Monday 29th August
Nandini was the seventeenth and last 2016 reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Mon 29th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent. If you can’t make it to the Spiegeltent, the reading is also broadcast live through the Periscope app.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Nandini grew up in Calcutta and has a PhD in Social Sciences from Frankfurt’s Goethe University.
She runs popular virtual book club called ReadinGla(d)sses, and is an associate member of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for South Asian Studies.
She has proudly adopted Edinburgh as her new home city.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The story she read
a short story by Nandini Sen
I knew my mother Mrs Sen quite intimately, or so I thought! That was until the day, just after my thirteenth birthday, when she suddenly left my father and me. Her name was Mrs Sunrita Sen. She was not the prettiest woman but her intellectual face had two deep and shining eyes, and she had her huge pet baggage of idiosyncrasies. She used to read a lot. After work, she would keep her office bag in its designated place and change from her chiffon sari into a sleek, silk night gown, and immediately start reading the book she had kept carefully marked with a stylish page mark. Weekends provided her a lot of free time, which she filled in with visits to the Golpark Ramkrishna Mission library.
Mrs Sen cherished every moment she spent with her books. One of the most endearing memories I retain is of her sitting in the reading room nervously plucking her hair and leafing through the magazines and books. She showed her angst by almost gulping in the journal pages instead of chewing leisurely. Reading could have been one of her morbid symptoms since she pounced with equal zeal upon whatever came her way, even old newspapers and calendars. At home, she would always sat straight, with her back completely stiff, and voraciously consume her latest new prey – a carefully maintained book.
Mrs Sen’s study was a small room converted from a balcony in a posh flat on the ninth floor of a well-known apartment block in the South Calcutta. Light from a dim yellow lamp focused on her books. The balcony window was gorgeous. She would have a view of almost the whole of Calcutta including Howrah Bridge to the east and on a clearer day even an edge of the Calcutta Airport to the northwest. In fact, she grew up in this huge luxurious flat and, being the only child of her parents, ultimately inherited it. Here, she settled down with her husband and me. Indeed, she was spoilt by the wealth and riches that her parents unconditionally showered upon her. All of that was fine, but she unfairly and carelessly refused to bestow the same sense of entitlement upon her only child, that is, me. She was meticulous with her collection of books, and made her displeasure known if I ever even slightly deformed the back-binding of any of her hard bound books, or even if I accidentally made a mark or a crease. How cruel!
Indeed her idiosyncrasies were limitless. After my pre-teens, she never allowed me to call her Ma, that is, mom. She taught me to call her either nothing or Mrs Sen. I never complained because I liked the thrill and the adventure in calling her Mrs Sen. I felt she was very different from other mothers. Her charming story telling capacity influenced by her varied readings was very attractive to me. Her huge and manifold world of books shaped the diversity of my own readings, from geography to world literature. As I grew older, she started narrating to me snippets, anecdotes and excerpts from her life. I found these experiences fascinating. However, very soon I realised that even such sharing of knowledge was not without purpose. She gave me instruction to narrate these stories to you if I ever become an author. How scheming!
Mrs Sen loved to remain immersed in her dreams. She reminisced about that special day when she first found a conch shell from the corner of my grand-mother’s cupboard and began to listen to its deep sound whenever she faced challenging situations. She said:
‘I was in a sleeveless frock, just returned from my hide-n-seek game. My starving stomach had received immediate gratification. Puffed flour balls soaked in white potatoes made their way into my intestine. As soon as the household fights about household accounts and my father’s relationship with my aunt resumed between my parents, I climbed on top of the cupboard and sat down to study chemical formulae. My newly found friend, the conch shell, assured me of my dreams and I started to imagine how radio ads might look like on the TV screen.’ In the 1970’s television had only just started and advertisements were only on radio. Mrs Sen missed the Sunday radio-dramas cuckooing inside her Ma’s belly.
The big homesick rickshaw-puller carried Mrs Sen and her friend to their school. While struggling with the rickshaw through flooded water, the rickshaw puller sang ‘Oh! Calcutta’ and carried the thousand villages of Bihar in his large tummy. Sometimes, Mrs Sen’s conch shell could not save her from nightmares. She saw herself wading in her gumboot (wellies) through bleak rain weeds. She was lost for full five hours and the rickshaw puller searched her through the knee-deep rain water. She was ultimately discovered from a street corner sweet shop on nearby Fern Road licking her favourite Mango Murabba.
