a few months, the mountain view was dimmed and smeared by chicken feathers and chicken shit. Pultoo was not put off, and carried on adding ornament and furniture to the chicken house in the hope of broadening their mental horizons. The latest was a series of terracotta yogurt pots, which he had decorated with some folk-like paintings of milkmaids.
‘Come on,’ Dahlia-aunty, who was a good sort, would sometimes say to me when we arrived at my grandfather’s house for the weekend. ‘Let’s go and see what Choto-mama has done to the chicken run this week.’
Atish never made any comment on Pultoo’s chicken run, or on the chickens themselves for that matter. He stayed silent on the subject, even when the cat next door got into the garden and killed three chicks. He ignored the chickens standing by his side, watching him hoe and dig, though he would pause in his regular rhythm if they darted forward to grab a worm.
I could stand there all morning, watching Atish work and the chickens eat the grubs he found for them. The only things he said to me were odd horticultural pieces of advice: it was necessary to prune a mango tree in March; the first sprouts from seeds that would turn into sunflowers must be thinned out when they had reached an inch tall; you could not water a bougainvillaea enough. It was as if he thought I was going to become a gardener like him when I grew up. The way he gave horticultural maxims is clear in my head, but not what he said exactly. I may have got them quite wrong. But I stood or squatted there all morning, watching Atish at work, watching the white chickens dart to and fro.
My father came before lunch on Saturday. He did not come with a dramatic flourish, like my grandfather; he did not come with excitement, like my mother and my sisters. He came under a pile of papers, tied up with red ribbon, and in a pernickety, unenthusiastic way. Sometimes he was carrying so much that it threatened to overbalance him. It is not easy to travel with a large bundle of papers in the back of a cycle-rickshaw, and he often turned up with his arms in a desperate position, clutching them like a large escaping fish. I liked to watch him arrive. The cycle-rickshaw he always used was glittering silver, polished, with the faces of film stars under a setting sun painted on the back of its canopy; like many of the other rickshaws of Dacca, its canopy was lined with tinsel, like a fur-lined hood. The rickshaw driver, however, was a taciturn, serious man, whom you could not imagine decorating his vehicle in this way, and so was my father, sitting in the square middle of the rickshaw with his papers on his lap, his lawyer’s white bands around his throat.
Both I and my father were hypocrites – he, because he did not really want to come to my grandfather’s house: he was a government lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer for the people, so they were always on opposite sides, and my grandfather could never resist needling him about this argument or other that he had undertaken with less success than he had hoped for. He came because he felt he ought to, and because the Bar library in which he did so much of his work closed at weekends.
I was a hypocrite because, towards the end of Saturday morning, I made a habit of going up to Nana’s balcony to watch out for Father’s arrival. The balcony had by far the best view down the street, and it was where anyone sat to keep an eye out for an eagerly awaited visitor. From there, you could see the curious events of the street: a handcart laden with megaphones, like silver tropical flowers, heading to a rally, or a pitiful hawker, selling a single useless part of a household object, such as the handles of a pressure cooker, laid out on a cloth in the forlorn hope of a purchaser. I went up there, making sure that everyone knew I was going up there, to watch out for Father’s arrival in a cycle-rickshaw. In fact, my father’s arrival was nothing to look forward to. I disliked the way my mother and aunts had less time for me, busy with meeting his needs. He was much more remote than my aunts and my mother, and the idea of creating fun for his children would not have occurred to him. I made a great performance out of my anticipation because I thought that was the right, or the dramatic, thing to do. But in fact I did not much care that I had not seen him since early breakfast on Friday, and would not have minded if I had not seen him until Monday morning. Like many little boys, I wanted to have my mother to myself, with her warm iron-scented flesh, her ripple of silk against my face when she embraced me.
The one thing that made the weekend visits to Nana endurable for my father was that Nana had an excellent law library of his own. Although the public law library was closed at weekends, my father could, once he had eaten lunch with the aunts, his parents-in-law and the children, retreat to Nana’s library and carry on working in its rusty warm light. Sometimes he would call Sunchita and me in, and set us the task to find a particular book in Nana’s library, or a particular case within a book. I believe he thought he was providing us with some fun, as well as with a little education.
The library had a double aspect: one barred window looked out to the tamarind tree at the front, the other at the flowerbed to the side. Out of the front window, I could see the watchman leaning on the bonnet of the red Vauxhall. The big front gate of the house was open, and he was talking to someone I could not see. From the side window, there was Atish, attending to the flowerbeds. There was no one to fill his watering-cans for him, and he was trudging backwards and forwards with an uncomplaining uneven gait, like a badly oiled clockwork toy that threatened to start walking in circles. ‘Liberty Cinema versus CIT,’ my father said, in his light-toned voice. ‘Have you found that one for me?’
Elsewhere in the house the television was on, and Shibli was watching; Mary-aunty’s slapping chappals were coming down the stairs, and she was greeting the cook by asking about her daughter. My grandfather was laughing somewhere. Behind everything, the quiet of the Dhanmondi street, and the peaceful burble of the chickens in the garden.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip Hensher