When she grew up, Mrs Sen left her parents room and slept on her own. From that day on, she could listen the deep baritone of the conch shell more frequently. She forgot to lean from her balcony with her tea cup to read her favourite poet T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Instead, for the first time, she started to write a column for The Times of India which she dreaded her faceless audience may tear apart. She could not sleep peacefully. She became chronically anxiety-prone and read her own writings over and over again. At night, she discovered some dark ghostly mysteries. She was scared of this ghost and night after night never switched her study lamp off.
Let us come back to the household fights. Mrs Sen named her parents Anna Karenina and Mr Karenin. After Mrs Sen left their room, Anna and Mr Karenin never again shared the same room. They drifted and shuddered with the same cold feet and sweat. Nightmares deepened. A cousin came to spend his vacation with Mrs Sen and stole small change from her parents. Severe fights broke out. Yet again! Mrs Sen never again went out with her parents. The erstwhile family favourites – restaurant Mocambo on Park Street and English tea – deserted the family – forever.
Anna Karenina remained deeply immersed in her knitting patterns. Her hand-woven yellow woollen shawls hung from shoulders of my aunts. Mrs Sen had a sweet voice and sang, for Anna Karenina, devotional songs to the goddess Kali. Mrs Sen’s mother and my grand mother Anna blew herself up into a purple balloon. She died suddenly while Mrs Sen was still a teenager. Friends and lovers suffocated her with their adulation. Mrs Sen took to addiction. The Universe became the pastoral ground of films, love making and romantic politics. Mrs Sen’s father used salt to tame her and took her on a boat over the rough sea of love. He held the conch shell to her ear. The sound inside the shell was penetrating enough that Mrs Sen could listen to the sacred sound of her mother’s death.
Mrs Sen’s first boyfriend, yes the one with melancholic and big-watery eyes, desired her very intensely. She met the boyfriend now and then, when she got back home from school. They kissed repeatedly on the terrace. They gathered all their secrets in a beetle leaf box. One day he asked Mrs Sen for a date. They promised to meet each other at 5 pm. It was a wet gloomy day. However, she never went to meet him. Suddenly he seemed so boring on that very day. She hid in a distance and watched him pace up and down from quarter to five till seven. He walked past the road beside the bridge. At first Mrs Sen felt a gust of joy. She needed that importance from the wandering lover. She followed his every act on the road. But as time passed she realised the intensity of her cruelty. She could see his endless solitude, as he could not hold back his tears. Mrs Sen felt like prostrating herself before him with all her cries, whispers, urges and desires. However, she did not! She did not show up! He got frustrated and left in a taxi. He borrowed his tears from the weeping Sky-God. That grey evening, the road beside the South Calcutta Bridge stood inside Mrs Sen’s palm and froze.
Mrs Sen was unable to deal with the challenges of married life. She became cross with my father. She could neither focus on me nor on her office job. She could not control her anger. She threw glasses and dishes at my father and me. They always missed their target and shattered with thunderous din. She felt disgusted with her mundane life. She had a sequence of affairs. And finally, she left home, my father and me. Mrs Sen even tried to settle down with one of her boy friends in Darjeeling. She resumed studies in North Bengal University. She wrote in her diary:
‘Exactly eight years back in 2000 I felt an urge to leave my family in Calcutta and came to Darjeeling in search of knowledge and love. I pursued higher education in Social Anthropology and intuitively understood I was missing my first love that was poetry. Only poetry and experiment with words could fill in my vacuum, my soul’s insecurity and darkness. I thought: why not pen down my angst, pain and nostalgia instead of brooding over them. Suddenly one day, deeply engrossed in W.H. Auden’s poems, I began my sojourn – scribbling words and phrases based both on my disorderly and flawed conditions of the past and my grand illusory present..’
In North Bengal University, Mrs Sen joined leftist politics and met a charming woman comrade. They became the best of friends. However, this friendship could not save Mrs Sen from her utter boredom and numbness rooted her in deeply chaotic depression. One day, while returning home from North Bengal University, she suddenly collapsed in a bus. They said it was due to high blood pressure. She was immediately transferred to the ICU in Apollo Hospital, Calcutta, for emergency treatment. After her faint recovery, she felt like dying as she could not bear the acute headache and heavy menstrual bleeding that she was suffering. She wrote an intense letter to that woman comrade in Darjeeling.
“Dearest, As Darjeeling awakes crazily to the call of election I go deep inside a frenzied and feverish depression in my own world where no one else receives an entry pass. I ask for the guardian angel in my slumber but she is nowhere to be seen, at least not in reality. Are you OK or have you already plunged inside the super-exciting routine of teaching-research and election work?
“I am not working any longer and an annoyance called boredom is my only companion that sprung from my laziness. I am being transformed into that landlord who has immense decadence and opulence (originated from my partner’s money and hard labour). I have no regret and want to continue this decadence until I am removed to some place where I find my soul mate who will inspire me to work for others and myself to earn a loaf and a good book.
“I wish to exploit these over-bullying creatures in the hospital and make them my slaves and the mud on my shoes. Relatives and friends come and visit me regularly at visiting hours with fruits and some home-cooked food. They always discuss decadent TV serials and gossip about each other. I cannot bear them anymore. Of course they fear me and my inner spiritual strength, even if I am now but a street beggar in the context of their huge wealth and achievements. Slowly I am being transformed into a monster who can rule these spiritual beggars. They boast of their money and achievements and I just remove them from the top of my shoes using my philosophy (which they do not dare to mess with). I know they fear me but I am disgusted as they attack me with their mental impoverishment and hard core consumerism. I am finding myself without any kind of fear whose only solid support is death – the ultimate truth. Warmly, Sunrita.”
Mrs Sunrita Sen’s depression got worse. Her woman comrade never came to her rescue. However, she sent a short message.
“Dear Sunrita, Thanks for your mail. Just to let you know that God has sent a vendor who sells his dreams for thirty rupees each. He even gives me colours of sand and heat from his desi rucksack. Everyday he comes to wake me up. He puts the kettle on the stove. Instead of Earl Grey he boils the royal Darjeeling tea. I sip it with half a spoon of sugar and a crack-jack biscuit. Oh! And you may consider returning to your terrace opposite the Muslim burial ground in Park Circus. Yours sincerely, Anila.”
Finally, Mrs Sen returned from the hospital to her Park Circus residence – this small flat she had bought as a substitute for her huge flat at Golpark, having sold the luxurious flat a long time back to help pay her mounting debts – to have the company of the dead souls every night. One day she called me. I thought of paying her a visit although I would never forget or forgive her cruel act of leaving me and my father. I kept on delaying the visit.
Meanwhile, Mrs Sen’s health continuously deteriorated. On the eve of Diwali, the woman comrade from Darjeeling called Mrs Sen to ask: ‘How are you? Do you miss me?’ Mrs Sen feebly said: ‘I-I-I only miss the sickly candles in Calcutta.’ Mrs Sen could make her beloved comrade sad. She took the ultimate revenge. She felt a kind of power inside her and thought “Ha! I can make the queen regret.” Mrs Sen went deep inside her cocooned shell. She started to fly towards the burial ground. I received the news from her neighbour a day later. Unable to stop crying, I went straight to her flat. The familiar room was completely empty. The old maid was outside near the telephone, talking to a girl. I stayed there, staring at myself in the mirror, what do I want to cry about? On the contrary, I retained my sanity, having divested Mrs Sen’s special collection of whiskies of a couple of extra drinks. I realised how lucky I was. Saved, rescued, fished up, half drowned, out of the deep, dark river with my dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been so close to the abyss. Except, of course, we know that there always remained something. Yes, some remnants always remained.
Never mind, here I am, sane, cold and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want? Now I have forgotten about the dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning.
I visited that flat once again after her cremation and rummaged through her papers, and found a letter from one of Mrs Sen’s lovers.
“Your poem made my colours of the day. We would sit for a day to listen to each other. We need each other not for cosy company but to share our intensity, vulnerability and an irresistible passion for life. Your poems are about our faithlessness, unequal relationships, six seasons, monotony of the evenings and the ennui perceived by any sensitive person. I visualise your sadness, pain and your utter boredom due to facing the common-ordinary days. Each day you are with a fear that again you need to spend another day with a lesser mortal’s spirit.”
Mrs Sen must have written back:
“Could these lesser mortals return my usual cries and pastel coloured restlessness? Still now the puzzle – the death of my Ma, the Anna Karenina, remained as an enigma of a Rubik’s cube in my soul. This burden stayed back and made me a gloomy hunchback. I tried to run in panic to escape from this puzzle. The puzzle reigned supreme, hovering in the background without a word.”
After all these years, I suddenly realised I only inherited a blank cheque of profound and stubborn ennui from Mrs Sen. Perhaps she remained a stranger to me. Did I really know her that well? Perhaps, I should rummage through more of her letters. Some other day. Perhaps!
(c) Nandini Sen, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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